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Monthly Gleanings


By Anatoly Liberman

English and Japanese spelling. In one of the comments on spelling reform, my brief statement on English versus Japanese was criticized. A month ago, in the previous set of “gleanings,” I responded to someone’s remark asserting that the complexity of spelling and the level of literacy are not connected, as the experience of Japanese allegedly shows: Japanese spelling is hard to master, but the Japanese, as we hear, are overwhelmingly literate. I suggested that the two systems should not be compared, for hieroglyphs are different from letters. Drawing and painting them may involve a wrong configuration of elements; by contrast, in European languages, it is the use of individual letters that counts. Since Japanese is not my field, I could not trust my judgment and consulted specialists before I posted my reply. They confirmed my belief. I am not ready to discuss the subject in depth, but, in principle, my reaction seems to have been justified, and I’ll confine myself to one example only. Although I am not dyslexic, when I type, I often transpose letters (journla instead of journal, amy instead of may, and so forth). This case cannot serve as an analogy of what happens in English versus Japanese, but it shows that when different skills are at stake, different errors tend to occur.

Honeymoon and absinthe. The correspondent who referred to the fact that in some parts of the world people liken the first month of married life to consuming honey or mead and the next to drinking absinthe was right. This sequence is mentioned in many sources, but it was irrelevant to my discussion, and I left it out. Those who have seen Picasso’s picture of an absinthe drinker will find it hard to believe that that woman ever had a honeymoon.

Hubba-hubba and the death of words. All the comments corroborated the findings I cited in my post, and I would only like to add a few observations inspired by Mr. Cowan’s statement that hubba-hubba is not quite dead. The death of a word is a slow process. A word may be remembered by older people and not recognized by their children and grandchildren (a common situation with slang, and hubba-hubba is, undoubtedly, slang). Word recognition also depends on the size of one’s vocabulary. Those who still read or have read 19th-century classics, let alone earlier authors (Fielding, for example), know numerous words that no one else does. Familiarity with Greek, Latin, and French allows people to guess the meaning of learned words. Finally, many archaic words may still be in use in a few areas, while others are dead for all modern speakers. The Oxford English Dictionary is a graveyard in which they repose in peace.

The regular readers of this blog, now in its third year of existence, will agree that I have not showered them with autobiographical details. Today I must make an exception. The conversation I am going to recount happened during my third or fourth year at the University of Minnesota. At that time, we had quarters, and every major in the College of Liberal Arts was required to take six quarters of a foreign language, but the last two could be “culture,” substituted for language per se. This circumstance contributed to the popularity of my course on medieval German literature in translation, and hundreds of students forfeited the pleasures of the subjunctive mood and discovered the beauties of The Lay of the Nibelungen, Tristan, Parzival, and so forth (which, incidentally, they liked, for it is great literature). Now we have semesters, and language means language. After one of my lectures, a student approached me and said that, although he enjoyed my course very much (they always say so in such situations), he did not understand half of the words I use. This was a turning point in my career. Since that day I have been working tirelessly on diminishing my active vocabulary and must have succeeded, at least up to a point, for complaints are now rare. But I am still surprised when asked, for example, what animosity means (everybody knows only hostility), as though that noun were a bookish rarity like animus and animadversion. And this brings me to another episode of a similar nature.

In the early seventies, a popular album with various titles, Hits a Go Go and Evergreens a Gogò among them, was released. The most enjoyable part of the English title is the folk etymological alteration (a go go) of French a gogo “in abundance.” Old French en gouges, literally “in merriments,” yielded agog in the 16th century, so here we are witnessing the phrase’s reemergence in English. I mentioned this fact to one of our best German majors and added how amusing it was that the same turn of speech had returned to us several hundred years later, this time to the world of popular culture. The expression on his face made it clear that he had no clue to what I was saying. It appeared that he had never heard the word agog. So is agog dead? I polled a few young people around me. Some recognized the word, others did not. I concluded that agog is half-dead. Surveys of college students have shown (I resent the form have showed) that hubba-hubba is nearly extinct. Naturally, those who heard it in the fifties and sixties still remember it. By the way, hubba-hubba is not in the memory of our computers.

