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26. Keys and bolts

I received a question whether I was going to write about the word key in the series on our habitat. I didn't have such an intention, but, since someone is interested in this matter, I’ll gladly change my plans and satisfy the curiosity of our friend.

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27. Monthly etymology gleanings for February 2015

One month is unlike another. Sometimes I receive many letters and many comments; then lean months may follow. February produced a good harvest (“February fill the dyke,” as they used to say), and I can glean a bagful. Perhaps I should choose a special title for my gleanings: “I Am All Ears” or something like it.

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28. Celebrating linguistic diversity on International Mother Language Day

It’s Thursday evening in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I am late for an appointment to see my friend Shimanto (lit. boundary [Sanskrit]). On the street I shout ‘ei mama jaben?' (Hey uncle, will you go? [Bangla]) to catch an auto-rickshaw (auto [English] man-powered-wheeler [Japanese]). After striking the deal, I sit inside the three-wheeler. As the young driver speeds up almost hitting passers-by and curses ‘jyam khub kharap!' (Traffic jam [English] is very bad! [Persian]), I recollect the writing at the back of the car: ‘allāḥ sarvaśaktimān' (God [Arabic] almighty [Sanskrit]).

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29. Crossing the threshold: Why “thresh ~ thrash”?

The previous post dealt with the uneasy history of the word threshold, and throughout the text I wrote thresh~ thrash, as though those were two variants of the same word. Yet today they are two different words, and their relation poses a few questions. Old English had the strong verb þerscan (þ = th in Engl. thresh), with cognates everywhere in Germanic.

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30. Our habitat: threshold

One does not have to be a specialist to suggest that threshold is either a disguised compound or that it contains a root and some impenetrable suffix. Disguised compounds are words like bridal (originally, bride + ale but now not even a noun as in the past, because -al was taken for the suffix of an adjective) or barn, a blend of the words for “barley,” of which only b is extant, and Old Engl. earn “house.” I cited æren ~ earn in the post on house. Nor is it immediately clear whether we are dealing with thresh-old or thresh-hold. Some of our earlier etymologists (among them Junius, 1743, in a posthumous edition of his dictionary, and Mahn, the 1864 editor of etymologies in Webster) thought that threshold was indeed thresh + hold. They were wrong. An attempt to identify -shold with sill is a solution born of etymological despair. This Germanic word for “threshold” was opaque as far back as the time of the oldest written monuments. For some reason, Latin limen and Russian porog (stress on the second syllable), both meaning “threshold,” also lack a definitive etymology.

The attested forms are many. Old English had þrescold, þerxold, and even þrexwold (þ = th), which shows that the word’s inner form made little sense to the speakers. Thus, -wold meant, as it more or less still does, “forest.” Hence the persistent belief that the threshold is a board or a plank on which one thrashed. This interpretation survived the first edition of Skeat’s dictionary (about which more will be said below) and surfaced in numerous books derivative of it. But wold never meant “wood, timber.”

Swedish tröskel and Norwegian terskel go back to Old Norse þresk(j)öldr, which, like its Old English congener, underwent several changes under the influence of folk etymology; the second element was associated with the Old Norse word “shield.” The fact that the threshold has nothing to do with shields did not bother anyone; folk etymology gets its nourishment from outward similarity and ignores logic. Old High German driscubli ~ driscufli live on only in dialects. The Standard Modern German word for “threshold” is Schwelle, a cognate of Engl. sill, as, among others, in windowsill.

On the threshold.
On the threshold.

The Scandinavian forms look like the English ones, but those of the Low (= northern) German-Dutch-Frisian area bear almost no resemblance to them. Modern Dutch has drempel and dorpel. The suffix -el causes no problems. The fact that in drempel r precedes the vowel, while in dorpel r follows it, can be explained away as a typical case of metathesis (see Old Engl. þrescold and þerxold, above). An extra m in drempel need not embarrass us either, for such nasalized forms are plentiful. Thus, Engl. find may be allied to Latin petere “to seek,” and if it is not, there are dozens of other examples. Consider standstood; though, when one word requires so much special pleading, some feeling of unease cannot be avoided. The English noun makes us think of thrash and its doublet thresh, while Dutch drempel seems to be cognate with Engl. trample. Now the threshold comes out as that part of the floor on which we tread, rather than thrash, though neither trample nor especially thresh ~ thrash are close synonyms of tread. In making this argument, Germans often glossed threshold as Trittholz (Tritt “step,” Holz “wood”).

