Where Did He Put The Pen of My Aunt? Navajo Revealed
David C. Cates
Maplewood, New Jersey

Intricate miracles underlie even ordinary events like sunshine, eyesight, and air. Yet their ordinariness seems to stifle the kindling of wonder. This may be the point of a Zennish riddle that lit my screen from an anonymous comic djinn of cyberspace: ìLife has its costs and burdens, but it does include free rides around the sun.î Unlike tornados and eclipses, common marvels just arenít salient enough to penetrate the stress of dailiness. And high among these simple wonders is language: not the elitist niceties academies fuss over, but speech as it arises from the unruly urgencies of life, double negatives and all.

The nature of language is most strikingly revealed when we open ourselves to one culturally remote from our own, the more so the better. As we learn its forms and idioms, we enter a living museum of vanished millennia, forgetting our first impression: impassive gutturals of wary people whose clothing is often fastened with safety pins.

For such enlightenment to occur, we can ease the initial difficulty by selecting a language thatís accessible, culturally intact, thoroughly described and widely taught. There is no doubt that Navajo, at least for Americans, is that language. Its remoteness credentials, moreover, are impressive. Navajo is one of the Athabascan family of Amerindian languages, a newcomer whose diaspora stretches 7,000 years and 4,000 miles from its sub-Arctic beachhead to northern Mexico. And the dialects of Apache, close cousins to Navajo, let us watch linguistic drift across a mere 500 years of separation. Finally, the entirety of ìApacheanî grammar and nearly all its lexicon evolved before the 1500s.1

Accessibility. Among remote languages, Navajo is logistically convenient. First, itís a lot cheaper to fly to Phoenix and rent a car than to trek to Port Moresby and scare up a bush pilot with guide. Second, Navajo people are known for sprightly wit, practical jokes, and pantomime,2 as well as a frequent willingness to converse, explain, guide, and instruct. Third, there is an abundance of language courses, my favorite title being ìNavajo Made Easier.î Finally, locating Navajo within Athabascan historyóApache short-term, subarctic cousins long-termónot only deepens our understanding of word origins but recalls the tracing of Indo-European back to its own knowable roots.3

Intactness. Never quite controlled by the Spanish, Navajos were raiders (and raidees) of Utes, Apaches, Hopis, and Mexicans until their defeat in 1863 by troops under the command of Colonel Kit Carson, followed by a 300-mile winter march to southern New Mexico. This traumatic exile came to an end with the 1868 visit of General William T. Sherman. Sent to persuade the Navajos to settle in Oklahoma Territory with the Cherokee and other displaced tribes, he finally let them (now reduced to about 8,000) return to their Land of Emergence, where each family would receive tools, food, and schooling. Navajo population and tribal wealth have risen since, despite the toll of alcohol and drugs.

Scholarship. It was only in the 1930s that a complete description of Navajo was undertaken, directed by the anthropological linguist Edward Sapir. That precedent-setting workówhich ranks with the periodic table of Mendeleevówas partially codified in a series of articles (1945ñ49) entitled ìThe Apachean Verb,î published in the International Journal of American Linguistics (ìAmericanî here means the first ones). No other preliterate culture has been the subject of such academic firepower! A typical Navajo household of the 1930s was said to consist of a grandmother, her four daughters, three husbands (less the one who couldnít abide mother-in-law tyranny), eight children, fifteen sheep, four goats, and 0.3 anthropologists.

I like to think that Sapir is to Navajo as Chapman was to Homer. Then where was our Keats, our ìwatcher of the skiesî invoking ìnew plane,î ìwild surmise,î and Navajo as elegant human construct? But Romantic ardor is quickly cooled by sentences like this: ìWith stems whose perfective variant is reduced and ends in an originally glottalized obstruent, the momentaneous imperfective-optative stem should be low-toned in Navajo.î

To be sure, instruction in Navajo thrives in the Southwest, but is altogether utilitarian, directed to health care workers (ìWhere does it hurt?î), administrators (ìThis permit has expired!î), storekeepers (ìYouíve exceeded your credit limit!î), local school teachers and even missionaries (whose zeal must surely be tempered once they grasp the profound incompatibility of Christian and Navajo belief).

The phrase ìWhere did he put the pen of my aunt?î, based on that famous French classroom query, seems absurdly culture-bound. Yet the parsing of this simple question lets us dive through the looking-glass into seven distinct Navajo wonderlands:

Looking-glass Wonderland

ìwhereî A vast and precise lexicon

for location/direction

ì?î Forming a question

ìdidî The treatment of tense and


ìheî The curious simplicity of

Navajo pronouns

ìputî Verbs for the handling of

different kinds of things

ìpenî The naming of non-native


ìauntî Kinship terminology

1. Location/direction. The eminent anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn learned Navajo as a teenager when sent by his Michigan family to Ramah, New Mexico, for the relief of asthma. As a teacher, he liked to say that the language was shaped across thousands of years by small groups living close to starvation in trackless land. It was important to be accurate about landmarks, direction, and the ways of coming and going. Compared to English, Navajo is an organized riot of detail on the characteristics of space and its traversing.

2. Questioning. Navajo is a tone language. Thus an end-of-sentence interrogatory high tone, as in ìDid you go?î wonít work, since each Navajo syllable already has an unalterable pitch. Nor will inversion work (ìdid you?î vs. ìyou didî), because in Navajo these elements are prefixes already tightly ordered into the verb construction. Instead, questions are formed with an interrogative suffix, orómore politelyówith an uncertainty suffix, as in ìPerhaps you forgot to hobble the horses?î

3. Tense and aspect. The verb has a chassis similar to the Latin verb, in that a final stem is modified by prefixes! But a Navajo verb under full sail (with prefix spinnakers and mizzen suffixes) also does the work of English pronouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. Different modes of action, such as ìcompleted,î ìongoing,î ìrepetitive,î and ìhortatory,î are signalled by phonetic variations of the stem. As for tense (the signalling of ìpast,î ìpresentî or ìfutureî), this may be implied simply by oneís choice of completed or ongoing mode. Yet certain prefixes and suffixes can override these implications. Thus completed action may be placed in the future, and ongoing action in the past.

ìA Vocabulary of Colloquial Navajo,î by Young and Morgan (1951), contains one for Dilbert-lovers: ìto serve/file/send a paperî is ìto toss [a round object] up.î The round-object stem here refers to the contents, not to the paper itself, which would require a ìhide-like objectî stem. The dictionary has no entry for our word ìlove,î because its semantic range is too messy. Navajos distinguish between ìLove your hat!î ìLove you, baby!î and a unique awareness in which beauty, peace, harmony, and blessing combine to make a single word. To illustrate, the best way to say ìI love youî is ìthrough youówith meóthere is beauty, peace, harmony, and blessing.î

4. Simplicity of pronouns. The historical remoteness of Navajo guarantees that we will encounter provocative strangeness of concept and linguistic form. Just as amazing, however, is the presence of very familiar elements. Coming to us from high atop the postñglacial stone age, in other words, are nouns, pronouns, direct and indirect objects, active and passive voice, and clearly articulated modes of action and tenses, along with other tried and true structure elements. Itís as though language evolves to frame a universal set of questions, including ìWho, what, where, when, how, and why?î, that discipline of journalism. Why shouldnít a parallel invention of the framing devices also occur?

The Navajo pronoun system is more truncated than Englishís, in two ways. First, third person singular is a monosyllable standing for ìhe,î ìshe,î or ìit,î depending on context. But there is a third person honorific for, say, oneís grandfather, Coyote, Bear, and always in the verb standing for Sun (ërespected round object risingí). Second, the pronoun for ìweî and plural ìyouî is one and the same. Context can sort out the difference, but the clues can be hard for a novice to find.

Did the politics of matriarchy lead to the genderless pronoun? I have another theory. With its multiple prefixes (many pronoun-possessed), the Navajo verb system is already stretched to capacity. If it is to be learned by children, low-wattage adults, and even missionaries, complexity has to be rationed. This seems to explain both simplifications.

5. Object-specific verbs. Some of our ìhandlingî verbs are specific to whatís handled (try saying, ìPour me the newspaperî), but verbs like ìputî can be applied to almost any object. Navajo speakers, by contrast, must use ancient stems, each appropriate to a general class of things, whether a round object, a flexible, rope-like thing, scattered objects, loose granular matter, liquid in a container, etc. If you use the wrong stem (say, ìround objectî for ìarrowî), Navajos will snicker helplessly. The stem for ìpenî? ìArrow-like thing.î

6. Naming artifacts. The proud and skeptical Navajo spirit has led speakers to invent their own words for things of American make. ìWagon,î for example, is rendered by a construction whose semantic elements are: ìwoodóhere-and-thereórolls.î ìTelephoneî is rendered as ìmetalótalks.î The construction for ìpenî is a verb, whose literal translation is: ìby-means-of-itóon-its-surfaceóthereís scratching.î

The terminology for auto parts is based on old pan-Athabascan nouns. The carófirst chugging into Navajo country around 1910ówas seen as a horse, albeit mechanical. Thus its elements are named after body parts: eyes, heart, liver, knees, legs, feet, stomach, fat, and so forth. And the idiom for ìdriveî [a car] is identical to that for ìrideî [a horse], as in: ìto townówith meóit will gallop.î Is it surprising that Navajos are avid mechanics?

The Big Four material contributions of Europeansófirearms, horses, metal, and liquorómake a fascinating chapter in Navajo etymology. For guns there was no cultural precedent, so the name is a verb for ìexplosion.î (Other tribes reportedly said ìthunder stickî or ìkills at a distance.î) The horse was given an ancient name for ìpet.î In the origin story, Sun had three water monsters as pets or familiars. And Changing Woman gave a pet to each ìearth-surfaceî family. The noun stems for these are the same as for horse.

Metal is named after ìstone knife,î another pan-Athabascan noun stem. The old word was first attached to ìmetal knife,î then (by extension) to any metal object. ìStove,î for example, is rendered by a construction meaning ìmetalóin itófire.î The May 1997 cover of the magazine Wired carries a Navajo phrase which I translate as ìmetal flexibly extendingî (i.e., telecommunication). The ñhoñ prefix, of course, is present (see below).

Before the advent of liquor, Navajos made a drink from fermented corn, called ìgrey water.î This was abandoned (after all, liquor is quicker), and the new drink was named ìdark water.î But in Navajo there are two concepts of ìdarkî: earth darkness and that of the four lower worlds. Probably owing to its social toxicity, liquor is named after the latter.

Before we call this naming behavior quaint, think back to how 17th-century Europeans improvised an entire terminology for finance and manufacturing. Talk about strange!

