“You don’t understand,” getting mad. “You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in that file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for, but—” a hand emerged from the veil of shower-steam to indicate his suspended head—“in here. That’s what I’m for. To give the spirit flesh. The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also.”
A favorite little riff from Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49.
This page is from the same notebook where Joyce headed a page he titled “Rhetoric”; the notes in the books seem to suggest the notebook is part of the preparatory material for Ulysses. From the National Library of Ireland, which probably doesn’t want me posting their material like this.
Upfront: We like words. We think etymology is fun. We consider Bill Bryson something of a hero, and Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words is a staple at Biblioklept World Headquarters. We can spend hours at a site like Luciferous Logolepsy, and it’s not just obscure words we love–we’re also likely to pore over nerdy linguistic battles at Word Courtfor far too long. Unlike most people, we think puns are a sophisticated way to crack a joke. If any of these proclivities seem to align with your own tastes, you’ll likely enjoy Henry Hitchings’s history of the English language The Secret Life of Words as much as we did.
Hitchings organizes his book into sixteen parts, each named for a word that will inform the narrative thrust of that particular thrust. After opening, appropriately with “Ensemble” as an introductory overture, Hitchings uses “Invade” as his key term for chapter two. Throughout the book invade comes not only to signify an obvious entry point for a history of English (the Norman conquest of England in 1066), but also a general trend of just how ubiquitous (and perhaps invasive) English has become. Hitchings’s take veers toward post-colonialist theory, with a heavy dash of historical-materialist tendencies to boot. In a chapter titled “Angst,” he comments that “it is impossible not to see the long shadows cast by Marx, Freud and Einstein, the architects of socialism, psychoanalysis, and the atomic age.” Darwin and the American Transcendentalists (whom Hitchings saliently credits with greatly expanding the English language) also figure heavily in his readings. Hitchings is not all Frederic Jameson and post-colonialism, of course (not that we mind that sort of thing around these parts), but his liberal readings on contemporary linguistic issues like the place of Black Vernacular English in modern America are welcome and refreshing. Still, Hitchings’s Secret Life is a balanced affair, drawing not just on readings of master artists in the English language, like Shakespeare, Joyce, and the Romantic poets, but also on a seemingly-endless bibliography of dictionaries, almanacs, histories, and etymologies (Hitchings’s chapter notes, bibliography, and index run to nearly a 100 pages).
At the heart of it all, of course, are words. Each page brims with little etymological factoids. Hitchings clues us in to the fact that venison once simply referred to all hunted game, not just deer. He avers that “It is quite widely known that poppycock comes from the Dutch for ‘doll’s shit.'” (Is it really that widely known? We had no idea). He tells us that while molasses derives from the Portuguese word melaços, we don’t really know where we get the term rum from (some will be content to remain drinking in ignorance, of course). We had no idea that the game chess gets its name via the Persian word for king, shah. And while Hitchings lards his book with plenty of fun little details, they all serve (and serve well) his greater narrative; namely, a history of the English language. While this book isn’t for everyone, we certainly enjoyed it and have already given it a little spot on a shelf of books we return to often, books in English about English. Fun stuff.
The Secret Life of Words is now available in paperback from Picador.
Conservative Republicans seem to be having an awfully tough time with their vocabulary lately. They keep misusing words, poor old dears. In particular, these confused politicos keep using words that have traditionally had a positive connotation in a pejorative sense. Therefore, we present a little gloss that might help them with their sorry diction.
“c.1375, from O.Fr. liberal “befitting free men, noble, generous,” from L. liberalis “noble, generous,” lit. “pertaining to a free man,” from liber “free,” from PIE base *leudheros (cf. Gk. eleutheros “free”), probably originally ‘belonging to the people'” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
From the Indo-European root “leudh,” meaning “grow, rise,” as in progressive (Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words)
“1823, from Fr. élite “selection, choice,” from O.Fr. fem. pp. of elire, elisre “pick out, choose,” from L. eligere “choose” (see election). Borrowed in M.E. as “chosen person,” esp. a bishop-elect, died out c.1450, re-introduced by Byron’s “Don Juan.” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
“1a singular or plural in construction:the choice part. 1b singular or plural in construction:the best of a class” (Merriam-Webster)
“1867, “calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,” in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of “individualist, unconventional person” is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
Samuel A. Maverick refused to brand his cattle, ostensibly claiming that the practice was cruel. However, by not branding his cattle, he was able to claim any stray cows as his own property. What a devious genius! How’s that for laissez-fair?
Clearly, a maverick would never let himself be branded with someone else’s label. He’d cut his own path, forge his own trail, create his own hackneyed metaphor, and not, f’r’instance, vote with the President 95% of the time.
“Conservative,n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” ( Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary)
“From the Indo-European root “(s)kamb: bend, change; exchange, barter . . . Fr, change, exchange. Gc, change, changeable, unchanging, etc. . . . This root is related to camp, campus, campaign, etc.” (Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words)
Synonyms for “change” include: modification, variation, transformation, revolution, conversion, adjustment, amendment, difference, and alteration.
When used in politics, the word connotes a dramatic shift in ideology from the previous regime to its successors (e.g. “The idea that a new set of Republicans would be a change from the old set was both a paradox and a misuse of language”)
Forms: 7 hogmynae, 8 hagmane, -menai, 8-9 hagmena, -menay, (hagman heigh), hogmanay, (9 hogmena, -menay, -maney, hanganay). [Of obscure history, noted only from 17th c. App. of French origin: see note below.]
The name given in Scotland (and some parts of the north of England) to the last day of the year, also called Cake-day; the gift of an oatmeal cake, or the like, which children expect, and in some parts systematically solicit, on that day; the word shouted by children calling at friends’ houses and soliciting this customary gift.
c1680 [see b]. 1693Scotch Presbyt. Eloq. (1738) 120 It is ordinary among some Plebeians in the South of Scotland, to go about from Door to Door upon New-Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane. 1790Gentl. Mag. LX. I. 499/1 Concerning the origin of the expression Hagman Heigh. Ibid., In..Scotland, and in the North of England, till very lately, it was customary for every body to make and receive presents amongst their friends on the eve of the new year, which present was called an Hagmenay. Ibid. II. 616/2 On the last night of the old year (peculiarly called Hagmenai). 1792Caledonian Mercury 2 Jan. (Jam.), The cry of Hogmanay Trololay is of usage immemorial in this country. 1805J. NICOLPoems I. 27 (Jam.) The cottar weanies, glad an’ gay..Sing at the doors for hogmanay. 1825BROCKETT s.v. Hagmena, The poor children in Newcastle, in expectation of their hogmena, go about from house to house knocking at the doors, singing their carols, and [saying] Please will you give us wor hogmena. 1826-41R. CHAMBERSPop. Rhymes Scot. (1858) 295 The children on coming to the door, cry Hogmanay! which is in itself a sufficient announcement of their demands. Ibid. 296 Cries appropriate to the morning of Hogmanay..Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers, And dinna think that we are beggars; For we are bairns come out to play, Get up and gie’s our hogmanay. 1827HONETable-Bk. I. 7 The Hagman Heigh is an old custom observed in Yorkshire on new year’s eve. 1830SCOTTJrnl. II. 360 We spent our Hogmanay pleasantly enough. 1884St. James’s Gaz. 27 Dec. 6/1 Seasonable mummery..was reserved for Hogmanay. 1890Scott. Antiq. June 40 This is the sort of thing they used to sing as their Hagmena Song in Yorkshire. 1893HESLOPNorthumb. Gloss. s.v., In North Northumberland the hogmanay is a small cake given to children on Old Year’s Day; or the spice bread and cheese, with liquor, given away on the same day. 1897E. W. B. NICHOLSONGolspie 100-108.
b.attrib. and Comb., as hogmanay cake, day, night, concert, song, etc.
c1680 in Law Mem. 191 note [Protest of the Gibbites] They solemnly renounce..Pasch-Sunday, Hallow-even, Hogmynae-night, Valentine’s even [etc.]. 1826-41R. CHAMBERSPop. Rhymes Scot. (1858) 295 A particular individual..has frequently resolved two bolls of [oat]meal into hogmanay cakes. 1864BURTONScot Abr. I. v. 297 The eve that ushers in the new year is called in Scotland Hogmanay Night. 1897Westm. Gaz. 21 Dec. 6/3 On New Year’s Eve there is to be a grand Hogmanay concert for the special benefit of patriotic Scots in London.”