Wednesday 12 December 2012

On giving advices

A correspondent writes to ask whether he can write advices instead of pieces of advice in a report.

Advice is certainly one of those uncountable nouns that's developing a renewed countable use in present-day English, along with researches, informations, and the like. What surprises people is to realise just how long-standing the countable usage is. In the case of advice, the OED has citations dating from the 15th century. ‘Getting good advices’ appears in one of William Caxton’s translations (1481). We are not talking downmarket usage here. The Duchess of Newcastle in 1664 talks about being ‘attentive to good advices’. And here’s Gibbon in 1796: ‘These are so many advices which it is easy to give, but difficult to follow.’

The examples continue right down to the present day, but the 18th century saw a shift away from the countable use when prescriptive writers took against it, preferring a partitive expression (such as piece of advice) - and also against other such nouns, such as information, which also had a long history of countable use (with citations from the 15th to the 18th century). Advices fell out of use in standard English, accordingly, but retained its identity in regional speech. The OED has some modern quotations, but they are all Caribbean and South Asian.

What seems to be happening is that the original instinct to use advice and the other words in both countable and uncountable ways is reasserting itself. People who have not been influenced by a prescriptive mindset in school are most likely to use it – which mainly means the millions learning English as a foreign language. Often the countable usage is reinforced by an analogous countability in a mother-tongue (as with informations in French). But it would be wrong to see the renewed plural use as solely an L2 phenomenon, as it is present in regional dialects, both national and (as the OED recognizes) international. I suspect it will become a standard usage again one day. In the case of informations there are signs of this already happening, in that the legal profession continues to use the plural form routinely in various special contexts. But advices isn’t standard yet, so in formal writing I would say stick with the partitive form for the time being.

Sunday 9 December 2012

On forgiving

A correspondent writes from the US to ask whether I've encountered the expression ‘a forgiving recipe’. He heard it recently, looked it up in dictionaries, and couldn’t find it. ‘Is it an Americanism?’, he asks.

No, it isn’t. Nigella’s website, for instance, talks about ‘the most forgiving recipe for banana cake ever’, and there are plenty of other examples from both sides of the Atlantic. I don’t know how long it’s been around, though, and it would be interesting to track down an earliest citation. I asked two cooks in my family whether they knew the expression and neither did, so my feeling is that it’s a fairly recent usage.

I’m not surprised that it receives no separate mention in a dictionary, as dictionaries don’t provide a systematic guide to the collocations that belong to a particular meaning. And in the general sense of ‘easy’, ‘safe’, ‘comfortable’, forgiving has been used in a wide range of inanimate contexts – workplaces, enterprises, timetables, climates, surfaces, lights, clothing, and many other nouns have all been described in this way. Quite a common collocation is with piece: a forgiving piece of clothing / machinery / meat... So, as long as a dictionary illustrates from some of these, the broad sense will be covered.

A forgiving recipe, it seems, is one which does not require exact measurements, where some ingredients can be substituted without the result being affected, or where a cook can get it wrong and it still turns out OK. I'd have thought that, in the context of cooking, this usage has moved away sufficiently from the general sense to warrant its appearance as a separate dictionary sub-entry. A couple of dictionaries are already taking notice of it, and I don't think it'll be long before we see it in all of them.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

On a new Babel

As the situation caused by my family illness is slowly resolving (successfully), I am dipping my toe into the academic water again, albeit tentatively. But not without first thanking those of you who sent me messages of concern, which I very much appreciated.

The motivation for this first post comes from a new publishing venture, which I’m delighted to see emerge. Way back in the 1970s, I tried to persuade various publishing houses to launch a full-colour illustrated language magazine, to meet what I felt was a rapidly growing popular interest in the subject. On the analogy of History Today, I wanted it to be called Language Today, and approached Longman publishers accordingly. They were mildly interested, but the idea never took off. Cambridge University Press, on the other hand, were interested, but in a more focused notion, which eventually appeared as English Today, with Tom McArthur as founding editor. A couple of other short-lived attempts to produce a popular language mag followed, such as Language International. But for some time now there has been nothing ‘out there’.

And now, at last, there is: Babel, an initiative from linguists at the University of Huddersfield, and its first issue, which has just become available, is doing what I always hoped such a magazine would do. I wish it well.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

On 'at all', at all?

A correspondent thinks he hears at all used ‘at the end of every question one is asked nowadays’. He comments: ‘I reckon it is the bad habit of always trying to lengthen the question when posed by people with little confidence. Recently I was asked in the baker's if I wanted my bread sliced "at all?" It was all I could do to refrain from replying "oh, about half-way through, please".’

I haven’t heard it as much as he seems to have, I must say. But I do recognize the usage, especially where I live, in Holyhead, where a lot of Irish people live, and many more pass through the port. It’s long been a usage in Irish English - and also in the Caribbean - where it’s heard in statements as well as questions:

An Irish example: ‘It’s the greatest fun at all.’ (i.e. it’s wholly the greatest fun)
An American example: ‘Use one statement at all.’ (i.e. only one statement)

OED has citations of this use from 1375.

The usage in negative constructions also has a similarly long history, as in no problem at all and he can’t dance at all, where it means ‘to any degree’. These have entered standard English. And the same point applies to the earliest interrogative use, where the phrase has a range of meanings, such as ‘in any way’ or ‘for any reason’. First citation here is 1566.

Did you go there at all?
Why should people care about football at all?

The usage which my correspondent has noticed developed out of this. Here the phrase is used to modify the question, and has the sense of ‘in any event’ or ‘indeed’. From a pragmatic point of view, we might gloss it as ‘may I ask? or ‘would you say?’. It softens the force of the question. It might have something to do with lack of confidence, as my correspondent thinks, but more likely it will be functioning as a politeness marker. Here are some OED examples (the first one is from James Joyce, in Dubliners):

Is he a priest at all?
Can we see him at all?

And - to my mind the most fascinating one of all - the reduplicated usage:

How is he, at all at all?

I take this to be a selection of two of the range of meanings expressed by the form, for emphasis: ‘How is he indeed, may I ask?’. I think I’ve even heard it used three times, but I can’t remember where.

I don’t know if the usage is increasing among people who don’t have an Irish or Caribbean background, but I wouldn’t be surprised, given the popularity of TV series in which Irish speech has been prominent, such as Father Ted.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

On Fifty Shades of Grey, or is it Gray?

The correspondents corresponded with vitality yesterday. A 5-minute interview with Jim Naughtie on the Today programme on Radio 4 about my new book, Spell It Out: the Singular Story of English Spelling, led later in the day to an extraordinary outpouring, almost confessional at times, from listeners about their problems with spelling. And this started at 7.20 in the morning. Whoever would have thought it?

As the day wore on, the pace increased. Lunchtime saw another interview, 10 minutes (I was told) on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2. It became nearly half an hour, as the volume of texts, emails, and phone calls caused the editors to keep the item going. Only the 1 o’clock news stopped it.

And then BBC News Online, wanting a comment about the new abbreviation Ebacc (for English baccalaureate). I do deal with the spelling of abbreviations in the book, though this one is too new to get a mention. The reporter wanted to know what I thought about the reaction that the abbreviation sounds like a disease. I’m not surprised. New abbreviations inevitably echo their ancestors. For ‘e’, there are three chief echoes: e-coli, e-mail, and e-numbers. The first is fairly negative; the second fairly positive; and the third (for Europe) mixed. But as bac is already an abbreviation for bacillus, that’s the one most likely to come to mind. The association won’t last for long. Familiarity with abbreviations soon breeds content, and in a few months time, I predict, the medical associations will have been forgotten.

But, back to Spell it Out, which during the day crept up the Amazon charts. By the evening it was Number 4 in the best-selling list, ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey and its friends, and just behind Gordon Ramsay. Maybe I should have called the book Fifty Shades of Grey, or is it Gray?: the Singular Story of English Spelling.

Spelling competing with cooking and sex. I say again, whoever would have thought it?

Monday 17 September 2012

On tickling ivories

A Northern Irish correspondent writes to say that he had recently been to the USA to visit a friend from his home country, and heard him use the phrase tickle the ivories [i.e. informally play the piano]; my correspondent had only ever heard tinkle the ivories. They found both on the Internet but no explanation of why there is a difference. Is there a British / American factor here, for instance?

The origins of the phrase lie in the verb tinkle, which developed a transitive and causative use quite early: ‘to make something tinkle’. OED has some excellent examples from the 16th and early 17th centuries of instruments tickling: ‘Many drums were beaten and basons tinckled about them’, for example. And then in 1817 we find this lovely specimen from a familiar name: ‘She was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet’. Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey.

At around the same time, the piano keys were beginning to be called ivory. John Keats is the first citation in the OED: ‘She plays the Music without one sensation but the feel of the ivory at her fingers’. A plural usage probably came soon after, but the first OED citation is not until 1918, ‘the black and white ivories’.

Meanwhile, a transitive use of tickle was also developing – at more or less the same time as tinkle - meaning ‘to touch an instrument lightly, especially one with strings. Thomas Nashe is the first recorded user here: ‘to tickle a citterne’ in 1589. The usage continues - strings are tickled, a guitar is tickled - until we get to the early 20th century, when we find ‘tickling the typewriter keys’ (1926) and then (1930) ‘tickle the ivories’. The Times in 1962 has an interesting comment: ‘Ivory-tickling’ has become an outmoded and faintly derogatory description of piano-playing.’

So, tinkling came first, and tickling later. But there’s no suggestion of any transatlantic difference in the citations. On the contrary, both usages have solid histories in the UK, and I suspect the tickle one has had a great deal of usage in Cockney speech. My feeling is that this is no more than a parallel development where the phonaesthetic similarity – just a little bit of nasality before the /k/ - has made the two verbs seem interchangeable. But tickle the ivories is about three times as common as tinkle the ivories. Probably the ‘faintly derogatory’ sense of tickle has made it a less palatable expression over time.

Thursday 16 August 2012

On pronouncing Shakespeare (the name)

A correspondent has written to the Shakespeare's Words website to ask how the name of Shakespeare would have been pronounced at the time.

