Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


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Americanisms in British English. Love them or loathe them, they’re here to stay. And we love them.


On Saturday 20 May 2017, the well-known British word buff (orig. U.S.)  Susie Dent presented an excellent and
engaging program(me) on BBC Radio 4 about Americanisms in British English.

Her angle (orig. U.S.) was that she personally (orig. Brit.) likes them, and she wanted to persuade people who don’t to change their minds and join her.

I suspect she won’t have succeeded; feelings run deep on this issue, and there are plenty of Brits (orig. U.S.) who dislike, not to say detest, Americanisms.

The program(me) was called Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a  Good Thing. (Note the playful alternation between the –ise and –ize spelling.)

As she put it, “I’ll be exploring why the use of American English seems to raise the hackles of so many speakers of British English.”

She raised the question of why, when English has “borrowed” so many words from so many other languages, some people object only to the import of U.S. words and phrases.

As she is a personality (orig. Brit) whose views on language might interest the general public, her endorsement of Americanisms grabbed a certain amount of media attention. (So much so, that Radio Scotland invited me to do a 15-minute slot on their morning program(me), an offer I turned down in favo(u)r of attending my regular yoga class. I missed my Warholian 15 minutes, but I managed my first ever headstand. Much more rewarding.)

Sadly, my attempt looked nothing like this. 😦

As a goodly proportion of visitors to this blog are American, let me tell you that a recurrent theme in Britain can be summed up as “Americanisms are destroying our language.” This is, of course, nonsense on stilts. (I do love that phrase. I wonder who first used it.)

  • You cannot “destroy” a language (except by making it extinct)
  • It is not “our” (i.e. British) language. Nobody “owns” a language to the exclusion of anyone else. Or, rather, or conversely, if you’re a linguistic socialist, everyone who speaks it “owns” it.

(And, if we’re using the ownership metaphor, I feel obliged to bring in Mark Twain’s “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”)

Ms. (orig. U.S.) Dent, or her guests, went on to highlight (orig. BrE literally, orig. U.S. figuratively) some other basic truths:

  • Many words perceived as Americanisms are not in fact such; e.g. trash, gotten appear in Shakespeare;
  • British English (BrE) speakers use many words of U.S. origin without even realising it;
  • As proof of which, the OED records 26,000 words and meanings of U.S. origin, of which 7,000 are now part of BrE;
  • Verbing is an ancient historical phenomenon, not a U.S. invention;
  • BrE is now merely one variety or dialect out of many.

For anyone who works in the field, these are self-evident truths, not to say truisms. But, presumably, for the rather conservative (with a small c) listenership of Radio 4,  they must, in their unexpectedness, be like Damascene revelations.

Rubens’s Conversion of St Paul. Busy or what! You have to really concentrate to find St Paul; and the angel of revelation, or whatever it is, looks like a Labourite with a grudge. Presumably, the thronged scene was how it was when you could get the staff and Rubens was painting.


One of her guests was the president of the Queen’s English Society, Dr Bernard Lamb. He is an academic who has published over 100 papers in his field. Sadly, that field is clearly not linguistics.

Among his more outrageous pronouncements we had “The argument that all forms of English are equally valid I don’t think is true. English comes from England, and I think we’ve got prior rights to it…and our form I much prefer. I’ve no objections to Americans using Americanisms, but I don’t really like them in this country.”

Sure, English comes from “England”, except for the thousands of words that come from other languages, or from Scottish, Welsh or Irish varieties of English. (That use of “England” and “English” when a wider area is meant gets right up my nose [BrE].)

And the “I don’t really like them in this country” said in a certain way is rather perturbing.

The “Lady of Countdown” also interviewed John Humphrys, anchorman (probably orig. BrE) of the premier (orig. BrE) BBC news program(me) Today. He reserved his most splenetic scorn for “reach out” in the meaning “contact”. This is a usage I also detest, but, hey, who cares?!? He also clings to and thus helps to perpetuate the myth that the –ize spelling is peculiarly American.

He was reacting to the idea that e.g. color is easier to spell than colour. I quote at length: “I’m slightly baffled by the idea that we should welcome something because it’s easy. The whole point of language is to communicate. If we know that we for years have spelt organise with an s, and that is the correct way to spell it, correct because there IS a right and wrong way to spell things. That’s necessary for children to learn how to write words…fairly obvious point to make, isn’t it?…in a way that everybody else can understand. Now if half the population uses an s and half the population uses a z, children are entitled to say ‘Which one is right?'”

(The answer, sweet British child, is that both are, but if you use the z spelling, teacher will probably mark it  wrong.)

Where to begin? In what other area of life would we not welcome something that makes life easier? On reflection, though, I agree. Hey! Let’s abolish refrigerators, radio, the internet, aeroplanes and antibiotics for starters.

How many years exactly is “for years”, and who exactly is this “we”? It sounds like “inclusive we” i.e. Humphrys and all his listeners, but isn’t it really the  ‘we who are in the know’ “we”? (As I’ve written at length elsewhere, many verbs first appeared in English with the z spelling, which is for many of them etymologically preferable.)

And, yes, the whole point of language is indeed to communicate. But note the misleading and mistaken equation of spelling with language. And, yes, there is a right and a wrong way to spell most words, but for quite a few words there are alternatives, in my judg(e)ment.

As I pointed out in Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, where I devoted a few pages to the topic (pp. 153-6), formerly it was the French who were often accused of besmirching “our” language. Nowadays, however, that poisoned chalice has passed to the Americans. There is a historical tradition going back to at least the sixteenth century of antipathy to “furrin” words; and nowadays, American English is perceived as the “furriner”.  Nobody objects to bruschetta from Italian, but, as Lynne Murphy has pointed out, to speak of cookies if you’re British is akin to sleeping with the enemy. Yet, almost inevitably, the word is first found in a British (specifically Scottish) source.

As I wrote in Damp Squid: “A possibly apocryphal story illustrates perfectly the mixture of jingoism, snobbery, and one-upmanship that can underlie prejudices against American usage. An American student let his tutor know he was in Oxford and would like to contact him, to which came the Olympian rejoinder: ‘I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb “to contact” has not.’”


That’s enough of my little rantette. To emphasize how much BrE owes to AmE, I’ve listed the 51 new words for the years 1900 to 1920 that I’ve been tweeting more or less daily.

