Daily Archives: January 9, 2010

Somerset

OK, picture this dream: Alanis Morissette is in the bath, taunting you by singing “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the Beatles). And then she does a backflip from standing! What could it mean?

Well, perhaps it means you have your summer set out for you. One way or another, though, you’re dreaming of Somerset. (Or, as denizens of that county are famous for saying it, “Zomerzet.”)

Somerset is historically a county of England, over on the west side, across the mouth of the Severn from the south side of Wales. Significant cities in it include Bath and Taunton. Bath, ah, that famed spa, popular with the summer set coming from London in times past. Well, why not summer? Somerset comes from Sumortunsæte, meaning “Sumortun’s people,” and Sumortun for its part is now Somerton (not as important a place in itself as it once was) and is thought to get its name from being, originally, a summer settlement – a farmstead abandoned in the winter.

OK, but the song? In “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” – which is modeled on nineteenth-century advertisements for popular entertainments – you will hear this: “And Mr. H. will demonstrate Ten summersets he’ll undertake on solid ground.” Now, summersets is an uncommon spelling. You’re more likely to see somersets.

But that’s misleading, because somersets is itself altered from somersaults. Oh, well, now, that’s helpful, isn’t it? I’m not saying the county is named after a flip; that would be rather flip of me. No, it was just a word confusion, a bit of folk-etymology reanalysis. And in fact somersaults is in its turn a mutation of sobersaults. Which are not so called because you can’t do them when drunk (perhaps on some Meursault); rather, it’s by way of French from Latin suprasaltus, from supra “over” and saltus “leap”.

It’s not that the articulatory gesture of saying somerset or somersault is highly reminiscent of a flip; there’s no flap of the tongue – the tip touches for a hiss, the lips meet, the tongue passes through the liquid /r/ and the tip touches again, and it ends in a stop, again at the tip. At most there’s that little back-and-forth, which is repeatable indefinitely, as we see in singing “Summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime.”

But, now, put that into French phonotactics and you get a bit of a turnover. Some places in Quebec had been given English names, and one of them was Somerset. Well, the English aren’t the only ones who can do folk-etymology reanalysis. Say Somerset with a French accent and what do you get? Something that easily enough slips towards a more recognizable French form. Morissette is one of the grand old pure laine Quebec family names (along with Tremblay, Paquette, Bouchard, Duceppe, Dion…), and the merset sounds rather like it when you put it into French phonemics. And the first syllable? Well, must be saint, reduced as it tends to be. And so was invented a saint who never existed: Saint-Morissette, a place in Québec. (But, hey, Stanfold became Saint-Folle!) But, given that Alanis Morissette has played God (in the movie Dogma), that’s close enough to a saint, no?

So! How do you like them apples? If you like ‘em well enough, make cider with them – it’s popular in Somerset.

Thanks to Roberto De Vido for suggesting somersault.