Language cranks, hail-fellow-well-met

August 16, 2014

I have two new posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

First up, Why heed the language cranks? continues a recent theme:

People who are inclined to be intolerant of others find in language usage ample grist to their mill. Though English has a broad and accommodating variety of styles to suit a range of occasions and preferences, sticklers favour a very formal mode of the language – usually the version they were taught in school – and they advocate it in all contexts. This is as inappropriate, even as silly, as telling everyone to wear formal dress all the time.

I would happily ignore the usage cranks if they weren’t routinely given significant platforms from which to air their prejudicial misconceptions. This publicity helps them tap into widespread uncertainty about what grammar is and how language works.

You can read the rest here.


Hail-phrase-well-met looks at a curious old phrase, hail fellow well met, to establish what exactly it means and where it might have come from:

Macmillan Dictionary, which hyphenates the phrase, says hail-fellow-well-met is an adjective that means ‘behaving in a very friendly way that is annoying or does not seem sincere’. So it packs quite a lot of nuance into a few familiar, if unpredictably arranged, words, usually indicating not so much a certain amount of social intimacy as an assumption or display of too much of it. It may be an extension of the shorter phrase hail-fellow (also Hail, fellow!, etc.), which the OED notes was both a greeting and a descriptive expression used in a range of constructions. The second part, Well met, was also a greeting: roughly ‘it’s good that we’ve met’, according to World Wide Words.

Sometimes, too, the phrase carries no negative connotations. For examples and further discussion, pop over to Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

For older articles you can browse the archive.

The curses and adjectives of Luis Buñuel

June 24, 2014

This week I read My Last Breath, the autobiography of one of my favourite filmmakers, Luis Buñuel. Mischievous, opinionated, and full of eye-opening anecdotes from his long and frankly surreal life, it also has a couple of passages on matters linguistic that may be of general interest.

First, on the importance of choosing a good name, in this case for artistic works:

In my search for titles, I’ve always tried to follow the old surrealist trick of finding a totally unexpected word or group of words which opens up a new perspective on a painting or book. This strategy is obvious in titles like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or, and even The Exterminating Angel. While we were working on this screenplay [The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie], however, we never once thought about the word “bourgeoisie.” On the last day at the Parador in Toledo, the day de Gaulle died, we were desperate; I came up with A bas Lénin, ou la Vierge à l’écurie (Down with Lenin, or The Virgin in the Manger). Finally, someone suggested Le Charme de la bourgeoisie; but Carrière [Jean-Claude, screenwriter] pointed out that we needed an adjective, so after sifting through what seemed like thousands of them, we finally stumbled upon “discreet.” Suddenly the film took on a different shape altogether, even a different point of view. It was truly a marvelous discovery.

The next passage concerns an incident during the Spanish Civil War. Buñuel has left Madrid for Geneva on the instruction of the Republican minister for foreign affairs, but he is warned en route that his identification papers will not get him past the border. Sure enough, a panel of “three somber-faced anarchists” halt his passage: You can’t cross here, they tell him. Buñuel has other ideas:

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Adjectives, danglers, and wretchedness

January 10, 2014

In Wretched Writing: A Compendium of Crimes Against the English Language (Perigee, 2013), compiled by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras, I encountered the following remarkable passage showing the overuse of adjectives. It’s by Pel Torro, aka Lionel Fanthorpe, from his 1968 story Galaxy 666:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. Here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.

Rather than “wretched”, I would say it’s deliberately over the top, done for humorous effect. Extravagant repetition aside, the style is solid and rhetorically varied. But you can see why it’s been singled out.

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This blog post is cat melodeon

December 3, 2013

A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say ‘It’s cat’ and that sums it up.

Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:

Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.

Bernie is later reported as saying, ‘it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place’ (i.e., rats); and ‘it was cat, the things some of them expected’ (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised  ‘left in an awful state’, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)

Browsing the popular Irish web forum for examples, I found the following things described as ‘cat’: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.

The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally ‘sea cat’ and ‘dead cat’, respectively, but meaning ‘mischief’ or ‘calamity’?

Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon ‘the greatest expression in Hiberno-English’; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:

the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.

Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.

A kempt back-formation

March 14, 2013

The word unkempt (untidy, dishevelled, slovenly, uncombed) is common enough, but kempt (tidy, neatly kept, combed) is much less so. I’m not sure why: it is itself a neat word, expressive and economical. Here’s an example from Denis Johnson’s great war novel Tree of Smoke:

At this point Jimmy Storm took notice of a patron sitting down to another table, a rather tall young Asian woman, prepossessing, strikingly kempt, sheathed in a glamour of silk . . .

And one from Sara Baume’s engrossing Spill Simmer Falter Wither:

His hands were so humanlike, his nails exquisitely kempt, much more so than my own.

Most sources say kempt is a back-formation from unkempt, which has been around for centuries. In Middle English unkempt took the form unkemd – from un– + kembed (or kempt), past participle of kemb “to comb”. Comb gradually replaced kemb except in isolated dialectal use.

Scythian combWe find kemb in Chaucer: “His longe hair was kembed behind his back.” In Old English it was cemban; the American Heritage Dictionary says this is derived from the Germanic form *kambaz, originating in the Indo-European root gembh– “tooth, nail”.

Jack Winter’s comical essay How I Met My Wife is full of unusual and improbable words created by removing negative prefixes, and sure enough he makes use of kempt: “Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.” Various poems exploit the same terrain.

But kempt, as we’ve seen, can also be used with a straight face; contemporary examples may be browsed at Wordnik, many of them in the compound adjective well-kempt:

On the whole, she was not much cleaner or any better kempt than the ragamuffin boy. (Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uprising)

With his thick gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and aviator glasses, he looked like a well-kempt Jerry Garcia. (Paul Elie, ‘The Velvet Reformation’)

[Image shows a Scythian comb, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I think its handle is a metaphor for knotty hair.]

The power of understatement compels you!

September 10, 2009

Old newspapers and magazines provide great material for collages, but before I begin snipping I read any articles that appeal to me. Lately I was leafing through an Observer magazine from March when I saw an interview with the actor Michelle Williams, whom I like. (She adorned the cover too, so the article was not a complete surprise.)

So I began reading, and before long I encountered some strange adverbial usage. The first example appears in the second line:

She is unassumingly small, pretty rather than stunning…

If we ignore the shallowness of these observations and agree that unassuming means not assuming, modest, without pretensions, what does “unassumingly small” mean? That is to say, how does unassuming qualify small? It seems an ungainly and illogical combination. “Unassuming and small” would have made sense. Why adverbialise unassuming? If it is because small can seem blunt without a flattering modifier, I suggest “unassuming and petite”. Or am I missing something?

A few lines later, at the end of the first paragraph, there is a comparable example:

Yet she has received a great deal of attention […] and very little of it for her compellingly understated screen work.

Now, I could almost be persuaded to allow “unassumingly small” – though as an editor I would question it and suggest alternatives – but I would require thorough brainwashing to be persuaded by “compellingly understated”.

Williams’s screen work may be compelling, and it may also be understated, but to describe as compelling the degree to which it is understated is an involution too far for me. I would bet that not even film reviewers are compelled by the understatement of an actor’s performance. At least, not habitually.

It’s also possible that I am being excessively fussy about this. I would welcome the case for the defence. In the meantime, I have to wonder why these phrases were written. Was it out of stubborn aversion to certain uses of the word “and”? Adherence to some other obscure non-rule? I’m stumped.