Category Archives: word tasting notes

oud

This word is not loud. It’s not just that it’s not loud minus a letter; it’s not just that it’s pronounced /u:d/ (the spelling is a French-influenced one; you can also see it as ud); it’s also that what it names is not unusually loud. It can be somewhat loud or very quiet, but you are unlikely to want to stop your ears due to the loudness of the noise it produces.

What is it? It is not some kind of dictionary (like the OED) nor a long-term contraceptive (that’s an IUD). It’s not an acronym at all. Nor is it a centuries-old colloquial way of saying would (you will see ’ould or ’ud, but not oud). It is, according to the OED, an instrument of the lute family. But if you look at the history, you may wonder whether it would be more sensible to call a lute an instrument of the oud family.

It’s not simply that the oud is the more ancient. It’s that lute comes from Arabic al-ʿūd, ‘the oud’. (Where does ʿūd come from? Well, it’s Arabic for ‘wood’, and the instrument is made of wood – and whatever you use for the strings. Some people think the word in this case may have been borrowed from Persian, but that’s not universally agreed).

There are two general kinds of ouds: Turkish and Arabic; the Arabic kind has several sub-types. The main difference, though, is that the Arabic oud is a bit larger than the Turkish oud.

Of course you can play all sorts of things on an oud; it has enough strings, and enough of a range, that you can really play the music of your choice – especially since there are no frets on it, so you can choose your scale. But it’s associated with the music that is normally played on it: Arabic and Turkish music of various kinds. I happen to like this kind of music quite well, and I think it’s very good for reading or studying or writing to. I ought to know – when I was in grad school at Tufts, I spent a lot of time in their music library listening to CDs from all over the world, and Arabic music was one kind I could count on for getting quite a bit done while enjoying what I was hearing. It is – for me – simultaneously relaxing, enjoyable, and mentally stimulating. Sort of like Arabic or Turkish coffee, but without the shakes. (Now I look at oud and I see a small coffee cup – from above o and the side u – and an oud, d.)

Your results may vary, of course. But here are a couple of performances on the oud, one Arabic and one Turkish. If you like them, there are plenty more:

I have this idea to cross the Aeolian harp with the oud, just so I could call it an oud-wind. But I probably won’t.

wugg

This word may seem familiar to linguists – familiar but misspelled. To just about everyone else, it probably looks like some made-up expressive or imitative word. But it does have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s not marked “archaic” or “obsolete” (though they may just not have revised the entry recently).

I will explain first why it looks familiar to linguists. There are a few ways in casual conversation to quickly smoke out someone with an education in linguistics. One is to see if they pick up on an oblique reference to Noam Chomsky’s sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” grammatically coherent but semantically incoherent. Another way is with a reference to wugs.

Back in 1958, Jean Berko Gleason was doing some research with small children to determine how they learn language. She showed that young children (but not the very youngest) could apply generalizable morphological rules. A most famous example was this: She showed a picture of a vaguely bird-like thing and said, “This is a WUG.” Then she showed a picture of two of them, and said, “Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two________.” And although the children had never seen the word wugs before, they readily inferred that it would be the plural of wug. Without overt encouragement, they knew how to go forward.

But that is a one-g wug. You know that a one-l lama is a priest while a two-l llama is a beast, so you can imagine that a two-g wugg is not a one-g wug. And indeed it is not. In fact, it’s not even a noun. It’s an intransitive verb.

So what do you suppose it means? It sounds like a wet ball landing in a drain, maybe, or some sodden dipsomaniac being aroused abruptly from snoring: “Huh? Wugg? Wugg you wong?” It has a wave of an onset, nothing abrupt, and a blunter stuck ending, but not a crisp one. The double g could make us think of wiggle or nugget or bugger or any of a fair few other words. It also makes me think a bit of walk.

And, actually, I rather wonder whether walk is related. You see, wugg comes from a southern English dialect word used to call a horse. You may call a pig by shoulting “Soo-eee!” but, at least in some parts, you would call a horse with “Wugg!” And you would likewise use the word to encourage it to go forward. “Wugg, you nag!” It could also be used referentially: “Nothing I could do would make that horse wugg.”

So there that is. A little lexical souvenir, a tiny tin horseshoe for the trinket shelf, bound to gather dust… starting now. Because why would you ever have use for it?

