Did Chaucer Coin “Twitter”?
Um, no. Or at least, probably not.
But that’s what The Atlantic Wire claimed yesterday in another conflating of coinage with earliest recorded usage. The Atlantic’s blog post was inspired by this tweet from the editors of the OED which says “Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb.”
In his Boece, a translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, written sometime in the late 1370s or early 1380s (the OED says c. 1374, but that’s probably a few years too early; the Middle English Dictionary puts it at c. 1380), Chaucer writes:
And the janglynge brid [...] twytereth desyrynge the wode with hir swete voys. (3.m2.21–31)
(The chattering bird [...] twitters, longing for the woods with its sweet voice.)
Chaucer wasn’t the only writer around that time to be using twitter. John Trevisa in his translation of Higden’s Polychronicon writes:
Þe osul twytereþ mery songes [...] Þe ny3tyngale in his note Twytereþ [...] Wiþ full swete song. (1.237)
(The blackbird twitters merry songs [...] The nightingale in his notes twitters [...] With full sweet song.)
So, the editors of the OED are correct in saying that Chaucer is the earliest known writer to use the the verb to twitter, but others were using it shortly after he was, and it seems likely that Chaucer was using a trendy, new verb that that was floating about London at the time, and not the coiner as The Atlantic Wire inferred from the evidence. It’s a small, but important distinction.
Sources: The Oxford English Dictionary Online; The Middle English Dictionary; and The Riverside Chaucer, Larry Benson, ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
This post on the Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language addresses sex-neutral terms and how they’ve been patchily applied in English. While the general thrust of the article is correct, the application of sex-neutral terms, like most things having to do with language, is inconsistent, at points the article starts to go off the rails, conflating issues that have nothing to do with being sex neutral.
“Hostess" is harmless but “mistress” is tainted.
This one is perhaps the most egregious slip in the post. Yes mistress is a tainted word, but it’s not tainted because it is sex-neutral; it’s tainted because of its other senses of adulterous lover and dominatrix.
The lowest enlisted ranks in America’s navy are “seamen"—regardless of the sex of the sailors in question.
True, the lowest ranks are officially dubbed seamen, a word that not only isn’t sex-neutral, but which causes pre-teen boys to giggle, but the more commonly used generic word is the sex-neutral sailor. Although the Johnson blogger is quite correct in that there is no good sex-neutral term for the air force equivalent of airmen.
Female Hollywood types are “actresses”, uncontroversially, but many women of the serious New York stage call themselves “actors”.
Yes, actress can still be used uncontroversially, but the use of actor to refer to women is gaining ground. It’s not just “women of the serious New York stage who call themselves ‘actors.’” It may be that in a decade or so, actress may be a skunked term as well. Although perhaps not, because unlike these other professions sex does make a difference in the roles that actors play. The profession itself isn’t sex neutral. (Like dominatrix, where the outdated -trix suffix lives on because the whole point of the fetish is that the woman is in charge.)
I also note that the sex neutrality can go the other way. The -ster suffix, once used to refer to woman doing a job normally performed by a man, in current use the suffix has lost its sex specificity entirely, although it retains some of its diminutive quality.
Words and Politics (and Bold as Brass)
In this political season it may be worthwhile to take a moment to ponder the relationship between words and political reality, and which one really influences the other. Do words shape political reality? Or does reality change the meaning of our words? Mark Forsyth takes a good look at this topic in this TED Talk:
One correction, however: I believe that Forsyth gets the origin of the phrase bold as brass wrong. While the tale of Brass Crosby may have helped popularize the phrase, it’s unlikely to be the origin.
While the phrase isn’t recorded until 1789, eighteen years after Crosby’s arrest, the first citation in the OED reads:
1789 G. Parker Life’s Painter xv. 162 He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.
So we know that the phrase was in oral use earlier than 1789. How much earlier? We really don’t know. But the word brass has meant effrontery and impudence since the mid seventeenth century, long before Crosby was born. And the brass, with the definite article, also predates Crosby:
a1734 R. North Examen (1740) iii. viii. ⁋17 The Author hath the Brass to add, etc.
Furthermore, the pairing of the words bold and brass can be found earlier, albeit not in the form of a phrase.
There is this from an anonymous pamphlet, A Label Without being a Libel against Truth, published by J. Roberts of London in 1728 (emphasis mine):
Prejudice is a Glass if you look through,
It misrepresents e’ry thing to you.
It makes Folks with good Truth to be too bold,
Cries up the canker’d Brass, and cries down pure Gold,
And in this Book such various Faults will find,
As ain’t seen, but by a Prejudiced Mind.
A search of Eighteenth Century Collections Online turns up some fifteen similar co-locations published between 1700–71. It’s not the phrase, but it does show that people were making the alliterative pairing long before Brass Crosby appeared on the scene.
[Tip o’ the Hat to Andrew Sullivan and The Daily Dish]
Sources: brass, n., Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd Edition, 1989; Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
Video: Naco, Pocho
A neat video (12 minutes) on two Mexican slang terms naco, “common, tacky person,” and pocho ”Mexican-American." Both are derogatory, but have been reclaimed and are used as a proud self-identification for some. For me, the best part of the video are the last few minutes where the interviews touch upon the intermingling of Mexican and American cultures.
Tip of the hat: Languagehat
Contest: Devise a Silly “Grammar” Rule
Allan Metcalf over at the Lingua Franca blog is sponsoring a contest to solicit new bogus grammar/usage rules.
The example that Metcalf gives is to use “centered on” as opposed to “centered around.”
The rule you propose must be new. It can’t be in any standard usage manual. But it should look “venerable.” It should have a false patina of respectability and erudition.
The contest ends 10 October. The prize is one of Metcalf’s books.
The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary are calling upon the public to help them find antedatings and early uses of a number of terms. Those terms, and the dates the OED currently has citations for in its files, are:
- Bellini (1965)
- FAQ (1989)
- disco (1964)
- cootie (1967) (in the sense of the imaginary children’s “germ")
- to come in from the cold (1963)
- blue-arsed fly (1970)
- in your dreams! (1986)
- Kwanzaa (1971)
Such appeals are nothing new, going back to the earliest days of the dictionary, but what’s neat about this appeal is that all the submissions are posted on the web. So you can see what work has been done to date.
Of course, the OED editors are always happy to receive emails containing antedatings and early citations for any word.
The Writing Revolution
A very interesting article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic about how teaching writing seems to vastly improve the academic potential of students who have a history of poor academic performance.
From a personal perspective, I would agree with this experience. I credit most of my academic success to my eleventh-grade English teacher who focused the entire class on writing solid essays. I can’t think of a better skill to teach students. A focus on good writing leads to clear and critical thinking in virtually any field, not just English classes.
I have two cautions though. First, the premise seems based on anecdotal evidence. I’d really like to see this tested under controlled conditions.
Second, I’d hate to see this turned into a call to “teach grammar.” That’s an approach that has been proven not to work. From the description of the program, they are not teaching grammar; they are teaching writing. The students have known English grammar since they were five years old; they just don’t know how to apply it to the written page. The focus is on teaching how to write coherent complex sentences, not to teach the difference between a gerund and participle. If you have to do some quick remedial instruction on grammar to get a point about good writing across, so be it, but the grammar instruction is an ad hoc, instrumental step, not the objective of the instruction.
Esquires and Attorneys
Lately I’ve taken to reading Kevin Underhill’s blog, Lowering the Bar. Underhill, a lawyer, comments on the various humorous news stories about legal cases and the profession of law that arise. The blog rarely fails to give me a chuckle with my morning coffee.
His posting from yesterday is not one of the funnier ones (although it has its moments), but Underhill does raise the issue of how courts use the meanings of words in their deliberations. In the case in question, John Heurlin, a lawyer who had been suspended by the California Bar Association, continued to use the titles attorney and esquire and to represent clients. The case is the disciplinary proceeding against Huerlin.Read the rest of the article...
Ben Trawick-Smith’s Dialect Blog has post about diversity in Canadian Anglophone accents. The conclusion, yes there are distinctions, but they are subtle. There are no major divides, like between the Southern States and the rest of the United States or strong urban dialects, like Cockney or Scouse.
Theater and Storytelling
Holger Syme discusses the difference between theater and storytelling. Storytelling is a buzzword in theater and film nowadays, but Syme makes a persuasive case that drama is not storytelling.
I had thought storytelling, as used in the dramatic arts, was, in essence, something quite distinct from the storytelling techniques of narrative literature. But Syme makes the point that a good deal of modern drama is just writing read out loud, that good drama is distinctly different from literature.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton