The Mystery of Words/Part 2/Chapter 5

The Mystery of Words  (1924)  by Ralcy Husted Bell
Part II, Chapter V


Selective Tendencies, etc.

Great liberty has been taken with words, but none greater than that which expatiates on their blind power and automatic tendencies. This is all right metaphorically, but manifestly words have no will-power nor blind power of their own. They exist only by virtue of the mentality that employs them. When we speak of words as possessing this or that vital propensity, we speak in effect of vital phenomena represented by words, or poetically ascribed to them. When we refer to the power of words we assume that certain mental functions are vicarious.

Language is a phenomenon of intellectual activity; many of its parts are of subconscious birth; but once they have been subjected to the conditions and the requirements of a tongue, they become capable of reacting on the mind, forcing it to submit in a measure, to its own creations. Words, like boomerangs launched forth from the mind, return to impinge upon the source of their power.

Language-change is a dual process simulating birth and death, growth and decay. Slang enters the phenomenon and plays its rôle in the art of meaning which, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with Semantics, since Semantics is the science of the explanation of meanings. As previously suggested, slang mirrors a vital element in the mental configuration of a community; and for that reason slang-words reveal less of themselves than of their users. Every slang-word is related to some fact vividly held in mind; some of these facts are more difficult to reflect than are others; and that is one cause of the death of many slang-words before reaching the state of dialect. Also slang very often is the product of fugitive sensations, emotions, impulses; and at such times its parts are not properly words, hence their high mortality.

Dialect is as natural as grass. It springs from the people as readily as grass from the sod. It is a kind of wild grass that persists in repeating earlier forms. For that reason it has been widely reprobated; that is to say, for its lack of culture, while its vitality and usefulness have received slight commendation. Only now and then is something said in its favor to offset the much that has been said against it.

It has been noted, for example, that the well-known London “Cockney” is a legitimate child of the Kentish tongue. This is true especially of the dialect spoken on the south side of the Thames, although Kentish seems to have influenced the North London dialect as well. “Thet” for that is clearly Kentish, and it was so spelt as early as A.D. 825. A number of other Cockney words readily can be traced to Kentish origin: “benk” for bank, “keb” for cab, “kissins” for cousins, “blest” for blast, “hite” for hate (“I just hite dripery” for I just hate drapery; “me country plice” for my country place, and others). The i for a is a Mercian form of pronunciation generally in vogue during Elizabeth’s time from the Trent to the Thames. Thus the dialect which represents an early form of speech is interesting at least as a historic heritage.

The ease with which English adopts new, terse words, modified phrases, etc.; its facility for word-coinage, and its readiness to bring forth slang, have given to it the reputation of being the most susceptible, in this respect, of modern languages. Its eagerness to receive “all comers” is responsible for its devolutionary reactions. At least the votaries of “pure English” so regard it. In the long run, however, the devolution is more seeming than real, since it is intermittent and mild. The willingness of the vernacular to accept words from the farm, from the city trades, from various sports, and, in brief, from the different strata of society, is accompanied usually by a selective intelligence of sufficient power to raise the worthy words to a dignity of usefulness, to a clarity and a strength, which fit them for idiom, and finally for literature; at the same time the unfit are relegated to forgetfulness. Numberless examples may be given. Take the word plant as applied to a place equipped for manufacture. Apparently this word has come to stay. Such words as forestall, fain, embellish, dapper, were admitted despite the protests of well-meaning conservators of our speech. Seventeenth century critics objected to plumage, tapestry, tissue, ledge, trenchant, resource, villainy, strath, thrill, grisly, yelp, dovetail, etc. The Reverend William Fulke was hostile to neophyte, homicide, scandal, destruction, tunic, despicable, rational, etc. To-day taste and scholarship are revolted by many words steadily gaining in public favor. Who shall say what their fate will be? The word negotiate, for example, as applied to the ascent of a difficult hill, or to the hard way over rough ground, or to a laborious way through a pass, is coming into popularity, especially in this country. Negotiate is used in this sense by many of our writers and by some of our authors. The first time I remember to have seen it so used was in 1910, February number of Hampton’s Magazine: “We had some three hundred and fifty miles of almost solid ice to negotiate before we could reach our hoped-for winter quarters at Cape Sheridan.” (R. E. Peary.)

