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Monthly Gleanings: June 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

I often mention the fact that the questions I get tend to recur, and I do not feel obliged to answer them again and again.  Among the favorites is the pronunciation of forte “loudly” and forte “a strong point.”  Those who realize that the first word is from Italian and the second from French will have no difficulty keeping them apart, though I wonder why anyone would want to say forte instead of strong point or strong feature: in today’s intellectual climate, elegant foreignisms are paste rather than diamonds.  Very common is the query about the difference between “I could care less” and “I could not care less.”  The “classic” variant is with the negation.  Perhaps someone decided that “I could not care less” means “I do care for it” and removed not.  This zeal for extra clarity is misguided, but, since the curtailed phrase has spread, it will compete successfully with the legitimate one and may even oust it.

The moribund subjunctive mood has both friends and enemies.  Some correspondents find the phrase if I were you snobbish, while others cannot forgive those who say if I was you.  In such constructions (compare: were I twenty years younger…), were is not the plural, but a relic of an ancient grammatical category.  Since this subjunctive form is isolated, while the plural were is ubiquitous, unschooled speakers (and as regards grammar, such is the majority of today’s living population) are irritated by the group I were.  The substitution of was for were in it is old and will eventually win out.  Another grammatical question concerns Greek and Latin plurals.  The plural of octopus is octopuses, because we speak English rather than Classical Greek.  Should it be syllabi or syllabuses?  This is a matter of personal preference.  But here too excessive zeal should be discouraged, and those who do not know Latin (let alone Greek) are advised to exercise caution.  The ludicrous plurals vademeci and even autobusi have been recorded.  However, phenomenon is singular, and phenomena plural (many people who have learned that agenda and data are singulars, take also phenomena for the singular).

Complaints about the misuse of whom are frequent, and I share our correspondents’ chagrin, but this battle was lost long ago.  Recently I have seen an article by the Associated Press with the title that began so: “Whomever did it, etc.”  This is even more surprising than “No one saw the man whom entered the house,” in which the attraction of saw is the decisive factor.

It is a pleasure to report that I am not a solitary fighter against adverbial fluff.  In my students’ papers I cross out every occurrence of actually, definitely, and their likes.  Our correspondents “hate” literally and virtually, and so do I, but people tend to think that they will not be understood, appreciated, or even heard (and they have a good reason to think so).  To break through the cosmic noise, they add reinforcing words: “The wolf actually swallowed Little Red Hood” (you won’t believe it, but he really did: trust me), “She definitely turned down the proposal” (now, you will agree, there is no way back), “I literally got sick after that binge” (how literally, I’ll leave to your imagination, though binge is a word of murky origin), “There is virtually nothing left of those riches” (something may be left, for virtually suggests the lack of completeness, but in our virtual age, in which we correspond, hate, and make love virtually, this adverb produces a comic effect).  The death of the adverb (“Do it quick,” “He writes awful”) has been discussed in this blog several times, and I will pass it by.

Another “forlorn hope” is the difference between less and fewer.  Unlike foreigners, native speakers don’t want to know the rules of their language and are usually unaware of the circumstance that language is not only a means of communication but also an object of culture, a thing of beauty, and should be cherished like an exotic flower.  “This semester, so-and-so has less students than last year.”  I hear it all the time from highly educated people whose English is otherwise flawless.  Apparently, this is now the norm in American English, though I notice that my watchful spellchecker has underlined less in green.  Some people have gone a step further and speak about a huge amount of books.

My posts on buzzwords have also engendered a few responses.  I have many allies who curse trite expressions and words pawed over by the unfeeling crowd.  My attitude is the same, and it is always sweet to die in good company.  Buzzwords were verbal pearls once, but recycling turned them into trash.  After a long battle with cancer; the little town was stunned; shocks went through the community; a counselor helped them cope with grief; a year later the process of healing began—every time I read something like it, great sadness comes over me: don’t the writers realize that by using the most hackneyed “collocations” of modern journalese they trivialize tragedy?  Apparently, they believe that they said something memorable and touching.

Several questions are new. Do I know the origin of the word: kinda?  In the unpublished part of my database, I have an exchange, excerpted from Notes and Queries. It goes back to the end of June and the end of July, 1894, so that the timing could not be more appropriate.  Once again we are returning to Dickens, the observer of dialectal speech.  The query: “’Kiender.’  What is the meaning of this word, which occurs so frequently on the lips of Mr. Peggotty (a Norfolk man, it will be remembered) in C. Dickens’s ‘David Copperfield’?  ‘There’s been kiender a blessing fell upon us’; ‘a slight figure, kiender worn.’  The italics are mine, of course.”

