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Monthly Gleanings (August 2007)


By Anatoly Liberman

For quite some time, I have been answering direct questions at the expense of comments, even though they, too, often contained enquiries. I want to offer my apologies to the correspondents who have had to wait so long and incorporate my answers to them into this month’s gleanings.

There was a request for translating my post on trolls and trollops into Polish. Yes, please: go ahead and translate it, with reference to the original. Another correspondent mentioned a book written by Hensleigh Wedgwood after the appearance of the first edition of Skeat’s dictionary. I am well aware of Wedgwood’s book Contested Etymologies and have a Xeroxed copy of it. In my book on word origins, I say a few things on the relations between Skeat and Wedgwood. My thanks are also due to that correspondent for spotting a typo in George Marsh’s name; it has now been corrected. Typos prove the theory of spontaneous generation. It is incomprehensible how I managed not to notice the wrong letter, considering that the edition was before my eyes.

I have been told that speakers of British English rhyme dour with sour rather than with poor, which is the way it is done in American English. My original statement dates me, but curious things happen all the time. Not too long ago, I discovered that in England quagmire is pronounced quogmire. The people whom I polled later were between thirty and forty years old. Not only did all of them have the vowel of bog in that word: none knew that another pronunciation had ever existed. Dour, rhyming with poor, is, I believe, still the accepted variant in Scots, and at one time it was the main pronunciation south of the border. Obviously, it is no longer the case. A more basic question concerns the source of my statement (it deals with the death of the adverb) that rebuilding the bridge quick (rather than quickly) is probably how most speakers of American English would express this idea today. Let me make it real simple, as a California man quoted in The Washington Post put it. I was guided only by my observations. Naturally, the more educated people are, the more careful and “grammatical” their speech is, though few speak at home as they speak in public. No one will disagree with our correspondent that it is most interesting to watch language change. Yet I should repeat what I have said several times before: for an observer with conservative tastes it is rewarding to study language change but disgusting to be part of it. The border between adjectives and adverbs has been a battleground for centuries, and the retreat of forms ending in –ly cannot be doubted. This suffix is like hair: it hangs on where no one needs it. For example, why couldn’t goodly, rather than well, be an adverbial partner of good or get lost?

I have been reminded that butterflies are irresistibly attracted by the smell of butter. I know it, and there is a brief mention of this fact in my post. But they are also attracted to tree sap and, I am sorry to say, fresh dung. The question is whether butterflies’ love of butter could be a sufficiently important feature for giving them their name. The Dutch connection (butter-shitter) is much more prosaic.

Rhyming in an old Christmas carol
, in which grown / crown; flower / Savior; blood / good, and deer / quire are paired. Grown and crown never rhymed in the history of English and today they are rhymes to the eye. By contrast, blood and good had the same vowel (long o, as in Modern Engl. haw in the parts of the world where it is not pronounced as hah). Later this vowel acquired the value of Modern Engl. oo, and, depending on when it lost length either changed to the vowel of put, as happened in good, or went further and became what we hear in blood. Consequently, this rhyme to the eye has a solid historical foundation. Deer and choir (that is, quire) may rhyme in some dialects of English, for vowels are often “smoothed” before r, but in the carol an accurate rhyme was probably not meant. If Savior was sung as sa-vi-are (with two stresses), it could be a tolerable partner for flow-are; again we have vowels before r.

A few general questions. Why do our standard books on the history of English delay discussion of dialects until the end of the Old English period? I think they do so for practical reasons. Most of the extant texts in Old English are in the Wessex dialect, and only Middle English (unless the course is limited to a few hundred lines from Chaucer) cannot be understood without broad exposure to the main dialects. Advanced students of Old English read non-Wessex texts, and the best books on Old English (such as Sievers’s and Campbell’s) cite all the recorded forms and explain the changes in the Mercian and the Northumbrian dialect.

A list of words like present (noun) ~ present (verb), distinguished solely by stress. I am not sure that a complete list of such word pairs exists. A limited selection of them will be found in Hans Marchand’s book The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word Formation, 2nd ed. Munich: Beck, 1969, pp. 377-379. A few pairs of the permit ~ permit and refill ~ refill (noun ~ verb) type can be picked out from the list in Y. M. Biese, Origin and Development of Conversions in English. Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, B 45, 2. Helsinki 1941, pp. 454-460, and consult the references in the introduction to Donald W. Lee’s University of Wisconsin dissertation, Functional Change in Early English. Menasha, Wisconsin: Banta Publishing company, p. 3 (Kruisinga is especially useful). However, most authors are interested in pairs like bridge (noun) ~ bridge (verb).

The spellings -al, -el, -il, -ile, and –le. Is there a rule regulating the variants? I am afraid, there is not. Practically, all such words are of Romance origin and reflect the vagaries of French spelling. Take the notorious principal ~ principle pair. The adjective principal goes back to Old French principal, from Latin principalis (the last vowel appears under stress in Engl. principality). But knowing that it is an adjective does not help when we deal with school principal, where principal is a noun (hence the reminder that the principal is your pal). Principle is derived from French pricipe, with l inserted, perhaps on the analogy of other similar-sounding words. Manciple “an official who purchases provisions,” participle, and syllable also have “inorganic” (excrescent) l (Latin mancipium “purchase; slave” and Latin participium already developed l in Old French, whereas the Modern French forms are participe and syllabe). The last two letters of April and civil reproduce faithfully the spelling of their French etymons, but fossil and utensil are spelled with -ile in French. Evil is Germanic. Speakers of British English have no trouble with words like missile (adapted from Latin missilis in the 17th century) and futile (from Latin futilis), for they adhere to the “spelling pronunciation” and pronounce –ile like the word isle, but in American English this –ile has the value of –il, and this creates an additional difficulty. I cannot resist the temptation of recounting a recent episode in my department. An instructor was trying to make a faulty copier work, but it would not, and I heard her repeating quite distinctly: “It’s feudal, it’s feudal.” First I wondered what medieval associations the recalcitrant machine aroused in her mind but then realized that she had said: “It’s futile.” I am happy to report that soon after that, though in no connection with orthoepy, we bought a new copier. Sterile rhymes with peril in American but, as far as I can judge, not in British English (perhaps I am again decades behind times); French also has –ile in this adjective. A similar story can be told about projectile and several other words of this type. Thus, instead of a rule, I can offer only a disquisition on the history of Romance words in English. As Lewis Carroll’s Walrus said: “I weep for you and deeply sympathize.”

The origin of individual words. Askew. In such words, a- almost always goes back to the preposition on. Askew is thus on skew; compare awry. Buckle down. Buckle up and buckle in are old. Buckle to (that is, buckle to some task) has also been recorded, so that down adds only the idea of completion to the figurative meaning of buckle. Compare slow down (as George Oliver Curme, a distinguished American linguist, noted long ago, it means the same as slow up!), eat up, and so forth. The Century Dictionary explains: “…a metaphor taken from buckling on armor previous to engaging in battle.” Buckle down seems to have gained popularity or even been coined in American English. The original OED missed the 1865 and 1871 examples (both from American authors), and it is absent from the American dictionaries of that time. They were unearthed by the compilers of the post-war Supplement. The phrase must have been rare then.

Bulldoze and bulldozer. The verb bulldoze, known since the 19th century, may be an American coinage, and its earliest recorded meaning was “intimidate black voters.” When after the Civil War this piece of political slang gained wide currency, it immediately fell prey to folk etymology and was explained as meaning “give a dose of the bullwhack or bullwhip” or in general “to give a dose big enough for a bull.” No word historian doubts that this explanation is wrong, but dictionaries repeat it with some hedging for want of a better one. The strange thing is that even when the word surfaced in American English, people did not know how it arose. It follows that bulldoze had existed in the depths of some dialects long enough to become opaque to speakers. Nothing is sillier that to invent etymologies based on conjecture. Yet this is what I am going to do. (“The true rule is never to guess at an etymology, but this requires a strength of mind above that most of us”—Skeat.) In the 16th and the 17th century, the verb douse (spelled also dowse and douze) was used in various situations. It meant “strike, punch, beat down.” Whether it is the same word as dowse “immerse in water” is irrelevant in the present context. Most likely, dowse “strike, beat” is of Northern German or Dutch origin (dusen, tusen, and tausen have been attested). A cognate of those verbs is Towser, the traditional name of a large dog used in bear- and bull-baiting.” I suggest that at one time bulldoze meant “to bait a bull or a dog”; hence “harass” and further “intimidate.” Dog-baiting was a popular sport in 16th-century England. Some words beginning with bull– experience a strong influence of bully. For example, bullyrag, another obscure Americanism, whose meaning is comparable with that of bulldoze, has also been recorded in the forms bulrag and balrag. Bulldoze and bully are close. The idea that bulldozer is an older word than bulldoze, the verb being a back formation from the noun (like beg, sculpt, and televise from beggar, sculptor, and television), strikes me as improbable.

