Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for March, 2007

‘Jitterbug’ is Giving me the Jitters

Friday, March 30th, 2007

Good Word subscriber Liza Hodskins shared our workup of jitterbug with her friend Debra Sternberg, whose response was: “Fuuuun! Unfortunately, Dr. Goodword is wrong. Back in 1920s-30s in Harlem, jittersauce [or jitter juice—DG] was slang for booze. Someone who drank too much and got the DTs [delirium tremens, a form of the jitters—DG]. When the white kids from downtown went uptown to dance at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, they were jerkier than the black kids, who started calling them jitterbugs as a pejorative. Not recognizing that, the white kids said, Cool, I’m a jitterbug!! At least that’s the story we’ve always heard.”

It has been written up, too, and can be found at the Lindy Circle website (the Jitterbug is a variation on the Lindy Hop). Right or wrong, it is a better story with more depth and cogent detail than our story. We have found several other references to the same story on the Web but all may have originated from the same reliable or unreliable source. We do know that Cab Calloway put out a highly popular album called Jitterbug which probably explains the popularity of the word among the general public.

If anyone reading this has a published document from that era or a piece of serious research that could serve as authoritative confirmation, please share it with me.

This story makes a lot of sense and reveals a lot about the relation of white Americans to a music that originated with black Americans. There is no mention of the term being used pejoratively with racial overtones but according to Ken Burns’s “History of Jazz”, jazz (or jass as it was spelled back then) was socially unacceptable until it was cleaned up and offered by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Ameliorate or Meliorate?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

In yesterday’s Good Word, meliorate, I claimed that no one knew where the intial A came from in the now more common variant ameliorate. My point was that both forms are acceptable and I focused on meliorate to bring attention to that fact. While focusing on this point, however, I didn’t sufficiently research the origin of the intial A on ameliorate.

However, Paul Johnson and Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira pointed out quickly that French uses only améliorer and, given the fact that English once borrowed heavily from French, this parallel could hardly be coincidental.

Well, they are right. Further digging turned up another instance of a fact that I have mentioned several times in our “So, What’s the Good Word?” series: English often borrows the same word multiply over periods of time. The original victim of English filching was Latin, specifically, meliorare, without the initial A. (English always uses the past participle of the Latin verbs it borrows, meliorat-us in this case.)

However, centuries later, English borrowed the same word again from what had now become Old French and Old French restructured the verb around the phrase à meillorer “to better”. The à was simply absorbed by the verb.

It appears now that meliorate will eventually fade from the language despite the fact that meliorate is shorter and older. Maybe words pass the baton on to younger generations, too.

Did Agley Go Awry Today?

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

After reading today’s Good Word agley, Doug Schulek-Miller wanted to know how this word differs from awry.

There isn’t much difference at all. You can say that someone’s hat is agley or awry or that their plans went either way. However, you can also say that someone looks agley at you (= askance) since the underlying verb here is gley “squint, look sideways” while you cannot use “awry” in this sense. I didn’t mention this usage in today’s Good Word so that my description of agley didn’t go agley.

Perhaps the greatest difference is that you can say awry outside Scotland and be understood.

Dead and Dying Languages

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

A couple of fairly recent articles remind us of attempts to save endangered languages.  They also speak to the issue of the Internet’s role is language rescue efforts.  Ethonologue has designated about 750 languages as extinct or nearly extinct around the world today.  Many other unwritten languages have disappeared without a trace.  The reasons are complicated but usually involve political domination, population depletion, and/or migration.

The Web has made it possible not only for native speakers of endangered languages to contact each other, it makes possible the collection of data about the languages.  Our website represents a growing number of actual grammars and glossaries of languages on the brink of extinction. Many of these grammars and glossaries have been constructed by linguistically untrained native speakers hoping to preserve this critical cultural heritage.

In Millsboro, Delaware an attempt is being made to resuscitate a language long dead, the Nanticoke language.  This is an altogether different task.  Saving a description of a dying language (dictionary and grammar) is simple enough if there are enough native speakers.  Bringing one back to life is nigh on impossible. The problem, of course, is that these languages never had a writing system and we have to rely on historical reports of dilettantes such as priests, army officers with little to do, and the like.  Professional linguists have written fairly sophisticated grammars of dead languages based on historical reports.  We should not expect anyone to ever speak Nanticoke again, however.

Ladino is another matter. NPR recently ran a story called “Lost Language of Ladino Revived in Spain about attempts to resurrect this Jewish dialect of Spanish. Ladino is a variant of Spanish in the same sense Yiddish is a variant of German: it is basically Spanish spoken with a Hebrew accent with loads of Hebrew words.  However, some speakers of this dialect survived World War II and, though elderly, are still available as resources for grammars and dictionaries. a Ladino course Ladino is now offered at Tufts University.

Language of Ladino Revived in Spain about attempts to resurrect this Jewish dialect of Spanish. Ladino is a variant of Spanish in the same sense Yiddish is a variant of German: it is basically Spanish spoken with a Hebrew accent with loads of Hebrew words.  However, some speakers of this dialect survived World War II and, though elderly, are still available as resources for grammars and dictionaries. (The beginnings of an online grammar may be found Ladino course offered at Tufts University.

The bare fact is, however, that languages survive where they are needed, leaving little hope that either of these two languages or any of the others that are dying out will ever be the first language of any speaker again.  Still, these languages should not vanish unrecorded for every language is the heart and soul of some culture and we should not allow cultures to vanish unexamined and unrecorded for the simple reason that any culture has lessons about our species that are important to understanding ourselves.

On line, On-line, Online

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

Today’s Good Word, predator, contains the following line: “. . . adults who try to seduce our children on line.”

Paul Ogden, one of the daily Good Word editors, commented that the spelling online 1.7 billion hits on Google (that’s right—billion) while on line gets a mere 450 million.

My view is that on line is a slightly idiomatic prepositional phrase (PP) while online and on-line are forced adjectives from the PP. In the phrase above, “children on line” (as opposed to “online store”) we need a PP rather than an adjective, which would imply some quality the children have.

To test my sentiment, Paul searched “I am online” and “I am on line” and “I am on-line” and came up with these results: “I am on line” or “I am on-line” gets 38,000 Google hits. “I am online” gets 444,000, indicating the flow of this issue is not following my sentiments.

This issue is part of a broader one on which I wrote while still an academician with time to research it in greater depth. English is a very odd language in that it allows PPs to be converted into adjectives. Over-the-counter drugs, off-the-shoulder dress, around-the-world cruise, on-line activities are all accepted slang conversions of PPs into adjectives. We know that they are adjectives because PPs in English always follow and never precede the noun they modify while adjectives behave in just the opposite manner.

Now, I am not a prescriptive grammarian; grammar should be flexible and change over time. However, it always changes in a consistent, rule-governed manner. Moreover, the very purpose of grammar, the set of rules which governs the way we speak, is to provide consistencies that we can depend on in the interpretation of what we say and hear. In this case, “I am on line now” and “I use an on-line store” would be consistent with all the other PP adjectives out there.

I said that these hyphenated adjectives are slang even though all the examples I cited seem perfectly normal, often used in fairly formal contexts. This is explained by the difference between “grammatical” and “acceptable”. Words like stick-to-it-iveness, one-ups-manship—even talkative with its Germanic stem and Latin suffixes—are all ungrammatical in that they are inconsistent with the rules of English grammar. However, they have been accepted because they are either amusing or useful.

There are lots of idiomatic exclusions and maybe online has become a ‘stick-to-it-iveness’ adjective already. The PP on line is itself slightly idiomatic since it cannot be used with the or a, so maybe nothing is at stake here. However, so long as the point of grammar is consistency in speech, the consistent way to handle on line is without a hyphen when it is clearly functioning as a PP and with a hyphen when it is functioning as an adjective in attributive (prenominal) position. The form with neither a space nor hyphen is probably the result of our adjusting to URLs that generally ignore them.

Not Much Doing in Arkansas

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

ArkansasThe Arkansas state legislature had a light day back in February and managed to clear the Arkansas Apostrophe Act, a nonbinding resolution that endorses the spelling of the possessive of Arkansas as Arkansas’s rather than Arkansas’. The latter spelling, usually restricted to plural possessives like ‘the legislators’ goofing off’ or ‘the reporters’ laughter’, was legally enacted as the official spelling by a previous apostrophe act on a slow day back in 1881.

At issue was the ‘silent’ S in the pronunciation of Arkansas, pronounced [ahr-kên-saw]. This means that the correct pronunciation of the possessive of this state’s name is [ahr-kên-sawz] with only one S, pronounced [z]. (This is why Kansas’s legislature is not forced to struggle with the same issue.) The original law, then, would make as much sense as the current one if there were a consistent correlation between the way we speak and the way we spell.

The general rule is that the possessive of words that end on S is the same as that of any other word, -‘s. That is the way these words are pronounced—more or less. There are exceptions. The possessive of ‘classical names’ omits the final -s, as in Jesus’, Socrates’, Plautus’. Of course, the line between ‘classical’ and ‘nonclassical’ names is a bit mushy.

