Monthly Gleanings: September 2010
By Anatoly Liberman
I am looking at the backlog of questions and comments for two months (there were no monthly gleanings at the end of August) and, first of all, want to thank everybody who has read the blog, reinforced my conclusions, disagreed or corrected me, given additional information, and asked questions.
Can American Sign Language (ASL) be viewed as having literacy? Words mean what people make them mean, and perhaps literacy can be understood in senses not familiar to the majority of speakers. The term computer literacy has almost turned literacy into a synonym for skills, and yet literacy presupposes an ability to read and write. Someone who can do neither is illiterate. Oral societies that later introduced a script are sometimes referred to as preliterate. From this point of view, ASL does not look to me as a language having literacy. I am not a specialist in ASL and argue from the position of an outsider. All the deaf and mute Americans I know use English as their medium of written communication, even though they consider ASL their native language.
Is Standard English pronunciation a viable concept? I think it is, even if only to a point. People’s accents differ, but some expectation of a more or less leveled pronunciation (that is, of the opposite of a broad dialect) in great public figures and media personalities probably exists. Jimmy Carter seems to have made an effort to sound less Georgian after he became President. If I am not mistaken, John Kennedy tried to suppress some of the most noticeable features of his Bostonian accent. But perhaps those changes happened under the influence of the new environment. In some countries, the idea of “Standard” has a stronger grip on the public mind than in North America. I have often heard people remarking: “He speaks beautiful French” or “Her Italian is wonderful,” and those remarks referred not only to style and vocabulary but also to the speaker’s delivery. Additionally, some local accents are usually called ugly, though from a linguist’s point of view, an ugly native accent is nonsense.
This brings me to some questions of usage. Discussing lie and lay for the umpteenth time would be even less productive than beating ~ flogging a dead horse. In some areas, the distinction has been lost, and so be it. English has lost so many words in the course of its history that the disappearance of one more will change nothing. So lay back and relax. The same holds for dived/dove, sneaked/snuck, and the rest. I only resent the idea that some tyrants wielding power make freedom loving people distinguish between lie and lay. Editors and teachers should be conservative in their language tastes. In works of fiction, characters are supposed to speak the way they do in real life, but in other situations it may be prudent to lag behind the latest trend as long as several variants coexist.
A curious detail of usage is the word dilemna. Our correspondent asked why several decades ago this form had become current on the East Coast. I confessed that I had never heard about this monster, but later searched the Internet. It turned out that some other people are as ignorant of it as I was, but I discovered that dilemna had invaded the English speaking world from New Zealand to Canada. Some children were even taught to pronounce -mn-. Here is probably a situation that will provoke no disagreement: dilemna is unacceptable. The first suggestion that comes to mind is that someone decided to change the spelling of dilemma under the influence of words like column, condemn(ation), and calumny. This would have been a tolerably good explanation if dilemna were an isolated case. But the idiocy is not local. There must have been an influential textbook recommending this spelling. Perhaps some older teachers of English are aware of such a textbook. Reference to it will be greatly appreciated.
Before leaving the questions of Standard English and usage, I would like to ask one more question. In an old post on the plural, I cited a student’s sentence: “The mood of the tales are gloomy.” I noted that this type of concord (agreement) had become the norm in informal American English. The rule, though castigated by editors and other “people in power,” runs as follows: make the verb agree in number with the next noun to it rather than the subject of the sentence. When I polled my undergraduate students about this rule, they agreed reluctantly that yes, are may be wrong here but “it flows better this way.” I admitted sadly that it certainly does and that it is a most convenient rule. Similar examples are easy to find everywhere. One of my favorites is: “The purpose of such studies are many.” The above quotations came from undergraduate papers. However, I see that at least one construction of this type has become acceptable to the Associated Press and other media. Here are three recent examples: “One in seven residents are foreign born,” “One in six Americans get government aid,” and (from The Onion, a satirical newspaper popular in the Upper Midwest and perhaps elsewhere, which is more often silly than funny): “Poll: 1 in 5 Americans Believe Obama Is a Cactus.” The subject of all three sentences is (are?) one. Shouldn’t the verb be in the singular after it (one in seven residents is foreign born, one… gets government aid, one… believes)? If most or all of our correspondents say that one… are, one… get, and one… believe sound right, whatever “charmingly antiquated” pedants like me think (the epithet was applied to me by one of our correspondents), I’ll concede defeat and say that the grammar of American English has made an important step toward legitimizing the gloomy mood of my tale.
