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Monthly etymology gleanings for July 2015

During the month of July I have received some questions, comments, and queries about things new to me. Thus, I know next to nothing about Latvian (my Indo-European interests more often make me turn to Lithuanian) and feel insecure when it comes to Romance etymology. The questions made me examine the areas that would under normal circumstances have not attracted my attention, and I am pleased. Queries about political terms (see below) are quite beyond my expertise, and I have no other choice but to refer our correspondents to those who may help us out. Every now and then I try to dissuade the letter writers from pursuing what I am sure is a wrong track and invariably fail in my endeavor. People are obstinate, and so am I. Many letters present minimal interest to our readership and I answer them privately. It will be observed that, since I write this blog in my so-called free time, my leisure hours are full of Adventure, as chivalric romances put it. This has been as true of July 2015 as of any other month.

Nooalf, spelling reform, and phonetic spelling

The question I received was about my attitude toward Nooalf (that is, New Alphabet), but I’ll add a few considerations on other kinds of proposed innovations and “phonics.” Those who have followed this blog know that I am all for Spelling Reform, but I am against utopian projects. Today the climate for Spelling Reform is not good; the public is indifferent to our efforts because it does not realize how much in terms of labor, money, and educational standards is at stake. It is happy with spell checkers. On both sides of the Atlantic, the last time intellectuals were seriously interested in Reform was before World War I; since 1914 they have had more pressing business to take care of. However, English spelling remains erratic and does us a lot of harm. The most important thing is to “sell” Spelling Reform to the public that is sure to resist clever but disruptive proposals.

Any new alphabet with diacritics (special signs like cedilla, háček, or umlaut) or invented letters is out of the question. Purely phonetic spelling is possible (students have been taught to use transcription for more than a century, and children understand the idea without much trouble), but, given the number and variety of English dialects, the system that would satisfy everybody cannot be achieved. Most advocates of “phonics” have not had the experience of the following type: “Don’t say foyve, say five!”—But I do say foyve!” Speakers hear other people’s accents but not their own. In a language like English, any spelling system is an imposition on someone. Millions in the United States say twenny (with nasalized e), while in the British Midlands thousands say (or used to say not too long ago) Lunnon (also with a nasalized vowel). Making those well-meaning, innocent people say twenty and London is tantamount to enforcing somebody’s will on them. Whatever we end up doing, many words will have to be learned like hieroglyphs.

Will this puss purr as nicely after the implementation of Spelling Reform?
Will this puss purr as nicely after the implementation of Spelling Reform?

I know that my idea of Spelling Reform being implemented in several steps over several decades has hardly any allies, but I stick to my guns. The public should first be weaned from the spellings for which no one cares. Stop distinguishing between –ise and –ize and replace –our with –or, as has been done in the United States. Get rid of the truly useless double letters, especially word-finally (till, spell, and the like). If pus can be secreted despite one s in its written image, the impact of less will perhaps not be lessened if spelled les, and (horribile dictu!) the majority may agree that the past of mean, if spelled ment, will not be taken for the root of mental or the homonymous suffix. This is not a good place for offering the entire program(me), but my idea is obvious. Even the staunchest conservatives will probably shrug their shoulders and agree that our society may not collapse if till and until have been made to look like related words (which they are) and that, if we can live with stir and whir, we can survive er and pur (for err and purr). I am anxious to see the first step: the English-speaking world’s consensus on the necessity to do something right now. Revolutionary plans, however clever, will remain plans and lose the name of action. Perhaps the projected International Spelling Congress will make a difference. I keep hoping against hope.

Democratic Republican

A correspondent has been researching the origin of the term given in the title of this rubric. He writes: “A far as I can tell, the term came into use sometime in the early 20th century, or possibly a little earlier…. [It] appears to have been coined about a century ago by academics affiliated with the Democratic Party who wished to claim a direct line of descent from Jefferson through Jackson to the present day.” The letter is much longer, but its gist is clear from the passage I reproduced. I’ll now quote its end: “So, who did the deed? That’s my question. I’d be surprised if you can answer. I’d love if you could.” Alas, all I can do is to kick the can down the road, as politicians say nowadays. Can anyone deal with this can?

Bug and buck

In my post on bug, I mentioned the fact that the b-g nouns formed a group of words whose affinity is sometimes hard to determine. The question was whether the b-k group has similar features. I think it does. Thus, to repeat my old example, Engl. bug “bogeyman” resembles Russian buka. All such coinages sound like baby words. The problem is that reference to baby words is fine as long as we stay within the limits of one language, but how do they spread over large territories? Are they the products of independent creation wherever they occur or of some mysterious diffusion? Monogenesis or polygenesis? Those who have access to my etymological dictionary will find full discussion of this problem in the entry boy, a word of highly “disputed etymology.”

