A Bit About Words: How Words Change

The process of change in language includes the drift of meaning, the invention of new words, and the obsolescence of existing words.  It is interesting to survey a list of words once disparaged by the arbiters of language as “not proper English words”.  In 1818, Dr Todd published the first revised edition of Johnson’s Dictionary.  It was the first edition of the Dictionary which had not been supervised by Johnson himself.  It draws on an annotated folio edition which had been owned by Horne Tooke, the politician and pamphleteer.  Tooke had compiled a list of words found in Johnson’s Dictionary, which he regarded as “false English”.  This list is reproduced in the Todd edition.  It includes such curiosities as abditive, acatalectic, conjobble, dorture and warhable.

However, it also includes justiciable, fragile, mandible, mobile, cognitive and horticulture.  How the fortunes of words can vary!

Most of the words which perish, disappear leaving no trace except in the dictionaries.  Some others leave a reminder of their former existence, in a variant modified by a prefix or a suffix.  Gruesome, noisome and cumbersome are all in daily use.  Oddly enough, grue, noy and cumber all existed once but have fallen from use.  To grue is to feel terror or horror, to shudder, tremble or quake.  To cumber is to overwhelm or rout;  also to harass, distress or trouble.  To noy is to trouble, vex or harass;  it is an aphetic form of annoy.

Many words which still bear their original meaning take a form which has drifted from the original.  The corruption of form is generally due to difficulty of pronunciation coupled with frequent use, or confusion of an unfamiliar term with a similar but familiar term.

One of the commonest forms of corruption is aphesis: “The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word ” [OED2]

Cute is an aphetic form of acute; longshore is the truncated form of alongshore.  This explains the American usage longshoreman for our stevedore.  Stevedore is itself an aphetic adaptation of the Spanish estivador, which drives from estivar: to stow a cargo.

Likewise, sample is an aphetic form of examplebackward is an aphetic form of abackward; and vanguard was once avauntguard, from which avantguard also derives.

Ninny is an aphetic and abbreviated form of an innocent.  More recently, we have squire from esquire, specially for especially.  In the language of the law, several ambiguous forms survive: vow and avow; void and avoid.

The goanna was originally the iguana.  The opossum is now the possum.  However, it is difficulty of pronunciation which gives us bandicoot from the Telugu word pandi-kokku, meaning pig-rat.  (The pandi-kokku is a very large, very destructive Indian rat, the size of a cat.  Our bandicoot is a different species, but somewhat resembles the Indian rat).

The process also happens in reverse, by which the original form takes on an additional letter, typically the n from the indefinite article.  An example of this is apron which originally was a naperon.  Its connection with napery and napkin is obvious.  Equally obvious is the spoken sound of a naperon coming to be spoken as an apron.  It is odd that we do not say apkins, specially since most of us use them more often than we use aprons

Another example is orange which comes originally from the Arabic  naranj, in Persian.  narang, naring: cf. late Sanskrit. naranga, Hindi narang; and Persian. nar pomegranate.  The Italian was originally narancia but is now arancia.  The Spanish is still naranja.

That hallowed hero of the sporting arena, the umpire, used to be the numpire.  The word comes from the Old French non pair – “not equal”.  Its earliest recorded spelling in English was noumpere (so spelled in 1364, and also in Wyclif’s Bible, 1420).  The corrupted form emerged soon afterwards, and went through a variety of spellings during the next 200 years (owmpere, ovmper, ompar, umpere, vmppere, umpeer, umper, unpar, umpyer, impier, umpyre), until it stabilized on the current spelling in about the 17th century.

We have a much more recent expression of closely similar derivation: au pair.  It has not quite become naturalised in English.  It means literally on equality or on equal terms.  Its first recorded use in English dates from late last century:

1897 Girl’s Own Paper 16 Oct.  “An arrangement..frequently made is for an English girl to enter a French, German or Swiss school and teach her own language in return for joining the usual classes. This is called being au pair.”

Examples of other agents of word-corruption abound.  The Australian plonk meaning cheap wine comes from the French vin blanc, notwithstanding that it equally (or more frequently) refers to red wine or other liquor.

That great and traditional accompaniment to festive occasions in Australia, the saveloy, is a corrruption of the French cervelas:  a highly seasoned cooked and dried sausage.  We have corrupted the thing as much as we have corrupted the word which signifies it.

That fabric so loved by American tourists, seersucker is an East Indian corruption of Persian  shir o shakkar , literally ‘milk and sugar’.

The strange glow which sometimes surrounds a ship’s mast at sea is called Saint Elmo’s fire.  This is a corruption of Saint Erasmus, an Italian bishop who was martyred in 303 AD.  He was the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors.  It comes to us by way of Sant Ermo, San Telmo and Sant Helmo.

Devotees of square dancing or Nashville sounds will recognise do-si-do as one of the caller’s instructions.  It is a corruption of the French dos-à-dos and describes a figure in which two people pass around each other back to back and return to their places.

The word nickname has always seemed a curious construction.  It has been suggested that it is an invocation of the Devil (“Old Nick”).  However, that piece of folk etymology is wrong.  Originally, it was an eke-name.  To eke is to supplement; so the person who ekes out a living doing odd jobs is supplementing their other income.  It is widely misused.  An eke-name is a supplementary name.  By the 15th century, its corrupted form was emerging: the OED gives an instance from 1440, which refers to “… neke name or eke name…”

Real estate agents, who offer penthouses for sale as the very height of luxury living at the very top of a building, might be forgiven for not knowing that it was originally a lean-to or covered-in walk-way.  Penthouse combines the effects of several agents of change.  Its earlier form is pentice, which comes from Old French. apentis, apendis, from medieval Latin appendicium, “a small sacred building dependent upon a larger church”.  From that original meaning and form, it came to mean any small dwelling attached to a larger one.  In 1592 the records of the Manchester Court Leet refer to “…settinge upp a slated pentis or hovell”.  The recent development of the word may be discerned from the following quotations from OED 2nd edn:

1921 Country Life Apr. 65/1  Two of the elevators were designed to run to the roof, where a pent-house..was being built. 

1937 Sunday Dispatch 28 Feb. 2/7  You all know from American lyric writers that a pent-house is a thing stuck on a roof.  It may comprise one or two floors. 

1945 E. Waugh Brideshead Revisted i. viii. 194  They’re going to build a block of flats, and..Rex wanted to take what he called a ‘penthouse’ at the top. 

Still More about Words: Glamour

There is no more glamorous city in Australia than Sydney.  Ask anyone who lives there.  It is the prestige place to live and work and have corporate headquarters.  This annoys Perth, where the gravitational pull of ferrous metal is ever growing.  Sydney is Tinsel-town to outsiders, but its prestige never fades.

The first paragraph of this essay is unequivocally a compliment to Sydney if each word is given its current meaning, but in earlier times it would have been seen as hovering on the frontier which envy shares with malice.

Glamour  has developed oddly.  Its current meaning is almost entirely favourable, even if tinged with jealousy.  Some recent references in the Court of Appeal give a fair representation. In Chisholm v Pittwater Council & Anor [2001] NSWCA 104 the Court said:

“…During the first part of the last century, Palm Beach was regarded as the “epitome of the simple, unspoilt life”. Later, Palm Beach acquired a reputation for “glamour”, and was regarded as a ‘place for the [very] wealthy’…”

The judgment is attributed to Meagher JA, Powell JA and Ipp AJA, but that sentence bears the stamp of Meagher JA.

In Union Shipping NZ v Morgan [2002] NSWCA 124 at [114] Heydon JA, with laser-like precision, said:

“The defendant … said that all that mattered was the merit or weakness of any particular argument, quite independently of which court had employed it. Yet it was noticeable that the defendant, in its enthusiasm for particular arguments favourable to its position, constantly reminded the Court of the glamorous courts associated with them, like the United States Supreme Court, or the glamorous judicial names associated with them, like those of Jackson J and Frankfurter J, or even the glamorous academic names associated with them, like Kahn-Freund, Morris, Cheshire and North.”

Hodgson and Santow JJA agreed.

These references fairly catch the current sense of glamour, although the inverted commas around it in Chisholm suggest that the author well knew the gulf between its original and its current meaning.  It’s all Sir Walter Scott’s fault.  Glamour was originally a Scottish word meaning magic or sorcery, and its connotations were unfavourable.  Burns used it in this sense:

“Ye gipsy-gang that deal in glamor, And you deep read in hell’s black grammar, (Warlocks and witches (1789))

Bailey’s dictionary (1721) does not have an entry for glamour, and neither does Johnson’s Dictionary (1755): but Johnson notoriously disliked Scotland.  Scott is credited with introducing the word into literary use.  In Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) he wrote:

“This species of Witchcraft is well known in Scotland as the glamour, or deceptio visus, and was supposed to be a special attribute of the race of Gipsies.”

(Deceptio visus, not surprisingly, is an optical illusion).