This is a tricky one, as proper names often don’t follow the general spelling/pronunciation rules of the language - think of Cholmondley pronounced 'chumley', for instance! And there are many variations of the spelling of Shakespeare's name. According to David Kathman, who collated them all, we have the following:

Non-literary references (1564-1616)

Shakespeare 71
Shakespere 27
Shakespear 16
Shakspeare 13
Shackspeare 12
Shakspere 8
Shackespeare 7
Shackspere 6
Shackespere 5
Shaxspere 3
Shexpere 2
Shakspe~ 2
Shaxpere 1
Shagspere 1
Shaksper 1
Shaxpeare 1
Shaxper 1
Shake-speare 1
Shakespe 1
Shakp 1

Literary references (1593-1616

Shakespeare 119
Shake-speare 21
Shakspeare 10
Shaxberd 4
Shakespere 4
Shakespear 3
Shak-speare 2
Shakspear 2
Shakspere 1
Shaksper 1
Schaksp. 1
Shakespheare 1
Shakespe 1
Shakspe 1

For the first syllable, there are clearly two types, with an -e and without an -e, and this is an important difference, as the presence or absence of an -e was one of the signals of the contrast between a long and a short preceding vowel (you can read more on the spelling background in my new book Spell It Out).

The Shakespeare spelling is overwhelmingly the predominant one. Shake rhymes with make, take, and quake in the canon, which clearly suggests a long vowel, and this would in original pronunciation be a mid-open front vowel, approximating to a long version of the modern vowel we hear in RP pet. On the other hand, the Shak, Shack, Shax series clearly suggests a short front vowel, as in RP back today. How to reconcile the difference? There are many spelling variations which suggest that the OP short vowel of back was higher at the front of the mouth than it is in RP today, closer to the short /e/ of bet: we see, for example, acts written as ectes, and there are several other instances. There are also many rhymes which show that the short /a/ vowel must have been close to short /e/, such as back rhyming with neck in Venus and Adonis.

If we start with Shake, this would have had a long /e/ vowel, but - as with all long vowels - it would sometimes be pronounced rapidly, and be heard as a short vowel, and spelled accordingly. If we start with Shak, this would have had a short /e/ vowel, but - as with all short vowels - it would sometimes be pronounced slowly, and be heard as a long vowel, and spelled accordingly. Either way, we end up with the same result - a vowel sound which is roughly what we hear in share in RP. (Phonetic symbols don't always come across easily in blogs, but the relevant symbol for this vowel is the mid-open front one - /ɛ/) There's also the option that a Warwickshire regional pronunciation would have affected the length, but there's no firm evidence about that.

For the second syllable, the main point to note is that the /r/ would have been pronounced at the end. All sources agree on that. As for the vowel, the spellings suggest a long vowel, as in spear. But when we look at spear (and similar words) we find it could rhyme with there (in Lucrece and Venus, for instance) and similar-sounding words, and it this which doubtless motivated such spellings as -pere, -berd, and so on in the name. The vowel may also have had a shortened and centralised form, being in an unstressed syllable. So it would have been roughly what we would hear today in (long) spare or (short) spur.

In short: I would say the evidence points to something like /shɛ:kspɛ:r/, with /shɛksper/ or /shɛkspur/ as more rapidly said alternatives.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

On skelingtons

A correspondent writes to ask about a usage he has spotted in Dickens: Noah Claypole’s millingtary for military, and wonders whether there are any other such uses of ing for the vowel. He mentions a children’s use of skelington for skeleton. Are there any others?

I know about skelington: it’s definitely a regional dialect feature. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has examples of it across the country, from Yorkshire to Dorset. It’s spelled variously, such as skelenton and skillenton. Thomas Hardy uses the latter in Tess, for example, and there are two instances recorded in the OED, under atomy and know, and three examples in Wiktionary.

The Cockney use is the most famous one, and there are several stories about it, such as this one, from an online bio:

‘In a biology lesson we were shown a human skeleton and when asked by the mistress if anyone knew what it was called I shoved my hand up with some, later regretted, haste and stated quite clearly to the whole class that it was a ‘skellington’! The class erupted into paroxysms of giggling, much whispering behind hands, pitying glances and I went scarlet with embarrassment. I had no idea what I had said to get this reaction because I heard what people said, I didn’t judge them on how they said it. The mistress scathingly repeated what I had said and joined the pupils in mocking my accent.’

Or this poetic extract:

A muvver was barfin 'er biby one night,

The youngest of ten and a tiny young mite,

The muvver was poor and the biby was thin,

Only a skelington covered in skin.

Dickens has millingtary a second time - by the hairdresser in Master Humphry’s Clock (Chapter 5) – so it’s not just an idiosyncrasy of Claypole. And it turns up in several regional dialects too, on both sides of the Atlantic. Horatio Alger, for example, uses it in Randy of the River; so does R M Ballantyne in In the Track of the Troops. If you're searching, remember that there are spelling variations here too; the word often appears with a single l.

I can’t think offhand of other textual examples of an ing substitution for a short i. Has anyone come across them?

Sunday 17 June 2012


A journalist writes to ask for my view about the recently announced demise of the Queen's English Society (QES).

I'm happy to see it go - both personally (for I was regularly attacked in the pages of its magazine for my linguistic views) and professionally (for we are no longer living in an age which accepts that a few self-appointed individuals can impose their personal linguistic tastes on everyone else). The QES claimed to be an organization that cared about standards, but its own usage - as seen for example on its website - was poor even by those standards. The letter which announced their demise contained several errors of grammar and punctuation, including the omission of commas and even of a sentence-final period! Geoff Pullum has done some excellent analysis of their grammatical infelicities here so I won't go any further into that.

I think people began to lose faith in the QES when it became apparent that much of what they were claiming was simply fantasy. They would assert, for example, that linguists like me say 'anything goes' and don't care about standards. This was simply a travesty. No linguist has ever said 'anything goes'. On the contrary, the whole basis of linguistics is to establish the rules governing language, and to define such notions as appropriateness in language variation. All linguists care about standards. All linguists care about clarity and precision. What linguists object to is the attempt by individuals to impose artificial and unauthentic rules on everyone - the kind that were repeatedly asserted in the pages of the QES magazine, and of course immediately disputed by its membership, who could never agree on such matters as whether it was right or wrong to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with 'and', and suchlike.

At its best, the QES performed a useful service, drawing attention to genuine instances of careless usage, ambiguity, and so on in the public domain. At its worst it showed a horrific intolerance of language diversity which at times bordered on racism. I'm remembering now an article in the Winter 2007 issue of their magazine, Quest. This is what was written:

'The vast variety of earthly languages is indeed an almost unmitigated curse. The fewer languages the better, and the world will be a far better place when everyone speaks the same language - or perhaps I had better be frank and say when everyone speaks English (and it will come). I think Crystal once said languages are dying at the rate of one a fortnight. If so, that's the best news I've heard in a long time, and long may it continue!'

This is the kind of extremism that gave the QES a bad name, and made some of its members uncomfortable. It ties in, of course, with its regular condemnation of non-standard usage in regional dialects. The periodical's back cover maintained that the views expressed in its pages were not necessarily those of the editor or of the Society - but in that case, we could delete 'not necessarily', as in the previous issue of Quest the editor himself had expressed the same opinions in a book review (which is what motivated the letter-writer). Talking about the views I represent on linguistic diversity, he asks 'do we really need it?' [diversity], and answers his own question with 'quite the contrary', and he goes on to say: 'when a language dies, what really is lost? Surely something is in fact gained if the speaker decides to drop, say, Karas and adopts English instead?' The ignorance of the expressive richness of other languages was truly breathtaking, but that was only to be expected from someone who affirmed 'the superior quality of the content of the English language'.

I think people got fed up with seeing endless personal opinions about what was thought to be bad usage (only rarely would we be given examples of good usage). The same tired issues surfaced over and over - most of which had been part of the prescriptive tradition of complaint for well over a century. The membership too must have sensed that it had passed its sell-by date, for they evidently didn't even care enough to stand for committee office - which is why the current committee decided to call it a day.

I'm glad it's gone. It means those of us who really care about usage will be able to get on with our job without being continually distracted by issues that are beside the point, as far as standards are concerned. The notion of clarity, for example, does indeed need explication - but clarity has very little to do with the kinds of topic that the QES focused upon. Rather, it requires reference to features of syntax (such as the way sentence weight operates) which would never be mentioned in the pages of the QES magazine. And there are many aspects of the way English is evolving which do require a properly informed public discussion, such as the character of the emerging 'new Englishes' around the world, the status of English as a global lingua franca, and the forms and functions of English on the Internet. This is the world we're living in, but it is not one that the QES seemed to like very much. It was time for it to go.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

On language in Dickens 3: names

The third theme in my talk on Dickens at the Hay Festival was the way he uses puns and sound symbolism in naming characters. It’s a familiar point, immediately recognized in Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby; the schoolteacher McChoakumchild in Hard Times; the ‘very fervid, impassioned speaker' in Bleak House, Mr Gusher; the journalist Mr Slurk in Pickwick Papers; and in Our Mutual Friend, the ‘innocent piece of dinner-furniture’ and ‘feeble soul’ Twemlow – the most famous use of ‘tw’ beginning a proper name before Twitter.

Dickens worked at his names: he tried out Martin Sweezleden, Sweezleback, Sweezlewag, Chuzzletoe, Chuzzleboy, Chubblewig, and Chuzzlewig, before ending up with Martin Chuzzlewit.

His distinctive names often occur in clusters: in Sketches of Young Couples, we are asked:

if we happened to be acquainted 
with the Dowager Lady Snorflerer. On our replying in the negative,
 he presumed we had often met Lord Slang, or beyond all doubt, that
 we were on intimate terms with Sir Chipkins Glogwog.

He often comments on his names. In David Copperfield, David appoints a housekeeper:

Her name was Paragon. Her nature was represented to us, when we engaged her, as being feebly expressed in her name.

In Bleak House, Caddy remarks:

Young Mr Turveydrop’s name is Prince. I wish it wasn’t, because it sounds like a dog.

In Our Mutual Friend:

a youth waited in the hall who gave
 the name of Sloppy. The footman who communicated this 
intelligence made a decent pause before uttering the name, to 
express that it was forced on his reluctance by the youth in 
question, and that if the youth had had the good sense and good 
taste to inherit some other name it would have spared the feelings
of him the bearer.