Turn on a dime. On a dime is used with a few other verbs, and it always refers to actions performed with ease and alacrity or taken after a period of indecision. The citations in Random House Dictionary of American Slang by J.E. Lighter leave no doubt about the idiom’s origin. As early as 1881 one could say that a well-trained horse turns on a five-cent piece. In the twenties of the 20th century, a fielder who failed to cover much ground was said to be playing on a dime, and dancers in a dancehall were encouraged to move off the dime, that is, not to stay glued to each other in one place. The phrase seems to owe its popularity to baseball. It alludes to the fact that the dime is the smallest-sized U.S. coin. This is why it is often applied to the movements of boats and small cars.

Element. The origin of Latin elementum, which is the ultimate etymon of element, is unknown. The hypothesis that elementum is a combination of three letter names (L-M-N) need not be dismissed out of hand (it has learned supporters) but probably wrong. Elementum was, more likely, a borrowed word in Latin. Wicke in Apple Tree Wicke on Long Island, NY. Whoever gave the house its name must have known that -wick is a common second part of place names like Berwick and Warwick (from a historical point of view, it is the same word as –wich in Greenwich and Ipswich). The word meant “town; hamlet; dwelling.” It had spelling variants with -e at the end not only in Middle but also in early Modern English. Apple Tree Wicke can thus be translated as Apple Tree House.

Raining cat and dogs. Is the etymology I offered in one of my posts the same as in American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christie Ammer? No, it is not. Ammer repeats the etymology usually given in dictionaries of phrase origins. It is unacceptable to me.

I have quite a few more questions and will try to answer all of them in September.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Scott Belyea

    “…dancers in a dancehall were encouraged to move off the dime, that is, not to stay glued to each other in one place. ”

    Hmmm …. makes one wonder about the 30’s song, “Ten Cents A Dance.”

    Just coincidence?

  2. Scott Belyea

    ““…dancers in a dancehall were encouraged to move off the dime, that is, not to stay glued to each other in one place. ”

    “Hmmm …. makes one wonder about the 30’s song, “Ten Cents A Dance.”

    “Just coincidence?”

    If I may comment on my on comment – thinking about this a bit more, I wonder how solid the evidence is for the dancehall interpretation given of “move off the dime”.

    If the use of dime in the dancehall expression dates back to the “taxi dance” of the 20’s and 30’s, then “move off the dime” could have a very different interpretation – “His dime only paid for a short dance. Get it over with and move on to another customer!”

  3. Leslie

    I have been told that speakers of British English rhyme dour with sour rather than with poor, which is the way it is done in American English.

    I was born and raised in the U.S., and everyone I’ve ever run into, including me, pronounces it like “sour”. I’ve never heard it pronounced “door”.

  4. Scott Belyea

    The only person I can recall who pronounced it to rhyme with “poor” was Scottish …

  5. Stephen Goranson

    I’d be interested to read your proposal for “element.” I think Michael David Coogan made interesting observations in “Alphabets and Elements,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research no. 216 (Dec. 1974) 61-3 and “)LP, ‘To Be an Abecedarian,” J. of the American Oriental Society v. 110 no. 2 (1990) 322.

  6. Walter Turner

    Decades ago, in Mississippi, USA, we were taught in school to pronounce dour to rhyme with poor, and I see in an American dictionary from the 1950’s that that pronunciation was listed first. The word wasn’t, however, in anyone’s speaking vocabulary, unless it was the English teacher’s. I also notice that the OED online doesn’t mention a pronunciation to rhyme with sour.

  7. Theme

    […] guess I’m going to have to buckle down and start learning how to code my own […]

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