Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


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gambit vs gamut. The whole gamut of emotions or gambit of emotions? Run the gamut or gambit?

Here’s a whole gamut of emotions. Or do I mean gambit? Read on.

 


The other day a friend used the word gambit in a context where gamut would have been the “natural” thing to say. It goes without saying that I didn’t behave like a language fascist and point this out to them (note my cunning use of the so-called “singular they/them” to conceal gender): I merely noted a linguistic event for later investigation (Pull the other one! Ed.)

And sure enough, there is objective evidence that this isn’t a one-off—which set me wondering why. Before delving into my lucubrations, let’s look at what the two words in question mean.

What do they mean? And how are they used?

First, gambit. This originated (1656) as a chess term, originally denoting a game or series of moves that entailed making a sacrifice to gain an advantage, and then narrowing semantically to mean specifically an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.

However, unless you’re a chess buff, you’ll only encounter or use the word in the two other meanings that developed from those chess ones.

First historically and by frequency comes, as the OED defines it, “A remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation or discussion”: e.g.

His favourite opening gambit is: ‘You are so beautiful, will you be my next wife?’.

Bernard made no response to Tom’s conversational gambits.

Typical adjectives that go with this meaning are opening and conversational.

Next, “A plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”: e.g.

He sees the proposal as more of a diplomatic gambit than a serious defense proposal.

Campaign strategists are calling the plan a clever political gambit.

A more common or garden synonym for this meaning is tactic.

As in the examples, it needs adjectives to support it, such as diplomatic, bold, clever, desperate, daring, etc. Typical verbs of which it is the object are try and employ, and as subject, succeed/pay off/fail.

However, the most common verb in the corpus I consulted that “activates”1 gambit is run, of which more later.

Here’s another gamut of emotions. Mainly disagreeable, I agree.

Gamut

As with gambit, and as with so very many words we use every day, gamut started life in a specific field of knowledge: music. Its more technical musical meanings needn’t concern us here, but one less technical meaning is “The full range of notes which a voice or instrument can produce, or which are used in a particular piece.” From this came its more generic modern meaning: “The whole gamut of something is the complete range of things of that kind, or a wide variety of things of that kind”: e.g.

Varied though the anthology may claim to be, it does not cover the whole gamut of Scottish poetry.

As the story unfolded throughout the past week, I experienced the gamut of emotions: shock, anger, sadness, disgust, confusion.2

The word is most often used in the syntax

the + (adjective) + gamut + of + noun(s),

and in particular in the noun group the whole gamut of.

Typical nouns are issues, topics, styles, activities, services and experience, but the most typical noun of all is emotions, as in the legendary, but somewhat apocryphal Dorothy Parker put-down of Katharine Hepburn’s acting ability: Miss Hepburn ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.

Note the verb ran there, because run is far and away the most common verb “activating” gamut (followed in a lagging second place by cover.)

In what contexts are the words confused? And which way round?

Confusion of the two words is not that common, as discussed below; when it happens, gambit usually replaces gamut.

You may remember that when describing gambit I said run was its most common “activating” verb too, as in *The emotions run the gambit from joyous exultation to disgust, anger, and sadness, and each are [sic] performed so flawlessly as to take you, the viewer right into them as well.

The software underpinning the Oxford English Corpus, which I used here, makes it possible to compare the collocations of two different words (lemmas) using an analysis called “Sketch Diff”. (Bracketed figures below show the number of examples.) Using this for gambit and gamut shows that overlaps are restricted, as follows:

“activating” verb: run the gamut/gambit, (1746:50) cover the gamut/gambit (220:7)

noun + of: gamut/gambit of emotions (217:10)

adjective + noun: whole gamut/gambit (483:25)

As can be seen, the substitution of one for the other is a minority trend, unlike, e.g. replacing the etymologically correct minuscule with miniscule. Percentages of mistaken gambit out of all occurrences of the collocation in question range from 2.78 per cent (run…) to 4.92 per cent (whole…).

Another adjectival collocate of both words is usual (20:11). However, in only one of the eleven examples with gambit is it a slip: “*Emotions run the usual gambit of love and loss, but they’re sufficiently covered in metaphor and conceit, most often taking the guise of flowers and other elements of the natural world.”

Does it make any difference to understanding?

