Monthly Archives: March 2020

Two More on the Indo-European Account

I realize that I’ve blithely assumed that “everybody” knows the Proto-Indo-European backstory but just in case not: it’s conventional to begin with William Jones, a judge in British India in the latter part of the 18th century, who saw similarities between Sanskrit and European languages (the Wikipedia article on *PIE corrects the simple version of the story). In any case, in the 19th century European philologists became obsessed with figuring out the details, and speculatively reconstructing the totally-vanished (because unwritten) *PIE by positing regularities in sound- and grammatical/syntax-shifts (the ‘Laws’ mentioned below). See for much more.

Rooting around on the shelves of word books, I turned up two that I’d missed a few days ago, both strange enough to be worth pondering further. I bought N.E. Collinge’s The Laws of Indo-European because I was sure I’d never see it again (a silly reason to buy something, but one to which I’ve returned again and again…) and because it was one of the most recondite I’d ever encountered. The Amazon blurb: “This book collects all the named laws of Indo-European, presents each in its original form and rationale and then provides an evaluation of all major attacks, revisions and exploitations, along with a full bibliography and index. Complete – thorough – exhaustive.” One reviewer puts it thus:

sets out all the important rules of sound change that any student of comparative Indo-European linguistics should acquaint themselves with. Grimm’s law, Grassman’s law, the law of the palatals, they’re all here. Besides the general laws affecting the major Indo-European languages (Germanic, Sanskrit, and Greek), Collinge also addresses the laws of the Baltic and Slavonic accents. This field is a mess, and it seems that most of the laws covered in the book somehow relate to the accent. An appendix covers minor laws (although some, such as Watkin’s Law, have become major in their ramifications) and major tendencies.

One major downside to Collinge’s presentation is that he fails to give a simple algebraic form of each law suitable for making flashcards. Another complaint, somewhat frequent in the academy, is that Collinge is so attentive in presenting seeming exceptions that he makes certain well-fixed laws appear as if they are undependable when in fact few would dispute them.

Here’s the Table of Contents, which should strike fear into just about any heart:

The Introduction will provide a mild corrective to any overinflation of the reader’s idea of own erudition:

Joseph Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is much more approachable (Amazon says: “Anecdotal, eclectic, and always enthusiastic, The Origins of English Words is a diverting expedition beyond linguistics into literature, history, folklore, anthropology, philosophy, and science.”), and one reviewer says

This book is a must own if you have international friends or live in a multi lingual house hold. I satisfy both criteria and at dinners we will always talk etymology and meanings. The internet has nothing on the Red Book, as I call it. I invariably pop it out to settle a linguistic dispute. Very entertaining. I keep it in the kitchen with the cookbooks.

My kind of folk. The Red Book has 180-odd pages of “Index of English Words” which provides entrée to 450 pages of Indo-European roots, each with (as promised) a fascinating discursive entry. Consider the entries for abel and kerd:

The Joys of Anglo-Indian

I’ve had Yule and Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological,historical geographical and discursive for 50 years, but its provenance extends back to the 1870s, in what Yule’s preface describes as “the portly double-columned edifice which now presents itself”. The title itself is marvelous, and as Yule says

If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot (“peculiar to the British soldier and his surroundings”) which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular.

And so :

The section below makes it clear that ‘caste’ is a term foisted upon Indian society by Europeans attempting to make sense of what they observed: “Distinguished by the different modes of binding their turbats…” “…reckoned by travellers to be 84…” “…from these 4 castes are derived 196…”

Ivor Lewis Sahibs, Nabobs, and Boxwallahs: A Dictionary of the Words of Anglo-India is a century after Yule & Burnell and represents “an attempt to fill in some measure certain lacunae in Hobson-Jobson in order to achieve a better balance between the words of the common sort and those in the learned registers of theology, indology, philosophy and the like.”

These two books document with an English that is pretty much gone, since the end of the British Empire with Indian Independence and the foundation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, but present-day “Indian English” is vibrant and continues to evolve. Braj Kachru’s The Indianization of English: The English Language in India contains eight scholarly studies of aspects of “the nativization of the English language in India” and is poised midway between 1947 and 2020; in search of something more contemporary, I can’t resist Lonely Planet’s Indian English: Language & Culture (“total timepast… ‘Indian English’ is India’s informal and colourful take on the English language, a mash up of American and British English poured over the Indian tongue. Bollywood jargon, Hinglish slang, you know you want to talk that talk! “). I’m tempted by Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film but can’t really justify the indulgence.

