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An interlude

By Anatoly Liberman


Every word journalist is on the lookout for interesting pieces of information about language. H. W. Fowler, the author of the great and incomparable book Modern English Usage, confessed that his main reading was newspapers. Naturally: where else could he find so much garbled English? However, Fowler also took to task Dickens, Thackeray, and other greats, who died before they had a chance to profit by his strictures. I too have a heap of multifarious clippings and sometimes feel the desire to share part of my treasures with the world. Unfortunately, my treasures look more like paste than like diamonds.

Cherchez la femme.
From a student newspaper: “If a student said she wanted to study in America, it’s daunting for them to figure how they organize what’s private versus public….” She is right, and so are they. Foreign students are beset by problems and the mysteries of English, both public and private. What was it that Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess found? A mare’s nest, if I remember correctly. A learned linguist writes: “…who explains everything explains nothing, does she?” I agree. If one hitches her wagon to a star, they may have a bad fall.

Producing the species by division, or, One murderer, two murderers, many murderers.
“It’s akin to telling a first-time murderer that they won’t be sent to prison as long as they give up their guns.” Politically correct but terrifying.

To be or to not be.
Inserting not between to and the infinitive is here to stay. This usage is not old, for I don’t remember seeing it forty years ago, or perhaps it occurred seldom and passed unnoticed. Today even George F. Will writes: “The broadcast and cable organizations that pay billions for the rights to televise football have an incentive to not call attention to health problems.” If you are received at Lady Windermere’s, you are fully respectable. Likewise, if George F. Will can say to not call attention, Hamlet is put to shame for all eternity.

Political jargon.
The second elements of compounds sometimes pry themselves loose from their roots and become productive suffixes. This happened to -gate after Watergate and to -burger, abstracted from hamburger. Such creations, though not always elegant, are not necessarily repellent (unless trodden to death). But when phrases begin to multiply like maggots, they inspire horror in timid hearts. Some people may remember the wonderful and efficient “reset button.” Requiescat in pace. But I truly enjoyed the following: “An analysis in the Times of Israel, citing unnamed sources, said that Obama’s decision to hit the pause button had ‘privately horrified’ Jerusalem.” The pause button! I am trying to think creatively: the hate button, the gluttony button, the lechery button…. Hit them and don’t be privately horrified.

More amazing horrors.
Slate reported that in the recent past no other new coinage had irritated people more than amazeballs. “In September 2012, amazeballs rolled into the Collins Online Dictionary, with the definition ‘an expression of enthusiastic approval’. The Urban Dictionary glosses it thusly: ‘Basically beyond amazing. Being so awesome that a regular word can’t describe you’. It appeared on PeretzHilton.com as early as 2009…. The word began trending on Twitter that year.” I detest the adverb thusly, though I see and hear it all the time. I also detest awesome—not because it is a wrong word but because, along with cool, it has become a marker or even the marker of all emotions. Be that as it may, the end of the article in Slate cannot but afford pleasure: “In November of last year, amazeballs… was added to the Dictionary of the Most Annoying Words in the English Language, when it was defined as ‘an exclamation inviting someone to hit you’.” Time to hit the pause button.

An example of a particularly repulsive verb has been sent to me by an unknown correspondent: “The effects of last night’s storm continue to repercush this morning.” Other back formations (such as to sculpt) do not arouse our ire only because we are used to them, but repercush…. In the nineteenth century, the phrase the genius of the language enjoyed some popularity. No doubt, repercush (from repercussion) has been brought to life by the genius of Modern English, and it is all over the place. Yet we (or some of us) shiver. Speakers create neologisms, and sensitive people object. Impact, which has replaced influence, may have nothing to recommend it, but the verb to impact is a well-known irritant. At one time, indignant readers implored the editors of popular journals to kill the noun meet. Lost battle, ladies and gentlemen: wilderness will take over and produce what is called in Academia the history of language. Stay away from it as long as you can.

Nothing is new under the linguistic moon.
The United States, 1863. A contributor to the short-lived periodical The Continental Monthly wrote an article titled “Word-Murder.” It was about the abuse of adverbs, the disease I call adverbialitis. “Actually was a nice word. We suffered a loss when it died, and it deserves this obituary notice. It was a pretty word to speak and to write, and there was a crisp exactness about its very sound that gave it meaning.” The Civil War is over, and many more wars have been fought since 1863, but the reinforcing adverb actually has proved to be invincible. As could be expected, if you reinforce everything you say, the effect is no longer felt: to be heard, you have to shout louder and louder. Sometimes, while listening to people, I take notice of the sentences that do not begin with actually. Those are few. But some clouds have an attractive lining: however annoying the interlocutor or the speaker may be, a linguist is never bored, for he/she/they can always ignore the content and observe the accent and usage. The author of the article in The Continental Monthly also buried the once workable adverbs positively, seriously, perfectly, really and truly, and the phrase upon my honor. Most of them are still alive, risen from the grave like John Barleycorn.

