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.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Language Contact: Spanish on English

Language contact is unavoidable. When one group of people speaking one language enters/invades/coexists with another group of people speaking another language, it is inevitable that the two languages will influence each other, though these influences happen in different ways. Borrowing results when one language begins to incorporate foreign words or other linguistic elements into its vocabulary. Substratum influence refers to the linguistic influence exerted on the dominant language by a lesser language. For example, when a group of people migrate into another place, their language can become intrusive and can affect the dominant language. The Gauls, for example, abandoned their language in favor of Latin. A much less common phenomenon is that of the superstratum influence, in which the dominant language influences the lesser language. Adstratum describes the process in which two languages coexist as separate entities; for example, the Latin and Greek words used in science and medicine can arguably be called adstrata.

We've already seen a great deal of the influences other languages have had on the development of English. French, for example, had a massive influence that completely changed our vocabulary...with a much lesser degree the syntactic structure of the language (something that's rather hard to change; in Susan's post, you read how in legal language we have preserved some of the French syntax of placing the adjective after the noun: e.g. attorney general).

French's influence has subsided, but another Romance language is now affecting English. Spanish has historically influenced English, mainly in borrowings, but with the great wave of immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, we have to wonder where this will lead. Will Spanish have an even greater influence on English? Will we adopt vocabulary, change syntactic structures, incorporate new ideas and phrases into our language? Or will immigrants adapt to English, their language eventually subsiding? Will the reversal happen? And will English at all affect Spanish? At present, it seems that all of the above is happening.

Spanish's influence happened long before today. The southwest brought along contact with Spanish during the early days of our country's settlement: the southwest (and then some) was, after all, Spain's territory.

Following is a (not at all comprehensive) list of some borrowings from Spanish to English, many of which are regional words. When a concept exists without a name to it, it is only natural that another word will be borrowed to correct the problem. English, finding itself with an insufficient vocabulary in its new environment, remedied the situation by adopting words from an already existing language.

AI here indicates words borrowed from an American Indian language.

alligator (from el largato)
avocado (AI)
barbecue (of Haitian Creole origin)
bravo (Spanish or Italian)
cacao (AI)
cannibal (AI)
canoe (AI)
chile/chili (AI)
chinchilla (AI)
chocolate (AI)
cigar/cigarette (AI)
coyote (AI)
desperado (butchered version of desesperado)
grandiose (Spanish or Italian)
guava (AI)
gusto (Spanish or Italian)
hammock (AI)
hurricane (AI)
iguana (AI)
jaguar (AI)
llama (AI)
maize (AI)
mambo (of Haitian Creole origin)
poncho (AI)
potato (AI)
savanna/savannah (AI)
tapioca (AI or Portuguese)
tomate (AI)
yucca (AI)

works cited:
Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish, Joseph J. Keenan
Introduction to Historical Linguistics, Anthony Arlotto

Sunday, February 10, 2008

eponyms: saturnine, mercurial, and martial

An eponym (from Greek, επωνυμος, eponymos: επι, epi, "upon, to" + ονομα (onoma, "name") is a word formed from a person's name. The Greek word, eponymoi, refers more specifically to gods or heroes after whom something has been named. I've already included one such example in the word "tantalize". Three other words -- saturnine, mercurial, and martial -- have all formed from the names of Roman deities.

to be saturnine is to be cold, slow to change, gloomy, dull, and sullen. Saturn, the father of Zeus and the god of agriculture and harvest, is described as one of the most complicated gods. The planet Saturn was the furthest observable planet during the Classical age. In astrology, people born under this planet receive the traits from the god: Saturn intensifies feelings of sadness.

*A bit of trivia: Saturday (dies Saturni, day of Saturn) is the only word in English that's retained its Roman name.

to be mercurial is to be volatile and erratic; in other words, characterized by rapid and unpredictable changes in mood. The term derives from the Roman god Mercury (Latin, Mercurius), "the patron god of circulation, the movement of goods, people, and words and their roles" (Oxford Classical Dictionary). The planet Mercury and the element mercury are also his namesakes.

We get the word martial from Mars, the Roman god of war...not surprisingly, martial means "associated with war".

Just a few examples of how ancient thought has affected our vocabulary today, and examples of the varying soures that have influenced our words.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

An Unauthorized Biography of the English Language, Part II

First of all, I apologize for the unexpected delay in getting to this next installment of the history of English. Everything from snowstorms to hospitalization (my father’s, not mine) to my laptop’s high-dive suicide has happened in the intervening weeks, but henceforth I hope I will be more reliable.

I left off just before the only date in British history that anybody remembers: 1066, when the Normans showed up. In my recent independent study I chronicled the influence of Norman French on English vocabulary and grammar, and I had hoped to borrow much of this entry from my final paper; all my research, however, is stored on my now-unresponsive laptop. Woe! I can’t go into as much detail as I’d like, but I’ll at least give a summary. (And if anyone is interested, I’d be happy to elaborate once I have my paper available. As I mentioned, I love nothing more than rambling on about Anglo-Norman.)

In 1066, English peasants and noblemen alike were still speaking the heavily Germanic Old English, with Scandinavian filtering in from the North. In The Story of English, Robert Crum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil note the similarity of modern Frisian to Anglo-Saxon, and go on to say that “if that linguistic cataclysm, the Norman Conquest, had not occurred, the English today might speak a language not unlike modern Dutch.” But, of course, William the Conqueror did his thing at the Battle of Hastings, and by the time the Normans were done with the language, it had changed beyond recognition.

The Normans themselves had Germanic roots; they were descended from Vikings who had settled modern-day Normandy in (if memory serves) the 600s AD, but they had long since assimilated to the local culture and customs. Upon William the Conqueror’s installation as King of England, French became the official language of the court. There would not be another English-speaking king in England for three hundred years.

During those three hundred years, French loan words poured into English at a dizzying rate. The estimates I remember most clearly are that upwards of 10,000 French words were adopted into English by the end of the Middle English period. 40% of English vocabulary, some say, is French in origin, making English almost an adopted Romance language. One of the most fascinating things about this period of galloping linguistic expansion is the way the new vocabulary was divided along class lines, and the way these words preserve, even now, a slice of the organization of medieval society.

At first, the French loanwords were largely military (as one might expect from a conquering language): castle (from chastel), battle, soldier, army, and the like. The role of French, though, soon began to change. The new king appointed his Francophone friends and allies to high positions in the nobility, and by the 1100s, anybody who was anybody spoke French. Besides being the language of the court, it was the language of the law, of the schools, of the church (alongside Latin), and of the cultural elite. Art and music, cuisine and couture (two French words themselves), legal terms, florid prose, luxury goods, courtly love—all of these were the provenance of French. To name a very few, terms like art, oboe, priest, religion, court, crime, jail, fashion, fur, jewel, letter, literature, male, and female are all French in origin. Sometimes even the grammar remains with us—ever wonder why we say “attorneys general” rather than “general attorneys?” Legal terms like this preserve the French practice of placing the adjective before the noun, which caught on nowhere else in the language.

Beneath the Gallic frippery, though, English chugged along as the language of the peasants and the uneducated, and it never lost hold of the most fundamental of words. High terms such as prince, baron, duke, royal, and noble aside, the French roi and reine never supplanted the king and queen (OE cyninge and cwene), even when these same rulers spoke no English (and Richard the Lionheart spent only six months on English soil at all.) A much-cited illustration of this basic class difference is the contrast between names for animals and names for meat. The cow, sheep, and swine which were cultivated by the English-speaking peasants retain Anglo-Saxon names to this day; the beef, mutton, and pork they produced are known by their French terms. The poor do the work, and the rich do the eating? Perhaps.

