Thursday, June 28, 2007

Three countries, three ways with words

I came across an article in The Times (London) from 1875 comparing the slang of France, England, and America. The main differences according to this article are that English slang is the most "forcible and obscure", American slang the most direct and appropriate, and French slang the most clever and witty. Is this still true today? Scroll down for an interesting read...

Favorite quote: "[In America] people have a disagreeable habit of shooting eachother out of their coat-tails pocket occasionally, and not unfrequently are discovered taking the morning air suspended from a convenient limb of a tree."



"There are only three nations who use slang to any great extent--viz., France, England, and America. Of these French is by far the wittiest, American the most appropriate, and English the most forcible and obscure. A Parisian gamin is, probably, in his way the most ready-witted person in the world, but his slang is so pointed that it would be entirely lost on an average Briton; even supposing that he understood French, he would be sure to miss the point. English slang is never witty, and in its more general sense is almost unintelligible to the uninitiated. American slang, on the other hand, is so palpable and clear that it can almost be called an art by itself, and a bulky volume might be written on it.

"Some American slang expressions are really admirable in their application. Take, for instance, that one of "You bet your bottom dollar on it." Why your bottom dollar? Any one who has been in a gambling hell in a mining district knows that the players invariably pile up the gold pieces one over the other, taking one or two off the top as they require the stake. When they get to the bottom coin of course it is their last chance. Nothing could be more applicable. Then, again, the expression "He died with his boots on," signifying that the gentleman in question did not die peacefully in his bed, but met with a violent and sudden end. Out West people have a disagreeable habit of shooting eachother out of their coat-tails pocket occasionally, and not unfrequently are discovered taking the morning air suspended from a convenient limb of a tree. Volumes could not say more.
"We have it rich." Old-timers washing and panning gold, Rockerville, Dakota. 1889. John C.H. Grabill.

"Take the slang phrase "pan out,"--such and such an event will not "pan out," signifying that it will not come to pass. We [Britons] commonly say "come off," but this expression is far inferior to the other. It is a mining term; when a miner wishes to know whether a claim is likely to pay or not, he takes up a shovelful of dirty and puts it in his prospecting pan, washing it all away till he gets a grain or two of gold at the bottom of the pan, if there is any in the dirt. In this case the claim is said to "pan out right." There is no wit or obscurity about it, but nothing could be more perfectly appropriate.

"But where English folk surpass all others is in literary slang, which has grown to such a pitch that it is scarcely possible to take up any modern novel, with few exceptions, without finding its pages disfigured by this detestable fault. If our language was poor this might be excusable, but when we have one of the most descriptive in the world to draw upon, it is unpardonable. Some use the heavy, pompous style, with such expressions as "outcome," "fearsome," &c.; if the heroine cries, she "gives vent to bursts of passionate, glorious emotion;" a tall, dark man is "stalwart and swarthy;" the hero never walks, but "strides," and has an awkward habit of occasionally biting his nether lip till the blood comes. Then there is the ballad style of slang--"Up and spake" Sir Somebody; some one is always doing something "right nobly;" and these writers seem to think that the more obsolete and outlandish their phrase the purer English they are, forgetting or ignoring the fact that a nation's language grows more or less with its manufactures and customs. Worse even than these are the mild, goody, finicking style of writers, who wish to appear so very innocent and childlike; they have not even a good repertoire, as their stock-in-trade is limited to about a dozen expressions, like "deftly," "winsome," "daintie." They generally put their adjectives after the substantives, and are certain to call a pretty girl a "layde fair;" and a fast horse, a "courser fleet."



The article continues with general grievances and complaints about slang used in art criticism, sports-writing, and in general. The author calls the use of slang "the surest test of weakness in a writer, as simplicity is the truest test of excellence." The full article can be viewed from this site.

Source: "Slang," The Times, Tuesday, Mar 30, 1875; pg. 11; Issue 28276; col B.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Equip my ship!" the skipper quipped.

My poor attempt at a tongue-twister is simply used to mention three words with a common origin.

While its ultimate etymology is unknown, the word ship comes to us from common Germanic words for "ship". To name a few: in Old English, scip; Old Frisian, skip or schip; Old Saxon & Norse, skip; Middle Low German, schip or schêp; Middle Dutch, sc(h)ip or sc(h)eep; etc. Skipper was adapted from the Middle Low German or Middle Dutch form.

The history of the word equip takes some more explaining. The French word in the sense "to equip" is not recorded before the 16th century, but the existence of similar, earlier words in Anglo-French (eskipeson, "equipment", 14th c.) and medieval Latin (eskipare, ésquipare, eschipare, "to man a vessel", 13th c.) indicates older usage, probably originating from the Old Norse skipa, "to man a vessel". John Baret's Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionarie of 1580 lists the intermediate esquippe, defined as "to furnish ships with all ablements."

As for the transformation from esq- to eq-, Francis Junius (Etymologicum Anglicanum) and others cite the habitual French absorption of the s, for example: scribere became écrire; and the French words for "strange" (étrange) and "state" (état).

