A Frustrating Article.

Kelly Grovier at BBC Culture writes a piece that perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of the popular belief that earliest attestation is the same thing as word creation. HerHis thesis is that “it was often female writers who sculpted the fresh coinages that kept language rippling with poignancy and power.” She He illustrates it by combing the OED for citations by women; her his first example is:

The word ‘frustrating’ itself, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, makes its first appearance in print in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, where she presciently describes “the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, and their frustrating complexity”.

SheHe doesn’t even bother to provide the date of the novel, 1872; alas, it’s trivially easy to antedate the usage to 1841 with a quick glance at Google Books (Catherine Grace Frances Gore, Greville; Or, a Season in Paris, p. 9: “He was master of himself and his yacht; and dearly as he loved his mother, it was something to feel freed from a frustrating influence”), and I’m sure a little more effort would push it back farther. SheHe lists a number of “rules”; I’ll quote the first in extenso to show the general nonsense involved:

Rule no 1: Get your ‘-ness’ on
The suffix ‘-ness’ can transform an otherwise unremarkable word into something stranger and more affectingly abstract. The adjective ‘dark’, for example, on its face is frank and factual, whereas ‘darkness’ is more movingly evocative and poetic. Dorothy Wordsworth understood that linguistic trick profoundly and exploited it to memorable effect when describing an uncanny walk she took with her brother, William, in Scotland in 1803 […]. The soulful scene, Wordsworth said, magically contained “that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature”. It was the first time, according to the OED, that the words ‘visionariness’ and ‘unworldliness’ are known to have been used. Today, unnerving-nesses stack up around us: the unvisitedness of our parents and grandparents. The unembracedness of our friends. The egglessness of our pantries.

“The adjective ‘dark’, for example, on its face is frank and factual, whereas ‘darkness’ is more movingly evocative and poetic”: WTF?! As for the particular words, “visionariness” is a random example of an adjective with -ness stuck on, such as can be formed at any time by anybody, and “unworldliness” is just as easily antedated as “frustrating” (1732: J. Morgan, Phœnix Britannicus, p. 22, “the Unworldliness of Mind”). Rule no 2 is “To demonstrate the profound depths of one’s connection with a place or feeling, simply fastening an ‘-r’ or an ‘-er’ to the end of a noun can confer a new existential title” (“it was Jane Austen who, in a letter she wrote in 1800, seized upon the alienness of a group of random gamblers who had gathered around a casino table, none belonging to the place itself and all having come from an undefined ‘outside’, to christen all such future strangers as ‘outsiders’”); Rule no. 3: “Join the Hyphen Nation” (“Charlotte Brontë was a genius of such curiously compelling compounds. To her it is likely we owe the origin of ‘self-doubt’ and ‘Wild-West’ as well as that activity to which many of us have found ourselves suddenly engaging with obsessive vigour: ‘spring-clean’, which Brontë niftily neologised in a letter she wrote in April 1848”); and Rule no. 4: “The Wisdoms of ‘-isms’” (“The novelist George Eliot […] is also credited with formulating, in a letter she wrote in 1885, something rather less negative in its outlook and attitude: the term ‘meliorism’, or the belief that the world’s suffering is healable if we all work together for that end”). Surely the blithering idiocy of all this is evident on its face; I make the charitable assumption that there was a pressing deadline involved, and perhaps a few glasses of wine, but still it’s depressing to think that this sort of drivel can be published in the year 2020 — I thought we’d come at least a bit farther. (Thanks, AJP!)

Update. My thanks to Conrad H. Roth for setting me straight on the gender of the blithering idiot.

Comments

  1. I have had the OED (2-volume small-type edition) on my bookshelf for decades, alongside my Columbia encyclopedia. Also a Merriam Webster College Edition I stole from a summer job 40 years ago. They are one shelf up from our 1976 edition of the National Geographic atlas, which – I swear this is true! – was the first present I gave to my wife when we started dating. And a Petit Bob – hers. Our bilingual dictionaries – French-English, Spanish-English, Hebrew-English, and my late father’s pretty little “German for Chemists” dictionary – are there, too. There was a time that I couldn’t get through a day – or even a dinner – without consulting one of them.

