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It occurred to me to write a short essay about the word verve by chance. As a general rule, I try to stick to my last and stay away from Romance etymology, even though the logic of research occasionally makes me meddle with it. About two months ago near the street where I live (for a story to win confidence, it usually has to contain a few superfluous references to time, place, and exact numbers), I noticed an ad by a realty called “Verve” and decided that, if not only producers of energy drinks and admirers of female beauty but also real estate agents find it possible to adopt such a pompous name, there would be little harm in devoting a few lines to its use and history in this blog.
Verve goes back to Old French. It surfaced there in the eleven-hundreds, occurred rarely (as a rule, in the plural), and seems to have meant “talk” or perhaps “fantasies” before, in the seventeenth century, it acquired its modern sense “high spirits, animation, enthusiasm.” (More about this word’s original sense will be said below.) Also close to the end of that century verve appeared in English, endowed with an almost technical meaning “special bent, vein, or talent in writing” (OED). “Intellectual vigor, especially as manifest in literary productions; great vivacity of ideas and expression” became common from approximately 1870. In general use the word signifies “energy, vigor, spirit.”
For a long time verve must have been unintelligible to the English public. The OED quotes Ouida, who italicized the word as late as in 1863. But Ouida’s first language was French, and, her bizarre habits and penchant for ostentation notwithstanding, she may have been wary of sounding snobbish. It is certainly a high-flown word. (I am pleased to report that the house was sold in a week. This is what it means for a business to have an appealing name.) Today verve often graces reviews and articles dealing with music and all kinds of performances, and is expected to demonstrate their authors’ mastery of the language.
English lexicographers first treated verve as an intruder. It is absent from the early editions of Webster. The etymologists Mueller and Wedgwood ignored it, and Skeat featured it only in the fourth (last) edition of his dictionary. Sometimes verve appeared marked as an exclamation with a single reference: French. Modern English dictionaries, when they do not copy the “standard” etymology from French sources, often say: “Of dubious (uncertain, unknown) origin,” and indeed, as we will see, some doubts about its derivation remain. In 1886, after all the opinions on this matter had been offered and the best one seemingly agreed upon, August Scheler, an outstanding French etymologist, did not object to the solution rejected by most. In searching for the origin of a difficult word, it pays off to consult more reference works than one.
As usual, some conjectures have no justification. Such is tracing verve to fervor, because the initial consonants do not match. The same holds for such improbable etymons of verve as German werfen (Dutch verpen) “to throw,” Latin vertere “to turn” (here even the meanings are too remote), French vertige “dizziness; vertigo,” and French vertu “courage, valor; virtue.” But the oldest conjecture, though it was wide of the truth, found a curious justification in later scholarship. The first great French linguist of the post-medieval period was Gilles Ménage (1613-1692). He derived verve “enthusiasm” from Verbe Divin “Divine Word,” associated with The Son of God (filius Dei), the second person of the Trinity.
A serious exploration of the etymology of verve, as of so many other French words, began with Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance comparative philology. He cited Latin verva “ram’s head used as an ornament on the wall.” This may have been a so-called popular word, motpopulaire, because it occurred only in an inscription. Readers of Latin prose may remember vervex “wether, castrated ram.” The connection between the animal name and verve was allegedly provided by words like Italian capriccio. Capriccio, caprice, capriole, and in English its abbreviated form caper refer us to Latin caper “goat,” an animal famous for its leaps and “capers.”
To buttress Diez’s conclusion, a clever argument has been offered. “Ram” designated not only the animal but also a siege weapon used to beat down walls, that is, a battering ram. The way from an efficient weapon to force and vigor is short. Diez’s explanation was accepted by some of his illustrious contemporaries, including Littré, the author of a celebrated French dictionary. However, all the words listed above, both French and Italian, have suffixes. A change from an animal name to an abstract noun would be unusual. Verve was also approached from Latin verber (or rather from its more frequent plural verbera) “lash, whip, flogging, blow.” The loss of final -r between Latin and French does not appear troublesome.
Diez also considered another derivation of verve, which he rejected but which despite his rejection ultimately won the day. In Old French, verve meant “talk” (sometimes “insincere talk” or possibly “fantasies”) and “proverb.” Definitive conclusions about its meaning in the medieval period are hard to draw, for Old French verve has been attested in few places, and it was traditionally coupled with serve. In some places, it had no other justification except as being a filler for rhyme. In the other Romance languages, verve has no cognates. Those who paid special attention to “talk” and “proverb” set up Latin verba “words” (the plural of verbum) as the etymon of verve. The sense development was reconstructed approximately so: from “words” to “(empty) talk,” further to “fantasies,” and finally to “animation.”
To accept this reconstruction (and the same holds for verbera), one should account for the change of the group -rb- to -rv- between Latin and French. Such a change occurred, but most rarely. The only credible example is verbena “sacred foliage,” whose Spanish and Portuguese reflex is verbena, but the French name of the plant is verveine; hence Engl. vervain. However, the idea that in Vulgar Latin rb tended to become rv is, in principle, acceptable. Franz Settegast (the scholar mentioned in the post on baron), who set up verbera as the etymon of verve and reconstructed the path from “blow” to “verve,” thought of some metaphor like the lashing of the tongue (his examples are French).
The most authoritative dictionaries of French offer only the verba-verve etymology. If it is correct, Ménage, as mentioned earlier, has been partly vindicated, for he may have pointed to the word that did ultimately yield verve. What then is the end result? It is true that an abstract noun cannot go back to an animal name without some suffixes added to it (sheepish, from sheep, is fine, but sheep for “shyness” is not), so that reference to goats probably misses its target. But the now almost universally accepted etymology does not look like a revelation either. Although verbera is a bit too long to have yielded verve, Settegast’s hypothesis does not look hopeless.
We may perhaps ignore the phonetic difficulty (rb to rv), but the semantic path from “words” to “verve” or, for that matter, from “blow” to “verve,” is not straight, even though “fantasies” provides an intermediate stage and castigate could imply both moral and physical punishment. Yet those who say that verve is “of unknown origin” need not do so. “Unknown” is a strong word. It suggests that no information on the subject is available. With regard to verve this is clearly wrong, and, since in this case English etymologists contributed nothing to the discovery of the truth, it would be fair to reproduce the verdict of the most reliable French dictionaries and add a caveat. Nor should it be recommended to repeat the derivation of verve from verba without a caveat. The main aim of a good etymological dictionary should be discussion rather than perpetuating dogma.
For most language learners and lovers, translation is a hot topic. Should I translate new vocabulary into my first language? How can I say x in Japanese? Is this translated novel as good as the original? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that Pushkin isn’t Pushkin unless he’s read in Russian, and I have definitely chastised my own students for anxiously writing out lengthy bilingual wordlists: Paola, you’ll only remember trifle if you learn it in context!
Context-based learning aside, I’m all for translation: without it, we wouldn’t understand each other. However, I remain unconvinced that untranslatable words really exist. In fact, I wrote a blog post on some of my favorite Russian words that touched on this very topic. Looking at the responses it received both here and in the Twitterverse, I decided to set out on my own linguistic odyssey: could I wrap my head around ‘untranslatable’ once and for all?
It’s all Greek to me!
Many lovely people of the internet are in accordance: untranslatable words are out there, and they’re fascinating. A quick Google brings up articles, listicles, and even entire blogs on the matter. Goya, jayus, dépaysement — all wonderful words that neatly convey familiar concepts, but also “untranslatable” words that appear accompanied by an English definition. This English definition may well be longer and more complex than the foreign-language word itself (Oxford translates dépaysement as both “change of scenery” and “disorientation,” for example), but it is arguably a translation nonetheless. A lot of the coffee-break reads popping up on the internet don’t contain untranslatable words, but rather language lacking a word-for-word English equivalent. Is a translation only a translation if it is eloquent and succinct?
Translation vs. definition
When moving from one language to another, what’s a translation and what’s a definition — and is there a difference? Brevity seems to matter: the longer the translation, the more likely it is to be considered a definition. Does this make it any less of a translation? When we translate, we “express sense;” when we define, we “state or describe exactly the nature, scope, or meaning.” If I say that toska (Russian) means misery, boredom, yearning, and anguish, is that a definition or a translation? Or even both? It is arguably a definition — yet all of the nouns above could, dependent on context, be used as the best translation.
If we are to talk about what is translatable and what isn’t, we need to start talking about language, rather than words. The Spanish word duende often features in lists of untranslatable words: it refers to the mystical power by which an artist or artwork captivates its audience. Have I just defined duende, or translated it? I for one am not so sure anymore, but I do know that in context, its meaning is clear: un cantante que tiene duende becomes “a singer who has a certain magic about him.” The same goes for the French word dépaysement. By itself, dépaysement can mean many things, but in the phrase les touristes anglais recherchent le dépaysement dans les voyages dans les îles tropicales, it’s clear from context that the sense required is “change of scene” (“English tourists look for a change of scene on holidays to tropical islands”). Does this mean that all words are translatable, as long they are in context?
Saying no to stereotypes
One of my biggest beefs with untranslatable word memes is the suggestion that these linguistic treasure troves are loaded with cultural inferences. Most of the time they’re twee, rather than offensive: for example, the German word Waldeinsamkeit means “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” Gosh, how typical of those woodland-loving Germans, wandering around the Black Forest enjoying oneness with nature! The existence of an “untranslatable” word hints at some kind of cultural mystery that is beyond our comprehension — but does the lack of a word-for-word translation of Waldeinsamskeit mean that no English speaker (or French speaker, or Mandarin speaker) can understand the concept of being alone in the woods? Of course not! However, these misinterpretations of Waldeinsamskeit, Schadenfreude, Backpfeifengesicht et al. make me think: what about those words that really do have a particular cultural resonance? Can we really translate them?
Excuse me, can I borrow your word?
Specialized translation throws up its own variety of “untranslatable” words. For example, if you are translating a text about the Russian banya into a language where steam baths are not the norm, how do you go about translating nouns such as venik (веник)? A venik is a broom, but in the context of the banya it is a collection of leafy twigs (rather than dried twigs) that is used to beat those enjoying the restorative steam. Translating venik as “broom” here would be wildly inaccurate (and probably generate some amusing mental images). The existence of a word-for-word translation doesn’t provide the whole answer if cultural context is missing. We can find examples of “untranslatable” words in relation to almost any culture-specific event, be it American Thanksgiving, Spanish bullfighting, or Balinese Nyepi. If I were to translate an article about bullfighting and retain tienta rather than use “trial” (significantly less specific), does that mean that tienta in this context is really untranslatable?
So what has all this research taught me about translation? Individual words may not be translatable, but language is. And as for the accuracy of the translation? That often depends on how we, as speakers of a particular language, attribute our own meaning. Sometimes, the “translation” just has to be Schadenfreude.
When it comes to assessing someone’s sincerity, we pay close attention to what people say and how they say it. This is because the emotion-based elements of communication are understood as partially controllable and partially uncontrollable. The words that people use tend to be viewed as relatively controllable; in contrast, rate of speech, tone of voice, hesitations, and gestures (paralinguistic elements) have tended to be viewed as less controllable. As a result of the perception of speakers’ lack of control over them, the meanings conveyed via paralinguistic channels have tended to be understood as providing more reliable evidence of a speaker’s inner state.
Paradoxically, the very elements that are viewed as so reliable are consistent with multiple meanings. Furthermore, people often believe that their reading of another person’s demeanor is the correct one. Many studies have shown that people – judges included – are notoriously bad at assessing the meaning of another person’s affective display. Moreover, some research suggests that people are worse at this when the ethnic background of the speaker differs from their own – not an uncommon situation when defendants address federal judges, even in 2014.
The element of defendants’ demeanor is not only problematic for judges; it is also problematic for the record of the proceedings. This is due to courtroom reporters’ practice of reporting the words that are spoken and excluding input from paralinguistic channels.
I observed one case in which this practice had the potential for undermining the integrity of the sentencing hearing transcript. In this case, the defendant lost her composure while making her statement to the court. The short, sob-filled “sorry” she produced mid-way through her statement was (from my perspective) clearly intended to refer to her preceding tears and the delays in her speech. The official transcript, however, made no reference to the defendant’s outburst of emotion, thereby making her “sorry” difficult to understand. Without the clarifying information about what was going on at the time – namely, the defendant’s crying — her “sorry” could conceivably be read as part of her apology to the court for her crime of robbing a bank.
Not distinguishing between apologies for the crime and apologies for a problem with delivery of one’s statement is a problem in the context of a sentencing hearing because apologies for crimes are understood as an admission of guilt. If the defendant had not already apologized earlier, the ambiguity of the defendant’s words could have significant legal ramifications if she sought to appeal her sentence or to claim that her guilty plea was illegal.
As the above example illustrates, the exclusion of meaning that comes from paralinguistic channels can result in misleading and inaccurate transcripts. (This is one reason why more and more police departments are video-recording confessions and witness statements.) If a written record is to be made of a proceeding, it should preserve the significant paralinguistic elements of communication. (Following the approach advocated by Du Bois 2006, one can do this with varying amounts of detail. For example, the beginning and ending of crying-while-talking can be indicated with double angled brackets, e.g., < < sorry > >.) Relatedly, if a judge is going to use elements of a defendant’s demeanor in court to increase a sentence, the judge should be prepared to defend this decision and cite the evidence that was employed. Just as a judge’s decision based on the facts of the case can be challenged, a decision based on demeanor evidence deserves the same scrutiny.
In August 2014, OxfordDictionaries.com added numerous new words and definitions to their database, and we invited a few experts to comment on the new entries. Below, Janet Gilsdorf, President-elect of Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, discusses anti-vax and anti-vaxxer. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.
It’s beautiful, our English language — fluid and expressive, colorful and lively. And it’s changeable. New words appear all the time. Consider “selfie” (a noun), “problematical” (an adjective), and “Google” (a noun that turned into verbs.) Now we have two more: “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer.” (Typical of our flexible vernacular, “anti-vaxxer” is sometimes spelled with just one “x.”) I guess inventing these words was inevitable; a specific, snappy short-cut was needed when speaking about something as powerful and almost cult-like as the anti-vaccine movement and its disciples.
When we string our words together, either new ones or the old reliables, we find avenues for telling others of our joys and disappointments, our loves and hates, our passions and indifferences, our trusts and distrusts, and our fears. The words we choose are windows into our minds. Searching for the best terms to use helps us refine our thinking, decide what, exactly, we are contemplating, and what we intend to say.
Embedded in the force of the new words “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” are many of the tales we like to tell: our joy in our children, our disappointment with the world; our love of independence and autonomy, our hate of things that hurt us or those important to us; our passion for coming together in groups, our indifference to the worries of strangers; our trust, fueled by hope rather than evidence, in whatever nutty things may sooth our anxieties, our distrust in our sometimes hard-to-understand scientific, medical, and public health systems; and, of course, our fears.
Fear is usually a one-sided view. It is blinding, so that in the heat of the moment we aren’t distracted by nonsense (the muddy foot prints on the floor, the lawn that needs mowing) and can focus on the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, fear may also prevent us from seeing useful things just beyond the most immediate (the helping hands that may look like claws, the alternatives that, in the end, are better).
For the anti-vax group, fear is the gripping terror that awful things will happen from a jab (aka shot, stick, poke). Of course, it isn’t the jab that’s the problem. Needles through the skin, after all, deliver medicines to cure all manner of illnesses. For anti-vaxxers, the fear is about the immunization materials delivered by the jab. They dread the vaccine antigens, the molecules (i.e. pieces of microbes-made-safe) that cause our bodies to think we have encountered a bad germ so we will mount a strong immune response designed to neutralize that bad germ. What happens after a person receives a vaccine is, in effect, identical to what happens after we recover from a cold or the flu — or anthrax, smallpox, or possibly ebola (if they don’t kill us first). Our blood is subsequently armed with protective immune cells and antibodies so we don’t get infected with that specific virus or bacterium again. Same for measles, polio, or chicken-pox. If we either get those diseases (which can be bad) or the vaccines to prevent them (which is good), our immune system can effectively combat these viruses in future encounters and prevent infections.
So what should we do with our new words? We can use them to express our thoughts about people who haven’t yet seen the value of vaccines. Hopefully, these new words will lead to constructive dialogues rather than attacks. Besides being incredibly valuable, words are among the most vicious weapons we have and we must find ways to use them responsibly.
As can be guessed from the above title, my today’s subject is the derivation of the word road. The history of road has some interest not only because a word that looks so easy for analysis has an involved and, one can say, unsolved etymology but also because it shows how the best scholars walk in circles, return to the same conclusions, find drawbacks in what was believed to be solid arguments, and end up saying: “Origin unknown (uncertain).” The public should know about the effort it takes to recover the past of the words we use. I am acutely aware of the knots language historians have to untie and of most people’s ignorance of the labor this task entails. In a grant application submitted to a central agency ten or so years ago, I promised to elucidate (rather than solve!) the etymology of several hundred English words. One of the referees divided the requested number of dollars by the number of words and wrote an indignant comment about the burden I expected taxpayers to carry (in financial matters, suffering taxpayers are always invoked: they are an equivalent of women and children in descriptions of war; those who don’t pay taxes and men do not really matter). Needless to say, my application was rejected, the taxpayers escaped with a whole skin, and the light remained under the bushel I keep in my office. My critic probably had something to do with linguistics, for otherwise he would not have been invited to the panel. In light of that information I am happy to report that today’s post will cost taxpayers absolutely nothing.
According to the original idea, road developed from Old Engl. rad “riding.” Its vowel was long, that is, similar to a in Modern Engl. spa. Rad belonged with ridan “to ride,” whose long i (a vowel like ee in Modern Engl. fee) alternated with long a by a rule. In the past, roads existed for riding on horseback, and people distinguished between “a road” and “a footpath.” But this seemingly self-evident etymology has to overcome a formidable obstacle: in Standard English, the noun road acquired its present-day meaning late (one can say very late). It was new or perhaps unknown even to Shakespeare. A Shakespeare glossary lists the following senses of road in his plays: “journey on horseback,” “hostile incursion, raid,” “roadstead,” and “highway” (“roadstead,” that is, “harbor,” needn’t surprise us, for ships were said to ride at anchor.) “Highway” appears as the last of the four senses because it is the rarest, but, as we will see, there is a string attached even to such a cautious statement. Raid is the Scots version of road (“long a,” mentioned above, developed differently in the south and the north; hence the doublets). In sum, road used to mean “raid” and “riding.” When English speakers needed to refer to a road, they said way, as, for example, in the Authorized Version of the Bible.
No disquisition, however learned, will answer in a fully convincing manner why about 250 years ago road partly replaced way. But there have been attempts to overthrow even the basic statement. Perhaps, it was proposed, road does not go back to Old. Engl. rad, with its long vowel! This heretical suggestion was first put forward in 1888 by Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon John Earle. In his opinion, the story began with rod “clearing.” The word has not made it into the Standard, but we still rid our houses of vermin and get rid of old junk. Rid is related to Old Engl. rod.
Earle’s command of Old English was excellent, but he did not care much about phonetic niceties. In his opinion, if meanings show that certain words are allied, phoneticians should explain why something has gone wrong in their domain rather than dismissing an otherwise persuasive conclusion as invalid. This type of reasoning cut no ice with the etymologists of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Nor does it thrill modern researchers, even though at all times there have been serious scholars who refused to bow to the tyranny of so-called phonetic laws. Such mavericks face a great difficulty, for, if we allow ourselves to be guided by similarity of meaning in disregard of established sound correspondences, we may return to the fantasies of medieval etymology. Earle tried to posit long o in rod, though not because he had proof of its length but because he needed it to be long. A. L. Mayhew, whom I mentioned in the post on qualm, and Skeat dismissed the rod-road etymology as not worthy of discussion. Surprisingly, it was revived ten years ago (without reference to Earle), now buttressed by phonetic arguments. It appears that rod with a long vowel did exist, but, more probably, its length was due to a later process. In any case, Earle would have been thrilled. I have said more than once that etymology is a myth of eternal return.
Whatever the origin of road, we still wonder why its modern sense emerged so late. In 1934, this question was the subject of a lively exchange in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement. In response to that discussion the German scholar Max Deutschbein showed that Shakespeare never used road “way” without making it clear what he meant. Once he used the compound roadway. Elsewhere some road is followed by as common as the way between…. We read about the even road of a blankverse, easy roads (for riding), and a thievish living on the common road. The word way helps us understand what is meant in You know the very road (= “journey”: OED) into his kindness, / and cannot lose your way (Coriolanus). Deutschbein concluded that Shakespeare hardly knew our sense of road.
This sense had become universally understood only by the sixteen-seventies (Shakespeare died in 1616), and Milton (1608-1624) used it “unapologetically.” So how did it arise? Extraneous influences—Scottish and Irish—have often been considered; the arguments for their role are thin. The anonymous initiator of the discussion in The Times LiterarySupplement (I am sure the author’s name is known) spun a wonderful yarn about how Shakespeare met a group of Scotsmen, learned something about the Scots, and picked up a new word. The story is clever but not particularly trustworthy. The Irish connection is even less likely. Deutschbein noted that, according to the OED, the compound roadway reached the peak of its popularity in the seventeenth century and disappeared once road established itself. Is it possible that this is where we should look for the solution of the riddle? Etymological riddles are always hard, while solutions are usually simple, and the simpler they are, the higher the chance that they are correct.
No citations for the noun roadway antedating 1600 have been found. We don’t know how early in the sixteenth century it arose, but in this case an exact date is of little consequence. The OED suggests that the earliest meaning of roadway was “riding way,” and so it must have been. At some time, speakers probably reinterpreted this noun as a tautological compound (which it was not), a word like pathway, apparently, a sixteenth-century coinage, and many others like them. Words having this meaning are prone to be made up of two near-synonyms (way-way, road-road, path-path); see my old post on such compounds. Roadway could have continued its existence for centuries, but at some time the second element was dumped as superfluous. For a relatively short period road coexisted with way as its equal partner, but then they divided their spheres of influence: road began to refer to physical reality and way to more abstract situations. We speak of impassable roads and road maps, as opposed to the way of all flesh and ways and means committees. Extraneous influences were not needed for such a process to happen.
I often complain that the scholarly literature on some words is meager. By contrast, the literature on road is extensive. A long paper devoted to it was published as recently as a year ago, whence an extremely detailed etymological introduction to the entry road in the OED online. Even if I failed to discern the complexity of the problem and untie or cut the knot, my intentions were good.
The French language came to North America with the first French settlers in the 17th century. French and British forces had long been at war before the final victory of Britain in the mid 18th century; after the loss of New France, France lost contact with its settlers and Quebec French became isolated from European French. The two languages evolved in different ways, leaving Quebec French with older forms of pronunciation and expressions that later died out in France. Until the emergence of radio and television broadcasting, French Canadian society had been completely dominated by English, which was the language of the ruling class.
During the 1960s, Quebec went through a period of intense change called the Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution). This period marked the transition from political conservatism and sociocultural immobility, mainly orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church, to a modern era characterized by major social development and an increase of Quebecois control over the province’s economy. The Quiet Revolution was also characterized by the affirmation of the Quebecois identity, closely related to their linguistic affirmation.
