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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
* * * * *
“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
* * * * *
“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
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 allcorrect. 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.)
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.
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.
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, andbro, 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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
* * * * *
“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
“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.”
“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.”
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…
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 retronymtobacco 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.
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.
contactlessadj.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., informalactions 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.
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 wildoats. 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 throughone’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 ithas beensuggested 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.)
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 andQueries 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.
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.
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.
Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.
China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.
The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.
The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.
Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.
How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.
From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.
A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”
Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).
“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.
In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.
Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.
The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.
Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Doris Lessing (22 October 1919 – 17 November 2013) was an astonishing wordsmith, as any reader of her many novels, stories, plays, and poems would attest — and the genesis of this talent can be seen in her upbringing and surroundings.
She was five years old when her family emigrated in 1925 to what was then known as Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She was a sensitive, awkward child enduring a troubled relationship to her mother, who doted on her younger brother to Doris’s neglect.
The long boat journey had been difficult, exacerbated by her seasick father and her mother’s response, which was to throw herself into manic forms of distraction with her jolly new friend the Captain. In the celebrations that accompanied crossing the equator, young Doris had been thrown with her mother’s blessing into the sea, although she could not swim and had to be hooked out by a sailor.
By the time they disembarked Doris was one angry child. She was stealing small, pointless things like ribbons, having temper tantrums, and demanding a pair of scissors with which she planned to stab her nursemaid. And then they set out in a covered wagon drawn by sixteen oxen to find the land her parents had bought for farming. The strange new world around her had a magically soothing effect:
“We were five days and nights in the wagon, because of swollen rivers and the bad road, but there is only one memory, not of unhappiness and anger, but the beginnings of a different landscape; a hurricane lamp swings, swings, at the open back of the wagon, the dark bush on either side of the road, the starry sky.”
Beauty and cruelty
Africa’s searing heat branded sense memories onto her child’s skin. She grew up loving the bush, fascinated by its inhabitants, both animal and human, but horrified by the way its brutal laws of survival had infected its politics. That there should be masters and slaves, an unjust submission of an entire indigenous population by a minority of white invaders was something Doris felt deeply uneasy about, and then, as she grew into an adult understanding, incensed and outraged. She had been forced to submit to her dominant mother and came gradually to understand that this bullying was the measure of her mother’s insecurity and fear. She would attack such power-hungry relationships in all her writing. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, her Children of Violence quartet, the African short stories she wrote and, in later years, her memoir, all were concerned with the beauty of the land and the cruelty of the race bar in Rhodesia in the years up until the Second World War.
Africa gave Lessing a vast and evocative lexicon to play with. Nowhere is her pleasure in it more evident than in the first volume of her memoir, Under My Skin. Luxuriating in her descriptions, she details the flora and fauna of the region — the cedrillatoona trees, the musasa trees, the mafuti tree: “growing at its root was an excrescence, like a sea creature, coral sheaths where protruded the tender and brilliant claws of new leaves, and these were like green velvet.” There were pawpaws and guavas, moonflowers and poinsettias, in a landscape made out of kraals — enclosures for cattle and sheep; kopjes — small hills; veld — uncultivated grassland; and vlei — shallow pools. Running wild were different kinds of antelope: koodoos and duikers. The natural world was alive with sound:
“On the telephone wires the birds twittered and sang, sometimes it seemed in competition with the droning metal poles, and from the far trees came the clinking of hidden guineafowl flocks. The wind sang not only in the wires, but through the grasses, and if it was blowing strongly, made the wires vibrate and twang, and then the flock of birds took off into the sky, their wings fluttering or shrilling, and they sped off to the trees, or came circling back to try again. Dogs barked from the compound.”
There was another natural world, too, one of the black Africans Lessing lived alongside, where words often came with derogatory or offensive undertones. The following words are found in Lessing’s memoir Under My Skin, where she also talks about her horror at the treatment black workers received. There was the “kitchen kaffir” that they spoke, a sort of pidgin English. There was the “bossboy” who oversaw the workers on a farm, and then there were “skellums” or “skelms,” the word for a scoundrel, scamp or rogue, of whom there seemed to be a great deal. Doris’s own world of white immigrant farmers sat uneasily astride two cultures: the grand piano incongruous inside a pole and mud house with unplastered walls, furniture fashioned out of paraffin boxes, Doris forced to wear her hated Liberty bodice by day whilst at night she slept beneath an equally disliked “kaross” — a fur blanket that smelt too strongly of its original owner.
Part of the brilliance of Lessing’s writing comes from the world she creates so seamlessly around the reader, who is transported to a place that is not just different, but utterly alien in its terminology. In later novels, she would evoke other worlds that were just as strange and all-encompassing — the world of madness and emotional breakdown in The Golden Notebook, and the world of her science fiction quintet, Canopus in Argos. Creating a world with its own vocabulary was a skill that had quite literally crept under her skin in Africa.
It so happened that at the end of this past summer I was out of town and responded to the questions and comments that had accumulated in August and September in twoposts. We have the adjectives biennial and biannual but no such Latinized luxury for the word month. Although I realized that in this case bimonthly would be misleading, I hoped that the context would disambiguate it. Let me assure our correspondents that my gleanings will keep appearing every last Wednesday until some unpredictable circumstance (for example, a sudden lack of queries: I can’t think of anything else) do us part. My bimonthly meant “gleanings for two months.”
Gaul, Walloon, Wallachian
Wallachian, Walloon, and Welsh share the same Germanic root, which means “foreign” (one can also see it in walnut, as well as in the family names Wallace, Welsh, and Walshe). The Anglo-Saxons called the Celts and the Romans foreigners. The element -wall in Cornwall is related to them. Gaulish is a Romanized form of the same adjective (compare ward and guard, Wilhelm and Guillaume). But one should not argue from etymological affinity to tribal or national identity. Calling some people foreigners does not say anything about their origin.
Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has an entry for the word, and descriptions of the game abound, but the origin of the name remains undiscovered. My browsing has not yielded anything worth reporting. What little has been said on the subject in books on games can be found on the Internet in five minutes. The idea that hull goes back to the Old Engl. verb for “hide” (hellan ~ helian, in Modern English, rare and dialectal hele; compare German hehlen, hüllen, and their cognate -ceal in Engl. conceal, from Latin, via French) is, in my opinion, fanciful. Hull gull is known among American Indians, but in the absence of its native name nothing follows from this fact. The hully gully dance seems to have been called after the game. Some people have looked for its source in Africa, yet no facts bear out its African origin. In my experience, the nucleus of such reduplications (hugger-mugger and the like) is more often the second element; the first is then added to rhyme with it. This is especially true of the words whose first element begins with an h. Should some brave word sleuth decide to search for the etymology of hull gull, it may pay off to begin with gull. Perhaps some of our correspondents have ideas on this subject. If so, kindly don’t hide them.
My gratitude is due those who informed me about the origin of brown shirts in Germany. I knew most of what was said in the comments but can now state with certainty that brown had no symbolic value in the choice of that uniform. As regards the name of the hazel grouse, it indeed has a root with wide Indo-European connections. The remark on braun und blau (see the quotation from DeutschesWörterbuch adduced by Roland Schumann) should be considered, but in such binomials a descending scale is also possible: compare Engl. black and blue.
I am sure Michael Lamb is right. It did not occur to me to consult dictionaries. The OED explains that livid withanger means “pale with anger.” However, I still wonder whether anger, rather than fear, causes pallor. In those few cases in which I heard the phrase, the speakers always meant “suffused with red.” Apparently, I err in (good) company.