After Susie Dent’s program(me), I wanted to see the country in which the first citation of the word was published, according to the OED.  You’ll see the totals when you get to the end of the list. There were some that surprised even me, such as lifestyle, OMG and bullshit being first cited in British sources, or U-boat and ponytail being American. Where a famous author is given as the first citation, I’ve put their name in brackets.

bold = U.S.; sloped bold = Britain

1900 television, hillbilly

1901 Ms., eatery

1902 number two (euphemism), airport

1903 racism, man on the Clapham omnibus

1904 hip, demo (Australian), telecommunication (unidentified)

1905 tantric, smog

1906 suffragette, teddy bear, psychoanalysis

1907 taxi, cornflakes

1908 art nouveau (Shaw), boy scout 

1909 neo-cortex, cinema

1910 Freudian, post-impressionism

1911 pie in the sky, pavlova (New Zealand), brassiere (Canadian)

1912 tweedy, vitamine (named thus by a Polish scientist)

1913 comic strip, piggy bank

1914 u-boat, crossword

1915 lifestyle, bullshit (Wyndham Lewis), America First

1916 ponytail, red giant, tank

1917 soviet, commonwealth, OMG

1918 dada, motherfucker, legend in one’s lifetime (Lytton Strachey)

1919 bagel, dunk, rocket

1920 T-shirt, deb(bie) (both Scott Fitzgerald), leotard (unidentified)

Total = 51

US = 27
Brit = 19
Unidentified = 2
Canada/Australia/New Zealand = 1 each


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Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians.

I wonder what kind of “crescendo”. Of passion? Desire? Lust? Deceit?

5-second read

Some musicians and pedants hate the use of crescendo to mean an event, as in “to reach a crescendo”, rather than a process. Don’t worry. Use it that way if you want to. Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a journalistic cliché.


Now for the 7.5 minute read.

Can something reach a crescendo?

Not for language “purists. This usage gets right up their nose. Normal folk will probably just get on with life and use the phrase as and when required – which, if you are not a journalist, newscaster, reporter or wannabe writer, is unlikely to be very often.

Grrrr!

On Twitter recently a tweep was incensed enough by the journalistic (mis)use of the idiom to tweet this collective rebuke to Beeb hacks:  “Yet again, BBC reporters, you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is a process leading to a climax, or peak or whatever.”

That tweet concisely puts the argument deployed by purists. Repeat after me (they say): ‘“crescendo” does not mean “climax, culmination” and the like.’

A definition or two

Oh, but I’m sorry to have to break the news that it does. Where do we look if we want to know what a word “means”. Why, “the” dictionary, of course. Well, on this point dictionaries are in harmony, not to say unison (Geddit?!?!). Here’s the Collins dictionary’s first definition:

  1. music a gradual increase in loudness or the musical direction or symbol indicating this. Abbreviation: cresc. Symbol: (written over the music affected) ≺ (The image is my addition, btw)

(I added the illusration, btw; it is not in the dictionary.)

But that is followed by a further two:

  1. a gradual increase in loudness or intensity

the rising crescendo of a song

  1. a peak of noise or intensity

the cheers reached a crescendo

That last meaning shows the word association – reach – that is the major bête noire in this piece. “If a crescendo is a process”, say the naysayers, “how can it be reached?” It is true that you can reach a final state – maturity, for example, but not a process, such as “growing up”.

Crescendo goes with a few other verbs (e.g. become/hit/build to/rise to) but reach is by far the most frequent to imply an end state or an event. It is also worth noting that build to and rise to suggest process rather than state.

Just to be clear what we’re talking about, here are three examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American, from the academic, magazine, and fiction components:

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005, when Live8, the biggest rock concert in history, was held with the aim of influencing the G8 meeting in nearby Gleneagles.

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664, when the English took possession of New Amsterdam (population ten thousand) and the city and colony were renamed New York.

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Crescendos be like…

Adjectives that modify crescendo include, according to the Oxford English Corpus, operatic, Rossini, orchestral, slow-building, gradual, deafening, crashing, thundering, almighty, swelling, EUPHORIC, FRENZIEDROUSING, THRILLING.

Now, you might think that the adjectives/participles to do with hearing/sounds, or emotion (underlined and capitalized respectively), point to the word being used in its strictly musical sense. However, many do not.

For example, of the 14 examples of deafening crescendo, only two are strictly musical, and even one of those is from a football report:

…the orchestra reaching its deafening crescendo before the long silence known as off-season begins.

The other examples include e.g. Her entire being ached with unimaginable pain. She could barely move, the pain rising in a deafening crescendo as she struggled to sit up.

And, similarly, when it comes to crescendos of something, while many are musical or aural, there are also several non-musical ones (in descending order of statistical significance): a crescendo of boos, guitars, noise, applause, drums, strings, sound, voices, EXCITEMENT, EMOTION, CRITICISM, violence, PROTEST, music, color, activity, attack: e.g.:

Instead, there is a rising crescendo of voices wondering what C4 [British TV Channel Four] is for, and why, precisely, it deserves any kind of public subsidy.

Due to the short growing season, spring and summer flowers bloom together in a crescendo of color in July and August.

The title track of the new album is a highlight as ‘Shake/ Shiver Moan’ slowly builds itself up into an epic crescendo of flailing guitars and pounding drums and is an impressive indicator of where they now find themselves.

This very short, one-bar crescendo only reaches mezzo forte.

Who talks about crescendos?

The Oxford English Corpus shows you the domain of discourse of a word or phrase. Of the 2,857 examples of crescendo as a noun (singular, or plural crescendos), 1,040 are in the “arts” domain, 657 in “news”, “unclassified” accounts for 257, blogs  for 233, “life and leisure” 164, sport 92, “society” 80, fiction 60.

So, what does that tell us? Hey presto! 1,040 examples, or 36 per cent-ish, are in the arts domain, so it must be musical.

Well, not really. If you look more closely, a little over 600 are in the subdomains of “popular” and “classical music”. But that’s still fewer citations than for “news.” In addition, domains such as “life and leisure”, sport, and “society” are almost entirely journalistic writing, e.g.

…Barrett brilliantly builds a nerve-stretching crescendo of suspense and dread that culminates in the 1998 car bombingNZ Listener, referring to a film.

In short, though the first person cited by the OED as using crescendo in its “climax” meaning is Scott Fitzgerald (The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. Great Gatsby, iii 68), its forte is in journalism.

A musicianly rant

A Google search for “reach a crescendo” will quickly lead you to blogs and pronouncements, including one from the New York Times – which has been doing the rounds since 2013 — titled “A crescendo of errors”. The author is a violist (no, not a typo for “violinist”, but someone who plays the viola), and so knows a thing or three about music. H e expostulates “But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo.

A crescendo is the process, in music, of getting louder.”

He also notes that “crescendos don’t have to end loudly: you can make a crescendo from extremely soft to moderately soft, or from moderately soft to moderately loud.”

The Macdonald Stradivarius viola. At auction, offers of over $45 million were invited, but not achieved. It once belonged to the Amadeus Quartet’s violist.

