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26. Does learning a second language lead to a new identity?

By Arturo Hernandez


Everyday I get asked why second language learning is so hard and what can be done to make it easier. One day a student came up to me after class and asked me how his mother could learn to speak English better. She did not seem to be able to breakthrough and start speaking. Perhaps you or someone you know has found learning another language difficult.

So why is it so hard?

There are a lot of explanations. Some have to do with biology and the closing of a sensitive period for language. Others have to do with how hard grammar is. People still take English classes in US high schools up to senior year. If a language were easy, then native speakers of a language would not have to continue studying it to the dawn of adulthood.

But what if we took a different approach. Rather than ask what makes learning a second language so hard, let’s ask what makes it easier.

female student with friends on

One group of successful language learners includes those who write in a second language. For example, Joseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, wrote Heart of Darkness in English, a language he spoke with a very strong accent. He was of Polish origin and considered himself to be of Polish origin his entire life. Despite his heavy accent, he is regarded by many as one of the greatest English writers. Interestingly, English was his third language. Before moving to England, he lived in France and was known to have a very good accent in his second language. Hence, success came to Conrad in a language he spoke less than perfectly.

The use of English as a literary language has gained popularity in recent years. William Grimes, in a New York Times piece, describes a new breed of writers that are embracing a second language in literary spirit. Grimes describes the prototypical story that captures the essence of language learning, The Other Language from Francesca Marciano. It’s the story of a teenager who falls in love with the English language tugged by her fascination with an English-speaking boy. Interestingly, it turns out there is a whole host of writers who do so in their second language.

Grimes also considers the effects that writing in a second language has on the authors themselves. Some writers find that as time passes in the host country they begin to take on a new persona, a new identity. Their native land grows more and more distant in time and they begin to feel less like the person they were when they initially immigrated. Ms. Marciano feels that English allows her to explore parts of her that she did not know existed. Others feel liberated by the voice they discover in another language.

The literary phenomenon that writers describe is one that has been discussed at length by Robert Schrauf of Penn State University as a form of state-dependent learning. In one classic study of state-dependent learning, a group of participants was asked to learn a set of words below or above water and then tested either above or below water. Interestingly, memory was better when the location of the learning matched the testing, even when that was underwater, a particularly uncomfortable situation relative to above water. Similar explanations can be used to describe how emotional states can lead to retrieval of memories that are seemingly unrelated. For example, anger at a driver who cuts you off might lead to memories of the last time you had a fight with a loved one.

Schrauf reviews evidence that is consistent with this hypothesis. For example, choosing the same word in a first or second language will lead people to remember events at different times in their lives. Words in the first language lead to remembering things earlier in life whereas viewing a translation in a second language leads to memories that occurred later in life.

The reports of writers and the research done by Robert Schrauf and his colleagues help point to a key aspect that might help people learn their second language. Every time someone learns a new language they begin to associate this language with a set of new experiences that are partially disconnected from those earlier in life. For many this experience is very disconcerting. They may no longer feel like themselves. Where they were once fluent and all knowing, now they are like novices who are trying desperately to find their bearings. For others like Yoko Tawada, a Japanese native who now lives in Berlin and writes in German, it is the very act of being disconnected that leads to creativity.

Interestingly, the use of two languages has also served as a vehicle for psychotherapists. Patients that undergo traumatic experiences often report the ability to discuss them in a second language. Avoidance of the native language helps to create a distance from the emotional content experienced in the first language.

The case of those who write in their second language as well as those in therapy suggests that our identity may play a key role in the ability to learn a second language. As we get older new experiences begin to incorporate themselves into our conscious memory. Learning a second language as an adult may serve to make the differences between distinct periods in our lives much more salient. Thus, the report of writers and the science of autobiographical memory may hold the key to successful language learning. It may involve a form of personal transformation. For those that are unsuccessful it may involve an inability to let go of their old selves. However, for those who embrace their new identity it can be liberating.

It was precisely this point that I raised with the student in my class who sought advice for his mother. I explained that learning a second language will often involve letting go of our identities in order to embrace something new. But how do you get someone to let go of himself or herself? One way to achieve this is to start keeping a diary in an unfamiliar language. It is probable that writing may not only lead a person to develop better language skills but also carry other deeper consequences. Writing in a non-native language may lead someone to develop a new identity.

Arturo Hernandez is currently Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston. He is the author of The Bilingual Brain. His major research interest is in the neural underpinnings of bilingual language processing and second language acquisition in children and adults. He has used a variety of neuroimaging methods as well as behavioral techniques to investigate these phenomena which have been published in a number of peer reviewed journal articles. His research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. You can follow him on Twitter @DrAEHernandez. Read his previous blog posts.

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Image credit: Young female student with friends on break at cafe. © LuckyBusiness via iStockphoto.

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27. How social media is changing language

By Jon Reed


From unfriend to selfie, social media is clearly having an impact on language.  As someone who writes about social media I’m aware of not only how fast these online platforms change, but also of how they influence the language in which I write.

The words that surround us every day influence the words we use. Since so much of the written language we see is now on the screens of our computers, tablets, and smartphones, language now evolves partly through our interaction with technology. And because the language we use to communicate with each other tends to be more malleable than formal writing, the combination of informal, personal communication and the mass audience afforded by social media is a recipe for rapid change.

From the introduction of new words to new meanings for old words to changes in the way we communicate, social media is making its presence felt.

New ways of communicating


An alphabet soup of acronyms, abbreviations, and neologisms has grown up around technologically mediated communication to help us be understood. I’m old enough to have learned the acronyms we now think of as textspeak on the online forums and ‘Internet relay chat’ (IRC) that pre-dated text messaging. On IRC, acronyms help speed up a real-time typed conversation. On mobile phones they minimize the inconvenience of typing with tiny keys. And on Twitter they help you make the most of your 140 characters.

Emoticons such as ;-) and acronyms such as LOL (‘laughing out loud’ — which has just celebrated its 25th birthday) add useful elements of non-verbal communication — or annoy people with their overuse. This extends to playful asterisk-enclosed stage directions describing supposed physical actions or facial expressions (though use with caution: it turns out that *innocent face* is no defence in court).

An important element of Twitter syntax is the hashtag — a clickable keyword used to categorize tweets. Hashtags have also spread to other social media platforms — and they’ve even reached everyday speech, but hopefully spoofs such as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s sketch on The Tonight Show will dissuade us from using them too frequently. But you will find hashtags all over popular culture, from greetings cards and t-shirts to the dialogue of sitcom characters.

Syntax aside, social media has also prompted a more subtle revolution in the way we communicate. We share more personal information, but also communicate with larger audiences. Our communication styles consequently become more informal and more open, and this seeps into other areas of life and culture. When writing on social media, we are also more succinct, get to the point quicker, operate within the creative constraints of 140 characters on Twitter, or aspire to brevity with blogs.

Social media

New words and meanings


Facebook has also done more than most platforms to offer up new meanings for common words such as friend, like, statuswallpage, and profile. Other new meanings which crop up on social media channels also reflect the dark side of social media: a troll is no longer just a character from Norse folklore, but someone who makes offensive or provocative comments online; a sock puppet is no longer solely a puppet made from an old sock, but a self-serving fake online persona; and astroturfing is no longer simply laying a plastic lawn but also a fake online grass-roots movement.

Social media is making it easier than ever to contribute to the evolution of language. You no longer have to be published through traditional avenues to bring word trends to the attention of the masses. While journalists have long provided the earliest known uses of topical terms — everything from 1794’s pew-rent in The Times to beatboxing in The Guardian (1987) — the net has been widened by the “net.” A case in point is Oxford Dictionaries 2013 Word of the Year, selfie: the earliest use of the word has been traced to an Australian Internet forum. With forums, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels offering instant interaction with wide audiences, it’s never been easier to help a word gain traction from your armchair.

Keeping current


Some people may feel left behind by all this. If you’re a lawyer grappling with the new geek speak, you may need to use up court time to have terms such as Rickrolling explained to you. And yes, some of us despair at how use of this informal medium can lead to an equally casual attitude to grammar. But the truth is that social media is great for word nerds. It provides a rich playground for experimenting with, developing, and subverting language.

It can also be a great way keep up with these changes. Pay attention to discussions in your social networks and you can spot emerging new words, new uses of words — and maybe even coin one yourself.

A version of this post first appeared on OxfordWords blog.

Jon Reed is the author of Get Up to Speed with Online Marketing and runs the website Publishing Talk. He is also on Twitter at @jonreed.

Image: via Shutterstock.

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28. A globalized history of “baron,” part 2

By Anatoly Liberman


I will begin with a short summary of the previous post. In English texts, the noun baron surfaced in 1200, which means that it became current not much earlier than the end of the twelfth century. It has been traced to Semitic (a fanciful derivation), Celtic, Latin (a variety of proposals), and Germanic. The Old English words beorn “man; fighter, warrior” and bearn “child; bairn” are unlikely sources of baron. Latin vir “man; husband” would not have become baron for phonetic reasons. The same holds for some other proposed Latin v-words. However, in Latin, baro1 “fool; simpleton” and baro2 “a free man” have been attested. As the putative etymons of baron both pose problems. Baro1 meant “fool” and “a strong, muscular man; a man lacking polish, someone from a province,” while baro1 emerged only in the Frankish law code (Lex Salica) known from early medieval manuscripts. The laws, even though they codified the life of a Germanic tribe, were written in Latin, so that there is no certainty that baro2 is a genuine Latin noun: it could be a Latinized Germanic legal term the scribes preferred to leave untranslated. It is hard to decide whether in dealing with Latin baro1 we have two different words (“fool” and “a strong, unpolished man”) or two meanings of the same word. If the second treatment of baro is to be preferred, then what was the way of development: from “fool” to “a strong man” or from “a strong man” to “fool”? The German linguist Franz Settegast believed that only the second alternative should be considered and derived baron from baro1, but he said nothing definite on the history of its Germanic homonym. In his opinion, baro of Lex Salica might be a different word. This is approximately where I left off last week.

As regards the fortunes of Classical Latin baro, Settegast’s idea is reasonable. He believed that, although thanks to Cicero “fool” is the best-remembered sense of baro, it is not the original one. More probably, he suggested, the word arose with the meaning “a strong man” and later acquired the negative connotations “hillbilly, rough person,” as opposed to someone who learned good manners in the capital, was urbane, and depended on his intellect rather than physical strength. Some analogs Settegast cited missed the point, but for his main argument one can find ample confirmation. Thus, in animal folklore, brawn never goes together with brain. The trickster of animal tales is usually a smart weakling: the cat, the coyote, Brer Rabbit, and the rest. Even the fox, though certainly not a puny creature, is smaller and weaker than the wolf and the bear. The trickster’s dupes are the wolf and the bear.

The Gipsy baron of Johann Strauss

The Gipsy baron of Johann Strauss

As usual in such cases, Settegast had to depend on one or more missing links. He assumed that baro developed in two ways: in one direction it allegedly went from “a strong man” to “fool” and in the other to “*fighter, *warrior, *man” and further to “baron.” The senses I marked with asterisks have not been recorded. Yet many influential specialists in the history of Latin and the Romance languages accepted Settegast’s reconstruction. Despite the consensus the pendulum soon swung in the opposite direction, and etymologists returned to the idea that baron could not be related to a word meaning “fool; simpleton” and traced it to Old High German baro, as we know it from Lex Salica. To support this derivation, one had to offer a plausible etymology of German baro, and Settegast’s opponents came up with the following. There is an Old Icelandic verb berja “to strike,” a cognate of Latin ferio “to strike; kill”; its reflexive form berja-sk means “to fight” (that is, “to exchange blows”). Old High German baro emerged in this scheme as “fighter,” an ideal semantic etymon of baron. However, Icelandic did not have the noun bero “fighter.” Only Old High German bero is known, but it is related to the verb beran “bear; carry” and means “carrier, porter.” It has nothing to do with Icelandic berja ~ berjask. Baro “fighter” ended up with the single support of the nonexistent noun bero “fighter” and nouns like Icelandic bardagi “battle.”

The derivation of baron from Germanic found the support of practically all later etymologists except, predictably, Settegast, who mounted a spirited defense of his old idea, but this time his voice was not heard. His reconstruction did not illuminate every dark corner (remember the asterisked forms, cited above!), but the Germanic reconstruction fares even worse. Settegast refuted the main objection to his theory (“baron” cannot go back to “fool”; of course, it cannot), so that there is no need to repeat the same seemingly crushing counterargument again and again. If Latin baro yielded not only “fool” but also “fighter,” from “a strong man,” then baro, as it occurs in Lex Salica, is a Latin noun.

In my rejection of the Germanic etymology of baron from berjask I am not quite alone. Pierre Guirot, a French etymologist who supports many untraditional solutions, returned to the idea that baron originated in Latin. Regrettably, he offered his opinion without offering detailed proof. Harri Meyer, a distinguished linguist but another maverick of Romance philology, tended to agree with Guirot. Clearly, the tide has not turned. But it does not follow that we have only two choices: either to derive baron from Latin baro or to trace it to Germanic berjask. There is at least one more possibility.

Etymology is a tale of eternal return. Old conjectures tend to resurface in a new light and make us look at forgotten or discarded ideas with interest and even respect. In the early sixties of the nineteenth century, the question was asked whether baron could be a continuation of some word like German Wehrmann “soldier.” Obviously, -on in baron and -mann in Wehrmann are not related. But what about Wehr “defense”? About seventy years later George G. Nicholson had an idea that returned him to Wehr, though, of course, he had no knowledge of an old exchange in Notes and Queries. He paid special attention to the common use of Old French baron with the genitive (“the baron of…”), for example, in li bon baron de France “the good defender, protector of France.” The English equivalent of the Latin phrase barones quinque portuum (which alternated with custodes quinque portuum) is Wardens of the Cinque Ports. In Old French, the word baron was applied to the king, saints, and even Jesus Christ, so that the sense “protector, defender” cannot be called into question.

Nicholson analyzed Old High German words whose English cognates are aware, beware, warn, ward, and warden (their root is war-), and derived baron from the reconstructed Romance form waronem-. The Romance languages did borrow the Germanic root war-, as testified, among others, by guardian, a doublet of warden. Waronem- “protector” would explain the well-attested sense of baron “man.” As mentioned in the previous post, the alternation w/v- ~ b- poses no insurmountable difficulties. Even the native Latin speakers noticed it, and a doublet of Spanish baron is varón “man, male.” The Portuguese form is similar.

Nicholson’s etymology invites serious consideration. Settegast was probably right in not considering “fool” the original sense of Latin baro, but he had a hard time of tracing the path from “a muscular man” to “fighter,” “man; husband,” and, finally, to “baron.” We may also concur with him that Italian barone “rogue” and barone “baron” continue the same Latin etymon. The association between baron and the cognates of Icelandic berjask does not look promising, and one should treat without much confidence the often-repeated statement that Latin had the word baro before the arrival of the Franks. It probably did not. More likely, baron is a Romance adaptation of Germanic waronem-. And couldn’t this coinage (baron) spread to the Celtic-speaking world? Old Irish bár “wise man, sage; leader; overseer,” especially “overseer,” resembles “protector,” the more so because one of the glosses of barons was Latin custodes (the plural of custos). In Ireland, the word might enjoy a shady existence as a legal foreignism, and, presumably, that is why it never occurred in native literature. If such was the state of affairs, barons emerged as protectors and “custodians.” The way from “protector” to “man; husband; fighter” is short. Thus, baron may be, after all, a Germanic word, but going back to an etymon quite different from the one mentioned in our dictionaries.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Alexander Girardi, austrian actor; seen in Johann Strauss II: The Gypsy Baron. Portrait Collection Friedrich Nicolas Manskopf at the library of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main. ID: S36_F08653. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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29. When is a book a tree?

By Philip Durkin


The obvious answer to ‘when is a book a tree?’ is ‘before it’s been made into a book’ – it doesn’t take a scientist to know that (most) paper comes from trees – but things get more complex when we turn our attention to etymology.

The word book itself has changed very little over the centuries. In Old English it had the form bōc, and it is of Germanic origin, related to for example Dutch boek, German Buch, or Gothic bōka. The meaning has remained fairly steady too: in Old English a bōc was a volume consisting of a series of written and/or illustrated pages bound together for ease of reading, or the text that was written in such a volume, or a blank notebook, or sometimes another sort of written document, such as a charter.

Chestnut_Castanea_dentata

By Bruce Marlin. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The argument for…

The pages of books in Anglo-Saxon times were made out of parchment (i.e. animal skin), not paper. But nonetheless a long-standing and still widely accepted etymology assumes that the Germanic base of book is related ultimately to the name of the beech tree. Explanations of the semantic connection have varied considerably. At one point, scholars generally focused on the practice of scratching runes (the early Germanic writing system) onto strips of wood, but more recent accounts have placed emphasis instead on the use of wooden writing tablets.

Words in other languages have followed this semantic development from ‘material for writing on’ to ‘writing, book’. One example is classical Latin liber meaning ‘book’ (which is the root of library). This is believed to have originally been a use of liber meaning ‘bark’, the bark of trees having, according to Roman tradition, been used in early times as a writing material. Compare also Sanskrit bhūrjá- (as masculine noun) ‘birch tree’, and (as feminine noun) ‘birch bark used for writing’.

The argument against…

This explanation has troubled some scholars. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the words for ‘book’ and ‘beech’ in the earliest recorded stages of various Germanic languages belong to different stem classes (which determine how they form their endings for grammatical case and number), and the word for ‘book’ shows a stem class that is often assumed to be more archaic than that shown by the word for ‘beech’.

Secondly, in Gothic (the language of the ancient Goths, preserved in important early manuscripts) bōka in the singular (usually) means ‘letter (of the alphabet)’. In the plural, Gothic bōkōs does also mean ‘(legal) document, book’, but some have argued that this reflects a later development, modelled on ancient Greek γράμμα (gramma) ‘letter, written mark’, also in the plural γράμματα (grammata) ‘letters, literature’ (this word ultimately gives modern English grammar), and also on classical Latin littera ‘letter of the alphabet, short piece of writing’, also in the plural litterae ‘document, text, book’ (this word ultimately gives modern English literature).

In light of these factors, some have suggested that book and its Germanic relatives may show a different origin, from the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit bhāga- ‘portion, lot, possession’ and Avestan baga ‘portion, lot, luck’. The hypothesis is that a word of this origin came to be used in Germanic for a piece of wood with runes (or a single rune) inscribed on it, used to cast lots (a practice described by the ancient historian Tacitus), then for the runic characters themselves, and hence for Greek and Latin letters, and eventually for texts and books containing these.

However, many scholars remain convinced that book and beech are ultimately related, and argue that the forms and meanings shown in the earliest written documents in the various Germanic languages already reflect the results of a long process of development in word form and meaning, which has obscured the original relationship between the word book and the name of the tree. For some more detail on this, and for references to some of the main discussions of the etymology of book, see the etymology section of the entry for book in OED Online.

This article first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Philip Durkin is Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English.

Language matters. At Oxford Dictionaries, we are committed to bringing you the benefit of our language expertise to help you connect with your world.

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30. Eighteenth-century soldiers’ slang: “Hot Stuff” and the British Army

By Jennine Hurl-Eamon


Britain’s soldiers were singing about “hot stuff” more than 200 years before Donna Summer released her hit song of the same name in 1979. The true origins of martial ballads are often difficult to ascertain, but a song entitled “Hot Stuff” can be found in print by 1774. The 5 May edition of Rivington’s New York Gazetteer attributes the lyrics to sergeant Edward Bothwood of the 47th Regiment during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

This text leaves little doubt that “hot stuff” held similar sexual connotations to its eighteenth-century crooners that it does today. Alluding to the famous generals on the battlefields of Quebec, the final verse describes the soldiers invading a French convent (or possibly a bawdy house, since the terms were synonymous among soldiers). The sexual element in “hot stuff” is abundantly clear:

With Monkton and Townshend, those brave Brigadiers,
I think we shall soon knock the town ‘bout their ears;
And when we have done with the mortars and guns,
If you please, madam Abbess, — a word with your Nuns:
Each soldier shall enter the Convent in buff,
And then, never fear, we will give them Hot Stuff.

The Oxford English Dictionary has not previously recognized the use of “hot stuff” as a term to denote sexual attractiveness in the mid eighteenth century; the earliest such usage claimed by the current edition only dates back to 1884 and I have alerted the editors of this earlier example.

William Hogarth 007

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley. (1749-1750); Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It should not be surprising that the expression “hot stuff” had its origin in military circles. Britain’s common soldiers were immersed in a counter-culture of which language was an important signifier. Men in uniform have long been known for having a greater propensity to swear, for example. This is borne out by the literature of the time. As early as 1749, Samuel Richardson referred to the popular expression of swearing “like a trooper” in his novel Clarissa. Characters in Robert Bage’s 1796 novel, Hermsprong, held profanity to be “as natural to a soldier as praying to a parson,” and worried that “if soldiers and sailors were forbidden it, their courage would droop.” It transcended the boundaries of rank and gender.

Folklore anthologist Roy Palmer uncovered a reference to a pensioner’s wife who swore compulsively, yet was considered a good soul whose coarse language was simply an indelible imprint of army life. One of the most famous of these military wives, Christian Davies — who followed her husband disguised as a soldier and later traveled with the troops as a sutler — commented on an officers’ ability to “curse,” noting one particular lieutenant who “swore a round hand.”

Martial language went beyond swearing, however. Francis Grose proudly named “soldiers on the long march” as one of the “most classical authorities” in the preface of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (first published in 1785). Having served in the army himself, Grose had first-hand knowledge of military slang. His dictionary referred to terms such as “hug brown bess” meaning “to carry a firelock, or serve as a private soldier;” “fogey” for “an invalid soldier;” and “Roman” for “a soldier in the foot guards, who gives up his pay to his captain for leave to work.”

Though Grose arguably provides the best evidence of military slang in the eighteenth century, other records offer hints. One soldier testified at the Old Bailey in 1756 that it was common for military men to use the term “uncle” to mean “pawnbroker,” for example. The contemporary resonance of terms like “hot stuff” and “fogey” are evidence that some, though not all, eighteenth-century soldiers’ patter eventually found its way into the civilian lexicon.

Captain Francisa Grose, FSA

Francis Grose By D. O. Hill (Prof Wilson. Land of Burns. 1840) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Historians who have studied military slang for other armies tend to have a narrow scope that stresses the distinctive nature of the time and place under observation. Thus, a scholar of the American Civil War theorizes that the “custom of independently making up words” came at least in part from the fact that “the Civil War was fought by Jacksonian individualists.”

Tim Cook’s exploration of the colourful idioms of the Canadian troops in the First World War suggests that they served simultaneously to distinguish the Canadians from the other British forces and to help a disparate body of recruits develop a unified identity that separated them from their civilian counterparts. Although many of his insights could be applied to other armies in other wars, Cook limits his observations of language to its role in helping soldiers “endure and make sense of the Great War.”

I would suggest, instead, that linguistic liberties are a common characteristic to all Anglo armies from the eighteenth century onward. More needs to be done to determine whether the phenomenon is broader in geographic and temporal scope, and to understand precisely why military culture tends to take this particular shape.

At the very least, the British soldiers singing bawdily about “hot stuff” in the mid-eighteenth century probably found their shared slang helped to bond them to one another. Language operated similar to the uniform in separating military men from civilians and transforming them into objects of fascination (both positive and negative). Set beside Donna Summer, these raucous soldiers take their proper place at the forefront of popular culture.

Jennine Hurl-Eamon is associate professor of History at Trent University, Canada. She has published several articles and book chapters on aspects of plebeian marriage and the interactions between the poorer classes and the lower courts. She is the author of three books, Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720 (2005), and Women’s Roles in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2010) and Marriage and the British Army in the Long Eighteenth Century (OUP, 2014).

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Image credit: William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley. (1749-1750); Oil on canvas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Francis Grose By D. O. Hill (Prof Wilson. Land of Burns. 1840). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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31. A globalized history of “baron,” part 1

By Anatoly Liberman


Once again we are torn between Rome, the Romance-speaking world, and England. The word baron appeared in English texts in 1200, and it probably became current shortly before that time, for such an important military title would hardly have escaped written tradition for too long. One incontestable thing is that baron arose in Old French and through Anglo-French reached Middle English. At present, baron is the lowest rank in hereditary peerage, but “[t]he original meaning of baron in feudal times was one of a class of tenants holding his lands by military service from the king, or other superior lord. The term was soon restricted to king’s barons who were summoned by writ to the council. The practice grew up that those once summoned had a right to attend, and the honour and privilege became hereditary” (The Universal Dictionary of the English Language by Henry Cecil Wyld). The question is how this title happened to get the meaning recorded in Old French.

Early lexicographers were bold people: they formulated hypotheses and fearlessly proclaimed them, for nothing worse could happen to them than running afoul of a different politely formulated conjecture: no ridicule, no rebuke for violating phonetic laws (those had not yet been discovered) or missing an important publication (the few main books on the subject were widely known and always consulted). A look at the guesses by our distant predecessors is not devoid of interest, for some of them had a long life and are still with us.

The syllable bar occurs in many languages and not infrequently has a meaning that fits, at least to a certain extent, the meaning of baron. The first lexicographers noticed Hebrew bar “son,” recognized today even by those who have no knowledge of any Semitic language from bar mitzvah. Since for some time people traced all words to Hebrew, the alleged language of Paradise before Adam and Eve were banished from it, the tie between bar and baron seemed obvious. Then there was Old Irish bar “wise man, sage; leader; overseer.” For some reason, it frequently occurred in glossaries but did not turn up in any text, literary or legal. Such words occur in many old languages and look like learned concoctions. Still this bar, whatever its origin, has been attested, so probably it is not a figment, as James Murray suspected. Charles Mackay, whose etymologies are fanciful but forms invariably correct, mentioned the obsolete Irish Gaelic bar “a man, a learned man” and baran “a great man.” He hardly knew them from living speech.

Then there is Old Engl. beorn “man; hero; warrior,” which may be the same word as one of the Old Germanic names of the bear (this is uncertain; yet the alternative derivation from the verb bear is less likely). Bestowing the names of ferocious animals (bears and boars, for instance) on doughty fighters and esteemed chiefs was common practice. Old Germanic poetry is full of relevant examples. Next to it we find Old Engl. bearn “child, bairn,” an unquestionable cognate of the verb beran “to bear.” Beorn and bearn suggest a Germanic origin of baron, even though the details of the development are unclear.

We can now turn to Latin vir “man, husband,” often proposed as the source (etymon) of baron. Vir has respectable cognates in Old English and Gothic (nearly the same form and the same meaning). The alternation v ~ b poses problems, but they are not insurmountable. It is the suffix (or what looks like a suffix) -on that defies an explanation if we begin with vir. However, some of the best etymologists of the first half of the nineteenth century ignored the “suffix” and had no doubts about vir being the etymon of baron. Vir is not the only v-word that surfaced in the etymological explanations of baron. Latin varus “knock-kneed, bow-legged” and vara “a forked pole,” a cognate of varus, have also been referred to. The connection between them and baron is tenuous at best.

369px-Lex_Salica_VandalgariusMore promising is the Latin noun baro (genitive baronis, accusative baronem), which looks like a possible source of baron. However, the history, and not only the etymology, of baro is another hornets’ nest. The most baffling fact is that there seemingly were two Latin words baro. One had length on both vowels and is usually glossed as “fool; simpleton.” This is the meaning Cicero and at least one more author knew. The other baro, which is given in the most authoritative dictionaries of Latin with a short root vowel, meant “a free man” (that is, not a serf), but it emerged late, in a law code known as Lex Salica “Salian Law.” The code was put together at the beginning of the sixth century, in the reign of Clovis I, though no manuscripts antedating the eighth century have come down to us. The code regulated the life of the Salian Franks. The etymology of the name Salian is debatable and should not concern us. We only need to know that the Salian Franks were different from the so-called Ripuarian Franks and that later the same laws governed all of them. The Franks were a conglomeration of Germanic tribes.

Although Lex Salica was written in Latin, the word baro could be a Latinized German word. Untranslatable native terms regularly appeared in medieval Latin texts unchanged (occasionally -us would be added to them, and Alemannic barus has been recorded). If the word is German, we find ourselves on familiar ground (compare bearn and beorn mentioned above), but if it is Latin, we have to decide whether it has anything to do with baro “fool; simpleton” and ideally account for its origin. Baro “fool” has a well-known continuation in the Modern Romance languages. Italian barone means both “baron” and “rogue,” and many similar-sounding nouns with various suffixes have related meanings, “urchin” among them. “Simpleton,” let alone “fool,” could not develop into “a king’s man” or something similar. Most modern dictionaries state that baro1 and baro2 have nothing to do with each other, but the German linguist Franz Settegast thought differently and made an attempt to overthrow this conclusion.

Settegast showed that in some Latin books baro designated a strong (muscular) or an unpolished man, a hillbilly, a man from the boondocks, as we might say. His findings have never been refuted, but the question remains which sense is original and which is derived, that is, whether the path was from “fool” to “a strong man” or from “a strong man” to “fool.” Also, some etymologists say that Italian barone “rogue” and barone “baron” are different words (homonyms) and cite plausible sources for both, while others try to connect them. As could be expected, the definitive answer does not exist, but the situation may not be quite hopeless, and next week I’ll say what I think about it.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Manuscrit de la loi salique datant de 793, bibliothèque de l’abbaye de Saint-Gall. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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32. What is a book? (humour edition)

As the Amazon-Hachette debate has escalated this week, taking a notably funny turn on the Colbert Report, we’d like to share some funnier reflections on books and the purposes they serve. Here are a few selections from the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Fifth Edition.

“Book–what they make a movie out of for television”
Leonard Louis Levinson 1904-74: Laurence J. Peter (ed) Quotations for our Time (1977)

“If you don’t find it in the Index, look very carefully through the entire catalogue.”
Anonymous: in Consumer’s Guide, Sears, Roebuck and Co. (1897); Donald E. Knuth Sorting and Searching (1973)

“Books and harlots have their quarrels in public.”
Walter Benjamin 1892-1940 German philosopher and critic: One Way Street (1928)

“My desire is … that mine adversary had written a book.”
Bible: Job

“The covers of this book are too far apart.”
Ambrose Bierce 1842-c.1914 American writer; C.H. Grattam Bitter Bierce (1929)

bookcase

“When the [Supreme] Court moved to Washington in 1800, it was provided with no books, which probably explains the high quality of early opinions.”
Robert H. Jackson 1892-1954 American lawyer: The Supreme Court in the American System of Government (1955)

“One man is as good as another until he has written a book.”
Benjamin Jowett 1817-93 English classicist: Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell (eds.) Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett (1897)

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Dorothy Parker 1893-1967 American critic and humorist: R.E. Drennan Wit’s End (1973)

“A thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.”
Mark Twain 1835-1910 American writer: Alex Ayres The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain (1987)

“An index is a great leveller.”
George Bernard Shaw 1856-1950 Irish dramatist: G.N. Knight Indexing (1979); attributed, perhaps apocryphal

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;–they are the life, the soul of reading;–take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them.”
Laurence Sterne 1713-68 English novelist: Tristram Shandy (1759-67)

“In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust.”
Oscar Wilde 1854-1900 Irish dramatist and poet: attributed

Writer, broadcaster, and wit Gyles Brandreth has completely revised Ned Sherrin’s classic collection of wisecracks, one-liners, and anecdotes. With over 1,000 new quotations throughout the media, it’s easy to find hilarious quotes on subjects ranging from Argument to Diets, from Computers to the Weather. Add sparkle to your speeches and presentations, or just enjoy a good laugh in the company of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Joan Rivers, Kathy Lette, Frankie Boyle, and friends. Gyles Brandreth is a high profile comedian, writer, reporter on The One Show and keen participant in radio and TV quiz shows.

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Image credit: Bookcase. Public domain via Pixababy.

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33. What is a book?

In recent weeks, a trade dispute between Amazon and Hachette has been making headlines across the world. But discussion at our book-laden coffee tables and computer screens has not been limited to contract terms and inventory, but what books mean to us as publishers, booksellers, authors, and readers. So we thought this would be an excellent time to share some ideas on books from some of the greatest minds in our culture. Please share your personal thoughts in the comments below.

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Franz Kafka, 1883-1924, Czech novelist

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit.”
John Milton, 1608-74, English poet

“Books can not be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory … In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1882-1945, American Democratic statesman, 32nd President of the US 1933-45, and husband of Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘Message to the Booksellers of America 6 May 1942, in Publishers Weekly 9 May 1942

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Joan Didion, 1934-, American writer, The White Album (1979)

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”
W.H. Auden, 1907-73, English poet

books forgotten remembered

“Choose an author as you choose a friend.”
Wentworth Dillon, Lord Roscommon, c. 1633-85, Irish poet and critic, Essay on Translated Verse (1684) l. 96

“No furniture is so charming as books.”
Sydney Smith, 1771-1845, English essayist

“All books are either dreams or swords,
You can cut, or you can drug, with words.”
Amy Lowell, 1874-1925, American poet, ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’ (1914)

“Only connect! … Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”
E.M. Forster, 1879-1970, English novelist, Howard’s End (1910), ch. 22

“A good book is the best of friends, the same to-day and for ever.”
Martin Tupper, 1810-89, English writer

martin tupper good book friend

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Francis Bacon, 1561-1626, English courtier

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.”
Walt Disney, 1901-66, American film producer

“There is no book so bad that some good cannot be got out of it.”
Pliny the Elder, AD 23-79, Roman senator

“I hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-78, French philosopher

“All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.”
John Ruskin, 1819-1900, English critic

Ever since the first edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations published over 70 years ago, this bestselling book has remained unrivalled in its coverage of quotations both past and present. Drawing on Oxford’s dictionary research program and unique language monitoring, over 700 new quotations have been added to this eighth edition from authors ranging from St Joan of Arc and Coco Chanel to Albrecht Durer and Thomas Jefferson.

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34. Fishing in the “roiling” waters of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman


Those who will look up the etymology of roil and rile will have to choose between two answers: “from Old French” or “of uncertain origin.” Judging by my rather extensive and constantly growing database, roil and rile have attracted little attention, though Professor Bernhard Diensberg (Bonn) wrote a book on the fortunes of the diphthongs oi and ui in Middle English (it appeared in 1985) and devoted an informative section to those words. Non-specialists may wonder how anyone can write a book on such a subject. “No problem,” as waiters (servers) say in my area when I thank them. English words with oi continue to rile etymologists by their stubborn refusal to disclose their origin. Just try to investigate the history of foist, hoist, ploy, or hoity-toity, and you’ll never get out of this morass. One of the difficulties that plague the inquisitive mind is that oi and i constantly play leapfrog. Dictionaries (or perhaps your own experience) will tell you that a doublet of hoity-toity is hightly-tighty, that joist is related to gist, that many people pronounce point and oil as pint and ile, and so it goes. And it is not for nothing that Crocodile Dundee had a “knoife,” while in the speech of many Britishers the number preceding ten is noin.

Returning to our subject, one cannot be sure whether rile and roil are different words or variants of the same verb. The prevailing opinion is that rile is indeed a dialectal variant of roil, and most dictionaries say: rile—see roil. In any case, be it roil or rile, its country of origin seems to have been France. The cautious statement “origin uncertain/unknown” usually refers not to the homeland of the English verb but to its putative French source (etymon). However, Skeat, who always indicated where each word originated, put a question mark and wrote (? F.). I think the first reasonable French etymology of roil goes back to Francis Henry Stratmann, the author of an important Middle English dictionary.