The French language spoken in Quebec was no longer a simple linguistic matter, but became an ideological, political, academic, and economic issue — the symbol of a society willing to get rid of its alienated minority status. The modernization of Quebec society had repercussions on the language itself, which was seen by the francophone elite as underdeveloped and corrupted by its contact with English. Laws were voted to promote French as the only official language of the province of Quebec, and plans to replace pervasive English terminology were supported by the Office Québécois de la Langue Française. At the same time, an eager desire to standardize and to improve Quebec French in line with the Metropolitan French norm was observed. This drew criticism from a lot of Quebecois, who claimed that their language was an integral part of their identity. Today, even if the status of Quebec French still remains slightly ambiguous, the Quebecois have mainly lost their feeling of inferiority toward Metropolitan French. The media now uses what is called ‘standard Quebec French’, and people are proud of its deviations from European French.
Quebec French and Metropolitan French
There are several types of differences between Metropolitan French (MF) and Quebec French (QF). Besides phonetic differences that will not be addressed here, the more obvious ones are lexical. Here is an overview of what they look like.
There are plenty of words in QF that are falling out of use or sound old-fashioned in MF: for example, soulier (shoe) rather than chaussure in MF, bas (socks) instead of chaussette in MF. We can also observe some small discrepancies that can cause confusion, since word meanings are not always completely equivalent. For example, “birthday” is anniversaire in MF but more commonly fête in QF, while fête in MF (meaning “party”) is party in QF (pronounced as [paʀte]). Thus, the expression fête d’anniversaire (“birthday party”) is usually party de fête in QF. In QF foulard is the equivalent of both écharpe (scarf) and foulard (light scarf) in MF. Where MF requires a precise word for each relationship, the informal word chum in QF can encompass husband, common-law husband, and boyfriend.
But differences between these two forms of French go beyond the lexical level. Although some Quebecois tend to deny it, there are also some syntactic differences. One can observe the use of prepositions in QF where MF would not allow them. For instance, in QF il vient à tous les soirs (he comes every night) is il vient tous les soirs in MF. Twenty years ago, the verb aider (to help) was still a transitive verb with an indirect object: aider à quelqu’un instead of aider quelqu’un.
While the use of the interrogative pronoun in a declarative sentence such as je ne sais pas qu’est ce qu‘il faut faire is seen as an uneducated mistake in MF (where people say je ne sais pas ce qu’il faut faire), this form is commonly used in QF.
Finally, more surprisingly, morphological differences can be noticed between the two languages. While trampoline is a feminine noun in QF, it is a masculine one in MF. On the contrary, moustiquaire (mosquito net) is a feminine noun in MF and a masculine one in QF. Cash machine is translated as distributeur de billets in MF and distributrice de billets in QF. Some recent linguistic borrowings have different genders too: feta and mozzarella are feminine nouns in MF but masculine ones in QF; job is a masculine noun in MF and a feminine one in QF, and so forth. One can also observe some nouns with a floating gender in QF, for instance, sandwich is either feminine or masculine.
Quebec French and English
About two thirds of Montreal’s population are francophones, most of whom are bilingual. However, in Quebec City and rural Quebec, even the youngest aren’t necessarily fluent in English. Some people do not have any knowledge of English whatsoever. Yet, since the province of Quebec is surrounded by English-speaking regions (i.e. the rest of Canada and the United States), even if people fiercely fight it, QF is inevitably and strongly influenced by the English language. Some Anglicisms are so commonly used that they have become assimilated into the particularities of QF: for example, tomber en amour literally means “to fall in love,” and prendre une marche is literally “to take a walk.” There are a lot of mispronounced English words that have been introduced to QF, such as gagne from gang, bécosse (toilet) from back house, bobépine from bobby pin, paparmanne from peppermint, and pinotte from peanut.
One can observe some Anglicisms that are not the same as those in MF. We find in QF être conservateur (to be conservative), faire le party (to party), and avoir une date avec quelqu’un (to have a date with someone), where in MF one would say être prudent, faire la fête, and avoir un rendez-vous (galant). Instead of week-end, parking, and email commonly used in MF, QF uses fin de semaine, stationnement, and courriel respectively.
Even if the Office Québécois de la Langue Française has done a very good job of promoting French terminology in many technical areas, some of them are still dominated by English. For instance, a lot of Quebecois, even the non-English speakers, do not know the French equivalent for “windshield,” “muffler,” or “clutch.”
In asserting itself, Quebec French faces two issues: it stands between the ongoing invasion of English and the will to fight against it, and also between a desire to conform itself to Metropolitan French and to claim proudly its own particularities. Over the years, Quebec French has moved from a very popular English-mixed dialect to a valuable distinct and recognized French language. The Quebecois like to consider it as a true language and are eager to protect it, since it guarantees the liveliness of their particular culture in an English-speaking North America.
That any person could become an expert in something if they simply spend about 3 hours per day for ten years learning it is an appealing concept. This idea, first championed by Ericsson and brought to prominence by Gladwell, has now taken root in the popular media. It attempts to discuss these differences in terms of the environment. The idea is that practice with the purpose of constantly gathering feedback and improving can lead any person to become an expert. If becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours, does a prodigy need 20,000.
Lets consider, Michael Jackson, as an example of a prodigy. He grew up in a musical family in Gary, Indiana just outside Chicago. His father Joe played in an R&B band. All of his siblings played music in one way or another. Unlike his siblings and father, Jackson did not really play any instruments. However, he would compose songs in his head using his voice. One morning he came in and had written a song which eventually became ‘Beat It’. In the studio, he would sing each of the different parts including the various instruments. Then the producers and artists in the studio would work on putting the song together, following his arrangements.
Work in cognitive neuroscience has begun to shed light on the brain systems involved in creativity as being linked to psychometric IQ. Work by Neubauer and Fink suggests that these two different types of abilities, psychometric IQ and expertise, involve differential activity in the frontal and parietal lobes. They also appear for different types of tasks. In one study, taxi drivers were split into a high and low group depending on their performance on a paper and pencil IQ test. The results showed that both groups did equally well on familiar routes. The differences appeared between groups when they were compared on unfamiliar routes. In this condition, those with high IQs outperformed those with low IQ. So expertise can develop but the flexibility to handle new situations and improvise requires more than just practice.
Reports of Michael Jackson’s IQ are unreliable. However, he is purported to have had over 10,000 books in his reading collection and to have been an avid reader. His interviews reveal a person who was very eloquent and well spoken. And clearly he was able to integrate various different types of strands of music into interesting novel blends. If we were to lay this out across time, we have perhaps the roots of early genius. It is a person who has an unusual amount of exposure in a domain that starts at an early age. This would lead to the ability to play music very well.
Jackson came from a family filled with many successful musicians. Many were successful as recording artists. Perhaps Michael started earlier than his siblings. One conclusion we can draw from this natural experiment is that creative genius requires more than 10,000 hours. In the case of Michael Jackson, he read profusely and had very rich life experiences. He tried to meld these experiences into a blended musical genre that is uniquely his and yet distinctly resonant with known musical styles.
The kind of creativity is not restricted to prodigies like Michael Jackson. Language, our ultimate achievement as a human race, is something that no other animal species on this planet shares with us. The seeds of language exist all over the animal kingdom. There are birds that can use syntax to create elaborate songs. Chinchillas can recognize basic human speech. Higher primates can develop extensive vocabularies and use relatively sophisticated language. But only one species was able to take all of these various pieces and combine them into a much richer whole. Every human is born with the potential to develop much larger frontal lobes which interconnect with attention, motor, and sensory areas of the brain. It is in these enlarged cortical areas that we can see the roots of creative genius. So while 10,000 hours will create efficiency within restricted areas of the brain, only the use of more general purpose brain areas serve to develop true creativity.
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: Michael Jackson with the Reagans, by White House Photo Office. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
On 20 November 2013, I discussed the verbs astonish, astound, and stun. Whatever the value of that discussion, it had a truly wonderful picture of a stunned cat and an ironic comment by Peter Maher on the use of the word stunning. While rereading that short essay, I decided that I had not done justice to the third verb of the series (stun) and left out of discussion a few other items worthy of consideration. The interested readers may look upon this post as Part 2, a continuation of the early one.
Astonish and astound, despite the troublesome suffix -ish in the first of them and final -d in the second, are close cognates. Both go back to a Romance form reconstructed as ex-tonare. Latin tonare meant “to thunder”; tone, intone, and tonality contain the same root. To quote Ernest Weekley, “Some metaphors are easy to track. It does not require much philological knowledge to see that astonish, astound, and stun all contain the idea of ‘thunder-striking’, Vulgar Latin *ex-tonare.” (The asterisk designates an unattested form reconstructed by linguists.) Those lines saw the light in 1913. A century later “philological knowledge” has reached such a stage among the so-called general public that people’s readiness to draw any conclusions about the history of language should be taken with caution. But as regards the content, Weekley was right: the idea behind astonish ~ astound is indeed “thunderstruck.”
Thor, the thunder god (Bronzestatue „Christ or Þor“ aus dem isländischen Nationalmuseum, Photo by L3u, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Weekley did not explain how a-s-toun- and thun-der are related. The hyphenation above shows that a- is a prefix. The root stoun- has a diphthong because the original vowel was long. Likewise, down, house, now, and many other words with ou (ow) had “long u” (the vowel of poo) in Middle English. The change is regular. Initial s- in stoun- is what is left of the prefix ex-; Old French already had estoner (Modern French lost even the last crumb: étonner). A Germanic correspondence of Latin t is th, as in tres ~ three, pater ~ father, and so forth; hence thunder (d has no claim to antiquity). All this is trivial. However, there are two suspicious details in our story: German staunen “to be amazed” and Engl. stun.
In my 2013 post, I followed old sources and called staunen a respectable relative of astonish and stun. However, its respectability and even relatedness to the English group has been rejected by modern scholars, so that an explanation is in order. (I am “astonished” that no one offered a correction. Usually the slightest misstep on my part—real or imaginary—arouses immediate protest.) Staunen, a verb borrowed by the Standard from Swiss German, originally meant “to stare” and has been compared with several words like stare that have nothing to do with thunder. “Stare; look dreamily” yielded, rather unexpectedly, the modern sense “to be amazed.” The recorded history of staunen “to be amazed” and erstaunen “amaze” cannot be questioned, but their etymology looks a bit strained, and I wonder whether some foreign influence could contribute to the similarity between astound and staunen.
A much thornier question concerns the history of Engl. stun. Old English had the verb stunian “crash, resound, roar; impinge; dash.” It looks like a perfect etymon of stun. Skeat thought so at the beginning of his etymological career and never changed his opinion. He compared stunian with a group of words meaning “to groan”: Icelandic stynja, Dutch stenen, German stöhnen, and their cognates elsewhere. Those are almost certainly related to thunder. Apparently, the congeners of tonare did not always denote a great amount of din.
The presence of s- in stenen and the rest is not a problem. This strange sound is like a barnacle: it attaches itself to the first consonant of numerous roots, though neither its function nor its origin has been explained in a satisfactory way. Such a good researcher as Francis A. Wood even mocked those who believed in its existence. Only a good name for this “parasite” exists (s mobile), and it has become a recognized linguistic term. S mobile disregards linguistic borders: doublets abound in the same language, as well as in closely and remotely related languages and outside it. For instance, the German for sneeze is niesen. Similar examples can be cited by the hundred.
This is not a phenomenon that happens only in old languages: in modern dialects, such doublets are also common. That is why some scholars who, in the past, tried to discover the origin of the word slang believed that they were dealing with French langue and s mobile; compare the modern jocular blend slanguage. (A convincing etymology of slang, which does not depend on s mobile, has been known for more than a hundred years, but dictionaries are unaware—fiction writers and journalists like to say blissfully unaware—of this fact.) Consequently, s-tun can be related to thunder—that is, if we recognize the existence of the capricious s mobile, an entity of the type “now you see it, now you don’t.”
