What The Digamma!

Jay Dillon found what may possibly be the earliest known use of what the fuck, which he has posted to Facebook. Dillon discovered the following poem, which was written by Joseph Dunn Lester and appeared in the 1881 Prize Translations, Poems, and Parodies. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word, the go-to resource for all fucking things, has the earliest use of what the fuck in Henry Miller’s 1942 Roofs of Paris. Who the fuck and where the fuck appear in the 1930s. And there is a 1903 citation of what the puck. The abbreviation WTF is recorded in 1985. So this poem, if it is indeed a use of the phrase, would be a significant antedating.

But the phrase is not clearly spelled out. Like many early uses of fuck, it’s encoded. The poem reads:

Διος Ομηρος (The God Homer)

Polyphloisboisteros Homer of old
Threw all his augments into the sea,
Though he’d been firmly but courteously told,
Perfect imperfects begin with an E.

“What the digamma, does any one care!”
The Poet replied with a haughty stare,
And he sat him down by the wine-dark sea,
To write a fresh book of the Odyssey.

A digamma is an archaic letter of the Greek alphabet that resembles the modern Latin letter F. (It had a sound value of /w/.) So the relevant the line could be read as “What the F, does any one care!” It seems likely the poem is a bit of an inside joke. Lester slipped a vulgar expression past the editors knowing that only those who knew Homeric Greek would get the joke. But this would mean that the phrase what the fuck was in use in 1881. That stretches credulity a bit, but not to the breaking point. Fuck was such a taboo word that there are very few printed uses of it in the nineteenth century, so its absence from the printed record is not evidence of its absence in spoken language.

If it is indeed an instance of what the fuck, it was hiding in plain sight. The poem was once well known, at least in certain rarefied circles. The word polyphloisboisteros even has an entry in the OED, with a first citation being from this poem. (It means noisy, boisterous.)

Ben Zimmer has a longer explanation, including a juicy tidbit about Charles Dodgson’s (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) reaction to the poem, in the Strong Language blog.

[Discuss this post]

English Time Machine

This video isn’t terrible, but it’s really too simplistic to be useful:

It’s got some problems. It conflates poetic language and everyday speech. It’s focused on the London dialect, as if all English speakers spoke the same way. Some of the “unknown” words are hardly unknown today (abbess, anyone?) The discussion of the Great Vowel Shift is wrong in the timeline; it was pretty much over well before Shakespeare’s day. They don’t attempt to replicate pronunciation until they hit Chaucer; I’m pretty sure that Defoe didn’t sound like the actor who is reading from Robinson Crusoe.

And, while this really isn’t a mistake, you don’t have to go back in time to find hard-to-understand English. There’s a wealth of diversity in English spoken around the world today.

It’s a shame really. The video is very well produced, so why didn’t they take the time to get the subtleties right? It wouldn’t have been difficult.

[Discuss this post]

Origin Unknown: Profile of Anatoly Liberman

Lapham’s Quarterly has a nice profile of etymologist Anatoly Liberman.

I don’t have much to say about the piece, except to highlight a couple of quotes. On why he pursues etymologies:

“Love is the wrong word,” he says. “Etymology is not a child or a woman. So there is nothing to love it for. It’s the excitement of discovery. Whether you discover a new particle in physics or the origin of a word, it’s really the same thing. It’s the excitement of the chase, the hunter’s feeling that you had your prey, and that you succeeded!”

And on the utility of Google:

“Can you do any searching with computers?” Liberman repeats the question in a resigned tone. “That’s what everybody asks. And, unfortunately, this answer is no. If you want to know the origin of a word, you will open the computer and Google the world heifer. Google will give you the titles of twenty etymological dictionaries, which is a waste to me. I have them all on my shelf. I know much more than a Google search, because I have every edition of every dictionary. I don’t need that. Sometimes Google Books will highlight a page, including Notes and Queries, that will show me something I may not know. But this is not even for dessert. These are crumbs.”

[Discuss this post]

ADS Word of the Year for 2015

Meeting in Austin, Texas this week, the American Dialect Society gave the nod to the singular they as its Word of the Year for 2015. The group, which has its members those who study how English is used in North America, also dubbed the singular they as the Most Useful word for the past year.

Read the rest of the article...

English Composition 101

This isn’t strictly on the topic of word and phrase origins, but it’s a topic I have recently gained considerable experience in. John Warner has penned an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc...) Papers,” and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more.

Read the rest of the article...
Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton