Category Archives: Words

Alan S.C. Ross: Linguistic Class Indicators In The Present Day (1954)

Alan S.C. Ross's "Linguistic Class Indicators In Present Day English", 2007 reprint

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

George Bernard Shaw, introduction to Pygmalion (1913)

Alan Ross was Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University when he published this paper in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, the journal of the Modern Language Society of Helsinki, although The Dictionary of National Biography tells us he started writing it as “an undergraduate amusement at Oxford”. So it had simmered on his back-burner for a quarter-century or so before it finally saw the light of day. (One can imagine Ross, now academically senior and secure, deciding it would be a bit of a lark, and could now do him no harm, to place his “undergraduate amusement” in a learned journal.)

This is the paper that gave the world (or at least a select English-speaking part of it) the idea of “U” and “non-U” usage—patterns in speech and writing which (Ross suggested) distinguish the language of the English upper class from that of the aspiring middle class.

In this article I use the terms upper class (abbreviated : U), correct, proper, legitimate, appropriate (sometimes also possible) and similar expressions (including some containing the word should) to designate usages of the upper class; their antonyms (non-U, incorrect, not proper, not legitimate, etc.) to designate usages which are not upper class.

The paper would probably have fallen into obscurity had it not been read by Nancy Mitford, who referred to it in an article entitled “The English Aristocracy”, published in Encounter magazine (1955). This was sufficiently well-received that Mitford went on to edit Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (1956), which contained her original essay and a condensed version of Ross’s paper, together with contributions from Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, Christopher Sykes and a poem (“How To Get On In Society”) by John Betjeman.

And so Ross’s distinction between “U” and “non-U” became the 1950s version of an internet meme—it was a topic for excited and amusing conversation, to which people could make their own contributions, and which gave those in the know a sense of “in-crowd” satisfaction. This led to Ross’s original paper becoming “famous by repute but paradoxically little-known”, to quote from Clive Upton’s introductory comments, written when the paper was reprinted by Neuphilologische Mitteilungen in 2007.

So I thought I’d take a look at it.

Ross gives his reason for studying the difference between U and non-U usage as follows:

It is solely by its language that the [English] upper class is clearly marked off from the others. In times past (e. g. in the Victorian and Edwardian periods) this was not the case. But, to-day, a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of this class.

He then admits that there are some minor differences in manners and interests between the upper class and the others—his list includes “an aversion to high tea” and “not playing tennis in braces”. It’s at this point one begins to suspect that Ross may not be entirely serious. This is confirmed when he goes on:

Again, when drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.

Truculence, I deduce, would be the mark of a cad. Or perhaps a bounder.

Ross presents his linguistic analysis in two sections. The first is “The Written Language”, which deals with how people address envelopes and postcards, and the forms of salutations and letter-endings. This really does little to contrast U and non-U usages—it’s merely a list of ways of doing things that are considered “correct”, easy mastery of which Ross identifies as a U domain. So, for instance:

Modes of address, particularly those used for the nobility, have always been a bugbear to the non-U. It is, for instance, non-U to speak of an earl as The Earl of P—; he should be spoken of and to as Lord P— and also so addressed at the beginning of a letter if an introduction between him and speaker/writer has been effected.

Many of these rules of etiquette in writing are still around; some are now gone, but familiar to me from my schooldays, like:

Letter-endings. The U rules for ending letters are very strict; failure to observe them usually implies non-U-ness, sometimes only youth. In general, the endings of letters are conditioned by their beginnings. Thus a beginning (Dear) Sir requires the ending Yours faithfully […]

Well, duh. Miss Macpherson, my fearsome primary-school teacher, got that one well drummed into this (very non-U) youth before I turned twelve.

The section ends with a dissection of the advice given by R.W. Chapman in Names, Designations and Appellations (1936*), published by the Society for Pure English, no less. In general, Ross thinks that Chapman’s reflections were dated, even for their time of writing. To Chapman’s discussion of the use of surnames, Ross adds an observation about U schoolchildren addressing each other by their surnames only (as in the “Jennings and Darbishire” books by Anthony Buckeridge):

It is not until a boy gets older (c. 16?) that he realises that he must deliberately ascertain his friends’ Christian names in order to be able to refer to them correctly to their parents. At Oxford in the late twenties the use of the surname in these circumstances was a known gaucherie and must therefore have been fairly usual.

I also rather relish Ross’s personal anecdote on the use of the suffix “Esq.” (“Esquire”), which in Ross’s day was a standard way of addressing a letter to a gentleman.

Knowledge of at least one initial of the recipient’s name is, of course, a prerequisite for addressing him with Esq. If the writer has not this minimum knowledge (and cannot, or is too lazy to obtain it) he will be in a quandary. In these circumstances I myself use the Greek letter θ (as θ. Smith, Esq.) but this is probably idiosyncratic.

I think it may well be, Professor Ross.

Section Two, “The Spoken Language”, begins with pronunciation. This section is a bit difficult to follow for a modern reader, because Ross’s phonetic notation predates the standard International Phonetic Alphabet. But, among other things, we learn that U-speakers say “temprilly” rather than “temporarily”; drop the letter l from “golf” and “Ralph” (“goff” and “Rafe”); and pronounce “tyre” and “tar” the same way (“taa”). “Either” pronounced with the first syllable sounding like “eye” is U; first syllable “ee” is non-U.

Ross then asks, rhetorically, if it is possible for a non-U speaker to become a U-speaker. He concludes that there is only one way:

This is to send him first to a preparatory school, then to a good boarding school. This is a method that has been approved for more than a century and, at the moment, it is almost completely effective.

Good to know.

It’s not until we get to Part 6 of Section 2 that we reach the bit for which Ross is now remembered, and around which most of the U/non-U excitement took place in the 1950s—U and non-U vocabulary and phrasing, arranged in an itemized list. So we’re told that “They’ve a lovely home” is non-U; “They’ve a very nice house” is U. Non-U people call the lowest-ranking face-card the “jack”; the U equivalent is “knave”. “Serviette” is non-U; “table-napkin” is U. And then there’s this:

Coach. ‘char-a-banc’ is non-U, doubtless because the thing itself is. Those U-speakers who are forced, by penury, to use them call them buses, thereby causing great confusion (a coach runs into the country, a bus within the town).

Finally, and to me unexpectedly, Ross addresses the issue of ephemerality—the fact that what’s U for speakers in the 1950s was not so in the 1850s or 1750s. To make his point, he quotes extensively from relevant sections of John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791). His conclusion is:

The ephemeral nature of our present system of linguistic class-indicators is very clear from the above citations from Walker. Nearly all the points mentioned by him—only one hundred and sixty years ago—are now “dead” and without class-significance, in that one of the pronunciations given is to-day no longer known in any kind of English save dialect. […] In three cases of double pronunciations, to-day’s U alternative is chosen by Walker as the non-U one.

Which is refreshing—Ross is too much of a linguist to believe “that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (to quote George Bernard Shaw again).

So this is, in essence, a glimpse of the language spoken by the English aristocracy in the mid-twentieth century, and the shibboleths they used to identify an out-group by which they undoubtedly felt somewhat threatened. And Ross is certainly an entertaining guide.

I haven’t been able to find a version of Ross’s original paper that doesn’t require either an academic institution log-in, or signing up to some document server service. You can, however, read the condensed version that appeared in Noblesse Oblige here. He went on to write a series of popular books on English usage and pronunciation: What Are U? (1969), How To Pronounce It (1970) and Don’t Say It! (1973). I haven’t read any of these, but if I get around to it, I’ll report back.

* Ross’s article misprints this date as “1946”

Four English Words Derived From Gaelic

Opening title of Whisky Galore! (1949)

Ach, he’s feeling the shortage of whisky. We’re all feeling it, Sergeant. Never mind. Good things will come again, and we’ll have whisky galore. Uisge beatha gu leòir.

Compton Mackenzie, Whisky Galore (1947)

I’ve written before about the relative dearth of Scottish Gaelic vocabulary in Scottish English. Instead, much of the difference in vocabulary between Scottish English and Standard English is because Scottish English has held on to Middle English forms that Standard English has lost.

Of the Scottish Gaelic words that are used in Scotland, many deal with landscape features, and are little changed from their original forms—bens, lochs, corries and cairns. But there are a few familiar words in English that have Gaelic origins, and I was inspired to write about some of them after rewatching the 1949 Ealing comedy Whisky Galore!, based on Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel of the same title (though lacking Ealing’s exclamation mark)—because the title of book and film contains two words derived from Scottish Gaelic, as my quote from Mackenzie’s novel implies.


Whisky derives from Gaelic uisge beatha, “water of life”, which is the poetic name the Gaels give to the same drink. Plain drinking water is just uisge, and the statement “It’s raining” is rendered in Gaelic as Tha an t-uisge ann—literally, “The water is here”.

Beatha is “life”, and the Scottish king called Macbeth was MacBeatha, “son of life”. We generally associate the Gaelic prefix mac-, “son of”, with surnames, derived from original Gaelic patronymics. But this one is a given name, not a patronymic, and it implied something like “righteous man”. Since Macbeth was the son of Findlay of Moray, his full name was MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh in Modern Gaelic, or Macbethad mac Findláech in Mediæval Gaelic.

Our present English word is the final point of a period of evolution. Originally adopted from Gaelic as usquebaugh, it mutated to whiskybae, and then dropped the final syllable.

You should take care how you spell the English word. The Scottish stuff is always whisky, and the same spelling is favoured by Canadian and Japanese distillers. Whiskey, with an “e”, is distilled in Ireland and the United States. Scotch is a name that non-Scots apply to Scottish whisky. So anyone who writes “Scotch whiskey” is just looking for a slap.


As we can see in the quotation at the head of this post, galore derives from Scottish Gaelic gu leòr (Compton Mackenzie used the older spelling leòir). But it shares etymological honours with Irish Gaelic go leór, which has the same meaning. The English meaning, “in abundance”, rather overstates the sense of the original Gaelic. In Scottish Gaelic, leòr means “sufficiency”. Gu, as a preposition, means “to”, which we can see in those Gaelic road-signs that declare Fàilte gu Alba, “Welcome to Scotland”. Added to a noun, gu is used to form adverbs and adjectives. So gu leòr, literally “to sufficiency”, means “adequately” or “enough”. If a Gael wants to say that something is merely okay, they’ll say ceart gu leòr—literally “right enough”. So it’s a bit low-key compared to the glorious plenitude suggested by galore. The Faclair Beag on-line dictionary offers gu leòr mhòr as a way of saying “more than enough”, but it’s not widely attested.


Slogan comes from sluagh-ghairm. Sluagh is a group of people, or a crowd; gairm is a cry or call. Put them together, and sluagh-ghairm is literally “cry of the crowd”—a rallying cry or battle cry.

In English, this was originally adopted as slughorn. Sir George Mackenzie, in his Science of Herauldry (1680), had this to say about slughorns:

Not unlike these Motto’s are our Slughorns, which are called Cris de guerre in France. The use of them is either to serve as a Watchword to all of one Family, or are the name of the place at which a Family should meet in time of Warr: And thus the Mckenzies have for their Slughorn, Tulloch Ard, which is the place at which this Clan does meet; and the Name of Hume have for their Slughorn (or Slogan, as our Southern Shires terme it) a Hume, a Hume: For it is most ordinar to have either the Name of the Family who do meet, or the Name of the Place at which they do meet

The word slughorn was to become a source of confusion for poor old Robert Browning, who interpreted it to mean a literal horn, of the kind that could be sounded in battle. In the last stanza of his poem “Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came” (1855) he writes: “Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew.”*

From The Science of Herauldry, we can see that the condensed form, slogan, was already in use in the “Southern Shires” during the seventeenth century, but still in the sense of “battle cry”. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it was firmly established with its current meaning, “a short, memorable phrase used as shorthand for a particular idea”.


I know this word only from the expression in American English, to glom on to, meaning “to grab hold of”. Jack London provides the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for glom, in his memoir The Road (1907). He spelled it “glahm”, and used it to imply stealing:

We shook hands like long-lost brothers, and discovered that our hands were gloved. “Where’d ye glahm ’em?” I asked. “Out of an engine-cab,” he answered; “and where did you?” “They belonged to a fireman,” said I; “he was careless.”

For British readers today, glom is an American word, but it comes from the Scots verb to glaum, “to grasp at”. The word can also be used for the behaviour of a dog, gulping at food. That, in turn, comes from Scottish Gaelic glam, verb and noun, which describes the act of gobbling or devouring. So we can trace a line of descent from Scottish dogs seizing their food, to Scottish people grabbing things, to Jack London stealing a pair of gloves when he was travelling the United States as a hobo.

My favourite use of glaum is in a song written by Robert Burns, “The Battle of Sherramuir” (1790). It’s framed as an argument between two shepherds about the outcome of the inconclusive Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715). Burns’s Scots can be impenetrable to a modern reader, so I’ll give you a link to a version accompanied by a translation into Standard English. It’s a blood-curdling evocation of hand-to-hand combat in the eighteenth century:

I saw the battle, sair and teugh,
And reekin-red ran monie a sheugh;
My heart for fear gae sough for sough,
To hear the thuds, and see the cluds
O’ clans frae woods in tartan duds,
Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.

The “clans frae woods in tartan duds” are the supporters of the Old Pretender, James Stuart. They were arrayed against the Hanoverian forces commanded by John Campbell, Duke of Argyll. And they “grasped at kingdoms three”—seeking to overthrow George I, king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The song was originally composed to be sung to the Cameronian Rant, a piece of traditional pipe music. But by far the most stirring rendering I’ve ever heard is the abridged arrangement by Scottish folk duo The Corries, entitled “The Sherramuir Fight”. Give it a listen:

It starts quietly enough, but once the bodhrán starts up in the first chorus, and Ronnie Brown really gets his teeth into the repeating line “Hey dum a-hidder-um a hey dum dan”, I defy you not to be stirred.

* I say “poor old Robert Browning” because he already had a history of word misuse. In his verse drama Pippa Passes (1841), he’d used the word “twat” in a context that suggests he thought it was part of a nun’s attire.



fulsome: offensive to good taste, by reason of being done to excess

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

A news organization has an obligation—and it is an obligation—to report news fulsomely, wholesomely and without fear or favor. That’s what Fox News has always done and that’s what Fox News will always do.

Lachlan Murdoch quoted in The Guardian (13 March 2023)

It’s probably safe to assume that Lachlan Murdoch did not intend to suggest that his own news channel is offensive to good taste. And, in the time it’s taken me to get around to writing this post, I notice that the Guardian has come to a similar conclusion and added a little warning “[sic]” after the word I’ve highlighted in red, above. Which is a journalist’s way of saying, “This is what he said, but maybe not what he meant.” (It’s also not clear to me how a news broadcast can be “wholesome”, but I’ll come back to that later.)

Murdoch, like many people, was probably using fulsome as if it were a rather recherché synonym for “fully”. That usage has become so common it has turned fulsome into what Bryan Garner calls a “skunked word”—one you can’t use without generating misunderstanding and/or condemnation.

The interesting thing about fulsome is that it started out with the meaning that it’s now drifting back to. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest citations (from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century) offer the splendidly wordy definition, “Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full.” But it quickly began to acquire negative connotations—overgrown plants, unhealthily obese people, offensively strong smells, excessive amounts of food … these were all labelled fulsome. And by the seventeenth century, the word had completely parted company with ideas of abundance and plenitude, and had set up camp dealing with offensive excess.

Fulsome is formed from the adjective full and the suffix -some, which was used in Old English to form adjectives from nouns, and to make new adjectives from other adjectives. Full was (and is) a fairly concrete adjective, describing water-jugs and stomachs; whereas fulsome (in its original sense) could be applied to fertile fields or plentiful water supplies.

Full has an associated verb, fill, and a noun, also fill. This latter is familiar from the phrase to eat (or drink) one’s fill, but it also applies to the stuff archæologists dig out of old pits and ditches while investigating their contents, and the stuff road-builders put in to gullies and hollows, to create a level surface for their roadbed.

And then there’s the adjectival suffix -ful, which means something between “full of” and “characterized by”. So we have manful, masterful, beautiful and graceful, for example. Grateful is a remnant of the old adjective grate, “pleasing”, and bashful of the verb bash, “to daunt”. And more recently -ful started helping to form nouns, too. What was originally a hand-full (of something) became a handful, and likewise a spoonful and cupful, among others.