Jacob Grimm, who sometimes made mistakes but never said anything that failed to provoke and enrich thought, believed that threshold designated the part of the house in which corn was threshed or stamped upon (stamping constituted the primitive system of threshing) and had some following, but Charles P. G. Scot, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary, noted that “the threshing could not have been accomplished on the narrow sills which form thresholds, and it was only in comparatively few houses that threshing was done at all.” Some time later Rudolf Meringer, who devoted much energy to researching people’s material culture in the German and Slavic-speaking areas, said the same. He pointed out that, as a general rule, the oldest Germanic threshing floors were situated outside living houses and that the only exceptions could be found in Lower Saxony.

Not without some reluctance we should accept the conclusion that in the remote past the threshold denoted an area next to the living quarters, rather than what we today understand by this word, assuming of course that thresh- in threshold is identical with thresh ~ thrash. However, this assumption seems inevitable. The verb in question could perhaps at some time mean “rub,” as shown by the possible cognates of thrash ~ thresh in Latin (terere) and Russian (teret’; stress on the second syllable), not “beat repeatedly and violently.” Yet this nicety will only obscure the picture, for the threshold was not a board people’s feet “rubbed.”

We should now turn our attention to -old. The OED, in an entry published in 1912, cautiously identified thresh- with the corresponding verb and called the residue of threshold (that is, -old) doubtful. The much later Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology shifted accents somewhat: the first element is said to go back to Old Engl. þerscan, retained as Modern English thrash in the primitive sense of “tread, trample,” while the second element is called not identifiable, which sounds more ominous than “doubtful.” (The entry has yet to be revised as part of OED‘s current comprehensive revision.) In my opinion, the situation with the second element is not so hopeless.

The famous German linguist Eduard Sievers isolated the ancient suffix -ðlo (ð = th in Modern Engl. the). Its existence cannot be put into question, and it is still almost discernible in words like needle. Sievers reconstructed the etymon of threshold as þersc-o-ðl(o). Old High German drisc-u-bli (see it above) looks almost like his etymon. In that form, ðl changed to dl and allegedly underwent metathesis: dl to ld (a common process: even needle has been recorded in the form neelde); hence threshold. Skeat must have read the article suggesting this reconstruction too late (it is not for nothing that the Germans sometimes accused him of not following their publications!), but, once he became familiar with it, he accepted Sievers’s reconstruction with undisguised enthusiasm. Although he usually reported new findings in his Concise Dictionary, strangely, for many years the old derivation remained the same in the subsequent editions of the smaller book, despite the fact that in his ambitious work Principles of English Etymology (1887) the new solution was presented as self-evident. Surprisingly, the last Concise published in his lifetime appeared in two versions. In one, Sievers is only mentioned; in the other, the reference to the volume and page is given, exactly as in a note published many years earlier. This shows that even an accurate reference can be misleading and lead critics astray.

The line shows the border of the territory to which the Romans laid claim. It was called limes, that is, "threshold." Engl. limen, limit, and subliminal have the root of limes.
The line shows the border of the territory to which the Romans laid claim. It was called limes, that is, “threshold.” Engl. limen, limit, and subliminal have the root of limes.

I don’t know the reason for the OED’s caution (in 1912), seeing that Sievers’s article appeared in 1878 and that Skeat first defended it in print in 1885. Some dictionaries follow Sievers, but isolate the suffix -wold in threshold. One of the Old English forms did end in -wold, but, as noted, it must have been the product of folk etymology. Scandinavian scholars are especially prone to favoring this suffix because the Old Norse for thrash ~ thresh was þryskva, but þryskva can be dismissed as a doublet of þreskja. Besides, once we allow w in the suffix to take a permanent place, there is no way of getting rid of it in other forms.

Thus, threshold is less troublesome than our reference books sometimes make it out to be. At one time, it appears, the threshold was not part of a doorway. The word’s original form became obscure quite early and produced a whole bouquet of folk etymological doublets. Old High German driscubli stands especially close to the sought-after etymon. Most probably, the threshold was a place where corn was threshed (a threshing floor). The word contained a root and a suffix. That suffix has undergone numerous changes, for people tried to identify it with some word that could make sense to them. What remains unclear is not this process but the semantic leap. We are missing the moment at which the threshing floor, however primitive, began to denote the entrance to the room.