However, stun “daze, render unconscious” surfaced in texts only in the early fourteenth century, while stunian “crash, etc.” does not seem to have survived into Middle English; only stonien “make a noise” has been recorded. The first edition of the OED stated cautiously that stun goes back to Old French estoner. (This word has yet to be revised for the new edition on OED Online.) The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology gives the solution endorsed by Murray and Bradley as certain. TheCenturyDictionary followed Skeat but admitted confusion with the French verb that yielded astonish and astound. Other respectable sources hedge, copy from their great predecessors, and prefer to stay noncommittal.
I have returned to my old post for one reason only. In investigating the history of stun, astound, and its look-alikes, we encounter the well-known difficulty: a word resembles another word in the same or another language, and it is hard to decide where, in making a connection, we hit the nail on its proverbial head and where we are on a false tack.
In 2013, I mentioned an old hypothesis according to which stun is related to stone. This hypothesis cannot be defended: at present we have sufficient means to disprove it. (In etymology it is usually easier to show that some conclusion is untenable than that it is true.) But in two other cases we may or should hesitate. Astound and staunen are so much alike in sound and sense that rejecting their affinity unconditionally may be too hasty. The situation is even more complicated with stun. Tracing it to Old French without a footnote produces the impression that ultimate clarity has been attained, but it has not. In etymology, the door is only too often open for legitimate doubt.
Did you know that the introduction of languages into primary schools has been dubbed the world’s biggest development in education? And, of course, overwhelmingly, the language taught is English. Already the world’s most popular second language, the desire for English continues apace, at least in the short term, and with this desire has come a rapid decrease in the age at which early language learning (ELL) starts. From the kindergartens of South Korea to classes of 70+ in Tanzania, very young children are now being taught English. So is it a good idea to learn English from an early age? Many people believe that in terms of learning language, the younger the better. However, this notion is based on children learning in bilingual environments in which they get a great deal of input in two or more languages. Adults see children seemingly soaking up language and speaking in native-like accents and think that language learning for children is easy. However, most children do not learn English in this kind of bilingual environment. Instead, they learn in formal school settings where they are lucky if they get one or two hours of English tuition a week. In these contexts, there is little or no evidence that an early start benefits language learning. Indeed, it has been argued that the time spent teaching English is better spent on literacy, which has been shown to develop children’s language learning potential.
So why are children learning from so young an age? One answer is parent power. Parents see the value of English for getting ahead in the global world and put pressure on governments to ensure children receive language tuition from an early age. Another answer is inequality. Governments are aware that many parents pay for their children to have private tuition in English and they see this as disadvantaging children who come from poorer backgrounds. In an attempt to level the playing field, they introduce formal English language learning in primary schools. While this is admirable, research shows that school English is not generally effective, particularly in developing countries, and in fact tends to advantage those who are also having private lessons. Another argument for sticking to literacy teaching?
Of course, government policy eventually translates into classroom reality and in very many countries the introduction of English has been less than successful. One mammoth problem is the lack of qualified teachers. Contrary to popular belief, and despite representations in film and television programmes, being able to speak English does not equate to an ability to teach English, particularly to very young children. Yet in many places unqualified native English speaking teachers are drafted into schools to make good the shortfall in teacher provision. In other countries, local homeroom teachers take up the burden but may not have any English language skills or may have no training in language teaching. Other problems include a lack of resources, large classes and lack of motivation leading to poor discipline. Watch out Mr Gove — similar problems lie in store for England in September 2014! (When the new national curriculum for primary schools launches, maintained primary schools will have to teach languages to children, and yet preparation for the curriculum change has been woefully inadequate.)
Why should we be in interested in this area of English language teaching when most of it happens in countries far away from our own? David Graddol, our leading expert on the economy of English language teaching, suggests that the English language teaching industry directly contributes 1.3 billion pounds annually to the British economy and up to 10 billion pounds indirectly through English language education related activities. This sector is a huge beneficiary to the British economy, yet its importance is widely unacknowledged. For example, in terms of investigating English language teaching, it is extremely difficult in England to get substantial funding, particularly when the focus is on countries overseas.
From the perspective of academics interested in this topic, which we are, the general view that English language teaching is not a serious contender for research funding is galling. However, the research funding agencies are not alone. Academic journals rarely publish work on teaching English to young learners, which has become something of a Cinderella subject in research into English language teaching. There are numerous studies on adults learning English in journals of education and applied linguistics, but ELL is hardly represented. This might be because there is little empirical research or because the area is not considered important. Yet as we suggest, there are huge questions to be asked (and answered). For example, in what contexts are children advantaged and disadvantaged by learning English in primary schools? What are the most effective methods for teaching languages to children in particular contexts? What kind of training in teaching languages do primary teachers need and what should their level of English be? The list of questions, like the field, is growing and the answers would support both the UK English language industry and also our own approach to language learning in primary schools, where there is very little expertise.
ELT Journal is a quarterly publication for all those involved in English Language Teaching (ELT), whether as a second, additional, or foreign language, or as an international Lingua Franca. The journal links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, education, psychology, and sociology. A Special Issue of the ELT Journal, entitled “Teaching English to young learners” is available now. It showcases papers from around the world that address a number of key topics in ELL, including learning through online gaming, using heritage languages to teach English, and the metaphors children use to explain their language learning.
Fiona Copland is Senior Lecturer in TESOL in the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University, Birmingham, UK, where she is Course Director of distance learning MSc programmes in TESOL. With colleagues at Aston, Sue Garton and Anne Burns, she carried out a global research project titled Investigating Global Practices in Teaching English to Young Learners which led to the production of a book of language learning activities called Crazy Animals and Other Activities for Teaching English to Young Learners. She is currently working on a project investigating native-speaker teacher projects. Sue Garton is a Senior Lecturer in TESOL and Director of Postgraduate Programmes in English at Aston University. She worked for many years as an English language teacher in Italy before joining Aston as a teacher educator on distance learning TESOL programmes. As well as leading the British Council funded project on investigating global practices in teaching English to young learners, she has also worked on two other British Council projects, one looking at the transition from primary to secondary school and the other, led by Fiona Copland, on investigating native-speaker teacher schemes. They are editors of the ELT Journal Special Issue on “Teaching English to young learners.“
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Plato famously said that there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. But with respect to one aspect of poetry, namely metaphor, many contemporary philosophers have made peace with the poets. In their view, we need metaphor. Without it, many truths would be inexpressible and unknowable. For example, we cannot describe feelings and sensations adequately without it. Take Gerard Manley Hopkins’s exceptionally powerful metaphor of despair:
selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless,
thoughts against thoughts in groans grind.
How else could precisely this kind of mood be expressed? Describing how things appear to our senses is also thought to require metaphor, as when we speak of the silken sound of a harp, the warm colours of a Titian, and the bold or jolly flavour of a wine. Science advances by the use of metaphors – of the mind as a computer, of electricity as a current, or of the atom as a solar system. And metaphysical and religious truths are often thought to be inexpressible in literal language. Plato condemned poets for claiming to provide knowledge they did not have. But if these philosophers are right, there is at least one poetic use of language that is needed for the communication of many truths.
In my view, however, this is the wrong way to defend the value of metaphor. Comparisons may well be indispensable for communication in many situations. We convey the unfamiliar by likening it to the familiar. But many hold that it is specifically metaphor – and no other kind of comparison – that is indispensable. Metaphor tells us things the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ never could. If true, this would be fascinating. It would reveal the limits of what is expressible in literal language. But no one has come close to giving a good argument for it. And in any case, metaphor does not have to be an indispensable means to knowledge in order to be as valuable as we take it to be.
Metaphor may not tell us anything that couldn’t be expressed by other means. But good metaphors have many other effects on readers than making them grasp some bit of information, and these are often precisely the effects the metaphor-user wants to have. There is far more to the effective use of language than transmitting information. My particular interest is in how art critics use metaphor to help us appreciate paintings, architecture, music, and other artworks. There are many reasons why metaphor matters, but art criticism reveals two reasons of particular importance.
Take this passage from John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. Ruskin describes arriving in Venice by boat and seeing ‘the long ranges of columned palaces,—each with its black boat moored at the portal,—each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation’, and observing how ‘the front of the Ducal palace, flushed with its sanguine veins, looks to the snowy dome of Our Lady of Salvation’.
One thing Ruskin’s metaphors do is describe the waters of Venice and the Ducal palace at an extraordinary level of specificity. There are many ways water looks when breezes blow across its surface. There are fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into many pieces. And there are still fewer ways it looks when breezes blow across its surface and make it look like something broken into pieces forming a rich mosaic with the colours of Venetian palaces and a greenish tint. Ruskin’s metaphor communicates that the waters of Venice look like that. The metaphor of the Ducal palace as ‘flushed with its sanguine veins’ likewise narrows the possible appearances considerably. Characterizing appearances very specifically is of particular use to art critics, as they often want to articulate the specific appearance an artwork presents.
A second thing metaphors like Ruskin’s do is cause readers to imagine seeing what he describes. We naturally tend to picture the palace or the water on hearing Ruskin’s metaphor. This function of metaphor has often been noted: George Orwell, for instance, writes that ‘a newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image’.
Why do novel metaphors evoke images? Precisely because they are novel uses of words. To understand them, we cannot rely on our knowledge of the literal meanings of the words alone. We often have to employ imagination. To understand Ruskin’s metaphor, we try to imagine seeing water that looks like a broken mosaic. If we manage this, we know the kind of look that he is attributing to the water.
Imagining a thing is often needed to appreciate that thing. Knowing facts about it is often not enough by itself. Accurately imagining Hopkins’s despondency, or the experience of arriving in Venice by boat, gives us some appreciation of these experiences. By enabling us to imagine accurately and specifically, metaphor is exceptionally well suited to enhancing our appreciation of what it describes.
Since I’ll be out of town at the end of July, I was not sure I would be able to write these “gleanings.” But the questions have been many, and I could answer some of them ahead of time.
Autumn: its etymology
Our correspondent wonders whether the Latin word from which English, via French, has autumn, could be identified with the name of the Egyptian god Autun. The Romans derived the word autumnus, which was both an adjective (“autumnal”) and a noun (“autumn”), from augere “to increase.” This verb’s perfect participle is auctus “rich (“autumn as a rich season”). The Roman derivation, though not implausible, looks like a tribute to folk etymology. A more serious conjecture allies autumn to the Germanic root aud-, as in Gothic aud-ags “blessed” (in the related languages, also “rich”). But, more probably, Latin autumnus goes back to Etruscan. The main argument for the Etruscan origin is the resemblance of autumnus to Vertumnus, the name of a seasonal deity (or so it seems), about whom little is known besides the tale of his seduction, in the shape of an old woman, of Pomona, as told by Ovid. Vertumnus, or Vortumnus, may be a Latinized form of an Etruscan name. A definite conclusion about autumnus is hardly possible, even though some sources, while tracing this word to Etruscan, add “without doubt.” The Egyptian Autun was a creation god and the god of the setting sun, so that his connection with autumn is remote at best. Nor do we have any evidence that Autun had a cult in Ancient Rome. Everything is so uncertain here that the origin of autumnus must needs remain unknown. In my opinion, the Egyptian hypothesis holds out little promise.
Vertumnus seducing Pomona in the shape of an old woman. (Pomona by Frans de Vriendt “Floris” (Konstnär, 1518-1570) Antwerpen, Belgien, Hallwyl Museum, Photo by Jens Mohr, via Wikimedia Commons)
The origin of so long
I received an interesting letter from Mr. Paul Nance. He writes about so long:
“It seems the kind of expression that should have derived from some fuller social nicety, such as I regret that it will be so longbefore we meet again or the like, but no one has proposed a clear antecedent. An oddity is its sudden appearance in the early nineteenth century; there are only a handful of sightings before Walt Whitman’s use of it in a poem (including the title) in the 1860-1861 edition of Leaves of Grass. I can, by the way, offer an antedating to the OED citations: so, good bye, so long in the story ‘Cruise of a Guinean Man’. Knickerbocker: New York (Monthly Magazine 5, February 1835, p. 105; available on Google Books). Given the lack of a fuller antecedent, suggestions as to its origin all propose a borrowing from another language. Does this seem reasonable to you?”
