Where Did ‘Blizzard’ Come From? The ‘Too Long; Did Not Read’ Version

2015-02-20 by . 1 comments

A question on EL&U “On the origin of ‘blizzard’” asked about the origin of the word blizzard. The history of usage of the word during the period between when it first appears in print in the United Sates (1834) and when it is first used in the sense of “a fierce snowstorm” is fascinating (to me)—but even a less than exhaustive account of that history of usage too long to serve as an appropriate EL&U answer. Consequently, I’m putting it here.

PART I. Dictionary and Scholarly Analyses of ‘Blizzard’

One weakness in some modern analyses of blizzard involves a failure to acknowledge the wide (and widening) extent of usage of the word prior to 1870, acting instead as though blizzard as Davy Crockett understood the word in 1834 and blizzard as used by Iowa farmers in 1870 had nothing in common but a coincidental spelling. A look at the actual history of U.S. usage of the word strongly suggests to me that the 1830s usages (of which there were more than one) almost certainly are ancestral to the 1870 usage. Unfortunately, attempting to substantiate this hypothesis entails reviewing a considerable number of examples from the period 1835 to 1870. Let’s start by looking at some early U.S. assessments of the word blizzard.


Nineteenth-century U.S. analyses

The entry for blizzard in J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1890) is interesting, in part, because it reports on the word as a recently popularized term:

blizzard subs. (popular). — A poser [defined elsewhere in the dictionary as “an unanswerable question or argument”] ; a stunning blow ; an unanswerable argument, etc., etc.This word, brought into prominent notice as the name by which sudden and exceptionally severe snow storms are known in the Western States of America, is one the etymology of which is dubious. Some authorities derive it from the German blitz—lightning, but a correspondent of N[otes] & Q[ueries] claims it as of English nationality, asserting that the word has been known in the Midland Counties in its present form, or nearly so, for over thirty years ; further stating that ‘may I be blizzered’ is a common oath there. Assuming that the expression is a variation of the more generally familiar ‘May God strike me blind’ (that is, presumably by lightning), there is nothing antagonistic between the two theories of its genesis, and a further light is perhaps thrown upon the subject, tending to support its German origin, by the fact that, in Pennsylvania, it has been familiar, according to a correspondent of the New York Sun, for more than half a century, its use and meaning being akin to the instances above mentioned. It appears that in the central counties of the State in question, the word was always used to include the idea of the ‘poser,’ and even of force, violence, spitefulness, or vindictiveness. If one dealt another a hostile blow, he ‘gave him a BLIZZARD on the nose,’ ‘on the jaw,’ ‘between the eyes,’ etc. If a magistrate lectured a litigant severely he ‘gave him a BLIZZARD.’ If in debate one dealt mercilessly in ridicule he ‘gave his opponent a BLIZZARD.’ If one man swore at or cursed another he ‘gave him a BLIZZARD.’ If a man’s wife scolded him she ‘gave him a BLIZZARD.’ When it is remembered that Pennsylvania is the State in which the Dutch or German element most largely predominates, it does not seem far fetched to attribute its origin to a Teutonic source, more especially as there is nothing in the English usage to preclude such a derivation. However this may be, the word invariably seems to imply suddenness combined with violence ; and, at any rate, it apparently disposes of the supposition that the word is of Western origin, or a coinage of so recent a date as is frequently supposed. Like most words of its class, which have largely struck the popular taste, it has been generally adopted in an idiomatic sense to signify a stunning blow ; an overwhelming argument, or a cool reception. [First example:] 1834 [David] Crockett, Tour Down East, 16. A gentleman at dinner asked me for a toast ; and supposing that he meant to have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead and give him and his likes a BLIZZARD.

A fuller version of the Davy Crockett quotation appears in Crockett, An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Thirty-four, tenth edition (1837):

When dinner was ready [on a steamboat running from Delaware City to Philadelphia], I sat down with the rest of the passengers ; among them was the Reverend O. B. Brown, of the Post Office Department, who sat near me. During dinner the parson called for a bottle of wine, and called on me for a toast. Not knowing whether he intended to compliment me, or abash me among so many strangers, or have some fun at my expense, I concluded to go ahead and give him and his likes a blizzard. So our glasses being filled, the word went round, “a toast from Colonel Crockett.” I gave it as follows: “Here’s wishing the bones of tyrant kings may answer in hell, in place of gridirons, to roast the souls of Tories on.” At this the parson appeared as if he was stump’t. I said, “Never heed ; it was meant for where it belonged.” He did not repeat his invitation, and I eat my dinner quietly.

John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) uses the truncated version of the Crockett quotation as the only example of blizzard in that dictionary. Here is Bartlett’s entry for the word:

BLIZZARD. A poser. This word is not known in the Eastern States. [Example omitted.]

Maximilian Schele De Vere, Americanisms; the English of the New World (1872) has this to say about blizzard:

Blizzard, a term referred back to the German Blitz, means in the West a stunning blow or an overwhelming argument. [Bartlett’s version of the Crockett quotation omitted.]

Like Farmer & Henley’s treatment, the coverage of blizzard in Charles Norton, Political Americanisms: A Glossary of Terms and Phrases Current at Different (1890) shows that the snowstorm meaning had become dominant:

Blizzard.—A political party is said to have been struck by a blizzard when it has suffered overwhelming and unexpected defeat at the polls. The etymology of the word is doubtful, but it is said to have been long in use in Midland England and among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Its specific American meaning is a violent and destructive snow-storm peculiar to the Northwest.

Albert Barrere & Charles Leland, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, volume 1 (1897) finds a different instance of blizzard in Davy Crockett’s oeuvre, this one from 1836:

Blizzard (American), a word of many meanings. In one of the early Crockett almanacs about 1836 it appears as distinctly meaning a shot from a rifle.
“The elder boys when they went to school carried their rifles to get a blizzard at anything they might meet on the road.”
It has been conjectured that in this sense it was derived from blaze, or from the (Canadian) French blesser, to wound or hit. It was also applied to lightning at an early date. At present the tremendous wind-storms like the typhoon which sweep over the West are called blizzards. It possibly owes this later meaning to the German blitz.
With reference to the word blizzard, a Western correspondent sends the following:—The word was first used in Marshall, Minn., some thirteen years ago. Some friends were enjoying themselves at a public-house, when a storm of wind and snow arose, and one of the number, looking up quickly, uttered a German expression (our correspondent has forgotten the words) which sounded very much like blizzard. His friends took it up and have since called a storm of wind accompanied by now a blizzard. Some years ago the origin of the word was sought and it was said to be Indian, and that an Indian used the expression (or one similar in sound) upon seeing some white men coming out off a severe snowstorm.—Detroit Free Press.
The German expression here referred to is “blitzen!”

The Detroit Free Press story sounds highly unreliable to me; the Crockett reference is interesting, though Google Books doesn’t find any other nineteenth-century citation of it, or the original itself.


Early British analyses

The reference to Notes and Queries in Slang & Its Analogues appears to be to two comments in the periodical. First, from the February 11, 1888 edition, this item from W. E. Buckley:

BLIZZARD.—The American correspondence of the Times, Jan. 16 to 19, of this year, has contained details of a terrific blizzard, which had been raging in several of the N. and N.W. states. In the ‘New Engl. Dict.,’ Dr. Murray says that it is a modern word, and in the sense of a “snow-squall” became general in the severe winter of 1880–81, although it had been so applied about 1860 to 1870. It seems to have been adopted by English journalists since 1880, from the Americans. The earliest example quoted is in 1834, from Col. Crockett’s ‘Tour down East,’ in the sense of a “poser,” as if a blast they could not stand. The snowstorm of Jan. 18, 1881, in this country was no feeble instance of a blizzard, as it blew up and about the poudre, or dry snow, in all directions.

And second, from Thomas Ratcliffe of Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in the March 17, 1888, edition:

BLIZZARD (7th S. v. 106).—The word blizzard is well known through the Midlands, and its cognates are fairly numerous. I have known the word and its kin fully thirty years. Country folk use the word to denote blazing, blasting, blinding, dazzling, or stifling. One who has had to face a severe storm of snow, hail, rain, dust, or wind, would say on reaching shelter that he has “faced a blizzer,” or that the storm was “a regular blizzard.” A blinding flash of lightning would call forth the exclamation, “My! that wor a blizzomer!” or “That wor a blizzer!” “Put towthry sticks on th’ fire, an let’s have a blizzer”—a blaze. “A good blizzom” = a good blaze. “That tree is blizzared” = blasted, withered. As an oath the word is often used, and “May I be blizzerded” will be readily understood.