Image credits: (1) ‘Dweller on the Threshold’ by Arthur Bowen Davies, circa 1915. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Hadrian’s Wall. Photo by Glen Bowman. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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

Roman has created a good beginning platform that readers can leap from and soar into the mythical and lively world of Scottish culture.

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32. Our habitat: one more etymology brought “home”

When it comes to origins, we know as little about the word home as about the word house. Distinguished American linguist Winfred P. Lehmann noted that no Indo-European terminology for even small settlements has been preserved in Germanic. Here an important distinction should be made. Etymologists have spent centuries searching for the ancient roots that spawned the vocabulary of our old and modern languages. To be sure, the reconstructed roots of the ancient Indo-Europeans never floated independently of whole nouns and verbs; they are only the common part of the words that according to our theories are related, but the established relations are probably real. Fierce debates about minutiae only show that modern scholars don’t know how to deal with the embarrassment of riches; yet one of the variants they have proposed may be correct—no small achievement. This is where Lehmann’s conclusion comes in. Let us suppose that the ancient root of the word house meant “to hide” (this is an example from the previous post). There were many non-Germanic words having this root, but none of them meant “house.” Although the requisite stock in trade was present, different languages produced different words from it.

Here is a short list that illustrates Lehmann’s point: burg, thorp (its German cognate Dorf “village” has much greater currency than Engl. thorp), yard, and the nouns that interest us most of all: house and home. One example to make the situation clear will suffice. Let us agree for the sake of argument that thorp is akin to a Hittite verb meaning “to collect.” If so, thorp was coined to designate a collection of houses. This makes good sense (regardless of whether the etymology is correct or wrong), but outside Germanic no word related to thorp means “village.” The development is local.

Haims, the Gothic noun allied to Engl. home, occurs in the texts twice. From Gothic, as noted in this blog many times, parts of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament have come down to us. Gothic is a Germanic language. Haims glossed two Greek nouns for “village” (as opposed to “town”). This makes the idea of what the Goths called home quite clear. Modern German Heimat means “homeland, native land.” No less instructive is Old Icelandic heimr “world,” though it could refer to a more narrow space. Old Engl. ham (with long a, as in Modern Engl. spa) also denoted a village, an estate, and only sometimes a house. The progression was evidently from “abode” to “one’s native place.” Perhaps the most general senses of home have been retained in two Gothic adjectives with prefixes: ana-haims “present,” that is, “at home” and af-haims “absent,” that is, “not at home” (each has been recorded only once and only in the plural). Dutch has a close analog: inheems “native, homebred” and uitheems “foreign” (heem “home”).

Home, Sweet Home
Home, Sweet Home

We can also remember the convoluted history of hamlet “small village” (no connection with Shakespeare’s hero). Old English had the noun hamm “a piece of pasture land; enclosure; house.” The Middle Low [= northern] German cognate of this word, with a diminutive suffix, made its way into French and returned to English with -et, a French diminutive suffix. (However, Modern French hameu does without any suffix!) The etymology of hamm is disputed, and one can sometimes read that it has been confused with ham, the word known from place names like Nottingham and Birmingham (the same in German: Mannheim, etc.) Allegedly, hamm is akin to hem “edge.” I have always thought that hamm had nothing to do with hem. The word, I believed, referred to a place smaller than a “ham”; to emphasize the difference, speakers shortened the vowel. Serious linguists treat such guesses with disdain, and I would not have dared to mention mine even for the purpose of self-immolation, but for a partial support of Skeat. He indulged in none of my semiotic fantasies, but he also wrote that ham and hamm are related. He was a man of rare common sense. Be that as it may, wherever we look, “home” returns us to a village or a piece of pastured land, apparently owned by a village community.

