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Newsletter 788
09 Jun 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Ferret.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Thimbles and thumbs.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Godwottery Following last week’s Weird Word, Steven Harris wrote, “This puts me in mind of yogsothery used by H P Lovecraft and his circle of friends to refer self-satirically to Lovecraft’s (and his friends’) use of invented names of monstrous deities, such as Yog-Sothoth. I don’t have my sources handy to give you a reference, and the web is of little use as the word has been appropriated by a Lovecraft-inspired music group. But I know it’s to be found among Lovecraft’s correspondence.”

Jane Halsey commented, “Godwottery sounds like what Josephine Tey meant by talking forsoothly, a criticism she levels at historical novels in The Daughter of Time.”

“Your explanation of the very irregular verb, wit,” Heather Liston wrote, “left out one example that is commonly known to many people, even if it’s not exactly modern. In the King James Version of the Bible, in Luke 2:49, when the parents of the twelve-year-old Jesus find him in the temple with the learned men, he says, ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ This often becomes an accidental homonym, with many people assuming Jesus means, ‘Don’t you wish me to ...?’ In fact, of course, the boy Jesus is asking, ‘Don’t you know this is what I have to do?’”

Redding the table Hugo Johnson and Ken Gibb pointed out that another sense of the word exists. The latter wrote, “You will be aware I’m sure of its existence in the noun redd, connected with areas prepared in stream gravel by salmon and other fish for breeding and egg laying.”

“My mother came from Lancashire,” commented Ian Colley, “and her expression for this was siding or side the table. Might this be connected in some way to sideboard? It was never used in any other context.” Nineteenth-century dialect glossaries say it was then more common in Yorkshire, though known in Lancashire and Cheshire. It often appears as side up and means tidying up or putting in order as well as clearing away dishes. There are analogies in old Dutch and German verbs that meant to set aside or stand aside. The English Dialect Dictionary also records sideation and sidement, the actions of siding-up; the person doing it was a sider-up, more generally someone with an orderly mind.

Omission An item in the Wordface section about the British press custom of banging out was accidentally left out of the HTML e-mail version last week. You will find it here.

2. Weird Words: Ferret

Paul McCann asked about this word. He had found a reference to green ferret in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House; it was one of a long list of items retailed by the legal stationer Mr Snagsby, together with “office-quills, pens, ink, India-rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers ... pocket-books, almanacs, diaries, and law lists; string boxes, rulers, inkstands glass and leaden pen-knives, scissors, bodkins, and other small office-cutlery”.

The second word has nothing to do with the animal but is a modified form of Italian fioretti, floss-silk, untwisted filaments of silk shed from silk cocoons during spinning. By the time of Dickens the material was more often made of cotton, woven into a stout tape.

Lawyers used a green-dyed version. In Dickens’s time, it was as much a symbol of the legal profession as red tape; the two were often mentioned together, though its purpose seems not always to have been clear to non-specialists. George Augustus Sala wrote in 1893 of a lawyer, “he has a bundle of papers in his hand, tied up with green ferret”. However, a correspondent to Notes and Queries in 1861 said firmly, “The only purpose for which green ferret is used is one to which, as old deeds show, red tape was formerly applied, namely, the attaching of seals to deeds engrossed on parchment”.

Perhaps the confusion developed because green ferret had by Sala’s time largely gone out of use. Frances Collins said of it in 1879:

“I was accustomed to keep it in my desk for tying up little parcels nicely for the post; but, alas, like many other old-fashioned things, it has degenerated, for the last time I asked for it at a stationer’s shop a common-looking, loosely made, cottony green tape was offered to me, instead of the strong, closely made ribbon of former times. So I content myself with red tape, and green ferret has dropped out of my little list of necessaries.”

3. Wordface

Sea peoples Wilf Nussey wrote, “In the latest monthly newsletter of Fine Music Radio, an excellent private broadcaster in Cape Town, the editor, Victoria Cawood, used a word completely new to me in her introduction. She stated that broadcasting improvements will ‘bring a robust signal down to the orarian listeners.’ Victoria said she learned it at her grandmother’s knee as meaning ‘close to the sea’.” Her grandmother must have been highly literate, since the word is vanishingly rare. It can indeed have that meaning, since it derives from Latin orarius, belonging to the coast. She might have been a botanist, since a few plants include versions of the Latin original in their scientific names, including Fontainea oraria, a critically endangered rare rainforest plant growing near the sea in Australia. She might have been an ethnographer, since Orarian was introduced in the 1860s by the American explorer William H Dall for the coastal natives of Alaska.

