28 Jul 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Tit for tat Numerous readers echoed Roger Downham’s comment: “There was I, happily assuming that ‘tit for tat’ was a corruption of ‘this for that’, when you came along and complicated it all!”
Abecedarian Michael Lean added another layer of complexity to this word’s senses, “There’s also the abecedarian insult, which requires vocabularian talent: ‘You alopecian, bombastic, curmudgeonly, dilatory, egregious, fawning, gluttonous...’. You get the idea. I can’t remember where it cropped up now.” He may be thinking of this modern example:
Abecedarian insult “Sir, you are an apogenous, bovaristic, coprolalial, dasypygal, excerebrose, facinorous, gnathonic, hircine, ithyphallic, jumentous, kyphotic, labrose, mephitic, napiform, oligophrenial, papuliferous, quisquilian, rebarbative, saponaceous, thersitical, unguinous, ventripotent, wlatsome, xylocephalous, yirning zoophyte.”
The Superior Person’s Book of Words, by Peter Bowler, 1985. He appends an explanation but I leave the gloss as an exercise for the reader.
Teresa Folkes commented, “Aleric Watts, who I had never heard of otherwise, wrote a poem that I learned in childhood, which began ‘An Austrian army, awfully arrayed’ and so on to the end of the alphabet. Not good verse, but very appealing to a child.” Aleric Watts, whose middle name was “Attila”, as in the Hun, is usually credited with the poem but there’s some doubt over authorship. The verses were published in the Literary Gazette of London on 23 December 1820 to illustrate alliteration rather than abecedarianism, though they are abecedaric as well. To give you the whole thing might induce alphabetical surfeit, but this is how it begins and ends:
An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
My old dad once advised me never to mix the grape and the grain, a proverbial dictum that has served me well. The Romans seem not to have learned the precept, as they had a drink, cinnus, which the grammarian Hesychius of Alexandria explained was a mixture of wine, honey, water and either barley or spelt (an ancient type of wheat). I presume the grain was steeped in the wine to make a sweet alcoholic soup and not brewed into ale first, though some sources disagree.
You may hazard a guess as to its effect on the Roman constitution by one of the other senses of cinnus being of a facial distortion or grimace. The scholar Johannes Scapula wrote in 1790 that it could also mean “a promiscuous conglomeration of many things of various kinds” or as Dr Adam Littleton defined it in his Latin Dictionary of 1715, “A mingle-mangle or gallimaufry of several things together; a hotchpotch or mish-mash, a medley.” Contrariwise, Latin evolved from it the verb concinnare, to join together skilfully, which suggests some Romans must have liked the mixture.
When concinnare arrived in English in the 1530s, as concinnity, it took on only the last of these senses, a harmonious arrangement or fitting together of the different parts of something or a studied elegance of literary or artistic style. The word is now rare, though it may be found lurking in some unexpected places, ready to surprise the reader:
The decor was stylish to a point where it transcended style and entered the realms of perspicuous harmony, shunning grandiloquent ornamentation in favour of a visual concinnity, garnered from aesthetic principles, which combined the austerity of Bauhaus and ebullience of Burges into an eclectic mix before stripping them down to their fundamental essentials, to create an effect which was almost aphoristic, in that it could be experienced but never completely expressed. So there is no need to bother with a description. But trust me, it was sheer poetry.
Waiting for Godalming, by Robert Rankin, 2000.
Bold as brass Linda Hull mentioned that a Canadian wordsmith named Rex Murphy had been asked recently on CBC TV about his favourite word. He replied chalcenterous but wasn’t able to say more about it. Could I enlighten her? It’s hardly likely to be encountered by anybody other than a confirmed browser of really big dictionaries. Only a handful of appearances are on record since it was introduced to English in an article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1946. Chalcenterous literally means “brazen-gutted” or having “bowels of brass”, or in more conventional language “indefatigable”. It comes from Greek chalkos, either copper or brass, plus enteron, the intestines. The word was applied as a nickname to the first-century Greek grammarian Didymus, who became known as Didymus Chalcenterus because of his prodigious industry and vast output of books.
4. Questions and Answers: Dint
Q From John Branch: A search of your site shows four uses of the phrase by dint of but no entry on it. It seems to have become a fixed expression. Is there a good tale in the history of dint?
A I hope you’ll find it so.
Dint belongs to another of those sets of words that I wrote about last week, whose members are linked by shifts in an internal vowel. In this case, dint belongs with dent and dunt.
Dint is by far the oldest of the three, being recorded from the ninth century in Old English. The original meaning was of a blow, especially one with a weapon during warfare. The other spellings appeared in Middle English, largely as a result of dialectal or regional pronunciations; dunt was probably in part created by imitation of the dull sound of such a blow.
Dint and dent are both still around as alternatives. In more recent centuries, the main sense of both has been of a depression in a surface, perhaps one caused by a mishap. This is a natural enough shift in sense through the word coming to mean the result of a blow rather than the blow itself.
Another factor was the arrival in English of the verb indent. This is a quite separate word, from the Latin verb dentare, to furnish with teeth. The first sense of indent in English was to make a serrated tooth-like series of incisions. This led to indenture, whose name came from the practice of producing two copies of an agreement on a single sheet of parchment or paper and separating them by cutting along a jagged path; this made it obvious that the two halves were part of a single document (people would talk of a pair of indentures).
Under the influence of indent, the dint spelling progressively lost out to dent. In addition, the senses of dent and indent began to influence each other.
One result has been that the verb indent is a doublet, one member being from the Latin verb, the other from dent with the prefix in- attached. Because both involve making changes to the shape of something, the two verbs have become mixed up in people’s minds and are frequently thought of as different senses of the same verb. This is especially true of their compound indentation, which can mean tooth-shaped notches, recesses (as in a coastline or paragraphs of prose) and dents (or dints) in a surface.
Back to by dint of. In medieval times, dint came to mean not just a single blow but an attack or assault. As a result, Englishmen spoke of overcoming an enemy by dint of sword, that is, by force of arms. This eventually led to the phrase by dint of, meaning “by force of”. Over time this has weakened to mean little more than “by means of”, but it still often has associations with vigour or perseverance.
Apprenticed as a gardener, he rose through the ranks by dint of hard work, discretion, honesty and yet more hard work.
Guardian, 26 Mar. 2011.
These idioms became established long enough ago that they weren’t affected by the shift to the dent spelling.
• The Risks Digest on computer security of 17 July reported on an aircraft that had had to circle for hours over Las Vegas to use up surplus fuel: “Professional opinion also included the possibility that the passenger nausea was only to be expected in flying a tight holding pattern over hot dessert for three hours.”
• “I hope it was worth it!” e-mailed Bob Taxin, who had seen a report of a court martial in the San Francisco Chronicle of 21 July: “One of the other instructors charged in the case, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, pleaded guilty in June, admitting he had sex with a female trainee in exchange for a sentence of 90 days’ confinement.”
• “I spotted this little gem on the Canberra, All Homes real estate website,” wrote Pattie Tancred: “The master bedroom has a king size leather slay bed.”
• Meg Gagie found a report in the London Free Press of Ontario on 19 July of a crash involving a city bus and an SUV: “Four people were taken to hospital, including the bus driver, a passenger on the bus that is six-months pregnant and the driver and passenger of the Lexus”. “Is there anything cuter than a baby bus?”, she asks.