or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 15, 2007

At First Blush

As I wrote a couple of days ago, I just finished reading Simon Winchester's mesmerizing "The Meaning of Everything", which, despite its occasional tendency to ramble on through long and boring lists, is a must-read. It's the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, the pre-eminent book of its kind in all the world, and it is just fascinating.

Here are a few lines that grabbed me:

All the words used in the definition must appear elsewhere in the dictionary so that any reader's puzzlement can be rectified by his simply looking those up as well. To repeat, the rule of thumb has it that no word in the definition should be more complicated than the word that's being defined. Samuel Johnson broke this rule on numerous occasions: in his definition of the word "elephant", for example, he writes of the animal's "pudicity". Few know at first blush that this word means "shyness", making the definition, and by extension Johnson's dictionary, less than ideal.

If you looked at "pudicity" and didn't know what it meant, might you be able to guess? It depends on how many other words you know.

I could hazard a guess at the meaning of the word because of the word "pudendum". It means the genitalia, usually but not specifically a woman's, and means "the parts of which one ought to be ashamed", from Latin "pudere", "to be ashamed". If you know that, then "pudicity" (and its adjectival form "pudic") ought to be a pretty easy guess. It's not an exact match: "pudicity" is more usually defined as "modesty" or "chastity" than "shyness", but the words are related.

If you looked at "pudicity" and thought of "pud", you'd be a little farther afield, and not necessarily for the reason you might think, because here we have an interesting case of divergent evolution: although "pud" is slang for "penis", "pud" and "pudendum" are entirely unrelated.

In North American English, "pudding" generally means one of two things: most usually a soft dessert made with milk and thickened with eggs or cornstarch, but also a sort of sausage such as blood pudding. (It can also be a savoury dish with a soft, thick constitution, such as "pease pudding", otherwise known as the nursery-rhyme "pease porridge", which my grandmother used to make and which was very delicious.) In British English, the second, sausagy meaning is used in the same way as in North America, but "pudding" means, much less specifically, any dessert, often abbreviated to "pud", pronounced to rhyme with "good".

The "sausage" sense, though, naturally came to join those other rather self-aggrandizing terms that men apply to their genitalia, and in time, the abbreviation "pud", pronounced, at least in North America, to rhyme with "mud", came to mean "penis".

"Pudding", by the way, is (apparently) an Anglicization of French "boudin", most commonly known in English in the form of "boudin noir", a blood-sausage, and "boudin blanc", which is that same pork sausage without the pork blood.


Blogger D.J. said...

Without peeking, I'd bet a hat that "impudent" is going to be in the mix: "im-" to negate, plus the shameful "-pudent". Sound right?

Monday, December 17, 2007 10:51:00 PM  

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