June 12, 2015

"You can’t have my surname and not be grateful for the blunt, good words that come from Old English..."

"... but I confess a personal predilection for words of Latin origin, with the arch distance they offer from the realm of ordinary speech, and their secret etymological histories, which seem to me to bestow a peculiar romance upon the craft of writing. I cannot say the word 'procrastinate'—a useful word for a writer—without hearing embedded therein 'cras,' the Latin word for 'tomorrow,' which, St. Augustine noted, sounded like the croaking cry of the dilatory raven that was sent from the ark and never came back."

Writes Rebecca Mead in a New Yorker piece titled "Writers Choose Their Favorite Words."

39 comments:

rhhardin said...

Good writing courses recommend avoiding Latin-derived words.

Try it in your next interoffice memo.

Expat(ish) said...

Five years of Latin and all I got was the ability to translate state motto's.

Esse quam videre, as they say.

-XC

tim in vermont said...

I find writing as heavily latinate as that piece cloying. I want to clean my ears after reading it. If, as Twain said, the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening, this article seems more to exist in a chill fog.

Here's a word I always liked: "Hogshead," because no amount of learning Latin and Greek roots for words will lead you to its meaning. Twain is a great source for many like words.

Henry said...

Blake Morrison, who grew up in Yorkshire, notes the variety of words his landsmen once had for “fool”: bizzumhead, dunderknowle, hauvey-gauvey, ragabash, and fustilugs.

I can identify with this one. I've found "knucklehead" to be a useful word. For example, when family camping.

tim in vermont said...

Funny how "blootered" doesn't seem to need a translation. It's like a natural born word that came out of the first utterer's mouth completely formed with meaning clear to all hearers.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

[A] little like asking a bunch of chefs to describe their preferred knives, or inviting a group of carpenters to talk about the merits of different saws . . .

Punctuation, then, if you want to be cavillous about it.

traditionalguy said...

Neanderthal is making its way back after years of being presumed to mean dumb as a caveman.

What is dumb about cave living anyway? Can it be any worse than being abandoned and raised by a wolf mother?

Helenhightops said...

>>When Winston Churchill declaimed, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender,” he knew how those mostly Old English words would fall on the ears of his listeners.<<

On iTunes you can get wonderful podcasts from Stuart Lee from the Oxford English department, lecturing the freshman in the basics of OE. When he gives the students that sentence, he says,"EVERY word in that sentence is from Old English - except one. Does anyone know the one borrowed word?" "Surrender?" "Yep! That's from the French!" You can hear the lecture hall explode in laughter.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/medieval-english/id498982426?mt=10

Fernandinande said...

Most people's favorite words are:
the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I, it, for, not

chickelit said...

@helenhightops at 1:13:

LOL! Thanks for that!

Fernandinande said...

Eric the Fruit Bat said...
Punctuation, then, if you want to be cavillous about it.


No need to get all testis about it.

St. George said...

As usual, Stanley Kubrick gets the last word in Eyes Wide Shut when Nicole Kidman says....."$#%!!...

Quaestor said...

Now this is the kind of article the Nooyawkah should publish, a friendly challenge to the intellect instead of an insult.

When Winston Churchill declaimed, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender,” he knew how those mostly Old English words would fall on the ears of his listeners.

So very true. That "Jew-Ridden half-American" knew how write and how to speak, a rare gift these days, I think. Street is an interesting word. It is of course Old English in origin, i.e. Germanic, with an obvious cognate in die Straße. In this country a street is a minor thoroughfare, we don't expect a street to lead from one city to another. However, when the Anglo-Saxons first came to Britannia in the early 6th century they designated the longest paved highway in the land, a Roman construction leading from Dover on the Channel to the mouth of the River Dee in North Wales, a street, specifically Watling Street. And there were others, Ermine Street (London to York) Dere Street (York to the Firth of Forth), Stane Street (London to Chichester) and Akeman Street (London to Bath). By our reckoning these should all have been called roads. However, in its original sense in Anglo-Saxon time the word that became our road meant a wide path leading from a farmstead to the market, i.e. something to drive cattle on.

This old sense of roads as being subordinate to streets is still seen in England today. Urban thoroughfares are seldom called streets. Roads abound everywhere, and many of them just dead-end in council estates, and there are avenues, but streets are rare. Just the reverse is the case in North America. Roads lead from town to town. Streets are where people live.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

There are many great American words, like mirandize, jello, cooties, brownstone, and ballpark (both senses).

Quaestor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Quaestor said...

