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Archive for June, 2009

‘Off of’ or Just ‘Off’

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Brian Thornton wants to know if I can explain the use or misuse of the adverb off: should we use it alone or with the preposition of. Should we say, “The cat jumped off the table” or “off of the table”?

Well, maybe I can at least define the problem. The adverb off is in the process of becoming a preposition. As an adverb, its object requires the preposition of: “The button flew off [of my shirt].” As this word becomes more and more a preposition itself, the additional preposition of becomes redundant: “The button flew [off my shirt]”. (I used square brackets here to set of the prepositional phrases.)

I am speaking only of the adverb off. Like many words in English, this word has several functions. It is also a prefix (an off-white dress), and adjective (the lights are off), and a verbal particle (Lenny took his hat off). It started out as an adverb, though it apparently was never happy in that function and hence is currently changing careers. While it is in the process of change, we should use whichever form those around us are using; both forms are correct.

This historical shift is not unusual. Out is another example of an adverb becoming a preposition. Out, too, is still used mostly with a preposition to mark its objects: “Melvin came out [of the house]”, “Lucinda Head is out [of her mind]”. It has picked up a new meaning, however, “out through”, and in that sense, of cannot be used: “The dog sniffed his food once and flew [out the door]”. Out is lagging materially behind off in its career shift but it seems to have begun the journey.

Many other adverbs are prepositions and conjunctions: after and before may be all three:

     • I’ve never seen him before. (Adverb)
     • I saw him before he grew the beard. (Conjunction)
     • I knew her before the war. (Preposition)

I’m sure you can think of others. Nothing amiss here: multifunctional words that belong to several categories are commonplace in all languages.

Language is not stagnant. It is changing all the time. Language change is not simply the coming and going of words; that is the least interesting change in language. Words are shifting from one category to another, the categories themselves are changing, syntactic structure is changing, juggling words as it goes along. All this is taking place now right under our noses, where tongues and lips are constantly churning out grammar and vocabulary, producing nuances that eventually add up to new dialects and even languages.

Podunk Potemkin Villages

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Yvonne Owens couldn’t help being struck by both the phonetic and the semantic similarities between our recent Good Word podunk and Potemkin and wondered if the two words were related.

For all its similarity, Potemkin has nothing to do with Podunk. Podunk is a word from an American Indian language while Potemkin comes to us from Russian. The Russian word is a commonization of the name of Grigory Potemkin (or Potyomkin, as it ir pronounced in Russian). Potemkin was a favorite of Catherine, probably her lover, and for the majority of her reign, the most powerful person aside from Catherine in Russia.

Grigori PotemkinAccording to European legend, in order to impress Western European dignitaries visiting Russia, Potemkin very quickly built several settlements in territories taken by Catherine from Turkey in order to convince those dignitaries that the land now belonged to Russia and that Russian would not surrender it under any circumstance. To make the point, Western Europeans had to see Russian putting the land to Russian use, even though the peasants compelled to move into them left soon after the dignitaries departed.

Although unrelated to podunk, Potemkin’s action bears a striking resemblance to the action of Israelis in building settlements in the West Bank territorities siezed during the Six Day War. Both instances are based on the assumption that “possession is 9/10 of the law” plus the additional difficulty of undoing what has already been done. The difference, of course, is that Israel is building real settlements; Potemkin built nothing more than empty shells of buildings grouped to look like settlements in an unsettled territory.

Beautiful Foreign Words in English

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Mark Conn is only the most recent reader of our “100 Most Beautiful Words in English” list to ask why so many seem to be French, not English. I guess it is time to put a reply up for everyone.

The reason is that well over 50% of the English vocabulary is borrowed from French. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he initiated the Norman Period of English history and the Middle English period of the language. Religious, legal, judicial, educational, and governmental institutions were conducted entirely in French and Old English became the language of the lower classes. Thousands of words were imported into English, a process that continued even after English reestablished itself as the strongly French-influenced national language again around 1300.

