Word Of The Month: Baseball

In honor of the return of the boys of summer, the word of the month for April is:

Baseball n.; a game between two teams of nine players each, under the direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with the Official Baseball Rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires. Originally a name for the British game of rounders, the term dates to at least 1744 when John Newberry included a poem about the game in a children’s book. The name was applied to the modern game in 1845, when Alexander Cartwright first codified the rules of the game and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. (Contrary to myth, Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the game.)

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Great Vowel Shift

Perhaps the biggest single change in English pronunciation happened during the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift. The shift began c. 1300 and continued through c. 1700, with the majority of the change occurring in the 15th and 16th centuries. So the language of Chaucer is largely pre-shift and the language of Shakespeare is largely post-shift, although the changes were underway before Chaucer was born and continued on after Shakespeare had died.

During the Great Vowel Shift, English speakers changed the way they pronounced long vowels. Before the shift, English vowels were pronounced in much the same way that they are spoken in modern continental European languages. After the shift, they had achieved their modern phonological values.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Pleading Your Case

To plead was originally in the class of verbs, along with read, speed, lead, and feed, that took an irregular past tense and past participle, pled. The irregular form has a history dating back to the 16th century. Competing with this past tense was the regular form pleaded, as in “he pleaded not guilty.” The regular form won out in England, and pled retreated to Scotland where it became the standard past tense in Scottish law. It then made its way to America, probably through Scottish immigration, where it coexists with pleaded.

Beginning in the late-19th century, American grammarians started attacking the irregular form, pled, presumably because it was not in use in England. They were largely successful in legal and journalistic circles and pleaded is the dominant form in America, but pled continues to survive in general US usage and lately is making inroads into the courts and newspapers.

While it’s not strictly improper, pled is rarely used by lawyers and journalists. Using pled in one’s own speech is an indicator that one is not well versed in the law. As such, it should be avoided. (Others would argue the opposite—that being noticed as not being a lawyer would be a good thing.)

A bigger problem is the preposition that follows the plea. One pleads to a charge. “He pleaded not guilty to murder” is correct. “He pleaded not guilty of murder” is not. Of should not be used with the verb plead, although “he is not guilty of murder” is grammatically correct.

And to confuse things further, technically one cannot plead innocence. In law, one pleads either guilty or not guilty. This, however, is a distinction that is best left to the lawyers. Plead innocent is sometimes used for fear the not in not guilty might be dropped accidentally. So the rule of thumb is when the judge asks for your plea, you say either “guilty” or “not guilty.” At other times you can say plead innocent to avoid any misunderstanding.

And by the definition of plea, which means to make one’s case, one cannot actually plead guilty. “Guilty” isn’t a plea; it’s a confession. Blackstone, in his 1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England never uses the phrase plead guilty. But this last is a lost cause. No one seriously makes this distinction anymore.

Words On The Web: www.oed.com

What better site to start a feature on language sites on the web than with www.oed.com. The Oxford English Dictionary is, without question, the greatest English language resource either online or off.

The OED provides definitions for over half a million words. It includes 2.5 million quotations demonstrating word usage and historical examples of changes in spelling and form. The OED is the fundamental resource for anyone serious about words and language.

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Book Review: Safire’s Let A Simile Be Your Umbrella

William Safire is perhaps the most widely read commentator on the English language writing today. His weekly On Language column appears in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Safire’s column runs the gamut of language issues, covering etymology, usage, and grammar. It focuses on words and phrases that are in vogue or recently used by key political and media figures.

Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella is the 12th in the series of compilations of Safire’s column. Safire has been writing the On Language column since 1979 and turning out these compilation volumes on the average of once every two years since then.

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Enron

Big news stories, especially scandals, often generate a variety of nonce words. Some survive, like the –gate suffix of the Watergate scandal, others disappear into the mists of history. The Enron Scandal is no different. It’s generated a plethora of nonce terms and phrases, or Enronyms, if you will.

The most famous of these, perhaps, is the verb to Enron, coined by Senator Tom Daschle in a CNN interview on 23 January of this year. Comparing the Enron employees’ loss of their pensions to Republican raiding of the Social Security trust fund, Daschle said, “I don’t want to Enron the people of the United States. I don’t want to see them holding the bag at the end of the day just like Enron employees have held the bag.”

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Loan-Words and Where They Come From

Below is a list of different languages and some English words that derive from roots in those languages. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are many, many more such words than are listed here. And do not draw conclusions based on the number of words listed. While in some cases a conclusion may be valid (e.g., Finnish has one word listed and the impact Finnish has had on English is indeed minimal), in others it may not be (e.g., Arabic has about as many words listed as Latin, but the impact of Latin on English is incomparably larger).

This is a sample only. But another caution, it is not necessarily a representative sample; although you can draw some conclusions based on the words listed here (e.g., most Japanese loan words are used in connection with Japanese culture, such as geisha or sashimi, and have not been adopted into generic English use, although a few have, such as futon or tycoon).

Some of these words come into English via other languages (e.g., many native American words arrive via Spanish). I’ve tried to note where such intermediary languages are common. Words marked with a question mark (?) are of uncertain origin, but probably come from that language.

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How Many Words In The English Language?

This question is only tangentially related to word and phrase origins, but enough people ask it that I thought I’d provide a permanent answer.

This is an indeterminate question. First, there is the problem of what exactly is a word. Are mouse, mice, mousy, and mouselike separate words or just forms of one root word? Is a computer mouse the same word as the rodent? (To demonstrate the difficulty in counting words, over the centuries many scholars have attempted to count how many different words Shakespeare used in his corpus of work. The counts run anywhere from 16,000 to 30,000.)

Second, unlike French, English has no official body to determine what is proper and what is not. English dictionaries are (usually) descriptive in nature, not prescriptive. That is they describe how the language exists and is used, they do not prescribe its use. Just because a word “is not in the dictionary,” doesn’t mean that it is not a legitimate word. It simply means the dictionary editors omitted it for one reason or another.

The Oxford English Dictionary, the largest English-language dictionary, contains some 290,000 entries with some 616,500 word forms in its second edition. Of course, there are lots of slang and regional words that are not included and the big dictionary omits many proper names, scientific and technical terms, and jargon as a matter of editorial policy (e.g., there are some 1.4 million named species of insect alone). All told, estimates of the total vocabulary of English start at around three million words and go up from there.

Of these, about 200,000 words are in common use today. An educated person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words and uses about 2,000 in a week’s conversation. (These estimates vary widely depending on who is doing the counting, so don’t take them as absolute.)

A (Very) Brief History of the English Language

Indo-European and Germanic Influences

English is a member of the Indo-European family of languages. This broad family includes most of the European languages spoken today. The Indo-European family includes several major branches:

  • Latin and the modern Romance languages;
  • The Germanic languages;
  • The Indo-Iranian languages, including Hindi and Sanskrit;
  • The Slavic languages;
  • The Baltic languages of Latvian and Lithuanian (but not Estonian);
  • The Celtic languages; and
  • Greek.

The influence of the original Indo-European language, designated proto-Indo-European, can be seen today, even though no written record of it exists. The word for father, for example, is vater in German, pater in Latin, and pitr in Sanskrit. These words are all cognates, similar words in different languages that share the same root.

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Common Errors in Etymology

The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body.

The Reverend A. Smythe Palmer, Folk-Etymology, 1890

Popular wisdom often adopts tales about the origins of words. Sometimes these tales are correct, but more often they are not. These popular etymologies suffer from several recurring errors.

Superficial Resemblances

“Because two words look the same, they must come from the same source.” This is a very common error. To be fair, many, if not most, similar words are etymologically related, but this is not always the case. In fact, there are so many exceptions to this rule, that it is a very poor guide.

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