7. Kinship terminology. Navajo children grow up in a matriarchy, cared for by their mother and her female relatives. As a result, the term for ìauntî is different for fatherís sister.

See how the ìpen of my auntî shows us much about Navajo life and language! Iíll close by describing an entrancing Navajo language phenomenon: a prefix that profoundly changes the meaning of verb constructions in a way that Immanuel Kant might relish.

Navajo prefixes occupy a fixed position relative to one another, like planetary orbits (Sapir identified thirteen, some mutually exclusive). Consider this simple stem-and-prefix construction: ìI toss a round object [say, a ball] through a narrow opening [say, a door].î The stem, recall, is one of a class that specifies the general nature of objects handled. The prefix has an equally generic meaning that might reference a doorway, corral gate, or rock cleft (from which water flows). Words specifying ìballî and ìdoorî are not strictly necessary, because these are implied by verb-embedded clues, and by other context.

Now insert the ubiquitous prefix (-ho-) as a semantic catalyst, and the meaning is profoundly altered. The speaker is now saying, ìIím telling a story.î The semantic contribution of the prefix is to signal a ìmind-body eventî! With the prefix, the round-object stem denotes stories, songs, ceremonies and even contracts, perhaps because these have a beginning, middle, and end (hence their ìroundnessî). Another stem, that for a flexible, rope-like object, can take onówith the prefixóthe meaning of ìlonging.î

The same prefix has two other very different meanings, depending on the context. A pan-Athabascan verb stem describes the slow linear movement of ceremonial dancers. Prefixed by ñhoñ , the construction now denotes the passage of time! A similar metaphor is based on a stem whose primary meaning is ìhorizontal extension,î say, of a rock ledge. With the prefix, we have ìtime extends.î Powerful imagery, so different from ours. Yet not entirely, as in ìTime, like an ever-rolling streamî and ìTimeís winged chariot.î

The third meaning of the prefix speaks to the general character of space. A certain white-appearing valley near Chinle, Arizona is described by a verb stem denoting ìwhiteness,î plus the prefix. Thus the meaning is lifted from a particular whiteness to spatial whiteness.

Is this stunning linguistic invention, or what? Then stir in this thought: acquaintance with the epistomology of Kant suggests, at least to me, a parallel between the three semantic realms opened by the ñhoñ switch and the three dimensions which humans, according to Kant, bring to the processing of perception, namely, mind, time, and space.

What an absurd connection to propose! How could a few thousand sub-Arctic scrabblers, lacking an Academy or even an ad hoc committee of grammarians, plan a language whose key semantic elementsóthe stems and prefixes of verbsóare so generic that ìactionable meaningî results only from the semantic intersection of these elements, denotationally weak in themselves? Then, from this already lofty scaffolding of abstractions, what led the committee to devise a further prefix serving as a gateway to yet another level of abstraction?

Creativity seems indicated. Far from being a clumsy creole of disparate grammatic devices, Navajo is elegant to the point of beauty precisely because of its radical design decisions. Thomas Mann, in Magic Mountain, speaks of the collective and anonymous creative style of medieval times. Certainly ìcollective and anonymousî must also govern the evolution of language, but the creative source of its formal elegance remains elusive.

Itís worth studying the shape, idiom, and history of at least one remote language within a conceptual frame that nurtures our wonder at human inventiveness. And this ìnew philologyî should be written to provoke a wider audience than professional linguists choose to address. The cryptic messages embedded in these perishable time capsules make too exciting a chapter in our shared human history to leave to specialists.


1 Apache and Navajo language guides are available from Audio-Forum, 96 Broad St., Guilford, CT 06437. Sources I used to refresh my understanding of Navajo (acquired by immersion, 1953) include The Navajo Language (Young and Morgan, University of New Mexico Press, 1987), An Ethnologic Dictionary (1910), and A Stem Vocabulary (1951), both by the Franciscan Fathers, St. Michaelís, AZ.

2 A fine collection of ridiculous situations, practical jokes, bawdy humor, and punning is to be found in Navaho Humor, by W. W. Hill, George Banta Publishing Co., Menasha, WI, 1943 (out of print). But try the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology (c. 1937).

3 Young and Morgan contains an appendix on comparative Athabascan, revealing an extensive shared vocabulary of noun and verb stems.

[David Cates was a long-ago grad student in linguistics and anthropology at University of Chicago, but keeps in touch with Navajos, though less fluently now. Other interests are chamber music and video-making.]



Notice on Moorgate Underground station, London: Notice to passengers: this exit is an entrance. [Submitted by Tony Hall, Aylesbury, UK]

British Football Chants

Pete May
London, England

Only in Britain would Manchester Unitedís David Beckham have to suffer several thousand football fans chanting ìPosh Spice takes it up the arse!î sung to the tune of the Pet Shop Boysí Go West. Since he married Spice Girl Victoria Adams, poor Beckham has been the butt of much obscene chanting. It started off two years ago when West Ham fans chanted ìPosh Spice is a dirty slag [prostitute]!î at Beckham and he responded with aggressive gestures.

This was a mistake. Even if the chants do come from fat blokes with a hang-up about anal sex, most of them can be mollified by a humorous response; the worst thing a footballer can do is show anger, because he will then be baited even more. Beckham has suffered so much from fans envious of his millionaire status, celebrity marriage and good looks, that the Professional Footballersí Association chairman Gordon Taylor recently called for fans to lay off Beckham. Posh Spice herself has shown more of a sense of humour, and has even said in an interview that ìI want to say them ëactually I donít!íî

The first thing that will strike a newcomer at a British football match (itís called soccer in the U.S. but, although the word is recognised in Britain, it is rarely used) is the number of taboo words used in chants, such as wanker (an English term for a masturbator), arse, shit, fucking and cunt. The record for swearing is probably held by the Arsenal fansí dirty ditty (sung to the tune of the 1960s hit My Old Man) of ìMy old man said be a Tottenham fan, I said fuck off, bollocks youíre a cunt!î

Although many clubs had songs from pre-war times, chants really developed in the mid-1960s. It was a time when British society was much more restrained by notions of class and ìthe stiff upper lipî, and for many fans chants were a glorious release from dull jobs and social convention. At first they were just impromptu terrace choirs singing pop songs such as Youíll Never Work Alone, as at Liverpool. But slowly they developed into adaptations of tunes that quickly spread across the whole country.

Weekly football matches presented a splendid opportunity for mainly working class males to revel in obscenity, merged with a juvenile delight in using such words in the company of several thousand other fans. They emphasise tribalism, but there is more to chanting than that. For most fans there has always been something pleasingly childish and very funny about 30,000 fans simultaneously chanting ìThe refereeís a wanker!î particularly when itís picked up on TV recordings.

Thereís also something of the adult nursery rhyme about footie chants. I first noticed while looking after my one-year-old daughter how much she enjoyed football chants adapted to childcare needs: for example nappy changing was accompanied by chants of ìOn with the nappy, weíre going on with the nappyî a variation on the ìSing when youíre winning, you only sing when youíre winning!î chant.

In a similar fashion to how a toddler spots an animal, there was an incident at Liverpool in the 1960s when a cat ran on the pitch. The fans would normally chant ìAttack! Attack! Attack! Attack! Attack!î at their team, but when the feline appeared they instantly chanted ìA cat! a cat! a cat! a cat! a cat!î. Another chant that would be recognisable in a nursery school is that of ìEe-aw! Ee-aw!î directed at any player deemed to be a ìdonkeyîóa clumsy, untalented performer.

And, as in nursery rhymes, thereís a strong sense of rhythm, as exemplified by Manchester Unitedís fans staccato homage to Eric Cantona. ìOooh aah Cantona! I said oooh aah Cantona!î Some of the repetition is also reminiscent of childrenís songsóa popular chant of the 1980s was sung to the tune of Dambusters Theme and directed at the successful but reviled Leeds United. It went: ìLeeds, Leeds and Leeds and Leeds and Leeds, Leeds and Leeds and Leeds and Leeds, Leeds and Leeds and Leeds, we all fucking hate Leeds!î (Not too difficult to learn the words to that one.) And the chant of ìBig nose, heís got a fucking big nose!î aimed by rival fans at Southamptonís Matt Le Tissier is an example of pure playground humour.

The British football chant is also closely aligned to pop cultureó although the odd chant is sung to the tune of something more traditional, such as the anti-referee tirade of ìWhoís the wanker in the black?î which is sung to the tune of the hymn Bread of Heaven.

In fact, chants are a living memorial to some now-forgotten bands. Who would remember ìone-hit wondersî Chicory Tip were it not for the immortalisation of their 1970s hit, Son of My Father, as a football chant? It started off as a declaration in favour of a particular player, such as Leicester City fansí ìOh Frankie Frankie Frankie, Frankie Frankie Frankie Worthington!î This was immediately modified by opposition fans to ìOh wanky wanky wanky, wanky wanky wanky Worthington!î

Nearly thirty years later the tune is still used. When Teddy Sheringham moved from Tottenham to Manchester United in pursuit of trophies but suffered a barren first season, Arsenal fans taunted him with chants of ìOh Teddy Teddy Teddy, went to Man United and you won fuck all!î

When United won the Treble (English League Championship, FA Cup and European Cup) last season this chant no longer applied, but rival fans quickly adapted it to ìOh Teddy Teddy Teddy! Went to Man United and youíre still a cunt!î

Another relatively unknown band, Middle of the Road, have also gained footballing longevity through their song Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. Its chorus of ìWhereís your mamma gone?î was often changed to ìWhereís your fatboy gone?î and directed at the clubs of Paul Gascoigne, a former England midfielder with a well-chronicled weight problem.

While the initial chant can be simply prosaic, insulting or abusive, many develop to become fine examples of a genuinely adaptive wit. For example, players are often greeted by the cry of ìOne Denis Bergkamp, thereís only one Denis Bergkamp!(insert playerís name of choice)î sung to the tune of the Spanish song Guantanamera.

When England played in the 1986 World Cup with two defenders named Gary Stevens in the squad, this was cleverly adapted by England fans to ìTwo Gary Stevens! Thereís only two Gary Stevens!î Even better was the version from Kilmarnock fans in Scotland. They sang ìTwo Andy Gorams, thereís only two Andy Gorams!î at the Rangers goalkeeper, who before the match was said to be ìmentally unattunedî. When a fat player is spotted he is taunted with ìOne Teletubby, thereís only one Teletubby!î a reference to the podgy characters in the pre-school childrenís programme.