Despite three hundred years of marginalization—enough to completely eradicate a language—English never succumbed. French evolved into Anglo-French, fell from favor, and eventually receded. English reestablished itself, a testament to its adaptability and resilience. Why did English survive? King John’s loss of Normandy to France in 1204 was certainly a critical blow to the supremacy of French—cut off from the mainland, even the Norman nobles developed a sense of Englishness. The intermarriage of Norman nobles with English-speaking natives would have kept English current even in the households of the elite. I believe that the plague had a good deal to do with it as well; with a third of England’s population dead and the infrastructure in chaos, the noble-born would have been confronted with the necessity of fending for themselves for the first time. I bet the language of the tradesmen and peasants would suddenly have become much more interesting to them. Or perhaps English was just too adaptable and too stubborn to die. At any rate, it emerged from French rule a markedly broader and grammatically simpler language—cases were lost, for instance—but still unmistakably English.

Perhaps it is a good thing that I can’t get to my paper, or this might have gone on for twenty pages. Tune in next week for Shakespeare, the printing press, and why English spelling is so messed up!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Common Misconceptions

While reading the paper yesterday, I came across the sentence, "It was such a travesty that [blah blah blah]". This sentence became the inspiration for this most recent post. There are a good deal of words misused in English with startling frequency. Travesty is one such word. The actual definition of a travesty is a grotesque imitation of a literary or theatrical work, a kind of parody, and thus is not to be used interchangeably with tragedy, as it often is.

A personal pet peeve of mine is the rampant misuse of till. Even national chains advertise with, "Open Late, Saturday 'Til 8!" 'Til is a hypercorrection of till -- people assume that it derives from until, with the apostrophe replacing the un-, when in actuality, till was the original form, and until developed from that with the addition of the prefix un-, meaning "up to". This hypercorrection dates back as far the 18th century, with people assuming 'till was the shortened form, and as such it has become a somewhat accepted use -- but it's still incorrect.

Peruse, contrary to popular belief, doesn't mean to hastily glance at or skim -- in fact, its definition is quite the opposite. meaning to read thoroughly. The word derives from post-classical Latin peruti, perusitare, meaning "to use up, wear out" (branch I), as well as from Anglo-Norman peruser, "to examine" (branch II). Susan has added the following note:

Branch 1 is obsolete, but "peruse" was once used to mean "to use up." I don't know if the old sense has any connection with the current (although it's possible to wear out an inquiry by too frequent scrutiny, I suppose?) but Branch 2 comes from Anglo-Norman, which means that it likely had some roots in Latin as well. Yet another thing for which we have the French to thank-- I'll be posting more about that come Tuesday :D.

--happy foreshadowing-- :)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Four Humors

The Greeks loved to classify things, personality types included. With modern science and psychology not yet developed, they relied on other ideas to reach conclusions about human behavior. The theory of the four humors is one such example. Fluids, or χυμοι (humoi) in Greek (bet you didn't ever think that humor and humid were related, eh?) were the starting point for an interesting theory on distinct personality types. Originally credited to Hippocrates, other Greeks went on to classify four different personality types. The fluids involved: phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile. Balance is of course the ideal, but life is not always ideal...and from there these personality types emerge.

The English words used to describe the humors mainly have Greek roots.

phlegmatic types are characterized by too much phlegm! This makes them slow and sluggish. They are also considered peaceful, agreeable types, if sometimes a bit on the unemotional side. From Greek, Latin, phlegma (φλέγμα).

sanguine people are really cheerful! When first encountering the word "sanguine", I instantly recognized the root as "sanguis", Latin for blood, but didn't understand where the correlation to cheerful lay. Well, the Greeks sure saw it. Nice, ruddy people, overrun with blood makes them passionate, confident, and optimistic.

note of interest: the Greek word for blood is αιμα (haima) (think hemophiliac...); here we've got the Latin root.

melancholy people tend toward sadness. Thanks, black bile, for putting such a glum bent on the world. From Greek μελας, melas, "black", + χολη, kholé, "bile".