On a side note: Over the centuries, the shipping lexicon has amassed a large number of terms, as is apparent in this diagram of warships from Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728):

  • various entries. Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
  • F. S. R. "Etymology Of 'Equip.'" Letters to the Editor. The Times Tuesday, Nov 24, 1863; pg. 5; Issue 24724; col D.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Burgoo, cushy, and other oojah

"Here! Just grab the oojah an' dash round to the tiddley-om-pom for some umpty-poo!" [Fetch a bucket of coke from the stores]. Punch, 24 Jan 1917.
I came across a nice old article from the The Washington Post (22 Jul 1917) in which an orderly from a British army hospital goes into detail about the frustrations with trying to understand the new slang used by soldiers (referred to as "Tommy Atkins") in the hospital, from rhyming slang to imitations of words picked up from Hindustani or other Indo-Persian languages.

Favorite quotation: "I fear that the rhyming slang fashion is all too deeply established : our recruits are carrying it far and wide, and its entry into the civilian language will be one of the least satisfactory souvenirs of Armageddon."

Ward Muir's Observations of an Orderly goes into much more detail and the history behind these terms and others, such as tank-wallah, blotto, and jammy.

Here is the Washington Post article reprinted in full:


War Brings New Lingo

British Soldiers Enjoy Slang as Hospital Pastime. -- Talk In Strange Metaphor -- Visit to Operating Room Known as "Going to the Pictures" -- Recruits From All Parts of World Add to New Language of Army Life in Europe.

London, July 21.-- An entirely new crop of slang has come into force in the British army during the past year. They have taken the place of "blighty" and the rest of the picturesque synonyms that were uppermost a year or so ago. A hospital orderly writes about them as follows:

"There is a brand of cheap cigarettes, popular in the army, known by the name of 'Singles to Woking.' The allusion enwrapped in this mild witticism is typical of the oblique mischievousness which characterizes the best of Tommy's slang. Tommy has a passion for what one might call the pseudo-grumble. He is a grouser who doesn't mean his grousing to be taken seriously.

Jokes of "Danger Last."

"Having served for two terms as an orderly in a war hospital, I may claim to speak with some assurance of that lovable, absurd, cheery malcontent - the British soldier. I have heard him crack jokes about a timber shortage, for instance. Can you guess why? Because he had found out that officially he was on what is known as the Danger List (and let me say that only a hero could crack jokes when in such a state as to be on the Danger List), and was voicing the charming theory that he might be 'bilked of a coffin.' That is our fearless and macabre Mr. Atkins all over. Another of his war hospital pleasantries is to announce that he is 'going to the pictures.' This is the regular phrase for the visit to the operating theater. And isn't it rather fine?

"But I wish Tommy would rid himself of his habit of using rhyming slang. It is a curse, this vast list of synonyms which, I can only surmise, originated somewhere far back in the thieves' latin of the tramp. Both the old army and the new are in the thraldom of the inane lingo. 'Chevvy chase' means 'face,' 'mince pie' means 'eye,' 'false alarm' means 'arm,' 'almond rocks' means 'socks,' 'daisy root' means 'boot.' I could (for my sins) continue the dismal catalogue down a column.

Calls Mask His Oojah.

"Heaven forbid that I should perpetuate such a monument of silliness; but, indeed, I fear that the rhyming slang fashion is all too deeply established : our recruits are carrying it far and wide, and its entry into the civilian language will be one of the least satisfactory souvenirs of Armageddon.

"At the hospitals, either in the wards or the recreation room, the collector of outré neologisms would have a happy hunting ground. 'Pass the oojah,' says the one-armed man who is playing billiards. What is the oojah? The oojah is any object in heaven or earth; it is the thing which has no name or the name of which you have temporarily forgotten. The one-armed man, about to make his stroke, requires the little twisted wire bridge, mounted on a lead pedestal, that forms the cue rest which--poor chap!--he ought to have formed with his lost hand. So he demands the oojah, which is army for what-d'ye-call-it. And his opponent, whose face is so disguised that he has had to be given a molded mask to cover part of it, dubs his mask his oojah.

"Oojah may come from the East, with 'cushy,' and 'blighty,' and 'bondook' (a rifle), and 'Sieda' (good morning), and 'burgoo' (porridge), and a host of other jolly synonyms. But where did 'click' and 'rumble' originate?

Coins New Verbs.

"To be rumbled is to be found out : you may be 'rumbled swinging the lead', which means that your shamming or shirking is detected. But if you apply for a 'soft job,' and obtain it, you have clicked. Again, you may 'spruce.' The verb 'to spruce' is obscure; but one may illustrate its employment by mentioning that if a war hospital convalescent who should be useful, washing dishes or cleaning knives for his ward sister vanishes with the design of evading these responsibilities, he is sprucing. In other words, he is 'doing a mike.' On his return, sister will doubtless 'tick him off,' or his comrades 'give him the bird.' Doubly will this be the case if he has been observed afar in colloquy with a 'pusher' (girl), and is suspected of 'chancing his mit' (spinning a far-fetched yarn) or telling 'a sob-story.'

Slang Is Catching.