In turn, the song became ìSing when youíre winning, you only sing when youíre winning!î directed at the opposing fans who sing when they take the lead. When sides played Grimsby, a side from a port, their fans chanted ìSing when youíre fishing, you only sing when youíre fishing!î The Grimsby fans liked this so much that they began themselves to sing ìSing when weíre fishing, we only sing when weíre fishing!î and a group of supporters even entitled their fanzine Sing When Weíre Fishing. Another version was ìScore in a brothel, you couldnít score in a brothel!î used when a player misses with his shot.

A variation on the numbers theme came at the beginning of the current season when West Ham had just signed the Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope, pronounced ìone-chopî. The opposition Spurs fans responded with the chant of ìYouíve only got Wanchope!î this time to the tune of Blue Moon.

Sometimes a chant is tailored exactly to the play. One of the silliest is ìWoooooooh! Youíre shit! Aaargh!î This occurs when a goalkeeper takes a goal kick. A group of fans will give an extended ìWhoooooahî during his extended run-up, followed by a staccato ìYouíre shit! aaaargh!î as he kicks the ball.

Chants reflect the social climate of England. In the 1970s and 1980s, when there was a big problem with football hooliganism, there were aggressive chants such as ìYouíre gonna get your fucking heads bashed in!î In the 1970s, skinhead fans indulged in ìaggroî, short for aggravation. ìAggroî was enshrined in a song sung to the opening section of Gary Glitterís Hello Hello Iím Back Again!. This chant went: ìHello, hello, West Ham aggro, West Ham aggro, hello hello . . . î and would accompany the first sign of trouble in any part of the ground. Another chant from that time is ìCome and have a go if you think youíre hard enough!î which has gained retro-chic and is now the title of the letters page in the British ladsí mag Loaded.

But in the 1990s, all-seater stadia, higher prices and Sky TV coverage have meant the game has become largely free of trouble, and it is now an increasingly middle-class and trendy sport. In the 1980s only real fans would admit to following football, but today celebrities and intellectuals have all been desperate to declare their love of the game. In this climate chants have centred less on violence and more on humour, encouraging your side and denigrating the opposition.

Where once there was outright hostility there now tends to be irony. These days a bad piece of play from the opposition causes taunts of ìYouíre not very good, youíre not very good!î to the tune of the old London song Knees Up Mother Brown.

One of the most popular chants of the past decade has been the Arsenal fansí adaptation of the chorus of The Pet Shop Boysí Go West. This started off as simply ìOne-nil to the Arsenal!î a song that celebrated Arsenalís frequent victories by this very score. This was rapidly adapted by other fans to ìYouíre shit, and you know you are!î Numerous other versions followed, including ìOne-nil to the referee!î when a ref was thought to be biased and the already described Beckham/ Posh Spice insults.

When Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore was exposed in the British tabloids as having beaten up his girlfriend (the TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson) in a Paris bar, fans ridiculed him in their usual merciless fashion. At first there were chants, again to the tune of Go West, of ìYouíre shit and you slap your bird [girlfriend]!î Even worse, when Collymore checked into a clinic and stated he was suffering from depression, he was mocked with chants of ìYouíre mad and you know you are!î

When the comedians Baddiel and Skinner recorded the excellent pro-England song Three Lions for the 1996 European Championships, its chorus of ìItís coming home, itís coming home, itís coming, footballís coming homeî, became another fansí classic. Although it was soon made cruder and used in chants such as ìYouíre full of shit, youíre full of shit, youíre full of, Tottenhamís full of shit!î When star striker Alan Shearer left Blackburn for his native Newcastle, the clubís fans were taunted with ìHeís fucked off home, heís fucked off home, heís fucked off, Shearerís fucked off home!î With similar crudity, Chelseaís adaptation of The Red Flag to ìWeíll keep the blue flag flying hereî, was altered by the clubís rivals to ìStick your blue flag up your arse!î

Black humour is a particular English strong point. After all, very few clubs actually stand a chance of winning anything, as there are only three major trophies, so the stoic acceptance of adversity has long been a source for songs. A goal drought can cause chants of ìWill we ever score again?î (to the tune of Bread of Heaven). Even Vera Lynnís Weíll Meet Again was adapted by long-suffering West Ham fans to ìWeíll score again, donít know where, donít know when, but I know weíll score again one sunny day!î

Fans are becoming ever more surreal. When Manchester City were struggling in division one, the clubís fans started singing, to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown, ìWeíre not really here! Weíre not really here! Weíre not really, weíre not really here!îósurely a classic of its type.

In short, the British football chant is adaptable to just about any event that might happen on or off the pitch. Chants are subject to a kind of natural selection, which is why the best have survived for decades. They are frequently crude, childish and decidedly non-PCóbut theyíre also the reason many of us find live football such an enticing experience. And if youíre still mystified by this Brit disease, then there is a football chant that can be utilised. It expresses intellectual scepticism and goes: ìYou what, you what, you what, you what, you what?î

[Pete May is a freelance journalist based in London. He is the author of Sunday Muddy Sunday (Virgin), a study of Sunday league football teams and co-author of The Lad Done Bad (Penguin), a humorous look at sex, sleaze and scandal in English football.]



Instructions on pot of face cream: Rub in the cream until it visibly disappears. [Submitted by Tony Hall, Aylesbury, UK]



The First Annual Willard R. Espy Light Verse Competition

To commemorate a modern master of Light Verse, LIGHT: The Quarterly of Light Verse is establishing, beginning in the year 2000, the first Willard R. Espy Light Verse Competition. This shall be in any of the traditional light verse forms (epigram, ballade, villanelle, limerick, clerihew, river rhyme, double dactyl, etc.) but may include any verse that contains rhyme and meter. The length limit shall be forty lines, and the deadline July 1st of each year, beginning in 2000. The winners shall be published in the Spring issue of the following year. There may be only one entry per contestant. First prize will be $150, Second Prize $100, and Third Prize $50. Two Honorable Mentions will receive Willard Espyís The Best of an Almanac of Words at Play (Merriam-Webster). All entries must include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. There will be no reading fee. No further guidelines are available; do not phone, e-mail, or fax. Send entries to LIGHT QUARTERLY, PO Box 7500, Chicago, IL 60680.

Excerpts from the Baylor College Linguistics
Scavenger Hunt

M. Lynne Murphy
Waco, Texas

1. the word for ìcheeseî in Estonian

2. the longest word in English that uses no letter more than once

3. the name, nationality, and profession of the inventor of the Volap¸k language

4. a nine-letter English word that has only one syllable

5. the sound that a dog makes in Swedish

6. a language that has only three vowel sounds

7. the regional word for ìdrinking fountainî thatís used in Wisconsin

8. four different sounds that the letter ìsî can symbolize in English spelling (examples)

9. the language that Jesus spoke

10. the American equivalent of the British word ìex-directoryî

11. five words that are legal plays in Scrabble and that have only two letters, one of which is ìxî

12. a language that doesnít have the sound /t/

13. a language whose standard word order is Verb-Subject-Object

14. the motto of the Klingon Language Institute

15. a language-related holiday and the country that celebrates it

16. a word thatís included in the Oxford English Dictionary that means ìa person whose hair has never been cutî

17. identity of the person who said ìEngland and America are two countries divided by a common languageî

18. five-letter English word thatís pronounced the same when you delete four of its letters

19. name of the straight line that is used over vowels to signal that they are so-called ìlong vowelsî (e.g., in dictionary pronunciation guides)

20. what ìapplesî means in Cockney rhyming slang

[Answers to be found on page 14.]

From Josephusís Jewish War to the American Civil War: Charles Francis Adams, Jr.ís ìDead Sea Appleî

Michele Valerie Ronnick
Wayne State University

The only example of the phrase ìdead sea apple(s)î used during the past 150 years is dated to 1869 by the Oxford English Dictionary. The entry states:

Hence forming part of the name of a large number of fruits; as apple Punic, obs. name of the pomegranate; apple of Sodom, or dead Sea Fruit, described by Josephus of fair appearance externally, but dissolving, when grasped into smoke and ashes; a travellerís taleí supposed by some to refer to the fruit of Solanum Sodomeum (allied to the tomato) by others to the Calotropis procera; fig. Any hollow disappointing specious thing.î

The OED editors then quote from The English Mechanic and World of Science, published from 1865 to 1923 in London by E. J. Kibblewhite: ì1869 Eng. Mech. 24 Dec. 354/1 Mecca galls, Dead Sea Apples, Sodom Apples, or mad apples . . . are occasionally imported from Bussarah.î

The connection with Josephus is based upon a passage about the city of Sodom found in his Jewish War. Describing the fruits grown in the now blasted and cursed land, he states that ìone can see cinders reproduced in the fruits, which from their outward appearance seem edible, but after being plucked by hand disintegrate into smoke and ashes.î1

A striking, but heretofore unnoticed, occurrence of the phrase is found in Charles Francis Adams, Jr.ís assessment of his service with the Union forces during the Civil War. Upon his enlistment in 1861 his mood was one of jubilation. Charles Jr. declared in a letter to his father Charles Sr. in 1862: ìI would not have missed it [his first experience under fire] for anything . . . the sensation was glorious, . . . Without affectation it was one of the most enjoyable days I ever passed.î2 By 1864, however, his views had changed. In a letter to Henry Adams dated July 22, he wrote: ìMy present ambition is to see the war over . . . I am tired of the Carnival of Death.î3

In 1916, the year his Autobiography was published, he closed the chapter entitled, ìWar and Army Life,î with this summation: ìAs it was in June, I think, I was quietly mustered out of the service, and became once more a civilian. A great experience was over, and its close was for me a Dead Sea apple. But I intended it well!î4

How the term came into Adamsí vocabulary is not clear. In his undergraduate years at Harvard he had in his own estimation ìrather a fancy for Greekî. . . and . . . ìcame within an ace of being a fair Greek scholar.î5 He might well have read Josephusí original text in Greek, however the noun Josephus used meant fruit in general, not apple specifically. But regardless of Adamsí source, his words and their reference to the Old Testament city of Sodom provide us with a vivid summation of his feelings about the Civil Waróone that would be instantly understood by his fellow Americans, north and south alike. For that was an era whose aesthetic was deeply influenced by the Bible. His is also the first example of the phrase in American letters.


1 For the Greek text, see Josephus, Jewish War, ed. and trans. by H. St. J. Thackeray (Cambridge, MA, 1979), 142ñ144.

2 Edward Chase Kirkland, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., 1835ñ1915, The Patrician at Bay (Cambridge, MA, 1965), 30.

3 Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., A Cycle of Adams Letters, 1861ñ1865, vol. 2 (Boston, 1920), 167.

