Chewing gum and pharaohs

chewinggumonshoeOne of life’s minor irritations is having to prise a half-solidified wad of chewing gum off the sole of your shoe because some unthinking slob spat it onto the pavement. This scourge of the street could be avoided if other governments were as draconian as the Singaporean authorities: they allow the import solely of medicinal gum, which has to be prescribed by a doctor, and impose a hefty ban for spitting gum out on the street.

But the habit of chewing resin or gum of some kind goes back several millennia. In 1993 archaeologists in Sweden found three gobbets of 9,000-year-old sweetened birch resin that had clearly been chewed by a human—in fact, by a teenager. And the word gum itself can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt.

It started its journey to English in the form we would write as kemai.

(That first syllable kem- already shows a connection with the modern masticatory habit: the g of our gum and the k of kemai can be considered phonetically two sides of the same coin: g is the “voiced” counterpart of k. Try saying the /k/sound of came on its own and then the /g/ sound of game to appreciate their connectedness.)

But before it knuckled down to its role in modern English, kemai did a lot of travelling: its gap year turned into several centuries.

First, the Greeks adopted it in the form kommi (κόμμι), retaining the k sound of the Egyptian. kourosPre-classical Greeks were profoundly influenced by Egyptian civilization, borrowing, among other things, some of their sculptural conventions in the “Archaic” period, before they achieved the extraordinary naturalism that we associate with their greatest sculptures.

The historian Herodotus mentions kommi in his description of how the Egyptians embalmed bodies: “and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue”.

This is how the pharaohs would have been embalmed too.

From Greek it passed into Latin in the form cummi or gummi (classical Latin spelling, it seems, generally avoided the letter k). In late Latin the word changed to gumma, and was taken into Old French in the form gome. Thence it came into Middle English, in the prologue to Chaucer’s c1385 Legend of Good Women: “As for to speke of gomme or erbe or tre”. It makes another 14th century appearance, in the Wycliffite translation (before 1382) of the biblical Book of Jeremiah “Whether gumme is not in Galaad, or a leche is not there?

That passage is better known nowadays in the King James wording: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”, balm being a resin with medicinal properties, and thus an image for something that heals spiritually.

That image found powerful expression in the African American spiritual, the chorus of which is:

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

Gum in English referred originally to “a viscous secretion of some trees and shrubs that hardens on drying but is soluble in water, and from which adhesives and other products are made”. (In that sense, it contrasts with resin, which is insoluble in water).

From the 15th century onwards, it developed several meanings as a verb, including the modern one of “fastening with gum or glue”, which led to the further image in the phrasal verb gum up of clogging something up.

That meaning seems first to have developed in the US: the OED’s first quote is from an 1874 report by an American mining engineer. Nearly 50 years later, another US quote encloses it in quotation marks to indicate the writer’s doubts about its uncertain status, as novelty or slang.

The US has also given us two words for different kinds of footwear incorporating gum in the sense of “India rubber”. Gumboots (1850) are rubber boots or wellington boots; the word seems to be rarely used in British and US English nowadays, but is still going strong in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.


Much more evocative is the word gumshoes (1863), meaning galoshes. It first appeared in 1906 in relation to detective work in A.H. Lewis’s Confessions of a Detective: “You’re d’gum-shoe guy I was waitin’ fer… It was Inspector Val tells me to lay for you“.

Nowadays of course, gum generally means chewing gum, an industry apparently worth 19 billion dollars a year. That shorthand use goes back as far as 1842: “[She] asked me if I didn’t want A piece of gum to chaw”. At that time the gum would have been spruce gum.

It was not until 1871 that gum developed in its modern form, using chicle, a natural gum from various types of Central-American trees. (Chicle is the Spanish the word for chewing gum.) In Argentine Spanish the English chewing gum has been phonetically adapted as chuenga (pronounced chwenga) to mean a kind of sweet that stuck like a limpet to your teeth.

