Saturday, September 13, 2008

flotsam, jetsam...and jettison

My first encounter with the terms "flotsam" and "jetsam" was as an enraptured kid watching the wonder that was "The Little Mermaid". Flotsam and Jetsam were the names of Ursula's two pet eels (who dutifully fulfilled her evil tasks), but it wasn't until much, much later (till now, in fact), that I learned the exact definitions of these two related, yet distinct, terms.

Before digging into flotsam and jetsam, we must first look at another word: "jettison". Jettison came to us via the Anglo-French noun, geteson, the "action of throwing", and ultimately from the Latin verb, jactare, "to throw". Jettison, once a noun meaning "a voluntary sacrifice of cargo to lighten a ship's load in distress" entered English in the 15th century. The verb has been with us since the 19th century. Jettison these days has separated from its ship association, and can simply mean "to discard".

From jettison we get jetsam. Its original form, jetson, a syncopated form of jetteson, was soon perverted to jetsom (the OED notes this may have perhaps come by association with native words ending in -some). Jetsam is a noun denoting the goods jettisoned from a ship.

These days flotsam and jetsam are almost always paired; even pop culture has seized onto this phrase, as we saw with Ursula's eels. Flotsam more specifially refers to wreckage floating in the sea, and is dervied from Old French, floter, "to float".

Who knew ship wreckage had such specific names? Through looking at language, we can learn so much about the history of our culture -- these example in particular indicate our sea-faring nature, and the journeys and pillages that were all a part of founding the New World.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Pardon My French

In French’s long history of influencing English, many words have changed hands. I spoke earlier (and will, in fact, usually keep on speaking unless someone makes me stop) about the role of French loans in Middle English, and the fascinating way the language accommodates and naturalizes those words until it’s hard to tell who got what from where. (“State,” for example, is a French loan, anglicized from the Old French estat, which has since become état in Modern French.)

Today, though, I want to talk about words we consider English language that are still notably French. The modern speaker is familiar with more French expressions than he or she might realize, from déjà vu (French for “already seen”) to legerdemain (lěj'ər-də-mān'), sleight of hand, which, appropriately enough, translates directly to “light of hand” in modern French. Here are some words and expressions in English which retain a literal French translation:

gendarme (zhän'därm', zhäɴ'därm'):
From the French gens d'armes, "people at arms," it now means“any foreign policeman, particularly a French one” (cf. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.) I was surprised to realize that this word is considered adopted to the degree that it’s even legal in Scrabble (which is just as well, because it netted me 68 points.)

bonhomie (bŏn'ə-mē'): “good nature, the quality of being a good fellow.” (OED)

loyalty or partiality to one’s comrades (Also esprit de corps, another French phrase that translates to “spirit of the corps”)

joie de vivre:
Literally, “joy of living.”

à la carte: has nothing to do with the dessert cart—it means “on the card,” or on the menu

à la mode: has no literal connection to ice cream. It means “in fashion,” so I can only assume it was quite trendy at one point to put ice cream on everything.

au jus:
It drives me crazy when I hear people talk about “A French dip sandwich with au jus.” “Au jus” means “with juice.”

cliché: this one is somewhat convoluted. It comes from the past participle of the French cliquer, “to click,” and the OED tells me it was “applied by die-sinkers to the striking of melted lead in order to obtain a proof or cast.” Its original meaning was a proof or stereotype copy, and it later came to mean a photo negative as well. It’s not a long intellectual jump from mass-produced casts or photographs to mass-produced sayings.

faux pas:
literally, “false step.” I imagine the social meaning stemming from a particularly poor dancer treading on the dress of some countess or other and tearing the whole skirt off, but that’s just because it amuses me.

in lieu of: French en lieu de, “in place of.”

ménage à trois: literally, “a household of three,” but I don’t imagine much of the housework gets done.

vinaigrette: diminutive form of vinaigre, “sour wine,” which with some shuffling of spelling has come into English as “vinegar.”

