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Etymology gleanings for July 2018

Spelling Reform

Work on a project for reformed spelling is underway (under way). Three comments and letters have come to my notice.

Masha Bell called our attention to useful and useless double letters. No doubt, account and arrive do not need their cc and rr, and I am all for abolishing them. I won’t live long enough to see acquire spelled as akwire, but perhaps aquire will satisfy future generations? A more complicated question is whether we should follow naïve spellers’ instinct and double the letters after short vowels (verry, etc.). The idea is good, but adding letters to words in Modern English will, I am afraid, appeal to few. Making English spelling fully logical and natural is a forlorn hope, but cleaning the mess somewhat would be a boon.

On the other hand, I have again received a letter from India, confirming Mr. Madhukar Gogate’s view that in India, where there are more English speakers than in the United Kingdom, reformed spelling has no chance of being accepted. I can only repeat that the British Spelling Society and its American allies, if they succeed in pushing the stone downhill, and regardless of whether it will grow a measurable amount of moss, cannot make anyone follow the new rules. We are not a legislative body.

Original attempts to reform English spelling continue. This is what Mr. Gregory Ory writes: “I am working on a spelling system for English called Restored Latin Spelling (RELS), which I am presenting in little steps on my website and on different media. Apart from the theoretical body, I have been producing both transcriptions of English texts into RELS and original articles and essays. I have been working on a glossary as well.”

And here is the map. Photo courtesy of Rob Towart.

Here are a few samples of his text: “THE UNIVŒRSAL DECLAREIHON OF HUIMAN RAITS.” …inhierent digniti, iequal and ineilienabel  raits, all members of the hiuman famili, etc. He can be reached at ad.gregorium@startmail.com.

Etymology and usage

Last week (the post for 25 July 2018), I discussed the idioms beginning with all on one side like. A very old phrase puzzled me: all on one side like Kingswear boys. I am greatly indebted to Rob Towart, who sent me the following comment and even appended a map: “Kingswear is on the east of the river Dart (at the end of the railway line), and the ferry goes across to Dartmouth, where the Royal Naval College is situated. The town is home to the Royal Navy’s officer training college (Britannia Royal Naval College), where all officers of the Royal Navy and many foreign naval officers are trained. So I imagine that the local Kingswear boys would stay on that side, as opposed to the young boys (non-local) training at Dartmouth.” He even appended a map. Here it is.

Another correspondent suggested his version of the idiom: “All on one side like…”—and he added the name of the local newspaper. Quite true of any other newspaper.

Catty corner and catawampus

I can refer to a very old post of mine for 20 June 2007 (“The Curmudgeon and the Catawampus”). In my etymological dictionary, I have a special entry on kitty corner. All the variants (kitty, its phonetic spelling kiddy, and cater) are “correct,” but cater is more equal than the two others, because it alone is true to the word’s Danish origin. The word means “askew, awry” (hence “slanting; diagonally across,” with the reference to cats being due to folk etymology. In catawampus, only the meaning of wampus “hobgoblin” has been more or less traced to its beginnings, while cata-, in which the second a is probably an inserted vowel, as in cock-a-doddle-doo, is obscure. Our correspondent heard wompus cat when he was a child. The person who used this phrase transposed the compound’s elements—another tribute to folk etymology, for, whatever catawampus means, it has nothing to do with cats, except that cats have a traditionally bad reputation in folklore.

Let us agree that this monster is a catawampus. Image credit: “Monster Troll Halloween Shudder Figure Devil” by artemtation. CC0 via Pixabay.

What is the origin of stove up “stuck and can’t find a way out”?

I am almost sure I can suggest a dependable etymology. Stove up is an American coinage. The verb stave means “to break up (a cask) into staves” (from the noun stave “stick or lath of wood”). Its principal parts are staved, staved. But it shared the fate of another weak verb, namely, dive, whose past tense dove has almost superseded dived in the US, and developed the forms stove, stove, fairly well-known in American English. Stave in means “to break a hole (for instance, in a cask or a boat),” while stove up, seemingly extant only in the form of the past participle, came to mean “put into a cask” and thus (figuratively) “stuck and unable to move.” Anyone interested in local American usage should consult the great and incomparable Dictionary of American Regional English, a great monument to our civilization.