He also says “And you will never convince any of those musicians that a word that for centuries has had one and only one precise meaning will, through repeated flagrant misuse, come to mean something else.”

He’s a musician, so, surely, his opinion must count for something. Or must it? Just as you wouldn’t ask a tone-deaf linguist to play Hindemith’s Viola Concerto, so a musician’s judgement on linguistic matters might be fatally flawed.  I respectfully submit that it is, on several different counts.


In no particular order…

  1. Just how “precise” is “the one and only one precise meaning”? If a crescendo can go from any volume to any other volume, in other words, if its end points are fluid, isn’t it a somewhat hazy concept? The only constant is that musicians play louder. In addition, it can be very short, as in the example higher up.
  2. To say that crescendo can only mean what it means to musicians is an example of the “etymological fallacy”, which, in a nutshell, is the idea that a word’s origin conveys its true meaning.

Here, though, we have the etymological fallacy with knobs on or a dose of musical snobbery thrown in. Or, to put it yet another way, the fallacy of the appeal to authority.

  1. I’ll give you one word: polysemy. A word or phrase can allowably have more than one meaning. In fact, most of the words we use most often have several. Thinking musically, we can talk about the different movements of a concerto or symphony. Does that mean we can’t apply movement elsewhere? Of course it doesn’t. (Note that my reasoning here is potentially Jesuitical: the word movement already existed in English before it acquired its musical meaning. But, no matter.)
  2. Neither the gender-fluid non-binary person (formerly known as “man”) on the Clapham omnibus, nor John nor Mary Doe, nor everyday usage cares what the technical meaning of a word is in its original field of discourse. Think “acid test” (originally a test using nitric acid as a test for gold). Think of the ubiquitous “DNA” in business speak. Think of “quantum leap” for “major [allegedly] advance”. Think of your own examples, as I’m sure you will.
  3. The phrase is useful.

Actually, perhaps fatally so for journalists, as we have already seen. On the one hand, it can be seen as one of those journalistic clichéd tropes which/that attempt to be dynamic and attention-getting. On the other, in certain cases, it is hard to think of a phrase that could replace it.

Taking the examples cited earlier on…

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005…

“Culminated in”? “reached” Had its crowning moment in”? “came to a climax in”?

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664,…

“Came to a head”?

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Here, I find it hard to see what could replace it: “achieving maximum volume”? “climaxing”?

It has also been suggested that the popularity of “reach a crescendo” might owe something to euphemism:  “to reach a climax” almost inevitably invokes the sexual meaning of climax (first brought into current usage by women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes starting in 1918).

  1. Words change meaning over time. The sense development of crescendo is explained in detail by Arnold Zwicky here. In brief, the word both moved from meaning “an increase in musical loudness” to “an increase in loudness generally” and from meaning a process to meaning the end result of that process, namely an event or state.

As it happens, climax has followed an analogous progression from process to end state, while another term, gamut, has gone from being the single lowest note in a musical scale to meaning a series of notes, and then a range of anything you care to mention (including, of course, Katharine Hepburn’s acting in the sublimely catty remark ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “She runs the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”) Both words also emigrated from technical domains.

An exquisite book cover — shades of Picasso, de Chirico, Dufy, and not sure who else.

Conclusion

Crescendo is indeed originally a musical term – like so many, from Italian (piano, adagio, allegro, etc.). It is the participle of the Italian verb crescere, to grow, itself a direct descendant of Latin crēscĕre to grow, which is the ultimate ancestor of the English word crescent.

Musically speaking, or when musicians speak about it, it is a process rather than an end state, as the following example clearly, if lengthily, illustrates (my emboldening):

“…during more than four minutes of music in which no performers are in view, the setting becomes the focus of the stage, as the moon rises over the forest. From a pianissimo beginning, more and more instruments enter in a gradual crescendo, the orchestral texture and colour becoming richer and more vibrant until the full orchestra plays,…”

From Beyond Falstaff in ‘Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor’: Otto Nicolai’s Revolutionary ‘Wives’, John R Severn, 2015.

That musicians mean one thing and Joe Public another does not invalidate the “climax” meaning. Whether it is a cliché is a matter of opinion. That it is widely used by journalists is an evidence-based fact, as discussed earlier. (The excellent Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners specifically applies the label “journalism” to its definition 2: “People sometimes describe an increase in the intensity of something, or its most intense point, as a crescendo.”)

Moreover, the sense of a progression, as in its strictly musical application, has not been ousted by the “climax” meaning. As Oxford Online defines it:

A progressive increase in intensity.

‘a crescendo of misery’

More example sentences:

‘Although many speakers struck bland notes individually, together these became a crescendo of shared concern.’

‘They believe that if you try hard enough there’s a steady crescendo of improvement and your fate is in your own hands.’

Yes, but what’s the plural?

Crescendos is rather more frequent than crescendoes. That second form, in fact, is used for the verb. Crescendi confines itself to music criticism.

Valery Gergiev. Yippee! I’m looking forward to experiencing him conducting Shosta 4 at the Embra Festival.

An eggcorn too far?

As long ago as 2006 the Eggcorn Database noted crashendo as an eggcorn for crescendo, e.g. It is obvious that a lot of folks are going to join the crashendo of shouting about this fiasco – – soon. It is actually a good thing for small business.

The creation of an eggcorn based on the “event” rather than the “process” meaning surely settles the debate, ;-), doesn’t it?


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“American” words in English: where would we be without them? They own the bulk of the shares


“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”

Mark Twain said that as far back as 1897 (Following the Equator, Chapter XXIV). While many Brits continue to entertain the attitude typified (or satirized) by Max Beerbohm:

“He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford.”

Zuleika Dobson, 1911

all of us (i.e. English-speakers) use U.S.-coined words some – if not all – of the time.

Oscar Wilde’s quip “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language” really does not apply to so very many words – though the differences between British and U.S. English as indefatigably explored by Lynne Murphy, are still legion.

Twentieth-century “new” words

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I’m having great fun looking at words that “came into the language” year by year from 1900 onwards, and tweeting one or two a day. To find them, I use “advanced search” in the OED specifying “headword” and a given year. Each year there are usually round 500 such words, and in some years rather more (e.g. 1900: 686), but very occasionally rather fewer (e.g. 1913: 451). [Note that very careful use of fewer, ;-)]

That search excludes words which [yes, oh Word grammar checker, it’s fine to use “which” in a defining clause] acquired new meanings in any year. So, what I end up with is a list of completely new “visitors” (in bird terms) to our language. For each year, I generally look at the first 100, ordered by frequency, and then select 20 or so according to criteria explained in the earlier blog.