Today the words of the song “Home, Sweet Home” and “There is no place like home” epitomize the idea of home quite well, though clearly the beginning was less poetic. Yet one’s home, even if not “a castle,” is indeed “sweet,” and it may be that the idea of the “sweet” comfort associated with one’s dwelling is not recent. It has been suggested that home is allied to Irish cóim “pleasing; pleasant.” This connection is often ignored, but I have never seen it refuted. To repeat, “the place owned by the community; village; settlement” preceded the idea of satisfaction of communal living, but home was as dear to its inhabitants long ago as it is dear to us. Not a parallel but an instructive case is the Slavic word that means both “world” and “peace.” If we remember that Icelandic heimr means “world,” we will understand that, contrary to the dream of privacy in today’s overpopulated, overcrowded world, in the past being together, in a place open to the members of the community and to no one else, was the source of peace and pleasure.

In the post on house, I made much of the fact that hus was neuter. The word for “home” was feminine, but it showed a rare irregularity. In Gothic, haims belonged to one declension in the singular and to another in the plural. This oddity has a close analog in Greek, and it has often been commented upon but never explained. Perhaps the true etymology of home will be revealed only when we account for that irregularity and realize that the speakers of Old Germanic looked on one home and a multitude of homes as different entities. The branch of linguistics that deals with such phenomena is called grammatical stylistics. For comparison’s sake I can add that the etymology of wife remained hidden so long because researchers did not begin by asking the main question: How could a word meaning “woman” be neuter?

Two homeless children accused of having eaten their parents out of house and home.
Two homeless children accused of having eaten their parents out of house and home.

The old Indo-European root of home remains, as usual, a matter of dispute. At one time, Gothic haims was compared with a verb for “live” (compare the English verb while, as into while away the time). Although phonetically and semantically not implausible, today this etymology has no advocates. Most dictionaries state that haims is a cognate of Greek kóme “village” and reconstruct the root with the sense “to lie, to be situated.” (Other cognates of kóme are Latin civis “citizen” and Russian sem’ia “family,” the latter sounds similar elsewhere in Slavic.) However, the path from “lie” to “settlement” is far from obvious. Besides, for kóme to match haims, its o should have gone back to oi, and the possibility of this change has been challenged with seemingly good reason. Still other scholars consider the relationship between the word for “home” and Engl. hem “edge.” This idea is already familiar to us, though we looked at it from a different perspective. I’ll pass over some fanciful suggestions, even when they have eminent proponents. Hunting for Indo-European roots resembles chasing the rainbow: the shining arch exists but remains out of reach. Let us rather remember the main things: home is a local Germanic coinage (whether it has an ancient Indo-European root is interesting but not very important), speaking about one home and about many homes was marked in a non-trivial way, and on Germanic soil home probably had positive connotations already in the remote past.

Image credits: (1) Cover of sheet music for “Home! Sweet Home!” words by H.R. Bishop [and John Howard Payne], music by H.R. Bishop, Chicago: McKinley Music Co., c. 1914. Project Gutenberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Hänsel und Gretel (um 1940), Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung, Raxstraße 7-27, Wien-Favoriten. Image by Buchhändler (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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33. Reading on-screen versus on paper

If you received a book over the holidays, was it digital or printed on paper? E-books (and devices on which to read them) are multiplying like rabbits, as are the numbers of eReading devotees. It’s easy to assume, particularly in the United States, with the highest level of e-book sales worldwide, that the only way this trend can go is up.

Yes, there was triple-digit e-book growth in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though by 2014 those figures had settled down into the single digits. What’s more, when you query people about their reading habits, you find that wholesale replacement of paper with pixels will be no slam-dunk.

Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have been surveying university students in a variety of countries about their experiences when reading in both formats. Coupling these findings with other published data, a nuanced picture begins to emerge of what we like and dislike about hard copy versus digital media. Here are five facts, fictions, and places where the jury is still out when it comes to reading on-screen or on paper.

Cost is a major factor in choosing between print or the digital version of a book.


College students are highly cost-conscious when acquiring books. Because e-versions are generally less expensive than print counterparts, students are increasingly interested in digital options of class texts if making a purchase. (To save even more, many students are renting rather than buying.)

Yet when you remove price from the equation, the choice is generally print. My survey question was: If the price were identical, would you prefer to read in print or digitally? Over 75% of students in my samples from the United States, Japan, Germany, and Slovakia preferred print, both for school work and when reading for pleasure. (In Germany, the numbers were a whopping 94% for school reading and 90% for leisure.)

The “container” for written words is irrelevant.