Wikipedia, no surprise, has a nice summary: Indian English, and YouTube offers lots of examples of Indian English (Hinglish, Manglish [Malayalam and English], Kanglish [Kannada and English], Tenglish [Telugu and English], and Tanglish or Tamglish [Tamil and English]). Here’s one:

consider also this Tamglish video:

I hear you ask: Tamglish? Soup song? Soup boy? If you happen to be among those not quite abreast of the latest internet trends, Tamglish is a conflation of the south-Indian language Tamil and English. For those who are up to speed, it is synonymous with Kolavari Di – a song of rejection hummed by an inebriated jilted lover… (Kolavari Di: how India’s ‘Tamglish soup song’ went viral (Priya Virmani)

Indo-European and Germanic

It’s such fun to go chasing after the narratives of language evolution and distribution, via books like Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (which is global in scope and well illustrated with maps, and has a fine ear for illustrative quotations from many languages), Kenneth Katzner’s The Languages of the World (which offers brief characterizations of about 200 languages, with exemplary texts), Merritt Ruhlen’s A Guide to the World’s Languages: Volume I, Classification (which is especially concerned with taxonomy of 17 major language families and their subgroupings), and Florian Coulmas’ The Writing Systems of the World (which takes on graphic representations of sound systems, mostly ignored by linguistics). I can’t claim to have assimilated any of these, but I’ve been in and out of all of them quite a bit in the last 40-odd years.

Thinking back through a few thousand years of linguistic history is a rainy-day delight:
Robert Claiborne’s The Roots of English: A Reader’s Handbook of Word Origins is mostly concerned with Indo-European roots in English words (“…two thousand or so basic Indo-European roots have been reconstructed… (which) begot at least ten times that number of actual words…”). Germanic, Latin, French and Greek (all in the Indo-European family) are the primary contributors to the English we use.

Another fascinating resorce for IE: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots “enlarges upon the history of 13,000 English words, spanning over 5000 years from Indo-European to Modern English” (cover blurb)

Two pages suggest the riches of Watkins:

The historical epic of the development of modern English (its Anglo-Saxon roots, Norman additions, Latin and Greek ecclesiastical and scholarly elements) are recent enough and well attested in sources like the always-interesting History of English Podcast, but the Indo-European and Germanic background to English is further back in the mists of time, and less well-known. English is, after all, a Germanic language in its grammatical and syntactical organization (“English sentences are organized with GERMANIC grammar. Subject first, verb after. Prepositional phrases, pronouns, and verb tenses are all used in the Germanic style. English sentences use, the same rules that are used for sentence construction in German and Dutch, Swedish and Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish…”), and in the majority of its high-frequency words, so it’s worthwhile to include explanatory videos like


(though the accompanying music is turnable-off…)

See also Wikipedia’s list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents, and note Poul Anderson’s essay “Uncleftish Beholding” (“Atomic Theory”), which “shows what English would look like if it
were purged of its non-Germanic words, and used German-style compounds instead of borrowings to express new concepts”:

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called *unclefts*.
These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a
tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most
unclefts link together to make what are called *bulkbits*. Thus,
the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the
sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some
kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling
together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet
more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make
*bindings*. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts
with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the
forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more
unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and

At first is was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that
could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made
up of lesser motes. There is a heavy *kernel* with a forward
bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with
backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of ordinary
waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a
*firstbit*. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a
*bernstonebit*. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that
of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought bernstonebits
swing around the kernel like the earth around the sun, but now we
understand they are more like waves or clouds.

In all other unclefts are found other motes as well, about as
heavy as the firstbit but with no lading, known as *neitherbits*.
We know a kind of waterstuff with one neitherbit in the kernel
along with the firstbit; another kind has two neitherbits. Both
kinds are seldom…

…and see this venture into Anglish:

…and this, just in, about grammatical case.

Greek and Latin

Among the facets of the ‘foreign’ in English are the substructure of Latin and Greek in syntax and in vocabularies and lexicons. These three books take very different approaches to the challenge of learning one’s way around the complexities, and each makes a distinctive contribution to the young pedant’s verbal armamentarium.

English Words from Latin and Greek Elements by Donald M. Ayers [1965] (a textbook, with lessons [26 from Latin; 25 from Greek] and assignments to accompany each lesson)

Greek And Latin In Scientific Terminology
by Oscar Edward Nybakken [1959] (more than half the pages are word lists, with the prefixes, suffixes, and numerals that vivify the roots)

Three-Language List of Botanical Name Components by A Radcliffe-Smith [1998] (tables of terms alphabetised by each of the three languages)

Ayers’ approach is paradigmatic and based on “word elements”: the student is to learn bases, learn suffixes, do Assignments for each lesson:

and List of Bases (Greek)

Nybakken’s method is vocabulary-based, and specifically oriented toward science:

Most of the technical words used in medicine and dentistry have their origins in the Greek and Latin languages, and over two-thirds of present-day medical English is derived from Greek alone… The traditional source for names of plants and animals has long been the classical languages. The more technical and highly specialized the terms are, the higher is the percentage of those which have their origins in Greek and Latin, especially in Greek… Word coinages, necessitated by the perennial advances in scientific fields, find their most suitable and frequent origins in the ancient languages of the Greeks and the Romans…

Radcliffe-Smith offers parallel Greek-Latin-English, Latin-English-Greek, and English-Latin-Greek:

This delicious compendium is published by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and includes this marvelous bit of British prose:

Foreign kickshaws

Reconsidering the books on the shelves spawns lots of unexpected thoughts and realizations, and the occasional Grand Scheme surfaces too. Today I’m considering these two, which are perfect “bathroom books” for short-term browsing:

Dictionary of foreign terms by Christopher Orlando Sylvester Mawson [originally 1934, mine the 1975 Second Edition]

The Dictionary of Foreign Terms in the English Language by David Carroll [1973]

Many of the words and phrases in these dictionaries are mots justes, perfect/pithy expressions of a thought: in Carroll:

The proper word; the exact appropriate word or saying for the situation.

and in Mawson:

The precise (or exact) word.

Their use in text or speech marks the writer or speaker as a sophisticate [OED: Of a person: free of naïvety, experienced, worldly-wise; subtle, discriminating, refined, cultured; aware of, versed in, the complexities of a subject or pursuit], of the cognoscente: [OED Etymology: < Italian cognoscente, Latinized form of conoscente knowing man, connoisseur < Latin cognōscent-em , present participle of cognōscěre to know, etc.]. The sort of person who refers to self as “One” …
and reading through a page or two at a time is an excellent way to enlarge one’s sense of what languages do with their basic building blocks. I mean:

muscae volitantes [L.] Flying flies, i.e., strange floating spots and lines that play across the field of vision due to clusters of cellular material that collects in the vitreous humor of the eyes.

mortuo leoni et lepores insultant [L.] Even the rabbits insult a dead lion.

interdum vulgus rectum videt [L.] Occasionally even the vulgar crowd sees things clearly.

cave quid dicis, quando, et cui Beware what you say, when, and to whom.

Somewhere along the line I picked up the phrase “natty Latinism”, referring to examples of the propensity of the over-educated to add bits of Latin as decorations in speech and writing. Strangely, Google has no instances of that delicious phrase.

Here’s part of the Preface to Mawson:

and two pages of entries, the first providing an education in the flexibility of faire, and the latter offering a run around the block with qui and quod:

One is somehow a Better Person for the time spent with these dictionaries, but perhaps is more insuffereable to subsequent interlocutors.

Polyglot’s Lexicon: a Rabbit Hole

Word books are often curious, in one or another of the OED’s senses:

5 c. Devoting attention to occult art. Obsolete.
1549 N. Udall et al. tr. Erasmus Eph. in Paraphr. New Test. Argt. That Citie was full of Curiouse menne, and suche as were geuen to magicall artes.
1578 T. Tymme tr. J. Calvin Comm. Genesis 35 Certaine courious persons abuse this place to colour their vaine prognostications.
1606 Bp. J. Hall Heauen vpon Earth 191 Curious men, that consult with starres, and spirits for their destinies.

15. Calling forth feelings of interest; interesting, noteworthy. Obsolete or archaic.
1682 Bp. G. Burnet Hist. Rights Princes (new ed.) iv. 135 The curiousest Remains of former Ages that are extant.
1759 J. Reynolds Idler 29 Sept. 305 It is curious to observe, that [etc].
1793 J. Smeaton Narr. Edystone Lighthouse (ed. 2) §56 [It] would have been not only curious, but useful, had it been handed down to us.
1816 M. Keating Trav. (1817) II. 80 It would be very curious to be able to ascertain where and how the scaffolding was obtained for such a work.

