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Monthly Gleanings: November 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks for the letters, questions, and corrections. I am especially grateful to Benjamin Slade for calling my attention to the post on rum (beverage) in his blog and to Michael Quinion, who grappled with dilemna long before me, came to similar conclusions, and cited 18th-century examples of this horrific spelling. It seems to be ineradicable, and the sad thing is that some teachers insist on writing -mn- in this word, to the despair of their literate charges and the charges’ parents. It is also a pleasure to receive irrelevant personal letters telling me, for example, about a visit of a fox in the correspondent’s garden (in connection with my post on foxglove). Guilty of what Shakespeare in Sonnet 62 called the sin of self-love, I particularly relish letters that begin with introductions like: “I enjoy reading your blog.” I enjoy writing it, but aging actors need constant encouragement. So now that Thanksgiving is behind, thank you all very much.

One of six Americans live in poverty. Nobody I polled objected to this usage, though some of my informants who confessed that they would not have noticed the incongruity if it had not been pointed out to them winced when asked to comment on one…are.  Only my computer suggested lives.  Apparently, this grammar is acceptable to educated modern speakers, and this is all that matters, for what is correct or wrong in language is dictated by the cultured elite of every society.  The rules of concord (agreement) are capricious.  The plural of this is my friend will be these are my friends.  The verb (are) agrees with the subject (these), not with the predicative (friends), but in German the plural of das ist mein Freund is das sind meine Freunde: here the verb (sind, plural) agrees with the predicative (Freunde) and not with the singular subject (das).  In English we say my only joy was books (was agrees with the subject, joy, even if most would probably prefer books were my only joy), but in analogous German sentences the verb has to be in the plural, agreeing with the predicative (books): meine einzige Freude waren Bücher).  Yet we say: “What matters are original ideas,” and make the verb agree with ideas, not with what (but then what is number-neutral: what is this thing ~ what are these things?). I discussed sentences like one of six Americans… in connection with the all-pervasive usage in American English that I illustrated with constructions like the mood of the stories are gloomy and the purpose of these assignments are many.  Editors correct such sentences, but my examples were taken from uncensored students’ papers, which, as I have said more than once, are my constant source of inspiration, for they show how incredibly ingenious people are when they obey their instinct rather than rules.  They make my life interesting: I detest change in contemporary language but love teaching it if it happened before my birth.  One can account for any twist of grammar.  In English, these are my friends makes sense, and in German das sind meine Freunde is equally easy to justify.  Correct usage is a matter of consensus.  In the case of one of six Americans live… society seems to have reached such consensus.  So be it.  Our correspondent Walter Turner remarked that one American in six… would be followed by lives, and there is no doubt that he is right—a curious nicety.  A few days ago I read in CAM, the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (issue 61, 2010, p. 49): “The aliens know that only about 1 in 2000 of the human population are pilots.”  In the present context, this is a most useful sentence, for rewording it would be difficult: “The aliens know that only about 1 in 2000 of the human population is a pilot” is so wooden as to be nearly unacceptable.  English grammar has been investigated high and low and roundabout.  It is hardly possible to find any phenomenon in it that has not been described many times, but I could not discover a single section on the phenomenon touched on here.  If someone knows the literature on this subject, I will be grateful for a tip.

The parasite like. Earlier I expressed my dismay at the triumph of like (I think, like, this is too much.  Will you, like, be here tomorrow?).  It appears that I am in the minority.  Our correspondents have a warm feeling for like: it is cute, it is polite, it is user-friendly.  May they enjoy it.  One of our regular correspondents asked testily whether I would prefer people’s peppering their speech with as it were, if you will, and as a matter of fact.  No, I wouldn’t if those phrases, instead of being used where they add something to the message (its content and its emotional coloring), became inordinately frequent, irritating mannerisms.  I also resent people who begin every second sentence with I mean (I can’t understand you. I mean you speak too fast).  Other than that, there is no harm in I mean.

That versus who. I will quote the letter in full:

“I’m co-editing a collection of essays and my editor keeps replacing who with that in sentences like those are the people who the exciting stories are based on, and those are the stories that inspire us to become better people.  The editor has replaced the who in the first half of the sentences with that.  I would be interested in seeing you address this issue in a column (which I might then point my editor to).  Of course, I found many examples of grammar authorities online who agree with the who version, but it would be helpful to point to your column.  Thanks.”