This is only to name a few. Lest you think that all French phrases in English will serve you the same in France, though, may I draw your attention to one or two false cognates (in French, faux amis, “false friends,” an evocative idiom indeed.) Risqué, in French, just means “risky,” without the connotation of sexual suggestiveness the word has taken on Stateside. If you want to imply that cheeky sense of danger and seduction, use osé, from oser, “to dare.” An entrée, on a menu, is not the main course but the appetizer (the main course is the plat principal, “principal plate.”) And if all this gets your head spinning, be careful saying that you are confused—it’s very tempting to use the French word confus, which means, instead, “ashamed or embarrassed.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Laissez les bon temps rolluer

I spent last week in New Orleans, eating such things as beignets (square-shaped French donuts), pralines (sickeningly sweets patties of pecans in a concoction made of sugar, evaporated milk, and vanilla) and drinking cafe au laits and frozen daiquiris (daiquiri bars litter the city and the daiquiris come in many different flavors). Unfortunately I wasn't able to try the Cajun and Creole -- the two terms are distinct and not interchangeable, but I'll get more into that later -- food that New Orleans is known for, due to my vegetarianism, but I did enjoy learning more about the culture.

I was down there visiting an old friend of mine, Kijai, who's been living there the past year, and fortunately for me, between her and her roommate Kristen, I was able to see a lot of New Orleans that the average tourist doesn't get to see (since, it would seem, most tourists don't venture further than the French Quarter and the streetcars). Kristen was particularly informative about the culture, being Cajun herself, and born and bred an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans on the bayous.

Kristen seemed proud of her Cajun history and very informed -- though she looked and talked anglo, with blonde hair and only the slightest Louisiana accent. She told me how the Cajuns were exiled from Canada (then a colony of Great Britain) due to their refusal to give up their Catholicism "in 1755. I'm not too good with dates, but I remember that one", and shipped along "like slaves", never finding a place of acceptance until they reached the bayous of Louisiana. She told me, "in France we lived on the coast of Normandy, and in Canada we lived along the coast. So when we arrived in Louisiana, we felt right at home. The Cajuns were good at a lot of things that they're now having problems with."

So New Orleans, to set things straight has a bit of the Cajun influence (French Canadians, or a particular ethnic group called Acadians - with the a- dropped from the beginning through aphesis, and the "cadians" slurred much like the American perjorative "injuns" from Indians), and it also has Creole influence.

In order to keep this shorter than a book (which indeed the subject lends itself to) I'll summarize succinctly. In Louisiana, "creole" is a term used to describe people of mixed French, Spanish, African, and Native American descent (they can be a mix of some or all, and some include other heritages). The word itself derives from the Spanish word criollo, which had evolved from the word criado, a past participle of crear, meaning "raised" (and ultimately traces back to Latin creare, to rear or create.) While Louisiana was still a French colony, this term was used to refer to people who were born there, as opposed to immigrants.

On an interesting notes, Creoles of color in New Orleans felt threatened by the Civil War. New Orleans at that time was a three-tiered society, and free people of color worried about losing their higher status after enslaved Africans were set free -- which indeed did transpire.

I gathered much of this information from talking to people in New Orleans, as well as the lovely Wikipedia. I'd highly recommend further reading on the fascinating history and culture of New Orleans. Kijai personally recommends the essays of Andrei Condrescu.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

An Unauthorized Biography of the English Language, Part III

Well, I think I’ve put this off long enough, wouldn’t you say? So let’s dive right in. When we left off, English had just undergone a Gallic makeover wherein it soaked up words and lost some grammatical complexity. Although French influence had receded, the rapid changes to English were far from over. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the language evolved at a dizzying rate, launched into Early Modern English and beyond largely by one technological breakthrough, one phonological shift, and one literary genius.

At the time, English was far from a standardized language. There were scores of regional English dialects, often mutually unintelligible. Even within one dialect, there was no consensus on how words ought to be spelled or pronounced, and often the same writer would use different spellings and forms within the same paragraph. This tomfoolery was allowed to continue because the language lacked any stabilizing influence. Any written records had to be copied slowly and painstakingly by hand, and so were difficult and expensive to produce (as well as being prone to the usual human errors.) Widespread distribution of written material was ludicrously impractical, and dialect groups were largely isolated from one another. Then, in 1476, William Caxton established the first printing house in England.

