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.


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