Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings: September 2009


By Anatoly Liberman

As always, many thanks for comments, questions, additions, and corrections. I keep eating my way through a mountain of questions I have received since June, but something will be left over for October. My mail contains many traditional queries, that is, people ask the same questions over and over again. Let me refer our correspondents to this blog for some information on who versus whom, kitty/catty corner, and hunky-dory (separate posts were devoted to them). With regards to tomfoolery, see my book Word Origins…, in which the use of the proper name Tom is discussed at some length. However, I will return briefly to one old problem. Our correspondent writes that she hates hearing drive safe instead of drive safely. Some time in the past I wrote on “the death of the adverb,” and the essay provoked numerous comments, which I need not reproduce here. I only want to provide some comfort to the defenders of the beleaguered part of speech (and by the same token to myself, for I am one of them). My advice is to treat the change philosophically. The drive safe construction has been gaining ground for centuries, and in German it has won. For the benefit of English speakers here is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128. In this sonnet, the poet begrudges the luck the virginal of his beloved enjoys: the keys (“jacks”) of the musical instrument kiss her fingers, while his lips are not invited to do any work: “How oft…/ do I envy those jacks that nimble leap/ To kiss the tender inward of thy hand.…” Obviously, nimble here means nimbly, and what is good for Shakespeare is good enough for us. Right? No, but I promised to provide comfort, not a justification for safe driving under the influence (of the Bard).

Big questions. 1. How does one expand one’s vocabulary? The usual answer is: “By voracious reading.” The answer is correct but insufficient, especially if one wants to expand one’s active vocabulary. The only way to learn words is to learn them, that is, to treat one’s native language as one treats foreign languages. Read good books, write out the words new to you, look them up in a dictionary to make sure that you did not misunderstand their meaning, and learn them together with the context in which they occurred. One word a day will go a long way. 2. On several occasions I mentioned the fact that American English, being a colonial language, is more conservative than the language of the metropolis. How does this fact tally with the readiness of American English to adopt countless foreign words? Conservative refers to the phonetic and the grammatical structure of language. American English has retained the pronunciation and some forms that were current four and three centuries ago, while British English has often modified them.

Separate words. In (the) hospital. Why do British and American English differ in the use of the definite article? English-speakers who have not studied the history of their language (that is, 99, 999% of the population) believe that the use of articles is natural and stable. However, it is not and changes from century to century and from one part of the English speaking world to another. Note the vacillation even in Modern American English: in the future ~ in future (the second variant seems to be winning out; German has a similar alternation: in Zukunft ~ in der Zukunft). The definite article disappeared in such adverbial phrases as go to bed, at school, in prison, at work, and even in that time of year. In hospital marks the triumph of “adverbialization”; by contrast, in the hospital remains a free combination of a preposition and a noun. Aluminum versus aluminium. This pair is another famous example of the difference between American and British English, second perhaps only to fall ~ autumn, truck ~ lorry, and sidewalk ~ pavement. Sir Humphrey Davy called his invention (1812) aluminum, but in England i was later added to it on the analogy of chemical substances like sodium. American English preserves the earliest form. What is the origin of Sardoudledom? I am quoting from the OED, a most useful book for learning etymology: “[From] blend of the name Victorien Sardou (1831-1908). French dramatist + DOODLE + -DOM. A fanciful word used to describe well-wrought, but trivial or morally objectionable, plays considered collectively; the characteristic milieu in which such work is admired.”

Pleaded versus pled. Pled, which is being used more and more often, is an analogical form: plead ~ pled, as lead ~ led and read (infinitive) ~ read (preterit). How did savings end up being a singular form? I think most people avoid saying a savings of $20 (though a saving of $20 is not the most elegant phrase either), but his savings is will shock few. Words ending in -s, like digs, Boots (the name of a servant at a hotel), or Sniffers (the name of a guinea pig), often become singulars. We have means (a means to an end) and works “factory” (a chemical works is situated not far from where we live). In a relatively recent edition of Little Red Riding Hood, it is written that the girl lived near a woods. This usage seems odd to me (and to my spellchecker), but apparently, not to everybody. Thus, savings joined the words whose plural ending does not prevent them from being looked upon as singulars.