One as a pronoun
One is responsible for one’s mistakes. Is this a silly sentence? In at least one opinion, it is as silly as Johnis responsible for John’s mistakes. I am afraid I disagree. One, our correspondent points out, is not only an indefinite pronoun but also a noun, a circumstance ignored by grammarians. However, grammarians have always been aware of the nature of one. In the United States, grammar is seldom taught today (where some watered down elements of it remain, grammar has been replaced by the less offensive term structure; I cannot vouch for the rest of the English-speaking world), but those of us who did study this allegedly-devoid-of-fun subject at school have heard about the parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and the rest). The division of the vocabulary into parts of speech is a minor catastrophe. For instance, adverbs often resemble a trashcan (what is not a noun or an adjective finds refuge there, and, to add to the confusion, nouns and adjectives in oblique cases tend to be “adverbialized”). Numerals fare even worse: we provide a list of them (one, two, three, etc.) and say: “This is your part of speech.” Is twice a numeral or an adverb? Twelve is a numeral, while dozen is a noun. Is threescore a numeral or a noun? Sixty is certainly a numeral. In the Old Germanic languages, the words for one, two, three, and four could be declined (as they still are in Icelandic) and belonged to the same classes as nouns; yet we call them numerals. All this is common knowledge. One is the worst offender, because, despite its meaning, in Old Germanic it had a plural form and sometimes meant “only.” Modern Engl. ones shows how natural that plural sounds, while once is a petrified genitive.
My next point concerns usage. John is responsible for John’s mistakes is unnecessary and even silly, because his, instead of John’s, would refer to the subject quite clearly. But one has no correlate, hence the trouble. One is responsible for his (her) mistakes is embarrassing, because one is neither a man nor a woman. Their is safe and politically correct, but one is singular, while their is plural. To be sure, those who say when a studentcomes, I never make themwait will find the correlation one/their unobjectionable, and let them enjoy their usage (“every man in his humor”). In addition to those variants, we can say either one is responsible for one’s mistakes (logical but perhaps inelegant) or rephrase the sentence (all of us areresponsible for our mistakes). “John” is doing better: he pays the price for his folly, just as “Mary” rues her missteps. While speaking English, one occasionally hits the wall, and there is no help for it.
I wrote my response before Michael Lamb’s comment appeared. There was no need for me to change anything in my text, and “at this point of time,” as so deplorably many people say and write, I invite our correspondents to read our “polemic” and express their opinion: come one, come all.
Disagreements over strategy, or a maid of all work: over
Some prepositions succeed in ousting all their competitors. Henry W. Fowler, the author of the immortal book ModernEnglish Usage, wrote with contempt about those who say as to, because they are too lazy to think of for, about, and their synonyms. I have a dim recollection that in one of my old posts I discussed over as an example of an evil invasive species. Recently, Walter Turner has sent me a list of such overdone phrases from the most respectable British and American newspapers. Some of them are offered below for the wise to be aware. “Egypt jails nine men over sex assaults”; “Moscow faces bank curbs over new public-sector projects” (= because of?in connection with?); “Journalists face jail over spy leaks”; “Cameron ambushes Labour over tax plans”; “Cameron criticized over plans to knight Tory reshuffle victims”; “X warns Y over boozy night out,” and many more. This virus, like all viruses, knows no borders. Take note and think it over.
I have something to say about the Indo-European names of fruits, the phrase in brown study, the origin of Viking, and about the ever-green subject of English spelling but will do so next Wednesday.
Image credits: (1) Hazel grouse. Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band VI, Tafel 8 – Gera, 1897 digitale Bearbeitung : Peter v. Sengbusch. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Marx Super Circus Tent Side 2 Inside Detail 1. Photo by Ed Berg. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
From the narrow twisting streets of the old town centre to the shady docklands, Copenhagen Tales captures the essence of Copenhagen and its many faces. Through seventeen tales by some of the very best of Denmark’s writers past and present, we travel the length and breadth of the Danish capital examining famous sights from unique perspectives. A guide book usefully informs a new visitor to Copenhagen but these stories allow the reader to experience the city and its history from the inside. Translator Lotte Shankland is a Copenhagener by birth who has lived many years in England. In the videos below she discusses the collection, decribing the richness of Danish literature, as well as the Scandinavian noir genre.
Lotte Shankland on the greater significance of short stories within Denmark:
Lotte Shankland discusses her favourite short story, ‘Nightingale’, by Meir Goldschmidt:
From Hans Christian Andersen to Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark has been home to some of the finest writers in Europe. In the National Museum in Copenhagen you will find stories from as early as 1500 BC, covering myth and magic. A walk through the city will most likely involve an encounter with the emblematic statue of the Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale. The Danes continue to tell great stories, as evidenced by the hugely popular Danish TV series The Killing and the Sweedish co-production The Bridge. Copenhagen Tales offers a way to understand the heart and soul of this diverse city, through the literature and art it has generated.
Featured image credit: Copenhagen, Denmark. Public Domain via Pixabay.
It’s fairly common knowledge that languages, like people, have families. English, for instance, is a member of the Germanic family, with sister languages including Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages. Germanic, in turn, is a branch of a larger family, Indo-European, whose other members include the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, and more), Russian, Greek, and Persian.
Being part of a family of course means that you share a common ancestor. For the Romance languages, that mother language is Latin; with the spread and then fall of the Roman empire, Latin split into a number of distinct daughter languages. But what did the Germanic mother language look like? Here there’s a problem, because, although we know that language must have existed, we don’t have any direct record of it.
The earliest Old English written texts date from the 7th century AD, and the earliest Germanic text of any length is a 4th-century translation of the Bible into Gothic, a now-extinct Germanic language. Though impressively old, this text still dates from long after the breakup of the Germanic mother language into its daughters.
How does one go about recovering the features of a language that is dead and gone, and which has left no records of itself in spoken or written form? This is the subject matter of linguistic necromancy – or linguistic reconstruction, as it is more conventionally known.
The enterprise, dubbed “darkest of the dark arts” and “the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries” in the epigraph to a chapter of Campbell’s historical linguistics textbook, really got off the ground in the 1900s due to a development of a toolkit of techniques known as the comparative method.
Crucial to the comparative method was a revolutionary empirical finding: the regularity of sound change. Though it has wide-reaching implications, the basic finding is simple to grasp. In a nutshell: it’s sounds that change, not words, and when they change, all words which include those sounds are affected.
Let’s take an example. Lots of English words beginning with a p sound have a German counterpart that begins with pf. Here are some of them:
English path: German Pfad
English pepper: German Pfeffer
English pipe: German Pfeife
English pan: German Pfanne
English post: German Pfoste
If the forms of words simply changed at random, these systematic correspondences would be a miraculous coincidence. However, in the light of the regularity of sound change they make perfect sense. Specifically, at some point in the early history of German, the language sounded a lot more like (Old) English. But then the sound p underwent a change to pf at the beginning of words, and all words starting with p were affected.
There’s much more to be said about the regularity of sound change, since it underlies pretty much everything we know about language family groupings. (If you’re interested in finding out more, Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language provides an accessible summary.) But for now let’s concentrate on its implications for necromantic purposes, which are immense.
If we want to invoke the words and sounds of a long-dead language like the mother language Proto-Germanic (the ‘proto-’ indicates that the language is reconstructed, rather than directly evidenced in texts), we just need to figure out what changes have happened to the sounds of the daughter languages, and to peel them back one by one like the layers of an onion. Eventually we’ll reach a point where all the daughter languages sound the same; and voilà, we’ve conjured up a proto-language.
There’s more to living languages than just sounds and words though. Living languages have syntax: a structure, a skeleton. By contrast, reconstructed protolanguages tend to look more like ghosts: hauntingly amorphous clouds of words and sounds. There are practical reasons why the reconstruction of proto-syntax has lagged behind. One is simply that our understanding of syntax, in general, has come a long way since the work of the reconstruction pioneers in the 19th century.
Another is that there is nothing quite like the regularity of syntactic change in syntax: how can we tell which syntactic structures correspond to each other across languages? These problems have led some to be sceptical about the possibility of syntactic reconstruction, or at any rate about its fruitfulness. Nevertheless, progress is being made. To take one example, English is a language that doesn’t like to leave out the subject of a sentence. We say “He speaks Swahili” or “It is raining”, not “Speaks Swahili” or “Is raining”. Though most of the modern Germanic languages behave the same, many other languages, like Italian and Japanese, have no such requirement; speakers can include or omit the subject of the sentence as the fancy takes them. Was Proto-Germanic like English, or like Italian or Japanese, in this respect? Doing a bit of necromancy based on the earliest Germanic written records suggests that Proto-Germanic was, like the latter, quite happy to omit the subject, at least under certain circumstances.Of course the issue is more complex than that – Italian and Japanese themselves differ with regard to the circumstances under which subjects can be omitted.
Slowly but surely, though, historical linguists are starting to add skeletons to the reanimated spectres of proto-languages.
Now that Noughth Week has come to an end and the university Full Term is upon us, I thought it might be an appropriate time to investigate the arcane world of Oxford jargon — the University of Oxford, that is. New students, or freshers, do not arrive in Oxford but come up; at the end of term they go down (irrespective of where they live). If they misbehave they may find themselves being sent down by the proctors (a variant of the legal procurator), or — for less heinous crimes — merely rusticated, a form of suspension which, etymologically at least, involves being sent to the countryside (Latin rusticus). The formal beginning of a degree is known as matriculation, a ceremony held in the Sheldonian Theatre, in which membership of the university is conferred by being having one’s name entered on the register, or matricula.
Tutors, fellows, and readers
Being a student of the university involves membership of one of the colleges or private halls; despite their names, St Edmund (Teddy) Hall and Lady Margaret Hall are actually colleges; Regent’s Park College is neither a college nor a park. Christ Church should be referred to simply as Christ Church, rather than Christ Church College, although it is also known as ‘the House’. Magdalen is pronounced ‘maudlin’ and should never be confused with another college of the same name at Cambridge University (affectionately known as ‘The Other Place’, originally a euphemism for hell), which is pronounced the same but spelled Magdalene.
Each college has a head of house, referred to by a variety of terms: Principal, President, Dean, Master, Provost, Rector, or Warden. Teaching in college takes the form of tutorials (or tutes), overseen by Colleges tutors (from a Latin word for ‘protector’); the earliest tutors were responsible for a student’s general welfare — a post now known as moral tutor. Colleges are governed by a body of fellows (students at Christ Church), or dons, from Latin dominus ‘master’. The title reader, a medieval term for a teacher used to refer to a lecturer below the rank of professor, has recently been retired at Oxford in favour of the American title associate professor.
Mods and battels
At Oxford, students read rather than study a subject, a usage which goes back to the Middle Ages. Final examinations were originally known as Greats; this term is now used only of the degree of Literae Humaniores (‘more humane letters’) — Classics to everyone else. No longer in use is the equivalent term Smalls for the first year exams; these are now known as Moderations (or Mods) in the Humanities, or Preliminaries (or Prelims) in the Sciences. Sadly, the slang equivalents great go and little go have now fallen out of use. University examinations are sat in Schools, a forbidding edifice on the High Street (or ‘the High’) which gets its name from its original use for holding scholastic disputations. Students are required to wear formal academic dress to sit exams; this is known as subfusc, from Latin subfuscus ‘somewhat dark’.
College exams, rather less formal affairs, are known today as collections, from Latin collectiones, ‘gathering together’, so-called because they occurred at the end of term when fees were due for collection. Confusingly, the term collection is also used to refer to the end-of-term meeting where a progress report is read by a student’s tutor in the presence of the master of the college. As well as fees, students must pay their battels, a bill for food purchased from the College buttery — originally a wine store, from Latin butta ‘cask’, but now extended to include a range of student delicacies.
Lecturers dusting off their notes and preparing for the new term, for whom such usages are second-nature, may benefit from the salutary lesson of the wall-lecture –a term coined by their 17th-century forbears for a lecture delivered to an empty room. The term may be obsolete, but the prospect remains all too real.
Color names have been investigated in almost overwhelming detail, but it is not the etymology but usage that tends to “throw us off the scent.” One can have no quarrel with the statement that different communities will use a certain term differently, for the basis of comparison may be different (so Francis A. Wood, a great specialist in historical semantics). Wood cited the case of “smeared.” Some people associate “smeared” with “dirty” (hence “brown; black”), while others with “oily” (hence “shiny” and even “bright; yellow; white”). It is harder to agree that “in primitive times colors were not carefully distinguished,” because we don’t know what “primitive times” means. The centuries of Classical Greek, Old English, or some remote epoch from which we have no documents and about whose language habits we can judge only from those of modern “primitive peoples” studied by missionaries and anthropologists? Also, how “careful” should one be in distinguishing colors? The idea that some general notion like “smeared” can diverge and yield opposite meanings is fully acceptable. We are in trouble when a word displays seemingly incompatible meanings in the same language or in closely related languages.
Metaphors do not confuse us, and therefore we accept the idiom green years. We can also let greenhorns and our acquaintances who are still green behind the ears enjoy their youthful inexperience. Perhaps green in greencheese, the moon’s main ingredient in folklore, does mean “fresh,” as I have read, but I still feel some discomfort when an Icelandic saga mentions green meat, green fish, and green butter. In the sagas, green also means “safe, excellent” (and green roads in Old Germanic referred to good roads devoid of danger), so perhaps not fresh (unsalted?) meat, fish, and butter are meant but products of exceptional quality, something one can eat without fearing for one’s health?
Red yolk, occurring in Old Icelandic, also amazes me (in English, yolk has the root of yellow), and so does red gold, a collocation used in the epic poetry all over Europe. Does red mean “scintillating” here, or do we not know something about ancient minting? And how did red gold become a formula in several traditions? Some such phrases have been explained, but the explanations do not always sound fully convincing. In dealing with color names one cannot be too careful. Etymology is of little help here. For example, green has the same root as grow (thus, green is the color of vegetation) and cats have green eyes; yet we still don’t quite understand why jealousy, if we can trust Shakespeare, is a green-eyed monster. Likewise, red is, from an etymological point of view, the color of ore (as follows from Russian ruda “ore”; stress on the second syllable), but coins were not made from ore.
Brown is no less opaque than green or red. Older scholars traced brown to the root of burn (Old Engl. brinnan ~ birnan, Gothic brinnan, and so forth). Allegedly, that is why brown can refer to both dark and bright shades. But brown and burn are hardly related, and, even if they were, those who spoke Old English and Old Icelandic would not have been aware of the ancient root. As mentioned in Part 1 of this essay, brown horses or possibly shields of Germanic speakers seem to have impressed the Romance world so strongly that the word for “brown” made its way into the speech of the French, Italians, and others. In the Germanic languages, shields and occasionally helmets and swords were called brown (= “shining”). This sense returned from Romance to English, which has burnish from French and the verb to brown; both mean “to polish.” In some parts of the German-speaking world (predominantly in the south), braun “brown” means “violet”; Luther used it in this sense. In medieval German literature, compounds turned up that can be glossed as “scarlet-brown” and “black-brown.” Their second components must have emphasized their sheen.
