• Monthly Archives: October 2013

Stomping Ground (Folk Etymology)

October 28, 2013

All languages tend to develop in a certain direction, which can be characterized by the technical term diagrammaticity, denoting a closer fit between form and meaning, or more accurately, between sets of forms and sets of meanings, since a diagram (in Peirce’s semeiotic) is an icon of relation. When a word or phrase seems to go against this principle, a change may occur––first in popular speech, then gradually in most if not all styles––that reflects a reinterpretation of the unrecognizable or ill-suited elements of the word or phrase in question. This process is instantiated in what goes by the name folk etymology (a calque [loan translation] of the German Volksetymologie). For example, the modern word bridegroom is the result of folk etymology: in Old English it was brydguma ‘bride-man’, but when the Old English word guma ‘man’ (cognate with Latin homo) fell out of use, the latter was reinterpreted as groom. Here is a description of the process from the OED:

Etymology: α. Old English brýdguma, < brýd, bride n. + guma ‘man’ (poetic) < *Old Germanic gumon-, cognate with Latin homin-. The compound was Common Germanic: compare Old Saxon brûdigomo (Middle Dutch brûdegome, Dutch bruidegom), Old High German brûtigomo (Middle High German briutegome, German bräutigam), Old Norse brûðgumi (Swedish brudgumme, Danish brudgom) < Old Germanic *brúđigumon-; not preserved in Gothic, which has brûþfaþs = ‘bride’s lord’. β. After gome n. became obsolete in Middle English, the place of bridegome was taken in 16th cent. by bridegrome, < grome, groom n. ‘lad’.

The contemporary American phrase stomping ground, in the meaning of ‘a place where one habitually spends/spent much of one’s time’ is the product of folk etymology in two respects. First, the form of the verb, viz. stomp, is an American dialectal version of the English stamp, which has replaced the original in most meanings. Second, the original meaning of stamping ground(s) referred to a place where animals (esp. cattle) habitually gathered, as in this example from the OED: “1862 Harper’s Mag. June 34/1, I found myself near one of these ‘stamping grounds’, and a simultaneous roar from five hundred infuriated animals gave notice of my danger.” A dwindling minority of speakers of American English still preserve the original form of the phrase, but its complete replacement by the newer one is inevitable.


Linguistic Slovenliness as a Failure of Thought

Speech can be precise, even eloquent, but it can also be slovenly, promiscuous, and maladroit. One sign of linguistic maladroitness is the constant recurrence to clichés of all sorts, as often happens in media language and the blather of politicians. Take the following factitious example:

“The low-hanging fruit can be picked anytime and canned, but just remember not to kick the can down the road because at the end of the day the fact is is that you’ll bump up against the bottom line, which could be a slippery slope that’ll drop you over the fiscal cliff.”

On one hand, the use of clichés is understandable because it facilitates a type of linguistic parsimony and compactness that lend themselves to an economy of communication. On the other hand, habitual recurrence to formulas and buzz words invariably abuts in a species of mental slovenliness that betokens a failure of thought, which is why it ought to be avoided at all costs.


“Heiße Magister, heiße Doktor gar” (Goethe, Faust, Pt. 1, “Night”)

October 26, 2013

German is no longer a commonly studied language in America, which is a great pity, given its power and scope. One interesting and rather quaint feature of traditional German onomastic practice is addressing the wives of men who bear the academic titles “Doctor” and “Professor” as “Frau [Mrs.] Doktor so-and-so” and even “Frau Professor Doktor so-and-so.” (Note that “Professor” precedes “Doctor.”)

In contemporary American academe, there is a strange bifurcation in the use of the titles “Dr.” and “Professor” whereby students and teachers in junior, community, and state colleges––notably in the rural South and the Southwest, where this also applies to private institutions––typically use only “Dr.” for designees with doctorates, even when the person so named/addressed is of professorial rank, whereas in Northern private (esp. elite) universities the habitual appellation is “Professor.” This bifurcation seems to apply, for instance, even when the person addressed is a private university professor, so long as the colleague speaking is from a Southern institution. Thus I am routinely addressed/referred to by former students who now teach at Southern universities as “Dr. Shapiro.”

Some narrowly literal-minded academics withhold the title “Professor” from persons who do not occupy professorial positions at the time when they are being addressed. A grotesque instance (remembered here from bitter experience) is the treatment of my late wife––the most accomplished and versatile American Italianist of the twentieth century–– by a nincompoop of a male colleague, who referred to her as “Professor Shapiro” only so long as she was teaching and held professorial rank, but stripped her of this title whenever she was between jobs, at which times he invariably referred to her as “Dr. Shapiro.”

A final personal sidebar, for the nonce: one of my oldest and dearest friends, an eminent prosthodontist, always introduces me as “Dr. Shapiro.” Coming from him, I take this as a special mark of honor and respect. After all: any fool can be a professor––but not a doctor.


Etymology as Present Knowledge

October 20, 2013

As with any kind of knowledge, information about word origins varies from speaker to speaker and affects language use accordingly. Clearly, one does not have to know anything about the etymology of the words in one’s native language in order to have an adequate command of the language. However, in speaking with an interlocutor who uses etymological data implicitly in order to convey a meaning––principally, in puns or other species of paronomasia––one is at a disadvantage in fully understanding an utterance that utilizes paronomasia without sharing the knowledge that underlies such word play.