So, which Arkansas legislature is correct, that of 1881 or that of 2007? Well, the silent S is silent in both the possessive and nonpossessive forms and so should be ignored. The important thing to remember, though, is that how words are spelled in English, thank heavens, is not Arkansas’s decision.

‘Gunsmoke’ and Prerogatives

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

The smoking gun of GunsmokeDon Vaughan is now working on next week’s column for the Starkville Daily News. In his up-coming column he will be reporting on an episode of the still-rerunning US TV series, “Gunsmoke”. Here is why that episode is so interesting for a logophile.

Don, who is also a lecturer in communication at Mississippi State University, recently watched a DVD of a Gunsmoke episode titled “Quiet Day in Dodge” in which Margaret Hamilton, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie The Wizard of Oz, guest stars as a schoolmarm [an interesting word in itself—DG]. The schoolmarm brings a mischievous boy to Marshal Dillon, the central character in the series, for safe keeping but the boy escapes and gets into further mischief.

Later that day, the schoolmarm returns to the sheriff’s office and chides Dillon for dereliction of duty and threatens, “I just want you to know that I intend to write about you to my very good friend the Attorney General and I hope he abrogates your prerogatives.”

Clearly the schoolmarm is a hopeless logophile and there is little chance that Matt Dillon would understand what “abrogates your prerogatives” means. In fact, the phrase might sound a little odd to the rest of us, since prerogatives are not usually said to be abrogated.

But the schoolmarm is right on target. Abrogate first and foremost means “to rescind” in the legal sense. Laws are abrogated all the time. And since the sheriff’s prerogatives are privileges that legally derive from the office of sheriff as authorized by the state, in this case they are quite rightly abrogated by a higher legal authority. So, if the schoolmarm pronounced prerogatives correctly (prerogatives and not perogatives), we must commend her for attempting to raise the intellectual standards of Dodge City, Kansas.

Taciturn and Reticent

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Don Vaughn, who writes a column on language for the Starkville (Mississippi) Daily News, raised the question of the difference between taciturn and reticent today. Here is what he wrote: has the primary meaning of taciturn as “inclined to silence; reserved in speech; reluctant to join in conversation” and the primary meaning of reticent as “disposed to be silent or not to speak freely; reserved.” Do I have the difference between inclined and disposed correct?”

“If someone is inclined, he/she has a mental tendency or preference (an inclination). But with disposed, the person is showing or putting forth that mental tendency or preference (inclination). Someone inclined is not necessarily showing that mental tendency or preference, but someone disposed is acting out that tendency.”

“Getting back to taciturn and reticent, a taciturn individual is inclined to be silent or at least unwilling to converse, but someone who is reticent is going one step beyond being inclined to silence by actually demonstrating the inclination to be silent or reserved.”

My reaction is that Don may be reading too much into single words in these dictionary entries. They were probably written by different people at different times and have no connection to each other. The difference between the sense of inclined and disposed are, however, very close to the difference in the meanings of taciturn and reticent. The difference between the meanings of these two words is is a matter of intention.

A person who is taciturn is either quiet by nature or for no particular reason; a reticent person is holding something back intentionally. That is why this word is so often confused with hesitate “to hold back” while taciturn is not. A reticent person is hesitant to speak for fear of the consequence while a taciturn person is simply that way for no particular reason.

Hebrew and Accadian Words for ‘Dominion’

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

Duomo FlorenceBasing an argument on a translation is always tricky business.  Paul Ogden did some research on the Hebrew words for dominate and dominion and this is what he found—a fine piece of research for which I am sure we are all grateful:
Maureen Koplow is using an English translation of the Bible to make her argument. Traditional English translations of the Hebrew Bible, such as the King James Version, relied on three sources:

  1. The original Hebrew version (which modern critical scholarship suggests was redacted several times before it was canonized early in the present era),
  2. the Greek Septuagint, translated from the Hebrew in the 1st to 3rd centuries BC in Alexandria (although with additional books and a somewhat different ordering of books),
  3. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of circa 400 AD.

The King James Version, though majestically written, suffers from its translators’ ignorance of other Semitic languages and perhaps limited understanding of Koine Greek and Classical Latin. Many passages, indeed whole chapters, of the Old Testament are obscure, due to faulty transmission of the original text, scribal ignorance, and, on occasion, the phenomenon of “hapax legomenon”, i.e., where a single occurrence of a word in the entire work and the lack of other extant references render its meaning undecipherable. It is noteworthy that a considerable portion of the Talmud—akin in size to the Encyclopedia Brittanica and set down over the course of about 700 years concluding circa 500 AD—is devoted to rabbinical attempts to elucidate the meanings in the Hebrew Bible.