    And now I hardly ever pull them out except for nostalgia’s sake. For sure I would never trust the OED for the earliest use in print of anything. What’s a google ngram for, I’d like to know.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    “The adjective ‘dark’, for example, on its face is frank and factual, whereas ‘darkness’ is more movingly evocative and poetic”: WTF?!

    Yeah, that hasn’t been true since dankuis daganzipas, the dank black earth the ancient Luwians sunk their dead into. That was evocative enough to spread into Greek, where Homer mentioned chthôn melainan a lot.

    (Related to German dunkel – “dark”.)

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    The interesting thing about this article is wondering how the author got paid for writing it. It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder if you’ve made the right life choices.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    “it was often female writers who sculpted the fresh coinages that kept language rippling with poignancy and power.”

    She themself is no mean sculptress of fresh verbiage! I like the waves of argent comptant. They conjure up the rippling piles in the natatory Money Bins of Uncle Scrooge.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    It does seem to be a real-world fact that young women are the main drivers of linguistic innovation. Our author could have made an actually informative article about that, if she’d only known.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    That seemage has come up several times at this esteemed site. Has the discussion ever got beyond anecdotal asseveration ?

    Don’t get me wrong – I have my own anecdotes. All the chilluns in my family learned fun with words from my mother. There is no doubt about that, given the father.

  7. Charles says:

    It does seem to be a real-world fact that young women are the main drivers of linguistic innovation
    James Thurber wrote a fable whose moral it was that you may as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backward.

  8. David Eddyshaw says:

    Has the discussion ever got beyond anecdotal asseveration ?

    I invoke the holy name of William Labov:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_paradox

  9. Stu Clayton says:

    I see he claims that women are

    # leaders both in eliminating stigmatized forms and adopting incoming prestige forms #

    They thus effected

    # entire language shifts, like that from Hungarian to German in Austria.[1] #

    It’s just like them to rock the boat. I wonder what’s coming up next.

    Edit: I see what’s going on here. It’s not that grands récits have lost their effectiveness – there were never enough to shake a stick at anyhoo. Instead, every Hinz und Kunz now gets 15 minutes of fame for his newly minted grand récit. [That’s one for you right there!]

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Better keep on their good side, just in case.

    Also

    https://xkcd.com/1483/

  11. Well, it’s hard to find a grown up person discovering the wonders of morphology for the first time, but I welcome it with open handedness.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    # entire language shifts, like that from Hungarian to German in Austria.[1] #

    That’s a… weird claim. I just left a comment.

    discovering the wonders of morphology for the first time

    To be fair In fairness, -ness is less productive than one might think, and its productivity is still increasing. Darwin once noted in a letter that Beinlosigkeit had been translated as leglessness somewhere, and he remarked on what a curious word that was.

  13. SFReader says:

    As I understand, city of Vienna is mostly populated by descendants of various national minorities of the Austro-Hungarian empire who switched to German.

    While most Viennese are German-speaking Czechs, there must be tens of thousands whose ancestors used to spoke Hungarian as late as 1900.

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Isn’t it well established that linguistics articles in popular newspapers are (nearly) always drivel?

  15. AJP Crown says:

    Yes, it is a truth universally acknowledged. But I was still intrigued by the mental image of Charlotte Bronte inventing the Wild West even if she was only responsible for the hyphen.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Vienna

    15,000 would be 1%; that seems about right. What it doesn’t seem to be is investigable by Labov.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I was still intrigued by the mental image of Charlotte Bronte inventing the Wild West

    You missed the sequel in which Jane and Mr Rochester bought a ranch in Wyoming and lived happily ever after raising steers?

  18. AJP Crown says:

    Rachel Cusk describes one of her characters as Calamity Jane Eyre.

  19. I’m sure the reference to the switch from Hungarian to German in Austria ultimately goes back to Susan Gal’s 1979 monograph on language shift in Oberwart/Felsőőr in Burgenland (Language Shift: Social Determinants of Linguistic Change in Bilingual Austria), where she notes that (younger) female speakers of Hungarian tended to switch to German earlier than men, because many of them worked in the local bra factory (part of the outside, German-language world), whilst most men were still farmers. I don’t remember the details, but it was something like that.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wouldn’t put it past Jane Eyre to run a ranch in Wyoming.

    I was surprised when I first actually read the novel to discover that Jane, who I’d always supposed was a helpless victim ankle-twister type (presumably on the basis of some dire film adaptation) is in fact the Ur-feisty.

    And the games she and Rochester play with each other are X-certificate stuff if you’ve any imagination. Shades of Grey, pfui.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Oberwart/Felsőőr

    That makes sense.

  22. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    Here in Ireland, leglessness would be interpreted as one of many words for “the state of having consumed more beers than are consistent with maintaining an upright posture”. But I do not know if this was the case in Darwin’s time and especially his social circle☺.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    One of the odd things about this piece is that while I think it’s often true that “X-ness” can seem more “poetic and evocative” than “X,” that’s just not true for darkness v. dark because the -ness version is so common in ordinary non-poetic speech and prose. Using a nonce coinage that is morphologically transparent but unusual enough to be striking is a pretty obvious tactic for seeming “poetic and evocative” and there are no doubt X-ness instances of it.

    Indeed, what’s striking about the darkness/dark pair is that it actually goes the other way. Outside of a few fixed phrases like “in the dark,” using “dark” as a noun in lieu of “darkness” may tend to create a “poetic and evocative effect,” e.g. phrases like “The Dark Is Rising” (fantasy books) or “We’re For the Dark” (Badfinger song) might seem less poetic and evocative if “darkness” was used instead.”

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The passage I like best (as I read it around the time I moved from Birmingham to Marseilles) is the following:

    Whether is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles–fevered with delusive bliss one hour- -suffocating with the bitterest tears of remorse and shame the next- -or to be a village-schoolmistress, free and honest, in a breezy mountain nook in the healthy heart of England?

    As you see, I made the opposite choice from her. I recognize of course, that Charlotte Brontê probably wasn’t thinking of Birmingham in the phrase “the healthy heart of England”, and “Marseilles” probably doesn’t mean the city. But let’s not be fussy.

    (Forgive me if I already quoted this: I did so the other day, but I don’t think it was here.)

  25. @J.W. Brewer: Susan Cooper’s choice of “Dark” over “Darkness” in The Dark is Rising Sequence, was probably most affected by the fact in the stories, the Dark is a taken as proper noun referring to various mystical forces of evil, explicitly contrasted with the other pole of the High Magic, the Light. The word lightness exists, but it is not analogous to darkness, so for maximal parallel contrast, “Light” and “Dark” probably work the best.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    😀 Definitely not Darwin’s social circle 🙂

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Indeed, what’s striking about the darkness/dark pair is that it actually goes the other way.

    And that’s nothing against the most striking example:

    “The stupid! It burns!”

  28. AJP Crown says:

    lightness exists, but it is not analogous to darkness
    No – see ‘the [unbearable] lightness of being’ – that would be brightness, which also has two meanings.

    Here in Ireland, leglessness would be interpreted as one of many words for “the state of having consumed more beers than are consistent with maintaining an upright posture”. But I do not know if this was the case in Darwin’s time and especially his social circle
    Darwin’s last book (1881) was The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Actions of Worms.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    “Hello darkness my old friend…”

  30. AJP Crown says:

    pitfalls of the popular belief that earliest attestation is the same thing as word creation

    It’s not only in tracking word creation where reliance on written precedent is likely to result in something undesirable. Here’s a Newfoundland story in the Graun:

    For years, academia has ignored the oral histories of Indigenous peoples, said Chief Joe.

    “Academics are hard people to convince. They often have this mindset that ‘this the way it was’ – no matter what information we give them to the contrary,” he said.

    He described a frustrating experience in a land claims court, where the adjudicator suggested the Mi’kmaq first arrived in Newfoundland in the 1700s.

    “But we have an oral history of British sailors meeting our people and asking for directions. We drew them a map on birch bark. If this is the first time we had ever been on the land, how could we draw a map?” said Joe.

    “It’s convenient for government, for everyone, to ignore people who had no written history”

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/10/dna-canada-first-nations-ancestral-story

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    One of the things one learns as part of the dismal art of protecting oneself against malpractice accusations is that, as far as lawyers are concerned, if it isn’t written down, it never happened.

  32. John Cowan says:

    If Marseilles does not mean the city, what does it mean?

    “Slave in a fool’s paradise” sounds like a genteelism for “addict in an opium den”. My first literary exposure to opium dens, by the way, was reading The Crab with the Golden Claws at age seven. I don’t remember where the Karaboudjan sailed from, but Marseille seems a possibility, given that after it sinks our heroes are next heard of in North Africa.

    Legless ‘drunk’ is first recorded by the OED from 1903 in the New York Times, but all further quotations are rightpondian.

  33. Bathrobe says:

    I am guessing that ‘rightpondian’ assumes you are looking at a map where north is at the top.

  34. AJP Crown says:

    A better expression is ‘toppondian’ (i.e. horizontal poles).

  35. Frustrating meaning negating, preventing, blocking, or hindering another’s plans, intentions, hopes, or expectations goes back at least to the early 17th cent, e.g.:

    The said Duke of Bavaria upon communication had thereof, not frustrating the good opinion of the Electours, Princes and Ambassadors now assembled, had accommodated himself and is willing to provide sufficiently for that point …

    From The Manifest of the Most Illustrious and Sovereign Prince, Charles Ludowick, etc. Concerning the Right of His Succession, etc., (London 1637)

    and

    [T]he firme league between England and Holland, and the good service our country hath done unto that Kingdome, by frustrating the continuall designes of many Spanish Fleets, and sinking their tallest ships in the mercilesse seas …

    From News out of the Low-Countries, Sent in two Letters, etc. (Oxford 1643).

    This meaning continues steadily almost to the present. But in the last few decades, a different meaning has almost completely supplanted the traditional one.

    The modern usage, meaning “causing a negative emotional state by obstructing one’s plans or intentions,” does not seem to appear at all until the 1930s, and then only in specialized psychological, sociological, and similar materials. It doesn’t seem to appear in non-specialist writing until the 1960s. Here’s an early example of a specialist use:

    Not only does the aggressive response differ from culture to culture, however, but the frustrating stimulus differs as well. What is experienced as frustrating by the individuals of one culture may not be so experienced by members of another …
    Summary of Dissertations Submitted to the Graduate School of Northwestern University, etc (Evanston, 1933)

    Because I found something close to the modern meaning in the 1967 translation of an article by Gerhard Adler, I wonder whether the modern usage arises from psycho-analytic theory, which of course was influential in the mid-20th century.

    But what about Middlemarch? “Frustrating” appears three times. Twice it clearly means “obstructing.” The third time, which is the quotation in the post, is ambiguous, because of the way that free indirect narrative style works – “frustrating” could refer to Lydgate’s emotional state on having his plans obstructed, or it could simply be a modifier of “complexity.”

    But the context shows that George Elliot is almost certainly using the word in its accepted meaning, not anticipating a new meaning by more than half a century. Lydgate has to make a choice based on conflicting village political considerations, and either one could lead to the frustration of his plans. But his emotional reaction to his situation, although a reader would certainly deduce it, is not conveyed specifically by the word frustrating.

    The quote from Greville; Or, a Season in Paris, has a similar ambiguity, but given the date it’s likely the traditional meaning that’s intended. The mother’s influence has in the past prevented the character from bringing plans to fruition; his emotional response to her smothering parenting is implied generally, but it’s not explicitly the meaning of the word.

    George Elliot may never used the word frustrating in any other book. It’s not found elsewhere in Middlemarch, and not found at all in Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Daniel Deronda, or Impressions of Theophrastus Such. (Feel free to search the rest of her oeuvre on your own.) “Frustrated” and “frustrate” do appear, always in the traditional meaning.

    Frustrating is also rare to non-existent in other mid- to late Victorian authors – random searches didn’t find it in Gaskell, Twain, Howells, Trollope, Dickens, Hardy, Gissing, Ouida, or Meredith. “New Grub Street” does use frustrated, frustration in a way close to the modern meaning, but each time the word is tied to a hope or plan that is frustrated, and is not primarily or solely an expression of an emotional state.

    So if we’re looking for the modern meaning of frustrating, we might be better off searching in translations of German psychoanalysts rather than in Victorian novelists of any gender.

  36. Bathrobe says:

    I was under the impression that the truly modern meaning was “lack of sex”.

