merry, God rest you merry
It wasn’t even yet 7 am on New Year’s Day when I debunked my first word myth of the year. A friend sent me a newspaper article in which a university professor claims that the merry in the title of the Christmas carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen actually meant mighty or strong. “The word ‘merry’ means strong or mighty, as in ‘merry old England,’ and the word ‘rest’ means to keep or make. So the title translates to ‘God keep you mighty, gentlemen,’ and refers to the lamplighters and additional men hired to patrol during the holidays,” said the professor, who will remain nameless here out of my desire not to embarrass him for his slipshod research techniques.
The first stop for any inquiry into the English language should always be the OED. And had the professor done that, he would have discovered that God rest you merry is a catchphrase meaning may “God grant you peace and happiness,” and it dates to at least 1534. Besides the Christmas carol, its second most famous appearance is in Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (And one need not go to the OED. Wikipedia gets it right and even debunks the false meaning of merry.)
Where the idea that merry means strong or mighty comes from is a mystery, but as the Wikipedia entry testifies the mistaken idea has some currency. Merry has never been used to mean such. The modern word is from the Old English mirige, which meant pleasant, joyful, or sweet. No dictionary that I know of records merry as having a definition of strong or mighty at any time from the Old English period right up through the present.
“merry, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2001.
“miri(e (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2013.
“mirige, adj.,” Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1898.
“rest, v.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2010.
God rest you merry, merry
There’s a new blog in town, one aimed at “language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts.” Specifically, the blog Strong Language is all about vulgarities.
Strong Language is the brainchild of linguist James Harbeck and editor Stan Carey, who each have their own excellent language blogs. The blog also features contributions from other writers about language.
Posts in the first week of the blog’s existence have included a discussion of some of Francis Grose’s more salacious notes that never made it into any of the print editions of his eighteenth-century slang dictionary, a piece by Ben Zimmer on the shit-ins of the 1960s, and a post on dog excrement in medieval Ireland.
So if you like words and aren’t easily offended, check it out.
Joe Gilbert has created English 3.0, a twenty-minute documentary on the state of the English language, featuring the likes of Tom Chatfield, David Crystal, Robert McCrum, Fiona McPherson and Simon Horobin.
It’s quite good. One comment mentioned by several of those interviewed that I have my doubts about concerns the “revolution” in language due to the internet. The claim is that the language is changing faster than ever. I’m not so sure that is true. Rather, we may simply be noticing the change more. People are coining (and abandoning) new words at the same rate they always have. But now with the internet, we see them, where before the new coinage was confined to a small coterie of the coiner’s friends and acquaintances. The impact on lexicography is the danger that these words will be ephemeral and the dictionary will become filled with obsolescent coinages that had a brief flash of existence—words that never would have risen to the attention of lexicographer fifty years ago because they died too quickly.
(Tip o’ the Hat to Stan Carey over at the Sentence First blog.
I’ve lived in Toronto for over four years now, and still differences between how English is spoken here and how it is spoken down south in the States keep surprising me. Today I was reading one of my favorite blogs (Lowering the Bar, a blog on legal humor) and saw a reference to the reeve of Hanover, Manitoba. The blog helpfully defined reeve as “mayor.”
Now I’m a medievalist, and I’m familiar with the word—one that is primarily known from Chaucer’s “The Reeve’s Tale” in his Canterbury Tales—but I had no idea the term was still in use other than in historical contexts. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. The Canadian political lexicon has several such fossilized terms; another being riding, or a Canadian voting district. Reeve is just another example.
The word comes from the Old English gerefa, a title for a local official or magistrate, often one who supervises the financial affairs of a shire, county, or estate. The -ref root is of unknown origin. The phonological shift from /f/ to /v/ is a common one and in this word can be seen as early as the late Old English/early Middle English period.
In modern use, reeve is mainly a historical term, used to reference medieval officials, but it still survives up here in parts of Canada and in certain pockets of England as a title for modern officials. But the modern use that is probably most familiar is the word sheriff , which comes from the Old English scirgerefa, or shire-reeve.
“reeve, n.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2009.
“sheriff, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Best Animal Name Ever
Women in The Guardian
Maddie York, an editor at The Guardian, has penned an article for that paper’s “Mind Your Language Blog” in which she objects to the use of woman as an adjective, as in woman doctor or woman writer. The subheading for the blog post—which York may not have written, as headlines are often not written by the reporter—reads:
‘Woman’ is not an acceptable adjective, any more than ‘lady’ once was. Let’s eradicate this misuse and give language a nudge in the right direction.
But this general proscription is just wrong. There is nothing, and never has been anything, wrong with using woman as an adjective.Read the rest of the article...
I was listening to a podcast in which the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson stated that he was under the impression that the discipline of ergonomics arose when the baby boomers started growing old and began feeling aches and pains. Of course, I had to immediately research the origin of the term, and it turns out Tyson’s impression is incorrect. (To be fair, Tyson wasn’t stating it as fact and expressed his own skepticism as to whether or not it was true.)
It seems the term ergonomics was coined in 1949 by British psychologist K. F. Hywel Murrell (1908–84). That same year Murrell as several colleagues founded the Ergonomics Research Society. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of the term in a published work is from the 1 April 1950 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, when that journal made mention of the society that Murrell had founded. The word is modeled after economics, but uses the Greek ἔργον, or ergon, meaning work, as the root.
So the term comes much too early to be the result of aging baby boomers, the first of whom were only toddlers when the term and the discipline came into existence.
“ergonomics, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Footnotes in the Digital Age
Last week Tim Parks posted in the New York Review of Books Blog on the need, or rather lack thereof, for formal reference citations in scholarly literature. Parks contends that with the advent of the internet and databases like Project Gutenberg, there is no longer a need for footnotes that give the source of information. Everything is simply a few key or mouse clicks away, and it’s easier for all concerned just to Google something rather than follow a footnoted reference.
Parks couldn’t be more wrong, and his argument betrays the biases in his work. His scholarly work is focused on contemporary literature and on translation. While it may, in many cases, be easier for him to Google something than look for a footnote, that is not necessarily the case in other fields.Read the rest of the article...
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton