A Bit about Words: Dressed to the Nines

It’s an expression not so often heard these days, but my parents’ generation often referred to a person who was conspicuously well turned out as “dressed up to the nines”.  The expression emerged in about 1850 and became increasingly widely used until it began to fall into decline in about the late 1960s.  The variant “dressed to the nines” emerged as a casual alternative in the 1890s and came into increasing use throughout the 20th century.

What is curious is that the origin of the expressions is hotly debated.  No: that overstates it.  There is no heat in the debate.  Its origins are uncertain.  There are various rival theories.

One theory is that it refers to the Muses, of whom there were nine.  This has the stamp of ludicrous opportunism about it.  Apart from any other consideration, “dressed up to the nines” is a colloquial expression, and it is not likely that it captures a reference to classical learning.

Another theory is that it is a reference to the standard of purity of gold.  Gold is “nine nines fine”, when it reaches  99.9999999% purity.  If you count them, there are nine nines there.  It’s a nice idea, but it has the hallmarks of folk etymology and special learning.

One theory which has attracted a lot of support has an odd Australian connection.  In 1824 in Edinburgh the 99th Regiment of Foot was raised.  In 1832, it received its county title, and became known as the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot.  It had several nicknames, including (predictably) “The Nines”.   It is a little surprising that the nickname had not already been attached to other regiments designated 99th, including the 99th Regiment of Foot (the Jamaica Regiment), and the 99th Foot which was later renamed the 100th Regiment of Foot

In the 1830s and 1840s the Nines spent much of their time in the Pacific. The first detachments arrived in Australia (along with a cargo of convicts) on the North Briton. The convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land (it did not become Tasmania until 1856).  The Nines were sent to Sydney in 1842.  There, they quickly earned “an unsavoury reputation”.  Given that the Rum Rebellion was a matter of living memory, they must have behaved quite badly.  It is easily overlooked that on 26 Januart1808 (then called Jubilee Day and later Australia day), the Rum Corps deposed William Bligh, the Governor of the Colony of New South Wales.  This NSW tendency, which was replayed in 1932 is echoed in regular bad behaviour in that State, must have seemed quite striking in the 19th century.  To develop  “an unsavoury reputation” in the shadow of the Rum Rebellion was no small achievement.

Whether in admiration or censure, the Nines were repatriated and, stationed at Aldershot between 1856 and 1859, they became known for their drill and their dress.  One strong theory, then, is that dressed up to the nines is a reference to the sartorial style of the 99th Regiment of Foot.  That is the origin suggested by J.C. Hotten Dictionary of Slang (1863) and asserted a centuryyears later by N. C. E. Kenrick in The Story of the Wiltshire Regiment (1963).

But the expression “to the nine(s)” goes back a long way: before the formation of The Nines.

Robert Burns, 1787: ‘Twad please me to the nine”.

In 1863 Reade wrote: ‘Being clad in snowy cotton and japanned to the nine.’

And in 1893 he wrote: “Thou paints auld Nature to the nines”.

The OED2 also gives the following examples:

1821: “He’s such a funny man, and touches off the Londoners to the nines!”

1836: “Praisin’ a man’s farm to the nines.”

Although to the nines predates the formation of the 99th Regiment of Foot, so far as I can find there is no example of the full expression dressed up to the nines before they became famous for their elegant dress.  Kenrick does not deal with the earlier, shorter, expression to the nines by itself, and neither does  Hotten. Both discuss only the phrase dressed up to the nines.

The fact that to the nines predates the formation of the 99th Regiment at once raises an obstacle, but also suggests an answer.

One theory is that the expression  to the nines comes from eyne: the Old English plural for eyes.  To be dressed up to the eyne would naturally blur to dressed up to then eynedressed up to the neynedressed up to the nines.  It is certainly the case that eyne was the early plural of eye.  It was cognate with the Germanic plural: in German, the word for eye is Auge , plural Augen.

So it seems reasonable to assume that to the nine(s) comes from the Old English plural for eyes.  We have a similar construction up to my eyes (in debt (etc)) and the parallel construction thrilled to the back teeth.  As a metaphor of completeness, reference to something near the top of the head makes perfect sense.  The fact that the expression to the nine (singular) exists lends force to the idea that it is a corruption of to then eyne.

Incidentally, the expression dressed to the nines naturally calls to mind the similar expression mutton dressed as lamb.  As a child I found this puzzling: the idea of clothing on sheep did not seem sensible.  This sense of dress dates back to 1440.  OED2 defines it this way:
“To array, attire, or ‘rig out’, with suitable clothing or raiment; to adorn or deck with apparel; in later use often simply, to clothe”.  The ‘later use’ of simply putting on clothes, which is now the dominant sense, only dates to the mid-eighteenth century.  Until then, it had an overtone of proper dress or finery.

This is because dress has a more fundamental sense “To make straight or right; to bring into proper order; to array, make ready, prepare, tend.”  In the military, the troops dress by the right (etc), that is, they align themselves in straight rows when on parade.  This use dates back to the early 18th century.  The Nines undoubtedly perfected the art of dressing in this sense also.

The verbal noun dressing has the same connotation of making right or making ready.  Dressing a thing made it ready; conversely, a dressing down is a chastisement calculated to make a person’s later behaviour proper.

Dressing a joint of meat simply means trimming it and making it ready for the oven.  A  dresser is “A sideboard or table in a kitchen on which food is or was dressed;…” (OED2).  Mutton dressed as lamb is meat from an old sheep trimmed so as to appear like lamb.  Since the expression is often (perhaps exclusively these days) used in criticism of a woman’s clothing sense, the connection with attire is reinforced, and the sense of correctness recedes to the shadows.

A Bit about Words: Bloviating

Warren Harding (1865-1923) was a magnificent specimen of manhood, but is generally accounted one of the worst ever presidents of the United States of America (Donald Trump is pretty easily worse, but we know a lot about him).  Harding’s impressive style, it seems, concealed a near-complete lack of substance.  William Gibbs McAdoo, a Democrat, spoke of Harding’s speeches as “…an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” Apparently Harding used the word bloviate a lot and, because his style of oratory was characterised by bloviation, it is not surprising that he was given credit for it.  Some authors have suggested that bloviate was coined by Warren Harding, but quotations in OED2 go back to 1845 – well before he was born.  Unhappily for Harding’s memory, dozens of books dealing with language or oratory use bloviate principally in connection with Harding’s style.

Bloviate is a good-sounding word, pleasing to say but not much heard these days.  OED2 defines it as “to talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric”.  Its sound evokes the parallel idea of a blowhard.  How can we have lost such a word in a world run by lawyers and politicians?

It is generally the case that those who bloviate are found to be speaking rubbish.  It is astonishing to find how many words English provides to describe rubbish.  Although English does not provide many proper words for ideas concerning sex, it provides generously for ideas about rubbish.  In Tom Stoppard’s Artist Decending a Staircase, a choleric old modernist painter (reformed) offers a terse appraisal of his unreformed colleague’s latest work, which comprises a layered sound recording made in a silent,  empty room. This provokes the following exchange:

DONNER: I think it is rubbish.
BEAUCHAMP: Oh. You mean a sort of tonal debris, as it were?
DONNER: No. Rubbish, general rubbish. In the sense of being worthless, without value, rot, nonsense. Rubbish in fact.
BEAUCHAMP: Ah. The detritus of audible existence, a sort of refuse heap of sound …
DONNER: I mean rubbish. I’m sorry, Beauchamp, but you must come to terms with the fact that our paths have diverged. I very much enjoyed my years in that child’s garden of easy victories known as the avant-garde, but I am now engaged in the infinitely more difficult task of painting what the eye actually sees.

Donner could also have described Beauchamp’s work as bilge, bosh, bullshit, crap, dung, eyewash, flim-flamhorseshitnonsense, nut, ruck, skittle, slop, tosh, or trash.  The OED2 notes nearly 400 words whose central meaning is rubbish.

Tosh is not much heard these days. It was invented in the late nineteenth century and was frequently used in cricketing circles.  On 25 June 1898 Tit-Bits noted that “Among the recent neologisms of the cricket field is tosh, which means bowling of contemptible easiness.”  Tosh is an interesting word, because it has a number of other meanings apart from that which cricket conferred on it. It is a bath or footpan; it is also those items of value that may be retrieved from sewers and drains. As a contraction of tosheroon, it means two shillings, or money generally (compare Australian slang dosh); it can also be used as a neutral, informal mode of address, equivalent to guv’ or squire. Strangely, when tosh is used as an adjective it takes on an entirely new set of meanings: neat, tidy, trim, comfortable, agreeable, familiar.

Bilge is a very satisfactory word: short, luscious and stinking, it conveys a sloshing sense of its meaning. Its primary meaning is the bottom of a ship’s hull, or the filth that collects there, but it is also very often used in its metaphorical sense of rubbish or rot. Much less obvious is its use as a verb, meaning ‘to stave in the hull of a ship, causing it to spring a leak’. So Admiral Anson wrote in his account of his epic, four-year voyage around the world: ‘She struck on a sunken rock, and soon after bilged.’ And this use as a verb may also be metaphorical. In 1870 Lowell wrote: ‘On which an heroic life …  may bilge and go to pieces.’

Bilge is interesting in another way. Of the 625,000 or so words in the English language, only 11 others end with the letter sequence -lge. Three are well known and obvious: bulge, divulge, and indulge. The rest are very strange and rare:

bolge (n): the gulfs of the eighth circle of the inferno (Also malebolge. Dante did not think well of it.)

effulge (v): to shine forth brilliantly (Hence, the coded proverb: ‘All that shines with effulgence is not, ipso facto, aurous.’)

emulge (v): to drain secretory organs of their contents

evulge (v): to disseminate among the people; to make commonly known, hence to divulge  

promulge (v): to make known to the public, as in promulgate (Also provulge, and probably a corruption of the same)

milge (v): to dig round about

thulge (v): to be patient

volge (n): the common crowd; the mob (‘The mob’ is a contraction of mobile vulgaris: literally ‘the common people in motion’.)

While bilge is a good word, my favourite word for expressing succinct condemnation is bullshit. It has the merit of being terse, expressive, and naughty enough to shock without being beyond the pale. It can sometimes be heard on ABC radio, which is our linguistic gold-standard. It appears without a fig-leaf  in more than 40 judgments in the NSW Supreme Court, but only in circumstances where it is quoting the evidence. It is at risk of becoming polite however, which would strip away much of its force. In 2005 Harry G. Frankfurt published a book titled On Bullshit. Frankfurt is a philosopher, so his take on this vital subject is useful but not obvious. He discusses the difference between bullshit and lying by reference to an anecdote about Ludwig Wittgenstein who distinguishes between a ‘… statement … grounded neither in a belief that it is true, nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true’.

Incidentally, bullshitter was recognised by Sidney J Baker in his Popular Dictionary of Australian Slang, but it had not been absorbed into the Oxford as at February 2012.  A draft addition in the OED2 dated 1993 suggests that it will be recognised in due time.  Until then, it remains a distinctively Australian expression for a bloviator.

Bloviating usually involves self-important, over-inflated speech.  Other varieties of idle speech are well-catered for by English vocabulary.  Words denoting idle talk include (among many others) babble, balderdash, bibble-babble, bourd, braggadocio, cackling, clatter, claver, fiddle-faddle, flim-flam, gossip, jangle, jaunder, jibber-jabber, labrish, palaver, prattle, tattle, tittle-tattle, trattle, truff, twattle, yap and yatter.

Most of these are self-explanatory; some are obviously archaic.  Jaunder is simply idle talk. Claver is ‘idle garrulous talk, to little purpose’. There is a Scottish saying: ‘Muckle claver and little corn’ (muckle = much), referring to eloquent preaching which uses many words but has little substance. The pun is on claver, clover. A truff is ‘an idle tale or jest’. It is a fifteenth-century word, which seems to have disappeared some time in the seventeenth century.

Twattle (also twaddle, and in that form commoner in Australian English) is idle talk or chatter; and just as we now have the expression chatter-box, in the eighteenth century there was twattle-basket.

Yatter is onomatapoeic and self-evident, but not often heard although it is still in use. It is originally a Scottish dialectal word and is still used in Scotland. OED2 offers a quotation from (of all places) the Brisbane Sunday Mail: ‘No one in the Brisbane Valley any longer believes the tourist yatter given out by Government … circles.’ The quotation dates from May 1978, when Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the Queensland premier. Given Sir Joh’s narrative style, and his famous reference to press conferences as ‘feeding the chooks’, yatter seems to be an apt word in the circumstances.

Just as idleness of speech is well served by English vocabulary, so is idleness of character.  About 500 English words have idleness at the core of their meaning.  Words which suggest idleness of character include: bumble, do-nothing, dor, drone,  gongoozler, loon, lubber, lurdan, lusk, picktooth, quisby, ragabash, rake, shack, sloth, slouch, sluggard, toot, trotevale, truandise, vagrant, and wastrel.

Some of these are obvious, but others deserve a closer look. A bumble is a blunderer or idler, also known as a batie bum. A gongoozler is originally ‘an idler who stares at length at activity on a canal; hence more widely, a person who stares protractedly at anything’. A highly specialised word indeed, its first recorded use is in that well-known organ Bradshaw’s Canals & Navigable Rivers of England & Wales. In an attempt at survival its meaning broadened, but the word remains obscure.

A lubber is ‘a big, clumsy, stupid fellow; especially one who lives in idleness; a lout’, and it became specialised as a sneering term used by sailors to mean ‘a clumsy seaman; an unseamanlike fellow’, especially in the compound expression land-lubber.

The OED2 defines lurdan as ‘a general term of opprobrium, reproach, or abuse, implying either dullness and incapacity, or idleness and rascality; a sluggard, vagabond, “loafer”’.  Its heavy sound fits it well to the task, and the word has been around since the fourteenth century, so it is a pity that it has disappeared. Similarly, a lusk is ‘an idle or lazy fellow; a sluggard’. Cotgrave’s description  of someone as ‘… sottish, blockish … luske-like’ could not be mistaken for a friendly observation. Like lurdan, it dates back many centuries, but even as the number of people increases to whom it could be fairly applied, it has fallen out of use.

Lusk sounds like a good word to describe Donald Trump, although it does not convey anything of his self-interest or his dishonesty

A Bit About Words: Split Infinitives

The “rule” against splitting infinitives is one of most-remembered but least understood of all the rules in our language. Striving against the “rule” is made all the more difficult because it is taken so seriously by those who know the rule – because they learned it in primary school, and found it was insisted on by others who had learned it the same way and had never questioned it.

But the “rule” against splitting infinitives is recent.

To boldly go breaches the injunction against splitting infinitives and has no advantage of emphasis or clarity over to go boldly.  By contrast, to cheerfully sing again conveys clearly what is an ambiguous possibility in to sing cheerfully again: in adhering to the rule, the second statement leaves the hearer uncertain whether the cheerfulness attaches to the act of singing or the fact of repetition.

What is odd about the English horror of split infinitives is that it is based on the observation that Latin infinitives could not be split, with the conclusion that English infinitives must not be split.  Latin infinitives could not split because they were in the form of a single word: amare to love, habere to have, cantare to sing, etc.  In consequence with the early grammarians’ unwavering adherence to the conventions of Latin, we daily wrestle with tensions created by the rule.

The OED defines infinitive as follows:

“The name of that form of a verb which expresses simply the notion of the verb without predicating it of any subject. Usually classed as a ‘mood’, though strictly a substantive with certain verbal functions, esp. those of governing an object, and being qualified by an adverb…”

Johnson is at once briefer and more opaque:

“In grammar, the infinitive affirm, or intimates the intention of affirming, which is one use of the indicative; but then it does not do so absolutely”

Webster is a bit less opaque:

“an  infinite verb form normally identical in English with the first person singular that performs certain functions of a noun and at the same time displays certain characteristics (as association with objects and adverbial modifiers) of a verb and is used with to  (as in to err is human, I asked him to go)…”

It is significant that Webster says the infinitive “is used with to”, which suggests that, in common with the Indo-European pattern, the infinitive in English is a single word even if its status as infinitive is generally marked by the word to.  For example, Latin and Greek infinitives are a single word, but so they are also in French and German.  So, to run is currere in Latin, correr in Spanish,  courir in French, trexo in Greek and laufen in German.

In English, where to is separated from the infinitive form of the verb, the result is called a split infinitive.  But it is fairly clear that to is not part of the infinitive at all.  Putting to one side Webster’s definition of infinitive, Oxford English: A Guide to the Language (1986) says :

“The split infinitive is the name given to the separation of to from the infinitive by means of an adverb…” (emphasis added)

The OED sheds some light on the matter in its entry for the word to as preposition, conjunction and adverb.  It’s a long entry: about 24,000 words.  At about the 13,000 word mark, it says “to before an infinitive”, which clearly suggests that to is not part of the infinitive.

By convention, where an infinitive is preceded by to, there is  typically no word between to and the infinitive. So, to go boldly is generally thought to be better English than to boldly go. In ordinary usage, the second form is referred to as a split infinitive.  But the “rule”which dictates that infinitives should not be split emerged very late, and seems to be based on the observation that, in languages like Latin, the infinitive was never split (because it was a single word, and could not be split).

In 1834 a letter to the editor of the New England Magazine declared that infinitives should not be split.  The author was identified only as “P”.  The writer declared that split infinitives were only used by “uneducated persons” and in “newspapers where the editors have not had the advantage of a good education.”

In 2004, the Cambridge Guide to English Usage repeated the rule in modified form: “Don’t split an infinitive if the result is an inelegant sentence”.

Given that the “rule” was only proposed (or invented) in 1834, it is not surprising that it was ignored by most English writers.  Shakespeare did it a lot.  In 1931 a study found split infinitives in English literature from every century: beginning with the fourteenth-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and including William Tyndale, Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, John Donne, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others.

Because the notion of not separating to from the infinitive has been entrenched in the language for almost 200 years, care needs to be taken.  Even arbitrary rules can gain a veneer of significance by virtue of longevity.  Fowler recognised this.

He begins his article on split infinitives this way:

“The English-speaking world may be divided into

  1. Those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is;
  2. Those who do not know, but care very much;
  3. Those who know and condemn;
  4. Those who know and approve;
  5. Those who know and distinguish”

He then analyses each group, and comments that

“Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority & are a happy folk to be envied by the minority classes; ‘to really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’, they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), & they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.”

As for the second group (those who do not know, but care very much) “who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive”.  Fowler comments that “These people betray by their praactice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others…”

As to the fifth group (those who know and distinguish), Fowler clearly includes himself in this group and notes: “We maintain, however, that a real s. i., though not desirable in itself, if preferable to either of two other things, to real ambiguity, & to patent artificiality”

So to go boldly is probably better grammar than to boldly go because, even though they convey identical meanings, the Star Trek version draws attention to itself: just as a diner would if they were to hold their knife in the left hand and their fork in the right hand.

See how conventions ossify into rules.

A Bit About Words: Scrabble

Summer holidays open the way to all sorts of pastimes.  Scrabble is a favourite family game, and it now infests the internet in the form of a game called Words with Friends.  It is a seductive little app for the iPad which looks like Scrabble, but has its bonus squares arranged differently, presumably for patent or copyright reasons.

Having been lured into the torments of both games, I was powerfully reminded of two things.  First, Scrabble has nothing to do with an interest in words, any more than Sudoku is about mathematics.  Scrabble it is all about tactics and point-scoring; same for Words with Friends.

The second thing is that English has an astounding array of obscure words.  Most people with an interest in language know this, but we are rarely reminded of the fact so forcefully as when pitted against a Scrabble opponent whose only objective is to guess their way through every possible permutation of their letters.

Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an American architect, Alfred Butts.  Ten years later James Brunot bought the rights to the game in exchange for a royalty on every copy sold.  Butts (or his estate) must have done well out of it: about 150 million copies of the game have been sold, and versions of it exist in 29 different languages.

Since the key objective of Scrabble is to get the best score from even the most unpromising letters, the dedicated player naturally resorts to some very odd words.  For a person who enjoys words, the only pleasure in this is to discover for the first time some of the weirdest fauna in the jungle of English.

Collins Scrabble Dictionary is the instrument by which this dubious activity is put to the test.  It presents itself as authoritative, and conscientiously displays the trademark TM symbol every time it uses the word ScrabbleTM. It contains every word said to be a legitimate Scrabble word, and gives very brief definitions.

So, Amorance is defined as the “condition of being in love”.  OED 2 does not recognise the word.  Neither does Webster’s 3rd edition.  The 3rd edition of Webster is the most interesting, but was highly controversial when it was published in 1961 because it moved from prescriptive to descriptive.  Earlier editions had declared what words mean; the 3rd edition instead acknowledged the meaning attributed to words by actual people, nodding to the essentially democratic nature of language.  From the 3rd edition, Webster accepted that words mean what we agree them to mean.

Apparently the Collins people have taken this process one stage further, to the point of acknowledging words which no one uses, no one recognises and which neither the Oxford nor the Webster has come across. Words however which are a useful expedient for Scrabble fanatics.

Camisa is defined as “a smock”, which actually makes sense (cf French chemise) and is recognised by Webster 3rd, but OED 2 again stands aloof: the nearest hit in OED 2 is camisado, which it defines as “A night attack; originally one in which the attacking party wore shirts over their armour as a means of mutual recognition”, which is obviously connected to camisa, and is quite useful to know, because the added do means an extra three points.

Daud is shown in Collins and also in OED 2 and Webster 3rd.  But Collins defines it as “a lump or chunk of something”, whereas OED 2 and Webster 3rd both define it as a dialectical variant of dad.  As a father, I was troubled by the thought that I might be described as a lump or chunk.  But both OED 2 and Webster 3rd tell you that the dad which can also be rendered as daud is a verb, and means “to shake with knocking or beating”.  Neither of my preferred dictionaries acknowledges daud as a noun.