I humbly submit that it doesn’t. I’ve probably missed some, but here are some possible scenarios for people hearing/reading the confused use:

They know both words and their meanings will mentally (or verbally, if they want to lose friends) make the correction

They know only gambit, and know only its correct meaning, will interpret, query, or, possibly, attach a new (mistaken) meaning to the word

They  know only gambit, and have “gamut” as a meaning and will…well, nothing will happen, actually

People who know only gamut will mentally replace gambit with gamut

People who know neither word will work out the “meaning” of gambit from the surrounding context, and possibly perpetuate the error.

Why does the confusion occur?

Neither word is common. Gambit occurs less than once per million words. Gamut is more frequent, at almost 1.5 times per million. (But compare either with say, tactic(s), which occurs 26 times per million.) According to Collins, both fall within the 30,000 most common words of English, but that hardly makes them A-listers, given that a mere 7,000 words (lemmas) make up 90% of all texts.

Their relative infrequency means that there are not many opportunities available to sort sheep from goats, or one from the other.

In addition, I can’t help wondering whether phonetics or phonotactics plays a part: gambit contains the gamb– string that occurs in gamble, gambol and a total of 47 headwords in the OED. The string gamu– occurs only in—well,  you guessed it.

If you heard the word gamut and never saw it written, might you assimilate it to your known gambit?

Alternatively—and to be honest, as I get older I favour this interpretation more and more—it might be Dr Johnson’s “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

How old is this switching?

Some of the data in Google Ngrams is curious.3 For example, if you search for the string “gambit of emotions”, there seems to be a rash between 1968 and the mid-1990s, but then it disappears. Searching for “the whole gambit of” reveals an earliest example from 1937, including in Hansard and other parliamentary texts. However, Google Ngrams is a treacherous friend: it turns out that “the whole gambit” in Hansard means what it says, i.e. “the gambit in its entirety of…”.

An etymological note

Gambit is interesting in that it sems to be the bastard child of both Italian and Spanish.

On its first appearance in English it was gambett, showing a derivation from Italian gambetto, literally “little leg.” The OED etymology suggest this order of derivations:

gambito (Spanish, 1561) < gambetto (Italian, 14th century). Both -ito and -etto are diminutive suffixes in Spanish and Italian respectively, the ultimate source being Italian gamba = leg.


  1. In Mel’ˇcukian terms of lexical relations, Oper1
  2. Examples come from the excellent Collins Cobuild Dictionary, designed for ESL/EFL purposes, but actually extremely instructive IMHO for mother tongue speakers too.
  3. If you search for a string, Google will sometimes present examples that show the words occurring in the same context, but in isolation. This clearly skews results.

 


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We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (2/2)

This is the face my gran pulls every time she hears “around” used instead of “about”. I’m worried her false teeth will fall out.

What’s this about?

As the title shows, it’s the continuation of the earlier blog on this topic:

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past.
  • Some people loathe it.
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?
  • If you were editing, how would you replace it?

For those in a hurry, here are the conclusions:

  • Around does seem to be on the increase in combination with certain kinds of noun.
  • It is not only a replacement for about: it can also replace or stand in for other phrases and prepositions (e.g. on, over).
  • It is not free, in the sense that it cannot fit into any slot where about works (e.g. you could not say “I know nothing around it”).
  • As far as I can tell, it is used chiefly in the syntagma NOUN (often plural) + around + NOUN (often plural or uncount, and including verbal nouns [“gerunds”, if you must]).
  • If one wished to edit it out, it is often clear immediately how to do so.

The earlier blog concluded with this paragraph:

“Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.”


Now, please read on… [A ten-minute read — or one minute if you’re Oscar Wilde]

Some examples of the contested use

Using Google Ngrams to find nouns preceding around produces only the literal meaning, e.g. arms around (i.e. he put his arms around her).

However, the OEC (Oxford English Corpus) comes to the rescue – sort of. If you look for plural nouns followed by around, and exclude the obvious physical meanings (e.g. business leaders around the world) you get problems, ideas around and, heaven forbid, pace my correspondent, stories around. Here are some examples:

  1. “…Ruiz constructs a vertiginous cascade of stories around a same theme that bleed into each other with a baffling, hypnotic fluidity.” Senses of Cinema, 2002
  2. “…Hastings believes there has been insufficient debate about what he sees as the huge social problems around the marketing of fast food and snacks.” Sunday Business Post, 2003.
  3. Things Fall Apart involves a range of questions around the term “Third World.” The Hindu: Literary Review, 2002.
  4. “There were also a number of other problems around the workings of the gate including the width of the net clearance provided by the gate, …” England and Wales High Court Decisions, 2003.
  5. “Basically, gay artists have pushed sexual politics and ideas around sexual art quite far.” Montreal Mirror, 2002.