4 Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Autobiography, (Boston, 1916) 167.

5 Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (note 4 above) 26.

[Michele Ronnick is an associate professor in the Department of Classics, Greek, and Latin.]

Linguistics Scavenger Hunt Answers

1. juust

2. uncopyrightable

3. Johann Martin Schleyer, German priest

4. strengths or screeched

5. vov vov

6. There are a few of these: Gudanji, Aranda, Greenlandic, Amuesha, etc.

7. bubbler

8. Voiceless alveolar fricative (in sit), voiced alveolar fricative (in busy), voiceless palatal fricative (in sure), voiced palatal fricative (in pleasure)

9. Aramaic

10. unlisted (phone number)

11. ax, ex, xi, ox, xu

12. Hawaiian

13. There are a number of these: Welsh, Tongan, Squamish, Tagalog, Maori, etc.

14. ìLanguage opens worlds.î See www.kli.org for the Klingon version.

15. Hangul dayóKorea (celebrates the Hangul writing system)

16. acersecomic

17. George Bernard Shaw (other people who have said it were quoting Shaw!)

18. queue

19. macron

20. from ìapples & pearsîómeans ìstairsî



In the Autumn 1999 issue there were (at least) two errors. First, we left contributor Howard Richlerís name off his review of the new Microsoft Encarta World English Dictionary. Mr. Richler writes from Montreal, Canada. Also, we misidentified the makers of Crayola brand crayons. They are, and have always been, Binney and Smith, rather than ìBinnie and Smith.î Our apologies for these oversights and errors.


To What End Gender Endings?

Susan Elkin
Sittingbourne, Kent

Was John Knox merely respecting a 16th-century lexicographical nicety when he referred to Mary Queen of Scots as ëa Cruell persecutrix of goddis peopleí? Or was he having a dig at her for being not only a monarch he resented for her Catholicism and unsympathetic ways, but also for having the effrontery to be female?

There used, in the middle ages, to be a whole raft of these neat feminine nouns with a -trix, or sometimes -trice, ending. They came from Latin agent nouns ending in -or. Thus, in the unlikely event of an adjudicator being a woman, she was carefully called an adjudicatrix. And commanders, or imperators were chaps, of course. But if, by any faint chance, one wasnít, she had to be an imperatrix.

Chaucer wasnít having any nonsense about fortune being anything but female either. ëBut, O Fortune, executrices of weirdesí, he wrote in Troilus and Criseyde (1374). Then there was bellatrixóit was interchangeable with bellatriceófor a war-waging woman on the rampage, like Boudica.

An inventrix was a female discoverer like . . . well, can you think of a medieval one? Perhaps thatís why the word was never in common use. And a venatrix was a female hunter, like Diana, Roman goddess of the moon. Sadly, no one seems to have used the rather splendid ultrix, an avenging woman (although I bet there have been plenty of them down the years) since Caxton in the fifteenth century.

Later words such as administrix, consolatrix, mediatrix and testatrix evolved. And by analogy there were coinages such as inheratrix, narratrix and perpatrix.

Some were quite common even in the nineteenth century. ëIn his victrix he,íóCharlotte Bronteís Dr John in Villette (1853)óërequired all that was here visible.í It was meant to be a marriage, not a war, but Charlotte Bronte manages to take a thumping sideswipe at this relationship in that one word, victrix.

Anthony Trollope did something similar in Barchester Towers (1857) by naming a chapter Mrs Proudie Victrix. In the power struggle between the bishopís termagant wife and his slimy chaplain, Obadiah Slope, at this stage in the novel Mrs Proudie is winningóto the fury of everyone in male-dominated diocesan politics.

When Amy Johnson et al took to the air they could possibly be described now as aviators as if they were men. The word aviatrix had only a short life. So did the word oratrixópresumably because by the time women were no longer expected to be seen and not heard, like their children, orators like Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meyer had to compete on equal terms with men. Itís the same with Hillary Clinton today.

Even today I am carefully described in the legalese of my sisterís will as her executrix. Yes, the lawyer seems to be saying, let her execute the will but only because we couldnít persuade the client to appoint a man.

And dominatrix has acquire a whole new meaning in the sex-obsessed present. In the 17th century it just meant a bossy woman. The sado-masochistic overtones are new.

The commoner feminine ending for -or and some other words is, of course, -ess. Vicaress and rectoress, which just meant wife of a vicar or rector in the 18th century, have disappeared. And saviouress, a use of which was recorded in 1553, along with farmeress, which had a brief innings in 1672, seem never to have progressed beyond the fanciful stage.

But there are plenty of very ordinary everyday -ess words. Lioness, duchess and hostess, for example. Yet even some of these are on the slippery slope of political correctness.

The mainstream press will still refer to, say, Dame Judi Dench, Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren as ìa fine actress,î but you wonít catch a glimpse of the word in The Stage Newspaper, the weekly trade journal of the British show business industry. Here, in both advertisements and editorial copy, everyone is referred to as an actor. All actors are equalówithout the Orwellian corollary.

And have you noticed the job snobbery which hangs murkily around the word manageress? If you wear a pinny and run a teashop or a twee hairdressers, it seems to be OK to be a manageress. But if you wear a dark suit and are in charge of an investment fund in a merchant bank, then youíll be a manager, irrespective of sex.

The John Knoxes are still among us, waxing critical. There was something medievally spiteful about the way that a few detractors of British women priests in the early 1990s tried to dub them ìpriestessesîóas if they werenít Christians. It was a classic example of using a gender suffix for negative reasons. Iím glad it didnít catch on.

[From her base in southern England, Susan Elkin writes for publications as various as The Times, Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The Stage, Music Teacher, In Britain, and Traditional Woodworking. Her books include a biography, two English literature study guides, and eight education reports. Susan has been in love with words and books for as long as she can remember.]



The televisions and atomic bombs above are from the Church of the Subgenius BOBCO8 font. They are copyright the Church and shareware ($20). More information is at www.subgenius.com/SUBFONTS /subfont.html.


From Ragusa to Lombard Street

Martin Bennett
Saudi Arabia

While the Common European currency has its detractors, the international sharing of words has long been a fact of life. Here, at least, is a type of coinage beyond any governmentís control. Even the Bank of England, that symbol of national sovereignty, can trace part of its name to the lowly bench, or banco, from which the first Italian money-lenders conducted business. It also provides a good starting point for this brief guide to Englishís etymological debt to Italian.

To continue the financial theme, take the word cash. Its origin, however distant, is from cassa, the Italian chest where the cash was kept. Perhaps this was in florinsófrom Florentine fiorentini. Or as likely in ducats, a silver coin first minted by Roger II of Sicily, and later by Giovanni Dandolo, Doge of Venice, the latter coin bearing the motto ëSit tibi, Christi, datus quem tu regis iste ductatusí, the last word of which perhaps furthering the currency of its name. A lesser Venetian coin resurfacing in English is the gazeta, one of which could once purchase a gazetta della novia or ëa half-pence worth of newsí.

As for quantity, we have the introduction into English of the word million from milione, reminding us how Tuscan or Lombard bankers once financed the wars of English kings. The fact that credit (credito) was not always paid back is shown by the adoption of bankrupt from banco rotto (literally ëbroken benchí, an early bankerís sign of insolvency). (More happily linked with banco is banquet, this deriving from banchettoóa diminutive of banco, originally a trellised table on which the banquet was spread.)

Not that the traffic (yes, from the Italian traffico) between England and Italy was purely financial. Venice and Genoa both had mighty fleets whose frigates (fregate), caravels (caravele), barks (barche) and brigantines (briganti,. or pirate ships) all docked in English ports. Then from Ragusa, a port on the Dalmatian coast, comes the words argosy, although the English word has an older form, as in ëRagusyes, hulks and caravels and other rich-laden ships.í (Dr John Dee, ëThe Petty Royal Navyí, 1577.)

And so to cargoes and contraband (a telescoping of contra bando, literally ëagainst edict.í) As often happens, the names of imported goods get wrapped up in the port of origin. Examples are Marsala, the wine from there; bergamot, the oil and essence from Bergamo; baloney, a type of sausage from Bologna; travertine, a limestone from Tivoli on the River Tevere, or Tiber. Less obviously bronze (bronzo) has been traced to Brindisi, where bronze mirrors were made. Millinery was first associated with Milan, albeit hats were one item among many: ëThe dealers in various articles were called milliners from their importing Milan goods for sale, such as brooches, spurs and glassesí (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). Another item milliners might once have dealt with was porcelain. Originally this was the name for the Venus shell, or cowry. Its shape and sheen, by a rather obscene twist of the imagination, reminded medieval traders in the East of the vulva of a porcellana, or small sow. So goes one possible etymology. Webster, more delicately, contents himself with, ëThe shell has the shape of a pigís back and a surface like porcelain.í

Relating to the early arms trade, cannon is from canone, an augmentative form from canna, a cane or tube. Pistols derive from Pistoia, a town once also called Pistolia, once famous for its daggers, or pistolese, a word later transferred to the firearm. Then we have the musket. Rather tortuously the Elizabethan translator John Florio says this derives from moschetta, this name not of a small fly but a hawk, a footnote adding that the names of firearms were often derived ëfrom dragons, serpents or birds of prey in allusion to their velocity.í For dealers in fakes we have another Italian loan-word, charlatan, from ciarlare, ëto chatter,í an ingredient of his sales pitch.

So much for words directly from Italian, albeit most of their endings have been eroded by time in contrast to more recent borrowings (papparazzi; tortellini). For other words, Italian is less a port of origin than an entrepot, or halfway house. So, however far-fetched, tulip winds back via tulipinno to the Turkish tulpend and then the Persian dulband until only the shape remains, not of a flower but a turban. Bergamotónot the essence mentioned above but the type of pear, derives via Italianís bergamotta from Turkish beg armud, literally ëprince of pears.í (Helping explain the etymology, history notes how by 1507 there were agents of 60 or more Florentine firms in Constantinople.) Scimitar (Italian scimitare) has its origin in the Persian Simsir. Meanwhile there is a whole cargo of English words which can, following the old trade routes, be traced back through Italian to Arabic. Artichokeóarticioccoóal-kharshuuf. Arsenal (Highbury)ólíArsenale (Venice)ódar as-Sanaa (Arabic, ëhouse of workí). But the items on the list run to dozens.

Yet the traffic of words mentioned in the title has been far from one way. English, in turn, has provided Italian with pure anglismi such as fifty-fifty, egghead, sponsor, babysitter and bypass. Other anglismi have a more local character. So puzzle is rephoneticised into ootzlay; pocket radio is inverted to radio pocket; handicapped becomes handicappato; a top model is simply una top. Snob produces a name for not just a string of Italian boutiques, but another verb, snobbare with a corresponding gamut of Italian inflections. Likewise from click we get cliccare to set alongside the uninflected software and hardware.

