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August 2, 2006

The Mother Tongue

You poor sap. While I can't say for certain, I am pretty sure you are a slave to your television. And in the summer this is especially tragic due to the poor quality of television currently on display. It is so poor, that the week of July 4 was the least watched week in television history. Well, at least as long as we've been keeping track. What on Earth are you doing still watching this idiot box? Unless it is the Twins, of course. If so, then carry on.

As for me I have been passing the hot summer days reading. Man do I love to read. My thinking has always been this: right now in my local library sits the greatest book I will ever read. All I have to do is find it! The search continues, but in the meantime I have read some really thought provoking books.

mothertongue.jpg Take this book I just finished, for example: The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way by Bill Bryson. You might think to yourself, "What a boring sounding book. I hated English in school." Bah! That is what I thought until I picked it up and started reading it. The history of the English language is fascinating. Actually, the history of any language is fascinating if someone knows how to tell it properly. Take, for example, this passage:

"Of course, every language has areas in which it needs, for practical purposes, to be more expressive than others. The Eskimos ... have fifty words for types of snow -- though curiously no word for just plain snow. To them, there is crunchy snow, soft snow, and old snow, but no word that just means snow."

Thrilling, heh? Personally, I had no idea. This book is full of interesting tidbits like that as it goes through languages of the world before delving into the specific history of English, the varieties of English, American English, where words actually come from, and even a chapter on swearing. What I found particularly interesting about the English language is how much it has changed over the years and how much it continues to change. English is a very fluid language and we are constantly adding words and phrases without any real regard for the purity of the language (unlike the French who freak out over any intruding foreign words). As English speakers, we love it when new words are added. And we don't seem to mind when old words are dropped. Check this out:

[W]e have a large number of negative words--inept, disheveled, incorrigible, ruthless, unkempt--for which the positive form is missing. English would be richer if we could say admiringly of a tidy person, "She's so sheveled," or praise a capable person for being full of ept or an energetic one for having heaps of ert. Many of these words did once have positive forms. Ruthless was companioned by ruth, meaning compassion. One of Milton's poems contains the well-known line "Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth."

Isn't that tragic? I think we should all endeavor to bring back the word "ruth." And why not? If Snoop Dog can enter phrases like "fo shizzle" into the English lexicon, surely we can do our part to bring back such a positive word such as "ruth." Who is with me?

Sheesh. I could go on and on. Check out this passage:

"Neck was once widely used to describe a parcel of land, but that meaning has died out except in the expression "neck of the woods." Tell once meant to count. This meaning died out but is preserved in the expression bank teller and in the term for people who count votes. When this happens, the word is called a fossil. Other examples of fossils are the italicized words in the following list:

short shrift
hem and haw
rank and file
raring to go
not a whit
out of kilter
at bay
spick and span
to and fro
kith and kin"

What continually amazed me about this book were all the examples the author could come up with to back up his statements. The quote above is but one example where the author goes on and on with examples which just floored me. It is readily apparent that Bryson knows his English and has a deep love for it.

Lastly, I found the chapter on "Wordplay" particularly fascinating, especially for its description of "Cockney Rhyming Slang." We get a surprising number of phrases from this phenomenon, namely the phrase "put up your dukes" and the word "arse." Common rhyming slang that you might hear today on the streets of East London include "use your loaf" which comes from the rhyme of loaf of bread with head. "Use your loaf" means "use your head." Or "how you doin' my old china?" which comes from china plate rhyming with mate.

Above I mentioned the phrase "put up your dukes" which comes from the Duke of York rhyming with fork which is used by your hand. Or fist if you grip the fork really tightly I suppose. And the word "arse," although it is somewhat profane, actually has a fascinating history. Bottle has long meant ass in Cockney (bottle and glass rhyming with ass). Bottle also ryhmes with Aristotle which was shortened to arse to describe a person's posterior. Now you know. You can thank me later.

Anywho, The Mother Tongue was just a fascinating book. We take so much of the English language for granted. It was nice to read about some of its rich history.

murray.jpg And now I will leave you with a picture of James Murray, the man we have to thank for the uncomparable Oxford English Dictionary. Murray worked on the dictionary for 36 years (he was working on the letter "u" when he died in 1915). The OED is perhaps the greatest piece of scholarship ever produced, and because of it we know more about the English language than any other language on the face of the Earth. It has well over 600,000 entries, well over 2,400,000 supporting quotations (proof the word has been used somewhere), and it is contained in 12 large volumes and numerous supplements (to detail new words, of course). You should travel to your local college or public library and take a look at it out sometime. It is an impressive piece of work which usually takes up an entire library shelf. It is mind blowing to think how difficult it must have been to put together (if you are interested in the history of the OED specifically, check out this link).

My hat is off to you James Murray. Especially because you loved to have your picture taken with a long black robe and a mortar board on your head. If only I could keep it as real as you.

Until next time, my homies!

Posted by snackeru at August 2, 2006 9:50 PM


Slammin post! You are totally polar. Polar comes from the commonly used pet name of endearment, pookie bear. Get it? Bear - polar? Anyway. The meaning polar is used to describe a brillant writter of blogs. Blog comes from the 2 words....

Posted by: Anonymous at August 3, 2006 12:26 AM

You really used your loaf for this entry. It was very ept. And I can tell from you previous entries that you are a very ruthful person.

Now get off your arse and get back to work.

Posted by: Jeff A at August 3, 2006 8:32 AM

Thanks Jeff. Hilarious! You've got some ept yourself!

Posted by: Shane at August 3, 2006 11:18 AM

TY so much 4 this post.

Posted by: Quesomelon's spouse at August 3, 2006 2:43 PM

If you like Bill Bryson I recommend
A Walk in the Woods and
A short history of nearly everything.

Both great books!

Posted by: Boof at August 3, 2006 6:56 PM

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