Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Annals of peevology: Shifting into a shift

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman recently quizzed readers about one of Richard Grant White's most fascinating peeves -- his dislike of the construction "is being built." That's only one of the gems of peevology offered by White, a 19th-century fount (or font) of entertaining prescriptivism. One of my favorite entries comes from a section of "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present" (1870) that White labeled "SQUEAMISH CANT" -- a collection of euphemisms resorted to by "people so prurient that they prick up their ears and blush at any implied distinction of sex in language, even in the name of a garment." It begins with an attack on the word chemise:
How and why English women came to call their first under-garment a chemise, it is not easy to discover. For in the French language the word means no more or less than shirt, and its meaning is not changed or its sound improved by those who pronounce it shimmy ...
Of the two names shirt and smock, given at a remote period to this garment, the first was common, like chemise in French, to both sexes. ... Shirt came to be confined to the man's garment, and smock to the woman's,  ... [but] by the large majority [smock] is now thought coarse — why, is past conjecture.  
The place of smock was taken and held for a time by shift — a very poor word for the purpose, the name of the act of changing being applied to the garment changed. As smock followed shirt, so shift has followed smock; and women have returned to shirt again, merely giving it its French name.
White even describes what Steve Pinker calls the euphemism treadmill:
It is more than possible that the granddaughters of those who now use [chemise] with no more thought that it is indelicate than stocking, may shrink as they now do from smock or shift, and for the same reason, or, rather, with the same lack of reason.*
What got my attention, though, was that aside I put in bold: White's observation that shift, the undergarment, is derived from shift meaning "to change clothes." And though his etymologies are not always accurate, this one is: The OED shows shift meaning "to change clothing" in 1400; in the 16th century, the noun shift acquired the sense a change of clothes," or what we might call an outfit:  "Of rayment he shall haue shiftes twentie" (c. 1570). And by 1601, we get shift meaning simply the undergarment -- the item of clothing most often changed, perhaps?

On the shifting succession of words for this "body-garment of linen, cotton, or the like," the OED concurs with White: "In the 17th c. smock began to be displaced by shift as a more ‘delicate’ expression; in the 19th c. the latter, from the same motive, gave place to chemise."

White claimed to hope that "good sense, simplicity, and real purity of thought should drive out the silly shame" that led people to use such euphemisms. But somehow I don't think Victoria's Secret was the kind of plain-spoken good sense he had in mind.

*I've broken White's text into several paragraphs for ease of reading.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Making money": Good English or all-American?

Fred Shapiro, the quote sleuth behind the Yale Book of Quotations, also contributes to the Freakonomics blog at the New York Times (a fact that ought to be blazoned abroad, in my view, but somehow is not). Anyway, he posted yesterday about the expression "make money," responding to a query about the assertion  (in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged") that Americans had coined the phrase.

We didn't, of course, but language watchers in the 19th century made the same claim -- as an accusation, not a boast. "Making money," had it been American, would have been just the sort of crass commercial lingo Americans were thought to enjoy. In his 1871 book, "Americanisms," Maximilian Schele de Vere refuted the notion:
It is equally unjust to charge Americans with the invention of the phrase, to make money, much as they may be addicted to the practice. Dr. Johnson already rebuked Boswell sharply for using it, and said: "Don't you see the impropriety of it? To make money is to coin it; you should say, to get money." 
In 1791, Johnson had lost that battle; as Shapiro notes, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase  "to make money" back to 1457, and "it was probably not Americans who were using it in 1457." And MWDEU notes that Shakespeare and Jane Austen also used the expression, though even in the mid-20th century you could find word mavens expressing a faint distaste.

Shapiro also  writes for the Yale Alumni Magazine, and this month's column covers familiar quotations that originated with (usually uncredited) women. "I will defend to the death your right to say it" isn't Voltaire's, "iron curtain" isn't Churchill's, "no time like the present" isn't an anonymous proverb -- and Shapiro can tell you where the bylines are buried.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The trouble with "trynewoed"

For this week’s Globe column, I wrote about the revamped OED Online, which is celebrating its relaunch by opening its doors to all through Feb. 5. I had to go back to check the login instructions, and they were simple enough: For both username and password, enter trynewoed. Interesting word, I thought -- what could it mean?

Yes, it was a supremely geeky-moronic moment. I thought this was an Anglo-Saxon word – a compound that had some delightful ancient meaning related to language treasures. I had actually typed tryne into the OED search box before it dawned on me … right. Try new OED. Of course.

Since I'd already wandered so far off course, I went ahead and clicked "search," and I felt just a little bit less moronic when it turned out that yes, tryne did have a brief existence, centuries ago, as one of the spellings of treen “made of tree, wooden” (and also of the non-Old English-derived words train and trine). Woed was also in the OED, as a Middle English past tense of wade and also as one ME spelling of the obsolete word wood meaning “nuts.” So trynewoed MIGHT have meant “tree crazy" or "wood mad." It just didn't.

My dyslexic episode has a silver lining, though: It reminded me of Wishydig, a language blog I haven't heard from in a while. As blogger Michael Covarrubias explained in a 2007 post, the name really is (not just in my delusions) Old English. But like my fictional trynewoed, it can be divided more than one way:  
Wishydig is an Old English compound word meaning "wise thinking." The first word in the compound, wis, is clear. The second word, hydig, is a variant form of hygdig (adjective form of hygd, mind, thought) meaning heedful, careful, prudent. 
Ever since I read that, I've been trying unable to decide whether to (mentally) pronounce the word as wis-hydig or as wishy-dig -- and not succeeding. Thanks a lot, Michael -- if only I could hope that trynewoed would torment  you back! 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Annals of overuse: "crank"

In researching today's Globe column, on the history of banished words, I learned that crank was among the words labeled "overworked" as long as a century ago. The Baltimore Sun article making the accusation -- reprinted in the New York Times (where I found it) in 1896 -- included this etymological discussion of crank:
That much overworked word “crank” gained universal vogue in connection with Guiteau’s assassination of President Garfield, but it was long before that applied by the late Don Piatt, who claimed to be its inventor, to Horace Greeley –- the purpose of it being to liken the famous editor to the crank of a hand organ,which is forever grinding out the same old tunes. The word, as we have now come to apply it, means much more and worse; it implies a condition of mind verging upon insanity, and this has given rise to the erroneous notion that it has its origin in the German word “krank.”
The hand organ association (allegedly) proposed by Don (or Donn) Piatt, a Civil War veteran and journalist, apparently didn't become part of the word's official history. The OED says the colloquial crank --  "a person with a mental twist ... esp. one who is enthusiastically possessed by a particular crotchet or hobby; an eccentric, a monomaniac" -- dates to 1833:  "Uncle Sam's ‘Old Mother Bank’ Is managed by a foreign crank." Since Piatt was born in 1819, he would probably have known this use of crank before he came up with the organ-grinding metaphor.

And though our crank is not derived from German krank, the words do share an ancestry. Crank comes from a rare Old English verb, says the OED, meaning "to fall in battle, of which the primitive meaning appears to have been ‘to draw oneself together in a bent form, to contract oneself stiffly, curl up.’ There are "numerous derivatives" in various languages: "English crank belongs to the literal sense-group, with the primary notion of something bent together or crooked; German and Dutch krank adj. ‘sick’, formerly ‘weak, slight, small,’ shows the figurative development."