or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Let It Be

The unfailingly fascinating Languagehat.com talks about a word I'd heard before, but in a slightly different form: "dight", which means "to adorn, array, or dress".

I instantly recognized it because I had run across another form of it, "bedight", before. This led me to wonder if it was related to "bedizen", "to dress in fine clothing" or sometimes "to dress garishly". Well, it isn't, alas. "Dight" ultimately comes from the Latin "dictare", which led to an Old English word meaning "to arrange" or "to put into order", whereas "dizen" comes from a very old German word meaning "a bunch of flax". (And we have yet another "be-" word, "bedeck", which means more or less the same thing and which comes from still another source; a Dutch word meaning "covering". I never cease to marvel at just how many words the English language makes use of.) Although I failed to find a common thread, those words led me to think about the prefix they share, "be-".

Sometimes, "be-" acts to turn another part of speech into a transitive verb: the noun "troth", for example, becomes the verb "betroth". However, in the three verbs above, and quite a few others besides, "be-" acts as a simple intensifier; it was in use in Old English, and persists in such words as "berate" and "befit". (They mean the same with or without the prefix; but it undeniably adds something to them, the impressiveness of an extra syllable.) Other "be-"-intensified words feel a little archaic, though they're still in common currency: "beseech" and "besmirch", for example. The adventurous speaker or writer can use the prefix to add an antique feel to verbs that don't ordinarily take it: "beflail", say.

Here's a story told of Abraham Lincoln:

"He once visited McClellan's headquarters with an aide, and found it empty. He heard hammering in the woods nearby and went to see what it was. "It's a new privy for the General," was the answer. "Is it a one-holer or a two holer?" Lincoln asked. "A one-holer, sir," the soldier answered. When he was out of earshot of the soldiers, Lincoln said to his aide, "Thank God it's a one-holer, for if it were a two-holer, before General McClellan could make up his mind which one to use he would beshit himself." "


The article mentioned above contains a word I hadn't heard before: "hapax". As it turns out, it's an abbreviated form of the expression hapax legomenon, which is Greek for "say once" ("hapax" means "once"): it refers to a word, word variant, or usage that appears only once in the recorded history of a language. Languagehat uses the opportunity to mildly castigate the OED for listing an erroneous usage of the word "dight" by Edmund Spenser, and this immediately brought to mind the humiliating mistake made by Robert Browning. I'll let Hugh Rawson tell the story, as he does in his invaluable book Wicked Words:

"The T-word occupies a special niche in literary history, however, thanks to a horrible mistake by Robert Browning, who included it in 'Pippa Passes' (1841) without knowing its true meaning. 'The owls and bats,/Cowls and twats,/Monks and nuns,/In a cloister's moods.' Poor Robert! He had been misled into thinking the word meant 'hat' by its appearance in 'Vanity of Vanities,' a poem of 1660, containing the treacherous lines: 'They'd talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat,/They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.' (There is a lesson here about not using words unless one is very sure of their meaning.)"

The OED, by the way, mentions Browning's ignorance in a bland little note under the listing for "twat": "Erroneously used by Browning...under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun's attire." That's a hapax legomenon if ever there were one.


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