Ervil is defined as “a type of vetch”.  Vetch is defined as “a climbing plant with a beanlike fruit used as fodder”.  OED2 does not recognise ervil, although its entry for vetch agrees with the Collins.  And for devotees of Scrabble, vetchy is also legitimate: “Composed of, abounding in, vetches”.

Whoever uses jeelie, , or maungy?  Certainly not the compilers of OED 2 or Webster.  And who recalls mackle (a blur in printing)?  Who knew that an omov is a system of “one person, one vote”?  Only in desperation is it necessary to know that oot is Scottish dialectical for out – not the preposition out, but the obsolete form of ought/aught.  And even if you knew that, it is astonishing to learn that the Collins permits an apparent plural: oots.  That is odd because it is not a noun, and not even the verb ought with some idiomatic conjugation. It is a misspelling of ort, which is a variant of ord, which is an obsolete word meaning either “beginning”, or “the pointy end of something”.  Sadly, the Collins does not take us on this ramble through obsolete Scottish arcana: oots cross-refers to oot, which cross-refers to out, which it defines as “denoting movement or distance away from”: the standard preposition.  Now it is true that the Collins confines itself to one volume, so it is necessarily Spartan in its explanations.  But its (indirect) definition of oots is not only confusing, it is plainly wrong: I never before met a preposition which took a plural.

Frug is a word I was blissfully innocent of, and likewise fugle.  I probably should have known frug: it is a dance which had a brief appearance in the 1960s, but dancing was not really my thing.  To fugle is to act the part of the fugleman: “A soldier especially expert and well drilled, formerly placed in front of a regiment or company as an example or model to the others in their exercises”.  Clearly useful words, at least for a person playing Scrabble.  Nearby, the Collins has fugly.  OED 2 recognises this also, and helpfully explains that it was originally Australian military slang and means, as most of us know, “a very ugly person”.  The Collins agrees, but editorializes: “offensive word for very ugly”.  Webster 3rd adopts a frosty silence: it does not recognise fugly at all.

Collins makes arch observations about some words, noting several words as “taboo words” but nevertheless allowing them to be played.  In this regard, its standards look a little old-fashioned (in contrast to its racy willingness to allow all manner of doubtful words into play).  While it defines arsehole (and asshole), bugger and bloody without comment or criticism, it baulks at shit as “taboo”, and likewise a few other easily predictable words.  This delicacy extends to forfex, which it defines modestly as “a pair of pincers, esp the terminal appendages of an earwig”.  OED 2 is a little less oblique: “A pair of anal organs, which open or shut transversely, and cross each other”.  While both the entomological and etymological enlightenment is interesting, for a Scrabble player it is a terrific word because F is worth 4 points and X is worth 8 points.

And this is the problem with Scrabble: it is all too easy to lose interest in what the words mean and become concerned principally for their value.  A player interested in words will strive to recognise available words in the tiles on their rack, and feel pleased to discover outside (8) or aunties (7) or suited (7) in their jumble of letters.  How disappointing then that short words like zax (19 – variant of sax: a tool for cutting slates) or coxy (16 – variant of cocksy: self-important, saucy) or zoa (12 – plural of zoon: an organism scientifically regarded as a complete animal) or oyez (16; at least we all know that one) are worth much more than the cleverly selected words. And when the skilled player manages to place high value letters on a double- or triple- letter square, the difference is magnified.

I plan to avoid the lure of Scrabble this Summer.  I no longer want to spend idle time being seduced into a frenzy of debasing the language by trying to maximise the score.  Too soon, and not surprisingly, the score for each word becomes the object of the game.

Scrabble is not a game for people keen on words: it is a game for people keen on winning.  That is probably why so many lawyers love it.  But don’t play it with the 20 volume Oxford at your elbow: it is far too limited.

Analogies

The Washington Post held a contest in which high school teachers sent in the “worst” analogies they’d encountered in grading their students’ papers.  Analogies, similes, metaphors…they just keep getting worse.

  1. Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre.
  2. He was as tall as a 6′3″ tree.
  3. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had it two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.
  4. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7.00 pm instead of 7.30.
  5. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
  6. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.
  7. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
  8. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.
  9. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
  10. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.
  11. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock,like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.
  12. The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.
  13. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.
  14. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.
  15. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience,like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.
  16. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6.36 pm traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4.19 pm at a speed of 35 mph.
  17. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.
  18. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.
  19. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
  20. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.
  21. They lived in a typical suburban neighbourhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.
  22. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River .
  23. Even in his last years, Grand pappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.
  24. He felt like he was being hunted down like a dog, in a place that hunts dogs, I suppose.
  25. She was as easy as the TV Guide crossword.
  26. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
  27. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.
  28. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
  29. “Oh, Jason, take me!” she panted, her breasts heaving like a college freshman on $1-a-beer night.
  30. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
  31. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

32 . He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

  1. The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the period after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.
  2. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.
  3. Her date was pleasant enough, but she knew that if her life was a movie this guy would be buried in the credits as something like “Second Tall Man.”
  4. The thunder was ominous-sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.
  5. The red brick wall was the colour of a brick-red Crayola crayon.
  6. She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from screen doors and would fly up whenever you banged th e door open again.
  7. Her pants fit her like a glove, well, maybe more like a mitten, actually.
  8. Fishing is like waiting for something that does not happen very often.
  9. They were as good friends as the people on “Friends.”
  10. Oooo, he smells bad, she thought, as bad as Calvin Klein’s Obsession would smell if it were called Enema and was made from spoiled Spamburgers instead of natural floral fragrances.
  11. The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.
  12. He was as bald as one of the Three Stooges, either Curly or Larry, you know, the one who goes woo woo woo.
  13. The sardines were packed as tight as the coach section of a 747.
  14. Her eyes were shining like two marbles that someone dropped in mucus and then held up to catch the light.
  15. The baseball player stepped out of the box and spit like a fountain statue of a Greek god that scratches itself a lot and spits brown, rusty tobacco water and refuses to sign autographs for all the little Greek kids unless they pay him lots of drachmas.
  16. I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for,like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either.
  17. She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can’t sing worth a damn.
  18. Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
  19. It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.
  20. Bob was as perplexed as a hacker who means to access T:flow.quid55328.com.aaakk/ch@ung but gets T:\flw.quidaaakk/ch@ung by mistake.
  21. You know how in “Rocky” he prepares for the fight by punching sides of raw beef? Well, yesterday it was as cold as that meat locker he was in.
  22. The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an> oscillating electric fan set on medium.
  23. Her lips were red and full, like tubes of blood drawn by an in attentive phlebotomist.
  24. The sunset displayed rich, spectacular hues like a .jpeg file at 10 percent cyan, 10 percent magenta, 60 percent yellow and 10> percent black.

 

A Bit About Words: Punctuation

Punctuation holds only limited interest for most people, but it makes reading easier and it makes it easier to convey precisely the sense intended.  It has been defined as “The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.”

Punctuation can be vital in understanding a sentence.  Sir Roger Casement was tried for treason in 1916.  The prosecution was brought under the Statute of Treasons (1351).  Punctuation did not exist back then.  The relevant provision was in Norman French, but its English translation reads:

“If a man do levy war against our said Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the enemies of our Lord the King in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”

What Casement had done was done entirely outside England.  The question of interpretation can be shortly stated:  is it treason to adhere outside the realm to the King’s enemies?  In other words, do the words or elsewhere qualify only the words which immediately precede them, or do they qualify the entire phrase be adherent to the enemies of our Lord the King in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm?  The question was: if it had been punctuated, where would the comma have been?  Casement was famously said to have been hanged by a comma.

Punctuation can be important.

And there is a story about the House of Commons: one Honourable member had referred to another Honourable member as a liar.  The Speaker ordered him to apologise.  He said: “I called the Honourable gentleman a liar it is true and I am sorry for it.  He may provide his own punctuation.”

These days, there are commonly thought to be 12 punctuation marks, apart from spaces: full stop, comma, semicolon, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, dash, hyphen, brackets, apostrophe, and quotation marks.  To this I would add the ellipsis.

The first and second editions of Fowler’s Modern English Usage do not have an entry for punctuation, but rather an entry for stops, and a separate entry for ellipsis.

The Americans allow 13 punctuation marks: period (they do not call that terminal dot a full stop), comma, semicolon, colon, question mark, exclamation point, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, apostrophe, and quotation marks.  A couple of these involve only the slightest distinctions, and one is a unique Americanism: where we say open brackets  or close brackets the Americans say paren (short for parentheses).  And we tend not to distinguish between (round brackets) and [square brackets].  For Americans and typesetters (these words are in parentheses), [whereas these words are in brackets] and {these words are in braces}.

Punctuation is useful, and tolerably well-understood, but one punctuation mark, the ellipsis, has an interesting history.   The ellipsis is the little row of 3 dots which tell you that the sentence could go further, and that there is more than has been revealed.  Confusingly, it sounds awfully like an ellipse, which is the slightly squashed form of a circle.  In fact, they come from the same origins.

A conic section is the result of a plane intersecting a cone. In Euclidean geometry there are four conic sections: the parabola, the hyperbola, the circle and the ellipse.  Each of these is an important shape in Euclidean geometry.  Which conic section you get depends on precisely how the plane intersects the cone: if it cuts at an angle which hits the base of the cone short of the centre, the result is a hyperbola.  If it cuts at an angle which hits the base of the cone past the centre, the result is a parabola.  If it cuts horizontally through the cone, the result is a circle; but if it cuts at an angle right through the cone, the result is an ellipse.  The diagram below illustrates it well:

Incidentally, although the diagram does not illustrate it, if a plane cuts vertically down the axis, the resulting section is a triangle, but this is self-evident, trivial and not very useful.

So, the ellipse is the shape you get when a cone is cut off at an angle.  And the ellipsis is a punctuation mark which shows that the sentence has been cut off before it was complete.

Not many people know what the row of dots is called, and most of those who know it is an ellipsis are probably unaware that they are reaching into Euclidean geometry when they use it.

The most commonly used punctuation marks are the full stop, the comma, the question mark and (although some don’t like it) the exclamation mark.

Martin Speckter died on 14 February 1988.  He was an advertising executive during the heyday of advertising and, in 1962, he recognised a gap in the available punctuation marks.  Consider some of the extremes of print advertising:

  • What the…??!!
  • You can get that stain out!??
  • What are you going to do with that?!
  • Don’t you agree that we need a new punctuation mark?!!

And so on, endlessly.  They are all propositions in print which are, in form, questions but which are intended to be delivered with such intensity or enthusiasm that an exclamation mark is called for.  And advertising is the field where intense, enthusiastic questions are common.

Speckter decided that a new punctuation mark was needed, which combined the functions of the question mark and the exclamation mark.  The result was the interrobang, which looked like this:

Most of us have notionally used an interrobang in conversation:

“What the…” makes perfect sense with an interrobang as punctuation.