"And as I go about my hospital duties in the midst of this babel of metaphor which has come not only from all over the British Isles, but from India and the colonies (to say nothing of 'na-poo' and the rest of the harvest from France) I wonder whether my native tongue will ever be the same again. For I have reeled beneath the assault of O. Henryisms in New York, and I remember with grim anticipation that America, too, has entered the war, and her troops are also to mingle not only their blood, but their bewildering idiom with ours. A formidable prospect, for there is no disease more catching than slang."


Source: The Washington Post. 22 Jul 1917. pg ES10.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A newt by any other name...

The coexistence of the indefinite articles a and an has been a lasting source of confusion in speech, inevitably leading to the creation of new words. Throughout history, these mixups have made their way into writing, thus allowing us to retroactively track their progress.

"a napron" led to "an apron" (1400-1600)

"a nadder" led to "an adder" (1300-1500)

"a nauger" led to "an auger" (1300-1500)

Almost simultaneously, the letter f was in some words undergoing a transformation that would lead it down many paths, from v to w to u, each with uncertain destinations. The Old English hafoc would sprout multiple forms in the 12th to 14th centuries, from hauek to havek to hauck, before ultimately settling on hauk in the 15th-17th centuries, leading to its present form, hawk.

A similar story occurred with the previously-mentioned auger, which in Old English was rendered as the compound nafu-gár - literally, "nave-borer", from nafu ‘nave’ (of a wheel) + gár piercer, borer, spear. The Old English -af- passed through -av- to -aw- and -au-. In combination with the dropped n through confusion of "a nauger" with "an auger", we have an example of two changes working together to evolve a word away from its original form. (Illustration: Study of a man with an auger, for The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, ca 1496)

This is even more true in the case of the Old English efeta. Over half a millennium, this ancient word would evolve into two different words with the same meaning - one quite similar to the Old English form, and one very different. As efeta underwent the ef- transformation into ev-, eu-, and ew-, some people were simultaneously mixing the spoken word with its preceding particle, an. Eventually, forms such as evete would shift back to the original usage of f in the modern word eft, but by then the word had also been corrupted into forms such as euete and ewt, which in combination with the indefinite particle an, led an ewt to become a newt.

Source: various entries. Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989. Retrieved 2007-06-22.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

OED legitimizes Islamofascism

Now that I have your attention...

No, the Oxford English Dictionary hasn't come out in favor of Islamic extremism; this is just an example of the new entries found in their latest update from June 14th. In addition to creating 140 new entries from primal scream (a form of psychotherapy used to release repressed feelings) to proteomics (a branch of molecular biology that studies the structure and function of proteins), they also added dozens of other entries from across the alphabet. Here are some interesting ones:

A. N. Other, a formulaic name dating back to 1884 used in place of a person's name.
"Would you deduce that he was Eustace, or the murderer, or A. N. Other?" -- Gladys Mitchell, The Croaking Raven (1966)

bangarang, a word used in and around Jamaica to mean either "rubbish" or "commotion; disturbance".

"I man cause ah fuss an' ah bangarang when I insisted dat Rastafari start from de civilisation of Egypt." -- Alex Wheatle, East of Acre Lane (2001)

chill pill, a slang term deriving from another slang term (chill v., to relax, take it easy), although they haven't yet figured out if it was originally used for any specific pill or drug.

prime time, not the TV time slot, but a phrase from the Christian Church, out of use for about 400 years, meaning, "the hour or time (in the early morning) of the daily office of prime." The oldest example given by the OED comes from a collection of Arthurian legends by Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471), possibly dating to before 1400:

"They pype vpe at pryme tyme, approches theme nere." -- Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur (1440)

Other familiar words in the latest update include flip-flopper, club-hopper, crufty, glitchy, scratch and sniff, and of course, flushable. And in case you didn't know, Internet is now a word.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Follow the shifting stress

Word of the day: orthoepist (awr-thoh-uh-pist), one who studies the pronunciation of words

My first post comes to you from the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, the compendium of knowledge about the written word. I was interested in the different stresses used in pronouncing the word remonstrate as compared to demonstrate or contemplate - both of these words used to be stressed on the second syllable (demonstrate, contemplate).

Apparently, this changeover is part of a recent (c. mid to late 19th century) trend for verbs ending -ate.

Some verbs have always been stressed on the third-to-last syllable (the antepenult), such as accelerate, animate, fascinate, machinate, or militate. However, verbs with more consonants in the second-to-last syllable (the penult) have retained their awkward stress till recently, such as alternate, compensate, concentrate, condensate, confiscate, demonstrate, illustrate, etc.

So, why does remonstrate refuse to give up its archaic pronunciation? OED suggests two supporting circumstances:

1. Although words such as demonstrate and consecrate have nouns of action (-ation) that help facilitate the changeover (the usage consecration/consecrate leads to demonstration/demonstrate) , the word remonstration has long been out of use.

2. The continued use of the word remonstrance, in the face of the loss of demonstrance and other -ance forms, has reinforced the earlier stress.

Source: "contemplate, v." Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989. Retrieved 2007-06-20.