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Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

An Urban Legend Blasted to Smithereens

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

I received the following e-mail recently:

“Your origin of the word smithereens I believe is in error as is also the different one shown at Wickipedia. When I was taking physics at school in the 1930′s, I was taught that early in the nineteenth century a physicist by the name of Smith thought he had discovered the smallest possible particle, which he called the ‘smithereen’, which I think proved to be the molecule.”

Forgive the delay in responding; we have been unusually busy since the first of the year and just completed a difficult job that took us from the first of the year until last week to complete.

The first problem your theory faces is that for it to work, the physicist would have had to have been named “Smithers”. That would require but a minor change in your theory. However, the history of your explanation presents a greater problem.

In point of fact, molecules were being discussed by Descartes already in the seventeenth century, so the report that someone named Smith (or Smithers) discovered the smallest particle in the nineteenth century does not fit the historical facts. The word molecule was available in French since at least the early seventeenth century. The first published instance of the word in English traces back to 1674, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m afraid the story you picked up in your physics class is just another urban legend introduced by a dilettante etymologist in the past. The general rule to follow is this: if the etymology is obvious, it is probably an urban legend. Words change very rapidly over time and are seldom subject to simple analysis.

OED: On English Borrowing

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries, bringing the total to 180,976. Subtracting the archaic words leaves us with about 133,826 current words.

Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter, adjectives, and about a seventh, verbs; the rest is made up of interjections, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. These figures take no account of entries with senses for different parts of speech (such as noun and adjective).

Only 25% of the words in the English language are of native origin. Here is a list of the languages from which most of the remainder were borrowed from.

  • Latin, including modern scientific and technical Latin: 28.24%
  • French, including Old French and early Anglo-French: 28.3%
  • Old and Middle English, Old Norse, and Dutch: 25%
  • Greek: 5.32%
  • No etymology given: 4.03%
  • Derived from proper names: 3.28%
  • All other languages contributed less than 1%

Of course, the OED, like all dictionaries, is just a sampling of the English lexical treasure, chosen by the editorial staff. As I have shown elsewere, the words of a language cannot be counted. However, the percentages are telling testimony of the English obsession with borrowing. (Source: the OED itself, of course.)

Kissin’ Kin

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Nicholas King wrote a few days ago:

“I associate the word kin with the phrase ‘kith and kin’. Which leads me to ask two follow up questions:

  1. Whence the word kith?
  2. Might the German word for child, Kind, be a linguistic relative?”

Actually, the two are only accidentally similar. Kith is related to German kennen “be acquainted with”, and originally meant “knowledge, things known”. It survives disguised in two forms in English today, can and uncouth. I think there may be isolated Scottish dialects where they still say “I ken you” for “I know you”. It is also related to know and the -gnos- of Latin cognosco, etc. So kith originally referred to acquaintances, someone you know.

Kin, on the other hand, comes from the same source as gen- “give birth, create” found in words like generation, generate and, by the way, gynecology from Greek gyne “woman”. (Get the connection?) In German it popped up as Kind “child”.

When kith vanished from the English language, the phrase “kith and kin” remained. Since English speakers no longer knew the meaning of kith, they substituted a word they did know and which made some sense: kissin’ kin. Only a lithp separates the two words. This process is known as folk etymology about which I have written elsewhere.

What Makes Clams Happy?

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Happy as a clam means “extremely happy”. Have you ever thought about this phrase. What makes a bivalve mollusk happy, anyway?

The reason this phrase seems nonsensical is that part of it has fallen away. The original phrase was “happy as a clam at high tide”, that is, when the high tide makes the critters safe from beachcombers.

Knowing this makes me happy as a clam at high tide.

All I Hear is ‘Alls’

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I heard someone say this morning, “Alls I want is a standing order.” This misspeak is spreading like grass fire. I began hearing it in the 80s, too, but the instances were few and far between. It was mostly the locals on staff but I heard a few students say it, too. I quickly corrected them in a threatening voice.

We can’t be sure if it is alls (plural) or all’s (contraction). I can’t think of a grammatical function word that ends on an S that is so frequently used with all that it would form a contraction with it. All that and all are are frequently heard together, but a contraction with these words would produce all’t and all’re, respectively.

So we are forced back to my first hypothese—unless there is a third one. All are is a plural construction but most words occurring before are end on an S. So, for consistency, an S is added to all.

Do you have a better idea?

Aren’t you Mispronouncing “Aren’t”?

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Here is a mystery. I received a message from Stefani O’daniel today that contained this complaint:

“Please tell me if I am right or wrong. I hate didn’t pronounced [diddent], not [didnt], wouldn’t pronounced [wooddent] not [woodnt], and couldn’t pronounced [kooddent] not [koodnt]. Which is right?”