What would happen if one of the heroes had lost their hair? Unimaginable.
What would happen if one of the heroes had lost their hair? Unimaginable.

Troublesome pronouns

From a newspaper: “A June 18 letter writer asked what would happen if one of the students had lost their hair.” I have no idea what would happen, but, while rereading George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I did not like when I was young and now like even less), I noticed that she discriminated between her usage and that of her characters. The novel was written in the early eighteen-seventies. Celia says about her sister’s husband: “I think he is not half fond enough of Dorothea; and he ought to be, for I am sure no one else would have had him—do you think they would?” Another character (Solomon Featherstone) asks: “Might anybody ask what their brother has been saying?” This is again Celia: “How can we live and think that any one has trouble—piercing trouble—and we could help them, and never try? (pp. 278, 304, and 783 of the 1986 Clarendon Press edition). If I am not mistaken, she herself always says his in such cases.

English idioms

In the previous posts, some space was devoted to the phrase to shoot one’s bolt. At that time, I did not realize that as early as 1375 it was already possible to say a fool’s bolt is soon shot. Another idiom, namely to get down to brass tacks, attracted more attention. The latest verdict was that the idiom is of American provenance and goes back to draping coffins. This may be true, but I read in a 1906 article by the noted English philologist A. L. Mayhew, who would never have polluted his lips by an Americanism: “Wedgwood didn’t care a brass button about phonetic laws.” In Notes and Queries, vol. 161, 1913, p. 105, an American correspondent used the phrase hungry enough to eat brass tacks, and not long ago I wrote about restaurants on the West Bank called “Brass Tacks.” There must have been something unrelated to mortuary business about brass buttons and brass tacks that allowed idioms to absorb them.

Etymology: nothing has changed

From an 1824 review: “We are very far from understanding etymological researches, in their proper place, and soberly conducted: but, unfortunately, the subject affords so many allurements to the indulgence of the imagination, and such easy means for indulging it, that it’s more rare to find sobriety in an etymologist than in any other class of writers” (London). Indeed, sobriety is a relatively rare commodity in etymological research. Amateurs are especially aggressive in promoting their views. They possess little knowledge, but they have opinions.

The American dream, or hankering after a bound copy of Bosworth and Toller’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon

“…there must be nearly a thousand voices in America muttering: ‘Give us our book, good or bad, that we may at least bind up and be at rest’.” (New York, 1897). Most American colleges have abolished teaching the history of English, while the extremely few PhDs who were stupid enough to specialize in Old or Middle English have hardly any prospect of employment. The muttering of nearly a thousand voices has dwindled down to an almost inaudible murmur. Everybody is now modern, postmodern, and at rest.

Do we hear what we say?

(From a newspaper) “John is such an interesting young man, and he just devours everything he reads. I just wanted to share it with him, because I knew he would enjoy reading that kind of literature. It would just sit on a shelf at my home.” A classic just so story.

Enjoy the end of the summer! The August gleanings will appear on 2 September.

Image credits: (1) Puss in Boots. American Chemical Mfg. and Mining Co. Miami U. Libraries – Digital Collections. No known copyright restrictions via Miami University Libraries Flickr. (2) Samson and Delilah by Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca. 1528–30. OASC via Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    I agree that the prospects for spelling reform are currently very poor and that the main challenge for supporters of it is to improve awareness of how much harm the inconsistencies of English spelling do. When it comes to deciding what to change, the biggest problem is the amount of possibilities.

    As I have shown on my EnglishSpellingProblems blog, nearly all the main English spelling patterns now have some exceptions. I am becoming increasingly inclined to think that the main objective should be to make LEARNING TO READ easier. Spellcheckers do a pretty good job of dealing with most spelling errors, and smartphones are getting better and better at converting speech to text. Learning to spell may therefore soon become less important, but learning to read will probably stay as crucial as ever. I have discussed the irregular spellings which are chiefly responsible for making learning to read and write English exceptionally time consuming on my ImprovingEnglishSpelling blog.

  2. JO 753

    I believe that offering an orthography for the future language of Earth is more likely to be accepted by people than any reform proposals, especially for English. Since it appears that English will be that language (whatever it is by then, whenever ‘then’ is), basing the system on English makes sense.

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