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Monthly Gleanings: January 2011

By Anatoly Liberman

I have collected many examples about which I would like to hear the opinion of our correspondents.  Perhaps I should even start an occasional column under the title “A Word Lover’s Complaint.”

Hanging as. Everybody must have seen sentences like the following: “…as the president, our cares must be your concern.”  This syntax seems to be acceptable in American English, for it occurs everywhere, from the most carefully edited newspapers to essays by undergraduate students.  The idea of the sentence given above is obvious: “you, being the president…” or “since you are the president…” but doesn’t the whole sound odd?  Don’t we expect something like “as the president, you should (are expected to)….”  And I find the following passage highly ambiguous: “As a baby, his mother strapped him into the car seat and drove around St. Paul in the middle of the night to lull her boy back to sleep.”  Who was the baby: the mother or her son?   Wouldn’t it have been better to begin with: “When he was a baby…”?

Splitting all the way. Rather long ago, I wrote a post on the epidemic of split infinitives (the post was titled: “To Be Or To Not Be”).  I should reiterate that I am not an enemy of the split infinitive if putting an adverb somewhere at the end of the sentence produces awkward results.  But I see no virtue in to not be, and today I would like to offer a few more of my choicest examples.  When to get up late became to late get up, writers (or even speakers?) got into the habit of splitting everything they could lay hands on.  Naturally, if one may say the court asked the prosecutors to not make the name public and it is better to not think why these things happen (the second quote is from an article by David Brooks; I bet ten or fifteen years ago he would have written it is better not to think, but who is he not to jump—to not jump—on the bandwagon?), it is also legitimate to say giants gave birth to not only the giant race but also…, even though there is no infinitive around.  The rest is trivial (more of the same): we made a promise to never surrender and kept it; …might be able to also intervene to help her companions; this word is thought to perhaps stem from baby talk, and staff members also were advised to always call “a data projector” a “Datenprojektor…” (this horror happened in Germany, where there is a movement to substitute native computer terms for the English ones, but the ugly sentence, with its  also were…always and to always call, was produced in the United States), and so it goes.  Why not might also be able to intervene, never to surrender, is thought to stem perhaps, and always to call?  I understand that in long sentences like it’s hard to spontaneously generate a bubble, when… or and ordered the Department of Defense to immediately stop any ongoing effort to remove anyone… it is tempting to get rid of an adverb as soon as possible, though even there to generate a bubble spontaneously and to stop immediately would, I believe, have been preferable.  It is of course such sentences that caused the split infinitive to come into being, and this is where they should stay rather than spreading like mildew.  Alas, people go all lengths to split, just for the sake of splitting, even when the result sounds like a bad joke.  …the story highlighted the fact that financial trader XX and I attended the same high school and happened to each serve on the alumni board there…. A line of Latin or skaldic poetry would have been easier to unscramble than this statement.  I think the writer meant to say that each of them (that is, Mr. XX and he) served on the same board.  Why didn’t he say so?  Apparently, because splitting is “cool.”  O Fowler, Fowler, my beloved guru, where art thou?  Silence.  I urge all our readers to seriously consider putting up an honest fight against gratuitous splitting.


Frisket. This is the definition of frisket from the OED: “Thin iron frame hinged to the tympanum, having tapes or paper strips stretched across it for keeping the sheet in position while printing.”  (A tympanum is a space defined in technical terms, not the eardrum.)  The word surfaced in English texts at the end of the 17th century.  The diminutive suffix is obviously of French origin.  Romance suffixes grace many Germanic nouns in English.  For instance, in strumpet the root is probably English, but a French suffix turned a native whore into a classy prostitute.  However, French frisquette and Spanish frasqueta turned up in texts earlier than Engl. frisket, so that Engl. frisket must be a loanword.  Frisquette is the oldest of them and looks like the source of both frasqueta (in which e presumably became a in the syllable preceding stress) and frisket.  Two factors speak against deriving the French word from frasqueta: we have no printing terms borrowed from Spanish and the chronology (see above).  Also, Flemish French had frisquette, where it was a borrowing from French, not a native coinage, for otherwise initial f would have become v.  The few conjectures offered about the origin of the French word do not go beyond guesswork.  It is hardly a mere sum of frisk- and –et, as though the frame’s “frisky motion” were meant (Skeat).  A similar hypothesis has it that a frisket makes the picture neat and “lively” (Corominas).  Even less inviting is the idea that the frame in question “preserves the freshness of the sheet” (Littré).  The derivation from French frasque “prank(s),” from Italian frascha “leafy branch” and its diminutive fraschetta “twig” (both pranks and branches being “full of life”), would have made sense (frisquette as a frame made of “twigs”) only if the root with a, rather than e, were initial, that is, if the story had begun in Spain (the unlikely scenario defended by Gamillscheg).  Still another guess connects frisquette with some reflex of Latin fixare (indeed, a frisket “fixes” the sheet), but this etymology presupposes two sound changes: ks to sk (metathesis) and the appearance of the so-called intrusive r (Barbier).  Both changes are common, and for this kind of r even a term exists (r emphaticum), but no evidence points to their operating in the history of the noun in question.  Although Barbier’s suggestion is the best from a semantic point of view, the root of frisquette is probably Germanic rather than Latin.  Regrettably, the usual verdict “origin unknown” has to stay, but the Spanish hypothesis should, I believe, be abandoned.  Such is also the opinion of several modern Romance etymologists.

Right: its several meanings. This adjective, which corresponds to Latin rectus, was coined with the sense “straight,” and, as a result, beginning with the 14th century, we have had right angles.  The figurative meaning is the opposite of wrong (wrong refers to things “crooked” and is allied to wring).  Right (straight) things are also “righteous.”  Hence “this is right.”  Since with most people the hand not contiguous to the heart is the strongest and “true” one, it was also called right.

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

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Though this may not be relevant, frisket is attested in English at least twice earlier than Moxon, 1683. OED’s two nouns “frisket” (to make a wild guess?) could be related. OED for frisket n. 1 guesses a sparrow. Elsewhere for that c. 1602 text–“the chirkinge of the frisketts”–we read “probably crickets.” Still elsewhere we read “frogs.” If it is frogs and if you seek a German word, perhaps: Frosch.

  2. John Cowan

    I too would rather write “I am writing to you as President” and leave it up to Obama to write “As President, I am writing to you.” But real ambiguity in these cases is, I suggest, rare in non-contrived examples.

    The historian Rudolf Gneist pointed out that the Tory policy of “non-resistance” after the Restoration of Charles II was essentially the older Stuart policy of absolute power, but on the defensive. Your view of split infinitives is likewise. Adverb placement has always been fairly free, grammatically speaking, in English: adverbs may be moved around for semantic, pragmatic, and rhetorical effects.

    Then someone decided to write down a rule that said “No adverbs between ‘to’ and a following verb in the plain form”, and so people were taught for many years, until they came to feel (not believe, but feel) that it was a rule not of grammar but of morality. When the absurdity and folly of this rule became evident, it was taken to the Banqueting House and beheaded, but people who had been brought up on the rule still twitched when they saw a “violation”.

    To ease the resulting tic, they decided to say “Well of course we can split infinitives, but only for a *very good reason*.” But there is no reason why one should be required to give a *very good reason* for this particular freedom, any more than for any of the other freedoms that the grammar of English allows and has always allowed. It is not the case that there is only one right way to say something, though anyone reading a usage book could be excused if they came to believe that the author thought so.

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