Monthly Archives: September 2010


This is an impressive-looking word, no? It smacks of valor and value and perhaps a nice valet for the hale and hearty hero (more than just some dude with a ‘tude), and it’s such a long word, with that academic extension that brings to mind abecedarian and honorificabilitudinitatibus and veterinarian and valedictorian… Certainly the object of this word should fare well, no?

Well, yes. And no. Indeed, the object of this word should farewell… is, in fact, preparing to say “farewell,” and likely has been for some long time and may yet for years to come. A valetudinarian is the sort of person once commonly called an invalid (note the stress not on the middle syllable), or at the very least someone eternally ailing. Indeed, the val in valetudinarian is related to the val in invalid. But it is related even more closely to the vale in valedictorian!

Is this the vale of the shadow of death? Actually of health. You see, a common parting salutation in Latin was “Vale!” (said like “wall eh” and in later times “vall eh”). That meant “Be well!” A valedictorian is someone who says the farewell to and for the class – fare well and be well.

But that does not mean that valetudinarian originated in “saying goodbye”. No, it is the health focus – as valere meant “be well” or “be strong”, valetude (now obsolete in English) meant “state of health”. And valetudinary meant “focused on health”, which of course (especially in the 1500s, when it first showed up) meant “unwell”. So a valetudinarian is someone who is sickly – and is focused on that sickliness. Invalid – not strong: in “not” plus validus “strong”. Like a hypochondriac, only actually sick. The sort of person who will always remind you “I won’t be around much longer…”

And by syllable seven comfy in heaven? Not even with the various nostrums and polychrests that may avail untrained self-medicators. But eventually, there will be that tombstone, inscribed by request: “It was only a matter of time.” And so farewell.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting valetudinarian.


Silo: it signifies something high or something low, but almost inevitably a cylinder – there’s that clean, cool /s/ and /l/ again, silo, cylinder, silver perhaps? Well, occasionally in colour, but just as likely white, and cool concrete, sticking up above the surroundings l or a hole in the ground o.

What word this word usually comes with will depend on where you’re from. Where I grew up, grain silo was most likely: a place where one stores green feed grains, which are preserved by pressure (but be wary of the silage gas). Other places will more often have missile silo, a presence preserved by pressure of international enmity; for me, that goes against the grain. But either way, concrete silo is also common. (And then there are the silos that are less concrete: the different and non-intercommunicating parts a business may find itself devolving into.)

Ah, these silent silos, in which or from which one may seek asylum… whence get they their word? From Spanish. We have, of course, changed the pronunciation of the first vowel since we first borrowed this word in the 1800s. But the word had been changed before that anyway. It may have come from Latin sirum (accusative form of which the nominative is sirus… seriously!), which in turn came from Greek sirós, which meant “pit to keep corn in”. Or it may have come from a pre-Roman language of the area; there’s a cognate in Basque, zilo, which means “storage cave for grain”.

Ah, these duelling etymologies – in which silo shall we pile it? With a low sigh, sileo… that’s Latin for “I am silent”.


The other day, Rob Tilley mentioned reading, in Len Deighton’s 1962 novel The IPCRESS File, the following sentence: “I listened to the ululating wail and horrisonous mewl, to the bleating, braying, yelping howl, and found it as difficult to listen to as it was to label.”

Well, he seems to have managed to label it nonetheless… But the difficulty evidently led him to seek the help of Roget’s International Thesaurus, in section 410 of which (“[Harsh or High Sounds.] Stridor.”) may be found both horrisonous and ululation, and in section 412 of which (“[Animal Sounds.] Ululation.”) may be found wail, mewl, bleat, bray, yelp, and howl.

All of which are, indeed, horrisonous, and may in fact (especially in concert) give rise to horripilation, that horrified rippling (or sometimes of elation) of your hair. The horri is the same in both, and the same as in horror, horrible, horrifying, and horrid too – and the hor in abhor. It comes from Latin horrere, verb, “bristle, shiver”. And the sonous in horrisonous? Well, what do you think? You should have figured it out by now… It’s from Latin sonare, verb, “sound”.

And how does horrisonous sound? Well, its rhythm is the same as “oh, resinous” or “original”: stress on the second syllable. The i is said like the i in is and it and so on; according to Oxford, the s is voiceless, though I suspect that those rare few who actually say this word may on occasion voice it – I’m not sure which is the less pleasant sound in that place: a hiss or a buzz.

