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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2015

Sir James A. H. Murray

In the United States everything is planned very long in advance, while in Europe one can sometimes read about a conference that will be held a mere three months later. By that time all the travel money available to an American academic will have been spent a millennium ago. In the United States, we have visions rather than short-range plans. Knowing all that, I still want to remind our readers that on 26 July the world is expected to mark the centennial (centenary) of James Murray’s death. No symposium can be held in the middle of summer, but perhaps somebody somewhere will observe the date and honor the great man. Let the event be in September or even in October, but let it not be lost in the welter of everyday activities.

Here are a few passages from the article “N.E.D.” published in The Nation, vol. 124, 1927, p. 660:

“The current year is expected to see the appearance of the last volume of the ‘New English Dictionary’. Probably most people will not remember 1927 chiefly for that, but it is not likely that any of its other achievements will more deserve to be remembered…. James A. H. Murray… had hoped that he might live to see it [The N.E.D.] complete, and three years before he died in 1915 he was working seventeen hours a day, but the task was too vast to be accomplished by even such intemperate labor…. The ‘New English Dictionary’ is one of those magnificent achievements which are only possible when an organization exists capable of drawing to itself during several generations the precise men for the task in hand.”

As a matter of fact, the dictionary was completed in 1928. In 1913 Bernhard Kellermann brought out his futuristic and most successful novel The Tunnel (Der Tunnel). Its protagonist spends twenty six years constructing a tunnel between Europe and America. Although handicapped at every step, he succeeds, but “The train arrived in Europe with a twenty-six minutes’ delay” (one minute for each year, I assume). By that time airplanes crossed the distance between the continents in several hours (according to a prediction made in 1913), and no one ever used the tunnel. Fortunately, the OED cannot be outdated, but it too needed and needs supplements.

Paint brushes put to good use. (Self Portrait as an Artist. Vincent van Gogh. 1888. Public domain via Wikiart.org)
Paint brushes put to good use. (Self Portrait as an Artist. Vincent van Gogh. 1888. Public domain via Wikiart.org)

Although Murray is famous, relatively little has been written about him, and no book analyzes the whole of his voluminous correspondence. I would like to quote his letter printed in Notes and Queries, 9th Series/XII, 17 October 1903, p. 307. It gives an idea of his activities.

“PAINT-BRUSH.—This term appears to be recent in literary use. I do not find it in any dictionary before Cassell’s ‘Encyclopedic’ in 1886, and I have not come upon a literary example before 1882. All the same, I remember it in colloquial use more than fifty years ago; indeed I can remember having a paint-box and paint-brushes, and buying ‘camel’s-hair paint-brushes’ in 1845. Was it then a child’s word? In works on art one finds only ‘the brush’, the ‘product of his brush’, &c. In 1792 the Gentleman’s Magazine speaks of a ‘painter’s brush’, and in a ‘Book of Trades’ of 1848, under ‘The Brushmaker’, where scrubbing-brushes, shoe-brushes, clothes-brushes, and tooth-brushes all appear, one finds paint-brushes referred to only as ‘the brushes used by painters’. But surely tradesmen who sold them called them ‘paint-brushes’ fifty years ago? Can any one furnish examples?” From Kellermann to O. Henry, who wrote a story titled “Shearing a Wolf.”

This is what it took to shear the vocabulary of English for twelve centuries. Read and admire.

Getting down to brass tacks

The comments and letters on this subject have been most useful. One of our correspondents called my attention to the colloquial meaning of brass balls. The phrase is well-known, but it hardly explains the origin of brass tacks. More to the point is the publication by Peter Reitan in the periodical Comments on Etymology, which Gerald Cohen summarizes in Vol.44/8: “Brass tacks—emblem of the only inevitable and last friend, the undertaker. Studded over our final ligneous adornment, brass tacks are suggestive of stern, inexorable reality.” This is part of a note in Wyandot Pioneer for 14 May 1848. Reitan explained: “Brass coffin tacks once served as a reminder of the humble fate awaiting us all. Get/come down to brass tacks was a call to set aside pretense/sham/false fronts; deal humbly and seriously with the task at hand.”

Perhaps the riddle has been solved, but a few questions remain. It is surprising that in the past not everybody knew the origin of such a seemingly transparent idiom. Also, to get down to brass tacks does not have and has apparently never had grim associations or meant “to deal humbly with the task at hand” (seriously is not synonymous with humbly). The phrase means “come to business” and is interchangeable with get down to bedrock. Finally, the funerary explanation of the idiom may have been the product of folk etymology invented in retrospect. It is not my intention to fill the otherwise excellent ointment with flies, but in such cases the motto should always be: “Better safe than sorry.”

The bishop and his foot

Here too I am grateful for the comments. Obviously, the bishop’s foot was at one time associated with all kinds of bad things. I am still wondering where milk came in. We are missing a link. Unfortunately, in all kinds of reconstruction links exist mainly for this purpose.

Alexander John Ellis, an outstanding philologist and a passionate advocate of spelling reform. (Portrait by William John Naudin; albumen carte-de-visite, 8 March 1886; CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; © National Portrait Gallery, London)
Alexander John Ellis, an outstanding philologist and a passionate advocate of spelling reform. (Portrait by William John Naudin; albumen carte-de-visite, 8 March 1886; CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; © National Portrait Gallery, London)

English spelling

Slowly but steadily the Spelling Society is moving toward convening a congress that will make the first practical steps toward the eagerly awaited and as eagerly resisted reform. There is no lack of interest in the media, but it is my impression that the public in Great Britain is more engaged than those who use spell checkers in the United States. What has happened to the famous American activism? We are so sensitive to everything that looks unjust. For example, I have seen an ad promoting “humanely raised poultry” and was immensely pleased to know that the chicken in my soup was raised humanely.

In 1848 Alexander J. Ellis, a great philologist, brought out the second edition of A Plea for Phonetic Spelling; or the Necessity of Orthographic Reform. Some statements from a review of this book (The Westminster Review 61, 1849) might entertain our readers.

  • “How is it that, of twenty five million inhabitants of the British Islands who speak English as their native tongue, and speak no other [hear! hear!]… so small a number read and write it with such a facility as to make doing so an agreeable relaxation instead of a painful task?”
  • “Is it that to ‘spell English, is the most difficult of human attainments?’ Mr. Ellis says that it is the cause.”
  • “English would be that best fitted for universal adoption, ‘were it not’, says he, ‘obscured by a whimsically antiquated orthography; and the other nations of Europe may esteem themselves fortunate, that the English have not yet made this discovery’.”

Aren’t humanely raised and educated children at least as precious as chickens?

I see America writing, or who laid down in the street and whom did what

  • “American Special Operation forces mounted a rare raid… killing a senior leader… as well as freeing a… woman whom Pentagon officials said had been held as a slave.” (New York Times)
  • “Prime Minister David Cameron… hailed a statesman whom he said knew that Britain was ‘not just a place on the map but a force in the world, with a destiny to shape events and a duty to stand up for freedom’.” (Associated Press)
  • “On the opening day of the 2015 session, protesters laid down in the Capitol rotunda, chanting phrases such as “No justice, no peace.” (From a local newspaper)

I wish I could lay down in front of some very important house, chant “No rational orthography, no education,” and meet a statesman whom would mobilize the masses for spelling reform.

Some questions remain on the back burner. Kindly wait for the answers until June!

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    I caused a furore on Mumsnet a couple of years ago by describing English spelling as ‘a form of child abuse’. I should perhaps have said ‘unintentional, culturally conditioned child abuse’ or a ‘sophisticated form of child abuse’.

    But whenever i witness the misery which English spelling causes for some children in their early school years, i can’t help seeing it as a form of child abuse. More regular spelling systems are much kinder to learners, because they don’t subject them to so much predictable, recurring failure.

    Very few children are able to spell words like ‘said, friend, Wednesday’ correctly, without getting them wrong several times first. With better spelling systems they can spell such words correctly on their first attempt.

  2. Masha Bell

    Better spelling systems put parents and teachers under much less stress too.

  3. Aurélien Langlois

    “… the centennial (centenary) of James Murray’s birth”: surely this should be “death”, not “birth”?

  4. cameron

    When I was a young boy I had to learn both English and Persian spelling. English is a far better spelling system than Persian, and much easier to learn.

    And of course, as compared to the completely preposterous systems used in China and Japan, English spelling is as simple as Spanish.

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