Why are psychotherapists called shrinks? At one time, the word headshrinker designated a headhunter who preserved and shrank the heads of his (and her? their?) enemies. Later, slang transferred this name to psychiatrists, apparently, with reference to their ability to mitigate or set limits to and thus “shrink” deranged persons’ ravings. Still later, headshrinker, now only slang, was shortened to headshrink and joined such grammatically ambiguous compounds as toothpick (it is unclear whether pick is a verb or a noun in it; from a historical point of view it is a noun, but compare thoothpicker, also registered in dictionaries) and regular combinations of nouns and verbs, like hoodwink, for instance. Finally, headshrink itself shrank, and, given the popularity of psychoanalysis, especially in the fifties, the remainder of the noun narrowed its field of application and came to mean “psychoanalyst.”

Did Shakespeare know dick “penis”? He may have known it, though the word does not occur in his extant texts and cannot be recovered from any of his puns (compare his focative case; otherwise, Shakespeare never used the F-word). Yet dicked (this is a modernized spelling), both the preterit and the past participle, meant “copulated” not only in the 16th century but even in Chaucer’s days. Then the word shifted from verb to noun, as also happened in the history of prick. Dick was a common word for a male sexual partner beginning with the second half of the 17th century (a wife mocks her husband Jack’s impotence: “thou feeble dick thou,” 1654, that is, about forty years after Shakespeare’s death). However, when dealing with Tom, Dick, and Harry, one cannot be certain of what exactly is meant, the more so as the path from proper names to common ones is often puzzling: compare peter, john, jenny, smart aleck, merry andrew, and others). The choice of dick for “penis” may have been facilitated by the existence of dido and dildo, both beginning with di- and affording easy material for coarse alliterative pairs, but, according to the OED, the unambiguous occurrences of dick with this meaning in printed texts do not antedate the end of the 19th century (this chronology is of little value, for in the past such words could rarely make their way into books). See Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. Volume 1. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1994, pp.382-383. The same author compiled a similar book on Shakespeare alone.

Read the next gleanings on May 28.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    I’m reading your new book, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (U. of Minnesota Press, 2008). Very interesting!
    You note that “enna” (meaning one) is traced back to 1855. In case it’s of interest, Notes and Queries 10 no. 262, Nov. 4, 1854, pp. 369-70 gives several “counting-out rhymes” that include enna, ena, one-ery, and eenery.

  2. Justin T. Holl, Jr.

    I was a little taken by the use of “shrank” as the past tense of “shrink”, because I would have used “shrunk”. Happily I found this in the OED.

    The pa. tense originally had vowel change I shrank, we shrunke(n, but, as early as the 14th c., the properly plural form is found with a singular subject, and shronk, shrunk becomes frequent in the 15th c.; shrunk is the normal pa. tense in the 18th c., and still survives.

    My native sensibilities have been vindicated.

  3. AGW

    I’m probably one of the ignorant youth you describe here: certainly there have been times when my professors have used words that were unfamiliar to me.

    But I’m saddened to see you give in so easily! I don’t presume that we can hold back the evolution of language, but isn’t school the last bastion of these words? If our teachers just quit using these words out of deference to their students, how will the students learn that there is something to be gained by knowing them? How will our children even manage Dickens–much less Chaucer and Shakespeare–if our professors today don’t teach us to love and honor our ologies and isms?

    I think etymology is the best way of imparting this wisdom; knowing a word’s history always made it easier for me to learn vocabulary words and really become acquainted with them. It’s your blog and other works like it that help, therefore. Please don’t give up on us!

  4. […] assume that they are slant and skew, with the prefix a- being added to the root. Even askance and agog (about both of which I have written in this blog) must be a- plus some enigmatic skance and gog. […]

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