In the past, several distinguished language historians thought, and some of their followers still think that brown “shining” and brown “violet” are homonyms, both etymologically distinct from brun (long u, as in Engl. woo) “brown.” Fortunately, there has been no agreement among them, and this explanation has not become dogma, but the idea that braun “violet” owes its existence to Latin prunum “plum” (hence Engl. prune) has gained wide acceptance. For example, it was endorsed by Elmar Seebold, the latest editor of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary, a deservedly authoritative source. According to the rule known as Occam’s razor, entities should not be multiplied (with regard to etymology, I discussed it briefly in the post on qualm). Jacob Grimm suggested that, in dealing with ancient homonyms, it is advisable to treat them as going back to the same root. Given the baffling variety of senses the main color names typically show, it is perhaps more prudent to stay with one basic word that branched off in many unpredictable ways.
What else has been recorded as brown? If the color brown had magical connotations, Germanic shields, swords, and horses may have inspired awe and fear rather than admiration. In the broad Slavic-Iranian belt, brown was a common epithet of stallions and deities. There it was obviously not borrowed from Germanic. In German baroque literature, the phrase braune Nacht “brown night” appeared, and poets began to speak about the brown shadows of night. This usage has been explained as a loan from Romance. Even if so, today we don’t think of night or shadows as brown (compare Byron’s clear obscure, an English version of Italian chiaroscuro).
During the Renaissance, brown competed with black as the color of mourning, especially with reference to mourning women. It suggested merging with the background, being somber, unattractive, inconspicuous. We note with surprise how many Ancient Greek names began with Phryn- “brown” (Phryniskos, Phrynion, and the like). They remind one of Jude the Obscure. Didn’t they originally refer to the insignificance or low status of the bearers? In Part 1, I wrote that the family name Brown ~ Braune needs an explanation but was reminded of Black, White, and Green. Black and White can also be accounted for in several ways. In the population of blonds, would “white” have become a distinguishing feature? To my mind, brown as an allusion to the color of the person’s hair does not look persuasive. How many Greeks had brown hair? If their rarity is the origin of the moniker, then what was so special about Germanic speakers with chestnut-colored hair?
Perhaps an especially revealing phrase is Dante’s sangue bruno “brown blood,” said about gore, that is, blood shed and clotted or simply clotted. English speakers had the word dreor “gore, flowing blood.” It is still alive as the root of the adjective dreary, originally “bloody, gory, grievous, sorrowful,” later “dismal, gloomy.” Homer called blood porphyros “purple” (or “crimson”?), but he also used this adjective when he described descending death. These bridges between “brown” and “red” will perhaps allow us to understand the strange predilection for brown waves (as in Beowulf), wine-colored sea (as in Homer), and the colors of the planet Saturn, which was called by the ancients black, brownish, and fiery. One thing can already be said now: in the history of the Indo-European languages, “brown” designated both a dark and a bright color. Our modern gloss “brown” does it less than full justice.
Question: Can anyone say why Hitler’s SA adopted brown shirts as its uniform? Did the color have any symbolic value?
To be continued.
Image credits: (1) Moon with an unhealthy greenish coating, modified from Michael K. Fairbanks’s photo. Image by Naive cynic, CC-BY-SA-3.0-MIGRATED; GFDL-WITH-DISCLAIMERS via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Illustration from The Innocence of Father Brown, public domain via Project Gutenberg Australia.
As promised, I’m sharing a most original WWW I came upon while reading NAMING THE WORLD, the collection of writing exercises gathered by Bret Anthony Johnston (Random House, 2007) I reviewed in Monday’s post.
The author, Paul Lisicky, titled the exercise “All About Rhythm.”
It appears in the section “Descriptive Language and Setting.”
Lisicky writes about finding a rhythm that matches the meaning of our story's drama – not a distracting rhythm but one that is crucial, that makes our fiction sing.
He began by quoting Virgina Woolf.
“Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words….Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”
How can we bring a poet’s central tools to our own work, he wondered, “and be more deeply aware of pauses, sentence length, stops, even alliteration and assonance in the prose we read and write,” all the while opening ourselves to our own rhythms?
* * * * * * * * * *
Paul Lisicky’s ALL ABOUT RHYTHM
“Take a paragraph by a writer whose work has been important to you.
Type it out once.
Then type it again.
Once you’ve done that, substitute your own noun for each noun, your own verb for each verb.
Replace all the adjectives and adverbs.
Play with it for a few days.
Then do another version.
If you’re lucky you might have the beginnings of a story.
Or, at the least, a more intimate sense of that writer’s rhythms.”Add a Comment
The development of linguistics as a scientific discipline is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary thought, as it has led to the discovery of some fundamental principles about the functioning of language. However, most of its recent discoveries have not yet reached the general audience of educated people beyond the specialists. Scholars of classics, in particular, have found it difficult to become involved in the debate, since many recent studies in linguistics have been driven by the necessity to free themselves from the subordination to Latin grammar and have put into question the validity of certain aspects of traditional grammar.
As a consequence, progress made by contemporary linguistics has paradoxically had a negative rather than positive effect on the teaching of Latin. Although traditional grammars are now outdated, a suitable replacement has not yet been offered and a widespread scepticism has forced many to keep relying on old fashioned textbooks.
In order to overcome this undesirable state of affairs, it is desirable to bring Latin grammar back to its original high-level scientific conception, going beyond a prescriptive attitude and restoring the original theoretical tension. Although many branches of contemporary linguistics are potentially suited to fulfil this objective, none of them have been fully exploited in teaching yet. Their advantage over traditional approaches lies in their ability to satisfy the same needs as traditional analytical and philosophical Latin grammar, exploiting – at the same time – new methods, which are suitable to formulate more accurate analyses and theoretical generalizations.
Latin grammar should be presented as an activity which raises the linguistic awareness of its readers, using the most recent tools of modern linguistics. This should not be limited to the traditional Indo-European historical perspective, but includes the comparison of different languages and the attempt to represent the way in which grammar rules are codified in the mind.
The hypothesis is that there exists a language faculty underlying all languages, known as Universal Grammar (UG), i.e. a system of variable and invariable factors internalized in the speaker’s mind, which constitutes the basis of the grammar of each language. Understanding the contents of UG amounts to understanding those linguistic phenomena that are common to all languages. In this perspective, it is possible to develop a new method of teaching Latin, which aims at strengthening the cognitive skills of the learner’s mind. This method consists in overcoming the rigidity of a purely normative conception of grammatical rules, in order to make them explicit in a synchronic formal way and thus formulate hypotheses about the mental mechanisms that generate them. This method is an updated enhancement of the old conception of grammatical studies known as progymnasmata, i.e. “gymnastics of the mind,” which introduces the reader to the world of classical scholarship.
On the basis of some recent discoveries made by the neurosciences, it is possible to formulate grammatical rules that represent a better approximation of the implicit and explicit mental operations carried out by the language learner. The desired effect is the activation of the appropriate areas of the brain, i.e. the ones which are naturally devoted to the processing of linguistic information, thus rendering the process of language acquisition faster and more natural. Indeed, a vast number of recent studies have shown that language learning strongly relies on a constant and unconscious comparison between the second language (L2) and the learner’s mother tongue. By comparing linguistic phenomena across distinct languages and by interpreting the results with updated theoretical tools, we intend to underlie the deep similarities among languages rather than their superficial differences. This new teaching perspective represents a fundamental advantage for learners, who can focus their attention on the limits of linguistic variation, making their acquisitional task more feasible. In particular, by overtly reflecting on language and comparing L2 grammars to the structures of the mother tongue, the study of Latin becomes more stimulating and active.