Finally, there’s fulfil (or fulfill in American English). The OED gives its original meaning succinctly: “To fill to the full”. This meaning shifted to imply the act of providing the full amount requested or desired, and then to the act of bringing something to completion—in that sense, you can fulfil a prophecy, your own destiny, or (more prosaically) a contract. And in a more dilute form, you can fulfil something simply by complying with a set of rules—the entry requirements of a university, or the conditions of a visa application, for instance. The noun formed from fulfil, fulfilment, can be used in the same specific contexts as fulfil, but has taken on something of a life of its own as a slightly woolly contributor to mental health—we’re encouraged to seek “personal fulfilment”, which seems to mean getting stuff done that you want to get done. Can’t argue with that.

On, then, to the suffix -some. This started work back in Old English, was productive in Middle English, and has been churning out a supply of new words ever since. The newer words, like quarrelsome and fearsome, tend to have fairly transparent etymologies, because their root words have retained their meanings. (Another word in this category was awesome, until people started using it to mean little more than “satisfactory”.)

Scottish English invented a whole list of numerical -some words that drifted into wider usage—the OED has citations for everything from twosome to tensome, but maybe foursome golf and eightsome reels are the most common examples nowadays.

But many older words have drifted away from their original meanings—which brings me to Lachlan Murdoch’s use of wholesome. This started off in Old English with the meaning “conducive to health”, derived from an old meaning of whole, “fit and well”, which eventually mutated into hale, as in the phrase “hale and hearty”. Wholesome shifted its meaning from “health-giving” to “healthy”, and then became a judgement not just of physical but of moral well-being. The next development occurred at the end of the twentieth century, pretty much unnoticed in the UK. But in American English as spoken by certain parts of US society, it came to mean “sexually chaste”. From there it got stirred into a general pot of “family values”, and emerged in the 2010s (presumably somewhat shell-shocked) as a signifier for all things cosy and nice. To quote from Constance Grady’s Vox article on the topic:

Wholesomeness as we’re using it now means friends supporting friends. It means valuing kindness. It means not judging simple pleasures.

Are you any nearer to understanding what Lachlan Murdoch means when he says he wants the news to be reported “wholesomely”? Nope, me neither. I’d have given him another “[sic]” for that one, but that’s possibly just me.

Winsome is the only commonly used survivor from Old English. It derives from an old noun win, meaning “joy”. So something winsome was joy-giving. Only later did the meaning narrow down to designate young women of pleasing appearance, character and manner.

Handsome originally meant “easily handled”, then mutated into “able to handle things easily”, then “skilful”, then “courteous”, before finally arriving at its current meaning, “of pleasing appearance”.

By way of contrast, noisome hasn’t changed its meaning much, but we’ve forgotten its derivation, making it harder to deduce that meaning. It comes from the old verb noy, “to trouble or injure” (the origin of our modern word annoy). So noisome things are harmful or repellent.

Then there’s buxom, a word rarely far from the company of wench or maid. It implies brimming good health and a sort of jolly comfortableness of figure and manner, but perhaps not one to use unless you’re writing a rather formulaic historical novel. It originated as bowsome, “readily bent”, then shifted through “indulgent” to “gracious”, to “good-tempered” to its current (albeit justifiably waning) usage.

I’ll leave you with a couple of -some words that are dear to my heart. A reviewer once described my book The Complete Lachlan (2013) as “chortlesome indeed”. By the standards of -some words, that’s a fairly recent coining, given that the word chortle was invented by Lewis Carroll for his poem “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass (1872):

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

In contrast, the word toothsome, once used by an on-line commentator to describe my post about the -ise/-ize suffix, is really rather old—it has been used to mean “tasty” since the sixteenth century. It originates in an old usage of the word tooth, referring to the sense of taste—the phrase to love the tooth was once a way of saying “to be fond of eating”; and a having a sweet tooth meant that you were fond of sweet tastes, not (as I assumed when a child), having teeth rotted by too much confectionary.

And I hope you’ve found something toothsome about this post, too.


ˈpædʒəntrɪ / ˈpeɪdʒəntrɪ

pageantry: 1) splendid display, gorgeous spectacular show; 2) empty or specious display, show without substance

Charles III coronation, balcony of Buckingham Palace
Click to enlarge
Image used under Open Government Licence v3.0

What pageantry, what feats, what shows,
What minstrelsy, and pretty din,
The regent made in Mytilene
To greet the king.

William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre Act V, Scene II

The coronation of King Charles III got me thinking about the word pageantry this week. The two conflicting meanings given at the head of this post highlight what an odd concept it is—a conspicuous investment in both money and people’s time, designed to impress, but quite often failing to do so. Those disposed to the second usage customarily flag their resentment by the addition of the adjective mere. The Oxford English Dictionary allows two pronunciations of the first syllable, both of which I’ve listed here. When I was growing up the second pronunciation was the one I learned, with the first syllable sounding like “pay”; nowadays, “pah” seems to be the more common—and my American dictionaries allow only that form.

Pageantry is formed from pageant and the suffix -ry, a shortened form of -ery. These suffixes originally came from the French, and generally denote the things people do (baker/bakery, archer/archery, traitor/treachery) or broad classes of things (ribald/ribaldry, pageant/pageantry).

The word pageant originally denoted a scene in a play, the part a particular actor played in a scene, or the stage on which the scene was enacted. From that original little cluster of senses, we derived both of the current meanings—something spectacular (in particular, an elaborate procession of some kind); or something devoid of real meaning. The old phrase to play one’s pageant meant “to play one’s part”. But to play [someone] a pageant was to trick or deceived them. A pageanteer is someone who takes part in a pageant; a tapestry decorated with Biblical scenes is said to be pageanted; and the noun has been known to form a rare adjective, pageantic.

But apart from this little cluster of related words, pageant has no known relatives—it seems to have simply sprung into existence in Middle English, meaning “scene”, with no evident antecedents in other languages. In Anglo-Latin (Latin as spoken in Britain during the Mediæval period), there was an evidently related word, pagina, which also meant “scene”. And that’s identical to the Latin word pagina “leaf of a book” that gave us our word page. And through Old French we also acquired the literary term pagine, referring to a page of a book. So we can easily imagine how a pagine from a manuscript play came to be understood as synonymous with the scene it described, giving rise to the word pageant, but the Oxford English Dictionary is unable to find any intermediate forms to make that more than an etymological Just So story.

Others have suggested that Anglo-Latin pagina derived from Latin pangere, “to fasten” or pegma “a structure made of boards”. And there was, in the seventeenth century, an English word pegma or pegme that referred to a wooden structure used in the staging of theatrical performances. In which case Anglo-Latin pagina and English pageant might possibly have derived not as a reference to the pages of a manuscript play, but from the boards on which the play was being performed. But, again, the OED bemoans the lack of evidence for any such derivation.

And that’s it for pageantry—a word with a meaning very much open to interpretation, which, for all we can tell, more or less magicked itself into spontaneous existence in English. And in the centuries since it appeared, the English establishment seems to have become really quite good at it, whichever meaning you prefer.

Translating Street Names Into Gaelic

Still from "A Knight's Tale"

My own mental image that best gets to the nature of translation involves picturing each language as a fixed set of stepping-stones in a stream. Suppose you are translating from Burmese to Welsh. A Burmese utterance is a pathway from one place to another via the [Burmese] stones. They seem to be located in convenient enough places, and you can get pretty much wherever you want to go. But when it comes to translating what you have said into Welsh, you find the Welsh stepping stones […] are often not quite in the same place as the Burmese ones, and even in the cases where they are just about in the same places, they are shaped differently, and so you can’t treat them as identical to the Burmese stones you are familiar with.

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas (1985)

The Boon Companion and I spent a few rainy autumnal days in Ullapool, towards the end of last year. Weather fronts were passing over briskly, and every day included a period of torrential rain and a period of bright sunshine—so we divided our time between rewatching favourite films, and venturing out into the nearby town and countryside. And so it happened that we walked into the town just after having watched A Knight’s Tale (2001), which has provided my opening picture this week. Having just seen Laura Fraser’s portrayal of Kate, the understandably cheesed-off mediæval female blacksmith (second from left, above), I was perhaps primed to misunderstand the signage on Ladysmith Street in the centre of Ullapool.