A check of some of the Midlands regional glossaries printed in the 1800s finds nothing for blizzard, blizzer, or blizzom, but several have entries for blizzy. First, from Anne Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854):

BLIZZY. A blaze. “Blow the fire, and let’s have a nice blizzy.” This, though now considered a vulgarism, is a retention of the original A.-Sax. blysa, a blaze.

And Mrs. Parker, A Glossary of Words Used in Oxfordshire (1876):

Blizzy, a flaring fire produced by putting on small sticks. Ex. ‘Let’s ‘a a bit of a blizzy afore us goes to bed.’

And from Arthur Evans & Sebastian Evans, Leicestershire Words, Phrases, and Proverbs (1881):

Blizzy, sb. a blaze. ‘When the squoire, a coom anoigh, they joomped o’ the blizzy an’ douted it.’

And from Barzillai Lowsley, A Glossary of Berkshire Words and Phrases (1888):

BLIZZY.— A blaze. The fire is said to be all of a “blizzy” when pieces of wood have been inserted amongst the coal to make it burn cheerfully.

And from G. F. Northall, A Warwickshire Word-book (1896):

Blizzy, sb. A blaze, a blast, a flare of fire. A.-Sax. blysa, a blaze. Common.

So on the one hand, the British glossaries do not corroborate Thomas Ratcliffe’s assertions about multiple cognates and variants of blizzard in common use in the Midlands, but on the other hand they do suggest that blizzy survived from the ancient word blysa in numerous localities and might well share a root with the U.S. blizzard.

In this regard, it is regrettable that the English Dialect Society, which produced such fine work in other counties of England during the nineteenth century, seems not to have published a full-scale glossary of Nottinghamshire words. In his English Dialect Dictionary (1898), Joseph Wright lists three undated ms collections of Nottinghamshire words, by three different authors, but I don’t know whether any of these ever saw publication. Part of the problem may have been that such a glossary (by a fourth compiler) was widely anticipated to be well on the way toward completion. In January 1875, in a section of the Second Report for the Year 1874 titled “Work in Course of Preparation,” the society had written this:

Notts. A Glossary has been promised us by Mr R. White.

And two years later, according to the society’s A Bibliographical List (1877):

Mr ROBERT WHITE, of Worksop, has a copious Nottinghamshire Glossary in MS.

Worksop is also the town from which Ratcliffe sent his communication to Notes and Queries in 1888. But as far as I can tell, the White manuscript was never published. If some of Ratcliffe’s claims about the Midlands use of blizzard were true locally in Nottinghamshire, we might have found that fact corroborated in White’s glossary. Instead, as S.O. Addy, remarked at the end of a speech to the English Dialect Society on October 13, 1906, that county remained oddly neglected:

And there are districts which have been little worked. I might mention, for instance, Nottinghamshire, and the east and south of Derbyshire.

Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary follows Ratcliffe in listing blizzarded (“Used imprecatively”), blizzer (“A blaze, flash ; a blinding flash of lightning”), and blizzom (“A blaze, a flash”) as being “in gen. use in the midl. counties”—but the only source he supplies for each of these terms is Ratcliffe’s comment in Notes & Queries. The array of ten counties that Wright lists individually as using blizzy provides a rather sharp contrast to the thinness of the support for the previous three terms.

Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) has this for blizzard:

blizzard. Came into gen. use in US & E. in the hard winter of 1880–1. Earlier (US. 1834) in sense of hard blow. Probabilities point to its being an E. dial. word ult. cogn. with blaze [in the sense of “To proclaim , as with a trumpet”].

More-recent analyses

Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1967) has this brief account of blizzard:

blizzard is a suffix –ard derivative and sense-adaptation of blizz a storm, itself app a thinning of blaze, a bright flame, the hiss of rain being likened to to that of a blazing fire.

In its very lengthy treatment of blizzard, Webster’s Word Histories (1989) gives considerable play to the word’s connection to a major snowstorm in Iowa in 1870:

blizzard There is a tradition of sorts in Iowa that the word blizzard for severe snowstorm with high winds originated there. Allen Walker Read went to Iowa in 1926 to look into the tradition, and his findings, published in 1928, show that there is considerable evidence in its favor. The earliest printed citation for the use that is so far known appeared in the Estherville, Iowa, Northern Vindicator on 23 April 1870. It was spelled blizards, and was cautiously enclosed in quotation marks. One week later, in the 30 April edition, it appears again, with the now familiar double -z spelling, but still in quotation marks. In June of 1870 the local baseball team adopted the name Blizzards—it must have been a memorably hard winter.

The relatively rapid spread of an unusual word has naturally excited some speculation about its origin, and a number of explanations have been offered for it. Since many of these appeared a long time after blizzard became common, it is impossible to verify them. Some claim credit for one locality or another, giving the speculations an air of home-town rivalry. The Dictionary of Americanisms has citations dated 1859 and 1861 from a diary published in the Kansas Historical Quarterly in 1932. The diary was kept by an army captain at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It turns out, however, that the diarist revised or enlarged or rewrote the diary about 1905, when blizzard was a common word, and we do not know whether he unconsciously used it in his revision, or if he had used it in the original, which was unfortunately thrown away. No printed evidence, however, has yet been found that antedates the Northern Vindicator.

The (possibly adulterated) 1859 diary example from the 1932 Kansas Historical Quarterly reads as follows:

Sure it would freeze the horn of a brass monkey, remarked Kelly, (an old veteran), and I thought it might do it, for a blizzard had come upon us about midnight and I thought it a howling success. No breakfast, formed line, shot 7 horses that were so chilled could not get up, started out by twos from the right, trot march for Cottonwood creek. Seven of us got there in formed line, the balance strung back along the trail, some not getting in until after dark, a frozen set.

Adopting the standard that Webster’s Word Histories uses, anyone who (like me) doesn’t have access to the original memorandum and account books on which he wrote his journal can’t say with confidence that Granville Stuart, Forty Years on the Frontier (1925) didn’t introduce the word blizzard after the fact to these entries dated January 1 and January 3, 1862, describing a winter spent in Montana:

January 1, 1862. Snowed in the forenoon. Very cold in afternoon. Everybody went to grand ball given by John Grant at Grantsville and a severe blizzard blew up and raged all night. We danced all night, no outside storm could dampen the festivities.

January 2. Still blowing a gale this morning. Forty below zero and the air filled with driving, drifting snow. …

January 3. The blizzard ceased about daylight, but it was very cold with about fourteen inches of snow badly drifted in places and the ground bare in spots.

Craig Carver, A History of English in Its Own Words (1991) recounts the toast episode in Davy Crockett’s book, and then notes another usage of blizzard by Crockett [combined snippets:

Earlier he [Crockett] used blizzard in the sense of “a shot or volley of gun shots” (“I saw two more bucks, very large fellows, too. I took a blizzard at one of them and up he tumbled,” 1834. The Life and Adventures of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee). Crockett’s uses are obsolete extensions of the earliest sense of blizzard, “a sharp blow,” which is also obsolete. Blizzard (a violent snowstorm) may be an extension of the earlier sense (a volley of shots) or may have originated in England. A blizzard of etymologies have been offered for this puzzling word. The earliest known citation (1829) is also the earliest attempt to explain its origin by appealing to German Blitz (lightning). Another version suggests French blesser (to wound), but neither this nor the German can be substantiated. Yet another claims that blizzard derives from English dialect blizzer, meaning “a blaze” or “flash” (“Put towthry sticks on th’ fire, an’ let’s have a blizzer,” English Dialect Dictionary) or from blazer (something that blazes or blasts), which gave the early sense “a volley of firing guns,” that is, a general “blazing away.”

Note that this is the third example from Crockett to be cited among the earliest uses of the term. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang finds two additional ones from 1834 and 1835. From Davy Crockett’s Almanack for ’35 (1834):

I will take them out on coon hunt, show ’em how to tree a catamount, and take a blizzard at a bear.

And from Meine & Owens, Crockett Alm[anack]s (1835):

He … gets hold on the painter’s [panther’s] tail with one hand, and with the other he got a blizzard with his pistol.

From Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997):

blizzard In its meaning of a severe snowstorm blizzard seems to be an Americanism dating back to about 1835. Its direct ancestor is probably the English dialect word blisser, meaning the same, but could be the German blitz, “lightning flash.” Before blizzard meant a storm in America, it meant a violent blow of the fist or a crushing remark.

From Glynnis Chantrell, The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (1997):

blizzard [early 19th century] A US word originally, a blizzard was ‘a violent blow’, but the origin is unknown. It is probably onomatopoeic; suggestive words with possible influence are blow, blast, blister, and bluster. The word was applied to a snowy squall in the American press in reports of the severe winter of 1880–81, but apparently it was used colloquially in the West considerably earlier.

From Graeme Donald, Fighting Talk (2008):

BLIZZARD Violent snowstorm. An Americanism from the early English blisser, “a violent and injurious blow,” which itself derived from the French blesser, “to injure or wound.” “Blizzard,” in the sense of a violent blow, seems to have been an early 19th-century Kentuckyism promoted to national usage through Davy Crockett’s highly romanticized autobiography of 1834, in which he used the term for a well-aimed musket shot. By the 1840s it was widely understood to mean a cannon shot, and during the American Civil War (1861–65) both sides were using “blizzard” to mean a withering volley of musket or cannon fire. As for meteorological applications, “blizzard” was used in the 1850s for a sudden and violent drop in temperature. It was first used to describe a snowstorm in 1870 when O.C. Bates, neologistic editor of The Northern Vindicator of Estherville, Iowa, used it for the terrific snowstorms that socked in the state that spring. He claimed he had picked up the term from a local character called Lightning Ellis but, either way, he made such frequent use of it that everyone, other newspapers included, started talking of “The Great Blizzard,” which forever changed the accepted meaning of the word.

From Julia Cresswell, The Insect That Stole Butter? Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, second edition (2009):

In the early 19th century a blizzard was ‘a sharp blow or knock’ or ‘a shot’ in the USA, and probably arose as an imitation of the sound of a blow. The sense of ‘a severe snowstorm’ followed in the 1850s.

Of all the preceding discussions of the word blizzard, Graeme Donald’s seems to provide the most accurate match to the search results that I obtained for the period from 1834 to 1870. Let’s take a closer look at some of those search results now.


PART II. Instances of ‘Blizzard’ Before the Snowstorm Meaning Caught On

Now let’s look at examples of how the word blizzard was being used in the United States during the period from 1835 to 1870.

Instances of ‘blizzard’ in the Library of Congress’s newspaper database or from Google Books, 1870 and earlier

In addition to the five instances of blizzard in the works of Davy Crockett (cited in the first part of my answer) from 1834, 1835, and 1836, I found a number of instances of the word in publications from 1870 and before. The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database of U.S. newspapers goes back to 1836—two years after the original publication date of Davy Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East. Following are significant occurrences of blizzard in that database or from Google Books search results, arranged chronologically.

From Joseph Jones, Major Jones’s Scenes from Georgia (1843):

”But you must shake hands and make it all up with him before he dies, and then you’ll feel better. Besides, major, you know you killed him in an honorable way.”

”D——n the honorable way!—it all counts the same—and the devil will make a blizzard of my soul for it.”

As the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes, the meaning of blizzard here is something like “a great fire.”

From “The Bombardment of Fort Brown (May 13, 1846), credited to the New Orleans Picayune, in the [Baltimore, Maryland] American Republican and Baltimore Daily Clipper (May 30, 1846):

At 1 o’clock we heard Gen. [Zachary] Taylor open again, and from that till 4 o’clock the battle raged with fury, and coming closer almost every shot. The General was driving them [the Mexican army] before him in the chapparal at the point of the bayonet. About half a mile in our rear we saw their cavalry retreating for the ferry, to recross the river [the Rio Grande] to Matamoras, and they were in utter confusion; we turned one of our 18 pounders to bear on the mass and gave them a “blizzard” to help them along.

From “From the Camp,” dated September 4, 1846, in the [Brattleboro] Vermont Phœnix (October 15, 1846):

A thousand and one reports are in circulation as regards the state of the defences of Monterey and Saltillo ; in all of which I place no reliance. That their [the Mexican army’s] means were greatly curtailed by the recent losses of the battles of the 9th, and the evacuation of the several towns cannot be doubted ; and if they did reserve resources at Monterey, I will then give them more credit than I am willing at present to admit be their due.

We must have another blizzard at them, I think. Saltillo will be the Rubicon …

From “Treason to Party, Treason to Country,” in the [Fayette, Missouri] Boon’s Lick Times (September 30, 1848):

The Platte Argus took his [Thomas Birch’s] election very much to heart, and has taken the trouble to list the democrats, who voted for him, as well as those who did not vote, and gives them the following blizzard:—

“We cannot forego the assertion that democrats, who fold their arms in tranquility, and permit the enemy to gain a victory over their friends and their principles, are guilty of moral treason to friends, principles and country. Let the mark of Cain rest upon them. Let them go where they belong—to the place provided for arrant traitors and political charlatans, to be cursed by those whom they have betrayed, scoffed at by those who have merely used them as pliant tools to subserve a bad cause—whose sun lately went down in Philadelphia, there to remain forever.”

From “Diabolical Outrage,” in the [New Lisbon, Ohio] Anti-slavery Bugle (August 1849):

A riot occurred at Morrow [Ohio] on Saturday evening, which will probably give some trouble to the parties engaged in it. A theft was committed by a colored man named Henry Watkins—a convict formerly in the Penitentiary—who was immediately arrested and committed to jail. This aroused the indignation of sundry persons in the village, who met on Friday and resolved that every negro should leave the place in one week thereafter. Notice was accordingly given, and on Saturday, as we understand, all had left with the exception of two, Charles Casey and his wife, who had been assured that they would be suffered to remain. The ardor of the mob—for so we must characterize every body of men who set the laws of the country at defiance and meditate and commit violence on the persons and property of others—was quickened by their wrath, and on Saturday night they changed the time of the exodus of the Casey family an demanded that they should gird up their loins, put on their sandals and march forthwith. Casey refused to obey. At ten o’clock they approached the dwelling of the latter, and commenced an assault with stones and clubs.—Casey took a position at the door, armed with an axe, and his wife guarded the window, club in hand. Soon the window was smashed in and a breach made through the door by the missiles of the assailants. An entry was then attempted by one of the mob, but the moment his head protruded through the door, Casey tapped him with the back of the axe, and he fell senseless to the ground. Instantly another mob-head was poked in and met a similar blizzard. These repeated and effectual rebuffs brought the mob to a parley.

From “Whig Candidate for Floater! To Your Tents, Oh! Israel!” in the Fayetteville [Tennessee] Observer (July 29, 1851):

We stop the Press to announce that we have been creditably informed, that the Whigs have succeeded in bringing out Jackson, of Giles, for Floater [“A candidate representing several counties and therefore not considered directly responsible to any one of them”—Slang and Its Analogues], as we predicted they would, in another column. This information, we trust, will be sufficient to arouse every Democrat within the district to come out and do his whole duty. Yes, fellow Democrats, come out and vote for the man who is most likely to beat the Whig Missionary of Giles; it is enough to know, without saying a word about the importance of next Legislature, that this man Jackson is not only Whig of the deepest dye, but is the man who undertook to blackguard the people of Lincoln [County, Tennessee] by contributing money to send a Missionary up here to enlighten us. Think of that, Democrats of old Lincoln, and come out and give him blizzards on the 7th of August.

From George Harris, “A Sleep-Walking Incident,” in Polly Peablossom’s Wedding an Other Tales (1851):

Spang! Whiz-phit! The ball had sped, and it had missed! I saw it tear the bark from a hickory, a few yards ahead. Oh, how fresh and warm the blood rushed back around my heart! I felt safe, mischievous, and glad, and began to rein up my horse. When I succeeded in doing so, I wheeled him in the road to reconnoiter. There stood the old Tiger, leaning on the muzzle of his gun, as if in a brown study ; so I resolved to give him a parting “blizzard.” I shouted, “Hello, old cock; you have good victuals and a fine family, your galls in particular; but I would not give a button for your gun or your temper! You can’t shoot for sour owl bait! Tell the girls ‘good-bye,’ and the same to you, you old scatter-gun!”

He began to re-load furiously, so I whistled to my horse and left those parts—for ever, I hope.

From “A Pocket Book Found,” in the [Morgantown, Virginia] Monongalia Mirror (November 5, 1853):

’Blue blizzards! Dad, there goes the bell, we must be off, if we are going. What shall I do with this blasted thing, I don’t want it?’

’Give it to this young man, he looks honest, and when the owner advertises, he can get the reward.’

From the Sacramento [California] City Item [1856, but no specific date given], reported in Richard Thornton, An American Glossary (1912):

And then, behold, King Henry, very dead/Lies stiff and cold upon his gory bed,/When some true archer, from the upper tier,/Gave him a “blizzard” on the nearest ear.