Modern scholars have labored to overcome these problems by studying the other Semitic languages, among them modern Arabic, but also the various dialects of Aramaic as well as Akkadian, Syriac, Ethiopic and so on. The task is far from complete.

With respect to dominion, English translations of the Bible often use dominion to translate a Hebrew word in Genesis 1:26. Dominion is also used to translate a Hebrew word appearing a few verses earlier, in Genesis 1:16. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:16 is a form of a root used today to mean “govern, government and governor.”

The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:26 is a conjugation of rada. Ernest Klein, in his 1987 Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew for Readers of English, defines this word as “to tread, to rule, have dominion, dominate.” Whence also see

  • Judeo-Aramaic rada “he drove, ruled, chastised”
  • Syriac rada “he went on, moved along, drove, chastised, it flowed”
  • Arabic rada(y) “he trod”
  • Akkadian radu ” to drive, tend the flock,” related to radad * tr. v. 1. “he ruled, had dominion over, dominated;” 2.”he subuded, subjugated;” 3. (Post-Biblical Hebrew) “he chastised, punished,” and hirda “he subuded, subjugated (in the Bible occurring only Isaiah 41:2.)

The King James Bible translates Isaiah 41:2 thus: “Who raised up the righteous man from the east, called him to his foot, gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? he gave them as the dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.” *Radad (from Klein) “to beat down, repel, subdue, flatten.” (Klein continues with examples from Judeo-Aramaic, Arabic and Akkadian—all with substantially the same meaning.)

Robert Alter, in his lovely 1996 translation and commentary on Genesis, translates rada in Genesis 1:26 as “hold sway.” He comments: ‘The verb rada is not the normal Hebrew verb for “rule” (the latter is reflected in “dominion” of verse 16), and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.’ Alter uses “dominion” in verse 16. A perusal of other occurrences of this word confirms his observation (click here).

Languages, of course, change over time, and people continually assigning altered meanings eventually gives birth to new languages. Modern Hebrew, unlike Modern Greek, remains quite close to its biblical forebear and sometimes strains to adapt to modern sensibilities while remaining faithful to its linguistic inheritance. Two examples illustrate: The word for husband in Modern Hebrew is the same as in Biblical Hebrew. That word is ba’al, which in other contexts means a lord or a god. A verb from the same root means to physically dominate, and dominate harshly, in the way that only a male can dominate a female. The modern word for female, again the same as Biblical Hebrew, derives from a root meaning “to pierce.”

—Paul Ogden, Israel

More on Dominions and Domination

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Duomo FlorenceMy apologies for the delay in continuing this thread. Maureen Koplow responded to my comments on the etymology of words beginning with dom and her response set the wheels in my head spinning again. However, other duties have kept me away from the blog for the past several days. Here is Maureen’s response, followed by mine.

Maureen: My reason for asking has to do with my animal advocacy – I’ve discussed the idea of the biblical phrase where Adam is supposedly told to have “dominion” over the animal kingdom. For many people, they use this as an argument in favor of exploiting animals. I’ve tried to explain that the word dominion is related to the more positive concepts of stewardship, of being godlike and taking responsibility for animals. I’ve used the concept that many people pray to a deity and ask for mercy, for tenderness, for consideration.

Such people also usually believe that man is created in the image of that deity. My argument is that if people are indeed created to be in “God’s” image, and if we pray to a merciful “God,” are we not then supposed to act “Godlike” toward those over whom we have “dominion”?

The connectedness of the words beginning with dom makes it clear to me that the original intention of the commandment “to have dominion” was to have mercy and compassion, to care for and nurture. For those who believe in a religious argument which favors use and exploitation of animals, the biblical commandment would seem to contradict that claim.

Dr. Goodword: I am led to the same conclusion by a different strain of logic. I am a linguist and linguists are impressed by the fact that only the human species can speak. No chimp, gorilla, whale, or dolphin has ever done anything resembling human speech, despite repeated efforts (“Can Chimpanzees Talk“).

The only explanation to this is that human intelligence is qualitatively different from that of other species. That is don’t simply have more brains than other species; the difference is not quantitative. We have a totally different kind of intelligence, one that allows us to create, learn, and unconsciously pass on language from generation to generation.

That is a large part of the definition of God. God is an entirely different kind of intelligence. Because other species cannot attain the kind of intelligence we have, yet we are a species, it behooves humans to take care of the Earth. No other species can destroy this planet, so no other species can be expected to preserve it. Other species just eat, sleep, and reproduce; that is all they can do. We are the intellectual powerhouses—though looking at our corporate, religious, and political you sometimes wonder. We need a qualitatively different sense of responsibility to go along with our intelligence.