The printing press was invented some thirty years before by Johannes Gutenberg, who developed the use of movable metal type and was the first to mass-produce printed items (most famously the Gutenberg Bible.) William Caxton was the first to apply the new technology to printing in English. Suddenly it was possible to make books available to more people, more quickly and at less cost than ever before—which meant more exposure for the printer’s dialect. There was an economic reason to standardize and refine spelling, too—ease of typesetting trumped variations in words, and it used less ink and caused less wear to do away with those poetic silent e’s and the like.

Now, this is not to say that English fell tidily into line all at once. Pronouns had yet to settle, with Middle English forms like hi (they), hem (them), his (its), and her (their) persisting into the 16th century (Bryson 62). –s and –en were still battling it out as the dominant plural form. Still, standardization was the wave of the future.

The trend toward standardization was not the only revolution Early Modern English had up its sleeve. Sometime during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a phonological change called the Great Vowel Shift began to occur. This was an eight-step process which affected the long vowels. While searching for help on how best to explain this, I found this handy website, which provides audio demonstrations of the changes which occurred in every step. Awesome! And this , from the same website, is a link to samples of spoken dialogue featuring pronunciation from Middle English to the mid-1700s (including a time when, apparently, all English speakers sounded Canadian.) This may, in fact, be the coolest thing I have ever heard. Check it out—it paints a better picture of this amazing change than I possibly could. (Well, in the space allotted, anyway.)

This just leaves the literary genius, and I bet you can guess who he is already. No discussion of Early Modern English would be complete without a discussion of Shakespeare, its most famous example. As Bryson says, "The changing structure of English allowed writers the freedom to express themselves in ways that had never existed before, and none took up this opportunity more liberally than Shakespeare, who happily and variously used nouns as verbs, as adverbs, as substantives, and as adjectives" (64). Shakespeare was perhaps our most enthusiastic player-with of language. He originated some 2,000 words and countless phrases we take for granted. Some examples (also taken from Bryson’s list): "the milk of human kindness," "one fell swoop," "foul play," "salad days," "play fast and loose," "into thin air," and so on and so forth. Some Shakespearean words (from a website with a more comprehensive list): eyeball, addiction, fashionable, arouse, mimic, cater, frugal, obscene, bet, bump, and others. Even without going into his merit as a writer, just for enriching the word-hoard modern English owes a great debt to him.

I anticipated only three installments of this history, but the rise of a modern and global English is its own tale, and deserves to be told as such. One of these days, I will write the fourth installment of this trilogy (tee hee.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

ditto // quibble

After typing "ditto" into a text message, I paused in the realization that I have no idea the background of this word.

How did I never come to question this strange little word? I understand its meaning as, "what you just said"; "I echo that sentiment"; but just where does ditto come from?

My immediate assumption was that it couldn't be a Latinate word: it lacks the sophistication of words from Latin. Latinate words are words like "mellifluous"; "magnanimous". Anglo-Saxon derivatives include "rock".

Of course, a couple years ago I assumed the same about the innocuous cutesy, "quibble", only to find that, in fact, quibble comes from Latin. A petty or frivolous objection or complaint, quibble's exact derivation remains unknown, though speculation exists. It is thought to be from the now obsolete "quib", equivocation, which comes from quibus, the dative and ablative plural form of "qui", meaning, who? or what? Basically, all that boils down to is this image: the incessant asking of "what? what? what?" "qui? qui? qui?" -- a quibble.

Upon consulation of the OED, I found that once again, Latin's reach slipped by me: ditto is from Latin.

Now I think, how could I not see?? This word originated from Italian, a variant of detto, emerging in the seventeenth century. Detto, "said", derives from Latin dictus, a past particple of dicere, "to say". So, it turns outs, that ditto is, in reality, a very Latinate word, and very clearly means "said": "what you said".

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Awkward," in more ways than one.

It seems that every time I post here I begin by apologizing for a long absence. My father passed away three weeks ago, so my attention has been understandably diverted. I haven't forgotten my final installment of English history, but today it's the word "awkward" that has captured my interest.