For a time the interrobang interested enough people that it was set in various fonts (including Arial, Calibri, Courier, Helvetica and Palatino.  Remington even released a typewriter which (for an added fee) included a key for the interrobang.  Sadly, the interrobang faded into obscurity before laptop computers became widespread so, although computer fonts are almost endless, and incorporating a new punctuation mark is fairly straight-forward, computer keyboards do not provide an interrobang, even though they provide parentheses, brackets and braces.

That said, if you are using a MS Word on a PC, and choose the Wingdings 2 font, the tilde key gives you this:

Fowler’s 3rd edition treats the ampersand as a punctuation mark.  It has an entry for punctuation, which refers the reader to entries on various punctuation marks, and to an entry on the ampersand.  Impossible! How can it do that?  Unlike the interrobang, the ampersand is found on all modern keyboards, and looks like this: &.  It is not found in Johnson’s dictionary, because it was introduced into English in the early 19th century.  It was widely used (and perhaps popularised) by Fowler, especially in his Modern English Usage, where it is used frequently in place of the word and.  It is an aphetic form of and per se and.  It is a nice irony that Fowler popularised the use of the ampersand, but did not treat it as a punctuation mark, but his 3rd edition (which is much less entertaining than the 1st and 2nd editions) appears to elevate the ampersand to the ranks of punctuation.

And what of marks like the tilde ~, the diaresis (two dots over the second in a pair of vowels, to indicate that they should be separately sounded: Noël)?  The diaresis is often confused with, but should be distinguished from, the German umlaut (two very short strokes above a, o or u which alter the pronunciation of those letters exactly as if the letter is followed by an e).  Along with the cedilla and the familiar accents found in French: acute, grave, circumflex, these are the diacritics: marks which change the way some letters are sounded.

But the ampersand does not perform the normal functions of a punctuation mark or of a diacritic.  Neither does the ubiquitous at sign, @, or the hash sign, #, both of which marks are found on modern keyboards and have rocketed to prominence thanks to social media such as Twitter.  The ampersand is also fairly common on Twitter, because it is one character in place of three.  That can make a difference.

I don’t often disagree with Fowler, but I have trouble thinking of the ampersand as a punctuation mark.  And it is clearly not a diacritic.  I would group it with @ and #, but we need a collective noun for them.  Given their prominence on social media, how about swishtags?

All modern dictionaries have an entry for ampersand, but very few have an entry for interrobang: The OED does not have it; The New Oxford does not have it;  Webster’s first to third editions do not have it; The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary does not have it.  But it is found in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (2nd edition, 1966), and in the American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition, 2000), which is a relief, because I had begun to think I imagined it!

A Bit About Words: Dead

It is hard to imagine that we do not all fully understand the word dead.

It may come as a surprise then to discover that the OED2 entry for dead occupies 14 columns in volume IV and comprises about 12,000 words.  Of course, that quantity is largely made up of quotations, but for all that it is an impressive amount of learning for an apparently straight-forward word.  The principal entry for dead (as adjective, noun and adverb) is followed by entries for various composites such as dead-beat, dead-centre and dead drunk.

The OED2 entry for dead focuses on its principal use as an adjective: describing a person or thing which had once been alive but is no longer.  But this sense allows a number of shades of meaning and includes the following:

  • dead to the world: unconscious or fast asleep;
  • dead from the neck up: brainless, stupid;
  • of species which have become extinct, notably in the idiom dead as a dodo;
  • of things (practices, feelings, etc.): No longer in existence, or in use; extinct, obsolete, perished.  For example, dead languages; or love is dead.
  • of inanimate things: e.g.
    • dead place: 1712 Le Blond’s Gardening “It is more difficult to make Plants grow in Gaps and dead Places, than in a new Spot.”;
    • dead weight,
    • dead angle:  “any angle of a fortification, the ground before which is unseen, and therefore undefended from the parapet”,
    • dead rent: “a fixed rent which remains as a constant and unvarying charge upon a mining concession, etc.”
  • Similarly, dead embers, dead acoustics.

It is interesting to see how a word which is generally thought to be the flipside of life can be applied to things which never lived and never could.

Dead as a herring dates back to the late 17th century, was a minor vogue in the mid-18th century, but its use has fallen away in the past hundred years or so.  It makes little sense.   At the time the expression was in more common use, the North Sea was referred to as the Herring Pond and was abundantly stocked .  Even today the herring stocks in the North Sea, although depleted, are recovering.

According to Funk, it means very dead.  All fish smell bad a while after they are dead.  Apparently herring start to smell sooner, and worse, than other dead fish (I cannot vouch for this) so a dead herring smells extremely dead.

Perhaps because dead can apply so broadly, it has spawned a large number of idiomatic expressions.  Some of these are obvious metaphorical uses of the word.  Dead drunk is understandable once dead to the world is understood, although it might just be an example of dead as an intensifier.  Dead wicket is as easily understood as dead acoustics.

Similarly, for a horse to run dead is easily understood.

Some other idiomatic expressions are much less obvious, for example: dead broke, dead centre, dead keen, dead right, dead certain.  Here the connection with death has for all practical purposes vanished, and dead is used simply as an intensifier.  Likewise dead beat in its original sense meant utterly exhausted (1821).  Later it came to be used as a noun, deadbeat,  meaning a worthless idler who sponges on his friends (1863), and in Australian slang a person who is down on his luck (1898).  But originally, dead beat was another example of dead being used simply as an intensifier, with no reference to death.

The use of dead as an intensifier stands interestingly against dead as a herring, where it is the herring which intensifies the effect of death rather than the reverse.

In this use, it goes back a long way.  Thomas Nashe, a 16th century pamphleteer, in Almond for Parrat wrote in 1589: “Oh he is olde dogge at expounding, and deade sure at a Catechisme.”  (Parrat was an alternative spelling for parrot.  By a nice historical symmetry, dead as a parrot is one of the best known recent idioms for “completely dead”.  It was used in the Monty Python show first screened on 7 December 1969 and is very widely recognised, although the OED2 remains conspicuously silent on the subject.)

Dead as a doornail is another idiom which is far from obvious.  It also goes back a long way.  In 1680 Otway wrote in Caius Marius: “As dead as a Herring, Stock-fish, or Door-nail.” It has curious origins.  In times before bank safes and sophisticated domestic security existed, solid doors were an essential part of front line defence of hearth and home.  Back then, doors were very strongly made, typically a solid timber frame with solid timber panels attached.  The various pieces were typically nailed together.  To make it more difficult to break through the door, the nails used were longer than the combined thickness of the frame and panels together, so they protruded through to the opposite side.  The protruding end of the nail would then be hammered over flat, making it virtually impossible to pull the nail out and correspondingly difficult to break the door apart.  Many old buildings have doors made this way, and one glance makes it clear that this was a very strong door.

But once the protruding end of the nail had been hammered flat, the nail could not be re-used: it was, metaphorically, dead.  Dead as a doornail is the idiom which resulted.

Dead reckoning is another use of dead which has nothing to do with death.  It is a means of reckoning your present position at sea (or more dangerously, in the air) by starting with a previously known position and calculating subsequent speed and direction while adjusting for known wind, currents and other forces which might affect your progress.  It is done without reference to observable fixed points such as stars or landmarks.  It is a pretty rough and ready way of calculating position, and is subject to all manner of errors.  One theory has it that it is really ded reckoning, for deduced reckoning.  This stands awkwardly with the fact that it has been spelled dead reckoning since about 1587, and is referred to in Moby Dick (1851) and in Walden by Thoreau (1854).

The OED2, which gives 1613 as the earliest use, defines dead reckoning as “The estimation of a ship’s position from the distance run by the log and the courses steered by the compass, with corrections for current, leeway, etc., but without astronomical observations” but it does not venture any theory about how it came to be so called.  Perhaps it is mute testament to the danger of proceeding that way: at sea, and especially in the air, if you run the risk of calculating your position wrongly you may end up dead.

Most of these uses are dead as an adjective: qualifying a noun. But in its use as an intensifier, dead is used as an adverb, qualifying an adjective: dead lucky, dead centre, etc.  These uses as different parts of speech pass almost unnoticed.

It can also be used as a noun: and is so used in such familiar expressions as bury the dead, loud enough to wake the dead, etc. and, less familiar, in the US slang on the dead meaning in deadly earnest.

But dead can also be used as a verb, and when so used it strikes the ear very oddly.  Most of us have hear Bluebottle in the Goon show complaining that someone has “deaded me”.  That usage sounds plain wrong, but it dates back to the 14th century.  It can be used intransitively:

  • Chaucer “Al my felynge gan to dede.”   (1384)
  • Bacon “Iron, as soon as it is out of the Fire, deadeth straight-ways.” (1626)
  • Fuller “Their loyalty flatteth and deadeth by degrees.”  (1654)

But it can also be used transitively (but only as a past participle, it seems):

  • Spenser “Our pleasant Willy..is dead..With whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded.” (1591)
  • Nashe “Tree rootes..stubbed downe to the ground, yet were they not utterly deaded.” (1594)
  • Wilson “This‥deaded the matter so, that it lost the Cause.” (1653)
  • Milligan “You rotten swine! You’ve deaded me!” (1956)

All these quotations except the last come from OED2.  The last comes from memory but it is accurate.  It is interesting to see that it sounds absurd despite having centuries of usage to support it.

In contemporary Aboriginal slang, deadly is a word used with two distinctive features.  Despite its form, it is used as an adjective not as an adverb, and its meaning is opposite of what you might imagine: it means excellent or very good, and thus parallels the way wicked is used in contemporary slang. The Deadlys is the name of an Award to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for outstanding achievement.

A Bit About Words: Curry

[Every few months I write an article about language for the Victorian Bar News.  The piece is called A Bit About Words.  Many of the earlier articles have been published in WordWatching, (Scribe, 2004; revised and enlarged edition: Scribe 2013).  On this blog I will publish some more recent word articles.]

I was in Sri Lanka when I began to write this essay.  With the unmistakable stamp of Dutch, Portugese and English colonial times still clear on its landscape and language, it seems natural to explore some of the ways Sri Lanka has left its mark on English.

Curry is a ubiquitous dish in Sri Lanka.  It was introduced into England in the 16th century by English explorers.  W. Phillips in 1598 wrote: “Most of their fish is eaten with rice, which they seeth in broth, which they put upon the rice, and is somewhat soure..but it tasteth well, and is called Carriel.”  And in Knox’s History of Ceylon (1681) “They..boyl [fruits] to make Carrees, to use the Portuguez word, that is somewhat to eat with and relish their Rice.”  It was not a Portugese word – it is a Tamil word – but the Portugese had it from their travels, and Knox assumed it was Portugese.  The Tamil word was kari, and the Portugese was caril, but in days before Johnson, when English orthography and the British Empire had not reached their maturity, the wrong spelling and inaccurate attribution are both understandable.

