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Wordplay: The old “ye olde”

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.Wordplay: The old "ye olde"

If you want to make something look, y’know, old and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And, of course, there are all these plain old olde things.

That’s where we crank up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in “ye olde candy shoppe.” And “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Only not every ye has the same meaning, nor is every occurrence of it an actual word. The ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y. (more…)

Wordplay: Assimilation by the mutants

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

Wordplay: Assimilation by the mutants

Every so often, someone asks, “If it’s one foot and two feet, and one tooth and two teeth, why isn’t it one book and two beek? If we have louse and lice, and mouse and mice, why not house and hice? If more than one goose is geese, why isn’t more than one moose meese?”

The answer is that the feet, teeth, lice, mice, and geese have been assimilated by mutants. And there’s more, so much more. It involves men and women; it involves our food. If you tell the tale, you too have been assimilated; if you try to heal, you find that the mutants have taken over even there. You cannot escape the strength of the mutants—nor their filth. The only thing you can take consolation in is that it was much worse a thousand years ago.

What are these mutants? Mutated forms of words, subject to i-mutation. A form of assimilation also called umlaut. You recognize that term, umlaut? It is sometimes used to refer to the two dots over ü and ö and ä (and a few other letters if you’re dealing with the names of heavy metal bands). But originally—and still—it refers to what those dots signify: a vowel pushing up and forward in the direction of the i sound (not as in Modern English “long i” but as in what i stands for nearly everywhere else, the sounds it makes in machine and prison). (more…)

Wordplay: Contronyms: To sanction or to sanction?

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.

How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.

It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes. (more…)

Wordplay: Because language

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

We have a beautiful opportunity to watch language change in action: English is gaining a new preposition.

Really?

Yes. Because change. Because language!

Do you find that jarring? Folks, this is how your language is made. Because may be gaining a new syntactic role, but this is not the first time it has done so.

Because has been a word in the English language for about 700 years. Before that, it was two words: by (at that time typically spelled bi) and cause. Preposition and noun. By cause of became because of; we also had because that—no longer in use—and because why, which has actually been around the whole time. Once the two words merged, the new single word naturally had a single syntactic role. In fact, even before the two words were written as one, they were already used to introduce a clause without further conjunction. See Chaucer’s prologue to the Franklin’s Tale: “by cause I am a burel man…”

So a multiple-word expression became a single modular unit. This happens in language—indeed, our prefixes and suffixes nearly all started out in the distant mists of history as separate words. Set as such, because sailed on for seven centuries, losing the that but otherwise holding steady. But we love to play with language like kids with erector sets, and, every so often, someone picks up a bit and sees if it can be screwed in somewhere else—just because. (more…)

Wordplay: When intransitives go transitive

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

We’ve all learned that there are two kinds of verbs: transitive and intransitive. Transitives take a direct object—“I fry an egg”—and intransitives don’t—“My stomach aches.” But that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s not actually quite right.

For one thing, there are also impersonal verbs (“It seems to me,” “It rained”), which don’t even have proper subjects, just empty pro forma its.

For another thing, there are different kinds of intransitive verbs. Linguists divide them into unergative, where the subject really is the one doing the thing, and unaccusative, where the subject is treated as being on the receiving end of the action and can be modified by the past participle. We see from the guests are departed and the departed guests that depart is unaccusative; run, on the other hand, is unergative—you can’t say the run horse.

There are also verbs that change from intransitive to transitive or vice versa—several kinds of them. We don’t always think about them. In fact, some details of them are still being argued about by linguists.

I think it’s time for a quick field guide to these changeable verbs, complete with their overstuffed technical names. (more…)

Wordplay: Tittle-ating jottings from the Bible

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

The King James Version of the Bible gives us two English words that usually travel together: jot and tittle. We find them in Matthew 5:18: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

These are two titillating words worth jotting down, especially if you’re the type type. Jot is an English rendition of the Greek iota, ἰῶτα, as in “not one iota of sense.” Iota, as I think you know, is the name of the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet: ι. But the law of which Jesus was speaking in the quote was not written in Greek. It was written in Hebrew. The smallest letter in Hebrew is called yod, and looks like the image on the left.

Yod, iota: is the similarity of name a coincidence? Of course not; they’re both descended from the Phoenician letter yodh, which, in turn, was probably descended from a picture of a hand. The Greek iota became the Latin I, which, in turn, over the centuries split into two letters, i and j. (Just incidentally, in German j is called jot, and in Spanish and Portuguese it’s jota, all from iota.) The dot on top appeared in the medieval era to make it stand out among all the other vertical strokes in the calligraphy, so you could more easily read, for instance, minimi (“the smallest”). (more…)

Wordplay: Are some words truly untranslatable?

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

What’s English for Schadenfreude? Schadenfreude, of course.

Words are like Barbie dolls or trading cards or Hummel figurines or camera lenses or kitchen gadgets: if we see one that fills a spot that we don’t already have filled, we want it. Even if we didn’t know that we needed to fill that spot until we saw the word.

This is surely one reason listicles about “untranslatable words” are currently popular. Perhaps you never thought before about wanting a word that means “the look on a person’s face as they watch the person ahead of them at a bakery take the last one of the pastry they wanted,” but once you see a word for it, gosh darn-it, you have to have it.*

The funny thing about those articles on untranslatable words, is that they always give translations for the words. And not just “Schadenfreude (n.): Schadenfreude,” either, but “Enjoyment of someone else’s suffering.” So, really, the words aren’t untranslatable, are they? Not any more than anything else is. There just isn’t a single word for them. (more…)

Wordplay: The new birds

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

Imagine going out for a stroll in the woods with a friend who loves birds. You hear a bird’s song. “What’s that?” you ask. “I don’t know,” your friend says; “I don’t recognize it. Let’s see if we can get a look at it.”

So, you walk slowly and carefully in the direction of the bird, your friend with high-powered binoculars and you with a long lens on your camera. “Ah, there!” you say, spotting a long-tailed specimen with an electric blue tail and white wings with red polka dots. It sings something that reminds you of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” You capture a few frames of the little songster while your friend gets a good look with the binocs.

“Well,” you say, “what is it?” You hold up a picture on the screen on the back of your camera. Your friend is flipping furiously through the field guide. Flip. Flip flip. Flip flip flip. Is it… no… wait, could it be… no… flip flip flip.

Flop.

Your friend closes the book. Whatever it is, it is not listed.

“That,” your friend says, “is not a bird.” (more…)