Mr. Nance was kind enough to append two articles (by Alan S. Kaye and Joachim Grzega) on so long, both of which I had in my folders but have not reread since 2004 and 2005, when I found and copied them. Grzega’s contribution is especially detailed. My database contains only one more tiny comment on solong by Frank Penny: “About twenty years ago I was informed that it [the expression so long] is allied to Samuel Pepys’s expression so home, and should be written so along or so ’long, meaning that the person using the expression must go his way” (Notes and Queries, Series 12, vol. IX, 1921, p. 419). The group sohome does turn up in the Diary more than once, but no citation I could find looks like a formula. Perhaps Stephen Goranson will ferret it out. In any case, so long looks like an Americanism, and it is unlikely that such a popular phrase should have remained dormant in texts for almost two centuries.
Be that as it may, I agree with Mr. Nance that a formula of this type probably arose in civil conversation. The numerous attempts to find a foreign source for it carry little conviction. Norwegian does have an almost identical phrase, but, since its antecedents are unknown, it may have been borrowed from English. I suspect (a favorite turn of speech by old etymologists) that so long is indeed a curtailed version of a once more comprehensible parting formula, unless it belongs with the likes of forauld lang sine. It may have been brought to the New World from England or Scotland and later abbreviated and reinterpreted.
“Heavy rain” in languages other than English
Once I wrote a post titled “When it rains, it does not necessarily pour.” There I mentioned many German and Swedish idioms like it is raining cats and dogs, and, rather than recycling that text, will refer our old correspondent Mr. John Larsson to it.
Ukraine and Baltic place names
The comment on this matter was welcome. In my response, I preferred not to talk about the things alien to me, but I wondered whether the Latvian place name could be of Slavic origin. That is why I said cautiously: “If this is a native Latvian word…” The question, as I understand, remains unanswered, but the suggestion is tempting. And yes, of course, Serb/Croat Krajna is an exact counterpart of Ukraina, only without a prefix. In Russian, stress falls on i; in Ukrainian, I think, the first a is stressed. The same holds for the derived adjectives: ukrainskii ~ ukrainskii. Pushkin said ukrainskaia (feminine).
Slough, sloo, and the rest
Many thanks to those who informed me about their pronunciation of slough “mire.” It was new to me that the surname Slough is pronounced differently in England and the United States. I also received a question about the history of slew. The past tense of slay (Old Engl. slahan) was sloh (with a long vowel), and this form developed like scoh “shoe,” though the verb vacillated between the 6th and the 7th class. The fact that slew and shoe have such dissimilar written forms is due to the vagaries of English spelling. One can think of too, who, you, group, fruit, cruise, rheum, truth, and true, which have the same vowel as slew. In addition, consider Bruin and ruin, which look deceptively like fruit, and add manoeuver for good measure. A mild spelling reform looks like a good idea, doesn’t it?
The pronunciation of February
In one of the letters I received, the writer expresses her indignation that some people insist on sounding the first r in February. Everybody, she asserts, says Febyooary. In such matters, everybody is a dangerous word (as we will also see from the next item). All of us tend to think that what we say is the only correct norm. Words with the succession r…r tend to lose one of them. Yet library is more often pronounced with both, and Drury, brewery, and prurient have withstood the tendency. February has changed its form many times. Thus, long ago feverer (from Old French) became feverel (possibly under the influence of averel “April”). In the older language of New England, January and February turned into Janry and Febry. However powerful the phonetic forces may have been in affecting the pronunciation of February, of great importance was also the fact that the names of the months often occur in enumeration. Without the first r, January and February rhyme. A similar situation is well-known from the etymology of some numerals. Although the pronunciation Febyooary is equally common on both sides of the Atlantic and is recognized as standard throughout the English-speaking world, not “everybody” has accepted it. The consonant b in February is due to the Latinization of the French etymon (late Latin februarius).
Who versus whom
Discussion of these pronouns lost all interest long ago, because the confusion of who and whom and the defeat of whom in American English go back to old days. Yet I am not sure that what I said about the educated norm is “nonsense.” Who will marry our son? Whom will our son marry? Is it “nonsense” to distinguish them, and should (or only can) it be who in both cases? Despite the rebuke, I believe that even in Modern American English the woman who wevisited won’t suffer if who is replaced with whom. But, unlike my opponent, I admit that tastes differ.
Another question I received was about the origin of the verb wrap. This is a rather long story, and I decided to devote a special post to it in the foreseeable future.
My name is David Peterson, and I’m a conlanger. “What’s a conlanger,” you may ask? Thanks to the recent addition of the word “conlang” to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I can now say, “Look it up!” But to save you the trouble, a conlanger is a constructed language (or conlang) maker — i.e. one who creates languages.
Language creation has been around since at least the 12th century, when the German abbess Hildegard von Bingen created her Lingua Ignota — Latin for “hidden language” — an invented vocabulary she used for writing hymns. In the centuries that followed, philosophers like Leibniz and John Wilkins would create languages that were intended to serve as grand classification systems, and idealists like L. L. Zamenhof would create languages intended to simplify international communication. All these systems focused on the basic utility of language — its ability to encode and convey meaning. That would change in the 20th century.
Tolkien: the father of modern conlanging
Before crafting the tales of Middle-Earth, J. R. R. Tolkien was a conlanger. Unlike the many known to history who came before him, though, Tolkien created languages for the pure joy of it. Professionally, he became a philologist, but he continued to work on his own languages, eventually creating his famous Lord of the Rings series as an extension of the linguistic legendarium he’d been crafting for many years. Though his written works would become more famous than his linguistic creations, his conlangs, in particular Sindarin and Quenya, would go on to inspire new generations of conlangers throughout the rest of the 20th century.
Due to the general obscurity of the practice, many conlangers remained unknown to each other until the early 1990s, when home internet use started to become more and more common. The first dedicated meeting place for conlangers, virtual or otherwise, was the Conlang Listserv (an online mailing list). Some list members came out of interest in Tolkien’s languages, as well as other large projects, like Esperanto or Lojban, but the majority came to discuss their own work, and to meet and learn from others who also created languages.
Since the founding of the original Conlang Listserv, many other meeting places have sprung up online, and through a couple of decades of regular conlanger interaction, the practice of conlanging has evolved.
Conlangs have been separated into different types since at least the 19th century. First came the philosophical languages, as discussed, then the auxiliary languages like Esperanto (also known as auxlangs), but with Tolkien emerged a new type of language: the artistic language, or artlang. At its most basic, an artlang is a conlang created for artistic purposes, but that broad definition includes many wildly divergent languages (compare Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik to Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen). Finer-grained distinctions became necessary as the community grew, and so emerged the naturalistic conlang.
This is where the languages of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Syfy’s Defiance come in. The languages I’ve created for the shows I work on come out of the naturalist tradition. The goal with a naturalistic conlang is to create a language that’s as realistic as possible. The realism of a language is grounded in the reality (fictional or otherwise) of its speakers. If the speakers are more or less human (or humanoid) and are intended to be portrayed in a realistic fashion, then their language should be as similar as possible to a natural language (i.e. a language that exists here on Earth, like Spanish, Tagalog, or Cham).
The natural languages we speak are large, but also redundant and imperfect in a uniquely human way. Conlangers have gotten pretty good at emulating them over the years, usually employing one of two different approaches. The first, which I call the façade method, is to create a language that looks like a modern natural language by replicating the various features of a modern natural language. Thus, if English has irregular plurals, such as mouse~mice, then the conlang will have irregular plurals, too, by targeting certain nouns and making their plurals irregular in some way.
The historical method: making sense of irregular plurals in Valyrian
A contrasting approach is the method that Tolkien pioneered called the historical method. With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution. The process takes a lot longer, but in some ways it’s simpler, since irregularities will naturally emerge, rather than having to be created by hand. For example, in Game of Thrones, the High Valyrian language Daenerys speaks differs from the Low Valyrian the residents of Slaver’s Bay speak. In fact, the latter evolved from the former. As the language evolved, it produced some natural irregularities. Consider the following nouns and their plurals from the Valyrian spoken in Slaver’s Bay:
Given that the singular forms all end in ‘e’, one has to say at least two of the plurals presented are irregular. But why the arbitrary differences in the plural forms? It turns out it’s because the three nouns with identical singular terminations used to have very different forms in the older language, High Valyrian, as shown below:
Each of these alternations is quite regular in High Valyrian. In the simulated history, a series of sound changes which simplified the ends of words produced identical terminations for each of the three words in the singular, leaving later speakers having to memorize which have irregular plurals and which regular.
Simulated evolution applies to both grammar and the lexicon, as well. For example, natural languages often derive terminology for abstract concepts metaphorically from terminology for concrete concepts. Time, for instance, is an abstract concept that is frequently discussed using spatial terminology. How it’s done differs from language to language. In English, events that occur later in time occur after the present (where “after” derives from “aft,” a word meaning “behind”), and events that occur earlier in time occur before the present. Thus, time is conceptualized as a being standing in the present, facing the past, with the future behind them.
In Irathient, a language I created for Syfy’s Defiance, time is conceptualized vertically, rather than horizontally. The word for “after”, in temporal terms, is shei, which derives from a word meaning “above”; “before”, on the other hand, is ur, which also means “below” or “underneath”. The general metaphor that the future is up and the past is down bears out throughout the rest of the language, where if one wanted to say “Go back to what you were saying before”, the literal Irathient translation would be “Go down to what you were saying underneath”.
Ultimately, what one hears on screen sounds and feels like a natural language, regardless of whether or not one knows the work that went on behind the scenes. Since the prop used on screen is a language, though, rather than a costume or a piece of the set, the words can be recorded and analyzed at any time. Consequently, a conlang needs to be real in a way that a throne or a 700 foot wall of ice does not.
It’s still extraordinary to me that in less than 25 years, we came from a time when many conlangers were not aware that there were other conlangers to a time where our work is able to add to the authenticity of some of the best productions the big and small screen have to offer. The addition of the word “conlang” to the OED is a fitting capper to an unbelievable quarter century.
David J. Peterson is a language creator who works on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Syfy’s Defiance, and Syfy’s Dominion. You can find him on Twitter at @Dedalvs or on Tumblr.
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Colloquialisms are words or phrases that we use in conversation or informal situations. An example would be the different ways people refer to carbonated beverages: cola, soda, soda pop, and pop. Another example is cooked batter: pancake, griddle cake, flap jack, Johnny cake, and short stack.
They can be words (gonna), phrases (hang on), or aphorisms (when the going gets tough, the tough get going).
A few examples of colloquialisms include:
bat out of hell
beating a dead horse
bigger than a barn
bump on a log
couldn't care less
crazy as a loon
deader than a doornail
dumb as stump
drunk as a monkey
happy as a pig in shit
hell for leather
hotter than hell
knocked into next week
like flies on shit
like white on rice
meaner than a snake
neat as a pin
not the brightest crayon
older than dirt
one fry short of a happy meal
piece of cake
shut your pie hole
slow as molasses
tighter than a banjo string
Colloquialism, clichés, and slang are close cousins and hard to differentiate. In general, colloquialisms are limited to a specific geographic location (the southern states) and slang is more widespread (America).
It isn't important for the sake of revision to worry about the finer points of distinction. We aren't in English class anymore. The important point is to use them wisely.