There’s a lot of talk these days about “content” versus “container” when it comes to reading. Many say that what matters in the end is the words, not the medium through which they are presented. The argument goes back at least to the mid-eighteenth century, when Philip Dormer, the Earl of Chesterfield, advised his son:

Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.

When I began researching the reading habits of young adults, I assumed these mobile-phone-toting, Facebooking, tweeting millennials would be largely indifferent to the look and feel of traditional books.

I was wrong. In response to the question of what students liked most about reading in hard copy, there was an outpouring of comments about the physical characteristics of printed books. Many spoke about the aesthetics of turning real pages. One said he enjoyed the feel of tooled Moroccan leather. They enthused about the smell of books. In fact, 10% of all Slovakian responses involved scent.

E-books are better for the environment than print.


Debate continues over whether going digital is the clear environmental choice. Yes, you can eliminate the resources involved in paper manufacturing and book transport. But producing – and recycling – digital devices, along with running massive servers, come with their own steep costs. The minerals needs for our electronic reading devices include rare metals such as columbite-tantalite, generally mined in African conflict-filled areas, where profits often support warlords. Recycling to extract those precious metals is mostly done in poor countries, where workers (often children) are exposed to enormous health risks from toxins. The serried ranks of servers that bring us data use incredible amounts of electricity, generate vast quantities of heat, and need both backup generators and cooling fans.

Today’s young adults are passionate about saving the environment. They commonly assume that relying less on paper and more on digits makes them better custodians of the earth. When asked what they liked most about reading on-screen – or least about reading in hard copy – I heard an earful about saving (rather than wasting) paper. Despite their conservationist hearts, internal conflict sometimes peeped through regarding what they assumed was best for the environment and the way they preferred to read. As one student wrote,

I can’t bring myself to print out online material simply for environmental considerations. However, I highly, highly prefer things in hard copy.

Users are satisfied with the quality of digital screens.


Manufacturers of e-readers, tablets, and mobile phones continue to improve the quality of their screens. Compared with devices available even a few years ago, readability has improved markedly. However, for university students who often spend long hours reading, digital screens (at least the ones they have access to) remain a problem. When asked what they liked least about reading on-screen, there was an outpouring of complaints in my surveys about eyestrain and headaches. Depending upon the country, between one-third and almost two-thirds of the objections to reading on-screen involved vision issues.

It’s harder to concentrate when reading on a screen than when reading on paper.

True – by a landslide.

My question was: On what reading platform (hard copy, computer, tablet, e-reader, or mobile phone) did young adults find it easiest to concentrate? “Hard copy” was the choice of 92% (or more) of the students in the four countries I surveyed. Not surprisingly, across the board, respondents were two-to-three times as likely to be multitasking while reading on a digital screen as when reading printed text. It goes without saying that multitasking is hardly a recipe for concentrating.

How does concentration relate to reading? There are different ways in which we can read: scanning a text for a specific piece of information, skimming the pages to get the gist of what is said, or careful reading. The first two approaches don’t necessarily require strong concentration, and computer-based technologies are tailor-made for both. We search for specific keywords, often using the ‘Find’ function to cut to the chase. We jump from one webpage to the next, barely reading more than a few sentences. When we wander off from these tasks to post a status update on Facebook or check an airfare on Kayak, it’s not that hard to get back on track.

What computer technology wasn’t designed for is deep reading: thoughtfully working through a text, pausing to reflect on what we’re read, going back to early passages, and perhaps writing notes in the margins about our own take on the material. Here is where print technology wins.

At least for now, university students strongly agree.

Headline image credit: Books. Urval av de böcker som har vunnit Nordiska rådets litteraturpris under de 50 år som priset funnits by Johannes Jansson/norden.org. CC-BY-2.5-dk via Wikimedia Commons.

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34. Monthly gleanings for January 2015

I am pleased to report that A Happy New Year is moving along its warlike path at the predicted speed of one day in twenty-four hours and that it is already the end of January. Spring will come before you can say Jack Robinson, as Kipling’s bicolored python would put it, and soon there will be snowdrops to glean. Etymology and spelling are the topics today. Some other questions will be answered in February.


