Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

July 13, 2016

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.


As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Adverbial ‘deep’ and Shakespearean ‘do’

June 1, 2016

For my regular column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about flat adverbs and how our use of the word do has changed since Early Modern English.

I’ll start with the latter. Much ado about ‘do’ summarises the main uses of this complicated verb, then considers how modern usage compares with Shakespeare’s. Here’s a short excerpt:

Sometimes auxiliary do is inessential but included anyway. In ‘Conscience does make cowards of us all’, from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it is semantically superfluous, since the meaning of Conscience makes cowards of us all is basically the same. But do in this position was common in Shakespeare’s time, as Lane Greene notes. Nowadays it often serves to emphasise the verb following it – see sense 3 in Macmillan’s entry.


Next up: Is adverbial ‘deep’ used wrong? is a defence of flat adverbs – adverbs that look just like their associated adjectives, such as deep and wrong. The resemblance leads to some muddled thinking and misguided claims:

Read the rest of this entry »

How rare soever it may be

July 27, 2015

Muriel Spark - The Abbess of Crewe - Penguin book coverChapter 3 of Muriel Spark’s witty novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974) begins with a lingering description of an object that proves centrally significant to the story unfolding in loose parallel to Watergate, the events of which Spark satirises.

One word in one line in particular interests me, and is underlined, but the whole paragraph is a pleasure to read:

Felicity’s work-box is known as Felicity’s only because she brought it to the convent as part of her dowry. It is no mean box, being set on fine tapered legs with castors, standing two and a half feet high. The box is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and inside it has three tiers neatly set out with needles, scissors, cottons and silks in perfect compartments. Beneath all these is a false bottom lined with red watered silk, for love-letters. Many a time has Alexandra stood gazing at this box with that certain wonder of the aristocrat at the treasured toys of the bourgeoisie. ‘I fail to see what mitigation soever can be offered for that box,’ she remarked one day, in Felicity’s hearing, to the late Abbess Hildegarde who happened to be inspecting the sewing room. Hildegarde made no immediate reply, but once outside the room she said, ‘It is in poison-bad taste, but we are obliged by our vows to accept mortifications. And, after all, everything is hidden here. Nobody but ourselves can see what is beautiful and what is not.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why people misspell ‘just deserts’

August 26, 2012

The misspelt phrase just desserts appeared in a recent Businessweek article. (It’s now fixed, so here’s a screenshot; I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to alert them.) This is a common error even in careful writing, and it’s an understandable one. The correct spelling is just deserts. It means ‘what one deserves or merits’ – usually punishment.

Because it’s spoken with stress on the second syllable – just deserts – many writers infer the spelling desserts, a familiar word pronounced the same way. Dessert comes from French dessert, from Latin desservir ‘clear the table’, literally ‘un-serve’ or ‘de-serve’.

The similar Latin word deservire ‘serve well’ or ‘merit by service’ led to Old French deservir ‘deserve’, the feminine past participle of which is deserte. This entered Middle English as desert: ‘what is deserved’. It’s an altogether different noun (with different origin) from the Sahara or Antarctic type of desert, an arid place with little or no vegetation.

Shakespeare used desert this way. From Sonnet no. 72:

Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart

Nowadays, desert (n.) is seldom used in contexts other than just deserts, so it’s no surprise people don’t know it. Maybe they see *just desserts as a food-inspired metaphor: a fitting outcome after an event, like a tart that can be sweet or rotten depending on what poetic justice ordains. It’s a coherent but misleading folk etymology.

To bring the correct spelling more readily to mind, decline dessert. Remember the little-known noun desert and its connection to one-s deserve: just deserts are what one justly deserves.


Edit: @WelshPixie tells me she attended a military defence expo where a large poster showed off a ‘Dessert Runner’ truck. A Google search shows how popular a misspelling this is.

Explaining ‘fell’ in one fell swoop

May 24, 2012

For years I’ve been reading the phrase at/in one fell swoop, and even using it occasionally, without ever examining it closely. I knew what it meant (“all at once”), and that it came from Shakespeare, but only recently did I stop and wonder: What’s that fell doing there?

It begins, as far as we know, with Macbeth. In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff finds out (spoiler warning) that his family has been murdered, and he says:

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

The image of a kite from hell swooping to kill defenceless chooks gives the sense of a sudden, fierce, merciless assault: this much is self-evident; the use of fell is more obscure.

Fell as an adjective has had several meanings over the centuries, most of them now obsolete or restricted to poetic, rhetorical, dialectal and idiomatic contexts. The oldest adjectival sense dates from the late 13th century: “fierce, cruel, ruthless; terrible, destructive”, according to the OED. Thus did Shakespeare use it.

This fell came from Old French fel, from Middle Latin fello “villain, traitor”. Its history overlaps with that of felon – once “wicked person” – and of felo de se “suicide”. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary connects it to Celtic tongues, for example Irish feall “betray, deceive” and Breton falloni “treachery”.

Over time, at one fell swoop softened and came to mean simply “all at once” or “in a single go” – that is, the connotations of viciousness and calamity faded. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says the idiom is now “neutral in application”. We can do the housework, empty the dessert bowl, X all the Y at one fell swoop.

Variations have multiplied. Fell swoop becomes foul swoop, fowl swoopfell stoop, fell stroke, full swoopfail swoop, and so on. The meaning remains the same, more or less, but you might want to be careful of the variant adjectives unless your intent is to play or pun on the original. The preposition at is often in and sometimes with; indeed, a definite switch from at to in appears to be under way:

The trend is supported by data from the Corpus of Historical American English. You can click on the following graphs to see how the respective phrases have been used.

at one fell swoop:

in one fell swoop:

Some critics consider at one fell swoop a cliché. Like any set expression, though, it can be deployed to good effect when its particular sound and style suit your needs.

Graeme Donald, in The Dictionary of Modern Phrase, says it “properly applies to the sudden, savage attack of a bird of prey when it goes into its stoop”. But not even Shakespeare used it that way: it has been metaphorical since birth.