We can push the percentage of words borrowed from French and its mother, Latin, even higher if we include medical and legal terms, and higher still if we include the Greek language. The vast majority of current English vocabulary is borrowed, in fact. 

English doesn’t simply borrow words from other languages, it plunders other languages for their lexical treasures like a vocabulary pirate: Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, plus dozens if not hundreds more, have all seen their word stores scanned directly into the English lexicon.

Now, does that mean that English contains only a few thousand English words? That would be a hard case to make. Once we borrow a word like chatoyant (pronounced [shæto] then change its meaning and pronunciation (English [shætoyênt]), it is English. The fact that a French word is borrowed from a language associated with high culture, fashion, and epicurean sophistication does add to its beauty and allure, though.

The aspect of a native word like becoming, fetching, or comely that sets it off from the rest is a sense of being quaintly out of fashion, a warm, and cozy sense like that of a dowdy old aunt or grandmother. Here the distance is in time rather than place but it is still the sense of removal that adds elgance and grace to such such words.

That doesn’t mean that some current native words are not beautiful: love, lilt and offing certainly fill that bill. Certainly other aspects enter the lexical beauty equation. However, just as a sense of anachronism positively inclines us toward native words, the exoticity of distant cultures in words borrowed gains our vocabulary the same advantage.

I’m working on a longer, more detailed explanation of how beauty works in words for the book, The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English scheduled for August publication.

Upskirting: Sex in the Slow Lane

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

The Sunbury Daily Item this morning reported the arrest of an out-of-state visitor in the Susquehanna Mall for upskirting. (The online edition changed the headline so as not to unintentionally encourage its readership). Upskirting, according to the Deadly Item (as it is fondly called by those of us who adore it), is bending over to take a digital photograph up a lady’s skirt (or a naughty girl’s, for that matter). Given the length of skirts these days, I have difficulty visualizing this, since either the man is something of a contortionist or the skirts involved were very short.

The important point, however, is that the perp is from out of state, Missouri, to be exact. Readers in that state should be on guard! Another important point—aside from the one on this guy’s head—is that upskirting is not yet listed among the crimes in Pennsylvania, so the district attorney has to decide whether the actual crime is disorderly conduct or harrassment, neither of which carry stern penalties.

Here at alphaDictionary, of course, we are more interested in the fact that this new verb has reached the area. To upskirt, according to the Urban Dictionary, has been around since 2006, along with the misuse of photographic cell phones itself. Since the verb to skirt means “to go around, circumvent”, I would have expected to upskirt to mean “to circumvent by raising to a higher level”, as to upskirt an insult with a compliment to the insulter. Apparently, that is not the case.

Anyway, this brave new step into sexual perversion and the vocabulary it shleps with it has us all talking in appropriately hushed tones here in centrally isolated Lewisburg. Who knows where it will lead to next: peeking at girls in bikinis at the beach, no doubt. What’s the world coming to?

Hagia Sophia and Saint Peter

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

John Myes wanted to know if the hagia in Hagia Sophia is related to the hagios in our Good Word hagiographyHagia Sophia is the name of the museum in Istanbul that was once the seat of the patriarch (= pope) of Eastern Orthodoxy.  Indeed, Greek hagia “holy” is the feminine form of hagios, which is also the word for “saint”, so Hagia Sophia means “Saint Sophia”. (We find the same relation in saint, which was originally Latin sanctus “holy”.)

I always thought it interesting that the patron saint of the Roman Catholic Church was a man, St. Peter, the Rock, while the patron saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church (once a part of the Roman Church), was a woman, St. Sophia, also the Greek word for “Wisdom”. 

The several historical attempts to (re)marry these two faiths have failed. They would seem to be incompatible despite all their common interests.

Doubling up on Consonants

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

David Myer wrote the following from somewhere, I take it, out in Australia:

“So, what is a gammy leg? Usually used in Australia (and in UK as far as I can remember) to indicate a leg affliction that causes a limp.”