Moreover, as students become aware of the difference between a “mistake”, as banned from the standard language, and linguistic “agrammaticality” (i.e. an option which is disallowed by the deep structure of the language), they become more critical and aware of the level of their written and oral performance in their mother tongue. From this perspective, it is clear that the study of Latin contributes to the overall linguistic education of learners, and not only to the training of those interested in classical studies. Students should no longer learn by heart the obscure rules of school grammars, often rooted on misconceptions, but they should instead explore the discoveries of centuries of classical scholarship in order to actively work out how languages function and change. In particular, they should focus their attention on the aspects of the targeted language they already know, before exploring the points of divergence from their mother tongue. Thanks to this revised methodology, the study of Latin loses any passive connotation and becomes an activity which enhances linguistic awareness, meta-linguistic competence, as well as critical thought.
A correspondent cited a few tentative etymologies of English words.
Sail: in Mennonite Low German sähl means “harness.”
Bride: Dutch brudespaar allegedly means “broody pair.” Doesn’t bride mean “broody hen”?
Cow: the German word kauen means “to chew.” Couldn’t that be the origin of the word cow?
I am sorry to disappoint our correspondent, but such haphazard comparisons should be abandoned. To discover the origin of old words, one has to compare their most ancient attested forms. For example, kauen always had a diphthong, while cow has its late diphthong from a long monophthong that once sounded like Modern Engl. oo (compare German Kuh). And so it goes. On the more intuitive level, one should realize that, if a word has baffled professional scholars for centuries, the most tempting solutions have probably been offered and rejected. By the way, the Dutch compound for “bride and bridegroom” is bruidspaar, not brudespaar; the word has nothing to do with brooding.
Another correspondent wrote that the Russian word for “kiss” also means “to aim.” Whoever suggested this connection seems to have confused the Russian words tsel “whole” (discussed in the post on kissing) and tsel’ “aim.” The sign l’ stands for palatalized (or “soft”) l; where the transliteration has an apostrophe Russian has a special letter (the so-called miagkii znak). Tsel is an old word, while tsel’ is a borrowing of German Ziel “aim” (more precisely, Middle High German), via Polish.
Still another correspondent wonders whether the noun chapbook and the verb tucker (out) “to tire, to weary” can be of Hindi origin. I think chapbook has such a transparent English derivation that it does not merit further discussion. Tucker is probably a frequentative of tuck, like very many verbs of this structure. There is no denying the fact that our correspondent cited Hindi words that have both the form and the meaning closely corresponding to chapbook and tucker. But, as I have written many times while answering similar questions, the fact of borrowing can be ascertained only if we succeed in showing how a foreign word reached English (compare the history of thug, which is indeed from Hindi, or other examples cited in the great book Hobson-Jobson). Was tucker used mainly by Hindi speakers? Do we have any proof that this verb spread from their community? Only a detailed investigation along such lines can sound convincing. Otherwise, we will stay with kauen ~ cow and their likes.
Wise restraint. An old colleague of mine wrote in connection with my post on roil.
“Honoré de Balzac published in 1842 a novel called La Rabouilleuse. The title name is explained as being a word local to the Berry region of France where a young girl is employed to stir up the mud in a stream, thus clouding the water and permitting a fisherman to more readily catch crayfish (crawfish?). One can easily see the way the word is formed: the verb bouillir “boil” plus a reduplicating prefix ra- and a feminine agent suffix. Now the verb rabouillir or some variant of it might fit in with roil both with some phonemes and the meaning.”
The author of the letter did not suggest any solution, and I think he was right to do so. The coincidence looks like being due to chance.
Every now and then I run into publications that would have come in most useful in my earlier posts and comments. But it is never too late to pick up even the oldest chestnuts. For instance, I have challenged the supporters of they ~ them in sentences like when a student comes, I never make them wait to give examples that are really old. Almost nothing has turned up. But here are two more phenomena that have aroused some interest among our readers.
Split infinitive. It would seem that passionate, as opposed to rational, splitting set in several decades ago, and the construction I called to be or to not be conquered the ugly day. Roswitha Fischer’s article on the split infinitive appeared in 2007; however, I read it only this summer. Among many other examples, she quoted Wycliffe: “It is good for to not ete fleisch and for to not drynke wyn” (ca. 1382). I do not follow Wycliffe’s recommendation but in defense of his grammar should say that with for to he had nowhere else to put the negation. I am sure everybody will remember: “Simple Simon went a-fishing, / For to catch a whale.” Nowadays, for to, an analog of German um zu, is dead, except in some dialects.
One… his. We have been taught to say one…one’s. But people keep correlating one with his (now probably their; see above). In The Nation for 1921 I found a letter to the editor from Steven T. Byington (Ballard Vale, Massachusetts) with the funny title Four Centuries ofOnehese. The writer quoted five sentences with one—his. I’ll reproduce only the relevant part of them:
“…one was surer in keeping his tunge, than in muche speking” (excellent advice going back to 1477)
“…the higher one doth mount, the less doth euery thing appeare which is below him” (1607)
“If one proposes any other end unto himself” (1650)
“…one’s sure to break his neck” (1650), “One should do what his own nature prescribes” (1886)
Among other things, the letter discusses the utterance: “One oughtn’t never take nothing that ain’t theirn.” I suspect that in the great books on English grammar by Jespersen, Poutsma, and Curme many more examples of the one… his type will be found. A certain Markman, a friend of James Steerforth’s, “always spoke of himself indefinitely as a ‘man’, and seldom or never in the first person singular” (David Copperfield, Chapter 24 “My First Dissipation”). This way of speaking may help those who have trouble with one.
Check your slang
Also in The Nation, this time for 1922, I found a more than enthusiastic review by Clement Wood of Carl Sandburg’s fourth book of poetry Slabs of the Sunburnt West. In the opening paragraph, Wood expressed his delight about Sandburg’s use of slang. I ran the list by my undergraduate students. Here it is: humdinger, flooey, *phizzogs, fixers, frame-up, *four-flushers, rakeoff, getaway, junk, *fliv, fake, come clean, gabby mouth, *hoosegow, *teameo, *work plug, lovey, slew him in, bull, jazz, scab, booze, stiffs, hanky-pank, hokum, bum, and buddy.
The words that no one recognized are given above with an asterisk. I knew more. However, some of them I knew by chance. For instance, long ago, a bookstore near our main campus closed its doors. It began to sell its stock at a small discount, but every two days the prices went down. The only books that no one wanted to take even when they were free were those by American poets. I grabbed the entire batch and read everything. In this rather dubious treasure trove, I discovered Sandburg, read his poem called Phizzogs, and looked up the word. It has never occurred in my reading since that day. In my work, I have dealt with synonyms for “prison,” so that hoosegow was quite familiar to me. I also knew fliv, but the word is forgotten. This is what I expected, for once I tried the same experiment with jitney and drew blank, while people of my age recognized it immediately. If I had run into a poker player, such a person would have had no trouble identifying four-flushers. Fixers, bull, work plug, slew him in, and stiffs look transparent, but without the context it is impossible to decide their exact meaning. We of course guessed that hanky-pank is a back formation on hanky-panky.