The lack of etymological knowledge may also lead to erroneous word use. A typical contemporary case in both British and American English is that of the phrase “begging the question,” which is a direct translation of Latin petitio principii and is a type of fallacy in which an implicit premiss would directly entail the conclusion (i. e., basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself). Speakers and writers ignorant of the phrase’s origin use it more and more frequently as a substitute for “raising the question,” and some usage manuals now recognize this erroneous meaning as acceptable.

Knowledge of a word’s origin and meaning field can also serve to heighten one’s sense of the semantic implications of the word. A good case in point is filibuster, which was notoriously in the news a few weeks ago in connection with a certain U. S. senator’s legislative shenanigans. Here is the word’s etymology, as cited from The Oxford English Dictionary Online:

Etymology: The ultimate source is certainly the Dutch vrijbuiter in Kilian vrij-bueter (see freebooter n.). It is not clear whether the 16th cent. English form flibutor, of which we have only one example, was taken from Dutch directly or through some foreign language. Late in the 18th cent. the French form flibustier was adopted into English, and continued to be used, with occasional variations of spelling, until after the middle of the nineteenth century. About 1850–54, the form filibuster, < Spanish filibustero, began to be employed as the designation of certain adventurers who at that time were active in the W. Indies and Central America; and this has now superseded the earlier flibustier even with reference to the history of the 17th cent.

The derivation of filibuster from freebooter ‘originally: a privateer. Later more generally: a piratical adventurer, a pirate; any person who goes about in search of plunder. Also fig. and in extended use’ only serves to aggrandize the meaning:

Etymology: < Dutch vrijbuiter privateer, pirate, robber (1572) < vrijbuit prize, spoils, plunder (1575; chiefly in the phrase op vrijbuit varen to go capturing ships or plundering, op vrijbuit gaan , and variants;< vrij free adj. + buit booty n.; compare Middle Low German vrībǖte (> Swedish fribyte (1561)), German Freibeute (1571 as freye peuth , or earlier)) + -er -er suffix. Compare Middle Low German vrībǖter (> Swedish fribytare (1559)), German Freibeuter (1569 as fribuiter, or earlier); also Middle French vributeur, vributer (1582;< Dutch), all in sense ‘privateer, pirate’. Compare filibuster n.

The original meanings of both filibuster and freebooter are now lost to most speakers of English. A pity, given that the behavior of ‘one who practices obstruction in a legislative assembly’ can and should be evaluated in the light of the words’ etymology.


A Unique Case of Vowel Harmony in English (lambaste)

October 13, 2013

Vowel harmony is a type of assimilatory phonological process involving vowels separated by consonants––i. e., not adjacent to each other––that occurs in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on which vowels may be found in adjacent or succeeding  syllables. For example, a vowel at the beginning of a word can trigger assimilation in a vowel at the end of a word. The Uralic group (like Finnish and Hungarian) and Turkic (like Turkish and Tatar) are prominent instances of language families with vowel harmony. Thus in Hungarian, város ‘city’ has the dative form városnak, whereas öröm ‘joy’ has örömnek: the dative suffix has two different forms -nak/-nek. The -nak form appears after the root with back vowels (a and o are both back vowels), whereas -nek appears after the root with front vowels (ö and e are front vowels).

English does not have vowel harmony as a regular phenomenon, but a trace of this process may account for the strange case of the common mispronunciation in both British and American English of the verb lambaste as [lambást], which is a compound consisting of the verbs lam and baste, both of which mean ‘to beat soundly, thrash, cudgel’. Since the pronunciation of the second unit baste is invariably [béyst], the pronunciation of the compound ought not to vary from [lambéyst], but does anyway. Only vowel harmony, where the vowel of lam influences that of baste, suggests itself as an explanation for this deviation.


“Going Forward” (The Triumph of Agency)

October 6, 2013

Over the last few decades the American finance industry has given birth to the phrase “going forward” as a replacement for the quotidian and conventional phrase “in the future” to designate time, e. g., “If it is true that America’s biggest banks are too big to be ‘resolved’, this has profound implications for our banking system going forward [emphasis added] . . . .” (Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy [New York, 2010, p. 118]). No one in the finance industry doubtless thinks twice about the cognitive implications of this substitution, but an analysis that links language necessarily to its users’ forma mentis will demonstrate that the upshot is hardly trivial.

All languages of the world deal with time by spatializing it. Accordingly, in the future is a phrase that localizes/locates future time, just as in the past and in the present do. By contrast, going forward specifies future time as a point that is achieved by motive force, with the added connotation of reaching that point through AGENCY. Although it is true that time is conceptualized as something that “goes/proceeds/travels forward,” the motion involved is embodied by an agent, human or otherwise, as in the sentence fragment quoted above (“banking system going forward”), where the phrase can also be secondarily interpreted as detached from any agent to mimic the grammatical status of in the future.

The semantic content comported by the new phrase vis-à-vis its traditional variant turns on the presence of the verb go, with its necessary grammatical reference to time and a concomitant implied agent––a content absent from the spatialized phrase in the locative. There has thus been not merely a linguistic change but a conceptual––and cultural––shift in the increasing preference for going forward: time has thereby been assimilated to agency, showing (yet again) that the purported dichotomy between language and society is false.


An Interstitial New Meaning of ‘Multiple’

October 4, 2013

In an earlier post (April 16, 2013), the contemporary substitution of multiple for many was attributed to iconicity. However, on second thought, there is an alternate explanation.

Multiple may have arisen as a designator of number because it is non-committal as to whether it means ‘many’ or ‘several’. This new meaning––something between the two––evidently fits a semantic niche that speakers and writers wish to exploit when neither many nor several fills the bill. This new connotation of multiple is: ‘not as few in number as several and not as great as many’.