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. 


Kay L. Davies said...

Well, I'm certainly no linguist, but I just did that thing old editors do: I looked in a dictionary. I'm not saying my online dictionary has the authority of the OED, but it definitely does say "weaned on" and "weaned off" (i.e. weaned off drugs).
It gives as the origin the Old English word wenian, related to the Dutch word wennen and the German word entwohnen.
Nothing about winnow or weed.
I love the "weaned on a pickle" story!
-- K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Charles Matthews said...

"Wean out" for "weed out" seems to me analogous to "hone in on" for "home in on." An eggcorn of sorts.

Unknown said...

I read "weaned on a pickle" to be short for "weaned from his mother's breast on a pickle", that is given a pickle as a pacifier.

Jan said...

Richard: yes, that's how "weaned on" is intended; it's just that there was a brief (mid-20c) objection to that extension of meaning.Kay: Yes, I said that popular usage paid no heed to that purist objection; "wean out" is in all the dictionaries. And what I want from a linguist (or someone who plays one on the intertubes) is a judgment on the plausibility of "winnow out" being shortened to "wean out." Thanks for the comments!