My students say that, when they watch movies of the fifties, they do not understand the slang used there, while their parents are in the dark when it comes to the slang of their children. On the other hand, the words given in bold in my list are today so familiar that no one would have referred to them as particularly striking. One should take into consideration that, to know one’s language, one has to read the literature written in it. It is curious to follow the modern annotations of Oliver Twist and Vanity Fair. Both Dickens and Thackeray used slang quite generously, and the commentators assume that no one understands it today. Perhaps they are right.
I still have some questions unanswered and will take care of them at the end of October.
There’s something about the idea of ‘original pronunciation’ (OP) that gets the pulse racing. I’ve been amazed by the public interest shown in this unusual application of a little-known branch of linguistics — historical phonology, a subject that explores how the sounds of a language change over time. I little expected, when I was approached by Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004 to help them mount a production of Romeo and Juliet in OP, that ten years on the approach would become a thriving linguistic industry. Nor could I have predicted that a short documentary recording about OP for the Open University (which I made with actor son Ben in 2011) would for no apparent reason go viral towards the end of 2013, with 1.5 million hits in recent months.
A dozen Shakespeare plays have now been produced in original pronunciation, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kansas University in 2010 and Hamlet at the University of Nevada (Reno) in 2011. This year a group from the University of Texas (Houston) brought an OP production of Julius Caesar to the Edinburgh Fringe. Next January, Ben Crystal and his OP ensemble are presenting Pericles in Stockholm as part of an Interplay series along with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. More productions are in the pipeline.
But it isn’t just Shakespeare. The interest in him tops the list, but it is a long list, in which the work of any dramatist from the period can be treated in this way. And not just drama. Poems and prose too. My recording of the Sonnets is available on the website associated with the book Pronouncing Shakespeare. An OP recording by Ben of one of John Donne’s long sermons can now be heard as part of the Virtual St Paul’s Cross project.
Donne takes us forward in time to the 1620s. Going backwards in time, the British Library wanted an original pronunciation recording of William Tyndale to accompany the publication of its facsimile of the Tyndale Gospels. They chose the Matthew Gospel, and I recorded this for them in 2013. That takes us back to 1525. There are earlier recordings in the BL archive, made for the Evolving English winter exhibition in 2011-12, including extracts from Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, and Paston. The British Library also commissioned a CD of Shakespeare extracts from Ben and his ensemble: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.
But the interest extends well beyond literature. Notably present in the talkback sessions after the first original pronunciation productions at the Globe were people interested in early music. And since then there have been many explorations into the kind of pronunciation used by Purcell (late 17th century), Dowland, and other composers. As with their literary counterparts, musicologists have been struck by the fact that so many of the rhymes in songs, madrigals, and operatic texts simply don’t work in modern English, and they want to hear them as they would have been. They note the way many of the vowels and consonants would have had different values in those days, and they want to explore how the texts would sound with those old values articulated. The result is a very different auditory experience, and — by all accounts — an exciting one.
Finally there are the heritage people. It’s all well and good establishing a historical centre where an old period is recreated, and people dress up in old clothes and walk around — but how should they speak? The occasional ‘verily’ and ‘forsooth’ isn’t enough. Here too we see an interest in recreating styles of speech that would have been used in those days.
Add all these constituencies together and you can see why the original pronunciation experiment has become something of an OP movement, with more and more people wanting to learn about OP, to hear it in practice, and to explore its application in texts that so far have received no study. Every new text brings to light something new — such as a previously unnoticed pun, or a fresh way of speaking a line. At university level, people are beginning to write dissertations on the subject. Ben, as I write, is exploring ways for his ensemble to cope with new OP commitments. There’s plenty to do. With only a dozen Shakespeare plays explored so far, that leaves a couple of dozen more awaiting investigation.
The consequence is an urgent need to provide materials to help people take original pronunciation activities forward. Paul Meier already has some tutorial material on his website, and his Dream production is available both as an audio recording and on a DVD. Several articles have now been written answering the usual questions people ask (such as ‘how do you know’?). And I am hard at work on an OP Shakespeare dictionary, which will enable people to make transcripts for themselves. I have paused, in the middle of letter N, to write this post. But with luck and a good following wind, I should have it finished in time for the great anniversary in 2016. And it will be published, of course, by Oxford University Press.
Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon faced certain impeachment by the Congress for the Watergate scandal. He resigned the presidency, expressing a sort of conditional regret:
I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.
Nixon is not apologizing here as much as offering what sociologist Erving Goffman calls an account—a verbal reframing of his actions aimed at reducing their offensiveness. Nixon treats himself as a victim of his own mistakes and treats his mistakes as managerial, not criminal. His language is loaded with such words as “any,” “may,” “would,” and “if,” among others and circumlocutions likes “in the course of the events that led to this decision” and “what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.” Nixon offers regret, but there is no unconditional apology, and there never was.
I sometimes wonder how Nixon’s attitudes toward Watergate and his resignation were shaped by the 1952 presidential campaign, and the events that led to his so-called “Checkers” speech.
It was the home stretch of the 1952 campaign, in which the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senator Nixon were pitted against Democrats Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman to succeed President Harry Truman. Truman’s popularity was at a low point and Eisenhower and Nixon were optimistic about their chances. Then, in mid-September, the press began reporting stories of a secret expense fund established in 1950 by Nixon supporters. The New York Post offered the sensational headline that “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” As the story developed, many Democrats (and less publicly some Republicans) called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. News editorials disapproved of Nixon’s actions two-to-one. Even the Washington Post, which had endorsed the Republican ticket, called for Nixon to withdraw from the race.
The issue took some of the optimism out of the Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower defended his Vice President publicly, but also promised that there would be a full reporting of the facts by independent auditors. The 39-year-old Nixon offered his account in a half-hour television address broadcast from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, on 23 September 1952.
“I want to tell you my side of the case,” he began, and in a speech that ran just over 4,500 words, Nixon used a series of rhetorical questions guide his audience through his version of events. He used the strategy that rhetoricians called differentiation by claiming that the fund issue was not what it seemed to be. Nixon said that there was no moral wrong because none of the money—about $18,000—was for Senatorial expenses and that none of the contributors receive special favors. He asserted his own good character by explaining why he needed the money: because he was not a rich man and he didn’t feel the taxpayers should pay his expenses.
Nixon bolstered his character further with his biography—explaining his modest background and finances, giving details down to the amount of his life insurance, mortgages, and material of his wife’s coat: not mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” adding that “And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
He added another rhetorical turn in the second half of his speech: “Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have?” Nixon’s answer was “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Here Nixon implies that he is motivated by a greater good and he pivots to an attack on his political opponents and his avowal that Eisenhower was “the man that can clean up the mess in Washington.”
The speech was the first ever use of television by a national candidate to speak directly to the nation and to defend himself against accusations of wrong-doing. And the public was impressed. For many, the most memorable part was when Nixon told the viewers about a black and white cocker spaniel puppy that a supporter from Texas had given his daughters. One of them named it Checkers, and Nixon defiantly asserted that, “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech thus became known as “The Checkers Speech.”
Nixon finished with a call to action, asking his listeners to write to the Republican National Committee to show their support. His broadcast was seen by an estimated 60 million viewers, and letters and telegrams to the Republican National Committee were overwhelmingly supportive. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and a few weeks later the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket carried the day with over 55% of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes.
