Monday, March 05, 2012

Ever see a single smithereen?

kw: words, wordplay

I suppose we have all heard the term "blasted to smithereens." Some years ago, I began to wonder, was there ever the singular word "smithereen"? As it happens, yes, indeed. The word is of Irish origin, and began as a name. Somehow, it morphed into a synonym for "smidgen" and similar words meaning a tiny bit. Once the phrase "blown to smithereens" arose in the 1880s, this usage came to dominate, so by 1940 or so, the singular form nearly dropped out of use.

Other words seen only, or almost only, as plural forms include
  • Clothes, as in "Put on your clothes." "Clothe" is a verb, and "a clothe" as a noun is practically unknown.
  • Scissors, usually "pair of scissors", though sometimes I've heard "get me a scissors". In one of his lesser known songs, Allen Sherman ("Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah") asked if "half a pair of scissors is a single sizz?". I am guessing at the spelling!
  • Glasses and spectacles, as referring to eyewear, are always plural, but both words occur in singular form with other meanings.
Certain words occur in phrases beginning "pair of": earrings, pants, trousers, jeans, shoes, slippers, gloves. Most of these are less commonly used in singular form, such as "I dropped an earring", although I have never seen or heard "a jean".

Then there are collective, plural nouns such as people and police. There are instances in which "these peoples" is a valid usage, but I know of no way that "polices" can appear except as a verb.

Language is a funny beast. A language grows organically. Attempts to construct language produce, at best, niches of usage. Esperanto is the best example, and it is experiencing change as its limitations cause distress. The existence of such "always plural" (or nearly so) words indicates that there is a need for such constructs, and nowhere is it more evident than in language, that necessity is the mother of invention.

1 comment:

Bill Chapman said...

You write that Esperanto "is experiencing change as its limitations cause distress." I've used Esperanto for many, many years, but I'm at a loss as to what those limitations might be, and I've never met a distressed Esperanto speaker, except one who had just had his car stolen.

You can do anything in Esperanto you can do in any other language: preach a moving sermon, make a tub-thumping political speech, write scientific papers, read gossip and news on Libera Folio and in a host of periodicals, and react to other people’s views, sing folk-songs, perform in or watch a play, scold disobedient children. You can be honest, dishonest, devious, alarmingly frank. Esperanto is “infinitely functional”. Of course, there is messiness, and people make false starts and don’t always complete what they intend to say. What people say can be misunderstood as in any other language, but clarification can easily be sought and given.