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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: language, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 26 - 50 of 322
26. Umbrellas and yellow ribbons: The language of the 2014 Hong Kong protests

Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since it became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997. This ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place.

China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development. However, Beijing insists that candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, the chief executive, must be vetted by an electoral committee made up largely of tycoons, pro-Beijing, and establishment figures. The main demand of the protesters is full democracy, without sifting candidates through a selection mechanism. Protesters want the right to nominate and directly elect the head of the Hong Kong government.

Lennon Wall
‘Lennon Wall’, Hong Kong. Photo by Dr Jennifer Eagleton. Do not use without permission.

The protests are a combination of movements. For instance, the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement is a civil disobedience movement that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage according to international standards.

The humble umbrella has become the predominant symbol of the 2014 protests – largely because of its use as protection against police pepper spray. I’m sure you will have seen the now-iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while clouds of tear gas swirl around him. Thus, the terms “umbrella movement” or “umbrella revolution” came into being.

Yellow or “democracy yellow” as the colour became known, became the symbolic colour of the 2014 protests. As the protests wore on, yellow ribbons have been tied to fences, trees, lapels and Facebook profile pictures as indicators of solidarity with the “umbrella movement”.

How yellow and the crossed yellow ribbon became the symbol of the campaign for democracy in Hong Kong is unclear. The yellow ribbon often signifies remembrance (“Tie a yellow ribbon round that ole oak tree”, a hit song from 1973 about a released prisoner hoping that his love would welcome him back). Perhaps it relates to the fact that in 1876, during the U.S. Centennial, women in the suffrage movement wore yellow ribbons and sang the song “The Yellow Ribbon”. Interestingly, one political party in Hong Kong’s uses the suffragette colours (green, white, and violet) as its political colours.

traitor 689
‘Wanted! Traitor, 689 CY Leung’, Hong Kong, Photo by Dr Jennifer Eagleton. Do not use without permission.

From previous colour revolutions, we know that colour is significant (Beijing saw it as a separatist push, and the interchangeable use of “umbrella movement” and “umbrella revolution” did not help). Historically, in imperial times only the emperor could wear yellow. Nobles and commoners did so on pain of death. Yellow has now become a colour for the masses.

A blue ribbon movement also arose, signifying support for the police and against the action of the occupiers; the “blue ribboners” were also known as the “anti-occupiers”. Currently, Hong Kong society seems divided between the pro-occupiers and the anti-occupiers. Subsequently, there has been massive “unfriending” of people on Facebook. Thus arose a new verb: “to go blue ribbony”; as in “my friend said the group chat [FB] has gone blue ribbony so she left.”

Numbers have always been important in Hong Kong’s recent history. In 1984, with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the year 1997 became important as that was the date of day Hong Kong “reverted” to Chinese sovereignty. The first opportunity to ask for universal suffrage was 2007 (denied), and then 2012 (also denied).

“689” is the “the number that explains Hong Kong’s upheaval” (quipped The Wall Street Journal). Invoked constantly in the streets and on social media, “689” is the protesters’ nickname for Hong Kong’s leader. The chief executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee made up mostly of elite, pro-Beijing individuals after first being nominated by that committee. C.Y. Leung, the current chief executive, was elected by 689 members of that committee. This small circle election is at the heart of protesters’ frustrations, so they use “689” as an insult that emphasizes Leung’s illegitimacy. When they chant “689, step down!” they indict Mr. Leung along with the Beijing-backed political structure that they see threatening their city’s autonomy and freedoms. There is an expression “689 冇柒用” (there is no 7 in 689), where “柒” means “7” and “7冇柒用” means “(he is) no fucking use.” Interestingly, “689” could be read as “June 1989”, the time of the Tiananmen protests in Beijing.

trust the people
Jennifer’s post-it note, Hong Kong. Photo by Dr Jennifer Eagleton. Do not use without permission.

In addition to protest songs such as ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (naturally), ‘Do you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables, and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, just to name a few, a very mundane ditty served as a tool of antagonism. This was the song “Happy Birthday”. Employing the happy birthday tactic was used by protesters when others shouted abuse at them. Singing “happy birthday” (sàangyaht faailohk, in Cantonese) to opponents, which served to annoy and disorientate them no end.

Chinese characters are made up of components called ‘radicals’. After the now iconic photograph of a young student holding up umbrellas while being tear-gassed, an enterprising individual came up with the following character扌傘, a combination of two ‘radicals’: 手 for “hand” → becoming 扌 on the left and the character for “umbrella” (傘) literally, a hand raising an umbrella. The definition for this character is to “to protest and persevere with peace and rationality until the end”, explaining that “with the radical ‘hand’, the word symbolizes the action of opening an umbrella”. The character ultimately has the meaning of “withstanding, supporting and not giving up the faith”.

The protests in Hong Kong are an ongoing phenomenon. The outpouring of linguistic and semiotic creative has been breath-taking.

Feature image credit: Hong Kong Protests, by Leung Ching Yau Alex. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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27. Doris Lessing: another world of words

Doris Lessing (22 October 1919 – 17 November 2013) was an astonishing wordsmith, as any reader of her many novels, stories, plays, and poems would attest — and the genesis of this talent can be seen in her upbringing and surroundings.

Childhood memories

She was five years old when her family emigrated in 1925 to what was then known as Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She was a sensitive, awkward child enduring a troubled relationship to her mother, who doted on her younger brother to Doris’s neglect.

The long boat journey had been difficult, exacerbated by her seasick father and her mother’s response, which was to throw herself into manic forms of distraction with her jolly new friend the Captain. In the celebrations that accompanied crossing the equator, young Doris had been thrown with her mother’s blessing into the sea, although she could not swim and had to be hooked out by a sailor.

By the time they disembarked Doris was one angry child. She was stealing small, pointless things like ribbons, having temper tantrums, and demanding a pair of scissors with which she planned to stab her nursemaid. And then they set out in a covered wagon drawn by sixteen oxen to find the land her parents had bought for farming. The strange new world around her had a magically soothing effect:

“We were five days and nights in the wagon, because of swollen rivers and the bad road, but there is only one memory, not of unhappiness and anger, but the beginnings of a different landscape; a hurricane lamp swings, swings, at the open back of the wagon, the dark bush on either side of the road, the starry sky.”

Doris Lessing, British writer, at lit.cologne, Cologne literature festival 2006, Germany. By Elke Wetzig (elya) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Doris Lessing, British writer, at lit.cologne, Cologne literature festival 2006, Germany. By Elke Wetzig (elya) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Beauty and cruelty

Africa’s searing heat branded sense memories onto her child’s skin. She grew up loving the bush, fascinated by its inhabitants, both animal and human, but horrified by the way its brutal laws of survival had infected its politics. That there should be masters and slaves, an unjust submission of an entire indigenous population by a minority of white invaders was something Doris felt deeply uneasy about, and then, as she grew into an adult understanding, incensed and outraged. She had been forced to submit to her dominant mother and came gradually to understand that this bullying was the measure of her mother’s insecurity and fear. She would attack such power-hungry relationships in all her writing. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, her Children of Violence quartet, the African short stories she wrote and, in later years, her memoir, all were concerned with the beauty of the land and the cruelty of the race bar in Rhodesia in the years up until the Second World War.

Africa gave Lessing a vast and evocative lexicon to play with. Nowhere is her pleasure in it more evident than in the first volume of her memoir, Under My Skin. Luxuriating in her descriptions, she details the flora and fauna of the region — the cedrillatoona trees, the musasa trees, the mafuti tree: “growing at its root was an excrescence, like a sea creature, coral sheaths where protruded the tender and brilliant claws of new leaves, and these were like green velvet.” There were pawpaws and guavas, moonflowers and poinsettias, in a landscape made out of kraals — enclosures for cattle and sheep; kopjes — small hills; veld — uncultivated grassland; and vlei — shallow pools. Running wild were different kinds of antelope: koodoos and duikers. The natural world was alive with sound:

“On the telephone wires the birds twittered and sang, sometimes it seemed in competition with the droning metal poles, and from the far trees came the clinking of hidden guineafowl flocks. The wind sang not only in the wires, but through the grasses, and if it was blowing strongly, made the wires vibrate and twang, and then the flock of birds took off into the sky, their wings fluttering or shrilling, and they sped off to the trees, or came circling back to try again. Dogs barked from the compound.”

Two cultures

There was another natural world, too, one of the black Africans Lessing lived alongside, where words often came with derogatory or offensive undertones. The following words are found in Lessing’s memoir Under My Skin, where she also talks about her horror at the treatment black workers received. There was the “kitchen kaffir” that they spoke, a sort of pidgin English. There was the “bossboy” who oversaw the workers on a farm, and then there were “skellums” or “skelms,” the word for a scoundrel, scamp or rogue, of whom there seemed to be a great deal. Doris’s own world of white immigrant farmers sat uneasily astride two cultures: the grand piano incongruous inside a pole and mud house with unplastered walls, furniture fashioned out of paraffin boxes, Doris forced to wear her hated Liberty bodice by day whilst at night she slept beneath an equally disliked “kaross” — a fur blanket that smelt too strongly of its original owner.

Part of the brilliance of Lessing’s writing comes from the world she creates so seamlessly around the reader, who is transported to a place that is not just different, but utterly alien in its terminology. In later novels, she would evoke other worlds that were just as strange and all-encompassing — the world of madness and emotional breakdown in The Golden Notebook, and the world of her science fiction quintet, Canopus in Argos. Creating a world with its own vocabulary was a skill that had quite literally crept under her skin in Africa.

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

Heading image: Zimbabwe Gonarezhou Landscape Chilojo Cliffs by Ralf Ellerich. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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28. Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2014, Part 1

It so happened that at the end of this past summer I was out of town and responded to the questions and comments that had accumulated in August and September in two posts. We have the adjectives biennial and biannual but no such Latinized luxury for the word month. Although I realized that in this case bimonthly would be misleading, I hoped that the context would disambiguate it. Let me assure our correspondents that my gleanings will keep appearing every last Wednesday until some unpredictable circumstance (for example, a sudden lack of queries: I can’t think of anything else) do us part. My bimonthly meant “gleanings for two months.”

Etymologies

Gaul, Walloon, Wallachian

Wallachian, Walloon, and Welsh share the same Germanic root, which means “foreign” (one can also see it in walnut, as well as in the family names Wallace, Welsh, and Walshe). The Anglo-Saxons called the Celts and the Romans foreigners. The element -wall in Cornwall is related to them. Gaulish is a Romanized form of the same adjective (compare ward and guard, Wilhelm and Guillaume). But one should not argue from etymological affinity to tribal or national identity. Calling some people foreigners does not say anything about their origin.

Hull gull

Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has an entry for the word, and descriptions of the game abound, but the origin of the name remains undiscovered. My browsing has not yielded anything worth reporting. What little has been said on the subject in books on games can be found on the Internet in five minutes. The idea that hull goes back to the Old Engl. verb for “hide” (hellan ~ helian, in Modern English, rare and dialectal hele; compare German hehlen, hüllen, and their cognate -ceal in Engl. conceal, from Latin, via French) is, in my opinion, fanciful. Hull gull is known among American Indians, but in the absence of its native name nothing follows from this fact. The hully gully dance seems to have been called after the game. Some people have looked for its source in Africa, yet no facts bear out its African origin. In my experience, the nucleus of such reduplications (hugger-mugger and the like) is more often the second element; the first is then added to rhyme with it. This is especially true of the words whose first element begins with an h. Should some brave word sleuth decide to search for the etymology of hull gull, it may pay off to begin with gull. Perhaps some of our correspondents have ideas on this subject. If so, kindly don’t hide them.

A hazel-grouse
A hazel-grouse

Color words

Brown

My gratitude is due those who informed me about the origin of brown shirts in Germany. I knew most of what was said in the comments but can now state with certainty that brown had no symbolic value in the choice of that uniform. As regards the name of the hazel grouse, it indeed has a root with wide Indo-European connections. The remark on braun und blau (see the quotation from Deutsches Wörterbuch adduced by Roland Schumann) should be considered, but in such binomials a descending scale is also possible: compare Engl. black and blue.

Livid

I am sure Michael Lamb is right. It did not occur to me to consult dictionaries. The OED explains that livid with anger means “pale with anger.” However, I still wonder whether anger, rather than fear, causes pallor. In those few cases in which I heard the phrase, the speakers always meant “suffused with red.” Apparently, I err in (good) company.

One as a pronoun

One is responsible for one’s mistakes. Is this a silly sentence? In at least one opinion, it is as silly as John is responsible for John’s mistakes. I am afraid I disagree. One, our correspondent points out, is not only an indefinite pronoun but also a noun, a circumstance ignored by grammarians. However, grammarians have always been aware of the nature of one. In the United States, grammar is seldom taught today (where some watered down elements of it remain, grammar has been replaced by the less offensive term structure; I cannot vouch for the rest of the English-speaking world), but those of us who did study this allegedly-devoid-of-fun subject at school have heard about the parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and the rest). The division of the vocabulary into parts of speech is a minor catastrophe. For instance, adverbs often resemble a trashcan (what is not a noun or an adjective finds refuge there, and, to add to the confusion, nouns and adjectives in oblique cases tend to be “adverbialized”). Numerals fare even worse: we provide a list of them (one, two, three, etc.) and say: “This is your part of speech.” Is twice a numeral or an adverb? Twelve is a numeral, while dozen is a noun. Is threescore a numeral or a noun? Sixty is certainly a numeral. In the Old Germanic languages, the words for one, two, three, and four could be declined (as they still are in Icelandic) and belonged to the same classes as nouns; yet we call them numerals. All this is common knowledge. One is the worst offender, because, despite its meaning, in Old Germanic it had a plural form and sometimes meant “only.” Modern Engl. ones shows how natural that plural sounds, while once is a petrified genitive.