Nixon accomplished three key verbal self-defense strategies in the “Checkers” speech. He argued that the fund was not what it seemed to be. He argued that he was a good steward of public funds and exposed his personal finances. He implied that he was serving a higher good because he supported General Eisenhower and opposed Communism.
But by 1974, things were different. Nixon was in trouble again, much worse trouble of his own making, and there was no “Checkers” speech, no way reframing his situation that would save his presidency. He resigned but he never apologized. Three years after resigning, in interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon was unequivocally defiant:
When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.
Perhaps he was thinking about the “Checkers” speech.
Headline image credit: President Richard Nixon delivers remarks to the White House staff on his final day in office. From left to right are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president, First Lady Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Ed Cox. 9 August 1974. White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black. Other authorities suggest: orange and black. In any case, it has two sides: dark (black) and bright (red or orange). This color name does not seem to occur in the New Testament, and that is why of all the Old Germanic languages only Gothic lacks it (in Gothic a sizable part of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament has been preserved). In the Old Testament, the word appears most rarely. Genesis XXX: 32, 35, and 40 describes the division of Laban’s cattle. According to Verse 35 from the Authorized Version, “…he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.” Those sheep were indeed brown, but the situation is not always so clear. For example, an Old English poet called waves brown, and brown is a common epithet attached to swords in early Germanic poetry. Were waves and swords really brown, like Laban’s sheep?
In Old Germanic languages, brown had the form brun, with a long vowel (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. boo), and we can be fairly certain that the ancient Indo-Europeans had the same hue in mind we do, because at least three unmistakably brown animals were called brown. One of them is the bear, also known as Bruin (the word is pure Dutch). People were afraid of pronouncing the terrible beast’s name and coined a euphemism (“the brown one”). When they said brown, the bear could no longer think that is was summoned and would not come. The other animal with a “brown” name is beaver. If bears and beavers were called “brown” and the biblical Laban had brown sheep, why then brown waves and brown swords? We’ll have to wait rather long for the answer: this blog is a serial.
Let us first look at etymology. Those who have read the relatively recent posts on gray may remember that that Germanic color name made its way into Romance languages. The same holds for brown (vide French brun and Italian brun). Later, as happened more than once, Old French brun returned to Middle English and reinforced the native word; compare also brunet(te), from French, with reference to people with chestnut-colored or black (!) hair. In the posts on gray, I mentioned two current explanations of why gray, brown, and some other color names enjoyed such popularity outside their country of origin. Allegedly, Germanic mercenaries brought them to the Romance-speaking territory with either the words for their horse breeds or for their shields. There must have been something special about both. The root of brown can also be seen in Engl. burnish. The suffix -ish was added to the root of Old French burnir, from brunir. “To make brown” acquired the meaning “polish (metal) by friction.” This returns us to the brown weapons of Old Germanic.
The origin of bear and beaver from brown, though highly probable, is not absolutely assured, but the derivation of the Greek word phryne “toad” (stress on the first syllable) can hardly be put into question. Phryne looks like a perfect cognate of brown. (The famous hetaera Phryne is said to have received this nickname for her sallow skin, but other prostitutes were often called the same, and I have my own explanation of this fact; see below.) Toads, detested by some for all kinds of reasons, have occupied a conspicuous place in the superstitions of the whole world, beginning with at least the ancient Egyptian times. In Egypt, far from being shunned, they stood for fertility, and an amulet in the form of a toad supposedly replicated the uterus. Hequet was a goddess with the head of a frog.
Stories about frogs and toads are countless. One is especially famous. It is about a young man (prince) marrying a frog, which turns into a beautiful maiden. The Grimms knew a short and uninspiring version of this story (it is the opening one in their collection). In it the frog that insists on sleeping in the girl’s bed becomes a handsome prince, which is a variant of “Beauty and the Beast”; as a rule, in such tales the frog or the toad is a female. I would like to suggest, that the nickname Phryne had nothing to do with the hetaera’s skin. All other prostitutes who were called this could not have had the same tint. Since in the popular imagination toads and fertility went together and since Egyptian mythology and beliefs exercised a strong influence on the Greek mind, calling prostitutes toads would have made good sense.
Thus, as we can see, toads (brown creatures) were associated with things bad and good. On the one hand, they were feared for their supposed ugliness and identified with witches. On the other, they were venerated and thought to promote fertility. In that capacity, they frequently received votive offerings. From Egypt we should go to the British Isles, for whose sake I have told my story. As far as I can judge, no accepted etymology of brownie “imp” exists. The books at my disposal only say that brownies, benevolent imps, originated in Scotland and were brown. The earliest citations go back to the early seventeenth century. I have as little trust in brown brownies as in the brown-skinned Phryne among the Greeks. The name must have had magic connotations, but whether positive or negative is open to question. As time goes on, such creatures often change their attitude toward the houses they haunt. They can be friendly if treated well and hostile if offended. By contrast, brownies, chocolate cakes with nuts, are always brown and sweet (chocolate-colored, by definition).
My second example is literary. In Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey’s little daughter Florence is abducted by an ugly old rag and bone vendor. When the girl asks the woman about her name, it is given to her as Mrs. Brown and amended to Good Mrs. Brown. “She was a very ugly old woman, with red rims round her eyes, and a mouth that mumbled and chattered of itself when she was not speaking.” This is how she introduced herself to Florence: “…don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you. I could have killed you at any time—even if you was in your own bed at home.” I am sure somewhere in the immense literature on Dickens the folklore of Mrs. Brown was explained long ago. In any case, Dickens must have had a reason for calling the witch Mrs. Brown and adding ominously the ironic epithet good to the name, to reinforce the impression.
And here is a final flourish for today. I will be grateful for some reliable information on the origin of the last name Brown ~ Braune. Dictionaries say that the name goes back to the color of its bearers. I find this explanation puzzling. It is as though thousands of our neighbors were bears, beavers, and toads.
Coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has made us freshly familiar with many memorable sayings, from Edward Grey’s ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, to Wilfred Owen’s ‘My subject is War, and the pity of war/ The Poetry is in the pity’, and Lena Guilbert Horne’s exhortation to ‘Keep the Home-fires burning’.
But as I prepared the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I was aware that numerous other ‘quotable quotes’ also shed light on aspects of the conflict. Here are just five.
One vivid evocations of the conflict striking passage comes not from a War Poet but from an American novelist writing in the 1930s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), Dick Diver describes the process of trench warfare:
See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.
This was, of course, on the Western Front, but there were other theatres of war. One such was the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16, where many ‘Anzacs’ lost their lives. In 1934, a group of Australians visited Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, and heard an address by Kemal Atatürk—Commander of the Turkish forces during the war, and by then President of Turkey. Speaking of the dead on both sides, he said:
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
Atatürk’s words were subsequently inscribed on the memorial at Gallipoli, and on memorials in Canberra and Wellington.
World War I is often is often seen as a watershed, after which nothing could be the same again. (The young Robert Graves’s autobiography published in 1929 was entitled Goodbye to All That.) Two quotations from ODQ look ahead from the end of the war to what might be the consequences. For Jan Christiaan Smuts, President of South Africa, the moment was one of promise. He saw the setting up of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the war as a hope for better things:
Mankind is once more on the move. The very foundations have been shaken and loosened, and things are again fluid. The tents have been struck, and the great caravan of humanity is once more on the march.
However a much less optimistic, and regrettably more prescient comment, had been recorded in 1919 by Marshal Foch on the Treaty of Versailles,
This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.