Outlandish coinages? Perhaps. Except the host language, whether in Rome or London, seems to have its own mechanism for incorporating them until the same coinages become standard lexical currency.

[Martin Bennett read English at St Catharineís College, Cambridge, and then taught English and French in West Africa. He now teaches English and Italian in Saudi Arabia. An article on Arabic proverbsóìThe Lamps of Speechîóappeared in a previous edition of VERBATIM.]


Mat Coward
Somerset, Britain

I suspect that issues has been an irritating word for some time. Certainly, I remember it being overused in left-wing and trade union circles twenty-odd years ago, when it meant something like ìmatters upon which we are or should be campaigningî. There were also issues around, as in ìwe are working on issues around immigration,î where around meant ìto do withî.

A narrower usage (of US origin, I presume) has recently become common in the UK, under which issues (invariably plural) are no longer merely and neutrally topics of interest, but problems, disagreements or dislikes. The phrase ìYou have raised an interesting issueî will soon, I imagine, be meaningless to anyone under the age of thirty.

An American contributor to an e-mail list discussed the difficulties of looking after a disabled baby, ìwhich has meant all kinds of doctorsí appointments and special feeding issuesî. A recruitment advertisement in a British newspaper, for the post of ìHead of Equalitiesî at a county council, was accompanied by a picture of a dartboard. The caption read: ìImagine the board is equal opportunities issues. The darts are peopleís attempts to manage them and the holes are the ones in their thinkingî.

In another UK newspaper, a writer argued that institutionalised racism was not unique to the USA: ìThere can be no doubt that Britain has its own issues regarding raceî.

When work on an £18 million leisure complex development in Hampshire was halted because the site was found to be home to an endangered species of dragonfly, a spokesman for the developers told reporters ìWe are resigned to dropping the project [ . . . ] we respect green issues.î That application is especially baffling; how does one ìrespectî a problem, or indeed a topic?

Perhaps issues is not properly a Horribile, no matter how ugly it sounds to many of us, but rather a word undergoing a transitional period of vagueness; having been stripped of its familiar meaning, it has not yet been assigned a new one, and is therefore available to fill in on a temporary basis as and when required.

Other words on the move include advice, which seems to be taking on a more sinister role. When South Wales police charged an officer with neglect of duty and discreditable conduct, newspapers reported that ìanother officer is to be admonished and three others will receive ëadviceíî. The inverted commas, and the context, suggest that this advice forms part of a disciplinary, and not an educational, process.

Ethnic (now commonly a euphemism for ìnon-whiteî) and literally (increasingly used to mean either ìveryî or ìmetaphoricallyî) will require a column to themselves. Meanwhile, have you noticed what is happening to officially?

In 1999, the England cricket team fell, for the first time, to the lowest position in an unofficial league table. Every newspaper report I read of this major national tragedy declared in its headline or opening paragraph that England was ìofficially the worst team in the worldîóalthough many of them then went on to explain the unofficial nature of the unsought title!

Officially was therefore being used to mean ìdefinitelyî or ìundeniablyî. I lack the learning to name this phenomenon, but it seems to me that words which are useful precisely because their purport is narrow or broad are rendered ìliteî when their precincts are stretched or straitened.

And, to quote a politician I recently heard interviewed on the BBC, ìInevitably, one could have issues with thatî.

(Readers are invited to suggest ìissuesî for this column, or to supply further examples of those already discussed. Please contact me via VERBATIMís UK or US offices. My thanks to those who have already been in touchó be assured that all your contributions are read, enjoyed, and carefully filed for future deployment).


We all have had the experience of finding an intriguing word in the dictionary when we were supposed to be looking up something else, but Dr. Mardy Grothe has turned his experience into a charming little book of quotations, each and every one of which is an example of chiasmus.

Whatís chiasmus, you ask? Well, besides being the word that distracted Dr. Grothe from his original target, itís the reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases. The title of the book is itself chiastic: Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You. (ISBN 0-670-87827-8)

If, after reading this book (actually, I recommend dipping into it at random; if you read the whole thing straight through youíd probably speak in chiasmus the rest of the day!) you want more, check out www.chiasmus.com, where there will soon be a chiasmus email mailing list.

My favorite quote in the book? ìIt is well to read everything of something and something of everythingî (Henry Brougham). Make this book one of either somethings. Erin McKean



I was most interested to read the article ìIdentity and Language in the SM Scene,î by M. A. Buchanan in the Summer issue (XXIV/3).

But I think the comment that there is no Spanish equivalent for the English terms boyfriend and girlfriend is inaccurate. I believe the terms novio and novia convey the modern American meaning the author refers toóat least these days. My Spanish-speaking gay friends use the term to refer to their partners, as do straight couples who have no intention of marrying.

The time that people seem to move away from the terms, and use such ìmodernî terminology as compaÒero sentimental or pareja (loosely, ëpartnerí) instead, is when they reach an age at which the term seems odd. (And after 20 years of cohabitation, would English-speaking couples still speak of themselves as ìboyfriendî and ìgirlfriendî?) In both languages, the terms suggest relative youth, and experimentation. Each culture then has its own tradition of formality, or lack of it, in pre-nuptial relationships.

Incidentally, Gerald Brenan, in his book South from Granada, describing southern Spain in the 1920s (in many ways a deeply conservative Catholic society), says that it was considered quite normal for a girl to have many ìnoviosî.

Limits on acceptable behaviour may be encoded into our language, yes: but people still continue to use words to mean what they want them to mean. My last ìgirlfriendî, who was Spanish, called me her ìnovioî; but she didnít believe in marriage.

Matthew Perret

Brussels, Belgium

While I do not know the meaning of the Thai word (from ìOn the Use of Niggardlyî,24/4) the anecdote reminded me of a story from a friend who served in the Army during the second world war. After weeks in the field, he was assigned for a few days of respite to live with a family in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. Almost his first request was ìWash my clothes please.î This was greeted with stunned silence since the Flemish word for ìtesticlesî was pronounced ìclothes.î

Quincy Abbot

West Hartford, CT

Have Your Salt and Eat It, Too

Steve Kleinedler
American Heritage Dictionaries

Itís dinnertime, and youíre about to enjoy a tasty meal, but you find the food in need of seasoning. You ask the resident sarcastic adolescent at the opposite end of the table, ìCan you pass the salt?î and you get the terse reply, ìYes,î but you donít get any salt.

Protestation only elicits the response: ìBut you didnít ask if I would pass the salt, you asked if I could pass the salt, and yes, Iím physically able to do so.î Depending on the way your household functions, you may end up with screaming parents, a punished child, passive-aggressive silence, or possibly some salted food. You know that you know what the kid meant, but in your head thereís a small voice thinking, well, I suppose technically thatís what can means.

Actually, you should trust your initial instinct. What the surly teenager has done is perversely ignored a maxim of conversational implicature, and in doing so, disregarded an indirect speech act.

Within the linguistic subfield of pragmatics, implicature, presupposition, entailment, and indirect speech acts have long been a focus of inquiry, with countless philosophers picking apart sentences such as ìThe king of France is bald.î Among the topics most fun to explore is conversational implicature.

For an appropriate starting point, we turn to H. Paul Grice, a British-born philosopher who taught at Berkeley for much of his career. In 1967, he delivered his William James Lectures at Harvard University. One significant lecture first appeared in print as ìLogic and Conversationî in 1975 in the third volume of Syntax & Semantics. Many subsequent works concerning conversational implicature and discourse theory draw from it heavily. As an added bonus, itís fairly comprehensible to the layperson.

Grice observes that conversations arenít usually made up of disjointed comments. Rather, speakers generally adhere to what he calls the Cooperative Principle (CP): ìMake your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engagedî (p. 45).

It may sound like heís stating the obvious, but his analysis of the CP yields four conversational maxims, by which we can analyze how conversations and implications function the way that they do. These maxims are (p. 47):

The Maxim of Quantity

1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

The Maxim of QualityóTry to make your contribution one that is true:

1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

The Maxim of RelationóBe relevant.

The Maxim of ManneróBe perspicuous.

1. Avoid obscurity of expression.

2. Avoid ambiguity.

3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).

4. Be orderly.

Grice then lists four ways that one can fail to fulfill a maxim (p. 49):

1. He may quietly and unostentatiously violate a maxim; if so, in some cases he will be liable to mislead.

2. He may OPT OUT from the operation of both the maxim and of the CP; he may say, indicate, or allow it to become plain that he is unwilling to cooperate in the way the maxim requires. He may say, for example, ìI cannot say more; my lips are sealed.î

3. He may be faced with a CLASH: he may be unable, for example, to fulfill the first maxim of Quantity . . . without violating the second maxim of Quality.

4. He may FLOUT a maxim; that is, he may blatantly fail to fulfill it. On the assumption that the speaker is able to fulfill the maxim and to do so without violating another maxim (because of a clash), he is not opting out, and is not, in view of the blatancy of his performance, trying to mislead, the hearer is faced with a minor problem: How can his saying what he did say be reconciled with the supposition that he is observing the overall CP? This situations is one that characteristically gives rise to a conversational implicature; and when a conversational implicature is generated in this way, I shall say that a maxim is being exploited.

The fun comes in analyzing discourse sequences to determine how implicatures are made by flouting or exploiting these maxims. Grice discusses three kinds of conversational implicatures. (The examples below are taken from his examples.)

The first group consists of ìexamples in which no maxim is violatedî (p. 51).

Scenario: A is standing by a disabled car. B approaches:

A: Iím out of gas.

B: Thereís a station around the corner.

Here, B implicates that B thinks that the gas station is probably open, otherwise B would be flouting the maxim of Relation. If both participants are adhering to the CP, A has no reason to believe that B would be flouting the maxim, and so understands that B intends A to think that at that gas station A can get gas and no longer be out of gas.

The second group consists of ìexample[s] in which a maxim is violated, but its violation is to be explained by the supposition of a clash with another maximî (p. 51).

Scenario: A is going on a vacation in France. A and B both know that A wants to visit C if itís not out of Aís way.

A: Where does C live?

B: Somewhere in the south of France.

Here, Bís answer is not as informative as A would need to make a decision as to whether C can be visited, and thus Bís response can be seen as a violation of the first maxim of Quantity. But, A would not expect B to opt out. So, A then infers that for B to say anything more informative than ìSomewhere in the south of Franceî would violate the maxim of Quality. Thus, A infers that B doesnít know the town that C lives in (pp. 51ñ52).

