Monthly Gleanings: April 2011
By Anatoly Liberman
In lieu of an introduction
The best way of finding out whether “the world” is watching you is to err. The moment I deviate from the path of etymological virtue I am rebuffed, and this keeps me on my toes. Even an innocent typo “causes disappointment” (as it should). Walter W. Skeat: “But the dictionary-maker must expect, on the one hand, to be snubbed when he makes a mistake, and on the other, to be neglected when he is right” (1890). Apparently, this blog does not exist in a vacuum, though I would welcome more questions and comments in addition to rebuttals and neglect. Among other things, I noticed that my angriest opponents are those who have no facts (just opinions) at their disposal. For example, I once stated that contrary to the loss of endings or changes in the word order in the history of English, sentences like if a tenant is evicted, it does not mean they were a bad tenant were promulgated and enforced by overzealous social engineering, rather than being a product of natural development. I was immediately told that such constructions had flourished since the days of Chaucer, if not since the reign of King Alfred. I am still waiting for evidence from Old and Middle English. (Peter Maher has recently sent me the sentence: “Officials believe that it were Dissident Republicans opposed to the peace process who carried out the bombing.” This is another example of enthusiasm running away with common sense. They so say in German (es waren…), where the link verb (copula) agrees with the predicate, but English is not German, is it?)
Some time ago I read a vitriolic comment on my post titled “Death of the Adverb” (the writer from Australia was quite “incensed” by it). While discussing the phrase do it real quick, I maintained that hardly any speaker of American English would use either really or quickly for real and quick in it. First of all, it was pointed out that having Oxford University Press in New York (where this blog was founded) is an oxymoron (no need to fear the American conquest like the Viking raids or the Norman Conquest of 1066: branches of OUP are situated in many places, while Oxford is still in England, and may it stay there for another million years). Second, Americans were advised to leave English alone. This is familiar advice. Thus, at the end of the 19th century bitter complaints were voiced about (over?) “…the unlicensed liberty of speech by which some American public men are wont to recklessly debase our common English tongue”; the tongue is common, but don’t you dare paw it over. (Here I cannot refrain from the remark that in British English wont is homophonous with won’t, whereas in American English it is indistinguishable from want, but this is by the way.) Now what about real quick? Here my opponent, who reveals his age (“fifty odd years”) suggested that adjectives and adverbs simply merged in those words and yielded identical forms. I am afraid that during (over?) the last half-century the writer has not had a chance to study the history of English. Mergers are common. For instance, fast (adjective) and fast (adverb) were different in Old English (the adverb had -e at the end), but when unstressed vowels were shed in Middle English, the two words became homonyms. Occasionally tangles are produced, and then we observe division of labor, as between hard and hardly. Nothing similar occurred in the history of real and quick: the adjectives are still real and quick, while the adverbs are really and quickly. Constructions like do it real quick developed naturally (unlike the tenant who are evicted, see above). In German, this process has gone much farther, so that schnell is “quick” and “quickly,” gut is “good” and “well,” and so forth. Sorry for striking back when I am hit. None of us live(s) in a house of bulletproof glass.
Those who prefer to leave English alone are invited to partake of the next course.
The beauties of like and other charmers
Like. Some time ago I expressed my disapproval of like used as an expletive (Will you come, like, tomorrow?). Reminder: an expletive is not only a swear word but any superfluous element in a sentence. Much to my surprise, I found few allies. Those who commented on my post made it clear how old-fashioned I was and how charming and spicy like is. I am sure they are right on both points: I am woefully old-fashioned and like is a true delight, like Turkish delight and many others. To reinforce their argument, I will reproduce the speech of a young man, as reported by a journalist who has fond memories of the roaring sixties, the activism of his young days, and antiwar protests of that era. Nowadays young people are despicable. Here is what one of them said to him (the author claims it to be a direct quotation): “Yeah, what? Afghanistan? Where is…. Yeah, like, well you know, we’ve been over there for a while, I think—right? And, like, yeah, I am not really sure how that, is like, or what’s going on with that.” The very incarnation of natural, virgin charm, isn’t it?
You know. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news—which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners” (Hillary Clinton testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2, 2011).