This funny little word came up in two unrelated conversations on Sunday, and I realized that I didn't know a thing about its background. The word itself is awkward, isn't it? It looks unwieldy on the page, with that bizarre wkw combination right in the middle, and you nearly swallow the initial vowel in pronouncing it. It's difficult to define, as well-- the OED listed seven main definitions with eighteen subcategories all together, and not one of them, I felt, encapsulated what most of us mean when we say "awkward."

The word itself is derived from a term that has long been obsolete: awk, from Old Norse ofug (which, it seems, had its roots in the Sanskrit apak, meaning "turned away.") Something that was awk was the wrong way round somehow-- perhaps literally backwards, possibly perverse or just clumsy and hard to deal with. To be awkward, then, was to go in an awk direction. Awkward today can mean ungraceful or ungainly, embarrassing or inconvenient, untoward or unfavorable; these are some of the definitions given by the OED. Social awkwardness, however, seems to me to be a little more complicated than merely tripping over the carpet or winding up with one's foot in one's mouth.

One of the two conversations I had about "awkward" concerned my difficulty in translating it into French. There's maladroit (roughly, clumsy") and mal a\ l'aise, literally "ill at ease" and also used for nervous, but to describe that horrible disjointed feeling one sometimes gets in uncomfortable social situations, these are both... well, a little awkward. In the second conversation, a friend proposed a definition of awkwardness as not having a defined social role to play or, upon having one, not knowing how to play it. This struck me as nearer the mark than what the OED had to offer, except for one thing.

Far down the list of Oxford definitions is this: "Not easy to deal with; requiring cautious action; euphemistic for ‘rather dangerous.’" Not many people connect awkwardness with danger, but when confronting an unfamiliar social situation, I'd wager that most will have, to some degree, the sinking fear that they'll screw everything up without knowing how to stop themselves from doing it. In the past few weeks, dealing with paperwork and insurance and family and funeral protocol, I've had that sinking feeling several times. It felt both awkward and dangerous, realizing that everything was changing and not knowing how to orient myself. (Facing decidedly awk, as it were.)

The very last definition in the OED entry provided this great quotation from a 1928 article: "‘How old are you, Bobbie?’ ‘I'm just at the awkward age.’ ‘What do you call the awkward age?’ ‘I'm too old to cry and too young to swear.’" That's "awkward" exactly-- conflicted, ashamed of one's gawkiness, afraid of making some unpardonable blunder. Then again, that may just be me.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Words from Spanish: quixotic, picaro/picaresque & peon

This week's post is a follow-up (& further explication) of a few of the words from last week's list of Spanish-derived English words.

We all know the story of Don Quijote, right? Written by Miguel de Cervantes in Spain in the seventeenth century, Don Quijote de la Mancha tells the story of a low-ranking Spanish noble who, head filled with impractical ideas of being a gallant knight (having little to do, he spent most his time in his library, reading stories of their brave actions), decides to set out on an adventure of his own. Windmills become giants to be battled; farmhands become faithful squires; barbers' basins become prized helmets. This novel is a cultural legacy in Spain and a source of great pride for Spanish people. (My experience in Spain is that everyone knows and loves the story of Don Quijote -- but few have actually read the book.)

From the archaic spelling, Quixote, we've derived the word quixotic. Much like Sir Quixote, a quixotic person is one whose mind is filled with imaginative ideas, very loosely tied to reality, and with little heeding of practicality.

Speaking of novels, a picaresque novel describes the adventures of a person who is sometimes dishonest but easy to like. The Spanish word picaro means rogue or rascal, and the Spanish genre, called picaresco, developed and flourished in Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These novels depict a low-class rogue living by his wits, an anti-hero of sorts. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is sometimes considered a picaresque novel.

Lastly: the word peon in English comes directly from Spanish, peón, a word for an unskilled laborer, typically used to describe farmhands, or anyone performing a job that requires little skill and menial labor.

As we saw from the brief list in last week's post, Spanish's influence on English is large and wide-ranging; these words are barely a scratch on the surface.