Scaremongering and dream-mongering for Scottish independence


“Scaremongering”: a rhetorical ruse

“Scaremongering, scaremongering”. Whenever anyone tries to confront the Scottish king-this-side-of-the-water with the hard facts of reality, that is his, or the SNP’s, answer. It’s a tried-and-tested way of discrediting, whatever the other person is saying, of “terminating the argument with extreme prejudice”. It is hard not to admit, though, that he is very good at rhetoric and verbal prestidigitation. His use of the word “scaremongering” is a case in point: he is artfully making use of an imbalance in the English language (I mean “English” in the sense of the language, not the nationality, in case anyone was wondering). It has no opposite, but in order to counter certain delirious imaginings it really ought to have, in order to fill what linguists call a “lexical gap”. I suggest “dream-mongering” or even “fantasy-mongering“. Please use either freely and often.

What’s a monger when it’s at home?

The noun monger is as ancient as the English (British?) language itself. It goes back to Old English and has cognates in Old Icelandic and Old High German. It means basically “a trader or dealer in a specified commodity”, and is best known to ordinary folk nowadays in its compounds fishmonger, ironmonger, and, for foodies, cheesemonger. Apart from those humdrum and innocuous words, however, -monger as a suffix has a long history, generally in the lexicon of abuse: foolmonger (1593), “one who trades on the credulity of fools” (how appropriate); mass-monger (1550), a disparaging term for a Roman Catholic; ballad-monger (1598), “one who writes in cheap or slanderous verse”.

Monger, monger on the wa’, whae’s the sleekitest o’ theim a’?

It was not until 1928, however, that monger morphed into an independent verb (though scaremongering is older–1907). Looking at a major online database of current English, I find that the verbal form -mongering occurs most often in the following combinations (ignore the inconsistent hyphenation): warmongering, fear-mongering, scare-mongering, doom-mongering, hate-mongering (the “Yes” campaign are doing a lot of that), rumour-mongering, conspiracy-mongering, panic-mongering.

2014+22Kim-Jong Salmond
So, full rhetorical marks to the First Minister and his acolytes for using a word that gets a gut reaction (or even lower down for some people). It just sounds nasty and unappetizing, rhyming or half-rhyming as it does with hunger and fungus. And its definition is just as negative: “spreading frightening or ominous reports or rumours”. But what if the reports are likely to be true, or at least plausible, as they often are in this debate? It is as if the SNP is claiming the unique ability to unerringly see into the future, which is a rare gift indeed. In any case, the word scaremongering is so tainted by its negative associations that, unwittingly, people have an emotional reaction and automatically discard as untrue whatever is so described.

On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks?


What does it mean?

As we all know, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because we don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as we feared, be it A-level results, a job application, a medical test: “Britain’s farmers have been on tenterhooks since a vet found lesions–possible signs of foot and mouth disease–in the mouths of two sheep at the farm on Tuesday.”

Where does it come from?

Why tenterhooks? Most people absorb the phrase as a whole (or Gestalt, if we want to be pretentious): they grasp the meaning without analysing its constituents. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenderhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is?

Well, it’s all to do with tenters—who are not people who have anything to do with tents or camping. In fact, they are not people at all. (There is a word tenter meaning someone who lives in a tent, but that’s a different word.)

The tenter we’re interested in is, according to the OED, “a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking”. The OED also points out that tenters once stood in the open air in tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts.

And in some antique panoramas of cities before or during industrialization the surrounding fields are filled with white waves of cloth suspended on tenters.

In the image here of Leeds in the 18th century (undated, but mid-, I guess, though I’m no costume expert) rows of tenters in some of the fields can just about be made out.

The origin of the word tenter, again according to the OED, is not certain, but may have to do with the Latin for stretching (tendĕre) or with the French for dye (teint).

And tenterhooks are?

As the OED puts it: “one of the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held; a hooked or right-angled nail or spike; dial. a metal hook upon which anything is hung”.

How old is the word?

Tenters is first recorded in its literal sense from the 1300s (“Whon þe Iewes hedden þus nayled Criston þe cros as men doþ cloþ on a tey[n]tur”, Modern English: “When the Jews had thus nailed Christ on the cross as men doth cloth on a tenter“), while the last OED citation is from Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849).

Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV. Another sartorial context (1579) is provided by the Office of the revels of Queen Elizabeth I. You could buy a lot of them very cheap (by today’s standards): “Tainter Hookes at viiid the c.“.


