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26. Walking in a winter wonderland . . . of words

Where I live in New York State, about two hours north of the Pennsylvania border, the transition from one season to the next is rarely (if ever) coincidental with the astronomical designation applied to it. Of the four annual calendar dates of seasonal shift, none is more laughable to us in the Leatherstocking Region than the winter solstice. The idea that a particular and predictable planetary position marks the beginning of winter is understandably lost on those who have raked leaves in the morning and shoveled snow in the afternoon on the same October day more than a few times.

Do you take this climate, for better or for worse?

In the United States, which boasts a remarkably diverse climatic range, millions of us inhabit the country’s Northeast and Midwest regions, where winters can indeed be long, white, and cold. Some northerners truly enjoy the winter months, but for many, the endurance of winter is more a love-hate sort of thing, and for another many, it’s a matter of no love at all. But here we are, in it for the annual duration, for better or worse.

Though the cost of heating my drafty old Victorian home will render my teeth chattering well into April, I cannot betray my lifelong delight in the natural beauty of a winter’s day. Falling snow is a marvel of nature, and the icing of the evergreens is a stroke of divine genius.

From whence cometh the winter words?

Snowy tree. Public domain via Pixabay.

Winter is also a marvelous time for words, as a number of them were devised for winter alone. Some have long lexical histories. Others are comparatively new. The next time you say, “I’m freezing,” for instance, think how long it has taken fellow shivering speakers of English to give us the word freeze as we now know it. From as far back as the 10th century, we find the word “freoseth.” By 1325, it would appear in lyric poetry as: “When the forst freseth, muche chele he byd” (note: forst means “frost”; chele is “chill”). In 1837, Washington Irving (best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote, “A road in the wet snow, which, should it afterwards freeze, would be sufficiently hard to bear the horses.” And “freeze” was here to stay.

Another winter word with a journey through English is winter itself. From a 9th-century citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we read of a “wintra ceald,” and in an excerpt from the book of Isaiah in a 1382 Wycliffite Bible, “Alle the bestes of erthe vp on hym shul dwelle al wynter.” (Remember this the next time someone rails against changes in the English language!) By the 1550s, the word would appear as the familiar “winter.”

The skater’s delight and driver’s dilemma known as ice has evolved as well. From citations beginning with the Old English epic poem Beowulf through a religious treatise in 1620, we find ise, aes, is, yse, ys, ysz, and yce. It may not have been until the late 1700s that “ice” would win the day as the standardized spelling.

The noun ski, from Old Norse skith (stick of wood), had to wait until the mid-18th century to ski into the English lexicon, according to current OED research, and the Norwegian-derived slalom (literally ‘sloping track’) seems to have arrived much later, presumably in the 1920s. Even more recent is that mogul you sail over — although its roots aren’t nearly as youthful, having come from the Austrian Mugel (hillock), which in the 1400s referred to a hunk of bread.

The true American among the winter words is blizzard. Its original meaning (as evidenced from the 1820s) seems to be “a violent blow” — but not by wind, snow, or any other phenomenon of weather. In 1834, the legendary Davy Crockett wrote, “A gentleman at dinner asked me for a toast; and supposing he meant to have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead, and give him and his likes a blizzard.”

The earliest known sighting of blizzard as “a severe and windy snowstorm” comes from Kansas, in a diary entry dated 1 December 1859: “A blizzard had come upon us about midnight . . . Shot 7 horses that were so chilled could not get up.” Fortunately, over the last century and a half, the advances in forecasting and coping strategies have made our relationship with the weather somewhat less brutal.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and winter words hit the commercial jackpot

In 2013, Disney scaled the box-office Alps with its end-of-year blockbuster Frozen — popularly acclaimed as the ultimate eye feast in the category of wintry animation. But it isn’t just the visual that captures the enchantment of winter. The dialogue is rich with “icy allusion,” and a number of the songs are especially lavish with the language of winter. When Queen Elsa sings, “My power flurries through the air into the ground / My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around” (from the song “Let It Go”), one might ask, “Has the ambience of ‘brrr‘ ever been expressed more beautifully?”

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Headline image credit: Winter scene. Public domain via Pixabay.

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27. Monthly gleanings for December 2014, Part 2

Murray’s centennial

Although I am still in 2014, as the title of this post indicates, in the early January one succumbs to the desire to say something memorable that will set the tone to the rest of the year. So I would like to remind everybody that in 1915 James Murray, the first and greatest editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or New English Dictionary (NED), died. Here is the conclusion of an obituary published in The Nation (vol. 101, p. 134):

“He was an organizer of scholarship, calling for recruits, as Sir Walter Raleigh called for them in the days of his dreams of a flourishing Virginia, and leading them into half-explored or virgin territory, there to spy out the land as a preliminary to setting down what they found, with such accuracy and fulness [sic] that no one else should need to go over the ground again, except to supply a detail here and there or to cross an occasional t or dot an occasional i.”

To avoid sounding too solemn, I’ll quote another passage, also from The Nation, this time printed in 1933. Naturally, I am responsible for neither the anonymous author’s statistics nor his attitude toward men, stockings, and the secret dealings inside the OED:

“When the dictionary was completed in 1928, the compilers were appalled to discover that while they had been at work, one new word had broken into the language for every ten old ones. So they set about a supplement, which doubtless will be followed by a supplement to the supplement, and so on. The supplement-makers were asked to include forty-three new words to describe various shades of women’s stockings. They were conservative gentlemen who in the days when they were most concerned with women’s stockings were able to discern only two colors, white and black, and they refused to introduce a new category.”

The allure of the digraf ph. (Phishing. Image by  kleuske. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)
The allure of the digraf ph. (Phishing. Image by kleuske. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)


Valerie Yule suggested that we cut surplus letters, except for 38 very common irregular words. According to her plan, we will end up with qickly, reserch, sho, lernd, pepl, gide, for quickly, research, show, learned, people, guide, and so on. I am ready to support any version of the reform that has a chance of being accepted. For qickly I would prefer kwikli, but the time for arguing about details will come when we have the public on our side. Many researchers (reserchers) have offered lists of words that can or should be respelled (consult Masha Bell’s website, among others). My greatest fear is that the Society for Simplified Spelling will keep producing excellent ideas instead of calling the wide world to arms.

Emily F. Grazier wrote that, although she understands my aversion to the digraph ph, she wonders “what will happen to etymology… if such reforms are applied”; she is worried about “the potential historical loss.” This fear is familiar. It may sound like a poor joke, but, being a professional etymologist, I don’t want modern spelling to become an etymological old curiosity shop. Here are the main points.

  1. In dealing with etymology, one never knows where to stop. The British spelling of honour, colour, etc. shows its loyalty to French, but all such words are ultimately from Latin, and there the ending was -or, not -our.
  2. What looks like etymology is often a trace of Middle English pronunciation. Take wright in playwright. Initial w has been silent for centuries, and knowing that the letter w once designated a real sound does not tell modern speakers too much about the word’s origin, for no one without special training will guess that wright is allied to work. The digraph -gh- stood for the consonant of the type we hear in Scots loch. This is another piece of information I would not call too valuable.
  3. However conservative spelling may be, it is never conservative enough to substitute for a course in historical linguistics. Think of the origin and development of enough, with its e- going back to a lost prefix, gh (as in wright!) that here became f, and the vowel whose origin one will never guess without looking it up in a book on the history of English.
  4. In many cases, archaic spelling is the result of false etymologizing or analogy. For instance, whore, unlike whose, never had w-.
  5. Finally, even in Italian the digraph ph has been abolished, and Italian is, arguably, closer to Latin than Middle English. See more on ph in my post “The Oddest English Spellings: Part 21” (September 21, 2012).


Should ration rhyme with passion or with nation? Our correspondent David Markle looked up this word in various dictionaries and traced its history in detail. There is nothing for me to add. But he also mentioned privacy and several other words with the letter i. It is no wonder that differences in their pronunciation exist. As a general rule, a word consisting of three syllables should have a short vowel in the first one (holiday versus holy and the like). But the influence of private pulled the word in the opposite direction.

When in the Appalachians, do as the Appalachians do. (The Blue Ridge Parkway. North Carolina. Photo by Brian Stansberry. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
When in the Appalachians, do as the Appalachians do. (The Blue Ridge Parkway. North Carolina. Photo by Brian Stansberry. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Another factor is spelling pronunciation. It has given us often pronounced as of-ten and forehead pronounced as fore-head. Hardly anyone around me rhymes often with soften and forehead with horrid. My variants (offen and forrid) sound as wrong or deliberately snobbish (naturally, I can’t say elitist: there cannot be a worse sin). On the other hand, to my ear mythology, when pronounced by a British professor as my-thology, is a bad joke, though I have resigned myself to the fact that in England they value privvacy and know in which di-rection to go. But the pronunciation divissive for divisive was new to me. The influence of division or of missive, submissive, dismissive, permissive? To be on the safe side, I turned to the Internet and looked up words rhyming with missive (I also consulted three rhyming dictionaries) and, to my consternation, found derisive. It matters little who produced the list on the Internet, for it shows that the pronunciations divissive and derissive are more frequent than most of us think. As regards Appalachian, with the syllable in bold pronounced as latch, there is no problem: it is a universally recognized variant used by the locals.

A few etymologies

Several questions about word origins require more space than is left for today’s post. I will answer them on the last Wednesday of January. Today only the easiest ones will be taken care of.

Kw- ~ tw (tv-)

To David Campbell who wrote: “The article on Qualm/Tvalm [not too long ago, there was a post on qualm] made me think of a similar example: quer and tver, as in German Querflöte ‘transverse flute’ and Swedish tverflöjt.” Yes, indeed, this is a similar case. The old word had thw-, as in Engl. thwart, from Scandinavian. Its Old High German cognate was dwerch or twerch. The phonetic change, which originated in some dialects, changed tw to zw. Hence German Zwerg versus Engl. dwarf and German Quark, a delicious thing; the word goes back to the Slavic form that begins with tv-. In Swedish, thw- became tv.

Lefties are the best lovers

To Keith Jacobs. He wrote: “We would like to understand the reason gauche means ‘awkward’. Is it pejorative against the left-handed or some other subtlety?” I saw the words used in the title of my response engraved on the cup a teenager gave her left-handed father. That admirable person was (and still is) a man of highly progressive views, an ideal husband, and a loving parent. But outside such special situations the left hand has traditionally been connected with awkwardness. Offenses are rarely subtle, so gauche has the connotations our correspondent suspects.

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28. Exploring the best of Portland, Oregon during LSA 2015 Conference

The Linguistics Society of America’s Annual Conference will take place from Thursday, 8 January-Sunday, 11 January at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower in Portland, Oregon. This meeting will bring together linguists from all over the world for a weekend filled with presentations, films, mini-courses, panels, and more.

If you’re looking for fun places to check out in Portland before and/or after the conference, look no further. In order to get the scoop on the best places to check out in Portland, I checked in with our resident Portland expert Jenny Catchings, the newest addition to our Academic/Trade Marketing Team. Before she moved to New York, Jenny lived in Portland for three years, and she’s ready to share a local’s guide to the “The City of Roses.”

It’s going to be a great weekend in Portland and we can’t wait to see you there — be sure to come visit us at the Oxford University Press Booth (#3) in the Exhibit Hall!

Featured image: “Point Me At The Sky” by Ian Sane. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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29. Monthly etymology gleanings for December 2014, Part 1

Laughter from the historical perspective

My post on laughing attracted two comments: an alleged counterexample from an Icelandic saga and a veritable flood of vituperation. The second writer was so disgusted that he could not even make himself finish reading the essay. In principle, abuse does not deserve attention, but I’ll offer an explanation to both of my critics, so that those interested in the subject could come away with a better understanding of the matter. Let me note that I have been studying the history of laughter and the sense of humor for decades, read countless articles and books on this subject, and published a major essay on it. I am not saying this to promote my scholarship but only to point out that I am less ignorant and adventuresome than my opponents might believe.

People have been laughing since the beginning of creation, but they did not do so because something struck them as funny, and when they did do or say something funny from our point of view they did not laugh. In an Old Icelandic poem (from the Edda), to avenge his father, the hero disguises himself as a woman. The person named Blind notices the disguise. Very clever, but, apparently, not funny, and no one laughed. Among other things, sexual laughter played a great role (it may or may not be the reason we still laugh at obscene jokes, however stupid and stale, but Risus Paschalis certainly goes back to a most ancient custom). Laughter as a life-giving force has also been recorded (think of Sarah’s laughter at being told that she has conceived). Laughter of triumph, laughter caused by someone’s stupidity (trusting an enemy, for example) or bad manners (a guest belched in company, and everybody laughed), and laughter as a sign of a woman’s courtly breeding are commonplace. Our ancestors were quick to notice incongruity and produce puns, none of which had anything to do with what we call the sense of humor.

Laughter and merriment do not necessarily go together.
Laughter and merriment do not necessarily go together.

Now the alleged counterexamples. The sagas are full of “famous last words,” usually meant to show the character’s contempt of death (laughter at a funeral is also a very ancient topos, possibly connected with laughter as a life-giving force). A man is sent to reconnoiter whether the person being attacked (Gunnar at Hlidarendi, to use an Anglicized spelling) is still in the house. In his attempt to assess the situation he is pierced with a sword. “Is Gunnar there?” The answer: “I don’t know. But his sword is”; having uttered these words, he falls dead. A warrior removes an arrow from his breast, examines it, notices some fat around the arrowhead, and comments: “The king fed us well” (and dies). Those are among the most anthologized cases known from Old Norse literature, but their number can be multiplied ad libitum. No one laughed; no one found such statements funny, and that’s the whole point. Compare the evidence from Icelandic with (among a host of others) St. Lawrence’s turn me over, I am well done, while he is being tortured on a gridiron, and Ralph Percy’s words (at least such is the tradition) addressed to Henry VI at the battle of Hadgeley Moor (1462): “I have saved the bird in my bosom.” He may have meant that his oath of loyalty and the wound will stay forever in his breast. This is all “literature,” rhetoric based on classical models. We have no idea what people really said in the throes of death. As regards the sagas, let us not forget that they were recorded by educated people versed in Latin. And many skaldic verses were indebted for their content to the tradition of heroic (eddic) poetry.

An even less appropriate counterexample concerns Tristan and Isolde (such are their German names). The two are clandestine lovers and make desperate efforts to conceal their meetings. At one stage only an ordeal can save Isolde, and she thinks of a scheme. Tristan, disguised as a pilgrim, carries her ashore; “inadvertently” he drops his load and falls on Isolde, whereupon she swears that she has never lain in anyone’s arms except those of her husband King Mark and that pilgrim. Hot iron does not burn her, and she is cleared of guilt. Here we have an example of another topos, an ambiguous oath. We are not told whether King Mark’s retainers laughed at Isolde’s pronouncement (I assume they did not), but they would, most probably, have laughed at a clown in a modern circus. The civilized Greeks laughed at the sight of crippled veterans (someone with only one arm or leg or without both: isn’t it screamingly funny?). From this point of view they were not a bit better, perhaps worse, than the crusaders of the High Middle Ages. The jokes recoded even in Boccaccio, let alone those in old popular culture (for instance, the stories of Til(l) Eulenspiegel) are either grossly obscene (sexual humor) or scatological.

To repeat the conclusion of my post: The modern sense of humor does not antedate the Renaissance. This momentous breakthrough coincided with many others. People became the masters of perspective in painting and in narrative technique, began (however slowly) to show interest in what we would call psychology, developed a new view of authorship, introduced a mass of often awkward subordinating conjunctions (and in doing so, caught up with the Romans), and so forth. By roughly the middle of the fourteenth century and certainly by the fifteen hundreds they had learned to react not only to “signs” but also to “icons,” to use semiotic terms. We laugh at verbal jokes unaccompanied by and independent of the situation in which they are produced. Moreover, we don’t need a situational background. Medieval Europeans (if we can trust their literature) never behaved so unless they heard the jokes in Latin; but this was studied, rather than spontaneous, laughter: they knew where to laugh.

Here is a healthy, non-metathesized Sheltie. It too wishes our readers and correspondents good health and stability in the year to come.
Here is a healthy, non-metathesized Sheltie. It too wishes our readers and correspondents good health and stability in the year to come.

There are several ways to understand the problem. First and foremost, it is necessary to study the occurrences of the word laugh and its derivatives in older texts and correlate them with the environment that produced laughter (this task has been performed especially well by French scholars). Second, modern researchers should beware of what anthropologists call the identity hypothesis, that is, the assumption that people don’t change and that our reactions are the same as they were in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The greatest danger lies in the seemingly natural belief that what is “funny” today was funny long ago. Laughter and the sense of humor met relatively late in the history of the post-antiquity Europeans. That is why I wrote that neither Sheridan’s nor Oscar Wilde’s comedies, even if adapted to the circumstances of that time, would have had any success in the Middle Ages. Finally, one is advised to show restraint in polemic. I am sorry to finish my explanations on a didactic note, but offending, disparaging, and professing disdain for an opponent is a bad idea. I hope nobody can object to legitimate self-defense even on December 31, when the whole world is expected to be full of the condensed milk of human kindness, to quote Mark Twain rather than Shakespeare. (Isn’t the joke excellent?)

Why Sheltie?

To remind our readers that this is an etymological blog, I’ll answer one question about word origins. The rest will have to wait until next Wednesday, but possibly I have enough for two Wednesdays. The question was why the Shetland sheepdog is called Sheltie? What caused the metathesis (tl to lt)? Indeed, such a change looks most unusual, but I think the suggestion in the OED is the best one we can think of. There was no metathesis! In the Shetland dialect, the inhabitant of the islands is called Hjalti. It is this word (Hjalti) that seems to have yielded Sheltie (the change of initial hj- to sh- is no problem). The result is almost a pun, and it is a most efficient pun! Funny, isn’t it?

The Oxford Etymologist, full of verve (on which see a special post) but meek in spirit, wishes everybody a happy, healthy, and productive New Year and hopes to receive many questions and comments in 2015 and beyond.

Image credits: (1) Monkey before skeleton by Gabriel von Max, 1900. Public domain via WikiArt. (2) Shetland sheepdog. Photo by Karen Arnold. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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30. Defining the humanities

In December 2014, OxfordDictionaries.com added numerous new words and definitions to their database, and we invited experts to comment on the new entries. Below, Scott A. Trudell, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, discusses digital humanities. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.

Can you think of a professional field nowadays where it is unexpected or controversial to use computers? Before sitting down to write this post, I submitted an online maintenance request to fix a towel rack in my apartment and placed an online order to replenish my supply of oatmeal. When I don my tweed and head into my humanities department, it’s hardly surprising to find colleagues analyzing digital culture and using digital tools.

Yet there has been a lot of controversy and alarmism over what exactly the digital humanities “is” — there’s even a website that generates a new answer to “What Is the Digital Humanities” each time you load the page. If the question burns in you, I refer you to freely available essays by my colleague Matthew Kirschenbaum, to the recently published edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities, and to a critique of “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” by Alan Liu. Don’t expect fixed answers: a panel at the Modern Language Association in Vancouver next month, called “Disrupting the Digital Humanities,” is one of many ongoing efforts to “open the digital humanities more fully to its fringes and outliers,” resisting the impulse to gatekeeping and defining.

It can be easy to forget that the regular old “humanities” is also an unstable, shifting term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the denotation, “Literary learning or scholarship; secular letters as opposed to theology; esp. the study of ancient Latin and Greek language, literature, and intellectual culture,” is still in use. At the University of Glasgow, Latin was studied in “the Department of Humanity” until 1988, when it merged with Greek to form the Department of Classics. The OED’s other, now dominant denotation of “the humanities” is: “The branch of learning concerned with human culture; the academic subjects collectively comprising this branch of learning, as history, literature, ancient and modern languages, law, philosophy, art, and music.” Yet humanities disciplines continue to vary by institution and country; law, for example, is separated from the humanities in most US universities. And what about Film, Communication, Performance Studies, Women’s Studies, and more? The list is neither fixed nor complete.

This year I’m a research fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I am witnessing a plurality of definitions of the humanities first-hand. Each week, one of the fellows gives a presentation of their current research, followed by discussion. As you might expect, it is far from clear what unites disciplines as diverse as literary studies, philosophy, musicology, history, and anthropology.

Do we research “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Matthew Arnold’s famous definition of human culture and justification for studying it in high Victorian England)? Of course not. Earlier this fall, Bethany Moreton showed us how the Catholic lay institution Opus Dei has powerful and even insidious ties to the finance industry; Aida Levy-Hussen uncovered startling tendencies toward masochism in contemporary black literature; and I talked about child sexual abuse in the Shakespearean theater.

Not that we are always a glum bunch. Levy-Hussen’s project locates something cathartic and even emancipatory about masochistic relationships to black history, while James Bromley understands Renaissance “cruising”—male masquerading in fashionable dress with queer overtones—as a way of carving out idealistic modes of being. In fact, quite a few of us take the humanities as an opportunity to search out something brighter or more hopeful. Lois Betty sees utopian tendencies in the revival of Spiritism beginning in late-nineteenth-century France. Alex Dressler locates a drive towards autonomous aesthetic spaces in the literature of ancient Rome.

Okay, but surely we humanists study “human culture” in all of its distopian and utopian complexity? Don’t count on it. One of the driving interests in humanistic research in the past decades has been in the non-human worlds in which we are embedded and from which we cannot, finally, be separated. Adam Mandelman, a doctoral student in geography, brought this to our attention in his presentation on the two-century history of permeability in the Mississippi River Delta. Mandelman studies not only how humans have changed the Delta, now said to be losing the equivalent of a football field of land per hour, but how this muddy, in-between, constantly shifting landscape has shaped what humans are. As the globe warms and coastlines are inundated, Louisiana’s ecological catastrophe is increasingly going to be the world we all live in—and Mandalman’s project has much to tell us about what human life looks like when it is permeated by water.

Call Mandalman a post-humanist if you like (in fact he is also a digital humanist); I say we have always been post-humanist. Humanistic methods and values come to seem unified or unalterable only in a back formation—that is, when they are defined against something (supposedly) different or new. “Humanities computing,” as it used to be called, is not particularly new. It is often said to date to the Index Thomisticus, a machine-processed concordance to the works of Thomas Aquinas begun in 1949 and completed in the 1970s. The re-branding initiative known as the digital humanities or “DH” is a trade-off. It helps to underscore the excitement of research agendas now underway, but it has contributed to the misleading sense that DH is a radically new and comprehensive paradigm. Ellen MacKay and I had this in mind when, inspired by an NEH Institute on the digital humanities at the Folger Shakespeare Library, we started a blog to try to bring out what is lost or fragmented in digital approaches to our field of Renaissance English literature.

Humanists don’t like to define things—or, rather, they love to define things, and then to change their definitions. Provocative articulations of a shared enterprise, adaptive means of approaching problems—what could be more humanistic than that? Just don’t expect the digital humanities to be any more stably defined than their not-explicitly-digital counterparts. Research fields are not supposed to be stable; we learn, change, adapt, and reexamine what we thought we had learned. Words are no different, which is why Oxford Dictionaries benefits from frequent updates.

Image credit: Typing on a Laptop by Daniel Foster. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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31. Ventriloquists, female impersonators, the genuine article?

Among the earliest, most challenging inventors of troubadour lyric, Marcabru composed songs for the courts of southwestern France during the second quarter of the twelfth century, calling knights to crusade, castigating false lovers, defining and refining courtly values, while developing his own kaleidoscopic image as witty, gritty, biting, rhyming, neologizing, moralizing wordsmith par excellence. As they come down to us in song manuscripts, Marcabru’s forty-some poems — with their wide vocabulary, difficult syntax, and multiple versions — offer a host of problems for modern readers trying to understand their language and fully comprehend them as songs performed live before an engaged public. Marcabru, A critical edition, edited and translated by Simon Gaunt, Ruth Harvey, and Linda Paterson, has been my indispensable tool for taking on that project.

Two of Marcabru’s songs (XXV and XXVI) particularly caught my eye, as they’ve attracted the attention of many others who radically disagree about their import. Estornel, cueill ta volada (Starling, take your flight) and Ges l’estornels no.n s’oblida (The starling did not dally for a moment) outline a series of dramatic exchanges in which a lover first gives the starling a message of complaint for his amia (beloved), demanding that she compensate for her neglect by meeting him in a certain position: flat beneath him. In the second song, the bird delivers the ultimatum, hears the woman’s spirited defense and enticing reply, and returns to anticipate the lover’s lusty triumph. Taken together, Estornel and Ges l’estornels offer a humorous guide to Marcabru’s piebald art of ventriloquism, as they act out the elusive nature of his identity as poet and persona, refracted through multiple voices and changing masks.

To recreate as much as possible the full scope of Marcabru’s dazzling play, I combined popular and scholarly views of ventriloquy. Señor Wences was my first teacher, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the 1950s and 60s with Pedro, a head in a box (“s’awright?” “s’awright!”), and a soft-spoken boy named Johnny. I can see him holding up one hand to paint lips on his thumb and finger to form Johnny’s mouth, adding eyes and a wig, as low- and high-pitched voices shuttle back and forth between man and dummy. Thanks to YouTube, you can still see how Señor Wences dares us to see the perfection of his art by focusing our gaze right on his lips, as he lights a cigarette and speaks elsewhere through the puppet. He balances a spinning plate on a long stick and spins a three-way conversation (not unlike Marcabru in the starling songs!) with Pedro’s head and Johnny, now tossed behind the table. Why do we get such a kick out of these silly games? The fun of seeing how well the ventriloquist can fool us into not seeing where the voice comes from, or hear it coming from where we know it isn’t? Because we know it’s a fake, we enjoy all the more how the ventriloquist’s counterfeit art displaces reality.

Jessica Segall, “Field Recordings/Marginalized Birds of New York City, 2014,” exhibited in “Recapturing Scenic Wilds,” at Wave Hill, Glyndor Gallery, New York, 6 September-7 December 2014. Photographed by Edward Bruckner. Used with permission.

Exploring the more serious side of ventriloquy, I found in Mary Hayes’ Divine Ventriloquism in Medieval English Literature: Power, Anxiety, Subversion an unexpected connection with the incongruous mix in Marcabru’s starling poems. Hayes highlights how the ventriloquist’s displaced voices sharpen issues of source and authority, the confusion of truth and deception, the possibility of (mis)appropriation. Her reminder that Latin “ventriloquist” goes back to Greek “engastrimythos” (belly speakers, like the Pythian oracle whose divine words of uncertain meaning rose up through womb and mouth) goes straight to the sex-talking orifices that Marcabru conjures up in Estornel and Ges l’estornels, no doubt to the great delight of his courtly audience.

Recognized by fellow troubadours as misogynist, Marcabru criticized but also impersonated women — a trick that may well have inspired real women poets to enter the arena in their own right, as more than twenty trobairitz (women troubadours) did. The female impersonators of my title give a nod to Monty Python’s Piranha brothers (who knew how to treat a female impersonator). But in the world of troubadour lyric, men in drag jostle with trobairitz impersonating men and other women, like the Dolly Parton mimic I learned about while working on the starling poems. Charlene Rose-Masuda’s imitation — as well as the original — can be found on YouTube in all her bursting charms, looking like we might imagine Marcabru’s amia in contemporary dress.

Who or what is the genuine article? The presumption that the poet’s first person pronoun speaks for himself or herself is subverted by their obvious pleasure in inventing personas that may not correspond to historical selves. Of course, when Marcabru sets a woman or a starling to chattering, the ventriloquy is patent, but when he speaks as the ribald but courtly lover in Estornel, the disconnect from his usual image as moralizing scold — a sort of Rush Limbaugh avant la lettre – becomes a puzzle as soon as the poet inserts his signature to specify what “Marcabru says” (“Marcabrus/ditz” 60-1). Monologue or dialogue, one speaker or two? The vvoice(s) remain entangled in Estornel’s shifting registers.

As I follow the different masks assumed by the poet through his belly-speaking, vaudevillian, Dolly Parton, bird-screeching impersonations, the starling as intermediary leads me finally to notice the bird’s visual appearance, left unmentioned. The iridescence and spotting of its feathers give the starling’s dark plumage what Marcabru calls the “white, brown and bay desire” (XXXI, 33) of false love, while the mottled poet himself has a brown spot (Marca brun) stamped in his nom de plume. He’s the mimic and master of precisely what he criticizes, as if to “truly” condemn false language and bad loving he must incarnate them. Called on stage by his proper name, Marcabru performs brilliantly with all the mixed colors and rainbow plumage of a male-female-bird-impersonator par excellence.

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32. If You Were Me and Lived in … Hungary, By Carole P. Roman | Dedicated Review

Carol P. Roman’s If You Were Me and Lived in … Hungary: A Child’s Introduction to Cultures Around the World is the thirteenth in her series briefly introducing young readers to our world’s diverse cultures.

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33. If You Were Me and Lived in … Greece, by Carole P. Roman: Dedicated Review

Eleventh in her children’s cultural series, Carol P. Roman’s If You Were Me and Lived in … Greece: A Child’s Introduction to Cultures Around the World takes her young readers to Southern Europe and the tiny island of Greece.

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34. Orphants to foster kids: a century of Annie

One of the best-known musicals of the 20th century is Annie, which tells the story of a plucky orphan girl who warms the hearts of all around her, and eventually finds a loving family of her own. The tale will be carried into the 21st century when the newest film adaptation (produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith; perhaps you’ve heard of them) is released on 19 December of this year. In honor of the long legacy of this famous story, here we take a look at the changing language of Annie.

Little orphant Allie

Speaking of long legacies, the 1977 musical Annie was not the first time the world had been introduced to the inspirational young character. The musical was based on an American comic strip entitled “Little Orphan Annie”. Well-known in its own time and called the most famous comic of 1937 by Fortune magazine, “Little Orphan Annie” ran for a whopping 86 years and even led to an equally famous radio show (religiously followed by Ralph in the 1983 film A Christmas Story). However, the story of Annie can be traced further back to a girl named Mary Alice Smith (nicknamed “Allie”), who inspired Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley to pen the poem “The Elf Child” in 1885. He would eventually rename it “Little Orphant Allie”.

“Orphant”? Not a typo—just a US regional variant spelling that has since fallen largely out of use, as have other variants orphaunt, orfant, and even orphing (among many others). However, a literal typo or typographical error did come into play with Riley’s poem when the name “Annie” was accidentally typeset instead of “Allie”. When the poem gained popularity, Riley decided to stick with the new name.

The original hard knocks

People looking for the familiar plot or song lyrics in the original poem will be disappointed: there is almost no resemblance between the Annie of the poem and Annie as she is popularly known today. The poem, like several of Riley’s others, is written in Hoosier dialect—the midland dialect of American English, or more specifically that from Indiana. In the poem, “little orphant Annie” tells stories to other orphaned children in which “gobble-uns” (goblins) steal poorly behaved children away (hence the original title “The Elf Child”). At the end of the didactic poem, Annie says

You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you

However, like the Annie of the later comic strip, musical, and film adaptations, “little orphant Annie” is happy to take the “pore an’ needy” under her wing and to teach them what she knows.

Hoovervilles and Prohibition

Though the musical Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 and its film adaptation was released in 1982, the plot takes place in the 1930s. Apart from the clothing styles and the Hoovervilles, the song lyrics themselves—with many words unfamiliar to the modern English-speaker— are intended to transport audiences to the early 20th century.

Yank the whiskers from her chin!
Jab her with a safety-pin!
Make her drink a Mickey Finn!

Purportedly taking its name from the proprietor of a Chicago saloon who, in the early 20th century, was accused of poisoning customers with “knock-out drops”, a Mickey Finn is a surreptitiously drugged or doctored drink.

Every plot’s a dilly,
This we guarantee!

Dilly, an alteration of the first syllable of delightful or delicious, is a North American word for an excellent example of something.

You spend your evenings in the shanties,
Imbibing quarts of bathtub gin.
And here you’re dancing in your scanties.

To a modern-day reader, it may not be clear how much Daddy Warbucks is insulting Miss Hannigan in the song “Sign” from the 1982 film. When he accuses her of spending time in the shanties, he is probably referring to shantytowns: run-down areas consisting of large numbers of shanties, or small, crudely built shacks. These shantytowns (or Hoovervilles, as they were sometimes called, after the US President Herbert Hoover) were an all-too-familiar sight during the Great Depression, when as much as 25% of Americans were unemployed.

As for bathtub gin, readers familiar with the Prohibition era in the United States may know what it is—a concoction of spirits intended to simulate the taste of gin, representative of a time in which alcoholic drinks (rendered illegal by the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920) were often surreptitiously made in homes (and sometimes, presumably, in bathtubs). It goes without saying that, generally, the quality of “bathtub gin” was probably not very high.

Daddy Warbucks gets in one final jab by accusing Miss Hannigan of dancing around in her scanties, or brief underwear. (The word comes from scant + -y; scant is from the Old Norse word for “short”.) Interestingly, a modern word for a similar type of women’s underwear—panties—could be substituted here without sacrificing rhyme.

On the topic of modernizing lyrics, the upcoming movie Annie will debut such changes of its own; in the song “Hard-Knock Life”, what originally was

No one cares for you a smidge
When you’re in an orphanage

Comparison of 'foster child' to 'orphan' from 1800-2008
Comparison of ‘foster child’ to ‘orphan’ from 1800-2008

has been updated to

No one cares for you a bit
When you’re a foster kid

Here, bit may have replaced smidge as a better near rhyme, or it may been considered a safer bet in terms of plausible vocabulary for a 10-year-old in 2014 (it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that smidge is probably not in the parlance of today’s youth). As for the replacement of orphanage with “foster kid”, given that the new movie doesn’t involve an orphanage—instead, Annie is in a foster home—this change is practical.

However, it can also be noted that fostering has gradually taken the place of institutional care and sociocultural developments have shaped the concept of child welfare as we understand it today. For these reasons in part, it may not be surprising that the use of the word “foster child” has been increasing somewhat steadily over the last two centuries, while use of the word orphan (though still more common overall) has dwindled over the same period of time.


Though Annie has been around long enough for “orphant” to eventually turn into “foster kid”, the fact remains that American audiences are perennial lovers of the rags-to-riches theme. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the story of Annie is just as well-known today as when Ralph was racing to the radio—or that virtually everyone you know can sing at least a few bars of “Tomorrow”. It probably goes without saying that we’ll see many more iterations of Annie in the century to come.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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35. Season’s greetings, or “That’s the cheese”

As every student of etymology knows, today, after at least five centuries of European historical linguistics, it is hard and often impossible to discover what has been said about the origin of any word of such well-researched languages as Classical Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, German, or English. Hence my fight for updated analytic etymological dictionaries that survey the entire field and leave little (and sometimes nothing) to glean. They describe the state of the art and invite the reader to pick up where older scholars and amateurs have left off. Fortunately, the goal of retracing the steps of one’s predecessors results in more than amassing footnotes and providing an impressive apparatus. In the process of reading old — and sometimes very old — articles and books we follow the paths of human thought with its victories and defeats. Few things are more interesting than finding out how people, in their wisdom, arrive at and, in their foolishness, reject the truth. If we agree that a drop of water reflects the whole world, we may also agree that a look at the history of the smallest problem may be important and instructive.

The origin of the idiom that’s the cheese is certainly a very small problem. At least as early as 1865 someone who revealed to the readership only his first initials — and whom, on the analogy of Mr. W. H., the famous “begetter” of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we will call Mr. W. S. (for this is how he signed the lettter) — wrote: “A friend of mine who has just returned from India has suggested that it is derived from a word very common in Bengalee [sic] as spoken in Calcutta.” Some wits, he added, say: “That’s the Stilton” or “That’s the Cheshire.” Another letter writer, also in 1865, confirmed W. S.’s opinion and stated that he had been familiar with this usage thirty years earlier. In 1853 still another correspondent remarked in Notes and Queries: “This phrase is only some ten or twelve years old.” His memory takes us to the beginning of the eighteen-forties.

A better etymology of cheese “the real thing” has not been found, though the OED was able to provide 1818 as the date of the first citation. Considering how many words reached Standard English from India, the Hindustani etymology is not improbable. All the serious later dictionaries, unless they say “origin unknown,” accepted it, which does not mean that we can celebrate the result, have a group photo featuring our happy faces, and say cheese, because cheese occurs in other, sometimes more, sometimes less, obscure idioms and metaphors. For example,

  • cheese “nonsense”
  • get one’s cheese “to attain one’ goal”
  • cheese it “stop it; let’s get out of here” (an exclamation of alarm and a warning at the approach of police or other authorities, once—or still?— common among British and American schoolboys)
  • make the cheese more binding “snarl the matter”
  • hard cheese “too bad”
  • big cheese (the latter probably an extension of that’s the cheese)
  • cheesy “vulgar, shabby, shoddy”

It is hard to understand why cheese has been victimized to such a degree. Even the moon is said to be made of green (that is, fresh) cheese.

Henry Yule, the author of Hobson Jobson, a book on the English language in India, cited the idiom that's the cheese, and the OED treated this source with confidence.
Henry Yule, the author of Hobson Jobson, a book on the English language in India, cited the idiom that’s the cheese, and the OED treated this source with confidence.

Who knows? Perhaps that’s the cheese had its origin in British regional slang, coincided with the Hindustani noun, and was appropriated by English speakers in India. In bilingual jargons, puns of this type occur all the time. However unproductive such fantasies may be, they explain why some people tried to find other solutions. The following suggestion, borrowed from Vizetelly and De Bakker’s A Desk-Book of Idioms and Idiomatic Phrases in English Speech and Literature (one never knows where etymological hypotheses may turn up, which makes them almost impossible to find) was quoted in 1923 in a note titled “The Cheese, the Whole Cheese, and Nothing but the Cheese”:

“A low courtesy made by whirling the gown or petticoats around until they are inflated like a balloon or resemble a large cheese, then sinking to the ground. To this deep ceremonial courtesy has been traced the use of cheese meaning the correct thing; as ‘quite the cheese’, but it may also be traced to the Hindustani chiz, which means thing.”

Regrettably (especially so because Vizetelly was an experienced lexicographer and editor), the authors did not say who traced cheese in our idiom to a low courtesy and where. Also, it was pointed out at the beginning of the 1865 discussion that the correct pronunciation of the Hindustani word is cheeze, not chiz.

A hopeless derivation traced that’s the cheese to French.

“Some desperate witty fellows by way of giving a comic turn to the phrase c’est une autre chose [‘that’s another matter’] used to translate it ‘that is another cheese’, and after a while these words became household words.”

The cheese ~ chose connection enjoyed some popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, though the nasty wags responsible for the introduction of the phrase in question have not been found. This derivation is reminiscent of the desperate attempt to explain the idiom to sleep like a top by referring top to French taupe “mole” (animal).

Still another bold guesser was “disposed to think that it [the phrase] is a corruption of good Saxon, thus:—The word choice was formerly written chose, from ceosan [I have corrected two typos in the form] = to choose…. When one says ‘that the cheese’, I understand it to mean ‘that’s the proper thing—that’s what I would have chosen…’.” It is true that the infinitives of the verbs belonging to the choose/lose class have doublets with ee in the root, but an etymology connecting cheese “choose” and cheese “milk product” will strike every sober researcher as bizarre, to say the least. The moral is: never be “disposed” to think that you know the origin of a word or an idiom unless you have investigated the problem in depth. Look before you leap into the hot water of etymology.

Even if the facetious idiom that’s the cheese goes back to the usage of Englishmen who resided in India, it remains unclear when under what circumstances it gained currency. Linguists who study borrowings sometimes forget to ask the question about the reception of this or that loanword. I will finish this post with still another quotation:

“The late David Rees, an eminent comedian, well known in London and Dublin, was celebrated for original bon mots on the stage. The above phrase [that’s the cheese] was first introduced into Dublin by him, in a piece called The Red Eye, the scene of which was laid in the Morea. The phrase became very popular, and was used when a person wanted to impress on another that something very important had been said or done in reference to something in hand. I have a clear recollection of having asked Mr. Rees what was the origin of the term, and he replied it arose in consequence of a half-witted boy having eaten a piece of soap and then told his grandmother what a nice piece of cheese he had eaten. ‘It was soap’, cried the old lady. ‘Oh, no’, cried the boy, ‘that was the cheese’. Such is the story as it was told to me” (S. Redmond. Notes and Queries, Series 3, vol. VII, p. 465 for June 10, 1865).

The story of the boy (sometimes even his name—naturally, Paddy—is given) is of course sheer nonsense, regardless of how many people repeated it in both Ireland and England, but the connection or part of it with David Rees may be real. As to the Hindustani origin of the idiom, nothing militates against it. Cheese, along with the word for it, came to Anglo-Saxon England from the Romans. Why then couldn’t the idiom that’s the cheese come to Great Britain from India?

Image credits: (1) Dark Cherry Cheesecake. Photo by jpellgen. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via jpellgen Flickr. (2) Sir Henry Yule, from the Preface to The Book of Ser Marco Polo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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36. If You Were Me and Lived in … Peru, by Carole P. Roman | Dedicated Review

Due to the well condensed and simplistic format, If You Were Me and Lived in … Peru: A Child’s Introduction to Cultures Around the World and the entire series can easily be the basis for further discussions of Peru, the Spanish language, cultures, traditions, historical sites and home life.

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37. Moping on a broomstick

One of the dialogues in Jonathan Swift’s work titled A complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation­ (1738) runs as follows:

Neverout: Why, Miss, you are in a brown study, what’s the matter? Methinks you look like mumchance, that was hanged for saying nothing.

Miss: I’d have you know, I scorn your words.

Neverout: Well, but scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings.

Miss: My comfort is, your tongue is no slander. What! you would not have one be always on the high grin?

Neverout: Cry, Mapsticks, Madam; no Offence, I hope.

This is a delightfully polite conversation and a treasure house of idioms. To be in a brown study occupies a place of honor in my database of proverbial sayings (see a recent post on it). I am also familiar with scornful dogs will eat dirty puddings, but high grin made me think only of the high beam (and just for the record: mumchance is an old game of dice or “a dull silent person”). But what was Neverout trying to say at the end of the genteel exchange (see the italicized phrase)?

The first correspondent to Notes and Queries who wrote on the subjectand the problem was being thrashed out in the pages of Notes and Queries—suggested that it means “I ask pardon, I apologize for what I have said” (4 October 1856). Two weeks later, it was pointed out that mapsticks is a variant of mop-sticks, but no explanation followed this gloss. When fourteen years, rather than fourteen days, passed, someone sent another query to the same journal (8 May 1880), which ran as follows: “Like death on a mop-stick. How did this saying originate? I have heard it used by an old lady to describe her appearance on recovery from a long illness.” Joseph Wright did not miss the phrase and included it in his English Dialect Dictionary. His gloss was “to look very miserable.” Although the letter writer who used the pseudonym Mervarid and asked the question did not indicate where she lived, Wright located the saying in Warwickshire (the West Midlands). We will try to decipher the idiom and find out whether there is any connection between it and Swift’s mapsticks ~ mopsticks.

As could be expected, the OED has an entry on mopstick. The first citation is dated 1710 (from Swift!). In it the hyphenated mop-sticks means exactly what it should (a stick for a mop). The next one is from Genteel Conversation. Swift’s use of the word in 1738 received this comment: “Prob[ably] a humorous alteration of ‘I cry your mercy’.” This repeats the 1856 suggestion. After the Second World War, a four-volume supplement to the OED was published. The updated version of the entry contains references to the dialectal use of mopstick, a synonym for “leap-frog,” and includes such words pertaining to the game as Jack upon the mopstick and Johnny on the mopstick (the mopstick is evidently the player over whose back the other player is jumping), along with a single 1886 example of mopstick “idiot” (slang). The supplement did not discuss the derivation of the words included in the first edition. By contrast, the OED online pays great attention to etymology; yet mopstick has not been revised. I assume that no new information on its origin has come to light. In 1915 mopstick was used for “one who loafs around a cheap or barrel house and cleans the place for drinks” (US). This is a rather transparent metaphor. Mop would have been easier to understand than mopstick, but mopstick “idiot” makes it clear that despised people could always be called this. Johnny on the mopstick also refers to the inferior status of the player bending down. The numerous annotated editions of Swift’s works contain no new hypotheses; at most, they quote the OED.

I cannot explain the sentence in Genteel Conversation, but a few ideas occurred to me while I was reading the entries in the dictionaries. To begin with, I agree that Swift’s mapsticks is a variant of mopsticks, though it would be good to understand why Swift, who had acquired such a strong liking for mopsticks and first used the form with an o, chose a less obvious dialectal variant with an a. Second, I notice that the 1738 text has a comma between cry and mapsticks (Cry, Map-sticks, Madam…). Nearly all later editions probably take this comma for a misprint and therefore expunge it. Once the strange punctuation disappears, we begin to worry about the idiom cry mopsticks. However, there is no certainty that it ever existed, the more so because the sentence in the text does not end with an exclamation mark. Third, mopstick, for which we have no written evidence before 1710, is current in children’s regional names of leapfrog, and this is a sure sign of its antiquity (games tend to preserve local and archaic words for centuries). A mopstick is not a particularly interesting object, yet in 1886 it turned up with the sense “idiot” in a dictionary of dialectal slang. Finally, to return to the question asked above, to look like death on a mopstick means “to look miserable,” and we have to decide whether it sheds light on Swift’s usage or whether Swift’s usage tells us something about the idiom.

An old woman took here sweeping-broom  And swept the kittens right out of the room.
An old woman took here sweeping-broom
And swept the kittens right out of the room.

I think Swift’s bizarre predilection for mopsticks goes back to the early years of the eighteenth century. In 1701 he wrote a parody called A Meditation upon a Broomstick (the manuscript was stolen, and an authorized edition could be brought out only in 1711). It seems that after Swift embarked on his “meditation” and the restitution of the manuscript broomsticks never stopped troubling him. At some time, he may have learned either the word mopstick “idiot” (perhaps in its dialectal form mapstick) and substituted mopstick ~ mapstick for broomstick; a broomstick became to him a symbol of human stupidity. To be sure, mopstick “idiot” surfaced only in 1886, but such words are often recorded late and more or less by chance, in glossaries and in “low literature.”

Swift hated contemporary slang. The last sentence in the quotation given above (Cry, mapsticks, Madam; no offence, I hope) seems to mean “I cry—d–n my foolishness!—Madam…”). The form mapsticks is reminiscent of fiddlesticks, another plural and also an exclamation. The dialectal (rustic) variant with a different vowel (map for mop) could have been meant as an additional insult. If I am right, the comma after cry remains, while the idiom cry mapsticks, along with its reference to cry mercy, joins many other ingenious but unprovable conjectures.

The phrase to look like death on a mopstick has, I believe, nothing to do with Swift’s usage. In some areas, mopstick probably served as a synonym of broomstick, and broomsticks are indelibly connected in our mind with witches and all kinds of horrors. Here a passage from still another letter to Notes and Queries deserves our attention.

“Fifty years ago [that is, in 1830] I recollect an amusement of our boyish days was scooping out a turnip, cutting three holes for eyes and mouth, and putting a lighted candle-end inside from behind. A stake or old mop-stick was then pointed with a knife and stuck into the bottom of the turnip, and a death’s head [hear! hear!] with eyes of fire was complete. Sometimes a stick was tied across it, to make it ghostly and ghastly….”

Those who have observed decorations at Halloween will feel quite at home. The recovering lady looked like death on a mopstick, and we now understand exactly what she meant. In 1880 the letter writer (Mr. Gibbes Rigaud) resided in Oxford. Oxfordshire is next door to Warwickshire, and of course we do not know where our “heroes” spent their childhood.

Image credits: Witch, CC0 via Pixabay. Kittens, public domain via Project Gutenberg.

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38. The advantage of ‘trans’

In the late 1990s, I attended a conference focused on “those who identify at the male end of the gender spectrum.” At the end of the conference, organizers asked each participant to fill out an exit poll, intended to capture demographic information about conference attendees. In addition to the usual geographic/age-related questions, organizers asked about gender identity, and included a checkbox for every term they had ever heard used as a self-descriptor by members of this community. The list included: transdike, transdyke, transexion, transsexual, transgender, transie, transindividual, transmale, translesbigay, transnatural, transman, transguy, tranz-fag, trannyfag, MTM (man to male), FTM, trannyboy, tranzboy, boi, transboi, tranzsissy, transsissy, sissyboi, transmasculine, dragboi, transperson, transhuman, transqueer. And below these check boxes was a box that said, “Other,” and a line to write in a term.

Despite its length, the above list is not fully inclusive; people are always adding to it. This is a population of people trying to morph English in ways that allow them to describe their experience of gender to others. If English is your first language, you grew up in a culture that recognizes two genders, male and female, believing them to be fixed reality and determined at birth. “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” are often the first words an emerging infant hears upon being born. Yet, this statement isn’t always true; sometimes, that baby grows up defying that birth pronouncement, revisiting that gender assignment.

Transgender flag, San Francisco. By torbakhopper CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Transgender flag, San Francisco. By torbakhopper CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Re-examining gender

With only two words to choose from, man or woman, boy or girl, those who re-examine gender find themselves bumping up against the limitations of English. How can two words begin to capture the experience of the complex social process we call gender? Those redefining gender for themselves expand the lexicon far beyond two words, such that it becomes clear there is no consensus at all on terminology. For instance, some happily call themselves transsexual, noting they did change the sex of their body and this feels the most descriptive to them; others recoil in horror at the idea, exclaiming, “How can you use that term, it’s so medical model and pathologizing!”

Note how many of the above terms include the prefix trans. In the interest of pragmatic inclusivity, the shorthand term trans has become part of the community lexicon. A newer term still is trans*, reinforcing the idea that there are multiple possible endings to follow trans. Even there, consensus isn’t possible. Some view trans and trans* as two different populations of people – trans is viewed as the umbrella term for those who undertake some form of physical transition, while those who are trans* are in a middle-ground of gender that doesn’t pursue physical body modification. Others view trans as a fluid, deliberately-vague term that stands on its own, much like the term queer; the term trans* makes more clear that there are multiple identities under consideration, that one should then ask, “What does your * stand for?”

The ever-changing lexicon of gender identity

When a community lacks consensus on its own terminology, it becomes difficult for allies to understand just what terminology is acceptable and what isn’t. What about words that have historically been used in a pejorative sense, such as tranny? A rule of thumb applies to all such words (queer among gay/lesbian people, nigger among African-Americans) — if an ally is asking, “Can I use that word, really?” then the word is not fully reclaimed yet, and should be avoided by allies. It still retains vestiges of its former negative connotation. If it were fully reclaimed, its former negative connotation would be forgotten, as if it were a new word being invented and used for the first time. An ally would not then wonder, “Can I use that word, really?”

Trans is not a reclaimed word; it is invented terminology without the baggage of historically-pejorative words such as tranny. As such, it is fine for an ally to use the word trans, in any context. But, that’s just my interpretation of the emerging trans lexicon; ask another trans person, and you may get a completely different opinion. The important thing for allies to remember is, none of us is right, or wrong, none of us has ownership over the vocabulary of our people. Respectful intention is what makes an ally an ally; precise use of vocabulary isn’t possible in the ever-changing lexicon of gender identity.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Headline image credit: Group of people. Public domain via Pixabay.

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39. A laughing etymologist in a humorless crowd

I have noticed that many of my acquaintances misuse the phrases a dry sense of humor and a quiet sense of humor. Some people can tell a joke with a straight face, but, as a rule, they do it intentionally; their performance is studied and has little to do with “dryness.” A quiet sense of humor is an even murkier concept. What is it: an ability to chuckle to oneself? Smiling complacently when everybody else is roaring with laughter? Being funny but inoffensive? Sometimes readers detect humor where it probably does not exist.

For example, in the Scandinavian myth of the final catastrophe, the great medieval scholar Snorri Sturluson noted that the lower jaw of the wolf, the creature destined to swallow the whole world, touched the ground, while the upper jaw reached to the sky. If the wolf, he added, could open its mouth wider, it would have done so. For at least two hundred years scholars have been admiring Snorri’s dry sense of humor, though there is no certainly that Snorri had any sense of humor at all. What we read in his text is an accurate statement of fact, a description of a monster with a mouth open to its full extent.

Fenrisulfr tied up, a river flows from his mouth. From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Fenrisulfr tied up, a river flows from his mouth. From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In Europe, if we disregard the situation known form Ancient Greece and Rome, the modern sense of humor, which, first and foremost, presupposes laughter at verbal rather than at practical jokes, hardly existed before the Renaissance. (Practical jokes seldom thrill us.) The likes of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde would not have had an appreciative audience in the Middle Ages. A look at the words pertaining to laughter may not be out of place here. The verb laugh has nothing to do with amusement. Its most ancient form sounded as khlakhkhyan (kh, which, as the above transcription shows, was long, stands for ch in Scots loch and in the family name MacLauchlan). If this word had currency before the formation of the system of Germanic consonants, its root was klak, which belongs with cluck, clack, click, clock, and other similar sound-imitative formations. The most primitive word for “laugh” seems to have designated a “guttural gesture,” akin to coughing or clearing one’s throat. Chuckle, a frequentative form of chuck, is a cousin of cackle. Giggle, another onomatopoeic verb, is a next-door neighbor of chuckle. The origin of Latin ridere (“to laugh”: compare ridiculous, deride, and risible) is unknown.

