By Anatoly Liberman
The size of our passive vocabulary depends on the volume of our reading. Those who grew up in the seventies of the twentieth century read little in their childhood and youth, and had minimal exposure to classical literature even in their own language. Their children are, naturally, still more ignorant. I have often heard the slogan: “Don’t generalize!” and I am not. I am speaking about a mass phenomenon, not about exceptional cases. Try the simplest experiment: walk into a room full of college students and ask: “Have you read…?” Name any book from Gilgamesh to Goodbye, Columbus (the titles have been chosen for the sake of alliteration) and see how many of those present will raise their hands. So far, I have discovered only one “text” everybody seems to know, to wit, “Chicken Little” (“The Sky Is Falling”). Given the state of the market, recent authors use only the vocabulary their public can recognize; the more primitive the language, the more copies the publisher will sell. A student complained to me once that he had difficulty understanding my colleague who teaches Russian. I was surprised because I knew the man; his Russian is excellent. “You cannot understand his Russian?” I inquired. “No,” was the answer, “I don’t understand the English words he uses.” (Both the instructor and the student were native speakers of American English.) I remember similar remarks from my own experience and have been working for years on diminishing my “word hoard.” Compare the vocabulary of Charles Dickens and George Meredith with that of the books remaining “ten weeks on the NYT Best Seller list” and draw your own conclusions.
These thoughts occurred to me when I was looking through an eleven-page glossary appended to the Oxford edition of Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (Oxford World’s Classics, 1993). It is an exemplary edition and there was every reason to supplement it with a glossary. Many of the local words in the novel were and are foreign to readers south of the border, but quite a few surprised me. Is it possible that someone who can still enjoy Walter Scott should not be able to recognize them? My examples will be relatively few. Since this is an etymological blog, occasional hints to origins are given below (the spelling in the definitions will be those of the British edition).
Besom “broom; bad-tempered woman” (common to all the West Germanic languages; cf. German Besen) Few will remember the biblical source of the figurative sense, but what about the direct sense “broom”?
Bide “wait, tolerate, endure.” Are the phrase bide one’s time and the connection between bide and abide forgotten? (In abide, a- is a prefix, as in amaze, ashamed, and so forth.) A related question can be asked about fend “protect, provide, etc.” Do the phrase to fend for oneself and the closeness of fend to defend provide no clue to the meaning of fend?
Blithe “happy” (a common Germanic word; bliss is related to it). It means “joyous,” but the distance between “joyous” and “happy” is not great. The adverb blithely seems to occur more often than the adjective.
Brogue “coarse shoe” (a noun of Celtic origin). Brogue “Irish accent” and its probable association with brogue “shoe” must be alive, at least in the UK; however, I cannot judge.
Cronie, known to me only as crony (seventeenth-century university slang, ultimately from the Greek word for “time,” as in chronology, chronicle, and others). Do only Americans speak contemptuously about Mr. X and his cronies?
Dram “a drink of whisky” (ultimately again from Greek); a very common word in nineteenth-century books.
Bartizan “overhanging look-out turret projecting from a tower or parapet” and escalade “scaling the walls of a fortress using ladders” are like most Middle English military terms from French, though bartizan is a pseudo-archaic use of the Scots variant of bratticing (see the OED [sub req’d]), a word introduced and popularized just by Walter Scott. Obviously, vampires, witches, and wizards have ousted medieval knights from the popular imagination. Harry Potter vanquished Ivanhoe, and roaring lions are no match for silent lambs, but still…
Causeway “paved road” (a Romance word; it has nothing to do with cause: the loss of l in the middle severed the tie between its root and the reflexes of Latin calx “chalk’). I doubt that the noun has fallen into oblivion.
Harry “drag by force” (Common Germanic except Gothic). Does the biblical phrase the harrying of hell shed no light on the verb?
Mad “angry.” Don’t we still say: “I am mad at you”?
Nice “discriminating.” Everybody understands that nice distinctions are not necessarily pleasant distinctions, so that the older connotations of nice have not been wholly superseded by its present day meaning. (Compare fine dust: we don’t think that such dust is excellent.)
Touzle “disarrange.” This is a variant of tousle, as in tousled hair. Wait for glosses like realise “realize” and vice versa.
Grewsome is “gruesome.” Are we such matter of fact, down to earth people that we need help even here? Another spelling “conundrum,” as learned people like to say, is shamoy leather “chamois leather,” that is, chamois.
Hoity–toity belongs to an age gone by. Consequently, the interjection hout-tout (the same meaning) is probably opaque; too bad.
Worsted “woollen thread” and hodden grey “home-spun coarse woollen cloth.” Worsted (from a place name) must be clear to everybody; hodden (of uncertain origin) often occurs in nineteenth-century fiction, and not only in the works of Burns and Scott.
I assume that the game trick-track is more familiar to modern readers that bartizan, but there is a helpful gloss here too.
I have no idea how well people in the UK know regional words:
Bannocks, we are told, are flat cakes of oatmeal baked on a griddle, and that is what they certainly are.
Ingle–neuk (neuk = nook) “chimney corner.” Neuk is rather hard to guess, but ingle, a dear old word, must be less puzzling.
Humble cow “hornless cow” will indeed look odd to some people despite the phrase’s spread in northern dialects. Humble cows are not known for their humility, and Tacitus already noted that the ancient “Germans” cultivated this breed.
The glossary explains shaw “wood, thicket.” Doing so must have been a good idea. I have often cited shaw in my classes, while explaining Old Norse skógr “forest, wood.” No one recognizes shaw (or, for that matter, its synonym copse), though everybody knows the corresponding family name. As a result, I have to point to shaggy, another cognate of skógr.
Quean “girl, wench” has also faded from memory. I know this fact from my futile attempts to use Engl. quean in teaching Old English and Gothic. (Quean is not a doublet of queen: the two words are congeners, but at one time they had different vowels, a fact imperfectly rendered by the modern difference between ea and ee.)
Guessing that lassock is a diminutive of lass might not be too hard (cf. bittock “a little bit” in the glossary), and perhaps most southerners are aware of the fact that northern -g corresponds to southern –dge, so that “translating” brigg as “bridge” (especially in context) would not have been too formidable a task.
My list (I have a few more words to discuss but can do without them) is not meant as a criticism of an admirable edition. Obviously, the editors appraised the state of people’s knowledge of English quite accurately and did the right thing. Nor am I in the habit of bemoaning “the lost treasures of English.” Words die and spring up every day. But we needn’t accelerate the death of what should stay alive. The appearance of an insurmountable barrier between older culture (I say “older,” not ancient or medieval) and modernity is always sad to watch. We have reached a stage at which our young people feel comfortable only in dealing with one another, especially when they sit in a global ingle-neuk, text from the most recent contraption, and crunch a homemade bannock. Life is beautiful, but I am afraid this is not much of a subject for congratulation.
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.”