  37. Frustrating meaning negating, preventing, blocking, or hindering another’s plans, intentions, hopes, or expectations goes back at least to the early 17th cent

    Your examples are of the verb, which is not under discussion; it is the adjective that is at issue here.

  38. Oh. I thought we were talking about the word. So we are not discussing the coining of a new word, but the repositioning of an existing present participle.

    So let’s talk about frustrating as an adjective.

    Here’s an ngram for frustrating – which does not distinguish between the part of speech. You can see that the word was very rare in any uses until the late 1930s and then starts a sharp and uninterrupted rise, increasing in usage ten-fold by the 1980s. And before the 1930s, most uses are in some form of formal language – often in sermons (frustrating God’s grace, frustrating the schemes of sinners) or in discussions of military matters. This is another data point suggesting that the modern usage migrated from a specialist usage into the mainstream.

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=frustrating&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1700&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cfrustrating%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bfrustrating%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BFrustrating%3B%2Cc0

    So it does appear that Gore and GE were up to something different. The problem is that what they were doing did not catch on generally.

    If you do period google books searches – I’ve done several, for 20 year and 50 year periods beginning in 1700 – frustrating as an adjective is exceeding rare (other than Middlemarch I couldn’t find it at all, but ngrams are a blunt instrument and really, I do have other things to do.)

    Then, suddenly, in the 1940s, it’s everywhere – frustrating conditions, frustrating obstacle, frustrating conflict. Just eyeballing – i can’t possibly do a count – the adjectival usage seems to be driving the growth of the word’s popularity, and almost always with the new meaning.

    It’s possible that Gore was the first to repurpose the present participle, but it apparently didn’t catch on, and then George Eliot did the same thing a few decades later, also without effect on the language generally. Or perhaps the modifier use was widespread orally but was informal or slangy, and didn’t make it into print very often.

    But the claim that George Eliot’s apparently one-time usage in print, seemingly never to be repeated by her or anyone else, is an example of something that “kept language rippling with poignancy and power” is insupportable.

    However Gore and GE came to use the word as a modifier, the evidence is that something happened in the 1930s and 40s that brought the modifier usage into the mainstream, and we’re going to have to look elsewhere for the reason.

  39. But the claim that George Eliot’s apparently one-time usage in print, seemingly never to be repeated by her or anyone else, is an example of something that “kept language rippling with poignancy and power” is insupportable.

    Yes, and very silly to boot.

    the evidence is that something happened in the 1930s and 40s that brought the modifier usage into the mainstream, and we’re going to have to look elsewhere for the reason

    Indeed, and I greatly appreciate your research.

  40. It was fun, and I’m grateful to you for creating the opportunity for me to do it.

  41. If the modern usage of frustrating was spurred by the use of the term in psychoanalysis, I would expect the more basic term (in English) to be the form “frustration” (based on the naming conventions of English-speaking Freudians and other allied psychotherapists). The Google N-gram history for “frustration” looks a lot like that of “frustrating.”

    Unfortunately, the OED entry for frustration does not appear to have been touched since it was first written, giving only the definition: “The action of frustrating; disappointment; defeat; an instance of this.” However, it does include another interesting use by George Eliot, which again seems a lot closer to the modern meaning.

    1863 ‘G. Eliot’ Romola I. ii. 40 He thrust his hand into a purse… and explored it again and again with a look of frustration.

  42. Huh! Eliot was ahead of her time.

  43. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    If Marseilles does not mean the city, what does it mean?

    “Slave in a fool’s paradise” sounds like a genteelism for “addict in an opium den”.

    A few lines earlier, we had

    To have surrendered to temptation; listened to passion; made no painful effort—no struggle;—but to have sunk down in the silken snare; fallen asleep on the flowers covering it; wakened in a southern clime, amongst the luxuries of a pleasure villa: to have been now living in France, Mr. Rochester’s mistress; delirious with his love half my time—for he would—oh, yes, he would have loved me well for a while.

    Somehow that doesn’t suggest the city to me, though it’s not impossible, as luxury villas do exist, such as where General Aoun — now President of Lebanon, but then a refugee from the civil war — spent the first part of his exile in France. (Very inconvenient for ordinary people that was, as a long stretch of the road along the coast was closed to parking, with significant numbers of police.) However, the description still suggests somewhere more classy along the coast, Cassis, perhaps.

    I don’t think there is any suggestion that Jane Eyre ever visited the south of France, probably Charlotte Brontë neither. Even though she lived in Brussels for a while there was no TGV then, maybe no trains at all, so too far for a dirty weekend with Constantin Héger.

  44. SFReader says:

    I briefly wondered why an English author would have French sounding surname. Wiki article explained that her family is of Irish origin and used to have perfectly normal Irish surname – Brunty.

    Which her father modified to Brontë so that they would be taken seriously by serious people.

    I imagine nobody in those days would read a novel written by Charlotte Brunty.

  45. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I imagine nobody in those days would read a novel written by Charlotte Brunty.

    Or by Charlotte Brontë. That’s what she thought anyway, hence Currer Bell. Has anyone ever been christened Currer?

  46. “Her thesis is that…”

    Kelly Grovier is a man, you chauvinist pig.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Grovier

    And a poet! One shudders to imagine his poetry.

  47. D’oh! I have corrected the post and spoken sternly to myself.

  48. David Eddyshaw says:

    On the contrary, you are surely to be commended on your default assumption that a human being is female until self-identified otherwise. An example to us all in these dark times.

    These things are easier in my native Hungarian.

  49. SFReader says:

    a human being is female until self-identified otherwise

    Technically speaking, every human being was in a woman’s body at some point in his or her life.

  50. AJP Crown says:

    The assumption that a human being is male:

    The names chosen by the Brontës – Charlotte explains it here, Brontë with misplaced dots in the title – sounded like boys but for the daughters of a Victorian clergyman there was plausible deniability:

    Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.

    As for Currer, when Charlotte worked as a governess at Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale, the next-door family had inherited a fortune with a stipulation that the name Currer be added to their own ‘Richardson’ (this double-barrelling at inheritance time seemed to happen a lot). Frances Richardson Currer was a philanthropist with an extensive library. She gave £50 to the Rev. Patrick Brontë, the father, when the Brontë mother died.
    There are all sorts of possible explanations for the surname Bell (Charlotte’s future husband’s middle name and church bells being two) and for Acton and Ellis but nothing certain.

  51. PlasticPaddy says:

    Poem by Kelly grovier:
    Strange Currencies

    Because there was no way of seeing
    through the jostle of water
    nudging our reflection, my mind turned

    to other interests: the way
    sunflowers stoop to levels that would make
    the hair on a dandelion fizz,

    and whether all things have shadows apart
    from shadows. By the time
    the coot had cleared our path, the wake

    behind him whispering
    to the reeds, an idea began to moil like glass
    beneath the stilling surface,

    wary of its dimensions, tracing its shape in the faces
    wobbling above, weighing
    the clouds for some sense of proportion.

  52. an idea began to moil like glass

    No. Just no.

  53. John Cowan says:

    The men who moil for gold.

    But of course we mammals are all female for a time, that being the default configuration.

  54. Stu Clayton says:

    No. Just no.

    Ain’t it awful !?

    I wonder what the ingredients are in a dandelion fizz.

  55. Whatever they are, I would ask the bartender to strain the hair out before serving.

  56. If just occurred to me that Edith Pargeter might have chosen her main pen name, “Ellis Peters,” as an homage to Emily Brontë. However, her brother was apparently named “Ellis,” so it might have been a coincidence.

    It also got me thinking about the fact that the Brontë sisters’ works are all published now under their real names, while Mary Ann Evans (whose first novel came out a about a decade after the Brontës’ last) is still published as “George Elliot.” Like the Brontë sisters, Evans was eventually open about her real identity, although she continued to use the pseudonym. That last point may be the key difference—that Evans kept publishing as “George Eliot” even after her identity had been revealed, which makes the situation more analogous to a modern nom de plume.

    The case of Jane Austen, who published her novels anonymously and did not disguise her sex (Sense and Sensibility was “by a lady”; Pride and Prejudice “by the author of Sense and Sensibility“), are a somewhat different circumstance.