Since Althouse used her birds tag I shall assume that's an invitation to discuss the words we use for birds and bird-like matters. Bird is itself Old English, though occasionally it is spelt Brid, which may betoken a regional dialect or a Medieval typo. The farmyard birds are all Old English -- Goose (Gos), Duck (Duccan, a verb meaning to duck or plunge, so ducks are called ducks because they duck.) and Chicken (Ćicen, which pronounced exactly like our modern word.)

The birds of the field, that is the eatable ones, the Grouse, the Partridge, the Pigeon, are all Norman French for obvious reasons. They all probably had Anlgo-Saxon names as well, but these are either lost or confined to quaint dialects. Hawk is Old English (Heafoc), but Falcon is French, which reflects the social boundaries of Medieval England -- a yeoman could own and fly a hawk at rabbits and hares, but only the Norman nobility could hunt with falcons. The little dickie birds, the ones too small to be of any notice to a proudly mounted noble, the thrushes, the robins, the sparrows and warblers, all have names from Old or Middle English. The Herons, perhaps because of their impressive size, get their generic name from French. The odd exception is Swan, which, along with its obvious cognate der Schwan, is anciently Germanic. By law and tradition all swans in England belong to the monarch, so the only place a roast swan could be served was on the king's table. That a bird so exclusively associated with royalty would retain its Anglo-Saxon name is surprising.

chickelit said...

Did Quaestor say "Dickie Bird"?

mccullough said...

Those who like the words of Old English origin prefer Chaucer to the Latin lover Milton. Thankfully the Norman invasion added to the English vocabulary.

tim in vermont said...

I loved Chaucer when I was familiar enough with Old English, and it was fresh enough in my mind, to just read it. Far preferred him to Shakespeare, except for the Sonnets.

I can't read him anymore, because all of that Old English has fallen away from disuse.

tim in vermont said...

I was hoping Queastor had a blog...

Terry said...

My last name is Swabian in origin. The meaning of the surname is "a person who lives on a dead-end road that goes into the mountains". And all in three syllables!
The Swabian dialect is supposed to be very different from standard German. From the wikipedia:


n 2009, Muggeseggele (a Swabian idiom), literally referring to the scrotum of a male housefly, was elected in a readers survey by Stuttgarter Nachrichten, the largest newspaper in Stuttgart as the most beautiful Swabian word, with a large lead on any other expression.

mccullough said...

A lot of the Chaucer vocabulary was derived from Latin and French, as well as the "English" words. So the author of this essay might be Chaucerian.

Milton's syntax and grammar tried to be more Latin, where Chaucer's grammar and syntax is pretty recognizable "English" to us nowadays.

Chaucer is considered "Middle English" because he transitioned from the written Old English (which was more Latinate) to what we have today. I dig Shakespeare. But without Chaucer there would be no Shakespeare. Without Milton, the English language would be fine, probably even better.

Quaestor said...

Actually, I wrote "dickie bird." When Quaestor says "dickie bird" brave men quail, even the quail quail. The ducks just duck.

clint said...

Earlier today I discovered a wonderful page by the woman who rendered H.P. Lovecrafts complete works into electronic format. She lists his favorite obscure words and their frequency: http://arkhamarchivist.com/wordcount-lovecraft-favorite-words/

In among the hideous gibbering antiquarian spectres, hides 'gambrel' -- an obscure word with no obvious relevance to cyclopean tentacular horrors.


On a less charitable note, I do wonder how someone who writes sentences like: "In English-speaking cultures, and in both written and spoken English, shifting between a more formal Latinate lexicon and the more down-to-earth Old English words can be immensely effective, if in a way that is largely undetectable to the casual listener." ever got a job as a professional writer, much less at a magazine like the New Yorker that used to pride itself on the quality of the writing.

There's some wonderful writing in the piece -- when she bothers to quote other writers at length.

And... I see you can click through a link early in her piece and actually read those in their entirety at the Guardian. Some of those are quite well written.

Quaestor said...

Gambrel? I think that word is vaguely familiar... It's not a verb, or an adjective, it's a noun... Aha! (I sat on my pipe!) It's a bent piece or iron used in butchery to hang carcasses on. And it's mid-16th century, so it's not that "antiquarian."

(OS X is so nice)

chickelit said...

@Quaestor: LOL! That's a great "mouth breathing" sound FX!

Deja Voodoo said...

Quaestor
Street is an interesting word. It is of course Old English in origin, i.e. Germanic
Middle English strete, from Old English strǣt, from Late Latin strata paved road, from Latin, feminine of stratus, past participle — more at stratum
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/street

Quaestor said...