Also from Portugese is vindaloo.[1]  It comes from a Portugese dish called Carne de Vinha D’Alhos.  (The OED2 also has it as vin d’alho). Whatever spelling you prefer, it was Portugese for “wine and garlic”.  The vin(h) bit is wine, obviously enough.  But the English garlic is unrelated to its romance counterparts: French ail, Spanish ajo, Italian alio and Portugese alho.  Although garlic was, for a long time, foreign to English cooking, the word garlic comes from an Old Engish root gare + leek and is thought to correspond to the Norse geirlauk.  Perhaps because it is so closely associated with the Mediterranean, the Esperanto for garlic is ajlo.  And the botanical name of the plant is Allium sativum.  Although garlic crept into Indian and Sri Lankan through the Portugese influence of vindaloo, it did not get to Indonesia, where garlic is called bawang putih.

We have quite a few words from Tamil,  including anaconda (“having killed an elephant”); cheroot, conjee, coolie, mulligatawny (“pepper water”), pariah, popadam and teak.  Strangely, we have very few words directly from Sinhalese.  The only familiar ones are beri  beri  (from Sinhalese beri meaning weakness) and tourmaline, and it has to be conceded that tourmaline is not all that familiar, although it has the edge on chena (a form of shifting cultivation in Sri Lanka) and dissava (a governor of a district of Ceylon) and punatoo (the preserved pulp of the fruit of the palmyra palm).

Tourmaline is a brittle pyro-electric mineral which occurs in crystals.  It is a complex silico-borate with a vitreous lustre, it comes in black (schorl), and also blue (indicolite), red (rubellite), and green.  Sometimes it is colourless.  It also occurs in various rich transparent or semi-transparent forms and is used as a semi-precious gemstone.

However Sri Lanka has left an indelible mark in our language, in a quite unexpected way.  Known since ancient times the island, which sits as a tear-drop below India, was originally called Taprobane.  Later it was called Serendip, then Ceylon and now Sri Lanka.  In 1557 Michele Tramezzino published a book titled “Peregrinaggio di Tre Giovani Figlivoi del Re di Serendippo”  (which translates in English as “Wanderings of Three Young Sons of the King of Serendip”.  It was later translated into French and German, and from the French into English (in 1722), although it was not translated directly into English until 1965.  The book told the exploits of three princes whose success in exotic adventures owed much to chance, although in the original stories, the princes show powers of deduction which would have impressed Sherlock Holmes.

Having read the 1722  translation, Horace Walpole (son of prime minister Robert Walpole) coined the word serendipity and referred to it in a letter on 28 January 1854 addressed to Horace Mann, George II’s envoy in Florence.  He wrote “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.”   In the letter, he went on to explain how he coined the word.  “I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand serendipity? …”

It is a mark of Walpole’s standing (then) as a writer that he could create a new word, in a private letter, and that word was later embedded in the language.  But the OED notes that the word was not much used until the 20th century, and it does not record an instance of its use until 1880, so Walpole probably did not realize that he had left a permanent mark on the English language.  It is a mark of Walpole’s standing (now) as a writer that serendipity is remembered while his novels are all but forgotten.

In the collected edition of Notes & Queries: For Readers, Collectors and Librarians Edward Solly wrote that Walpole had coined the word as referring to a particular kind of cleverness.  He gave a more accurate account of it in 1878 and defined it as “the discovery of things which the finder was not in search of”. In 1880  Solly refined the thought when he wrote: “The inquirer was at fault, and it was not till some weeks later, when by the aid of Serendipity, as Horace Walpole called it—that is, looking for one thing and finding another—that the explanation was accidentally found.”  This quotation is given in the OED, but not the comments from 1875 and 1878.

It is notable that serendipity  came to be used with increasing frequency in the 20th century: by 1958, it had been used in print about 135 times; during the 1990s it was used in newspapers about 13,000 times.  It is thoroughly familiar now, although its meaning has been degraded so that it is now used as a synonym for chance or accident.

And from Serendip we also have serendibite, a boro-silicate of aluminium, calcium, and magnesium, found as bluish triclinic crystals.  It was first found (presumably while looking for something else) in Ceylon and was revealed to the world in an article by Prior and Kumaraswamy in Nature on 20 February 1902.  (In the manner of the times, Kumaraswamy’s name was spelled as Coomára-Swámy).

Because the English dominated Ceylon for a relatively short time (1796-1948), the language of Ceylon had much less opportunity to influence the English language.  By contrast, the long presence of the English in India (which originally included the areas that are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) presented us with a rich legacy of Hindi words. These include (among about 400 other words) such thoroughly naturalized words as: chutney, dungaree,  jungle, kedgeree and  pundit.  Less obviously, they include:

basmati (fragrant); now specifically a fragrant variety of rice;

chintz; a false plural from Hindi chint, a painted or stained calico;

choky: a lock-up, from Hindi choaki;

damn: an ancient coin of very little value; hence ‘not worth a damn’;

juggernaut: the uncouth idol of Krishna at Pūrī in Orissa, annually dragged in procession on an enormous car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have thrown themselves to be crushed;

loot: goods taken from an enemy in time of war;

mandarin: (from Hindi mantri: a generic name for all grades of Chinese officials; there were nine ranks, each of which was distinguished by a particular kind of ‘button’;

phut: broken down (it sounds a bit old fashioned nowadays, but it’s still understood);

pukka: proper or correct in behaviour, socially acceptable;

punch: the drink traditionally made from five ingredients, from Hindi panj meaning five.  This derivation is treated by the Oxford as contentious (see the OED2, vol XII, p. 835). I prefer to accept the side which attributes it to the Hindi origin.  Dr Johnson accepts that origin without hesitation.  He asserts that “Punch is an Indian word expressing the number of ingredients”.  He lists five ingredients.  I am with Johnson on this.

shampoo: to shampoo originally meant to press or massage, and became more general in meaning, so now to subject (the scalp) to washing and rubbing with soap, etc.;

thug (originally thuggee): one of an association of professional robbers and murderers in India, who strangled their victims; and

veranda.  This has mixed origins.  It is from India, where it is found in Hindi varanda, Bengali (and modern Sanskrit) baranda.   Parallel constructions are found in Portugese and Spanish varanda /baranda  meaning railing, balustrade or balcony.  It is possible it was introduced into India by way of those languages.

And of course the bungalow, which generally has a verandah, is a corruption of the Hindustani bangla: belonging to Bengal.

[1] I am indebted to Sally Bodman for this little nugget

Remember the war poets on Remembrance Day

Lest we forget.

The first World War produced remarkable poetry.  In earlier times, war poetry tended to valourise war.  Not so between 1914-1918.

The lacerating poetry of the First World War showed just how powerfully the truth can be told.  Wilfred Owen in particular, and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, showed how poetry can strip away the protective layers of delusion which protect us from the truth of what we do.

Good poetry sees the world in ways which are invisible to most of us – until we read the poems.  By doing that, it can smuggle uncomfortable ideas into complacent minds.

Wilfred Owen died just a week before the Armistice. Only four of his poems had been published.  In 1937, Siegfried Sassoon persuaded a publisher to publish a book of Owen’s poetry.  Two years later the second World War started.  It was a predictable consequence of the Treaty of Versailles: the Treaty had impoverished Germany; the misery experienced in Germany made it possible for Hitler to take power in 1933; Hitler made himself popular by blaming all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and he poisoned the public attitude to Jews by vilifying them grotesquely.

Something similar is happening across the Western world today: Muslims are the target these days.  Muslims are being vilified by people who should know better.  One person emails me regularly with anti-Islamic rants.  In one email he contrasts the Christian teaching “Love thy neighbour” with his assertion that the Koran preaches violence and hatred.  Apparently he thinks that Muslims are not our “neighbour”, despite Christian teaching.

He has even urged that Australia should create concentration camps and put all Muslims in them; and he has suggested strafing refugees in their boats.  It is the thinking of a person who has forgotten.  He has forgotten not only the core teaching of the Christian religion which he appears to espouse.  He has forgotten where hatred and vilification lead to.

Lest we forget, as that person has forgotten.

Here are a couple of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Coffee, croissants and crusades

12 September 1683 is the date on which the Ottoman siege of Vienna ended.

In 1683, Vienna was struggling to survive a siege by the Ottoman Turks.  A Pole named Kolscitzky, who was learned in Turkish, came to their rescue.  He escaped through enemy lines to reach the Duke of Lorraine, who hurried to relieve the city.  The Turks were repelled and Vienna was saved.  Kolscitzky became very popular and famous.  He persuaded a baker to produce a sweet bread roll in celebration of Vienna’s victory over the Turks.  It was shaped like the crescent on the Turkish flag.  We call them croissants because at some point the French took ownership of this Polish-Austrian idea.

Although croissant and crusade are similar words, they are not etymologically related, but there is a connection between them.  While croissade-crusade came from Latin crux (French croix),  croissant is French for crescent.

The crescent which the croissant imitates refers originally to the new moon as it grows towards the first quarter: the word comes from the Latin crescere to grow (from which we also get crescendo, and increase).  As a new moon grows it is a waxing crescent moon (a tautology); after the first quarter it is waxing gibbous (from the Latin for hump) and then full.  As the full moon declines, it is waning gibbous, then after the last quarter it is waning crescent (a contradiction in terms).

During his perilous journey, Kolscitzky had learned how to make coffee.  After the siege ended, he came by  a sack of coffee beans abandoned by the retreating Turks.  He was the only person in Vienna who knew what coffee beans were for.  He opened a café which quickly became famous for the drink and popular for its croissants.  He served the coffee with milk and honey, a precursor of the style now known as Vienna coffee.  Although the French stole the croissant, they had the good sense to leave Vienna coffee to the Viennese.