From the [St. Clairsville, Ohio] Belmont Chronicle (July 23, 1857):

Jabe—Zounds and blizzards! What shall I do! Another campaign on the track, and every hoss broke down!

From “[That Pistol]” in the Bedford [Pennsylvania] Gazette (November 20, 1857):

An Irishman, driven to desperation by the stringency of the money market, and the high price of provisions, procured a pistol and took to the road. Meeting a traveler, he stopped him with “Your money or your life.”

Seeing that Pat was green, he said: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll give you all my money for that pistol.”

”Agreed,” said Pat. Pat received the money and handed over the pistol.

”Now,” said the traveler, “hand back the money, or I’ll blow your brains out!”

blizzard away, my hearty!” said Pat, “divil the drap of powther there’s in it, sure.”

From “Coming to the Rescue,” in the White Cloud Kansas Chief (May 10, 1860):

Two weeks ago, it pleased us to give a few Oregon [Missouri, a town less than 10 miles from White Cloud, but in a state where slavery was approved by law] items, containing some truths unpleasant to certain parties. Among others, we touched upon an individual who has been making himself conspicuous as a Pro-Slavery mouther…. That person has no acquaintance with us, and we certainly had never done anything, directly or indirectly, to injure or offend him ; yet during two years past he has seized upon every possible occasion, in crowds and on the streets, to bemean and abuse the Chief, and ourself personally. These things, as a matter of course, came to our ears, through friends, of whom, we are happy to say, we have many in Oregon. We let the fellow pas, but treasured up his favors ; and when he laid himself open in a matter of public concern we gave him a blizzard. There are others over there of the same stripe who will be remembered at a fitting opportunity.

From “End for End,” in the White Cloud Kansas Chief (June 28, 1860):

In the Baltimore Convention, Hon. William Montgomery, a member of Congress from Western Pennsylvania, got into a dispute with Josiah Randall, a renegade Whig, of Philadelphia, during which hard words passed. A son of Randall afterwards met Montgomery on the street, wiped his smeller with his fist, and made the gravy come. In turn, Montgomery gave Randall a blizzard at the butt of the ear, placing him in a favorable position for crawling, and then applied his boot to that portion of his body which is used in sitting down—and for other purposes!

From “Life in Egypt,” in the [Millersburg, Ohio] Holmes County Republican (November 15, 1860), from a story that originally appeared in the New York Tribune:

”Did they read him [Bill Thompson] out [of the Democratic party] too?”

”No they didn’t by a long shot. He rode out. He was ridin’ by a grocery in Frog [Island], one night, when jus’ for fun he hollered for Lincoln, and the fellers run out, and one said ef he hollered for Lincoln again he shoot; and Bill hollered—an’ sure enough the chaps gave him a blizzard with both barrels. He was shot, an’ his hoss shot ; so his hos run three miles an’ tumbled Bill into a swamp. The hoss was nigh upon ruined an’ the Doctor picked forty shot out of Bill’s back, An’ now he goes for Old Abe.”

The term “Egypt” refers to “the twenty counties known as Egypt in Southern Illinois; no doubt the name is related to the city of Cairo, situated near the southernmost tip of the state.

From “Night Session,” October 16, 1861, in Proceedings of the Missouri State Convention, Held at the City of St. Louis, October, 1861 (1861):

Mr. WRIGHT. I never call a man to order, and I am very happy that this warfare has been made upon me. I do not care how many of these gentlemen fall upon me. All I ask is, that when they get through you will allow me to reply with a “blizard.’ …

Mr. ONN. So far as “blizards” are concerned, he is the gentleman who commenced this warfare. He commenced on me by holding me up to ridicule. So far as his “blizards” are concerned, I fear them as little as any man he ever saw.

From the [Ebensburg, Pennsylvania] Alleghanian (October 24, 1861):

With his corpus on the ground/He can’t hear a single sound,/Nor can he strike a “blizzard;”—/Then stop and shed a tear,/And take some good small beer,/In memory of Dizzard.

From “The Great Battle in Kentucky” in the [Dowagiac, Michigan] Cass County Republican (February 1, 1862):

The enemy formed in those two fields, attacking the Indiana troops both in front and upon their left flank. A section of Captain Standart’s battery had been brought up, and was stationed on the road. The attack here was made about seven o’clock in the morning. Col. Manson coming up to the position, just after the attack began, seeing that his men must be overpowered before the other regiments could come up, ordered his men to fall back, which they did in good order, fighting as they went. Capt. Standart reluctantly gave up the privilege of “giving the enemy one good blizzard” from that point and retired too.

From “Great Battle of Stones’ River, Tennessee,” in the Nashville [Tennessee] Daily Union (January 15, 1863):

Inquiring who held the extreme left, the General was answered Col. Wagner’s brigade. “Tell Wagner to hold his position at all hazards.” Soon after Col. Wagner replied, laconically, “Say to the General I will!” Down at the toll-gate, on the Pike, we got another “blizzard,” with an interlude of Minnies, which whistled about with an admonitory slit.

From “Letter From Vicksburg” in the Memphis [Tennessee] Daily Appeal (March 24, 1863):

Gen. [William] Loring is called “Old blizzard” throughout the whole camp, from the following circumstance: The day before the enemy came down, it was determined to remove a heavy gun from the right wing of the works to the left. It was brought over, but the mud was so deep that the gun stuck fast about twenty steps from the platform upon which it was to be placed. General Loring came up in person and assisted in getting it out of its perilous position. He urged the men to renewed labor, telling them the smoke of the gunboats was not more than twelve hundred yards distant. A desperate attempt was made and the gun was got into position just as the boat got in sight. He jumped up on a cotton bale upon the parapet, took off his hat and waved it, shouting—“Now, boys, give them a blizzard!” The connical messsenger was sped, and we had the satisfaction of seeing it strike the gunboat in the bow.

From “Slightly Curious” in the White Cloud Kansas Chief (July 30, 1863):

We do not believe we ever publish a word about any person, that said person didn’t find it out in the shortest possible time afterward. No matter whom we may see porper to favor with a little notice, be he prominent or obscure, far or near, some kind friend takes particular pains to send him a copy, marked. Six years ago a daily mail was secured for this place. Some enemy of the town sent to Washington a copy of the Chief containing something not very complimentary to old [James] Buchanan’s Administration, and forthwith White Cloud was reduced to tri-weekly service. If we should speak disrespectfully of the King of the Feejee Islands, within three weeks afterwards he would manage to send us word that he knew all about it. Were we to give the man in the moon a blizzard, we verily believe, that in passing that planet, on our way to Heaven, old Crusoe, or whatsoever name the solitary inhabitant is known by, would hail us concerning the article we published about him!

From Rosecrans’ Campaign with the Fourteenth Army Corps, or the Army of the Cumberland (1863):

A regiment was lying down upon the field before him, waiting to be called into action. Shot and shell were whizzing furiously over them. The Chief [General Rosecranz] dashed up to the line and addressed them: ”Men, do you wish to know how to be safe? Shoot low. Give them a blizzard at their shins! But do you wish to know how to be safest of all? I’ll tell you. Give them a blizzard right at their shins at short range, and then let them have the bayonet. Give them a blizzard, and then charge with cold steel! Forward now, and show what you are made of!”

From “Forty Rounds and a blizzard,” in the [Plymouth, Indiana] Marshall County Republican (October 12, 1865):

C. Van Tyne, having been nominated by the Democracy of Erie county, for County Recorder, declines in a card wherein he says:

I hereby declare, and request my friends—if they bear me any love—to make it known that the proceedings of said convention as regards my name, are wholly repudiated by me. On what ground their expectation of my acceptance of the nomination was founded, I am at a loss to conjecture.

From “Too Much Whisky Aboard,” in the Wheeling [West Virginia] Intelligencer (October 10, 1866):

On Monday evening, Jacob Bradley was possessed of a veritable devil, which caused him, figuratively speaking, to run violently down a steep hill into the sea. On his way, he entered the ale and beer bottling establishment of Mr. Hartley, on Fourth Street, below Quincy, and requested that gentleman to supply him with malt liquor. His request was not complied with, whereupon he indulged in phrases having special application to Mr. H. but altogether unfit for ears polite. A Mr. Ray, who happened to be present, endeavored to appease the mightiness of his wrath, but without success. Mr. H. then intimated to his would be customer that he had better step outside of his threshold, and for his pains got a “blizzard” on the side of his knowledge box, which caused him to fall helplessly over a stand full of bottles.