Sam Hill. My timid refusal to connect Hill with hell (unless it is a taboo form) impressed no one. I hasten to repeat that I have no clue to the origin of the idiom but would like to know where, regardless of Hill ~ hell, Sam came from. Hill, even if etymologized convincingly, is only half of the problem. Cottage cheese: Is it derived from ricotta? I am sure it is not. If it were, it would, most likely, not have been “folk etymologized” so drastically. Compare German Schmierkäse (literally “smear cheese”), which in American English became smear-case! (See it in the OED.) Cottage cheese is also an “Americanism” and seems to mean what it says. The name of this dairy product often consists of two words: a noun meaning “cheese” and some attribute (so, for instance, in French: fromage blanc or fromage frais). The similarity between cottage and ricotta is coincidental. Ricotta means “recooked” (tt in -cotta goes back to ct: the Latin root of this word can be seen in Engl. concoct); compare Italian biscotto “twice cooked,” that is biscuit. Cottage cheese is often called in unpredictable ways. Curds is a word of unknown origin despite the existence of look-alikes in Celtic. German Quark is a borrowing from Slavic, where it means “product,” while Scandinavian ost has a respectable Indo-European descent.

What is the preferred spelling of czar? It is czar, though tsar (not czar) reflects the pronunciation of the Russian word much better. “The spelling cz-, which is non-Slavonic, is due to Herberstein, ‘Rerum Muscovitarum Commentarii’ [A Commentary on the Deeds of the Muscovites], 1549, the chief early authority on Russia in Western Europe” (The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology). What happened to -ce- in Worcestershire? It was shed, and not only in this place name. Compare Leicestershire and Gloucestershire, pronounced Lester-, Gloster-. Place names drop middle syllables with dire regularity. Worcester goes back to Old Engl. Wigraceaster (the second element –ceaster, like –caster in Lancaster, is the Latin word for “camp”). In today’s pronunciation only Wuster is left, though the archaic spelling has preserved some traces of the original form. American speakers should be warned not to rhyme -shire, when it occurs as the second part of place names, with hire, mire, wire: it should be a homophone of sheer.

As noted, I still have some unanswered questions on file. I’ll take care of them on the last Wednesday of October.

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. […] More: Monthly Gleanings: September 2009 […]

  2. John Cowan

    I see nothing wrong with the idea that hill is a taboo deformation of hell (cf. nerts for nuts), and that adding a random first name provides plausible deniability against people who would punish you even for a taboo form (cf. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which is deniable as “I’m not swearing, just naming the Holy Family”).

  3. Stephen Goranson

    The earliest uses of “Sam Hill” I’ve seen (1830, 1831, 1832, 1833, 1835, 1838) do not inspire confidence that an historical individual is intended. In a long, comic 1830 newspaper article, transcribed at barrypopik.com, a Frenchman seeks a real person behind such phrases as that the zigzagging “ship steer like Sam Hill.”
    In the 1831 case Yankee Sam Hill outwits a Dutchman. Headline: From the New York Constellation Now and Then; Article
    Paper: Gloucester Telegraph; Date: 07-16-1831; Volume: V; Issue: 29; Page: [1];
    Location: Gloucester, Massachusetts

    The 1832-38 cases all have “lie like Sam Hill.”
    The 1835 newspaper says he’s from RI but was intimate with Major Longbow (Munchausen?), undercutting the believability of the claim. Headline: Sam Hill; Article Type: News/Opinion
    Paper: New Bedford Gazette, published as New-Bedford Gazette And Courier; Date:
    01-19-1835; Volume: I; Issue: 29; Page: [1]; Location: New Bedford,

    In 1909 J.R. Ware (Passing English, p.214) suggested Sam Hill was a version of “some hell.” Though the suggestion was rejected, without explanation, by G. M. Tucker (American English 1921 p.330, cf. Am Speech 1940 p. 106), perhaps we can reconsider the possibility of “some hell”?

  4. Mary

    Did Shakespeare’s “jacks that nimble leap” come before or after the nursery rhyme, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick?”

Comments are closed.