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Etymology gleanings for October 2020

My usual thanks to those who wrote letters and commented on the posts.

Spelling Reform

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. (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

The Twelve. (Image by Prof Hans Schneider)

The dozens

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

Choose your prize and punishment. (Image by Keven Law)

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.)

The only authentic image of Roden’s colt.

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).

This is Auguste Rodin, not the semi-mythological Roden. Honoré de Balzac is immortal. (Image by Beyond My Ken)

Children’s games

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

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    Concerning “eeny-meeny” you write
    “in scholarship, facts, rather than opinions, matter.”

    So what are these facts that your scholarship argues this childrens “counting out gibberish” does not derive from the Greek “ena-m’ena” (“one-by-one”)?

    Lets have a good and well-reasoned discussion on that. Rather than insinuate…

  2. Celia Nyamweru

    Relating to children’s counting games – one of my Kenyan sisters-in-law had a version of choosing between two objects that ran like this:
    Inky-pinky ponky
    Father had a donkey
    Donkey died
    Father cried
    Inky-pinky ponky

    I had never heard it when I was growing up in England in the 1950s but in 1980s Kenya it seemed quite widely used.

  3. Joe Little

    Anatoly, I’m a fan of Spelling Society, but more a fan of u. U said “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.” I understand. My email may be the place: [email protected]. I hope it’s the place (& look forward 2 it being so). Pax, Joe

  4. Rudy Troike

    The item “Forty, save one” summons up memories of Jack Benny’s perennial insistence on his age.

    Might spelling reform extend to elimination of the Latin-derived difference in suffixes such as -ence/-ance, -ent/-ant? (Interestingly, Spanish does not always follow the same distinction as in English.)

  5. Rudy Troike

    Celia’s example of a counting-out game from Kenya is typical of others found in the African diaspora in the Caribbean, including African American communities in the U.S. South.

  6. Norman Paterson

    This argument that we should retain spelling to record the origins of words is nonsense.

    According to this argument, we should keep the silent “b” in “debt” to show that it comes from the Latin “debitum.”

    If “debt” is good, surely it would be even better to write it as “debitum” and just pronounce it as “det.”

  7. Allan Campbell

    I agree with Norman. Spelling is not a museum exhibit.

  8. Mona Voelkel

    I use a “Structured Word Inquiry” (Bowers, Kirby 2010) to teach spelling. One part of the teaching routine involves discovering the deepest historical root of the word. Students are appreciative of understanding why there is a in “debt” and its connection to “debit.” Let’s keep the spelling and share the story! I just found your wonderful column! looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  9. Mona Voelkel

    May I also have the list of words that you think should be spelled differently? I would like to use them to make the case that their spelling makes perfect sense when you consider the meaning, history, structure and/or the pronunciation of the word (or words in the morphological family). May email is [email protected]

  10. Constantinos Ragazas

    Any spelling reform at the age of autocorrect and voice-to-text technologies is totally unnecessary and absurd. It will lead to confusion and not solve any of the problems it seeks to solve.

    Its the “peoples language”! And as a people, we need to know where our words came from.

  11. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: As usual u ignor the difficulties our current spelling places in the way of lerners

  12. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: Our young learners can learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak! Its the grown-ups that make all the problems for them.

    “Teacher leave the kids alone”.

  13. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: If only!

    We hav a big argument here in New Zealand at present on whether fonics or Reading Recovery should be receiving government support for teaching reading, and why the process of literacy teaching is such a complicated task.

  14. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan, as a retired math teacher, I appreciate the difficulties!

    When teaching a subject becomes difficult, we have two options. We can change the subject matter. Or we can change our teaching methods.

    Likely we need to change both! And let our students show us “the way”!

  15. Allan Campbell

    Kostas (the Diplomat!): At last we agree!

Comments are closed.