Entrenched redundancies: continue on, separate out and focus in (on something)
I was asked to comment on the collocations italicized above. Language is almost unbelievably redundant. It has to be such, to break through the “noise.” This is equally true of phonetics, morphology, syntax, and lexis. No one rails against fall down (he fell down and broke his crown), though falling up contradicts the laws of physics. Yet continue on and focus in sound overspecified. In the first case, we are facing a blend of continue and go on; in the second perhaps of focus and zero in, a common process in forming new locutions. Continue on has minimal appeal, but so many people use it that it is probably here to stay. Separate out occurs less often, but the trend may be on its side. Focus in is still rather rare (around where I live, that is, in the American Upper Midwest). Linguistic futurology is a thankless task: predictions about which elements of language will recede and which will take over seldom come true. Continue on, focus in, and separate out needn’t have been born, but they are with us, and their use is a matter of taste. If you don’t like them, avoid them (live and let live). The most demanding editors will probably advise authors to delete on, in, and out, but, not being an editor, I am not sure.
Soda versus pop. The best information on such questions can be found in Dictionary of American Regional English (for pop and coke see volume 4, p. 279; volume 5 with soda has not yet appeared), but here is a brief answer, copied from Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, the entry soda pop): “The terms soda pop, soda, and pop are widely used throughout the U.S., although pop is mainly associated with the Midland U.S. Dope is used as a synonym in the Southern U.S, esp[ecially] in the South Atlantic States, and tonic is used in eastern New England.” How they happened to gain currency in just those areas is another question.
Comments on comments
First the formulaic statement: thank you very much for questions, responses, letters, and comments.
Teetotal. Stephen Goranson points out that the earliest citation for teetotal known to him goes back to 1810. Antedating is crucial in some cases and only curious in others. This example belongs to the first category, for it makes the widely publicized anecdotes about the origin of teetotal look suspicious. As I said in a recent post on toast (quoting Skeat), pretty tales about etymology should be taken with a big grain of salt. Spanish spelling reform. My information was borrowed from the popular press, and I should have known better than to trust it. Thanks to John Cowan, who relieved my fears. It turned out that the scope of the reform is extremely limited, so that in the future I’ll still be able to read Spanish with correct stresses. (By the way, more and more people around me say in future rather than in the future. Can anyone comment on this trend and perhaps even explain the difference between the two variants? Strangely, in German there is some difference between in Zukunft and in der Zukunft.) Engl. count ~ recount and Italian contrare ~ raccontrare. Yes, indeed, the juxtaposition in Italian is the same as in the other Romance language, and the relevant verbs have the same Latin etymon. Stress in Russian. Accenting words in written Russian would be impossible. Marking stress makes sense when one deals with a system and deviations. That is why the traditional notation in Classical Greek was reasonable (regardless of the nature of Greek stress and the time that notation was introduced). The same holds for Spanish and would be beneficial for Italian. But in Russian, stress is unpredictable despite the numerous attempts to produce schemes and tables. Especially wayward are the forms of declension and conjugation, and native speakers of Russian vary greatly with regard to how they accent those forms. If some little comfort can be got from the Russian saying “in company even death is sweet” (na miru i smert’ krasna: stress has been marked in bold), it should be remembered that stress is a grave problem for native speakers as well. Special dictionaries of stress for people in the media have been published. Nowadays all regulations for those who stand in front of a microphone have collapsed (freedom), which is good for foreigners but bad for educated ears. “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.” I fully agree and rejoice in the fertility of my students’ minds. However, I don’t understand why they misspell some words in the same way all over the country. My favorite examples are alot (read: a lot) and ocurence (read: occurrence). Why do all of them they know exactly how to maim those and several other words? Damn poor minds, inspiration, or what? Desmodromic. This word means a valve for an internal combustion engine. Question: May desmodromic or a derivative be used for a person or action that is positive or is there a better alternative? Here I am quite out of my depth and can only say that since nouns ending in -ic and referring to people abound (fanatic, rustic, and so forth), there is no linguistic reason why desmodromic should not join them. Some -ic people are nice, others are not. Whether any given individual would like to be called a desmodromic can be discovered only in an experimental way. This blog will not bear responsibility for the results.
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.”