Daily Archives: January 11, 2009

An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)

Update: I have now posted an HTML version of the full paper, finally. It’s at sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/an-historic/.

This the first part of a longer paper. This part, the introduction, is the most concise introduction to the issue; the second part covers the history; after that it goes into more technical depth with a survey of current attitudes that I conducted. The full text of the paper, with the references, is available as a PDF.

One of the most regular and inflexible rules of English is the one governing which version of the indefinite article to use in a given context. It is a useful thing to have an understanding of the rule, and it would take less than an hour to learn a habit of choosing according to the sound of the following word: a before a consonant, as in habit, but also before a consonant sound written as a vowel, as in useful; an before a vowel, as in understanding, but also before a silent consonant (inevitably h) followed by a vowel, as in hour. Although in some dialects a is used before vowels as well, this usage is considered nonstandard and is generally looked down upon (notwithstanding which it has occasionally been predicted that this will be the ultimate use everywhere – see, for example, the editor’s note following Bolinger 1975). An before a consonant would be considered a mark of a nonnative speaker.

There is, however, a salient exception. Continue reading


A word you can play in Scrabble even though its meaning is less than perfectly agreed upon. It has the merit, at least, of being among that special set of words the origin of which is known exactly: in this case, Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky,” from Through the Looking-Glass (1871). And Carroll has indicated the blend on which he based it. But before I tell you what he thought it should mean, let me ask you to taste it and think of what it seems to you it should mean. In spite of the tone of its use in “Jabberwocky,” we see it used by Rudyard Kipling in phrases such as “frabjous asses” and “frabjously immoral,” and the Oxford English Dictionary has found a 1935 “frabjously late.” Well. The tone of those uses notwithstanding, it almost seems fabulous to me, but with a definite taste of raspberry aided by the French for the same, framboise. The juiciness of jous also comes in, though it might look like joust and sound like just. On the other hand, it has a definite echo of fractious and perhaps hints of frazzle and grab. It may seem slightly odd in form, but those who think the jammed b and j un-English would do best to abjure such ideas. It has a nice incipient spirality by grace of the curved ascender of f and descender of j. And if, like Alice, you find “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are,” I may as well reveal to you that Carroll, it is reported, had fair, fabulous and joyous in mind when he wrote “O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! He chortled in his joy.” Oh, yes, chortled – another of the several words introduced to English by that poem. Only people seem actually to know and agree on what chortle means.