By Anatoly Liberman
One cannot predict which posts will interest the public and which will leave them indifferent. I hoped that my “revolutionary” hypothesis on the origin of Old Nick would result in a tidal wave (title wave, as some of my students write), but it did not produce as much as a ripple, whereas the fairly trivial essay on the letter y aroused a lively discussion. I have heard statements along the same lines from publishers: a book seemingly destined to explode like a bomb falls to the ground without any noise, while an obscure treatise becomes a bestseller. Jack London tells the same story in Martin Eden, which is, in my opinion, his best, and quite undeservedly neglected, novel.
Summer is the time for light-minded pursuits, so today, instead of a regular set of gleanings, I decided to offer our readers a sample of what used to be called “table talk.” Serious answers next time!
Language and war.
Yes, indeed, great wars and conquests have a decisive effect on the spread of languages. The history of Greek, Latin, German, French, and English provides enough evidence of this fact. The decay of prestige is another worthy topic. In the nineteenth-century humanities, one had to use German and, in some areas, French. Nowadays it is English, but one need not ignore other circumstances. Thus, Latin remained the preferred medium of communication among scholars for more than a millennium after the death of the last native speaker of that language. There is always hope.
From my trasher island.
Those who have read the first, delightful editions of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage know that nearly all the examples of bad English he quoted came from newspapers, reports, and other documents of this type, though he was not above castigating Dickens and Thackeray. Reading newspapers, ads, and memos only for grammar, while ignoring (not even noticing) their content, is one of the greatest pleasures of every linguist. I have a sizable file of sentences that make me wonder what their authors were up to and call it trasher island. Here are some “facts on file.”
Will in conditional sentences.
“If you stand to earn some money with an accurate answer, cheerleading becomes much less attractive. And if you will lose real money with an inaccurate answer, you put a higher premium on accuracy” (Bloomberg News). If you stand to earn versus if you will lose: this is puzzling, or a conundrum, as people who think that they know Latin, say. In a conditional clause, will is not needed (“If you call me tomorrow, I’ll try to help you”). “If you will step into the next room, I may be able to help you” means approximately: “If you are so good as to step.…” Hence the much discussed and much abused phrase if you will “with your permission.” Or is will in the sentence given above a typo?
A daring past participle.
“Ended her near-silence about more than a week of massive, violent protests, she said in a prime time TV broadcast….” (New York Times; the reference is to the President of Brazil). This must mean having ended or after ending. With intransitive verbs such constructions are fine (“wounded in the war, he could no longer play the piano”), but a transitive verb is a different matter: compare lost his arm, he could no longer play the piano (obvious nonsense). So why did the two NYT authors write such a strange sentence? Another conundrum.
A controversial plural?
“Patients are what matter, first and foremost. Just as Hippocrates first wrote, thousands of years ago” (CAM, the alumnus magazine of Cambridge University). Even if Hippocrates made such a statement, he made it in Greek, whereas we are interested in the what matter group, which is Modern English. Shouldn’t matter have agreed with its subject what rather than with patients?
The present perfect.
“The contract has been signed a few years ago. It hasn’t been fulfilled yet,” Putin said (The Associated Press). I am sure Putin said it in Russian, so that at some stage an American journalist translated his words into English. Does has been signed go with a few years ago? I have grave doubts on this score.
Another gem from the Associated Press: who versus whom.
“The protests are seen as a display of frustration with Erdogan, whom critics say has become increasingly authoritarian.” It is funnier than usual, for here the verb (say) would not have been able to govern the pronoun.
The adjective proud has undergone a curious development. Below are a few examples parading on a descending scale.
- I am often invited to speak on subjects as different as the end of the world and Dickens’s bicentennial. Once an old lady (I could guess her age only from her voice) asked me on the telephone whether I would like to come to their group and speak about the Icelandic sagas (the group’s members were of Norwegian descent). I inquired meekly whether the group would offer me an honorarium. “We are a small but proud society,” was the answer. “Does that mean that you don’t pay your speakers?” “We are a small but proud society,” repeated the lady indignantly and hung up.
- Little children constantly ask their parents on what appears to be the slightest provocation: “Are you proud of me?” Isn’t proud too strong a synonym for “pleased, satisfied”?
- A local “eatery” near the place where I live “is proud to offer its customers New England coffee,” and at an excellent hotel I read: “Our Sustainability Program is proud to feature fast drying hand dryer in place of paper towels.” Really!
An old chestnut: amount versus number.
Here is at last something on which everybody seems to agree: use amount with uncountable nouns (a great amount of milk) and number with countables (a great number of milk bottles). Everybody, that is, except the speakers, who stubbornly cling to amount in both cases. Undergraduates, the most nonchalant cross-section of the semi-educated population, refuse to follow the rule approved by all grammarians. And Oscar Wilde, a lord of language, as he called himself, spoke about an amount of books and even about a scandalous amount of bachelors in London.
The denouement on a solemn note.
From the editor’s ad in The International Review 5, 1878, p. 701: “Dr. Charles Mackay informs me that the elaborate etymological work upon which he has been engaged for some years back will shortly be published. Its full title will be The Gallic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe, and more especially of the English and Lowland Scotch, and of their Slang, Cant, and Colloquial Dialects. The work is dedicated by permission to the Prince of Wales, and will be issued in the first instance to subscribers only… The list of subscribers includes three princes, all the universities, many of our nobility, and most of the well-known writers in English literature.” How sad! Mackay, a knowledgeable man and a good popular poet, derived thousands of words from Irish and became the laughing stock of philologists. Advice to subscribers, even if they belong to the quality of the land: look before you leap.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
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Image credit: Climber in trouble clinging to a cliff for dear life in The Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. © gregepperson via iStockphoto.