Later in the 19th century, glamour came to signify a magical or fictitious beauty; then in the 20th century charm; attractiveness; physical allure, especially feminine beauty.  It is notable that charm is the hinge around which the shift in meaning swings, since charm can refer to an appealing character or to a magic spell.

By the middle of the 20th century the current meaning was established.  In Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path (1941) one character says:

“I’m going to pour it on with a bucket. If I can’t look like the screen’s great lover, I can at least smell like a glamour boy.”

Glamour and prestige have followed surprisingly similar trajectories.  Like glamour, the current meaning of prestige can be fairly caught in recent decisions of the Court of Appeal.  In Dawes Underwriting v Roth [2009] NSWCA 152 Macfarlan JA said:

“Dawes offers insurance for a range of high performance, prestige , vintage and classic motor vehicles.”

In Fexuto v Bosnjak Holdings [2001] NSWCA 97 Priestley JA noted that

“One element in what happened from 1988 onwards must have been Mr Jim Bosnjak’s increasing prestige in the bus industry outside the family business…”

(I wonder if it occurred to his Honour that ‘prestige in the bus industry’ was an improbable idea).  In Citibank v Papandony [2002] NSWCA 375, one term of the distributorship agreement provided:

“Distributor shall always use the Marks in such a manner as to maintain their goodwill, prestige, and reputation.”

The sense of the word is unmistakably favourable in each case.   There is no hint that, at least until the late 19th century, prestige connoted magic, trickery, or deception.  The OED offers quotations from the 17th to the 19th century in support of the original meaning an illusion; a conjuring trick; a deception, an imposture.  It comes from the Latin præstigium: a delusion, and ultimately from præstringere to bind fast, thus præstringere oculos to blindfold, hence, to dazzle the eyes.  Johnson has prestiges: “illusions, impostures, juggling tricks”.

During the 19th century, prestige acquired the secondary meaning “Blinding or dazzling influence; ‘magic’, glamour; influence or reputation”.  Supporting quotations in the OED include this from Fonblanque (1837): “The prestige of the perfection of the law was unbroken.” and this from Sir William Harcourt (1898): “People talk sometimes of prestige.‥ I am not very fond of the word. What I understand by prestige is the consideration in which nations or individuals are held by their fellows”.  It was not until the 20th century that its current sense was fully established.  So this from W. Somerset Maugham (1944): “Though she didn’t much care for [modern paintings] she thought quite rightly that they would be a prestige item in their future home.”

Prestidigitation (originally prestigiation) is a close relative of prestige, but has not moved socially.  It still means sleight of hand or legerdemain.  The first use of it noted by OED is dated 1859: the very time when prestige was beginning to shift its meaning.  It filled the gap left by its upwardly mobile relative.

And tinsel?  It’s doubtful flattery.  It originally referred to the treatment of fabric, especially satin, “Made to sparkle or glitter by the interweaving of gold or silver thread” (not bad), but later, applied to “a cheap imitation in which copper thread was used to obtain the sparkling effect” (not so good).  But the traditional Scottish meaning was worse.  In the 14th century it meant “The condition of being ‘lost’ spiritually; perdition, damnation.”  In the 15th century, as a word in Scottish law, it meant forfeiture or deprivation.  And in Bell’s Dictionary of Scottish Law (1838) there appears the entry:

Tinsel of Superiority, is a remedy‥for unentered vassals whose superiors are themselves uninfeft, and therefore cannot effectually enter them.

Glamour and prestige are examples of that exclusive club which includes obnoxious, panache, tawdry, sanction and mere.  They are words whose meanings have shifted over time (that’s common enough):  these words have changed meaning 180 degrees.  Rarer still are words which have two current meanings which are opposite.  But enough for now: I will let you figure out what they are.

A Bit More about Words: Soothsayer

“SOOTHSAYER. Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR. What man is that?
BRUTUS. A soothsayer you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR. Set him before me let me see his face.”
(Shakespeare Julius Caeser, Act I, sc. I)

Brutus subsequently dismissed the man as “a dreamer”, but he had special knowledge and a motive for putting Caesar off the scent.

The original meaning of soothsayer is literally “truth sayer”.  Sooth as a noun is an old anglo-celtic word for truth.  It has had many forms including soth, south, suth, swth, suith and soyth. From as early as 950 it is found in such works as Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospel and the Old English Chronicles.  It was also used in phrases with modern equivalents which more or less follow the old pattern:  in very sooth (in truth), sooth to say (to tell the truth), to come to sooth (to come true) and by my sooth (upon my honour).