But at least you know about wugs. You still won’t pass for a linguist, though, not with just that. The moment someone asks you for some sib you’ll be lost…

You want to know the good linguist in-group stuff? Wugg now, go on, get learning.

swive

Don’t ask me why, but yesterday I had reason to type swive into my iPhone. Now, iPhones have (as you may know) an autocorrect feature that makes up for the general sloppiness of typing on its small touch-screen keyboard; if you didn’t type a word it recognizes, it guesses what word you really wanted to type. For swive it reckoned I really wanted sauce. Hmm…

What is swive? It has that swooshing sw onset… Is it related to swivel? Is it something like swinging? Is it something swine might do? Is there a connection to swinge? Can we make anything of the fact that it sounds like part of housewives?

Well… Yes; In a manner of speaking; Indeed; If you stretch it; and Of course we can, where do you think you are?

One at a time, now. What is swive? It’s a word descended from Old English swifan ‘move in a course, sweep’. This verb is also the source of the noun swivel, something that turns or swings freely from a fixed point, whence also the verb swivel. But swive doesn’t mean ‘swing’ like that. No, it has taken on another meaning. I can think of a similar word that has taken on the same meaning for a second sense: screw. However, while we still use screw in a literal mechanical sense, swive is only ever used (inasmuch as it is used at all) to refer to the act of copulation.

So is swiving like swinging? Well, if you’re a swinger, you may find yourself swiving – other people’s wives or husbands. And, obviously (to address the next question), swine do it, just like birds, bees, and fleas (Ella Fitzgerald tells us that the educated fleas fall in love, but evidence suggests that the uneducated ones at least swive lovelessly).

Is there a connection to swinge? Not an etymological one. Swinge means ‘beat, hit, strike’; there are some slang terms for coitus that avail themselves of this kind of imagery (the verbs boink and bang; the – odious to me – slang expression I’d hit that). Frankly, I’d rather keep the swiving and the swingeing in separate spheres.

Obviously swive is not etymologically related to housewives. But I’m told that there is a “reality TV” franchise, Real Housewives of [fill in name of town here], that sounds like it has quite a focus on swiving – these how-swives certainly know how to swive, at least. And that puts me in mind of a joke. Four women who have just met are talking about themselves. The first says, “I’m a YUPpie – you know, Young Urban Professional.” The second says “We’re DINKs – you know, Double Income, No Kids.” The third giggles and says, “I’m a DILDO – you know, Double Income, Little Dog Owner.” The fourth pours herself more wine and says, “I’m a WIFE – you know, Wash, Iron, F—, Et cetera.”*

Saucy enough?

*Apologies for the censored word, but I know some of my readers would be unduly distracted by the sight of it. Also: In real life, wife comes from Old English wif, ‘woman’, and is not derived from an acronym. Just in case there was any question.

scrute

Oh, you sad scraper, scruting some screed scribbled by a scruffy scribe, be it scrubbed on your screen or scrawled in scrimped script on a scroll, or scratched like scrimshaw: so much lexical scree to scramble through, you could just screech. Can a scrupulous scrutator scrounge some scrap of sense from it, or should you just tell the scoundrel to scrute themself?

Scrute? And why not? We have scrutiny and scrutineer and scrutinize, with that in in, but we also have scrutate, and we have inscrutable and also (yes) scrutable. And they all trace back to Latin scrutari ‘examine, scrutinize’. It, in turn, apparently comes from scruta ‘old or broken stuff, trash, frippery, trumpery’ (per OED). Which means that the source sense of scrutiny and all the other scrut words is rag-picking. Digging through the detritus, scraping and scrabbling in the scraps and scree. Scruting.

And yes, scrute is in the dictionary. OK, OK, it’s in the OED, marked with an obelisk, attested with a single citation from 1536. But look – search it in Google Books or where you will – it does get used. True, it is often referring back, ostensibly wittily, to inscrutable, but that doesn’t revoke its word status. And yes, many of the usages you will find are French – scruter is a French word meaning (yes) ‘scrutinize’, so je scrute, tu scrutes, il scrute, elle scrute, nous scrutons, vous scrutez, ils scrutent. But so what? It is also used in English.

It’s a nice, grabby, short word. It has the same scr onset, which shows up on words to do with contracting, grasping, detritus, and writing (among others); it’s a multivalent phonaestheme. The ute gives a rhyme with loot, boot, chute, and various others, but here its high tight round back sound works nicely with the claws and drawstrings of scr. Some speakers may even hear a couple of naughty echoes. It sticks nicely in the mind.