In Dombey and Son, Mr Dombey can't imagine a wet-nurse with a name like Toodle and insists on calling her Richards:

an ordinary name and convenient.

Dickens loved names ending in ‘-oodle’. In Bleak House, Lord Boodle reflects on the possibility that the government should be overthrown:

the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new Ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle — supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces … because you can’t provide for Noodle!

Dickens not only finds politicians to be figures of fun, but also – judging by their names - professors. This is evident in Mudfog and Other Sketches from the names of those who attended the first meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything:

Professors Snore, Doze, Wheezy, Nogo, Muff and Queerspeck.

Lawyers too. In Our Mutual Friend, Mortimer Lightwood's clerk

was apt to consider it personally disgraceful to
 himself that his master had no clients.

Mr Boffin arrives at Lighttwood’s office:

Narrator: the office door was opened by the dismal boy, whose 
appropriate name was Blight. Young Blight made a great show of fetching 
from his desk a long thin manuscript volume with a brown paper 
cover, and running his finger down the day's appointments,
Blight: Mr Aggs, Mr Baggs, Mr Caggs, Mr Daggs, Mr
 Faggs, Mr Gaggs, Mr Boffin. Yes, sir; quite right. You are a little
 before your time, sir. Mr Lightwood will be in directly. … I'll take the opportunity, if you please, of entering
 your name in our Callers' Book for the day.
Narrator: Young Blight made
 another great show of changing the volume, taking up a pen,
 sucking it, dipping it, and running over previous entries before he 
Blight: Mr Alley, Mr Balley, Mr Calley, Mr Dalley, Mr
 Falley, Mr Galley, Mr Halley, Mr Lalley, Mr Malley. And Mr

Those alphabetical sequences turn up in other places too. In Oliver Twist, the beadle Mr Bumble talks to Mrs Mann:

Bumble: The child that was half-baptized, Oliver Twist, is nine year old to-day.
Mrs Mann: Bless him!
Bumble: And notwithstanding a offered reward of ten pound, which was afterwards increased to twenty pound. Notwithstanding the most superlative, and, I may say, supernat'ral exertions on the part of this parish, we have never been able to discover who is his father, or what was his mother's settlement, name, or con-dition.
Mrs Mann: How comes he to have any name at all, then?
Bumble: I inwented it.
Mrs Mann: You, Mr. Bumble!
Bumble: I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. The last was a S,- Swubble, I named him. This was a T,- Twist, I named him. The next one as comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.
Mrs Mann: Why, you're quite a literary character, sir!

I give the last word to Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby, describing Squeers, but note the generalization. ‘He is an odd-looking man… so was Doctor Johnson; all these bookworms are.’ He’s talking about me – and [to the Hay audience, but doubtless also many readers of this blog] you.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

On language in Dickens 2: characters

The second theme of my talk at this year’s Hay Festival was the way Dickens often uses linguistic features as a means of character description, or refers to language in the narrative. The examples below are in some cases adapted from the novels, to suit the dialogue style used in the talk (there were two of us on stage: myself and Hilary Crystal).

Dickens paints amazing visual portraits; but I’ve been struck by how often he refers to the voice, as in these instances:

In Our Mutual Friend, Bradley Headstone:

Grinding his words slowly out, as though they came from a rusty mill.

In Nicholas Nickleby, Ralph Nickleby:

If an iron door could be supposed to quarrel with its hinges, and to
 make a firm resolution to open with slow obstinacy, and grind them
 to powder in the process, it would emit a pleasanter sound in so
 doing, than did these words in the rough and bitter voice in which 
they were uttered by Ralph.

In Bleak House, Sir Leicester Dedlock:

His voice was rich and mellow; and he had so long been thoroughly persuaded of the weight and import to mankind of any word he said, that his words really had come to sound as if there were something in them.

This sounds like Conversation Kenge in Bleak House. Esther is the narrator:

He appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice. I couldn’t wonder at that, for it was mellow and full and gave great importance to every word he uttered. He listened to himself with obvious satisfaction, and sometimes gently beat time to his own music with his head, or rounded a sentence with his hand.

I especially admire Dickens’s linguistic metaphors. Mrs Pardiggle in Bleak House:

She was a formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room. Always speaking in the same demonstrative, loud, hard tone, so that her voice impressed my fancy as if it had a set of spectacles on too.

The land agent Mr Scadder in Martin Chuzzlewit:

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

Technical linguistic topics are often used. Grammar defines Mrs Merdle in Little Dorrit, who has told her husband by letter that sonething needed to be done:

In the grammar of Mrs Merdle's 
verbs on this momentous subject, there was only one mood, the 
Imperative; and that Mood had only one Tense, the Present. Mrs 
Merdle's verbs were so pressingly presented to Mr Merdle to 
conjugate, that his sluggish blood and his long coat-cuffs became 
quite agitated.

Dickens seems to have hated grammar classes, judging by the way he regularly satirizes it. Mr Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit:

Mr Pecksniff’s manner was so bland, and he nodded his head so soothingly, and showed in everything such an affable sense of his own excellence, that anybody would have been … comforted by the mere voice and presence of such a man; and though he had merely said ‘a verb must agree with its nominative case in number and person, my good friend’ … must have felt deeply grateful to him for his humanity and wisdom.

Mr Squeers makes a complete hash of grammar in Nicholas Nickleby:

Peg: Is that you?
Squeers: Ah, it’s me, and me’s the first person singular, nominative case, agreeing with the verb it’s, and governed by Squeers understood, as a acorn, a hour; but when the h is sounded, the a only is to be used, as a and, a art, a ighway. At least, if it isn't, you don't know any better. And if it is, I’ve done it accidentally.

Dictionaries, and the words they contain, receive attention too:

Squeers, describing the death of one of the boys: A candle in his bed-room on the very night he died – the best dictionary sent up for him to lay his head upon!

Squeers has a very practical view of language:

We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of the book, he goes and does it.

The locus classicus for words is in Little Dorrit: the Circumlocution Office, which Dickens describes as ‘the most important Department under Government’. Mr Clennam visits Mr Tite Barncacle:

Clennam: The name of Mr Tite Barnacle has been mentioned to me
 as representing some highly influential interest among his 
creditors. Am I correctly informed?
Narrator: It being one of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, 
on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer, Mr
 Barnacle said, ‘Possibly’.

Dickens didn't like politicians much. He says in an essay:

Our honourable friend is triumphantly returned to serve in the next Parliament. He is the honourable member for Verbosity – the best represented place in England.

Pronunciation too is a character feature. Mrs General, on having heard Amy address Mr Dorrit as ‘Father’:

Papa is a preferable mode of address. Father is rather vulgar, my dear. The word Papa, besides, gives a pretty form to the lips. Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism are all very good words for the lips: especially prunes and prism. You will find it serviceable, in the formation of a demeanour, if you sometimes say to yourself in company – on entering a room, for instance – Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism, prunes and prism.

His characters have views about languages too. In Little Dorrit, Mr Meagles:

Narrator: never by any accident acquired any knowledge whatever of the language of any country in which he travelled.
Meagles: Anything short of speaking the language I shall be delighted to undertake.
Narrator: With an unspoken confidence that the English tongue was somehow the mother tongue of the whole world, only the people were too stupid to know it, Mr Meagles harangued innkeepers in the most voluble manner, entered into loud explanations of the most complicated sort, and utterly renounced replies in the native language of the respondents, on the ground that they were
Meagles: all bosh.

Then there’s Mr Lillyvick the tax collector in Nicholas Nickleby, having a conversation with Nicholas:

Lillyvick: What sort of language do you consider French, sir?

Nicholas: How do you mean?
Lillyvick: Do you consider it a good language, sir? A pretty language, a sensible language?
Nicholas: A pretty language, certainly; and as it has a name for everything, and admits of elegant conversation about everything, I presume it to be a sensible one.
Lillyvick [doubtfully]: I don't know. Do you call it a cheerful language, now?
Nicholas: Yes. I should say it was, certainly.
Lillyvick: It’s very much changed since my time, then. Very much. … What’s the water in French, sir?
Nicholas: L’eau.
Lillyvick (mournfully): Ah! I thought as much. Lo, eh? I don’t think anything of that language - nothing at all.

These are some of my favourites. There are of course lots of other examples, many of which are contained in the anthology Words on Words: Quotations about Language and Languages which Hilary and I compiled in 2000 (Penguin/Chicago) – and which I hope to make available online in due course (as it’s out of print). In the meantime, if readers of this blog have their own favourites, I’ll be happy to report them in the Comments section.

Monday 11 June 2012

On first recorded usages in Dickens

A correspondent writes, having heard my talk on the language of Dickens at this week’s Hay Festival, to ask if it is to be published. No. My Hay talks – I’ve been doing them for about fifteen years now - are always very informal, and they don’t ‘translate’ well into published prose. (Hay does sometimes make recordings of events available in their Archive .) But a blog post is the perfect medium to enable the data of the talk to be made available, so this and the subsequent two posts will do just that.

For my first theme, I talked about the lexical items which have their first recorded use in Dickens, as established by the OED. I wasn’t sure what to expect, when I began my search. I thought perhaps 50 or so. In fact, there are an amazing 252. I presented a small sample in the talk, but here is the complete list. They are a mixture of genuine Dickensian linguistic creations and items which reflect the world in which he lived, and the language he heard in the streets around him, and where he is simply the first person we know to have written them down. Of course, it’s always possible that further lexicological survey will find earlier instances, but this is how things stand at the moment. I’ve given them a very rough-and-ready classification, and paraphrased the entries as they appear in the OED, giving glosses for the less transparent items. The dates and locators are as used by the OED. I haven’t checked the examples for typographical accuracy, so there may be the occasional transcriptional error.

I was asked which surprised me most: I think it was probably Guinness, though I'm sure it's only a matter of time before earlier instances are found, given that the brew had been around for quite some time; failing that, dustbin. And I was asked for my favourite: I don't usually have favourites, but I love the noun use of unsoaped (see below) most of all.