Now, while doing this (at the time of writing, I had got up to 1915), I found myself wondering more and more insistently just how many emerged in British English and how many in U.S.English. I was expecting U.S. English to produce the greater number, but my little sample surprised even me.

A 50-word personal sample

I chose 20 words from 1909 and 30 from 1913, thus giving me a nice round figure of 50 to do easy percentages with. The OED lists a few of them as “Orig. U.S.” and variants on that theme. But I had a suspicion that more of them were U.S. than that labelling suggested. I decided to look at the written source which the OED had tracked down as the first record of the word: was it an American journal/newspaper/book, or a British one?

The totals are as follows: U.S. = 33; Brit = 16; other = 1

i.e. 66% of words are first cited in U.S. sources.

Some caveats are in order, of course.

First, several of the OED entries have not been revised for the third edition; different dates and sources may therefore be found.

Second, the fact that a word first appears in a U.S. source does not prove conclusively that it is an American coinage, though it does point strongly in that direction.

And, third, my sample is neither random, nor large enough to prove anything. But it is, to my mind, very suggestive, given that most of these words must surely be considered part of everyday language, rather than technical.

I also labelled the words with a subject field. “Modern life” is a bit of a cop-out, to avoid too many labels; “General language”, as you will see, includes several informal or (once) slangy terms.

“Bull” does not mean what you might think

Hopefully, the abbreviations in the list of sources are self-explanatory. “Bull.”, by the way, means “Bulletin”. Newspapers figure as the first citation for ten words; three appear first in dictionaries.

Finally, some of the first citations are piquant: Winston Churchill for seaplane, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street for lav, P.G. Wodehouse for fifty-fifty, and Arnold Bennett for turn-round. The relevant citations follow the table.

Words are in order of frequency as listed in the OED.  Finally, quite why piggy bank first appears in the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette for March 1913 is anyone’s guess.

Headword Year Country Source Field
gene 1909 US Amer. Naturalist science
movies 1909 US Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican entertainment
cinema 1909 Brit Tragedy of the Pyramids entertainment
trade-off 1909 US St. Louis Post-Dispatch  business, economics
coke 1909 US Coca-Cola Bottler (Philadelphia)  modern life
air conditioning 1909 US  Useful Information Cotton Manufacturers modern life
exponentially 1909 US Cent. Dict. Suppl. science
libido 1909 US Freud Sel. Papers on Hysteria psychology
fuselage 1909 Brit Flight transport
empathic 1909 US Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes psychology
multi-party 1909 Brit Englishwoman politics
mindset 1909 US Philos., Psychol. & Sci. Methods psychology
rite of passage 1909 Brit Folk-Lore anthropology
neo-cortex 1909 Brit Arch. Neurol. & Psychiatry psychology
counter-offensive 1909 Brit Daily Chronicle warfare
xenophobia 1909 Brit Athenæum politics
socialite 1909 US Oakland (Calif.) Tribune general language
scrounge 1909 US Webster’s New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. general language
gaffe Brit Pall Mall Gaz. general language
bakelite 1909 US Jrnl. Industr. & Engin. Chem. modern life
isotope 1913 Brit Nature science
close-up 1913

 

US Technique Photoplay entertainment
Salmonella 1913 Brit Pract. Bacteriol medicine
project management 1913

 

US Nevada State Jrnl business, economics
behaviourism 1913 US Psychol. Rev. psychology
superconductor 1913

 

Proc. Sect. Sci. K. Akad science
big picture 1913

 

US Titusville (Pa.) Herald  entertainment
comic strip 1913

 

US Altoona (Pa.) Mirror entertainment
streamlined 1913 Brit Aeroplane transport
not-for-profit 1913

 

US Ann. Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Sci.  business, economics
talkie 1913 US Writer’s Bull.  entertainment
petrochemical 1913 US Chem. Abstr.  science
record player 1913

 

US Waterloo (Iowa) Times-Tribune entertainment
seaplane 1913

 

Brit Hansard Commons  transport
turn-round 1913 Brit The Regent general language
stooge 1913 US Sat. Evening Post  general language
person-to-person 1913

 

US Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star general language
anti-freeze 1913

 

US Dict. Automobile Terms  transport
pre-eclampsia 1913 Brit Lancet medicine
fifty-fifty 1913 US Little Nugget general  language
once-over 1913 US N.Y. Evening Jrnl general language
lav 1913 Brit Sinister St general language
pep talk 1913

 

US Colorado Springs Gaz.  general language
intelligence quotient 1913 US Psychol. Bull. psychology
parsec 1913

 

Brit Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc.  science
reflexology 1913 US Med. World  medicine
sexologist 1913 US Pract. Treat. Causes, Symptoms & Treatm. Sexual Impotence  medicine
admin 1913 US Trans. 15th Internat. Congr. Hygiene & Demography  general language
headcount 1913 US Motion-pict. Work  general language
piggy bank 1913 US Dietetic & Hygienic Gaz general language

seaplaneHansard Commons, 17 July – We have decided to call the naval hydroplane a seaplane, and the ordinary aeroplane or school machine, which we use in the Navy, simply a plane. (Churchill)

lav: Sinister St. I. vii. 99 – Tell the army to line up behind the lav. at four o’clock. (Mackenzie)

(lav is marked as “Chiefly Brit” and “colloq.” in the OED)

fifty-fiftyLittle Nugget vi. 121 – Say, Sam, don’t be a hawg. Let’s go fifty-fifty in dis deal. (Wodehouse)

turn-round: The Regent x. 291 – She’s going to do the quickest turn-round that any ship ever did… She’ll leave at noon to-morrow.

 

 

 


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Where does the word television come from? Twentieth-century words: the first quinquennium.

A 1900 word that had to wait over 25 years to be instantiated. (Yup, that’s a word too — from 1949.)


A few days ago, I started a daily tweet with two, or occasionally three, words per year for every year of the twentieth century, starting in 1900. I tweet them with their first citation from the OED, which is the source I extracted them from/from which I extracted them [strike through according to taste].

I can hardly claim that this is a unique or novel approach, but it is fun and illuminating in several different ways. You never know what you will find until you find it, if you see what I mean. A bit like online dating — or so they tell me — but without the risk.

What I will do here is list the pairs or triplets of words selected for 1900-1904; provide more information about one of them, namely the gogglebox; and mention others that I didn’t tweet about.

(The full list of my entirely subjective selection is at the end.)

Selecting according to how often the words are used

For any given year, the OED records hundreds of “new words”. For instance, for 1900 there are 686. (That is, extracting “headwords”, rather than “lemmas” or “meanings”.)

How to choose?