    Separately:
    I kind of like the word moil and use it occasionally, although probably only in writing. However, its appearance in that poem seems extremely inapt. It seems like a conflation of one of the verb forms with this obscure noun (per the OED):

    Etymology: Origin uncertain. Perhaps < French meule piece of glass left on a blowing iron after the article blown with it has been detached (1765), spec. technical sense (with reference to the rotatory motion involved) of meule millstone (see mullet n.3).
    Glass-blowing.
    Glass (or an oxide that adheres to glass) left on a pontil or blowing-iron after the article made or blown with it has been cut or knocked off; such glass in contact with the pontil or blowing-iron prior to the severance. Also: a piece of this (usually in plural).

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ideas don’t moil. They sleep furiously (especially the ones that are like glass.)

  58. Stu Clayton says:

    Moilers on the glass, alas !

    They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
    be.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    But of course we mammals are all female for a time, that being the default configuration.

    Turns out it’s not that simple either.

  60. John Cowan says:

    Which her father modified to Brontë so that they would be taken seriously by serious people.

    A century or so later he would have changed it to Ó Proinntigh instead.

    How do you know if a modern Ó Murchú still pronounces his name “Murphy” or not? (Note the characteristically English shift /x/ > /f/ in this name.)

  61. And his daughters would have been Ní Phroinntigh.

  62. Fun fact: I was once in a glass factory in Wales, and the blowers told me that the etymology of ‘moil’ (in that sense) was from the Hebrew ‘mohel’, as if the glass was having its prepuce chopped off.

  63. Bathrobe says:

    the blowers told me that the etymology of ‘moil’ (in that sense) was from the Hebrew ‘mohel’, as if the glass was having its prepuce chopped off.

    That’s what Wiktionary says.

  64. So it is! Wiktionary didn’t exist when they told me, though. So what’s the source? Can’t actually be true.

  65. OED (Third Edition, September 2002):

    Etymology: Origin uncertain. Perhaps < French meule piece of glass left on a blowing iron after the article blown with it has been detached (1765), spec. technical sense (with reference to the rotatory motion involved) of meule millstone (see mullet n.3).

    First citation 1875 (E. H. Knight Pract. Dict. Mech. II. 1458/2 Moiles, the metallic oxide adhering to the glass which is knocked from the end of the blow-pipe).

  66. No, I meant what’s the source of the folk etymology?

  67. An obvious joke?

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    Not so obvious, surely? The word mohel itself is (I would think) not all that well known among gentiles (certainly in the UK); moreover, the pun seems to depend on the traditional Ashkenazi/Yiddish pronunciation, which suggests a pun actually made by Jews.

    So the hunt should be for a glass factory in Wales with a large Jewish workforce …
    For various reasons which are probably unique to me, “Jews in Wales” immediately suggests Llanelli, “the Gateshead of Wales”, but I don’t (unfortunately for the story) know of any particular connection between Llanelli and glassblowing.

  69. David Eddyshaw says:

    Come to think of it, if this is a traditional glassblower joke, the fact that our informant happened to encounter it in Wales would be irrelevant. We only need to hypothesize a linguistically influential group of anglophone Ashkenazi Jewish glassblowers somewhere.

    On the other hand, widespread propagation of the joke would seem to require a receptive population of glassblowers who actually found it funny, which seems hard to credit if they weren’t already familiar with the traditional pronunciation of mohel. These are deep waters …

  70. Stu Clayton says:

    Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.

    Yet still, waters run deep.

  71. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think we can all get behind that sentiment.

  72. Not so obvious, surely? The word mohel itself is (I would think) not all that well known among gentiles (certainly in the UK)

    Ah. Once again I am betrayed by my long residence in NYC, where everyone is an honorary Jew and the word mohel (pronounced “moil”) is common currency.

  73. Paul Haupt offered an interesting etymology for Mishnaic Hebrew מוהל môhēl and related words. I was made aware of this etymology by one of his student’s student’s students, who was my teacher. I think it deserves wider currency. Mishnaic Hebrew מוהל môhēl is the active participle of מהל māhal “to circumcise”. This verb is said to be from Aramaic מהל məhal, a by-form of Biblical Hebrew מָל māl “to circumcise”, whose root is m-w-l. This root has no cognates in other Semitic languages (besides later borrowings from Hebrew itself). Here Haupt proposes that the verb original originally meant *“to remove the front” and was formed from the very common word מוּל, מוֺל môl, mûl “(in) front (of)”, taken as coming from a root m-w-l. It was a “privative” denominative verb, as in English to skin a rabbit, to shell some peas, to husk some corn.

