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Monthly Gleanings: December 2009


By Anatoly Liberman

Spelling pronunciation and analogy. Why do some people mispronounce fungi (that is, say it with -ji instead of -gi)? They do so because the letter group gi is ambiguous in English. Compare gin and be-gin. Only those can pronounce such words correctly who know them. But fungus is Latin (or Italian). The Latin plural fungi poses no problems (Latin had no j-sound), while the Italian plural funghi tells a foreigner that “hard” –g, rather than –j, is meant. However, not every English-speaker has studied Latin or Italian. It should be added that in some such cases tradition is more important than etymology, and many words are pronounced differently from what one expects. Consider Gillespie, the name of the jazz player, let alone Gilbert, with g-, and be grateful for the spelling Ghirlandaio. Forte. This is a favorite question of many. The “classic” pronunciation requires two syllables in forte “loud(ly)” and one syllable (just fort) in forte “strong point,” because the first word is Italian and the second French. But not enough people are aware of this nicety, and the uniform pronunciation in two syllables has almost won out. If sounding more educated than your neighbor does not frighten you, keep the distinction but expect ridicule behind your back. Being too smart is usually considered snobbish or even worse, elitist. Patronize. Here the “classic” pronunciation of the first syllable requires pat-, not pate-, but the influence of patron is so strong that the variant with a long vowel has become common. However, the old variant does not stigmatize the speaker as a highbrow. Bored of versus bored with. Obviously, one can bore someone only with inane talk, but in the passive bored comes perilously close to tired, and we are tired of something. Analogy makes some people say bored of, like tired of. This usage has nothing to recommend it but will probably spread.

Spelling. Is alright acceptable? This is another favorite of talk shows and word columns. From a historical point of view, alright is unobjectionable. No one winces at also, almost, although, always, already, and altogether, all of them with one l. Whether forever and today should be spelled as one word, separately, or with a hyphen, is a matter of agreement. The same holds for alright. But I will repeat my favorite dictum: “Language is not only a means of communication but also a product of culture.” Despite the passionate love of the modern wealthy “elite” for prefabricated torn jeans, the culture of the educated tends to be conservative. For this reason, alright is still frowned upon by editors. However, its ultimate acceptance need not be doubted.

Back formation. Does the verb flabbergast exist? It does, if you heard it. The past participle flabbergasted was recorded before the verb and remains the only common form. The verb may be an example of back formation (like beg from beggar). It sounds odd (“Don’t flabbergast me.” “He flabbergasted his parents.” Will anyone say so, except for fun?). Countable versus uncountable. Fewer versus less. This is a lost battle. Less should be reserved for uncountable objects. Thus, less sugar, but fewer sugar bowls. Although the distinction does not seem to have strong roots, the OED has unexpectedly few (there could not have been fewer) citations of the less faults type from Middle English. The second (post-World War II) edition of the dictionary recorded its flowering in the 19th century but did not fill the chronological gap between Caxton’s and our time. People on both sides of the Atlantic may never have stopped saying less comforts, but perhaps editors suppressed such constructions. Now they are ubiquitous, even if still deemed ungrammatical. Curiously, more is fine for both sugar and sugar bowls. In Old Icelandic, the equivalent of much people was the norm. I regret the confusion of number and amount and correct phrases like a great amount of examples in my students’ papers, but my strictures have no effect.