Ladysmith Street in Ullapool: old translation

Isn’t that interesting, I thought. They’ve translated “Ladysmith” into Gaelic. Now I’ll see what the word for a female blacksmith is.*

But, actually, that wasn’t what they’d translated. The Gaelic Sràid Bean A’ Ghobhainn means “Wife of the Smith Street”, which would no doubt have made poor Kate the blacksmith even more grumpy. And that reminded me of Douglas Hofstadter’s analogy between translation and choosing stepping-stones, quoted at the head of this post. It turns out that Gaelic doesn’t have any stepping stones conveniently situated near the English one marked “Ladysmith”.

If the name “Ladysmith” designated an actual female blacksmith, then we could concoct a Gaelic word from gobhainn, “smith”, and the feminizing prefix bàn-. Gaelic bàn-righ, “queen”, for instance, is literally a “woman-king”, so there should be no objection to fabricating the word bàn-gobhainn, “woman-smith”, though it doesn’t appear in any Gaelic dictionary I’ve searched.

But what if “Ladysmith” actually designates Lady Smith, a woman who is married to a man, surnamed “Smith”, who holds a knighthood? (Hint: we’re moving closer to reality, here.) Gaelic has a word for that social rank—baintighearna, which is the feminine form of tighearna, “lord”. (So it’s bàn-tighearna, “woman-lord”.) But now Hofstadter’s stepping stones come into play again, because the “Lady” that corresponds to a “Lord” (certain Peers of the Realm) is not the same thing as the courtesy title “Lady”, conferred on the wife of a knight. And the lords and ladies of Gaelic tradition don’t necessarily provide an exact match for the current peerage system, anyway. And then there’s that surname, “Smith”. Should we translate that? It certainly corresponds to the Gaelic surname Mac a’ Ghobhainn, literally “son of the smith” (the origin of the Scottish surname MacGowan), but it seems a bit of a stretch to change a person’s family name to the name of a completely different family, just so we can stick a bit of Gaelic on a road-sign.

But of course, you’re way ahead of me. Ladysmith Street in Ullapool is actually named after the town in South Africa. The street name commemorates the Relief of Ladysmith, in 1900, during the Boer War. And the town was named after Juana María, Lady Smith, the Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, the governor of Cape Colony between 1847 and 1853. Only in an extremely convoluted way can the town of Ladysmith be described as bean a’ ghobhainn, “wife of the blacksmith”.

So the practice of converting English street-names into Gaelic is not without its difficulties and complications. With that in mind, an organization called Ainmean Àite nan h-Alba (“Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland”) published a guidance booklet in 2006, called Gaelic Street-Names: A Standardised Approach, which is full of sensible ideas. In particular, section E.3 stipulates that:

PLACE-NAMES with a Gaelic name or form will normally be in the genitive, and in the absence of an initial feminine or plural article, lenited where feasible. Non-Gaelic placenames will not be lenited, and names of places outwith Scotland will not be transliterated.

(My bold.) In other words, just leave that reference to the town of Ladysmith alone. And indeed, if you turn away from the sign I showed you earlier, and look across to the opposite side of the street, you’ll see a newer sign there looks like this:

Ladysmith Street in Ullapool: modern translation

So this one little spot in Ullapool tells us a whole story about Gaelic street-names.

Farther along the road, there’s another street sign:

Street sign, West Terrace, Ullapool
Click to enlarge

You’ll be relieved to learn that the Gaelic for “West Terrace” is not “AAHAIA’\A”—Gaelic may contain some spelling conventions that are unfamiliar to English speakers, but it’s not that weird. But quite why the letter “A” is so resistant to Ullapool weather is a mystery to me.

* You’ll perhaps be unfamiliar with this usage of the word “lady”. In Scotland, at least, it’s a way of noting that a woman has inexplicably turned up doing a job that has historically been a male preserve. Semantically, it can occupy a variable position along a line connecting respect with disapproval: “Well, I had to see the lady doctor, but she actually turned out to be okay.”
You’ll notice that the first letter “h” which featured in the phrase bean a’ ghobhainn in the road-sign has disappeared when we’re looking at the noun gobhainn in isolation. An “h” added to the first consonant of a word is a feature of Gaelic called lenition, and it appears and disappears according to the structure of a sentence.
For an amusing account of one man’s misadventure when Facebook decided that Mac a’ Ghobhainn was not a real name, see the Glasgow Herald article here. (There’s a definite level of unintended irony to the Herald‘s piece, since they not only omit the apostrophe that probably caused the trouble in the first place, but run into difficulties of their own with Gaelic names, rendering Àdhamh Ó Broin’s name as Àdhamh Ô Broin.)



indict: to bring a charge against; to accuse (a person) of a crime

These [members of a Grand Jury] have just INDICATED the 45th President of the United States of America, and the leading Republican Candidate, by far, for the 2024 Nomination for President.

Donald Trump, Truth Social post, 30 March 2023

One has to assume that the former president was a victim of the Curse of Predictive Text when he replaced the word “indicted” with “indicated”, above. Certainly, of words beginning with indic-, the group related to indicate are more commonly used than the group related to indict; so predictive text software, ignorant of events in the world, might well have plumped for “indicate”.

But it’s the ending of indict that made me choose it for today’s “word in the news” post. The word-ending -ict is generally pronounced as spelled—contradict, afflict, depict, evict. But indict is different, sporting one of those silent letters that bedevil the English language. Why don’t we pronounce the “c”?

It turns out that the “c” is a relatively recent acquisition for indict, which used to be spelled endite in Middle English. It was a legal term absorbed from Norman French enditer, “to charge, accuse”. That in turn came from the Old French enditer, “to declare”. Simple etymological arguments suggest that this was in turn derived from a Latin word indictare, “to speak upon”, though there’s no example of such a word in the Classical Latin texts available to us. But then English endite was Latinized during the Middle Ages, by legal scholars who were aware of the likely etymology. So indictare was reborn in the legal Latin of the times, but with the meaning “to charge, accuse”. At which point the reconstituted Latin influenced the standard English spelling, and endite became indict, the silent “c” being a nod to its Latin origins.

This sort of thing was rife, at the time, and has created a lot of heartache for people trying to learn English spelling. The pronunciation of words like receipt, salmon and doubt come to us from their French origins (receite, saumon, douter in Norman French), and they were originally spelled receyt, samoun and doute in Middle English. But Latin scholars knew that the French words had derived from Latin receptus, salmo and dubitare. So they added the silent “p”, “l” and “b” to the English words as an act of what the OED calls “learned revision”, and the rest of us would call “showing off”.*

But this sort of “Latining up” of English sometimes served only to demonstrate ignorance. The same people who gave us receipt, salmon and doubt also stuck an “s” into Middle English ile and iland, producing isle and island, in reference to the Latin word insula. They were right about ile, which came to us from Latin through French, but wrong about iland, which originated in Old English and has a Germanic origin meaning something like “water land”—the similarity to ile was coincidental.

A host of English words originate from Latin dicere, “to speak”, including Trump’s mistyped indicate. But for this post I’m going to concentrate on those words that come to us from Latin parts of speech related to dicere, but containing the letter “t”, of which indict is a prime example.

The frequentative form of dicere is dictare, “to say often”, which in Latin took on the sense of issuing an order or command, and also of speaking so that another person could write down your words. From that we derive dictate, which can signify either the process of giving dictation or the actions of a dictator. Combined with the prefix in-, dictare is also the origin of our word indict, as described above. And it gave us the obsolete word indite, which was sometimes used to mean “give dictation”, but also to “set down in writing”, particularly if putting together a document for formal presentation. Something set down in this way was a dite.

Once dictare stopped meaning “to say often”, it was free to take on another frequentative suffix, forming dictitare, “to say repeatedly or emphatically”. That gave us the obsolete old word dictitate, meaning “declare”.

The Latin noun dictio, “saying” or “speech”, gives us diction. In Mediæval Latin a dictionarium was a collection of sayings or speeches, and is the origin of our own word dictionary.

Latin dictum had a variety of meanings, somewhat overlapping with dictio, but with a general sense of “something said”. It sits in the background of a number of English words involving speaking. To predict is to “speak before” some event; to contradict is to “speak against”; a verdict is a “true statement”; an edict is a “speaking out”. A malediction is a curse, literally a “bad statement”, while a benediction is a blessing, a “good statement”. The given name Benedict is variously interpreted as meaning “blessed” (the object of a benediction), or as “speaking good things”. A jurisdiction is a region in which the “law speaks” and a valediction is a “farewell statement”, delivered by a valedictorian. To be an addict used to mean that one was “spoken for”—that is, bound by an obligation. The trajectory to the current meaning is clear.

