Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for March 2017

Spelling and spelling reform

Many thanks for the comments. One of the questions was about the dialect that could be used for the foundation of a new norm. No spelling can reflect the pronunciation of all English speakers. An ideal system, that is, phonetic transcription ([nou] or [neu], or [nöu] for no; [faiv], [foiv], or [fahv/ fa:v] for five) is out of the question. The hope is to retain what we have but rid it of the most obvious silliness and redundancies (mute and double letters, among others). There is no consensus about how far the reform should go, but all English speakers pronounce give, you, and done in approximately the same way, so that, if we respell such words as giv, u, and dun, no one will be “marginalized.” At this stage, reformers should only try to persuade the public that they are doing something beneficial to the world. Judging by the experience of other countries, I, for one, see no harm in abolishing the letters q and x (siks, kwite), leaving them, if necessary, in Quentin and Xerxes; replacing sc with sk, and so forth.

Truly instructive is Mr. Jevgēnij Kuktiņš’s story of the Latvian spelling reform. As an outsider, I am not a fan of the Latvian alphabet, because all diacritics are a nuisance. French children have a hard time even learning their é’s and è’s, while Latvian offers a veritable feast of special signs. This, however, is not my point. It appears that in recent history, Latvians agreed to introduce radical changes and are now “kwite” happy with what they have. To be sure, there is a difference: English is spoken by many million people all over the world, so that the odds are long, but Webster had his way with the changes of –ise to –ize, mould to mold, and colour to color. Perhaps the battle is not yet lost. The main thing is to begin it.

(By the way, Ouida’s name is pronounced wee-dah!)

Two ways of shutting up

I do know the history of u in words like but and put. When the Great Vowel Shift turned long u (that is, ū or [u:]) into the diphthong most modern speakers have in how, now, vow, short u followed suit and changed to an a-like vowel (a, as in Italian or German), because in the history of the Germanic languages, short vowels usually take their cue from their long partners. The change was not consistent, especially after the labial consonants b, p, f; hence bulb versus bull and fun versus full. The north of England did not participate in the change of short u. When our family lived in Cambridge (England), the science teacher in our son’s school began every lesson with the words SHOOT OOP. He was obviously a northerner. The famous philologist Joseph Wright grew up in Yorkshire, and his son used to mock him gently for his accent. There is a two-volume biography of Wright, written by his wife. Personal touches are few in it, but it is still a good book to read. And, yes, I also know about the present-day administrative division of Yorkshire, but thank you for the remarks: all comments are appreciated.

Cheshire cat and chessie/chessy

I was happy to read the comments on the impenetrable grin. After years of working with the origin of idioms, I have come to the conclusion that the beginning of our proverbial sayings, unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations, is beyond recovery. This may surprise even historical linguists: no phonetic laws or grammatical classes, no shaky semantic bridges, no protolanguage, and yet complete obscurity. Just try to explain why we should mind our p’s and q’s! Even more surprising is the circumstance that words are often extremely old, while idioms are usually not, and still their etymology is unknown.

This is the famous Chessie kitten, unsmiling but cute.
This is the famous Chessie kitten, unsmiling but cute.

Peter Maher reminded me of Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and of Chessie Systems in connection with the chessy cat, mentioned in my post. My search for the chessy cat immediately yielded C&O Railway, but the famous label (a cute kitten) is too late for explaining the origin of chessy. However, it does prove that the word chessy was known far away from Philadelphia, where it may have originated. Other than that, cat folklore is rich, and the grin of the Cheshire cat surely reminds one of a chain. But where do we go from this indubitable fact? To smile like a basket of chips, mentioned in the comment by Stephen Goranson, is a well-known idiom. I once heard it from an American speaker, and, if I remember correctly, he used it without reference to smiling (the meaning was “on a grand scale”), more or less synonymous with like a house on fire. I can imagine chips lying in two rows and resembling a mouth full of teeth—a captivating smile. But a grinning cat from Cheshire? Perhaps one of the explanations I quoted is correct after all. By the way, one can also smile like a brewer’s horse. Is the brewer’s horse always drunk?

A basket of chips: it will make you and your dentist smile.
A basket of chips: it will make you and your dentist smile.

Odds and ends

To dine with Duke Humphrey “to stay without dinner.” Yes, indeed, the usual form of the idiom is to dine with Duke (not Earl) Humphrey, but in my database, the phrase turned up in its rare form, and I decided to quote it. I am sure many people share my experience and remember where they first encountered a rare word or an exotic idiom. In the introductory chapter to Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens relates the glorious history of Martin’s ancestors. According to the extant records, one of them was especially distinguished, for he often dined with Duke Humphrey. But for a footnote, I, at that time a student, would not have understood the joke, which goes a long way toward repeating the truth, worn-out almost threadbare: “Don’t reprint classics without comments!”

Gerhard, the Devil’s name. Thank you for the reference to Geeraard de Duivelsteen, a 13th-century castle. Nothing is said about Geeraard’s reputation: he was swarthy, rather than evil. If Gerhard had already been known as one of the Devil’s many names, the dark-complexioned knight sheds no light on the idiom, and, if the name is more recent, it hardly refers to the castle’s owner.

Geerard de Duivelsteen, a 13th-century building, named after the knight Geerard Vilain. The owner was neither  a devil nor a villain.
Geerard de Duivelsteen, a 13th-century building, named after the knight Geerard Vilain. The owner was neither a devil nor a villain.

Bother and copacetic. I did try to find a Dutch etymon for bother! Nothing turned up. And the information on copacetic warms the cockles of my heart, for I am busy working on the letter C of my etymological dictionary, which shows what remarkable progress I am making toward the end of the alphabet.

