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Etymology gleanings for June 2019

Like every journalist (and a blogger is a journalist of sorts), I have an archive. Sometimes I look through the discarded clippings and handwritten notes and find them too good to throw away. Below, I’ll reproduce a few rescued tidbits.

The bitter honey of Spelling Bee

Problems abound. Several years ago, I read in the major newspaper of the town in which I live: “Once again, stellar young spellers of the Twin Cities [Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota] find themselves in a predicament…. No sponsor has emerged to organize or foot the bill for a regional spelling bee…. A metropolitan area with six professional sports teams—and a billion-dollar stadium in downtown Minneapolis—should be able to scrape together a few grand once a year for a well-established, much-loved, and much publicized competition of the academic field.” We are spellbound. Hear, hear!

The organizers of the most recent tournament are also in despair, but for another reason: eight participants spelled all the terrible words correctly. Spelling coaches have not been paid for nothing. At the moment, a search is on for even harder technical terms, the terms that no one outside professional circles needs. I have some advice for the organizers. Concentrate on personal and place names. At least they are “fun.” To be sure, Worchester and Leister are too easy, but think of Beauchamp (= Beecham), Cholmondeley (= Chumley), Marjoribanks (= Marchbanks), Strachan (= Strawn), Menzies (= Mingis), and my great favorite Leveson-Gower (= Lewson Gore). Dictate askew to them, and they will shrug their shoulders, but, alas, it is Ayscough. Brougham and broom will not trouble anyone, but, in any case, what a fertile field for wasting one’s brains and time!

Image CC0 Public Domain via pxhere.
This is not Becky Thatcher. Image by Levan Ramishvili via Flickr, Public Domain.

Meanwhile, I came across an old article on Margaret Thatcher (NY Times) by an experienced journalist and the London weekend editor. She wrote about how Mrs. Thatcher and her husband vetted the list of those who should be invited for a gala at Downing Street. Mr. Thatcher disapproved of some candidates, but a few of those he rejected “got a thumb’s up” from his wife. This is the most hilarious apostrophe I have seen in years (and believe me: in my students’ papers, I have seen them all, including Proffesor [sic] Higging’s). It would be nice to organize an impromptu spelling competition among editors, proofreaders, English teachers, and media people, with Mr. Thumb as Chair. The motto could be: “Thumb’s Up.”

An aside. My colleague, a professor at a major American University, asked a large group of students: “Do you know who Becky Thatcher is?” After a pause, someone volunteered a question: “Do you mean Margaret Thatcher?”

PS. As far as I can judge, half a century ago, 1960s and the like were spelled with an apostrophe (1960’s).

Who are we?

Bow Street Magistrates Court by Matt Brown. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

I had the impression that the prevalent use of female instead of woman is an American invention. But this is what I found in the book Guesses at Truth by Augustus J. and Julius C. Hare; its first series was published not later than 1827. The authors discussed the use and abuse of the words wight, person, and their synonyms. Among other things they wrote: “As a woman now deems it an insult to be called anything but a female, as a strumpet is become [sic] an unfortunate female, and as every day we may read of sundry females being taken to Bow Street [the famous Magistrates’ Court in London], in like manner everybody has been metamorphosed into an individual, by the Circe who rules the fashionable slang of the day.… A beggar this morning said to me, that he was an unfortunate individual….” (p. 91 of the London reprint; note the use of the comma.) It is curious to watch how words come, go, and come again.

The modern-day Circe looks very nice, and so do the pigs. Image via the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

Always grumbling

New words irritate us. But there is no need to worry: they too shall pass. From Notes and Queries 4/VII, 1871: 252-53: “Who brought into fashion the word well-nigh, which within the last year or so has come to be commonly substituted for almost? One has always been familiar with well-nigh in old [sic] English, and in our northern counties it has never gone out of colloquial use; but in ordinary English speech, and in writing, it had become nearly obsolete. All persons [!] now-a-days read newspapers and novels, and many read nothing at all, so that a word once started by a popular novel-writer or journalist becomes within a few months adopted by the public in a truly remarkable manner. One cannot now take up a newspaper, magazine, or popular tale, without coming upon well-nigh in such a position as almost would have held a year or two ago.”