They come ordered alphabetically – Hello! The OED is a dictionary — which means that the first one for 1900 is abiologic = abiological – hardly a vocable to set this word buff’s pulses racing.

I had to find a quick and dirty way of identifying potentially interesting ones. The OED rescued me: it helpfully indicates how often a word is used nowadays by means of a series of eight frequency bands, full details of which you can see here.
Sorting words for 1900 by current frequency banishes the worthy but boring abiologic and enthrones…television.

“What!” I hear you say. “TV hadn’t been invented back then.” Correct, it hadn’t. But something/someone does not necessarily have to exist just because there is a word or phrase for them (think unicorns, phlogiston, Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the Philosopher’s Stone, basilisks, Aphrodite, mirages, and, probably, God, to name just a few).

Smog: first named and shamed in 1905. The Big Apple looking very mysterious and Whistlerian.

Reality imitates language

The divine Oscar paradoxed that “Life imitates art more than Art imitates life.”

It is similarly true that Reality sometimes imitates, or at least catches up with, Language, particularly the language of science and science fiction. H.G. Wells’s coined atomic bomb in 1914, decades before it became reality. Television also nicely illustrates this same phenomenon.

The first 1900 citation speculates excitedly and futuristically. It is from the June issue of The Century Magazine, an illustrated monthly US publication started in 1881 that lasted nearly half a century. The second is from The Electrician, which, no, is not yer average sparky, but an august and earnest London publication billed by Wikipedia as “the earliest and foremost electrical engineering and scientific journal”, and published for nigh on a hundred years.

Through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face.

[GASP!]

(One day it will finally dawn on inveterate texting addicts that you can actually SPEAK face to face on a mobie)

At the afternoon sitting on Friday, M. C. Perskyi read a communication on ‘Television’, describing a number of apparatus based on the magnetic properties of selenium.
31 Sept. 822/2

The OED revised (3rd edn) definition for television goes as follows: “A system used for transmitting and viewing images and (typically) sound; the action of transmitting and viewing images using such a system (now rare). In later use: esp. such a system used for the organized broadcast of professionally produced shows and programmes.”

The Electrician citation presumably refers to “the action of …” mentioned in that definition.

Yes, but what about how the word was coined?

As the OED puts it, “Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: tele comb. form, vision n.”

That “combining form” tele– is probably otherwise best known from telephone, and is from Classical Greek τηλε-, meaning “far”. Television, therefore, could be interpreted as “far seeing”, (which is how German deals with it in Fernsehen). French had an influence: according to the OED, some of the earliest tele– words were created in French, and, it seems, that what Mr Perskyi had in mind in his “communication” noted above was the Gallic télévision.

“Meanwhile”, Modern Greek calques, possibly English, by repossessing the Classical τηλε- element and adding to it the word for “vision, sight”, όραση, to produce τηλeόραση [tī-le-O-ra-sī].

Why did I choose the words?

Having sorted by frequency, I then looked at the first 100 or so for each year. Thereafter, it was whim, dear lady, pure whim. Yeah, no, seriously, my criteria were:
• Does the word have some currency or resonance now? (single currency, racism)
• Did it historically? (suffragette)
• Has it some cultural heritage/baggage/clout/oomph, etc? [“Cultural” in its widest sense] (Dubliner, psychoanalysis)
• Is it so much part of everyday language that it might be difficult to conceive of its ever having been “invented”? (trivia, hormone)
• Was it a (major) discovery/invention? (radio, escalator, chemotherapy)
• Wow! Was it really coined that long ago? (re-evaluate, packaged, Ms., sportswear, eatery)
• Wow! You mean it didn’t exist before! No way! (Dubliner again)
• Did sex come into it? [I’m only human – allegedly – after all.] (voyeur, Tantric)
• Was/is it slangy?


 

This stands for “airport”. I’m old enough for TWA to mean something, a bit like BOAC. Both “initialisms”, technically, btw.

Come to think of it, those are post hoc justifications [NB: Latin phrases never hyphenated] , and “whim” is about right. My method is evolving as I go along, while the number of words I list per year before selecting my lucky pair (emboldened below) also varies. For what they’re worth, here are my shortlists.

A couple of words of caution. First word: these earliest citations sometimes refer to a meaning that is not the main current meaning. Second word: some of these entries have not been revised by the OED. It is therefore possible that, when they finally are, an earlier “first date” might be found.

1900:
television
egocentric
dorm
escalator
physiotherapy
hill-billy
Dubliner
voyeur
single currency
ping-pong
motorcyclist
come-hither look
sleuth
Bramley apple

1901:
Ms.
hospitalize
• noble gas
eatery
arty
• chink (i.e. Chinese)

1902:
airport
garage
• suitcase
• paranoid
• audio-visual
• limousine
number two(s)
trivia
• skoda
• terrazzo

1903:
• basically
• radio
• clone
• landfill
man on the Clapham omnibus
• to neuter
• sportswear
• Pepsi-Cola
• fandom
racism

Could this be the elusive “Man on the Clapham omnibus”. To me, he looks more like a toff from a first-class train, but never judge a book, etc. I can remember my father wearing a bowler hat to work (and some clothes, as well).

1904:
comic book
• back-track
demo
• meaningfulness
• chiropractor
• preadolescent
• paedophile
• speedometer
telecommunication
• hip


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Pancake Day and Shrovetide: a pancake recipe linguistick


It was the day whereon both rich and poor
Are chiefly feasted with the self same dish,
Where every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter-filled, as well as heart can wish;
And every man and maid do take their turn,
And toss their pancakes up for fear they burn;
And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound,
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

From Pasquils Palinodia, 1619, by William Pasquil


 

pancakes_olney

Olney Pancake Race. With maids and a man pretending to be a maid.

Shrovetide

Nowadays, if they think of Lent at all, most people in our post-Christian society will associate it with what is known in Britain and elsewhere as Pancake Day [aka Shrove Tuesday], the day before Ash Wednesday that ushers in Lent.

In the past, in different parts of Britain, the three days up to and including Shrove Tuesday were called Shrovetide, a time for letting off steam and letting one’s hair down before the enforced rigours of Lent. Stephen Roud’s fascinating The English Year tells me that it was the season of the year when, in a sort of Mary Whitehouse avant la lettre rampage, apprentices traditionally wrecked any bordellos (from Italian) in their neighbourhood:


It was the day, of all days in the year,
That unto Bacchus hath his dedication,
When mad brained prentices, that no men fear,
O’rethrow the dens of bawdy recreation. 

Pasquils Palinodia


And a jolly good thing, too, say I!
Someone more cynical than I might say a) ‘this is merely cutting off your nose to spite your face‘ or b) ‘they do protest too much, methinks.’

(Btw, note that that clause in the third line ‘that no men fear’ might trip you up. It does not mean that ‘no men fear the apprentices’, but rather that the apprentices fear no men: it tinkers with the normal SVO order of English for the sake of rhyme.)

All manner of weird and wonderful pastimes and ‘entertainments’ used to take place at Shrovetide. Fortunately, the ‘sport’ (Ha!) of cock-throwing (gentle US readers, read ‘cockerel’) was banned long ago.

However, the general nasty and brutish hurly-burly that was football before FA rules neutered its joyful testosteronic orgy was a favourite, and still lingers on, for example, in the ‘football’ played for example at Alnwick in Northumberland or Ashbourne in Derbyshire, which the millionaire ponces of modern Premier League football would no doubt despise.

What is the Shrove of Shrove Tuesday and Shrovetide?

The OED shows the first quotation for Shrovetide from c.1425 as Schroftyde. The -tide part just means ‘time’ or ‘season’, as in eventide, noontide, Eastertide, etc. The first part is undoubtedly related to the verb to shrive, past tense shrove, past participle shriven, which goes back to Old English scrífan,  meaning ‘to allot, assign, decree, adjudge, impose as a sentence, impose penance’. That word is an early borrowing into English of the Latin scrībere, ‘to write’, which is the ancestor also of modern German schreiben, ‘to write’.
To shrive can mean to hear someone’s confession or, more often, and in the passive, to make one’s confession and receive absolution, which is what traditionally happened before the Reformation in the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday: so Shrovetide is literally ‘the season for confessing’.

In Romeo and Juliet (ii. iii. 172 ), Romeo instructs the Nurse:

Bid her [Juliet] devise
Some means to come to shrift this afternoon;

And there she shall at Friar Laurence’ cell
Be shriv’d and married. Here is for thy pains.

Note the word shrift, which is the noun related to shrive, and in Romeo’s phrase to come to shrift means ‘to go to confession’. If you give someone short shrift, you are using this same word; originally, the shrift was short because it was the limited space of time given to a criminal to confess before being executed. In R & J, Shakespeare makes the verb regular, rather than using the past form shrove.


Meanwhile…, back at Pancake Day, there are pancake races, the most famous being the one at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, which, as you will see if you follow the link, has its own website.

I’ve been digressing bigly, so let’s get to the point, shall we? Words to do with pancakes.

Butter…eggs…milk…flour…water…sugar…lemon. Those are the basic ingredients of and garnish for a pancake (thanks Delia!) — the water is unusual, though.

To me, from the glum faces and the averted eyes, this looks like the morning after a domestic. But, hey, this is Dutch, so there must be an edifying moral allegory lurking somewhere. ‘Cooking pancakes’, c.1560 Pieter Aertsen (1507 or 1508-1575). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Oil on panel 33.86 in x 66.93 in.

Simple, everyday words, but ones with complex histories that illustrate why English is such a succulent concoction of so many other languages.

If we look at where those words ultimately come from–simplifying considerably–what do we discover?
butter (Greek)
eggs (Old Norse)
milk, water (Germanic)
sugar, lemon (Arabic)

And if you also use syrup, that’s another word from Arabic.

Each has a curious story to tell.

(Flour has too, but it’s a different tale: it’s a specialized spelling of flower.)

Let’s look at a couple of these words in more detail.

Fine words butter no parsnips

…but butter is essential. if not to make the pancake batter (from French, btw), at least to cook your pancakes with (I don’t recommend lard [Old French] or goose fat).

How on earth did ‘butter’ come all the way from Ancient Greece?

Like this. The Ancient Greeks seem not to have used butter for cooking, but they knew of its existence. The fifth-century (BCE) historian Herodotus wrote the earliest account, describing how “the Scythians poured the milk of mares into wooden vessels, caused it to be violently stirred or shaken churning-butterby their blind slaves, and thus separated the part that arose to the surface, which they considered more valuable and more delicious than that which was collected below it”.

Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, he of the Hippocratic oath, also mentioned butter several times, and prescribed it externally as a medicine. He too described the Scythians making it, and wrote that they called it βούτυρον (bouturon).

Folk etymology or loanword?

The 1888 OED entry states that this ‘Greek [word] is usually supposed to be βοῦς [bous] ox or cow + τυρός [turos] cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.’ In other words, the derivation from Greek might be a folk etymology, and the Greek word might in fact be a loanword.


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What the Romans did with butter

roman_baths

Alma-Tadema’s soft porn masquerading as classicism. Exquisitely painted, though!

Greek βούτυρον was borrowed by the Romans as butyrum. They, like the Greeks, did not use it in cooking either, but as an ointment in baths (yuck!) or for medicinal purposes, such as mixing it with honey to rub on mouth ulcers or to ease the pain suffered by teething infants.

Finally, the word reaches Britain

Old English had borrowed it at least by the year 1000 CE, when it appears in Anglo-Saxon medicine in the form butere as a remedy for swellings or boils.

English is technically a ‘West Germanic‘ language, and its cousins German, Frisian and Dutch all also borrowed the word for ‘butter’ from Latin, which is why the modern German is butter, and the Dutch boter.

Beware of Vikings bearing eggs

Another of the ingredients of current English is Old Norse words brought over by the Vikings during their incursions into the British Isles and Ireland from the late eighth century onwards.

Many of them are basic to our vocabulary: words to do with the body, such as ankle, calf, freckle, scab and skin; or basic verbs such as get, give, take and want. These words often replaced earlier Old English words, and **egg is a Norse interloper (the -loper part of which is from Dutch).

The older word was **ey, (plural eyren) derived from Old English ǣg. It seems that the two different words were used concurrently, but by people from different parts of Britain.

egg

One of the best-known illustrations (or “iconic moments“, if you want to be kitschy) of the history of English concerns these lexical twins.

In his prologue to his translation of The boke yf Eneydos… translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton (i.e. a paraphrase of what we know as Virgil’s Aeneid), Caxton wrote:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of langage.

(What should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of the diversity of and change in language.)
caxton_texxt

Caxton was echoing the uncertainty about how to write words at a time when English spelling was becoming a very pressing issue because of the spread of printed books. Dialects within Britain varied far more than they do today, and for Caxton it was important to choose words and spellings that would be understood by as many people as possible.

His remark follows a piquant story

Some merchants—presumably from the north of England, since one is called Sheffield—being becalmed on the Thames and unable to set sail for Holland, want to have something to eat and try to buy eggs from a woman dahn sahf (down south).

The merchants use the Norse and northern English version egges; she uses the southern version eyren. She either was unable to understand, or, like many a south-easterner even today (‘The North begins at Luton’), decided to wind up the northerner by pretending not to, ;-). She added insult to injury by taking him for that worst of all things…a Frenchman!

And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother…and specyally he axyd after eggys. And the goode wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel.

(Modern English version at the end of the blog.)

What about pancake?

Simples! It’s a straightforward, Middle English combination of pan (related to German Pfanne, and perhaps also ultimately from Latin) + cake (again, like egg, from Scandinavia).


**The Old Norse is echoed in the modern Scandinavian languages: Icelandic & Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg, Danish æg; the Middle English ey(e) in modern German and Dutch ei.


In present day English:
‘And that common English that is spoken on one shire differs from another…And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted “eyren”. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.’


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Cabin fever (and artichokes). What kind of cabin is that? Folk etymology (3/3)

Just to recap on the last couple of blogs, we’ve been talking about ‘folk etytmology’ in both its meanings: a) a story people tell about where a word comes from (e.g. posh = ‘port out starboard home’) or, as the online Oxford dictionary puts it, b)

‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.’

(In this context, ‘popular’ should be interpreted as ‘of an idea, believed by many people’ rather than as ‘liked by large numbers of people.’)


I wonder if you’ve ever indulged in a bit of folk etymology. I know I have. Cabin fever: interpreting it as the longing to escape from confinement or cramped quarters, I related it to ships’ cabins. The story I told myself was that in the long voyages to India from Britain people must have become extremely frustrated at having only their cabin as a private space.

Baloney! (A word that is itself, probably, a folk etymology.) In fact, the cabins in question are of the log persuasion, the kind in which people might find themselves cooped up over the US or Canadian winter.


It seems to be a standing visual pun.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.


The OED defines cabin fever as ‘lassitude, restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness resulting from being confined for too long with few or no companions’, which covers a multitude of scenarios.

The word first appears in a novel called…Cabin Fever: A novel, penned by one ‘Bertha Muzzy Bower’

The mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls ‘cabin fever’.

Meaning b) above [‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage’] has two aspects: ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’.

(Of course, foreign words are initially unfamiliar precisely because of their foreignness, but ‘native’ English words can be unfamiliar too, as e.g. deserts with the second syllable stressed in just deserts, which then becomes just desserts.)

This process of folk etymology has resulted in the transformation over decades or even centuries of a small number of not uncommon words that we use unblinkingly. Loanwords are–or were–prone to undergo this process, as the next example illustrates:

(globe) artichoke: (Cynara scolymus) English borrowed this from the Italian articiocco (which was a borrowing from Spanish alcachofa, which was a borrowing from Arabic al-ḵaršūfa…). On its first appearance in English, it was already being reshaped, as you can see from the quotation below.

1531 MS. Acc. Bk. in Notes & Queries 2 Feb. (1884) 85/2

Bringing Archecokks to the Kings Grace.

What follows are a few choice quotations, showing the vagaries of its spelling, leading up to its first appearance in its current spelling, in 1727, i.e. almost two centuries after first landing on these shores.

1542 A. Borde Compend. Regyment Helth xx. sig. K.i

There is nothynge vsed to be eaten of Artochockes but ye hed of them.

1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry ii. f. 63

The Hartichoch…is a kinde of Thistel, by the diligence of the Gardner, brought to be a good Garden hearbe.

1727 Swift Pastoral Dialogue Richmond-Lodge in Wks. (1735) II. 375

The Dean…Shall…steal my Artichokes no more.

The OED comments sagely on parallels with English that might have driven such changes:

‘Similarly, many of the English forms reflect reanalysis of the word by folk etymology. Forms with initial hart– are apparently influenced by association with heart, while the second element was apparently reanalysed as choke n.1 or choke v. from an early date. This has been variously explained as resulting from the belief that the flower contained an inedible centre which would choke anyone attempting to eat it (compare choke n.1 5), or resulting from the plant’s rapid growth which would quickly ‘choke’ anything else growing nearby (compare e.g. quot. 1641 at sense 2).’


The OED extract above mentions the stories which, from the original Archecokks, developed the cultivar artichoke: that you could choke on the centre of the plant, or that it would choke out other plants.

Artichok-- '...a kind of thistel...' and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Artichok– ‘…a kind of thistel…’ and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Another vegetable shares the name but is unrelated botanically: the Jerusalem artichoke. The ‘Jerusalem’ part is another example of folk etymology at work: it is an anglicisation of girasole, the Italian word for ‘sunflower’, which is the genus to which the Jerusalem artichoke belongs.


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I’ve blogged elsewhere about how cockroach and alligator, originally from Spanish, morphed from cucaracha and el lagarto respectively.

Here are some other folk etymologies, with hyperlinks to their definitions, of some well-known examples of loanwords adopting an English-friendly guise because of assumptions speakers made about them: belfry (nowt to do with bells, originally); blunderbuss, crayfish (nowt to do with fishy-wishies, originally), salt cellar (diddly-squat to do with the place you store your vintage Bordeaux).

My second bit of folk-etymologising concerns Benidorm, in Spain: SELF-EVIDENTLY, it is related somehow to the Spanish dormir for ‘sleep’, and bien for ‘well’, meaning you would sleep well there.

Complete tosh, of course; the origin of the name is Arabic.

What’s your folk etymology?


I’m not sure when I first ate artichoke, but it must have been in a French or French-inspired restaurant, because it was done in the traditional, dining etiquette-testing way. Fortunately, I must have been with someone who helped me avoid making a fox’s paw. The whole flower head is presented to you, vaguely in the manner of St John the Baptist’s head, on its own plate, with the individual scales or petals adroitly loosened through cooking. It then becomes a supreme test of your table manners to detach them one by one, delicately suck the flesh off each, and gracefully discard each armadillo-like scale, until you reach your culinary El Dorado, the heart.

folk_etymology_artichoke-with-shallot-vinaigrette

If you fancy trying them at home–I can’t say I ever have–here’s a Delia.


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Free rein or free reign? shoo-in or shoe-in? Folk etymology (2/3)

folk_etym_horse

Eddie Mair’s fizzog

My previous blog on ‘false etymology’ related to this one was about fizzog, a word I hadn’t seen or heard in yonks.1 Of course, it was then inevitable that I should immediately stumble across it. In the Radio Times of 21–27 January, the velvet-voiced British broadcaster Eddie Mair wrote in his entertaining hebdomadal column: ‘Basil Fawlty would rightly have enquired of my disappointed fizzog,…’

Google Ngrams  for phizzog/fizzog in British English show a rather erratic pattern.

A second kind of folk etymology

The ‘false’ etymology or folk etymology I was prattling on about in the previous blog is essentially a cosy form of storytelling. Another word for it, as Michael Quinion has pointed out, is ‘etymythology’2.