16 a. Deserving or exciting attention on account of its novelty or peculiarity; exciting curiosity; somewhat surprising, strange, singular, odd; queer. (The ordinary current objective sense.)
1715 J. Richardson Ess. Theory of Painting 100 This is very Particular, and Curious.
1719 J. Richardson Sci. Connoisseur 204 What is Rare, and Curious without any Other consideration we Naturally take Pleasure in.
1769 E. Burke Observ. Late State Nation 52 A most curious reason truly!
1807 G. Crabbe Parish Reg. iii, in Poems 115 No curious Shell, rare Plant or brilliant Spar, Intic’d our Traveller.
1868 C. W. Dilke Greater Brit. II. iv. 163 Seated in the piazza..I had before me a curious scene.
1888 J. Bryce Amer. Commonw. III. xc. 251 I give here a few of the more novel or curious provisions of the Constitution of California of 1789.

One from the shelves is all-of-the-above: Polyglot’s Lexicon 1943-1966, ascribed to Kenneth Versand, with a Preface by Kenneth Schlossberg (1973) (“[Portions] originally compiled by the Research Committee on New Words of the American Dialect Society and by G. & C. Merriam Company … [and] published annually from 1943 through 1966 in the Britannica book of the year.”).

This purports to be a presentation of “new words, new meanings, extended meanings of old words, or combinations of old words”, arrayed by year, by Science, by Politics, by Grammar (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and so on. About 2/3 of the pages are line-printer output, indicating that this was one of those early uses of mainframe computers to deal with text (which takes me back to the days of Phil Stone’s General Inquirer Project at Harvard, “a computer-assisted approach for content analyses of textual data”). The original input material would have been on punch cards (lots of punch cards), and the computer’s task was to sort the fields of the cards and output ordered lists. Here are a few page images to ponder:

And what’s the use of such a compendium? When and how is it useful to discover that “white sidewall haircut” (‘A haircut in which the hair is clipped short on the sides’) appeared in the Zeitgeist in 1957? Or is it just a curiosity? The Research Committee on New Words of the American Dialect Society sounds a bit unlikely, but really did exist. But how did Polyglot’s Lexicon come to be? Who was “Kenneth Versand”? (I discover that someone of that name ran a STOP sign in California [“Rolling stops (or so-called ‘California stops’) are not permissible under VC 22450]”) It seems quite likely that “Kenneth Versand” is a nom de guerre of Edwin Schlossberg, and he is (since 1986) the spouse of (wait for it…) Caroline Kennedy. YCMTSU. In 1973 (when Polyglot’s Lexicon first appeared) Schlossberg was 27 years old, with BA and MA degrees from Columbia, on his way to becoming an “interactive designer” and Founder of ESI Design (see a summary profile; and see also a New York Times article from 1986). And then have a boo at his 1967-68 piece Among the Words, from Wordswordswords. In these contexts, his Preface to Polyglot’s Lexicon is almost comprehensible, considered as word art:

…but the Introduction, ascribed to Kenneth Versand, defies efforts to parse:

So we’re pretty far down the rabbit hole here, and who knew, when I pulled the book off the shelf to explore for this post, that such sport was to be found? Others have trod this path:

The preface is written by Edwin Schlossberg, and I wonder if he is really the author as well. ‘Versand’ is a German word for ‘ship, dispatch’ and not really a name. This fits in with Edwin Schlossberg’s projects in the 1960s when he was friends with Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg and John Cage and worked for R. Buckminster Fuller. Since he is a very famous and very private person (married to Caroline Kennedy) I think it would probably be pretty difficult to contact him to ask about the book. (

Convivial Question

Back in the day when I had classroom audiences, I’d tell them ahead of time what the “essay question” would be on the (still compulsory) exam, so that they could prepare something artful and interesting, and so that I wouldn’t have to read scores of bluebooks of blather. It sort of worked, because some took the opportunity to think about the question and actually tried to make a coherent response.

In crafting today’s Question for the Convivium, it’s been useful to me to explore how I find and explicate the idea. The starting place (Georges Perec in this case), the cross-connections, the contributions of others (Kate, in this instance, in response to my blog post), the influence of new input streams (reading the morning’s array of blog postings on my RSS feed), the writing down of passing thoughts for later consideration and integration… all very worthwhile to observe and recognize. Maria Popova’s relation of Ernst Haeckel’s tragedy and response is a glowing entrée to thinking about what Popova denominates elsewhere in today’s harvest as “…this intricate tessellation of being…”

Last night, Kate followed up the jigsaw puzzle line of thought with the observation that we are accustomed to the pieces of our lives fitting together, making patterns that we understand. But what’s now afoot for many is a disruption of the understood, the puzzle pieces unmoored and scattered, and many are now going nuts not being able to do the familiar, and with perspectives altered: twisted, fractured, adrift…

So what’s a constructive, healthy, satisfying response to such disorientation? For me I recognize that it’s finding something outside the inner selves (noting that, for some, the Inner is echoing, scary, empty, where the personal demons are), something that links with others. In my own case it’s turning out to be making stuff: the “word books” blogging project, the sending of links to various friends and relations, exploration and amelioration of various bits of long-standing disorganization.