This one is easy for a while. Gammy is a mispronunciation of gamy, an extention of game, as in a game leg. Hobos in the 30s mispronounced it and expanded its meaning to include anything that is bad: gammy smell, gammy ride, gammy food. Notice that doubling the M in this word led to a different, though predictable, change in the pronunciation which provides the perfect segue to your next, more complex, question:

“Also interested in your US dropping of the double consonant when adding ing or ed. ‘focused’ or ‘targeted’ (assuming you actually deign to use such a word as a noun).”

“For me, the rule is simple. You select the spelling that is easiest to read. Focussed is likely to be instantly recognised and pronounced in only one way. The single s in focused can lead the quick reader to pronounce it as a z. The emphasis would then fall on the second syllable so you might read focused as in accused. Double s is infinitely preferable in my book.”

I totally agree with you on doubling the consonants—it and the ‘silent’ E are the only consistent means of distinguishing long and short vowels in English. I’m not sure which editorial committee decided that we in the US should husband our consonants or for what reason but the single consonant in these words implies the removal of a silent E, e.g. bated vs. batted, coned vs. conned, pining vs. pinning, not to mention gamy vs. gammy, an excellent example of the mischief confusing the two can lead to. We actually aren’t even consistent in our spelling as these examples demonstrate, since the US rule applies only to multisyllabled words.

I do hope that you appreciate the fact that I use British punctuation when it comes to the placement of quotation marks. It irks many of our US readers but, again, the British system is logical and consistent: if the quotes logically belong inside the period or comma, you place them inside the period or comma. If the period or comma is a part of the quotations, they go inside the quotes.

Sometimes I marvel that we still speak to each other, two peoples, as Winston Churchill put it, “divided by a common language”.

If Right is Right, is Left Wrong?

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Maureen Koplow’s third question in the two sentences she wrote concerning my discussion of benight, was this: Where do we get the “various meanings of right as in ‘that’s right’ vs. ‘you don’t have the right to do that.'”

Well, that is a simple one. The association of right-handedness and the right way to do things has been with us for millennia. The Greeks, the Romans, and the (original) Indians built that into their speech thousands of years ago. The reasoning goes something like this: if 98% of the people in the world are right-handed, the doing things with the right hand is the right way and doing them with the left hand is not right, right?

OK, next step. If right = right, and everyone wants to do right and be done right to, we begin to expect to be treated in the right way. The right way then becomes a right in a third sense. We then have and to protect our rights in this third sense of the word, we need laws to protect our rights from those who do things wrong.

So, if right is right, and right our right, where does that leave left? The Latin word for “left” gives us a hint; it is sinister.

However, left-handers have rights, too, and I’m proud to say that over a decade ago my university, Bucknell, no doubt following the lead of others, began providing desks for left-handers in our classrooms, erasing the connection between left and wrong. Moreover, the rest of us have forgotten the origin of right and sinister and they may well be two sleeping dogs best left to lie right where they are.  (I hope you didn’t get left behind in this blog; that wouldn’t be right.)

Silent E Look Out for Silent GH!

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Maureen Koplow, responded to my comments on the word benight, with a three part question, one part philosophical, the other two linguistic. I have already expended most of my philosophical powder on the first part, here is my response to the second. (My answer to the third will follow shortly.)

The second question raised by Maureen Koplow recently was this: “I wonder where the ight ending comes from.” I think Maureen is wondering about the ‘Silent GH’ in English words. Here are my thoughts on that subject.

To understand this one, we need to know a little about phonology, the scientific study of the sounds of language. Specifically, we need to know that the letters G and K represent sounds that are identical except that we vibrate our vocal cords pronouncing [g] (the way I represent sounds rather than letters–click to hear)  but not when uttering [k] (click to hear).

There is a third member of the group found in Scots English (CH), Dutch (G), German (CH), and Russian (X) (click to hear). Let’s call this sound [kh]. It is identical to [k] except that the the back of the mouth is not fully closed in its pronunciation, allowing a bit of air to escape from the back of the throat, making a slight hissing sound. It sounds a bit like clearing your throat, so I always warned my students practicing this sound to put their hand in front of their mouths, especially anyone with a post-nasal drip.

OK. The sound represented by the silent GH in English was once a [k] in Proto-Indo-European (PIE—as mentally nutritious as it is delicious). That sound became [kh] over the course of the development of ancient Germanic languages like Old English. We still find this sound, as mentioned before, in Dutch, German, and Scots English. In most dialects of English, however, it reduced itself to [h], a sound so slight that has disappeared altogether from English everywhere except at the beginning of words. However, although the sound has disappeared, we continue spelling it.

You will find relatives of what once was GH represented as G, K or CH in other Indo-European languages. The word for “might” in German appears as mögen and möchten in German, mogu “I can” in Russian. The word for “night” in German is Nacht but in Latin nox, noctis (where C = [k]).

So words in English containing the Silent GH mark the spot where a real sound once stood. While English speakers are not at all resistent to changing their ways, we are very reluctant to change the way we spell our words, a trait that forces our children (and many adults) into years of misery trying to learn how to spell words they have no difficulty in uttering.

The Mighty and the Righty

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Maureen Koplow responded today to my comments on the word benight with a two part question, one philosophical, the other linguistic. Here is part one:

“Could you please shed some light on why so many people think that might makes right?”

In other words, why do so many people find it difficult to understand the difference between having the power to do something and having the right to do it?  The fact that we have so many ways of asking the same question indicates that the question is not new but is important.

Now, the fact that these two words rhyme does not mean that they are related. Since they are not related, this is not a linguistic question, so I will put on my raggety moral philosopher’s cap to answer part one of Maureen’s question.

The question keeps popping up to the surface of the sea of life even though we pretty much know the answer. If you are a careful observer, you will observe that the people who think that might makes right are those with might. The decision-makers (or, as our previous president put it, “the deciders”) at Enron, Worldcom, Silverado Savings, Tyco, AIG, Merrill Lynch—to just get the ball rolling—tend to be money addicts unaware of the difference between right and wrong or the fact that right is preferable.

We must include in this group those at the pinnacle of power in governments from the national to the local level, not to mention the individual level, as we see in the murderer of Dr. George Tiller in the House of God on Sunday during services. (“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”)

This lot tends to be power addicts (guns are power, too), an angry a lot, bereft of the knowledge that when we lose our temper, our IQ drops 30 points on average. They also suffer a bit from the same congenital defect as the money addicts: the inability to distinguish right from wrong (two antonyms that are related).

Fortunately, Maureen also asked two more questions on a topic about which I know something: “I wonder where the ight ending comes from, and the various meanings of might, as in “I might go” or the “Mighty King Kong” and and various meanings of right as in “that’s right” vs “you don’t have the right to do that.” I will address these questions subsequently, an address that will mark my return to subjects of which I am certifiedly knowledgeable.

I will leave you with a question of my own: Why do we have recovery programs for every kind of addict except money and power addicts?

A Snip at Snapping

Monday, June 1st, 2009

I read in the news back on May 1 that a Dutchman “snapped” and drove his car over 5 people in an attempt to kill the Dutch royal family. He was an ordinary guy who was fired and the trauma from that event caused him to “snap” and begin killing people.

It has become commonplace for lawyers and media voices to attribute snapping to murderers and other criminals as an excuse for their crimes. (Berni Madoff snapped pretty much constantly for 25 years.) The legal term for it, of course, is “temporary insanity”. You would think that as many people who snap and go temporarily insane, we would have invested billions into research to come up with a cure for snapping. But nothing comes up from a search of the NIH website.

We need a discussion on snapping but I’m not the person to launch it, since I’m old fashioned enough to still think snapping is a euphemism for losing your temper.