Scrute the record all you want; screw your perspicacity to the sticking point. The word, whether it be backformation or scrupulous Latinate derivation, is out there, and it is clear and sensible and, at least for the moment, a bit brisk and witty. If we prefer the cogent, surely a shorter form is superior. If you insist that we must instead say scrutinize, I invite you to go scrute yourself and your assumptions.

moreso

This word is a lexical morceau that, it turns out, is not to everyone’s taste. There are some who believe that it should be – must only ever be – two words, and that moreso is like a miscegenation from the Island of Dr. Moreau. They are prone to making martial morsures into those who leave out that little space. They are peeved like those incensed by incent, or even moreso.

As witness I present a tweet I saw last fall, twotten by someone I will leave unidentified so as not to seem personal about it:

It seems like one would have to have read very little over a lifetime to think that “more so” was one word…

It occurs to me that the more one reads, the more likely one is to encounter variant forms. And since English speakers will often infer that odd variants we see must be correct (unless someone tells us otherwise), I believe that a person who thinks there is a word moreso may well have read quite a bit.

It is true, certainly, that more so exists much more commonly as two words, and that the one-word moreso style seems to have appeared mainly in the US and mainly in the last century or less. Nonetheless, it is used, and sometimes by quite literate people in respected publications; moreover, it can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (as a “chiefly U.S.” variant of more so), though not all other dictionaries include it.

Now, insofar as it is just more so without a space, is there a case to be made for it at all? We can see why a person may incline to make it one word: we have words such as moreover and insofar, so it wouldn’t be the first agglutination of that sort; also, there is a particular pattern match with also (the al being the same as in words such as already and alright); and this parallelist tendency is abetted by the fact that the so is unstressed.

Now, with already and alright, we can see that all ready and all right can exist as forms with double stress and a different sense. Can more so exist with double stress and a different sense? I can imagine an uncommon instance where so is being used in conjunction with an indicating gesture – “Do you like my hair more so, or more so?” For the most part, though, it is a compound said always with one stress – like how North Americans say ice cream, only moreso.

A compound! Yes, more so is really an open compound, and moreso is the same compound just closed up. It would thus seem like the natural end condition for more so to merge into moreso. Mind you, we still don’t write icecream – well, most of us don’t, anyway. But compounds do close up in many cases. What keeps them from closing up? Tradition… and clarity.

And clarity may yet come into play here. As another Twitterer (who I will also not name, in this case just to be consistent) twet:

Whenever I see someone spell “more so” as one word, I assume it’s Spanish and pronounce it mo-RAY-so.

Indeed, the biggest obstacle to the ultimate supervenience of moreso may be not traditionalists (obstacles though they can be) but English spelling. It runs into the same kind of problem as coworker, which can look distractingly like it should be “cow orker.” Mind you, I would not say that moreso has the problem quite as much so – it is like coworker, yes, but surely less so. Still, combine that with tradition and the lack of other matching forms in its particular set (asmuchso, lessso) and it will be worth watching to see whether moreso can prevail.

highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow

My tastes are broad. I appreciate highbrow things such as modern art, classical music (but more so medieval music and 20th-century composers), and scholarly research – all those things that are limned in sesquipedalian disquisitions – but I also appreciate lowbrow things such as naughty jokes, country-style cooking, and the occasional escapist rubbish movie, all those things that are best talked about in plain, plain, plain English. And I do not shun middlebrow things either – the ten thousand daily topics covered in news and conversation, the easy entertainments such as club music, escapes to Disney World and cruise ships, such like… just as long as I’m not stuck in crowds for too long.

Do my tastes make you raise your eyebrows in surprise or an arch look? Or lower them in a glower or scowl or frown? Or do your brows stay in default position, altogether unsurprised?

And what about the words highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow?

Did you know that they don’t refer to what you’re doing with your eyebrows?

Nope, they come from 19th-century ideas about the size and shape of the head and its relation to intelligence. People – notably explorers and scientists, but not just them – looked at the skulls of various apes and compared them to human heads. They concluded that the difference in skull shape was an index of level of intelligence, not just between species but within species. A high brow on a man was considered an indicator of superior intelligence; a lower one, and flatter forehead and so on, was considered an indicator of lesser wit and a more bestial nature. (However, too high a brow on a woman was considered less attractive. Hmm.) This was also generalized across races, going by stereotypes.

Don’t even bother acting like you might be surprised by this. That’s how things went in the 19th century: the analytical urge was pressed into service of justifying prejudices and fortifying entrenched power. That still happens, of course, but these days it’s not supposed to happen. (Do you raise an eyebrow?)

All that said, though, the word has acquired different tinges and assumptions and no longer carries, at least for most speakers, implications about the relation of head shape to intelligence. If you wish to object to the use of these words on the basis of their history, it’s understandable, since it is now lodged in your mind, but don’t forget about bulldoze.