From “Coop That Chicken” in the Wheeling [West Virginia] Intelligencer (November 5, 1866):

Empty craw and bursted gizzard,/Tail and wings completely scissored,/Felled at one decisive blizzard—/Routed—skinned from A to izzard—/O, poor cock-a-doodle-doo!

From Rebecca Davis, “Waiting for the Verdict” in The Galaxy (July 1867):

>He [Hugh] could not see that she [Meg] did not answer his smile. “Yes, I know, Hugh,” cheerfully helping him off with his cravat. “Good-night. I’ll have work enough for you to-morrow. You must help me pack the books, and there’s call-meeting at night.”

“That’s true, that’s true! I’ll give Brother Berkett a parting blizzard on that idee of his, that’ll settle him, I reckon!”

From “Radicalism Responsible for all the Evils that Curse the Land,” in the [Alexandria] Louisiana Democrat (July 22, 1868):

Gen. Morgan, (Dem) from Ohio, who was lately voted ont of his seat in Congress by a lawless Rump majority, made a speech, and gave the Rads a “blizzard” before he left:

He declared that the Republican party was responsible for all the evils that curse the land ; that half of the national debt was the result of robbery and speculation, and that the aggregate debt of the country was $6,5000,000,000—nearly one-half of the estimated property of the country.

From the Winchester [Indiana] Journal (June 9, 1870):

The Louisville Commercial says: “It’s always safe for a Democratic editor to abuse Governor Morton. In no other way can he better emphasize his devotion to his creed. In no other manner can he more highly commend himself to the leaders of his party. By no other device can he more certainly dispel any doubts as to his continued and eternal fidelity to the lost cause. Does the Democratic heart grow weary and faint, pitch into Morton. Does the Democratic spirit flag and falter, denounce Morton. Do signs of demoralization and death forbode the dissolution of the Democratic party, damn Morton. Are news scarce, topics few, politics dull, newspapers tame, Democrats disgusted, give Morton a blizzard.

From the [Troy, Missouri] Lincoln County Herald (July 28, 1870):

The Winchester (Indiana) Journal, speaking of the defalcation of eighteen thousand dollars by the treasurer of Jay county, says: “Unfortunately he is a Republican. If he was a Democrat wouldn’t we ‘blizzard’ him though.” Better “blizzard” him a little any how.—Cincinnati Commercial.

From the [Clearfield, Pennsylvania] Raftsman’s Journal (September 21, 1870):

The candidate nominated in the Second Congressional District, Tennessee, by the Democrats and conservatives, to run against Hon. Horace Maynard, Republican, owns the euphonious cognomen of A. Blizzard. He will have to treat the whisky drinkers of the Second district to many a “blizzard” and swallow not a few himself before he beats Horace—we fancy.

Summary of the cited examples

The cited uses of blizzard above break out into the following senses, with years of occurrence following):

  • Blast with a firearm or cannon (whether one or multiple bullets or pellets uncertain): 1834, 1834, 1836, 1846, 1846, 1862

  • Verbal blast: 1835, 1848, 1851, 1860, 1861, 1863, 1865, 1868

  • Blast with a firearm or cannon (single ball or bullet): 1835, 1857, 1863

  • Blazing fire: 1843

  • Heavy or painful physical blow (not involving a firearm): 1849, 1856, 1860, 1861, 1866, 1870, 1870

  • Literal or figurative attack: 1851, 1866, 1867

  • Exclamation (like “the blazes” or “blue blazes”): 1853, 1857

  • Blast with multiple firearms or with a firearm loaded with multiple pellets): 1860, 1863, 1863

  • Shot of liquor: 1870

Several things are noteworthy about these results. First, within thirteen years of the first confirmed use of blizzard in the sense of “snowstorm,” the word was being used in at least five other distinct senses (firearm blast, verbal blast, physical blow, exclamation, and shot of liquor). Second, the usage doesn’t seem as geographically narrow as we might have expected from the contemporaneous identification of blizzard as a “Western” word: Stories using the word appeared in newspapers located in California, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. Third, in the 1860s use of the term in its various meanings seems to have been on the increase. Fourth, we see the emergence around 1860 of the use of blizzard in the sense of a volley or fusillade or flurry of pellets or bullets. The conceptual distance between such a flurry of missiles and a snowstorm is far less than the distance between a single bullet and a snowstorm.

In view of these considerations, I think it is highly likely that blizzard in the sense of snowstorm emerged not independently of the other meanings or directly from a Midlands English dialectal usage, but from one of the several U.S. slang meanings of the word that were then current. As for whether those words arose out of Anglo-Saxon blysa, French blesser, German Blitz, or onomatopoeic blizzzz-urd remains a matter for speculation.

Good things from 2014

2015-01-02 by . 2 comments

Now that hat season is in full swing, we thought it would be nice to have a look at some of the good bits of 2014 at English Language & Usage.

First of all, some congratulations to members who hit 20K reputation this year:*

Job well done.

On a similar note, some of the more interesting gold badges earned this year:

Socratic

Unsung Hero

Marshal

Three questions from this year that caught our attention (in a good way)

Thanks to all our members for helping make EL&U the thriving community that it is. Thanks for an enjoyable 2014 and have a happy 2015!

*Thanks to the SE team for compiling the list. Since this was done in the middle of December more folks may have passed the line.

Chat vs Comment

2013-07-11 by . 5 comments

Hello my friend! How are you doing? It is good to see you around these parts, the Stack Exchange network is a lovely part of the Internet where we can all help each other to learn.

Of course, though, there are rules by which we should abide if we want to keep this place friendly and free of noise. Hey, now, do not look like that. It is true there are many rules, but they are normally quite useful.

Today I want to tell you about how to communicate with your fellow Stack Exchange users. For example: you have seen something someone has written and you disagree. You are a polite person, so you do not think you should just downvote and leave. I admire your style. Communication is good. At Stack Exchange we are allowed to make comments on people’s posts to ask for clarification and to point out mistakes. Obviously we do this in as friendly a way as possible.

Oh? You cannot comment? I see, I see. Do not be troubled. Comments are a privilege, which is earned by attaining 50 reputation points on this site. It is a mere trifle. You will find that by contributing good quality answers and questions you will be there in a few days, maybe even less.

It is important to note that comments are not permanent parts of the site and they get deleted when they outlive their usefulness. Ideally the useful information in a comment will be integrated into the post the comment is on, thus making the comment redundant.

Also, you should understand that the main site is not for discussion. Comments should not be used to discuss a topic at length.

Yes, you are quite right. Sometimes discussion is useful, or necessary. For that there is another place! It is a wonderful place, really. There is much adventure to be had. We call this place chat. The ability to chat is also a privilege, but it has a lower bar. Only 20 reputation points are required.

Chat is used for discussion, yes, but the discussion can roam from being purely about topics on the main site. Many times people wander in with simple questions, questions that might not be suitable for the main site, and ask them in the chat room. This is fine, encouraged even. There is of course a lot of other discussion going on there too, it can get quite frenetic, but do not be afraid to jump in. Be courteous and not pushy and you will be fine.

One excellent trick you can do with chat is to take a discussion in comments and move it to a chat room. This is useful if you think the discussion will become long. Also, if you would like to chat with someone, but they and you are finding the main room too difficult, you can create your own room. The new room will be public, but people generally do not stray from the main room unless they are invited.

Well, my friend, I hope you stay a while. There is a lot you can learn, and maybe a lot you can teach! We will be glad to hear from you.

One Language, Many Voices

2013-06-13 by . 3 comments

‘One Language, Many Voices’ was the title of an exhibition at the British Library in 2010-11. It sums up what English is and always has been. This simple truth is overlooked by those who take a one-size-fits-all approach to language. An historical perspective may help to set the record straight.

English has its origins in the various north-west European dialects which were spoken by the tribes who invaded England from the middle of the fifth century, and which displaced the native Celtic, which remains only in a few words like brock (badger), cwm (valley) and some place names. The surviving literature from the period allows us to identify an Anglo-Saxon language, now usually known as Old English. However, the texts we have still show dialectical differences, and it seems likely that the spoken dialects of Old English were sometimes mutually incomprehensible.

For a period, the Wessex dialect was the most prestigious, showing that then, as now, any one variety of the language predominates not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social reasons. However, the language was by no means static during this period, because the rule of the Wessex king, Alfred the Great, coincided with the Viking invasions, which brought new words and new grammar into English which remain with us today.