Nowadays, few words turn up in our speech more often than fun. Fun is the greatest attraction of everything. On campus, after the most timid souls get out of the math anxiety course, they are assured that math will be fun. A popular instructor is called a fun professor; students wish one another a fun class. Fun is the backbone of our education, and yet the word fun surfaced in texts only in the seventeenth century, and, like many nouns and verbs belonging to this semantic sphere, was probably a borrowing by the Standard from slang. Its etymology is disputable; perhaps fun is related to fond, and fond meant “stupid.” Joke, contemporaneous with fun, despite its source in Latin, also arose as slang.

We seldom think of the inner form of the word witty. Yet it is an obvious derivative of wit. One could expect witty to mean “wise, sagacious,” the opposite of witless (compare also unwitting), and before Shakespeare it did mean “clever, ingenious.” In German, the situation is similar. Geistreich (Geist + reich) suggests “rich in spirit (mind)” but corresponds to Engl. “witty.” Likewise, jest had little to do with amusement. Latin gesta (plural) meant “doings, deeds” and is familiar from the titles of innumerable Latin books (for example, Gesta danorum “The Deeds of the Danes”). Apparently, in the absence of the concept we associate with wit speakers had to endow the existing material with a meaning that suddenly gained in importance or surfaced for the first time. “The street,” where slang flourished, reveled in low entertainment and supplied names for it. Sometimes the learned also felt a need for what we call fun but were “lost for words” and used Latin nouns in contexts alien to them.

Jest is by far not the only example of this process. Hoax, which originally meant “to poke fun at,” is an eighteenth-century verb (at first only a verb) derived from Latin hocus, as in hocus-pocus. By an incredible coincidence, Old English had hux “mockery,” a metathesized variant of husc, a word with a solid etymology, but in the remote past it may have meant “noise.” When the history of the verbs for “laugh” comes to light, it often yields the sense “noise.” Such is Swedish skratta (with near identical cognates in Norwegian and Danish). People, as rituals and books inform us, laughed on various occasions: to promote fertility (a subject I cannot discuss here), to express their triumph over a vanquished enemy, or to show that they were happy. Noise sometimes constituted part of their reaction. None of that had anything to do with our sense of humor.

German Scherz “joke” first denoted “a merry jump.” Its synonym Spaß reached German from Italian (spasso; in the seventeenth century, like so many words being discussed here), but German did not remain a debtor. It “lent” Scherz to Italian, which returned it to the European languages as Scherzo, a musical term. The origin of Dutch grap “joke” is uncertain (so probably slang). Almost the entire English vocabulary of laughter and mockery is late: either the words were coined about four hundred year ago, or new meanings of old words arose. It is as though a revolution in attitudes toward laughter (or at least one aspect of it) occurred during and soon after the Renaissance. People felt a need for new terms expressing what we take for eternal impulses and began to promote slang and borrow right and left.

Below I will list a few verbs with their dates and some indication of their origin. The roman numbers refer to the centuries.

  • Jeer (XVI; “fleer and leer have affinities for form and meaning”; so The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology),
  • fleer (XV, possibly from Scandinavian),
  • sneer (XVI; perhaps from Low German or Dutch),
  • flout (XVI, possibly from Dutch),
  • taunt (XVI, from French),
  • banter (XVII, of unknown origin).

Only scoff and scorn are considerably older, though both also came from abroad. To be sure, the picture presented above is too simple; it does not take into account the history of people. New words were borrowed, while old ones fell into desuetude. The formula “of unknown origin” does not mean that no suggestions about their etymology exist. They do, but none is fully convincing.

Our ancestors laughed as much as we do, but we have added a new dimension to this process: we can laugh at a witty saying (when they spoke their native languages, this was, apparently, a closed art to them). Strangely, the educated “barbarians” enjoyed Roman comedies, but laughing at Latin witticisms taught them nothing and did not become a transferable skill. The Europeans who descended from those “barbarians” needed a long time to catch up with their teachers. A study of laughter is not only a window to the development of European mentality. It also sheds light on popular culture. We observe how the slang of the past gained respectability and became part of the neutral style. Here etymologists can make themselves useful to everyone who is interested in how we have become what we are. Enjoy yourselves, friends, but don’t be always the last to laugh.

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40. The Jerk Store called…and called and called

Seinfeld famously added a ton of terms to English, such as low talker, high talker, spongeworthy, and unshushables. It also made obscure terms into household words. Shrinkage and yada yada existed before Seinfeld, but it’s doubtful you learned them anywhere else.

Another successful Seinfeld term has gone under the radar: Jerk Store. The term was coined in “The Comeback,” when George is unselfconsciously stuffing his face with shrimp during a meeting. A co-worker sees George’s gluttony and says, “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George is speechless, but later he crafts a comeback: “Oh yeah? Well, the Jerk Store called, and they’re running out of you.” The episode shows George going to absurd lengths to find a way to use his comeback, as well as his friends’ unwanted workshopping of the joke.

In a way, that workshopping has never ended—at least on Twitter, which is likely the largest collection of jokes, good and bad, by professionals and amateurs, ever created. Many of those jokes involve formulas, and the Jerk Store has become a popular one. On Twitter, every day is the Summer of George.

Most variations start with “The Jerk Store called,” which is as trusty a joke starter as “Relationship status:” and “When life hands you lemons.” From there, the joke can go just about anywhere. Comic Warren Holstein makes a food joke out of the formula: “The Jerk Store called but I couldn’t understand their thick Jamaican accents.” Matt Koff reveals what would likely happen to a real-life Jerk Store: “The Jerk Store called. It’s closing because it couldn’t compete with Amazon. :(“ Some use the formula to comment on politics: “The Jerk Store called; they’re no longer hiring because of fear of Obamacare mandates.” I particularly like this joke, which finds the funny in sadness: “The jerk store called. We didn’t chat for long but it was good to hear their voice. It was good to hear anyone’s voice. I’m so alone.”

Other tweeters abandon the formula when making Jerk Store jokes, like Laura Palmer: “I’m applying at the Jerk Store and I need references.” This holiday tweet sounds like perfect storm of jerkdom: “Looking forward to the Black Friday deals at the Jerk Store.” Food trends also get spoofed: “when will the jerk store start getting organic jerks. tired of getting these jerks full of gmos.” Here’s a particularly clever joke, playing on an annoying Frankenstein-related correction: “Actually, the jerk store’s monster called.”

This term/joke formula isn’t going anywhere for at least a few reasons. Seinfeld is still omnipresent in reruns, and I reckon the entire series is imprinted on the collective unconscious. Plus, the world is full of jerks. The following are some recent epistles from the Jerk Store to help you get through the polar jerk-tex. Jerk Store might never make the OED, but it’s one of the most successful joke franchises in the world.

Headline image credit: Seinfeld logo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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41. Yes? Yeah….

Two weeks ago, I discussed the troubled origin of the word aye “yes,” as in the ayes have it, and promised to return to this word in connection with some other formulas of affirmation. The main of them is yes. We may ignore the fanciful suggestions that connected yes with the imperative of Old Engl. agan, the etymon of Modern Engl. own (Horne Tooke derived hundreds of English words from imperatives), or from Irish Gaelic (tracing the bulk of the English vocabulary to Gaelic was John Mackay’s hobby). Etymology has always attracted more or less peaceful maniacs, and they usually had the same tempting idea, namely that all words of all languages have a single source or go back to a small number of monosyllabic roots.

The word gese (with g pronounced as y) has existed since the days of Old English. Noah Webster knew it but said nothing about its origin. Later etymologists did not doubt that gese is a combination of ge and se, with ge being preserved in the modern word yea and cognate with Dutch and German ja, Old Norse , and Gothic ja ~ jai. The s-part remains in limbo. It may be the stump of swa “so” or of sie, the present subjunctive of the Old English verb to be. Thus, “yea so” or “yea, be it.” Some dictionaries favor the first variant, others the second. The most circumspect ones sit on the fence, and we will join them there.

Words meaning “yes” often go back to demonstrative pronouns; such are, for instance, Slavic da and Romance si. They tend to be short and to have multiple variants. Even Biblical Gothic, the only extant version of that fourth-century Germanic language, had, as we have seen, ja and jai. The Old Celtic and Germanic forms sounded nearly the same and were related: neither Germanic borrowed them from Celtic nor Celtic from Germanic. Perhaps, as etymological dictionaries say, Proto-Germanic had both ja and je, but there could be more. Only crumbs of old slang and conversational usage have come down to us. The hardest question about their history is just variation, so typical of emphatic words and interjections. English has retained its oldest word for “yes” in the form spelled as yea, but it rhymes with nay and may owe its pronunciation to the Scandinavian borrowing nay (the negation ne + ey “ay”).

Will you marry me? YES!
Will you marry me? YES!

As mentioned in the older post, language historians tried but failed to derive aye from yea because the vowels do not match and aye has no y-. The second difficulty can perhaps be explained away. For no known reason, initial y- sometimes disappeared in English words. The oldest form of if was gif (pronounced as yif). Likewise, itch began with g- (= y): compare Dutch jeuken and German jucken. Less clear is the history of -ickle (Old Engl. gicel) in icicle. Its cognate is Icelandic jökull “glacier”; in the middle of a compound, the argument goes, j could be lost without anybody’s noticing it. This also happened in some Scandinavian languages. But as though to mock us, in one case Old Norse preserved initial j- in the position in which it was supposed to lose it. Compare German Jahr “year” and Icelandic ár. This is a regular correspondence: initial j has been dropped before a vowel. However, has not become á.

Having disposed of j-, we wonder what to do with the vowels. Let me repeat: a word for yes or yes indeed occurred as an emphatic formula of affirmation, and a good deal in its life cycle depended on the rise and fall of the speaker’s voice. Wilhelm Horn, an outstanding German scholar (1876-1952), based many of his historical hypotheses on the caprices of intonation. In this he had few followers, for the intonation of past epochs is nearly impossible to reconstruct, but his opinions are worth knowing.

Both professionals and lay people have paid attention to the forms of yea in British dialects and especially American English. We find yeah approximately with a diphthong as in ear, yah (known from Lancashire to North America), eh-yuh (pronounced as ei-ya), and ayuh, the latter recorded in Maine and elsewhere in New England. Languages are most inventive when it comes to coining expressive words. For instance, the Swedish for “yes” is ja, but, to disagree with a negative statement, one says ju (“he won’t come”—“oh, yes, he will” [Ju!]); analogs of the ja ~ ju difference exist elsewhere in the Scandinavian area. The Russian for “already” is uzhe. This word, when it acquires threatening connotations, sounds as uzho (stress falls on the final syllables). Similar, often inexplicable, changes happen in humorous variants, as in Engl. brolly for umbrella and frosh for freshman.

We should not underrate the so-called ludic function of language: people like to play, and wordplay is among the greatest amusements there is. Could aye, a homophone of I, come into being as an emphatic variant of yea in contexts like: “You will do it, won’t you?”—“I, I!” (not a new idea)? That we will never know, but etymologists, predictably, shy away from vague suggestions, to save themselves from wild conjectures; however, such a possibility cannot be excluded. But one loses heart after discovering that the Korean for “yes” is also ye. Are we dealing with some near-universal interjection of assent?

As long as we are on the subject of emphasis, it may be useful to remember yep and nope (mainly but not exclusively American). The obvious things about them have been said more than once. While pronouncing such words, we are told, people sometimes articulate sounds very forcefully, that is, they close the mouth so energetically that some sort of final p is heard. This is not much of an explanation, but there is no better one. Scandinavian scholars, including the greatest among them (Axel Kock, Marius Kristensen, and Otto Jespersen) were especially intrigued by yep and nope, because Danish makes wide use of the so-called glottal stop, but even they were unable to come up with a more profound explanation. The fact that a Swiss German interjection once also ended in p does not take us much further.

Aye, aye, Sir.
Aye, aye, Sir.

As was noted in the post on aye, this English word has a Frisian congener sounding exactly as in English, but I expressed some doubt about the borrowing of it from Frisian. Also, I cited the opinion that aye could come to English from nautical usage, as suggested by the formula “Aye, aye, Sir,” and referred to two researchers: Hermann Flasdieck and Rolf Bremmer. My half-baked reconstruction resolves itself into the following. Among the rather numerous variants of the word yeah, the variant aye (that is, i or I) developed among British sailors and became part of international nautical slang. Later, landlubbers in Frisia and Britain began to use it too. This process must have taken place some time before 1500; Bremmer’s earliest Frisian citation dates back to 1507.

By way of conclusion, I’ll again cite an example from Slavic. The Russian for “aye, aye, Sir” is est’! (a homonym of the third person singular of the verb to be: Engl. is, German ist, Latin est, and so forth). It has been suggested that this est’! is a slightly modified borrowing of Engl. yes, Sir. This etymology has been contested, but, if it is true, we have a curious example of the spread of nautical formulas in northern Europe. Russian est’! is not limited to the language of sailors.

Image credits: (1) The Proposal by Giacomo Mantegazza. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) U.S. Navy Ensign Michael O’Connor receives his first salute from Electronics Technician 1st Class Eric Walden April 30, 2010, in Tallahassee, Fla. U.S. Navy photo by Scott Thornbloom/Released via United States Navy Flickr.