Anyway, low-browed as meaning ‘unintelligent, bestial’ actually dates back all the way to the 18th century – those 19th-century ideas didn’t come from nowhere; the first noted scientists to associate skull size with intelligence lived in the 18th century, and it’s not likely that no one had had the thought before. High-browed meaning ‘intelligent, cultivated’ shows up in the 1870s. About 10 years later, highbrow as an adjective shows up, meaning ‘intellectual, cultured’; another 10 years, right around the turn of the century, and it’s also a noun – some highbrow undoubtedly thought of that one. Lowbrow as a single-word adjective and noun showed up at about the same time.

Middlebrow took another quarter of a century to show up. And did it really mean a happy medium? Of course not. Even many middle-class people look down on middle-class things. Mediocre is an insult. Nobody wants the average, even though (obviously) not everyone can have everything above average. (See Lake Wobegon Effect.) Middlebrow refers to the unambitious contented cattle of common culture. Not high enough to be highbrow, but lacking the supposed fun and honesty of the lowbrow. Neither hot nor cold but lukewarm, and thus to be spat out. And yet somehow ubiquitous.

There is an exception. If you’re talking about different levels of usage of English – not levels of correctness but levels of formality and abstraction and detachment – you can use the three levels more ingenuously. They are relative, after all. A paper I just read by Jean Ure (“Introduction: approaches to the study of register range,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 35 (1982): 5–24) cites R.D. Huddleston et al. (1968) for this distinction:

Specialized register can be classified in English on two dimensions: kind and degree of specialization. For degree of specialization we have the three-point scale recognized by Huddleston…, for which he uses the term ‘brow’: ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’, and ‘lowbrow’, corresponding, in the printed medium, to research articles, university textbooks, and articles for the educated nonspecialist.

Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell you not to take a drink while reading that. Go clean off your screen now if you must. Yes, that’s right: to the truly highbrow, articles for educated audiences are “lowbrow.” What you’re reading right now, right here, on this blog? Lowbrow.

Oh, stop arching your eyebrows so much. It’s unbecoming. Supposedly.

limn

Limn? Damn! How are we to say this word? And why does it have that formn? It looks all folded up, like a stack of sheets turned on its side, or perhaps a shelf of library books. Can we illuminate this a bit? Has it been milled down to minimal elements from some larger animal, or has it grown an extra limb? Are we seeing a liminal word, or is this lexical sediment?

To start with: You don’t say the n. It’s just there for looks. This word is pronounced the same as limb, which may be one reason it’s not used much anymore.

Is it related to limen and liminal, those words relating to thresholds (threshold, by the way, is a word that compensates for silent letters by having a sound that is not written in – the phantom second h, eliminated or illuminated in the limen)? No, it is not, even though it has so many sounds in common. And eliminate? That’s another threshold word – the e means ‘out’ or ‘from’; thus, ‘toss over the threshold’.

Is it related to limb? No, and they come to their parsley consonants from opposite directions (meeting on the threshold, perhaps?). The word limb meaning ‘arm, leg, tree branch’ comes from an old Germanic word lim. It just happened that there was also a Latin word limbus meaning ‘rim’ that wore down to limb meaning ‘edge of a disc (e.g., moon, sun, planet)’ or ‘expanded part of a leaf, petal, or sepal’ (as per Collins). Most likely this second limb led to the grafting of the b onto lim, because we are drawn to unphonetic orthography as moths are drawn to light.

Which is not to say that these odd spellings illuminate! No, but the n and b are in their way like illuminations: ornamental illustrations added to manuscripts, as for instance ornate capital letters. One might even call them visual hymns. It just happens that they don’t cast much light. But in the case of limn there is a dimn – sorry, dim – glow. When you lit up a manuscript with these illuminations, you could be said (in former usage) to lumine it. You make it luminous! But as candles burn down, so too do pronunciations wear down, and the spelling is trimned. I mean trimmed. So lumine became limn. And it carried the illustrative sense, coming to mean ‘depict, paint a picture, portray’.

Given the sound, one may imagine that it has to do with drawing lines or with laminating. But those words, too, are unrelated. It is simply a word for ‘light’ that has been lightened.

Its semantic emanations are dimned; it is now mainly a word used vaguely by pretentious scribblers to mean ‘drawn, painted, depicted’. It may be a light word, but it carries the weightiness of that excrescent consonant, so those who fancy their own scribery are drawn as a moth to the inevitable luminescent silent n.

Thanks to Ron Callahan for suggesting this word.