The next most significant influence on the language was the Norman invasion of 1066. So pervasive was Norman French that it eclipsed English for many years in the administration of the country, but although Norman French was the official language, we may suppose that English, in all its varieties, continued to be spoken by the majority. English later resurfaced in public discourse, and in 1362 the Statute of Pleading allowed it to be used in Parliament. Soon after this time, Chaucer was writing the first great works of English literature in a form of the language that is much more recognizably English than its Old English predecessor. Chaucer wrote in his own dialect, which happened to be that of the east Midlands, spoken in the triangle formed by Oxford, Cambridge and London. The language spoken and written at this time is known as Middle English, but great literature survives in dialects other than Chaucer’s, including William Langland’s ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’.

Chaucer had a stroke of luck when William Caxton, the first English printer, came to print Chaucer’s works. Because of the proliferation of dialects, Caxton was unsure which to use in his printed books, so he just chose the one he was most familiar with, his own. This happened to be Chaucer’s as well, so the combination of a great writer and the first printer determined the course of English ever after. This particular dialect, which was to become the basis of what we now know as Standard English, was not chosen because it had some particular linguistic merit that other dialects lacked. Any other dialect would have served just as well.

Middle English turned into Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, but there is evidence from his plays that other dialects existed alongside what was becoming the standard one. The conscious process of standardisation didn’t begin until the eighteenth century, when speakers of English, most of whom until then had probably never given the matter a second thought, started to become self-conscious about their use of language and sought guidance. As today, there was no shortage of self-styled experts willing to help them out. They made up rules about English, which reflected their own personal preferences, and were based on Latin, a language which has a quite different grammar from that of English and other Germanic languages. Their idiosyncratic prescriptions remain with us. To some they are as holy writ and are stoutly defended by people who know little of their origins. In truth, they are shibboleths, whose main purpose is to allow those with a little education to show their assumed superiority over those who have been unfortunate enough to have had less.

Since the eighteenth century, English has changed, and become more widely spoken, in ways that earlier speakers could not have imagined. It has absorbed vocabulary from around the world and, thanks first to the British Empire and, since the start of the twentieth century, to the global influence of the United States, has become the first international language since Latin. The history of English is complex and long, but this very brief summary is necessary for countering the prejudices that all too often typify discussion of the language today. It is the failure to appreciate that English exists in many varieties, as it has always done, that is behind much misunderstanding. Within the United Kingdom alone, some regional dialects can be almost incomprehensible to those from other regions, and so can some social dialects to those from different social classes. More widely, there are varieties of English spoken in Singapore, New Zealand, Nigeria, India, Canada and the United States, to name just a few places where English is either a first or second language, and within these English-speaking communities there will be further sub-varieties.

All varieties, standard and non-standard alike, have an internally consistent system of grammar, and speakers of non-standard varieties are not, by that fact alone, inarticulate, unintelligent or ignorant. The difficulty in understanding those who speak differently from ourselves often lies in accent rather than grammar or vocabulary. As Peter Trudgill has shown, the grammar of nonstandard varieties does not differ so very greatly from Standard English. Where it does, it can be more complex. For example, as Trudgill says,

‘Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb “do” and its main verb forms. This is true both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish between auxiliary I do, he do and main verb I does, he does or similar, and the past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary did and main verb done, as in You done it, did you?

Nevertheless, some form of commonly understandable norm is essential, and Standard English fills the role. It is the variety of the language used in published work, and in education, journalism and broadcasting, the law and public administration, and by the small minority of people for whom it is a native spoken variety. Provided it is understood as a neutral term, not implying ‘high standard’, Standard English is preferable to alternatives such as BBC English, Oxford English or The Queen’s English, and is the one used by professional linguists. If not universally spoken and written, it is widely understood, and for that reason schools have a duty to teach it.

None of this should be seen as undervaluing the linguistic merits of nonstandard varieties. They contribute to the richness of the language which we have inherited from those diverse tribes who came to Britain so long ago. We should celebrate rather than condemn them.

Filed under Etymology, Linguistics

The Give That Keeps On Gifting: The Protean Nature of English Words, and Why That’s A Good Thing

2012-12-31 by . 7 comments

English is constantly adding, modifying, and repurposing words.

Look, there’s one right now: repurpose. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, it is officially a word:

re·pur·pose tr.v. re·pur·posedre·pur·pos·ingre·pur·pos·es
To use or convert for use in another format or product: repurposed the book as a compact disk.

Etymonline cites its usage from 1995, so it is relatively new. It is made by adding re- to the word purpose, which can be either a noun or a verb. My money is on noun, because the new construct comes out of business or technical jargon and purpose as a verb is pretty seldom heard. Not that it would be wrong. In fact, it would not be surprising if purpose used as a verb were revived as a back-formation of repurpose.

In this season of giving, let’s look at the words give and gift. Give is a verb and gift is a noun, right? True. But haven’t you ever found some mechanical thing to be loose when it was supposed to be tight and said, “I feel a little give in it”? Of course you have. Verb has been nouned. You nouned it yourself.

Similarly, we’ve all heard someone use the word gift as a verb: “She gifted them all with front-row seats to the concert.” And whether our inner fussbudget winces or not when we hear it said that way, it is still a legitimate usage. Face it: the traditional verb form give doesn’t say as much, and simply isn’t as precise. “She gave them all front-row seats to the concert.” That doesn’t exactly carry the connotation of presenting them with a gift, does it? She could have been paying them back for prior favors, or because she lost a bet — any number of non-giftish reasons come to mind.

Who can forget the “regifting” episode of the immensely popular TV show Seinfeld? (Hmm, that occurred right around the time repurpose came into the lexicon. Coincidence?) And if we admit that the writers and actors on that show were all very gifted, we’ve now adjectived a noun. We might even have adjectived the noun very giftedly, in which case we’ve adverbed the adjective. It goes on.

There really is nothing to be afraid of. Languages change, and words get overloaded, adapted, modified. Some people abhor this condition. Some feel language should be as precise as mathematics: see John Quijada’s artificially constructed language, Ithkuil, if you don’t believe me. Me, I prefer the richness of everyday speech, and the creative way people adapt words to mean new things. Isn’t it more colorful and descriptive to say a basketball player bricked a shot, rather than falling back on the boring and pedestrian missed? A horrible shot in basketball looks like someone throwing a brick, not a ball, and if we verb the noun we get a shot that has been bricked.

Language is a living thing. Let’s never forget that. If words stop changing, a language starts dying, just as our bodies do if our cells stop dying and being reborn.

While we’re on the subject, let’s look at that verb: live. The noun form is, of course, life. Since the 1830s, the noun lifer has referred to a prisoner serving a life sentence. But wait a sec, didn’t it have to become a verb first? Isn’t a verb at least implied there: lifer, one who lifes? No? Let’s move forward in time and notice a shift in meaning: lifer now includes someone who is serving “for life” in the military. I recently read the book Generation Kill by Evan Wright, who was embedded with a platoon of Recon Marines that participated in the assault on Baghdad in 2003. After Saddam’s army was defeated, one of the Marines, Corporal Ray Person, is quoted as he grouses about the battalion first sergeant’s return to his meddlesome “lifer” ways. Person complains:

“The second they stop shooting at us, [that] motherfucker’s lifin’ us in his stupid fucking retardese.”

Ahh, there it is. Crude though his statement may be, his verbing of a noun that arose from the prior verbing of the same noun is pure poetry. And exactly right for the sentiment the soldier wished to express. What is a lifer sergeant doing to Marines when he makes their lives miserable with a lot of petty regulations? He is lifing them. And he is doing so in the imaginary-yet-somehow-very-real language Cpl. Person vulgarly calls retardese, which consists, presumably, of one stupid, ungrammatical statement after another spoken in a near-incomprehensible hillbilly drawl.

I hope you can’t find any give in my arguments. But I wish to gift you with one final thought on the protean nature of English. Wallace Stevens said it about poetry, but it goes for language in general as well:

    It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
    It has to face the men of the time and to meet
    The women of the time. It has to think about war
    And it has to find what will suffice. It has
    To construct a new stage.
In other words, it has to be a living, changing entity, continually adapting, being adapted, constructing a new stage. Fortunately for all of us, it is.

Filed under Etymology, Grammar, Linguistics

You Could Look It Up

2012-12-17 by . 4 comments

Your question has been “Closed as General Reference”. That raises more questions: What does that mean? Why was it closed? What should you do about it?

