Monthly Archives: March 2017

flabbergast

Flabbergast. F-L-A-B-B-E-R-G-A-S-T. Flabbergast.

This would make a good spelling bee word, wouldn’t it? Other than its being reasonably well known and predictable. It sounds long and floppy and loosely jointed, garrulous as a flibbertigibbet, frenetic as a flutterbudget, verbally flabby and flatulent (gaseous) and ultimately aghast.

Well, especially aghast. The word may be fluttering and rubbery but its meaning is slackjawed: “to overwhelm with shock, surprise, or wonder,” to quote Merriam-Webster (m-w.com). The Oxford English Dictionary shows us a nice quotation well suited to our times: “Now we are flabbergasted and bored from morning to night.” That does seem the incessant go-round of digitally mediated modernity, no? But this observation was made in 1773, in the Annual Register for 1772, in a jeremiad on faddish new words, signed “Observator,” and the author was inveighing not on the state of life but just on the words used to speak of it.

So flabbergasted (and flabbergast) was new in 1772. Where did it come from? There has been speculation and there have been observations – related forms in Suffolk and Perthshire – but no one knows (yet). It is likely a collision of flabby and aghast and who knows what else, formed on the basis of sound symbolism and phonaesthetics on the nonce by some fashionable lark in London society and passed about as a bit of the latest lexical frippery.

And it has lasted, especially among those who love lively syllables. I had occasion to use it myself lately when I described a haul of prizes from a spelling bee. You see, the ACES (American Copy Editors’ Society) conference, in St. Petersburg, FL(abbergast), which I was attending, had a spelling bee sponsored by Lingofy, with officials from Merriam-Webster and Scripps, to raise money for the ACES Education Fund scholarship program. There were 15 entrants and a goodly audience. It went to 7 rounds, I think. And the last person standing, successfully spelling agelast, A-G-E-L-A-S-T, was… me. For which I won a nice little lucite trophy. And a Bananagrams game. And a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which weighs 18 pounds. And an iPad Pro. And a messenger bag to carry it all in (which I did, and was nearly Grendelized, disarticulated at the shoulder by the weight). Flabbergasting indeed.

breth, brath, broth

There are some people whose every breath is wrath. They don’t merely stew; they are a seething broth of ire, ever at the boiling point. They are a bucket of gasoline looking for their perfect match. They are not just brash, they are brath, broth, full of breth.

These are old and disused words, breth and brath and this sense of broth. They all come from the same Old Norse: bráðr, ‘hasty, sudden, rash, passionate’. One might say ‘impetuous’. ‘Quick to anger’. All up in your Face-book. A-Twitter with rage. Except that no one has really used them for a bit over 500 years now.

That’s not that surprising. Breth, a noun meaning ‘fury’ or ‘rage’, sounds exactly like breath and while it can make neat wordplays – such as this line from a play written in 1500: “While I am in this breth, let me put him to death” – it is likely to cause confusion. True, a beautiful sight can take your breth away, but “fresh breth” may be misleading. Still, there could be some value in calling the raging trolls of the interwebs the breth-ren.

Broth, for its part, is of course going to land you in the soup. The broth we know is derived from brew just as sloth is from slow and death is from die. This other broth, an adjective meaning ‘impetuous, violent, wrathful’, has no origin in common with its doppelganger. And while it’s true that in some kitchens every day is a broth day, some may find it a bother to have to deal with both. But again, how could we not want to call a member of the breth-ren a broth-er? Aside from the fact that exactly no one would get the wordplay, that is. I won’t even try to anagram it productively into throb.

But brath! Well, now, that’s a word of its own. It’s even two words – the Scottish variant is braith. Brath is the northern English version, broth the southern, of the same word. In the south it’s a bubbling broth, in the north more of a hot bath, one that rhymes with wrath (or, in Scotland, wraith). And it has such a nice taste of brash. It gets that br in there, as in bratty and brusque and brutal and broken, and rhymes with psychopath and aftermath. And we could still make a wordplay with brathren and brather – which would remind us of their steam-powered blather.

Hebrew and Yiddish words, we have them

My last article for The Week was on words we got from Arabic. This time it’s words we got from Hebrew and Yiddish. You’ll probably know about some of these. You’ll probably be surprised by some others.

15 English words you probably didn’t know came from Hebrew and Yiddish

 

Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.

So.

The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.

threap

As you “SO?!” so shall you threap.

To threap is to make a threap, but not to make a threat – you are not talking of action, you are taking action, and the action is disagreement. You may threap a person, in which case you are rebuking or scolding the person; you may simply threap, in which case you are arguing, bickering, or wrangling about terms; or you may threap that something is so, in which case you are maintaining your position in the face of contradiction or doubt.

Let us imagine a case, let’s say a spokesperson, whom – to spice things up – we may call the Grim Threaper. He is representing some enthroned mammothrept who has not thruppence worth of thrift, but the Grim Threaper has heard that you have said as much, and he calls you out from the throng. He threaps you: you are a very naughty person for threatening the mammothrept’s reputation for thrift. You clear your throat and throw in some facts. He threaps: that is a manner of speaking, and besides the mammothrept did not mean what he said or say what he meant, and in any case he did not say what he said. Your temples start to throb but you thrust forth your evidence. He threaps that it is not so: the mammothrept is the chieftain of thrift. And so the Grim Threaper makes a threepeat, three threaps… but he may threap-eat yet when all is laid on the table (and why not – threptic has to do with eating and nutrition), so he ought to have put more honey on his tongue.

There are more ways you can use threap, too. You can threap someone out of something – wear them down with incessant argumentation. You can threap something upon someone – press it on them, urge that they accept it. You can threap someone down – prevail in discourse through threaping (“A man will say of a clamorous talker, he did not convince me, but he threaped me down” —Richard Winter Hamilton, Nugæ Literature, 1841; thanks to the OED for that and much of the rest of this information).

In short, threaping is badgering, bullying, talking a blue streak, and thereby prevailing or at least attempting to prevail. The word does not have the same bludgeoning bluntness as words that begin with b, and perhaps that is a weakness for modern use: thr can have driving force – thrusting, throwing, thrilling – but the vowel is too high (the same as in “three”) and thereby weak-seeming.

At any rate, you seldom see it. Well, I think it is nonetheless a useful word, one that can come in quite handy in our times. Allow me to insist and to persuade you…

The weaponization of grammar

I’ve published another article on BBC.com. This one is about something that we all have to deal with and many of us participate in: the treatment of “bad grammar” as evidence of intellectual and moral deficiency. I read quite a few “grammar guide” books for this, and there’s a lot more I could have written… but I had to fit it in 1200 words. So it’s not too long to read!

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up

 

You can’t get through the day (or night) without Arabic

My latest article for The Week is on words that English got from Arabic. We’ve taken more than you might think, but I look at just 15… including some that you probably can’t go very long without.

15 English words we stole from Arabic

(PS Let me remind you that the magazine writes the title after I’ve written the article and sent it to them.)