The origin of ish

This is a suffix that has taken on the life of something between an adjective and an interjection. It goes back to words like reddish and stylish. The suffix became very productive, and finally appeared as a separate word meaning “sort of.” It is trendy and an acquisition not to everybody’s taste.

Ambiguous verbs

The question about the confusion between borrow and lend is familiar: people use borrow in both senses. According to H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (but, if you use this beautiful book, I recommend the first or the second edition), British speakers often confused substitute and replace (and said A was substituted by B, instead of B was substituted for A; incidentally, foreigners constantly make this mistake). Of course, it is enough to remember what the term substitute teacher means, to avoid the confusion, which is very rare in the US, but the verbs are close, and the mistake is easy to understand. Also, consider the American use of the verb to rent. What happens when you rent a house? Do you give or get it? If people had stuck to the difference between to let and to rent, everything would have been fine, but, alas, they constantly go astray, and this is how language changes, much to the disgust of the cultured class.

The Louvre Pyramid is kiddy/catty/ cater-corner from the Louvre Palace, and that position lends it status. Image credit: “Louvre Pyramid Paris Tourism France Museum Arts” by EdiNugraha. CC0 via Pixabay.

A methodological postscript

I received a long comment about the possible relations between and among the most heterogeneous words. One concerned the difficult mud in the phrase mud in your eye, which I discussed very briefly in the post for April 5, 2017. Our correspondent wondered whether mud in this phrase could be connected with mote and moth. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any evidence to this effect.

He also discussed possible ties among many gr– words, such as grey (the color and “badger”), Greek, and some other matters, including the ethnogenesis of the Greeks, who, he suggests, were black. Is this idea from the book The Black Athena? The ultimate origin of the inhabitants of the Greek archipelago is unknown (the same can be said about the origin of the Huns and many other, if not all, ancient tribes, because they were nomadic cattle herders). The historical Greeks were not black. By contrast, grey “badger” must indeed have received its name from the color of its fur. I’ll keep defending my conservative stance and refrain from bold hypotheses. Stringing words together is a tempting pursuit; it is proof that is hard to come by.

In passing, the same correspondent suggested that if the Bible had been translated into Old English much earlier, English might have absorbed many Greek words already at that period. This hypothesis is shaky. Wulfila translated the New Testament into Gothic from Greek in the fourth century, and he used Greek words only for the objects that did not exist among the Goths and that could not have Gothic names. Such borrowings are, predictably, very few.

A personal grievance

I am sorry that no specialist has commented on my recent post on Pidgin.

Featured Image: Stove up and perfectly happy. Featured Image Credit: Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    Re reforming English spelling.
    I fervently hope that u are wrong about allowing LOGICAL CONSONANT DOUBLING is unlikely to be found acceptable, because it requires making some words longer. Its current random usage necessitates more word-by-word memorisation than any other irregularity – in at least 1,250 quite common words, from ‘cabbage – cabin’ to ‘blizzard – wizard’. Looked at objectively, such inconsistencies are simply insane.

    Naïve spellers demonstrate, as u point out, that the purpose of doubling is easy to grasp. If allowed to use their common sense, people would therefore have no trouble adopting the change, without any glossaries. Dyed in the wool traditionalists could of course carry on doubling, or not doubling, as trained.

    It’s really more a matter of acknowledging, as Fowler did, that current doubling is the least explicable and most time-wasting aspect of English spelling for learners, and deserves to be tackled more urgently than anything else.

  2. Masha Bell

    This is my second attempt to post a comment re spelling reform.
    I fervently hope that u are wrong to believe that LOGICAL CONSONANT DOUBLING is unlikely to be found acceptable, because it requires making some words longer. – Its current random usage necessitates more word-by-word memorisation than any other irregularity, in at least 1,250 quite common words, from ‘cabbage – cabin’ to ‘blizzard – wizard’. Looked at objectively, such inconsistencies are simply insane.

    Naïve spellers demonstrate, as u point out, that the purpose of doubling is easy to grasp. If allowed to use their common sense, people would therefore have no trouble adopting the change, without any glossaries.

    Dyed in the wool traditionalists could of course carry on doubling, or not doubling, as trained. It is really just a matter of acknowledging, as Fowler did, that doubling is the least explicable and most time-wasting aspect of English spelling for learners, and therefore deserves to be tackled more urgently than anything else.

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