Sod, seethe, suds

Our correspondent Paul Nance is not satisfied with the idea that sod is related to seethe because the senses don’t match; he also wonders where suds in the triad seethe-sod-suds comes in. As concerns his doubts about sod and seethe, he is in good company. Yet Skeat was probably right and the two words seem to be related. We should first note that sodden, the petrified past participle of seethe, contains the syllable sod. The form of some importance is Dutch zode “sod,” “boiling,” and “heap, a lot,” the latter usually occurring in the forms zooi or zo. It is not immediately clear whether all of them are related and with how many words we are dealing (one, two, or three).

I think the best clue to the sod – seethe question is provided by Engl. suds (the singular sud also exists, but its meaning can be left out of the present discussion). English has a regional verb suddle “to sully,” a congener of German sudeln “to daub; sully; do dirty work,” often translated rather misleadingly as “to botch.” Sudeln is believed to have arisen as the result of the confusion of two different roots: one meant “cook” (compare “boil,” above); the other, which meant “sap, moisture,” referred to small bodies of water (pools, puddles, wells, and so forth) and is present in many words of the Indo-European languages, Old English among them. But it is not the ancient history of sudeln that matters. Engl. suddle looks like a borrowing from Dutch or Low German. The same is true of Standard German sudeln, which does not antedate the 15th century, and of Engl. suds, which goes back to the fifteen-hundreds. They emerged too late to be classified with native words. Finally, the same holds for sod, another fifteenth-century intruder, and here comes the main point: sod is almost certainly allied to suds and suds is almost certainly allied to seethe. By the law of transitivity, sod is also allied to this verb. Mr. Lance writes: “In Upstate New York, sod is only occasionally sodden.” But the semantic history of the entire group (sod, suds, sudeln, and suddle) should be looked for in the Low Countries.

Suds are good for babies and etymology.
Suds are good for babies and etymology.

House and hood

Even though house might refer to “covering,” while hood, a cognate of hat, certainly does so, they are not related. The ancient vowel of hood was long o (as in Engl. or, without the r glider after o), while house, from hus, had long u (as in Engl. too), and no bridge connects them.

Engl. house and German Haus

Why do the cognates Engl. brother and German Bruder (to cite one typical example) have only br- in common, while house and Haus sound alike? House and Haus owe their similarity to good luck. It was the so-called German Consonant Shift that drove a wedge between German and the other Germanic languages. Engl. tide and German Zeit “time” are cognates, but the new consonants in Zeit destroyed the similarity. The consonants s and h stayed intact in German, and the vowel (long u) changed the same way in both German and English; hence house and Haus. However, the vowel shift, great or not so great, had partly unpredictable results; compare Dutch huis. The vowel in bread has undergone many changes since the Old English period, and it is hard to believe that both o in German Brot and ea, pronounced as short e, in Engl. bread go back to the same diphthong au. I have known a student who tried to translate an English text into Russian with the help of a German dictionary and, miraculously, had some success. Foreign languages are tough. One’s mother tongue may also look foreign. Thus, ea in bread, as opposed to e in bred, does not increase the amount of happiness in English spellers, and the horror of lead/led is known to many of us.

Latin antiquus

Thomas Lambdin, Professor in Harvard Department of Near Eastern Studies, once suggested that the Latin adjective antiquus “old, ancient” was a borrowing of Aramaic attiq “old.” One of his former students asked me what I can say about this conjecture. I have known for a long time that scholars’ etymologies of English words depend very strongly on their professional orientation. Those linguists who specialize in Old Norse point to possible Scandinavian etymons of English words, while Romance scholars find equally plausible Old French roots. (I am not speaking of the monomaniacs who trace all words of English, and not only of English, to Hebrew, Irish, Slavic, and so forth: those are simply crazy.) Similar things happen in some other areas. Modern linguistics is strongly influenced by the concepts of English phonetics and syntax, because the Chomskyan revolution, before spreading to the rest of the world, took place in the United States and its creator was a native speaker of English. Someone noted that, if N. S. Trubetzkoy were not a native speaker of Russian, some of the central ideas developed in his epoch-making book The Bases of Phonology (Grundzüge der Phonologie) may not have occurred to him.

