Sunday 29 March 2009

On not being last

A correspondent writes to ask: 'If there is a queue of 5 people, which person is second from last? person 3 or 4?'

If there's an uncertainty here, it must be because of a conflict between logic and language. I suppose logically it could be either, depending on how you 'see' the queue - whether the fifth person is included in the sequence or excluded from it. But linguistically, the weight of usage surely makes it person 4. Usual usage has such sequences as (in a race):

He came last
He came second last = second from the end
He came third last = third from the end

and so on. Note that we can't say:

He came first last.

The same point applies to second from last. There is no first from last, which we'd have to allow if person 3 was the interpretation.

On the other hand, there are two usages: second from last and second last. Is there a difference in meaning between these two?

We went to the beach on our second-last day.
We went to the beach on our second-from-last day.

The stress is on the second-last syllable.
The stress is on the second-from-last syllable.

For me, these are the same. The OED illustrates the first usage but not the second. Is there anyone out there who makes a distinction?

Monday 2 March 2009

On apologies

A correspondent writes to ask one of those annoying questions which I feel I should know the answer to, but then realize I don't, without a bit of research! Why do we say my apologies, in the plural?

The word apology has been around a long time. Shakespeare uses it half-a-dozen times, always with its sense of 'formal justification or explanation', and always in the singular. If Shakespearean characters want to apologise, in the modern sense of 'regret', they say such things as I cry you mercy. The OED has no examples of plural usage until quite modern times.

This suggests to me a pragmatic explanation, focussing on the 'century of manners'. The 18th century strikes me as being the time when people might have felt one apology wasn't enough, so they really went in for pluralizing it. The sense of 'regret' was strong by then, as can be seen several times in Boswell's Life of Johnson - 'Johnson walked away to dinner there, leaving me by myself without any apology; I wondered at this want of that facility of manners'. But there are no plurals in the Life.

An early instance of the plural use is in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726): 'at last he plainly invited me, though with some apologies, to be surgeon of the ship'. By the time Jane Austen was writing, at the end of the century, it was common, as this example from Pride and Prejudice illustrates: 'Her ladyship, with great condescension, arose to receive them; and as Mrs. Collins had settled it with her husband that the office of introduction should be hers, it was performed in a proper manner, without any of those apologies and thanks which he would have thought necessary'. By the time Dickens was writing, fifty years later, it was found with ironic uses too. Bleak House, for instance, shows both the regular use and the ironic one. 'With all apologies for intruding...', says Mr Bucket. And we are told that Mr Weevle 'who is a handy good-for-nothing kind of young fellow, borrows a needle and thread of Miss Flite and a hammer of his landlord and goes to work devising apologies for window-curtains, and knocking up apologies for shelves'.

So, I'm putting my money on the 18th century as the time when this usage became fashionable. I'd be interested to hear of anything earlier.

We keep upping the ante today, of course. A hundred apologies. A thousand apologies - the most popular usage, which has appeared as the title of a TV show, a music album, and more. Even a million apologies. And (especially since the economic crisis) a billion or trillion apologies.