Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 March 2013
On being ept and gainly

Recently I came across the word 'couth'; as in 'this place of beauty, calm and couth'. It was in a poem by the sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, who, like many a wordsmith, could cobble together a decent verse when he was of a mind to do so. But 'couth'?

We are all familiar with the opposite, 'uncouth' especially those of us who listen to politicians going on about the youth of today. And if 'uncouth' has a prefix which indicates the opposite of the quality which follows, then 'couth' should refer to someone genteel and sophisticated. As indeed it does, though the modern word is what etymologists call a 'back-formation'. A 'cuth' person in old Saxon was well-known, not refined. But someone 'uncuth' was a nobody, and therefore probably uncultured, boorish, and not worth knowing. So once 'uncouth' became established in the language, it became natural to re-define 'couth' as the opposite, and the original meaning of 'cuth' as 'known' dropped away.

This scrap of information leads us on to explore whole sets of what are known as 'upaired words'. That is, words which look as though they ought to have an opposite in English, but that opposite is either seldom used, or non-existent. For example can a disgruntled person ever become 'gruntled'? Well, no, because 'to gruntle' five hundred years ago was to utter a little snort of satisfaction. A disgruntled person was in no mood to do this, because circumstances had removed his urge to gruntle, not to be gruntled.

So unpaired words allow us to take a hapless, gormless person who is feckless, dishevelled, unkempt and unruly and create his antithesis - a hapful, gaumy person, who is feckful, shevelled, kempt and ruly. By a pleasing sort of symmetry 61-year-old politicians tend think of themselves as the latter type and of 16-year-olds as the former.
15 January 2013
Ladies and gentlemen, wers and wifs ....

Have you noticed that in language terms men and women have an identity crisis? A reminder of this hit me the other day when I came across an article by a feminist writer entitled 'Don't call me lady'. The term is apparently 'loaded with classist, sexist history.' Maybe so, but I remember a director of studies who was rebuked by a teacher for calling her mother a lady. 'She's a woman, not a lady!' The director of studies calmly replied 'Well, you know your own mother best.' The teacher's indignation at this response suggests at least a certain ambiguity.

Anyway the term 'woman' has issues as well, because it is believed to define women by their relationship with the male. This has led to some writers preferring the term 'womyn', a word which, apart from being an etymological monster, rather misses the point. The term 'woman' originally defined females by gender and species, which seems perfectly correct, politically and etymologically. It's the perception that needs changing, not the word.

'Woman' has very respectable origins, coming from the Old English 'wif' + 'man'. And 'man' in Old English was gender neutral, simply meaning 'a person'. So a 'Woman' was a 'female human being'. A male human being was a 'wer-man'. Dropping the 'wer' bit has caused all sorts of problems, and has led to the male linguistic identity crisis. 'Man' has a lot of ambiguity about it. When we read that 'man is an irrational creature', is the writer talking about males in particular, or humans in general? Where the gender wars spill over into language, we find 'businessman' being replaced by 'business-person' despite the fact that female executives are evidently human and part of mankind.

Some other languages get around the issue by adding a masculine or feline suffix as required, but these languages generally insist on making things like kitchen tables male or female as well. Personally I rather like the idea of adding a prefix, so we get a 'wif-businessman' or a 'wer-businessman' when its essential to define the gender, but leaving 'businessman' as gender neutral - as the term should be most of the time.
15 November 1012
What's the word for this year?

Apparently it's 'omnishambles'. That, at least, is the opinion of the Oxford University Press, which every year picks a word which best sums up the mood of the times (or 'Zeitgeist' which would have been a candidate if the OUP had been picking a word of the year back when Zeitgeist entered English in 1848). Of course, the OUP is not the only group which picks a word of the year. The American selection for 2012 is '.gif' which stands for 'graphics image format'. This suggests that our transatlantic cousins are sadly behind the times, as the cool web developers long ago replaced gif images with the superior png version.

Creating an 'omnishambles' - defined as 'a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations' - seems to be one of the few things that large government agencies are doing better these days, so it's worth looking at the word in more detail.

The first thing that will cause the purist to shudder gently is that the word is a Latin-German hybrid. There used to be a time when a new word was assembled from the bits of just one language, as with 'telephone'; where 'tele' and 'phone' both come from Greek (meaning 'distant-talk'). However, with the linguistic jumble of 'onishambles' it seems entirely appropriate that the word should be something of an omnishambles itself.

A shambles used to be a meat-market, with entrails and other tasty bits of animal insides spread out on vendor's benches for the delectation of the shopping public. In the late nineteenth century someone decided that this scene was literally a bloody mess, and so a 'shambles' has come to mean any kind of metaphorical mess,but preferably one that has been disorganized by an expert. The 'omni' part is a prefix which means 'every' and is most not used in modern speech with reference to a form of public transport. This is the 'omnibus' which means 'for everybody' and is universally abbreviated to 'bus'.

