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Monthly gleanings for April 2017

The previous post on Nostratic linguistics was also part of the “gleanings,” because the inspiration for it came from a query, but a few more tidbits have to be taken care of before summer sets in.

Sleeveless errand

(See the post for 26 April 2017.) Skeat’s idea that sleeveless means “imperfect; hence poor, like a garment without sleeves” does not go much farther than Horne Tooke’s suggestion that sleeveless should be understood as “without a cover or pretence.” Skeat dismissed Tooke’s idea as making little sense, but the difficulty lies elsewhere. We have to find out where it was bad, dangerous, or silly to wear a sleeveless piece of clothing. Stephen Goranson wrote me a letter and cited several examples in which sleeveless referred to knights-errant or arrant. In some way, those examples, though late, may confirm the idea that the figurative sense of sleeveless emerged in connection with chivalry. Also, perhaps errant evoked the idea of errand. But many details remain hidden. As for the joke on bootless—sleeveless, I thought of it too! I even looked up capless, hatless, and shoeless, but found nothing of any use.

A kindhearted knight errant on a sleeveless, helmet-less, and armor-less errand.
A kindhearted knight errant on a sleeveless, helmet-less, and armor-less errand.

Swedish lem

The question runs as follows: “Swedish lem for ‘penis’ or any sense of ‘member’: ‘member of an organization or the human body?’ Is lem ‘penis’ perhaps a euphemism?” The answer depends on how we define “euphemism.” Unmentionables for “trousers” is certainly a euphemism, but is tool for penis also a euphemism? People are surprisingly imaginative when it comes to coining synonyms for the names of the genitals, but some such coinages are really anti-euphemisms, so much so that in the modern editions of folk tales, rooster has superseded cock (fortunately, cocktail and cockroach have survived). The Latin for “penis” is membrum virile. This phrase may be the source of limb, lem, and so forth in the European languages.

Very little is new under the sun

Americans are well aware of the filler you know. It is an indestructible weed. Since I have no regular contacts with British speakers, I cannot judge to what extent this weed has choked their communication, but the place of origin of you know is England. I was amused to see it in Little Dorrit (1857). “He wants to know… you know,” said a member of the Barnacles family about the feckless Arthur Clennam (I am quoting from memory). Like Thackeray, Dickens was extremely sensitive to slang and recent usage. By 1855, you know may not have bloomed into a pest it has become now. But in Notes and Queries for November and December 1879, the purists complained bitterly about the phrase and tried to explain it: “There is doubtless a psychological reason for even the most trivial expression. A man desires to place himself en rapport with his interlocutor, to please or conciliate him; and from some such half-conscious motive he says ‘you know’ or ‘of course’ even when the words are irrelevant. Then comes Habit, with her chains, and he says it still oftener and less appropriately. Habit? Yes, and convenience too; for with the cultivated as well as with the uncultivated it is found extremely convenient to have some facile word or phrase in the mind, which will come without thought to the lips, and round off a sentence in no time.” Modern specialists in sociolinguistcs have not said anything more profound. Here are the examples given by another correspondent. They are divided into “superfluous” and “aggravating”: (1) “We were staying at Mrs. Smith’s, you know, and we went in the waggonette, you know, to the top of the high hill, you know, to see the sun set, you know” and (2) “No, he is not in London; he is somewhere else, you know” and “She mentioned that affair, you know, of poor Frank’s, you know.” Yes, indeed, that is exactly what I hear from morning till night (except waggonette, of course). (And ah, how well those people wrote! One of the discussants remarked that people use fillers without malice prepense. I wish I could express myself so.)

Know thyself, you know.
Know thyself, you know.

And this is how we speak…

“In these cases, students, no matter their status, no matter if they are an athlete, must be held accountable.” (In the case under discussion, they were indeed an athlete in trouble.) “As the daughter of a NWS pilot, we understood the rules for traveling on a pass….” (Is this the honorific plural or a case of politically correct deafness?) “This past week, a friend described to me their experience…. For my friend, it meant popping into various student groups, where they felt out of place or intrusive.” Obviously, someone who can split into several persons should look intrusive. But there is a reward: the statement is gender neutral, and we’ll never guess whether the fried was (were?) a man of a woman. The note is titled: “Striving for diversity is great but challenging in practice.” The same holds for pluralism.

They are an athlete.
They are an athlete.

Last but not least

Many thanks for the warm personal comments. It was most gratifying to discover that some of our readers like the illustrations. I remember distinctly how they appeared in this blog. I wrote something on the origin of the word teetotal and mentioned the existence of a monument to the first teetotaler (in Preston, I believe), and, lo and behold, a reader from Lancashire sent us a photo of the statue. I asked the editor whether we can post it. She (they?) said “yes,” and this is how the idea of illustrating every text was born. First we posted one picture, then two, and later three and occasionally even four. As a rule, I try to find such pictures as are either attractive or can be used as comments on the story (often just for fun) and send the suggestions to the editor. We exchange several letters, choosing the most attractive “images” that have not been copyrighted (a perennial problem), select one for the header, and agree on the outcome.

I do not always respond to the comments. Sometimes it happens because I agree wholeheartedly with what I find in the readers’ remarks (so that there is no need to beat/flog a willing horse), sometimes because I have nothing quotable to say or simply don’t know the answer (for instance, I am also a bit puzzled by the word order in some place names: why, for instance, the River Thames but the Mississippi River: yes, perhaps the French influence in the first case, but I was unable to find an authoritative explanation). What saddens me is the appearance of late comments after very old posts. I, naturally, can catch them only by chance and usually have no idea that they exist. When I make mistakes, it is a pleasure to be hauled over the coals almost at once, for nothing is more irritating than being ignored. Doing this work is the source of great joy to me and, I hope, to everybody else, including the hard-working editors at OUP.

Image credits: (1) “Grandville: Illustration to Don Quixote (Book 1, Chapter 52), 1848” by Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard Grandville, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) “Roman-mosaic-know-thyself” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) 
“The Discobolus Lancellotti, Roman copy of a 5th century BC Greek original by Myron, Hadrianic period, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme” photo by Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image: “Westminster, Big Ben, London” by eisteddfod_37, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Noel Hamer

    Typo alert: “and we’ll never guess whether the fried was (were?) a man of a woman….er, you know”

  2. Rudy Troike

    “What saddens me is the appearance of late comments after very old posts.”

    –I’m a culprit here, since I’ve only recently been added to the OUP Bllog list, which I didn’t know existed before. The links in your posts to earlier discussions have carried me back several steps, and I have been moved to react, but assumed that the notification of the message would show up in your current in-box. Since this is apparently not the case, the OUP folks should find some way to remedy it by forwarding comments on earlier posts to your attention, or at least alerting you to them. This should be possible, as it happens on another list i’m on.
    –Rudy

  3. Anne (Canada)

    Some universities have a new policy to always use “they” rather “he” or “she” in their official administrative writing. I’m not sure whether this will lead to “they are” or “they is.”

    The other examples seem bizarre. There can be no possible excuse.

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