 

Peter Porter: a seminar

SEMINAR:  A POET’S ARCHIVE

Peter Porter’s Creative Legacy
The National Library is proud to be the custodian of the personal archive of poet Peter Porter. From first drafts to page proofs, from notes to correspondence, the collection reveals the life of an Australian poet in London and is a treasure trove for research.
Join Porter’s family and friends for a day celebrating his legacy in all its diversity, and for a glimpse of the richness the archive offers.
For full program details, visit nla.gov.au/event/a-poets-archive
Supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust
Friday 29 July, 9.30 am–5 pm
Theatre, $25 (includes collection viewing and light refreshments)
Book here or 02 6262 1111

National Library of Australia, Parkes Place, Canberra ACT 2600

An index to this blog (alphabetical order)

#hushtag
A Blunt Assessment
A Brief Account Of Australias Offshore Detention Regime
A Christmas Letter From Manus
A Classic Rant Against Peter Dutton
A Letter To Minister Dutton From A Refugee Advocate
A New Account Of The Ways We Manage To Mistreat Asylum Seekers. Read This And Blush
A Plea From Manus
A Proposed New Refugee Policy For Australia
Accomodation For Refugees
Ai Weiwei
An Alternative To Offshore Detention
An Angel Visits Malcolm Turnbull
And More Bad Goings On At Manus
Australias Offshore Torture Regime
Befriend A Child In Detention
Benaud Piano Trio Seeking Sponsor For Composition
Bigotry And Terrorism In More Than 140 Characters
Border Force
Border Force Cracking Down At Mita In Victoria
Calling Boat People Illegal Is A Lie
Cash For People Smugglers
Conditions In Immigration Detention Deteriorating
Corruption On Nauru Your Taxes At Work
Cruelty In Australias Offshore Detention Camps
Data Retention Legislation Act Now Before Its Too Late
Detainees In Manus Island Face Grim Prospects
Detention Australian Style
Detention Is Torture
Detention On Manus Illegal Supreme Court
Deterrents And Disincentives
Dutton On The Rampage
Fact Checking Pauline Hanson
Fare Go Report Rethinking Public Transport
From The Big Bang To The Present In 12 Months
Gillian Triggs, John Basikbasik, And Politicians Who Play God
Guards Conduct In Nauru Getting Worse
Haitch Or Aitch
Hal Wootten Lecture 2015 The Bludgeoning Of Chance
Islamophobia Rampant
Kate Durhams Speech At The Opening Of Home Here And Now
Keep The Arts Alive At Fortyfive
Let Them Stay
Lets Get Labor To Tell The Truth About Refugees
Letter From Manus
Letter From Manus
Letters To Nauru Now The Department Lies Again
Lnp Only Pretends To Be Compassionate
Magna Carta, 800 Years On
Manus
Manus Island: What Will It Take To Shock Us
Manus: An Emotional Rant
Manus: Bad And Getting Worse
Mistreatment Of Refugee Brought From Nauru For Treatment
Mohammad Albederee Update
More Bad News From Manus
More Bigotry From Sonya Kruger
More Horrors At Mita
More Misery Christmas On Christmas Island
More Mistreatment On Manus
Mourning And Weeping From Hell
Myki: Authorised Officers Behaving Badly
New Get Up Campaign To Get Dutton Out
News From Australias Gulags
News From Nauru
No Kindness For Mojgan
Norfolk Island
Not In My Name
Offshore By Madeline Gleeson
Rebranding The Nation
Refugees In Terror On Nauru
Refugees Write To Png Supreme Court
Remembering Refugees As Christmas Approaches
Schrödingers Refugees
Solitary Confinement In Manus Detention
Stopping The Boats Doesnt Stop The Deaths
Strip Searched In Lygon St
Strip Searches On Nauru
Supporting Human Rights Or What Is Left Of Them
Thailand Prosecutes Phuketwan Journalists
The Australian Border Force Act Labors Role
The Australian Border Force Act: Trying To Silence Health Workers
The Australian Now Quotes Twitter
The Border Force Hits Town: Operation Fortitude
The Drowning Argument
The Drowning Excuse
The Election
The Impact Of Cuts To Art Funding
Threatening Our Way Of Life
Tim Wintons Palm Sunday Plea: Start The Soul Searching Australia
Tom Ballard
Tom Ballard Writes About Refugee Stories
Tony Abbott Is A Bully Over Un Convention Against Torture
Turnbull Posing As Compassionate
Two New Projects Which Bear Witness To Mistreatment Of Asylum Seekers
Un Rapporteur Australias Treatment Of Asylum Seekers Breaches Torture Convention
Unrepresented Refugee Applicants
Update From Manus
What Manus Is Like
What Sort Of Country Are We
When People Bother To Ask Me Why I Support Refugees
Why Gag Doctors In Detention Centress What Are We Hiding
Why You Should Care
Wilson Security
Wind Farm Music Dedicated To Tony Abbott
Write To Federal Mps About Refugee Policy
Year 12 Student Taken From School And Put In Detention
Young Boy Held In Manus
Zaky Mallah, Steve Ciobo And Q & A

Haitch or Aitch?

There is an interesting discussion on the ABC about the correct way to pronounce the name of “H”,  the 8th letter of the English alphabet.  It is a long-running debate.  I recall that, as a child, I was told firmly that I should say ” aitch”  not “haitch”. The debate is much older than I am.

“I am told on good authority that in schools of a certain denomination, and in those schools only, it is pronounced invariably as haitch, an oddity I cannot explain” (Arnold Wall The Queen’s English, 1958).  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the pronunciation  aitch is hard to explain.  The pronunciation of the letter H is one of Australia’s great social shibboleths:  not just the way it is sounded as the first letter of a word, but more particularly the way the name of the letter itself is said.  Some people say haitch, others call it aitch.

Although the spirit of our times is generous, forgiving and tolerant, the choice between aitch and haitch can cause a good deal of anxiety and even hostility.  Generally speaking, haitch is used by those educated in that part of the Roman Catholic system which traces its origins to Ireland.  Aitch is preferred by the rest.  Some apostates deny their origins by abandoning haitch; but there is little traffic in the other direction.  When I was a child, I was forbidden to say haitch; friends who said haitch were appalled that I ate meat on Fridays.

It is not at all surprising the issue is so confused, since the pronunciation of h, when used as the initial letter of a word, has changed significantly over the past couple of millenia.

Although nothing much is certain in matters of language these days, the prevailing view, perhaps illigocally, supports the pronunciation aitch.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives it thus, and does not recognise haitch as an alternative.  I say this is illogical, because it might be expected that the name of a letter of the alphabet would give a clue about the sound normally associated with it.  In this matter, h, w and y stand isolated from the rest of the alphabet, although the names of c, e and g represent only the lesser part of the work done by those letters.

The issue is manifested in at least 3 ways: how is the name of the letter to be said; is the h sounded or not before a vowel; does a word beginning with h accept a or an as the indefinite article?

The sound represented by H was known in the Semitic, Greek and Latin alphabets.  In the Semitic it was a laryngeal or guttural aspirate, and remained so in the Greek and Latin.  It passed from the Latin into the Germanic languages as a simple aspirate, that is, the sounded breath.  It has been variously called  ha, ahha, ache, acca, and accha.  These earlier forms of the name explain the current form, and are clearly referrable to the sound represented.

In late Latin, and in early Italian and French, the aspirate gradually ceased to be sounded.  In Italian, the h was progressively dropped in the written form of words, so that it is now absent from words which, in the French, retain it without sounding it: eretico (hérétique); istorio (histoire); oribile (horrible); osteria (hôtel).

In Anglo-Saxon speech, h was always sounded, but since the Norman conquest, the English pronunciation of words with an initial h gradually adopted the French manner: the english language has always been something of a trollop, pursuing advantage where it can.  So for hundreds of years, the h was seen but not heard in “proper” speech, at least in words which derive from the romance languages.

If the initial h of a noun or adjective is not sounded, then the word naturally takes the indefinite article an.  At least from the 11th century then, it was natural to refer to an (h)istory, an (h)otel, an (h)our, an (h)onourable woman, an (h)umble person.  The ambivalence of usage survives in words like hostler/ostler.

However, from the 18th century on, English usage began once more to aspirate the initial h.  This coincides with the arrival of the Hanoverian monarchs, whose native language had always sounded the h.  Thus words which had come into English via French began to be said with aspirated h’s, although the change was gradual and patchy.  Published in 1828, Walker’s Dictionary says that h is always sounded except in heir, heiress, honest, honesty, honour, honourable, herb, herbage, hospital, hostler, hour, humble, humour, humorous, & humorsomeSince that time, those underlined have also changed, but in the USA herb is still said with a silent hAbominable was originally abhominable at least from Wyclif’s time, and was explained as deriving from ab homine.  It lost its h in pronunciation and then in spelling, and remained unaffected by shift in the wake of the Hanoverian kings.

One of the oddest anomalies of this process is habitué, which is an unassimilated French word but which is generally spoken with a sounded h.  By contrast, an (h)abitual liar is commonly said with a silent h, although it would be odd not to sound the h in habit.  Homage is likewise anomalous

As the shift back to aspirating the h was slow and illogical, it is not surprising that it provoked uncertainty in the choice of indefinite article.  The choice is made the more difficult by a dread of dropping an aitch, which in many circles is a shocking thing if done incorrectly.  The unhappy result is such usages as: an hotel, an historic occasion, an hypothesis, an heroic effort, an hysterical outburst, &c.  If the h is sounded, the result is silly and indefensible.

The rule is simple enough: a word which begins with a vowel sound takes an; a word which begins with a consonant sound takes a.  So, an honest person, an hour, an heir,  an unusual event &c.; a hypothetical case, a historic occasion (but colloquially an ‘istoric occasion), a useful suggestion, &c.  Before initials, the choice of article depends on the way the name of the letter is sounded: a UN resolution; an S-bend, an HB pencil, an X-rated film, an MP.  But if the collection of letters is a recognized acronym, then the choice of article depends on how the acronym is said: a UNICEF official, an UNCITRAL official; a NATO resolution, a SALT meeting, a HoJo restaurant.

Postscript:

Since the publication of my article about the word fuck, I have received many comments, mostly complimentary.  That article attracted far more comment than any other I have written, which shows where the market is!  Readers will remember that I identified subagitate as the only polite word in the English language which has as its primary meaning have sexual intercourse.

However, correction comes from the least expected quarter: Robin Brett QC drew to my attention to the OED entry for swive, which reads as follows:

swive, v. Obs. or arch.

  1. trans. To have sexual connexion with, copulate with (a female). …
  2. intr. To copulate…”

I had always believed, without checking it, that swive was a slang word.  In fact it is a sturdy Old English word, related to the Old High German sweib (meaning sweep or swing). But for the fact that (apparently) its primary meaning is not gender neutral, it deserves to be ranked alongside subagitate.

Chaucer used it in The Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale and also in The Manciple’s Tale:

For all your watching, bleared is your bright eye
By one of small repute, as well is known,
Not worth, when I compare it with your own,
The value of a gnat, as I may thrive.
For on your bed your wife I saw him swive.”

Chaucer’s use of the word may not be enough to ensure its respectability.  Later in The Manciple’s Tale, the episode above is referred to again:

Masters, by this example, I do pray
You will beware and heed what I shall say:
Never tell any man, through all your life,
How that another man has humped his wife;
He’ll hate you mortally, and that’s certain.

On balance, it may still be advisable to prefer subagitate in genteel company, where clarity of meaning is traditionally subordinated to elegance.  But swive is justifiable on historical grounds, and hump will not cause too many problems, as long as you sound the h.

Apples, and a small reflection on Alan Turing

There is an astonishing number of proverbs and aphorisms which use apples as their key ingredient. A small selection of the best known would include:

  • Don’t upset the apple cart.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
  • One bad apple spoils the bunch.
  • Adam ate the apple, and our teeth still ache.
  • An apple never falls far from the tree.
  • Don’t upset the apple cart.
  • As sure as God made little apples.
  • She’s the apple of my eye
  • Apples ain’t apples.

It is hard to know why it is that apples have insinuated themselves so far into our language.

A Biblical connection is the likely explanation. It is commonly thought that, consigned to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve misbehaved by eating an apple from The Tree of Knowledge.

