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October etymological gleanings continued

There is a good word aftermath. Aftercrop is also fine, though rare, but, to my regret, afterglean does not exist (in aftermath, math– is related to mow, and –th is a suffix, as in length, breadth, and warmth). Anyway, I sometimes receive letters bypassing OUP’s official address. They deal with etymology and usage. As a rule, I answer them almost at once, and our correspondence remains known only to the questioner and me. But some queries may be interesting to a larger audience. Also, in September I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio. There was no time to respond to all the calls from the listeners, and I decided to take care of some old letters and recent questions now.

  • Why does until mean the same as till? Shouldn’t until mean the opposite of till? No. Until, which is a borrowing from Scandinavian, goes back to und-til, in which und– means practically the same as –til. This word is a tautological compound (I have often written about such words). Both its elements are of Scandinavian origin. The same un– can be seen in the now obsolete preposition unto. Much more often one has to explain why inflammable means the same as flammable. The prefix in– here means “inside,” as opposed to in-, occurring in such words as inept and insecure.
  • One of the most common questions I receive concerns the pronunciation of February as Febuary (the second variant is extremely common, perhaps even prevalent, in American English). I have a distinct recollection that I have already dealt with this recalcitrant word, but the answer must have been part of some gleanings, and I can no longer remember where it occurred years ago. Here is a brief comment. The earliest recorded Middle English forms of February are feouerles and feouerreres moneð. The first of them already shows the speakers’ trouble with r…r. The word’s Old French etymon was feverier (the modern form is almost the same: février), which traces back to Latin februārius. The Roman februa festival of purification was held on February 15. The early Modern English spellings were febery, febveray, and the like. Dickens recorded the pronunciation Febouary. The modern literary pronunciation is fully Latinized. It can be seen that both variants (with the first r and without it) are extremely old. The preference of so many people for Febuary can have two reasons. The loss of the first r may be due to dissimilation: when two identical sounds occur in close contact, one often disappears or is changed. But it is also possible that, when people say January, February, they allow the form of the first word to affect the form of the second. This process has been observed in the history of numerals. For instance, four may have “borrowed” its initial f from five. The letter I received reads so: “I wish someone would teach the pronunciation of February. Each year I suffer for a month when people say Febuary instead of February.” Beware of self-inflicted wounds! People have been saying something like Febuary for seven centuries. Consequently, the hope of changing their habits is slim. From a historical point of view, if by history we understand tradition and longevity, both pronunciations are equally old. Today’s written form is certainly February, but English speakers are so used to writing mute letters that those who prefer –buary should take the variant with r…r without demur.
FEB(R)UARY. The word is tricky, but the month is providentially short (even this year).
  • Why do so many people say kidden instead of kitten? Indeed, in American English, t is voiced only between vowels, so that Plato and playdough, Sweetish and Swedish become indistinguishable. In the students’ papers, I have come across title wave and deep-seeded prejudices. (Guess the “etymology” of both phrases.) But rotten, cotton, written, smitten, and their likes are not affected by this process. With regard to kitten, I can offer only one explanation for what it is worth. A kitten is often called kitty, and kitty, naturally, becomes kiddy. From kiddy the consonant d seems to have made its way into kitten. Compare margarine. The word has so often been pronounced in its short form marge that margarine became marjarine.
A typical title wave.
Here is a kiddy with a kidder (an exercise in American English phonetics.