Three responses were received. 1) “This word is common to several of our local dialects, and in New England.  Lowell glosses it ‘kind of,’ and sometimes spells it so, as in ‘What Mr. Robinson Thinks’ (‘Biglow Papers’):— ‘We kind o’ thought Christ went agin war and pillage.’  It is usually spelt kinder.”  2) “Kind o’ or kinder is of universal use in East Anglia, and often means rather; but it is by no means restricted to the East of England.  In combination as sorter-kinder it is of daily help to persons with limited vocabularies; e.g., ‘He’s sorter-kinder fulish like.’  When shall we have a complete dictionary of dialect English?”  (Such a dictionary, edited by Joseph Wright, appeared ten years later.)  3) “As a Norfolk man, the expression… used by Dickens’s Mr. Peggoty is as familiar to me as household words.  I always supposed it to be a corruption of ‘kind of,’ but it is much wider in its application, and I suspect it has its origin in some Anglian or Scandinavian adjective which has survived in the Norfolk dialect.  It has been adopted in America, and is often used by Bret Harte.  The double vowel is probably given by Dickens to indicate the length of the first syllable, which in Norfolk is considerable.”  As so often, some prominent feature of American usage turns out to be a British provincialism brought to the New World.  Note the synonyms kind of ~ sort of, the reference to persons with limited vocabularies, “foolish like,” and the syntax of the third letter: “As a Norfolk man, the expression…”  Don’t you, like, feel, kinda at home?

A medical student has written that his profession is based on trust.  Can I give any advice with regard to this word?  I have no advice to give, but I can repeat the word’s accepted etymology and hope that it will help.  Cognates of trust have been recorded in several Germanic languages, but not in Old English.  Therefore, this noun is believed to be a borrowing of Scandinavian traust “confidence, firmness.”  Trust is an abstract noun derived with the help of the suffix -st from the root we have in true, truth, trow (archaic), and troth.

Snicklefritz. This is a widespread term of endearment for a rambunctious child, meaning also “little rascal; scamp,” and most native speakers in this country know it, especially now that it has been appropriated by actors and people dealing with drugs.  The compound’s second element (-fritz) gives away its German descent, though I suspect that the word has less currency in Germany than in the United States.  Here the center of dissemination of snicklefritz is believed to be Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch in this phrase means “German”).  But the equally popular form schnicklefritz, apparently a genuine one rather than an Americanization of sn- to schn-, indicates that the word is also current in southern German.  Schnigglefritz is a phonetic variant of schnicklefritz (compare snicker and snigger).  My explanation of snickel ~ schnickel- is a mere guess.  In all the Germanic languages, words having the structure sn-k, sn-g, and sn-p refer to pettiness and insignificance.  Such are snick, sneak, snack, snip, snap, snigger, and even snug, among many others (in English, some of them are borrowings from Dutch and Scandinavian).  I suppose that snickle-, in which -le is a diminutive or frequentative suffix, depending on whether snick- was understood as an adjective or a verb, belongs here too.  The result is something like “little (restless) ‘Fritz’.”  Although Fritz is a masculine name, snicklefritz has been applied by parents to both boys and girls.  Perhaps our readers who have memories of being once called snicklefritz will offer better ideas about the word’s origin.

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. John Cowan

    Unlike foreigners, native speakers do know the (tacit) rules of their language, one of which is that “less” is entirely grammatical with count nouns, having been so used for at least the past twelve hundred years. King Alfred’s Boethius, in fact, contains the phrase “Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma”, or in Modern English “As with less words, so with more”. Other OED quotations (see LESS a. (n.), adv., and conj. A. I. 1. c.) span the entire history of English.

    Per contra, punctuation unlike diction is subject to mechanical rules, and the two commas in your final sentence don’t belong there, unless you mean to suggest that all your readers have been called snickelfritz.

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  3. The Word Guy

    Talking of octopuses, I’ve still not settled on the best way to spell the nickname for Nadya Sulemon, the prolific producer of eight kids who goes by the name “octomom,” “octumom” or “octamom.” So far I have preferred “octumom” on the basis that it’s a portmanteau of “octuplets” and “mom,” but because “o,” “a,” and “u” all tend to end up pronounced with a schwa, it seems it could go any way. If only she’d had twins…

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