English has borrowed dictum directly, to indicate something said in a pithy and memorable way, and with a degree of authority. A harsher version of the same thing is a diktat, an instruction by which one imposes one’s will on others—the word is borrowed from German. Ditty, meaning “words of a song”, comes to us from Old French dité, from Latin dictatum, “thing spoken”. And in Scotland we have a legal term which has the same derivation—the “Statement of Facts” issued in the New York court, pictured at the head of this post, would be called a dittay in Scottish Law.

Finally, as is almost becoming customary, I’ll finish with a plant name: Herb Bennet, commonly known as the Wood Avens (Geum urbanum), a pretty little hedgerow flower. Its alternative name comes from the Latin herba benedicta, “blessed herb”. The fifteenth-century natural history encyclopaedia, Ortus Sanitatis, has this to say on how the humble little avens earned its name:

Where the root is in the house the devil can do nothing, and flies from it; wherefore it is blessed above all other herbs.

* I’m indebted (there’s another one!) to Arika Okrent’s entertaining and informative book, Highly Irregular (2021), for the receipt, salmon, doubt examples.
At this point I found myself wondering about the Royal Navy slang word dit, meaning “story” or “report”. But dite fell out of use round about the time the Royal Navy was formed, and there’s no mention of dit in Admiral Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book (1867)—so the theory that it has something to do with the “dit-dah” sound of Morse code is perhaps more probable.

Hillwalkers’ Gaelic: “Doing The Dubhs”

"Doing The Dubhs" illustration

[The letter] h is one of the most common letters on any page of Gaelic, and as a result has become the victim of its own popularity. In pseudo- or pidgin Gaelic it is used by many who do not know the language well and feel that the liberal insertion of a few examples of h will give a more authentic flavour to their Gaelic.

George McLennan A Gaelic Alphabet (2009)

I recently wrote about the linguistic phenomenon of “Hillwalkers’ Gaelic”, using a puzzle poem by Lionel Hinxman (from the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1897) as my jumping-off point. You can find that poem, and discussion, here.

Reading that poem brought to mind another piece of poetry, about “Doing the Dubhs”, also published by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, in which Gaelic hill names were pressed into use as substitutes for English words. Eventually I discovered I had four copies of this poem on my bookshelves, in two different versions—and it was one of these versions that brought to mind McLennan’s words, quoted at the head of this post.

I’ll let you read the poem in a minute, but first a couple of examples of what McLennan is talking about.

The one I’m reminded of most often comes from an organization based not too far from where I live: the Cairn O’ Mohr winery. (“Care No More.” Geddit?) There’s obviously a reference to a famous Scottish road in there, the Cairn o’ Mount, but there’s really no apparent justification for that ectopic “h”, other than as an attempt to “Gaelic up” the company’s name in the way McLennan describes. But anyone who knows any Gaelic will recognize that the “h” is in the wrong place to form any plausible Gaelic word. Then there’s the island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. In Gaelic this is Rùm, though the meaning is unclear. What it certainly isn’t is “Rhum”, a name concocted by its one-time owner, Sir George Bullough, reportedly because he didn’t like to be associated with the apparent reference to an alcoholic beverage. Again, the “h” just looks Gaelic, provided you don’t know any Gaelic, and the Nature Conservancy Council (who acquired the island from the Bullough family), eventually reverted the spelling to “Rum” in 1991.

Another common example is the “h” in skean dhu, the common English version of Gaelic sgian-dubh, “black knife”—which is the (now) decorative short knife worn in the stocking-top of a person wearing formal Highland dress. The “h” in “dhu” serves no useful purpose in conveying the sound of the original dubh, “black” (which is close to “doo”)—again, it’s just there to make the English look a bit Gaelic. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this spelling comes from Sir Walter Scott (he wrote “skene-dhu”), so we know who to blame. And in this case it’s actively counterproductive, because in Gaelic the “h” would alter the sound of the “d”, making “dhu” sound like “ghoo”.

Which brings me, seamlessly, to the two versions of the famous “Doing the Dubhs” poem. The most commonly quoted version appears in my copy of the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s regional guide, Island of Skye (2nd ed., 1948), and their Climber’s Guide to the Cullin of Skye (1958), as well as in Hamish MacInnes’s mountain-rescue memoir, Call-Out (1973). It goes as follows:

Said Maylard to Solly, one day in Glen Brittle,
“All serious climbing, I vote, is a bore;
Just for once I Dubh Beag you’ll agree to do little,
And, as less we can’t do, let’s go straight to Dubh Mor.”

So now, when they seek but a day’s relaxation,
With no thought in the world but of viewing the views,
And regarding the mountains in mute adoration,
They call it not “climbing” but “doing the Dubhs.”

Gaelic “Dubh Mor” is doing duty for English “do more”, while “Dubh Beag” is filling in for “do beg”. The former makes a reasonable fit between the Gaelic and English, but the latter relies on a common pronunciation in Hillwalkers’ Gaelic—in Scottish Gaelic dubh beag sound more like “do bake”.

So that’s the bilingual wordplay dealt with. But unless you know your way around the Skye Cuillin, there’s a bit of background required before I go on to discuss the other version of the poem. “The Dubhs” to which the poem refers are three summits along a ridge that extends eastwards from the main Cuillin ridge towards Loch Coruisk—the summits are, from west to east: Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn (“Black Peak of the Two Mountains”); Sgùrr Dubh Mòr (“Big Black Peak”) which is the highest point; and Sgùrr Dubh Beag (“Little Black Peak”). Here they are on the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet of 1903:

Sgurr Dubh ridge, OS 6-inch 1903
Click to enlarge

(Notice, in passing, that the cartographer has mistakenly placed the diacritical mark intended for the “u” in “Sgùrr Dubh Mòr” over the “g”.)

“Doing the Dubhs” generally means making a traverse of this ridge, which is by no means an easy undertaking. But my link also reports that:

Doing the Dubhs’ is a paraphrase born from the Isle of Skye that translates roughly as ‘having one of the best days possible in UK hills’.

This seems to refer back to the “day’s relaxation” of the poem.

For a full explanation we need to move on to the second version of the poem, which appears in The Munroist’s Companion (1999) by Robin N. Campbell.

Campbell provides a publication history for the poem, tracing its origin to the reverse of the menu card for the Scottish Mountaineer Club’s annual dinner in 1905, and deduces that the poem, though unattributed on publication, is perhaps the work of William Douglas, a pillar of the SMC in its early days. He also reproduces the cartoon that graces the head of this post, presumably from the same source. And he gives us a title, which takes the form of a quotation attributed to A. Ernest Maylard, one of the founders of the Scottish Mountaineering Club:

“We Had Always Wanted To Do The Dubhs” – A.E. Maylard

Maylard, of course, features in the first line of the poem. His companion, “Solly”, is no doubt Godfrey A. Solly, a notable climber of the day. And the inspiration for the poem is, Campbell tells us, an article Maylard wrote for the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal of 1905, entitled “Only a Beautiful Day on the Hills”. This was something notable in the SMCJ of the time, which dealt largely with new routes and daring adventures—Maylard chose to write about a day:

[…] with no further objective than to enjoy ourselves, and with just that charming sense of inertia that is felt when nothing special has to be accomplished.

It’s by no means lacking in physical activity—it involves a snowy ascent of Sgùrr Dubh an Dà Bheinn and Sgùrr Dubh Mòr. But it also involves quite a bit of strolling and sitting and enjoying the scenery—the essence of “doing the Dubhs”, according to the poem.

But now (finally), I can get to the aspect of Campbell’s version that brought to mind McLennan’s observation about the intrusive, pseudo-Gaelic “h”—because the version of the poem reproduced by Campbell talks about “Dubh Bheag” and “Dubh Mhor”. Now, Campbell is a careful editor, who elsewhere in his book comments in negative terms about the Ordnance Survey’s distortion of Gaelic hill names; so I assume he has faithfully transcribed the spelling in the original version. In support of that assumption, we can note that Maylard, in his original article, also writes of “Sgurr Dubh Mhor”. (The Ordnance Survey seems to be blameless on this occasion, as my image taken from their contemporary mapping shows, above.) And, lest you imagine that this is merely a century-old variant, you can still find “Sgurr Dubh Mhor” on the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s own website, as well as scattered around the internet in walk reports and photo captions.