My next point concerns usage. John is responsible for John’s mistakes is unnecessary and even silly, because his, instead of John’s, would refer to the subject quite clearly. But one has no correlate, hence the trouble. One is responsible for his (her) mistakes is embarrassing, because one is neither a man nor a woman. Their is safe and politically correct, but one is singular, while their is plural. To be sure, those who say when a student comes, I never make them wait will find the correlation one/their unobjectionable, and let them enjoy their usage (“every man in his humor”). In addition to those variants, we can say either one is responsible for one’s mistakes (logical but perhaps inelegant) or rephrase the sentence (all of us are responsible for our mistakes). “John” is doing better: he pays the price for his folly, just as “Mary” rues her missteps. While speaking English, one occasionally hits the wall, and there is no help for it.

Come one, come all
Come one, come all

I wrote my response before Michael Lamb’s comment appeared. There was no need for me to change anything in my text, and “at this point of time,” as so deplorably many people say and write, I invite our correspondents to read our “polemic” and express their opinion: come one, come all.

Disagreements over strategy, or a maid of all work: over

Some prepositions succeed in ousting all their competitors. Henry W. Fowler, the author of the immortal book Modern English Usage, wrote with contempt about those who say as to, because they are too lazy to think of for, about, and their synonyms. I have a dim recollection that in one of my old posts I discussed over as an example of an evil invasive species. Recently, Walter Turner has sent me a list of such overdone phrases from the most respectable British and American newspapers. Some of them are offered below for the wise to be aware. “Egypt jails nine men over sex assaults”; “Moscow faces bank curbs over new public-sector projects” (= because of? in connection with?); “Journalists face jail over spy leaks”; “Cameron ambushes Labour over tax plans”; “Cameron criticized over plans to knight Tory reshuffle victims”; “X warns Y over boozy night out,” and many more. This virus, like all viruses, knows no borders. Take note and think it over.

I have something to say about the Indo-European names of fruits, the phrase in brown study, the origin of Viking, and about the ever-green subject of English spelling but will do so next Wednesday.

Image credits: (1) Hazel grouse. Naumann, Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band VI, Tafel 8 – Gera, 1897 digitale Bearbeitung : Peter v. Sengbusch. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Marx Super Circus Tent Side 2 Inside Detail 1. Photo by Ed Berg. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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29. Short stories from the Danish capital

From the narrow twisting streets of the old town centre to the shady docklands, Copenhagen Tales captures the essence of Copenhagen and its many faces. Through seventeen tales by some of the very best of Denmark’s writers past and present, we travel the length and breadth of the Danish capital examining famous sights from unique perspectives. A guide book usefully informs a new visitor to Copenhagen but these stories allow the reader to experience the city and its history from the inside. Translator Lotte Shankland is a Copenhagener by birth who has lived many years in England. In the videos below she discusses the collection, decribing the richness of Danish literature, as well as the Scandinavian noir genre.

Lotte Shankland on the greater significance of short stories within Denmark:

Lotte Shankland discusses her favourite short story, ‘Nightingale’, by Meir Goldschmidt:

From Hans Christian Andersen to Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark has been home to some of the finest writers in Europe. In the National Museum in Copenhagen you will find stories from as early as 1500 BC, covering myth and magic. A walk through the city will most likely involve an encounter with the emblematic statue of the Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale. The Danes continue to tell great stories, as evidenced by the hugely popular Danish TV series The Killing and the Sweedish co-production The Bridge. Copenhagen Tales offers a way to understand the heart and soul of this diverse city, through the literature and art it has generated.

Featured image credit: Copenhagen, Denmark. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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30. Linguistic necromancy: a guide for the uninitiated

It’s fairly common knowledge that languages, like people, have families. English, for instance, is a member of the Germanic family, with sister languages including Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages. Germanic, in turn, is a branch of a larger family, Indo-European, whose other members include the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish, and more), Russian, Greek, and Persian.

Being part of a family of course means that you share a common ancestor. For the Romance languages, that mother language is Latin; with the spread and then fall of the Roman empire, Latin split into a number of distinct daughter languages. But what did the Germanic mother language look like? Here there’s a problem, because, although we know that language must have existed, we don’t have any direct record of it.

The earliest Old English written texts date from the 7th century AD, and the earliest Germanic text of any length is a 4th-century translation of the Bible into Gothic, a now-extinct Germanic language. Though impressively old, this text still dates from long after the breakup of the Germanic mother language into its daughters.

How does one go about recovering the features of a language that is dead and gone, and which has left no records of itself in spoken or written form? This is the subject matter of linguistic necromancy – or linguistic reconstruction, as it is more conventionally known.

The enterprise, dubbed “darkest of the dark arts” and “the only means to conjure up the ghosts of vanished centuries” in the epigraph to a chapter of Campbell’s historical linguistics textbook, really got off the ground in the 1900s due to a development of a toolkit of techniques known as the comparative method.

Crucial to the comparative method was a revolutionary empirical finding: the regularity of sound change. Though it has wide-reaching implications, the basic finding is simple to grasp. In a nutshell: it’s sounds that change, not words, and when they change, all words which include those sounds are affected.

Detail of a page from the Codex Argenteus. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of a page from the Codex Argenteus. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s take an example. Lots of English words beginning with a p sound have a German counterpart that begins with pf. Here are some of them:

  • English path: German Pfad
  • English pepper: German Pfeffer
  • English pipe: German Pfeife
  • English pan: German Pfanne
  • English post: German Pfoste

If the forms of words simply changed at random, these systematic correspondences would be a miraculous coincidence. However, in the light of the regularity of sound change they make perfect sense. Specifically, at some point in the early history of German, the language sounded a lot more like (Old) English. But then the sound p underwent a change to pf at the beginning of words, and all words starting with p were affected.

There’s much more to be said about the regularity of sound change, since it underlies pretty much everything we know about language family groupings. (If you’re interested in finding out more, Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language provides an accessible summary.) But for now let’s concentrate on its implications for necromantic purposes, which are immense.

If we want to invoke the words and sounds of a long-dead language like the mother language Proto-Germanic (the ‘proto-’ indicates that the language is reconstructed, rather than directly evidenced in texts), we just need to figure out what changes have happened to the sounds of the daughter languages, and to peel them back one by one like the layers of an onion. Eventually we’ll reach a point where all the daughter languages sound the same; and voilà, we’ve conjured up a proto-language.

There’s more to living languages than just sounds and words though. Living languages have syntax: a structure, a skeleton. By contrast, reconstructed protolanguages tend to look more like ghosts: hauntingly amorphous clouds of words and sounds. There are practical reasons why the reconstruction of proto-syntax has lagged behind. One is simply that our understanding of syntax, in general, has come a long way since the work of the reconstruction pioneers in the 19th century.

Another is that there is nothing quite like the regularity of syntactic change in syntax: how can we tell which syntactic structures correspond to each other across languages? These problems have led some to be sceptical about the possibility of syntactic reconstruction, or at any rate about its fruitfulness. Nevertheless, progress is being made. To take one example, English is a language that doesn’t like to leave out the subject of a sentence. We say “He speaks Swahili” or “It is raining”, not “Speaks Swahili” or “Is raining”. Though most of the modern Germanic languages behave the same, many other languages, like Italian and Japanese, have no such requirement; speakers can include or omit the subject of the sentence as the fancy takes them. Was Proto-Germanic like English, or like Italian or Japanese, in this respect? Doing a bit of necromancy based on the earliest Germanic written records suggests that Proto-Germanic was, like the latter, quite happy to omit the subject, at least under certain circumstances.Of course the issue is more complex than that – Italian and Japanese themselves differ with regard to the circumstances under which subjects can be omitted.

Slowly but surely, though, historical linguists are starting to add skeletons to the reanimated spectres of proto-languages.

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31. Battels and subfusc: the language of Oxford

Now that Noughth Week has come to an end and the university Full Term is upon us, I thought it might be an appropriate time to investigate the arcane world of Oxford jargon — the University of Oxford, that is. New students, or freshers, do not arrive in Oxford but come up; at the end of term they go down (irrespective of where they live). If they misbehave they may find themselves being sent down by the proctors (a variant of the legal procurator), or — for less heinous crimes — merely rusticated, a form of suspension which, etymologically at least, involves being sent to the countryside (Latin rusticus). The formal beginning of a degree is known as matriculation, a ceremony held in the Sheldonian Theatre, in which membership of the university is conferred by being having one’s name entered on the register, or matricula.

Tutors, fellows, and readers

Being a student of the university involves membership of one of the colleges or private halls; despite their names, St Edmund (Teddy) Hall and Lady Margaret Hall are actually colleges; Regent’s Park College is neither a college nor a park. Christ Church should be referred to simply as Christ Church, rather than Christ Church College, although it is also known as ‘the House’. Magdalen is pronounced ‘maudlin’ and should never be confused with another college of the same name at Cambridge University (affectionately known as ‘The Other Place’, originally a euphemism for hell), which is pronounced the same but spelled Magdalene.

1024px-Oxford_Matriculation_2003
Oxford students in subfusc at 2003 Matriculation in the Sheldonian Theatre. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Each college has a head of house, referred to by a variety of terms: Principal, President, Dean, Master, Provost, Rector, or Warden. Teaching in college takes the form of tutorials (or tutes), overseen by Colleges tutors (from a Latin word for ‘protector’); the earliest tutors were responsible for a student’s general welfare — a post now known as moral tutor. Colleges are governed by a body of fellows (students at Christ Church), or dons, from Latin dominus ‘master’. The title reader, a medieval term for a teacher used to refer to a lecturer below the rank of professor, has recently been retired at Oxford in favour of the American title associate professor.

Mods and battels

At Oxford, students read rather than study a subject, a usage which goes back to the Middle Ages. Final examinations were originally known as Greats; this term is now used only of the degree of Literae Humaniores (‘more humane letters’) — Classics to everyone else. No longer in use is the equivalent term Smalls for the first year exams; these are now known as Moderations (or Mods) in the Humanities, or Preliminaries (or Prelims) in the Sciences. Sadly, the slang equivalents great go and little go have now fallen out of use. University examinations are sat in Schools, a forbidding edifice on the High Street (or ‘the High’) which gets its name from its original use for holding scholastic disputations. Students are required to wear formal academic dress to sit exams; this is known as subfusc, from Latin subfuscus ‘somewhat dark’.

College exams, rather less formal affairs, are known today as collections, from Latin collectiones, ‘gathering together’, so-called because they occurred at the end of term when fees were due for collection. Confusingly, the term collection is also used to refer to the end-of-term meeting where a progress report is read by a student’s tutor in the presence of the master of the college. As well as fees, students must pay their battels, a bill for food purchased from the College buttery — originally a wine store, from Latin butta ‘cask’, but now extended to include a range of student delicacies.

Lecturers dusting off their notes and preparing for the new term, for whom such usages are second-nature, may benefit from the salutary lesson of the wall-lecture –a term coined by their 17th-century forbears for a lecture delivered to an empty room. The term may be obsolete, but the prospect remains all too real.

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

Heading image: New College Oxford chapel by Olaf Davis. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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32. A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 2

Color names have been investigated in almost overwhelming detail, but it is not the etymology but usage that tends to “throw us off the scent.” One can have no quarrel with the statement that different communities will use a certain term differently, for the basis of comparison may be different (so Francis A. Wood, a great specialist in historical semantics). Wood cited the case of “smeared.” Some people associate “smeared” with “dirty” (hence “brown; black”), while others with “oily” (hence “shiny” and even “bright; yellow; white”). It is harder to agree that “in primitive times colors were not carefully distinguished,” because we don’t know what “primitive times” means. The centuries of Classical Greek, Old English, or some remote epoch from which we have no documents and about whose language habits we can judge only from those of modern “primitive peoples” studied by missionaries and anthropologists? Also, how “careful” should one be in distinguishing colors? The idea that some general notion like “smeared” can diverge and yield opposite meanings is fully acceptable. We are in trouble when a word displays seemingly incompatible meanings in the same language or in closely related languages.

Metaphors do not confuse us, and therefore we accept the idiom green years. We can also let greenhorns and our acquaintances who are still green behind the ears enjoy their youthful inexperience. Perhaps green in green cheese, the moon’s main ingredient in folklore, does mean “fresh,” as I have read, but I still feel some discomfort when an Icelandic saga mentions green meat, green fish, and green butter. In the sagas, green also means “safe, excellent” (and green roads in Old Germanic referred to good roads devoid of danger), so perhaps not fresh (unsalted?) meat, fish, and butter are meant but products of exceptional quality, something one can eat without fearing for one’s health?

Red yolk, occurring in Old Icelandic, also amazes me (in English, yolk has the root of yellow), and so does red gold, a collocation used in the epic poetry all over Europe. Does red mean “scintillating” here, or do we not know something about ancient minting? And how did red gold become a formula in several traditions? Some such phrases have been explained, but the explanations do not always sound fully convincing. In dealing with color names one cannot be too careful. Etymology is of little help here. For example, green has the same root as grow (thus, green is the color of vegetation) and cats have green eyes; yet we still don’t quite understand why jealousy, if we can trust Shakespeare, is a green-eyed monster. Likewise, red is, from an etymological point of view, the color of ore (as follows from Russian ruda “ore”; stress on the second syllable), but coins were not made from ore.