What Does It Mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “Your question is worthless. Don’t bother us.” It certainly doesn’t mean “You are an illiterate cretin. Go away” — although some people take it that way.

Closed means “Closed for repairs”.  And General Reference means “You could look it up.”

Why Was it Closed?

That’s very easy to answer: we believe that your question (as it stands) can be answered by consulting a standard online reference work.

It makes a lot more sense for you to do that than us. If you look it up you will find not only the answer to the question you asked but also the answers to many other questions you might have intended to ask that we don’t know about.

You will also get your answer faster, since you won’t have to wait for one (or more) of us to perform the lookup and incorporate the results in a Witty and Incisive Response. (Wit and Incisiveness are hard to achieve, and a good Response can take a long time to compose.)

And: you may also learn something about what online resources are available to you, and what they offer which might satisfy future needs.

What Should You Do?

Depends.  Very often people will have posted an answer to your question, or will have posted what amounts to an answer in the comments. If all you’re interested in is the answer, you’ve got it: you’re done.

If you didn’t get a satisfactory answer this way, do what the Closed banner tells you:

Look it up.

Again, people will often post a link directing you to an appropriate online reference. If not, a lot of useful references are listed here and here. These lists are particularly valuable for the comments which accompany them. The works fall mostly into four broad categories:

  • Dictionaries provide far more than just definitions: etymologies, examples, citations, and often brief notes on “standard” usage (debate rages over what exactly that means, but that’s instructive, too). Don’t consult just one: Dictionaries vary greatly not just in overall quality but in the value of individual entries.
  • Thesauruses (or thesauri, or even more piquantly thesauroi) are useful for recalling words you can’t quite remember, but they don’t usually tell you much about which synonym you should use where. But they can be fun.
  • Corpora provide many more examples of actual use of a word or phrase than dictionaries, and can be particularly valuable guides to when and how synonyms differ.
  • Style guides are the best source for prescriptive rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and documentation. They all differ in many details, however; select the one that is recommended by your school or discipline or (if you are so fortunate as to have one) your publisher.

A hint:  OneLook is a very useful tool: input a word or phrase and it returns you links to many dictionaries and other references conveniently listed on one page.

But what if these references don’t provide you what you need? — no reference work can answer all questions. In that case, come back to ELU and

Fix your question.

Click edit immediately beneath your post and rewrite it.

  • Tell us what you’ve found out, and focus our attention on what your research leaves unanswered.
  • If anybody left useful comments, address those.
  • Give us as much context as you can. What is it you’re trying to understand (or say)? Who said it (or to whom do you want to say it), where and when? What register are you concerned with? — formal, colloquial, vulgar?
  • Don’t forget to change your title Question to fit the new content.

The more you can tell us, the better we can answer.

If you’ve got at least 20 rep, you can pop over to Chat (the link’s at the top of the ELU page) for help. There’s usually somebody around to hold your hand. And if you fix it all by yourself, come by Chat when you’re done and report it. It takes a moderator or five high-rep users to get your question reopened, so you want to draw their attention to the work you’ve done.

Trust me. That’s how you get a Witty and Incisive Response—or several. That’s how you get Upvotes and Reputation. That’s how you learn to use resources you never knew about. That’s how you Make Friends and Influence People.

You could look it up.

 

Good English = Effective English

2012-12-03 by . 1 comments

Speech and the written language differ in many ways. Speech developed before writing and we learn to speak before we learn to write. For a long time there was no written language at all, and there are languages that have no written form. That is not to say we can say what we like and hope to be understood. Speech has its rules. In English, we must say, ‘Shut the door’ rather than, ‘Shut door the’ or ‘Shut of door’, and we must say ‘streets’ rather than ‘street, street’ when we mean more than one. Anyone who applies such rules consistently speaks correct English. The only people who don’t are those who have yet to learn them: infants and those who are learning English as a foreign language.

There are many varieties of spoken English and there is no reason to suppose that one variety is linguistically superior to any other. At the same time, we do well to use a spoken language that is tolerably close to that of the people with whom we expect to spend most of our lives. For the middle-class, that means adopting the dialect known as Standard English. It can be spoken in any accent, but is often associated with the accent of educated people living in London and the south-east of England. But it’s no more and no less correct than Midlands, Liverpool, Tyneside, Indian, Australian or Caribbean English.

Written language derives from speech, but we have to make a deliberate attempt to learn it. Some fail to do so, even when they speak their native language fluently. We have to encode our thoughts as arbitrary marks on paper or the screen and interpret similar marks produced by others. Like speech, different kinds of written language suit different circumstances. An email or text message in a variety of language that many of us would not understand is perfectly appropriate between people who do understand such language. The question of whether or not it is correct simply does not arise. However, such language in, say, a job application or a Times leader would be unacceptable, and consequently ineffective, if it was incomprehensible to its readers, or if it simply antagonized them. That seems to me a more important consideration than whether or not it conforms to someone’s idea of correctness.

Those who commit words to print should consider what they are trying to express, who their readers are, and whether the chosen language will succeed in conveying the message clearly without hesitation, repetition or deviation. And it is helpful if, in writing which is destined to be read by a large number of people whose linguistic backgrounds we cannot know, we agree on certain conventions. These conventions include punctuation, spelling, and choice of vocabulary and structures. In speech we generally know personally our audiences. In writing, too, we will sometimes know our readers and we can adapt our language accordingly. Quite often, we will not. In those cases, a certain commonality is required to avoid chaos.

When I read a sentence I ask not so much, ‘Is it correct?’ but, ‘Do I want to read any more of this stuff?’ ‘Getting it right’ means successfully using language to achieve the purpose intended, not necessarily complying with a set of rules. Achieving the purpose intended includes producing the response on the part of our readers thaty we want them to have. Placing the emphasis on effectiveness rather than correctness seems to me more likely to produce the desired result. The alternative seems to suppose that once you have complied with the rules laid down by this or that authority you have done all you need to. That is far from the truth.

Filed under Linguistics

Much Ado About Possessive Apostrophes

2012-11-19 by . 9 comments

Apostrophes are lovely little critters, but they tend to boggle the mind if you think about them too much.  One of the most common questions on EL&U regards proper usage of an apostrophe to indicate possession.

The basics.

How do we use an apostrophe to indicate possession?

If the possessing noun is singular, add an 's (apostrophe-s).

Sara's beast friends were all balrogs.

If the possessing noun is plural and ends in s, add an ' (apostrophe).

The beasty balrogs' game was very fun.

Well, now, that’s pretty straightforward, right? Except that apostrophes have this annoying habit of jumping into your brain and scrambling your thoughts.  There are lots of ways to get confused.

What if the possessing noun is plural and does not end in s?

Then treat it like the singular case, and add an 's (apostrophe-s).

The children's books were tucked away in their cubbies. The geese's honking alerted the dog to the fox’s presence.

What if the possessing noun is not plural, but ends in s?

Well, golly, it turns out this one is complicated.  Generally speaking, these are treated just the same as other singular nouns:

The glass's rim was cracked.

But this has not always been the case.  Historically, names ending in s followed the plural rule:

*Seamus' writings were well-known throughout Galway.

For proper nouns, this is considered a stylistic choice, but following the singular form is more common these days:

Seamus's writings were well-known throughout Galway.

You’d think with just four rules (which are really just two if you think about it) that noöne would have much trouble with possessive apostrophes. But those apostrophes sure are pernicious.

The Advanced.

What if the possessing noun is a conjoined phrase like “my wife and I”?

Kosmonaut gives an excellent answer to this question.

 

Those rules are all well and good, but how do I decide whether the possessing noun should be plural or not in the first place?

There are a lot of questions about this very sticky wicket on EL&U.  Some examples are:

User’s or Users’ Guide

User or Users Account

User’s/Users’/Users Group

Happy Mothers’ Day or Happy Mother’s Day

Members’ or Member’s Benefits

Beginner’s or Beginners’ Guide

Baker’s Dozen

Does the guide belong to one user or many users?  Is the day for one mother or all mothers?  Either way is technically acceptable, but generally speaking, we consider a single instance and an abstract entity.  So one copy of the guide for one abstract generalization of user means we usually say “User’s Guide.”  Mother’s Day is trickier because we could celebrate all mothers on that day, but it is supposed to be a day on which we honor our own mother, so “Happy Mother’s Day” unless you have two mommies.

Finally, we see that possessive apostrophes are disappearing for plural nouns that demonstrate affiliation, so it is acceptable practice to use phrases like “User Group” instead of “Users’ Group.”

That is a little summary of possessive apostrophes, along with some fun links for further reading.