How old is the metaphor?

Very. Tenters was used in several phrases such as to put or stretch on the tenters in the 16th century. The next two quotations suggest by their visual immediacy how much tenters must have been part of everyday life. From the author of that jewel of our language The Book of Common Prayer, and Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer (1551): “But the Papistes haue set Christes wordes vppon the tenters and stretched them owt so farre, that they make his wordes to signyfy as pleaseth them, not as he ment”, (not a sentiment calculated to endear him to Queen Mary).

And in this simile by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker (1602): “O Night, that…like a cloth of cloudes dost stretch thy limbes; Vpon the windy Tenters of the Ayre“.


Tenterhooks was used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond in various metaphors suggesting something causing suffering, and also the idea of stretching something beyond its proper bounds, as in this Isaac Disraeli (the Prime Minister’s dad) quote: “Honest men…sometimes strain truth on the tenter-hooks of fiction” (or, as we’d say nowadays, “are economical with the truth”).

However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tentherhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only in 1748 in Smollett, and in its canonical form not until 1812, in the diary of soldier and diplomat Sir Robert Thomas Wilson: “Until I reach the imperial headquarters I shall be on tenter-hooks“.

Byron used the spelling “tender” – or did he?

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The line from Don Juan runs as follows:

[It] keeps the atrocious reader in suspense; The surest way for ladies and for books To bait their tender or their tenter-hooks.

Does tender here go with hooks? Or is it used in the meaning of “offering”?

How frequent is the eggcorn version?

To be on tenderhooks is relatively well known among eggcornisti, and seems to me to be part of the “eggcorn canon”. But, actually, how frequent is it? I’ve looked at various sources, such as the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American, of Historical American, and Google books (US), which all suggest that it isn’t at all frequent, at least in written sources. For instance, in the GloWbE (the Corpus of Global Web-Based English) it occurs 3 times against 241 for the correct version. Similarly in Google US books (155 billion words) the figures are 57 to 8,238.

Dictionaries don’t accept the eggcorn, and judging by relative frequency are unlikely to for a long time.

What on earth is an “eggcorn”?

There are hundreds of quaint British folk practices and events, from Gloucestershire cheese rolling to Morris Dancing and Derbyshire well-dressing. Hunting for eggcorns is not a folk tradition, but it can be an entertaining linguistic pastime. “Eggcorn” is the term for

a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting another, with an element of the original being replaced by one which sounds very similar.

Eggcorns must by definition sound similar or identical to the original. They are “slips of the ear”. But they must also make sense in their own terms. A common eggcorn that sounds exactly like the original is to the manor born instead of to the manner born (from Hamlet). Eggcorns that diverge from the original by only one sound are miniscule instead of minuscule and mute point for moot point. My favourites include to have a poncho for something, the Nuke of the North (Nanook of the North), and to go off on a tandem.

What are yours?

Why are they called “eggcorns”?

Try saying “acorn” in a slow, southern-US-states drawl, and pronounce the c like a g, and it will probably sound like “eggcorn”. This spelling is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary from as far back as 1844, in a letter:

“I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon”

John Sutter, A.L. Hurtado, 2006.

There are two points to note about this spelling. First, it made complete sense to the writer. Semantically egg corn fits well, because from acorns come trees, as chickens do from eggs; acorns are vaguely egg-shaped; and an acorn in its cup could conjure up the image of an egg in its egg cup.

The second point is that people quite often twist words and phrases into new shapes in a similar way. So widespread is the phenomenon that the linguist Professor Geoffrey Pullum coined this term “egg corn” for it in 2003. Since then, the term has become widely used in linguistic discussions, and there is even an online database of examples.

Why do eggcorns happen?

Eggcorns often affect obscure or archaic words or meanings. A good example is the conversion of the original Shakespearean in one fell swoop into in one foul swoop. Fell as an adjective no longer exists, and is therefore not meaningful to speakers, whereas foul conveys the perceived meaning of the phrase, which often describes undesirable events. In a further “eggcornization”, the phrase also appears as in one fowl swoop. guinea-fowl-photo-04

Uneducated slips or educated guesses?

