Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for April 2016

Spelling reform

Responses to my plea for suggestions concerning spelling reform were very few. I think we can expect a flood of letters of support and protest only if at least part of the much-hoped-for change reaches the stage of implementation. I received one letter telling me to stop bothering about nonsense and to begin doing something sensible. This I think is good advice, even though in my case it came a bit too late. The problem is that one man’s meat (business) is another man’s poison (nonsense). (Meat here means “food,” as in meat and drink, sweetmeats, and elsewhere.) Our other correspondent may be right that the reform had to be launched a hundred or so years ago and that, given our computerized spelling programs, it has no chance of success. However, the computer is unable to distinguish between its and it’s, use to and used to, principle and principal, and even lead and led, to give the best-known examples. In principle, the reform is less about such small fry than about a major effort to make English spelling “user-friendly” (sorry for the cliché). The Society should, in my opinion, go on with the congress, make it as efficient and inexpensive as possible, give up the idea of a huge crowd of participants, solicit the endorsement of a few famous journalists and politicians, and put forward a reasonable (that is, non-radical and attractive) proposal, stressing the benefits of the change for both native learners and millions of foreigners who use English as their main language in communicating with the outside world.

Postscript on “breast”

However close in out intuition breast and burst may be, the words are not related. Time and again experience with “things” changes the meaning and usage of “words” (the quotes refer to the fruitful line of research, known as “Words and Things,” from German “Wörter und Sachen”). Now, a note on the grammatical form of the Germanic word for “breast.” This discussion has the risk of becoming too technical, so that I’ll say as little as possible about the details. An old noun (not only in Germanic but everywhere in Indo-European) usually consisted of three parts: the root, the so-called theme (a vowel or a consonant following the root), and the ending. The theme determined the type of declension. That is why the grammars of Old English, Old Saxon, Old Norse, and so forth speak about the a-declension, the i-declension, the r-declension, and the like. If the theme was a consonant, grammars use the term consonantal declension. With relatively few exceptions, this classification makes little sense to a student of Germanic, because by the time our earliest texts were recorded themes had either disappeared or turned into endings. Only Gothic, saved for us by Bishop Wulfila’s fourth-century translation of the Bible, retained a semi-obliterated system of those themes.

The nominative of the word for “breast” was, apparently, brusts in Gothic. This noun occurred only once in the feminine plural, but the ending shows that it belonged to the same consonantal declension as, for example, baurgs “town,” whose forms have been attested very well (in the singular (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative): baurgs, baurgs, baurg, baurg; in the plural: baurgs, baurge, baurgim, baurgs; naturally, the vocative “o town!” did not turn up, because no one apostrophized any town in the New Testament). No doubt, the reconstructed forms given on the Internet and cited by our correspondent were inspired by the Gothic paradigm.

The reconstructed type of the Germanic declension and my statement that Old Engl. brēost and Gothic-German brust(s) have the vowel on different grades of ablaut are fully compatible, that is, they neither contradict nor depend on each other. Ablaut refers to the regular alternation of vowels, as in Engl. bind—bound, take—took, or choosechose. Those alternations resembled railway tracks: in most cases, vowels were allowed to move only along such prescribed tracks (exceptions seem to exist and are always hard to account for). One such route, to cite Old English, was ēo—ēa—u—o (typically represented by verbs like choose, from cēosan). One can see that ēo and u belonged together. Consequently, the coexistence of brēost in one language and brust in another, being reflexes of the same root, need not cause surprise.

Parallel tracks. This is how ablaut works.
Parallel tracks. This is how ablaut works.

More than ten years ago, the first editor of this blog told me that I did not have to be ruthlessly “popular” and could, if necessary, wade through the more intricate aspects of etymology. However, I try to avoid even such mild asides as would bore most of our readers to death. By way of excuse, I may say that the speakers of Old Germanic (at least of Old Norse) considered the breast the abode of the mind, so that I hope I’ll be forgiven for this rare digression. Besides, my comment was inspired by a question, and questions exist to be answered.

Blunt “money”

The question, in connection with my old post on blunt, was whether I know the obsolete slang word blunt “money” and, if I do, what is its origin? Yes I know the word and am aware of three suggestions about its etymology, those mentioned in Farmer and Henley’s Slang and its Analogues.