Brown is no less opaque than green or red. Older scholars traced brown to the root of burn (Old Engl. brinnan ~ birnan, Gothic brinnan, and so forth). Allegedly, that is why brown can refer to both dark and bright shades. But brown and burn are hardly related, and, even if they were, those who spoke Old English and Old Icelandic would not have been aware of the ancient root. As mentioned in Part 1 of this essay, brown horses or possibly shields of Germanic speakers seem to have impressed the Romance world so strongly that the word for “brown” made its way into the speech of the French, Italians, and others. In the Germanic languages, shields and occasionally helmets and swords were called brown (= “shining”). This sense returned from Romance to English, which has burnish from French and the verb to brown; both mean “to polish.” In some parts of the German-speaking world (predominantly in the south), braun “brown” means “violet”; Luther used it in this sense. In medieval German literature, compounds turned up that can be glossed as “scarlet-brown” and “black-brown.” Their second components must have emphasized their sheen.

Chesterton's Pater Brown at his best.
Chesterton’s Pater Brown at his best.

In the past, several distinguished language historians thought, and some of their followers still think that brown “shining” and brown “violet” are homonyms, both etymologically distinct from brun (long u, as in Engl. woo) “brown.” Fortunately, there has been no agreement among them, and this explanation has not become dogma, but the idea that braun “violet” owes its existence to Latin prunum “plum” (hence Engl. prune) has gained wide acceptance. For example, it was endorsed by Elmar Seebold, the latest editor of Kluge’s German etymological dictionary, a deservedly authoritative source. According to the rule known as Occam’s razor, entities should not be multiplied (with regard to etymology, I discussed it briefly in the post on qualm). Jacob Grimm suggested that, in dealing with ancient homonyms, it is advisable to treat them as going back to the same root. Given the baffling variety of senses the main color names typically show, it is perhaps more prudent to stay with one basic word that branched off in many unpredictable ways.

What else has been recorded as brown? If the color brown had magical connotations, Germanic shields, swords, and horses may have inspired awe and fear rather than admiration. In the broad Slavic-Iranian belt, brown was a common epithet of stallions and deities. There it was obviously not borrowed from Germanic. In German baroque literature, the phrase braune Nacht “brown night” appeared, and poets began to speak about the brown shadows of night. This usage has been explained as a loan from Romance. Even if so, today we don’t think of night or shadows as brown (compare Byron’s clear obscure, an English version of Italian chiaroscuro).

During the Renaissance, brown competed with black as the color of mourning, especially with reference to mourning women. It suggested merging with the background, being somber, unattractive, inconspicuous. We note with surprise how many Ancient Greek names began with Phryn- “brown” (Phryniskos, Phrynion, and the like). They remind one of Jude the Obscure. Didn’t they originally refer to the insignificance or low status of the bearers? In Part 1, I wrote that the family name Brown ~ Braune needs an explanation but was reminded of Black, White, and Green. Black and White can also be accounted for in several ways. In the population of blonds, would “white” have become a distinguishing feature? To my mind, brown as an allusion to the color of the person’s hair does not look persuasive. How many Greeks had brown hair? If their rarity is the origin of the moniker, then what was so special about Germanic speakers with chestnut-colored hair?

Perhaps an especially revealing phrase is Dante’s sangue bruno “brown blood,” said about gore, that is, blood shed and clotted or simply clotted. English speakers had the word dreor “gore, flowing blood.” It is still alive as the root of the adjective dreary, originally “bloody, gory, grievous, sorrowful,” later “dismal, gloomy.” Homer called blood porphyros “purple” (or “crimson”?), but he also used this adjective when he described descending death. These bridges between “brown” and “red” will perhaps allow us to understand the strange predilection for brown waves (as in Beowulf), wine-colored sea (as in Homer), and the colors of the planet Saturn, which was called by the ancients black, brownish, and fiery. One thing can already be said now: in the history of the Indo-European languages, “brown” designated both a dark and a bright color. Our modern gloss “brown” does it less than full justice.

Question: Can anyone say why Hitler’s SA adopted brown shirts as its uniform? Did the color have any symbolic value?

To be continued.

Image credits: (1) Moon with an unhealthy greenish coating, modified from Michael K. Fairbanks’s photo. Image by Naive cynic, CC-BY-SA-3.0-MIGRATED; GFDL-WITH-DISCLAIMERS via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Illustration from The Innocence of Father Brown, public domain via Project Gutenberg Australia.

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33. WWW: All About Rhythm


As promised, I’m sharing a most original WWW I came upon while reading NAMING THE WORLD, the collection of writing exercises gathered by Bret Anthony Johnston (Random House, 2007) I reviewed in Monday’s post

The author, Paul Lisicky, titled the exercise “All About Rhythm.”  
It appears in the section “Descriptive Language and Setting.”

Lisicky writes about finding a rhythm that matches the meaning of our story's drama – not a distracting rhythm but one that is crucial, that makes our fiction sing.

He began by quoting Virgina Woolf.

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm.  Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words….Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words.  A sight, an emotion creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

How can we bring a poet’s central tools to our own work, he wondered, “and be more deeply aware of pauses, sentence length, stops, even alliteration and assonance in the prose we read and write,”  all the while opening ourselves to our own rhythms?

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                        * * * * * * * * * * 

Paul Lisicky’s ALL ABOUT RHYTHM

“Take a paragraph by a writer whose work has been important to you. 

Type it out once.

Then type it again.

Once you’ve done that, substitute your own noun for each noun, your own verb for each verb.

Replace all the adjectives and adverbs.

Play with it for a few days.

Then do another version.


If you’re lucky you might have the beginnings of a story.

Or, at the least, a more intimate sense of that writer’s rhythms.”

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34. The role of grammar for the teaching of Latin

The development of linguistics as a scientific discipline is one of the greatest achievements of contemporary thought, as it has led to the discovery of some fundamental principles about the functioning of language. However, most of its recent discoveries have not yet reached the general audience of educated people beyond the specialists. Scholars of classics, in particular, have found it difficult to become involved in the debate, since many recent studies in linguistics have been driven by the necessity to free themselves from the subordination to Latin grammar and have put into question the validity of certain aspects of traditional grammar.

As a consequence, progress made by contemporary linguistics has paradoxically had a negative rather than positive effect on the teaching of Latin. Although traditional grammars are now outdated, a suitable replacement has not yet been offered and a widespread scepticism has forced many to keep relying on old fashioned textbooks.

In order to overcome this undesirable state of affairs, it is desirable to bring Latin grammar back to its original high-level scientific conception, going beyond a prescriptive attitude and restoring the original theoretical tension. Although many branches of contemporary linguistics are potentially suited to fulfil this objective, none of them have been fully exploited in teaching yet. Their advantage over traditional approaches lies in their ability to satisfy the same needs as traditional analytical and philosophical Latin grammar, exploiting – at the same time – new methods, which are suitable to formulate more accurate analyses and theoretical generalizations.

Latin grammar should be presented as an activity which raises the linguistic awareness of its readers, using the most recent tools of modern linguistics. This should not be limited to the traditional Indo-European historical perspective, but includes the comparison of different languages and the attempt to represent the way in which grammar rules are codified in the mind.

Italy-Vaticano_-_Creative_Commons_by_gnuckx_(3207497081)
Italy-Vaticano by gnuckx. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The hypothesis is that there exists a language faculty underlying all languages, known as Universal Grammar (UG), i.e. a system of variable and invariable factors internalized in the speaker’s mind, which constitutes the basis of the grammar of each language. Understanding the contents of UG amounts to understanding those linguistic phenomena that are common to all languages. In this perspective, it is possible to develop a new method of teaching Latin, which aims at strengthening the cognitive skills of the learner’s mind. This method consists in overcoming the rigidity of a purely normative conception of grammatical rules, in order to make them explicit in a synchronic formal way and thus formulate hypotheses about the mental mechanisms that generate them. This method is an updated enhancement of the old conception of grammatical studies known as progymnasmata, i.e. “gymnastics of the mind,” which introduces the reader to the world of classical scholarship.

On the basis of some recent discoveries made by the neurosciences, it is possible to formulate grammatical rules that represent a better approximation of the implicit and explicit mental operations carried out by the language learner. The desired effect is the activation of the appropriate areas of the brain, i.e. the ones which are naturally devoted to the processing of linguistic information, thus rendering the process of language acquisition faster and more natural. Indeed, a vast number of recent studies have shown that language learning strongly relies on a constant and unconscious comparison between the second language (L2) and the learner’s mother tongue. By comparing linguistic phenomena across distinct languages and by interpreting the results with updated theoretical tools, we intend to underlie the deep similarities among languages rather than their superficial differences. This new teaching perspective represents a fundamental advantage for learners, who can focus their attention on the limits of linguistic variation, making their acquisitional task more feasible. In particular, by overtly reflecting on language and comparing L2 grammars to the structures of the mother tongue, the study of Latin becomes more stimulating and active.

Moreover, as students become aware of the difference between a “mistake”, as banned from the standard language, and linguistic “agrammaticality” (i.e. an option which is disallowed by the deep structure of the language), they become more critical and aware of the level of their written and oral performance in their mother tongue. From this perspective, it is clear that the study of Latin contributes to the overall linguistic education of learners, and not only to the training of those interested in classical studies. Students should no longer learn by heart the obscure rules of school grammars, often rooted on misconceptions, but they should instead explore the discoveries of centuries of classical scholarship in order to actively work out how languages function and change. In particular, they should focus their attention on the aspects of the targeted language they already know, before exploring the points of divergence from their mother tongue. Thanks to this revised methodology, the study of Latin loses any passive connotation and becomes an activity which enhances linguistic awareness, meta-linguistic competence, as well as critical thought.

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35. Bimonthly etymology gleanings for August and September 2014. Part 2

Continued from “Bimonthly etymology gleanings for August and September 2014. Part 1″

Dangerous derivations and chance coincidences

A correspondent cited a few tentative etymologies of English words.

  • Sail: in Mennonite Low German sähl means “harness.”
  • Bride: Dutch brudespaar allegedly means “broody pair.” Doesn’t bride mean “broody hen”?
  • Cow: the German word kauen means “to chew.” Couldn’t that be the origin of the word cow?

I am sorry to disappoint our correspondent, but such haphazard comparisons should be abandoned. To discover the origin of old words, one has to compare their most ancient attested forms. For example, kauen always had a diphthong, while cow has its late diphthong from a long monophthong that once sounded like Modern Engl. oo (compare German Kuh). And so it goes. On the more intuitive level, one should realize that, if a word has baffled professional scholars for centuries, the most tempting solutions have probably been offered and rejected. By the way, the Dutch compound for “bride and bridegroom” is bruidspaar, not brudespaar; the word has nothing to do with brooding.

Another correspondent wrote that the Russian word for “kiss” also means “to aim.” Whoever suggested this connection seems to have confused the Russian words tsel “whole” (discussed in the post on kissing) and tsel’ “aim.” The sign l’ stands for palatalized (or “soft”) l; where the transliteration has an apostrophe Russian has a special letter (the so-called miagkii znak). Tsel is an old word, while tsel’ is a borrowing of German Ziel “aim” (more precisely, Middle High German), via Polish.

Still another correspondent wonders whether the noun chapbook and the verb tucker (out) “to tire, to weary” can be of Hindi origin. I think chapbook has such a transparent English derivation that it does not merit further discussion. Tucker is probably a frequentative of tuck, like very many verbs of this structure. There is no denying the fact that our correspondent cited Hindi words that have both the form and the meaning closely corresponding to chapbook and tucker. But, as I have written many times while answering similar questions, the fact of borrowing can be ascertained only if we succeed in showing how a foreign word reached English (compare the history of thug, which is indeed from Hindi, or other examples cited in the great book Hobson-Jobson). Was tucker used mainly by Hindi speakers? Do we have any proof that this verb spread from their community? Only a detailed investigation along such lines can sound convincing. Otherwise, we will stay with kauen ~ cow and their likes.

Wise restraint. An old colleague of mine wrote in connection with my post on roil.

“Honoré de Balzac published in 1842 a novel called La Rabouilleuse. The title name is explained as being a word local to the Berry region of France where a young girl is employed to stir up the mud in a stream, thus clouding the water and permitting a fisherman to more readily catch crayfish (crawfish?). One can easily see the way the word is formed: the verb bouillir “boil” plus a reduplicating prefix ra- and a feminine agent suffix. Now the verb rabouillir or some variant of it might fit in with roil both with some phonemes and the meaning.”

The author of the letter did not suggest any solution, and I think he was right to do so. The coincidence looks like being due to chance.

Old Friends

Every now and then I run into publications that would have come in most useful in my earlier posts and comments. But it is never too late to pick up even the oldest chestnuts. For instance, I have challenged the supporters of they ~ them in sentences like when a student comes, I never make them wait to give examples that are really old. Almost nothing has turned up. But here are two more phenomena that have aroused some interest among our readers.

Split infinitive. It would seem that passionate, as opposed to rational, splitting set in several decades ago, and the construction I called to be or to not be conquered the ugly day. Roswitha Fischer’s article on the split infinitive appeared in 2007; however, I read it only this summer. Among many other examples, she quoted Wycliffe: “It is good for to not ete fleisch and for to not drynke wyn” (ca. 1382). I do not follow Wycliffe’s recommendation but in defense of his grammar should say that with for to he had nowhere else to put the negation. I am sure everybody will remember: “Simple Simon went a-fishing, / For to catch a whale.” Nowadays, for to, an analog of German um zu, is dead, except in some dialects.