Anyway, the word is likely to horrify the eyes on first contact, with its crazing assembly of letters, the rri, the o o and o and the s and s, the n here and u nearby (move a letter and you can make snoous or sonuos, either of which is the same rotated 180 degrees), and that electric-chair h at the head, signifying heavy breathing like some hidden monster that makes its little purr /r/ and a couple of hisses /s/ before it lets loose with a wail, mewl, bleat, bray, yelp, or howl, or perhaps all of them together. And what could we name such an awful monster? Hmmm… thesaurus suggests itself… IPCRESS wouldn’t be too bad either.


The first time I heard this word, it seemed to me to have an indefinite article in front of it, and so “his amanuensis” seemed as syntactically coherent as “her a textbook.” And then there was the question of what a manuensis might be – was it something immense, or a manual… or Immanuel?

Others are also occasionally tripped by this word, and not just because of its mixed bag of cups and caps (m n u), balled socks (a e) and snakes (s). Try saying it – it’s like having your tongue do three pushups in rapid succession (it’s like “a man you en sis” if you’re not sure). So it’s no surprise that I recently heard it accidentally said as “a man you essence”.

“A man you essence” – I like that. “This is the essence of a man you could be!” Well, no, not quite so old and spicy. Given that an amanuensis is a sort of secretary – someone who secretes (stores away) the thoughts you secrete (exude), i.e., one who takes dictation, the words or notes that the muse (be it Thalia, Melpomene, Euterpia, or Erato) pours through your mouth flowing through their pen and onto paper – we could say that an amanuensis is a man (or woman) who helps distill your essence. This eau-de-vie is the eau of your vie, and it is you who are the still – and the amanuensis is the flask that catches the spirit. The amanuensis enables the free flow of thought without the creative person needing to bother with transcription, thereby freeing the flow… O come, o come, amanuensis!

Of course, it is a manual task, and that manu is the same one as in manual. And, as it happens, the a originally was a separate word – not the English article, however, but the Latin preposition. A secretary, in Latin, was a servus a manu – a hand servant (“servant to hand”) – and that was shortened to a manu in a way similar to how maître d’ trimmed off a word. And ensis is a Latin suffix of belonging (for instance, my PhD diploma has a seal on it that says Sigillum Universitatis Tuftensis, “seal of the University of Tufts” [i.e., of Tufts University]). So it’s like calling someone who does things by hand a byhander. Except that amanuensis sounds kind of technical and foreign.

And it is typically served in literary contexts, unsurprisingly – it is not ordinary persons like you or I who have amanuenses (note the plural form); it is the exalted authors and composers, the ranks of Henry James and James Joyce and Frederick Delius and such like who do not think onto paper but dream a cloud and exhale it, a numen as is, so it may be condensed into tiny black droplets on white sheets of paper by their hand servants.


English has a fair few basic functional words that begin with a dental fricative, usually voiced: the, this, that, these, those, there; thou and thee are not commonly used, and when used at all are usually misused now; and, most controversial, they and them.

They is controversial? Sure – in fact, I’m tempted to suggest that it comes from +hey – it seems so likely to provoke an addition of “hey!” in some contexts. It doesn’t come from that, of course; in fact, it was originally spelled with a thorn (þ) where we now have th – fair enough for such a thorny word. But, beyond that, it’s not originally an English word.

Now, that little statement may surprise people who could hardly imagine importing a word so basic from another language. But have a look at the third-person plural pronouns from Old English (see for as much information on Old English inflection as you could want):

nominative (subject): hie
accusative (direct object): hie
genitive (possessive): hira
dative (indirect object): him

Old English was, in its inflections, much more formally complex than modern English. The fact that the dative third person plural was the same as its masculine singular equivalent was not exceptionally problematic – German gets by with potential confusions between identical forms representing different persons and numbers, and we use you for singular and plural now in English. But during the Middle English period, all those inflections got simplified considerably, and so did some of the details of pronunciation. Meanwhile, in northern England, there was strong Old Norse influence (because of strong Scandinavian presence in the population!). The Old Norse third person plural pronoun þei, with its more distinctive sound, came into use, and by the end of the 1400s it had spread pretty much throughout England, displacing the older English form entirely – except for one survival: in unstressed, informal use, the him, reduced to ’em, is still often used in place of them, which requires more articulation. (Did you think this was just a simple deletion of the opening consonant? Ask yourself where else we drop that consonant at the beginning of a word. Answer: almost nowhere – it often gets lost in than after an /r/, as in “more’n” for more than, but that’s a specific conditioning environment.)