  1. From blond “sandy or golden color”;
  2. in allusion to the blunt rim of coins; and
  3. from Mr. John Blunt, Chairman of the South Sea Company.

The Internet gives enough information about the South Sea Bubble, which spares me the necessity of going into detail. Quite possibly, all three etymologies are wrong, but, if one has to choose among them, the third looks more realistic. In my database, there is nothing on this word.

The statement is blunt: beware of blunt.
The statement is blunt: beware of blunt.

In praise of antedating: slowcoaches and their passengers

In 1890, while working on the letter C, James A. H. Murray sent out one of his letters asking for earlier and later examples of very many words. It is instructive to compare some of the dates he had with those now available. This comparison tells us how slow the progress in the game of antedating sometimes is. For instance, coach “carriage” moved from 1561 only to 1556 and coach “tutor” from 1854 to 1849 or rather 1850. Coarse (said about language), coastguard, and coax remained frozen at 1633, 1833, and 1589 respectively. By contrast, (carry, send) coals to Newcastle is now dated to 1614, while Murray had 1813. Murray’s earliest citation for coat of arms had the date 1601. Now we know that Caxton used this phrase in 1490, but (amazingly!) there is not a single occurrence of it between 1490 and 1601. Sometimes an earlier date allows us to modify the old views on the word’s origin (Murray succeeded in rejecting numerous conjectures that were, to use his phrase, at odds with chronology). Quite as often antedating gives the researcher an insight into the history of a cultural phenomenon (for instance, coalition as a political term surfaced not in 1642 but already in 16O5), and occasionally all we obtain is a fact of minor importance (take coach: whether it made its way into print in 1556 or 1561 is almost irrelevant). But one cannot expect a revolution at every step. The game is worth more than a candle.

A coach: it makes haste slowly; so does the procedure of antedating.
A coach: it makes haste slowly; so does the procedure of antedating.

Image credits: (1) Railway tracks. CC0 via Pixabay. (2) Tree caricature from South Sea Bubble cards, 1720. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Carriage Drawn by a Horse by Vincent Van Gogh. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jonathon Green

    Blunt: the problem with John Blunt is that there are citations for blunt=money in 1703 and 1717 (there may well be more, as yet un-noted) and the South Sea Bubble did not hit the headlines until 1720. (Though Blunt was involved in the launch of the South Sea Company in 1711). , Nor can I find instances between 1717 and the next citation of 1753.

  2. nikita

    A problem with almost any proposed spelling reform is that it would undermine position of English as the international language. Currently we, foreigners, have no trouble recognising the common set of Greco-Roman roots, which we also have in our languages and which constitute the bulk of the English vocabulary. Any kind of phonetic spelling would kill this, sorry.

  3. Masha Bell

    I think the main reason why u received few suggestions for reforming English spelling is that most readers of this blog are not interested in it. They are interested in etymology – not raising the overall levels of educational attainment. They have managed to cope with the current system and have probably never given any thought to those who struggle with it and what costs their difficulties entail.
    Even people who have occasionally thought about it, tend to dismiss spelling reform because they have somehow come to be believe that only a radically phonetic transformation can make learning to read and write English any easier. Very few people realise, for example, that 1 in 4 of all English spelling difficulties are due to the inconsistent and unfathomable use of doubled consonants, as in ‘arrow – arid – arrive – arise).
    Anyone who bothers to take a close look at my overview of the English spelling system on my EnglishSpellingProblems blog can see that rectifying just some of the worst irregularities could reduce the English rote-learning and cut the time needed for literacy acquisition by half, from 10 years to just 5 or less. The main problem is that the majority of the best educated people are simply not interested in helping those whom the current spelling system dooms to gaining very little from their time in compulsory schooling.

  4. Allan Campbell

    What with North Korea, Trump, Syria, climat (sic) change, Isil, Brexit, the grocers apostrofy, and a few other major world problems its no wunder spelling and spelling change ar (sic) not to the for (sic). Spelling competence/incompetence afects most of us adults vicariusly, thru the problems of getting our children to master literacy quikly so they can get on sooner with propper studdy, and becum contributing citizens in our varius societys.

    That lerners in other alfabetical languages leev us for ded in mastering literacy seems not to bother us too much. Eventually most of us get thare, but what lerning opportunitys do we miss on the way?

    The urgent need for an English spelling upgrade should also figure in our worldly problems.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *