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Results 26 - 50 of 334
26. 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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27. 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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28. 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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29. Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2014

As always, I want to thank those who have commented on the posts and written me letters bypassing the “official channels” (though nothing can be more in- or unofficial than this blog; I distinguish between inofficial and unofficial, to the disapproval of the spellchecker and some editors). I only wish there were more comments and letters. With regard to my “bimonthly” gleanings, I did think of calling them bimestrial but decided that even with my propensity for hard words I could not afford such a monster. Trimestrial and quarterly are another matter. By the way, I would not call fortnightly a quaint Briticism. The noun fortnight is indeed unknown in the United States, but anyone who reads books by British authors will recognize it. It is sennight “seven nights; a week,” as opposed to “fourteen nights; two weeks,” that is truly dead, except to Walter Scott’s few remaining admirers.

The comments on livid were quite helpful, so that perhaps livid with rage does mean “white.” I was also delighted to see Stephen Goranson’s antedating of hully gully. Unfortunately, I do not know this word’s etymology and have little chance of ever discovering it, but I will risk repeating my tentative idea. Wherever the name of this game was coined, it seems to have been “Anglicized,” and in English reduplicating compounds of the Humpty Dumpty, humdrum, and helter-skelter type, those in which the first element begins with an h, the determining part is usually the second, while the first is added for the sake of rhyme. If this rule works for hully gully, the clue to the word’s origin is hidden in gully, with a possible reference to a dupe, a gull, a gullible person; hully is, figuratively speaking, an empty nut. A mere guess, to repeat once again Walter Skeat’s favorite phrase.

The future of spelling reform and realpolitik

Some time ago I promised to return to this theme, and now that the year (one more year!) is coming to an end, I would like to make good on my promise. There would have been no need to keep beating this moribund horse but for a rejoinder by Mr. Steve Bett to my modest proposal for simplifying English spelling. I am afraid that the reformers of our generation won’t be more successful than those who wrote pleading letters to journals in the thirties of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the Congress being planned by the Society will succeed in making powerful elites on both sides of the Atlantic interested in the sorry plight of English spellers. I wish it luck, and in the meantime will touch briefly on the discussion within the Society.

Number 1 by OpenClips. CC0 via Pixabay.
Number 1 by OpenClips. CC0 via Pixabay.

In the past, minimal reformers, Mr. Bett asserts, usually failed to implement the first step. The first step is not an issue as long as we agree that there should be one. Any improvement will be beneficial, for example, doing away with some useless double letters (till ~ until); regularizing doublets like speak ~ speech; abolishing c in scion, scene, scepter ~ scepter, and, less obviously, scent; substituting sk for sc in scathe, scavenger, and the like (by the way, in the United States, skeptic is the norm); accepting (akcepting?) the verbal suffix -ize for -ise and of -or for -our throughout — I can go on and on, but the question is not where to begin but whether we want a gradual or a one-fell-swoop reform. Although I am ready to begin anywhere, I am an advocate of painless medicine and don’t believe in the success of hav, liv, and giv, however silly the present norm may be (those words are too frequent to be tampered with), while til and unskathed will probably meet with little resistance.

I am familiar with several excellent proposals of what may be called phonetic spelling. No one, Mr. Bett assures me, advocates phonetic spelling. “What about phonemic spelling?” he asks. This is mere quibbling. Some dialectologists, especially in Norway, used an extremely elaborate transcription for rendering the pronunciation of their subjects. To read it is a torture. Of course, no one advocates such a system. Speakers deal with phonemes rather than “sounds.” But Mr. Bett writes bás Róman alfàbet shud rèmán ùnchánjd for “base Roman alphabet should remain unchanged.” I am all for alfabet (ph is a nuisance) and with some reservations for shud, but the rest is, in my opinion, untenable. It matters little whether this system is clever, convenient, or easy to remember. If we offer it to the public, we’ll be laughed out of court.

Mr. Bett indicates that publishers are reluctant to introduce changes and that lexicographers are not interested in becoming the standard bearers of the reform. He is right. That is why it is necessary to find a body (The Board of Education? Parliament? Congress?) that has the authority to impose changes. I have made this point many times and hope that the projected Congress will not come away empty-handed. We will fail without influential sponsors, but first of all, the Society needs an agenda, agree to the basic principles of a program, and for at least some time refrain from infighting.

The indefinite pronoun one once again

I was asked whether I am uncomfortable with phrases like to keep oneself to oneself. No, I am not, and I don’t object to the sentence one should mind one’s own business. A colleague of mine has observed that the French and the Germans, with their on and man are better off than those who grapple with one in English. No doubt about it. All this is especially irritating because the indefinite pronoun one seems to owe its existence to French on. However, on and man, can function only as the subject of the sentence. Nothing in the world is perfect.

1024px-Sir_John_Vanbrugh_by_Thomas_Murray
Sir John Vanbrugh by Thomas Murray (died 1735). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our dance around pronouns sometimes assumes grotesque dimensions. In an email, a student informed me that her cousin is sick and she has to take care of them. She does not know, she added, when they will be well enough, to allow her to attend classes. Not that I am inordinately curious, but it is funny that I was protected from knowing whether “they” are a man or a woman. In my archive, I have only one similar example (I quoted it long ago): “If John calls, tell them I’ll soon be back.” Being brainwashed may have unexpected consequences.