But that’s not the controversial part. The controversy actually comes from an issue with the singular pronouns. While in Old English all nouns had gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), and so did the singular third person pronouns, by the end of the Middle English period only those pronouns retained gender, and gender had become linked directly to the physical human-male/human-female/non-human distinction (in German, which still has the genders, the linkage is not so absolute; for instance, a young unmarried woman is fräulein, which is neuter). But one runs into a problem when the sex of a person referred to is indeterminate. What does one do then? Well, you would think it wouldn’t be so difficult to swap in another related pronoun. And you’d be right: we do it readily enough with you in place of one, for instance, but also, for centuries, English speakers used they for gender-indeterminate third person singular, and no one complained.

For centuries? Oh yes – pretty much until about 1800, in fact. You can find it in the King James version of the Bible: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3). You can find it in Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Comedy of Errors IV:iii). It was common and unexceptional.

And then came the age of prescriptivism. Starting in the 1700s and gradually gathering steam and influence, there was a scholastic movement to impose rules and reason on English – of course those making this move failed to notice that English already had rules that worked just fine, and that the logic of languages is not inevitable mathematical. I won’t go into depth here on all the deleterious effects of their confected rules; you can read “When an ‘error’ isn’t,” “An appreciation of English: a language in motion,” and “What’s up with English spelling” for some more details on all this. But one thing their logical processes led them to was the idea that a plural pronoun couldn’t be used to signify a singular. (By this time you was accepted as a singular, so they evaded that issue.) And what singular pronoun could be used? Well, they thought he or she was inelegant, so of course, since – as people, particularly male ones, had been averring for some time – the male was the superior, the master of the female, etc. etc., it stood to reason the masculine pronoun should be the default.

And guess what. People bought it (along with a lot of other prescriptivist tut-tutting rubbish these cretins frankly invented). Oh, they didn’t swallow it hook, line, and sinker, not exactly. Fowler, referring to use of they and them and their for indeterminate distributive singulars (e.g., everyone took their book), noted “Archbishop Whately used to say that women were more liable than men to fall into this error, as they objected to identifying ‘everybody’ with ‘him’.” Gosh, those sensitive females! Tsk! But among their number we ought also to count such apparent males as Walt Whitman (“everyone shall delight us, and we them”), Lawrence Durrell (“You do not have to understand someone in order to love them”), C.S. Lewis (“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes”), and Oscar Wilde (“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”).

And of course people still do it. People still do plenty of things that those benighted prescriptivists said are wrong. But many or even most of those same people who do them nonetheless believe them to be errors (everybody drives over the speed limit, even as they know it’s illegal, so why not use “wrong” language if it’s comfortable, eh?). And so we are faced with this battle. When, in the 1970s, women started getting people to listen to them (and by “people” I don’t just mean “men”; many or even most women before then didn’t listen to women on many important matters), they pointed out that use of man to mean human and he to mean a third person of possibly either sex embodied sexist assumptions.

And of course the response was that they were being oversensitive and making things up, and this was the way we had always done it and no had ever had a problem with it before. (When I was a youth, I certainly thought so; I couldn’t see why it was an issue that he was the neutral as well as the masculine, and at one point I may even have believed that it was a particular noble sacrifice on the part of males to forgo distinctiveness in lending their pronoun to generality. But I wasn’t female, so of course I didn’t see why it would be a problem – the have-mores very often think the have-lesses are whiners.) All of this was of course utterly false. But if a lie can be well enough established for long enough, people in general will assume it’s not just truth but time-honoured truth. So even today it remains a struggle to use they in many written contexts for gender-indeterminate third person singular. This in spite of the fact that few people admire the Victorians and their ideas of propriety generally.

Of course, the issue moves farther now, as in this egalitarian society we often question the need for gender distinction in third person singulars in any context. Many other languages do without such distinction, and we do without it everywhere but this one instance. When people wonder what pronoun we could use in place of he and she, various inventions are suggested, but the one already in use is they. Now, you may ask whether we could really manage with no singular/plural distinction. But you know, most of the time it works pretty well with you. I’m interested to see where this goes…

For much of the information above, I am indebted to two articles worth reading in entirety: Joan Taber’s 2006 “Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold” and Ann Bodine’s 1975 “Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she” (Language in Society 4: 129–146), and to Gael Spivak, who brought them to my attention.


The first time I saw this spelling of the word premise, I thought, Oh, my, how prissy. Who are they trying to impress? Must be one of those special British things.

