Saturday, January 03, 2009


Words, Words, Words

An email from David Norton, commenting on a reviewer's disapproval of dolorifuge and other such words in Hardy:
A few words—with which I guess you will sympathize—in defense of Hardy.

a) Who supposes Tess to be set in Arcadia?

b) At least four of the words deprecated continue current in their scientific applications 107 years after the novel was published.

c) Hardy chose his words with care. Robert Graves, in "The Poet in a Valley of Dry Bones", relates an anecdote that I have always enjoyed: "The exact right word is sometimes missing from the dictionary. Thomas Hardy told me, in 1924 or so, that he now made it his practice to confirm doubtful words and that, a few days before, when looking up one such in the OED, he had found it, to be sure. But the only reference was 'Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, 1874.'"

An email from Eric Thomson:
Your post this morning has provided the first auto-antonym of 2009 (obscured a little by Kathryn Lindskoog's edited text, and by the fact that 'nor' unhelpfully means 'than') .'Dout' in Scots often has the meaning 'suspect that x is true', as here in George MacDonald's 'doobts', rather than 'suspect that x is false'.

I'm puzzled by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans on 'avocation'. What about the first line of Bartleby, or is this Melville engaged in un-American activities?

Old trunks ... 'doomed to ... greater girth/ And this is all their wisdom and their art/ To grow, stretch, crack, and not come apart'. Too true, particularly at this time of year.

Apropos morsels of fish smothered with sauce, I share your preference for a thin ribbon of text on the page atop mighty twin towers of commentary, the text almost as pretext.

Kenneth Haynes, English Literature and Ancient Languages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; rpt. 2007), p. 51:
Phonetic proximity to taboo words is a recurrent anxiety in languages, although the particular taboos, and their intensity, keep changing. For centuries, this has brought about linguistic innovations in English: earl rather than count; donkey rather than ass; rooster rather than cock.
Geoffrey Hughes, A History of English Words (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 48:
Even more interesting historically are the substitute terms which have no obvious relationship with the taboo word. For example, donkey, which one would expect to be a common word found in the earliest stages of the language, is actually recorded only in 1785. The traditional synonym, ass, had been in the language since Celtic times, and was the natural word in Scripture, proverb and folklore. However, in the eighteenth century the word started to fall into disrepute through an uncomfortable proximity to arse, so that the lexicographer Francis Grose observed that 'a lady who affected to be extremely polite and modest would not say ass because it was indecent.' Thus donkey, a dialect word, moved into the lexical gap....A similar syndrome is apparent in American English, where cock has traditionally been replaced by euphemisms and substitutions: hence rooster for the farmyard fowl, faucet for cock in the sense of 'tap', and the emasculated form roach for cockroach. (By contrast, in British English cock has never been a taboo term and is found in dozens of compounds, notably cock-horse.)
A comparison of two Bible translations (International Standard Version versus King James Version) illustrates how donkey and rooster have supplanted ass and cock.
John 12.14 (International Standard Version): Then Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it.

John 12.14 (King James Version): And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon.

Matthew 26.34 (International Standard Version): Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny me three times."

Matthew 26.34 (King James Version): Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. pissing, defines pissing contest as "a competition to see who can urinate the furthest or highest; (in extended use) any contest which is futile or purposeless, esp. one pursued in a conspicuously aggressive manner," with the first citation from 1943 Study & Investig. of Federal Communications Comm. (Hearings before U.S. House Select Comm. to Investigate F.C.C.) I. 691:
'You boys have to understand..that I have to deal with a combination like that of Hartley-David; it is like having a pissing contest with a skunk'. I felt rather shocked at that. Of course, I felt that the expression was very rude.
The OED's first citation of pissing match is 1971 Washington Post 7 Dec. A12/6:
One Western diplomat,..discounting the significance of the Sino-Soviet arguments..described it as 'a pissing match, and I'm glad not to be caught in the crossfire'.
See Trevor Corson, The Secret Life of Lobsters (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), chapter 13, where he describes a literal pissing match:
The American lobster urinates not from some posterior region of its body, but directly out the front of its face. Two bladders inside the head hold copious amounts of urine, which the lobster squirts through a pair of muscular nozzles beneath its antennae. These powerful streams mix with the gill outflow and are carried some five feet ahead of the lobster in its plume....What the researchers discovered during the ensuing fights was that dueling lobsters accompanied their most punishing blows during combat by intense squirts of piss at the opponent's face. What was more, in scenes akin to a showdown at the OK Corral, the winner of the physical combat almost always turned out to be the lobster that had urinated first. And well after the fight was over, the winner kept pissing. By contrast, the loser shuts off his urine valves immediately.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?