To be or to not be again

I also have a petty pet peeve. My fight against gratuitous splitting is pathetic, rather than heroic, but I cannot understand why you may not want to even look at the photo…. and he has a duty not to publicly make or defend offensive remarks…. are clearer, better, or more eloquent than you may not even want to look and a duty not to make or defend offensive remarks publicly. Specialists, I am sure, know how long splitting has existed in regional American English, but, since I have mentioned Becky Thatcher, I may now turn to Huckleberry Finn.

Huck’s recollections: “She said it [i.e. smoking] a mean practice, and I must try to not do it any more” (Chapter 1) and “He used to always whale me when he was sober….” (Chapter 3). My question is: With regard to grammar, should Huck Finn be our role model? Universal splitting seems to have inundated newspapers about fifty years ago. Nowadays, journalists “know” that infinitives should be split, but most do it ineptly. Reread the phrase a duty not to publicly make… offensive remarks. The writer probably wanted to say a duty to not publicly make offensive remarks, but had a vague recollection that this is not a good thing to do and shoved to farther away, to the worst place possible, instead of producing a sentence in less “fashionable” English. As they say in such cases: “Where is the outrage?”

Has anyone seen these words?

Wilson’s Fourteen Points: European Baby Show. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

From The Nation 109 (No. 2827), 1919, p. 327: “There are times when our principles forsake us. Such a time has come. Armistice, Fourteen Points, freedom of the seas, self-determination, everything to the contrary notwithstanding, we are for Yap! It is recorded that Yaps, Yappers, Yappites, Yappiki—whatever they call themselves—are ‘highly intelligent for savages’….” Who exactly was meant, and were those words indeed current after World War I? Were Yappers Yuppies?

Dated slang

How the Other Half Talks. Lack of work among the laboring classes has many curious euphemistic synonyms, among which are the following: Legging it; on one’s uppers; on the loose pulley; got a steady job of loafing; wheeling a light into Flat Rock Tunnel; shoveling smoke out of a gas-house; pressing bricks and turning corners; holding on the slack; living on one’s intellect; living on the interest of one’s debts. (American Notes and Queries, vol. 7, 1891, p. 166.)

Speak of the devil

In 1884-1885, Notes and Queries published a series of letters under the title Topographia Infernalia. Some time later, I may return to it, but today I’ll only quote a sentiment with which I fully agree. “An eminent book collector, noted for his good nature, declared that a man who published a book without an index ought to be put in the thistles beyond hell, where the devil could not get him. Yet the thistle appears to be in some sense one of the devil’s plants.”

Featured image credit: Perspective View of Western Portal, Looking SE. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Yap in The Nation [London] page 328 evidently refers to the Pacific island of Yap in Micronesia. The editorial goes on to mention their stone money, something I remember seeing in a photograph from my childhood. Whether the text is playing on yapping as idle chatter, I leave open.

  2. Laura Cameron

    Wikipedia calls the people of Yap “Yapese”. From what The Nation’s correspondent wrote, I suspect English speakers hadn’t settled on that term in 1919 but were trying on Yappites (like Hittites) and Yappiki (perhaps drawing on tiki-culture) for size. I wonder if there was not some anti-German sentiment behind the “We are for Yap!”, because Japan had seized the island from Germany in 1914. Which may explain why English speakers now call them Yapese, on the model of Japanese.

  3. Vivian Ramalingam

    Etymonline has yap (v.) 1660s, “bark as a (small) dog,” earlier as a noun, “yapping dog” (c. 1600), probably of imitative origin. Compare verb yamph in same sense (1718).

    An old “Pogo” cartoon had a Yak as a guest in the swamp. One of the denizens thought he was a “yatchet” and wanted to sail him. Another rambled on with the beast quite volubly; clearly, he was “yakking.” (Subtle visual pun on Walt Kelly’s part!)

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