Although the root of the word is truth, and many soothsayers made their fame and fortunes by purporting to tell the truth about the future, their predictions were often based more in optimism than reality.  They provided the template for sorcerers and politicians.  They were not the same as oracles, even if they seemed to be in the same caper: oracles were the agency through which the gods revealed their will.  They provided the template for gospellers and priests.

Soothsayers are referred to often enough in classical literature, but not so much lately.  You will find references to them in translations of Aristophanes, Herodotus, Sophocles and Thucydides, and in Homer, Plotinus, Plato and Plutarch.  Chaucer mentions a soothsayer in The Knight’s Tale; the OED2 gives quotations from a handful of other English writers up to the mid-18th century.  Rudyard Kipling refers to a soothsayer in Kim, and Washington Irving mentions one in Alambra, and makes it clear that this brand of truth teller was not to be trusted: “I would advise you, O prince, to seek that raven, for he is a soothsayer and a conjurer, and deals in the black art, for which all ravens, and especially those of Egypt, are renowned.”

The other use of sooth is the old but recognisable exclamation forsooth.  Originally, it was a genuine declaration of the truth of a statement.  Shakespeare used it this way frequently:

“Prince. How long hast thou to serve, Francis?
Fran. Forsooth, five years…”  (Henry IV, Part I)

I more incline to Somerset than York:
Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both.
As well they may upbraid me with my crown,
Because, forsooth, the King of Scots is crown’d.  (Henry IV, Part I)

SIMPLE. Ay, forsooth.
QUICKLY. Does he not wear a great round beard, like a
glover’s paring-knife?
SIMPLE. No, forsooth; he hath but a little whey face, with a
little yellow beard, a Cain-colour’d beard.
QUICKLY. A softly-sprighted man, is he not?
SIMPLE. Ay, forsooth; but he is as tall a man of his hands as
any is between this and his head; he hath fought with a  warrener.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor)

For some curious reason, Shakespeare uses forsooth much more often in Henry VI, Part II (1590) and in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598) than in any other of the 21 plays in which he uses it.

Since Shakespeare’s time forsooth has become less common.  Perhaps he wore it out.  It was used by John Locke (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689), by Tom Paine (The American Crisis, 1780), by Mark Twain (The Prince and the Pauper, 1881), several times by Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book, 1894; The Second Jungle Book, 1895; and in Kim, 1901).  Jack London used it a few times in White Fang, 1906 and once in White Heel, 1907.  And it still lives at the edge of memory as the stereotypical exclamation of low-level entertainments with pretension.

Edgar Allen Poe used it in 1832:

“‘I lie,’ forsooth! and ‘hold my tongue’ to be sure!” (Loss of Breath 1832).

It was a neat oxymoron: a self-contradictory statement.  Oxymoron is an odd word.  The moron bit is easy to guess at, but the oxy bit only evokes echoes of oxygen.  Improbable as it may seem, oxymoron and oxygen are directly linked.  The Greek root oxy- means “sharp, keen, acute, pungent, acid”.  Oxygen is so called because it was originally thought to be the essential integer in the formation of acids, and on the same pattern hydrogen is so called because of its role in creating water.  Thus oxymoron (sharp + stupid) is a word which is an example of itself.

Oxymoron’s opposite is tautology.  A tautology is a word or (more commonly) a statement which repeats itself or which involves self-referring logic.  In the TV quiz Mastermind, the following exchange occurred:

Q: What is a tautology?

A: Repeating the same thing twice.

This unwittingly impeccable answer is cited by Alex Buzo as the genesis of his entertaining book Tautology (Penguin Books, 1981).  Buzo’s note at the start of the book discloses that he had been on a campaign to eradicate tautologies from our public speech, but had failed.  The book is wonderful collection of snippets gathered during his campaign.  Until I looked at Tautologies again recently, I had forgotten that it had been a subject of general discussion and interest in the 1980s.

The OED2 defines tautology as:

“A repetition of the same statement. The repetition (esp. in the immediate context) of the same word or phrase, or of the same idea or statement in other words: usually as a fault of style.”

(A purist might think that the first part of this is itself tautologous.  A repetition of a statement is necessarily a repetition of the same statement.  Repetition of a different statement would not be repetition at all.  Perhaps within the depths of the OED staff someone is having a tiny joke).

There are two distinct forms of tautology.  One is a statement which repeats itself in different words.  Examples from Buzo’s book include “detached aloofness”, “pregnant mothers-to-be”, “wandering nomad” and “Bargain Basement downstairs”.  It is still common to hear people speak of “new innovations”.