What’s your response? Commence filling your bluebooks…

Georges Perec provokes

Seeking a Question for tomorrow night’s Convivium, and being these days much engaged with books and with the computer keyboard, I let Serendipity take its well-known course and picked up a book that I had bought some years ago and read perhaps a third of. Always meant to get back to it:

Georges Perec Life A User’s Manual (1978 in French; 2009 in English).

Says the Amazon blurb:

One of the great novels of the century… From the confessions of a racing cyclist to the plans of an avenging murderer, from a young ethnographer obsessed with a Sumatran tribe to the death of a trapeze artist, Life is stories connected by a single moment in time (8:00 p.m. on June 23, 1975) in an apartment block in the XVIIth arrondissement of Paris. Chapter by chapter, room by room, an extraordinary rich cast of characters is revealed in a series of tales that are bizarre, unlikely, moving, funny, or (sometimes) quite ordinary. The apartment block’s one hundred rooms are arranged in a magic square, and the book, too, contains a staggering range of literary puzzles and allusions, acrostics, problems of chess and logic, crosswords, and mathematical formula. All for the reader to solve.

So I opened it to the Preamble and found this:

To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object – we may be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or, as in the present case, a wooden jigsaw puzzle – is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each another and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it. That means you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe you know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you stated. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces, and in that sense the art of the jigsaw puzzle has something in common with the art of . The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing – just an impossible question, an opaque challenge…

Well. A delicious manifold of connections to elements of the life around me at present (word books, jigsaw puzzles, knotty this-and-that) . If you are familiar with Perec (1936-1982), it may be via his 300-page novel La disparition (1969), “a lipogram, written with natural sentence structure and correct grammar, but using only words that do not contain the letter ‘e’. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter ‘e’ is the only vowel used.” (Wikipedia). He was a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), q. absolutely v.

Idly flipping the pages of Life, I landed quite by accident (koff koff) here:

Each of Winckler’s puzzles was a new, unique, and irreplaceable adventure for Bartlebooth. Each time, when he broke the seal that locked Madame Hourcade’s black box and spread out on his tablecloth, under the shadowless light of his scialytic lamp, the seven hundred and fifty little pieces of wood that his watercolour had become, it seemed to him that all the experience he had accumulated over five or ten or fifteen years would be of no use, but this time, like every other time, he would have to deal with difficulties he could not even begin to guess at.

That led me on a delicious and delightful chase, largely via Google, to fill in the backstory: who is/was the puzzle maker Gaspard Winckler? Percival Bartlebooth? …and pieces from NY Times (Paul Auster’s “Bartlebooth Follies”), The Guardian, Review 31, and London Review of Books supplied all the knowledge I lacked…

I’m still working on what the Question is in all of this, or which of the many Questions I think would be most fruitful to pose to the Convivium.

Here’s a summary, levered somewhat fuzzily out of a Google Books result, for those who want desperately to know some of the answers to questions above:

Words in Time

Geoffrey Hughes’ Words in Time: A social history of the English vocabulary(1988) offers a different take on space-and-time and language, centered on the notion of semantic fields (“containing those words or meanings which cohere around a particular concept, topic, or thing”).

The book’s dedication says

all workers
at the alveary

It was the work of a moment to ask the online OED about ‘alveary’, and so to discover

	Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymon: Latin alveārium.
	Etymology: classical Latin alveārium... 
	a. A repository, esp. of knowledge or information. Originally as the 
        name of a dictionary encompassing several languages. 1574—1983

 	b. A beehive. Also: the location where a beehive stands; an apiary. 
        Now rare. 1623—1918

	†2. A hollow in the external ear in which earwax collects; (also) the 
        external auditory canal. Obsolete.