Eggcorns explain phrases that can, at first sight, look like bizarre mistakes, such as the Delhi lama, the Dahlia Lama, Asparagus syndrome (Asperger’s syndrome), above/beyond approach (above /beyond reproach), and countless others. Once you knows about eggcorns, it can be entertaining to listen and look out for them. To do so is even, perversely, a way of celebrating the playfulness of language.

While eggcorns do cause mirth, it would be condescending to be superior and view them as signs of poor literacy. Many fit specific phonetic patterns, and illustrate systematic phonetic trends. They also display people’s intelligence and ingenuity in making sense of what they hear, which is, after all, what we do all the time with any speech we hear.

An eggcorn grows a folk etymology


Eggcorns can even develop their own folk etymology in that word’s meaning of inventing a colourful but incorrect origin for a phrase. British novelist Jeannette Winterson reported a delightful example:

‘…I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.” “The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly…where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’”.’

Times, 13 May 2006

An “autological” word

The term eggcorn is a rare example of a word that is “autological”, namely a word that is itself a member of or has features of the category it describes. Other examples of autological words are short (the word itself is short) and sesquipedalian (“having many syllables”).

The legendary aardvark. First word in the dictionary?


Everyone knows the word, but how many have ever seen the animal? The definition

medium-sized, nocturnal African mammal, Orycteropus afer, which has sparse hair, long ears, an elongated snout, strong burrowing limbs, and a thick tail, feeding solely on ants and termites

does not make the beast sound immediately prepossessing, yet some people find this Cyrano de Bergerac of the animal kingdom cute. (The wording of that Oxford English Dictionary definition also suggests somewhat surreally that it is the critter’s tail which feeds solely on ants and termites).

The aardvark is not mythical, like the phoenix, since it really exists, but it has its own urban myth. Ask anyone which word comes first in a dictionary, and they will assuredly answer “aardvark”. But it generally is not the first word in “the dictionary”.

And the first word is…

That honour usually goes to the letter A, as in theOxford English Dictionary (OED). You might think a simple letter would be child’s play to define. In fact, the OED divides it into no fewer than 33 senses, including everyday meanings such as the musical note, and more technical ones such as A as a socio-economic grouping and A for Ångström.

Dozens of abbreviations follow before the next entry, the humble but indispensable indefinite article (aka ‘general determiner’) a. It is followed by numerous entries for a in different guises, such as Bob Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin”, as a prefix (asexual), and as a Latin or Greek suffix (idea, data).

Finally, we strike gold with the first truly lexical entry. And it is? (A very muffled drumroll for) aa, meaning a stream or watercourse, last spotted in 1430 and marked as not only obsolete but rare. Several more curiosities, including some that may be useful for Scrabblists, intervene (aal, from Hindi, the Indian mulberry tree, aapa, from Urdu, meaning older sister) before we get back to our ant-eating, ground-digging mammal with its thirty-centimetre-long tongue.

Why “aardvark”?

South African Dutch, which became Afrikaans, is the language from which English borrowed aardvark, originally written as aardvarken. The aard- part is the Dutch word aarde, which means ‘earth’ and comes from the same Germanic stock as the English word. (The connection between the two is easier to see by looking at the medieval Dutch form of the word, which was ertha.) The -varken part means ‘pig’. And the animal is also called earth-hog and earth-pig in a loan translation.

Another sign of how English and Afrikaans are ultimately related can be seen in the word Apartheid. It meant literally ‘apart-ness’, and the -heid element matches the -hood of childhood, priesthood, and other “-hoods”.

Other Afrikaans words in World English

south_african_flagAfrikaans is an offshoot of Dutch, and is one of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Its gifts to World English include trek as a noun and verb, and commandeer. Commandeer is multiply borrowed, a bit like a parent’s car, in that it was borrowed from Afrikaans kommandeer, which borrowed it from Dutch commanderen, which borrowed it from French commander. It rose to prominence in British English during the First Boer War of 1880-1881. It was first used to mean ‘to force into military service’, as The Times reported on 5 February 1881:

The night previously the Boers had commandeered the natives…and compelled them to fight.