But that variant spelling is a tragedy for the poem. While “Dubh Mor” and “Dubh Beag” are reasonable stand-ins for “do more” and “do beg”, “Dubh Mhor” and “Dubh Bheag” are most definitely not—the intruded “h” shifts their Gaelic pronunciation to “do vore” and “do vake”.

There’s also the problem that, while mhòr and bheag are perfectly good Gaelic adjectives (they’re the lenited forms of mòr and beag), they do violence to Gaelic grammar when applied to the noun sgùrr.

Gaelic uses lenition (the “weakening” of an initial consonant, usually by adding an “h”) as a grammatical marker. In particular, with relevance to the naming of hills, adjectives are lenited after nouns with female gender, but not after those with male gender—and sgùrr is a masculine noun. So Sgùrr Dubh Mòr is the correct form. To see appropriate lenition, we must look for hill names that use feminine nouns like beinn and creag. We can, for instance, see both dubh and mòr being appropriately lenited in the name of Creag Dhubh Mhòr.

So it should be easy enough to figure out when the adjectives in a hill name can be appropriately lenited with an “h”, and when it’s just pseudo-Gaelic. If the hill is a beinn or a creag or a stùc (all female), then lenite away; but if it’s a sgùrr, a tom, a càrn, a meall or a stob (all male), then don’t.

Unfortunately, while this can serve as a useful rule of thumb, it’s far from infallible. Look, for instance, at Beinn Dearg (“red mountain”). It’s a common name—I’ve linked to just one of the many hills in Scotland called Beinn Dearg. But a modern Gael, asked to translate “red mountain” into Scottish Gaelic, would probably offer the lenited form: beinn dhearg. And yet I search in vain for a Beinn Dhearg in the Ordnance Survey database that comes with my Anquet Outdoor Map Navigator software.

What’s going on? It turns out that Scottish Gaelic used to have a fairly wide-ranging pronunciation rule, the “homo-organic rule”, which blocked lenition under some circumstances. This has largely faded from modern Gaelic, the last survivor of the rule being that a noun ending in “n” blocks lenition of a following adjective beginning with “d” or “t”. This is still stated in modern Gaelic grammar books, like my copy of Olaf Klöcker’s Concise Grammar: Scottish Gaelic (2015), but there’s evidence that many modern Gaelic speakers aren’t actually following the rule. However, Gaelic placenames, which are centuries old, generally abide by it. In this case, because the terminal “n” in “Beinn” and the initial “d” in “Dearg” are both pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the back of teeth, the one sound slides into the other easily, and lenition was consistently blocked in Gaelic at the time when these landscape features were being assigned names by the Gaels.*

There’s a fine example of blocked and unblocked lenition quite close to the Dubhs, in the form of Beinn Dearg Mhòr. There you can see how the homo-organic rule blocks the lenition of “d” after “n”, but not of “m” after “g”.

So is that it all sorted, then? Are lenition and the homo-organic rule all we need to know, to decide whether we should insert that pesky “h”? Sadly, no. There are many departures from these rules. For instance, there’s a fully unlenited Beinn Dearg Mòr out there, sitting incongruously right next to a half-lenited Beinn Dearg Bheag. I’ve no idea what that’s about—perhaps it reflects some peculiarity of local pronunciation, or is just one of the Ordnance Survey’s notorious errors of transcription. And sgòrr, a variant of sgùrr that is listed as a masculine noun in modern Gaelic dictionaries, frequently turn up accompanied by lenited adjectives, as if it were feminine—for instance Sgòrr Dhearg and its neighbour Sgòrr Bhan.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has explanations for these.

* The sgian-dubh I mentioned at the start of this post is another example of blocked lenition preserved into modern usage—a so-called “frozen form”. Sgian is a feminine noun, so if you took a knife and painted it black, a modern Gael would call it sgian dhubh. The old, lenition-blocked name sgian-dubh now applies solely to the decorative stocking-top item. (Which, so the story goes, was named dubh in a figurative sense, because it was originally a concealed weapon. The Gaels are said to have used dubh, “black”, in the same metaphorical way that English sometimes uses “dark”—the Victorians labelled the regions of Africa that were yet to be seen by Europeans “Darkest Africa”, for instance; and the “dark side of the moon” was so named because it is hidden from view, not because of any imagined lack of sunlight.)

Until / Till

ʌnˈtɪl / tɪl

until / till: up to the time of (an event); during the whole time before

"Sip Til Send"

So I was perusing the pre-operative fasting guidelines for a local hospital the other day (as you do), when I discovered a heartening bit of text:

Once in hospital the ward staff will allow you to sip clear fluids until you are sent for your procedure

Anyone who has fasted for a medical procedure, even quite recently, will realize that this is innovative stuff. In fact, it’s the fairly recent culmination of a rather protracted process that started even before I retired from hospital medicine seven years ago—anaesthetists have gradually been establishing that prolonged fluid fasting doesn’t actually make anaesthesia any safer for most people, might well be counterproductive in many instances, and also makes their patients feel horrible. You can read about the rationale for the new guidance in an article published in the British Journal of Anaesthesia, “Two hours too long: time to review fasting guidelines for clear fluids” (2020).

So that was all great stuff. The text was accompanied by the almost inevitable photograph of a person sipping clear fluids (just in case some particularly hard-of-thinking reader might be in doubt about what the process involves) and three words enclosed in quotation marks. The photograph and the words form the head image for this post.

Sip Til Send

Reader, I believe I uttered a small shriek. I certainly flinched, and may well have blanched.

There’s the slight grammatical unease, of course, induced by the fact that the person doing the sipping (the patient) is not the person doing the sending (some member of hospital staff). So the construction feels like it needs a “sent for”, or at least a “sent” in place of the final word.

But it’s that word in the middle that provoked the shriek. As a stout descriptivist when it comes to word usage, it goes against the grain for me to write any sentence beginning “There’s no such word as …” But really, truly, and for pity’s sake, there’s no such word as til.*

At first I assumed this was some isolated typographic misfortune, but it turns out to be the name of a major campaign aimed at changing medical practice for the better, with a Twitter feed, a hashtag and at least two logos to its name:

And it seems to be having considerable and deserved success, with the protocol being widely adopted—though some anaesthetic departments are apparently as disconcerted by the language as I am. I’ve found it rebadged “sip until send” in Worcester, “sip until sent for” in Calderdale and Huddersfield (people after my own heart, clearly), and “sip till send” in Greater Glasgow. I particularly like the approach at the New Victoria Ambulatory Care Hospital, which calls the initiative “Sip Til Send” (which is its name, after all), but seems to have edited the logos on the accompanying documents to read “sip till send”.

So how did we get into a situation in which a laudable, important and successful campaign to improve medical practice is lumbered with a non-standard spelling of the common word till?

I think two things have been going on. One is that, at some time during the twentieth century, people began to feel inappropriately uneasy about till, interpreting it to be a slovenly contraction of until. As a result, they started nervously writing ’til. Bryan Garner, in his rather marvellous Modern English Usage (2016), writes that this only became widespread during the 1980s—which fits with my own recollection of encountering it for the first time in the late ’70s, in a handwritten note in a patient’s medical records.

And of course the long, slow decline of the apostrophe during the twentieth century has been accelerating of late, as companies like Waterstone’s have started abandoning their possessive apostrophes:

Waterstones shop front, before and after 2012

It’s an expensive business for a large company to change its logotype in this way, so there must be some financial pay-off—I find it difficult to believe that the driver for this is merely that internet addresses don’t accommodate apostrophes, so that companies are changing their shopfronts to match their URLs, but that’s the justification I usually see.

And then there’s the business of trying to find an apostrophe while thumb-typing on your phone—for many people that’s just not going to happen, in the white heat of getting a social media post out into the world.

So apostrophes have come to be seen (in some quarters) as a disposable affectation of a bygone age—hence, I think, the transformation of ’til to just plain til.

But til will look odd to many English speakers, I think, because short words ending with the sound /ɪl/ are usually spelled with a terminal -ill. Will, fill, shrill, drill, chill, ill … You get the picture. These words are generally very old, embedded in the language since Middle English or Old English, and of Germanic origin, and their spelling has become standardized over the centuries. The only common exception is nil—an odd little word that popped into existence in the nineteenth century as a contraction of Latin nihil, “nothing”. And it’s common enough to see it misspelled nill, under the influence of all those other -ill words.