Another obscure word that Lovecraft loved was ichor which is what the Olympian gods had in their veins instead of mortal blood. In its original sense ichor wasn't disgusting; it was the essence of eternal youth and vigor. (One may remember that great Ray Harryhausen film,Jason and the Argonauts, which featured an attack on the Argo by the bronze giant Talos. Jason kills Talos by opening a valve in his heel, allowing the ichor to drain out.) Lovecraft used it in the sense that Paracelsus gave it, an unnatural humor that always betokens sickness and moribundity. It's mostly gone from from everybody's speech, except for the valley girl derivative -- ICKY!

Quaestor said...

@ Deja Voodoo
That's really interesting. It seems that "street" is itself s borrow word from Latin. Since the German cognate is so similar it stands to reason that the word entered the Germanic tongues before the Anglo-Saxons colonized Britannia. This makes sense considering that the Germans had contact with the Romans for centuries before England was established. Hmmmm... so a street is a paved road, this also makes sense because those Roman roads the Anglo-Saxons called "streets" were all superbly paved.

Quaestor said...

@ chicklit
The breathing effect (à la Darth Vader) didn't work out quite the way I wanted. I've got a scuba respirator around here somewhere. I may try a re-edit using that sound.

tim in vermont said...

Gambrel? I think that word is vaguely familiar

Ooh Oooh! Mr Kotterre! A gambrel is a a style of house. Very common around here. Shaped like a barn. It's still very much in common use, if not in its original sense.

Henry said...

Here is something I highlighted from The Tain, a translation by Thomas Kinsella:

The meaning of the word ‘griúin’ is not certain. It can mean hedgehog or gryphon.

That could be pretty damn important for the guy in the story.

Terry said...

From the late 14th century Piers Ploughman:
And alle his werkes he wroughte with love as hym liste,
And lered it Moyses for the leveste thyng and moost lik to hevene,
And also the plante of pees, moost precious of vertues :
For hevene myghte nat holden it, so was it hevy of hymself,
Til it hadde of the erthe eten his fille.
And whan it hadde of this fold flessh and blood taken,
Was nevere leef upon lynde lighter therafter.

Very difficult to translate accurately, though getting the sense of it isn't too difficult. The topic is the Incarnation.
"plante" is used in the sense of foundation, or grounding. "Pees" refers to peace. "Myghte" means "power", not strength. "Lynde" refers to the linden tree. "This fold" is purposeful reference to a place where sheep and lambs are kept.

Quaestor said...

I've done a slight re-edit of my audio reply to checklist's tease.
Darth Quaestor's here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and he's all outa gum.

Quaestor said...

Checklist... I typed chickelit, but auto-correct intervened (as usual) and substituted "checklist"

NotquiteunBuckley said...

I prefer Mickie's to Old English, but frankly I quit drinking malt liquor some time ago.

And vodka.

Looking up "quail" used as a verb, I say a link to this:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/09/guns-are-killing-the-republican-party.html?source=dictionary

It is from January 2013, and screams the GOP had best damn quail from the 2nd amendment or face irrelevancy.

The subtitle is "A Republican operative warns that the party needs to answer its addiction to firearms or face irrelevance." So, we know this isn't just bullshit outing the author as a fool of firstly rate then rank.

"Mark McKinnon has served as principal media adviser for hundreds of campaigns for candidates, companies, and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, and Bono, and has helped to engineer five successful presidential primary and general elections. McKinnon is a cofounder of No Labels, a non-profit organization dedicated to bipartisanship, civil discourse, and problem solving in politics. And he is Texas co-chair of the Freedom to Marry Campaign. Mark McKinnon is Media Guy."

Go get him Walker!! He can take your money and tell you to further regulate firearms to save the lives of innocent children!

My God why hasn't anyone else ever thought of this? Are they all just quailing bastards?

Screw it, I stand with Perry.

NotquiteunBuckley said...

A gambrel is nice (save on gutter expenses including installation and maintenance) but it ain't http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/hip-gambrel+roof

NotquiteunBuckley said...

From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/quail:

"Examples from the web for quail Expand
Oddly, Cheney would only manage to shoot a friend while quail hunting and, apparently, on the booze a bit too much.

A Tale of Two Vice Presidents Lawrence Wilkerson May 30, 2009
Deer, dove, and quail hunting is a right of passage in the Lone Star state.

Guns Are Killing The Republican Party Mark McKinnon January 8, 2013
Despite the lessons of the last four years, the banking sector in the U.K. is still too big to quail, let alone fail.

Barclays, NatWest, LIBOR: Britain’s ‘Perfect Storm’ of Scandal Peter Jukes July 2, 2012"

Three examples, all from the Daily Beast. Are they the only ones who use the term "quail" since 2009? Or is something else, maybe behind the curtains as they say, going on here? It just seems like a big gosh darn coincidence to me...

kcom said...

The Daily Beast spends a lot of time hawking that crap. Is crap old English? Chicken shits.