'Rileyed': the word has nothing to do with the story

‘Rileyed’: the word has nothing to do with the story

Roil1 surfaced in the fourteenth century and meant “roam about.” Then there is a long chronological gap (and such gaps never augur well for etymological studies) until the end of the eighteenth century. Besides that, there is roil2-3 “make turbid,” “vex.” Roil1 partly merged in its meanings with roll, and the other roil (it is not clear whether we have one item or two) merged with rile, whose recorded history begins in 1724. The first edition of the OED was not sure whether all those verbs were related and cited obsolete French ruiler “to mix mortar,” a sense rather remote from what one would expect. But in 1918 Ernest Weekley observed that ruiler looks like a continuation of Old French rouiller, whose derivative rouil “mud” has been attested and fits the required meaning. The online edition of the OED does not object to Weekley’s etymology but offers a more cautious formulation.

The plot thickens (that is, the morass gets deeper) when we look around and notice rail “to complain (about something); use abusive language.” Hence the noun raillery with a much nicer meaning, and close to it we find rally “treat with good-humored ridicule.” This then is the sum: roil, rile; rail, and roll. For each of them a plausible etymon has been suggested: Old French roillier or rouiller (? from Latin regulare “regulate”; so Skeat), rotulare, from Latin rotululus “roll,” a diminutive form; compare late Latin rotula “little wheel”), and ragulare, from ragere “to bellow, howl.” According to an old conjecture, rile is an independent formation, not a dialectal doublet of roil, and a noun rather than a verb, as allegedly shown by Middle Engl. ryall ~ riall “foam, fermentation,” from Old French roille ~ rouille, ultimately from Latin robigo “rust.” Another hypothesis traced roil to some verb like Icelandic rugla “to confound,” but the phonetic barrier between rugla and roil cannot be overcome. No doubt, the origin of our group is “uncertain.”

The sound complex rag is notorious for its etymological obscurity: compare Engl. rag “to scold, rate,” a close synonym of rail. And of course, “scold; disturb; vex” look like related senses. Ragamuffin was once the name of a petty devil, perhaps originally a creature that made a lot of noise, but this is guesswork. Those interested in the origin of Engl. rogue and ragman (as in ragman’s roll, the etymon of rigmarole, the latter being pronounced by everybody I know as rigamarole) will find some information in my post “Old slang: rogue” (12 May 2010). Swedish hippies were called raggare (the word is still very much alive in Sweden), while in the Old Germanic languages the root rag- alternated with arg- and was a gross insult. Thus, when one sees Latin ragere, one cannot help thinking of all those Germanic words.

Not only words tend to tie themselves up in knots

Not only words tend to tie themselves up in knots

I have no quarrel with the French etymons of roil (and its brother rile), rail, and roll. Perhaps they ultimately do go back to the late Latin verbs most dictionaries cite, but I would like to note two things. First, the habit of finding Latin etymons for obscure French words has nowadays much less appeal than it had a hundred and even fifty years ago. Second, of interest is the statement in the entry rail “complain,” as it appears in the OED online: “…probably of imitative origin.” “Imitative” is often hard to distinguish from “sound symbolic.”

In any case, I believe that this guess has potential. It might be useful to remember that  one of several verbs listed under rail means “rattle,” and one of the verbs listed at roil means “to flow”; “to flow” occasionally also means “to make a lot of noise,” with reference to “roiling waters” (there are good examples in Middle High German and Old Icelandic). We have roil “wander,” “flow,” “rattle,” “stir up,” and “vex,” alongside rail “use abusive language.” In the rile ~ roil group, only roll has a clearly ascertainable origin. When the rest of the “family” appeared in English, its members were probably influenced, at least to a certain degree, by the similar-sounding verb roll and began to interact with it and one another. That is why it is so hard to disentangle them and decide which sense belong to which verb and how many senses each of them has.

This situation reminds me of the problem I encountered while researching the origin of troll ~ droll, trill, and trawl. Nice Romance etymons have also been given for all of them, but the group is probably sound imitative (see the post “Between troll and trollop,” 3 January 2007). Words tend to tie themselves up in knots. Following the established format, dictionaries devote a special entry to each of them, but it might be more profitable to follow the practice of old lexicographers and feature both individual words and, when expedient, whole nests. Perhaps roll ~ rile ~ roil ~ rail is a good candidate for such a nest.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: (1) The Bitter Drunk by Adriaen Brouwer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Python vert /Morelia Viridis. Photo by marie. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via raym5 Flickr.

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35. The in-depth selfie: discussing selfies through an academic lens

Looking at oneself is a timeless concept. We are constantly trying to figure out how to represent ourselves in our own brains . . . confusing certainly. In honor of Oxford Dictionaries’s 2013 word of the year — “selfie” — University of Southern California professors pay homage by discussing selfies through the lens of letters, arts, and sciences. They analyse the selfie trend through the perspectives of sociology, gender studies, religion, anthropology, and more. Watch their video below and learn how profound a camera flash and puckered mouth can be.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Language matters. At Oxford Dictionaries, we are committed to bringing you the benefit of our language expertise to help you connect with your world.

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36. Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2014

By Anatoly Liberman


As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

Spelling Reform

As could be expected, the question about what to do with spelling has attracted considerable attention. I view our discussion with a measure of wistful concern. If a miracle happened and tomorrow someone said that society wants to reform English spelling, we would begin fighting among ourselves and never come to an agreement. We would behave like all revolutionaries in the world: there would be Bolsheviks/Montagnards (“All at once,” “Off with his/her head,” and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth built according to the first five-year plan), Mensheviks/Girondists, and the rest. In this discussion I represent only myself and prefer to stick to several propositions, not because they are supported by some profound linguistic theory, but because in all scholarly work I am more interested in results than in methodology, though I understand that without methodology there can be no results. This attitude comes from observing half a century of linguistic research, mighty long on theory and woefully short on memorable achievements, except for producing an army of tenured faculty.

So here are my propositions.

  1. The public will not accept a radical break with the past, so that, if we hope to get anywhere, we should work out a step-by-step plan and try to implement the reform gradually. I witnessed the fury of the opponents of a moderate spelling reform in Germany and the horror of the conservatives when a couple of hyphens were introduced in Russia about fifty years ago. “Step by step” should be defined. I only say: “Look well, O Wolves” (no trouble finding the source and context of this quotation).
  2. Phonetic spelling is out of the question. The base (the Roman alphabet) should remain untouched. Transcription as a teaching tool is fine, but it has nothing to do with our goal.
  3. The first steps should be extremely timid, almost unnoticeable, for instance, replacing sc in words like unscathed with sk, abolishing a few especially silly double letters, perhaps tampering with such low frequency bookish words as phthisis and chthonic, and so forth.
  4. Once the public agrees to such innocent changes (assuming that it does), we may perhaps go on. Here is a list of other painless measures: Americanize words like center, color, program, dialog, canceled (this experiment has been tried, so that such forms are by now familiar on both sides of the Atlantic) and the suffix -ize; abolish some superfluous letters: acquaint, acquiesce (or acquiesce), gnash, knock, intricate, and so it goes. My order is arbitrary, and the examples have been given at random.
  5. At present, we have to find influential sponsors among publishers, journalists, politicians (especially those who deal with immigration), and lexicographers. So far, despite my plea, no one from the staff of our great dictionaries has participated in the discussion. Perhaps our best bet is to get publishers interested: after all, it is they who produce books. If someone knows whom to approach and how to begin, don’t keep your information secret. Under a bushel candles are invisible.
A word of thanks

I have never been able to understand how Stephen Goranson finds things. But the fact remains that he does. Many thanks for the references to pedigree and many others!

Why do words change their meaning?

To answer this question I need a thick volume titled Historical Semantics. Unable to provide such a volume in the present post, I’ll give two examples from our recent experience. Everybody knows that kid is a young goat and a child. The sense “child” appeared much later. It was first slang and then became a regular item of everyday vocabulary, though we still say that so-and-so has no children or that children under five are not admitted, rather than kids. Since we more often speak about young boys and girls than about young goats, dictionaries now sometimes list the sense “kid” before the original one. A person who is twenty years old is no longer a kid except when he (probably always a he) burns tires or throws bottles at cops. Then newspapers speak about drunken kids who misbehaved after their team had lost (or won). Hence a new meaning: kid “a criminal of college age.”  We seldom notice how such shifts occur.

Here is another example. A correspondent has recently thanked me for a short and concise answer to his question. I was not surprised, for I had been exposed to this usage before. Concise (which means “brief, condensed,” as in A Concise Dictionary) has been confused with precise; hence the change of meaning. The correspondent was undoubtedly grateful for my “short and precise” reply.

Not particularly unique.

Not particularly unique.

Very unique

In a way, this is a continuation of the previous rubric. Another correspondent expressed his dismay at the phase given above. Very unique has been ridiculed more than once in my posts. Not long ago, I ran into the phrase particularly unique and rejoiced: here is something new. But, to make sure that I was not reinventing the wheel, I Googled for particularly unique: thousands of hits! Obviously, unique has almost lost its sense “one of a kind” and come to mean “unusual; exceptional.” We may rage, the way the heathen always do; however, the world will take no heed of us. A similar catastrophe has befallen the verb decimate “kill every tenth in a group.” Now it means “kill a large part of a group.” The etymology of both unique and decimate is still transparent (compare all kinds of uni- words, unicum, and decade). When the origin of the word is forgotten, it is even easier to fall into a semantic trap. But then this is what traps are made for.

Rather unique?

Rather unique?

Hubba-hubba, copacetic, and gook: their etymology

A correspondent sent me a letter with suggestions about the origin of those three words. His letter is too long to copy here, so I would be glad if he posted his remarks as comments. He is aware of my post on hubba-hubba (March 5, 2008) but missed the one on copacetic (“Jes’ copacetic, boss,” July 5, 2006). Like many of his predecessors, he believes in the foreign origin of those three words. Here I should only say that the Hebrew etymology of copacetic has been refuted quite convincingly, but the main problem with borrowings is this: If we believe that an English word has been taken over from another language, we should show under what circumstances, in what milieu, and why the process took place.

Family names like White and Black

Walter Turner has already clarified this point in his comment. I can only add the name Green and say that I lost faith in human decency after I discovered the family name Heifer. Meet the Heifers!

Agreement the American way

(By the Associated Press) “Russia is one of the few countries in the world that harbor vast reserves of the untapped hydrocarbons.” This is perhaps a borderline case. One can argue that harbor goes with countries in a legitimate way. But this is probably not what was meant. After all, Russia is one of the countries that harbors…. Never mind what it harbors. It is only grammar that interests us. Right?

Triggering the world and explaining individuals, or how university administrators write
  1. “It’s just a process to have that individual come into the office so they can be explained their rights and they can understand the process better.”
  2. [Ms. X urges Mr. Y] to re-evaluate “rules and regularities that allow outside community members to so heavily trigger and target students and faculty on this campus.” That is why administrators are paid so well. Who else would try to explain inexplicable individuals or try to so gracefully and without compunctions split an infinitive for the sake of triggering and targeting students and faculty? Unique examples? Not particularly.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Images: 1. Monstre by Rama. CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr via Wikimedia Commons. 2. Two-headed California Kingsnake by Jason Pratt.

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37. What is English?

What is English? Ask any speaker of English, and the answer you get may be “it’s what the dictionary says it is.” Or, “it’s what I speak.” Answers like these work well enough up to a point, but the words that make it in the dictionary are not always the words we hear being used around us. And the language of any one English speaker can differ significantly in pronunciation and word order from the English of another, particularly today, when two out of three English speakers have learned English as a second or third language. In What Is English? And Why Should We Care?, Tim Machan addresses these deceptively complex questions in order to suggest the ways in which definitions of English always depend on speakers’ definitions of themselves.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Tim Machan is Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His books include What Is English? And Why Should We Care?, English in the Middle Ages, Language Anxiety, and Vafþrúðnismál.

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38. Kotodama: the multi-faced Japanese myth of the spirit of language

By Naoko Hosokawa


In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse. The notion of kotodama is closely linked with Japanese linguistic identity, and the narrative of kotodama has been repeatedly reinterpreted according to non-linguistic factors surrounding Japan, as well as the changing idea of “purity” of language in Japan.

