Idries Shah on words for Sufis

January 3, 2015

Idries Shah’s 1964 book The Sufis, which I read over the holidays, has several interesting passages on language, a couple of which I quote below. The first excerpt concerns the history and use of the protean word Sufism and some of the various terms used to refer to Sufis:

Exactly how old is the word “Sufism”? There were Sufis at all times and in all countries, says the tradition. Sufis existed as such and under this name before Islam. But, if there was a name for the practitioner, there was no name for the practice. The English word “Sufism” is anglicized from the Latin, Sufismus; it was a Teutonic scholar who, as recently as 1821, coined the Latinization which is now almost naturalized into English. Before him there was the word tasawwuf – the state, practice or condition of being a Sufi. This may not seem an important point, but to the Sufis it is. It is one reason why there is no static term in use among Sufis for their cult. They call it a science, an art, a knowledge, a Way, a tribe – even by a tenth-century portmanteau term, perhaps translatable as psychoanthropology (nafsaniyyatalinsaniyyat) – but they do not call it Sufism.

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Yan tan tethera pethera pimp — an old system for counting sheep

November 27, 2013

If any lightfoot Clod Dewvale was to hold me up, dicksturping me and marauding me of my rights to my onus, yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, I’d let him have my best pair of galloper’s heels in the creamsourer.
—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Though I grew up in the countryside, I’m not of direct farming stock, which may be why I learned of ‘yan tan tethera’ only quite recently (courtesy of @vencut2 on Twitter). It’s an old counting system used traditionally by shepherds in parts of the UK, and also in knitting and fishing and so on, or by children for their own amusement.

stan carey - herd of sheep in Ireland, spring 2009 - yan tan tethera

Metheradik (=14) sheep in the west of Ireland (photo by Stan Carey)

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No discernible circumference

July 11, 2009

Earlier this year there was a minor media flurry about the English language supposedly attaining its millionth word. This (non-)event, which was dragged out for a few years, was such raiméis that I decided not to write about it at all, apart from a curt dismissal on Twitter. However, it did serve some useful purposes. For one thing, it prompted many interested parties – amateurs and academics alike – to write thoughtful criticisms. It got people writing, talking, and thinking about language. It also showed the extent of credulity or cynicism, or both, in many commercial news organisations. Shocking, I know.

I could get carried away posting hyperlinks to worthwhile criticisms of the project (or ‘publicity stunt’, if you prefer), but out of mercy for my readers I’ll limit the links to a handful, each of which I heartily recommend: Ben Zimmer, Jesse Sheidlower, Grant Barrett, Michael Covarrubias, and David Crystal, whose post attracted a response from the man behind the millionth-word shenanigans. Language Log, an outstanding linguistics blog, covered the pseudo-event in considerable detail. To one of those posts, written by Zimmer, I added a comment with an excerpt from James A. H. Murray’s introduction to the first volume of the original Oxford English Dictionary. The main purpose of this post is to repeat that excerpt here on Sentence first.

Stan Carey - James Murray OEDBefore that, though, a few words about Murray (pictured, in his Scriptorium). It is possible that no one else could have done the job he did; it is almost certain that no one could have done it so well and with such commitment to quality over haste. He embodied a rare combination of knowledge, ability, temperament and dedication that made him ideal for the job, though over its many years he had more than occasional cause to doubt his suitability for it and the probability of its eventual completion.

As well as being as great lexicographer, Murray was a polymath whose keen interests included astronomy, botany, archaeology, mathematics and geology. These interests prepared him well for the decades he spent working on the OED. They gave him expertise in a wide range of subjects, which enabled him to draw useful analogies between different disciplines. This is beautifully apparent in the excerpt below. As his granddaughter K. M. Elisabeth Murray wrote in Caught in the Web of Words, “because he never compartmentalised his interests, he never missed seeing something because he had allowed himself to become preoccupied with another line of research.”

Here is Murray’s own diagram of the structure of the English vocabulary, followed by his exceptionally lucid explanation of it.