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42. Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2014

As always, I want to thank those who have commented on the posts and written me letters bypassing the “official channels” (though nothing can be more in- or unofficial than this blog; I distinguish between inofficial and unofficial, to the disapproval of the spellchecker and some editors). I only wish there were more comments and letters. With regard to my “bimonthly” gleanings, I did think of calling them bimestrial but decided that even with my propensity for hard words I could not afford such a monster. Trimestrial and quarterly are another matter. By the way, I would not call fortnightly a quaint Briticism. The noun fortnight is indeed unknown in the United States, but anyone who reads books by British authors will recognize it. It is sennight “seven nights; a week,” as opposed to “fourteen nights; two weeks,” that is truly dead, except to Walter Scott’s few remaining admirers.

The comments on livid were quite helpful, so that perhaps livid with rage does mean “white.” I was also delighted to see Stephen Goranson’s antedating of hully gully. Unfortunately, I do not know this word’s etymology and have little chance of ever discovering it, but I will risk repeating my tentative idea. Wherever the name of this game was coined, it seems to have been “Anglicized,” and in English reduplicating compounds of the Humpty Dumpty, humdrum, and helter-skelter type, those in which the first element begins with an h, the determining part is usually the second, while the first is added for the sake of rhyme. If this rule works for hully gully, the clue to the word’s origin is hidden in gully, with a possible reference to a dupe, a gull, a gullible person; hully is, figuratively speaking, an empty nut. A mere guess, to repeat once again Walter Skeat’s favorite phrase.

The future of spelling reform and realpolitik

Some time ago I promised to return to this theme, and now that the year (one more year!) is coming to an end, I would like to make good on my promise. There would have been no need to keep beating this moribund horse but for a rejoinder by Mr. Steve Bett to my modest proposal for simplifying English spelling. I am afraid that the reformers of our generation won’t be more successful than those who wrote pleading letters to journals in the thirties of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the Congress being planned by the Society will succeed in making powerful elites on both sides of the Atlantic interested in the sorry plight of English spellers. I wish it luck, and in the meantime will touch briefly on the discussion within the Society.

Number 1 by OpenClips. CC0 via Pixabay.
Number 1 by OpenClips. CC0 via Pixabay.

In the past, minimal reformers, Mr. Bett asserts, usually failed to implement the first step. The first step is not an issue as long as we agree that there should be one. Any improvement will be beneficial, for example, doing away with some useless double letters (till ~ until); regularizing doublets like speak ~ speech; abolishing c in scion, scene, scepter ~ scepter, and, less obviously, scent; substituting sk for sc in scathe, scavenger, and the like (by the way, in the United States, skeptic is the norm); accepting (akcepting?) the verbal suffix -ize for -ise and of -or for -our throughout — I can go on and on, but the question is not where to begin but whether we want a gradual or a one-fell-swoop reform. Although I am ready to begin anywhere, I am an advocate of painless medicine and don’t believe in the success of hav, liv, and giv, however silly the present norm may be (those words are too frequent to be tampered with), while til and unskathed will probably meet with little resistance.

I am familiar with several excellent proposals of what may be called phonetic spelling. No one, Mr. Bett assures me, advocates phonetic spelling. “What about phonemic spelling?” he asks. This is mere quibbling. Some dialectologists, especially in Norway, used an extremely elaborate transcription for rendering the pronunciation of their subjects. To read it is a torture. Of course, no one advocates such a system. Speakers deal with phonemes rather than “sounds.” But Mr. Bett writes bás Róman alfàbet shud rèmán ùnchánjd for “base Roman alphabet should remain unchanged.” I am all for alfabet (ph is a nuisance) and with some reservations for shud, but the rest is, in my opinion, untenable. It matters little whether this system is clever, convenient, or easy to remember. If we offer it to the public, we’ll be laughed out of court.

Mr. Bett indicates that publishers are reluctant to introduce changes and that lexicographers are not interested in becoming the standard bearers of the reform. He is right. That is why it is necessary to find a body (The Board of Education? Parliament? Congress?) that has the authority to impose changes. I have made this point many times and hope that the projected Congress will not come away empty-handed. We will fail without influential sponsors, but first of all, the Society needs an agenda, agree to the basic principles of a program, and for at least some time refrain from infighting.

The indefinite pronoun one once again

I was asked whether I am uncomfortable with phrases like to keep oneself to oneself. No, I am not, and I don’t object to the sentence one should mind one’s own business. A colleague of mine has observed that the French and the Germans, with their on and man are better off than those who grapple with one in English. No doubt about it. All this is especially irritating because the indefinite pronoun one seems to owe its existence to French on. However, on and man, can function only as the subject of the sentence. Nothing in the world is perfect.

Sir John Vanbrugh by Thomas Murray (died 1735). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our dance around pronouns sometimes assumes grotesque dimensions. In an email, a student informed me that her cousin is sick and she has to take care of them. She does not know, she added, when they will be well enough, to allow her to attend classes. Not that I am inordinately curious, but it is funny that I was protected from knowing whether “they” are a man or a woman. In my archive, I have only one similar example (I quoted it long ago): “If John calls, tell them I’ll soon be back.” Being brainwashed may have unexpected consequences.

Earl and the Herulians

Our faithful correspondent Mr. John Larsson wrote me a letter about the word earl. I have a good deal to say about it. But if he has access to the excellent but now defunct periodical General Linguistics, he will find all he needs in the article on the Herulians and earls by Marvin Taylor in Volume 30 for 1992 (the article begins on p. 109).

The OED: Behind the scenes

Many people realize what a gigantic effort it took to produce the Oxford English Dictionary, but only insiders are aware of how hard it is to do what seems trivial to a non-specialist. Next year we’ll mark the centennial of James A. H. Murray’s death, and I hope that this anniversary will not be ignored the way Skeat’s centennial was in 2012. Today I will cite one example of the OED’s labors in the early stages of work on it. In 1866, Cornelius Payne, Jun. was reading John Vanbrugh’s plays for the projected dictionary, and in Notes and Queries, Series 3, No. X for July 7 he asked the readers to explain several passages he did not understand. Two of them follow. 1) Clarissa: “I wish he would quarrel with me to-day a little, to pass away the time.” Flippanta: “Why, if you please to drop yourself in his way, six to four but he scolds one Rubbers with you.” 2) Sir Francis:…here, John Moody, get us a tankard of good hearty stuff presently. J. Moody: Sir, here’s Norfolk-nog to be had at next door.” Rubber(s) is a well-known card term, and it also means “quarrel.” See rubber, the end of the entry. Norfolk-nog did not make its way into the dictionary because no idiomatic sense is attached to it: the phrase means “nog made and served in Norfolk” (however, the OED did not neglect Norfolk). Such was and still is the price of every step. Read and wonder. And if you have a taste for Restoration drama, read Vanbrugh’s plays: moderately enjoyable but not always fit for the most innocent children (like those surrounding us today).

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43. Scholarly reflections on ‘slacktivism’

Whether its the use of Facebook in the 2008 US Presidential election or the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, there are new forms of activism emerging online. But are all these forms of activism equal? With the inclusion of slacktivism on Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

*   *   *   *   *

“I’m sure slacktivism is meant to criticize the “activity” and the slackers who do it. It was probably made up by real activists who felt they had to draw a line and protect their own credibility. Still, the phenomenon may not be as bad as it seems. There are all those partially reformed slackers out there, they came of age with the Internet, and they’ll never be real activists, right, so isn’t it better that they at least be slacktivists? Also, how many activists are there? But there are more than two billion Internet users worldwide — potentially that’s a lot of slacktivists. So here’s the question occasioned by this year’s contest for Word of the Year: Can two billion slacktivists accomplish more than all of the certified activists? Anyway, I’m a sucker for a blend.”
Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

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Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Anthony Quintano. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Mission Accomplished – ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Anthony Quintano. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“This term is a combination of the words slacker and activist and generally refers to actions, largely on the Internet, to influence policy or politics that require little to no effort. Slacktivism typically is used to criticize behavior that appears to have only a marginal utility, but makes the participants feel better about themselves. Slacktivism typically includes signing Internet petitions, joining a Facebook group, changing your online profile picture to a symbolic image, mass e-mail campaigns, and resending political or policy content through social media. While the term is most often applied to Internet activities, it can also refer to offline activism that also requires little to no effort or commitment, such as wearing a ribbon or political button. The primary concern with slacktivism is that it may occupy or satisfy people with ineffective activities who would otherwise be more engaged participants in more influential forms of activism. However, these critiques may be an oversimplification, as slacktivism activities can have a measurable influence and do not preclude more direct forms of activism.”
Kevin M. Wagner, Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics

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“A bit of a mouthful, but highly descriptive. People who care about political and social causes are usually comfortable with talking about -isms. Too bad they don’t put more of their time where their hearts are. (The political scientist Robert Putnam talked about this decline of social capital in his book Bowling Alone.)”
Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC; author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World and the forthcoming Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

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Headline image credit: Computer Keyboard by Marina Shemes via PublicDomainPictures.net.

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44. Furphies and Whizz-bangs

In 2015, Australia will mark the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at what came to be known as Anzac Cove (Gaba Tepe). For Australia, this event has been a significant marker of nationhood, and the legacy of Anzac plays an important role in Australian cultural and political life. The experience of the First World War also had a lasting impact on language.

We can trace the language of Australians during the war years through a variety of sources, including letters, diaries, trench publications, and newspapers. These sources attest to the impact the war had on both British English and Australian English. Australian newspapers took note of the emerging lexicon of war, printing glossaries and articles that explained the military terminology that readers might encounter in the lengthy descriptions of battles and actions being reported. Words like emplacement, grenade, mortar, and redoubt were new or unfamiliar to the average Australian reader, and explanations were necessary. As the OED’s ‘100 words that define the First World War’ shows, the war generated a language of modern warfare that forever changed the lexicon.

It was also evident as the war progressed that a lot of slang was being generated. Australian soldiers used a variety of terms to describe aspects of army life: for example, army biscuits were variously forty-niners, Anzac wafers, or concrete macaroons, and jam or treacle was referred to as flybog. Soldiers were also introduced to a range of British army slang terms, which they quickly adopted into their vocabulary: for example, rooty for bread, iron rations for emergency rations, short arm parade for a venereal disease inspection, and gravel-crushing for route marching – this last being one of many terms reflecting the tedious life of the infantryman. Many terms for information or rumours were generated as well, reflecting a general concern about a lack of information about the war or likely activities: these included terms such as dinkum oil, good oil, and furphy, all of which remained popular in Australian English after the war.

The experience of the battlefield also produced a range of terms. There was a particular variety of terms for weapons, shells, and guns: Black Maria, whizz-bang, Jack Johnson, woolly bear, and Beachy Bill are just a few of them. Death and the fear of death generated its own vocabulary. To die was to be put into cold storage, to go west, or chuck a seven. While there were some words particular to the Australians (for example, possie for position, king-hit for a significant wound, and stoush for a fight), but the fact that much of the vocabulary of the war was shared by the Anglophone armies attests to their common experiences.

Men, women and children line the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day, 1916. State Library Queensland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Men, women and children line the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day, 1916. State Library Queensland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Australian soldiers liked to believe in their own unique creativity when it came to language. Soldiers’ publications during the war served to promote a particular image of the Australian soldier as brave, fearless, with a disregard for authority, and ready to crack a joke whatever the circumstances. While this didn’t always match reality, it became part of an emerging ‘Anzac legend’. Language played a role in this: Australian soldiers were inveterate users of slang who spoke a language few outsiders could comprehend, and they often used this to poke fun at others. One humorous item published in a Western Australian newspaper described an Australian soldier meeting King George V, and responding to his questions with colloquialisms such as bonzer and ribuck. It ended with the King commenting: ‘I’m no snide mug at languages … but I’d give a pot of dinkum dough if I could speak Australian.’ (Perth Daily News, 28 January 1919, p. 8)

During the war years, a language of commemoration also began to emerge, which developed more fully after the war. The first Anzac Day (initially also known as Gallipoli Day), was held in 1916, marking the anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Subsequent Anzac Days would incorporate features such as the Anzac service (or Anzac Day service), Dawn service, and the Anzac Day march. Anzac Day has become a day of central importance in Australia.

The First World War had a lasting effect on the English lexicon. It also had a lasting effect on Australian English, and more importantly perhaps, language became one of the vehicles by which an emerging Australian national identity with the Anzac legend at its core began to take shape. This has been a contentious aspect of Australian public culture and discussions about identity, but it is undoubtedly true that the centenary of the Anzac landing will once again emphasise the significance the war has had for Australia.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford Australia blog.

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45. On idioms in general and on “God’s-Acre” in particular

From time to time I receive letters encouraging me to discuss not only words but also idioms. I would be happy to do so if I were better equipped. The origin of proverbial sayings (unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations) and idioms is usually lost beyond recovery. I may once have mentioned how, while working on the etymology of oats in my analytic dictionary, I desperately tried (and failed) to discover the source of the phrase to sow one’s wild oats. All I found were a few paragraphs on agriculture and the earliest recorded citation. Those who use the OED know that it seldom indicates where idioms come from. Rather long ago, I wrote a post on the phrase to pay through one’s nose, and it caused some profitable discussion, though it still remains debatable whose nose is meant and how one pays through it. My attack on it rains cats and dogs seems to have been more successful. I have a respectable database of proverbs and local phrases from Notes and Queries and other old periodicals. Most of those do not occur in Brewer or later dictionaries. In the future, I may use (educated people now say utilize) my home resources and even squeeze a few drops from this stone.

