Happy Birthday OK!

March 23, 2020

On this date in 1839, the initials “O.K.” were first published in The Boston Morning Post, meant as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” a popular slang misspelling of “all correct” at the time.

The Boston Magazine has the full story.


Listophilia

March 16, 2020

I have always loved writing, words, languages. It is one of the great joys of my life that the final chapter of my working life was as a professional writer.

I remember with the clarity of the senile the day in 1960 I first discovered Roget’s Thesaurus. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for a 10-year old boy with undiagnosed OCD and an over-developed love for words. Pages of words. Lists of words. Lists of words in clever categories. Words referring back to other words. I spent several months reading it from front to back. To hell with God, this was heaven.

This nostalgic torrent was unleashed through the agency of Jonathan Yardley’s review of Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget. From the review I was fascinated to learn that the Thesaurus for Roget was a form of therapy for depression.

“As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery — that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”

I’m sure I know exactly how he felt.


Wither Punctuation?

January 29, 2020

There is a very good article in History Today by Florence Hazrat on the history (and possible future) of punctuation.  She notes that:

“In classical times there were no punctuation marks or spaces between words. Since punctuation determines sense (‘Let’s eat, Grandpa’ versus ‘Let’s eat Grandpa’), scriptio continua allowed scribes to offer their masters a clean text, waiting to be interpreted by those higher up the social ladder. Writing was merely a recording of, or preparation for, speech: any punctuation that was inserted had oratorical, rather than grammatical, functions, indicating the degree of pauses upon delivery only.”

When classical texts were being rediscovered and copied in the early Middle Ages, scribes added various pauses to assist comprehension and these eventually developed into the comma, the colon, and the full stop.

“The 15th century saw a boom of inventive punctuation, including the exclamation mark, the semicolon and brackets (or parentheses). New marks arise when a lack of clarity needs to be redressed, communication controlled and sense disambiguated, an emergency perhaps stemming from greater reliance on written diplomacy as well as the newly fashionable art of letter writing.”

The semi-colon made an appearance first in 1494; while the dash and the ellipsis had to wait until the 18th century.

She concludes with a warning and a suggestion:

“When constant availability makes us minimise the effort and time we devote to messages, one may assume that punctuation is doomed. After all, December 2019 saw the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society, because the ‘ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won’, according to its former president. Yet studies on the use of the full stop in text messaging have shown that we do care about punctuation, even in a medium that promises endless continuation. When is it time to not send another text back? A full stop, the study suggests, comes across as aggressive and cuts conversation short. Perhaps a new mark is necessary?

 


When “Fuck” Actually Meant Something

November 13, 2019

It is hard to imagine that hearing the word “fuck” used in a casual conversation would shock many people these days. We hear it so much — on TV, in films, on the bus, in the playground — that is has become little more than an annoyance of constant repetition.   However there was a time, in my remembrance, when the word carried real freight.

Fifty-four years ago today, on 13 November 1965, I was part of the audience for a BBC late-night satirical show called BBC-3. On the show was the renowned theatre critic and public intellectual Kenneth Tynan. In an answer to a question about sex in plays, he said: “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.”

This was quickly recognized as the first deliberate use of the word on the BBC and the event became a weekend sensation for the more lurid media.  In 1988, Paul Johnson called the moment, Tynans’s “masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.”

Times have changed.


A Question For Etymologists: Skulk

October 10, 2019

I am looking to find the ultimate origin of the English word SKULK which, in the southern England that I grew up in, means to hang around, in a semi-concealed fashion, for some underhanded purpose.  “That burglar is skulking around the neighbourhood.”

In all the etymological dictionaries that I have examined, the word origin is given as Scandinavian from the 12th or 13th century.  For example: Danish “skulke“, Swedish “skolka“, and Icelandic “skolla.”  Those derivations are from Walter Skeat’s Dictionary, and similar derivations can be found at various online dictionaries such here, here, and here.  Normally that would be that; all the sources agree.

However, I have also been read 1985 PhD dissertation on the settlement of 6th and 7th century northern Italy by the Langobards who came from Pannonia which is roughly Croatia, and northern parts of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzeogivana.  In a discussion of military organization, the author mentions: “the sculca, denoting a spying or reconnaissance group or look-out … it was of Germanic origin which passed into Byzantine usage.”

Sculca as spies or look outs and skulking seem awfully close in both meaning and sound.  Could the Scandinavians have picked up the earlier word via the Germanic tribes between Lombardy and the Baltic?  Or perhaps both words derive from a proto-Germanic or even PIE original. Is there any debate on this anywhere?


Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


Ur-Symbols

March 5, 2019

One of my enduring interests is the history of language in general, the historical and genetic links between each language in a language family (Indo-European, for example, or Niger-Congo), and between each of the families into which we have divided the earth’s 7,000+ spoken and written forms of communication.

Languages, like all living forms, evolve and change. We know that each language and each language family had earlier forms, known as proto-languages; and there has been speculation that all languages are ultimately derived from some original or ur-language.  I haven’t accepted that thesis for quite some time, preferring instead to believe that language — being so vital to the complex world that the fast-rising homo genus was creating — evolved multiple times in multiple locations.

That being said, and while understanding that language and writing are not the same thing, Canadian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has presented evidence that the same symbols of human communication might well be global at a period many thousands of years before the Sumerians “invented” writing.

 

In fact, she suggests that this system is “a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa” tens of thousands of years ago. ‘This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,’ she writes.”

Like much cutting edge science, this analysis remains to be proven or otherwise. In the meanwhile, it allows for fascinating speculation.