03/30/14

Feetish or Fettish?


Crazy English
I was surprised to recently read in David Crystal’s book, The Story of English in 100 Words, that fetish – which I pronounce “feh-tesh” –  was once pronounced “feetish.” In fact, in the 1920s, Crystal writes, the BBC had that pronunciation in its guide for radio broadcasters.*

It makes sense, of course, when you think about it. Usually when there is a single consonant before a vowel, that vowel is pronounced long. It usually takes two consonants to shorten it. For example:

  • Holy and holly;
  • Mater and matter;
  • Scared and scarred;
  • Hater and hatter;
  • Pater and patter;
  • Diner and dinner;
  • Coping and copping;
  • Caning and canning, and so on.

So logically, it should be written as “fettish” or pronounced “feetish.” One or the other. But it isn’t. And who would ever say “feetish” today? It sounds rather prurient.

English is a wonderfully exceptional language – in that it has so many exceptions to the rules. Fetish-as-fettish is just one of too many to list. Part of the joy of learning and mastering English resides in these exceptions. And part of the frustration.

Locally we have a similar example: Paterson Street. Some folk pronounce that name “Pay-terson” – others “Pah-terson.” Which is correct? Both will be found in pronunciation guides. What’s right is whatever the locals call it, I suppose. To me, it’s logical to make it a long “a” because of the single consonant: Pay-terson. But the city of Paterson, New Jersey makes it short.

So you pronounce it however the natives pronounce it, and the logic of double consonants be damned. After all, how do you pronounce Worcester? That’s English for you.

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03/11/14

What’s in a missing word?


HoraceThere’s a line in one of Horace’s epistles that really caught my eye. In Latin it reads:

Utque sacerdotis fugitiuus liba recuso,
pane egeo iam mellitis potiore placentis
Horace: Epistles, Book I, X

No, I can’t translate it.* However, I was reading David Ferry’s 2001 translation and he renders it like this:

I’m like that slave who ran away because
They fed him honey cakes and he longed for bread.

That appealled to me both for my recent passion for making bread, but also for its philosophic – almost Buddhist – intent.

Ferry gives us both the Latin and English, and I struggle to match the original with the English version. And in doing so, something about his translation bothered me. Something missing.

Wikipedia tells us that Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) epistle X is about:

The Advantages of Country Life – (Addressed to Aristius Fuscus, to whom Ode I.22 is also addressed). This epistle begins with Horace contrasting his own love of the country with his friend’s fondness for the town; then follows the praise of Nature; and finally the poet dwells on the superior happiness that moderate means and contentment afford, compared with riches and ambition.

Fine. I understand: Horace is saying he prefers the plain life of the country, not the honey-cake life of the city. He doesn’t need the luxuries and the excesses to be content.

Ferry isn’t a literal translator: more of a poetic one. He’s been acclaimed for that, and criticized for it, too, but I like his work. Many English renditions of Latin poetry come across as stilted and forced, while I find Ferry’s work much smoother and reads more naturally (some call it “approachable”). (Read here how other English-speaking poets have variously tackled Horace)

Still, one Latin word in the original stuck out as missing in translation: sacerdotis.

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02/14/14

Amo, Amas, Amat…. and what?


Wheelock's LatinMy well-thumbed copy of Eugene Ehrlich’s book, Amo, Amas, Amat and More, is dated 1985. It’s amusingly subtitled “How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others.”

It’s still in print, it seems, or was as recently as 2006. I’ve read my copy on and off for the past 25-plus years, but have not been able to effectively astonish anyone with my grasp of Latin.

Possibly the reason for this is that my grasp of Latin is small. Very small. I had a single year of Latin classes in high school; lessons mostly relegated to the dustbin of my mind along with solving quadratic equations. The rest I’ve scrounged from other books and sources. It’s less a grasp than a smattering of random bits.

I’d like it to be better. As in to actually be able to read and understand at least elementary Latin, not merely recognize that the words on the page are in Latin. Which is, at present, Greek to me (if you’ll pardon the inexecrable joke…). And certainly better able to write it than cutting-and-pasting the inevitable Lorem ipsum placeholder into a draft design project.

So last week I took the plunge and ordered a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, 7th Edition, from Amazon with the intention of teaching myself. And hope not get too distracted by other books, baking, computer games, politics, pets and Friday housework… ooh, a new ukulele….

My learning accomplishments in Latin to date include reading the first 40 or so pages (mostly introduction and pronunciation basics) and memorizing the present tense verb conjugations of two -are and -ere verbs in Lesson One. Which means I’m about a hundred years of effort from having enough Latin in my grey matter to astonish anyone other than my dogs.

Laudo, laudas, laudat, laudamus, laudatis, laudant… plus the imperative: lauda and laudate. Impressed yet? Yeah, so were my dogs. But it’s one small step further along this path than last week. A journey of a thousand li starts beneath one’s feet, as Lao Tzu wrote. This is my early footing, then.