The book itself begins with a quotation from Owen Barfield (who was, with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, a member of the Inklings):

It has only just begun to dawn on us that in our own language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust. But there is this difference between the record of the rocks and the secrets which are hidden in language: whereas the former can only give us a knowledge of outward, dead things—such as forgotten seas and bodily shapes of prehistoric animals and primitive men—language has preserved for us the inner, living history of man’s soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness.

Hughes is primarily concerned with words as “semantic legacy” (e.g., of the Middle Ages, of the Growth of Capitalism, Journalism, Advertising, Ideology and Propaganda), and he presents words identified as belonging to semantic fields schematically, as circles showing registers of terminology:

and, for example,

and in tabular and chronological form:

The last thirty-plus years is a long time in lexicographical evolution, and in 2020 Hughes’ approach seems rather fusty and even a bit pedestrian; the online version of the OED produces more detailed versions straight out of the box, with dates and quotations, and yields nicely built collocations of terms in the Thesaurus mode. It’s still a pleasure to sample the pages of Words in Time for the odd bits that delight word hounds, and for the discursive style of a bygone era:

For centuries purchase meant something far more rapacious and disorderly than the present transactional sense denotes. The old senses of purchase, dating in ME from c.1297, were derived from chase and revolved around the actions of hunting and taking by force, whether the object were prey, person, plunder, or pelf. (In Old French an enfant de porchas was not, as one might suppose, a child adopted or ‘purchased’ in slavery, but an illegitimate.) These meanings reflect an ancient, primitive time when de jure and de facto possession were often difficult to distinguish, more so than today. The original strong physical sense of purchase, we observe is still used in contexts of leverage in physics and engineering.

To appreciate that 30-plus years’ distance in register, compare with A “Let’s Circle Back” Guy.

Words in Time and Place

About 50 years ago (or maybe more) I realized that I saw anthropology through the lenses of Space and Time, that I was in fact a geographer manqué, but fortunately anthropology has usually been quite tolerant of interdisciplinarity, and my cartographic and diachronic foibles were indulged by graduate school professors. Once I escaped into the professorate myself, nobody questioned my creation of a course in Human Geography (which I taught for most of my 18 years at Acadia), and my side hustles into demography and ethnomusicology and linguistics puzzled but didn’t affright faculty colleagues. The escape (after 1990) into the world of libraries was even more liberating in extra-disciplinary senses. As one of my mentors in Reference Librarianship put it, “It All Counts!”, and I bloody counted it all for 13 years at Washington & Lee.

Words have always been a signal element in my cross-disciplinary forays, fiercely pursued and lovingly collected and then deployed to sometimes-bemused audiences. And so when I saw David Crystal’s Words in Time and Place: Exploring language through The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary I immediately snaffled it up. That Thesaurus, a 2-volume behemoth published in 2009, tempted me mightily, but at $495 I hesitated… and now it’s mostly available on the used market for upwards of $600 if it can be found at all. Crystal’s little book is an irresistable aperitif:

My aim is to illustrate the way the HTOED is organized, to show the synergy between the thesaurus and its lexicographical parent, and to explore some of the linguistic and social insights that emerge from this interaction…

The alphabetical principle [of the dictionary] is an enormous convenience (once one has learned to spell), but it is a semantic irrelevance. Words which belong together are separated… We do not learn words in alphabetical order, either as children or adults. Rather, we learn them in a meaningful relation to each other as we develop our understanding of areas of experience…

Words and meanings change over time, so it is crucial to know what period we are dealing with before we are able to interpret someone’s lexical use…

…our ability to select an appropriate wordd depends on our awareness of such factors as where the word is used—by which sections of society, on which social occasions, in which part of the country or of the English-speaking world…

Crystal offers terminology from 15 semantic fields: words for dying, nose, being drunk, light meals, a privy, a fool, terms of endearment, oaths and exclamations, inns and hotels, a prostitute, money, calm and stormy weather, old person, sspacecraft… presented as chronological tables, timelines. Here’s a sample from the 20 pages of “words for being drunk”:


I snagged a copy of the buckram-clad Compact Edition of the OED about 35 years ago (complete with rectangular magnifying glass) and bought the Supplement when it came out in 1987; in 1995 I had an opportunity to explore the online OED, and did a lot of searches that are a delight to explore again via the page I constructed to introduce the online version W&L colleagues.

And today I bit whatever bullets were available and got myself a subscription ($90/year, a bargain) to the current online version of the OED, which includes the Historical Thesaurus. I look forward to further lexicographical explorations…

And if you’ve gotten this far in today’s post, here’s a Reward:

I’ll take up dialect and other-Englishes word books in future postings.