The kind of ‘folk etymology’ I’m looking at today answers to a different definition.

As the 1897 (i.e. unrevised) OED entry puts it, in suitably constipated style:

‘usually, the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant’.


(I had to read that phrase more than once to relate ‘it’ back to ‘form’, because, when I read ‘words.’ I anticipated some backwards reference [anaphora] to it later on—but that might just be me.)

It’s hard to tell how much weight of thunderous disapproval and tut-tutting ‘perversion’ drew down upon itself in 1897, or whenever the entry was first drafted: however, it is worth bearing in mind that Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis had been published in 1894.

I digress–bigly.


The OED currently provides only one citation for folk etymology by an eminent Victorian Scandinavianist and runologist (I only added that factoid because I have never before written the word runologist, and am unlikely to do so ever again.)

Back to the definition of folk etymology that I started talking about before I so rudely…

Even non-native speakers get the metaphor.

Free-rein is a management style. A non-native speaker gets the allusion.

The point about that kind of etymology is that, not content with telling tall stories, it actually changes language: enough people tell themselves the same story about a word to ‘operationalize’ that story by modifying, or agreeing to the modification of, the form of a word or phrase.

That seems perfectly normal and understandable. We want to make sense of the world and of our language. When we encounter a word or phrase whose form seems nonsensical, we will torture it into a different shape to extract a confession of meaning.

 

The process is one that produces–obviously–visible results. Often it happens with words borrowed from other languages. However, it often also affects ‘native’ English phrases.

For instance, to give something or someone free rein is a phrase that has been around since at least 1640, building on a rein idiom that goes back to Caxton’s day. It means ‘to allow total freedom of expression or action to someone or something’. Here is Caxton:

Caxton tr. G. de la Tour-Landry Bk. Knight of Tower (1971) vi. 19

She [sc. a mother] had gyuen her [sc. her daughter] the reyne ouerlong [Fr. lui avoit laissié la resne trop longue] in suffryng her to do all her wylle.

The rein in question is the strap of leather attached to a horse’s bit or bridle by means of which the rider controls his (or in the UK, at any rate, usually ‘her’) mount’s movements.

90021619.tif

The metaphor in to give free rein to seems may seem blindingly obvious to some. It certainly does to me, and it’s not even as if I’m horsy (though the persistent stiffness in my right shoulder reminds me that I long ago incurred frozen shoulder by once incompetently falling off a gee-gee.) If you give a horse free rein, you hold the reins loosely to allow it to move freely.

Here’s a modern example:

My boss gave free rein to his well-trained sarcasm as he chastised me, but in the end he thought my ineptitude was so funny that he decided not to fire me.

There are other colourful idioms that use the word, such as to keep a tight rein on something or someone, and the reins of power.


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However, that metaphorical link with an essential piece of tack has been lost on many people in our non-equestrian society: the form to give free reign to something is now quite common—although exactly how common depends on where you look.

Confusion reigns–or does it rein?

Ngrams shows a rise over the decades in reign and a corresponding drop in rein. The Corpus of Contemporary American has 82 (22.5%) examples of free reign vs 283 (77.5%) for rein (This includes variants of the phrase such as allow free reign, have free reign, etc.) In the Oxford English Corpus, rein occurs about 38% of the time.

I wonder

‘I wonder what “to give free reign” to something means…’

The folk etymology involved in reign presumably runs something like this: ‘during a ruler’s reign they exercise power, which can range from limited to total. So, if they have free reign, their power must be unlimited’. Extending that interpretation to the metaphor then makes complete sense.

(And, as the Oxford words blog points out, the confusion affects not only free reign, but also, e.g. You mentioned Castro’s illness. Obviously, he turned the X reigns of power over to his brother, because…)

The rein/reign substitution is easy because both words sound identical. That homophony also explains shoe-in for the original shoo-in.

If someone is a shoo-in for a job, election, award (Oh, no! Not flippin’ Adele again!) or whatever, they are certain to get it, barring acts of God.

This jolly little chap, in the Horse of the Year Show, aged 3, must be destined to hold the reins of power.

This jolly chap, in the Horse of the Year Show at the tender age of 3, must surely be destined to hold the reins of power.

While the metaphor involved in free rein is still transparent to many, and must once have been so to all, the semantics of shoo-in are not immediately clear, although they too are horsy.

Going one step back from its equine origins, think of the noises you make as drive away your neighbour’s mangy cat, hens, etc., ‘Shoo! Shoo!’ , while you flap your hands wildly, kick out, and spit and growl (well, I do, anyway) at the unwelcome intruder.

From that comes the verb to shoo, which can mean ‘to frighten something away’, but can also mean ‘to move someone or something in a desired direction’:

I do not churlishly flatten her on to the sofa nor shoo her downstairs.

1973,   M. Amis Rachel Papers, 150.

From that comes the phrasal verb to shoo in, originally US slang, meaning ‘to allow a racehorse to win easily’:

There were many times presumably that ‘Tod’ would win through such manipulations, being ‘shooed in’, as it were.

1908 ,  G. E. Smith Racing Maxims & Methods of ‘Pittsburgh Phil’, ix. 123

And then that verb is nominalized:

A ‘skate’ is a horse having no class whatever, and rarely wins only in case of a ‘fluke’ or ‘shoo in’.

1928,   National Turf Digest (Baltimore), Dec. 929/2

Awww! A cynophilist's little self-indoggence.

Awww! A cynophilist’s little self-indoggence.

Given that almost Abrahamic succession of meanings, is it any wonder that people plump for shoe-in? Here’s my folksy definition, for what it’s worth.

If you or someone are a shoe-in for something, you can ease into it as easily as you can ease your feet into a shoe (with or without the help of a shoehorn) or into a pair of comfy slippers.

Obvious, really.

In CoCA, shoo-in appears nine times, eight of them in spoken data; shoe-in appears 44 times, 31 of them in spoken—, which, of course, raises the issue of transcription error. However, the 13 that are not spoken but written still outnumber the 9 of shoo-in.

Other well-known folk etymologies of this type (standard version first) give us

fazed (phased)
bated breath (baited breath)
just deserts (just desserts)
strait-laced (straight-laced)

to name just a few.

In the next blog, I’ll come back to some other changes wrought by folk etymology.


1 The OED dates yonks to the 1960s. It’s a bit of a memento mori to think that I can remember it coming in, and discussing with my chums/father/brother (not sure which) where it came from.

2 A term, I now discover, thanks to Ben Zimmer, the Sherlock Holmes of the linguistic microcosm, coined in 2004 by a linguist at Yale.