Saturday, April 30, 2011

Annals of prescriptivism: Remit

I’ve lately turned to crosswords as an insomnia remedy, so at last I’m getting familiar with the standard puzzle lexicon (ASTA, NOLO, LYE, SLOE, etc.). I wouldn’t have guessed REMIT would be on the list, but I’ve seen it twice this month in the NYT puzzle, both times with the same "send a payment" sense as a clue.

Remit caught my eye because, thanks to Ambrose Bierce, I know of its brief career as a usage shibboleth. For a few decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the “send a check” sense of the verb was roundly disparaged by American usage mavens. Here is Richard Grant White, who knew how to rant, writing in “Words and Their Uses,” 1870:
Remit. — Why should this word be thrust continually into the place of send? In its proper sense, to send back, and hence to relax, to relinquish, to surrender, to forgive, it is a useful and respectable word; but why one man should say to another, I will remit you the money, instead of, I will send you the money, it would be difficult to say, did we not so frequently see the propensity of people for a big word of which they do not know the meaning exactly, in preference to a small one that they have understood since childhood.
J. H. Long, “Slips of Tongue and Pen,” 1889:
Do not use remit for send. Remit means to send back, to relax, to surrender, to forgive. "To send a remittance," is still worse.
Albert Newton Raub, “Helps in the Use of Good English,” 1897:
Remit for send. — The word remit means to "send again," or "to send back," and there seems to be no good reason why it should be used for the word send. If one were to comply literally with the request to remit when a bill is sent, he would send the bill back instead of paying it. The word has, however, found a place in commercial transactions from which it could be dislodged with difficulty.
Ambrose Bierce, “Write It Right,” 1909:
Remit for Send. "On receiving your bill I will remit the money." Remit does not mean that; it means give back, yield up, relinquish, etc. It means, also, to cancel, as in the phrase, the remission of sins.
You’ve got the usual objections here: The imputation that people who use the word are trying to sound fancy; the assertion that remit “doesn’t mean” what people are using it to mean; the lament that it’s business jargon, polluting the pure stream of noncommercial English.

But the outbreak of peeving didn't spread far. Robert Palfrey Utter, in “Every-Day Words and Their Uses” (1916), administered a dose of reality:
The facts do not bear out the assertion that "remit should not be used in place of send; remit means to send back." Remit does not mean send back except in the phrases now rare, remit  to prison, remit to custody. It does not mean send in ordinary senses, but has the special meaning to send money or valuables, used either with direct and indirect objects, as, "Remit me a hundred dollars," or absolutely, as, "He was compelled to remit," "Please remit."
How right he was:  The OED has remit meaning “To send or transfer (something, esp. money) to a person or place” dated to 1545-44, when it appeared in the Statutes of the Realm in the reign of Henry VIII, and in continuous use ever since. But quotes from Johnson, Jefferson, and Macaulay would  not, perhaps, have persuaded the most committed peevologists; remit probably survived not because of its pedigree but because (as Raub noted) it had made itself useful as a term of commerce.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Weeding, weaning, winnowing

In my Globe column Sunday, I looked at the spreading use of wean out in cases where I would have expected weed out. And I briefly mentioned the short-lived controversy over whether weaned on was proper English -- certain sticklers having claimed you could be weaned from mother’s milk, but not weaned on anything.

Too briefly, said reader Russ Greene, who wondered how I could have omitted the famous quip attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, that Calvin Coolidge looked as if he’d been “weaned on a pickle."

I have no excuse; I just didn't think of it. It's a great line, even though, as Greene noted, Longworth did not claim credit for the witticism; she heard it at her doctor’s office, as she recounts in her 1933 memoir, “Crowded Hours”: 

When I came in he was grinning with amusement and said, “Mrs. Longworth, the patient who has just left said something that I am sure will make you laugh. We were discussing the President, and he remarked, ‘Though I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr. Coolidge, I do wish he did not look as if he had been weaned on a pickle.’” Of course I shouted with pleasure and told every one, always carefully giving credit to the unnamed originator, but in a very short time it was attributed to me.*

In other wean/weed commentary, a couple of readers have suggested that wean out (in the sense “weed out”) could be short for winnow out, which would make more sense semantically. For some reason that doesn't sound plausible to me – because winnow doesn’t sound all that much like wean? Because winnow is less common in spoken English? But I don't know enough to evaluate the idea; maybe a Real Linguist will give us some help in the comments.