Before I embark on my today’s subject, I should observe that dictionaries explaining “why we say so” are numerous. The problem with even the best of them is that they avoid references, and without references they cannot be trusted. For example, the origin of hell for leather and to go to hell in a hand basket has been explained reasonably well, but the authors of popular books (and here they differ from scholars who deal with such subjects) prefer statements like it has been suggested that, but do not explain whose proposal they cite and whether the proposer deserves credence. This practice is particularly disappointing when it comes to idioms trodden to death, for example, the whole nine yards. Thanks to digitization, our dates and conclusions are becoming more and more reliable, but the origin of the enigmatic phrase and the numeral nine in it (at one time, it seems to have been six) remains unknown, and the formulas it has been suggested and some people think arouse only irritation. Who cares what “some people” think or suggest unless we know why they do so?

So why is the churchyard (or graveyard) called God’s acre? In 1913 a volume presented on the completion of George Lyman Kittredge’s twenty-fifth year of teaching at Harvard University appeared in New York. One of the contributors to it was Professor J. A. Walz, a fellow philologist. Kittredge’s name is known to many from the book Words and their Ways in English Speech by Greenough and Kittredge (at that time, George B. Geenough was a senior colleague, and his name stood first on the title page; anyway, G precedes K in the English alphabet). Walz did exactly what I so often do: he provided a background for his search, looked through multiple dictionaries, collected the publications on God’s acre in Notes and Queries, “that unique meeting place of British ignorance and scholarship,” as he called it, and summarized what he found. I can only retell his publication written a century ago, though I would have encountered those notes myself, inasmuch as my assistants and I have looked through the entire run of that invaluable journal and licked the plate almost clean. (Walz made such extensive use of Notes and Queries, because no other periodical showed any interest in the idiom he set out to research.)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Eastman Johnson, 1846. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Eastman Johnson, 1846. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The contributors to Notes and Queries, among whom we notice such erudite people as James Main Dixon and Frank Chance, discovered everything, including the earliest mention of the phrase in William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain (1605, published in 1617). Even Murray’s OED could offer no antedating. They also dug up the relevant quotations from the New Testament. Several biblical texts, most pointedly one of the epistles, explain that the dead are “sown” and sleep awaiting resurrection. Finally, they, of course, asked the question about the originator of the phrase. At that time, in the fifties and the seventies of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had numerous admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, and his early short lyric “God’s-Acre” was known everywhere. Today he seems to be forgotten or looked down upon. Only his name has survived, and, in the United States, one occasionally dines at restaurants with Longfellow in their names. In similar fashion, numerous towns in Italy have hotels called “Byron.” Perhaps this is real immortality.

Be that as it may be, but even in Minneapolis, where I live and where there is Hiawatha Avenue, Nokomis Avenue, and a statue of Hiawatha carrying his bride over Minnehaha Falls, I have not met a single student who has read The Song of Hiawatha (to say nothing of Longfellow’s short poems). But in Longfellow’s lifetime, “God’s-Acre” became an anthologized piece. It begins so:

“I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial ground God’s-Acre! It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o’er the sleeping dust.”

The poem goes on for three more stanzas before it reaches the conclusion:

“With thy rude ploughshares, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow.”

What is “the ancient Saxon phrase” that Longfellow liked? It did not elude the discussants in Notes and Queries that German has the word Gottesacker “churchyard,” while its English equivalent has not been attested. Let us not forget that the first volume of the OED, with the word acre in it, became available many years later. Some writers missed the point when they said that German Acker and Engl. acre are related, so that there is no problem. Of course, they are, but cognates don’t have to mean the same. Thanks to the citations in the OED and the material supplied by Walz, we now know that, before Longfellow, God’s Acre occurred almost only in descriptions of Germany and with reference to the German idiom. The meaning of almost in the previous sentence will be made clear below. German Acker means “field” (like Latin ager). The “ancient Saxon phrase” did not exist (even in German it appeared only in the sixteenth century), but thanks to Longfellow God’s Acre it is now part of the English vocabulary. How he came to know it is not a secret.

Albert Matthews, an outstanding researcher of American English, provided some facts he did not know when Walz had asked him about God’s Acre, the burial place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turned out that this name was already current at the end of the seventeenth century. It is again met with in 1827. We can conclude that the equivalent of the German compound had some currency in Cambridge quite early. There is no way of ascertaining how it reached the East Coast, but reach it did, most probably via German speakers. As Matthews pointed out, Longfellow did not come to Cambridge before 1836. He loved the town (see his lyric “To the River Charles”) and could not help hearing the name of the burial place in it. It struck him as poetic, so he assumed that the name was very old, even ancient, and used it in his lyric. (Longfellow knew several languages, as, among other things, his translations from German, Italian, and Old English show.) Without it, God’s Acre (or God’s-acre) would not have become a familiar phrase in English. However, as far as etymology is concerned, it remains a borrowing from German, and Longfellow knew it. The Century Dictionary, quite aptly, quotes from his Hyperion (II. 9): “A green terrace or platform on which the church stands, and which in ancient times was the churchyard, or, as the Germans more devoutly say, God’s-acre.”

Headline image credit: St Giles Church in Stoke Poges. Photo by UKgeofan at English Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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46. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is…vape

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back and see which words have been significant throughout the past twelve months, and to announce the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Without further ado, we can exclusively reveal that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014 is…


Although there is a shortlist of strong contenders, as you’ll see below, it was vape that emerged victorious as Word of the Year.

What does vape mean?

So, what does vape mean? It originated as an abbreviation of vapour or vaporize. The OxfordDictionaries.com definition was added in August 2014: the verb means ‘to inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device’, while both the device and the action can also be known as a vape. The associated noun vaping is also listed.

Why was vape chosen?

As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vape has grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.

Usage of vape peaked in April 2014 — as the graph below indicates — around the time that the UK’s first ‘vape café’ (The Vape Lab in Shoreditch, London) opened its doors, and protests were held in response to New York City banning indoor vaping. In the same month, the issue of vaping was debated by The Washington Post, the BBC, and the British newspaper The Telegraph, amongst others.

The language of vaping

Vape is also the modifier for other nouns, creating new compound nouns which are growing in popularity. The most common of these are vape pen and vape shop, and there is also recent evidence for vape lounge, vape fluid, vape juice, and others. Related coinages include e-juice, cartos, and vaporium — as well as the retronym tobacco cigarette for traditional cigarettes. (A retronym is a new term created from an existing word in order to distinguish the original word from a later development — for example, acoustic guitar developing after the advent of the electric guitar.)

Vape before vaping

You may be surprised to learn that the word vaping existed before the phenomenon. Although e-cigarettes weren’t commercially available until the 21st century, a 1983 article in New Society entitled ‘Why do People Smoke?’ contains the first known usage of the term. The author, Rob Stepney, described what was then a hypothetical device:

“an inhaler or ‘non-combustible’ cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but…delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as vaping.)”

However, despite these early beginnings, Oxford Dictionaries research shows that it wasn’t until 2009 that this sense of vape (and vaping) started to appear regularly in mainstream sources.

closeup of woman smoking electronic cigarette outdoor
© diego_cervo via iStockphoto.

The shortlist

Here are the words that came close, but didn’t quite make it as Word of the Year:

bae n. used as a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner.

budtender n. a person whose job is to serve customers in a cannabis dispensary or shop.

contactless adj. relating to or involving technologies that allow a smart card, mobile phone, etc. to contact wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.

indyref, n. an abbreviation of ‘independence referendum’, in reference to the referendum on Scottish independence, held in Scotland on 18 September 2014, in which voters were asked to answer yes or no to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

normcore n. a trend in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate fashion statement.

slacktivism, n., informal actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website; a blend of slacker and activism.

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47. How did we get from snuff to vaping?

Vaping is having an interesting cultural moment. Use of the word is increasing rapidly, as the Oxford Dictionaries editors note, although many people are still unfamiliar with it. (In a totally scientific survey of ten 40-year-old parents on the playground of my son’s school, none had heard the word before. In my husband’s university department, some of the graduate students used the word, but the consensus among the faculty was that to vape meant to live life as a Visiting Assistant Professor.) This increased use comes as people attempt to define boundaries for the activity, to figure out where it is socially acceptable, and where it is not. Is vaping like smoking, and thus offensive and possibly dangerous to non-vapers? Or is it more like chewing gum — not polite, exactly, but something you might do surreptitiously at work or in a movie theater? Would you vape in a childcare center? In a hospital? These are not just questions of etiquette, but also of law — will vapers, like smokers, be required to keep a distance of 15 to 25 feet from any doors or windows?

The word vaping has already caused devotees of juice (the liquid used in e-cigarettes) to lose the first battle in the propaganda war. Vaping carries overtones of illicit drug use — vaporizers provided a cleaner high for marijuana-smokers for years before they were used in e-cigarettes — and sounds, as was reported in The Guardian last year, “worryingly like a form of sexual assault, or a bewilderingly ill-advised 1980s dance craze.” Let’s look now at some words from smoking’s history, to see how earlier battles over tobacco use played out, and how current questions about vaping might be resolved.

Innokin SVD by FergusM1970. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like many of our other good stimulants, tobacco was brought to Europe from the Americas, first imported by the Spanish in the early 16th century. Tobacco (first English use, 1577) comes from Native American words for a pipe or a sort of cigar, which the Spanish assumed referred to the leaves of the plant itself. Columbus’s conscience, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, described how when their expedition landed in Cuba, they found the Taino smoking these cigar-like “tabacos,” “by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue.” It was not a forgone conclusion that tobacco would be the English name for this miraculous plant — other candidates at the time were petum (1568), possibly derived from another Native American word, and nicotian (1577), from Jean Nicot, who brought the plant to France for the first time. (Nicot eventually gave his name to the tobacco genus, Nicotiana, as well as to its chemical of interest, nicotine (1817)).

Growing more and more popular with every passing year, tobacco seemed to be doing just fine with its common name, but others were coined for it to better advertise what were seen as its incredible health benefits — the holy herb, the queen mother herb, God’s remedy, and panacea (all 16th century). A panacea is a medicine reputed to cure all diseases, a tall order, but one that it was more than capable of fulfilling, according to proponents such as Anthony Chute, author of Tabaco (1595). The green leaves of the plant could cure any sort of laceration or skin ulcer, from a finger nigh severed by a giant chopping knife to the King’s Evil (Scrofula), the Canker, the Wolfe, and noli me tangere (“don’t touch me”), increasingly awful skin diseases. The smoke was thought to be even more efficacious, because of the humoral theory of medicine that held sway at the time. A healthy body had the proper balance of four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, which gave it the proper temperature and moisture. Tobacco smoke was very hot and dry, and so could cure diseases in which the patient was excessively cold and moist — all kinds of coughs, rheums, bowel problems, and, the epitome of cold and wet, drowning.

The “native English” way of getting smoke into the body was the clyster (1398), or glyster — a tobacco enema. It was superseded by the pipe, a Native American invention and a more social way to smoke, but the original practice survived until the mid-19th century as the best way to revive drowning victims, and is still around in the expression to blow smoke up your ass, meaning “to give insincere compliments.” (Though wonderful, this derivation of the idiom is possibly apocryphal. There is a long and independent association between “empty words” and wind, smoke, or vapor.)

Like vaping today, there were questions about the social acceptability of “drinking tobacco,” as smoking was called. Was it genteel for women to smoke, for example? On one hand, smoking was good for women, who were constitutionally a little bit too cold and damp. On the other hand, smoking involved sucking on something in public, generally a no-no. Early tobacco pipes also tended to produce quite a lot of brown, sticky saliva, which stained clothing, created a funk (a strong stink, 1623), and needed to be spit somewhere, often on the floor, until the development of the spittoon (1840). Tobacco use gained its widest social acceptance with the rise of snuff (1683), finely ground tobacco snorted through the nose, which neatly avoided all these problems.

Schnupfer_corrected (1)
Painting of a man taking snuff using the thumb & forefinger method. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Taking snuff has many similarities with vaping. It required lots of accoutrements, all of which could show off one’s individuality, relative wealth, and taste. Vapers today can buy standard, preassembled e-cigs and tobacco-flavored juice, but many people prefer to customize their equipment, especially if they drip. Dripping involves putting a few drops of juice directly on the coil of an e-cig atomizer (the heating element) instead of using a cartridge with a reservoir of liquid and a wick, which according to drippers (?)…drips (?)…advocates of dripping, provides a purer taste and the option of changing flavors more frequently. It requires vapers to assemble their e-cigs themselves, choosing an atomizer, a drip tip (the part you put in your mouth), possibly a drip shield, and a variety juice flavors, from the hundreds available — “Mother’s Milk” (“a creamy custard with a sweet strawberry exhale”), for example, or “Boba’s Bounty” (“tobacco, honey, and marshmallow”). Snuff-takers needed a snuff-box — some devotees had hundreds, beautifully decorated — a rasp, to grind the tobacco leaves, a tiny spoon if they preferred not to dirty their fingers, and a dark-patterned handkerchief to catch their sneezes and clean their nostrils. Like juice, snuff could be colored and flavored in hundreds of combinations, including orange flower, rose, bergamot, musk, and tonka bean (a flavor like vanilla, now banned by the FDA for containing coumarin, which in high doses can damage the liver).