Stan Carey - James Murray's lexical diagram

The centre is occupied by the ‘common’ words, in which literary and colloquial usage meet. ‘Scientific’ and ‘foreign’ words enter the common language mainly through literature; ‘slang’ words ascend through colloquial use; the ‘technical’ terms of crafts and processes, and the ‘dialect’ words, blend with the common language both in speech and literature. Slang also touches on one side of the technical terminology of trades and occupations, as in ‘nautical slang’, ‘Public School slang’, ‘the slang of the Stock Exchange’, and on another passes into true dialect. Dialects similarly pass into foreign languages. Scientific terminology passes on one side into purely foreign words, on another it blends with the technical vocabulary of art and manufactures. It is not possible to fix the point at which the ‘English Language’ stops, along any of these diverging lines.


The Vocabulary of a widely-diffused and highly-cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits. That vast aggregate of words and phrases which constitutes the Vocabulary of English-speaking men presents, to the mind that endeavours to grasp it as a definite whole, the aspect of one of those nebulous masses familiar to the astronomer, in which a clear and unmistakable nucleus shades off on all sides, through zones of decreasing brightness, to a dim marginal film that seems to end nowhere, but to lose itself imperceptibly in the surrounding darkness. In its constitution it may be compared to one of those natural groups of the zoologist or botanist, wherein typical species forming the characteristic nucleus of the order, are linked on every side to other species, in which the typical character is less and less distinctly apparent, till it fades away in an outer fringe of aberrant forms, which merge imperceptibly in various surrounding orders, and whose own position is ambiguous and uncertain. For the convenience of classification, the naturalist may draw the line, which bounds a class or order, outside or inside of a particular form; but Nature has drawn it nowhere. So the English Vocabulary contains a nucleus or central mass of many thousand words whose ‘Anglicity’ is unquestioned; some of them only literary, some of them only colloquial, the great majority at once literary and colloquial,- they are the Common Words of the language. But they are linked on every side with other words which are less and less entitled to this appellation, and which pertain ever more and more distinctly to the domain of local dialect, of the slang and cant of ‘sets’ and classes, of the peculiar technicalities of trades and processes, of the scientific terminology common to all civilized nations, of the actual languages of other lands and peoples. And there is absolutely no defining line in any direction: the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference.

The curious land of the ampersand

May 13, 2009

The ampersand symbol & means and, though it often implies a closer relationship than the word. So “cheese & onion and chilli” refers to two kinds of flavour: (1) cheese and onion; (2) chilli. Similarly, screenwriting credits use & to indicate a writing team and and to indicate separate contributions.

The symbol seems to be a stylised ligature of et, the Latin for and, but in its innumerable old and modern forms this ancestry is only occasionally visible.


Historical_ampersand_evolution s

According to Adobe‘s short history of the symbol, the ampersand has been in use for almost two millennia. It was popular enough to be appended to alphabets as early as the 11th century (see 3.1.1 here).

Schoolchildren later learned it by rote as an extra letter, of sorts; in the 19th century they recited “A per se A” and “I per se I” to distinguish the words A and I from the letters A and I, and concluded their alphabets with “& per se and”, which means “(the character) ‘&’ by itself (meaning) ‘and’”. Ampersand, the name by which we know & today, is a corrupt abridgement of the phrase, and first appeared in dictionaries in 1837.

The ampersand is typically used to save time and space. Formally it is commonly used in references, business names, dictionaries, television and film titles, and when addressing a couple (“Dear Mary & Michael”), but as a direct substitute for and it is otherwise generally avoided in formal prose. &c and &cetera were once used frequently for etc., but these forms are now rare and can be considered old-fashioned. H. W. Fowler used & in early editions of the pocket and concise Oxford dictionaries and throughout A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

“inversion is archaic & poetic under such circumstances, & non-inversion normal”

Ampersand curveThe ampersand was adopted as shorthand for and in formal logic, and it gave its name to a pretty curve in mathematics (see figure). It is now frequently used in computer programming, e.g. in HTML, though its very versatility has caused problems. It is even more popular in informal contexts, such as notes, diaries, letters, text messages, instant messaging, and online social networks.

Here is an interesting example of its time-saving deployment in an old informal note:

“Some of the outer slips have got torn, &’ll need mending” (Philologist Frederick Furnivall in a note to James Murray, editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, from Caught in the Web of Words, K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather.)

[Edit: And a beautiful ampersand which Sarah France arranged with bark chippings. If browsing ampersands appeals to you, there’s a Flickr pool and a blog devoted to them. Readers might also be interested in my post on the use of the Tironian et (⁊) in Ireland.]

[Image sources: 1, 2, 3]