Monday, July 02, 2012

Like the river, you can't step in twice

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, words, english language

I am not one of the twitterati. I do not have a Twitter account. I have trouble enough keeping up with FaceBook and this blog! As it happens, twittersphere is the 100th word in The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal. He chose it to exemplify the continued liveliness of English, or "the Englishes" if you accept that certain patois and pidgins have become new English languages (a Chinese friend who had lived in Malaysia explained it to me: Malay pidgin is English words strung together using Chinese grammar. Thus, "Long time no see" is an exact translation of a Chinese phrase into the corresponding English words. Remember that the next time you read a product brochure written in Chinglish.).

The language alternately called Old English or Anglo-Saxon arose in the late Fifth and early Sixth Century, an amalgam of the tongues spoken by the Germanic Angle, Saxon and Jute invaders who pretty much took over the island that now holds England, Scotland and Wales. To this day, nearly 80% of everyday English words are of Germanic origin. Of course, if you count scientific and technical words, you get a larger proportion of Latin and Greek terms, but less than 30% of the population is scientifically or technically trained, so you can hardly call them "everyday".

True to this origin, Professor Crystal's compendium begins with a Fifth Century word, roe. The word referred to the roe-deer, not to fish eggs. That came much later, via another word of similar sound. Very few words of such ancient lineage survive, however. The book's second selection is from the Eighth Century. By my count, the author spread his collection over the centuries thus:
  • 5: 1
  • 8: 2
  • 9: 5
  • 10: 5
  • 11: 2
  • 12: 1
  • 13: 9
  • 14: 9
  • 15: 2
  • 16: 8 (The century of Shakespeare)
  • 17: 13 (The century of the King James Bible)
  • 18: 4
  • 19: 13
  • 20: 21
  • 21: 5
I pride myself on a comprehensive knowledge of the language (that is, a large vocabulary), but a few of the words were unknown to me: bodgery (16th, since replaced by "bungling"), mipela (19th, from a Papuan pidgin; the intensive plural of "me"), doobry (early 20th, akin to "whatzits"), and bagonize (late 20th, waiting at baggage claim). In many of the essays, a dozen or more, perhaps 50-100, words that in some way relate are also mentioned. Thus doobry is accompanied by doodad, doofer, dooshanks, and also doohickey, doojigger, and then whatchacallit, whatchamacallit, thingy, thingummy, jigmaree, and a good many others. All just to say, "I don't know what to call it, but I know what I am looking for".

If you dig into almost any word's origin and history, you'll find surprises. The common epithet "Dude!" just means what "guy" meant a decade or so ago, but it referred to a cowboy wannabe when I was a child, and to a dandy (today we'd say "metrosexual") when the word first appeared in 1883. Like many new coinages, once it caught on, it spawned a number of related words and phrases such as duded up. The author mentions the short tenure of the female forms dudine and dudess. Here I can happily add to the author's knowledge: the proper female form, when used at all, is dudette (at least for now!).

Word play is a fruitful source of new words. Brunch is a portmanteau word, packing two meanings into one word (as Humpty Dumpty explained to Alice). Dally (from "delay") spun off dilly-dally by reduplication, which led to a host of words bearing a similar rhythm. And then there are attempts to deal with ambiguity. The pronoun "you" is both singular and plural. In the American South, y'all and a number of variants arose originally as a plural "you". The trouble is, it soon became equally ambiguous, and at least around Houston when I lived there 35 years ago, y'all just meant "you, singular", and all y'all or all-a-you-all was the plural form. And they really did say "Y'all come back now, hear?", no matter how many people were saying goodbye.

Leaving out the millions of terms such as Homo sapiens or Tyrannosaurus rex or E. coli (who knows how to pronounce "Escherichia" anyway?) that refer to specific biological species, there are still about a million words of English. Summarizing them in 100 exemplars is no small task. The good professor has done a masterful survey of the ways that words were coined and cobbled together, and dragged, cajoled and kidnapped into the English language, to form the very living tongue spoken, in numerous variants and dialects, by a third of the peoples of the Earth.

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