Now all the way to the British Isles! From a letter to the editor, dated July 15, 1905: “I wish to draw attention… to the misuse of the verb to lay in place of the verb to lie.” What a chestnut! The correspondent bemoans sentences like I am going to lay down. He then finds the same dreadful mistake in Anthony Trollope, and the editor refers to the confusion of lay and lie in Childe Harold. The confusion is ancient and ineradicable, so let the sleeping dogs lie, take the defeat lying down, “lay down,” and have a rest: no one is listening to you. Be grateful that hens still lay eggs, and, if that is not enough, murmur to yourself the end of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.” By the way, some wide-awake undergraduates invariably giggle when they hear about the lay of the Nibelungen (a first class lay, I may add).

Nautical idioms?
Is the origin of the following idioms known? From E. W. J. B.’s letter to The Spectator 113, 1914, p. 496 (“Nautical Colloquialisms”): “…take the two expressions touch and go, meaning a narrow escape, and hard and fast, for an incisive conclusion. Both I believe to be instances from nautical experience—the first to signify a slight or momentary grounding and subsequent floating, the second a stranding of the vessel.” Perhaps an expert in nautical language or some regular reader of The Mariner’s Mirror will be able to tell us whether E. W. J. B.’s hypotheses are to be trusted.

Old Scotticisms.
Rather long ago I began reproducing items from Scots Magazine for 1760. There I found Scots words as opposed to their English equivalents and was surprised that some Scotticisms of the mid-eighteenth century are now part of the English Standard. Others were curious for their own sake. No one commented, and today I’ll close the series, to stage a graceful exit rather than to make a point.

  • S. compete, E. enter into competition;
  • S. adduce a proof, E. produce a proof;
  • S. in no event, E. in no case;
  • S. bygone, E. past;
  • S. a chimney, E. a grate;
  • S. to furnish goods to him, E. to furnish him with goods;
  • S. to be angry at a man, E. to be angry with a man;
  • S. butter and bread, E. bread and butter;
  • S. deduce, E. deduct;
  • S. a pretty enough girl, E. a pretty girl enough (!).

A Pretty Enough Girl
A Pretty Enough Girl
A Girl Pretty Enough.
A Girl Pretty Enough.

And on this pretty note, I’ll finish today’s interlude. Enjoy the pictures by Karl Bryullov (1799-1852) and note that he and Pushkin (1799-1837) were born in the same year.

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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Italian Morning by Karl Bryullov, 1823. Public domain via Wikipaintings. (2) Bathsheba by Karl Bryullov, 1832. Public domain via Wikipaintings.

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Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    A smashingly fun one this week!!! I nodded vigorously, too, when I read “…however annoying the interlocutor or the speaker may be, a linguist is never bored, for he/she/they can always ignore the content and observe the accent and usage. ” Probably why I missed the gist of many lectures.

  2. John Cowan

    The earliest use of to not + verb in COHA is from 1828, in Rachel Dyer: A North American Story by John Neal: “It being much more easy to overlook that which is, than to see that which is not; much more easy to not see a shadow that falls upon our pathway, than to see a shadow where indeed there is no shadow; much more easy to not hear a real voice, than to hear no voice.” In Google Books we find “By commanding them to not go, they took no real gospel authority from them” from Saint’s Herald vol. 2 (1861). I suggest you are suffering from the Recency Illusion.

    Google only reports about a thousand hits for repercush, and more than forty times as many for the standard verb repercuss. I don’t think the former will take over any time soon.

    Searching for the saying “Touch and go is a good pilot” turns up hits as early as 1821. Nowadays, the literal use of touch and go is probably mostly aeronautical rather than nautical: it refers to landing an airplane just sufficiently for the wheels to touch the ground and then taking off again. It is a common maneuver by student pilots in order to practice landing, the hard part of which is getting the plane safely onto the ground.

  3. [...] and go. I asked our correspondents whether anyone could confirm or disprove the nautical origin of the idiom touch and go. This is the [...]

  4. Terry Collmann

    Anatoly, have you really not ever used a sound/video recorder with a “pause” button? You seem to be implying you’ve never heard the term …

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