Nouns turned into verbs

allowance, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxxiv. 323, I have made up my mind‥. to allowance him.‥

apron, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, II. iii. iv. 25, I mean to apron it and towel it.

beeswax, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 17, The table-covers are never taken off, except when the leaves are turpentined and beeswaxed.

cab, 1835, Letters, ?29 Oct, Worth your while to walk or Cab so far East.

charcoal, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxxvii. 364, Because she wouldn't shut herself up in an air-tight three-pair-of stairs and charcoal herself to death.

corkscrew, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxiv. 380, Mr. Bantam corkscrewed his way through the crowd.

counter, furnish with a counter, 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit, xxvii. 324, The offices were‥. newly countered.

flannel, 1834, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 189, The second-floor front was scrubbed, and washed, and flannelled.

manslaughter, 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit, iv. 46, Those who hooked and crooked themselves into this family by getting on the blind side of some of its members before marriage, and manslaughtering them afterwards by crowing over them to that strong pitch that they were glad to die.

mantrap, 1851, Mr Nightingale’s Diary, i. 82, Which the blessed innocent has been invaygled of, and man-trapped—leastways boy-trapped.

mother-in-law, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xiv. 443, I will not‥. submit to be mother-in-lawed by Mrs. General.

mustard-poultice, 1858, Letters, 18 Aug, I got home at ½ past 10, and mustard-poulticed and barley-watered myself, tremendously.

nutcracker, 1861, Great Expectations, xxiii, Are infants to be nutcrackered into their tombs?

odd-job, 1859, Tale of Two Cities, iii. ix. 206, A gentleman like yourself wot I've had the honour of odd jobbing till I'm grey at it.

oh, 1837, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 241, All of them talking, laughing, lounging, coughing, o-ing, questioning, or groaning.

patroness, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, I. ii. xiv. 297, Why am I to be Patroned and Patronessed as if the Patrons and Patronesses treated me?

polka, 1846, Letters, 5 July, The common people waltzed and polka'd, without cessation, to the music of a band.

pompey, 1860, Great Expectations, vii, When I was old enough, I was to be apprenticed to Joe, and until I could assume that dignity I was not to be what Mrs. Joe called ‘Pompeyed’, or (as I render it) pampered.

rough-dry, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xvii. 173, The process of being washed in the night air, and rough-dried in a close closet.

ruler, 1849, David Copperfield, vii. 66, I think he was caned every day that half-year, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler'd on both hands.

turpentine, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 17, The table-covers are never taken off, except when the leaves are turpentined and beeswaxed.

water-cart, 1851, Our Watering Place in Household Words, 2 Aug. 433/1, The great metropolis is‥so much more water-carted‥than it usually is.

whoosh, 1856, Letters, VIII. 162, The boys‥.whooshing, and crying, (after Tigerish Cat No. 2) ‘French! Here she comes!’

There are a few other examples below.

Verb turned into a noun

sell, act of betraying, 1838, Oliver Twist, II. xxvi. 100, I say,‥. what a time this would be for a sell!

Words created with suffixes

admonitorial, 1848, Dombey and Son, li. 511, Miss Tox‥.in her instruction of the Toodle family, has acquired an admonitorial tone.

apronless, bibless, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, II. iii. iv. 27, Bibless and apronless.

bandiness, being bandy-legged, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, i. xxxvi. 298, If‥. any moral twist or bandiness could be found, Miss Sally Brass's nurse was alone to blame.

beadlehood, 1838, Oliver Twist, I. xvii. 273, Mr. Bumble‥. was in the full bloom and pride of beadleism. [Later edd. read ‘beadledom,’ and ‘beadlehood.’]

beamer, one who beams, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xxxii. 603, The form of words which that benevolent beamer generally employed‥.

boredom, 1853, Bleak House, xxviii. 277, [Her] chronic malady of boredom.

cannibalic, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxviii. 294, The fat youth gave a semi-cannibalic leer at Mr. Weller.

cellarous, like a cellar, 1856, Little Dorrit, i. xx. 173, He‥. crept forth by some underground way which emitted a cellarous smell.

cheesiness, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, ii. l. 75, ‘How's the cream of clerkship, eh?’ ‘Why, rather sour, Sir.‥ Beginning to border upon cheesiness, in fact.’

coachfulness/coachlessness, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 1 Aug. 540/2, The Dolphin's Head, which everywhere expressed past coachfulness and present coachlessness.

complexionless, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 12 Sept. 64/2 , Four male personages‥. complexionless and eyebrowless.

conductorial, of a conductor, 1853, Letters, 17 Nov, Keep ‘Household Words’ imaginative! is the solemn and continual Conductorial Injunction.

confusingly, 1863, Letters, 17 May, He feels the school to be confusingly large for him.

connubiality, characteristic of marriage, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xx. 207, ‘Think, Sir!’ replied Mr. Weller; ‘why, I think he's the wictim o' connubiality’.

conspiratorial, 1856, Little Dorrit, i. xxv. 221, To unite [glasses] in a general conspiratorial clink.

consularity, consulship, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xv. 458, The British Consul hadn't had such a marriage in the whole of his Consularity.

convulsing, 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit, ix. 113, Gander, in a convulsing speech, gives them the health of Bailey junior.

copying, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 198, Low copying-clerks in attorneys' offices.

dissective, of dissecting, 1860, Letters, 7 Jan, The three people who write the narratives in these proofs, have a dissective property in common.

distributionist, one who advocates a system of distribution, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 76, The distributionists trembled, for their popularity was at stake.

divulgence, 1851, Our School in Household Words, 11 Oct. 51/2, The Chief ‘knew something bad of him’, and on pain of divulgence enforced Phil to be his bondsman.

drabbish, 1842, American Notes, II. ii. 56, Dressed in a dusty drabbish-coloured suit.

earthquaky, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xliv. 486, Legs shaky—head queer—round and round—earthquaky sort of feeling—very.

economizer, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, ii. lxii. 149, Sarah's as good an economizer as any going.

effaceable, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, vi. 42, Washed off all effaceable marks of the late accident.

embowerment, 1846, Dombey and Son, viii. 72, Plants‥. of a kind peculiarly adapted to the embowerment of Mrs. Pipchin.

emetically, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 2 May 229/2, Sneaking Calais, prone behind its bar, invites emetically to despair.

essayical, like an essay, 1860, Letters, 25 Sept, Remarks‥. a little too essayical for this purpose.

fingerless, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxxi. 303, After putting on his fingerless gloves with great precision.

fluey, covered with flue, 1861, Great Expectations, xxii, I went upon 'Change, and I saw fluey men sitting there under the bills about shipping.

fluffiness, 1860, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 24 Mar. 514/1, An air of mingled fluffiness and heeltaps.

fretty, 1844, Letters, ?15–16 Sept, O'Connell's speeches are the old thing: fretty, boastful, frothy.

galvanizing, 1854, Hard Times, i. ii. 5, He seemed a galvanising apparatus, too.

gardenful, 1859, Tale of Two Cities, ii. v. 56, Like a great sunflower pushing its way at the sun from among a rank garden-full of flaring companions.

gasper, person who gasps, 1845, Letters, 27 Sept, When I think of the possible consequences—of little gaspers like Papa—‥. a chill runs through my blood.

gingerous, ginger-coloured, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. i. x. 93, Mr. Lammle takes his gingerous whiskers in his left hand, and‥. frowns furtively at his beloved, out of a thick gingerous bush.

gingery, 1853, Bleak House, xix. 184, The very learned gentleman who has cooled the natural heat of his gingery complexion in pools and fountains of law.

hunchy, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, i. v. 105, I'm a little hunchy villain and a monster, am I?

jostlement, 1859, Tale of Two Cities, ii. xii. 94, To the jostlement of all weaker people.

invalided, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xliv. 486, Mr. Pickwick cut the matter short by drawing the invalided stroller's arm through his, and leading him away.

jowled, 1861, Great Expectations, xliii, Drummle glanced at me, with an insolent triumph on his great-jowled face.

jungled, 1842, American Notes, II. iii. 84, Primeval forests‥. where the jungled ground was never trodden by a human foot.

knifer, one who uses a knife as a weapon, 1870, Edwin Drood, xxiii. 188, Jacks. And Chayner men. And hother Knifers.

meltability, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, II. iv. vii. 225, The brittleness and meltability of wax.

melodramatically, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xiii. 129, The honourable Samuel Slumkey‥. melo-dramatically testified by gestures to the crowd, his ineffaceable obligations to the Eatanswill Gazette.

Mephistophelean, 1847, Dombey and Son, xxix. 294, The Major['s]‥. face and figure were dilated with Mephistophelean joy.

messiness, 1836, Letters, 5 Feb, I shall consequently be in great confusion and messiness.

metropolitaneously , 1852, Letters, 19 Oct, Are you never coming to town any more? Never going to drink port again, metropolitaneously, but always with Fielden?

mildewy, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 205, The damp, mildewy smell which pervades the places.

millinerial, relating to millinery, 1844, Letters, 29 Mar, Ask her to save the dress.‥ Let it never grow old, fade, shrink, or undergo millinerial alteration.

monomaniacally, obsessively, 1856, Little Dorrit, i. xxi. 186, Young Sparkler hovering about the rooms, monomaniacally seeking any sufficiently ineligible young lady.

Mormonist, 1842, American Notes, I. v. 181, I should like to try the experiment on a Mormonist or two to begin with.

narratable, 1852, Letters, 22 Nov, If you should think of any other idea, narratable by an old man.

newspapered, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xvi. 462, Mr. Dorrit, dressing-gowned and newspapered, was at his breakfast.

panner, one who pans for gold, 1853, Household Words, 3 Dec. 322/1, Here is a pan half-full of gold. As the soil and small pebbles are skilfully washed out, and the yellow metal appears glistening beneath, the panner's eyes flash back upon it.

panspermist, advocate of panspermia (germs are everywhere), 1868, All Year Round, 7 Mar. 301/1, M. Pouchet, the zealous opponent of those he calls the panspermists.

oystery, 1844, Letters, 2 Jan, I‥. opened the despatch, with a moist and oystery twinkle in my eye.

perruquerian, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 160, The shining locks of those chef-d'œuvres of perruquerian art.

petful, peevish, 1852, First Fruits in Household Words, 15 May 190/2, Sitting with petful impatience in the parlour.

Pickwickian, 1836, Letters, 18 Feb, Believe me (in Pickwickian haste) Faithfully Yours Charles Dickens.

Podsnappery, blinkered self-satisfaction, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. i. xi. 98, These may be said to have been the articles of a faith and school which the present chapter takes the liberty of calling, after its representative man, Podsnappery.

polygamically, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 4 July 448/1, To suppose the family groups of whom the majority of emigrants were composed, polygamically possessed, would be to suppose an absurdity.

ponging, projecting, 1854, Hard Times vi, Missed his tip at the banners, too, and was loose in his ponging.

prisonous, streety, 1856, Little Dorrit, i. vi. 47, His son began‥. to be of the prison prisonous and of the street streety.

prodding, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. ii. vii. 231, Whether I gave myself up to prodding, or whether I gave myself up to scooping, I couldn't do it with that delicate touch so as not to show that I was disturbing the mounds.

prosily, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xiv. 134, The Peacock presented attractions which enabled the two friends to resist, even the invitations of the talented, though prosily inclined, Mr. Pott.

pruney, prim, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xix. 486, Notwithstanding what may be called in these pages the Pruney and Prismatic nature of the family banquet, Mr. Dorrit several times fell asleep while it was in progress.

punchy, 1843, Letters, 2 Mar, A complication of Punchy smells.

pupil-less, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, II. iii. x. 95, Sometimes accompanied by his hopeful pupil; oftener, pupil-less.

rampacious, rampageous, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xxii. 228, A stone statue of some rampacious animal with flowing mane and tail, distantly resembling an insane cart-horse.

rulering, 1849, David Copperfield, vii. 77, Tear-blotted copy-books, canings, rulerings.

saucepanful, 1868, Holiday Romance ii, in All Year Round, 8 Feb. 206/2, The other Princes and Princesses were squeezed into a‥. corner to look at the Princess Alicia turning out the saucepan-full of broth...

seediness, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xlii. 457, A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness.

shriven, 1846, Pictures from Italy, 114, I had my foot upon the spot, where‥. the shriven prisoner was strangled.

slinking, 1841, Barnaby Rudge, xxxv. 137, His manner was smooth and humble, but very sly and slinking.

sniggerer, 1860 Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 5 May 87/1, The sniggerers tempt him to secular thoughts of marbles.

snobbish, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, ii. lvi. 112, This form of inquiry.‥ he held to be of a disrespectful and snobbish tendency.

soupy, 1869, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 2 Jan. 109/1, The dirty table-cloths, the stuffy soupy airless atmosphere.

spectacularly, 1859, Tale of Two Cities, ii. i. 34, Then only was he permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books.

spoffish, fussy, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 124, As a little spoffish man‥. entered the room.

spongeless, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 12 Sept. 62/1, My sponge being left behind at the last Hotel,‥I went, spongeless.

squashed, 1856, Little Dorrit, i. ix. 66, Such squashed hats and bonnets‥never were seen in Rag Fair.

stoutish, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 314, A stoutish man of about forty.

Suffolker, 1849, David Copperfield, xi. 117, The men generally spoke of me as.‥ ‘the young Suffolker’.

swarmer, 1844, Martin Chuzzlewit, lii. 598, ‘Oh, vermin!’ said Mr. Pecksniff. ‘Oh, bloodsuckers!‥. vermin and swarmers.’

tousled, 1847, Dombey and Son, xxv. 250 Rob the Grinder‥stood then, panting at the Captain, with a flushed and touzled air of Bed about him.

trembly, 1846, Dombey and Son, i. 5, So trembly and shakey from head to foot.

trucker, labourer who uses a truck, 1853, Down with Tide in Household Words, 5 Feb. 484/2, The Truckers‥. whose business it was to land more considerable parcels of goods than the Lumpers could manage.

wagonful, 1846, Pictures from Italy, 179, A waggon-full of madmen, screaming and tearing to the life.

waxy, angry, 1853, Bleak House, xxiv. 250, It would cheer him up more than anything, if I could make him a little waxy with me.

well-cured, 1838, Oliver Twist, I. xvii. 271, A side of streaky, well-cured bacon.

well-housed, 1838, Oliver Twist, II. xxiii. 48, It was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home.

willed, disposed of by will, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, II. iii. ix. 80, I am the willed-away girl.

Words coined using prefixes

aglitter, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, I. ii. xvi. 312, Mr. Lammle, all a-glitter.

a-smear, 1861, Great Expectations, xx, All asmear with filth and fat.

out-sharpen, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. ii. i. 168, She would glance at the visitors‥with a look that out-sharpened all her other sharpness.

retelegraph, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, vii. 62, ‘Ale, Squeery?’ inquired the lady, winking and frowning to give him to understand that the question propounded was, whether Nicholas should have ale, and not whether he (Squeers) would take any. ‘Certainly,’ said Squeers, re-telegraphing in the same manner. ‘A glassful.’

unassertive, 1861, Great Expectations, lvii, He would sit and talk to me‥in the old unassertive protecting way.

unbear, free a horse from the bearing-rein, 1853, Bleak House, lvi. 543, Unbear him half a moment to freshen him up.

uncertificated, 1836, Bleak House, 1st Ser. II. 199, A disappointed eighth-rate actor,.‥ a retired smuggler, or an uncertificated bankrupt.

uncolonial, 1861, Great Expectations, xlv, A certain person not altogether of uncolonial pursuits.

under-sawyer, subordinate, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. i. xii. 109, There were no top-sawyers; every passenger was an under-sawyer.

undiscussible, 1860, Great Expectations, viii, She said it so finally, and in such an undiscussible way.

undistinctive, 1851, On Duty with Inspector Field, in Household Words, 14 June 270/2, As undistinctive Death will come here, one day, sleep comes now.

unhooped, 1860, Bleak House, i, Like an unhooped cask upon a pole.

unmunched, 1870, Edwin Drood, xii. 90, Even Durdles pauses‥and looks at him, with an unmunched something in his cheek.

unpensioning, 1853, Bleak House, xl. 399, An ungrateful and unpensioning country.

unprisoned, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, ii. lii. 88, Perhaps not one of the unprisoned souls had been able...

unpromisingly, 1847, Dombey and Son, xiii. 125, Looking over his white cravat, as unpromisingly as Mr. Dombey himself could have looked.

unruffable, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxii. 339, Sam‥. obeyed all his master's behests with‥unruffable composure.

unscavengered , 1846, Pictures from Italy, 18, The undrained, unscavengered, qualities of a foreign town.

unshiplike , 1842, American Notes, I. v. 185 A sullen, cumbrous, ungraceful, unshiplike leviathan.

unsnap , 1862, Somebody’s Luggage: His Boots in All Year Round, 4 Dec. 7/1, As if nothing should ever tempt her to unsnap that snap [of the fingers].

unsoaped, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxiv. 253, The unsoaped of lpswich brought up the rear.

unsoftening, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xxx. 588, She.‥ with an unsoftening face, looked at the worked letters within.

un-swanlike, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxix. 311 Mr. Winkle.‥ was being assisted over the ice by Mr. Weller, in a very singular and un-swan-like manner.

unyielding, 1847, Dombey and Son, xl. 402, Looking upon him with neither yielding nor unyielding, liking nor hatred.

Playful coinages

deadlong, 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit, xxiv. 297, Through half the deadlong night.

-ization, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. i. xi. 107, He was not aware‥that he was driving at any ization.

ological, 1854, Hard Times, i. xv. 120, I hope you may now turn all your ological studies to good account.

red tapeworm, red tape, 1851, Dickens in Househ. Words 15 Feb. 484/1 A similar Museum could be established, for the destruction and exhibition of the Red-Tape-Worms.

spiflication, total destruction, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxvii. 262, Conjecturing‥. that smifligation and bloodshed must be‥one and the same thing.

Unexpected (i.e. I'd never have guessed these would be first recorded in Dickens)

bulgy, 1847, Dombey and Son, xxix. 290, A man with bulgy legs.

butter-fingers, 1836, Pickwick Papers, vii. 69, At every bad attempt at a catch, and every failure to stop the ball, he launched his personal displeasure at the head of the devoted individual in such denunciations as.‥ ‘Now, butter-fingers’—‘Muff’—‘Humbug’—and so forth.

clod-hopping, 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit, vii. 79, A common, paltry, low-minded, clodhopping, pipe-smoking alehouse.

devil-may-care, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xlviii. 525, He was a mighty, free and easy, roving, devil-may-care sort of person.

dolly, 1853, Bleak House, xxviii. 276, A dolly sort of beauty perhaps.

dustbin, 1847, Dombey and Son, xvii. 161, The Captain's nosegay.‥ was swept into the dust-binn next morning.

egg-box, 1854, Hard Times, i. iv. 20 That was the cot of my infancy; an old egg-box.

fairy story, 1849, David Copperfield, xix. 193, Life was more like a great fairy story, which I was just about to begin to read, than anything else.

flummox, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxii. 345, He'll be what the Italians call reg'larly flummoxed.

footlights, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 205, The foot-lights have just made their appearance.

funky, nervous, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxx. 326, [The nervous junior counsel in Bardell v. Pickwick is named ‘Mr. Phunky’.]

gran, 1863, Mrs. Lirriper’s Lodgings in All Year Round, 3 Dec. 11/2, And now dear Gran let me kneel down here where I have been used to say my prayers.