One… his. We have been taught to say one…one’s. But people keep correlating one with his (now probably their; see above). In The Nation for 1921 I found a letter to the editor from Steven T. Byington (Ballard Vale, Massachusetts) with the funny title Four Centuries of Onehese. The writer quoted five sentences with one—his. I’ll reproduce only the relevant part of them:

  • “…one was surer in keeping his tunge, than in muche speking” (excellent advice going back to 1477)
  • “…the higher one doth mount, the less doth euery thing appeare which is below him” (1607)
  • “If one proposes any other end unto himself” (1650)
  • “…one’s sure to break his neck” (1650), “One should do what his own nature prescribes” (1886)

Among other things, the letter discusses the utterance: “One oughtn’t never take nothing that ain’t theirn.” I suspect that in the great books on English grammar by Jespersen, Poutsma, and Curme many more examples of the one… his type will be found. A certain Markman, a friend of James Steerforth’s, “always spoke of himself indefinitely as a ‘man’, and seldom or never in the first person singular” (David Copperfield, Chapter 24 “My First Dissipation”). This way of speaking may help those who have trouble with one.

sandburg

Check your slang

Also in The Nation, this time for 1922, I found a more than enthusiastic review by Clement Wood of Carl Sandburg’s fourth book of poetry Slabs of the Sunburnt West. In the opening paragraph, Wood expressed his delight about Sandburg’s use of slang. I ran the list by my undergraduate students. Here it is: humdinger, flooey, *phizzogs, fixers, frame-up, *four-flushers, rakeoff, getaway, junk, *fliv, fake, come clean, gabby mouth, *hoosegow, *teameo, *work plug, lovey, slew him in, bull, jazz, scab, booze, stiffs, hanky-pank, hokum, bum, and buddy.

The words that no one recognized are given above with an asterisk. I knew more. However, some of them I knew by chance. For instance, long ago, a bookstore near our main campus closed its doors. It began to sell its stock at a small discount, but every two days the prices went down. The only books that no one wanted to take even when they were free were those by American poets. I grabbed the entire batch and read everything. In this rather dubious treasure trove, I discovered Sandburg, read his poem called Phizzogs, and looked up the word. It has never occurred in my reading since that day. In my work, I have dealt with synonyms for “prison,” so that hoosegow was quite familiar to me. I also knew fliv, but the word is forgotten. This is what I expected, for once I tried the same experiment with jitney and drew blank, while people of my age recognized it immediately. If I had run into a poker player, such a person would have had no trouble identifying four-flushers. Fixers, bull, work plug, slew him in, and stiffs look transparent, but without the context it is impossible to decide their exact meaning. We of course guessed that hanky-pank is a back formation on hanky-panky.

My students say that, when they watch movies of the fifties, they do not understand the slang used there, while their parents are in the dark when it comes to the slang of their children. On the other hand, the words given in bold in my list are today so familiar that no one would have referred to them as particularly striking. One should take into consideration that, to know one’s language, one has to read the literature written in it. It is curious to follow the modern annotations of Oliver Twist and Vanity Fair. Both Dickens and Thackeray used slang quite generously, and the commentators assume that no one understands it today. Perhaps they are right.

I still have some questions unanswered and will take care of them at the end of October.

Image credits: (1) Photograph of Carl Sandburg, 1947. Library of Congress. (2) Sandburg book cover via Booklikes.

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36. Do you have a vulgar tongue?

Slang is in a constant state of reinvention. The evolution of language is a testament to our world’s vast and complex history; words and their meanings undergo transformations that reflect a changing environment such as urbanization. In The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang, Jonathon Green extensively explores the history of English language slang from the early British beggar books and traces it through to modernity. He defends the importance of a versatile vocabulary and convinces us that there is dose of history in every syllable of slang and that it is a necessary part of contemporary English, no matter how explicit or offensive the content may be. Test your knowledge…how well do you know your history of slang?

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Headline image credit: Explosion. CC0 via Pixabay.

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37. Bimonthly etymology gleanings for August and September 2014. Part 1

I was out of town at the end of this past August and have a sizable backlog of unanswered questions and comments. It may take me two or even three weeks to catch up with them. I am not complaining: on the contrary, I am delighted to have correspondents from Sweden to Taiwan. Today I will deal with the questions only about the two most recent posts.

Kiss

Our regular correspondent Mr. John Larsson took issue with my remark that kiss has nothing to do with chew and cited some arguments in favor of the chew connection. We should distinguish between the “institute of kissing” and the word for the action. As could be expected, no one knows when people invented kissing, but, according to one theory, everything began with mothers chewing their food and passing it on to their babies from mouth to mouth. I am not an anthropologist and can have no opinion about such matters. But the oldest form of the Germanic verb for “chew” must have sounded approximately like German kauen (initial t in Old Norse tyggja is hardly original). The distance between kauen and kussjan cannot be bridged.

Also from Scandinavia, Mr. Christer Wallenborg informs me that in Sweden two words compete: kyssa is a general term for kissing, while for informal purposes pussa is used. I know this and will now say more about the verbs used for kissing in the Germanic-speaking world. Last time I did not travel farther than the Netherlands (except for mentioning the extinct Goths). My survey comes from an article by the distinguished philologist Theodor Siebs (1862-1941). It was published in the journal of the society for the promotion of Silesian popular lore (Mitteilungen der Schlesischen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde) for 1903. Modern dialect atlases may contain more synonyms.

Below I will list only some of the words and phrases, without specifying the regions. Germany: küssen, piepen, snüttern (long ü), -snudeln (long u), slabben, flabben, smacken, smukken, smatschen, muschen, bussen, bütsen, pützschen, pupen (some of these words are colloquial, some verge on the vulgar). Many verbs for “kiss” (the verb and the noun) go back to Mund and Maul “mouth,” for example, mundsen, mul ~ mull, müll, mill, and the like. Mäulchen “little mouth” is not uncommon for “a kiss,” and Goethe, who was born in Frankfurt, used it. With regard to their sound shape, most verbs resemble Engl. puss, pipe, smack, flap, and slap.

Friesland (Siebs was an outstanding specialist in the modern dialects and history of Frisian): æpke (æ has the value of German ä) ~ apki, make ~ mæke, klebi, totje, kükken, and a few others, borrowed from German and Dutch. Dutch: zoenen, poenen (both mentioned in my previous blog on kiss), kussen, kissen, smokken, smakken, piper geven, and tysje.

Siebs became aware of Nyrop’s book (see again my previous blog on kiss about it) after his own work had been almost completed and succeeded in obtaining a copy of it only because Nyrop sent him one. He soon realized that his predecessor had covered a good deal of the material he had been collecting, but Nyrop’s book did not make Siebs’s 19-page article redundant, because Nyrop’s focus was on the situations in which people kiss (a friendly kiss, a kiss of peace, an erotic kiss, etc.), while Siebs dealt with the linguistic aspect of his data. It appeared that kiss usually goes back to the words for the mouth and lips; for something sweet (German gib mir ’nen Süssen “give me a sweet [thing]”); for love (so in Greek, in Slavic, and in Old Icelandic minnask, literally “to love one another”), and for embracing (as in French embrasser). Some words for kissing are onomatopoeic, and some developed from various metaphors or expanded their original sense (I mentioned the case of Russian: from “be whole” to “kiss”; Nyrop cited several similar examples). We can see that chewing has not turned up in this small catalog.

Tristram and Isolde by John William Waterhouse, 1916. Public domain via WikiArt
Tristram and Isolde by John William Waterhouse, 1916. Public domain via WikiArt

Siebs also ventured an etymology of kiss and included this word in his first group. In his opinion, Gothic kukjan “to kiss” retained the original form of Old Engl. kyssan, Old Norse kyssa, and their cognates. In Old Frisian, kokk seems to have meant “speaker” and “mouth” and may thus be related to Old Icelandic kok “throat.” Siebs went on to explain how the protoform guttús yielded kyssan. Specialists know this reconstruction, but everything in it is so uncertain that the origin of kiss cannot be considered solved.

In the picture, chosen to illustrate this post, you will see the moment when Tristan and Isolde drink the fateful love potion. Two quotations from Gottfried’s poem in A. T. Hatto’s translation will serve us well: “He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts” (p. 200), and “One kiss from one’s darling’s lips that comes stealing from the depths of her heart—how it banished love’s cares!” (p. 204).

The color brown and brown animals

The protoform of beaver must have been bhebrús or bhibhrús. This looks like an old formation because it has reduplication (bh-bh) and is a -u stem. The form does not contain the combination bher-bher “carry-carry.” Beavers are famous for building dams rather than for carrying logs from place to place. Francis A. Wood, apparently, the only scholar who offered an etymology of beaver different from the current one, connected the word with the Indo-European root bheruo- ~ bhreu- “press, gnaw, cut,” as in Sanskrit bhárvati “to gnaw; chew” (note our fixation on chewing in this post!). His idea has been ignored, rather than refuted (a usual case in etymological studies). Be that as it may, “brown” underlies many names of animals (earlier I mentioned the bear and the toad; I still think that the brown etymology of the bear is the best there is) and plants. Among the plants are, most probably, the Slavic name of the mountain ash (rowan tree) and the Scandinavian name of the partridge.

American Beaver by John James Audubon, 1844. Public domain via WikiArt.
American Beaver by John James Audubon, 1844. Public domain via WikiArt.

And of course I am fully aware of the trouble with the Greek word for “toad.” I have read multiple works by Dutch scholars that purport to show how many Dutch and English words go back to the substrate (the enigmatic initial a, nontraditional ablaut, and so forth). It is hard for me to imagine that in prehistoric times the bird ouzel (German Amsel), the lark, the toad, and many other extremely common creatures retained their indigenous names. According to this interpretation, the invading Indo-Europeans seem to have arrived from places almost devoid of animal life and vegetation. It is easier to imagine all kinds of “derailments” (Entgleisungen) in the spirit of Noreen and Levitsky than this scenario. Words for “toad” and “frog” are subject to taboo all over the world (some references can be found in the entry toad in my dictionary), which further complicates a search for their etymology. But this is no place to engage in a serious discussion on the pre-Indo-European substrate. I said what I could on the subject in my review of Dirk Boutkan’s etymological dictionary of Frisian. Professor Beekes wrote a brief comment on my review.

Anticlimax: English grammar (Mr. Twitter, a comedian)

I have once commented on the abuse of as clauses unconnected with the rest of the sentence. These quasi-absolute constructions often sound silly. In a letter to a newspaper, a woman defends the use of Twitter: “As someone who aspires to go into comedy, Twitter is an incredible creative outlet.” Beware of unconscious humor: the conjunction as is not a synonym of the preposition for.

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38. Metaphorically Speaking

“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary

If you haven’t watched James Geary’s brilliant TED talk about metaphors, you should! Ten minutes might break open everything you think you know about this topic.


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39. World War I in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has made us freshly familiar with many memorable sayings, from Edward Grey’s ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, to Wilfred Owen’s ‘My subject is War, and the pity of war/ The Poetry is in the pity’, and Lena Guilbert Horne’s exhortation to ‘Keep the Home-fires burning’.

But as I prepared the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I was aware that numerous other ‘quotable quotes’ also shed light on aspects of the conflict. Here are just five.

One vivid evocations of the conflict striking passage comes not from a War Poet but from an American novelist writing in the 1930s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), Dick Diver describes the process of trench warfare:

See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.

This was, of course, on the Western Front, but there were other theatres of war. One such was the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16, where many ‘Anzacs’ lost their lives. In 1934, a group of Australians visited Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, and heard an address by Kemal Atatürk—Commander of the Turkish forces during the war, and by then President of Turkey. Speaking of the dead on both sides, he said:

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

Atatürk’s words were subsequently inscribed on the memorial at Gallipoli, and on memorials in Canberra and Wellington.

World War I is often is often seen as a watershed, after which nothing could be the same again. (The young Robert Graves’s autobiography published in 1929 was entitled Goodbye to All That.) Two quotations from ODQ look ahead from the end of the war to what might be the consequences. For Jan Christiaan Smuts, President of South Africa, the moment was one of promise. He saw the setting up of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the war as a hope for better things:

Mankind is once more on the move. The very foundations have been shaken and loosened, and things are again fluid. The tents have been struck, and the great caravan of humanity is once more on the march.

However a much less optimistic, and regrettably more prescient comment, had been recorded in 1919 by Marshal Foch on the Treaty of Versailles,

This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.

Not all ‘war poems’ are immediately recognizable as such. In 1916, the poet and army officer Frederick William Harvey was made a prisoner of war (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he went on to experience seven different prison camps). Returning from a period of solitary confinement, he apparently noticed the drawing of a duck on water made by a fellow-prisoner. This inspired what has become a very well-loved poem.

From troubles of the world
I turn to ducks
Beautiful comical things.

How many people, encountering the poem today, consider that the ‘troubles’ might include a world war?

Headline image credit: A message-carrying pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a British tank, near Albert, France. Photo by David McLellan, August 1918. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non-Commercial License via Wikimedia Commons.

