Category Archives: Etymology

Some Meanings Behind Reading.

Readers reckon they know what the verb to read means. Quite simply, it’s what you are doing now! But the verb can be used to imply a range of other meanings too. Here are a few:

reading paper“All I know is what I read in the papers,” doesn’t literally mean that he/she only gets information from newspapers. What the phrase is intended to convey is that the speaker is ordinary, unpretentious, not an expert. The phrase was popularised by the American comedian, Will Rogers, in the 1920s.

Sticking with newspapers, there’s the vendor’s cry “Read all about it.” It wasn’t long before the phrase extended beyond newspaper sellers – hence the BBC programme reviewing new paperback books with the same title.

“Read any good books lately?” An innocuous seeming question from the early twentiethreading book century that then became a catch-phrase to be used when a speaker wanted to divert attention from something. (A young man might perhaps divert his friend’s mother with this question, to stop her spotting his friend kissing a young lady – presumably one he hadn’t been properly introduced to).

“Read between the lines.” Literally, this probably referred to a cryptographic method of conveying meaning in a text via every other line. Nowadays, it refers to an author who conveys more meaning than is in the actual words, perhaps conveying something sensational (or rude) by implication. How many secret Romeos have answered the door whilst buttoning their shirt / trousers – leaving us to ‘read between the lines’ what had gone on just before? (Well maybe not so many these days, where almost anything goes, but it was common practice in books / films a generation or so ago).

“Read my lips.” A phrase popularised by George Bush senior, but used well before that to denote the sincerity of the words being uttered through the lips. It is also an age-old technique used by deaf people or people working in noisy environments.

“Read the riot act.” The original riot act was passed by the British Parliament and read out to the rebellious masses in 1714, ordering them to disperse. Now it is an activity regularly implemented by parents to show disapproval of a child’s errant behaviour.

And finally – “Read, mark, and inwardly digest.” Unlikely though it may seem, this is an actual phrase from the Book of Common Prayer (the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent) and means exactly what it says).

 

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Did she go up or down the aisle?

A break from blogging for a short holiday turned into something rather longer as my 95 year old mother became very ill following a stroke.

She died on Saturday 19th May, so I missed the televising of that ‘wedding of the year’ between an American actress and an English prince. Being otherwise occupied beforehand I also largely missed the controversy over who would walk Meghan down the aisle. But I subsequently heard about the debate over whether she should be ‘walked up’ or ‘walked down’ the aisle.

The London Times referred to her being ‘walked down the aisle’ to the altar, only to have several readers argue that she would have to be ‘walked up’ the aisle to her fiancé and would then ‘walk down’ it on the arm of her new husband. The topic was then aired on the BBC with, I understand, general agreement with this up and down symmetry.

Should writers of romantic fiction take note?

Well maybe not. Debrett’s, the go-to guide for etiquette, says the father of the bride should ‘walk her down the aisle on his right arm.’ And the Church of England website, in its guidance on giving the bride away, has a section headed ‘Walking Down the Aisle.’

As it happened, being a modern young woman, the bride on this occasion decided to walk most of the way towards the altar unaided. Whether she thought she was going up or down the aisle at the time has not been recorded. Meghan

 

More About Meaning.

So many words mean more than one thing. This can come as a surprise – we get used to using a word in a particular way, and feel different usage is wrong. Often the more of an ‘expert’ you are with words (an unkind person might call you a pedant) the more likely you are to feel that other people have used a word wrongly – or, as George W Bush might say – miss-spoke – only to find if you look it up in a dictionary, that the alleged miss-use has a long and honorable tradition.

Thomas MoreTake the word refute. For some, the word only means ‘to disprove by argument or tangible evidence.’ This was my belief too until recently, though I haven’t taken to twitter to denounce the tweeters who use it to mean deny or rebut. After all, in the context the word was used, it was perfectly clear what was meant. However, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the use of refute to mean repudiate or deny has been around since atwilliam-tyndale2-300 least the 1880s, and possibly goes back to the sixteenth century when Sir Thomas More in a dispute with William Tyndale wrote: ‘If Tyndale wold now refute myne objection ….’

I have problems with other words too, believing that ‘educated’ people like me should only use infer, for example, to mean something you deduce from what has been said, or you can see, and should not to be used instead of imply. Only people who don’t know any better muddle the two up. But, having just checked in my Collins dictionary, I find infer can also legitimately mean to hint at (or imply) from the Latin inferreto bring into.

All this means I need to be a lot more careful now-a-days in ‘correcting’ people’s spelling and grammar. They might challenge me to look in a dictionary and – horror – find it was me (I?) in the wrong.

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Musing About Meaning.

Meaning, my Collins dictionary tells me, is ‘the sense or significance of a word, sentence, symbol etc.’ It can mean a few other things as well – as in well-meaning, but today I am concentrating on the above definition.

Ever keen on a spot of self-improvement I am currently reading a book by Timothy Gowers that describes itself as ‘a very short introduction to mathematics.’ Re-assured by his preface in which he states that he would not assume by the end of the book that his readers would have understood and remembered everything that he’d written earlier, I was tempted to skip right to the last chapter, and just pretend I’d read it. But I’m not sure that is quite what he meant, so I have dutifully started with chapter one and am now on chapter 2.

Two pages into the first chapter on numbers and abstraction, the author starts talking Wittgenstienabout the philosophy of language and meaning – with not a number in sight. He quotes Wittgenstein – the meaning of a word is its use in the language – and the school of logical positivists – the meaning of a statement is its method of verification. Neither quotation deepened my understanding of mathematics (that started to kick in half way through chapter two – honestly). But they put me in mind of advice given to me when I was training to be a social worker – meaning is what your client thinks you told them, not what you know you said to them.