What becomes apparent from these examples is that, actually, in my opinion, in only the third and fifth of them could you realistically replace about with around. Try it yourself, to see what you think. In the other three, an adjectival phrase is needed, or a different preposition could have been used: in the first something like “stories on/dealing with/ concerned with, etc. a same theme”; in the second and fourth “with/connected with/arising from/caused by, etc…problems”.

So, what is going on?

As the first part of the OED definition suggests (“In reference or relation to; concerning, about”), around is not solely a modish or overused replacement for about in the meaning of “concerning”, though it often is just that. Take the phrase “ideas around sexual art” from the last quotation above. There are two entities – ideas and sexual art – and the speaker wishes to state that there is some kind of relationship between them, but the nature of this relationship is unspecified.

Possible explanations

  1. If you wanted to be leadenly literalistic, you could argue that this use of around foregrounds its physical meaning to create an image of something hovering around something else without actually touching it. That interpretation would then interpret the widespread use of issues around as a kind of liberal pussyfooting around sensitive issues. (The theory of reiconization, discussed at the end, seems to have great explanatory power, and could be taken to reinforce this interpretation.)
  2. Alternatively, one could suggest that the speaker is either being deliberately vague, or accidentally wooly.
  3. Alternatively yet again, one could simply say that the choice of around as the preposition following issues and related words is merely an increasingly prominent collocation – in the way that veritable is with smorgasbord  – while noting that it is not the only possible combination.

In fact, in the February 2014 OEC, issues around was less frequent than issues about (1744:2384) and the latter appears in examples such as the following where around could just as easily have been used:

“With or without these qualifications, the argument presented here raises general issues about the study of nineteenth-century expedition photography.” Art Bulletin, December 2003.

“Debates between the validity of medical and Neoplatonic interpretations of love thus clarify the extent to which what is seen as natural in love is a cultural construction involving wider philosophical issues about the body and gender.” Early Modern Literary Studies, May 2002.

Such collocational prominence for around seems to be self-perpetuating or self-reinforcing; the more people hear the collocation, the more people use it, and so on, ad infinitum. As evidence of this, the balance has changed dramatically in the space of three years: in the even larger May 2017 Monitor Corpus, issues around (excluding “around the world”) garners 7,496, issues about 4,606.

The process could be that the collocation is constantly expanding from issues as the head noun to other sets of words related semantically to core notions such as DISCUSSING, WORRYING, and REGULATING — and others still to be defined.

A search for PLURAL NOUNS + around + NOUN (of any kind) in the OEC threw up almost 115,000 examples. Most of them were in the physical sense; a small, random sample provided the collocations for our sense shown near the end of this blog.

Where did this use come from?

Because around in its “literal” physical meaning is more frequently used in AmE than BrE, it would be tempting to assume that this “new” use is ultimately American. I do not have enough information to say one way or the other; however, the earliest OED citation is from the British magazine Punch, from 1897. The next one noted by the OED is American, but then the 1970 one is, as far as I can tell, British. It is interesting that all include nouns relating to DISCUSSING rather than the word issues.

“Essence of Parliament… Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”
1897,  Punch 29 May 263/3

“The rather outstanding feature throughout the programs was the discussion around the larger problems of rural service.”
1938, Wisconsin Libr. Bull. July 133/1

“The..publication…has stimulated discussion around pre-capitalist economic formations of the non-European type.” 1970, M. A. Cook Stud. in Econ. Hist. Middle East (1978) 278 (note)

How frequent is it?

If someone has a linguistic bugbear such as the one I am blogging about, they are psychologically primed to notice it (and wince, scream, throw a hairy fit, etc.) whenever it happens. It then becomes a prominent feature of their perception of language, irrespective of how often it actually occurs in the stream of language they are exposed to.

Linguists call this the “frequency illusion”, meaning that once one notices a particular phenomenon one notices it over and over and over again and therefore believes it to be more frequent than it actually is (“frequency” here being objective, i.e. how often per million words of “text” [which covers spoken and written] does it occur?).

As mentioned earlier, Google Ngrams shows a fairly vertiginous rise in “issues around” in AmE and BrE. The use in British English takes off later than it does in AmE, which might provide some support for AmE spreading the use.

Other off-the-top-of-the-head collocations show an increase, like issues around, from the 1960s onwards:

discussion/rules/worries/anxiety/concerns/ around”.


On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve been noting its use in speech recently, particularly on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme I’ve put in brackets how I think it could be replaced if one (i.e. an editor) wanted to. The more I’ve looked into this, the more it strikes me that people use it in speech because there isn’t time to retrieve the more traditional/conventional/expected collocation — and because it is shorter — and because of reiconization.

challenges around – 22 June 2017 – British Chancellor of the Exchequer (posed by)
choices around – 23 June 2017 – a chief constable (recast the whole sentence?)
safety regimes around cladding – 26 June 2017 – I can’t remember who, sorry! (regulating, for)

And this was part of a statement by a CEO about a controversial issue:

“Instead, they were intended to outline a view that it is key for businesses in Scotland to have stability and clarity around ongoing important political issues.” (about, with regard to, when it comes to)

The most “arounded” conversation I have heard, however, comes from the leader of the Northern Ireland DUP party, Arlene Foster, from 26 May 2017, a part transcript of which is below.

Q: …
A: Well, I think this is an election about a couple of things. First of all, it’s about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – it’s also around getting the best deal for Northern Ireland in EU exit negotiations and making sure that we have a strong team to do that, and of course, it’s about the restoration of devolution as well.

Q: …
A: Oh, I think it can, and I think it can send a very clear message in relation to the Union. The Stormont elections were perilously close around a different set of circumstances…

In the first part, around looks like a way of not repeating about for the third time. In the second, however, it is distinctly unusual, given that there is a well-established prepositional collocation of under/in…circumstances. Moreover, it does not match the sytactic pattern mentioned earlier.


Other examples…

“I think after Will’s behaviour around women joining the team he should have been asked to leave already.” (over) (Twitter)

From OEC sample

“Though Zuckerberg has talked much about his opinions around borrowing ideas…” (about)

“…incomplete research into existing legal issues around encryption…” (affectingrelating to)

“The report recommended a raft of improvements around communication, stakeholder engagement, coaching, roles and responsibilities and leadership.” (to)

“The Government also agreed to lifting the restrictions around day-release for eligible prisoners…” (on)

“…directors emerged from a marathon board meeting on Thursday having resolved to implement new protocols around contracts after bungling negotiations…” (for, regulating, governing, etc.)

The wince factor

This is a purely and utterly subjective phenomenon – which is not to belittle its emotional intensity, but to state an obvious truth (or truism). [For example, I detest the pronunciation of “perfect” as /ˈpəːfɛkt/ rather than  /ˈpəːfɪkt/ because a) to my mind it reflects “spelling pronunciation”, and b) it is not the pronunciation I grew up  with. However, others might find this particular bugbear hard to understand or share.]

Words constantly change meaning and use. What is unusual, I believe, about around is that it is a preposition. Changes in the use of preposition are perhaps more noticeable because they are grammatical words, and grammatical words do not change that often or that quickly.

The eminent linguist Dwight Bolinger long ago devised the concept of “reiconization” to explain the increasing use of about to replace “of” in phrases such as “We’re more aware about it” rather than “aware of”.

I believe a similar process has happened/is happening with around: it sounds more graphic and literal than the now “empty” about.

Finally, we have no problem with the extension from the literal, spatial meaning of about to the less literal one of “concerning”. One could ask, why should around be any different?


Text of the abstract of the Bolinger article about reiconization (World Englishes, November, 1988).

“Reiconization refers to the process of reanalysis in which a meaningless or semantically opaque item is replaced by a new item with a transparent meaning. When the replaced (deiconized) item combines with other items to form a larger expression, the effect of reiconization is to maintain or restore the original meaning of the larger expression. This process is readily observable in the case of prepositions. For instance, the preposition of lacks a central meaning, and consequently, it is often replaced by the more iconic about or for, as in talk about rather than talk of. Similar examples can be found for other prepositions. Reiconization is not restricted to the replacement of prepositions, but operates at higher levels as well. The respecification of each in the reciprocal, each other, and the reanalysis evidenced by folk etymologies furnish examples of the operation of reiconization at different levels.”

One has to pay to read the article online. I shan’t attempt to summarize it, but will merely say that Bolinger gives several examples showing NOUN/ADJ/VERB + of collocations in which of is replaced by about: 

proud                                        |
I didn’t know what to make | about
disdainful                                 |
wary                                          |

He then goes on to say that while those phrases are reiconized by means of about, about itself is deiconized in the pair about vs around (in US English, at any rate.) Thus, to mess about is replaced by mess around, similarly,
stroll |
stand | about –> around 
throw|

That deiconization of about seems to go a long way towards explaining the rise and rise of around discussed in this blog.


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We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (1/2)

“I can’t stand this misuse of ‘around'”, she shrieked, pressing the heels of her hands hard into her temples as if she were trying to give her brain some relief from its distress.

What’s this about?

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past;
  • Some people loathe it;
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?

In a review a couple of years ago of my revision of Fowler, I was taken to task for not having dealt with the phrase “issues around”.

Recently, a correspondent, clearly in some linguistic distress, wrote to me about around, “the” – in her words – “new all-purpose preposition”. Her email was headed drolly “around around”. I quote some of it (underlining added).

I wanted to write to share my pain at the creeping use of around and ask your opinion of how it could possibly have crept so far and so fast. While five years ago or so it was restricted to the speech of a certain type of person (politicians, civil servants etc), I’m now hearing it everywhere and even seeing it written down more and more, including in the headlines of supposedly serious newspapers.”

In case, gentle reader, you are unaware of the use of around being alluded to, it is where, previously, most people would have used about. My correspondent continues:

I find it hard to understand is how it has slipped so smoothly into people’s speech. To me, ‘a story about’ is a phrase I learnt when I was little and I’d find it hard to change to “a story around” without putting serious thought into changing my natural way of speaking (and I think about language a lot).”

Someone unkinder than me (I?) might jibe that perhaps the wrong kind of thinking is going on. I digress.

I find it so upsetting that the wide variety of prepositions we’ve used for years has been replaced by this jarring interloper that kicks me in the teeth every time I hear it.

I know I’m being slightly overdramatic but I find it all so frustrating. I am something of a pedantic linguist but I love new, genuine changes that I think enrich the language (the sort of slang heard on The Wire). I detest the glibness and impoverishing effect on language of around.”


In Michael Winner mode, I might be tempted to say “Calm down, dear!” (Drat, I’ve just unwittingly revealed the gender of my correspondent and simultaneously outed myself as a chauvinist pig. So be it.)

That email raises several issues. I will deal only with the language (briefly), the question of newness, the question of frequency, and what I shall call “the wince factor”.

When I started work on my revision of Fowler a few years back, I originally intended to include around with its continual and seemingly unstoppable quest for Lebensraum. I decided not to, for several reasons; however, were another revision to happen, I would feel obliged to put it in. And I would have to do so because my correspondent – and I know she is not alone – shows all the signs of emotional distress that afflict certain people – me included – when faced with a usage they intensely dislike. Not being a psychologist, I cannot comment on how such distress relates to other psychological phenomena. But the language is typical of the overwrought phrases that people use when decrying what they see as solecism: “share my pain”, “jarring interloper”, “kicks me in the teeth”. From this, and from my previous experience of this kind of complaint, it is clear that there is a specific subgenre of “language grousing” one of whose characteristics is physical pain metaphors of the most hyperbolic kind.

(As it happens, my email writer did not acknowledge my lengthy reply, which might suggest that the outburst was a way of letting off steam. That might explain the extreme language.)

As for how my correspondent distinguishes between “new, genuine” changes and those affected by “glibness” or “an impoverishing effect”, the answer must surely be “Because I say so”. It is stating the obvious to say that such distinctions are an entirely subjective matter: your “glib” or “impoverishing” word or phrase may be my metaphor of choice.

Anyway, let’s draw a line under that aspect and move on. (Now, there’s a couple of “glib” phrases.)

How recent is this use of around?

Arnold Zwicky identified a phenomenon he dubbed the “recency illusion”, namely “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent”. My correspondent suggests that around to mean “about” has crept in and assumed a stranglehold over the last five years. It is undoubtedly older than that (and see also later on). In my mind, it is inextricably welded to the preceding noun issues, and I recall mentally noting this collocation issues around well over a decade ago, when it struck me as the jargon of the mealy-mouthed.

As regards the newness of this use of around = “about”, it is worth noting that the very recently revised OED entry (March 2016) includes a meaning category (B. II 11) defined as “In reference or relation to; concerning, about”, whereas the 2nd edition 1989 entry did not.  This shows that the OED lexicographers have decided it is a “thing.”

Now, I first noticed this issues around collocation as an irritating – to my sensibility, anyway – linguistic tic of academics, social workers, hacks and bien-pensant politicians. Google Ngrams shows its vertiginous ascent in that collocation quite clearly. (The texts in which it occurs are, Google confirms, indeed of the kind I have just mentioned.) What is noticeable, though, is that its irresistible rise and rise is not that recent. It is true that between 1980 and 2000 Google shows it rocketing up (its frequency in occurrences per million words goes up almost fourfold), but it had started its ascent well before that, roughly trebling between 1960 and 1980.

Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.

tbc very soon…


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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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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.