Guinness, 1834, Monthly Magazine, Aug. 180, A large hamper of Guinness's stout.

kibosh, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 149, ‘Hoo-roa,’ ejaculates a pot-boy in a parenthesis, ‘put the kye-bosh [later edd. read kye-bosk] on her, Mary.’

lace-up, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 98, To fit a pair of lace-up half-boots on an ideal personage.

paperchase, 1856, Scapegrace in Household Words, 26 Jan. 28/2, What leapers of brooks, what runners in paper chases!

pay-off, 1864, Our Mutual Friend, I. i. ii. 32, Twemlow received an invitation to dine at Veneerings, expressly to meet the Member, the Engineer, the Pay-off of the National Debt...

prima ballerina, 1868, All Year Round, 23 May 565/2, The prima ballerina‥. raises her left leg in the air at right angles with her body, and gently waves her arms to and fro.

rampage, 1860, Great Expectations, ii, She's been on the Ram-page this last spell, about five minutes.

ringing up, of a theatre curtain, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 205, Let us take a peep ‘behind,’ previous to the ringing up.

round the clock, 1852, Bleak House, xxv. 251, The complete equipage whirls through the Law Stationery business at wild speed, all round the clock.

scrunched, crushed, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 304, He had compromised with the parents of three scrunched children, and just ‘worked out’ his fine, for knocking down an old lady.

sharp practice, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xx. 209, ‘Dodson and Fogg—sharp practice their's—capital men of business is Dodson and Fogg, Sir.’ Mr. Pickwick admitted the sharp practice of Dodson and Fogg.

sit-down, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 264, Jemima thought we'd better have a regular sit-down supper, in the front parlour.

slow-coach, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxiii. 359, What does this allusion to the slow coach mean?‥ It may be a reference to Pickwick himself, who has‥. been a criminally slow coach during the whole of this transaction.

strop, sharpen, 1841, Barnaby Rudge, xxv. 80, The raven‥. after a long inspection of an epitaph‥would strop his beak upon the grave to which it referred.

tin-tack, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxxv. 346, A‥. parcel of tin tacks and a very large hammer.

Compound words

all-over, a feeling of nervousness from head to foot, 1870, Edwin Drood, xxiii. 180, But we're out of sorts for want of a smoke. We've got the all-overs, haven't us, deary? But this is the place to cure 'em in; this is the place where the all-overs is smoked off!

allwork, domestic work of all kinds, 1838, Oliver Twist, II. xxviii. 140, Brittles was a lad of all-work.

draggle-haired, with wet and untidy hair, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, II. iii. x. 96, Draggle-haired, seamed with jealousy and anger.

half-baptize, baptise privately, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 14, He got out of bed‥. to half-baptize a washerwoman's child in a slop-basin.

head-voice, 1850, David Copperfield, xxxvi. 377, He has a remarkable head-voice.

head-work, brainwork, 1837, Pickwick Papers, liv. 587, How the blazes you can stand the head-work you do, is a mystery to me.

looking-forward, 1837, Letters, 3 Nov, Anxious lookings-forward to the pleasure of your society.

natural-looking, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 328, Plaid tulips, and other equally natural-looking flowers.

new boy, 1847, Dombey and Son, xli. 410, Here is the table upon which he sat forlorn and strange, the ‘new boy’ of the school.

offsetting, 1857, Perils Eng. Prisoners in Household Words, 7 Dec. 30/2, The off-settings and point-currents of the stream.

off time, off duty, 1866, Mugby Junction in All Year Round, 10 Dec. 6/1, The answer to his inquiry, ‘Where's Lamps?’ was.‥ that it was his off-time.

old dear, 1836, Pickwick Papers, xiii. 126, She did no hesitate to inform him‥. that Mr. Pickwick was ‘a delightful old dear’.

party-like, suited to a party, 1832, Letters, 30 July (1965) I. 7, I give you this early notice not because there is anything formal or party like in the arrangements.

petticoat-governed, henpecked, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 175, Mr. Calton seized the hand of the petticoat-governed little man.

poll-parrot, chatter incessantly, 1865, Our Mutual Friend, I. ii. xii. 271, What are you Poll Parroting at now? Ain't you got nothing to do but‥. stand a Poll Parroting all night?

rose-pink, make up, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 208, ‘Where's that bloody officer?’ ‘Here!’ replies the officer, who has been rose-pinking for the character.

sea-going, 1848, Dombey and Son, lxii. 623, Released from sea-going, after that first long voyage with his young bride.

set piece, painting of a group, 1846, Pictures from Italy, 190, The hollow-cheeked monk‥. went down on his knees, in a corner, before this set-piece.

short-timer, child allowed to attend school less than full time, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 20 June 400/2, The Short-Timers, in a writing competition, beat the Long-Timers of a first-class National School.

Words reflecting the culture of the time

Blondin, tightrope, 1863, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 15 Aug. 588/2, An appalling accident happened at the People's Park near Birmingham‥. the enterprising Directors‥. hanging the Blondin rope as high as they possibly could hang it.

bowie-knife, 1842, American Notes, I. iii. 110, A sewing society‥. which‥. never comes to fisty cuffs or bowie-knives as sane assemblies have been known to do elsewhere.

Bramah, machine inventor, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 46, Testing the influence of their patent Bramahs over the street-door locks to which they respectively belonged.

cavatina, type of song, 1836, Library of Fiction,I. 15, The popular cavatina of ‘Bid me discourse’.

cheval-glass, type of long swinging mirror, 1836, Pickwick Papers, ii. 14, The stranger surveyed himself.‥ in a cheval glass.

clobber, type of cobbler paste, 1853, St. Crispin in Household Words, 26 Mar. 79/1, If there are crevices and breaks in an old pair of shoes‥. he insinuates into them a dose of clobber, which seems to be a mixture of ground cinders and paste.

coach-horser, one who provides horses for stagecoaches, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xlii. 463, The embarrassed coach-horser was ordered to be discharged forthwith.

coal-whipper, one who lifts coal out of a ship, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 299, At the appearance of the coal-whippers, and ballast-heavers.

commoney, type of marble, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxiii. 358, Whether he had won any alley tors or commoneys lately.

crush hat, hat that can be crushed flat, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xix. 180, Folding his crush hat to lay his elbow on.

Cuba, type of cigar, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxix. 308, He‥. emitted a fragrant odour of full-flavoured Cubas.

Denmark, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 2nd Ser. 107, A pair of Denmark satin shoes.

drysaltery, drysalter’s store, 1847, Dombey and Son, xxiii. 234, The smell of which dry-saltery impregnated the air.

hopping, hop-picking, 1860, Uncommercial Traveller in All Year Round, 16 June 234/2, The whole country-side‥. will swarm with hopping tramps.

Kensal Green, type of cemetery, 1842, Letters, 26 Apr, What would I give if the dear girl whose ashes lie in Kensal-green, had lived.

key-bugle, bugle with keys, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. II. 212, The loud notes of a key-bugle broke the monotonous stillness of the street.

Loddon, type of lily, 1882, Dickens’s Dict. Thames, 28/3, It [sc. the summer snowflake] is very abundant in the meadows by the Loddon, and hence called ‘Loddon lilies’.

mairie, town hall, 1864, Mrs. Lirriper’s Legacy in All Year Round, 1 Dec. 8/2, The Major went down to the Mairie.

manty-making, dressmaking, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxi. 195, This here's the mantie-making con-sarn, a'nt it?

monkey-nut, coconut, 1857, Household Words, 17 Jan. 67/1, The tree of the monkey-nut is a palm. The rude resemblance to the face of a monkey having given a name to the nut, the likeness of the leaf to the palm of the hand gives a name to the tree.

paybox, box office, 1851, Flight in Household Words, 30 Aug. 531/2, He darts upon my luggage‥. pays certain francs for it, to a certain functionary behind a Pigeon Hole, like a pay-box at a Theatre.

psychographer, type of medium, 1854, Letters, 7 Mar, A thing called a Psycho-grapher, which writes at the dictation of spirits.

railway time, standard time used by a railway system, 1847, Dombey and Son, xv. 155, There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.

saveloy, type of sausage, 1837, Pickwick Papers, liv. 587, Mr. Solomon Pell‥regaling himself‥. with a cold collation of an Abernethy biscuit and a saveloy.

Scheherazade, 1851, Letters, 25 Nov, My Dear Scheherazade—for I am sure your powers of narrative‥. must be good for at least a thousand nights and one.

tagliarini, egg noodles, 1846, Pictures from Italy, 49, Real Genoese dishes, such as Tagliarini...

tip-cheese, type of game, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxiii. 360, He forgets the long familiar cry of ‘knuckle down’, and at tip-cheese, or odd and even, his hand is out.

utilitarianism, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xxxvi. 347, But knockers may be muffled for other purposes than those of mere utilitarianism.

Colloquialisms and slang

allus, always, 1853, Bleak House, xlvi. 447, He wos allus willin fur to give me somethink he wos.

demnition, damnation, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, lxiv. 617, It is all up with its handsome friend, he has gone to the demnition bow-wows.

’ere, here, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xliv. 489, I'm wery much mistaken if that 'ere Jingle worn't a doin' somethin' in the vater-cart vay!

gonoph, pickpocket, 1853, Bleak House, xix. 188, He's as obstinate a young gonoph as I know.

gorm, God damn, 1849, David Copperfield, xxi. 220, Gorm the t'other one.

halloa, 1841, Barnaby Rudge, x. 290, ‘Halloa there! Hugh!’ roared John.

heavens, very, 1858, House to Let in Household Words, 7 Dec. 21/1, A shy company through its raining Heavens hard.

ickle, little, 1846, Dombey and Son, i. 5, I came down from seeing dear Fanny, and that tiddy ickle sing.

jeff, circus slang for rope, 1854, Hard Times, i. vi. 37, Tight-Jeff or Slack-Jeff, it don't much signify: it's only tight-rope and slack-rope.

lor’, Lord, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 1st Ser. I. 81, ‘Lor! how nice!’ said the youngest Miss Ivins.

lummy, first-rate, 1838, Oliver Twist, III. xlii. 122, Jack Dawkins—lummy Jack—the Dodger—the Artful Dodger.

missis, 1839, Nicholas Nickleby, xlii. 414, ‘Don't Missis me, ma'am’‥. returned Miss Squeers.

m’lud, 1853, Bleak House, i. 4, ‘Mr. Tangle,’ says the Lord High Chancellor.‥ ‘Mlud,’ says Mr. Tangle.

mo, month, 1836, Letters, ?24 Aug, 25£ per mo: after Nov. 8th.

nohows, nohow, 1848, Dombey and Son, lvi. 566, I'm gone about and adrift. Pay out a word or two respecting them adwenturs, will you! Can't I bring up, nohows?

oner, an expert, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, ii. lviii. 121, Miss Sally's such a one-er for that.