And till is indeed a very old word—it comes to us from Old Norse, courtesy of the Scandinavian settlers who occupied the part of northern England called the Danelaw. In Norse, its meaning was “to [a place]”, and that meaning persisted in northern English dialects for a long time, and in Scots up to the present day. But it also acquired its current meaning of “to [a time]” very early—the OED‘s first illustrative citations are from the fourteenth century.

The word until is almost as ancient as till, and is formed from it. The un- prefix in this case is Norse, implying “up to” or “as far as”. So while till related to a destination, until referred to points on the way to the destination, as well. Using modern English words in their old Norse sense, there was a difference between going “till Iceland” (in which the destination is the prime consideration) and crossing the sea “until Iceland” (in which the journey itself is also important).

Like till, until eventually came to refer exclusively to periods of time. But it still retains the Norse sense of “up to” or “as far as”—you stay in the office until a certain time, for instance—and that meaning has rubbed off on to till, obscuring the original difference between them.

Norse un- also found its way into southern dialects of English, modifying the word to, to produce unto, which had the same original meaning as northern until, and then became synonymous with to, and then faded out of use. Probably many of us have only ever encountered it in quotations from the King James translation of the Bible:

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Matthew 22:21

The fading away of unto serves as a reminder of how odd it is that we’ve retained both until and till, which seems like one more word than we really need. Jeremy Butterfield, writing in the fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015), tells us that until is more likely to be used at the start of a sentence than till, and is “fractionally more formal”.

This might account for the fact that until occurs much more frequently than till in edited prose (including fiction). In practice until is six times more likely than till to turn up in such work (according to a standard dictionary of word frequency).

So it seems to be primarily a matter of linguistic register—how formal or informal do we want our message to be? Which means there’s a subtle difference between “sip until send” and “sip till send”, in terms of how the reader will perceive the writer. Do people prefer their hospital communications to be couched in formal or informal language? Depends on the person, I think. But trying to adhere to standard spelling does seem like a good idea.

* The logophile in me compels me to admit that there’s a plant in India with the Hindi name til, and a tree in Madeira with the same name in the local dialect of Portuguese, both of which have leaked into English in a limited way, which is why til is a legal Scrabble word.
There seems to be a cycle in these things. The OED records that, during the eighteenth century (when the spelling untill was common), till was frequently printed as ’till.
This quotation was the first place I encountered the archaic word unto, when I was a fairly small child but nevertheless already fascinated by words. So I knew about the function of the Germanic prefix un-, expressing negation, reversal or deprivation, but was a bit shaky on the meaning of render, and of course had no clue that there was another, Norse, version of un- with a completely different meaning. So as far as I was concerned, unto had to mean the opposite of to, which led me to believe that Jesus wanted people to deprive Caesar and God of their belongings. I was (just) wise enough to keep this idea to myself.



pretentious: professing or making claim to great merit or importance, especially when unwarranted

Halloween costumes for pretentious children, by Tom Gauld
Credit: Tom Gauld

among […a]nd amongst. Most such forms ending in -st, such as whilst and amidst, are archaisms in American English. Amongst is no exception: in American English it is pretentious at best.

Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009)

I bow to no-one in my admiration for Bryan Garner, but that’s really pretty striking, isn’t it? A common, short, solidly Anglo-Saxon word that suddenly becomes “pretentious at best” with the addition of a couple of letters. (And I find myself wondering what consequences worse than “pretentious” Garner has in mind.) Garner no doubt knows how speakers of American English respond to certain words, but it’s a bit of a worry if a simple word choice can earn you the label “pretentious” in American English.

But Garner goes on to reassure us that:

Amongst is more common and more tolerable in British English where it doesn’t suggest affectation

Well, phew! There can be few less affected usages of the word amongst than the Scottish exhortation to “Get in amongst it!” (“Participate vigorously!”), but I’ve now made a mental note not to encourage any Americans in this way.

Anyway. There’s not much to say about the etymology of amongst, but pretentious has some interesting connections, which are what I’m going to write about today.

Pretentious, and its associated nouns pretension and pretentiousness, come from Latin prætendere, “to put forward”, derived in turn from the prefix præ (which gives us our English pre-) and tendere, “to stretch”. All of these words have connotations of self-aggrandizement, in contrast to their relatives pretend and pretence, which indicate only that a person is portraying themselves as something different from reality. One can pretend to be a goldfish, for instance, which is the antithesis of pretentiousness.

But the original meaning of our word pretend was close to that of Latin prætendere—it had the sense of putting forward an argument, or advancing a claim, with no implication of falsity or deception. And so anyone with a potential claim on an inheritance would be called a pretender, in the eighteenth century. Here’s Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), on the issue of Title by Descent:

Whereas, by dividing the inheritance according to the roots or stirpes, the rule of descent is kept uniform and steady: the issue of the eldest son excludes all other pretenders, as the son himself (if living) would have done …

In other words, the eldest son inherits a title on the death of his father, which can pass to younger sons should the eldest die (they are the “other pretenders”); but if the eldest son has children (“the issue”), the title passes into that generation instead.

As you read your Scottish history, it’s useful to be aware of this older usage of the word pretender, since both the Old Pretender, James Stuart, and his son the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie), were advancing well-founded claims to the throne—there was no pretence in the modern sense.

Latin præ, in the form of English pre-, has spawned more words than could be dealt with here. Usually, it implies prior time, as in precognition, “foreknowledge”, or prehistory “before (written) history”. Sometimes, it implies superior importance or degree, as in pre-eminent and predominant. And in anatomical nomenclature, it implies a position in front of some other structure—if you have a pretibial laceration, for instance, it’s on the front of your tibia, or shin-bone. Beyond that quick summary of usage, I’ll pause only to express horror at such tautological constructions as preplan and prewarn. The former has been around since the middle of the last century, and the latter is first attested in 1603, though the OED touchingly and optimistically describes it as “v. rare”. Long history doesn’t make their use any less fatuous, however, given that both plans and warnings already imply priority in time. After all, it’s impossible to postplan or postwarn (though I’ve admittedly worked with people who made a fair stab at both).

The prefix præ– wasn’t the only one attracted by Latin tendere, and we have a family of corresponding English words as a result. To contend is to “stretch against”—to strive in opposition to something. To distend is to “stretch apart” and to extend is to “stretch out”. To intend is literally to “stretch inwards”—Latin intendere had a wide range of meanings, including our modern meaning of formulating a purpose. The verb to portend was original protend, to “stretch forth”. We use it in the sense of “foreshadowing”, and the metaphor behind this meaning is of future events “stretching forth” to influence the present. Subtend, “stretch under”, is a term used in geometry, applied to a line or curve that is on the opposite side of a geometrical figure from an angle of interest—the hypotenuse of a right triangle is said to subtend the right angle, for instance.

Ostend, to “stretch before” (not the Belgian seaport), means to reveal or demonstrate. An object or event designed to be particularly showy is ostentatious. The act of ostension, during the Catholic mass, is the moment when the priest holds up the consecrated wafers and wine before the congregation. For semioticians, ostension means the use of an object or an action (rather than language) to communicate a message—holding up your empty glass to indicate that you want another drink; jangling your car keys to suggest that it’s time to go home. And for folklorists, ostension refers to one of those disturbing moments when something previously known only from urban legend or folklore seems to leak into the real world.

I’ve saved attend, “stretch towards”, for the last of this list of -tend words. It has acquired two, related meanings. The first involves directing one’s thoughts and senses towards something—paying attention, in other words. The second involves physical presence—one can attend a ceremony, for instance. In this second meaning, attend frequently loses its prefix (a process called aphesis), and becomes merely tend. One tends to the sick, for example, by being physically present at their bedside; and a bartender is physically present behind the bar.

But tend is really two verbs masquerading as one, and the second versions of tend comes directly from tendere. Latin tendere cursum means “to direct one’s path”, and our word tend has the same implication—“I tend to believe him, despite his tendency to lie.”

Our verb to tender, as in tendering one’s resignation or one’s apologies, also comes to us from tendere—the metaphor here seems to refer to the physical stretching forth of a hand when making an offer of some material object.

My last tendere word is tendril, the slender organ stretched forth by some plants. Tendon, on the other hand, comes from the Greek tenon, designating the same anatomical structure as our modern word. The Romans borrowed from the Greek, but stuck in an extraneous “d”, no doubt influenced by the existence of their own word tendere, and produced Latin tendo, which in turn gave us the English word.

But there’s more. The perfect passive participle of tendere is tentus, “stretched”, which gives us our word tent, for a temporary dwelling of stretched canvas. The word can also function as a verb, meaning “to stretch”, and something which performs a tenting function is a tenter, a name usually applied to a frame on which cloth is stretched. Such tenters are equipped with tenterhooks, the origin of our metaphor “on tenterhooks”, indicating a state of painful suspense.

In later Latin, tentus became tensus, the origin of our adjective tense and noun tension. Something that resists breaking under tension has tensile strength. In anatomy, tensor muscles pull other structures tight; in mathematics, tensors are complicated mathematical objects that can be used to describe (among many other things) the stretching of elastic materials.

But what, I hear you ask, about the adjective tender? From Latin tener, “delicate”. And tentacle? From tentare, “to feel”. I make no pretence of my disappointment.



angel: One of an order of spiritual beings superior to man in power and intelligence, who, according to the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other theologies, are the attendants and messengers of the Deity

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:8-11

At the age of eight, I was press-ganged into playing the angel Gabriel in my school’s Nativity play. With cardboard wings, a bed-sheet smock, and a wobbly wire halo, I fluted my way through “Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …” and so on. The language of the King James Edition did not commit easily to my eight-year-old memory, or trip lightly off my eight-year-old tongue, and I developed a deep and life-long antipathy to participation in the performing arts as a result. (I would, however, have killed to glow in the dark like Bloch’s marvellously effulgent specimen, above.)

Another bit of damage done to my brain by the Nativity-play experience was that I spent a few decades convinced that it was the angel Gabriel who delivered the Annunciation to the Shepherds. Because that’s what it said on the script I received from my primary-school teacher, and she was a Person Who Is Never Wrong. But, as you’ll see above, Luke doesn’t actually specify the name of the angel who delivered the good tidings, and Luke is the only one of the Four Evangelists who tells the story of the shepherds.

Perhaps my teacher just got her Annunciations mixed up. The angel Gabriel turns up only twice in the New Testament, both times in the first chapter of Luke—once delivering the Annunciation to Zacharias (of the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist); and once delivering the Annunciation to Mary (of the forthcoming birth of Jesus).

So when preparing the by-now traditional Christmas “Words” post, I started wondering about how many angels are actually named in the Bible, and how many remain anonymous, like the one who delivered the Good News to the shepherds. This led me off at a tangent which I hope you’ll indulge—there will be some etymology at the end, I promise.

It turns out that, depending on your disposition, there are either two, or three, or four, or five angels specifically named in the Bible. Gabriel is one, appearing twice in the Book of Daniel and twice in the Gospel of Luke. He seems to fulfil a role as a messenger. Then there’s the warrior angel, Michael—he’s quoted a couple of times in Daniel and referred to in the Epistle of Jude, but has perhaps his most notable mention in the Book of Revelation:

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

(We’ll come back to “the dragon” in a moment.)

So Gabriel and Michael are the two biggies. Then there’s the Book of Tobit, which is considered canonical by Catholic and Orthodox Christians but consigned to the Apocrypha by Protestants. It narrates Tobias’ journey between Nineveh and Ecbatana, in which he is aided by an angel called Raphael, who performs various acts of healing along the way.

For more named angels we have to resort to the Fallen Angels—those who were cast out after the war in heaven mentioned above. And the big kahuna of the Fallen is, of course, Satan. He is named on multiple occasions in the Bible, and is identified as the “dragon” against whom Michael fought, in a passage immediately following my quote above:

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

There’s also an assumption that he’s the same entity who turns up under a different name in Isaiah:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!

But Lucifer is a Latin translation of the original Hebrew Helel ben Shakhar, “shining one”, a name applied to the planet Venus when it appeared as the morning star. And the passage in Isaiah in which the name Lucifer appears is actually a prophetic vision concerning the downfall of an unnamed king of Babylon, so it seems that the name was intended as a metaphorical reference to this king—Venus being the brightest object in the morning sky for a while, before it sinks closer to the rising sun and eventually disappears from view. So the association of the name Lucifer with Satan seems to have been out of a confusion of identities arising from that “fallen from heaven” phrase.

And finally there’s this one, again from Revelation:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

So Abaddon/Apollyon seems to be another Fallen Angel, but turns out to be a rather dubious one. If we go back to the original Hebrew texts again, Abaddon tends to turn up as the name of a place, which the King James Edition translates as “Hell”. Other translations, however, preserve the original name—see, for instance the many translations of Job 26:6 here. So Abaddon may really refer to the “bottomless pit” itself, rather than to the angel thereof.

And those are all the named angels in the Bible: two definites, one debatable, one Fallen, and one that’s both Fallen and of doubtful validity. Which I found slightly surprising, given that my copy of Gustav Davidson’s Dictionary of Angels contains 330 pages of names and biographies, from A’albiel to Zuriel. But these are all gleaned from various non-Biblical sources—the Pseudepigrapha, later mediæval writings, and grimoires, among others. Among my favourites are:

Wall: an angel formerly of the order of powers, but now a grand duke in Hell. When invoked he manifests in the form of a dromedary


Yaasriel: an angel in Jewish legend who is in charge of the “70 holy pencils.”

(Lest these examples, which I’ve cherry-picked for their amusement value, make you think A Dictionary of Angels is a work of comic imagination, I assure you it’s a fascinating work of considerable scholarship.)

But now (and finally, I hear you sigh), on to the etymology bit.

Gabriel derives from Hebrew gavriʾel, “God is my strength”, and has lent his name to a couple of English words. A Gabriel-bell was once rung at the parish church to remind people of their morning and evening prayers; and the yelping cries of migrating wild geese as they pass overhead has led to a sort-of-charming-but-also-a-bit-disconcerting nickname—they’ve been called Gabriel’s Hounds.

Michael is Hebrew mi kaʼel “who is like God”, and Michaelmas is a feast day in the Church calendar—celebrated on 29 September in the Western tradition. It’s more formally known as the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. The feast in turn gave its name to Saint Michael’s pear, which ripens around the time of Michaelmas, and the Michaelmas daisy, which flowers at the same time.

Raphael derives from rafa el, “healing of God”, which fits with his activities as a healer in the Book of Tobit. His contribution to English comes via the Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, commonly known in English as Raphael. Art that adopts his distinctive style is called Raphaelesque. And the nineteenth-century artistic movement that rejected Raphael’s “mechanistic” approach in favour of earlier styles was initiated by a rebellious group who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Satan is Hebrew tsatan, “adversary”, and has spawned a cluster of fairly self-explanatory words like Satanic, Satanist and Satanism. One to be avoided is a Satanophany, a “visible manifestation of Satan”. His other Biblical name, Lucifer, means “light bringer”—the Latin equivalent of the Greek phosphoros, which I’ve written about previously. It’s a name that sits puzzlingly on the Prince of Darkness, so it’s usually interpreted as being Satan’s name when he was still an angel in good standing, before he was cast out of heaven. It has spawned a little cluster of adjectives, now disused: Luciferine, Luciferian and Luciferous, all of which were synonyms for Satanic. A lucifer match, often called just a lucifer, was a nineteenth century invention that had nothing to do with Satan, but was merely a “light bringer”; likewise for the naturally glowing biological molecules produced by bioluminescent organisms, luciferins, and the enzyme that activates them, luciferase. Nothing devilish about them.

Abaddon comes from Hebrew ʾabaddon, “destruction”, and Greek Apollyon, “destroyer”, is simply borrowed from the Hebrew. Neither word has gained much traction in English, beyond the abortive seventeenth-century coining of Apollyonist as an unsuccessful synonym for Satanist. (It sounds like some sort of public-relations ploy by Satanists, but it actually originates with Phineas Fletcher, a Church of England rector, who applied the word in all seriousness to the Jesuits.)

I’ll stop there. When I set out to research this post, I imagined I was going to regale you with tales of the seraphim, cherubim and archangels, but that’s probably a post for another day.

If you’re disposed to celebrate Christmas, I trust your only encounter with a fallen angel will be one that’s become dislodged from the top of the Christmas tree. Have a good one.

Woman in front of angel wings
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© The Boon Companion, 2022