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Monthly Gleanings: February 2011

By Anatoly Liberman


Split infinitive soup: enjoy

As I said, when I first broached this subject, discussing the merits and demerits of the split infinitive is an unprofitable occupation: all the arguments have been repeated many times.  But an ironic comment on my post made me return to splitting.  The differences between me and a huge segment of the world (a look at British newspapers shows that the infection is not limited to American usage) can be formulated so: my principle is “split if you must,” while many others seem to stick to the principle “split at all costs.”  Our correspondent asserted that nothing justifies keeping the particle to and the verbal form in close proximity.  Not quite so.  From a historical point of view, the particle is the same word as the preposition to.  In Old English, the infinitive could be declined, and, when it followed to, it stood in the dative.  In the most clear-cut cases, that dative expressed purpose, as does the substandard modern construction for to (“Simple Simon went a-fishing/ For to catch a whale:/ All the water he could find/ Was in his mother’s pail”).  In Old English, catch would have stood in the dative, and the preposition would have been to.  Consequently, there is good reason why the two words refuse to be separated.  But as time went on, English lost nearly all its endings and the word order became rigid.  Then the problem arose what to do with an adverb when one wanted to say something like promised to transform the country quickly but five or more words fought for the privilege of occupying the slot immediately after transform.  Those who did not want to restructure the phrase (promised a quick transformation of the country) found the solution in to quickly transform; poets endorsed this usage.  But in challenging my opponent to a duel, I would like to ask him what he thinks of the following sentences (which are unacceptable to me): “Minnesota Wild officials are warning fans to only buy tickets from authorized agents….”  Wouldn’t to buy tickets only from sound—let us put it—more elegant, even more natural?  “The military defended the caretaker government… but pledged to soon change it….”  What about to change it soon?  My problem remains the same as before: to be or to not be?  Tastes differ, and, like Dickens’s Miss Dartle, I am asking merely for information.

No consensus on agreement

1) Those who follow this blog with some regularity may remember that I have a rubric titled “The mood of the tales are gloomy.”  Most Americans write so, and I watch this syntax (which is rather old) with equanimity: if the verb is supposed to agree with the word next to it rather than with the subject of the sentence, so be it.  Still some sentences are uglier than the others.  Here is one of them: “The uprising shows that the fate of Palestinians, about 3 percent of the world’s Arab population, were not the foremost concern on most people’s minds, despite what the West was led to believe.”  Curiously, the closest word to the verb is population, but 3 percent overpowered it.  From Newsweek: “The next wave of leaders aren’t about to take risks….”  2) The correspondent who commented on my discussion of constructions like “What matters is/are actions, not words” pointed out that both verbs are fine here.  I had no doubt about it and agreed at once but added that the majority of speakers seem to prefer are.  In this connection (or at this juncture, as scholars prefer to say), I would like to report the results of my recent experiment.  In the Cambridge edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets (the author is an American professor), I found the sentence: “What he inherited was debts.”  I showed it in the form: “What he inherited… debts” to fifteen of my colleagues and asked them to fill in the blank with was or were.  The request produced heated discussion, but almost everybody opted for was.  Conversely, more than 90% of the examples I have excerpted from newspapers over the years have the plural after all and what (“all we need are better homes,” “what we see are pictures of utter desolation,” and the like).  It follows that when people write “naturally” (unthinkingly), they choose the plural, but when they are confronted with the question about the “correct” form, their guilty conscience tells them that the verb must agree with the subject, even though all and what are number-neutral and only look like singulars.

Walter W. Skeat speaks his mind

I never miss the chance of expressing my admiration for Skeat, and I am sorry that no one has published a full-length biography of this great man.  He wrote thousands of notes, and a cubist portrait of him consisting of little pieces of mosaic would be a delight.  The quotations given below were printed in 1896.  On spelling:  “The ‘New English Dictionary’ gives “Dicky, or Dickey,” and shows by quotations that it was used in both senses, viz. (1) a seat on which the driver sits, (2) a seat behind.  The only reason for inserting the e is that it is wholly unmeaning and perfectly useless, which is a great recommendation in spelling English, as helping to keep up its much prized anomalies.”  Hear, hear!  On etymology:  “Briefly, the old county histories are an inexhaustible mine of impossible etymologies.  Their writers prepared themselves for the task by carefully neglecting to learn the merest rudiments of Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English grammar.  And the study of phonetics had not even been heard of.”  Very Skeat-ish.


Toodle-oo ~ tootaloo “goodbye.” Is tootaloo connected with the verb tootle ~ toodle and the hoot of the motor horn?  The word is almost certainly of British, not American provenance.  In 1978 two authors from Bowling Green State University proposed the derivation of toodle-oo (their spelling) from French tout à l’heure “presently.”  Apparently, they believed that no one had suggested this derivation before.  Perhaps they were right, but finding the literature on the origin of words, especially of such volatile words, is hard, so, not inconceivably, someone else had a similar idea between 1907 and 1978.  I cannot solve the problem but would like to point out that goodbye has had numerous synonyms, native and pseudo-French.  One of them is so long! Pip-pip, a child of popular culture, flourished for some time.  In a note published in 1897, the local word holybo was mentioned.  French au revoir was current in its facetious variant olive oilBon soir enjoyed some popularity in the form Bob swore (in chapter 22 of David Copperfield, Miss Mowcher, the heroic dwarf, uses it: “”Bob swore!’ as the Englishman said for ‘Good-night,’ when he first learnt French, and thought it so like English”).  On the other hand, loo seems to exist as a meaningless enclitic.  I have seen the verb linger-longer-loo (= linger) in a book featuring Cockney speech.  The question remains open, and suggestions are welcome.

Kybosh. My post on kybosh had wonderful consequences: while refuting me, two scholars (Stephen Goranson and Peter Maher) offered their own etymologies of this word.  I could not wish for better results (except of course for having the world applauding me, but such things rarely happen in the study of word origins).  My idea was that kybosh goes back to a term used by sculptors and that initially it meant “put varnish on an object.”  This idea runs into serious chronological difficulties.  But with a bit of vindictive glee I may add that from a semantic point of view my proposition is not unthinkable.  Not long ago, the verb shellac became or almost became “the word of the year.”  Unlike my good friends and opponents Goranson and Maher, I could not offer any etymon of kybosh, but at least it seems that a word meaning “to put varnish on” may refer to a sound thrashing.  Although the origin of shellac is no mystery, I have not been able to ascertain how step by step the slangy meaning of this verb developed.  The examples at my disposal shed no light on the process.

Richard Edgcumbe

I mentioned him in my post on giaour.  No doubt, Stephen Goranson’s identification of this man is correct (see his comment on the post “Etymology and Infidels”).  I had a similar idea but did not dare offer it.


As always, many thanks for comments, suggestions, and questions!

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. John Cowan

    My understanding of pip-pip toodle-oo is that it is a verbal imitation of the sounds formerly used by the BBC to announce the top of the hour: the first pip marks the end of the current hour, so the semantic extension to ‘good-bye’ is plausible. Doubtless toddle helped to reinforce it.

  2. Anelie C

    Regarding the semantic evolution of ‘shellac’, are you familiar with Michael Quinion’s recent piece in ‘World Wide Words’?
    He traces a development in meaning in American popular use from the lacquer itself to ‘shellac drunks’ (who were sufficiently desperate during the Prohibition to attempt to consume the alcohol dissolved in large quantities of shellac!), and from there (somewhat mysteriously) to ‘soundly beaten’.

  3. […] suddenly appeared on my Twitter feed (@TheLineBreak). The link led me to this article: Monthly Gleanings: February 2011. Oh, it was love at first syllable. The first parts of the blog entry were about split infinitives […]

  4. Stephen Goranson

    Evidence for the proposal that kibosh (kybosh) comes from names of a lash or stick is available in the email archives of the American Dialect Society and in Gerald Cohen (compiler), “Stephen Goranson’s suggestion that kibosh in put the kibosh on may derive from kurbash (a type of whip)[with an addendum by Matthew Little],” in Comments on Etymology v. 40 (2010) 12-48.

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