Not all ‘war poems’ are immediately recognizable as such. In 1916, the poet and army officer Frederick William Harvey was made a prisoner of war (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he went on to experience seven different prison camps). Returning from a period of solitary confinement, he apparently noticed the drawing of a duck on water made by a fellow-prisoner. This inspired what has become a very well-loved poem.
From troubles of the world
I turn to ducks
Beautiful comical things.
How many people, encountering the poem today, consider that the ‘troubles’ might include a world war?
Headline image credit: A message-carrying pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a British tank, near Albert, France. Photo by David McLellan, August 1918. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non-Commercial License via Wikimedia Commons.
“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary
If you haven’t watched James Geary’s brilliant TED talk about metaphors, you should! Ten minutes might break open everything you think you know about this topic.
I was out of town at the end of this past August and have a sizable backlog of unanswered questions and comments. It may take me two or even three weeks to catch up with them. I am not complaining: on the contrary, I am delighted to have correspondents from Sweden to Taiwan. Today I will deal with the questions only about the two most recent posts.
Our regular correspondent Mr. John Larsson took issue with my remark that kiss has nothing to do with chew and cited some arguments in favor of the chew connection. We should distinguish between the “institute of kissing” and the word for the action. As could be expected, no one knows when people invented kissing, but, according to one theory, everything began with mothers chewing their food and passing it on to their babies from mouth to mouth. I am not an anthropologist and can have no opinion about such matters. But the oldest form of the Germanic verb for “chew” must have sounded approximately like German kauen (initial t in Old Norse tyggja is hardly original). The distance between kauen and kussjan cannot be bridged.
Also from Scandinavia, Mr. Christer Wallenborg informs me that in Sweden two words compete: kyssa is a general term for kissing, while for informal purposes pussa is used. I know this and will now say more about the verbs used for kissing in the Germanic-speaking world. Last time I did not travel farther than the Netherlands (except for mentioning the extinct Goths). My survey comes from an article by the distinguished philologist Theodor Siebs (1862-1941). It was published in the journal of the society for the promotion of Silesian popular lore (MitteilungenderSchlesischen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde) for 1903. Modern dialect atlases may contain more synonyms.
Below I will list only some of the words and phrases, without specifying the regions. Germany: küssen, piepen, snüttern (long ü), -snudeln (long u), slabben, flabben, smacken, smukken, smatschen, muschen, bussen, bütsen, pützschen, pupen (some of these words are colloquial, some verge on the vulgar). Many verbs for “kiss” (the verb and the noun) go back to Mund and Maul “mouth,” for example, mundsen, mul ~ mull, müll, mill, and the like. Mäulchen “little mouth” is not uncommon for “a kiss,” and Goethe, who was born in Frankfurt, used it. With regard to their sound shape, most verbs resemble Engl. puss, pipe, smack, flap, and slap.
Friesland (Siebs was an outstanding specialist in the modern dialects and history of Frisian): æpke (æ has the value of German ä) ~ apki, make ~ mæke, klebi, totje, kükken, and a few others, borrowed from German and Dutch. Dutch: zoenen, poenen (both mentioned in my previous blog on kiss), kussen, kissen, smokken, smakken, pipergeven, and tysje.
Siebs became aware of Nyrop’s book (see again my previous blog on kiss about it) after his own work had been almost completed and succeeded in obtaining a copy of it only because Nyrop sent him one. He soon realized that his predecessor had covered a good deal of the material he had been collecting, but Nyrop’s book did not make Siebs’s 19-page article redundant, because Nyrop’s focus was on the situations in which people kiss (a friendly kiss, a kiss of peace, an erotic kiss, etc.), while Siebs dealt with the linguistic aspect of his data. It appeared that kiss usually goes back to the words for the mouth and lips; for something sweet (German gib mir’nen Süssen “give me a sweet [thing]”); for love (so in Greek, in Slavic, and in Old Icelandic minnask, literally “to love one another”), and for embracing (as in French embrasser). Some words for kissing are onomatopoeic, and some developed from various metaphors or expanded their original sense (I mentioned the case of Russian: from “be whole” to “kiss”; Nyrop cited several similar examples). We can see that chewing has not turned up in this small catalog.
Siebs also ventured an etymology of kiss and included this word in his first group. In his opinion, Gothic kukjan “to kiss” retained the original form of Old Engl. kyssan, Old Norse kyssa, and their cognates. In Old Frisian, kokk seems to have meant “speaker” and “mouth” and may thus be related to Old Icelandic kok “throat.” Siebs went on to explain how the protoform guttús yielded kyssan. Specialists know this reconstruction, but everything in it is so uncertain that the origin of kiss cannot be considered solved.
In the picture, chosen to illustrate this post, you will see the moment when Tristan and Isolde drink the fateful love potion. Two quotations from Gottfried’s poem in A. T. Hatto’s translation will serve us well: “He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts” (p. 200), and “One kiss from one’s darling’s lips that comes stealing from the depths of her heart—how it banished love’s cares!” (p. 204).
The protoform of beaver must have been bhebrús or bhibhrús. This looks like an old formation because it has reduplication (bh-bh) and is a -u stem. The form does not contain the combination bher-bher “carry-carry.” Beavers are famous for building dams rather than for carrying logs from place to place. Francis A. Wood, apparently, the only scholar who offered an etymology of beaver different from the current one, connected the word with the Indo-European root bheruo- ~ bhreu- “press, gnaw, cut,” as in Sanskrit bhárvati “to gnaw; chew” (note our fixation on chewing in this post!). His idea has been ignored, rather than refuted (a usual case in etymological studies). Be that as it may, “brown” underlies many names of animals (earlier I mentioned the bear and the toad; I still think that the brown etymology of the bear is the best there is) and plants. Among the plants are, most probably, the Slavic name of the mountain ash (rowan tree) and the Scandinavian name of the partridge.
And of course I am fully aware of the trouble with the Greek word for “toad.” I have read multiple works by Dutch scholars that purport to show how many Dutch and English words go back to the substrate (the enigmatic initial a, nontraditional ablaut, and so forth). It is hard for me to imagine that in prehistoric times the bird ouzel (German Amsel), the lark, the toad, and many other extremely common creatures retained their indigenous names. According to this interpretation, the invading Indo-Europeans seem to have arrived from places almost devoid of animal life and vegetation. It is easier to imagine all kinds of “derailments” (Entgleisungen) in the spirit of Noreen and Levitsky than this scenario. Words for “toad” and “frog” are subject to taboo all over the world (some references can be found in the entry toad in my dictionary), which further complicates a search for their etymology. But this is no place to engage in a serious discussion on the pre-Indo-European substrate. I said what I could on the subject in my review of Dirk Boutkan’s etymological dictionary of Frisian. Professor Beekes wrote a brief comment on my review.
Anticlimax: English grammar (Mr. Twitter, a comedian)
I have once commented on the abuse of as clauses unconnected with the rest of the sentence. These quasi-absolute constructions often sound silly. In a letter to a newspaper, a woman defends the use of Twitter: “As someone who aspires to go into comedy, Twitter is an incredible creative outlet.” Beware of unconscious humor: the conjunction as is not a synonym of the preposition for.
Slang is in a constant state of reinvention. The evolution of language is a testament to our world’s vast and complex history; words and their meanings undergo transformations that reflect a changing environment such as urbanization. In The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang, Jonathon Green extensively explores the history of English language slang from the early British beggar books and traces it through to modernity. He defends the importance of a versatile vocabulary and convinces us that there is dose of history in every syllable of slang and that it is a necessary part of contemporary English, no matter how explicit or offensive the content may be. Test your knowledge…how well do you know your history of slang?