It is hard to be an arbiter of usage.  Those who read word columns in popular magazines know how gingerly columnists tread in such cases (“Yes, your wife has a point, but the book Modern American Usage suggests…” and so on.).  All have won, and everybody gets a prize.  The fight of that against who has a long history.  That has been encroaching on who for decades, probably by analogy, because, according to some dictum, that should be differentiated from which (this story, which is one of many, will show… versus the story that I told you…).  I remember someone’s quip: “Soon instead of saying who’s who, we’ll be saying that’s that.”  In the sentence quoted in the letter, the remedy suggests itself easily: either omit who altogether or say on whom, but this answer does not solve the big problem.  In my opinion, who is preferable to that when its antecedent is people or any word meaning “a human being” (the man who will read the book, the woman who said it to me, the people who will enjoy our stories, etc.), but this is my personal opinion.  Perhaps the editors of Oxford University Press will agree to write a postscript to this column and say what they think of the matter.  If, however, they show “maximum restraint,” as we are always advised to do when attacked, and stay on the sidelines (another journalistic cliché), you will have heard what one person thinks who has given your query serious consideration.  I must add that Mark Twain titled one of his most brilliant stories: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” and I am sorry he did so.

Use versus utilize. This is another regularly asked question.  Utilize has won the day because it is a mouthful.  The less people read good English prose, the less resistant they become to the sham glamour of highfalutin words.  Borrowings from French and Latin allow the speakers who do not know foreign languages to sound sophisticated.  Utillize, a relatively recent loanword from French (it came to English only in the 19th century), is fine when it means “put to use, make useful” (compare the connotations of utilities and utilitarian), but he who utilizes a handkerchief for blowing his nose is making a fool of himself.  Handkerchiefs, spoons, rules, and good advice are there to be used, not utilized.

Use versus usage.  Do we need usage if we have use?  I think we do.  Usage refers to a complex of things.  Compare: your grammar (I don’t know nothin’) is faulty, because modern English usage prohibits the use of two negations in one sentence.

Copesthetic in New York. Our correspondent remembers copesthetic from his days in New York, where it existed “within what seemed to be the fringes of Jewish and intellectual culture.”  It implies more than OK: “This word seems to have a strange persistence in surviving its obscurity and lack of use.  My suspicion is that those who still use it do so because it serves where other words cannot serve.”  Being a blend of copasetic and esthetic, copesthetic indeed combines both connotations: “fine” and “pleasing.”

Sniper: origin. Snipe is related to snip, and both of them refer to snatching, cutting, and so forth.  (Words beginning with sn- tend to designate quick movements and petty things: compare sneak, sniggle, snug, snooze, possibly persnickety, and the like, though each of them has a history, naturally not reducible to its initial consonants.)  Hence, sniper “someone who ‘snipes’,” a sharpshooter.  Snipe had a synonym snite, another sn-verb.

Adjective wanted. The letter: “I cannot find the correct adjective to describe food containing capsaicin: spicy and hot are both ambiguous.  Do you have any insight into the problem?”  Is pungent acceptable?  Can our readers offer a more appropriate word?

The OED and words from Hebrew and Aramaic. In the previous set of Gleanings, I advised great caution in deriving pizzazz from Hebrew and wondered whether the OED really neglected possible Hebrew and Aramaic etymons.  In his response, our correspondent restated his position most emphatically.  I regularly receive letters from the United States and Israel that contain long lists of words allegedly going back to Semitic roots.  Most examples are based on uninspiring look-alikes.  But, as I said a month ago, I am not a specialist in either Hebrew or Yiddish.  Yet my advice remains.  To show that a word is a borrowing, it is necessary to trace its way from the lending language to a new home and not only to spot the similarity of sound and meaning. I have a suggestion to our correspondent: Write an article listing the neglected etymons, make a case that the OED missed them, and send your work to Dictionaries, the journal of the Dictionary Society of North America.  It will be refereed by a semitologist versed in historical linguistic and an English scholar and, if found convincing, published or returned for revision.

Anatoly 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 him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. John McIntyre

    So the translators of the Authorized Version were incompetent when they translated Isaiah as “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”?

    “That” hasn’t been “encroaching”; it has been an acceptable alternative to “who” for centuries, particularly when the reference is to a group of people, as in Isaiah, or to an unknown person, as in “The Girl That I Marry” from “Annie Get Your Gun.”

  2. Chaka

    The word that immediately comes to mind for “food containing capsaicin” is “picante.” Unfortunately, it’s not an English word. We do have “piquant,” though. It sounds a shade more delicate than I’d like, but I’d prefer it to “pungent.”

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  4. mollymooly

    “What matters is original ideas” and “What matter are original ideas” are both alternatives to “What matters are original ideas”.

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