Earl and the Herulians

Our faithful correspondent Mr. John Larsson wrote me a letter about the word earl. I have a good deal to say about it. But if he has access to the excellent but now defunct periodical General Linguistics, he will find all he needs in the article on the Herulians and earls by Marvin Taylor in Volume 30 for 1992 (the article begins on p. 109).

The OED: Behind the scenes

Many people realize what a gigantic effort it took to produce the Oxford English Dictionary, but only insiders are aware of how hard it is to do what seems trivial to a non-specialist. Next year we’ll mark the centennial of James A. H. Murray’s death, and I hope that this anniversary will not be ignored the way Skeat’s centennial was in 2012. Today I will cite one example of the OED’s labors in the early stages of work on it. In 1866, Cornelius Payne, Jun. was reading John Vanbrugh’s plays for the projected dictionary, and in Notes and Queries, Series 3, No. X for July 7 he asked the readers to explain several passages he did not understand. Two of them follow. 1) Clarissa: “I wish he would quarrel with me to-day a little, to pass away the time.” Flippanta: “Why, if you please to drop yourself in his way, six to four but he scolds one Rubbers with you.” 2) Sir Francis:…here, John Moody, get us a tankard of good hearty stuff presently. J. Moody: Sir, here’s Norfolk-nog to be had at next door.” Rubber(s) is a well-known card term, and it also means “quarrel.” See rubber, the end of the entry. Norfolk-nog did not make its way into the dictionary because no idiomatic sense is attached to it: the phrase means “nog made and served in Norfolk” (however, the OED did not neglect Norfolk). Such was and still is the price of every step. Read and wonder. And if you have a taste for Restoration drama, read Vanbrugh’s plays: moderately enjoyable but not always fit for the most innocent children (like those surrounding us today).

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30. Scholarly reflections on ‘slacktivism’

Whether its the use of Facebook in the 2008 US Presidential election or the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, there are new forms of activism emerging online. But are all these forms of activism equal? With the inclusion of slacktivism on Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

*   *   *   *   *

“I’m sure slacktivism is meant to criticize the “activity” and the slackers who do it. It was probably made up by real activists who felt they had to draw a line and protect their own credibility. Still, the phenomenon may not be as bad as it seems. There are all those partially reformed slackers out there, they came of age with the Internet, and they’ll never be real activists, right, so isn’t it better that they at least be slacktivists? Also, how many activists are there? But there are more than two billion Internet users worldwide — potentially that’s a lot of slacktivists. So here’s the question occasioned by this year’s contest for Word of the Year: Can two billion slacktivists accomplish more than all of the certified activists? Anyway, I’m a sucker for a blend.”
Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

*   *   *   *   *

Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Anthony Quintano. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Mission Accomplished – ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Anthony Quintano. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“This term is a combination of the words slacker and activist and generally refers to actions, largely on the Internet, to influence policy or politics that require little to no effort. Slacktivism typically is used to criticize behavior that appears to have only a marginal utility, but makes the participants feel better about themselves. Slacktivism typically includes signing Internet petitions, joining a Facebook group, changing your online profile picture to a symbolic image, mass e-mail campaigns, and resending political or policy content through social media. While the term is most often applied to Internet activities, it can also refer to offline activism that also requires little to no effort or commitment, such as wearing a ribbon or political button. The primary concern with slacktivism is that it may occupy or satisfy people with ineffective activities who would otherwise be more engaged participants in more influential forms of activism. However, these critiques may be an oversimplification, as slacktivism activities can have a measurable influence and do not preclude more direct forms of activism.”
Kevin M. Wagner, Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics

*   *   *   *   *

“A bit of a mouthful, but highly descriptive. People who care about political and social causes are usually comfortable with talking about -isms. Too bad they don’t put more of their time where their hearts are. (The political scientist Robert Putnam talked about this decline of social capital in his book Bowling Alone.)”
Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, DC; author of Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World and the forthcoming Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World

*   *   *   *   *

Headline image credit: Computer Keyboard by Marina Shemes via PublicDomainPictures.net.

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31. The ayes have it

The ayes may have it, but we, poor naysayers, remain in ignorance about the derivation of ay(e) “yes.” I hope to discuss the various forms of assent in December, and we’ll see that that the origin of some synonyms of ay(e) is also enigmatic. Perhaps the word does not even deserve the attention lavished on it by linguists, but, as usual in etymology and in much of scholarship, once a question is asked, there is no way to get rid of it. It draws more and more people into the controversy and gains momentum.

The earliest known example of ay(e), at that time spelled as I, goes back to 1576. Shakespeare was born in 1564, which means that he heard aye ~ I most of his life; he used it freely in his plays. How and why did ay(e) come into existence in the second half of the sixteenth century? Guesses vary, with some conclusions looking more realistic than the others.

I should propose that such a word, almost an interjection, originated “on the street” rather than in official parlance. Twenty-five years ago, Professor Rolf Bremmer wrote an article on aye and in passing compared aye and OK. The comparison seems apt. The origin of OK became clear after years of laborious research. Some people are still unconvinced by the results, but the statement one finds in the most recent dictionaries is probably all correct. The word gained fame (or notoriety) during an election campaign, spread from its home, and in the twentieth century, mainly after the Second World War, conquered half of the world. (As late as 1938, an Englishman, in a letter to The Spectator, vented his wrath on OK for “defiling” the English language and on those who dared say that it was “OK to walk in the Zoo on Sunday.” Ay(e) must have had a similar history: it probably rose from the lower depths, lost its slangy tinge, became conversational, and ended up among the most respectable, even if dead, words in the language, considering its use in voting (“all in favor say aye”—oyez, oyez, oyez). It is reasonable to suggest that by 1576 it had been around for a few decades.