And again You may recall some time ago I mentioned sequences of sentences beginning with and. Last weekend, I came across polysyndetic, an extremely rare adjective derived from polysyndeton (Greek syndein, to bind together), the grammatical term for such constructions, or as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, the “use of several conjunctions or, more usually, the same conjunction several times, in swift succession”. The adjective appeared in a review of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novel Death of Kings, in reference to sentences such as this one, echoing an Old-English narrative style: “And there was blood in the leaf-mould and a choking sound and a body shaking beneath me and a dying man’s sword arm going limp as the spearman kicked his horse back towards me.”

No more It was an unfortunate conjunction of events, much noted in the British press, that in the same week as the celebrations of the Queen’s diamond jubilee the Queen’s English Society has decided to shut up shop through lack of interest. I can’t be sad about its demise, as I’d scarcely been aware of the Society’s activities, and the advice on its linked website, grandly called the Academy of Contemporary English, was prescriptivist, fussy and — despite its name and remit — out of touch with current usage. The linguist Geoff Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, has written its obituary, which is well worth reading.

4. Questions and Answers: Thimbles and thumbs

Q From Peter Hill, Canada: I had never before heard the term epenthesis that you used the other week, so I looked it up on my computer dictionary. It gave its definition as “the insertion of a sound or an unetymological letter within a word, eg, the b in thimble.” Why did it indicate that the b was introduced into this word? Thumb has a b in it, although it is silent, so it seems logical that a thumb covering should also possess one!

A Be careful. Arguing by analogy is a dangerous matter, especially when applied to etymology.

There are many unetymological letters to be found in English words, of which the best known is the b in debt, which was added to reflect the word’s source in the Latin debitum, something owed, even though the word is actually recorded from the Middle English period as dette. Another is doubt, in Middle English douten, ultimately from Latin dubitare, to waver in opinion, hesitate.

Usually we can blame eighteenth-century grammar pedants for such changes, but in this case not — both debt and doubt began to be spelled with that intrusive and unnecessary b in the sixteenth century. The first example of debt cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1548 Book of Common Prayer: “To declare his debtes, what he oweth.” It was the influence of Latin spelling that caused the changes, though as far as we know the bs were never pronounced.

Another common cause of epenthesis has been shifts in pronunciation that have led to changes in spelling. For example, thunder has an added d (the Old English was þunor (the þ is the old character thorn, pronounced the same as the th in modern thunder). Empty has an epenthetic p, since the Old English was æmtig. (Modern cases of intrusive p include dreamt and hamster, though these aren’t reflected in the way they’re spelled because our orthography has long since become fixed.)

In other English words an epenthetic b has been introduced after m. Often, the b was interpolated when the ending -le was added to a stem that ended in m (crumble from Old English cruma; other cases include bumble, bramble, fumble, jumble, mumble and nimble). Once established, in some cases the root word (crumb for example) came to be spelled the same way by analogy, even though the b wasn’t pronounced.

Something similar happened with thimble. This comes from Old English þýmel. It was derived from þúma, a thumb, by adding the -le suffix, which in this case marked the names of instruments. So a þýmel was a device one used on the þúma. All very sensible, but confusing to modern users, who generally put a thimble on a finger, not a thumb. The OED guesses that a leather thumb stall was the earliest form of thimble.

The first recorded uses of thumb and thimble don’t appear to support this move, since thumb is recorded first around 1300, about a century before thimble appeared. However, this may merely be an artefact of the records that happen to have come down to us. It would seem more likely from other examples that þýmel turned into thimble and thumb was afterwards respelled to match.

5. Sic!

• From the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Bronwyn Cozens communicated: “The Sunshine Valley Gazette printed a front-page banner headline ‘Living fossils open garden for a rare viewing’. I’m not sure if the gardeners appreciate this description as they display the ancient cycads.”

• Liz wrote in horror from Costa Rica on 1 June about a sentence in an article about the Queen in what she describes as “that bastion of language and culture”, the Guardian (a rare accolade): “the people she cannot bare to acknowledge or mention in public.”

• Flames of passion: from a small ad in the Stirling News of 1 June, submitted by Charles Goodall: “Small black Victorian reproductive fireplace and granite hearth.”

• It could have been better expressed. Bernard Robertson-Dunn read a Daily Mail article of 30 May about the declining British desire for marmalade. It said of maker Premier Foods, “It has launched a tie-up between Paddington Bear and a new sweet squeezy marmalade for children without any bits.”

• Ernie Scheuer found another oddly phrased — and widely reproduced — headline over a story from the Associated Press: “Wis. Man Accused of Starving Daughter Out of Jail”.

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