    (The word מוּל, מוֺל môl, mûl “front” is, in turn, a grammaticalized form of an earlier noun of place of the form *maʾōl, with the prefix *ma- from root *ʾ-w-l meaning “first, front”, also seen in Arabic ʾawwal “first”. It was literally “the place in front”. For the formation and phonology, compare the word מָקוֹם māqôm “place, stead” from קָם qām “to stand up, stand”, root *q-w-m, and מָנוֹחַ mānôᵃḥ “place of rest, rest” from נוּחַ “to rest”, root n-w-ḥ.)

    Haupt’s interesting idea accounts for an inner-Hebrew creation of the root מָל māl, “to circumcise” and its root m-w-l. I suppose one can object that privative verbs in Hebrew are usually in the pi’el (D stem)—compare the semantically very similar זִנֵּב zinnēḇ “to cut off at the rear, smite the hindmost” (Deuteronomy 25:18 and Joshua 10:19) from זָנַב zānaḇ “tail”. Also, the pi’el form from a hollow root like *m-w-l will usually be replaced by the polel form. But Haupt’s etymology is still interesting.

    What about the rest of Semitic? The notion of circumcision in Arabic is expressed by the root ḫ-t-n: ختان ḫitān “circumcision”, ختن ḫatana “to circumcise”, beside ختن ḫatan “bridegroom, son-in-law”—compare the mysterious words of Moses’ wife in Exodus 4:25:

    וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר, וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת-עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ, וַתַּגַּע, לְרַגְלָיו; וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי חֲתַן-דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי

    “Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood (ḥăṯan damîm) art thou to me.’ ”

    Ge’ez has ገዘረ gäzärä “circumcise”, from a root g-z-r, “cut”. This root is used in the meaning “circumcise” in Aramaic, too (cf. Late Hebrew גָּזַר gāzar “to cut, circumcise”).

  74. John Cowan says:

    Well, maybe you do. But I pronounce it moy-yell, and I didn’t make that up myself. On the other hand, AHD’s first pronounciation is mo-heel, Ghu help them (the users, not the lexicographers).

    ObJoke:

    In the 19C, somewhere in Europe, a man has broken his watch. Night is falling, and he’s desperately walking through the streets of the city, which he doesn’t know well. Finally he sees a small storefront with clocks in the window. The proprietor is inside but turning the lights off. Desperately the man pounds on the door.

    “What?? I’m closing!”

    “My watch — it’s broken. Can you fix it? It’s urgent — tomorrow —”

    The shopkeeper smiles. “I would gladly help you, my friend, but you see, I’m not a watchmaker, I’m a mohel.”

    “A mohel? Then why do you have clocks in your window?”

    “If you were a mohel, what would you put in your window?”

    Typing this out, it occurs to me now that the reason the shopkeeper switches from hostile to friendly is because he’s figured out that his would-be customer is Jewish. In any case, he would hardly say mohel to someone who might be a dangerous Antisemite.

    the Gateshead of Wales

    That seems to refer primarily to the conservative (and Conservative) nature of Llanelli’s Jewry. Not only did a remarkably large proportion of their men become Orthodox rabbis elsewhere in the U.K., but the first Jewish leader of a major UK political party, Michael Howard, grew up there. (Disraeli was baptized at birth.) At the moment, the largest number of easily-countable Jews in Wales is unsurprisingly in Cardiff, though in fact there are only a few hundred Jews in all Wales, down from a peak of five thousand in 1914.

  75. David Eddyshaw says:

    That seems to refer primarily to the conservative (and Conservative) nature of Llanelli’s Jewry

    Indeed. Gateshead itself is rightly famed for its yeshivas.

    https://www.jta.org/2017/10/03/global/why-orthodox-jews-are-flocking-to-this-gritty-english-town

    “Gritty” is of course the effete Southerner’s standard epithet for anywhere north of Watford. It’s quite nice really.

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