The common opinion has it that ay(e) lacks cognates outside English, but, while examining early sixteenth-century Frisian legal documents, Bremmer found ay, aij, and aey “yes,” a word related to Engl. yea, in the answers of several witnesses. (Incidentally, English etymologist Hensleigh Wedgwood knew about the Frisian form, but today hardly anyone opens even the last of four editions of Wedgwood’s dictionary.) Bremmer considered the following possibilities: (1) Frisian borrowed the formula of assent from English, (2) English borrowed it from Frisian, (3) both borrowed it from a third language, and (4) although aye goes back to an ancient period, it surfaced in both languages around 1600. In his view, only the second option has a semblance of verisimilitude. I will not go over his arguments (the word is obviously not very old, while a “third language” is pure fiction) but say that his conclusion may need modification. Among other things, Bremmer, following the German scholar Hermann Flasdieck, mentioned the chance of a nautical origin. Flasdieck did not elaborate. Bremmer probably thought of borrowing from Frisian-speaking sailors. One can indeed imagine a formula like “Ay, ay, Sir” becoming part of international slang. (The origin of nautical words is often hard to trace: compare my old post on awning.)

All eyes on the ayes. (Parliament adopts EU budget for 2011. ©European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via European Parliament Flickr.
All eyes on the ayes.

Let us now look at how some other scholars tried to deal with ay(e). Their approaches are partly predictable. Since ay(e) was spelled as I, it was natural to try to derive the word from the pronoun. Allegedly, people suddenly began saying “I, I” when they meant “yes, yes.” Objections to this hypothesis have been many. Mine is hidden in the adverb suddenly prefaced to began in the previous sentence. We will see that no one asked what had made the word popular around 1650, and this, I think, is the reason why the origin of aye remains unknown to this day.

Then there is the adverb aye “ever,” and it occurred to some that ay(e) “yes” is the same word (after all, no goes back to the negation n- and Old Engl. a “ever”; the vowel was long, as, for example, in Modern Engl. spa or the family name Haas). Those who have been exposed to several varieties of English know that in many areas Kate, mate, and so forth sound as kite and mite. (So it is now in London, and I remember my futile attempts to explain to a secretary at Cambridge University that the first letter of my name—Anatoly—is an a. Unfortunately, she pronounced the town’s name as Kimebridge and could not make out what I wanted. I still have that ID for I. Liberman.) However short the path from A to I may be, I “yes” never meant “ever, always.” Yet even under the best of circumstances why should an obscure dialectal form of the affirmative take root in the capital and stay in the language? Even in the nineteenth century, Londoners did not say stition for station.

At least two etymologists attempted to trace ay(e) to longer words or whole phrases. Both scholars have good credentials, but their conjectures strike me as less than totally persuasive (to use a polite euphemism), and I have to repeat the same fateful question: What caused the appearance of the enigmatic word in the seventeenth century? It may be worthwhile to reiterate a simple but constantly ignored rule of linguistic reconstruction. Whether we investigate the nature of a sound change, a shift in grammar, or the origin of a word, we have to discover the circumstances in which the process took place. If, let us say, short vowels became long in the thirteenth century, why just then? Certainly not because short vowels tend to strive for upward mobility.

This lemur is called an aye-aye. An ideal yes-man and henchman.
This lemur is called an aye-aye. An ideal yes-man and henchman.

I may also add my traditional rueful comment. Before the recent publication of a bibliography of English etymology it was hard to find even the most important works on the history of any given word. In 1950 Gösta Langenfelt, in a Swedish journal (but he wrote the article in English!), proposed the derivation of ay(e) from the group ah je. In 1954 E. K. C. Varty had a similar idea and put it forward in Notes and Queries. He was unaware of his predecessor. In 1956, Klaus J. Kohler developed Langenfelt’s idea (the most sensible etymology, as he called it). He published his findings in English and then incorporated his idea into a longer work in German. He never discovered Varty’s one-page note. Even the most conscientious etymologists are doomed to roaming in the gloaming. Despite the consensus on the matter in hand among three distinguished authors, none of whom addressed the question of chronology, I keep thinking that ay(e) did not develop from a compound or a word group.

We will disregard the idea that ay is ya or ja, with the sounds in reverse order, or that it is a borrowing from Latin (so Samuel Johnson; his editor Todd questioned this hypothesis), but for the fun of it we may follow the path of Webster’s dictionary: first some vague references to Scandinavian and Celtic, then silence (no etymology in Webster-Mahn (!)), later “perhaps a modification of yea,” and the final splash: “Of uncertain etymology.” Being uncertain is an honest etymologist’s immutable fate.

Image credit: (1) Parliament adopts EU budget for 2011. ©European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via European Parliament Flickr. (2) The Aye-Aye (from Trans. of Zool. Soc.). Illustration from “On The Genesis of Species” by St. George Mivart, F.R.S. (1827-1900.) London: Macmillan and Co. 1871. Project Gutenberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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32. What do we love about new words?

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on language and the words that defined this past year.

The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries keep watch on our collective neology and select a word—or words–of the year: a word that is both forward-looking and reflects the culture of the current year. From 2004 we’ve had chav, podcast, carbon-neutral, locavore, hypermiling, unfriend, refudiate, squeezed middle, the verb GIF, and selfie. And in the UK, which has somewhat different sensibilities, the list reads chav, sudoku, bovvered, carbon footprint, credit crunch, simples, big society, omnishambles and selfie. The Word of the Year for 2014 is vape, edging out the short-listed finalists slacktivism, normcore, contactless, bae, budtender, and IndyRef.

Next week, I’ll be making a quiz of these words to see which students know and use. In class, we’ve been discussing how new words are created.

We talk about fixation: pre- (unfriend), suf- (selfie), in- (congratu-effin-ations), and circum- (embiggen). We explore the homonymy of prefixes and suffixes, and meaning of the word inflammable, which prompts discussion of the difference between ingrate and ingratiate. One student asks–in jest–why infallible doesn’t mean “able to fall into.”

We talk about acronyms and initialisms and the evolution of LOL and FAQ from “el-oh-el” and “ef-ay-que” to “loll” and “fak.” I find that my students are great verbers of nouns: They Facebook. They GIF. They gym. They library. They also reduplicate, compounding words to specify or intensify. I ask them the difference between a writer writer and a writer’s writer. “One makes a living and one doesn’t,” someone offers.

Our discussion goes on to the whys of word creation. New words encapsulate current ideas but also to express our identities as language users—irony, rebellion, erudition—and to characterize others, like the 2004 Word of the Year, chav, the British epithet for loutish youth in designer clothes. We talk about the accidental and logical leaps made by language users and how some of them end up as folk creations, like refudiate, the 2010 Word of the Year. I recount my own childhood confusion over hearing on television that American soldiers were fighting “gorillas” in Southeast Asia and tell them of the rejected job applicant who felt his department was often “the escape goat.” I offer my prediction that in fifty years the spelling segue will be edged out by the spelling Segway.

I always learn something new from the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list, and I’m often surprised by my own and my students’ reactions to new usages.

Clippings frequently rub me the wrong way for some reason. When I am in a conversation where someone used words like cran, vacay, and bro, the usages somehow feel much too familiar, like a telemarketer addressing me by my first name. Abbreviations can be annoying too, as if the speaker assumes I am as immersed in some topic as they are and know all the shorthand. IMHO.

I’m enamored of blends though, and I smile at the recollection of the first time I came across the word hangry in a tweet from a former student. To me blends are verbal magic tricks: words sawed in half and magically rejoined. I always think of publisher Bennett Cerf’s description of Groucho Marx as someone who looks at words “upside down, backwards, from the middle out to the end, and from the end back to the middle. Next he drops them in a mental Mixmaster, and studies them some more.” Groucho would have loved the Urban Dictionary’s blend bananus, for the brown part at the end of a banana. When I finished my book on the language of public apology I toyed with using the word regretoric in the title, but wiser editorial heads prevailed. The best blends have a playful punning to them, in which the remnants of the old words encapsulate the new meaning perfectly (the worst blends are like Frankenstein’s monster, like schmeat, a finalist in 2013.). I’ll leave it to you to judge the blends in this year’s finalists: slacktivism (from slacker + activism), normcore (from normal + hardcore), budtender (from bud + bartender).

To me, mere affixation is not as much fun as blending. New words formed by affixation make me think of new versions of old products, some sleek, colorful, and playful (unfriend and selfie), and others a bit too clumsy (hypermiling, the Word of the Year in 2008, or contactless). As a consumer, I rush out to buy some new words and leave others on the shelf.

This year’s Word of the Year vape, meaning to inhale the vapors from e-cigarettes, is a word that I won’t use much, not being a vaper myself. But many people seem to be vaping and the word has a good chance of success. It’s brisker than saying “smoke an e-cigarette” and reinforces the difference between vaping and smoking. Adapted from marijuana terminology, vape is a classic clipping from vaporize, with the added analogy of vapors/vapers and vape, to smoke/smokers and smoke. The word has made its way from High Times to the New York Times and NPR and is already being used not just as a verb but as a noun and adjective. There are “Got Vape?” bumper stickers, vape lounges, and vape pens. Vape is likely here to stay.

Headline image credit: Word cloud via Wordle.

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33. How did we get from snuff to vaping?

Vaping is having an interesting cultural moment. Use of the word is increasing rapidly, as the Oxford Dictionaries editors note, although many people are still unfamiliar with it. (In a totally scientific survey of ten 40-year-old parents on the playground of my son’s school, none had heard the word before. In my husband’s university department, some of the graduate students used the word, but the consensus among the faculty was that to vape meant to live life as a Visiting Assistant Professor.) This increased use comes as people attempt to define boundaries for the activity, to figure out where it is socially acceptable, and where it is not. Is vaping like smoking, and thus offensive and possibly dangerous to non-vapers? Or is it more like chewing gum — not polite, exactly, but something you might do surreptitiously at work or in a movie theater? Would you vape in a childcare center? In a hospital? These are not just questions of etiquette, but also of law — will vapers, like smokers, be required to keep a distance of 15 to 25 feet from any doors or windows?

The word vaping has already caused devotees of juice (the liquid used in e-cigarettes) to lose the first battle in the propaganda war. Vaping carries overtones of illicit drug use — vaporizers provided a cleaner high for marijuana-smokers for years before they were used in e-cigarettes — and sounds, as was reported in The Guardian last year, “worryingly like a form of sexual assault, or a bewilderingly ill-advised 1980s dance craze.” Let’s look now at some words from smoking’s history, to see how earlier battles over tobacco use played out, and how current questions about vaping might be resolved.