Ancient face

The term kotodama literally means “the spirit of language” (koto = language, dama (tama) = spirit or soul). It is a belief based on the idea of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan which worships divinity in all natural creation and phenomena. In ancient Japan, language was believed to have a spirit, which gives positive power to positive words, negative power to negative words, and impacts a person’s life when his or her name is pronounced out loud. Wishes or curses were thus spelled out in a particular manner in order to communicate with the divine powers. According to this ancient belief, the spirit of language only resides in “pure” Japanese that is unique and free from foreign influence. Therefore, Sino-Japanese loanwords, which were numerous by then and had a great impact on the Japanese language, were eschewed in Shintoist rituals and Japanese native vocabulary, yamatokotoba, was preferred. Under the name of kotodama, this connection between spiritual power and pure language survived throughout Japanese history as a looser concept and was reinvented multiple times.

War-time face

Koku Saityou shounin, written by Emperor Saga. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Koku Saityou shounin, written by Emperor Saga. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most significant historical moments in which the myth of kotodama was reinvented was during the Second World War. In order to strengthen national solidarity, the government reintroduced the idea of kotodama, coupling it with the idea of kokutai (国体, こくたい, koku = country or nation, tai = body), the Japanese national polity. The government promoted the idea that the use of “pure” and traditional Japanese language was at the core of the national unity and social virtue that is unique to Japan, while failing to use the right language would lead to violation of the national polity. Under the belief of kotodama, proposals to abolish or reduce the use of kanji (Chinese characters), which had been introduced since the modernization of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century, were fiercely rejected. Instead, the use of kanji as well as traditional non-vernacular orthographic style was encouraged. Furthermore, based on the kotodama myth, the use of Western loanwords was strictly banned as they belonged to the language of the enemy (tekiseigo) and those words were replaced by Sino-Japanese words. For example, the word ragubî, which is the loan from the English word “rugby,” was replaced by tôkyû, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “fight ball.” The word anaunsâ, which is the loan from the English word “announcer,” was replaced by hôsôin, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “broadcasting person.”

It is interesting to note that the kotodama myth was reinvented to encourage the use of Sino-Japanese elements, whereas in the ancient belief the myth promoted the Japanese native elements and eschewed Sino-Japanese elements. In other words, Sino-Japanese was redefined as the essential element of the “pure” and “traditional” Japanese language. Even the movements to simplify the Japanese orthographic system by abolishing the use of Chinese characters and using only kana (phonetic syllabaries) to write Japanese were considered to be violations of kotodama, despite the fact that kana was invented in Japan. This complete reversal of the position of Sino-Japanese elements can be explained by the belief that the increasing use of Western loanwords was creating a new threat to the Japanese linguistic identity. The idea of kokutai, along with other militarist propaganda, was stigmatized in post-war Japanese society and faded away. However, the idea of kotodama survived through the post-war democratization period into contemporary Japan with yet another face.

Contemporary face

You still hear the word kotodama today. A song titled “Ai no Kotodama [Kotodama of Love] – Spiritual Message” performed by a Japanese pop rock band, Southern All Stars, is a well-known hit which has sold over a million since it was recorded in 1996. Above all, one frequently sees the term kotodama used in public debates on the subject of foreign loanwords (gairaigo, which excludes Sino-Japanese loans). For example, an article from a nationwide newspaper stated that “loanwords are threatening the country of kotodama.” Thus the idea of kotodama is still linked to the purity of language in contrast to Western loanwords but, unlike the link between kotodama and political identity of the country made during World War Two, it seems that the myth is now linked to its cultural and social identity while recent waves of globalization have increased the diversity within the contemporary Japan.

The diversity of Japanese society goes hand in hand with the diversity of its vocabulary, which we can see from the rapid increase of loanwords in Japanese. However, at the same time, this increases a sense of insecurity in relation to the linguistic and cultural identity of Japan. As a result, the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a “pure” language. Kotodama has no fixed definition, and continues to transform as Japanese society undergoes changes. It is questionable if the Japanese still really believe in the spiritual power of language — however, the myth of linguistic purity persists in the mind of the Japanese through the word kotodama.

Naoko Hosokawa is a DPhil candidate in Japanese sociolinguistics at the University of Oxford. A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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39. Small triumphs of etymology: “oof”

By Anatoly Liberman


There is an almost incomprehensible number of English words for money and various coins. Some of them, like shilling, are very old. We know (or we think that we know) where they came from. Other words (the majority) surfaced as slang, and our record of them seldom goes beyond the early modern period. They belonged to thieves and counterfeiters’ vocabulary; outsiders were not supposed to make sense of all those boodles, crocards, firks, prindles ~ pringles, and wengs. Words are like people, and it is no wonder that some upstarts make their way into high society and become respectable. Among them are, for instance, buck “dollar,” quid “sovereign; guinea” (such a strange Latinism!), and stiver “a small coin.” Coins have always circulated far outside their countries of origin (Dutch stiver is one of them). Cant words, along with money in general, discovered the joys of globalization long before our time. The international community of criminals accepted them, and that is why so much “monetary slang” is “foreign-born” and why its etymology puzzles historical linguists.

A word lover can enjoy names without knowing their origin: they are like pets (mongrels are often much friendlier than purebreds). Who can resist the charm of scittick ~ scuttick ~ scuddick ~ scurrick and their cousins (or perhaps look-alikes) scat and squiddish? Boar, grunter, hog, and the afore-mentioned buck—aren’t they impressive-looking beasts? Money, as Mowgli said, are things that change hands and don’t become warmer in the process. Very true, but we are word hunters, not merchants, and today’s story is about the word oof, British slang for “money.” Its origin has been guessed, and there is every reason to be proud of the result.

I have once touched on the word oof, but, unfortunately, coupled oof with another word, whose provenance, although undiscovered, is quite different. Also, that post appeared on September 9, 2009, and hardly anyone remembers it. However, I do, because for my erroneous hypothesis I was hauled over the coals in a not very courteous manner, as Skeat would have put it (see the previous post), and the burns still smart. Below I will repeat part of what I said five years ago, for the context of the present essay is quite different from the one written in 2009.

The guessing game was played by amateurs. They were inspired by the famous Osborne trial (1892; of course, its fame faded long ago), at which the word oof was used more than once; this circumstance explains the date of the first letters on this subject sent to Notes and Queries (1893). By that time oof had been around for several decades but needed a push from outside to become public property. Some people fell into a trap. They knew the phrase oof bird “an imaginary provider of wealth.” Most likely, the phrase emerged as a joke and was coined under the influence of French œuf “egg,” with reference to the bird that lays golden eggs. Quite naturally (journalists like to say unsurprisingly in such cases), they concluded that oof is the English pronunciation of œuf. It did not bother them that no English speaker however atrocious his or her accent might be, would turn œuf (even if it is a solid golden œuf) into oof.

Lots of oof.

Lots of oof.

On the other hand, there was a man called William Hoof, a “wealthy railway contractor, who died in 1855, leaving upward of half a million sterling.” Hoof with its h dropped would have easily yielded oof. In the middle of the nineteenth century and much later, such wild conjectures filled the pages of many popular journals. But there were others, whose ideas were not only sensible but also correct. A correspondent to Notes and Queries, who identified himself by his four initials (S. J. A. F.; I am sure many readers knew who hid under those letters), remarked that in Low German there was the slang word ofti[s]ch “money.” “It has descended to its present low estate from certain semi-Bohemian circles.” He also cited the word oofless” penniless.” Soon after him Willoughby Maycock pointed out that the word in question was of Jewish origin and had its roots in London. Its etymon, he repeated, was the phrase ooftisch “on the table”: the stakes had to be put on the table before the game began. The word “was introduced… by the facetious columns of the Sporting Times, but not invented by that organ.” Money on the table would be an approximate analog of Engl. cash on the nail and especially of Russian den’gi na bochku “money on the barrel” (money on the barrel has some currency in English, especially, as it seems, in American English).

The great Walter Skeat found the noun spinuffen “money” (plural) in a Westphalian dictionary and derived oof from uffen (1899). Strange as it may seem, he disregarded (more probably, missed) the explanation offered six years earlier. His note made James Platt, Jun., a most remarkable student of word origins, to write in his rejoinder that it was as certainly courting failure to explain oof without reference to its full form ooftisch as it would be to attempt the derivation of bus and cab without taking into account omnibus and cabriolet. Skeat rarely conceded defeat gracefully and wrote to Notes and Queries again. No, he was not at all sure that spinuffen and ooftisch are unrelated, “for the latter, whether it represents ooft-isch or ooft-ich, may be suspected to be formed upon the base ooft.” He was wrong and never tried to defend his etymology again. The first edition of the OED recognized the Jewish ooftisch derivation, though, as is the case with pedigree (see again the previous post), without absolute certainty. All the later dictionaries followed the OED (in lexicographical work, followed means “copied”). Be that as it may, oof does seem to go back to ooftisch.

A small triumph! One insignificant “slangism” has emerged from its obscurity, but this is how the science of etymology progresses nowadays: by infinitesimal steps. Unlike “regular” words, slang comes from popular culture and the underworld; it is a product of the ludic spirit. In that area, researchers can seldom base their conclusions on precedent. Phonetic correspondences play little or no role in the development of slang. Words of allegedly Jewish origin are particularly dangerous, for time and again Hebrew and Yiddish are conjured up to account for the coinages (particularly, when it comes to crime and swindling) that have nothing to do with the life and language of the Jews. English slang depends on Yiddish to a much smaller extent than does German. But ooftisch lost its second element in England; so oof can be called English, especially because it rhymes with hoof (the oo in its source sounded like Engl. awe). Dictionaries mark oof as British slang. However, the word was not unknown in the United States, and The Century Dictionary has a good American citation.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: UK coins by Karen Bryan. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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40. Little triumphs of etymology: “pedigree”

By Anatoly Liberman


If I find enough material, I may tell several stories about how after multiple failures the ultimate origin of a common English word has been found to (almost) everybody’s satisfaction. The opening chapter in my prospective Decameron will deal with pedigree, which surfaced in English texts in the early fifteenth century. Many competing spellings have been recorded: pedigre, pedigrew, petigree, and their variants with -ee, -tt-, and -y- (the latter in place of -i-). Although no word resembles it, the French or Latin origin was proposed early on. The first students of English etymology realized that pedigree must be a compound and tried to recover the disguised elements. Strangely, unlike cap-a-pe(e), pedigree has never been spelled as a word group.

This is indeed a pedigree.

This is indeed a pedigree.

Perhaps those elements are par and degrés “by degrees,” with an allusion to descending from one generation to another? Not a fanciful guess, but what happened to r, the last sound of par or per? Or is the sought-for etymon degrés des pères “the rank or degree of forefathers”? But in pedigree the proposed elements appear in reverse order! Or Latin petendo gradum “deriving (seeking, pursuing) the descent”? Or a pede gradus, “like the Jesse window at Dorchester or others of that kind” (with reference to the Jesse tree showing the genealogy of Jesus)? In that etymology, pede, the dative of Latin pes “foot,” was taken to mean the stem of the tree; an analog would be German Stammbaum genealogy, family tree, pedigree,” literally, “stem tree.” Or pied de greffe, that is, “the stem of the graft” = “the stem on which later branches were grafted”? Or “the table of degrees” (= of relationships)? Or pee de crue “the foot of the increase”? Or Greek país “child” and Latin gradus “degree”? C. A. F. Mahn, the reviser of the 1864 edition of Webster’s dictionary, who mentioned this etymology in a special publication (I have not seen it anywhere else), referred to A. Wagner. Such irritating references were all over the place in the past. I have no clue to the source and would be grateful to those of our readers who could tell me where A. Wagner (and which of the great multitude of A. Wagners) proposed that truly hopeless etymology.

As early as 1769 pedigree was decomposed into pied de grue “the foot of the crane.” The reference would have been to the pedigrees drawn in the form resembling a crane standing on one leg, a position resembling the heraldic genealogical tree. Mahn knew this etymology, rejected it, and chose Stephen Skinner’s par degrés (Skinner’s dictionary appeared in 1671). Apparently, Augustin Thierry, the French historian, shared the crane’s foot idea, but I am not sure where he said so (allegedly, in his book on the Norman Conquest) and would again appreciate a tip.

crane pedigree etymology

Does the current etymology of pedigree have a leg to stand on?

Skeat, though at one time he was ready to accept Wedgwood’s “table of relationships” (Hensleigh Wedgwood occupied center stage in English etymological studies until Skeat displaced him). However, soon he felt convinced that the variants with -ew ~ -ewe were particularly revealing and tried to understand what the crane (French grue) had to do with genealogy or descent. He discovered the Old French proverb à pied de grue, glossed in a dictionary as “in suspence, on doubtful tearms” (I am retaining the contemporary orthography of the gloss). “Thus,” he said, “it is just conceivable that a pedigree was named from its doubtfulness, in derision.” In a survey of the conjectures on the pedigree of the word pedigree, J. Horace Round, a historian and genealogist of the medieval period, wrote (1887): “With reference to Professor Skeat’s suggestion, which is gravely advanced in his Dictionary, I cannot but wonder that so eminent an etymologist should have seriously put forward so far-fetched a derivation, and one so strangely out of the spirit of that age in which the word was formed.” The first edition of The Century Dictionary copied Skeat’s guess. However, Skeat soon gave it up and offered a convoluted but equally unconvincing new etymology, which Round again ridiculed. Unfortunately, Skeat expressed his strong confidence that a neater etymology than the one he proposed cannot be found. He who never thought twice before castigating his opponents preferred to be praised rather than taken to task (a pardonable attitude) and commented drily on a “not very courteous manner by Mr. Round.”

In 1895 Charles Sweet, the brother of the famous Henry Sweet, and Round put forward the same explanation: according to them, the mark used in old pedigrees had the shape of a so-called broad arrow, that is, a vertical short line and two curved ones radiating from a common center, like three toes of a crane’s foot, with an allusion to the branching out of the descendants from the paternal stock. (In 1887 Round still believed in the source being a crane standing on one leg.) This explanation has become dogma. It can be found in all modern reference works, including the second edition of The Century Dictionary, the last edition of Skeat’s dictionary, and the OED. This situation justifies my title about small triumphs of etymology: after centuries of intelligent guessing, the right solution was found and satisfied nearly everybody.

As some contemporary critics pointed out, several flies stick in the otherwise admirable ointment. We have seen that the letter -g- in the middle of the word pedigree alternated with -c- (pronounced as k) and -d- alternated with -t-. The surnames Pettigrew and Pettygrew bear witness to the popularity of the -t- form. Those variants have never been explained. Also, the modern form is pedigree rather than pedigru(e). Obviously, people did not understand the derivation of that noun and changed -gru to something that looked like degree (as we have seen, many researchers also took -gre at face value). The alternation g ~ c is equally puzzling. At one time, Skeat traced the word to cru- “increase” and believed that the sound of k had acquired voice between two vowels. But the story appears to have begun with gru-, and there was no reason for -g- to turn into k! If the 1410 Latin example (the earliest one known) has value, the form Pedicru in it testifies to the antiquity of c (k) in pedigree.

I suspect that the original editors of the OED followed the Round-Sweet etymology without much enthusiasm, for they quoted Skeat (the latest version) and Sweet and seemed to have accepted their explanation for want of a better one. The OED online suggests that pedi- perhaps shows assimilation to petty or petit, but why should pedigree arouse associations with something small? (Are we ready to return to the idea of “small steps,” so that -gru- will emerge as an alteration of -gre-?) And if -gru- changed to -gre- and pedi- changed to peti- under the influence of degree and petty respectively, why did pedigree become so opaque so early? Speakers begin to indulge in folk etymological games when the word’s form becomes impenetrable through wear and tear. When was our word or the metaphorical phrase transparent and how long did it remain such? As far as we can judge, its provenance was Anglo-French, for on the continent its analogs did not exist (only much later did Engl. pedigree make its way into Modern French). It also remains unclear why the Anglo-Normans needed a neologism for a well-developed concept. Round suggested that pedigree began its life as slang. Perhaps it did. The upper classes do have their jargon. Is then the word centuries older than its first attestation (dignified compositions tend to avoid slang), so that by the fifteenth century no one could recognize the elements of the compound?

Such are etymological triumphs. In Rome, when a triumph was celebrated, a clown ran along the chariot and denigrated the conqueror. In the study of word origins our chariot is still rolling through the streets of Ancient Rome to the shrieks of a comedian.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Jesse window in Dorchester abbey. Photo by Bill Tyne. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Bill Tyne Flickr. (2) Zuiganji Sugito. Painting on sliding door (sugito) c. 1620. Hasegawa Toin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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41. Casting a last spell: After Skeat and Bradley

By Anatoly Liberman


I think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if the answer is yes, what should we do? Conversely, if no, why no? Native speakers—let us call them native spellers—of English have long since stopped worrying: school is a place where they must spend twelve rather dull years (though occasionally spiced with proms, sports, and camping out) and survive multifarious bullying (note: bullying is bad, even illegal). Learning to spell is also bullying, but no law exists against it, and a spellchecker with its autocorrect is a nice palliative. There is no opprobrium in saying: “I am a terrible speller”; it even sounds coy. The only people who worry are foreigners. With regard to English, they have neither “competence” nor the wonderful thing called gut feeling, and they honestly try to memorize (memorise?) hundreds of words like hold ~shoulder, full ~ awful, awful ~ awesome, lame ~ claim, usable ~ feasible, and acknowledge ~ accredit. Our collective heart bleeds when we ponder the fate of undocumented aliens and the many difficulties any recent outsider has to overcome during the period of adjustment.

I am all for some version of spelling reform (to boost my case, I’ll capitalize the first letters: Spelling Reform), but my firm conviction is that, if something is going to be done about it, it will be done only out of compassion for our new and prospective citizens.

What can or should be done? Perhaps it will be useful to state a few trivial facts.

(1)   Given a multitude of English dialects, no system that depends on rendering sounds by the letters of the Roman alphabet will satisfy everybody; Bradley was quite right. We cannot achieve the neatness of Finnish. Some people distinguish between horse and hoarse in pronunciation; they, and only they, naturally, applaud the spelling -or- ~ -oar-. For most American speakers writer and rider are homophones, though professional phoneticians tell us that there is a difference. I wonder. If some difference existed, students would not be filling their papers with pearls like title (= tidal) wave, deep-seeded (= seated) prejudice, and even futile (= feudal) system (but you see: they never studied medieval history and have long since realized the futility of their endeavors to spell polysyllables correctly; no feud in this department). Also, there would not have been cartoons featuring tutors, tooters, and Tudors. Any spelling of words with t between vowels will “disenfranchise” somebody. Horse ~ hoarse, Plato ~ play dough, and the rest like them are minor irritants. The pronunciation of words like time and tame is much more confusing: time, tahm, toim for time and time for tame are real killers. Do you chinge trines at foiv(e) o’clock? Perhaps you should. Conclusion: in English, strictly phonetic spelling is a utopia. For pedagogical purposes some version of phonetic transcription may be useful, but this is as far as it goes.

SIMPLIFIED SPELLING FIG_ 1(2)

(2)   With regard to spelling, etymological considerations should be of minimal importance. It is true that many centuries ago knock and gnaw had the sounds of k- and g-. Why is this relic to be honored? Many other words have also lost their initial consonants. For example, hn-, hl-, and hr- were legitimate onsets in Old English. Yet h- has been shed before n, r, and l, and we are much the better for the loss of h- in the written form of loud, nap, and rue. Or should we “hrather” have hloud, hnap, and hrue? Etymology takes us to the past, but a good deal of chaos characterized Middle and Early Modern English spelling. A look at any relatively old word in the OED will reveal a baffling multitude of spelling variants through history. People often say that they would like to keep etymological spelling for its sentimental value. What sentiment? What value? Those who love the history of English (a laudable passion) should enroll in courses on the older periods of their mother tongue: Beowulf, Chaucer, (H)occleve….

(3)   Every spelling reform partly destroys the link between the printed books of the past and the present. Yet anyone who will leaf through the literature published in the eighteenth century will notice that even our recent tradition has not been perfectly stable (also read Shakespeare’s texts brought out in the seventeenth century). Mild reforms have been implemented in several countries. In Russia, not all of them can even be called mild. Especially radical was the one associated with the events of 1917, but the project of that reform predated the Bolsheviks’ takeover of power. Several letters that no longer had any correspondence in the modern language disappeared. The rupture was serious, yet the change made sense, old books are not hard to understand, and today probably no one would plead for the return to the prerevolutionary norm. Sweden too went a long way toward bringing spelling and even grammar in line with everyday speech.

More recently, spelling has been modernized in Iceland and Germany. The timid German reform met with violent opposition; yet now everybody seems to be accustomed or resigned to the novelties. There is no reason why English spelling should remain untouchable. At least one experiment took place in the English-speaking world not too long ago. In the United States, -or replaced -our; centre and its ilk became center; the suffix -ize replaced -ise; words like moulder and smoulder (but not boulder or shoulder!) lost their u; practice and practise, along with defence and defense have lost the letter that distinguishes the verb from the noun (one has lost it s and the other its c); and so forth. English culture survived those measures.

(4)   This brings me to my main point. For any project of Spelling Reform (still capitalized) to be successful, it should be gradual and progress in several waves. The greatest offender is superfluous letters. The reformers who were active about a hundred years ago began with hav, giv, liv, ar (= have, give, are). This, I think, was a mistake. Such heavy-duty words should be left intact, at least for now. Society will not agree to “liv and make liv.” At first, only painless measurers should be suggested. Perhaps opponents will agree to get rid of the second l in full or to follow (folow?) some (!) American variants, seeing that, for instance, the difference between the suffixes -ize and -ise has little justification.

An etymological blog is not a proper forum for offering a ful(l)-fledged program. At this stage, it is more important to engage the public than to argue over details. As long as the reformers keep preaching to the converted (choir, quire), nothing will happen. At one time, I thought that influential politicians should be approached, but I was probably wrong. Politicians will always have to take care of more important things, like raising or cutting taxes, sending or not sending troops abroad, and getting reelected. The suggestion I have recently heard (“try to win over journalists and publishers”) sounds more practicable. After all, journalists write for newspapers, they wield the metaphorical pen, while publishers sell books. Are they interested? Will anyone contributing to numerous word colum(n)s respond to this post? Will dictionary makers take part in the discussion? Ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, hasn’t the time come for you to join forces with the reformers? Writers of the world, unite!

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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42. Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages Mark Abley

Abley starts in Australia, then travels to Oklahoma, the Isle of Man, Provence, Wales, and then New York, looking at minority languages that are in danger of dying out, and what people are trying to do in order to save them (with varying degrees of success.)

Along the way, he provides a potent argument for the role a language plays in culture and why keeping the small, endangered languages alive is important. (His argument is compelling enough that I personally feel it broadens out well as to why it’s important to learn another language-- not just for trade or commerce, but as a way to provide another way of looking at the world.)

Abley’s not a linguist, and I know that some of this book irks actual linguists and scholars in the field, but I think his non-expert approach really works in making the subject accessible to non-expert readers.

My main complaint is that it’s fairly European/North American-centric. While other areas of the world are touched on, I think it would have been stronger to look at other areas of the world more in-depth.

Parts of it are heart-breaking as languages and cultures die, stamped out by English and other dominant forces. But the things people are doing to try to save their language were inspiring, and, of course, we can always look to Wales and Israel to see how a dead language can come back.

Language death isn’t something one often thinks about, but it’s becoming more and more of an issue, and as a language dies, so much dies with it.

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43. Very short talks

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By Chloe Foster


We have seen an abundance of Very Short Introductions (VSI) authors appearing at UK festivals this year. Appearances so far have included at Words by the Water festival in Keswick, Oxford Literary Festival, and Edinburgh Science festival. The versitility of the series and its subjects means our author talks are popular at a variety of different types of festivals. First up, Words by the Water:



Later this month, we’ll have talks from VSI authors at Chipping Norton Literary Festival on the 26th and 27th April. This is followed by a series of talks at Ways with Words festival in Devon on the 12th July, Kings Place festival in London on the 14th September, and Cheltenham Literature festival from 3rd -12th October.

The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday, subscribe to Very Short Introductions articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS., and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook.

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44. Henry James, or, on the business of being a thing

By Jeff Sherwood


It is virtually impossible for an English-language lexicographer to ignore the long shadow cast by Henry James, that late nineteenth-century writer of fiction, criticism, and travelogues. We can attribute this in the first place to the sheer cosmopolitanism of his prose. James’s writing marks the point of intersection between registers and regions of English that we typically think of as mutually opposed: American and British, Victorian and modernist, intellectual and popular, even the simple good sense of Saxon-Germanicism and the fine silk shades of Franco-Romanticism. Thus, because his writing defies easy categories, it isn’t hard to suppose that James belongs in the back parlor of English-language history, a curiosity of passing interest, but one which, in its very idiosyncrasy, fails to capture the ‘ordinary, everyday’ language.

Henry-James-books-656x485

Henry James in the OED

Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites Henry James over one thousand times, often in entries for common English words like useturn, comedo, and be. At least one explanation for this preponderance is the fact that, precisely because James’s prose incorporates elements from so many different kinds of English, it is uniquely positioned to exemplify—and even differentiate between—very subtle distinctions of usage and meaning. Thus, at green adj. James’s early novel The American provides a downright crystalline use of the phrase green in earth to mean ‘just buried’: ‘He thought of Valentin de Bellegarde, still green in the earth of his burial.’ By adding the final (semantically superfluous) three words, not only does James clarify the phrase’s context, he accentuates its poetic wordplay; its dependence on the double sense of green both as ‘new’ (sense 7a) and as ‘covered with vegetation’ (sense 2a) in order to conjure the renewal of the earth that is part and parcel of the burial rite. In this case, poeticism, often an obstacle to meaning, is actually the most probable explanation for the collocation’s longevity.

This old thing?

James’s ability to write prose that is both fastidiously discerning and euphemistically elliptical is not accidental, and cannot fail to intrigue someone whose business it is to describe words all day. In fact, despite clearly affectionate attachments to a number of words (presence and relation leap to mind), the one I would nominate as James’s absolute favorite is of great concern for lexicography—the thoroughly common word thing. Meaning quite literally any-thing from the genitals (sense 11 c) to a work of art (sense 13, complete with a James citation), thing is remarkably Jamesian in its ability to denote both the most concretely literal elements of reality and the most rarefied abstractions of human thought. And it is in just this respect that the word presents itself at the heart of perhaps the most naïve yet essential question that the lexicographer must answer: whether any particular meaning associated with a given word is actually ‘a thing.’ At times, this can be quite easy: it is not difficult to evaluate whether the physical object we mean when we say ‘smart phone’ is a ‘thing.’ But in many cases, the ‘thing’ referred to by a word is only conceptual. The existence of what we mean by ‘freedom’, for example, cannot be empirically proven. All we can say for sure is that the frequency and manner in which people use such words strongly suggests that they mean specific ‘things’.

Philosophically speaking, what makes ‘thing’ so interesting is that it straddles the gap between words that refer to physical objects and those that refer to abstract concepts, serving as a kind of verbal ‘junk drawer’ where items from both groups get casually tossed, only to wind up completely tangled and confused. Unsurprisingly, this confusion is just what James chooses to explore in his short story ‘The Real Thing.’ Its protagonist is an illustrator visited by two aristocrats, Major and Mrs. Monarch, who have fallen on hard times. They volunteer themselves as models for the artist, presuming that as bona fide members of society they are more suitable subjects for the aristocratic characters he depicts than the working-class types he typically employs. In fact, of course, the couple is awkward and unnatural, unable to embody the concept of aristocracy despite being literal examples of it.

Defining the tooth fairy

In just the same way, when a particular word is used ‘in the real world’, it will almost never be a perfect example of the concept it refers to. Consequently, it becomes the lexicographer’s job to improve upon ‘the real thing’, to illustrate a word more vividly than the real world can. This is especially clear when the word being defined refers to a fictional character, like the tooth fairy. To give wholesale priority to this term as a lexical object would render a definition like ‘a fairy that takes children’s baby teeth after they fall out and leaves a coin under the child’s pillow.’ This covers how the term is ordinarily used, since in everyday speech we are not in the habit of constantly remarking on the key conceptual detail that the tooth fairy is not real. Nevertheless, a definition that fails to note this misses, paradoxically enough, ‘the real thing.’ Just as Major Monarch doesn’t quite look like ‘the real thing’ he is, sometimes a word used in everyday speech doesn’t quite capture the thing it really is.

Jeff Sherwood is a US Assistant Editor for Oxford Dictionaries. Read more about Henry James with Oxford World’s Classics. A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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Image: Montage of Henry James Oxford World’s Classics editions.

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45. April Showers: Language and Style

I'm continuing my journey of what waters my writer's soul. I love to read books and I'm touching on a few books this month that have added creative water to my work. This week I'm going to chat about Kathi Appelt's TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP.  This one fun read and has a swinging beat. In this story Bingo and J’miah, raccoon brothers are on a mission to save Sugar Man Swamp. Two things standout for me in this book -- language and style.

I love the language here. There is a rhythm in the cadence of the language that reminds me of music. Here's a bit of lyricism : "Nosotros somos paisanos. We are fellow countrymen. We come from the same soil." This bit gives me a good chill. I also love that the language uncovers place. For example: “They say that lightning never strikes in the same place twice, but the same is not true for courage. As it turns out, when courage strikes, it almost always begets more courage.” The choice of begets here coupled with lightning puts me in mind of an old time southern Gospel preacher. I also get some Texas swing and Texas drawl on every page. I kept smiling with each twist of phrase. Specific word choice creates universal appeal. It makes the language breathe. Check the similes in your book. Watch out for the cliches. Do better.

The style of TRUE BLUE SCOUTS is all about the southern storytelling tradition with the Texas tall tale tradition mixed in.  Multiple story lines weave here, and reminded me of a great uncle of mine who was a master basket weaver. He knew just how to bend a strip of bark or a stalk of sugar cane into the perfect basket shape. Appelt jumps from head to head: raccoons, a rattle snake, humans,feral hogs, the Sugarman and more. She captures in her word basket the need to save our natural places, the preciousness of the world around us, and what exactly it means to be a hero. Style has a job, and in this case it's to bring everyone around to the back porch for a stor, to take the chills, the laughs, and riotousness and learn something too. Think about your style and do more.

I hope that you put you best efforts into the language and style of your work this week. It might just transform into something bigger than you thought it could be. I will be back next week with more April showers. I hope you return too.

Also please consider checking out my upcoming ebook PLUMB CRAZY from Swoon Romance. Thanks!

This week the doodle is on a egg. Here is "Spidey Egg."

 
Here is a little quote for your pocket.
 
I admire people who dare to take the language, English, and understand it and understand the melody. Maya Angelou

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46. Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman


Henry Bradley, while writing his paper (see the previous post), must have looked upon Skeat as his main opponent. This becomes immediately clear from the details. For instance, Skeat lamented the use of the letter c in scissors and Bradley defended it. He even noted, in the supplement to the paper devoted to Spelling Reform, that, all Skeat’s ardor and arguments notwithstanding, in his publications and personal letters he stuck to traditional spelling. This mild taunt was beside the point. Why should Skeat have adopted reformed or simplified spelling before it became the norm?

Skeat’s program paper was delivered in 1906. In modern times, the proposal for simplified spelling was first made in 1881, and the decade before the First World War witnessed an unprecedented and never to be repeated splash of interest in this matter. In the United States, some linguistic journals agreed to print papers with the words having the appearance favored by the reformers. George O. Curme, a distinguished American linguist, published a scholarly article in a leading German periodical using “new orthography” (1914). I needn’t remind anyone that this was the epoch of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, hence the numerous cartoons connecting him and the Reform. In 1910 George B. Shaw believed that England would move toward phonetic spelling in the foreseeable future. Foreign scholars, especially in Sweden and the Netherlands, clamored for action, and offered recipes. English, they pointed out, had become an international language and its written form was the greatest handicap to those who wished to learn it.

The most timid attempt at Spelling Reform

The most timid attempt at Spelling Reform

The war made all such problems irrelevant. Then came the Bolsheviks and the Nazis and another war. In later times, the Chomskyan revolution did a lot of harm to the “cause.” Chomsky’s emphasis on the historical logic of English spelling contributed to the loss of the little enthusiasm scholars might have for Spelling Reform. He taught that one has to distinguish between underlying forms and surface realizations. Archaic English spelling provided Chomsky and his closest ally Morris Halle with a treasure trove of “underlying forms” (for example, we spell take, and the underlying form has “long a,” that is, the vowel of Modern Engl. spa, father, etc., and it is exactly this vowel from which the modern diphthong developed). In that academic battle, Bradley won a decisive victory, a fact to be regretted.

Skeat’s paper runs to eighteen pages. His main point, so cleverly contested by Bradley, is predictable: letters should represent sounds, but English spelling fails to do so. Very funny from our perspective is his suggestion for explaining to boys (naturally!) the true value of English vowels. The English should give up their habit of Anglicizing Latin pronunciation, and, once the boys begin to read Latin approximately as they would read Italian, they will understand the nature of sound change, and it will be easier to explain the correlation between letters and sounds, a major prerequisite for the success of the Reform. Alas and alack, today this recommendation has little value: our “boys” no longer study Latin for six years.

Help from Abroad

Help from Abroad

One of the pioneers of Spelling Reform was the great philologist Henry Sweet, and Skeat supported his ideas. These are the spellings both of them advocated: hav, liv, abov; agreev, aproov, solv, freez, etc. (in the e-less category, only adz and ax gained a foothold, and only in American English); jepardy, bredth; acheev, beleev; cumfort, tuch, cuzin; flurish; batl, ketl, writn; lam, num; lookt, puld; honor, labor (once again the last words will not offend the American eye). Skeat referred to two great gains the Reform would have. The first strikes me as almost humorous, even though offered in dead earnest, the second as vital.

“The first is that those partial reforms would necessarily involve the disuse of a large number of useless letters. In this way more matter would be got into a page, and some labour in the compositions of the type would be saved; and as this would happen in every case, …it might very easily save every printer and publisher a considerable sum of money. It would not be surprising if the aggregate savings, in the course of a year, throughout the British Empire, were to amount to a considerable sum of money. [He projected the economy of thousands of pounds.]… The second is that the task of learning to read would be considerably simplified, and the time taken to achieve that task would be considerably shortened…. In this case there can be no doubt at all that the sums thus saved would be very considerable.”

He devoted several paragraphs to beating this willing horse.

Skeat summarized the situation quite convincingly: English words have turned into hieroglyphs that have to be learned mechanically. With this spelling we are not quite in China (figuratively speaking), because many words are still spelled phonetically, but we are halfway through (I am paraphrasing, not quoting Skeat). Close to the end of the paper he admitted that since 1881 absolutely no progress had been made in reforming English spelling. Publishers and journalists crushed every attempt to tamper with the existing system (“I speak it to our utter shame,” he added). But his explanation of the reasons for the failure is probably wrong. He ascribed the public’s near universal resistance to its ignorance of the most basic facts of linguistics. The obtuseness and ignorance of his countrymen was one of Skeat’s favorite subjects; he had no patience with human stupidity.

However, in this case, it was probably not only ignorance that killed the Reform. We should rather consider the natural wish of human beings to protect their riches, be it material possessions or spiritual property. Someone who has learned the spelling of the noun occurrence (very few have, as far as I can judge), has perhaps been whipped, rapped over the knuckles, or received bad grades for spelling it with -ance or with one r (or one c), will cling to the hard-obtained treasure like grim death. To waste years on such terrible words and give up their spelling? No! Besides, in England honor, labor, ax, and their likes had the stigma of being Americanisms. Who would fall so low as to imitate the Americans? Even after 1918 British periodicals carried blood curdling letters to the editor about the corrupting influence of Americanisms on pure English.

From this point of view, it is curious to read the concluding paragraph of Skeat’s paper.

“If, however, it should come to pass that a real Spelling Reform should previously be effected in America, it may quite possibly be a gain to us; because the history of our language is there more generally known. I lately met with the President of an American university, who said to me (I have no doubt with perfect truth) ‘In our universities English takes the first place’. This is one of those facts of which the ordinary Englishman is entirely ignorant; indeed, it is almost impossible for him to imagine how such a state of things can be possible. I recommend the contemplation of this astounding fact to your serious consideration.”

