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Monthly gleanings for December 2013

By Anatoly Liberman

At the end of December people are overwhelmed by calendar feelings: one more year has merged with history, and its successor promises new joys and woes (but thinking of future woes is bad taste). I usually keep multifarious scraps and cuttings to dispose of on the last Wednesday of the year: insoluble questions come and never go away (why, for example, we say this time of year rather than of the year, or things are coming to an end, if there is only one end, and surely it must be the end?). Anyway, that time of year, my friend, thou mayst in me behold when 2013 is coming to an end. I have a few old and a few new things to discuss. The sheen of novelty and the glitter of rime (few people still recognize the word rime) are equally attractive to an etymologist. Also, one can always repeat the same thing, pretending that it is new. Recently, I have read two articles in Washington Post. One informed the public that American English can be divided into 24 zones; the other picked up an old hat and discovered Californian “uptalk” (known as Valley Girl talk). I wish I could lay hands on equally stunning revelations. So let me begin with an ancient theme.

One of our correspondents asked me when I threw the gauntlet to those who use they in speaking about a single person. I think the first time I did it was in a post “The Tenant’s Dilemma,” dated 8 October 2008. The post irritated some of my colleagues who asserted that such constructions go back to at least Middle English and alleged the existence of solid research on the subject. But I knew that all the research amounted to their reading an entry in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. There the celebrated author quotes sentences with they referring to someone, anyone, and other indefinite pronouns. I insisted that horrors like when a tenant is evicted, it is not always their fault owe their origin to a misguided effort to avoid sexism in language and that the cure was worse than the disease. Not unexpectedly (or unsurprisingly, as some authors like to say), my opponents did not find sentences of this type in older sources, though indeed I received (not from them!) two excerpts going back to the end of the nineteenth century in which a patient was called they in a medical record.

The discussion died a natural death (all of us said what we could, though I may add that in stylistically respectable newspapers and in well-written books this ultramodern English usage never occurs), but from time to time I quoted in the gleanings the silliest examples that came my way. I have two such at the moment. They illustrate the degree the stultification of American speakers has reached. People are simply afraid to say he or she. The situation is as follows. Burglars and rapists have become truly fearless around the campus where I teach. To avoid a misunderstanding: all the criminals are male, while the victims of rape are female. From a sheriff’s testimony: “Basically, the modus operandi was the same. He approaches a victim, identifies himself as a police officer, kidnaps them, sexually assaults them and releases them.” From a letter to the student newspaper: “One of my friends said she was able to run away from an alleged mugger by using pepper spray when they threatened her with a gun.” The incidents are horrifying, but isn’t the grammar pathetic? I agree with John Cowan that at present after none both is and are sound correct, but this is an entirely different matter. The same holds for neither he nor she is/are interested in this question. I am not so naïve as to expect that people will stop using the form beaten into them at school, but it does not follow that, when ugliness becomes the norm, everybody is expected to admire it.

Garfish and its spurious kin.
Mr. John Larsson cited Swedish dialectal görgott “very good” and asked whether gör– was related to gar– in garfish (in the fish name, gar– means “spear”). No, this gör– is a descendant of Old Norse gørr ~ gerr), a comparative form meaning “more fully, more precisely” or simply “better.” Since ø is the umlaut of o, rather than an original front vowel, g in Swedish gör– is pronounced “hard.”

Have I answered our correspondent who asked me whether anyone had noticed that the word monkey sounds very much like Malay monyet and others? Yes, the similarity is well-known. See my post for 23 January 2013.

I know that I thanked our correspondent for a comment on my discussion of twerk, but I am amused to observe the attention this word has received. My colleagues already “twerk” letters in the words they explain, the Internet is awash with questions and answers about the origin of twerk, and the whole world and his wife twerk in unison. The verb surfaced about twenty years ago, and the spellchecker in my computer has no knowledge of either noun or verb. But then people always invent something new and ask ingenious questions, for example: “Does a diner have to serve dinner?” This is indeed the question of the year. Also, can a monkey monkey a monkey? I am sure it can.

New words.
Peter Maher has recently sent me a list of new words compiled by Paul B. Gallagher, who found them in the Russian version of Esquire, with definitions in Russian and an English translation, apparently by a Russian. Mr. Gallagher polished up the translations, so that they read like English. Some entries are amusing.

    • Seagull management “a management style where the manager suddenly swoops down on an organization, makes a lot of noise, disrupts everything, and then, just as suddenly, takes off, leaving total chaos in his wake” (sounds familiar—the thing, not the phrase).
"Seagull" management.
“Seagull” management.
  • (Sex in and outside the city). Slide to unlock “a very easy girl” (I have once read an extremely sober book titled Male Fantasies, but this idiom is not there). Girlfriend zone “the situation when a girl wants to stay friends, but a guy only sees her romantically.”
  • Child supervision “when tech-savvy kids help elderly parents or other relatives with computers or other electronic devices.” Ah, the joys of child supervision! I remember seeing the word blog for the first time. I asked everybody around about its meaning. No one knew. Only my undergraduate assistant, and not a very bright one, explained to me the word’s meaning and origin. And I am supposed to be an expert in etymology… My last self-effacing sentence was added to illustrate the compound humblebrag “a statement whose boastfulness the author tries to disguise with irony or a joke such as who am I, anyway?”


A Happy New Year from The Oxford Etymologist and his (their?) editors!

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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credit: A posed photograph of Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to the Moscow Art Theatre company. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Larsson

    Also Happy New Year to you, Professor Liberman! Although you live in the Land of “Cloudy Water”, you manage to give clear views of words across borders, time and cultures, thus making Wednesday to a very special day of the week for many readers of your blog.

  2. John Cowan

    I grant, of course, that singular they with a noun antecedent was less common in former centuries, but I deny that it did not exist or was found only in lesser stylists. (In all cases, I have modernized the orthography and added emphasis.) The King James Version (1611) contains what has in recent years become the locus classicus of singular they: “Then shalt thou bring forth that man, or that woman (which have committed that wicked thing) unto thy gates, even that man, or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones till they die” (Deut 17:5). So too in the Comedy of Errors (IV:iii) the Poet says, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”

    Far older than either is William of Palerne (1375): “Hastily hied each wight … till they neighed” (l. 2179). In the Parliament Rolls for 1464 the OED finds “Inheritments, of which any of the said persons … was seised by themself, or jointly with [an]other.” A 1643 source, also quoted by the OED, gives us “Each country hath their fashions and garnishes”, where there is no question of avoiding his or her.

    Richardson was well known for his prose style: his 1742 novel Pamela contains “Little did I think … to make a … complaint against a person very dear to you,… but don’t let them be so proud … as to make them not care how they affront everybody else.” Lord Chesterfield wrote in his Letters (1759): “If a person is born of a … gloomy temper … they cannot help it.” (These are from the OED, hence the ellipses.)

    Nearer to our own time, Thackeray wrote “A person can’t help their birth” in Vanity Fair (1848), and the pace of singular they accelerates after that. All this, of course, long before the 1970s.

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