Its more metaphorical meaning of taking arbitrary possession of something came later:

The naïve claims put forward by the Boers to some special Providence—a process which a friendly German critic described as “commandeering the Almighty”.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1900.

Rather more colourful is scoff, the informal noun for food. It is from Afrikaans schoff, representing Dutch schoft ‘quarter of a day’, hence the four meals in a day. The OED’s first quotation comes from the 1846 Swell’s Night Guide; or, a peep through The Great Metropolis, a rather louche guide for the man about town in search of interesting nightlife, including casual sex (plus ça change):

It vas hout-and-hout good scoff, and no flies.

(The spelling is not a mistake. It presumably mimics the speaker’s accent.) And a word which demands a wider airing is stompie, a cigarette butt, or a partially-smoked cigarette, especially one stubbed out and kept for relighting later, as in South African playwright Athol Fugard’s

The whiteman stopped the bulldozer and smoked a cigarette… He threw me the stompie.


'Keep Britain Tidy' Drops 30ft Drop 30ft Cigarette Butt On Trafaler Square

One word or two? Whereas or where as?

Where as???

Reading The Times recently I was struck by the following sentence: “He was apolitical. He [sc. Haider al-Abadi, Iraqi PM] never mentioned Iraq where as some students were vociferous”, Aug 16 2014.

It had never occurred to me that whereas might be written as two words, though it could easily be, since it is just a combination. There are several “words” which are sometimes written as one unit and sometimes as two, for example under way and underway, any more and anymore, and so forth. But whereas is not one of those: no current dictionary that I know of accepts the two-word spelling.

A quick check in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows that whereas whereas as a single word appears over 100,000 times—as two words it’s in the hundreds.

It is impossible to give an exact figure, because searching for the string where as also finds sentences such as “Wolfowitz joined the bank in 2005 after working at the Pentagon, where as deputy defense secretary he was…”. What is clear, however, is that it is unusual, i.e. less than one per cent of cases. The OEC data also suggests that it occurs often in news and blog sources (come back subs, all is forgiven!).

Historically, it was originally two words. The earliest OED example is from The Paston Letters (1426-7), in the meaning now largely confined to legal writing, ‘taking into consideration the fact that’:

Where as þe seyd William Paston, by assignement and commaundement of þe seyd Duk of Norffolk…was þe styward of þe seyd Duc of Norffolk.

In its principal modern meaning (“in contrast”) it first appears in Coverdale’s Bible (1535), also as two words:

There are layed vp for vs dwellynges of health & fredome, where as we haue lyued euell.

(From Book 2 of Esdras, not included in the AV.)

The first OED citation for it as one word is in Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1 (written before 1616).

I deriued am From Lionel Duke of Clarence…; whereas hee, From Iohn of Gaunt doth bring his Pedigree.

So, while there are historical precedents for the two-word spelling, whereas is one of those words that current spelling convention decrees should not be sundered.


As a historical footnote, it is interesting that the legalistic, ritual use of whereas as a preamble to legal documents led to its being used as a noun, defined as follows in the Urban Dictionary of its day, Grose’s 1796 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar TongueTo follow a whereas; to become a bankrupt…: the notice given in the Gazette that a commission of bankruptcy is issued out against any trader, always beginning with the word whereas.

World War I – Centenary of declaration of war

For me, this poem by Philip Larkin perfectly describes the mood of those young men who volunteered to fight, little realising the horrors of what lay in store, and the sadness inherent in their innocence.



Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word — the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

From The Whitsun Weddings, 1964.

Like lemmings to the slaughter?

One of the mysteries of English is why this diminutive creature has become a byword for impulsive herdlike behaviour, even mass hysteria. These appealing northern rodents are the victims of a bad press—or at least a very inaccurate one.

Not a computer game…

For many people the word will first bring to mind a computer game created in 1991 and as unstoppably addictive as such games easily become. The aim was to save the critters in their headlong rush to mass self-destruction. Their supposed suicidal urges were also the inspiration for a 1985 advertisement launching Apple Macintosh’s Office. Suited businesspeople were shown walking blindfolded and in single file up to a cliff edge, from which they hurled themselves into the abyss, until the last in the line took off his blindfold to the voiceover, “You can look into it. Or you can go on with business as usual.”