  • Is it correct to say: “I feel badly”? Not by a long chalk, though it depends on how long one wants the chalk to be. Compare: “I feel happily,”—something that no one would say. But several facts should be taken into consideration. People often confuse good and well and say “I am good” instead of “I am well.” This is odd, even though we hope that everybody around us is both good and well. On the other hand, adjectives sometimes oust adverbs in a rather alarming way. I hear again and again: “She sings beautiful,” as though the speaker is German. However, the line is easy to cross. Consider loud and loudly. Don’t speak so loud. It obviously means “don’t speak so loudly.” It sounds good, the moon shines bright (the variant the moon shines brightly is, I think, acceptable, but it sounds well is nonsense), come back real quick, drive slow, and many, many others, including fast, an adverb, and fast, an adjective, show how tenuous the line between adjectives and adverbs (and not only in unbuttoned colloquial speech) is in Modern English. So no wonder that people begin to say: “I feel badly.”
Here is somebody who is both good and well.
  • Different than versus different from. This is another old chestnut. All manuals of usage and dictionaries that have “panels” touch upon these phrases. It appears that different than, rare in British English, enjoys great popularity in the US. Conversely, different to, fully acceptable in GB, sounds exotic in American English. Different from is more logical because people and things differ from, not than or to one another. Moreover, than is associated with comparison (bigger than, worse than). But, as I keep repeating more with sadness than conviction, if very many people say something, their norm becomes at least partly acceptable. Ain’t has been hounded out of respectable society, but, like John Barleycorn, it refused to die. Lay instead of lie (lay down and have a rest) is irrational and ugly, but millions of people think otherwise. So has it become rational and beautiful, like millions of other things since the Middle English period and even Shakespeare’s time? In American English, I cannot but think has almost killed its more respectable synonym I can’t help thinking. Examples of this kind can be multiplied ad libitum. To sum up, even though swimming upstream may be a waste of time and effort, different from is still preferable.
  • Data: singular or plural? This question has also been asked many times. From the etymological point of view data is of course a neuter plural form of a Latin noun, but English speakers can (or cannot?) care less for Latin and “decided” that data is singular. It is possible to say data are. However, those who say so are few, and being better than one’s neighbor may invite the accusation of snobbery. Agenda is a neuter plural form of a Latin gerund. How many people remember that, and do those who remember say agenda are?
  • Many letters I receive deal with adverbs: “thankfully, I am healthy,” “hopefully, we’ll win,” “actually, the weather is not bad.” Actually has become a pest (“World War One actually began in 1914”—this is another quotation from a student’s paper) and should be weeded out of “polite conversation,” except when it is meaningful (“Did you actually [= really] mean it?”). Thankfully and hopefully would be all right if they had not been overused. They have become clichés. We hear them all the time; hence their jarring effect. And in this context isn’t fortunately better than thankfully? Reinforcing adverbs like actually, certainly, and definitely are often used to make a weak conclusion sound convincing. “He is really a good man” (there is something suspicious behind this forceful statement), “it is certainly true” (is it?), “this book is definitely the best” (perhaps). The clinching argument should depend on facts and logic rather than on rhetoric. Yet when we speak, we want to convince the audience, and all’s grist that comes to the mill, but a weapon used again and again of necessity becomes blunt.

Featured image credit and (2): “Girl, kitten” by Amanda McConnell, Public Domain via Pixabay. Image credits: (1) “February calendar” by Photos Public Domain, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) A Woman in Blue (Portrait of the Duchess of Beaufort) by Thomas Gainsborough, Public Domain via WikiArt.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    You write, “in aftermath, math– is related to mow”.

    “Math” is a contraction for “mathematics”. For Brits its “maths”. And “mathematics”, of course, is a Greek word. It is derived from “mathema” which means “lesson, learning” in the larger sense. So “aftermath” means “after or following the lesson”.

    “After the mowing”? Not likely. I think you are wrong on this one. But still fun to watch you stumble once in awhile! ;)


  2. John Cowan

    I think the dissimilative theory of Febuary is more likely: consider libary, secketary. I have the first two but not the last.

    To feel badly is emotional: one feels badly about one’s social offenses. To feel bad, by contrast, may describe either emotional or physical suffering. The ability to disambiguate is useful. Similarly, sounds well is an idiom describing the superficial merit of a verbal expression (with the implication that at a deeper level it is unfortunate), distinct from sounds good which is used to characterize an actual sound.

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