A morsel of logic

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog I’ve been writing about etymology and Lewis Carroll.

Etymology bites back traces the connections between the words morsel, remorse, and mordant – all of which carry the sense of biting, to a more or less explicit degree:

[The] common word remorse, as you may now guess, literally means to bite back, from re- added to our Latin friend mordere. We might not be accustomed to thinking of remorse as a metaphor, but in a broad sense it is – like depend it tucks a physical idea into an abstract one. Remorse is the feeling of our conscience gnawing at us. There was also once a verb remord, meaning ‘feel remorse’, ‘afflict with remorse’, etc., but it is archaic and hasn’t been in popular use for centuries.

* * *

Language, logic, and Lewis Carroll begins a series of monthly posts celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865. It looks at the relative importance of logic in different types of English, and at the uses to which authors may put this variation:

Grammatical agreement is observed much more strictly in standard and formal varieties of English than in casual speech or non-standard dialects. Authors may exploit this to convey certain facts about a character or sociolinguistic context. . . .

Lewis Carroll did this too. In his short story ‘Eligible Apartments’ he uses non-standard dialogue liberally: ‘Here you has them on the premises’ (instead of have), ‘So we grows them ourselves’ (instead of grow), and ‘It do scratch, but not without you pulls its whiskers’ (do instead of does; pulls instead of pull).

Comments are welcome, and older articles can be seen in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive


13 Responses to A morsel of logic

  1. stuartnz says:

    Seeing “Etymology” and “Lewis Carroll” on the same page always makes me smile, thinking of his piece on the New Belfry of Christ Church. I laughed out loud when I read it as a teen and still smile at it 30 years later.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s an amusing piece! ‘Meat-safe’ indeed.

    • astraya says:

      Until I checked, I had always vaguely assumed that ‘belfry’ was related to ‘bell’. In churches I’ve been associated with, we have always said ‘bell tower’ or just ‘tower’, so I have never actually used the word a lot.

      • Stan Carey says:

        From my post on folk etymology:

        Foreign words are a common source of folk etymologies. Belfry came from Old French berfrei, the ensuing ‘l’ forms being reinforced by association with bells.

      • astraya says:

        I remember one episode of Inspector Morse in which he briefly expounded on the origin of his surname (I can’t remember the details). I have just finished a lesson as a substitute teacher in which the students had to read about ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. I told them that my great-great-grandparents lived on the moors, which is true but coincidental, because the surname Morris and the geographical feature moor have different origins. As it turns out, my Morris ancestors lived in Shrewsbury (as far as we have been able to trace them); the ancestors who lived on the moors had a completely different surname.

      • stuartnz says:

        Carroll’s introduction was entirely humorous – the etymology he gives is of his own invention. :)

  2. Pauntley Roope says:

    Marvellous connection, which I had not made before, between your etymology of ‘remorse’ and the ‘agenbite of inwit’ – Stephen Dedalus’ scholastic term for remorse – in ‘Ulysses’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well spotted. Given Joyce’s attachment to Skeat’s etymological dictionary, it’s fair to assume he used the phrase in full awareness of its background. I don’t know if he read the original Kentish text.

  3. Jan Freeman says:

    And what about that “without” for “unless”? (“Without you pulls its whiskers.”) Not standard for Carroll, surely?

  4. ucronin says:

    In Spanish if you want to say, for example to a misbehaving kid, “I’ll kill you”, it’s “te muerdo un ojo” — I’ll bite your eye!
    Morder = to bite.

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