My usual thanks to those who wrote letters and commented on the posts.
The topic is not worthy of detailed comments here, because everything that can be said for and against changing English spelling has been said many times, but some contributors to the discussion do not know the relevant literature and reinvent the same wheel. Below, I’ll repeat a few points without the slightest hope of impressing my opponents.
- English spelling has changed many times not only through its long history but even since the Elizabethan period, and not only in America. However, we are seldom aware of this fact.
- Spelling has been reformed in other countries, and there is no reason why it cannot be reformed in the English-speaking world (despite its size and lack of homogeneity).
- No spelling reflects the pronunciation of every speaker of every dialect. If the Reform succeeds, English spelling will remain basically the same, but some of the most glaring absurdities will be removed.
- Returning to Shakespeare: since his days, the pronunciation of English has changed rather radically (as evidenced by his rhymes and puns). By reforming spelling, we do not erase (“cancel”) history: we follow it! No one pronounces ch– in chthonic. I agree. So why keep it? Because it gives us an insight into Greek? Do we know anyone who has mastered Classical Greek through the spelling of Modern English? Whose history do we honor ~ honour when we spell colour and color: Latin or French?
- God is in the details. Everything depends on what should be changed and what is better left alone. Superfluous consonants are easier to purge than some counterintuitive vowels.
- We hear again and again that it is too late to reform English spelling. Perhaps so. Then millions of hours and heaps of money will be wasted, as before, on teaching native speakers of English and foreigners countless tricks. Isn’t it strange that our public, ready to support the most radical changes in the life of society, is so staunchly against the one change that will benefit all? Isn’t there such a thing as a balance of plus(s)ses and minuses? Which chthonic deity are we ready to worship? See a picture of Hades in the header.
- (This is an answer to a reader’s challenge.) I do have a list of words that, in my opinion, would gain immensely if they were spelled differently, but this is not the place to publicize it because the Spelling Society has been working for a long time on such lists and has several proposals to offer. The Society’s website is open to all who are interested in the subject.
Odds and ends
Judging by a comment on my most recent essay (Baker’s dozen, 28 October 2020), the interplay of twelve and thirteen occurred not only in the bakers’ and the printers’ business (see what is said in the comment about medieval Venice), so that the idea of the Devil’s (wrong) dozen must have occurred to many. Perhaps the importance of the number twelve in our life and folklore contributed to the popularity of such wrong dozens.
Sheep and mutton
It is better to be hanged for a sheep than for a lamb. The proverb has a medieval ring, but it was first recorded in 1678. The context is obvious: since the punishment is going to be the same (hanging), it pays off to commit a greater crime and enjoy its benefits while you are alive.
Mutton dressed as lamb is a witticism recorded only at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As is the case with most proverbs and idioms, its origin is unknown, but it must probably have been coined in aristocratic circles, because it taunts women past their prime dressing and behaving like those who are much younger. In a peasant environment, the language was less metaphoric. My database contains a note from 1853. In Kidderminster, Worcestershire (the West Midlands, UK), they said: “Forty, save one, the age of Roden’s colt,” an ironic putdown aimed at middle-aged women. Roden and his colt are mysterious characters and will, most probably, remain such, but the existence of some story (now lost) can be taken for granted. (Does anyone still remember the phrase a woman of Balzac’s age? That age is thirty. At one time, the phrase was immensely popular in Russia, but I am not sure that it has ever been used outside Russia and France.)
As dead as a rat
Sometimes, a clue to a mysterious idiom may be found in another phrase containing the same word. For example, the simile as dead as a rat is known. How could a rat become the epitome of mortality? I am aware of a single suggestion. A correspondent to Notes and Queries (in 1868) cited the synonymous and equally obscure phrase as weak as a rat and wondered whether there is any “connection with the rat-hunting propensities of some of our greatest nobility in the days of George III” (who reigned from 1760 to 1820). But perhaps (this is my guess) the simile is an echo of the phrase to rhyme rats to death, an allusion to the custom of exorcising rats, popular in the days of Shakespeare, who alluded to it in As You Like it. In Act III, scene 2, lines 187-89, Rosalind says: “I was never so be-rhimed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” Annotated editions of Shakespeare’s play explain the superstition. The allusion may be to an old Irish belief that witches who assume the shape of rats can be “rhymed to death.” Of course, I have no proof that the idiom as dead as a rat has anything to do with that old belief, but etymologists are beggars and pick up their stuff where they find it (this was also Molière’s principle).
The origin of eeny-meeny and its world-wide distribution have been an object of long and not wholly unsuccessful research. A special article is also devoted to it in my Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. As could be expected, our records are late. In any case, there is no reason to insist that the center of the dissemination of this counting out gibberish was Greece. The situation here is the same as with Spelling Reform and with all problems: before voicing an opinion, one should become aware of the state of the art, because in scholarship, facts, rather than opinions, matter.
As cool as a cucumber
Two comments on this idiom suggested that cucumbers are really cool, either because they lie on the ground or because they contain very much water. Perhaps so!
Angels on horseback
Finally, I am always pleased when something I write evokes pleasant memories, as happened when in the most recent post I mentioned Winchester College.
Feature image by Aviad Bublil