Professor Lambdin is an expert in Semitic linguistics and, naturally, receives impulses from the material he knows best. I happen to be well-acquainted with his books and even reviewed the etymologies offered in his untraditional manual of Gothic. It is true that that the etymology of antiquus entails several difficulties, but, in my opinion, suggesting that that adjective came from Aramaic is hard to justify. As usual, the closeness of forms is not a sufficient argument. We would like to know why such a basic concept had to be taken over from a foreign language, under what circumstances the borrowing took place, and whether it filled a lacuna in Latin or superseded a native synonym. In the absence of additional arguments I would stay away from such a bold hypothesis.

Dwell and its Latvian parallels

I read the comment on the subject indicated in the title of this section with great interest. Such parallels are of utmost importance. They prove nothing but add credence to some of our conjectures. If a certain semantic shift happened in one language, it may, theoretically speaking, have happen in another. In etymology, high probability and verisimilitude are often the only criteria of truth. That is why Carl Darling Buck’s dictionary of synonyms in the Indo-European languages is so useful.

George Bernard Shaw. A glowing example of a man who not only advocated Spelling Reform but also supported it financially.
George Bernard Shaw. A glowing example of a man who not only advocated Spelling Reform but also supported it financially.

Spelling and spelling reform

Spelling: whose cup of tea?

One of our correspondents wonders why Modern English spelling is so irrational. It would take a book to answer this question in detail, but the main reasons are two.

  1. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 French and French-educated scribes imposed their habits on English spelling, and the medieval norm has more or less stayed intact to this day.
  2. The second reason is the loyalty of English to foreign spelling. The Spanish don’t mind writing futbol, while English speakers live with monsters like committee, though one m and one t would have been quite enough. Nor do we need sugar, chagrin, and shrine, to say nothing of fuchsia, despite its origin in a proper name.

Thus, the chaos most of us bemoan stems from reverence for tradition. Shureli, a tru skolar wud be imensli shagrind if he were made to put a spoon of shugar in his cup of tee. The tee would taste bitter and the world wud kolaps, wudnt it?

News about spelling reform

I am afraid to sound too optimistic, but it may be that the Spelling Society is making progress, that is, it seems to have feasible plans for effecting the reform and not only ideas about how to spell the words of Modern English. English children take up to two years longer to master basic words than those of other countries (the torture imposed on dyslexics and foreigners should not be forgotten either, for aren’t we all against torture?). The sound system of English is such that we’ll never reach the elegance of Finnish spelling, but something can and should be done. For that purpose, the institution of INTERNATIONAL ENGLISH SPELLING CONGRESS has been proposed. Everyone is welcome to join it. The Expert Committee will be appointed by the delegates who will make the final decision on the alternative scheme. The main virtue of the proposal is that it seeks to engage as many people in the movement as possible. Some publishers of visible journals are already showing an interest in the cause. The public should be informed that the preservation of the status quo has serious negative economic consequences. It is no longer a virtue to smoke. Perhaps the Spelling Congress will be able to explain to the world that retaining a medieval norm in spelling (arguably the most complicated in the world) is not a virtue either. Mr. Stephen Linstead, the Chairman of the Society, has spoken on the BBC and was mocked by many for offering to tamper with a thing of beauty. This is a good sign: no success without public outrage before a novelty is accepted. A report of these events has also been published by the Chicago Tribune.

Image credits: (1) A baby in a bathtub with soap foam. © artefy via iStock. (2) George Bernard Shaw, 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

From whence cometh the winter words?

Snowy tree. Public domain via Pixabay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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36. Monthly gleanings for December 2014, Part 2

Murray’s centennial

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

A few etymologies

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

Kw- ~ tw (tv-)

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

Lefties are the best lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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38. Monthly etymology gleanings for December 2014, Part 1

Laughter from the historical perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Sheltie?

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

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

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

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39. Defining the humanities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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40. Ventriloquists, female impersonators, the genuine article?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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43. Orphants to foster kids: a century of Annie

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

Little orphant Allie

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

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

The original hard knocks

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

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

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

Hoovervilles and Prohibition

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

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

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

Every plot’s a dilly,
This we guarantee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

has been updated to

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

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

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


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

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

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44. Yes? Yeah….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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45. The Jerk Store called…and called and called

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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46. A laughing etymologist in a humorless crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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47. The advantage of ‘trans’

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

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

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

Re-examining gender

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

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

The ever-changing lexicon of gender identity

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

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

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

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

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48. Moping on a broomstick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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