oo, who, 1857, Little Dorrit, ii. xiii. 433, ‘I have seen some one,’ returned Baptist, ‘I have rincontrato him.’ ‘Im? Oo him?’ asked Mrs. Plornish.

participled, damned, 1862, Somebody’s Luggage in All Year Round, 4 Dec. 8 11/1, ‘But these people are’, he insisted‥. ‘so,’ Participled, ‘sentimental!’

prop, piece of jewellery, 1850, Three ‘Detective’ Anec. in Household Words, 14 Sept. 579/1, In his shirt-front there's a beautiful diamond prop,‥. a very handsome pin indeed.

puff-puff, 1856, Household Words, 28 June 559/1, The word Puff-puff, which I now apply to a train or a railway, is borrowed from my eldest daughter,‥. eighteen months of age.

sawbones, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxix. 307, ‘What! don't you know what a Sawbones is, Sir?’ enquired Mr. Weller; ‘I thought every body know'd as a Sawbones was a Surgeon.’

swarry, soiree, 1837, Pickwick Papers, xxxvi. 393, A friendly swarry, consisting of a boiled leg of mutton with the usual trimmings.

tcha, 1844, Martin Chuzzlewit, xxxvii. 435, ‘Tcha, Mr. Pinch!’ cried Charity, with sharp impatience.

toke, bread, 1843, Letters, 7 June, Now, we don't want none of your sarse—and if you bung any of them tokes of yours in this direction, you'll find your shuttlecock sent back as heavy as it came.

way, 1836, Sketches by Boz, 370, Away went the donkey‥. ‘Way-way! Wo-o-o-o-!’ cried Mr. Cymon Tuggs.

whizz-bang, 1836, Pickwick Papers, ii. 9, Fired a musket‥. rushed into wine shop‥. back again—whiz, bang.

wimick, 1850, David Copperfield, li. 518 ‘Wen Mrs. Gummidge takes to wimicking,’—our old county word for crying,—‘she's liable to be considered to be‥. peevish-like.’

woa, 1841, Old Curiosity Shop, ii. xxxviii. 3, Woa-a-a then, will you?

yaw-yaw, 1854, Hard Times, ii. ii. 147, They liked fine gentlemen.‥ They became exhausted in imitation of them; and they yaw-yawed in their speech like them.


As a footnote, here is a summary of the distribution of these items:

Pickwick Papers: 31

Sketches by Boz: 27

Letters: 24

Our Mutual Friend: 17

Household Words: 15

Dombey and Son: 15

Little Dorrit: 13

Uncommercial Traveller: 12

Nicholas Nickleby: 12

Great Expectations: 10

Bleak House: 10

Old Curiosity Shop: 8

All Year Round: 8

Martin Chuzzlewit: 7

David Copperfield: 7

Oliver Twist: 6

Hard Times: 6

Pictures from Italy: 5

American Notes: 5

Tale of Two Cities: 4

Edwin Drood: 3

Barnaby Rudge: 3

Others: 4

Tuesday 29 May 2012

On tomorrow and to-morrow and to morrow

A correspondent has been reading Dickens, and writes to ask why to-day, to-night, and to-morrow were used with hyphens, and when did the practice cease.

The origins of the practice lie in etymology: the three words were originally (in Old and Middle English) a preposition (to) followed by a separate word (dæg, niht, morwen). As a sense of their use as single notions developed, so the two elements were brought together in writing, but with considerable variation in usage, seen from the earliest records (tonight, to night, to-night).

The view that they should be written as separate words was reinforced when Johnson listed them under to as to day, to morrow, and to night (with no hyphen). Nineteenth-century dictionaries (Worcester, Ogilvie, Webster...) opted for the hyphen in all three words, and this was further reinforced when dialectologists included other forms. Joseph Wright, in his English Dialect Dictionary, hyphenates them all, and adds to-year (= ‘this year’, in general dialect use in Britain and Ireland) and to-morn (= ‘tomorrow’, especially in N England - he has examples from Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, and Lancashire). In passing, he also has some nice examples of to-night meaning ‘the night just past’, as in I had slept well to-night, recorded in the English south-west.

The OED shows hyphenated examples throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th. Latest examples are of to-day (1912), to-night (1908), and to-morrow (1927, with a possible further example as late as 1959). I have personal experience of all three words continuing to be hyphenated as late as the 1970s, as for some years now I’ve been editing the poetry of John Bradburne, who died in 1979, and in all his writing he consistently hyphenates. But he is a poet very much aware of the past, and regularly uses archaisms.

The current online OED says simply ‘also as two words and with hyphen’, though this is likely to be revised, given that hyphens were dropped from the eigtth edition of the Concise Oxford in 1990. The steady disappearance of the usage in the 20th century was influenced by Fowler, who in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage comes out against it: ‘The lingering of the hyphen, which is still usual after the to of these words, is a very singular piece of conservatism’. He blames printers for its retention, in a typical piece of Fowlerish irony: ‘it is probably true that few people in writing ever dream of inserting the hyphen, its omission being corrected every time by whose who profess the mystery of printing.’ Today, it’s rare to see it even mentioned as an issue. It doesn’t even merit an entry in Pam Peters’ Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

On rofling

A correspondent writes to tell me about a usage that he’s heard among young people college-aged and in their early twenties in America. It’s rofl, the texting acronym for ‘rolling on the floor laughing’. I’ll quote the bulk of Ariel’s message:

“To rofl now means sort of, to waste time in a pleasant way either alone or in a group. So someone sitting around looking at YouTube videos is rofling. So is someone throwing a football around with their 3-year-old. It's like ‘hanging out’ but with more positive and silly connotations, as if wasting time were a desirable thing.

You can also use to rofl to mean to fudge, or to make it up as you go. As in, ‘What's the plan on Friday?’ ‘We'll rofl it.’

On top of that, a few people also seem to be using it to mean ‘beaten badly in a competition or fight.’ As in, ‘We tried fighting the orcs in our game of Dungeons and Dragons this weekend, but we got rofled.’ From that the term ‘rofl-stomp’ has developed, meaning (as far as I can tell from hearing people use it), ‘to destroy decisively and in an impressive but comically excessive way’.”

I hadn't come across this before. It's a really interesting development, as few Internet acronyms have migrated into general usage in this way. People are always asking me whether texting abbreviations have had much of an impact on general usage, and my answer has always been ‘no’. Hardly any have achieved a usage outside of local slang – though LOL is a famous exception. Maybe rofl will be another.

Why this one? There always was a figurative sense to rofl: no one ever actually rolled on the floor. So it's not surprising to see it extending in meaning in various directions. It’s a nice opportunity to see semantic change in rapid action, as – with no standard dictionary usage to follow – people are evidently trying it out in different ways. I suspect one or two of these meanings will emerge as the winners in due course. In the meantime, it would be interesting to know from readers of this post whether the usage has turned up in other parts of the world – and I don't just mean the English-speaking world, for rofl has become a loan-acronym in several other languages. ‘Roflez vous’ perhaps?

Tuesday 22 May 2012

On capitalizing/Capitalizing

Two correspondents write in the same week worrying about capital letters. The first, working in ELT, has noted that many people write Past Perfect rather than past perfect (and likewise for other names of tenses). Which is it, he wonders? The second, working in the building industry, wants to know how to deal with such sentences as Wet rot has been noted in the door frame (photograph 2). Should it be (Photograph 2), given that a caption to the photograph, typically placed at the end of a report, would be either PHOTOGRAPH 2 or Photograph 2?

This issue has come up before on this blog: see On studying history/History. I made the point there that capitalization is a highly variable matter, influenced by personal taste, graphic aesthetics, and social trends, so there is never a hard-and-fast rule for examples like these. Devising a capitalization policy was one of the trickiest things I had to do when editing the Cambridge Encyclopedia family in the 1990s. You can read the relevant remarks in a paper in English Today I did in 1990, which I paraphrase now:

'The problem is one of gradience, from the clear-cut case where we are talking about a unique person, place or thing, to cases where we are talking about the class of entities. Thus, we have President Kennedy, at one extreme, and The country is governed by a president, at the other. But there are many intermediate cases.'

And I give a list of some of them, all taken from the Encyclopedia. Which would you choose and why?, founded in 1919, and having as its president/President the Princess Royal...
...Indian philosopher, statesman, and president/President...
...the country's first president/President...
...US Republican statesman and 40th president/President...
...the domestic policies of US president/President Roosevelt...
...a department responsible to the president/President for the conduct of...
...and his successor as president/President (1989)...
...led to his being elected president/President of the colony...
...the constitution of 1987 provided for a president/President...
...chairman of the Hawker Siddeley Group from 1935, and president/President from 1963... president/President of the provisional government...
...the first president/President of the Royal Academy (1768)...
...and became the only president/President to be re-elected three times...
...he became president/President of the National Union of Mineworkers...

There are subtle constraints at work here. Context seems important. Thus, Indian President is more acceptable than Indian philosopher and President, and I doubt whether anyone would go for Indian Philosopher and President. The implied importance conveyed by a capital letter makes President of the United States more likely in a general reference work than President of the National Union of Mineworkers. The 'general' is important, as in publications emanating from the NUM the opposite priority would probably be encountered. And a provisional government presidency, being only provisional, might not merit capitals at all.

What is clear is that no simple principle will work for all cases. 'All official titles should be capitalized' says one house-style manual on my shelves. But does this work?

He became Emperor of Rome.
He became Emperor of all lands west of...
He was crowned Emperor.
He acted as Emperor.

Or take academic titles. Dennis Gabor, for example, was a professor of physics, but one could not write this as Professor of Physics, for this was not his title: he was in actual fact Professor of Applied Electron Physics. To refer to his official role briefly, as general reference books often do, one would have to avoid capitals altogether (unless one accepted Professor of physics).

So, to return to my correspondents... The typical semantic function of a capital letter is to draw attention to an item of special significance, such as a proper name or personification, or to Make an Important Comment. The usage variation raised by my first correspondent arises because people will have different views about what is 'specially significant'. In an ELT context, I can easily imagine some teachers seeing tense forms as being so important that they feel the need to give them special graphic prominence, as she mentions. But not everyone will see them in this way. Personally, I wouldn't capitalize. Tense forms are so frequently mentioned in a grammar book that the capital letters would turn up all over the place, reducing their attention-drawing function, as well as adding to the visual clutter of the page. It is a slippery slope. Present Progressive... Third Person Singular Present Progressive...