A potent urban myth

That lemmings deliberately self-destruct en masse is a complete myth, but one that has a powerful hold on the popular imagination. It is one of those many mistaken things that we all “know” (in the same way that we “know” that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow). And it is a myth firmly embedded in English as a way of symbolizing people who unthinkingly follow what the crowd are doing, often with dangerous, if not downright fatal, consequences.

Where did the myth originate?

I remember being struck by a compelling sequence from a 1958 Walt Disney short nature film entitled White Wilderness. It purported to show wave after wave of lemmings plummeting unstoppably over precipitous cliffs into the Arctic Ocean. Accompanied by a portentous commentary and melodramatic music, that film helped sear the idea of rodents with an unquenchable deathwish into the public’s consciousness. It was, however, a cruel fake. Clever camera angles and good editing made it look real, but the (actually rather few) lemmings were cascading into a river, not into the sea, and they were, it seems, being launched from a rotating turntable. If you watch that footage—which now looks very much of its era—you will understand immediately why lemmings became such a powerful metaphor for unthinking, self-destructive mass behaviour.

“The science bit”

Lemming describes twenty species subdivided into six genera and belonging to the same superfamily as rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters. They are widespread in the cooler north of Eurasia and North America and range from three to six inches in length. Far from succumbing to suicidal groupthink, these creatures live solitary, hermitic lives, only associating with others, as they must, for mating purposes. Unlike other rodents, which have inconspicuous coats, their pelts are variegated. They are also aggressive towards predators. The Norwegian lemming, Lemmus lemmus, travels considerable distances in its migrations.

Populations fluctuate wildly

Lemming populations fluctuate wildly for reasons not fully understood, and when population density reaches a critical level, they migrate collectively. Since they can swim, they may attempt to cross stretches of water that are beyond their natatorial abilities, and consequently drown.

History of a simile

The OED gives the first example of the metaphorical use from a 1959 book (“Home-going office workers…potent in mass as a lemming migration“), but Google Ngrams throws up an example from the 1930s: “…logicians fling themselves headlong in hordes, like lemmings; and suicidally discuss the import of ‘propositions’ such as ‘The King of Utopia died last Sunday…,” from The Principles of Art by the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood.

On a more pedestrian level, but more dramatically, Life of 5 January 1942 reported that “Men and Women are swarming out of the Navy Building, the War Department, Labor, Interior, Commerce, not with the orderliness of ants but like lemmings swarming blindly toward the Baltic.”

These examples predate the Disney film, and suggest that the myth was current well before it.

How the simile works

Typically, an explicit comparison is made using the preposition like. Tendentiously, as in:

At present, all countries of the world are marching like lemmings over the philosophical precipice to collectivism.

Financial Sense Online, Editorials 2005.

Or slightly naughtily, as in:

…the run of articles about how being tall and good looking and banging Playmates who line up like lemmings ready to fall over his penis made Michael Bay…

The Hot Button, 2002.

In the first the reference to cliffs is explicit, in the second it is (punningly?) implicit. In a minority of examples with like, the word cliff actually appears in the context:

Sky One’s audience has been deserting it, disappearing like lemmings over a cliff, according to Dawn Airey, the managing director of Sky Networks.

Sunday Times, 19 September 2004.

The comparison is also lexicalized in the adjective lemming-like:

After the Diana nonsense, when complete strangers lemming-like threw themselves into publicity-driven grief, through Charles and Camilla’s redemption, we are now spoon-fed the William and Kate Show.

Daily Telegraph, 2012, quoting MSP Christine Grahame.

Like lemmings to the slaughter

As I was writing this, I wondered, “Has anyone changed ‘like lambs to the slaughter’ to ‘like lemmings to the slaughter’”. And, sure enough, they have, but the phrase is not terribly common. A google for those exact phrases throws up under 3,000 for the rodent one, but over 650,000 for the ovine one. The one with lemmings seems slightly odd, since they are not exactly slaughtered by another agent, but it’s an interesting example of a blend of two phrases. Pedants might consider it a sort of malapropism (or it might be a sort of phrasal eggcorn). However, the examples seem to suggest that it is different from “lambs to the slaughter”. Whereas the latter emphasizes that the victims go meekly into a situation of whose dangers they are unaware, the lemmings simile foregrounds the idea of people blindly rushing to do something foolish or dangerous.

