Wednesday 29 February 2012

On watching

A correspondent writes to say he has been hearing watch used with reference to new movies in the cinema, as in Have you watched The Artist? and I watched The Artist last week. He would use see in such a context and wonders what I think. For him, Have you watched The Artist could only mean 'Have you seen it on TV or on a DVD?'

The verb watch has always had a note of alertness in it, from its earliest uses in Old English meaning 'keep awake' or 'keep vigil': it is 'seeing + attention'. In its transitive uses, there's typically some notion of surveillance or vigilance, either physical or mental. A passive sense of 'seeing' isn't mentioned in the OED, but it's certainly there with such collocations as watch television and watch a DVD, where 'alertness' has broadened into some notion of 'closeness'. My correspondent uses as another example the contrast between I watched the birds at my bird feeder (where he observed them closely) and I saw the birds at my bird feeder (which suggests that he has stopped watching or that they are no longer there).

But the collocation watch + movies is a powerful one, hugely reinforced by sites which ask us to watch movies online (32 million hits for this phrase in Google). And it's a very short step from I'm going to watch something on TV to I'm going to watch something at the cinema. So I'm not surprised to see this usage gaining ground. There are hundreds of online examples like these:

Last night my wife and I watched The Artist....
I watched The Artist about a month ago...
I'm going to watch The Artist tonight...

It's not my usage - yet. I still say see, like my correspondent. But I think it's only a matter of time...

Friday 24 February 2012

On reciting

A correspondent writes to ask 'Why is it that we 'play' at a recital, and 'recite' in a play?' This is one of those nice juxtapositions which makes me love English so much. It seems perverse until you look carefully at the history of the two words, and then you find it isn't as crazy as it seems.

Play is one of the oldest verbs in the language. It turns up in Old English in several senses, including the musical sense of playing an instrument and the dramatic sense of a theatrical performance, and these usages have developed in parallel ever since. Nothing special to note here.

Recite is the interesting one. It's found in English from the 1430s, and originally was restricted to written or spoken language activity. Someone was said to recite poems, words, speeches, and suchlike. And the result of this action was a recital - though people have never felt entirely comfortable with this noun. Several other nouns have been used for the action of reciting, such as a recite, a reciting, a recitation, and a recitement. Nouns for the person doing the reciting have varied too: the OED has examples of recitant, reciter, recitationist, and recitator. And even the verb produced a variant: to recitate, with examples of usage still occasionally found today.

But towards the end of the 15th century we see a natural development in the direction of music, when the verb is used to describe the chanting or intoning of a religious text, such as a psalm. The first recorded usage, in Caxton's Mirror of the World (1481), illustrates a new contrast between 'saying' and 'reciting': 'The Orysons that ben sayd and recyted euery day in the chirches.' This is the link to the modern musical sense of recital, though it took some time to emerge - not until the mid 18th century, in fact, when we encounter the word referring to a performance of a single piece of music, or a selection from a single composer, by a soloist or small group of musicians. Other terms developed too, notably recitative (first recorded usage, 1654) for a style of musical declamation intermediate between singing and speech, as heard in the narrative sections of an opera or oratorio.

As a result of this, recital is now ambiguous. 'I'm going to a recital' could be either poetry or music. At the end of the 19th century, there was an apparent attempt to keep the two senses apart. We encounter 'recitalist' for someone who gives a recital of music or dance, with reciter continuing to be used for speech. The distinction never caught on, though such usages as 'concert recitalist' are attested into the present century. However, what makes this development especially interesting is that the musical sense developed only in the noun. The verb sense stayed with speech. Musicians don't recite; only poets (etc) do.