Dialogue from Classical Greek to our time. Dialogue has the same prefix (dia-) and a variant of the same root as dialect. A sum of “between” and “speak” yielded “discourse, colloquy, a talk together.” It does not have to be restricted to two speakers, as evidenced by Plato’s Dialogues, though today this sense prevails. From Greek the word migrated to Latin, from there to French, and from French to English. Our correspondent also asked whether digression and dialogue are antonyms from an etymological point of view. I don’t think so. The prefix di– in digress is akin to Greek dia-, but it means “apart, asunder, separately,” so that digress acquired the sense “deviate from a course” (gress is a cognate of Latin gradus “step”). Myriad. The Greek etymon meant “innumerable” and in a slightly different form “10,000.” Tycoon came to English from Japanese, and Japanese borrowed it from Chinese, in which it is not a word but a phrase: ta (“great”) kiun (“prince”). Compare mogul, another word for a potentate (historically, a variant pronunciation of Mongol, with reference to the Great Mogul, the emperor of Delhi). By a strange coincidence, both tycoon and mogul are primarily the designations of powerful people in the media industry. The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald gives a good picture of a tycoon, as such people were known at that time. Wax, noun, and wax “to grow.” These are not related, though both have respectable Indo-European origins. The distant origin of wax (the substance) is uncertain. It has been compared with Latin viscum “mistletoe; bird lime,” with a word meaning “weave” (this is the etymology favored by most dictionaries), and with a verb for “flow.” None is fully convincing. The verb wax, as far as we can judge, has always meant “to increase.”

Fulsome had an unpredictable history. It is made up of full and some. Recorded in the 13th century, it meant “abundant” and then underwent an amazingly rapid degradation of meaning: from “full-grown” to “cloying” and finally to “offensive” (as in fulsome flattery). Those who believe that fulsome still means “plentiful” or “full of” are six centuries behind 2009, let alone 2010. Pertnear (regional) is most probably a blend of pretty and near; hence “nearly, almost.” Hairy “angry.” Jonathan E. Lighter, the author of Random House Dictionary of American Slang has an excellent entry on this word. It allows one to trace the development of hairy from “scary” to “difficult” (presumably, from the obstacles thick hair presents to those who make their way through the thicket) to “big” (a reinforcing word; sometimes with a pun, as in Garfield’s a big, hairy deal) and further to “tough; strong” and even “excellent” and “easily provoked.” Augury as the third common word presumably ending in –gry. Alas and alack! Augury is not a common word, and it does not end in –gry. Two reverse English dictionaries exist, and the only candidate for Number 3 (after angry and hungry) is puggry, a variant spelling of puggaree “an Indian turban,” certainly not a common word!

Remembrance of things past. 1. In my blog I never stop admiring the old volumes of Notes and Queries. This is what William. J. Thoms, the founder of this periodical, wrote on the reverse side of his photograph: “If you would fain know more/ Of him whose photo here is—/ He coined the word Folk-lore,/ And he started Notes and Queries.” He did indeed coin the word folklore, and this fact has also been celebrated in this blog. 2. A special post has been devoted to the origin of the word dandy. I now know that dandizelle also existed, a rival of dandizette. The name seems to have been applied to the women who dressed in the extreme of an absurd fashion in 1819 and 1820. A contemporary says: “It seemed to be the aim of the ladies to exhibit to view as much of the body as possible.” Those were terrible times. We are so happy to have left them behind and returned to shy, blushing modesty.

This last remark allows me to wish our readers a Happy New Year, full-some, prosperous, and replete with etymological queries (notes are guaranteed).

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.”

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  2. John Cowan

    “Mispronounce”? Latin derivatives in English normally have the j-sound in gi, ge.

    As for bored of, it grates on me too, but no reasons can be given in general for the use of any given preposition with such verbs.

  3. mollymooly

    Reverse dictionaries are obsolete in the computer age. Having said that, onelook.com’s list of words and phrases ending in -gry is hardly definitive.

  4. Dušan Vukotić

    If I understood well, Mr. Liberman’s “objection” was about the usage of “appropriate” letters. Fungus (singular) is pronounced as fúnggəs; why the plural (fungi) sounds differently (fən’jī); or, if it was pronounced differently, why the “proper” letter (in this case j) hadn’t been used instead of g?

  5. John Cowan

    Dušan Vukotić: Because English is very different from other languages. It retains the spelling of foreign words but changes the pronunciation according to its own rules. What is more, when the words come from Latin (as in this case) or Greek, they are usually borrowed along with their foreign plural forms.

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