The problem facing my second correspondent is different, for it introduces the discourse function of capitalization, to mark identity throughout a text so that readers are left in no doubt that the same item is being referenced - that is, the repeated use of a particular word needs to be consistently capitalized. This is especially important with cross references, such as that illustrated by the photograph example, and seen also in The point is dealt with in chapter/Chapter 3 and suchlike.

The reason for my correspondent's doubt is that there is a clash between the two types of function in her example. A cross reference is not, by its nature, of special semantic significance, so there is no real reason for using an initial capital. On the other hand, the caption to the photograph does use an initial capital, so this motivates the parallel use of a capital in the parenthesis. When semantic significance (no need for a capital) clashes with discourse significance (need for a capital), semantics usually wins. If there's no special reason for drawing attention, the general view would be not to use a capital letter.

But style books vary, especially over time. Fashion is a critical factor: in the late 17th and early 18th century, for example, virtually any noun would be capitalized. And there are regional differences: American English uses capitals far less than British English - a preference that may well have originated in dictionary practice (the original OED having all headwords beginning with a capital, unlike the typical American convention). On the whole, the advice in style guides is 'If in doubt, don't capitalize'. But above all: 'Be consistent, whatever you decide to do'.

Thursday 17 May 2012

On interrobanging on

A correspondent writes to ask if I would settle an argument about the use of an exclamation mark after a question mark in order to add emphasis to a question, as in 'What?!'  The writer finds it unacceptable, and feels that if one wishes to add emphasis to a question, one should write it in italics. The other party has no problem with it.

Nor do I - though I have to say straight away that it's not possible ever to 'settle' arguments about punctuation, as attitudes are very much bound up with personal taste and trends in fashion. There's been antagonism towards the use of the exclamation mark for a long time, and especially since the 19th century, when writers used it a great deal. Fowler, for example, comments: 'Excessive use of exclamation marks is ‥. one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.' So the use of it along with the question mark has attracted extra ire from stylists, and 20th century house styles generally recommended the removal of exclamation marks unless absolutely necessary. Copy editors would never allow a multiple mark (!!, !!!), except in such genres as novels and poetry where the author insisted - and even then, they would do their best to persuade the author to remove them. I've had many of my exclamation marks removed, over the years, and have had to shout vociferously in order to get them back. But the attitude has influenced me, and I always look carefully at a piece of formal writing before deciding to use one, knowing that any use still antagonizes some readers.

But this prescriptive trend hasn't stopped their use, and in settings where copy editors are absent, we see multiple forms frequently, especially in blogs and other online genres where emotional expression is not being artificially constrained. Indeed, on the Internet there has been a remarkable proliferation of uses, including emails in which exclamation and question marks are combined in long sequences (?!?!?!) and used idiosyncratically along with other forms (such as ?!**!?, received in an email recently, which I interpreted as an emphatic questioning explosion of some sort). There has even been an institutionalization in print of the basic combination, in the form of the interrobang. The style is informal, of course, so the argument my correspondent reports really resolves into a stylistic question of the level of language the two parties have in mind.

It isn't just the Internet, however. The combined form makes available a further semantic distinction which is of general availability:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing? - a genuine question

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing! - an emphatic comment

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?! - a genuine question with added emphasis - the question function is primary in the speaker's mind

There is also a fourth possibility (much less often encountered):

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing!? - an emphatic comment with a questioning tone. The question is an afterthought, a bit like:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing! - huh?

I have no problem making this contrast in my own writing, but I've no idea how far the distinction is shared by others.

I can't imagine that the use of italics would work. Maybe it would, for single-word utterances. But it would seem like overkill to italicize a long sentential question.

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?

And it would disallow the use of italics in that question if the author wanted to highlight a single word, as in:

Why on earth would John ever want to do such a thing?!

So my view is that there's nothing wrong at all with a combined form, in informal contexts where the emotion is clearly warranted. But I'd be interested to see other examples of the usage, as readers of this blog encounter them.

Sunday 13 May 2012

On should better

A correspondent writes to ask about should better, which he has encountered from time to time, and wonders whether it is idiomatic English. He gives two examples, both taken from published books:

'The means by which one can solve the definitional equations are some very simple properties, which one should better specify in advance, and these are the properties of and and of yields.'

'One should better pay attention to what Darwin and Wallace had to say about the same problem. When faced with the monumental task of classifying natural life, both biologists came to the conclusion that all divisions were arbitrary.'

He asks: are they synonymous with had better do X or with specify/pay attention in a better way?

I think the context suggests the latter, in both cases. The first quote is from an Italian logician, Giovanni Sambin, in his One Hundred Years of Intuitionism, p.305, and he makes it very clear in the surrounding paragraphs what the 'better specification' is. Better is an adverbial modifier here. The string means 'which it would be better to specify in advance'.

The second quote is evern clearer, when we examine the context. It's from a book called A Scientific Model of History, by Juan J Gomez-Ibarra, p. 28, and in the previous paragraph we read:

'Should we reduce the figure of twenty-one civilizations down to twenty because of... Or, should we better rename the two societies as...'

The inverted order suggests that better is modifying rename - 'we should rename in a better way'. In which case, the 'we should better' usage follows on naturally. He is using better to modify pay attention. He doesn't mean 'ought to'.

So why was my correspondent uncertain? It's because there is interference from the had better ('ought to') construction, which has led to the use of a modal should better as a blend (of should X and had better X). I've heard this usage in several regional dialects, but it hasn't (yet) established itself as idiomatic standard English. I've also heard it quite a lot from learners of English as a foreign language. It's a usage which usually poses no problem of interpretation in speech, and is probably already a feature of English as a lingua franca. But, as we see from these examples, it is waiting in the wings to upset any adverbial use of better following should. For this reason, I'd avoid it myself, and go for an alternative syntactic solution, such as replacing better by rather or rephrasing (as above) with a more explicit adverbial phrase.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

On for example, for instance

A correspondent writes to ask whether there is any difference between for example and for instance.

I think most people use these as stylistic alternatives, to avoid repetition, without any difference in meaning. The OED glosses for example as 'a typical instance' and for instance as 'for example'.

Differences...? For example is older - first recorded usage in 1447. For instance, 1657. And for example is much more frequent - about five times more so, in some corpora. Also, their distribution isn't identical. The expressions have developed further usages where the words don't easily substitute, such as I'll give you a for instance and by way of example.

But am I right to feel that related senses of the two words could influence the selection? The original use of instance (as in 'at the instance of', and related time-related words such as instant) conveys a sense of urgency or earnestness. Perhaps it's the phonaesthetics of the two words (the contrast in stress position and vowel height) which makes me think I would use for instance when I want to be a bit more emphatic and for example in a more leisurely exposition. I'd be interested to get some other opinions on the point.

Sunday 4 March 2012

On quotatives (he goes)

A correspondent writes about the use of goes for says in conversation, as in And so she goes 'Wow...'. 'Nobody seems to say anything any more', he comments sadly, and asks 'Why is it happening and when did it start?'. This is his explanation: 'It's as if people are trying to describe the emotions of the other person behind the words or to imbue them with some intent instead of simply and accurately reporting on what the person plainly said.'

That's exactly right, though it's not the whole story. First, the historical point. This use of go has been around for quite a while. The online OED has a draft addition which reflects its recent increase in frequency, but the earliest recorded instances are over 150 years old. It defines it thus: 'to utter (the noise indicated) with direct speech... now often in the historic present', and cites Dickens 1836:

'Yo-yo-yo-yo-yoe,’ went the first boy. ‘Yo-yo-yo-yoe!’ went the second.

Past tense and present tense uses are found throughout the 20th century, with the present tense usage increasing.

This use of go is technically called a quotative - a form that acts as an introduction to direct speech, functioning in a similar way to the use of quotation marks. Not having punctuation marks available when we speak, we've devised various ways of alerting listeners to the fact that we're about to say something which would need quotation marks in writing, such as making a gesture in the air with the first two fingers of each hand, or - more conveniently - using an introductory word such as like, says, or goes.

Say is the traditional form, of course, as my correspondent notes. So why has an alternative usage developed? An analysis of actual usage provides the clue. Here are some examples:

Two minutes in, he goes, 'Wow, this is strenuous' and stopped.
And he goes, 'Gosh, I've never seen you in one of those'...
And I go 'Hello, this is odd...'
And John goes '[whistles]'...

Note how the direct speech begins with an interjection or similar vocal effect. In one study, it was found that 76 percent of uses of quotative go occurred with a following vocal effect, often with accompanying gestures or facial expressions. The function is sometimes described as 'mimetic' - the speaker is trying to recreate exactly the audio-visual character of the discourse being reported.

A longer extract from the corpus used in that study shows something different (I omit the addressee's reactions). The speaker is telling a story about how he was mistaken for a woman because of his long hair:

the other day I went into a bar and this guy asked me to dance, and all he saw was my hair, and he goes 'do you wanna dance' ? I turn around and go 'what' ? and he goes 'do you wanna dance' ? I go 'no no'. he goes 'oh oh I’m sorry'. I go 'yeah you better be'...

Here we see some other features that motivate a go usage. It's a dramatic narrative, which the speaker is trying to make as vivid as possible. The speaker is critically involved in what went on. The interaction involves a high level of emotion. And this, I think, explains why the usage has developed: it offers a dramatic alternative to say. Say is used when the language is more factual; go when the speaker in the narrative is more involved in the action.

(1) So John says, 'It's time we were leaving'
(2) So John goes, 'It's time we were leaving'

In (1), the speaker is reporting what happened. In (2) there's a greater dynamic force: something has just happened to make John say this.

I see the quotative use of go as the language developing a fresh expressive option in informal speech. It becomes noticeable because, when people are telling a conversation they find dramatic, they tend to use go repeatedly - just as they would with say in less dramatic circumstances. I'm not sure if the usage is sociolinguistically restricted - it certainly isn't only heard among young people - but I don't find in it any reason to be sad. It's an increase - a tiny one, but an increase nonetheless - in the expressive richness of the language.