However that may be, the Bible offers no support at all for the idea that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree. The King James version of the Bible has only a few references to apples. They are mostly the metaphorical “apple of the eye”. So, taking them in the order of their appearance, we find:

Deuteronomy:

10 He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye.

Psalms

Psalm 17

8 Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,

Proverbs

Chapter 7

  1. Keep my commandments, and live; and my law as the apple of thine eye.

Chapter 25

  1. A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

Incidentally, apple of the eye is a reference to the pupil through which the dark retina is seen. It was once thought that the pupil was a solid, globular body.

So, Deuteronomy contains the first reference to an apple, and even then it was a reference to the pupil of the eye. The story of the Creation and the Fall appears in Genesis. Here is part of Genesis Chapter 3:

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

No mention of apples. And that is not surprising: apples are generally found in temperate climates. The books of the Old Testament were written in much warmer places, and they were written in Hebrew and Aramaic so there is scope for adjustments in translation. One view is that the Tree of Knowledge was a reference to the pomegranate tree. OED2 says apple is:

“…part of the name of a large number of fruits; as apple Punic, obs. name of the pomegranate; apple of Sodom, or Dead Sea Fruit, described by Josephus as of fair appearance externally, but dissolving, when grasped, into smoke and ashes; a ‘traveller’s tale’ supposed by some to refer to the fruit of Solanum Sodomeum (allied to the tomato), by others to the Calotropis procera

So an apple Punic is a pomegranate. Punic is a reference to Phoenecia (Carthage). The name for the Phoenecians comes from the Greek Phoinikes (‘purple people’) because of Tyrian Purple – a fabulously expensive dye for which they were famous. Incidentally, the word pomegranate (the fruit of the tree Punica Granatum) literally means apple with many seeds, so it is quite plausible that the pomegranate was the fruit originally understood as coming from the Tree of Knowledge. The pomegranate is native to Carthage.

Still, the apple now refers to a fairly specific kind of fruit and, despite its many varieties, is not readily confused with a pomegranate.

Apples were originally sold by the costermonger (originally meaning apple seller). We don’t have too many –mongers left in Australia, but the London barrow-man, who sells fruit and vegetables, still calls himself a costermonger, but the man who supplies apples (and nothing else) to the market does not. It is likely that costermonger derives from costerd, which means apple. Costerd and custard both mean apple: the so-called custard-apple is a pleonasm.

* * * *

A popular film in cinemas recently is The Imitation Game. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. If Fortune has any sense of generosity, it will fix the name of Alan Turing in the minds of millions of people who might not otherwise have heard of him.

Alan Turing was born in 1912. He was a brilliant but erratic student. He was educated at King’s College, Cambridge and at Princeton. During the Second World War he was one of the leading figures at Bletchley Park where the Germans’ Enigma Code was ultimately cracked. At Bletchley Park, Turing created the theoretical design of a programmable computing machine. As The Imitation Game illustrates, the Bletchley Park team had to use electro-mechanical devices, at a time when the most sophisticated electronic device available was the vacuum tube valve (transistors were not invented until the late 1950s; the integrated circuit was not devised until 1973).

There is a story that Turing was asked how many discrete states a computing machine would need to have. The prevailing wisdom suggested it would need 16 states. Turing thought about it overnight and came back with the answer: 2. That insight lies at the heart of the binary logic of all modern computers, which recognise just two states: one and zero; on and off.

As he wrestled with a means of encoding logical propositions in a machine, Turing recalled having read the work of George Boole (1815-1864), an English mathematician and logician. Boole had become mildly famous for a book in which he described a means of reducing logical propositions to a form of algebra. It was well-regarded in his lifetime and was soon forgotten after his death. But Turing remembered it, and used it to create the basic logic steps which lie at the heart of all computing: and, or, nand (not-and) & nor (not-or). Boole’s contribution to the area passes almost unnoticed every day, but the next time a search panel offers you a Boolean search, you will know it is a reminder of George Boole, courtesy of Alan Turing.

The received wisdom is that Turing’s work at Bletchley Park was crucial to Britain winning the war.

But Turing was gay. He had never recovered emotionally from his attachment to Christopher Morcom, a school friend he met at Sherborne, who had died in 1930. In 1952, Turing was convicted of a homosexual offence. He was not able to call in aid his extraordinary work at Bletchley Park: it was a State secret. He was offered a choice: prison, or chemical castration. He chose chemical castration, but soon regretted it. In June 1954 he committed suicide by taking cyanide. Cyanide has a very bitter taste. When his body was found, there was an apple on the bedside table. He had taken a bite out of it, apparently to dispel the taste of the cyanide.

It is widely thought that the logo of the Apple Computer is a reference to the Tree of Knowledge. That would be a fair assumption and a reasonable connection to draw. But there is an alternative which I prefer. It is thought that the Apple logo – an apple with a bite out of it – is a silent nod to Alan Turing.

I hope it is true: nothing could be more appropriate.

A BIT ABOUT WORDS – Wistful

In Innocents Abroad (1869) Mark Twain wrote:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wistful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

And in The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) Oscar Wilde wrote:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky.

Wistful is an evocative word which means ‘Expectantly or yearningly eager; mournfully expectant or longing.’ This is the current sense, and the sense both authors intended. It originally meant closely attentive, and there is still a trace of that meaning in its current sense: it could have been the principal sense intended in the quote from Mark Twain. It is thought to come from wistly, meaning intently, but was influenced by wishful, which plausibly accounts for its currently accepted meaning.

Wistful conveys its subtle meaning well, as this poignant passage from The Phoenix by DH Lawrence shows:

“The very first copy of The White Peacock that was ever sent out, I put into my mother’s hands when she was dying. She looked at the outside, and then at the title-page, and then at me, with darkening eyes. And though she loved me so much, I think she doubted whether it could be much of a book, since no one more important than I had written it. Somewhere, in the helpless privacies of her being, she had wistful respect for me. But for me in the face of the world, not much.”

Wistful is one of almost 1400 words which end with the suffix –ful. The word so formed may be a noun (cupful, handful, mouthful, roomful etc) and generally signifies a quantity of something. Alternatively the word created may be an adjective signifying full of … or characterised by… the thing to which the suffix is added. So, cheerful, doubtful, faithful and hopeful all suggest that the subject is filled with cheer, doubt, faith or hope. Lawful, restful, sinful and youthful suggest that the subject is characterised by or associated with law, rest, sin or youth. (Incidentally, the spelling with a single l at the end of each word is accepted by the OED).

The suffix –ful has a counterpart suffix: –less. Almost half of the words ending with –ful have corresponding words ending with –less. Not surprisingly, –less generally signifies lacking. So careless, flavourless and purposeless denote lack of care, flavour and purpose.

Although many –ful words have corresponding –less words, they do not necessarily have opposite meanings, although they may do. So, the following pairs are familiar opposites: careful-careless; colourful-colourless; fearful-fearless; graceful-graceless; harmful-harmless;  meaningful-meaningless; powerful-powerless; shameful-shameless; tactful-tactless; thoughtful-thoughtless.

On the other hand, the following pairs are recognisable and in common use, but they are by no means opposites: armful-armless; eyeful-eyeless; gutful-gutless; handful-handless; helpful-helpless; roomful-roomless; skinful-skinless.

Many –ful words which survive in regular use have –less equivalents which are now obsolete. Why one should survive and the other not is one of the many mysteries of our language. We use awful frequently. Its equivalent awless, meaning ‘without dread, fearless’, has not been used since the late 19th century.

Bashful has a perfectly useful twin: bashless – meaning ‘unabashed, shameless, unblushing’ – but it has not been used since Elizabethan times.

It is not difficult to see why boastless, fanciless, grateless, mistrustless, regretless, resentless and successless have faded away, because they are difficult to say and probably not useful (but not altogether useless), while their counterparts boastful, fanciful, grateful, mistrustful, regretful, resentful and successful continue to flourish.

And wistful also has its opposite: wistless, but it has not been seen in print since 1814. That was in Cary’s translation of Dante’s Paradise:

“One, moiling, lay tangled in net of sensual delight;
And one to wistless indolence resigned”.

So used, it seems perfectly apt. In 1795 Southey wrote, in Joan of Arc,

“I held it, and, wistless what I did,
half from the sheath drew the well-temper’d blade”.

In both, the sense is of carelessness or inattention, and so appears to be the counterpart of the earlier meaning of wist. Incidentally, wist is itself a backformation from wistly (‘attentively, intently’). Nevertheless, wistful has survived, but Iand wistless has not. It is the more surprising because wistlessness is common. Think: driver with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a mobile phone, talking or texting as he drives through an intersection. Think: shop assistant slowly finishing a personal call as the queue of irritated customers lengthens… Wistless is a good word and a useful one.

Similar in sound and sense, but opposite in fortunes, is listless: ‘Characterized by unwillingness to move, act, or make any exertion; marked by languid indifference as to what goes on’. Its counterpart clearly has a useful place, but listful does not survive. It means ‘attentive or willing to listen’.

While useful words like wistless and listful exist but are not used, other examples of the form exist which, to be brutally frank, are just a waste of space. How many people need words like fiftyless (‘not 50 years old’), frounceless (‘without a frounce’), lichless (‘without a dead body’), or – and this is fair dinkum – Rolls-Royceless (‘devoid of Rolls-Royces’)?

And from the –ful side of the ledger, who needs: batful (‘fertile in pasture’), behoveful (‘necessary’), blindful (‘blind’) or breithful (‘violent, wrathful’).

In the wonderful wasteful ways of English, these many words have been conjured into being and, for want of use or beauty they have faded away. They disappear because they are fizenless (‘wanting substance, strength’), or because trying to remember them is beswinkful (‘toilsome’).

[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]

 

A BIT ABOUT WORDS-Cutting Through

In an earlier essay I drew attention to several strange gaps in the Oxford English Dictionary. And I do mean the 20 volume work, with over 600,000 entries. Strange that there could be any gaps in it. But one of the gaps is philtrum. It is the vertical groove from the nose to the upper lip. It is part of the natural topology of shaving, or applying lipstick. Philtrum does not appear as a headword in the OED or in Johnson. However you will find it in Nathaniel Bailey’s English Dictionary (1742) and in the 2nd edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language. Other American dictionaries recognise it.
It does however appear in the OED, but only indirectly. In the entry for dysmorphic, a quotation is given from the 1997 Journal of Medical Genetics “Her face appeared mildly dysmorphic with a large forehead, short philtrum, and bushy eyebrows.” Clearly a reference to the thing we are discussing.
But it gets another look in. The entry for philtre includes a passing reference to philtrum, although it does not make much sense. Philtre is defined as “A potion or drug (rarely, a charm of other kind) supposed to be capable of exciting sexual love”, with supporting quotations from 1587 to 1858. But a second meaning is given, supported by two quotations:

“1653 R. Sanders Physiogn. 278 A mole on the philtrum or hollow of the upper lip, under the nostrils.”
“1706 Phillips, Philter or Philtrum.‥ Among some Anatomists, it is taken for the Hollow that divides the upper Lip.”