Apostrophizing the overkill. One of the things Spelling Reform should fix is the use of the apostrophe. It is almost impossible to teach undergraduates the use of this nefarious sign. In my course “German Folklore,” I spend a whole semester imploring the students to write the Grimms’ Tales rather than the Grimm’s Tales (though they know that there were two brothers and agree that the Grimm is nonsense, they keep writing the phrase their way). But lo and behold! A correspondent sent me a text with the words y’all’re. He wonders whether there is not too much of muchness in it. I am afraid there is.

More answers in April, after its sweet showers have pierced March.

Image credits: (1) “Chesapeake and Ohio 150th anniversary 1935” by Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons(2) “handful of biomass” by Oregon Department of Forestry, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (3)”Geeraard de Duivelsteen” by Paul Hermans, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image credit: “Latvia 1998 CIA map” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    The Cheshire Cat remains inscrutable. Without presuming that the following will settle matters, perhaps notice the spelling in John Speed’s (1606?) publication, Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine: “The shire may well be said to be a seedplot of Gentilitie…neither hath any brought more men of valour onto the Field than Cheese-Shire hath done,….”

  2. John Cowan

    It turns out, anent Cheshire cat, that cats do make a sound like chewing gravel; it is a sign of underhydration, typically due to chronic renal failure.

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Latvian diacritics actually are pretty straightforward – as macrons go exclusively for lengthening vowels (ā, ē, ī, ū), rooflets for fricatives and affricates (č, ž, dž, š), and cedillas for palatalaized sounds (ķ, ģ, ļ, ņ and ŗ, the latter not any more). Some coordination was taking place with Latin, Czech, Lithuanian and probably Polish, Estonian only for rooflets instead of sh. Latvian é’s and è’s follow the vowel harmony rule of the vowel in the following syllable so are not distinguished in normal writing. Orthoepic dictionaries though mark not only wide/narrow e (e vs and three types of o but also all the intonations on each syllable (and at this level one with good hearing can find regional differences). It depends how deep you want to delve into it. Cheshire = Češīra in Latvian. Please correct my name (if used) to appropriate ending and vowel.

  4. Masha Bell

    IMHO, the main thing to remember is what reform is meant to do: make learning to read and write English easier. – The literacy problems of English are caused by its irregularities, so reform need NOT CHANGE THE SYSTEM itself (see my blog EnglishSpellingProblems), but merely REDUCE EXCEPTIONS to it.

    Learning to spell takes longer than learning to read, because around 4,000 common words contain spellings which are irregular (bed – head, said) or completely unpredictable (speak, speech, seize, siege), while only 2,000 have letters with irregular sounds (out – group, couple). As being able to read is more essential for other learning, reformers might do best by seeking to identify changes which would be particularly helpful for that.

    I have established that the very worst handicappers of reading progress are a mere 700 high frequency words, and that their number could be greatly reduced, by merely reducing the 67 irregular spellings for short /e/ (any, head, meant, friend) and 68 for short /u/ (other, some, double, flood). – The worst hurdles for beginning readers are the irregular pronunciations of EA (treat – treasure), much used for short /e/, and of O, by itself (only, once, other), or in combination with other letters (food – flood, trout – trouble), many of which are used for short /u/.

    A closer look at the 135 words with irregularly spelt /e/ and /o/ reveals that their pronunciations are very similar in all Anglophone countries, and not an obstacle to reform. I know that taking a closer look at detail is not something that most people enjoy, but it reveals that pronunciation differences are not any kind of serious obstacle to improving English spelling.

  5. Rudy Troike

    Perhaps the “bag of chips” refers to poker chips, a bag of which reflecting winnings would make any player smile.

    Re spelling reform, it is clear that English spelling, as sound chavges continue their implacable way, is gradually becoming more and more like Chinese characters — and like them, will simply require more and more visual memorization. And also like Chinese characters, the received standard spelling unites all users/learners of the language, irrespective of pronunciation. The train has long since left the station for possible reform.

    The COT-CAUGHT merger, spreading like wildfire in the US, is producing new homonyms, and the growing retraction of /ae/ to /a/ will create more. Only a few holdouts still distinguish WHICH and WITCH. And of course, non-Southerners must struggle with MARY-MERRY-MARY and THEIR-THERE or HORSE-HOARSE, but we know who won the War between the States.

    –Rudy

  6. Anne Bennett

    I would suggest any spelling changes be phased in.

    A sudden vast change would cause massive problems.

    People would read much slower while they got used to it.

    I can just hear economists saying it would cost a fortune, due to lower productivity.

    I would “x” and “qu” alone. The less that must be changed the better.

    As Masha has noted, a complete redesign isn’t necessary. The bizarre things like words ending “ough” would be much more important.

    I have a friend from Belarus. She said that English grammar was fairly simple (compared to Russian). But why oh why did this advantage get swept away by spelling?

  7. Anne Bennett

    There is another oddity with English that you might know something about. It may not be a problem in the U.K. itself.

    I’m talking about names for lakes and rivers. In the U.K. it seems the name itself comes second, as “River Thames.” This style is never used in North America, it’s always as “Columbia River.”

    But there’s a strange with lakes. Sometime the name come first, sometimes last. It varies with the lake, for some unclear reason.

    It’s always Lake Superior (as for all the Great Lakes).

    If you visit Banff in Canada you drive by Lake Louise. An extra few miles will take you Moraine Lake.

    There is perhaps the French influence, where the it is always, eg, “Lac La Hache”.

    In general, small unimportant lakes tend to be as, “Dragon Lake.”

    Another oddity of English.

    There are a LOT of lakes in North America.

Leave a Comment

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