Most comments I received deal with the use of the parasite like. The focus of my essay was on the etymology of this like, and I attempted to trace it to rather early usage, perhaps in part going back to the days of Shakespeare. No one has contested my hypothesis, and my list of similar fillers in other languages got a boost from my colleague Benjamin Slade, who pointed to an analog of like in Sanskrit. There have been a few valuable remarks on why like became fashionable in American English. Whatever the influence of Valspeak, the spread of like predates the release of Frank Zappa’s hit by at least a good ten years. There seems to be a consensus that like marks hedging, on a par with several other fillers. Some find the use of like beneficial (at any rate, not detrimental). I suspect they have not been exposed to students’ presentations, of which about one half consists of like and you know. Some correspondents complained that I had paid no attention to like introducing direct speech. (“I say, like: ‘We have split,’ and he goes: ‘No!’.”) Let me repeat: I wanted to discover the etymology of the parasite, rather than tabulate all the cases of its use. Most probably, the introductory like and the parasite have the same origin. Parasitology is a complicated branch of scholarship.
Word origins and related topics. The Milwaukee airport has a sign “Recombobulation Area.” What does it mean? I figured out the answer only from an etymological point of view, though I never suspected that etymology can be of any practical use. To be discombobulated means to be in a state of confusion. The word must have been produced in imitation of some other dis-verb or participle. Since this coinage is a bastard, lacking respectable parentage, the dis-less opposite does not exist. No linguist will object: after all, one can be disturbed and disconcerted but not turbed or concerted and even dismembered without much prospect of being membered (re-membered) again. People at Milwaukee took off the prefix and probably assumed that most people would guess that, if discombobulated means “confused, perplexed,” combobulated should mean “disconfused,” that is, “having a full grasp of one’s sense of direction.” Then (by back formation) they coined the verb combobulate and a verbal noun (combobulation). Adding the prefix re- was now a matter of no great ingenuity. I even have a 2009 photo of the area, but it is not quite clear what is happening there. If I may guess, this is the place where passengers, after getting their boarding passes and leaving the security zone behind, meet while waiting for the flight. Their mind is at ease, they know where they are going (and so does the pilot), and their fellow passengers are in a similar serene mood. Verbal jokes are great fun, but rebuses at an airport may make one, instead of, like, oriented, a bit discombobulated.
Left-handedness and southpaw. In my old post on south and north, I discussed the origin of southpaw. The word has been explained in a satisfactory way (there is even an article in Wikipedia on it). Curiously, north-handed is a word for “left-handedness” in some dialects. I made no attempt to list all the adjectives for “left-handed” occurring in my database. Some are obscure (for example, dawky, recorded in the neighborhood of Leeds), others add nothing new to what I have said. Hoosier. Many thanks to the Historical Society of Indiana for sending me an article from their journal Traces. Since it deals with history rather than etymology, I found no material in it that would make me modify my opinion. Weird sisters in Macbeth. In my post on words with the letter groups ier, ear, and the like, I said that the word weird might have disappeared if Shakespeare had not used it. The comment that in the texts of the play weird is spelled weyward and so on (clearly under the influence of wayward) changes nothing in the subsequent history of this adjective. The same holds for the disyllabic pronunciation of the word in I:3,30 (that is why some editors, beginning with Theobald, 1740, put a dieresis over the letter i in weird). It is no longer possible to discover why weird (the word that almost certainly was meant) could be pronounced in two syllables. Weird in the form in which we know it occurs many times in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I was glad to hear from Masha Bell, a fellow-in-arms for reforming English spelling. Yes, indeed, many of our spellings owe their existence to the illiterate compositors and printers, often not even native speakers of English. Stephen Goranson has found an interesting early verse in which kybosh means “lash” and is used with the verb put on. There is still some distance to cover from putting on a kybosh in the direct sense of the word and the figurative meaning “to put an end to something.” Wicked as an adverb (as in it is wicked awesome). See very early examples in the OED, though in Middle English the word had not yet acquired the sense “very.”
A friend said to one of our correspondents “I won’t fob you off,” that is, “I won’t forget about you or make pretenses to accomplishing the promised deed.” The question was what the etymology of fob may be. Fob “to cheat” (fob off “put off deceitfully”) is one of many Germanic words with the structure f + a vowel + a consonant meaning to “move back and forth.” The Engl. F-word also belongs to that group. German foppen “to banter” is either the source or a cognate of fob. Foppen, in turn, may be an alternation of Dutch fokken, which resembles German ficken (and we are back to Engl. fuck, another word of northern German origin). Vowels and consonants alternate freely in all those verbs, which often mean simply “move back and forth” (for instance, “to darn,” that is, “to ply one’s needle” and “run in different directions; said about a crowd),” but more frequently “copulate” (described from the male’s point of view); hence “to cheat.” I wrote about the connection in my recent post on pettifoggery. By the way, fob “small pocket” and its (once again) German dialectal cognate Fuppe are also allied to the verb fob. Pockets sometimes derived their names from the flap that opened and closed on them.
This is all for now. Send questions and comments and don’t fob us off.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”