*"Crowded Hours" is available at Google Books, but I first found Longworth's account in Ralph Keyes's invaluable book, "The Quote Verifier." Barry Popik's etymology website, The Big Apple, quotes two reports from 1924 that attribute the witticism to Longworth. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Word: Isinglass

In my last post (on some British vocabulary) I mentioned blancmange, giving the first part of the definition from the (century-old) Century Dictionary. It’s worth quoting in full:
Blancmange: In cookery, a name of different preparations of the consistency of jelly, variously composed of dissolved isinglass, arrowroot, corn-starch, etc., with milk and flavoring substances. It is frequently made from a marine alga, Chondrus crispus, called Irish moss, which is common on the coasts of Europe and North America. The blancmanger mentioned by Chaucer in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1. 387, was apparently a compound made of capon minced with flour, sugar, and cream.
One of the commenters, Gil, didn’t see how the isinglass he knew could be edible:
I dunno where that cockamamie reference book got isinglass and such. Who today knows what isinglass is? I have seen some as a kid -- it's a transparent sort of quartz that can be split into thin sheets (and used for windows on the surrey with the fringe on top). … I don't think the FDA would approve of an isinglass pudding nowadays.
Like Gil, I knew the isinglass that was translucent (and a feature of the pretty little surrey in the song from “Oklahoma!”). But I also vaguely knew it was an animal product. So what is it really?

It’s both. The original isinglass (first OED cite 1545) is "a firm whitish semitransparent substance (being a comparatively pure form of gelatin) obtained from the sounds or air-bladders of some fresh-water fishes, esp. the sturgeon; used in cookery for making jellies, etc., also for clarifying liquors, in the manufacture of glue, and for other purposes." The word may be “a corruption or imperfect imitation of an obsolete Dutch huisenblas (Kilian huysenblase, huysblas), German hausenblase isinglass, lit. ‘sturgeon's bladder.’”

Two centuries later, the second sense of isinglass appears: “A name given to mica, from its resembling in appearance some kinds of isinglass.”

Whether this isinglass could be used in curtains that would "roll right down, in case there's a change in the weather" is still being debated. Luckily for me (and you), Joel Segal, a bookseller in England, looked into the matter quite thoroughly in January at his blog. The fish-based isinglass, he reports, "was a versatile and expensive commercial product, used as a gum, a food gelling agent, as the sticking medium for surgical plasters, as stiffener for cloth, as a sealant for preserving eggs, and for making mock pearls."

The other isinglass, he says, is
the transparent variety -- otherwise called muscovite -- of the mineral mica. In some parts of world, notably Russia (hence the name muscovite -- i.e. pertaining to Moscow), it's found in large enough sheets to make small window panes, so it was historically used for applications where tough, slightly flexible, heat-resistant, transparent material was needed, such as furnace or lantern windows.
But in actual usage, he finds, the two substances -- both now unfamiliar -- have often been conflated or confused. Thanks for all your research, Joel!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fish slice, blancmange, pong: How BrE is it?

I picked up the paperback of “So Much for That,” Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, for a recent plane ride, and I found that along with a good story, it offered readers a little Separated by a Common Language game to play.  

Shriver is American-born but has lived abroad a lot, and in London since 1999. This novel, unlike her last one, is set in New York, with American characters. The vocabulary, however, has some locutions that sounded more Brit than Yank to me.

Most striking is the name of a hand-forged kitchen utensil – a work of art that’s important in the book – that is called, from start to finish, a fish slice. I’d never heard the term – even during a stint as a food section copy editor – but of course it was easy to ask Mr. Google, who said it was essentially a spatula.

The other suspicious words were all ones I knew, but thought of as more or less distinctly British. Do you -- whatever your vantage point -- share that impression? Or am I imagining things? Here are the terms that caught my eye (in context), with definitions following: 

“Freeloaders and Fall Guys. Saps and Spongers. Slaves and Skivers” (p. 76). Skiver: One who avoids work; a shirker; a truant. (OED).

“A sip of pineapple juice, the Tuesday blancmange with strawberry sauce …” (p 134). Blancmange: In cookery, a name of different preparations of the consistency of jelly, variously composed of dissolved isinglass, arrowroot, corn-starch, etc., with milk and flavoring substances. (Century Dictionary, at

“They just wanted to collect their whacking fees for bedside phones” (p. 141). Whacking: Very large; huge. (American Heritage, via Wordnik)

“Maybe the best in me, to me, is hateful, vindictive, and ill-wishing” (p. 147). Ill-wish: To bring misfortune upon, or bewitch, by wishing evil, according to a popular belief in some rural districts. (OED) I’ve mentioned this before, and Lynneguist offered some support (see the comments) for my impression that it was mostly BrE.

“Flicka was deliberately winding her mother up, pushing her to cross a line” (p. 175). Wind up: to annoy, to provoke deliberately (colloq.). (OED)

“He was largely unaware of the pong of paper mills that fugged his hometown” (p. 203). Pong: A strong smell, usually unpleasant; a stink. (OED)

(I wondered about fug, too, but since I knew the noun – “A heavy, stale atmosphere, especially the musty air of an overcrowded or poorly ventilated room” (AHD) – I didn't think I'd have noticed the verb if I hadn't been looking for oddities. But it may be more frequent in BrE.)

Notes, dissents, and further elaborations welcome.