765px-Innokin_SVD
Innokin SVD by FergusM1970. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Like many of our other good stimulants, tobacco was brought to Europe from the Americas, first imported by the Spanish in the early 16th century. Tobacco (first English use, 1577) comes from Native American words for a pipe or a sort of cigar, which the Spanish assumed referred to the leaves of the plant itself. Columbus’s conscience, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, described how when their expedition landed in Cuba, they found the Taino smoking these cigar-like “tabacos,” “by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue.” It was not a forgone conclusion that tobacco would be the English name for this miraculous plant — other candidates at the time were petum (1568), possibly derived from another Native American word, and nicotian (1577), from Jean Nicot, who brought the plant to France for the first time. (Nicot eventually gave his name to the tobacco genus, Nicotiana, as well as to its chemical of interest, nicotine (1817)).

Growing more and more popular with every passing year, tobacco seemed to be doing just fine with its common name, but others were coined for it to better advertise what were seen as its incredible health benefits — the holy herb, the queen mother herb, God’s remedy, and panacea (all 16th century). A panacea is a medicine reputed to cure all diseases, a tall order, but one that it was more than capable of fulfilling, according to proponents such as Anthony Chute, author of Tabaco (1595). The green leaves of the plant could cure any sort of laceration or skin ulcer, from a finger nigh severed by a giant chopping knife to the King’s Evil (Scrofula), the Canker, the Wolfe, and noli me tangere (“don’t touch me”), increasingly awful skin diseases. The smoke was thought to be even more efficacious, because of the humoral theory of medicine that held sway at the time. A healthy body had the proper balance of four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, which gave it the proper temperature and moisture. Tobacco smoke was very hot and dry, and so could cure diseases in which the patient was excessively cold and moist — all kinds of coughs, rheums, bowel problems, and, the epitome of cold and wet, drowning.

The “native English” way of getting smoke into the body was the clyster (1398), or glyster — a tobacco enema. It was superseded by the pipe, a Native American invention and a more social way to smoke, but the original practice survived until the mid-19th century as the best way to revive drowning victims, and is still around in the expression to blow smoke up your ass, meaning “to give insincere compliments.” (Though wonderful, this derivation of the idiom is possibly apocryphal. There is a long and independent association between “empty words” and wind, smoke, or vapor.)

Like vaping today, there were questions about the social acceptability of “drinking tobacco,” as smoking was called. Was it genteel for women to smoke, for example? On one hand, smoking was good for women, who were constitutionally a little bit too cold and damp. On the other hand, smoking involved sucking on something in public, generally a no-no. Early tobacco pipes also tended to produce quite a lot of brown, sticky saliva, which stained clothing, created a funk (a strong stink, 1623), and needed to be spit somewhere, often on the floor, until the development of the spittoon (1840). Tobacco use gained its widest social acceptance with the rise of snuff (1683), finely ground tobacco snorted through the nose, which neatly avoided all these problems.

Schnupfer_corrected (1)
Painting of a man taking snuff using the thumb & forefinger method. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Taking snuff has many similarities with vaping. It required lots of accoutrements, all of which could show off one’s individuality, relative wealth, and taste. Vapers today can buy standard, preassembled e-cigs and tobacco-flavored juice, but many people prefer to customize their equipment, especially if they drip. Dripping involves putting a few drops of juice directly on the coil of an e-cig atomizer (the heating element) instead of using a cartridge with a reservoir of liquid and a wick, which according to drippers (?)…drips (?)…advocates of dripping, provides a purer taste and the option of changing flavors more frequently. It requires vapers to assemble their e-cigs themselves, choosing an atomizer, a drip tip (the part you put in your mouth), possibly a drip shield, and a variety juice flavors, from the hundreds available — “Mother’s Milk” (“a creamy custard with a sweet strawberry exhale”), for example, or “Boba’s Bounty” (“tobacco, honey, and marshmallow”). Snuff-takers needed a snuff-box — some devotees had hundreds, beautifully decorated — a rasp, to grind the tobacco leaves, a tiny spoon if they preferred not to dirty their fingers, and a dark-patterned handkerchief to catch their sneezes and clean their nostrils. Like juice, snuff could be colored and flavored in hundreds of combinations, including orange flower, rose, bergamot, musk, and tonka bean (a flavor like vanilla, now banned by the FDA for containing coumarin, which in high doses can damage the liver).

Two_snuff_boxes_shaped_like_a_pair_of_lady's_boots,_England,_Wellcome_L0057138
Two snuff boxes shaped like a pair of lady’s boots, England. Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images. CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vaping has many of the same things going for it that snuff did — it appeals to a knowledgeable, somewhat moneyed, consumer and offers a way to display individuality and discernment. Now all it needs is a better name…any ideas?

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34. Scholarly reflections on ‘vape’

Electronic cigarettes are growing in popularity around the world. With the announcement of vape as our Word of the Year, we asked a number of scholars for their thoughts on this new word and emerging phenomenon.