Filed under Orthography

Looking Up a Gun: Common English Words with Nordic Origins

2012-11-05 by . 1 comments

Old Norse words in the English language are much more numerous than many would suspect. Many common words such as  guncraze, and equip are of Nordic origin. Because the two languages were so similar, they have many loanwords. Often, they were mutually intelligible to quite a degree. In this post, I’m going to analyze the origins of these three common English words rooted in the Old Norse language.

There were a two main ways that Old Norse words made their way into the English language. First, between 865 and 954 (the Danelaw), the Vikings colonized eastern and northern England. During this time, many of their Old Norse words entered the Old English and have been in use  since. Other words entered the Norman French and were passed on from there to Middle English during the Norman Conquest of 1066. The parallels between Old Norse and Old English facilitated the trading of words between the two languages.

Gun

In Nordic culture, the name Gunnhildr was fairly common. It had the meaning “war battle maid” and is a cognate to the more modern name, “Gunhild”. In 1330, Windsor Castle had an inventory of it’s munitions made. In the inventory, a specific siege engine was called the Lady Gunilda, a shortening of Gunnhildr. Later, the word gonnilde, yet another variation of Gunnhildr, became more generalized to mean “cannon” in Middle English. By the mid-fourteenth century, these had been shortened to gunne. It did not yet have the modern meaning of “gun”, though. It meant simply “an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles”. So, the ballista and the trebuchet both fell into this definition. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that gunne came to mean “firearm” (because that’s when firearms first came to major use). Around that time, it was finally shortened to “gun”.

Craze

Old Norse had a word krasa, which meant “shatter”.  Around the mid-14th century, it entered the Middle French language as the word ecraser, which meant “to squash”. This evolved into both the modern French écraser, and the Middle English crasen, which meant “to break in pieces; to crack”. It also had a  second meaning, “to be diseased or deformed”. Crasen evolved into the modern English crase (now obselete), however, it only carried the first meaning, “to break in pieces; to crack”. However, crasen evolved into another modern English word, craze. This carried the second meaning, “to be diseased or deformed”. However, it had evolved into the meaning “mental breakdown”. The current meaning of the word is “to become insane; go mad”, not a far cry from “mental breakdown”. The first reference to craze meaning “mania, fad” was in 1813. However, the original meaning, “to make cracks”, is still in use a with a slightly different meaning, “to make small cracks on the surface of”. This is used when referring to ceramic pottery.

Equip

The Nordic word skip meant “ship”. Skipa, another Norse word was derived from it, with the meaning “fit out a ship”. In the twelfth century, it entered the Old French as esquiper. In the 1520s, it was used in the Middle French as équiper. It meant “to supply, fit out”, thus it was no longer specific to ships. In the late sixteenth century, it made it’s way into English as Esquippe. In the seventeenth century,  a p was dropped and the word became esquip. Later in the century, the s was dropped and it was shortened to “equip”, as we know it today. It was spelled acquip during that time, but that spelling never really caught on.

Estimates vary, but range from 15-25% of English words (non-scientific) originate from Old Norse. Given the size of the English language, that is a quite a considerable amount. Only Latin and French contribute more words to English than Old Norse. Our language owes a great deal to those ruthless Scandinavian seafarers. Without their contributions, I would not be able to say, “He often fumbled for words, which amused people greatly.” (Kylfdi mᴊǫk til orðanna, ok hǫfðu margir menn þat mᴊǫk at spotti.)


Sources

Filed under Etymology

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

2012-10-15 by . 7 comments

Imagine you are reading something on the Internet (I know, it’s a stretch), and you come across the following passage:

I want to be sure that you and me are on the same page. When you ask how I feel about grammar, you are begging the question, Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist? The problem is that that question isn’t even something sensible to really ask about. It think it would help you if those definitions were reviewed.

How would you characterize the quality of the writing?

  • It is just fine
  • It has some style issues
  • It has some grammar issues
  • It is horrid writing for a number of reasons, including both style and grammar

Of course, the correct answer is… well, hold on, now. It’s not quite that simple.

A Prescriptivist’s View

If you cringed while reading the example passage above and ached to break out the red pen, then chances are that you fall into the prescriptivist camp. The general take of a prescriptivist is that there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from when those rules are broken. You might hear this idea of prescriptive linguistics described as normative, which means that the rules are based on normal usage, and they determine the way things (spelling, grammar, etc.) ought to be. Some examples of prescriptive rules are:

  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  • Don’t split infinitives
  • Don’t use the passive voice
  • Don’t use the pronoun ‘I’ in object position

Of course, not all prescriptivists agree on what the rules (and exceptions) should be. Many derive their rules from authoritative works, like Fowler’s 1926 work A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, now in its 53rd year of printing. Others rely on their intuitions, informed by the forces of society and class, or aphorisms passed on by their elders (my grandmother was fond of saying, Cakes are ‘done’, people are ‘finished’!). The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site has seen many questions on prescriptivist rules, for example:

The keen observer will have noticed that prescriptive rules tend to cover not just what is allowed by language, but also (and often) what is preferred. The rules are not restricted to grammar, but can extend to concerns like spelling and formatting (all of which are, for lack of a better phrase, elements of style). For example, a prescriptivist might tell you that a sentence beginning after a colon must start with a capital letter, or that the word ‘like’ should not be used as a subordinating conjunction.

A Descriptivist’s View

You may have gotten through the passage at the beginning of this post and thought that there was nothing wrong with it. Or, perhaps you thought it was not the best prose you’d ever seen, but that there weren’t any real errors, simply style choices that you wouldn’t have made. Maybe you even saw some things that you really didn’t like, but know that sometimes people choose to write that way, and as long as it’s understandable, you can deal with it. If any of that sounds like you, then you are probably somewhat of a descriptivist.

The idea behind descriptive linguistics is that a language is defined by what people do with it. In other words, you begin by studying and listening to native speakers. Then, when you notice patterns in the ways that they communicate, you can record those patterns as guesses about the principles of a language. If you rarely (or never) observe someone breaking those patterns, then your guess is more likely to be an accurate representation of the language. Those guesses are called hypotheses, and when they are well-supported by evidence, they can be accepted as correctness conditions for a language. For example, a correctness condition about Standard English is the notion of a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to observe a native English speaker saying something like, “*I an apple ate,” so it is a safe bet that if you hear that, you aren’t hearing Standard English. Of course, it also means that if enough people start using a new construction, then your grammatical model should adapt to accommodate it.

The main difference between a correctness condition and a prescriptive rule is that a rule is, by its very nature, regulatory. A correctness condition, on the other hand, is constitutive. I like to think about it in terms of cooking: If I serve chicken cacciatore with raw chicken, that’s an error. The dish is still chicken cacciatore, but I’ve made it incorrectly. I’ve broken a prescriptive rule that governs how to make the dish (specifically, the one that says that the chicken should be braised until it is cooked through rather than served raw). On the other hand, if I make cacciatore with rabbit instead of chicken, that’s not chicken cacciatore with mistakes. It’s simply rabbit cacciatore. A descriptivist would look at the situation and conclude that cooking alla cacciatora is defined by searing meat in oil, then simmering it with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and seasoning, rather than by the choice of meat (perhaps with a caveat that some meats are more common than others).

The Middle Ground

So, you seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, you have generations of grade school English teachers rightly warning their pupils that people might chuckle at them if they use the word ‘irregardless’. On the other hand, you have the scientific rigor of the modern linguistic community touting descriptivism as the torch-bearer of truth and enlightenment. Are you doomed to choose between a democracy of solecisms and a library of thousand-page tomes of writer’s regulations? Are things really that bleak?

Of course not. You have the luxury of picking the view that suits you at any moment. You can leave it to the descriptivists to confirm what makes up the language, and the prescriptivists to guide you on how to make it flow sweetly and clearly into the minds of others. Members of these groups tend to bicker and say that the others are destroying the language or poisoning the minds of the children. It is rarely true that these claims are valid. As long as you keep your wits about you, it is not so hard to tell when a descriptivist is being overly forgiving of bad writing or a prescriptivist is blindly spouting advice on language that hasn’t been relevant for the last sixty years. Neither is it a bad idea to keep an open mind towards new ways of saying something, or consult a style manual for tips about how to communicate your ideas effectively. As is so often the case, the most important advice in the ‘prescriptivist vs. descriptivist’ debate is to keep your head up and use the right tool for the job.

Going Further (or is it farther?)

Interested in diving deeper into the matter? Here are some resources that I think are interesting:

Filed under Linguistics