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40. A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 1

Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black. Other authorities suggest: orange and black. In any case, it has two sides: dark (black) and bright (red or orange). This color name does not seem to occur in the New Testament, and that is why of all the Old Germanic languages only Gothic lacks it (in Gothic a sizable part of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament has been preserved). In the Old Testament, the word appears most rarely. Genesis XXX: 32, 35, and 40 describes the division of Laban’s cattle. According to Verse 35 from the Authorized Version, “…he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.” Those sheep were indeed brown, but the situation is not always so clear. For example, an Old English poet called waves brown, and brown is a common epithet attached to swords in early Germanic poetry. Were waves and swords really brown, like Laban’s sheep?

In Old Germanic languages, brown had the form brun, with a long vowel (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. boo), and we can be fairly certain that the ancient Indo-Europeans had the same hue in mind we do, because at least three unmistakably brown animals were called brown. One of them is the bear, also known as Bruin (the word is pure Dutch). People were afraid of pronouncing the terrible beast’s name and coined a euphemism (“the brown one”). When they said brown, the bear could no longer think that is was summoned and would not come. The other animal with a “brown” name is beaver. If bears and beavers were called “brown” and the biblical Laban had brown sheep, why then brown waves and brown swords? We’ll have to wait rather long for the answer: this blog is a serial.

Let us first look at etymology. Those who have read the relatively recent posts on gray may remember that that Germanic color name made its way into Romance languages. The same holds for brown (vide French brun and Italian brun). Later, as happened more than once, Old French brun returned to Middle English and reinforced the native word; compare also brunet(te), from French, with reference to people with chestnut-colored or black (!) hair. In the posts on gray, I mentioned two current explanations of why gray, brown, and some other color names enjoyed such popularity outside their country of origin. Allegedly, Germanic mercenaries brought them to the Romance-speaking territory with either the words for their horse breeds or for their shields. There must have been something special about both. The root of brown can also be seen in Engl. burnish. The suffix -ish was added to the root of Old French burnir, from brunir. “To make brown” acquired the meaning “polish (metal) by friction.” This returns us to the brown weapons of Old Germanic.

Abkaou, reçoit ses offrandes. 11e dynastie. Louvre Museum. Photo by Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 FR via Wikimedia Commons.
Abkaou, reçoit ses offrandes. 11e dynastie. Louvre Museum. Photo by Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 FR via Wikimedia Commons.

The origin of bear and beaver from brown, though highly probable, is not absolutely assured, but the derivation of the Greek word phryne “toad” (stress on the first syllable) can hardly be put into question. Phryne looks like a perfect cognate of brown. (The famous hetaera Phryne is said to have received this nickname for her sallow skin, but other prostitutes were often called the same, and I have my own explanation of this fact; see below.) Toads, detested by some for all kinds of reasons, have occupied a conspicuous place in the superstitions of the whole world, beginning with at least the ancient Egyptian times. In Egypt, far from being shunned, they stood for fertility, and an amulet in the form of a toad supposedly replicated the uterus. Hequet was a goddess with the head of a frog.

Stories about frogs and toads are countless. One is especially famous. It is about a young man (prince) marrying a frog, which turns into a beautiful maiden. The Grimms knew a short and uninspiring version of this story (it is the opening one in their collection). In it the frog that insists on sleeping in the girl’s bed becomes a handsome prince, which is a variant of “Beauty and the Beast”; as a rule, in such tales the frog or the toad is a female. I would like to suggest, that the nickname Phryne had nothing to do with the hetaera’s skin. All other prostitutes who were called this could not have had the same tint. Since in the popular imagination toads and fertility went together and since Egyptian mythology and beliefs exercised a strong influence on the Greek mind, calling prostitutes toads would have made good sense.

Thus, as we can see, toads (brown creatures) were associated with things bad and good. On the one hand, they were feared for their supposed ugliness and identified with witches. On the other, they were venerated and thought to promote fertility. In that capacity, they frequently received votive offerings. From Egypt we should go to the British Isles, for whose sake I have told my story. As far as I can judge, no accepted etymology of brownie “imp” exists. The books at my disposal only say that brownies, benevolent imps, originated in Scotland and were brown. The earliest citations go back to the early seventeenth century. I have as little trust in brown brownies as in the brown-skinned Phryne among the Greeks. The name must have had magic connotations, but whether positive or negative is open to question. As time goes on, such creatures often change their attitude toward the houses they haunt. They can be friendly if treated well and hostile if offended. By contrast, brownies, chocolate cakes with nuts, are always brown and sweet (chocolate-colored, by definition).

My second example is literary. In Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey’s little daughter Florence is abducted by an ugly old rag and bone vendor. When the girl asks the woman about her name, it is given to her as Mrs. Brown and amended to Good Mrs. Brown. “She was a very ugly old woman, with red rims round her eyes, and a mouth that mumbled and chattered of itself when she was not speaking.” This is how she introduced herself to Florence: “…don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you. I could have killed you at any time—even if you was in your own bed at home.” I am sure somewhere in the immense literature on Dickens the folklore of Mrs. Brown was explained long ago. In any case, Dickens must have had a reason for calling the witch Mrs. Brown and adding ominously the ironic epithet good to the name, to reinforce the impression.

And here is a final flourish for today. I will be grateful for some reliable information on the origin of the last name Brown ~ Braune. Dictionaries say that the name goes back to the color of its bearers. I find this explanation puzzling. It is as though thousands of our neighbors were bears, beavers, and toads.

To be continued.

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41. The lure of sounds

There’s something about the idea of ‘original pronunciation’ (OP) that gets the pulse racing. I’ve been amazed by the public interest shown in this unusual application of a little-known branch of linguistics — historical phonology, a subject that explores how the sounds of a language change over time. I little expected, when I was approached by Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004 to help them mount a production of Romeo and Juliet in OP, that ten years on the approach would become a thriving linguistic industry. Nor could I have predicted that a short documentary recording about OP for the Open University (which I made with actor son Ben in 2011) would for no apparent reason go viral towards the end of 2013, with 1.5 million hits in recent months.

A dozen Shakespeare plays have now been produced in original pronunciation, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kansas University in 2010 and Hamlet at the University of Nevada (Reno) in 2011. This year a group from the University of Texas (Houston) brought an OP production of Julius Caesar to the Edinburgh Fringe. Next January, Ben Crystal and his OP ensemble are presenting Pericles in Stockholm as part of an Interplay series along with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. More productions are in the pipeline.

But it isn’t just Shakespeare. The interest in him tops the list, but it is a long list, in which the work of any dramatist from the period can be treated in this way. And not just drama. Poems and prose too. My recording of the Sonnets is available on the website associated with the book Pronouncing Shakespeare. An OP recording by Ben of one of John Donne’s long sermons can now be heard as part of the Virtual St Paul’s Cross project.

Donne takes us forward in time to the 1620s. Going backwards in time, the British Library wanted an original pronunciation recording of William Tyndale to accompany the publication of its facsimile of the Tyndale Gospels. They chose the Matthew Gospel, and I recorded this for them in 2013. That takes us back to 1525. There are earlier recordings in the BL archive, made for the Evolving English winter exhibition in 2011-12, including extracts from Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, and Paston. The British Library also commissioned a CD of Shakespeare extracts from Ben and his ensemble: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (© Library of the University of California, Los Angeles).
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (© Library of the University of California, Los Angeles).

But the interest extends well beyond literature. Notably present in the talkback sessions after the first original pronunciation productions at the Globe were people interested in early music. And since then there have been many explorations into the kind of pronunciation used by Purcell (late 17th century), Dowland, and other composers. As with their literary counterparts, musicologists have been struck by the fact that so many of the rhymes in songs, madrigals, and operatic texts simply don’t work in modern English, and they want to hear them as they would have been. They note the way many of the vowels and consonants would have had different values in those days, and they want to explore how the texts would sound with those old values articulated. The result is a very different auditory experience, and — by all accounts — an exciting one.

Finally there are the heritage people. It’s all well and good establishing a historical centre where an old period is recreated, and people dress up in old clothes and walk around — but how should they speak? The occasional ‘verily’ and ‘forsooth’ isn’t enough. Here too we see an interest in recreating styles of speech that would have been used in those days.

Add all these constituencies together and you can see why the original pronunciation experiment has become something of an OP movement, with more and more people wanting to learn about OP, to hear it in practice, and to explore its application in texts that so far have received no study. Every new text brings to light something new — such as a previously unnoticed pun, or a fresh way of speaking a line. At university level, people are beginning to write dissertations on the subject. Ben, as I write, is exploring ways for his ensemble to cope with new OP commitments. There’s plenty to do. With only a dozen Shakespeare plays explored so far, that leaves a couple of dozen more awaiting investigation.

The consequence is an urgent need to provide materials to help people take original pronunciation activities forward. Paul Meier already has some tutorial material on his website, and his Dream production is available both as an audio recording and on a DVD. Several articles have now been written answering the usual questions people ask (such as ‘how do you know’?). And I am hard at work on an OP Shakespeare dictionary, which will enable people to make transcripts for themselves. I have paused, in the middle of letter N, to write this post. But with luck and a good following wind, I should have it finished in time for the great anniversary in 2016. And it will be published, of course, by Oxford University Press.

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42. From “Checkers” to Watergate

Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon faced certain impeachment by the Congress for the Watergate scandal. He resigned the presidency, expressing a sort of conditional regret:

I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.

Nixon is not apologizing here as much as offering what sociologist Erving Goffman calls an account—a verbal reframing of his actions aimed at reducing their offensiveness. Nixon treats himself as a victim of his own mistakes and treats his mistakes as managerial, not criminal. His language is loaded with such words as “any,” “may,” “would,” and “if,” among others and circumlocutions likes “in the course of the events that led to this decision” and “what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.” Nixon offers regret, but there is no unconditional apology, and there never was.

I sometimes wonder how Nixon’s attitudes toward Watergate and his resignation were shaped by the 1952 presidential campaign, and the events that led to his so-called “Checkers” speech.

It was the home stretch of the 1952 campaign, in which the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senator Nixon were pitted against Democrats Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman to succeed President Harry Truman. Truman’s popularity was at a low point and Eisenhower and Nixon were optimistic about their chances. Then, in mid-September, the press began reporting stories of a secret expense fund established in 1950 by Nixon supporters. The New York Post offered the sensational headline that “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” As the story developed, many Democrats (and less publicly some Republicans) called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. News editorials disapproved of Nixon’s actions two-to-one. Even the Washington Post, which had endorsed the Republican ticket, called for Nixon to withdraw from the race.

The issue took some of the optimism out of the Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower defended his Vice President publicly, but also promised that there would be a full reporting of the facts by independent auditors. The 39-year-old Nixon offered his account in a half-hour television address broadcast from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, on 23 September 1952.

“I want to tell you my side of the case,” he began, and in a speech that ran just over 4,500 words, Nixon used a series of rhetorical questions guide his audience through his version of events. He used the strategy that rhetoricians called differentiation by claiming that the fund issue was not what it seemed to be. Nixon said that there was no moral wrong because none of the money—about $18,000—was for Senatorial expenses and that none of the contributors receive special favors. He asserted his own good character by explaining why he needed the money: because he was not a rich man and he didn’t feel the taxpayers should pay his expenses.

Nixon bolstered his character further with his biography—explaining his modest background and finances, giving details down to the amount of his life insurance, mortgages, and material of his wife’s coat: not mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” adding that “And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”

He added another rhetorical turn in the second half of his speech: “Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have?” Nixon’s answer was “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Here Nixon implies that he is motivated by a greater good and he pivots to an attack on his political opponents and his avowal that Eisenhower was “the man that can clean up the mess in Washington.”

The speech was the first ever use of television by a national candidate to speak directly to the nation and to defend himself against accusations of wrong-doing. And the public was impressed. For many, the most memorable part was when Nixon told the viewers about a black and white cocker spaniel puppy that a supporter from Texas had given his daughters. One of them named it Checkers, and Nixon defiantly asserted that, “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech thus became known as “The Checkers Speech.”

Nixon finished with a call to action, asking his listeners to write to the Republican National Committee to show their support. His broadcast was seen by an estimated 60 million viewers, and letters and telegrams to the Republican National Committee were overwhelmingly supportive. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and a few weeks later the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket carried the day with over 55% of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes.

Nixon accomplished three key verbal self-defense strategies in the “Checkers” speech. He argued that the fund was not what it seemed to be. He argued that he was a good steward of public funds and exposed his personal finances. He implied that he was serving a higher good because he supported General Eisenhower and opposed Communism.

But by 1974, things were different. Nixon was in trouble again, much worse trouble of his own making, and there was no “Checkers” speech, no way reframing his situation that would save his presidency. He resigned but he never apologized. Three years after resigning, in interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon was unequivocally defiant:

When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.

Perhaps he was thinking about the “Checkers” speech.

Headline image credit: President Richard Nixon delivers remarks to the White House staff on his final day in office. From left to right are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president, First Lady Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Ed Cox. 9 August 1974. White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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43. Facebook, the gender binary, and third-person pronouns

The death rattle of the gender binary has been ringing for decades now, leaving us to wonder when it will take its last gasp. In this third decade of third wave feminism and the queer critique, dismantling the binary remains a critical task in the gender revolution. Language is among the most socially pervasive tools through which culture is negotiated, but in a language like English, with its minimal linguistic marking of gender, it can be difficult to find concrete signs that linguistic structures are changing to reflect new ways of thinking about the gender binary rather than simply repackaging old ideas.

Sign from Genderblur at Twin Cities Pride 2003. Photo by Transguyjay. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.
Sign from Genderblur at Twin Cities Pride 2003. Photo by Transguyjay. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

One direction we might look, though, is toward the gendering of third person pronouns, which is what led me to write this post about pronouns on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social media giant may not be your first thought when it comes to feminist language activism, but this year’s shift in the way Facebook categorizes gender is among the most widely-felt signs of a sea change in institutional attitudes about gendered third person pronouns. Although Facebook does not have the same force as the educational system, governments, or traditional print media, it carries its own linguistic caché established through its corporate authority, its place in the cultural negotiation of coolness and social connection, and its near inescapable presence in everyday life.

In response to long-standing calls from transgender and gender non-conforming users to broaden its approach to gender, Facebook announced earlier this year that it would offer a new set of options. Rather than limiting members of the site to the selection of female or male, an extensive list of gender identities is offered, along with the option of a custom entry, including labels like agender, bigender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, trans person, two-spirit, transgender (wo)man and cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) (wo)man.

Screenshot couresty of Lal Zimman.
Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman.

With all of the potential complexity afforded by these categories, Facebook couldn’t rely on a simple algorithm of assigning gendered pronouns for those occasions on which the website generates a third person reference to the user (e.g. “Wish ___ a happy birthday!”). Instead, it asks which set of pronouns a user prefers among three options: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. As a result, there are two important ways that Facebook’s reconsideration of its gender classification system goes beyond the listing of additional gender categories. The first is the more obvious of the two: offering singular they as an option for those who prefer gender neutral reference forms. The other is simply the practice of asking for a pronoun preference rather than deriving it from gender or sex.

Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman
Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman

Sanctioning the use of singular they as a gender neutral pronoun counters the centuries-old grammarian’s complaint that they can only be used in reference to plural third person referents. Proponents of singular they, however, point out that the pronoun has been used by some of the English-speaking world’s finest writers and that it was in wide-spread use even before blatantly misogynistic language policies determined that he should be the gender-neutral pronoun in official texts of the British government. More recently, an additional source of support for singular they has arisen: for those who do not wish to be slotted into one side of the gender binary or the other, they is perhaps the most intuitive way to avoid gendered third-person pronouns because of its already familiar presence in most dialects of English. (Other options include innovative pronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/em’s.) In this case, a speaker must choose between upholding grammatical conventions and affirming someone’s identity.

Courtesy of Lal Zimman.
Courtesy of Lal Zimman.

But wait, you might ask – don’t we need a distinction between singular and plural they? How are we supposed to know when someone is talking about a single person and when they’re talking about a group? Though my post isn’t necessarily meant to defend the use of singular they in reference to specific individuals (an argument others have made quite extensively), this point is worth addressing briefly if only to dispel the notion that the standard pronoun system is logical while deviations are somehow logically flawed. As the pronoun charts included here illustrate, there is already a major gap in the standard English pronoun system when compared to many other languages: a distinction between singular and plural you. Somehow we get by, however, relying on context and sometimes asking for clarification. Could we do the same with they?

Courtesy of Lal Zimman.
Courtesy of Lal Zimman.

The second pronoun-related change Facebook has made – asking for preferred pronouns rather than determining them based on gender category – is a more fundamental challenge to the normative take on assigning pronouns. According to conventional wisdom, a speaker will select whether to use she or he based on certain types of information about the person being referred to: how their bodily sex is perceived, how they present their gender, and in some cases other contextual factors like their name. To be uncertain about which gendered pronoun to use can be a source of great anxiety, exemplified by cultural artifacts like Saturday Night Live’s androgynous character from the 1990s known only as Pat. No one ever asks Pat about their gender because to do so would presumably be a grave insult, as Pat apparently has no idea that they have an androgynous appearance (were you able to follow me, despite the singular they’s?).

But transgender and queer communities are increasingly turning this logic on its head. Rather than risk being “mis-pronouned,” as community members sometimes call it, it is becoming the norm for introductions in many trans and queer contexts to include pronouns preferences along with names. For instance, my name is Lal and I prefer he/him/his pronouns. (Even the custom of calling these “male” pronouns has been critiqued on the basis that one needn’t identify as male in order to prefer he/him/his pronouns.) The goal behind this move is to remove the tension of uncertainty and to avoid potential offense or embarrassment before it takes place. But this is not just a practice for transgender and gender non-conforming people; the ideal is that no one’s pronoun preferences be taken for granted. Instead of determining pronouns according to appearance, they become a matter of open negotiation in which one can demonstrate an interest in using language that feel maximally respectful to others.

Facebook’s adoption of this new approach to pronouns, despite prescriptive grammarians’ objections, suggests that the acceptance and use of singular they is expanding. More than that, it furthers the normalization of self-selected pronouns since even those who are totally unfamiliar with the use of singular they as a preferred pronoun, or the very idea of pronoun preferences, may be faced with unexpected pronouns in their daily newsfeeds.

For those of us at academic institutions with sizable transgender and gender non-conforming communities, the practices discussed here may already be underway on campus. During my time teaching at Reed College, for instance, I found students to be enthusiastic about including pronoun preferences in our beginning-of-semester introductions even in classes where everyone’s pronoun preferences aligned with normative expectations.

My goal here isn’t to argue that the gender binary is dissolving in the face of new pronoun practices. Indeed, linguistic negotiations of gender and sexual binaries are far too complex to draw such a simple conclusion. However, what I do want to suggest is that we are in the midst of some kind of shift in the way pronouns are used and understood among speakers of English. Describing a more fully complete change of this sort, linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein has explained how religious and political ideology among speakers of Early Modern English resulted in a collapse of the second person pronouns thou (singular, informal) and you (plural, formal). In the present case, rapidly changing ideologies about the gender binary may be pushing us toward a different organization of third person pronouns of the sort illustrated by the non-binary pronoun chart above.

The effect of Facebook on linguistic practice more broadly has yet to be fully uncovered, but its capital-driven flexibility and omnipresence in contemporary social life suggests that it may be a powerful tool in ideologically-driven language change.

Headline image credit: People and gender. CC0 via Pixabay.

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44. A wrapping rhapsody

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) says about the verb wrap (with the abbreviations expanded): “…of unknown origin, similar in form and sense are North Frisian wrappe stop up, Danish dialectal vrappe stuff; and cf. Middle Engl. bewrappe, beside wlappe (XIV), LAP3.” XIV means “the 14th century,” and LAP3 is a synonym of wrap (as in overlap), related to lap “front part of a skirt,” which has a solid etymology. The quotation from The ODEE repeats what can be found in the OED. For “cf. wlappe” some dictionaries offer the dogmatic, unsupported statement that wrap is a doublet (so Skeat) or “corruption” of lap.

So once again we encounter the off-putting formula “origin unknown.” But, as we have seen more than once, in etymology, “unknown” is a loose concept. Minsheu, the author of the first etymological dictionary of English (1617), cited two words, which, in his opinion, could be akin to wrap. One of them was German raffen “to pile, to heap.” In 1854 the same idea occurred to a certain D.B., a contributor to Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, Va.), the author of a four-page article on word origins. Like Minsheu, he also cited two probable cognates. To both authors’ second candidates we will briefly return below. D.B., I assume, was not a famous researcher, and Southern Literary Messenger is not everybody’s regular source of information on linguistic issues (again a mere guess). But in 1904 Heinrich Schröder, contrary to the semi-anonymous D.B., a distinguished, even brilliant German scholar, published a very long article in a leading philological journal and, and among many other things, proposed Minsheu and D.B.’s etymology as his own. Like Cato, who never stopped rubbing in his appeal Carthago delenda est (“Carthage should be destroyed”), I will keep repeating that we need summaries of everything ever said about word origins in any given language and only then shed words of wisdom to the public eager for reliable information. In the absence of summaries and surveys, etymologists, naturally, hit on the same, seemingly attractive hypotheses again and again, without realizing that the wheel has already been invented and even reinvented more than once.

Thus, three people suggested the affinity of wrap to German raffen. But not a single German dictionary I have consulted contends that raffen is akin to wrap, though, obviously, if A is related to B, B must also be related to A. This is another curious comment on the state of the art. While working on the entry raffen, the authors of German etymological dictionaries never thought of looking up wrap. And why should they have done so? In their sources, the comparison does not occur, and no one alerted them to the fact that in the English-speaking world some etymologists had tackled their word.

Closer to home than raffen is Engl. warp, whose original meaning was “to throw,” as evidenced by Dutch werpen and German werfen. Time and again, beginning with Minsheu, it has been said that wrap is a metathesized variant of warp. However, when a word falls victim to metathesis, which is a mechanical phonetic change not caused by semantic factors, the new form, with the sounds transposed (and this is what metathesis is all about), it continues meaning the same as its “parent,” while “to throw” and “to enfold” do not look like even remote synonyms. Another putative etymon of wrap that appears in some old sources is rap (so, for instance, in D.B.’s article). It is unclear which of several verbs spelled rap is meant. Perhaps it is rap “to give a quick blow, etc.,” still dimly recognized in the archaic phrase rap and rend? But that rap seems to have once had h before r, while in wrap, w- is genuine. The initial group wr- was simplified in southern English and subsequently in the Standard only in the seventeenth century, so that the fourteenth-century spelling of wrap inspires confidence. The other rap “to strike” may be a sound-imitative verb of Scandinavian origin, and neither h- nor w- has been recorded in it in any Scandinavian language.

The origin of this wrap is  known only too well.  (Lunchtime salad wrap. Photo by Jessica Spengler. CC BY 2.0 via wordridden Flickr.)
The origin of this wrap is known only too well. (Lunchtime salad wrap. Photo by Jessica Spengler. CC BY 2.0 via wordridden Flickr.)

Other conjectures are even less appealing. For instance, Old Engl. wrion “bend, contort” (its reflexes are hidden in Modern Engl. wry and wriggle) is phonetically too remote from wrap. Among several look-alikes, attention has been called to the short-lived and rare late Middle English words wrabble “to wriggle,” wrabbed “perverse,” and wraw “to mew.” The last of them is obviously onomatopoeic, like mew, moo, and the rest. The original sense of the Modern English verb warble was “to whirl”; hence “to sing with trills and quavers.” This verb had hw- at one time. The enigmatic wlappe “wrap” is said in the OED to be apparently a blend of the verb lap and wrap. But so little is known about most of those words that their mutual ties cannot be reconstructed. It only seems that at least some verbs beginning with wr- and hr- were sound-imitative and possibly sound symbolic. One of them was Greek raptein (historically, with initial h-) “to stitch together,” whence rhapsody (“the stitching of songs”), in English from Greek via Latin.

The initial sense of many such verbs was “to bend, twist, stitch; wriggle; *fold, *connect, *cover.” They crossed borders with ease. Engl. wrap may be a borrowing from Frisian. If it is so, we are left with the question about its origin there. The root of the Romance verbs that have become Engl. develop and envelop seems also to be lost in obscurity, but it is characteristic that envelop sounds somewhat like lap and means approximately the same as overlap. If all of them are “fanciful” sound symbolic formations, the similarity causes little surprise. Lap in lap up is obviously sound imitative.

What then is the summary? The verb wrap appeared in English in the middle period. It has a cognate, almost a twin, in Northern Frisian. Perhaps it was coined long before it surfaced in texts, at a time when Frisian and English were closer than in the fourteenth century, but borrowing in either direction cannot be excluded. Wrap is not a doublet of warp. Nor does it have direct ties with rap in any of its senses. German raffen is hardly related to it either. Wrap has no ancient (“Indo-European”) heritage. It looks like one of a sizable number of words beginning with wr- and wl- meaning “bend, twist.” Rare Middle Engl. wrabble and wrabbed are, most probably, related to it. Without certainty, warble can be added to the group. We have no way of knowing whether Middle Engl. wlappe had an independent existence or was a blend of lap and wrap. Some words structured like rap and lap (without initial h- and w-) were close to wrap, so that confusion between and among them was possible.

Despite all the caution required by such a hard case, it can probably be stated that wrap is a sound symbolic verb. The evidence at our disposal is meager and inconclusive, but I will repeat what I have said so many times: too often the verdict “origin unknown” fails to do justice to the words we discuss. Sometimes there is indeed nothing else one can say (notably so while dealing with slang), but a verdict that presupposes death sentence should not be returned without serious deliberation.

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45. Why study paradoxes?

Why should you study paradoxes? The easiest way to answer this question is with a story:

In 2002 I was attending a conference on self-reference in Copenhagen, Denmark. During one of the breaks I got a chance to chat with Raymond Smullyan, who is amongst other things an accomplished magician, a distinguished mathematical logician, and perhaps the most well-known popularizer of `Knight and Knave’ (K&K) puzzles.

K&K puzzles involve an imaginary island populated by two tribes: the Knights and the Knaves. Knights always tell the truth, and Knaves always lie (further, members of both tribes are forbidden to engage in activities that might lead to paradoxes or situations that break these rules). Other than their linguistic behavior, there is nothing that distinguishes Knights from Knaves.

Typically, K&K puzzles involve trying to answer questions based on assertions made by, or questions answered by, an inhabitant of the island. For example, a classic K&K puzzle involves meeting an islander at a fork in the road, where one path leads to riches and success and the other leads to pain and ruin. You are allowed to ask the islander one question, after which you must pick a path. Not knowing to which tribe the islander belongs, and hence whether she will lie or tell the truth, what question should you ask?

(Answer: You should ask “Which path would someone from the other tribe say was the one leading to riches and success?”, and then take the path not indicated by the islander).

Back to Copenhagen in 2002: Seizing my chance, I challenged Smullyan with the following K&K puzzle, of my own devising:

There is a nightclub on the island of Knights and Knaves, known as the Prime Club. The Prime Club has one strict rule: the number of occupants in the club must be a prime number at all times.

Pythagoras paradox.png
Pythagoras paradox, by Jan Arkesteijn (own work). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Prime Club also has strict bouncers (who stand outside the doors and do not count as occupants) enforcing this rule. In addition, a strange tradition has become customary at the Prime Club: Every so often the occupants form a conga line, and sing a song. The first lyric of the song is:

“At least one of us in the club is a Knave.”

and is sung by the first person in the line. The second lyric of the song is:

“At least two of us in the club are Knaves.”

and is sung by the second person in the line. The third person (if there is one) sings:

“At least three of us in the club are Knaves.”

And so on down the line, until everyone has sung a verse.

One day you walk by the club, and hear the song being sung. How many people are in the club?

Smullyan’s immediate response to this puzzle was something like “That can’t be solved – there isn’t enough information”. But he then stood alone in the corner of the reception area for about five minutes, thinking, before returning to confidently (and correctly, of course) answer “Two!”

I won’t spoil things by giving away the solution – I’ll leave that mystery for interested readers to solve on their own. (Hint: if the song is sung with any other prime number of islanders in the club, a paradox results!) I will note that the song is equivalent to a more formal construction involving a list of sentences of the form:

At least one of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

At least two of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

————————————————

At least n of sentences S1 – Sn is false.

The point of this story isn’t to brag about having stumped a famous logician (even for a mere five minutes), although I admit that this episode (not only stumping Smullyan, but meeting him in the first place) is still one of the highlights of my academic career.

Frances MacDonald - A Paradox 1905.jpg
Frances MacDonald – A Paradox 1905, by Frances MacDonald McNair. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, the story, and the puzzle at the center of it, illustrates the reasons why I find paradoxes so fascinating and worthy of serious intellectual effort. The standard story regarding why paradoxes are so important is that, although they are sometimes silly in-and-of-themselves, paradoxes indicate that there is something deeply flawed in our understanding of some basic philosophical notion (truth, in the case of the semantic paradoxes linked to K&K puzzles).

Another reason for their popularity is that they are a lot of fun. Both of these are really good reasons for thinking deeply about paradoxes. But neither is the real reason why I find them so fascinating. The real reason I find paradoxes so captivating is that they are much more mathematically complicated, and as a result much more mathematically interesting, than standard accounts (which typically equate paradoxes with the presence of some sort of circularity) might have you believe.

The Prime Club puzzle demonstrates that whether a particular collection of sentences is or is not paradoxical can depend on all sorts of surprising mathematical properties, such as whether there is an even or odd number of sentences in the collection, or whether the number of sentences in the collection is prime or composite, or all sorts of even weirder and more surprising conditions.

Other examples demonstrate that whether a construction (or, equivalently, a K&K story) is paradoxical can depend on whether the referential relation involved in the construction (i.e. the relation that holds between two sentences if one refers to the other) is symmetric, or is transitive.

The paradoxicality of still another type of construction, involving infinitely many sentences, depends on whether cofinitely many of the sentences each refer to cofinitely many of the other sentences in the construction (a set is cofinite if its complement is finite). And this only scratches the surface!

The more I think about and work on paradoxes, the more I marvel at how complicated the mathematical conditions for generating paradoxes are: it takes a lot more than the mere presence of circularity to generate a mathematical or semantic paradox, and stating exactly what is minimally required is still too difficult a question to answer precisely. And that’s why I work on paradoxes: their surprising mathematical complexity and mathematical beauty. Fortunately for me, there is still a lot of work remains to be done, and a lot of complexity and beauty remaining to be discovered.

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46. Post 450, descriptive of how the Oxford Etymologist spent part of this past August

Yes, this is Post 450. The present blog was launched on March 1, 2006 and has appeared every Wednesday ever since, rain or shine. Another short year, and the jubilant world will celebrate the great number 500.

In summer, when there are no classes, I put in my bag one thick book in German or Icelandic and one thick book in English (those in Russian are taken for granted). This past August, the German book I picked up (as a matter of fact, I read two) was particularly depressing, in consequence of which I decided to return to The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. So I checked out the original edition and plodded joyfully through all 609 pages of it. Like most linguists, I usually pay attention not only to the plot but also to the writer’s language. Although I read the Pickwick Papers when I was sixteen years old, I remembered fairly well what happened there, but I have learned a good deal about Dickens since I was a schoolboy and therefore noticed a few things that escaped me then. For example, I was amazed to discover the amount of spirits everybody consumed, not excluding Mr. Pickwick. The characters of Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway look rather sober in comparison. It was also curious to observe how true Dickens remained to some of his favorite types and situations (winsome widows entrapping silly men, swooning and weeping ladies, arch maids, henpecked husbands, misfits sent to the colonies to make good, and so forth) and to the mannerisms of his younger days, but I don’t think he ever produced an equal of Sam Weller’s touching oration in which he refused to leave his master.

A few notes on Dickens’s usage may not be wholly uninteresting to our readers, though I realize that 177 years after the appearance of that novel nothing I can say about it will be new.

A few morsels of grammar.

It will be remembered that Peggotty, David Copperfield’s nurse, pronounced the name of her nephew Ham “as a morsel of English grammar” (that is, without an ‘h). Some other morsels are also “worthy of remark,” as Dickens might say.

  • “…and there was a dinner which would have been cheap at half-a-crown a mouth, if any moderate number of mouths could have eat it in that time” (p. 375), and “Here Mr. Sam Weller, who had silently eat his oysters with tranquil smiles, cried ‘Hear!’ in a very loud voice” (590);
  • “…Sam having ladled out, and drank two full glasses of punch in honor of himself, returned thanks in a neat speech” (p. 400).
  • One of the footmen says: “In fact, that’s the only thing between you and I, that makes service worth entering into” (p. 398).
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite words.

Indefatigable assiduity. Not too long ago, in connection with the phrase indefatigable assiduity that occurs in the opening paragraph of the Pickwick Papers, it was pointed out in our discussion that similar phrases were common in Dickens’s days. So they were, but Dickens used their components with rare assiduity indeed.

  • “…she… would have gone off, had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of the assiduous Goodwin” (p. 183);
  • “…three or four fortunate individuals, who… were staring through it [a grating] with the same indefatigable perseverance with which…” (p. 255);
  • “‘It looks a nice warm exercise that, doesn’t it?’” he inquired of Wardle, when that gentleman was thoroughly out of breath, by reason of the indefatigable manner in which…” (p. 312);
  • “Mr. Weller communicated this secret with great glee, and winked so indefatigably after doing so, that…” (p. 346).
  • “It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connexion with, the place they so indefatigably attend” (p. 456);
  • “‘No, I don’t, Sir’, replied Mr. Weller, beginning to button with extraordinary assiduity” (p. 474);
  • “…which the fat boy… expressed his perfect understanding of, by smirking, grinning and winking, with redoubled assiduity” (582).

Another favorite word is peremptory, which turns up even more often than indefatigable. Dickens’s characters occasionally “sally forth,” “fall into a violent perspiration,” and have cadaverous faces. Villains, when attacked, already then were in the habit of saying: “You will smart for this” (here Dodson and Fogg, and later Uriah Heep). However, none of those phrases became clichés with him.

Ajar. Mrs. Cluppins testifies: “‘I was there, …when I see Mrs. Bardell’s street on the jar’.” ‘On the what?” exclaimed the little Judge. “‘Partly open, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. “‘She said on the jar’,” said the little Judge, with a cunning look. “‘It’s all the same, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. The little Judge looked doubtful, and said he’d make a note of it” (p. 361).

Odds and ends. “The cloth was laid by an occasional chairwoman.…” (p. 408). Chairwoman for charwoman is supposed to have died out by the nineteenth century. Apparently, it did not. Skates is regularly spelled skaits, and visitor appears once as visiter (perhaps a misprint). Badinage, which also occurs only once, was in 1837 still printed in italics, and the most common synonym for exclaim was ejaculate (in grammar books, as late as the end of the nineteenth century, the usual term for interjection was ejaculation). Obviously, no dirty mind objected, for in the preface Dickens expressed his conviction that “throughout the book, no incident or expression occurs which could call a blush into the most delicate cheek.” The attributive use of slang “impertinent, etc.” was not too rare, but Dickens picked it up and ran away with it: “…a man… was performing the most popular steps of a hornpipe with a slang and burlesque caricature of grace and lightness…” (p. 441). Sam Weller’s father was sure that only an alibi could save Mr. Pickwick in the trial, and he, like most of us, had ideas about word origins: “…if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it” (p. 345).

On America.

Here is what that gentleman (I mean Mr. Weller) thought of America. He proposed a plan to smuggle Mr. Pickwick out of prison and send him overseas: “The ‘Merrikin’ gov’ment will never give him up, ven vunce they finds as he’s got money, to spend, Sammy. …and then let him come back and write a book about ’Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows ’em up enough” (p. 485). Did Dickens remember this advice while writing Martin Chuzzlewit?

Election season.

Finally, now that our election season is coming to a head, we should not ignore the experience of our predecessors. The scene is set in Eatanswill, in which two parties, the Blues and the Buffs, fight. The honorable Mr. Slunkey, a Blue candidate, seems to have greater support, but at the moment the future of the seat is undecided. He is ready to greet the populace and is advised that “nothing has been left undone… there are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you’re to pat on the head, and inquire the age of; be particular about the children, my dear Sir,—it has always a great effect, that sort of thing.” “…and perhaps, my dear Sir—if you could… manage to kiss one of ’em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd.” “‘Would it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?’”… “‘Why, I am afraid it wouldn’t’,” replied the agent” (pp. 128-129). The candidate kissed them all and won. Both crowds were terribly excited, and Mr. Snodgrass did not know with which to shout. “‘Shout with the largest’, replied Mr. Pickwick. “Volumes could not have said more” (p. 122).

This is what I have scribbled for myself while reading the Pickwick Papers. Even if I happened to pursue my subject “with a perseverance worthy of a better cause,” I hope you have read my notes with “unruffled composure” and “unimpaired cheerfulness,” because they were “calculated to afford [you] the highest gratification.” And now that I have divested myself of all I know, I am empty and will have to go hungry, as the Big Bad Wolf said after Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother jumped out of him undigested.

Headline image credit: Mr. Pickwick addresses the club. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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47. The victory of “misgender” – why it’s not a bad word

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, Reid Vanderburgh, retired marriage and family therapist and contributor to Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, discusses misgender. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.

Misunderstand.
Misidentify.
Mistaken.
Misogyny.
Miscegenation.
Miscreant.
Misadventure.
Misalign.

The list goes on and on. A two-second search turned up a long list of words beginning with the prefix ‘mis.’ None seem very positive. Now we have a new word to add to the lexicon: misgender.

Officially appearing on Oxford Dictionaries’ list of new words, the definition is:

misgender /mɪsˈjendər/ ▶v. [with obj.] refer to (someone, especially a transgender person) using a word, especially a pronoun or form of address, that does not correctly reflect the gender with which they identify

EXAMPLE:various media outlets have continued to misgender her.”

Though not a positive word, its appearance in the dictionary is a positive step. Gandhi once said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Depending on geographical location and the demographics of who you’re talking to, transgender people live in all three of the first stages of Gandhi’s process – ignored in some places (through invisibility of identity, not through complete acceptance), ridiculed in many, embattled in others. Though some transgender people live in areas where civil rights are theirs, I doubt any would say “Yay, we’ve won!”

The appearance of misgender in a dictionary is a sign of (a) not being ignored, and (b) not being ridiculed. To be misgendered deliberately is to be fought against. To have someone sincerely apologize and then move on from the mistake without a second thought, is to win.

In recent years, words have begun appearing in the lexicon that have moved our culture further toward the “we win” state for transgender people. For instance, the word cisgender entered the lexicon in the mid-2000s, creating a word for non-transgender people. Now, in etymological terms, we have equally-balanced words: transgender and cisgender, co-existing as do straight and gay/lesbian. Though there is still an imbalance in terms of cultural power, the first stage (being ignored) is surmounted through appearing in dictionaries.

Though many transgender people still wish to live private lives, not proclaiming their transgender identity publicly, the power of the Internet and post-9/11 security laws make such privacy increasingly difficult to maintain. Transgender identities of various kinds have become increasingly visible as a result; like it or not, the “being ignored” stage is passing quickly. This will probably create the tension of being ridiculed, and the pain/suffering of being fought. However, continuing to create a non-pathologizing, non-judgmental lexicon with which to discuss transgender identity moves our culture ever further from the “ignore you” stage, into the realm of “this is normal.” Then we win.

Headline image: Gender neutral toilets at department of sociology, Gotenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden. Public doman via Wikimedia Commons.

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48. Is Arabic really a single language?

All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity — what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility — between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.

The problem that faces most learners of Arabic is that the written language is radically different from the various dialects spoken throughout the Arab world. Such differences appear in a variety of forms: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and tenses of verbs. The result is that even the most advanced learner of standard Arabic (or ‘the standard’) might find herself completely at sea on the streets of Beirut, while it is also conceivable for a student to complete a year of immersion in Cairo and not be able to understand a text written in the standard language.