A tautology can also involve can involve much subtler kind of repetition, where the statement involves a logical circularity.  In Dietrich’s case, Gaudron J had to deal with the question whether the expression “fair trial according to law” was a tautology.  She said that it was not:

“In most cases a trial is fair if conducted according to law, and unfair if not.  If our legal processes were perfect that would be so in every case.  But the law recognizes that sometimes, despite the best efforts of all concerned, a trial may be unfair even though conducted strictly in accordance with law.” (177 CLR at 362)

There is a substantial overlap between tautology and its less-known relative pleonasm.  The OED2 defines pleonasm as:

“The use of more words in a sentence than are necessary to express the meaning; redundancy of expression (either as a fault of style, or as a figure purposely used for special force or clearness…”

This is the fault, so common in legal drafting, that the High Court had in mind in Muir v The Open Brethren (96 CLR 166).  The court had to deal with a testamentary provision for:

“relieving cases of need and distress and in assisting persons in indigent circumstances and in particular… in assisting and relieving persons who have been or shall be adversely affected by the effects of the War in which the British Commonwealth of Nations is now engaged…”

They said:

“There is a considerable amount of tautology in the provision. The same conception of poverty is referred to by the words “need”, “distress” and “indigent”. It is hard to distinguish between “relief” in the case of “need and distress” and “assistance” in the case of indigency.”

Pleonasm would have been more accurate, but would have sent the reading public in frenzied hordes to the dictionary.  Tautology has taken the field for itself.  Pleonasm rarely finds its way into the law reports.  In R v Johnson (1991), Millhouse J referred to pleonasm as “an elegant but not often heard word”.  In Anstee v Coltis Pty Ltd (1995) Nielson J used pleonasm un-self-consciously and without explanation, but perhaps that reflects the elevated linguistic standards of the NSW Compensation Court.  In Southern Cross Interiors Pty Ltd v DCT (2001), Palmer J referred to “a surfeit of pleonasms”, which might be either a pleonasm or a tautology, depending on your attitude.   In the federal jurisdiction, pleonasm has only been used once in a judgment.  Lindsay FM, with a very delicate eye to the distinction, said:

“…the Tribunal’s characterisation of the religious violence in Nigeria as “random and sporadic” is, if not tautologous, then, at least, a pleonasm.”  (SBWD v Minister for Immigration (2007) FMCA 1156)

But the high point must surely be the decision of the NSW AAT in Re Adam Boyd Munro and Collector of Customs (NSW) (1984)

“(The draftsman) has used the three words “costs, charges and expenses”. As they are used in an Act of Parliament, we cannot assume that each is synonymous for the other. Taken together they appear to indicate that the area of money involved should be widened rather than narrowed and that a broad view should be taken of the diminution of the wealth of the importer if that is brought about with, or is in any way related to the transportation of the goods. Together the three words form a pleonasm put together for the sake of emphasis. Looked at another way, they could be regarded as a statutory hendiadys (sic).”

The tribunal no doubt intended hendiadys: “A figure of speech in which a single complex idea is expressed by two words connected by a conjunction; e.g. by two substantives with and instead of an adjective and substantive.”  Hendiadys is obscure enough that it does not rate a mention in the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), but it does appear in the second edition (1968) and the third (1996).  It is a literary device, mostly poetic, in which several words are joined by ‘and’ instead of subordinating one to the other.  Fowler gives as an example: nice and cool instead of nicely cool.  By this device, a single idea is being expressed in two words, one of which could sensibly have been used to qualify the other in order to convey the same idea.  Hendiadys is not apt to describe expressions such as might and main or whisky and soda, where the parts are of equal value (well, linguistically at least.  I would argue that whisky is the greater part of whisky and soda).  Much less is it available to describe a repetitive concatenation of words, which is just a pleonasm.

The true meaning of hendiadys was recognised by Beaumont, Wilcox and Lindgren JJ in Airservices Australia  v Monarch Airlines (1998):

“… even if s 67 is treated as analogous to a “hendiadys” (i.e. a single idea expressed in two sets of words with the conjunction “and”) …”

And it was even more accurately explained, and illustrated, by Heydon J in Victims Compensation Fund Corporation v Brown (2003):

“…hendiadys — an expression in which a single idea is conveyed by two words connected by a conjunction, like “law and heraldry” to mean “heraldic law”.”.

Forsooth.

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 more 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.  English does not provide many proper words for ideas concerning ideas, emotions or 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. And he surely is good at bloviating, even if he does not know the word.  Maybe it’s time to invent  hashtag for him: #BloviatingLusk .

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