Does this help when writing? Certainly guidance manuals and legal documents are better if their meaning is crystal clear to the reader. But what about fiction? No fiction writer wants to get into the kind of detail that avoids all ambiguity, but bores a reader rigid. But you do want to be clear enough in your prose for your readers to react to situations the way you intended: if there is an emotional death-bed scene, you want them to cry with sorrow, not with laughter (Charles Dickens, who could be very sentimental, sometimes got this wrong!)

PopeShowing, not telling, creates particular demands on a writer to convey meaning without spelling it out, whilst moving the plot forward. There is always the need to bring your work to life – not always with original thinking (boy meets girl etc. are well used and popular themes) but certainly with original expression. Or as the poet Alexander Pope put it – what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.

Meaning does not have to be immediately obvious – readers often like a challenge and, in regard to poetry especially, sometimes a piece has to be read more than once for its meaning to become clear. In complex work, different readers can take away different meanings from the same piece. Or you can find a different meaning on re-reading something. And that is fine – and hopefully just what the writer had intended.

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It’s snowing, in other words.

snow

It has been snowing for the past couple of days. That’s a rare, but not completely unknown, event for the beginning of March in this part of the world (Coventry UK). But the snow that fell seemed different from our usual moist mush – each flake has seemed unusually small and dry. And it has been blown about by high winds leaving large parts of the pavements almost clear of snow and other parts with deep drifts. I tried googling to see if there is a special word for this type of snow and it just might be ‘soft hail’ or graupel – a word that came into English in the nineteenth century from the German graupe, meaning pearl barley.

The Inuit are said to have 100 words for snow, which does seem rather a lot, even for such a snow bound region. However theresnow flake are several words in English that, if not exactly synonyms for snow, can be used for different types of snowy conditions. Some are quite well known – blizzard, sleet, slush …

Here are a few less familiar terms that you can try impressing your friends with, next time you’re out for a winter walk – though you may end up with a snowball in your face.

Onding: a heavy fall of snow, but not enough for a blizzard (from Scots / NE England dialects).

Skift: a light fall of snow (probably nineteenth century)

Sposh: slushy snow (based on the archaic meaning of posh – a slushy mess of mud and broken ice).

Neve: compacted granular snow, such as you find on top of glaciers. (The word is originally from the Latin for snow – nix. Other derivations include niveous – resembling snow, and subnivean – under the snow.)

Grue: thin floating ice or snow. To grue can also mean to shiver with cold or fear – perhaps at something gruesome? (Nineteenth century)

Corn snow:  granular snow formed by a mix of thawing and freezing. (It is an early twentieth century term, used to describe the best snow for the newly popular sport of skiing).

Snow 2

 

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Is a scapegoat what we think it is?

A few posts ago (on 4th February), I wrote about how the term whipping boy was used wrongly to mean a scapegoat. Which doesn’t mean to say that people should be called to account if they use the term – of course not; that would just be being pedantic. But why should those of us who now know its false derivation, not view the term with a supercilious smirk?

What about the word scapegoat though? Does that still mean, er, scapegoat – a person made to take the blame for one or more others? It seems so. The word was first used in 1530 by William Tyndale in his translation of The Bible from Hebrew. He took the wordGoats Go.. Inspecting. Azazel to mean ‘the goote on which the lotte fell to scape.’ (OT, Leviticus, Chapter 8). In the Mosaic ritual for the Day of Atonement two goats are selected: one to be sacrificed, the other to be laden with the sins of the community and sent off into the wild – literally, the goat that escapes.

Since Tyndale, other animals have been used in literature for the same purpose, usually with humorous intent. But scapegoose, scapehorse and scapecat, have never really caught on.

That deals with the goat bit of the word. Does scape also mean what we think it does? I believe so. My dictionary describes it as an archaic word for escape – as in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Cassius says to Brutus:

“How scaped I killing, when I crossed you so?” (Act IV, scene 3).

By the way, if you find anything wrong with this post, don’t blame me. Blame the spell checker – my usual scapegoat for any spelling, grammatical or other mistakes.

This post is going out on 14th February, Valentine’s Day. Would you like a gentle love story to read? Then try my short story, Sleeping Beauty. You might think the young heroine is a scapegoat at first – until it all ends happily ever after.

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Whipping Boys – fact or fiction?

My Collins dictionary defines a whipping boy as ‘a person of little importance who is blamed for the incompetence etc. of others, especially his superiors; scapegoat. [Seventeenth century. Originally referring to a boy who was educated with a prince and who received punishment for any faults committed by the prince]’

This is what I and many others have believed, including Mark Twain who popularised the term in his story, The Prince and the Pauper. Past historians have gone further and

Edward_VI_Scrots_c1550_cropped

Edward VI did NOT have a whipping boy to take his punishment for him!

named, for example, Barnaby Fitzpatrick as the whipping boy for Edward VI. William Murray was supposed to have played the same role for Charles 1.The idea was that, as a Royal could not be physically punished, he could be made to feel bad knowing someone else was being whipped on his behalf.

However key historical records have recently been digitalised and modern historians now have the evidence from these that Barnaby et al were no more painfully employed than as grooms / servants. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has always disputed the existence, ever, of whipping boys – and now the definition has been removed from the BBC education website – Bitesize. It’s more likely that the term was first coined by a seventeenth century playwright, Samuel Rowley.

I doubt if the mere fact that the term has no historical validity will stop me, occasionally, using the phrase as an alternative to ‘scapegoat’. But, if there was no such practice of using a whipping boy as a scapegoat, how can I be sure that there was an original scapegoat?

But that is a discussion for another blog!

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