Two snuff boxes shaped like a pair of lady’s boots, England. Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images. CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vaping has many of the same things going for it that snuff did — it appeals to a knowledgeable, somewhat moneyed, consumer and offers a way to display individuality and discernment. Now all it needs is a better name…any ideas?

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48. Scholarly reflections on ‘vape’

Electronic cigarettes are growing in popularity around the world. With the announcement of vape as our Word of the Year, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

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“Electronic cigarettes (ECIGs) are a rapidly evolving group of products that are designed to deliver aerosolized nicotine to the user. If ECIGs are used in the short-term to help smokers quit tobacco use completely and then eliminate all nicotine intake, they have some potential to reduce the health risks that smokers face. However, ECIGs also present a potential public health challenge because of uncertainty regarding the long-term health effects of inhalation of an aerosol that contains, in addition to the dependence-producing drug nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavorants, and a variety of other chemicals. Very recent data demonstrate that ECIGs can be as effective as tobacco cigarettes in terms of the amount of nicotine delivered, raising the possibility that they also may be equally addictive. If ECIGs are as addictive as tobacco cigarettes, quitting them may be difficult for smokers who used them to stop smoking and for non-smokers, young and old, who began using them because ECIGs are marketed aggressively and flavored attractively. The rapid evolution of the product, coupled with the unknown effects of long-term inhalation of the aerosol highlight the need for ongoing, objective, empirical evaluation of these products with the goal of minimizing risk to individual and public health.”
Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Co-director, Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, at Virginia Commonwealth University

Electronic Cigarette Smoking by . CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vape is a practical solution to a recently-arisen lexical gap that points up the genius of English lexical expansion. It supplies a simple verb with predictable inflections (vaping, vaped), built on an already familiar pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e (as in bake, file, poke, rule, and hundreds of others). Vape also conforms to the one-syllable pattern of many verbs, standard and informal, denoting ingestion: eat, drink, chug, quaff, smoke, snarf, snort, whiff. Although the root vapor is from Latin, speakers have effortlessly nativized it by removing the unneeded second syllable.”

Orin Hargraves, lexicographer, researcher of the computational use of language at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and author of many books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches.

Vape is a great choice for Word of the Year, not just because 2014 was the Year of Vaping, but because it is aesthetically perfect for marketing vaporizing paraphernalia and taking over the eroding market for traditional smoking products. Think about it: smoking. It’s really an unattractive word related to other unattractive words, like choking and hacking. Hold that /o/ long enough and you’ll cough by the time you hit the /k/. Vape is hip — new vowels, new consonants, new look, same old addiction. It’s a stunning verbal makeover.”

Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.

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Headline image credit: Electronic Cigarettes by George Hodan via Public Domain Images.

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49. What do we love about new words?

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on language and the words that defined this past year.

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries keep watch on our collective neology and select a word—or words–of the year: a word that is both forward-looking and reflects the culture of the current year. From 2004 we’ve had chav, podcast, carbon-neutral, locavore, hypermiling, unfriend, refudiate, squeezed middle, the verb GIF, and selfie. And in the UK, which has somewhat different sensibilities, the list reads chav, sudoku, bovvered, carbon footprint, credit crunch, simples, big society, omnishambles and selfie. The Word of the Year for 2014 is vape, edging out the short-listed finalists slacktivism, normcore, contactless, bae, budtender, and IndyRef.

Next week, I’ll be making a quiz of these words to see which students know and use. In class, we’ve been discussing how new words are created.

We talk about fixation: pre- (unfriend), suf- (selfie), in- (congratu-effin-ations), and circum- (embiggen). We explore the homonymy of prefixes and suffixes, and meaning of the word inflammable, which prompts discussion of the difference between ingrate and ingratiate. One student asks–in jest–why infallible doesn’t mean “able to fall into.”

We talk about acronyms and initialisms and the evolution of LOL and FAQ from “el-oh-el” and “ef-ay-que” to “loll” and “fak.” I find that my students are great verbers of nouns: They Facebook. They GIF. They gym. They library. They also reduplicate, compounding words to specify or intensify. I ask them the difference between a writer writer and a writer’s writer. “One makes a living and one doesn’t,” someone offers.

Our discussion goes on to the whys of word creation. New words encapsulate current ideas but also to express our identities as language users—irony, rebellion, erudition—and to characterize others, like the 2004 Word of the Year, chav, the British epithet for loutish youth in designer clothes. We talk about the accidental and logical leaps made by language users and how some of them end up as folk creations, like refudiate, the 2010 Word of the Year. I recount my own childhood confusion over hearing on television that American soldiers were fighting “gorillas” in Southeast Asia and tell them of the rejected job applicant who felt his department was often “the escape goat.” I offer my prediction that in fifty years the spelling segue will be edged out by the spelling Segway.

I always learn something new from the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list, and I’m often surprised by my own and my students’ reactions to new usages.

Clippings frequently rub me the wrong way for some reason. When I am in a conversation where someone used words like cran, vacay, and bro, the usages somehow feel much too familiar, like a telemarketer addressing me by my first name. Abbreviations can be annoying too, as if the speaker assumes I am as immersed in some topic as they are and know all the shorthand. IMHO.

I’m enamored of blends though, and I smile at the recollection of the first time I came across the word hangry in a tweet from a former student. To me blends are verbal magic tricks: words sawed in half and magically rejoined. I always think of publisher Bennett Cerf’s description of Groucho Marx as someone who looks at words “upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more.” Groucho would have loved the Urban Dictionary’s blend bananus, for the brown part at the end of a banana. When I finished my book on the language of public apology I toyed with using the word regretoric in the title, but wiser editorial heads prevailed. The best blends have a playful punning to them, in which the remnants of the old words encapsulate the new meaning perfectly (the worst blends are like Frankenstein’s monster, like schmeat, a finalist in 2013.). I’ll leave it to you to judge the blends in this year’s finalists: slacktivism (from slacker + activism), normcore (from normal + hardcore), budtender (from bud + bartender).

To me, mere affixation is not as much fun as blending. New words formed by affixation make me think of new versions of old products, some sleek, colorful, and playful (unfriend and selfie), and others a bit too clumsy (hypermiling, the Word of the Year in 2008, or contactless). As a consumer, I rush out to buy some new words and leave others on the shelf.

This year’s Word of the Year vape, meaning to inhale the vapors from e-cigarettes, is a word that I won’t use much, not being a vaper myself. But many people seem to be vaping and the word has a good chance of success. It’s brisker than saying “smoke an e-cigarette” and reinforces the difference between vaping and smoking. Adapted from marijuana terminology, vape is a classic clipping from vaporize, with the added analogy of vapors/vapers and vape, to smoke/smokers and smoke. The word has made its way from High Times to the New York Times and NPR and is already being used not just as a verb but as a noun and adjective. There are “Got Vape?” bumper stickers, vape lounges, and vape pens. Vape is likely here to stay.

Headline image credit: Word cloud via Wordle.

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50. The ayes have it

The ayes may have it, but we, poor naysayers, remain in ignorance about the derivation of ay(e) “yes.” I hope to discuss the various forms of assent in December, and we’ll see that that the origin of some synonyms of ay(e) is also enigmatic. Perhaps the word does not even deserve the attention lavished on it by linguists, but, as usual in etymology and in much of scholarship, once a question is asked, there is no way to get rid of it. It draws more and more people into the controversy and gains momentum.

The earliest known example of ay(e), at that time spelled as I, goes back to 1576. Shakespeare was born in 1564, which means that he heard aye ~ I most of his life; he used it freely in his plays. How and why did ay(e) come into existence in the second half of the sixteenth century? Guesses vary, with some conclusions looking more realistic than the others.

I should propose that such a word, almost an interjection, originated “on the street” rather than in official parlance. Twenty-five years ago, Professor Rolf Bremmer wrote an article on aye and in passing compared aye and OK. The comparison seems apt. The origin of OK became clear after years of laborious research. Some people are still unconvinced by the results, but the statement one finds in the most recent dictionaries is probably all correct. The word gained fame (or notoriety) during an election campaign, spread from its home, and in the twentieth century, mainly after the Second World War, conquered half of the world. (As late as 1938, an Englishman, in a letter to The Spectator, vented his wrath on OK for “defiling” the English language and on those who dared say that it was “OK to walk in the Zoo on Sunday.” Ay(e) must have had a similar history: it probably rose from the lower depths, lost its slangy tinge, became conversational, and ended up among the most respectable, even if dead, words in the language, considering its use in voting (“all in favor say aye”—oyez, oyez, oyez). It is reasonable to suggest that by 1576 it had been around for a few decades.

The common opinion has it that ay(e) lacks cognates outside English, but, while examining early sixteenth-century Frisian legal documents, Bremmer found ay, aij, and aey “yes,” a word related to Engl. yea, in the answers of several witnesses. (Incidentally, English etymologist Hensleigh Wedgwood knew about the Frisian form, but today hardly anyone opens even the last of four editions of Wedgwood’s dictionary.) Bremmer considered the following possibilities: (1) Frisian borrowed the formula of assent from English, (2) English borrowed it from Frisian, (3) both borrowed it from a third language, and (4) although aye goes back to an ancient period, it surfaced in both languages around 1600. In his view, only the second option has a semblance of verisimilitude. I will not go over his arguments (the word is obviously not very old, while a “third language” is pure fiction) but say that his conclusion may need modification. Among other things, Bremmer, following the German scholar Hermann Flasdieck, mentioned the chance of a nautical origin. Flasdieck did not elaborate. Bremmer probably thought of borrowing from Frisian-speaking sailors. One can indeed imagine a formula like “Ay, ay, Sir” becoming part of international slang. (The origin of nautical words is often hard to trace: compare my old post on awning.)

All eyes on the ayes. (Parliament adopts EU budget for 2011. ©European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via European Parliament Flickr.
All eyes on the ayes.

Let us now look at how some other scholars tried to deal with ay(e). Their approaches are partly predictable. Since ay(e) was spelled as I, it was natural to try to derive the word from the pronoun. Allegedly, people suddenly began saying “I, I” when they meant “yes, yes.” Objections to this hypothesis have been many. Mine is hidden in the adverb suddenly prefaced to began in the previous sentence. We will see that no one asked what had made the word popular around 1650, and this, I think, is the reason why the origin of aye remains unknown to this day.

Then there is the adverb aye “ever,” and it occurred to some that ay(e) “yes” is the same word (after all, no goes back to the negation n- and Old Engl. a “ever”; the vowel was long, as, for example, in Modern Engl. spa or the family name Haas). Those who have been exposed to several varieties of English know that in many areas Kate, mate, and so forth sound as kite and mite. (So it is now in London, and I remember my futile attempts to explain to a secretary at Cambridge University that the first letter of my name—Anatoly—is an a. Unfortunately, she pronounced the town’s name as Kimebridge and could not make out what I wanted. I still have that ID for I. Liberman.) However short the path from A to I may be, I “yes” never meant “ever, always.” Yet even under the best of circumstances why should an obscure dialectal form of the affirmative take root in the capital and stay in the language? Even in the nineteenth century, Londoners did not say stition for station.

At least two etymologists attempted to trace ay(e) to longer words or whole phrases. Both scholars have good credentials, but their conjectures strike me as less than totally persuasive (to use a polite euphemism), and I have to repeat the same fateful question: What caused the appearance of the enigmatic word in the seventeenth century? It may be worthwhile to reiterate a simple but constantly ignored rule of linguistic reconstruction. Whether we investigate the nature of a sound change, a shift in grammar, or the origin of a word, we have to discover the circumstances in which the process took place. If, let us say, short vowels became long in the thirteenth century, why just then? Certainly not because short vowels tend to strive for upward mobility.

This lemur is called an aye-aye. An ideal yes-man and henchman.
This lemur is called an aye-aye. An ideal yes-man and henchman.

I may also add my traditional rueful comment. Before the recent publication of a bibliography of English etymology it was hard to find even the most important works on the history of any given word. In 1950 Gösta Langenfelt, in a Swedish journal (but he wrote the article in English!), proposed the derivation of ay(e) from the group ah je. In 1954 E. K. C. Varty had a similar idea and put it forward in Notes and Queries. He was unaware of his predecessor. In 1956, Klaus J. Kohler developed Langenfelt’s idea (the most sensible etymology, as he called it). He published his findings in English and then incorporated his idea into a longer work in German. He never discovered Varty’s one-page note. Even the most conscientious etymologists are doomed to roaming in the gloaming. Despite the consensus on the matter in hand among three distinguished authors, none of whom addressed the question of chronology, I keep thinking that ay(e) did not develop from a compound or a word group.

We will disregard the idea that ay is ya or ja, with the sounds in reverse order, or that it is a borrowing from Latin (so Samuel Johnson; his editor Todd questioned this hypothesis), but for the fun of it we may follow the path of Webster’s dictionary: first some vague references to Scandinavian and Celtic, then silence (no etymology in Webster-Mahn (!)), later “perhaps a modification of yea,” and the final splash: “Of uncertain etymology.” Being uncertain is an honest etymologist’s immutable fate.

Image credit: (1) Parliament adopts EU budget for 2011. ©European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via European Parliament Flickr. (2) The Aye-Aye (from Trans. of Zool. Soc.). Illustration from “On The Genesis of Species” by St. George Mivart, F.R.S. (1827-1900.) London: Macmillan and Co. 1871. Project Gutenberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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