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Newsletter 762
12 November 2011


1. Weird Words: Siccity.

2. Wordface.

3. Questions and Answers: Wrack or rack?

4. Sic!

1. Weird Words: Siccity/ˈsɪkɪtɪ/ Help with IPA

If a weather forecaster were to predict a period of siccity, his audience would be unlikely to understand that he meant a drought was on its way. This ancient word for a state of extreme dryness has long ago been abandoned by English speakers.

That might be because it’s odd-looking, made odder by its being said with a k in the middle (not as sissity) and that people have preferred the native English dryness. A century ago, it was already marked as “probably obsolete” in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. But it has never been popular. Eighteen-century chemists might have referred to evaporating a liquid to siccity, to dryness, geographers might have described an area as characterised by extreme siccity when they meant it was a desert, learned men might make a little joke about the siccity of a sermon, but otherwise it had small use and limited circulation. When this item appeared in Scotland a century and a half ago it must even then have seemed curiously old-fashioned and obscure:

The siccity of the weather is already so marked that a scarcity of water is beginning to be felt.

The Dundee Courier & Argus, 27 May 1865.

Siccity comes from Latin siccus, dry. A browse through the OED shows that we’ve lost more than one word from this source. Who now speaks or writes of something being siccaneous, or of siccating something, that is, making it dry? In a specialist arena, the noun siccative remains in use for a substance that’s added to a liquid such as paint to promote its drying. However, we do retain desiccate and its relatives from the same source.

By the way, the mainly American verb sic, to attack or provoke into attacking (“He sicced his dog on them”) is quite separate in origin, being a variation on seek. And sic, in the sense in which I use it in the title of one of these sections, is the Latin word “thus”.

2. Wordface

Nay! I was intrigued to come across neighsayer in a book review recently. There are lots of examples in newspapers but they’re almost always dreadful sub-editorial headline puns on some horse-related controversy. Not in every case, however. A minority — like the one I spotted — show their writers have lost the etymological plot. Naysayer, for a person who denies or opposes some matter or who is often negative in his views, comes from the ancient nay, one of two words of negation, the other being no. Which you used depended on the way in which the question was put to you. If it was framed affirmatively but you wanted to deny its truth, you used nay, much as we might today respond with “definitely not” or “on the contrary”. If it was framed in the negative and you agreed with it, you used no. This agrees with its origin from ne aye, not yes. The reverse used yea and yes. Confusingly, yea was the simple term of agreement, while yes was the equivalent of nay, meaning “it is so”. So somebody who asked you “Is he an honest man?” needed the reply “nay” if you thought that, on the contrary, he was a crook but “yea” if you agreed that he was indeed trustworthy. If the query was framed in reverse, “Is he a dishonest man?”, the answers would be either “no” or “yes”. We have long ago lost this extended system, though it survives in other languages, such as the French si, which like oui means “yes”, but emphatically contradicts a question posed in negative form. Nay survives in Scotland and northern England as an alternative to no. (The adverb nay in the sense of “moreover” — “He grips my hand in public, nay brandishes it” — is archaic or humorous.) But the verb naysay (similar in sense to gainsay, which was discussed here last month) and noun naysayer have survived. We must hope they continue to be spelled like that and avoid those equine implications.

3. Questions and Answers: Wrack or rack?

Q From Scott Underwood: Recently I had a discussion about rack your brains and wrack your brains. The spelling seems to depend on whether one thinks the phrase derives from the rack, the medieval torture device, or from a variant of wreak or wreck, to destroy. I side with the former, though I realize I have no evidence. And it seems wrack and ruin has a similar confusion. I’ve been painfully stretching my brains over this question. Help!

A These expressions certainly cause confusion. Some style guides, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage, argue that the correct forms are rack one’s brains and wrack and ruin. The current edition of Fowler says equally positively that, at least in British English, rack is correct in both cases. Etymologists know that the various forms of rack and wrack (and wreak and wreck) have become inextricably confused down the centuries and have identified so many historical examples of wrack one’s brains and rack and ruin that to insist on one over the other is etymologically insupportable. Dr Robert Burchfield, editor of the current Fowler, comments that “nine homonymous nouns and seven homonymous verbs” exist and despairingly adds “All the complexities of this exceedingly complicated word cannot be set down here; spare an hour (at least) to consult a large dictionary, especially the OED”. I can tell you from experience that doing so can leave you even more confused.

Let’s start by finding you the evidence that you lack for rack your brains, an idiom that has been known with wit and memory instead of brains. The earliest example known is in this poem:

Care for the world to do thy bodie right;
Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.

Care For Thy Soule, by William Byrd, in his Medius of 1583, republished in Select poetry ... of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, by Edward Farr, 1845.

Rack as a verb derives from the Middle English noun for a frame on which materials were stretched for drying, so similar in sense and application to a tenter. The modern sense of rack retains this spelling. A century before William Byrd was writing, the noun had shifted to mean the torture frame and more generally something that causes physical or mental suffering. The verb appeared about the same time, initially in senses that were associated with the stretching of cloth. By the middle of the next century it had extended to mean being racked with the pain of an illness, to twisting the meaning of words, and extorting money by outrageously increasing the amount demanded.

These historical sources might lead us to argue for rack one’s brain. However, by the seventeenth century, wrack was already being used; indeed, my non-scientific investigations suggest that it was more common than rack. Both are used today, with wrack more usual in the US and rack in Britain.

In your other expression, often spelled wrack and ruin, wrack is from a different source, Old English wrecan, to drive. In early usage, it meant vengeance or revenge; by the fifteenth century, it had taken on the idea of damage, disaster, or severe injury caused by violence. It is linked to wreak, as in to wreak havoc, and wreck, in the ship sense. (Wrack for seaweed is also a member of the set, as is the sense of high, fast-moving cloud, thought to be torn by the wind.)

The earliest example of wrack and ruin in the OED is dated 1659, but confusion between the spellings wrack and rack had already begun, because the form rack and ruin is known from a document of 1599 quoted in Thomas Fowler’s History of Corpus Christi College.

If you’re not totally confused by now, you surely should be. The best that I can do is to quote from another guide, which gives the standard US advice:

Probably the most sensible attitude would be to ignore the etymologies of rack and wrack (which, of course, is exactly what most people do) and regard them simply as spelling variants of one word. If you choose to toe the line drawn by the commentators, however, you will want to write nerve-racking, rack one’s brains, storm-wracked, and for good measure wrack and ruin. Then you will have nothing to worry about being criticized for — except, of course, for using too many clichés.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994.

4. Sic!

• An award in the MTV Europe Music Awards reported in the Guardian last Monday might be disputed by many. “While Lady Gaga won the most awards, it was Justin Bieber who caused the biggest commotion. The 17-year-old won best pop act and best male.”

• “I’d like to see them take it away!” Colin Hall remarked, having read the What’s News section of the Wall Street Journal dated 2 November: “The president-elect of Kyrgyzstan said the U.S. should leave its air base there when the lease expires in 2014”.

• “Not the best way to get more customers,” commented Len Blomstrand about a news report on BBC News Wales on 7 November, “A climbing wall is built in a swimming pool that was recently threatened with closure to try to attract more visitors.”

• “Headline of the week!” announced Howard Sinberg, in reference to one over a story dated 9 November on the website of WDSU in New Orleans: “Unmarried Couples Find Divorce Difficult.”

• A caption to a photo of Ben Elton on the Telegraph website was sent in by Frank Trumper: “Unfortunately, his efforts to make it on Australian TV have not been particularly unsuccessful.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 12 November 2011

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 12 November 2011.