I dug my Ehrlich off the shelf this morning, along with a couple of aged Latin dictionaries and every book about Latin I could find in my collection. It’s a fairly thin lot. But I need some extra help as struggle through Wheelock’s Latin on my own – a lot more than I currently have on the shelves.

I need at least one collection of Latin verbs nicely conjugated for my enjoyment, plus grammar guides, workbooks, and some better dictionaries. And maybe some source material (interlinear translations would be nice), like the one I have for the Canterbury Tales).

Ka-ching, the Amazon.ca cash register is singing (hinc illae lacrimae…) (okay, I had to dig that one out of a file of Latin phrases…)

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01/16/14

Saving Fubsy from Lexicographical Caliginosity


Old DictionaryCousin Stephen, you will never be a saint. Isle of saints. You were awfully holy, weren’t you? You prayed to the Blessed Virgin that you might not have a red nose. You prayed to the devil in Serpentine avenue that the fubsy widow in front might lift her clothes still more from the wet street. O si, certo! Sell your soul for that, do, dyed rags pinned round a squaw. More tell me, more still!! On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: Naked women! naked women! What about that, eh?

A fubsy window? A short and stocky window.

You will likely have recognized the quote from James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Joyce coined a few words – monomyth and quark for example – but fubsy wasn’t among them. Oxford Dictionary tells us it comes from the:

…late 18th century: from dialect fubs ‘small fat person’, perhaps a blend of fat and chub

Which sounds a bit like a Johnsonian guess for its etymology rather than a precise statement.

Merriam Webster says the first recorded use is 1780, and that it means, “chubby and somewhat squat.” Collins Dictionary tells us it comes from “obsolete fubs plump person.”

Or, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary, 12th (printed) edition, defines it, “fat and squat.”

Fub shows up in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as “a plump, chubby boy.” Somewhere between that and 1597, the definition changed. In 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare had Falstaff using fub in a line to Prince Hal, meaning “fob off, cheat, rob”. And in 2 Henry IV, “fub off” is to used to mean “fob off, put off.” (according to Shakespeare’s Words by David & Ben Crystal) English poet John Marston (1576 –  1634) first used “fubbery” to mean cheating.

Somehow fub seems to have evolved from cheat to fat. Maybe they were just homonyms. Or maybe Shakespeare was just playing his usual word games.

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12/23/13

Dictionaries: Concise, Compact, and dacoit


Compact Oxford DictionaryDacoit: noun; one of a class of criminals in India and Burma who rob and murder in roving gangs. A member of a band of armed robbers in India or Burma. A bandit. Origin: Hindi and Urdu.

I love dictionaries. I like opening them up to a random page and just reading, discovering words and uses that I didn’t know. I love finding origins of words and phrases; linguistic connections between past and present. I will happily spend hours reading through Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, or a glossary of Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s words.

I’ll open any dictionary at random and read a page or two. I’m almost always assured I will find something new. Some, like Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, are delights to read; others are dry and dull.

“Do you read the dictionary?” French author Théophile Gautier once asked a young poet. “It is the most fruitful and interesting of books.”

Last week I bought a used copy of the Oxford Compact English Dictionary, 2005 edition, at the local used bookstore, Cover to Cover (used, but is superb condition, I should add). And when I opened it at random to page 247, I read the definition of dacoit – a word I can’t ever recall encountering before last week. Sandwiched between dachshund and dactyl. Now I know a lot more about it, thanks to a bit of research in print and online sources.

It’s still in use today, albeit not in any media I regularly read. Every reference I’ve found comes from India or Pakistan. In 2004, The Telegraph of Calcutta wrote about the violent evolution of dacoits:

Sten guns, cellphones and agents on the job ‘ the image of the Chambal dacoit has changed over the years. What hasn’t is the centuries-old cycle of violence in the region.

The International News of Pakistan had a headline as recently as Dec. 19, 2013, saying:

Most-wanted dacoit carrying Rs1m bounty arrested

Dacoit, according to the two-volume Oxford Compact Dictionary, has many 19th century references for use in English, dating as far back as 1820. It’s also referred to as dacoity and dacoitery in some sources.

Wikipedia tells us the East India Company established “the Thuggee and Dacoity Department” in 1830. The ruling British enacted legislation called the “Thuggee and Dacoity Suppression Acts” in India between 1836 and 1848. Thuggee has survived in English, reduced to the shorter “thug.”

Not that I’d have much reason to use dacoit in any form. It’s one of those imperialist-period words that wouldn’t find a place in a contemporary vocabulary. George Orwell would have known it; maybe my father uttered it sometime before he left England. I have to wonder what force is keeping it intact in a dictionary that is constantly pressured by new entries: neologisms and borrowed words from other languages that keep popping into our increasingly international, technological language.

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11/27/13

The Weird World of Plotto


PlottoI came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.

Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been  referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.

In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.

What’s all the fuss?

Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:

In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.

Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.

The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*

Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):

Plotto sample

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