In one example it’s the heading to a blog (spamdalot) that continues as shown: “Like Lemmings To The Slaughter. One thing I’ve noticed about Portland is that the pedestrians here have a deathwish…“. In another it’s also a heading, this time in a post on an investment website (Stanford Brown): “Like lemmings to the slaughter………at our April Insight we highlighted that individuals make such poor investors principally because of our insatiable appetite to buy high and sell low. The exact same pattern is happening again“.

Not the only myth

But the suicide myth is not the only one that has attached to lemmings. For a long time they were thought to fall from the sky. In 1555 the Swedish Catholic cleric Olaus Magnus, then exiled in Rome, published in Latin his History of the Northern Peoples (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus), detailing Swedish history and customs.

About lemmings he wrote: “Quod…in Noruegia…euenit, scilicet vt bestiolæ quadrupedes, Lemmar, vel Lemmus dictæ, magnitudine soricis, pelle varia, per tempestates & repentinos imbres è cœlo decidant“.
(Translation) “Which…happens in Norway, namely that little four-footed creatures, called Lemmar or Lemmus, of the size of shrewmice, with variegated hide, fall from the sky through storms and sudden showers.”

This account was repeated almost verbatim at the word’s first appearance in English, in The historie of four-footed beastes, by Edward Topsell, who was, it seems, much given to plagiarism:

There are certaine little Foure-footed-beastes called Lemmar, or Lemmus, which in tempestuous and rainy weather, do seeme to fall downe from the cloudes.

So, where does the word come from?

The word lemming is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, borrowed straight from Norwegian, and has not been modified in English. Swedish and Lapp have similar words — lemmel and luomek — and it is possible that the word is related to words meaning “to bark”, such as Latin lātrāre and Lithuanian lōti. Certainly, when they are angry one of the noises they make sounds not dissimilar to the bark of a small dog, as you can hear here.

Other Norwegian loanwords

Lemming is not the most common word English has borrowed from Norwegian. Leaving aside the obvious fjord, that honour must surely go to ski, first recorded as a noun in 1755, and as a verb only as late as 1893. skis
It is interesting that in Norwegian the sk is pronounced sh, the pronunciation reflected in Italian sciare. It was also the English pronunciation Fowler recommended in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Norwegian has also given the skiing world the term slalom, the downhill race, from slalåm, (from sla sloping + låm track).

The Kraken Wakes

The lemming myth mixes fact and fiction, but another Norwegian loanword (1775) plunges us into the world of entirely mythical and terrifying sea creatures: the kraken. This creature was reputedly so enormous that when it dived it created a whirlpool big enough to engulf even the largest ship. Its most famous English incarnation is probably in the title of the 1953 sci-fi novel The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndham.

It also found its place in 19th century poetry in a sonnet by Tennyson that is somewhat unusual in having fifteen lines rather than the normal fourteen.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Finally, those who in Scotland are bitten by vicious clegs (i.e. horseflies) will be gratified to know that they have been wounded by an Old Norse beast, kleggi, or klegg in Modern Norwegian.

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Beyond Traffic: Three Stats You Should Check Today

Originally posted on News:

When you hear “stats,” most bloggers think “traffic,” and that makes sense. Many of us care about the number of views our posts receive, and want to see them grow. Blogging is never solely about numbers, though — it’s about making your voice heard, fostering relationships with others, and building a sense of community.

Approaching these goals with a data-informed mindset can get you closer to achieving them. Here are three stats that can help you make smart decisions when it comes to planning your posts and finding and engaging your readers. Whether you blog from a computer, a tablet, or your phone, take a few seconds to explore these on your own blog’s Stats tab.

A quarterly review

When reviewing your stats, it’s tempting to focus on the here and now: how did I do today? How many views did yesterday’s post get overnight? Periodically, though, it’s wise to fight…

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