One of the everyday phrases of the business world is, “to take it up with” so and so. “I will take it up with him,” means that I will see him about it—consider and discuss the matter with him. It is not a very attractive phrase, nor especially needed. Yet it implies the careful and the detailed consideration of a matter; and, as it is ordinarily used, the phrase suits its purpose well enough. “In the near future” is another phrase offensive to many without reason. “In the near future:” at a time not far off—surely is as good as “in the far future,” or as any other of a number of similar forms in current use. As we have seen, words and phrases regarded as atrocities to-day may pass into acceptable usage to-morrow.

Professor Brander Matthews of Columbia University says, as reported by the press: “I am a professor of English, and I use the word joint with a full appreciation of its meaning. A joint is a place where men, drunk or sober, are steered in to lose their money. Joint is a perfectly good word.” I have no doubt of Professor Matthews’ qualifications to speak authoritatively of joint, or of anything else under heaven, for that matter. But if the dear old professor only would be more gentle in the dispensing of his wisdom! Consider the plum-tree, how suavely it drops sweet fruit at your feet. Why should a professor follow the traditional method of a porcupine? We all know that slang is general in learned and polite society—the politer the society, the more slang is used. This professor also is reported to have said, “I don’t want to be put among that bunch.Bunch as applied to a number of unpleasant persons is not a bad use of a very good word. Professor Virginia C. Gildersleeve is of the opinion “that slang is all a question of taste”; perhaps she is right.

The prize ring made “to come back” popular. The old fighter who had been out of training for several years is said to be unable “to come back”; but the young bruiser who has not been “away,” because still in training, does not have “to come back.” This phrase also is much used in political discussions. As the usage of words tends toward the metaphorical, there can be but little objection to such popular forms.

“Swinging round the circle” was employed by President Johnson on several occasions, among others during a famous speech-making tour. He used it in this sense: “I have opposed traitors in the South, and now I am swinging round the circle and fighting traitors at the North,” meaning the “radicals” in the Congress and outside. Through carelessness the phrase has been commonly applied since to the tours, with their rear-end addreses, made by some of our Presidents and by most of the candidates for the Presidency.

“To differ with” originated in analogy, “to agree with.” Analogy is a good servant of the reason even if it does occasionally confuse us. If in a sense it is blind, and headstrong in its ways, nevertheless it is an important factor in the motive power of speech. Ordinarily it is constrained by the laws of harmony and the need of clearness. Analogy, as a primitive element of language, is the means by which the mastery of a vocabulary easily is obtained; but when pushed to extremes, it confuses and impoverishes a tongue.

An intensive slang phrase very generally used in America is “good and ready.” It is employed in the sense of fully ready. A countryman says, “I will do so when I’m good and ready,” meaning that he will take his own time about it; that he will not be hurried—the occasional implication being that he will not do it at all. It is an ugly phrase to be sure, but it is in perfect harmony with the social conditions where it is most in use.

Another and a better slang phrase of wider currency is, “he has made good,” meaning that he has succeeded—done what was expected of him; his conduct was not disappointing. It is used in still another sense: he has made good a loss; he has restored something—atoned for something. In this sense it is employed oftener perhaps in England than in America. Despite the ever-increasing social and business contact between New York and London, it is notable that the chasm between British and American colloquialisms shows slight signs of narrowing. “The cold shoulder,” “the marble (or frosty) mitt,” “I should worry,” “let George do it,” etc.; are rather ambiguous phrases in England—or were before the War; and their ambiguity is no reflection on English taste or quickness of comprehension.

The Baron Avebury in The Scenery of England coined manywhere, an agreeable word that is quite as good as otherwhat, and as useful as his paleolithic and neolithic. Kickumbob appears in the works of John Taylor, and it is recorded in the Oxford Dictionary, together with the freakish jigamaree.

If one had time and patience enough to study the coinage of words with reference to locality, the vicinity of Boston might prove to be a fruitful field. It is said by C. W. Ernest in an Address before the Massachusetts Library Club that in the neighborhood of Boston, commonwealth came into being in 1634; help (domestic labor), in 1640; congregational (applied to a religious sect), in 1639; homestead, in 1648; platform (a declaration of principles), in 1649; rum, (an alcoholic drink), in 1650, together with many other words and phrases. Mr. Ernest may be correct, and probably is in the majority of his statements; but he clearly is mistaken as to commonwealth, since the word was used by Sir Thomas North in a translation of Plutarch as early as 1579; and it also appears in the earliest English translations of Cervantes.

Many over-critical efforts, made by conscientious conservators of good English, are embalmed in most books on words and their uses, etc. Ambrose Bierce in A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, condemns the phrase, “the goods were sold at auction.” He says it should be, “the goods were sold by auction.” The meaing of the first phrase is clear and its form is correct. It says in effect that the goods were sold at a public sale; auction defines the kind of sale; presumably they were sold by a person through his agent, the auctioneer.

Mr. Bierce also objects to back of for behind. “Back of all progress is human wisdom; back of law is force.” There is nothing the matter with that. In no way does it offend either the law or the spirit of English. It merely is a question of taste whether in this sense one says behind or back of. Other things being equal, good usage inclines toward the employment of one word which does the work of two; but here there are as many letters in behind as there are in back of; and besides, the two words back of often are preferable to the one behind.

Maetzner (English Grammar) calls because a “hybrid particle.” “He recognized one fact because of another.” “I knew it was night because it was dark.” The condemnation of this hybrid has not visibly impaired its usefulness. Because, like many another hybrid, has done yeoman service for a long time, and it is likely to continue despite abuses. If ever a sturdy hybrid won a place in respectable society, this one has, surely, because it is deserving and because it serves us well both in good prose and fine poetry. Tennyson says in Sir Galahad:

My strength is the Strength of ten
Because my heart is pure.

Brainy is reproached as “pure slang, and singularly disagreeable.” But the reason why this word should be any worse than spicy, rainy, etc., is not revealed.

The use of build for make has caused a good deal of uneasiness in critical circles. It is urged tearfully that one should not say “build a fire” which, it is held, one can make but can not build. In a hair-splitting sense, that is true enough. One can, however, build a structure for burning, insured or not, and, having set fire to it, one logically is permitted by the laws of language to say that the fire was built. So may one pile up a mass of inflammable material and set fire to it; by leave of a little looser law of speech, he still may say that he built a fire. Kindle (from candle) a fire is better perhaps than either build or make, unless it be desirable to show by the verb what the method was of starting the fire. The objection to make, in this sense, is absurdly over-stated when it is said that virtually no other word correctly can take its place; for to lay or light a fire is equally good English.

It also has been sapiently declared that one can not build a tunnel; and that therefore it is incorrect to say so. Let us see. We can not build a hole, but we can dig one provided the surrounding walls need no structural support—for the walls limit the hole, make it possible for a hole to be a hole; and for that reason they may be regarded as part of it. Ordinarily, a tunnel is a thing as much of builded walls as it is of the (digged) excavation. Hence it is not incorrect to use the term build in this sense. A tunnel, properly speaking, however, is cut or bored. The same objection has been made to the word build when the construction of a canal is signified; and the same objection falls to the ground, since while the canal may be digged, its walls, embankments, may also be built, and almost always they are; hence building a canal—that is to say, digging the channel, constructing the embankments, building walls of masonry and locks of wood and stone, etc.—is not necessarily an incorrect form of speech.

“He had a good chance to succeed,” in fine, his venture was hopeful of success—it might have succeeded—the hazard was less than the probability of success. I can not see why the sentence would be better with opportunity in the place of chance. The same sensitive critic (Bierce) condemns chivalrous as “archaic, stilted, and fantastic.” Why not relegate the word mother to the limbo of the “archaic,” as a term too old-fashioned and too elastic to be tolerated in this precise and refined age?

“In climbing one ascends.” Very well. It is true that one way of ascending is by climbing; and there are as many ways of descending, plus one, as there are of ascending. If one has reached an altitude by climbing and if he declines to tumble and if he wishes to descend by reversing his method of ascending, why should he not be permitted to climb down—and to say so if it please him? Whatever may be said against this colloquialism, this surely may be said. in its favor: it is descriptive, terse, graphic, clear, inoffensive; and it is as good as any one of a thousand other colloquial and even idiomatic phrases which can not bear analysis.

“Communities have customs; individuals, habits—commonly bad ones,” says Mr. Bierce in Write it Right. Why “bad ones”? “Two (or more) ones hardly sounds right. The plural of one is not the best of taste, etc.”[1]

It is true that “communities have customs,” and for that reason individuals follow customs. Certain conduct in certain environment becomes customary. It is, for instance, a civilized man’s custom to rescue a drowning child, to put out the flames of his neighbor’s house, to send flowers to weddings and funerals, to help capture a thief, to turn a deaf ear to gossip, to smile at the sage who strains at a gnat and swallows a camel; but these customs are not habits. According to Crabb’s English Synonymes,Custom supposes an act of the will; habit implies an involuntary movement: a custom is followed; a habit is acquired.”