This meaning is said to be obsolete, but that can’t be right because Bailey recognises it, and it has been used increasingly since the early 1900s in reference to the facial feature, not in reference to love potions.
But more than this striking gap in the OED’s coverage is the quotation from Phillips. How odd to rely on anatomists for reference to the philtrum: the philtrum can be seen plainly on the face without any further examination; but anatomists see things by cutting them.
Anatomy means cutting up, dissection. Its root is Greek tom meaning cut. An atom is something which cannot be cut into smaller parts (that’s what people thought at any rate when the atom was named). The OED puts it well. It defines atom this way: “A hypothetical body, so infinitely small as to be incapable of further division; and thus held to be one of the ultimate particles of matter, by the concourse of which, according to Leucippus and Democritus, the universe was formed.” It was used this way from the 15th century, well before the inner complexities of the atom had been discovered. (JJ Thompson discovered the electron as a component of the atom in 1897; Rutherford found the proton in about 1909, and the neutron was not discovered until 1932, by James Chadwick). Since then, these apparently fundamental, indivisible components of the supposedly indivisible atom have themselves been found to be a fantastic mix of other bits and pieces: quarks, hadrons, gluons, bosons and so-ons.
So the atom is not an atom at all, strictly, but the name has stuck. The root is found in many places:

Anatomy: literally, cutting through.
colostomy: cutting an artificial opening into the colon through the abdominal wall.
dichotomy: division of a whole into two parts.
lobotomy: incision into (especially) the frontal lobe of the brain, in the treatment of mental illness.

And in surgery, countless other –ectomies in which things are cut out. Most familiar is the appendicectomy: cutting out the appendix or, as the OED magnificently has it “Excision of the vermiform appendix of the cæcum” (Note that it is a syllable longer than appendectomy, which is an Americanism not favoured by the Australian medical profession). The familiar CAT scan is Computer Aided Tomography: that is, ‘cutting’ the body by taking computer-processed X-rays to produce tomographic images or ‘slices’ of particular parts of the body.
Similarly, from the same root we have:

epitome: an abridgment of a work, extraction of its principal features.
microtome: in medicine, an instrument for cutting extremely thin sections for microscopic work.
tome: a volume of a (written) work. The original idea was that the whole work was cut into several tomes. And just in case you need it, a hecatontome is a collection of a hundred tomes. Oddly, a monotome is a work comprising a single volume. Although the word has been around since the 19th century, it is rarely used, perhaps because it makes no sense. If it is a tome, it should be a slice of a larger work.

Until I began researching this essay I had not been terribly excited about the absence of philtrum from the OED, but I have become quite worked up about it. On any view it is passing strange that the word which describes a visible thing common to all 7 billion people on earth, which is neither embarrassing nor indecent, should be denied its place in the Oxford sun. Its absence is, as Mark Antony said “the most unkindest cut of all”. (He was not talking about circumcision).
The unkindness is magnified when you have regard to the number of utterly useless words which bask complacently in the OED. For example, words which have the hecato– prefix to describe a hundred utterly pointless things. Hecatologue: a code of a hundred rules; hecatomb: on offering of a hundred oxen (terribly useful these days); hecatomped: an area one hundred feet square; hecatonstylon: a building having one hundred pylons; hecatontarchy: government by a hundred rulers; and hecatophyllous: having leaves consisting each of a hundred leaflets.
And let’s not oblive (= forget) those other space-wasting words which have the prefix sesqui-to signify one and a half of something. How often have you had to resist the temptation to use sesquialter: Proportionate to another object as 1½ is to 1; or sesquiduple to express the meaning ‘two and a half’; or sesquipedal: a foot and a half long (44.1 cm); or sesquiplane: a biplane having one wing of surface area not more than half that of the other; but I suppose we will have to keep sesquiplicate if only because its definition is so wonderfully obscure: “Bearing or involving the ratio of the square roots of the cubes of the terms of a certain ratio”. (Actually, the definition of syzygy when used as an expression in mathematics is better: “A group of rational integral functions so related that, on their being severally multiplied by other rational integral functions, the sum of the products vanishes identically; also, the relation between such functions”).
Philtrum has to go into the OED. If space is a problem, I think there is a case to be argued for dumping some of these words, but if removing any of them to make way for philtrum seems like too great a sacrifice, we might just ditch heptaglottologie, that is, a treatise concerning seven languages.

[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]

A BIT ABOUT WORDS – Scrabble

Summer holidays open the way to all sorts of pastimes. Scrabble is a favourite family game, and it now infests the internet in the form of a game called Words with Friends. It is a seductive little app for the iPad, which looks like Scrabble, but has its bonus squares arranged differently, presumably for patent or copyright reasons.
Having been lured into the torments of both games, I was powerfully reminded of two things. First, Scrabble has nothing to do with an interest in words, any more than Sudoku is about mathematics. Scrabble it is all about tactics and point-scoring; same for Words with Friends.
The second thing is that English has an astounding array of obscure words. Most people with an interest in language know this, but we are rarely reminded of the fact so forcefully as when pitted against a Scrabble opponent whose only objective is to guess their way through every possible permutation of their letters.
Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an American architect, Alfred Butts. Ten years later James Brunot bought the rights to the game in exchange for a royalty on every copy sold. Butts (or his estate) must have done well out of it: about 150 million copies of the game have been sold, and versions of it exist in 29 different languages.
Since the key objective of Scrabble is to get the best score from even the most unpromising letters, the dedicated player naturally resorts to some very odd words. For a person who enjoys words, the only pleasure in this is to discover for the first time some of the weirdest fauna in the jungle of English.
Collins Scrabble Dictionary is the instrument by which this dubious activity is put to the test. It presents itself as authoritative, and conscientiously displays the trademark TM symbol every time it uses the word ScrabbleTM. It contains every word said to be a legitimate Scrabble word, and gives very brief definitions.
So, amorance is defined as the “condition of being in love”. OED 2 does not recognise the word. Neither does Webster’s 3rd edition. The 3rd edition of Webster is the most interesting, but was highly controversial when it was published in 1961 because it moved from prescriptive to descriptive. Earlier editions had declared what words mean; the 3rd edition instead acknowledged the meaning attributed to words by actual people, nodding to the essentially democratic nature of language. From the 3rd edition, Webster accepted that words mean what we agree them to mean.
Apparently the Collins people have taken this process one stage further, to the point of acknowledging words which no one uses, no one recognises and which neither the Oxford nor the Webster has come across. Words however which are a useful expedient for Scrabble fanatics.
Camisa is defined as “a smock”, which actually makes sense (cf French chemise) and is recognised by Webster 3rd, but OED 2 again stands aloof: the nearest hit in OED 2 is camisado, which it defines as “A night attack; originally one in which the attacking party wore shirts over their armour as a means of mutual recognition”, which is obviously connected to camisa, and is quite useful to know, because the added do means an extra three points.
Daud is shown in Collins and also in OED 2 and Webster 3rd. But Collins defines it as “a lump or chunk of something”, whereas OED 2 and Webster 3rd both define it as a dialectical variant of dad. As a father, I was troubled by the thought that I might be described as a lump or chunk. But both OED 2 and Webster 3rd tell you that the dad which can also be rendered as daud is a verb, and means “to shake with knocking or beating”. Neither of my preferred dictionaries acknowledges daud as a noun.
Ervil is defined as “a type of vetch”. Vetch is defined as “a climbing plant with a beanlike fruit used as fodder”. OED2 does not recognise ervil, although its entry for vetch agrees with the Collins. And for devotees of Scrabble, vetchy is also legitimate: “Composed of, abounding in, vetches”.
Whoever uses jeelie, or maungy? Certainly not the compilers of OED 2 or Webster. And who recalls mackle (a blur in printing)? Who knew that an omov is a system of “one person, one vote” (I suppose it was originally the sexist “one man, one vote”)? Only in desperation is it necessary to know that oot is Scottish dialectical for out – not the preposition out, but the obsolete form of ought/aught. And even if you knew that, it is astonishing to learn that the Collins permits an apparent plural: oots. That is odd because it is not a noun, and not even the verb ought with some idiomatic conjugation. It is a misspelling of ort, which is a variant of ord, which is an obsolete word meaning either “beginning”, or “the pointy end of something”. Sadly, the Collins does not take us on this ramble through obsolete Scottish arcana: oots cross-refers to oot, which cross-refers to out, which it defines as “denoting movement or distance away from”: the standard preposition. Now it is true that the Collins confines itself to one volume, so it is necessarily Spartan in its explanations. But its (indirect) definition of oots is not only confusing, it is plainly wrong: I never before met a preposition which took a plural.
Frug is a word I was blissfully innocent of, and likewise fugle. I probably should have known frug: it is a dance which had a brief appearance in the 1960s, but dancing was not really my thing. To fugle is to act the part of the fugleman: “A soldier especially expert and well drilled, formerly placed in front of a regiment or company as an example or model to the others in their exercises”. Clearly useful words, at least for a person playing Scrabble. Nearby, the Collins has fugly. OED 2 recognises this also, and helpfully explains that it was originally Australian military slang and means, as most of us know, “a very ugly person”. The Collins agrees, but editorializes: “offensive word for very ugly”. Webster 3rd adopts a frosty silence: it does not recognise fugly at all.
Collins makes arch observations about some words, noting several words as “taboo words” but nevertheless allowing them to be played. In this regard, its standards look a little old-fashioned (in contrast to its racy willingness to allow all manner of doubtful words into play). While it defines arsehole (and asshole), bugger and bloody without comment or criticism, it baulks at shit as “taboo”, and likewise a few other easily predictable words. This delicacy extends to forfex, which it defines modestly as “a pair of pincers, esp the terminal appendages of an earwig”. OED 2 is a little less oblique: “A pair of anal organs, which open or shut transversely, and cross each other”. While both the entomological and etymological enlightenment is interesting, for a Scrabble player it is a terrific word because F is worth 4 points and X is worth 8 points.
And this is the problem with Scrabble: it is all too easy to lose interest in what the words mean and become concerned principally with their value. A player interested in words will strive to recognise available words in the tiles on their rack, and feel pleased to discover outside (8) or aunties (7) or suited (7) in their jumble of letters. How disappointing then that short words like zax (19 – variant of sax: a tool for cutting slates) or coxy (16 – variant of cocksy: self-important, saucy) or zoa (12 – plural of zoon: an organism scientifically regarded as a complete animal) or oyez (16; at least we all know that one) are worth much more than the cleverly selected words. And when the skilled player manages to place high value letters on a double- or triple- letter square, the difference is magnified.
I plan to avoid the lure of Scrabble this Summer. I no longer want to spend idle time being seduced into a frenzy of debasing the language by trying to maximise the score. Too soon, and not surprisingly, the score for each word becomes the object of the game.
Scrabble is not a game for people keen on words: it is a game for people keen on winning. That is probably why so many lawyers love it. But don’t play it with the 20 volume Oxford at your elbow: it is far too limited.

[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]