The third group is large, consisting of ìexamples that involve exploitation, that is a procedure by which a maxim is flouted for the purpose of getting in a conversational implicature by means of something of the nature of a figure of speechî (p. 52).

Many figures of speech can be explained and analyzed by this approach. Grice shows that violations of the first maxim of Quality are responsible for irony (ìX is a fine friend,î when itís obvious that X is not); metaphor (ìYou are the cream in my coffeeî); meiosis (ìHe was a little intoxicated,î used of one who has trashed a room); and hyperbole (ìEvery nice girl loves a sailorî) (p. 53).

Violations of the first maxim of Quantity include tautology (ìWar is warî), but are also evident in less extreme situations such as Griceís classic ìletter of recommendationî scenario: ìA is writing a testimonial about a pupil who is a candidate for a philosophy job . . . : ëDear Sir, Mr. Xís command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.í (Gloss: A cannot be opting out, since if he wished to be uncooperative, why write at all? He cannot be unable, through ignorance, to say more, since the man is his pupil; moreover he knows that more information than this is wanted. He must, therefore, be wishing to impart information that he is reluctant to write down. This supposition is tenable only on the assumption that he thinks Mr. X is no good at philosophy. This, then, is what he is implicatingî (p. 52).

Notice that such implications can be culture-bound. I have heard that such succinct recommendations are the norm in Germany. (And if I have been informed incorrectly, itís certainly within the realm of possibility that there is some culture where this is the norm; the point being, implicatures that one draws may be particular to a culture or subculture.)

Grice offers the following as an example of a Relation violation: ìAt a genteel tea party, A says Mrs. X is an old bag. There is a moment of appalled silence, and then B says, ëThe weather has been quite delightful this summer, hasnít it? ëB has blatantly refused to make what he says relevant to Aís preceding remark. He thereby implicates that Aís remark should not be discussed and, perhaps more specifically, that A has committed a social gaffeî (p. 54).

Among violations of Manner are ambiguity, obscurity, and failure to be succinct. Grice invites us to compare ìMiss X sang ëHome Sweet Homeíî with ìMiss X produced a series of sounds that corresponded closely with the score of ëHome Sweet Homeíî (p. 55). A reviewer writing the second sentence would eschew the simple sentence to imply that her ìperformance suffered from some hideous defect.î

Laurence Horn, a linguist at Yale, has carried on Griceís work. He has condensed the four maxims, focusing on one that is speaker-based and one that is hearer-based. (Others, such as Dan Wilson and Dierdre Sperber, have condensed them into one, Relation.) In a 1984 article, Horn demonstrates that these two opposing forces and their interactions are responsible for generating Gricean maxims and the inferences derived from them. Hornís two principles are (p. 13):

The Q principle (hearer-based)

1. Make your contribution sufficient. (Cf. Griceís first maxim of Quantity.)

2. Say as much as you can (given the R principle)

The R principle (speaker-based):

1. Make your contribution necessary. (Cf. Griceís maxims of Relation, Manner, and the second maxim of quantity.)

2. Say no more than you must (given the Q principle).

Q-principle implicatures are very common. Examples are those that arise from scalar predictions: ìSome X are pî implies ìNot all X are p.î That is, ìSome dogs are brownî implies ìNot all dogs are brown.î If speaker knew that all dogs were brown, and if such information were relevant to the hearer, the speaker would be obliged to obey the Q principle and say so. The hearerís assumption that the speaker is obeying Q (and thus adhering to the CP) allows the hearer to infer that the speaker does not know the stronger predication, ìAll dogs are brown.î to be a fact (p. 13).

Other Q examples are those that entail a lower bound (ëat leastí), and implicate an upper bound (ëat mostí). Conjoining these brings about conveys ëexactlyí (p. 13). Horn offers the example ìHe ate 3 carrots.î This sentence entails ìHe ate at least 3 carrotsî and implicates ìHe ate at most 3 carrots,î the conjunction of which gives ìHe ate exactly three carrots.î Intentionally violating the Q principle results in the act of the speaker intentionally misleading the hearer. That is, to say ìHe ate 3 carrots,î when he in fact ate 4 or 5 carrots, is not untruthful; itís misleading (p. 14).

The R principle mirrors the Q principle. Whereas (p. 14), ìa speaker who says ëpí may license the Q inference that he meant ëat most p,í a speaker who says ëpí may license the R inference that he meant ëmore than p.íî The most obvious examples are indirect speech acts. (This brings us back to the salt.)

Horn states: ìIf I ask you whether you can pass me the salt, in a context where your abilities to do so are not in doubt, I license you to infer that I am doing something more than asking you whether you can pass the saltóI am in fact asking you to do it.î If the speaker knows that the hearer is able to pass the salt, then the question of whether the hearer is physically capable of doing so is pointless. By the Relation maxim, the hearer infers that the speaker means something more than the speaker says. Intentional violations of the R principle (that is, violations of the maxim of Relation) are ìmerely unhelpful or perverseî (p. 14).

So, when the salt scenario looms large in your dining room, you can respond by saying ìUntil you can adhere to the Cooperative Principle, you are excused to your room,î and hand the violator this essay.


Grice, H. P. 1975. ìLogic and Conversation,î in Syntax & Semantics, vol. 3: Speech Acts. P. Cole & J. Morgan, eds. New York: Academic Press.

Horn, L. 1984. ìToward a New Taxonomy for Pragmatic Inference: Q-Based and R-Based Implicature, in Meaning, Form and Use in Context: Linguistic Applicationsî (GURT), D. Schiffrin, ed. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. 1986. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[A lexicographer, Steve Kleinedler is an editor on the staff of the American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Co.). A University of Chicago graduate student as well, Steve needs to write his PhD dissertation. He holds a BA in linguistics from Northwestern University.]


As the Word Turns

Barry Baldwin
Calgary, Canada

Unless any scientific compound usurps it in the forthcoming new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, floccinaucinhilipilification, as John Simon guessed in his Paradigms Lost (1981), is the longest word there. Weighing in with 29 letters, it beats by one its sesquipedalian opponent antidisestablishmentarianism.

This majestic monster found a place in Russell Rookeís Grandiloquent Dictionary (1972), being there defined as ìthe action or process of estimating a thing as worthless.î Our word is compounded from four Latin expressions for such low evaluation: ìnon flocci facioîóI donít give a flock for; ìnon nauci facioî I donít give three flocks for; ìnon nihili facioîóI donít care nothing for; or ìnon pili facioîóI donít give a hair for.

It looks like a Samuel Johnson kind of word. Celebrated for his long Latinate terms, the Great Cham defended their use in an essay in the Idler: ìFew faults of style, whether real or imaginary, excite the malignity of a more numerous class of readers, than the use of hard words. But words are only hard to those who do not understand them, and the critick ought always to enquire, whether he is incommoded by the fault of the writer, or by his own.î Boswell duly defended his hero: ìMr Johnson has gigantick thoughts, and therefore he must be allowed gigantick words.î

In fact, it was William Shenstone (1714ñ1763) who imported our word into English, in one of his published letters, in 1741: ìI loved him for nothing so much as his floccinaucinhilipilification of money.î Shenstone was best known as a poet, though no contemporary thought highly of him (ìthat water-gruel bard,î gibed Horace Walpole). He had no particular reputation for sesquipedalianism. His use may have been disingenuous: the poet Grayís reaction to his Letters was ìPoor man! He was always wishing for money.î

After Shenstone, the word languished a good sixty years before the poet and critic Robert Southey took it up in an 1816 essay in the Quarterly Review. Then Sir Walter Scott tried it out in a journal entry on 18 March 1829, thus: ìThey must be taken with an air of contempt, a floccipaucinihilipilification of all that can gratify the outward man.î This same spelling occurs elsewhere in Scott: mistake or deliberate alteration?

And that is the complete history of the word, according to the OED. Has any reader seen it in modern literature? Iíve noticed the spin-off adjective floccinaucinihilipilificatory in occasional pieces of fugitive journalism. I used to recommend the noun to my students as a good one for debates and pub conversation. Overall, it evidently never caught on. Just TOO big, perhaps?

Well, if thatís the problem, there are less jaw-breaking allotropes. In his English Dictionarie, or An Interpreter Of Hard Words (1623), Henry Coceram introduced and defined the verb floccifie (ëto set nought byí), but this one seems to have died quickly after Blountís 1656 rehash of Coceram in his Glossography. The chronicler Edward Hall (1499ñ1549) had already tried out floccipend (ìEvery honest creature would abhorre and floccipendî) in 1548, but this one had to wait for Walter Thomsonís 1882 essay on Bacon and Shakespeare (ìA profession prone to floccipend old locks of thought from wooly-headed thinkersîóa groanable triple pun) for its next outing, and it still awaits its third.

Southey himself, in critical esays of 1826 and 1829, came up with ìa floccinaucical significationî and ìfloccinaucities to which so much importance is attachedî; neither found a taker. So, if the floccular processes of your cerebellum have been flocculated by this flocculent flourish, fear not to write floccoselyóEnglish and Latin are on your side, and it beats the hell out of the Nineties Newspeak of academics and computers.

[Barry Baldwin grew up in England during and after World War II. Now in Canada, he has published 12 books and some 600 articles on Greek/Roman/Byzantine/18th-century history & literature. His chief passions are cricket, English soccer, and eating.]

A Visit from Aunt Rose: Euphemisms (and Pejoratives) for Menstruation

Jessy Randall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Now it can be told. There are over one hundred codes for menstruation, from the gentle euphemism (that time of the month) to the vulgar (riding the cotton pony) to the downright peculiar (the woodchuck has arrived). Some of the terms are nearly international; others are extremely localized, used by a small group of women friends or within a family or other small community. Why do we cloak menstruation in subterfuge? Sometimes out of embarrassment or a sense of decorum, but also, I think, there is the appeal of having an inside joke, speaking a private language, talking about something that is not to be talked about. I am not sure that we are all that shy about menstruation here at the close of the 20th century, but with a modern-day ironic sensibility, it seems funny to pretend to be and to use outlandish codes to discuss something secret in plain view.

The codes fall roughly into four categories: periodicity, personification, allusion to blood, and allusion to emotional state. Of course, many codes overlap two, three, or even all four categories, and some cannot be categorized.

The simplest and most common coding for menstruation relates to its periodicity. Having oneís period is so straightforward that it can hardly be called coding; similarly, women can say itís that time of the month or the bad, wrong, or funny time of the month. A woman can have her monthlies, her cycle, or her moon-days or moon-time (these last two are fairly new terms, perhaps even new-age). In her 1870s teenage diary, Alice Stone Blackwell (daughter of suffragist Lucy Stone and social reformer Henry Blackwell, who was brother to Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor) abbreviated menstrual period to M.P., as in ìM.P. number 3.î In the euphemism-laden 1950s in Wellsville High School in Wellsville, New York (and probably in many other schools as well), girls could cite their monthly excuse to get out of gym class. Right before the menstrual period begins, some women say they are fixiní to start, abbreviated F.T.S. And I know someone in the 1990s who refers to her Visa bill, which arrives monthly, although she wishes it wouldnít.

The personification of the period, odd as it may be, is a popular coding. Generally the period takes on the identity of a friend or relative, usually female, who comes for a visit: my friend, my little friend, my aunt, my grandmother, Mother Nature, Miss Rachel, Sophie, or Mary Lou. Description of the visitor can get quite elaborate: my aunt from Redbank or from Redwood City, Reading, or Redfield (with the place name incorporating the color of blood) or my red-haired aunt from the South (incorporating both redness and the idea of the vagina, colloquially down South or down there.) Sometimes the visitors even have namesóDot, Dottie (incorporating the idea of dots of blood), Aunt Rose (incorporating the idea of redness, i.e., blood) or Aunt Flo (i.e., flow, incorporating the idea of the flow of blood). On the Comedy Central cartoon series South Park, Stan Cartmanís Aunt Flo, who happens to be a redhead, comes to visit once a month. While Mrs. Cartmanís monthly visitor is in town, Mr. Cartman sleeps on the couch.

Other visitors might include a midnight visitor (acknowledging the surprise factor), a communist (redness), the chicks, and male visitors such as the Cardinal (redness again) and Charlie, Herbie, Kit, and George, etymology unknown. (These men not only come to visit but become romantically entangled: going steady with George is another term for having oneís period.) One woman I know has developed an entire personality for her monthly visitor, Doris, who drives a brown Chevy Nova and is a large woman with cat-glasses, her appearance similar to women in the old Far Side comics. In bad months, Doris drives up on the lawn, knocks over trees, and generally makes a nuisance of herself.

Codes that refer to blood include the red flag is up (sometimes shortened to just the flag is up or the flag is flying; also sometimes flying Baker, since Baker is the Navy code for B, and the B flag is red), the Red Sea is in, having the painters in, the reds, wearing red shoes, are you a cowboy or an indian? a red-letter day, and riding the red horse. Mrs. E.R. Shepherd, a late 19th-century advice writer, used the term course in For Girls: A Special Physiology (1884), reporting: ìI have met numbers of women and some of them young who knew nothing of their coming ëcourseí until they were upon them.î Other blood codes make reference to the gushing or flowing of blood, such as Old Faithful (which also suggests periodicity) or on a streak (the Rolling Stones song ìSatisfactionî includes the lyric ìBaby, better come back / later next week / ícause you see / Iím on a losiní streakî). And in Act I Scene I of Shakespeareís The Tempest, Gonzalo describes a ship as ìleaky as an unstanchíd wench.î

Then there are the codes that stem from unpleasantness, like the curse or the curse of Eve. The origin of this, of course, is Genesis: God curses Eve for eating of the tree of knowledge, saying ìin sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,î implying, I suppose, that in sorrow shalt we also have cramps. (Later, Rachel successfully uses a menstruation euphemism to hide stolen goods underneath her on a camel, saying in Genesis 31:35, ìLet it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before thee, for the custom of women is upon me.î) There are the nuisance, G.D.N. (God-damned nuisance), the poorlies, and being unwell or that way. There are also female troubles (a term that can refer to any number of things, menstruation being one of the least troubling).

Of course, the unpleasantness terms have their flip side. At least one woman I know has turned the curse around, calling her period the blessing since it is proof that she is not pregnant. And Anne Frank called menstruation her ìsweet secretî despite its ìpain and unpleasantness.î (Her father, Otto Frank, edited out these lines for the 1947 Dutch version of the diary.) In the 1950s, Seventeen magazine featured articles on how to cope with special days, a euphemism if I ever heard one. Other pleasant terms include the miracle of menstruation, becoming a woman (for the first period), and, in an early Kotex booklet entitled ìMarjorie Mayís Twelfth Birthday,î wonderful purification.

(Sanitary supplies have a whole set of euphemisms to themselves, and indeed, the word menstruation does not appear in any Kotex publications until the year 1942, in an ad for a booklet: ìWhy get all involved trying to explain the facts of menstruation to your little girl . . . when thereís a simple, easy way to do this dreaded task? Let the new booklet ëAs One Girl to Anotherí do this job for you!î Other educational pamphlets had suggestive but non-explicit titles like ìYouíre a Young Lady Nowî and ìVery Personally Yours.î)

A favorite graphic term for menstruation is on the rag, i.e., using pads of some sort (originally cotton rags, now usually store-bought combinations of paper, plastic, and cotton batting) to staunch the flow of blood. This can be abbreviated O.T.R. and used to describe not only women menstruating but anyone, regardless of gender, who is in a bad mood. One man I know uses the term raging, which derives, he says, from on the rag. And comedian George Carlin spoke of women riding the cotton pony, again a reference to pads or tampons, which have their own euphemisms: mouse mattresses, the white horse, manhole cover, coyote sandwich, saddle blankets, teddy bears, and the industry-sanctioned sanitary napkins or feminine supplies. (From this last, one man I know invented the term feminine days for the menstrual period, a sort of ur-euphemism.) The 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog advertised a ìFaultless Serviette, or Absorbent Health Napkin,î an object so layered in euphemism that Iím shocked anyone figured out what it was in order to buy it.

Then there are the inscrutable terms, like flower days, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary referred to the menses from as early as the 1400s until the 1800s. Thereís the boatís in dry dock, which as far as Iím concerned simply makes no sense, and stands in direct opposition to the (especially male) expression too wet to plow. Falling off the roof is another code no one seems able to figure out: it may originate in the idea of a wound from falling, or possibly from the location of rag-launderingóone woman I know heard from her grandmother that women attended to this task in the attic in order to keep it secret from the men in the family.

And then thereís my own teenage term, woodchuck, which I and two friends used for both menstruation and sanitary supplies (as in, ìMy woodchuck has arrived, do you have any woodchucks?î) None of us can remember the etymology of this term, even though we invented it. We think it may have arisen from another friend saying once on the telephone ìI have to go, thereís a woodchuck in my yard,î a nonsensical expression of surprise and urgency that stuck with us and demanded to be morphed into inside-joke-hood.

Another known but highly localized menstruation code includes a reference to Mrs. Skeen, in honor of a woman one particular family knew who always managed to refer to her menstrual cycle in any conversation. And one group of neighbors use the term damned old Cox, because a tenant who was behind in rent went to see the landlord, Mr. Cox, and complained ìI was so upset I started my period earlyódamned old Cox!î One group of girls in the late 1970s used the expression back in the saddle again, sometimes humming the Gene Autry tune. I have no doubt that there are many more such codes, but they are by their very nature difficult to document.

[Jessy Randall curates the Womenís History collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia. She co-authored ìAssing Aroundî in the Spring 1999 issue of VERBATIM.]



Chances Are

Nick Humez

Because the present is fleeting, and the past is immutable, according to C. S. Lewisís administrative-level demon, Uncle Screwtape, it is the future that is least like eternity; and that is why the powers of Hell encourage human beings to focus on it.1 However one may be tempted to disagree with this philosophy, it cannot be denied that we do think about what has not yet come to pass, and how to make sure the odds break in our favor, whether we are underwriters hoping that more premiums are paid in than losses paid out, racetrack habituÈs betting on our favorite horse to win rather than place or show or not finish at all, or simply picnickers guessing how likely it is that we can finish our al fresco lunch before that ominous cloud on the horizon metamorphoses into a full-blown thundershower bursting overhead. Indeed, most of our waking hours may be spent weighing prospective risks and benefits in a constant calculus so second-nature to us that we are rarely aware of its extent. Experience teaches consequences from which we predict future events in turn; but often we are extrapolating not from physical certainties (ìIf you push something hard enough it will fall overî2) but from familiar probabilities (ìThe chances of a coin coming up heads on the toss are 50/50î3).

Or from other peopleís estimates of familiar probabilities: We ask our office-mate, whom we know has heard the weather report we just missed that morning, owing to our toast having fallen from the table and landed butter side down4 at the critical moment, ìWill it rain tomorrow?î ìThereís a good chance of it,î is the reply. If we then carry an umbrella the next day, is the actual probability that we will need it significantly greater than 0.5? No, for two reasons: First, the actual probability of rain falling anywhere on the earth on a given day is quite low, even on a cloudy day; second, a team of psychologists elicited the vernacular meaning of ìgood chanceî from a group of experimental subjects a decade and a half ago and found it to range from an actual probability slightly less than 0.6 down to smaller than 0.4, depending on the informant.5 The graph shows the researchersí results for other common terms of likelihood as well; perhaps the most startling are ìtossupîówhich one might suppose would be a range centered precisely on 0.5 (the real-world probability of the coin toss from which the expression derives), but in fact is shifted towards improbability, lying roughly between 0.38 and 0.55óand the range of ìprobably,î whose high end is scarcely less than that of ìalmost certainî and whose low end is pegged to a probability markedly smaller than 0.5 (about 0.45, or 10% less than even odds.)6

Other folk beliefs about likelihood fly in the face of logical appearances as well. Murphyís Law, commonly stated as ìAnything that can go wrong, will,î7 has given rise to a distinct class of one-liner jokes in imitation: ìIf there are two ways to spell someoneís name, you will pick the wrong one;î ìThe part requiring the most consistent repair will be housed in the most inaccessible location;î ìWashing machines break down only during the wash cycle;î ìWhen leaving work late, you will go unnoticed, but when leaving early, you will meet the boss in the parking lot.î (A corollary: ìThe less important you are to the corporation, the more your absence or tardiness is noticed.î)8 Older readers will recall that this genre of jocular pessimism was also the theme of the one-panel sidebar ìTheyíll Do It Every Timeî with which cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo used to embellish the Sunday edition of his long-running comic strip There Oughta Be A Law.

Positivist-empiricists, especially in the scientific community, may be all too quick to dismiss such folk formulae out of hand as ìnothing more than the product of our selective memory for those times when things donít go well,î according to Robert A. J. Matthews, a science correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph.9 But there is a sound basis for at least some pessimistic folk beliefs which seem at first blush irrational: The thirteenth of the month is, in fact, more likely to be a Friday than any other day of the week,10 and the likelihood of your having picked a checkout line other than the fastest one in the supermarket increases as a linear function of how many lines there are: If there are but two, your chances of being in the fast lane are even; if four, the odds are three to one against you.

Our inability to know the futureóand specifically, whether good or bad things may lie in store for usóhas given rise to a plethora of everyday expressions by which we resign ourselves and others to the vicissitudes of Providence or at least our own lack of control, such as seek oneís fortune, hazard a guess, leave it up to chance, dicey, at risk, the luck of the draw, their poor lot, the fickle finger of fate. Many of these terms were historically impartial but have taken on color (positive or negative) over the intervening years: As mentioned in a footnote in our last column,11 hazard comes to us from an Arabic word for a gamblerís die, but whereas par hasard in French is equivalent to the value-neutral ìby chanceî in English, our hazardous has become far more sinister than the unprejudicial dicey. It appears that lotóderived from the sort of lot one casts, and thus akin to lotteryómay be likewise edging from neutrality towards the sense of a short straw: One can still speak of a happy lot but already the expression sounds quaint, while more often it seems one hears of a sorry lot. (Watch this space.)

Among the Romans, fortuneógood or badówas personified as the goddess Fortuna,12 much as the Greeks before them had made statues of Tyche;13 but gradually, as people came more and more to think about and invoke Fortune in her beneficent aspect, fortuna without a qualifying adjective came to mean simply and solely good fortune.14 Although English preserves the neutral sense in the expression to seek his fortune, when we speak of inheriting a fortune it is generally presumed that what has not been handed down is simply a heap of bad luck.

Luck comes down to us through Middle English from Middle Dutch luc, a shortened version of the word gheluc, cognate with Middle High German gel¸cke, which became modern German Gl¸ck, ì(good) fortune, luck, happiness.î Luck, like Fortuna, can be personified: ìLuck, Be a Lady Tonight,î sings the gambler Nathan Detroit in the mid-century smash-hit musical Guys and Dolls, a sentiment no doubt echoed at many a gaming-table (and slot machine) before and since. Like Lady Luck, Fate can nowadays personified in order to lament her fickleness (the finger of the expression above being the Romansí digitus impudicus, or, as we would nowadays say, the Bird); this is reductionism at work on the original Three Fates of Greco-Roman mythology, who together had charge of the thread of each personís life: Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, who twisted the cord, and Atropos, wielding the grim scissors to cut it off. (The Latin word fatum comes from the verb fari, to speak, and means ìpronouncement, prophecy, doom.î)

Risk comes into English from French risque, itself from Italian rischio/risco, all meaning the same thing: the danger of hurt, damage, loss, etc.15 Chance, which derives from the Latin verb cadere, ìto (be)fall,î has been elegantly defined16 as an ìunknown and unpredictable element in happenings that seems to have no assignable causeî or a ìforce assumed to cause events that cannot be foreseen or controlled,î and thus a synonym for luck. In the plural, chance can mean ìlikelihood . . . possibility or probability.î Thus: ìChances are that ëlikely,í like ëdaily,í will be widely used as both adjective and adverb, even in print, by the turn of the century.î (An all-too-likely story, alas.)


1 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1971 [15th printing]), Letter XV (pp. 67-69).

2 This principle was given the name ìFuddís First Law of Oppositionî by the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe on their classic recording I Think Weíre All Bozos On This Bus (Columbia Records, 1971).

3 A common bit of nonsense derived from this common-sense fact is manifest in the assumption that if a coin has been flipped three times and come up tails all three times, the odds should be three to one it will come up heads. In fact, the odds remain 50/50, just as they were on all tosses before: prior events do not affect the probability of present or future ones; they merely form a body of statistical evidence, and the larger the data base, the greater the likelihood (or meta-probability, if you will) that the actual data will reflect the theoretical probabilityówhich is why, all other things being equal, statisticians tend overwhelmingly to prefer larger samples over smaller ones (which is itself a meta-probabilistic assertion about the behavior of social scientists engaged in studies grounded in probabilities).

4 The likelihood of the toast landing butter side down is not 50/50, as Robert A. J. Matthews explains in ìThe Science of Murphyís Lawî (Scientific American, April 1997, pp. 88ñ91). The significant constants for falling buttered toast (and paperback books) are (1) rate of spin as the result of torque induced by gravity and (2) the height of the table. If a table were sufficiently high, the toast would land butter side up; but tables are the height they are because people are only so tall as they areóand that, says Matthews, following the earlier reasoning of Harvard astrophysics professor William J. Press, is because human beings are essentially tall cylinders whose stability against toppling falls off dramatically as a function of height, not only increasing the risk of skull fractures but augmenting their severity as a linear function of initial cranial altitude. So it might be argued that the real reason the toast lands butter side up is the result of natural selection, any possible genes for nine-foot bipedal hominids having been weeded out a very long time ago.

Cats, on the other hand, land on their feet by executing a corrective twist during the fall; this maneuver, coupled with a very accurate balance mechanism in the catís inner ear and a tendency to relax and spread out, minimizing terminal velocity and landing with flexed limbs, would appear to count for the curious discovery, from a 1987 study by veterinarians Wayne O. Whitney and Cheryl J. Mehlhass published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, that cats who accidentally plummet from apartment windows in New York had fewer injuries when the fall was from a height of seven or more stories than they did when falling from a lower floor. For the mathematics of the buttered-toast problem, see Ian Stewart, ìMathematical Recreations,î Scientific American 273:6 (December 1995), page 104; for more on how cats fall and survive, see Jared M. Diamondís article discussing Whitney and Mehlhassís work in Natural History, August 1989, pp. 20ñ26. The posting of May 28, 1998, by Thomas M. Greiner, Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Physical Anthropology at New York Chiropractic College, to the website of Washington University Medical School (http://madsci. wustl.edu/posts/archives/may98/896646615.zo.r.html) examines the anatomy of the midair cat flip. See also Thomas A. McMahon and John Tyler Bonnerís On Size and Life (New York: Freeman, 1983), a lucid and fascinating book explaining how the laws of physics govern parameters of physiology in creatures ranging from ants to sequoias.

5 Wallsten et al. (1986), ìMeasuring the Vague Meanings of Probability Terms,î Journal of Experimental Psychology, 115:34ñ65.

6 Barbara Laud, a reference librarian at the Maplewood (NJ) Memorial Library, has astutely suggested that this may be due to peopleís innate unwillingness to be the bearers of bad tidings.

7 There was, in fact, an actual Murphy, although the law named after him differs slightly from what he actually said. In 1949 Captain Edward A. Murphy, USAF, had designed a body harness whose electrodes were intended to measure, by means of electrodes, the effects of rapid deceleration on pilots, using volunteers strapped into rocket-propelled chairs. When an initial run failed to produce data, and the harnesses were shown to have been wired improperly, an exasperated Murphy swore that ìIf there are two or more ways of doing something, and one of them can lead to catastrophe, then someone will do it.î When this formulation was repeated at an Air Force press conference as an example of a good working assumption in engineering equipment on which peopleís safety might depend, the press gleefully picked up the gist of the idea, simplified it, christened it ìMurphyís Law,î and launched it into the widespread popularity it has enjoyed ever since. Murphy himself is reported not to have been amused by this. (Matthews, op.cit., p. 89.)

8 I am indebted, for the list of whimsical ìlawsî from which these examples are taken, to a recent e-mail communication from retired social sciences professor (and accomplished Celtic harpist) Georgia Houle.

9 Op. cit., p. 88.

10 A fact cleverly proved by a correspondent in the British Mathematical Gazette in 1969: S. R. Baxter, at that time a 13-year-old schoolboy at Eton.

11 ìMoney Talk(s),î VERBATIM XXIV:4 (Fall 1999), pp.14ñ17.

12 An image carried forward into medieval iconography, e.g. in the manuscript of the Carmina Burana, the marvelous book of poetry and music at the abbey of Benediktbeuern, Germany, whose illustration above the song ìFas et nefas ambulantî depicts the goddess sitting at the hub of a great wheel which, as it turns, bears aloft one king to power and prosperity while another, on the descending side, tumbles to his ruin.

13 Tyche, ìchance,î is the Greek noun related to the verb tungchanein, ìto [just plain] happen.î Eutuchos (eu-, ìgoodî plus the adjectival form of tyche) meant ìfortunateî (and notópace Hellenized Israelites under the rule of the Herodsóìcallipygianî).

14 This sentence is a syntactically free translation, but semantically a direct steal, from Ernout and Meilletís excellent Dictionnaire Ètymologique de la langue latine (Paris: Šditions Klincksieck, 1979), p. 249, under Fortuna.

15 Risk should not be confused with its homophone, the cybernetic acronym RISC, which stands for Reduced Instruction Set Computer, a device whose processors execute a very small number of very simple commands very quickly, ideally one item per tick of the systemís internal clock.

16 By the American Heritage Dictionary (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1992).



Your Autumn 1999 issue prompts me to make several comments:

Firstly, Jim Behlingís Foreignyms have a name at last. I have encountered them or many years, as most of your bilingual and multilingual readers must also have done; indeed, a foreignym appears in that very issue of VERBATIM, brought by your reader Sidney Brotman: Aqui es una mesaóSpanish/Yiddish. Foreignyms occur in jokes, anecdotes of misunderstanding and real-life situations. The most striking I have come across appears in Willard Espyís Another Almanac of Words at Play. It is a sixteen-line poem, a macaronic alternating Hebrew and Italian lines, every pair of lines sounding almost exactly the same and having the same subject matter; a lament of a beloved teacher on his death, written by Rabbi Leone of Modena in the year 1584 when still a child.

Secondly, you ask for the meaning of a Thai word in Sol Saportaís ìOn the Use of Niggardly.î maybe I am wrong, but could that word be (the Thai word for ësquashí, the vegetable), pronounced ìfuck.î?

And finally, what gives with the proof-reading? In the review of The Wordwatchers Guide to Good Grammar, you have gramma for grammar, and in the same article ordinance/ordinance should surely be ordinance/ordnance (and maybe also ordonance?)

Best wishes from your faithful reader,

Naftali Wertheim


[We are striving to reduce silly errors, but occasionally articles are not ready in time to receive the ministrations of our volunteer professional proofreader & copyeditor, Lorraine Alexson. óEd.]



ìI remember when I used to see bushels of them,î said Alden ìBudî Miller, gesturing toward a four-door 1923 black-trimmed maroon Buick with a white soft top, wooden hickory smoked wheels and thick white walls. [From the Center Daily Times, State College, Pennsylvania. Submitted by Bill Simon III]