Holt, a word for a wooded area, a copse, goes back to Old English. It’s root is common Germanic, with cognates found in Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, etc.

The word is found in line 2598 of Beowulf to describe how the hero’s men abandon him when faced with the dragon:

ac hy on holt bugon, ealdre burgan
(but they fled into the wood to save their lives)

Perhaps the most famous appearance of the word is in line six of “General Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes

(When Zephyr also with the his sweet breath
has inspired in every holt and heath
tender crops)

There’s really not much else to say about this word. I came across it while reading an Old Norse account of the settlement of Vinland and wondered if it was a borrowing from Old Norse. The English word isn’t borrowed, it’s just cognate with the Old Norse. Although in Icelandic it means a stony hill—not many trees in Iceland. And indeed, in the account I’m reading, Eiriks saga Rauða or Þorfinns saga Karlsefnis (Eric the Red’s Saga or Thorfinn Karlsefni’s Saga), from a late fifteenth-century manuscript, the word does indeed mean hill as it is contrasted with lowlands:

Þar fundu þeir sjálfsána hveitiakra, þar sem lægðir váru, en vínviðr alt þar sem holta kendi.
(There they found wild-growing (self-sown) wheat fields where there was low-lying land, and grapevines wherever there were hills.)

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition); Zoëga Geir, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1910), University of Toronto Press, 2004.

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Book of Kells Now Online

Trinity College Dublin has now placed the Book of Kells online.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Digital Dictionaries

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a detailed article on how the transition to digital and online formats are changing dictionaries. Digital dictionaries are more convenient, provide feedback to lexicographers on what words are being searched, and have the tools to track social trends in vocabulary use.

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Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online

The first edition, from 1967, of The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles is now available online. A second edition is in preparation with publication targeted for 2015.

So now you can look up toque (1888, or 1882 for the spelling tuque) and Chesterfield (1903).

Making this resource freely available is a good thing, but the dictionary does have its limitations. Most notably, it is from 1967, so many recent Canadianisms are not to be found in it. There is no entry for poutine, for example. Also, the DCHP only includes citations from Canadian sources. While this policy is great for tracking Canadian usage, users must remain aware that many of the terms are older in other dialects. For example, the OED has a British use of Chesterfield a decade before the word appears in Canada, and use of toque goes back to the sixteenth century. And in a bad web design choice, users must click on each citation to see the bibliographic data, which is annoying and time consuming.

So while the DCHP is not a one-stop language site, it is a valuable addition to the lexicographic resources available on the web.

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Time Wasters

John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, enumerates the various zombie rules that some people still cling to. There are no surprises on the list, but it’s nice to see them all listed all together. If he missed any, I can’t think of what they might be.

I’m pleased that I’m guilty of enforcing only one of these rules with my students: “Insisting on who for people, that for animals and objects.” I’ve gotten better at letting it slide, but it still irks the hell out of me whenever I see it, and the urge to pick up the blue pencil is a strong one.

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The Problem With Peevery

Kory Stamper of the Harmless Drudgery blog points out the problems with correcting the grammar of others.

NBC Pronunciation Guide

Ben Trawick-Smith of the Dialect Blog has found a copy of The NBC Handbook of Pronunciation from over fifty years ago. It’s an interesting nugget. I didn’t know that American broadcasters had such guides, but I shouldn’t be surprised.


Heaven is a word that dates back to the Old English heofon. Its earliest sense is that of the sky, the firmament in which the stars are placed. From Beowulf, line 1571:

swa of hefene hadre scineð rodores candel
(as from heaven, the candle of the sky clearly shines)

The plural form that is commonly used today also dates back this far. From c.825 in the Vespasian Psalter, from Psalms 8:3:

Ic gesie heofenas werc fingra ðinra
(I see the heavens, the work of your fingers)

The sense meaning the abode of God, the afterlife, appears a little bit later. From a translation of the gospel of Matthew, c.1000:

Fader ure þu þe eart on heofene
(Our father, you who are in heaven)

The English heaven has cognates throughout the Germanic languages.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

Why Eminem is one of the most impressive lyricists ever

The title of this YouTube video is rather hyperbolic, but it makes a pretty persuasive case and gives a succinct lesson in how rhyme works in poetry along the way.

(Tip o’ the hat to Elisa Tersigni)

Re-examining Orwell

Ed Smith over at the New Statesman has a rather good criticism of Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is often trotted out as justification for grammatical prescriptivism, probably because of the six simple rules for good writing that Orwell promulgates. It is only second to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in this regard. Of course, neither Orwell or the prescriptivists realize that Orwell himself runs roughshod over his rule #4, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” In the essay Orwell uses the passive voice in about twenty percent of his sentences, while most writers of his era used it in only about ten percent. It seems that Orwell (Strunk and White, too, but that’s another story) didn’t know what the passive voice is, or at least wasn’t very good at spotting it in his own writing.

But Smith skips the grammatical skirmishes and drives a knife into the heart of Orwell’s argument that plain English inherently makes for clearer communication:

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