*   *   *   *   *

“Electronic cigarettes (ECIGs) are a rapidly evolving group of products that are designed to deliver aerosolized nicotine to the user. If ECIGs are used in the short-term to help smokers quit tobacco use completely and then eliminate all nicotine intake, they have some potential to reduce the health risks that smokers face. However, ECIGs also present a potential public health challenge because of uncertainty regarding the long-term health effects of inhalation of an aerosol that contains, in addition to the dependence-producing drug nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavorants, and a variety of other chemicals. Very recent data demonstrate that ECIGs can be as effective as tobacco cigarettes in terms of the amount of nicotine delivered, raising the possibility that they also may be equally addictive. If ECIGs are as addictive as tobacco cigarettes, quitting them may be difficult for smokers who used them to stop smoking and for non-smokers, young and old, who began using them because ECIGs are marketed aggressively and flavored attractively. The rapid evolution of the product, coupled with the unknown effects of long-term inhalation of the aerosol highlight the need for ongoing, objective, empirical evaluation of these products with the goal of minimizing risk to individual and public health.”
Thomas Eissenberg, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Co-director, Center for the Study of Tobacco Products, at Virginia Commonwealth University

Electronic_Cigarette_Smoking
Electronic Cigarette Smoking by . CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vape is a practical solution to a recently-arisen lexical gap that points up the genius of English lexical expansion. It supplies a simple verb with predictable inflections (vaping, vaped), built on an already familiar pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant-silent e (as in bake, file, poke, rule, and hundreds of others). Vape also conforms to the one-syllable pattern of many verbs, standard and informal, denoting ingestion: eat, drink, chug, quaff, smoke, snarf, snort, whiff. Although the root vapor is from Latin, speakers have effortlessly nativized it by removing the unneeded second syllable.”

Orin Hargraves, lexicographer, researcher of the computational use of language at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and author of many books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches.

Vape is a great choice for Word of the Year, not just because 2014 was the Year of Vaping, but because it is aesthetically perfect for marketing vaporizing paraphernalia and taking over the eroding market for traditional smoking products. Think about it: smoking. It’s really an unattractive word related to other unattractive words, like choking and hacking. Hold that /o/ long enough and you’ll cough by the time you hit the /k/. Vape is hip — new vowels, new consonants, new look, same old addiction. It’s a stunning verbal makeover.”

Michael Adams, Indiana University at Bloomington, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon, Slang: The People’s Poetry, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.

*   *   *   *   *

Headline image credit: Electronic Cigarettes by George Hodan via Public Domain Images.

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35. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is…vape

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back and see which words have been significant throughout the past twelve months, and to announce the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Without further ado, we can exclusively reveal that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014 is…

vape

Although there is a shortlist of strong contenders, as you’ll see below, it was vape that emerged victorious as Word of the Year.

What does vape mean?

So, what does vape mean? It originated as an abbreviation of vapour or vaporize. The OxfordDictionaries.com definition was added in August 2014: the verb means ‘to inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device’, while both the device and the action can also be known as a vape. The associated noun vaping is also listed.

Why was vape chosen?

As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vape has grown significantly in popularity. You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.

Usage of vape peaked in April 2014 — as the graph below indicates — around the time that the UK’s first ‘vape café’ (The Vape Lab in Shoreditch, London) opened its doors, and protests were held in response to New York City banning indoor vaping. In the same month, the issue of vaping was debated by The Washington Post, the BBC, and the British newspaper The Telegraph, amongst others.

The language of vaping

Vape is also the modifier for other nouns, creating new compound nouns which are growing in popularity. The most common of these are vape pen and vape shop, and there is also recent evidence for vape lounge, vape fluid, vape juice, and others. Related coinages include e-juice, cartos, and vaporium — as well as the retronym tobacco cigarette for traditional cigarettes. (A retronym is a new term created from an existing word in order to distinguish the original word from a later development — for example, acoustic guitar developing after the advent of the electric guitar.)

Vape before vaping

You may be surprised to learn that the word vaping existed before the phenomenon. Although e-cigarettes weren’t commercially available until the 21st century, a 1983 article in New Society entitled ‘Why do People Smoke?’ contains the first known usage of the term. The author, Rob Stepney, described what was then a hypothetical device:

“an inhaler or ‘non-combustible’ cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but…delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as vaping.)”

However, despite these early beginnings, Oxford Dictionaries research shows that it wasn’t until 2009 that this sense of vape (and vaping) started to appear regularly in mainstream sources.

closeup of woman smoking electronic cigarette outdoor
© diego_cervo via iStockphoto.

The shortlist

Here are the words that came close, but didn’t quite make it as Word of the Year:

bae n. used as a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner.

budtender n. a person whose job is to serve customers in a cannabis dispensary or shop.

contactless adj. relating to or involving technologies that allow a smart card, mobile phone, etc. to contact wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.

indyref, n. an abbreviation of ‘independence referendum’, in reference to the referendum on Scottish independence, held in Scotland on 18 September 2014, in which voters were asked to answer yes or no to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

normcore n. a trend in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate fashion statement.

slacktivism, n., informal actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website; a blend of slacker and activism.

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36. On idioms in general and on “God’s-Acre” in particular

From time to time I receive letters encouraging me to discuss not only words but also idioms. I would be happy to do so if I were better equipped. The origin of proverbial sayings (unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations) and idioms is usually lost beyond recovery. I may once have mentioned how, while working on the etymology of oats in my analytic dictionary, I desperately tried (and failed) to discover the source of the phrase to sow one’s wild oats. All I found were a few paragraphs on agriculture and the earliest recorded citation. Those who use the OED know that it seldom indicates where idioms come from. Rather long ago, I wrote a post on the phrase to pay through one’s nose, and it caused some profitable discussion, though it still remains debatable whose nose is meant and how one pays through it. My attack on it rains cats and dogs seems to have been more successful. I have a respectable database of proverbs and local phrases from Notes and Queries and other old periodicals. Most of those do not occur in Brewer or later dictionaries. In the future, I may use (educated people now say utilize) my home resources and even squeeze a few drops from this stone.

Before I embark on my today’s subject, I should observe that dictionaries explaining “why we say so” are numerous. The problem with even the best of them is that they avoid references, and without references they cannot be trusted. For example, the origin of hell for leather and to go to hell in a hand basket has been explained reasonably well, but the authors of popular books (and here they differ from scholars who deal with such subjects) prefer statements like it has been suggested that, but do not explain whose proposal they cite and whether the proposer deserves credence. This practice is particularly disappointing when it comes to idioms trodden to death, for example, the whole nine yards. Thanks to digitization, our dates and conclusions are becoming more and more reliable, but the origin of the enigmatic phrase and the numeral nine in it (at one time, it seems to have been six) remains unknown, and the formulas it has been suggested and some people think arouse only irritation. Who cares what “some people” think or suggest unless we know why they do so?

So why is the churchyard (or graveyard) called God’s acre? In 1913 a volume presented on the completion of George Lyman Kittredge’s twenty-fifth year of teaching at Harvard University appeared in New York. One of the contributors to it was Professor J. A. Walz, a fellow philologist. Kittredge’s name is known to many from the book Words and their Ways in English Speech by Greenough and Kittredge (at that time, George B. Geenough was a senior colleague, and his name stood first on the title page; anyway, G precedes K in the English alphabet). Walz did exactly what I so often do: he provided a background for his search, looked through multiple dictionaries, collected the publications on God’s acre in Notes and Queries, “that unique meeting place of British ignorance and scholarship,” as he called it, and summarized what he found. I can only retell his publication written a century ago, though I would have encountered those notes myself, inasmuch as my assistants and I have looked through the entire run of that invaluable journal and licked the plate almost clean. (Walz made such extensive use of Notes and Queries, because no other periodical showed any interest in the idiom he set out to research.)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Eastman Johnson, 1846. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Eastman Johnson, 1846. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The contributors to Notes and Queries, among whom we notice such erudite people as James Main Dixon and Frank Chance, discovered everything, including the earliest mention of the phrase in William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain (1605, published in 1617). Even Murray’s OED could offer no antedating. They also dug up the relevant quotations from the New Testament. Several biblical texts, most pointedly one of the epistles, explain that the dead are “sown” and sleep awaiting resurrection. Finally, they, of course, asked the question about the originator of the phrase. At that time, in the fifties and the seventies of the nineteenth century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had numerous admirers on both sides of the Atlantic, and his early short lyric “God’s-Acre” was known everywhere. Today he seems to be forgotten or looked down upon. Only his name has survived, and, in the United States, one occasionally dines at restaurants with Longfellow in their names. In similar fashion, numerous towns in Italy have hotels called “Byron.” Perhaps this is real immortality.

Be that as it may be, but even in Minneapolis, where I live and where there is Hiawatha Avenue, Nokomis Avenue, and a statue of Hiawatha carrying his bride over Minnehaha Falls, I have not met a single student who has read The Song of Hiawatha (to say nothing of Longfellow’s short poems). But in Longfellow’s lifetime, “God’s-Acre” became an anthologized piece. It begins so:

“I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial ground God’s-Acre! It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o’er the sleeping dust.”

The poem goes on for three more stanzas before it reaches the conclusion:

“With thy rude ploughshares, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow.”

What is “the ancient Saxon phrase” that Longfellow liked? It did not elude the discussants in Notes and Queries that German has the word Gottesacker “churchyard,” while its English equivalent has not been attested. Let us not forget that the first volume of the OED, with the word acre in it, became available many years later. Some writers missed the point when they said that German Acker and Engl. acre are related, so that there is no problem. Of course, they are, but cognates don’t have to mean the same. Thanks to the citations in the OED and the material supplied by Walz, we now know that, before Longfellow, God’s Acre occurred almost only in descriptions of Germany and with reference to the German idiom. The meaning of almost in the previous sentence will be made clear below. German Acker means “field” (like Latin ager). The “ancient Saxon phrase” did not exist (even in German it appeared only in the sixteenth century), but thanks to Longfellow God’s Acre it is now part of the English vocabulary. How he came to know it is not a secret.

Albert Matthews, an outstanding researcher of American English, provided some facts he did not know when Walz had asked him about God’s Acre, the burial place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turned out that this name was already current at the end of the seventeenth century. It is again met with in 1827. We can conclude that the equivalent of the German compound had some currency in Cambridge quite early. There is no way of ascertaining how it reached the East Coast, but reach it did, most probably via German speakers. As Matthews pointed out, Longfellow did not come to Cambridge before 1836. He loved the town (see his lyric “To the River Charles”) and could not help hearing the name of the burial place in it. It struck him as poetic, so he assumed that the name was very old, even ancient, and used it in his lyric. (Longfellow knew several languages, as, among other things, his translations from German, Italian, and Old English show.) Without it, God’s Acre (or God’s-acre) would not have become a familiar phrase in English. However, as far as etymology is concerned, it remains a borrowing from German, and Longfellow knew it. The Century Dictionary, quite aptly, quotes from his Hyperion (II. 9): “A green terrace or platform on which the church stands, and which in ancient times was the churchyard, or, as the Germans more devoutly say, God’s-acre.”

Headline image credit: St Giles Church in Stoke Poges. Photo by UKgeofan at English Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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37. Furphies and Whizz-bangs

In 2015, Australia will mark the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at what came to be known as Anzac Cove (Gaba Tepe). For Australia, this event has been a significant marker of nationhood, and the legacy of Anzac plays an important role in Australian cultural and political life. The experience of the First World War also had a lasting impact on language.

We can trace the language of Australians during the war years through a variety of sources, including letters, diaries, trench publications, and newspapers. These sources attest to the impact the war had on both British English and Australian English. Australian newspapers took note of the emerging lexicon of war, printing glossaries and articles that explained the military terminology that readers might encounter in the lengthy descriptions of battles and actions being reported. Words like emplacement, grenade, mortar, and redoubt were new or unfamiliar to the average Australian reader, and explanations were necessary. As the OED’s ‘100 words that define the First World War’ shows, the war generated a language of modern warfare that forever changed the lexicon.

It was also evident as the war progressed that a lot of slang was being generated. Australian soldiers used a variety of terms to describe aspects of army life: for example, army biscuits were variously forty-niners, Anzac wafers, or concrete macaroons, and jam or treacle was referred to as flybog. Soldiers were also introduced to a range of British army slang terms, which they quickly adopted into their vocabulary: for example, rooty for bread, iron rations for emergency rations, short arm parade for a venereal disease inspection, and gravel-crushing for route marching – this last being one of many terms reflecting the tedious life of the infantryman. Many terms for information or rumours were generated as well, reflecting a general concern about a lack of information about the war or likely activities: these included terms such as dinkum oil, good oil, and furphy, all of which remained popular in Australian English after the war.

The experience of the battlefield also produced a range of terms. There was a particular variety of terms for weapons, shells, and guns: Black Maria, whizz-bang, Jack Johnson, woolly bear, and Beachy Bill are just a few of them. Death and the fear of death generated its own vocabulary. To die was to be put into cold storage, to go west, or chuck a seven. While there were some words particular to the Australians (for example, possie for position, king-hit for a significant wound, and stoush for a fight), but the fact that much of the vocabulary of the war was shared by the Anglophone armies attests to their common experiences.

Men, women and children line the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day, 1916. State Library Queensland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Men, women and children line the streets to watch the procession of the 41st Battalion through Brisbane on Anzac Day, 1916. State Library Queensland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Australian soldiers liked to believe in their own unique creativity when it came to language. Soldiers’ publications during the war served to promote a particular image of the Australian soldier as brave, fearless, with a disregard for authority, and ready to crack a joke whatever the circumstances. While this didn’t always match reality, it became part of an emerging ‘Anzac legend’. Language played a role in this: Australian soldiers were inveterate users of slang who spoke a language few outsiders could comprehend, and they often used this to poke fun at others. One humorous item published in a Western Australian newspaper described an Australian soldier meeting King George V, and responding to his questions with colloquialisms such as bonzer and ribuck. It ended with the King commenting: ‘I’m no snide mug at languages … but I’d give a pot of dinkum dough if I could speak Australian.’ (Perth Daily News, 28 January 1919, p. 8)

During the war years, a language of commemoration also began to emerge, which developed more fully after the war. The first Anzac Day (initially also known as Gallipoli Day), was held in 1916, marking the anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Subsequent Anzac Days would incorporate features such as the Anzac service (or Anzac Day service), Dawn service, and the Anzac Day march. Anzac Day has become a day of central importance in Australia.

The First World War had a lasting effect on the English lexicon. It also had a lasting effect on Australian English, and more importantly perhaps, language became one of the vehicles by which an emerging Australian national identity with the Anzac legend at its core began to take shape. This has been a contentious aspect of Australian public culture and discussions about identity, but it is undoubtedly true that the centenary of the Anzac landing will once again emphasise the significance the war has had for Australia.

This article originally appeared on the Oxford Australia blog.

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38. Umbrellas and yellow ribbons: The language of the 2014 Hong Kong protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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39. Doris Lessing: another world of words

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

Childhood memories

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty and cruelty

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

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

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

Two cultures

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

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

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

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

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40. Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2014, Part 1

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

Etymologies

Gaul, Walloon, Wallachian

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

Hull gull

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

A hazel-grouse
A hazel-grouse

Color words

Brown

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

Livid

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

One as a pronoun

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

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

Come one, come all
Come one, come all

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

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

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

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

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

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41. Short stories from the Danish capital

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

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

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

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

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

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42. Linguistic necromancy: a guide for the uninitiated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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43. Battels and subfusc: the language of Oxford

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

Tutors, fellows, and readers

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

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

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

Mods and battels

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

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

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

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

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

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44. Metaphorically Speaking

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

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


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

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

Kiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The color brown and brown animals

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

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

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

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

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

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46. Do you have a vulgar tongue?

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

Your Score:  

Your Ranking:  

Headline image credit: Explosion. CC0 via Pixabay.

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

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

Dangerous derivations and chance coincidences

A correspondent cited a few tentative etymologies of English words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Friends

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

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

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

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

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

sandburg

Check your slang

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

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

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

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

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

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48. The role of grammar for the teaching of Latin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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49. WWW: All About Rhythm


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

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

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

He began by quoting Virgina Woolf.

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

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

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                        * * * * * * * * * * 

Paul Lisicky’s ALL ABOUT RHYTHM

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

Type it out once.

Then type it again.

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

Replace all the adjectives and adverbs.

Play with it for a few days.

Then do another version.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

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

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