I am a great fan of Walter Skeat’s and often try to placate his irascible shadow. This time I hasten to reassure the great man that English no longer takes the first place in American universities; at all stages, we teach concepts and critical thinking, not facts. We despise memorization and encourage discussion, ideally group discussion following a PowerPoint presentation. One semester of the history of English is rarely required even of English majors, and for spelling we have spellcheckers. However, it is not good to finish even a grim comedy (that is, a drama in which the protagonists don’t die) on a gloomy note. Perhaps indeed, the stimulus to reform English spelling will come from America; we’ll see. The past is hard to reconstruct, but the future is even harder to predict.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Printed in 1911 in the American Transactions of the Philological Association (part of the article by Charles P.G. Scott “Bogus and his Crew”; Scott was the etymologist for The Century Dictionary). (2) A sample of what the Swedes suggested (the Anglic Fund, Uppsala). Both images courtesy of Anatoly Liberman.

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47. Books in Every Language for Every Child

Today’s guest blog post is from Dr. Mandy Stewart, an assistant professor of bilingual education at Texas Woman’s University. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMandyStewart.

nathan and neftaliHow many books have you read in your lifetime?  How many picture books did an adult read aloud to you while growing up?

Most of us can’t even begin to count the innumerable books we have been exposed to since birth.   Each book — its story, its illustrations, its author, and its language — sends strong messages to children. 

But what messages do children receive?  Are they learning every day at school that their language, the one they speak to those they love most, is not worthy of being in books?  Are they learning that people like them don’t belong in printed stories? Unfortunately, those are the messages some children receive on a daily basis at school.

Culturally and linguistically diverse books are not as accessible in our public libraries and Citlalibookstores as more mainstream books.  It takes countless hours (and countless dollars) to find books in other languages and get them in the classroom.  Every year I look for books in Spanish that are at various reading levels, that are engaging and that mirror student’s experiences.  And it is exponentially more costly to find the same books in other languages from even more cultural perspectives.

The good news is this does not have to be the case. Today there are many children’s, adolescent, and young adult authors writing from diverse cultural and linguistic perspectives and many publishers bringing these stories to life.  We now have quality age-appropriate literature available in many languages.

Through their Stories for All Project, First Book is a pioneer in ensuring that all children  have access to culturally and linguistically diverse books. They have an excellent collection of literature that represents diverse families. They also have many easy readers, picture books, and chapter books available in Spanish and other languages.  I am grateful that I am able to purchase many of these at a very low price for my son’s Spanish/English bilingual 1st grade class.

We must keep demanding quality literature in more languages, written and illustrated by more diverse people.  Surely we want all children to say: I am learning to read in my own language.  My language and culture are important enough to be represented in the books in my classroom.  My life story is worthy of being written.  My family, my language, my culture, and my life experiences are valuable. I am important.

We cannot stop until that is a reality for EVERY child and youth in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and in our society.

Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart, Ph. D. is an Assistant Professor of Bilingual Education at Texas Woman’s University.  Her son is in Mrs. Schirico’s 1st grade bilingual class at Elkins Elementary in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw Independent School District in Fort Worth, TX.  His class has received about 100 books from First Book in English and Spanish to read at school with each other and at home with their parents.

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48. Monthly etymology gleanings for April 2014

By Anatoly Liberman


As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

Etymology and poetry


In tracing the origin of words, we often have to deal with sound symbolism and sound imitation. Sound effects are also the glue of organized speech. Old Germanic verses depended on alliteration (and were chanted), folklore is chanted all over the world, Greek, Latin, and Germanic poets distinguished between long and short syllables, and, until recently, European poetry was based on rhyme. But free verse seemingly has no phonetic foundation. Is it poetry? The question does not quite belong to this blog, so that I will confine myself to a brief response. Free verse is not devoid of a phonetic base, namely intonation. It is possible to read any piece of prose in such a way that it begins to sound like poetry. Conversely, one can read even well-organized poetry like prose. But traditional poetry, just because it used special devices, could often be attractive without being “clever,” while free verse, in order to impress, has to contain deep or original thoughts. Since few people have them and since for producing free verse one does not need any technical skills, it often degenerates into a string of trivialities parading as emotions. Paradoxically, the fewer devices poets have at their disposal, the harder it is to compose anything memorable and the poorer the outcome is. But rhyme, alliteration, assonances, and the rest do not always disguise banality. Fortunately or unfortunately, in order to produce good poetry (the same holds for any good art), one needs talent, a rare commodity, regardless of style.

Spelling problems. 


For years ingenious people have been composing sentences that can baffle spellers. This is what I found in The Spectator for 1933 (a letter to the editor):

“The following short sentences are made up of English words in common use, but I doubt if one in five of your readers would get full marks if they were given as a dictations exercise: ‘A harassed pedlar met an embarrassed saddler near a cemetery to gauge the symmetry of a lady’s ankle. The manoeuver they performed with unparalleled ecstasy’.”

Pedlar is peddler, while manoeuver lost one vowel in American English. Other than that, the exercise does not strike me as either too complicated or as a product of great wit. However, it was nice to hear that even eighty years ago at least twenty-five percent of the well-educated subscribers to The Spectator were already not fully literate. It is even nicer to  read the statement made in 1931 (another letter to the same worthy journal): “There is much to be said for the simplification of English spelling, however much it may offend the taste of lovers of English, but the world cannot wait while England sets her house in order.” Indeed it cannot; yet only the English speaking world has the authority of doing something in this area.

Grammar


A clever case of they. I am sure everything is correct in the sentence that follows, but it still sounds funny. My local newspaper has recently discussed coyotes prowling in the city. The deputy police chief said: “They’re an animal that does not like human contact.” Are analogs thinkable, for example: “They are a toy that can harm babies”?

To whom it may concern. (from News Service) “Meanwhile, Syria’s state news agency said that authorities liberated Austrian lawyer Anton Sander, whom had been held by rebels in Homs for the past four months.” Why won’t we pass a law prohibiting the form whom? Something like: “If you want to say whom, say who.”

Old languages and complexity. It was not my goal to compare the morphological complexity of Hittite (or Tocharian) and Sanskrit (Greek, Latin, Gothic). This kind of comparison is hard because a language recorded early may be more “advanced” than a language whose written monuments go back to a later date. I only wanted to point out that a hope to find simplicity in ancient languages has no foundation.

A not too primitive Hittite.

A not too primitive Hittite.

Small fry


Jixy ~ taxi. I received two responses to my note on the “jixy,” named after Joynson-Hickes. It was London cabmen who coined the word, and yes, the politician was known as Jix; hence the blend. Jixi is not only a blend of Jix and taxi but also a tribute to the popularity of this type of word formation. So those who hate the noun selfie should beware: such words have been around for a long time. Consider walkie-talkie, movie, to say nothing of Tommy, Jackie, and so forth. That the word (selfie) is inoffensive does not of course mean that the thing should be admired. But my area is language, not mores.

Speaking of words and mores: Old Engl. myltenhus “brothel.” Could this word be a reshaping of Latin multa ~ mulcta “fine, punishment” or multus “much, many”? In etymology, all kinds of things are possible. The question is how probable our solution is. According to traditional opinion, Old Engl. myltestre “prostitute” is an alteration of Latin meretrix. As I said in the post on brothel, I have no enthusiasm for this idea and prefer my own derivation (myltenhus = stew house, stews; this is, for example, what such establishments were called in Shakespeare’s days). However, it may well be that also in the seventeenth century the phrase common house meant the same (see Notes and Queries, June 2008, pp. 191-194). Perhaps in Anglo-Saxon England brothels ware also called “houses for many’’ (multi) or for the behavior that carried its own punishment, but such guesses can never be substantiated.

Wolf puns. In my previous gleanings, a picture by the great Russian artist Valentin Serov showed a wolf walking past a fence. There was a question whether I deliberately punned on the name Serov (stress on the second syllable; ser- means “gray”) and the color of the wolf, the more so as I had recently discussed the etymology of the word gray. I wish I had noticed the coincidence! No, the pun was unintentional. Other than that, Russian family names from color words are common: compare Belov, Chernov, and Krasnov, from “white,” “black,” and “red” respectively.

A final flourish.


“Mr. Snowden had an enthusiastic reception when he returned to London. He was hailed as a national hero. These revenges of time are amusing and also reassuring.” No, not our very own Snowden but Philip Snowden, the once wll-known British politician. This quotation is again from The Spectator (1929; a faithful volunteer is looking through this journal in search of materials for my etymological database, and I cannot help reading adjoining pages). But never say die! Edward Snowden was installed as Glasgow University’s rector and succeeded in this post Winnie Mandela and Mordechai Vanunu. These amusing and reassuring revenges of time… Nomen est omen.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Hittite orthostat – Teshub. Gaziantep, Turkey. Photo by Avi Dolgin. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via dolgin Flickr.

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

Here’s a bonza (first-rate) addition to award-winning author Carole P. Roman's fun and informative series, If You Were Me and Lived in …. This time readers are introduced to the sunburned country found down under in the southern hemisphere, Australia.

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50. What do Otis Redding and Roberto Carlos have in common?

By Arturo Hernandez


Soul’s latest incarnation comes in the guise of St. Paul and the Broken Bones. St. Paul is not really a saint. He is Paul Janeway of a new band that is hot on the rise. When you listen to him sing it evokes memories of a time past. But the most impressive part is that he does not look the part. People wonder how someone who looks nothing like Otis Redding can sound just like him. So how is it that this Drew Carey look-a-like ended up sounding so soulful? The answer comes from his early childhood.

Janeway grew up hearing gospel music and went to church on Sundays. His parents made a conscious decision to not allow him to hear anything but gospel and soul music. Church also contained quite a bit of gospel. He sung to a number of records and was immersed in this genre of music. He continued in his life and was actually almost ready to graduate from college when the opportunity to sing appeared once again. His band began to receive praise for their singing and the rest is history.

Like Paul Janeway, I also grew up with a childhood music that I would come to rediscover many years later. During my childhood summer trips to Mexico, I would often listen to music. One of the most famous pop singers in Mexico was Roberto Carlos, a native from the northeastern part of Brazil. He had some success in Brazil but nothing like the huge following he had in Latin America, where his accent sounded exotic in Spanish sung songs.

Boy giving thumbs up headphones

On one of our record hunting excursions in the Mission District in San Francisco my dad found a record that looked just like the one I had at home, except that the cover was white not pink — Portuguese version of the record I already had. My curiosity piqued, I began to listen to these songs and soon enough I was singing them with a very thick Spanish accent. I probably sung to the record for about a year or two before I grew older and took on other musical interests.

That very thick Spanish accent remained for me when I took Portuguese as a college student and it did not go away during my first few months in Brazil. However, over time the thick accent disappeared entirely and I came to speak with the accent of a Paulista, as those from Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic capital are called.

Many years later I decided to sing a Brazilian lullaby from that Roberto Carlos album to my son Nikolas. And the day I sung it my accent in Portuguese stood in strong contrast to the Paulista that I had grown accustomed to as an adult. I realized that I sounded like a northeastern Brazilian, the same accent that Roberto Carlos had sung with in my childhood. All those years later, the early memory of that song had persisted and it surprised me when it came out. Like Paul Janeway, my exposure to an early set of sounds had created a vocal imprint that reappeared many years later.

People often ask if earlier is better. Well, there is one case where this is almost always true and it has to do with our accent in a language. So if you want to sound like Otis Redding or Roberto Carlos it is better to start working on it earlier in life.

Arturo Hernandez is currently Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston. He is the author of The Bilingual Brain. His major research interest is in the neural underpinnings of bilingual language processing and second language acquisition in children and adults. He has used a variety of neuroimaging methods as well as behavioral techniques to investigate these phenomena which have been published in a number of peer reviewed journal articles. His research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. You can follow him on Twitter @DrAEHernandez.

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The post What do Otis Redding and Roberto Carlos have in common? appeared first on OUPblog.

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