choleric types can be downright temperamental, irritable, and aggressive. This is due to the spleen, producer of yellow bile (or choler), and the seat of ill temper in classical thought.

additional note: choleric types are interchangeably called splenetic types.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Blessing and Sacrifice: the violent vocabulary of religion

First of all, I apologize for taking a brief break from the history of the English language. It will be back next week; I assure you, I love nothing more than talking about the linguistic importance of the Norman Conquest. (Seriously.) For the time being, however, I am out of the country, and therefore away from most of my research materials. And by “out of the country” I mean “typing this entry on my laptop from a hammock in Cancun.” Yes, I am just that dedicated.

Today I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum, a spectacular archaeological site built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. Our tour guide (who insisted we refer to him as Tortuga “because I have the shell in the front”) is married to a Mayan woman, and was full of interesting information about the living Mayan language and culture. He described the ancient rituals as aggressive and frightening to the conquering Spaniards—warriors who deformed their craniums and filed their teeth to points, human sacrifice, that sort of thing. The Spanish saw them as an evil people who needed to be converted to Catholicism posthaste, said Tortuga. “Not that it excuses what they did, but they felt they had reasons.”

This got me to thinking about the violent vocabulary of religion (lest you thought I was merely rambling.) Few subjects will polarize and incense a people more quickly than religion, and the very words we use for it are sometimes more bloodthirsty than we suspect. I am reminded of William Funk’s derivation of the fairly tame word “bless,” for instance. (Cited from Word Origins and their Romantic Stories, an excellent book despite being somewhat dated. Actually, being somewhat dated makes it even more appealing from a historical perspective—I was interested to note how much semantic shift had taken place even since its first printing in 1950.)

“Bless” comes from Old English blóedsian, blédsian, blétsian and, according to the OED, was formed in OE alone off the Teutonic stem blôdo-m, “blood.” “To bless” originally meant “to mark with blood” or “to consecrate”—a strong allusion to the purifying blood sacrifice. The OED goes on to explain that it was chosen to render the Latin benidicere, which in turn came from the Hebrew root brk, “to bend.” In the same word, we have praise (“bless” was also used for Greek eulogein, whence “eulogy”—assuming, of course, that we speak well of the dead), bending in submission, and consecration through spilt blood; a loaded concept, this blessing.

“Sacrifice” itself, by the way, comes from sacri-, sacer “sacred” + -ficus, from facere, “to make, to do.” The OED’s first definition of “sacrifice” is “primarily, the slaughter of an animal (often including the subsequent consumption of it by fire) as an offering to God or a deity. Hence, in wider sense, the surrender to God or a deity, for the purpose of propitiation or homage, of some object of possession.” Here we see the same concept inherent in blessing—through bloodshed, through consumption, through passion (built on pat , “to suffer”) are things made holy.

The Mayas were converted to Catholicism at the hands of the conquistadors, and Colleen P. Popson speaks of “the coercive tactics of conversion” (
0301/abstracts/letter.html): torture, burning, the supplanting of a culture. My question is this—what do these words say about the nature of religion? Is sacrifice necessary for holiness? Is violence?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

tantalize // venereal

Taking a slight detour from Susan's post (although, have no fear, she'll be back with more history shortly), I'm going to look at the sources of a couple words. Just as the language is steeped in a rich history, so too are the words. In fact, some of our words are of mythological origin. Take the word "tantalize", for example.

Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus (one of many, due to Zeus's frequent dalliances). As with many myths, the story differs as to what he did to earn eternal damnation, but suffice it to say, he's stuck in Tartarus, the deepest layer of the underworld. Below him lies a pool of water, but when he dips his head to take a drink, the pool drains away. Above him dangles lovely fruit, only to be whisked away when he reaches for it. His punishment is to be forever tempted, never other words, tantalized.

And yes, the word "venereal", as in "venereal disease", is indeed related to the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus.

This post wasn't written entirely by memory; I checked my facts in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.