‘Answer’, a swear in plain sight

May 23, 2016

Some familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast, the vowels disguising it well. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. Semicolon is a folk etymology of samey colon, on account of its resemblance to the other mark.

geoffrey hughes - swearing a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in englishOK, I made that one up.

I read a nice account of another such etymology in Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanities in English (1991). The book packs considerable detail, scholarly insight and amusing lists into its 280 pages, so I’ll follow its lead and keep this post short.1

In a section on ‘numinous words: charms, spells and runes’, Hughes writes:

One of the most dramatic instances of the use of a malign spell in Anglo-Saxon literature is wrought by the monster Grendel [in Beowulf].2 Described as one of the evil tribe of Cain and an enemy of the Lord, he puts a spell on the weapons of his victims, the Scyldings. The key verb in the text at this point is, fascinatingly, forsworen, literally ‘forsworn’, indicating that the verb forswerian could mean ‘to hinder by swearing; to render powerless by incantation; to make useless by magic’.

Hughes goes on to relate other examples of such word-magic from the Life of St Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Then he quotes from The Battle of Maldon and picks up the -swear- thread again:

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Book spine poem: Mice

May 19, 2016

*

Mice

White jazz in a café:
Nocturnes, still life –
The mouse and his child
Loitering with intent.

*

stan carey book spine poem mice

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James Thurber explains the New Yorker comma

May 17, 2016

James Thurber’s book The Years with Ross (1959), which recounts the early years of the New Yorker under Harold Ross’s stewardship, has much to recommend it. Thurber fans are likely to have read it already but will not object to revisiting a short passage or two, while those yet to be acquainted may be encouraged to seek it out.

james thurber - the years with ross - new yorkerRecalling dinner one spring evening in 1948, Thurber describes being mostly a spectator while Ross and H. L. Mencken hold court:

The long newspaper experience of the two men, certain of their likes and dislikes, and their high and separate talents as editors formed basis enough for an evening of conversation. They were both great talkers and good listeners, and each wore his best evening vehemence, ornamented with confident conclusions, large generalizations, and dark-blue emphases. . . .

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English Dialect Dictionary Online

May 1, 2016

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) is a monumental work by any standard. Published in six volumes from 1898–1905, with detailed entries across 4505 double-columned pages, it’s all the more impressive given that its author was largely self-taught and could not read until his mid-teens. (He described himself as ‘an idle man all my life’.)

joseph wright english dialect dictionaryAfter studying philology in Germany, Wright began his pioneering work in English dialectology, aiming in the EDD to include ‘the complete vocabulary of dialect words’ in use since 1700. The Oxford Companion to the English Language says ‘nothing of comparable breadth or depth of dialect scholarship has been published in Britain since’.

The EDD is available in various formats at the Internet Archive, but those hefty PDFs can be unwieldy. The good news – great news, for word lovers – is that the book has finally been digitised and is now free and ready to use ‘by all private people, researchers, students and amateurs’. Just accept the terms of use – respect the EDD Online’s special copyright – and away you go.

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The whole race of unreal people

April 7, 2016

Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:

Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.

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The need to name everything

March 30, 2016

The act of naming was described by Elias Canetti as ‘the great and solemn consolation of mankind’. Replace the anachronistic last noun with humankind or humanity and it fits an entry in Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues:

I have always been obsessed with naming things. If I could name them, I could know them. If I could name them, I could tame them. They could be my friends.

It’s not clear who the narrator is. Ensler says some of the monologues that constitute her book are ‘close to verbatim interviews’, some are composite, and with some she ‘just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time’.

eve ensler - the vagina monologues book coverThe unnamed naming obsessive mentions a collection of inanimate frogs she had as a child, each of which she named in a ‘splendid naming ceremony’ involving song, dance, frog noises, and excitement – though not before she had spent time with the frog, getting to know its nature. One was called ‘Froggie Doodle Mashie Pie’, so perhaps we should drop the ‘solemn’ part of Canetti’s line.

Soon, the narrator says, she ‘needed to name everything’ – rugs, doors, stairs, furniture, the flashlight (‘Ben’). Then she looked closer to home, so to speak:

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Book spine poem: A Quiet Life

February 10, 2016

Last weekend I read The Long Gaze Back, a wonderful anthology of short stories by Irish women writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson. I felt the book’s title – borrowed from Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor – could work in a book spine poem. So here it is.

[click to enlarge]

stan carey book spine poem a quiet life

A Quiet Life

A quiet life
on Chesil Beach,
loving and giving
bliss, breath, broken
words, the broken shore,
The long gaze back
under Milk Wood.
Johnny, I hardly
knew you.

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