The most diligent and ambitious of Arabic students, therefore, is required to learn both the standard and a regional variant in order to cover all the social situations in which they might use the language. This, however, will not solve their dilemma in its entirety: Moroccan Arabic is foreign to Levantines, while Iraqi can be quite a puzzle for Egyptians. Even the mastery of a regional variant along with the standard will only ease the learner’s task in part of the Arab World, while making it no easier in other regions. This phenomenon, in which a number of quasi- or poorly-intelligible dialects are used by speakers of a particular language depending on the situation in which they find themselves, is known as diglossia.

Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the oldest text of The Thousand and One Nights. Arabic manuscript, back to the 14th century from Syria in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Two pages from the Galland manuscript, the oldest text of The Thousand and One Nights. Arabic manuscript, back to the 14th century from Syria in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A many-headed beast

The source, or rather sources, of diglossia in the Arab world are both manifold and contentious. In part, regional differences come about from contact between Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers. Moroccan Arabic, for example, borrows from Berber, while Levantine dialects (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) have Aramaic elements in them. The dialects of the Persian Gulf area show the influence of Persian and Hindi, both of which were the languages of important trading partners for the region’s merchants. Finally, the languages of imperial or colonial administration left their imprint on virtually all dialects of the Arab World, albeit in different measures. It is for this reason that native speakers may choose from a variety of words, some foreign and others Arabic, in order to describe the same concept. Thus a Moroccan might use henna (from Berber) or jidda for grandmother; a Kuwaiti might buy meywa (from Farsi) or fawaakih when he has a craving for fruit; and a Lebanese worker might say she is going to the karhane (from Ottoman Turkish) or masna` when heading off to the factory.

Dialectical differences are not just a matter of appropriations and borrowings. Just as many non-native learners have grappled with the complex structure of the Arabic language, so too have many native speakers of Arabic. For all its complexity, however, there are certain nuances that standard Arabic does not express with efficiency or ease. This is why the regional dialects are marked by a number of simplifications and innovations, intended to allow for greater agility and finesse when speaking.

For example, Levantine dialects make use of agent participles (faakira, the one thinking; raayihun, the ones going; maashi, the one walking) instead of actually conjugating the verb (‘afkuru, I am thinking; yaruuhuuna, they are going; tamshiina, you are going). However, these same dialects, as well as Egyptian, have also created a series of verbal prefixes — small non-words that come before the conjugated verb — in order to refine the duration and timing of an action when conjugated verbs are used: baya’kal, he eats; `am baya’kal, he is eating; raH ya’kal or Ha ya’kal, he will eat. Such distinctions are familiar to speakers of English, but are not immediately apparent in Arabic, whose verbal system seeks to stress other types of information.

The more the merrier

Indeed, this display of innovation and human creativity is one of the strongest motivations for learning Arabic, whether standard or colloquial. Arabic might require as much effort and commitment as the acquisition of two or three Indo-European languages in order for a non-native speaker to be able to communicate in a meaningful way. However, it also opens the door to understanding the manner in which humans use and adapt language to their particular contexts. The diglossia issue is one that causes complications for non-native learners and native Arabic speakers alike, but it is also a fascinating showcase of the birth and evolution of languages that challenges our preconceived notions about good and bad speech, and the relative importance and value of dialects.

Heading image: Golden calligraphy by Quinn Dombrowski, CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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49. Kissing from a strictly etymological point of view

Like every other custom in life, kissing has been studied from the historical, cultural, anthropological, and linguistic point of view. Most people care more for the thing than for the word, but mine is an etymological blog, so don’t expect a disquisition on the erotic aspects of kissing, even though a few lines below will lead us in that direction. Did the ancient Indo-Europeans, the semi-mythic people who lived no one knows exactly when and where kiss? And if they did, what was their method of performing this “gesture”? Did they rub one another’s nose, the way many people do? Did they kiss their children before putting them to their nomadic beds? Did they kiss goodbye to lost objects, blow a kiss to a friend, or kiss the hand of the woman whose affections they hoped to gain? Alas, we will never know. Even a common Indo-European word for “head” does not exist, and if there is no head, how does one kiss in a truly Proto-Indo-European way? Our records, beginning with Ancient Egypt, the Old Testament, and Vedic texts are quite old but not old enough.

In 1897 Kristoffer Nyrop (1858-1931), a distinguished student of Romance linguistics and semantic change, wrote a book called Kysset og dets historie (The Kiss and Its History; being a nineteenth-century Dane, he stuck to the reactionary habit of writing his works in Danish, but the book was translated into English almost immediately and is still available.) The 190-page study reads like a novel. A week after its publication, all the copies were sold out, and Nyrop was asked to prepare a second edition and do so in a wild hurry, to be ready for Christmas sales. As could be expected, he complied. Regrettably, he said nothing about the origin of the word. Yet the literature on the etymology of kiss is huge.

As usual, I’ll begin with Germanic. The ancestors of the Modern Germans, Dutch, Frisians, Scandinavians, and English had almost the same word for “kiss,” approximately koss (coss). Part of the New Testament in Gothic has come down to us. Gothic is a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century, and the word for the verb kiss in it is kukjan. As early as 1861, Dutch dialectal kukken surfaced in a scholarly work, and somewhat later an almost identical East Frisian form was set in linguistic circulation. It became clear that at one time Germanic speakers had two forms—one with -ss-, the other with -kk-. Their relation has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction.

Solomon in The Song of Songs mentions passionate kisses on the mouth, and Judas must also have kissed Jesus on the mouth. At least, such was the general perception in the Middle Ages (for example, this is how Giotto and Fra Angelico, but more explicitly Giotto, represented the scene), so the Hebrews and the Romans kissed as we do, and Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, probably had a similar image before his eyes while working with the Greek text. So the speakers of the Germanic languages called “kiss” a kuss- (the vowels might differ slightly) or a kukk-.

Whenever the ritual of kissing came into being, some kisses were used to show respect and in other situations served a purpose comparable to shaking hands (think of a handshake sealing a bargain). Kissing the foot of a king or the Pope belongs here too. Dutch zoenen has the root of a verb meaning “reconcile” (a cognate of German versöhnen). Consequently, people kissed to mark the end of hostilities. Later the Dutch verb broadened its meaning and began to denote any kiss. Something similar happened in Russian, in which the verb for “kiss” is akin to the adjective for “whole”: tselovat’ (stress on the last syllable), from tsel. A kiss must have been a gesture signifying “be healthy, gesundheit.” Another Dutch verb for “kiss” (this time, dialectal), with a close analog in dialectal German, is poenen ~ puunen and seems to have meant “push, plunge, thrust; come into contact.” Here the emphasis was obviously on the movement in the direction of another person. Then there is Engl. smack, believed to be sound-imitative: apparently, when one kisses someone, smack is heard. Onomatopoeia is always hard to prove, but compare Russian chmok, which means exactly the same as smack. Latin savium, of obscure origin, designated an erotic kiss, while osculum goes back to the word for “mouth” (os). Neither is sound-imitative.

Klimt's The Kiss
Klimt’s The Kiss

Where then does Old Germanic kuss- ~ kukk- belong? Many researchers have suggested that it is sound-imitative, like smack. Perhaps we really hear or think we hear smack, chmok, kuss, and kukk when we kiss. However, even an onomatopoeic word can have a protoform. Reconstructing any protoform is pure algebra. For example, the Gothic for come is qiman (pronounced as kwiman). Its indisputable Latin cognate is venire. To make the two belong together, we should posit an ancestor beginning with gw-. In Latin, g was lost, and in Germanic it yielded k, according to the law of the consonant shift (b, d, g to p, t, k). Did the ancestors of Latin speakers ever say gwenire? Most likely, they did.

In the same way, kiss was tentatively connected with Latin gustare “to taste,” on the assumption that at one time the sought-for form began with gw-. Although this suggestion can be found in one of the best Germanic etymological dictionaries, it now has few, if any, supporters. More instructive is the fact that the Hittite for “kiss” was kuwaszi, and it resembles Sanskrit ṡvaṡiti “to blow; snort” (k- and s- alternate according to a certain rule, while u and w are variants of the same phonetic entity). Add to them Greek kuneo “kiss,” in whose conjugation -s- appears with great regularity: the future was kuso and the aorist ekusa, earlier ekussa. On the basis of this evidence, several authoritative modern dictionaries posit a Proto-Indo-European form of kiss. Can we imagine that three or so thousand years ago there was a common verb for kiss that has come down to our time? Possibly, if “kiss” designated something very common and important, that is, if, for example, it existed as a religious term, something like “worship an idol by touching the image with one’s lips.”

Other hypotheses also exist. Kiss was compared with the verb for “speak,” from which English has the antiquated preterit quoth; Engl. choose and chew; Swedish kuk “penis,” Low (= Northern) German kukkuk “whore; vulva,” Irish bel “lip,” and especially often with Latin basium “kiss” (noun) ~ basiare “kiss” (verb), recognizable today from its cognates: French baiser, Italian baciare, and Spanish besar. All those conjectures should probably be dismissed as unprofitable. The origin of basiare is unknown, and nothing good ever comes from explaining one obscure word by referring it to another equally obscure one.

We are left with two choices. Perhaps there indeed once existed a proto-verb for kiss sounding approximately like it, but who kissed whom or what and in what way remains undiscovered. Or, while kissing, different people heard a sound that resembles either kuss or kukk. Neither solution inspires too much confidence, but, in any case, the long consonant (-ss and -kk) points to the affective nature of the verb. Perhaps an ancient expressive verb belonging to the religious sphere had near universal currency, with Hittite, Sanskrit, and Germanic still having its reflexes. If so, the main question will be about the application of that verb. The sex-related look-alikes (“penis,” “vulva,” and the rest) should, almost certainly, be ascribed to coincidence.

To prevent the Indo-European imagination from running wild, one should remember that alongside kiss, Engl. buss exists. Although it sounds like Middle Engl. bass (the same meaning), bass could not become buss, and it is anybody’s guess whether bass is of French or Latin origin. Swedish dialectal puss corresponds to German Bavarian buss, which is remembered because Luther used it. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Persian, Turkic, and Hindu have almost identical forms (Spanish is sometimes said to have borrowed its word from Arabic), while Scottish Gaelic and Welsh bus means “lip; mouth.” Even Engl. ba “to kiss” has been recorded. This array of b-words seems to tip the scale toward the onomatopoeic solution, the more so because, to pronounce b, we have to open the lips. For millennia people have kussed (no pun intended), kossed, kissed, kukked, bassed, and bussed, to show affection and respect, to conclude peace, and just for the fun of it, without paying too much attention to origins. This is not giving a kiss of death to etymological research: it is rather a warning that some things are hard to investigate.

Nowadays the question where does a certain sentence occur? has lost its edge. Google will immediately provide the answer. So find out who wrote: “‘A gentleman insulted me today’, she said, ‘he hugged me around the waist and kissed me’.” Then read, laugh, and weep with the heroine.

Image credits: (1) “The prince awakened Sleeping Beauty.” From Kinder und Hausmarchen, von Jakob L. und Wilhelm K. Grimm; illus. von Hermann Vogel. Dritte Auflage), 1893. NYPL Digital Gallery. Digital ID: 1698628. New York Public Library (2) The Kiss. Gustav Klimt. 1907-1908. Austrian Gallery Belvedere. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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50. Spicing Up Your Prose Part 4 of 6

This week, we continue to add to our collection of rhetorical devices.


Parallelism uses balance and three beats following a sentence or clause with a phrase that starts with a similar kind of word (adjective, adverb or noun).
         
 The book was damaged1, damaged beyond all hope of repair2. (balance)

Jane loved him more for it1, more than she loved her books2, more than she loved herself3. (3 beats)

Personification attributes an animal or inanimate object with human characteristics.
         
The book hid its secrets from her.

Phatics are used to begin or interrupt the flow of a sentence without adding meaning to it and act as speed bumps. They are used to strengthen the connection to the reader and can impart a confidential tone. It can raise or lower the dramatic potential of a clause, it can emphasize an important claim, certify content, or negate content. Be sure they are not used to preface an information dump. They include, but are not limited to:


  • after a fashion
  • after all
  • after all is said and done
  • almost inevitably
  • amazingly enough
  • and I agree that it is
  • and whatnot
  • as a matter of fact
  • as everybody knows
  • as I believe is the case
  • as is widely known
  • as it happens
  • as it turns out
  • as I’ve pointed out
  • as unlikely as it may seem
  • as we can see
  • as you can see
  • at any rate
  • believe it or not
  • curiously enough
  • fittingly enough
  • for God’s sake
  • for some reason
  • for that matter
  • hi
  • how are you
  • I am reminded
  • I can’t help but wonder
  • I might add
  • I suppose
  • if conditions are favorable
  • if I may call it that
  • if time permits
  • if truth be known
  • if you get right down to it
  • if you know what I mean
  • if you must know
  • in a way
  • in a sense
  • in my mind
  • in point of fact
  • in spite of everything
  • in the final analysis
  • it goes without saying
  • it is important to note
  • it is important to remember
  • it occurs to me
  • it seems to me
  • it turns out
  • just between us
  • just between you and me
  • let’s face it
  • let me tell you
  • make no mistake
  • my Lord
  • not to mention
  • of course
  • one might ask
  • or as unlikely as it may seem
  • shall we say
  • strangely enough
  • to a certain extent
  • to be honest
  • to my dismay
  • to everyone’s surprise
  • to no one’s surprise
  • to my relief
  • to my way of thinking
  • to some extent
  • what's up
  • we should remember
  • when all is said and done
  • you know
  • you know what



Next week, we will contine to stock your prose shelf.

For the complete list of spices and other revision layers, pick up a copy of: 



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