“I’ve heard these words pronounced this way for the past 30 years now and iits irritating. I was told the words are pronounced this way because that is the correct pronunciation.”

I became aware of my students using these pronunciations in the 80s. Where it came from, I cannot say but I’m very suspicious of California, Valley Speak, so to speak.

N in the English language now can be pronounced as a vowel when occurring between consonants. The schwa (UH or on this website [ê]) has disappeared from the language before N between consonants. The tongue does not move between the D and the N in these words.

The T [t] is disappearing, too, in rapid speech. So the pronunciation of these words are reduced in fast speech to didn, wouldn, couldn. Now, we approaching the point where there is very little to distinguish did from didn’t, etc.

I suspect the pronunciation that so irritates you is spreading because it more clearly distinguishes the negative forms of these words from the positive. Also, it is possible that some young speakers of English don’t realize that these words are contractions involvingi not.

There is no right or wrong about this; it is normal cross-generational language change. It annoys me, too, but even more annoying is the misspelling it encourages: didn’t spelled diddent occurs 150,000 times on the Web.

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

To trip the light fantastic is a playful expression of “to dance”. It originates in several other idiomatic expressions referring to dancing in our not too distant past. A passage in Milton’s poem L’Allegro (1632) goes like this:

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastick toe.”

Milton was, indeed, describing the highly nimble (fantastick) footwork of a jig or some other fast dance. For years after Milton the expression “the light fantastic toe” appeared frequently in literature.

Milton’s concept was apparently an extension of the phrase “tripping it on the toe”, an expression referring to dancing used as far back as Shakespeare himself. In Act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Ariel says:

“Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow [moue].
Do you love me, master? No?

As the years ground by, “toe” was lost and the phrase was smoothed down to “tripping the light fantastic”.

God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Bud Sherman raised an interesting question today, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that deserves thought and research.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, there was a conditional phrase, ‘if the creeks don’t rise.’ I always assumed it was about flood waters. An on-line friend in the South said that it had to do with the Creek Indians.”

This phrase is the first part of the caveat, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”, the title of Spike Lee’s documentary on the results of Hurricane Katrina. Down South in North Carolina, where I grew up, I always heard, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” or “God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise.”

What is suggestive is that the phrase is wide-spread throughout the South, where the Creeks (actually Muskogees) lived and often came in conflict with Southerners. The Spanish tried to enslave them but the English set up trading posts to trade with them. Since the Creeks often had nothing to trade, periodically they would raid trading posts, resulting in conflicts. There was also the occasional out-and-out war.

Another bit of evidence is that I am very uncomfortable saying “if the creek doesn’t rise”. Everyone says, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” I am just as uncomfortable with your version, “the creeks don’t rise.” The interesting thing about this fact is that, while substituting don’t for doesn’t is not uncommon in many English dialects, Indian names were generally treated like the null-plural animals: deer : deer, fish : fish, Creek : Creek. Settlers all over the US at the time spoke of one Creek and many Creek.

Finally, a flooding creek doesn’t present any danger. What don’t we say, “God willing and the river don’t rise”?

Now Susanne Williams has brought Benjamin Hawkins to my attention. Apparently, he had good reason to refer to the Creeks and may have even written the phrase with Creek capitalized. If this is so, we need only track down the letter in which Hawkins used this phrase for the first time, and we will have settled the issue.

Who is Stealing ‘Kumbaya’?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

kum-bah-yah • Hear it!

Meaning: 1. “Come by here” in the Negro spiritual “Kum Ba Yah, my Lord”. 2. Human spiritual unity, often used sarcastically.

Notes: We have finally solved the mystery of where this word comes from (click here). We are still struggling as to how to use it. It is associated with singing around a campfire while holding hands as a symbol of spiritual (or pious) unity. But now that meaning is widely used sarcastically by cynics who think human unity a pipe dream while the answer to our problems lies in meanness and anger.

In Play: Although kumbaya has been contaminated by the Washington press, we do not have to yield the meaning of this word to the cynics just yet: “We were lucky that all our good intentions led to a kumbaya spirit that helped us quickly settle the church’s business.” By the same token, we cannot ignore the current (mis)usage: “If the town council thinks there is some kumbaya solution of the downtown parking problem that will please everyone, they are naive, indeed.”

Word History: “Kumbaya, my Lord” was first recored in 1927. The song was sung in Gullah on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the creole language featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of “Song of the South.” American missionaries took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the early 1960s the song was rediscovered and made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was quickly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and other liberal causes, which invited sarcastic use by conservatives.