Both colloquialisms and slang can be used as a dialogue plant and payoff: a phrase repeated two or three times at critical points in the story between two characters. Creating unique colloquialisms and slang for your fantasy world can add a dash of spice. Don't over do it. Getting the historical slang wrong will earn you e-mails pointing out that the phrase was not used until _____. Nitpickers love this stuff.
Both can add color to your prose and dialogue. Sprinkled throughout a manuscript, they are fine. A few sprinkled in a paragraph is considered overdoing it.
? Turn on the Clichés, Colloquialisms, and Jargon option in the toolbox in Word. These items will be marked for you. As you read through your draft, decide which to keep and which to kill. Have you used the cliché intentionally?
? Can you twist it or make it fresh?
? Have you committed colloquialism abuse? Should you trim them?
? Does the languge fit the time and place?
? Does the languge fit the background and personality of the character uttering it?
For all of the revision tips on colloquialisms and other revision layers, pick up a copy of:
To some people which and witch are homophones. Others, who differentiate between w and wh, distinguish them. This rather insignificant phenomenon is tackled in all books on English pronunciation and occasionally rises to the surface of “political discourse.” In the thirties of the past century, an irritated correspondent wrote to the editor about “the abuse of such forms as what, when, which, wheel, and others”: “Dictionaries in vain lay down the law that the h should be heard in such words. If heard at all it will probably come from the lips of Scotsmen, as they do give full value to the h. In this way the difference of a nationality can, as a rule, be detected. Long ago I had to be present at King’s College when the prizes were given away. A Mr. Wheeler was a winner of the Elocution prize; but he was called out as Mr. Weeler by, save the mark, the Professor of Elocution himself.” We’ll save the mark and go on.
In Old English, many words began with hl-, hn-, hr-, and hw-. In the beginning, the letter h stood for ch, as in Scots lochor gh as in the family name McLaughlin. Later it was weakened to h and lost. The same change occurred in the other Germanic languages, except Icelandic and, if I am not mistaken, Faroese. Sounds seldom disappear without a trace. Thus, when h was shed, it devoiced the consonant after it. In Icelandic, voiceless l, n, and r can easily be heard, but elsewhere they merged with l, n, and r in other positions. Only hw developed differently. It either stayed in some form or devoiced w.
It has never been explained why consonants tend to disappear before l, n, r, and w. A classic example of this process, not related to the subject being discussed here, is the fate of kn- and gn-, as in knock and gnaw. One can of course say that such groups are rare and inconvenient for pronunciation. But such an explanation is illusory, because it presents the result of the change as its cause. Outside English, kn- and gn- cause speakers no trouble. Besides, the loss of k- and g- happened at a certain time. Why did it “suddenly” become inconvenient to articulate the groups that had not bothered the previous generations? We will accept the history of hw as we find it and leave it to others to account for the change.
The reverse spelling (wh- for hw-) goes back to Middle English and can only confuse those who believe that modern spelling is a good guide to etymology. The letter writer, whose displeasure with dictionaries we have just witnessed, made no mistake. The speakers of London, where in the late Middle Ages the Modern English norm was being forged, lost h before w and accepted voiced w (this happened as early as the end of the fourteenth century), while northern England, Scotland, Ireland, and, to some extent, American English have either hw or voiceless w.
Yet some authorities who taught as late as the first half of the eighteenth century insisted on the necessity to enunciate h before w. They may have trusted the written image of the words in question. In 1654 and the subsequent decades, such opinions could no longer be heard. After voiced w had won the victory in southern speech, the “true” (historical) pronunciation was often recommended as correct and returned to solemn recitation and sometimes even to everyday speech. Such cases are not too rare. Consider the pronunciation often and fore-head, which owe their existence to modern spelling. Some people believe that the more “letters” they pronounce, the more educated they will sound. “Ofen” and “forid,” rhyming with soften and horrid, strike them as slipshod.
It is instructive to look at some Modern English words beginning with wh-. Quite a few, including when, where, what, and why, did once have hw- at the beginning. As a result, southerners have homophones like which ~ witch, when ~ wen, whither ~ wither, whale ~ wail, and so forth. (Shakespeare could not know that woe and wail are related, but his ear and instinct made him write the unforgettable alliterating line in Sonnet 30: “And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”)
The pernicious habit of writing wh, sometimes for no obvious reason, resulted in the creation of several unetymological spellings. Whore, from Old English hore (a common Germanic noun), is akin to Latin carus “dear” (Italian caro, etc.). The Old English for whole was hal (with a long vowel). According to the OED, the spelling with wh-, corresponding to a widespread dialectal pronunciation with w, appeared in the sixteenth century. But why should this dialectal pronunciation have prevailed to such an extent that the spelling of an old and very common word was affected? Home also has a dialectal variant whoam, but, luckily, we still stay at home, rather than at whome. Equally puzzling is whelk (from weolc); here the influence of welk “pimple” has been pressed into service. Whig traces, though in a circuitous way, to a verb meaning “to drive”. Its wh- has no justification in history. Naturally, whim was bound to cause trouble, the more so as its earliest attested meaning is “pun”; no record of whim predates the seventeenth century. Then there is whiffler “an attendant armed with a weapon to keep the way clear for a procession,” from wifle “javelin” (Od Engl. wifel).
The consonant group hw- must always have made people think of blowing and light sweeping motions. Whistle, whisper, and whisk are rather obvious sound-imitating words (which does not mean that whisky ~ whiskey, from Gaelic, should have wh-; whisker, however, is derived for whisk, and its original sense was “brush”). Whir and whirl seem to belong with other onomatopoeic formations. Whew, an exclamation of astonishment, is an onomatopoeia pure and simple. Wheedle is late and has an obscure history.
Inglewhite, Lancashire. (Cowfield. Grazing south of Langley Lane. Photo by Chris Shaw. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
By way of conclusion, I may mention several thw- words in which thw- once alternated with hw-. Today we remember only the verb thwart, but the adjective thwart “obstinate, perverse” also existed, and over-hwart has been attested. Another archaic word thwite “to cut” is a cognate of whittle. Thwack and whack used to alternate, and thwack is a synonym of dialectal thack. Apparently, thw- too had a sound-imitative value. In the place name Inglewhite (Lancashire), the second element was thwaite “meadow.” The last name Applewhite goes back to the place name Applethwaite in Cumberland. The change of thwaite to white is a product of folk etymology.
All this is very interesting, except that wh- is often an unnecessary embellishment. For the benefit of those who like learned words I may say that this group is sometimes otiose.
Yesterday, "Weird Al" Yankovic released a video for his song "Word Crimes", a parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines". Since a lot of people I know are language folks of one sort or another, I saw it flow and re-flow through various streams of social media. But I had qualms.
I love Weird Al, and he's been a formative influence on my life, since I started listening to him when I was a kid. (My entire sense of humor could be described by three childhood influences: Weird Al, the Marx Brothers, and Monty Python.) I also think the detestable "Blurred Lines" is ripe for ridicule and attack. And I like words.
But how are we to understand the speaker in "Word Crimes"?
Most people I saw who shared the video seemed to identify with the speaker. This is not as disturbing as people identifying with the rapey speaker of "Blurred Lines", but it reveals a certain cruelty in the feelings of people who want to be identified as linguistically superior to other people. A tinge of cruel superiority is essential to grammar pedants, and "Word Crimes" reveals that again and again in how it characterizes people who commit such "crimes". On his Facebook page, Jay Smooth listed these characterizations:
"raised in a sewer" "Don't be a moron" "You dumb mouthbreather" "Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head" "you write like a spastic" ["spastic"?] "Go back to preschool" "Get out of the gene pool" "Try your best to not drool"
Hyperbole in service of comedy? Or your (not so) secret inner feelings?
It's interesting to follow the comments on that Facebook post as well as on the Grammar Girl post that Jay Smooth linked to. Various interpretations and arguments come up, including the common complaint that it's just comedy and you shouldn't take it seriously (a pernicious attitude, I think). I don't know exactly what Weird Al intended with the song, nor do I particularly care (it's a clever song, with fun animation in the video) — it's more interesting as a kind of Rorschach test: Do you identify with the speaker in the song? Do you enjoy the cruelty and want to replicate it?
Usage pedantry is not harmless fun. It is ego balm that stokes a sense of righteous superiority. Typically, it's indulged in by people who don't have a deep interest in the history of language or the complexities of linguistics; instead, they like rules, because rules allow them to set themselves apart from the people who don't follow the rules. Usage pedants enjoy living in an intellectual gated community. Some will even refer to themselves as "Grammar Nazis", thus unreflectively siding with one of the most evil systems in the history of humanity. (And these people say they care about language! By the way, if you want to vomit, do a Google Image search for "grammar nazi".)
Typically, too, usage pedants are white people, and these days often ones who in some way or another identify with nerd culture. One of the commenters on Jay Smooth's Facebook page linked to Tim Chevalier's post "Can Geekiness Be Decoupled from Whiteness", which makes a number of useful points, including:
I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. ... But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.
Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”
Pedants need to feel superior, and displaying their (often inaccurate) opinions of grammar, usage, style, and spelling is a way to access such feelings of superiority. My life might suck, but at least I'm not one of those horrible people who splits infinitives or uses numbers in words!
There are crimes of language, but they are not the crimes the pedants police — they are the crimes of obfuscation and propaganda, the crimes that lead us to dehumanize each other, to exploit each other, to oppress each other, to hurt and kill each other.
Pedants don't typically get to those crimes. Indeed, often, by proclaiming their unwavering devotion to tradition, they perpetuate such crimes.
The stuff the pedants denounce may be violations of standard English. Or stylistic preferences. Or pet peeves. Talking about such things and discussing our particular perspective on them can be clarifying and can lead to more precision in communication and more knowledge of how language works. But we need to be aware of the assumptions underneath our prescriptions, the motivations for our pedantry. In my courses, I encourage students to abide by proofreading guidelines, but I also try in those guidelines to justify why I require them, and I work hard to undermine any sense of those guidelines being either eternal or immutable. They are guidelines for the situation that is our class, and are useful information for students who are adjusting their writing to the audience that is me, the guy who grades each student at the end of the term.
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—
Baron, mark, and concise.
I am always glad to hear from our readers. This time I noted with pleasure that both comments on baron (see them postedwhere they belong) were not new to me. I followed all the references in Franz Settegast’s later article (they are not yet to be found in such abundance in my bibliography of English etymology) and those in later sources and dictionaries, and, quite naturally, the quotation from Isidore and the formula in which baron means “husband” figure prominently in every serious work on the subject. No one objected to the hypothesis I attempted to revive. Regrettably, Romance etymologists hardly ever read this blog. In any case, I have not heard their opinion about bigot, beggar, bugger, and now baron. On the other hand, when I say something suspicious or wrong, such statements arouse immediate protest, so perhaps my voice is not lost in the wilderness.
Thus, in one of the letters sent to Oxford University Press I was told that my criticism of the phrase short and concise “is not well taken,” because legal English does make use of this tautological binomial, along with many more like it, in which two synonyms—one English and one French—coexist and reinforce each other. What our correspondent said is, no doubt, correct, and I am aware of numerous Middle English legal compounds of the love-amour type. However, I am afraid that some people who have as little knowledge of legalese as I do misuse concise and have a notion that this adjective is a synonym of precise. Perhaps someone can give us more information on this point. I also want to thank our correspondent who took issue with my statement on the pronunciation of shire: my rule was too rigid.
As for mark, our old correspondent Nikita (he never gives his last name) is certainly right. Ukraine (that is, Ukraina) means “borderland.” In the past, the word was not a place name, and other borderlands were also called this. Equally relevant are the examples Mr. Cowan cited. I don’t know whether Tolkien punned on myrk-, but Old Icelandic myrk- does mean murk ~ murky, as in Myrk-við “Dark Forest” (so a kind of Schwarzwald) and Myrk-á “Dark River.”
Spelling and general intercourse.
I suspect that Mr. Bett (see his comments on the previous gleanings) is an advocate of an all-or-nothing reform. I’d be happy to see English spelling revolutionized, and my suggestion (step by step) is based on expedience (politics) rather than any scholarly considerations. When people speak of phonetic spelling, they usually mean phonemic spelling, so this is not an issue. But I would like to remind everyone that the English Spelling Society was formed in 1908. And what progress has it made in 116 years? Compare the two texts given below.
To begin with, I’ll quote a few passages from Professor Gilbert Murray’s article published in TheSpectator 157, 1936, pp. 983-984. At that time, he was the President of the Simplified Spelling Society.
“There are two plain reasons for the reform of English spelling. In education the work of learning to read and write his own tongue is said to cost the English child [I apologize for Murray’s possessive pronoun] a year longer than, for example, the Italian child, and certainly tends to confuse his mind. For purposes of commerce and general intercourse, where the world badly needs a universal auxiliary language and English is already beginning in many parts of the world to serve this purpose, the enormous difficulty and irrationality of English spelling is holding the process back.…”
“Now nearly all languages have a periodic ‘spring cleaning’ of their orthography. English had a tremendous ‘spring cleaning’ between the twelfth and the fourteenth century.… It is practically Dryden’s spelling that we now use, but few can doubt that the time for another ‘spring cleaning’ is fully arrived… It must not be supposed that the reformers want an exact phonetic alphabet…. What we need is merely a standard spelling for a standard language…. The ‘spring cleaning’ which my society asks for is, I think, quite certain to come; though the longer it is delayed the more revolutionary is will be. It may come, as Lord Bryce, when President of the British Academy, desired, by means of a Royal Commission or a special committee of the Academy. It may, on the other hand, come through the overpowering need of nations in the Far East, and perhaps in the North of Europe, to have an auxiliary language, easy to learn, widely spoken, commercially convenient, and with a great literature behind it, in a form intelligible to write and to speak.”
All this could be written today, even though with a few additions and corrections. English is no longer beginning to serve the purpose of an international language; it has played this role since World War II. We no longer believe that the desired “cleaning” is sure to come: we can only hope for the best.
Let us now listen to Mr. Stephen Linstead, the present Chair of the English Spelling Society, who said to The DailyTelegraph on 23 May 2014 the following: “The spelling of roughly 35 percent of the commonest English words is, to a degree, irregular or ambiguous; meaning that the learner has to memorise these words.” A need to memorize irregularity, he explains, “costs children precious learning time, and us—as a nation—money…. A study carried out in 2001 revealed that English speaking children can take over two years longer to learn basic words compared with children in other countries where the spelling system is more regular.”
We can see that our educational system is making great strides: what used to take one year now takes two. Mr. Linstead says other things worth hearing of which I’ll single out the proposal. It concerns the formation of an international English Spelling Congress “made up of English speakers from across the world who are open to the possibility of improving English spelling and who would like to contribute to the difficulty of mastering our spelling system.” As I understand it, the reformers plan to pay special attention to organizational matters, rather than arguing about the details of English spelling. This looks like a rational attitude. The public is not interested in the reform. Nor did it show any enthusiasm for it in 1936. There were two letters to the editor in response to Professor Gilbert’s article, but both came from the members of the Society, that is, from the “choir.” If the Congress materializes, it should include a lot of very influential people (what about Lord Bryce’s idea?). Otherwise, we will keep talking for another one hundred and six years without any results.
Busy as a bee.
The public, as I said above, does not care about the reform, but it is greedy, covets monetary prizes, and sends children to a torture known as spelling bee. The hive originated in 1925. Here is a case of a bright thirteen year old boy. He speaks English (and to some extent two other languages, one of them learned at home) and is an avid reader. He made it to the semifinals but misspelled ananke (a useful word that reminds even the gods that doom is unavoidable—just what a young boy should keep in mind). I don’t know what he did wrong. Probably he assumed that the word was Latin and spelled it with a c, but alas and alack, it is Greek. For eight weeks a coach (another young student) used to work with the boy three times a week. What a waste! The boy said: “I was really nervous, because you really don’t know what word you were going to get. I wanted to make it farther. [However,] I was really pleased with how I did and how I placed.” I am afraid he will grow up knowing several hundred words he will never see in books and using really three times in two lines. Remembering the spelling of ananke will be the only reward for his efforts.
A snake in the slough of despond. Image credit: A Cantil (Agkistrodon bilineatus) with a shed skin nearby at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo. Photo by Jonathan Crowe. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via mcwetboy Flickr.
I think society (society at large, not the Spelling Society) should do what administrators, masters of a meaningless jargon, call sorting out priorities, stop abusing children, forget the fate of the gods, and concentrate on the misery of the mortals who try to make sense of bough, cough, dough, rough, through, and the horrors of the word slough.
Ever since 4 July 1777 when citizens of Philadelphia celebrated the first anniversary of American independence with a fireworks display, the “rockets’ red glare” has lent a military tinge to this national holiday. But the explosive aspect of the patriots’ resistance was the incendiary propaganda that they spread across the thirteen colonies.
Sam Adams understood the need for a lively barrage of public relations and spin. “We cannot make Events; Our Business is merely to improve them,” he said. Exaggeration was just one of the tricks in the rhetorical arsenal that rebel publicists used to “improve” events. Their satires, lampoons, and exposés amounted to a guerilla war—waged in print—against the Crown.
While Independence Day is about commemorating the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, the path toward separation from England relied on a steady stream of lies, rumor, and accusation. As Philip Freneau, the foremost poet-propagandist of the Revolution put it, if an American “prints some lies, his lies excuse” because the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but the dissemination of inflammatory material.
In place of measured discourse and rational debate, the pyrotechnics of the moment suited “the American crisis”—to invoke the title of Tom Paine’s follow-up to Common Sense—that left little time for polite expression or logical proofs. Propaganda requires speed, not reflection.
Writing became a rushed job. Pamphlets such as Tom Paine’s had an intentionally short fuse. Common Sense says little that’s new about natural rights or government. But what was innovative was the popular rhetorical strategy Paine used to convey those ideas. “As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain,” he wrote, playing upon the sensational language found in popular seduction novels of the day.
The tenor of patriotic discourse regularly ran toward ribald phrasing. When composing newspaper verses about King George, Freneau took particular delight in rhyming “despot” with “pisspot.” Hardly the lofty stuff associated with reason and powdered wigs, this language better evokes the juvenile humor of The Daily Show.
The skyrockets that will be “bursting in air” this Fourth of July are a vivid reminder of the rhetorical fireworks that galvanized support for the colonists’ bid for independence. The spread of political ideas, whether in a yellowing pamphlet or on Comedy Central, remains a vital part of our national heritage.
The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language – a phrase commonly attributed to Shaw sometime in the 1940s, although apparently not to be found in any of his published works. Perhaps another way of looking at it is to say that they are two countries separated by a different ball – a sentiment that is particularly apt when football’s World Cup comes around.
Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that. For years we’ve heard how football is becoming ever more popular in the USA. Major League Soccer’s profile continues to build, and indeed, the US even hosted the World Cup in 1994, and has twice won the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But despite this, football pales into insignificance compared with other big US sports. The National (American) Football League brought in 9 billion dollars in revenue in 2013, whereas Major League Soccer earned only about half a billion; even the National Hockey League earned over 3 billion. If you’re one of those Americans who hasn’t yet become a diehard fan, here’s a potted (and tongue) guide to bluffing your way into sounding knowledgeable about the beautiful game.
The first rule of football is…
…don’t call it soccer, certainly not within earshot of someone who thinks of it as ‘proper’ football. This is probably the most crucial element in giving the impression that you’ve been into this game for decades. Naturally this can be difficult if you are trying to differentiate between two different sports (in the UK it is easy – American football v football). Soccer, the word, comes from an abbreviation for Association (from Association Football, the ‘official’ name for the game) plus the addition of the suffix -er. This suffix (originally Rugby School slang, and then adopted by Oxford University), was appended to ‘shortened’ nouns, in order to form jocular words. Rugger is probably the most common example, but other examples included in the Oxford English Dictionary are brekker (for breakfast), bonner (for bonfire), and cupper (a series of intercollegiate matches played in competition for a cup).
Apart from its origins being decidedly British, you will find plenty of examples of soccer being used by British people over the decades. But in terms of the history of the language, it’s something of a 19th-century johnny-come-lately: by contrast, football has been used since the 1400s. In modern usage, in order to blend in with the diehard fans, it’s preferable to stick to football – and, when speaking to these fans, never, ever call it Association Football.
A quick reference to sound like a football native:
Match vs game
Match is used in relation to football, butgame(used in American Football) is actually the older sense. Game, meaning a competitive activity governed by rules of play, is found in Old English – while match in a similar sense dates to the 16th century. (The word match is also found in Old English, with reference to spouses or people of equal standing.)
Pitch vs field
Pitch, meaning ‘the area of play in a field game’ and used in football, is quite a recent addition to English — currently first found in the late 19th century — and field (with a similar definition, used for American football) predates it by over 150 years. Yet fashions change, and you should refer to a football pitch if you want to be accepted by aficionados in Britain.
Boots vs cleats / shoes
The distinction between boots (used in football) and shoes (in American football) isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the use of cleats is more intriguing. It’s actually an example of synecdoche: the part is used to represent the whole. This becomes clear if you realize that cleats are the projections on the sole of a shoe, designed to prevent the wearer losing their footing (which are commonly called studs in British English).
Extra time vs overtime
As the name suggests, extra time is a further period of play in football, added on to a game if the scores are equal and the match must be decided (not to be confused with injury time, added to compensate for time lost dealing with injuries). Overtime describes the same event in North American games, drawing on the older sense of ‘time worked in addition to one’s normal working hours’. The first use of both terms is currently dated to the early 20th century, with extra time coming first.
To mark vs to guard vs to cover
Guarding in basketball, and marking in a variety of British games including football, means keeping close to an opponent in order to prevent them from getting or passing the ball. To add to the international confusion, in Australian Rules Football, marking a ball means catching it from a kick of at least ten metres and is to be celebrated – whereas, unless you’re the goalkeeper (or in the crowd), catching the ball at all in football is a handball and a foul. In American football, a defensive player will cover an offensive player.
Kit vs uniform
A uniform (worn for American sports) may sound more militaristic than a kit (worn in football), but the latter actually has fairly regimental (albeit more informal) origins – the sense comes from kit as the equipment of a solider (also known as articles of kit). This sense, in turn, relates to an earlier sense of kit as a container for carrying commodities – from the Dutch kitte, a wooden vessel made of hooped staves.
There’s no other way
In American Football, there are numerous ways to score. In football, there is only one. If the ball ends up in the back of the net (provided there has been no infringement of the rules), it’s a goal. Whether scored by a header, from the penalty spot, a volley, route one, scissor kick, after a glorious mazy run from one end of the pitch to the other, or even if it hits a defending player on the bottom/knee/shoulder and deflects past the goalkeeper into the goal, it’s just a goal, and only counts for one point.
0-0 can be exciting
It’s probably a bit of an urban myth that Americans bemoan the fact that it’s perfectly possible to sit through 90 minutes of football, and for the end result to be 0-0. Meaning that no one scored. While any self-respecting football fan will have witnessed the dourest of dour games which end up as a goalless draw, there are action-packed games which inexplicably end up goalless due to one or more goalies playing a blinder. You’ll just have to believe us on this. While you can’t immediately tell from the numbers written as symbols, that ‘0-0’ is nil-nil rather than zero-zero. A good way to expose your ignorance amongst football fans is to refer to a result being two-zero, as the 0 is always termed nil in football. Nil is a contraction of the Latin nihil, meaning ‘nothing’, and also to be found in the word nihilism (the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence).
And last, but not least, don’t worry too much about explaining the offside rule. Plenty of people can’t.
The terrible word slough
Some time ago, in my discussion of English spelling, I touched on the group ough, this enfant terrible of our orthography; slough figured prominently in it. One slough, the verb meaning “shed the skin,” rhymes with enough. The other is problematic and had a tortuous history. John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (the last quarter of the eighteenth century), made the Slough of Despond famous. He was not sure of the word’s written image, and in his book we find They drew near to a very Miry Slough…. The name of theSlow was Despond. It is not for nothing that rough and bough look so much alike. The group ough could develop into a diphthong (many people say dipthong—a habit worth “sloughing”) or yield uff. Someone who has never seen the word clough “ravine” will not know whether is rhymes with bough, cough, or through.
If I am not mistaken, in Standard British English, slough “mire” (and the surname Slough) rhymes with bough, but in American English it rhymes with through. I am not sure because I never hear this word and can rely only on the evidence of dictionaries. The Century Dictionary, published in the United States around the year 1900, says that slough “a hole full of deep mud or mire; a quagmire of considerable depth and comparatively small depth of surface” rhymes with bough, while when it has the sense “a marshy hollow; a reedy pond; also, a long and shallow ravine, or open creek, which becomes partly or wholly dry in summer [Western U.S.],” it is spelled slue, slew, or sloo and rhymes with through. Other dictionaries either state that the variants are interchangeable or give only one pronunciation, namely sloo. Sloo is well-known in British dialects, from where it came to the New World. As usual, it will be interesting to read the comments of our readers from different parts of the English-speaking world. One thing is clear: a snake “sluffs” its skin.
The pronunciation sloo could not be immediately predicted from the noun’s past. In such words, the usual variants are “uff” (rough, tough, and so forth) or “ow” (bough); cough is regular but exceptional. Occasionally both variants coexist, as in enough ~ enow or sough “rushing or murmuring of the sea,” which some people rhyme with enough and others with enow. Sloo goes back to sloh (with a long vowel in Old English). For some reason, final h in this noun could be lost, and, when it was, slo developed like school and other words with long o (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. awe). The only analog of sloo I can think of is through, but prepositions are usually unstressed, so that in through the loss of final h in Middle English causes no surprise.
An authentic cluck-ma-doodle. (An impish face carved on St. Mary’s 14th century font, Knaith. Photo by Richard Croft. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
How old is the now common British pronunciation foiv for five and the like?
In London, this pronunciation is not very old. At the end of the nineteenth century, Skeat noted that in his youth no one heard it. Dickens’s characters like Sam Weller and Mrs. Gamp (Sairey Gamp), the ultimate Cockney speaker in Martin Chuzzlewit, do not say noin and foiv, though Oi for I turns up in many Victorian novels. It is often contended that Dickens was not a reliable observer of Cockney speech. This accusation cannot be taken seriously: Dickens’s ear for sounds was splendid, as, among many other things, his reproduction of American speech in the same novel and of the Yorkshire accent in Nicholas Nickleby shows. Incidentally, he himself never quite got rid of some peculiarities of Cockney. Foiv for five is undoubtedly dialectal, but it came to London relatively late, probably around the time of Dickens’s death (1870) and is not an ancient feature of Cockney. Its adoption by educated speakers is amazing, but people do not hear what they say, and most are sure that their pronunciation is the same as that of their grandparents. (In my memory, British oh no has turned almost universally into eu neu.)
Ukraine once more.
The place name Ukraine cannot be a cognate of Latvian Ukris, if Ukris is a native word. Ukraina, related to Russian okraina, has a prefix (u- ~ o). The root is krai- “region,” n is a suffix, and -a the ending of a feminine noun. In Ukris, as I understand, ukr- is the root.
Fighting against who? or whom?
I keep cutting out sentences in which writers try desperately to decide whether they should say who or whom. But this is like speaking a foreign language: one can never be absolutely certain that the chosen variant is correct. A caption:
“J.J., right, with sister S., who she had been visiting in XX.”
Someone writing for the Associated Press and quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (in an English translation):
“The key to toning down the situation in our view is ending military operation against protesters. Then, I am convinced, these people who you call separatists will take reciprocal action.”
And now to the most sacrosanct source of them all, The New York Times:
“The government has offered amnesties before that did not lead to the release of the tens of thousands of people whom human rights advocates say have been detained or imprisoned during the unrest in the country.”
The last sentence is the worst of them all.
To be sure, if the writers had studied a language like German or Russian, or Latin, all of which have cases, they would have understood that there are such things as the nominative, the genitive, the dative, and the accusative. It would have become clear to them that despite the erosion of the who-whom distinction in American English, the educated norm still requires the nominative who and the oblique case whom, except when the Standard has abolished the difference (Who are you referring to?). Or they may have compared he/him with who/whom. But grammar is not fun, as has been repeated many times. So we meet people whom we thought were dead and meet people who we try to avoid.
Folk etymology at large
In my book on word origins, I devoted a few pages to words like frigmajig “a toy; a trifle; anything that moves or works about.” Last week, I ran into a letter to the editor published in 1930. It was about a self-recording barometer with the words click madoodle on it. According to a story told at Elderline, the inhabitants found washed ashore a body of a man with a watch in his pocket, still going. None of them had ever seen or heard of such a thing. Finally, a wise man residing in the district arrived. He too was ignorant of the object but did not want to confess it and shouted “It’s a Click-ma-doodle! Kill it!” And it was smashed with stones. This is allegedly the origin of the trademark (many seaside towns had or still have barometers with the same words). I am sure that click ma doodle was coined on the model of other dialectal words like frigmajig, but the story (a hundred percent apocryphal?) is not devoid of interest as a record of human ingenuity when it comes to word origins.
Unless I receive many queries and comments before 15 July, read the next “gleanings” on 24 September 2014.
A few weeks ago, I talked about euphemisms on Minnesota Public Radio. The comments were many and varied. Not unexpectedly, some callers also mentioned clichés, and I realized once again that in my resentment of unbridled political correctness, the overuse of buzzwords, and the ineradicable habit to suppress the truth by putting on it a coating of sugary euphemisms I am not alone.
The trouble with buzzwords and euphemisms is that they tend to lose their force and turn into inanities. A wonderful lady has been appointed president of a community college. This is the way she was characterized: “…an inclusive, transparent and collaborative leader with proven commitment to the success of all students.” I have no doubt she is, for she goes from one high post to another every two years, and such mobility needs a talent for collaboration and glass-like transparency. Yet I felt that something was missing in the recommender’s encomium, though I could not put my finger on it. Luckily, I read a review of his own performance and found that he is “a visionary leader who cares passionately for our students and works tirelessly on their behalf.” That’s it! The new president, I am sure, is also a visionary and cares passionately for the students at every college at which she was inclusive and transparent. How could those qualities be overlooked? (No one has plans any longer; we only “articulate visions”: a two-year vision, a five-year vision.) And the tireless leader, the author of the recommendation, is certainly a Renaissance man. Nowadays Leonardos are a dime a dozen.
A visionary. (Lenin making a speech in the Red Square at the unveiling of a temporary monument to Stepaz Razin in 1919. Photo by G.P.Goldshtein. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Stale, flat, and unprofitable are our official speeches. They have become like excerpts from reviews used as ads. Here are two quotations from central newspapers (both deal with ballets): “Riveting and exhausting, fascinating and relentless, brilliant and tedious… a mesmerizing exploration of…”; “tackling arduous roles…with degrees of energy, scale, detailed nuance, and musical sophistication seldom found anywhere.” (Are they paid per epithet?) I once read a review of a thoroughly mediocre performance of The Swan Lake. “The best performance I have seen,” the reviewer assured us. I suspect that it was the first he had ever seen, so he must have been telling the truth. It is with praise as with standing ovations; in our climate of rapturous overstatement to applaud sitting looks like an offence.
Some euphemisms the listeners remembered from their family tradition are truly mesmerizing and captivating, especially for their detailed nuance. One of them is gentleman cow for “bull.” Others are old and well-known but still funny, such as I have to see a man about a dog (horse), that is, “excuse me, I have to go to a toilet.” (Toilet itself has fallen victim to countless replacements, from restroom to john.)
Euphemisms and taboo words are perennial. People were afraid to pronounce the name of the bear; hence our word bear (its etymological meaning is “brown”; the Indo-European word for “bear” is hidden in Engl. Ursa, from Latin, and Arctic, from Greek). One of the listeners wrote: “I hate passed away/passed on/passed. What’s wrong with dead?” Euphemisms for death and dead may have the same origin as those for bear (fear); it is better not to call a terrible thing by its real name, for it will hear, understand, and come. But today we are not so superstitious, so that our passed and passedaway are mere signs of sham gentility. On the other hand, the rude phrase death tax has almost supplanted estate tax in everyday speech. You never know!
Then, naturally, embarrassing actions need sweet names. This is true not only of urinating and defecating but also of begging and extorting money. No one says pay up or get lost; people ask for “donations.” Aren’t service fee, seat fee, and convenience fee among the most precious verbal treasures we have? Conversely, we despise the filthy rich, usually out of envy. But wealth also commands respect. This is how the neutral term job creator became a synonym of “rich”: sounds business-like, even laudatory in our “trickle-down economy.” Doctors are among the main perpetrators of euphemisms, and we are happy to follow their usage. “Can blindness be the result of the surgery?” Answer: “The surgery may affect your vision.” “During the procedure you will experience slight discomfort.” It intends to mean “sharp, stabbing pain.” Sex has produced two tendencies. Our wonderful liberation allows everyone from early age to use the F-word. On the other hand, in polite conversation have intercourse is the limit. Most will prefer to say she sleeps with X, they made love on their first date, and the like.
It is a joy to watch verbal dances around old age. There is of course no need to call a spade a bloody shovel and say that old geezers have a 10% discount, but we feel queasy even about pronouncing the adjective old. “When I was pregnant with my third child, the doctor kept saying ‘Because of your advanced age…’.” Of course: not blind (only suffering from impaired vision), not too old but only of advanced age. Then the noble word seniors came up, and it is certainly here to stay. Seniority plays an important role in our fight for survival.
As one of the listeners put it: “What’s fun about a euphemism is what it tells us about a culture and about a user.” Indeed, but it is sometimes moderate fun. We are obsessed with offending someone, especially when it comes to ethnicity and gender. As a lecturer, I constantly dread “creating a hostile environment.” My audience may miss the content of the entire talk but will notice a poisoned sting in the most innocent joke. Everybody is supersensitive. Jew’s harp—shouldn’t we change the name, considering that the instrument has nothing to do with Jews? Because of the late connotation of spade (an ethnic slur), why not abolish the phrase call a spade a spade? On the Internet, I found a long essay that answers someone’s question about the phrase. Fortunately, it explains that in this case we have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet when you come to think of it, isn’t bloody shovel safer after all? Most of us still remember the uproar caused by the use of the adjective niggardly (which, of course, has nothing to do with the slur). The noun niggard seems to be of Scandinavian origin, but some people may feel hurt by its use.
In Minnesota, Asian carp has been replaced with invasive carp. Very wise. Why offend people of Asian descent? Not that they have been offended (though I may have missed something), but what if someone explains to them that the term is an outrage on their heritage? Our barbarous past has burdened us with Dutch uncle, French kiss, and many other shocking idioms. And don’t forget French fries ~ freedom fries. One of the listeners called my attention to such horrors as English sole (I will add: what if someone takes it for English soul?), German measles, Irish setter, Japanese beetle, Spanish fly, French letter, and Russian roulette—all highly inappropriate. I agree.
Let us work together on improving our language, and many thanks to those who participated in my talk show.