Dilapidated for ruined. Said of a building, or other structure. But the word is from the Latin lapis, a stone, and can not properly be used of any but a stone structure.”[2] Such strictures placed upon the use of words in a living language, if taken seriously, would so confuse us that we should hardly know how to say anything with assurance.

And caprice, which came to us by way of the French from (It.) capriccio, and (L.) caper, had a picturesque primitive meaning. ‘Capriccio, a sudden start, a freak motion; apparently from (It.) capro, a goat,’ etc.”[3] Capricious, according to the same dictum, “can not properly be used of any but a” goat or like beast. Thus the reporter who refers in the press to the caprices of Miss Millionaire, virtually calls her father an old goat—which may be all very well and metaphorically true; but how about the legal possibilities with their endless vexations?

The growth and the elasticity of a living language make it difficult to lay down precise rules for the use of words. The expansion of a language must conform somewhat to reason, to the logic of growth. It will not do to be too dogmatic in the treating of literal meanings whilst they are under the sway of evolutionary principles. Take the word accident, for example. “An injury may be and often is, the result of an accident; but injury and accident are two words far from identical in meaning.”[4] That is true; yet we are justified by good usage in speaking of certain unpleasant and unfortunate occurrences, causing injury by chance, as accidents.

Anticipate, ‘to take beforehand, …to take first possession of, or to take before the proper time,’ is not a synonym of expect, foresee. A man may anticipate his sweetheart in fulfilling some dear wish of hers, even before she makes known her desire; or he may anticipate some one in doing anything that he succeeds in doing first; or he may anticipate an obligation by meeting it before its time; but he doesn’t anticipate any act by expecting to perform the act.”[5]

Good usage has extended the meaning of this word, in a popular way, until it signifies also the looking forward with pleasure or confidence to something expected—to anticipate a good time. This modification may become eventually the principal meaning of the word; and like many other questionable changes of a similar kind, it has gone too far probably to be recalled.

Tea is tea, and nothing else.”[6] To call strong beef broth beef-tea, is offensive and inaccurate; but there is no importunate reason for confining the meaning of tea to an infusion made from the dried leaves of the tea-plant. English is richer because this word has been applied to infusions made from other leaves similarly prepared, even to decoctions made from the dried petals of flowers. For example: senna-tea, camomile-tea, tansy-tea, and so forward. Common sense must occasionally humor convenience; and both may justify common usage when it facilitates clear expression which neither is ugly nor incongruous. Tea so long has been in use that no possible confusion can result from a compound of the word that designates another potable extract of similar preparation. Eau de Cologne, eau de rose, Bristol milk, milk of almonds, milk of sulphur, lime, magnesium, crême de mint, cream of lime, cream of tartar, cocoa-butter, butter-bean, butter weed, butter-milk, and many other like compounds, are no better and certainly no more logical of combination and usage than, let us say, camomile-tea.

Excessively is not a synonym of exceedingly or very. Excessively hot, …is an ignorant misuse of the word.”[7] Let us see if there are not exceptions. That which is excessive surpasses the natural state, the normal, the usual, the wonted measure, degree, number, or condition of something. The weather being abnormally hot might with some reason be called excessively hot, since the temperature exceeds the normal degree.

On the other hand, we have banquet and dinner. These two words clearly are not synonyms; to employ them as such is a misuse of good terms. All dinners, unfortunately or otherwise, are not banquets; and certainly all banquets are dinners only to the professional opportunist. The function of a dinner is to appease hunger and to impart nourishment. This function may be supplemented by a social expression of good-will and hospitality. Thus a dinner may be very plain and simple, or it may be very elaborate; but a banquet always is a formal affair at which the eating plays a secondary part; it is a ceremony which slowly has evolved from the gluttonous feast of celebration into one of the many ceremonies indicative of hospitality and complimentary honor. It is true that the banquet often falls to the level of an orgy, with its vulgar display of wealth, its stale stories and senseless twaddle; yet the word is a good one, and all good words are useful. These few examples show that word-quibblers are as apt to be finical in the use of terms not etymologically consistent as slovenly folk are likely to misuse good words. We should remember that while some words originated in error and superstition, and some in out-and-out falsehood, yet words like men may detach themselves from the misfortunes of their family history and thereafter expand into broad usefulness. This is the spirit of progression. To chain a word down to its etymology is to limit its activities and to give the dry-rot to its utility. There are scores of useful words as we shall see that have wandered away from their etymological significations and traditions. Shall we restrict the word journey to mean a day’s travel because the word came from the Latin, by way of the French journée, meaning day, day’s work, day’s travel? There are many such words that should be sensibly considered by writers on words before they launch their books. It is interesting to treat words etymologically, but it is both interesting and practical to treat them with reference to the laws of a growing language and the spirit of a changing tongue.

Again, take the word quarantine, which came from the Latin by way of the Italian and Old French, and which signifies forty. In Old English Law it meant a period of forty days. The word in recent times has acquired a broader meaning; and now it may imply, legitimately enough, a special period of more than forty days, or any part thereof. The same is true of such words as decimate[8]> (orig.: to reduce a number by taking every tenth); sarcophagus (orig.: a stone coffin with flesh-consuming properties); candle (orig.: a white wax taper); miniature (orig.: a “picture painted with minium or carmine”); rubric, (orig.: an exceptional part of a book or MS., such as initial letters painted in red); surplice (orig.: a garment worn over another garment of skins); stirrup (orig.: ropes used for mounting a horse); haversack (orig.: a sack for the carrying of oats); barn (orig.: a place or building used for the storing of barley or bere); larder (orig.: a special place for keeping hog’s fat); monody (orig.: a simple ode); lucubration (orig.: meditation or study by artificial light at night); costermonger (orig.: seller of costards or apples); palace (orig.: a building on Palatine Hill); nausea (orig.: sea-sickness); sonnet and sonata (once the same); and so on with the names of the days of the week, etc.

Now a word about the dictionary. The growing inflation of the modern dictionary leads many to believe that the number of English words is increasing at a prodigious rate. The number is increasing without doubt, but not so rapidly as one might suppose. So far as the English vocabulary is concerned, its actual increase since the days of Johnson’s Dictionary is owing in large part to an addition of words hitherto unrecorded. The apparent numerical gain, which is so astonishing, is made up considerably of compounds, of words of variant spellings, of scientific nomenclature derived from many languages, but mostly from the Latin. If we omit these it probably will be found that an English dictionary of 100,000 words would be tolerably complete.

In the work of compiling an English dictionary, there are many nice differences to settle between function and form of distinct word-units. There is a surprising number of word-variations that are easily transformed into different words. The facility of compounding words is a temptation to the lexicographer not easily resisted, and which, when yielded to, encumbers the vocabulary. However cautiously he notes the uses of the transitive and the intransitive verbs, he yet produces an effect upon the average mind of the doubling of many verbs.

Moreover, the disagreement of grammarians—their uncertainty in regard to the parts of speech—adds further confusion. “Every compared adjective,” says Alfred D. Sheffield, “gives three words; every verb, from three to five.” If we add to this human frailty of the lexicographer, the commercial rivalry of the publisher in his efforts to surpass his competitor in “numerical totals,” it will not be hard to see how the dictionary has grown to embody several hundred thousand useless words. That is not all. By the use of prefixes and suffixes, any amount of dead wood has been added to the dictionary. Given the words, existence and conscious, for example: Is it necessary to lumber the dictionary with such words as nonexistence, subconscious, unconscious, semiconscious, consciously, and so forward?

Were the dictionary to contain all the improvised forms of really serviceable words which have been and may be used, its utility would in no sense be increased. On the contrary, it would be much better to add a few formulæ for the permutation of words than to encumber the dictionary with numberless self-evident derivatives and compounds. A dictionary setting forth the laws of transformation and growth of words with their crystallized distinctions in meaning, their so-called trend, and their development, would be more serviceable as a dictionary than the usual mountainous assemblage of examples.

  1. The Worth of Words. (Bell.)
  2. Write it Right. (Bierce.)
  3. The Changing Values of English Speech. (Bell.)
  4. The Worth of Words. (Bell.)
  5. The Worth of Words. (Bell.)
  6. Words and Their Uses. (White.)
  7. The Worth of Words. (Bell.)
  8. The Study of Words. (Trench.)