‘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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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 history of English spelling reform

February 8, 2016

After the recent fuss about France dropping its circumflex (or not), I was approached by History Today to write something about spelling reform. My article, A brief history of English spelling reform, was published today.

In it I outline the various attempts made over the centuries to fix the knotty problems of English spelling – who tried, what they did and why, and how their efforts fared – while making quick forays into German and Old Icelandic and concluding with some general thoughts.

Here’s a taster:

Reports of the circumflex’s death are exaggerated, but they point to the intensity of feeling aroused by orthography – how personally we relate to something with so arbitrary a connection to meaning. Usage dictionaries reveal age-old disputes that erupt anew every day. Some of the most passionate are over spelling, which, as H.G. Wells wrote, has ‘become mixed up with moral feeling’. . . .

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Dread of the telephone

February 6, 2016

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

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Raising the question of ‘beg the question’

December 9, 2015

One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.

First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.

For instance:

Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.

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Link love: language (64)

November 28, 2015

A recurring series asks, ‘Will you still read me, will you still tweet me, when I’m sixty-four?’ I hope at least that you find a few items of interest in this batch of language-related links from recent weeks.

The story of Ogham.

On holding one’s head.

Oliver Sacks and the OED.

A 17thC irony mark, revived.

A short guide to Hindi profanity.

On the use of mate in Australian English.

A survey of spoken Irish in the Aran Islands.

Who were the first people ever recorded in writing?

Finding new language for ‘unmanned’ space missions.

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Cutthroat compounds in English morphology

April 28, 2015

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:

Bizarro Comics by Dan Piraro - water truck fire truck

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise, lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentric compounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head – both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, a killjoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat, rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

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