Of course, I was proceeding on the premise that premiss was a deviant spelling of premise. But, now, why would I assume that? After all, premiss is a more phonetically appropriate spelling. But I had seen premise all over the place, in various places and premises, and besides, who makes it even to the beginning of elementary school without knowing the word promise? And aren’t promise and premise related?

Indeed they are related. And not just because a premise is a sort of promise (if you present reasoning based on a given premise, you are saying to your addressee “I promise you this much is true”). The mise is the same mise, and the pre and pro are the “before” and “for” Latinate suffixes we know and use in so many places. But where does that mise come from?

From Latin mittere, that’s where, and more specifically from its past participle missa: “sent” or “put” – or, sometimes, “dismiss”. Oh, but hey, how about that dismiss? Isn’t that the same little miss again? Oh, yes, that miss is a hit, no mistaking.

So, then, why promise and premise with the mise? The answer to the second question is that premise is a spelling likely influenced by promise, or by the same source that gave promise its spelling. And what was that source? Why, the language more responsible than any other for the weirdness of English spelling: French. Even in modern French the past tense feminine of mettre “put” is mise, though of course it’s pronounced like “me’s”. (There is some indication of pronunciation of English promise with [z] at some times in past centuries, too.)

So, in fact, premiss is more in accord with the initially given conditions. But now even British spelling has left the premises – or I should say the premiss. The exception is in speaking of logical propositions (the original sense; the physical sense followed on the abstract sense, in a reversal of the usual order), where – rather more among the British – premiss is often used still.

But, you know, I can’t look at premiss without seeing it as having an extra hiss at the end. Of course it’s said just the same, but the look of it has the escaping-steam hiss of press; one might even have the sense that it simpers a little. And if you pluralize it, premisses, it looks like it might mean “misses in advance” – perhaps as in “I miss you already”? But that’s all seen though the prism of unfamiliarity, of course, which has its own logic.

Thanks to Roberto De Vido for suggesting premiss.


“Well,” said Montgomery Starling-Byrd. “That’s startling.”

“A startling?” I said. “Would that be from start plus ling, meaning a little start? Perhaps a rough start?” (I knew perfectly well that startling is from start plus the suffix le plus the suffix ing and that, at any rate, what he was looking at was not the word startling.)

We were four at a table – Montgomery, Philip McCarr (of Scotland), Albert Denton (of Yorkshire), and I – at the Order of Logogustation’s autumn international meeting. For this session, words were pre-set at tables in envelopes, and the participants chose spots freely, then had to taste whatever word had been set at the place they chose.

“More to the point,” Montgomery said, holding up the slip of paper from his envelope, “that’s starling.”

“Weel, man,” said Philip, “you should have a bird, then.”

“I think I see a pattern,” I said, holding up my slip of paper. “Mine’s starlet.”

“That’s a little bird!” declared Albert. “In fact, a little darling,” he said, producing his slip of paper, on which darling was written.

“Oh dear,” said Montgomery, knowing that we all knew that darling comes from dear plus ling – the same ling as in starling, which may be a diminutive (as in gosling) or an indicator of membership or relation (as in earthling).

“Your little dear,” said Philip, “may earn a scarlet letter.” He held up his slip of paper: scarlet.

“She will if we pass ‘er in,” said Albert. (Starlings are passerine birds – built for perching like sparrows.)

“Aren’t you the cunning linguist,” I said to Albert.

“He’ll go wherever you let him,” Montgomery remarked.

“There’s room to let,” I replied. “Or room for two lets, anyway.”

“Not that they’re the same let,” Montgomery pointed out. True: the let in starlet is a diminutive suffix, but the let in scarlet is not a suffix at all; scarlet appears to come originally from a Persian word for rich cloth.

“Just as your stars aren’t the same,” I said. “You’re star-crossed.”

“I certainly know that,” Montgomery said. “I had it drilled into me quite sternly that our star is related to Latin sturnus, which refers to the same kind of bird.”

“You had it drilled intae yer sternum?” Philip said. “That would produce a scarlet! Or a full-sized scar!”

“Nothing to sneeze at,” said Albert, leaving it to all of us to connect sneeze with its Latin translation sternutare, seen in English sternutatory and sternutation.

“Look, man,” declared Philip, “it isnae quite fair that ye’re tasting yer own name.”

“I think you’re just stalling,” quipped Albert to Philip.

“Better that than Stalin,” Montgomery said. “But enough larking about; the bird’s the word. Like it or not –” he held up the slip admonitorily – “it’s myna.”

A lark is not a kind of starling, by the way – but a myna is.