So an 'omnishambles' is something which is shambolic in every way, shape and direction, possibly extending even into unknown dimensions. Because the word of the year sums up the spirit of that particular year, there's no guarantee that the word will have staying power and make it into the dictionaries of the future. There is nothing more uncool than using out-of-date slang. But let's hope that omnishambles goes the distance. Can you think of a better word to use when complaining about conditions in the National Health Service?
15 September 2012
Said with meaning

There's a story that Winston Churchill was called to apologise for being rude to a fellow parliamentarian. His apology stated. 'It is said that I have called the honorable member a liar. It is true and I am sorry.'

The question is of course, whether Churchill was sorry that the parliamentarian was a liar, or that he was sorry for saying so. That's the joy of a well-crafted ambiguity. Another example comes from a writer who was asked by his publisher to produce 'praise' for another author's work. His carefully-phrased response was 'I cannot recommend this person's work too highly.'

In these cases the ambiguity is deliberate - if you have to say something you don't want to, then at least leave an alternative interpretation out there. I have myself been guilty of remarking that a student essay contained 'writing of a style I've never seen before'.

However, there's a lot more startling stuff to be found in accidental ambiguity. Apparently the website called 'Counseling California' was originally linked to 'Therapist finder' which had the decidedly ambiguous name of Then there was a home appliance company which urged customers to come to their stores 'for your electric aids'.

Then there is the weasel word 'with'. If you are fighting 'with' someone whose side are you on? Consider the headline 'Local government fights with doctors in health-care funding debate.' Is the fight between local government and the doctors, or is is local government and the doctors together against central government? Or the IT company that launched its new product line under the slogan'Competing with better products'. The word 'help' also can be confusing if it follows a word that is both a verb and an adjective. 'Financial help to poison specialists', and 'FBI to help corrupt police force' are two examples that come to mind from newspaper headlines.

Finally, returning to deliberate ambiguity, my attention was drawn to a few job references supplied by less-than-satisfied former employers.

'I urge you to waste no time in hiring this man'.
'I am pleased to say that he is an ex-employee of mine'.
'You would be fortunate to get this person working for you.'
10 July 2012
Take a letter

Native speakers are so familiar with the alphabet that we hardly give it a second thought, and are somewhat puzzled by the fact that it causes considerable difficulty to those who use other systems of writing. We shouldn't be puzzled at all. On closer examination, the English alphabet is as much a highly functional mess as the rest of the language, and for the same reason. Namely, that English is not the product of logical construction by linguists, but something that has been evolving - sometimes at high speed - and incorporating aspects of other languages for over a thousand years.

In fact our alphabet goes a lot further back than that. It was developed by Semitic peoples (probably in Egypt) adopted by the Greeks, and borrowed from the Greeks by the Etruscans who passed it to the Romans who gave it to us. Now because each of these peoples had sounds in their language which we do not have in modern English (such as the throaty 'gh' sound, as in for example, the Dutch 'hoogh' for 'high'), and because some letters once represented sounds we do make, many letters have changed shape and sound several times over the two dozen or more centuries they have been around.

As a result we have letters we do not need - for example the 'u' after 'q', which latter letter is pronounced 'qu' anyway. Come to that, we could get rid of 'q' altogether and substitute it with 'k' - 'kwik' and 'quick' have exactly the same sound; something many a commercial brand name has exploited. Whilst we are at it, we could throw 'c' overboard as well, and give its job to 'k' and 's' - konsider what would happen if we seased to use 'c'.

This brings us to another point. While we have unnecessary letters, in the alphabet, the alphabet is so short of letters that many letters have to do extra duty by being another sound as well. 'C' as a 'k' sound, and 'c' as an 's' sound is just one example. All vowels do an extra shift as a matter of course, each having a long and a short sound. Compare the long 'a' in 'mad' with the short 'a' in 'made'.

We have also dropped some useful letters such as the 'thorn', which looked like a stretched out S and was spoken as 'th'. These days when it is written the thorn looks like a 'Y' so deliberately quaint names such as 'Ye olde coffee shoppe' rather prosaically should be read aloud as 'The old coffee shop'.

Then there's the 'ph' that we perversely use for 'f' while a perfectly good letter symbol (a circle with a line through it) exists in other languages for the sound. I could go on (and on) but you get the point. There have been dozens of attempts to reform spelling over the years but only two look like sticking. One is the deliberate attempt by early Americans to create their own variety of English (e.g. 'plow' for 'plough') and the other - tho U mA h8 it - the txtspk of the younger generation.

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