BREAKING PRISCIAN’S HEAD.

I just learned a fine old expression which Brewer explains efficiently: “To break Priscian’s head (in Latin, Diminuĕre Priscia’ni cap’ut). To violate the rules of grammar. Priscian was a great grammarian of the fifth century, whose name is almost synonymous with grammar.” The locus classicus is Samuel Butler’s long poem Hudibras, in which Quakers are said to “hold no sin so deeply red,/ As that of breaking Priscian’s head” (sc. by using the plural pronoun you in the singular, hence their thee-ing everyone). You can see it in action in the Edinburgh Dramatic Review (Feb. 15, 1825, No. LXXV, Vol. II, p. 298):

People speak of breaking Priscian’s head; but were Priscian in life, we strongly suspect he would break our author’s head for certain glaring solecisms in style,—such as, “as my strongest wishes could expect;” “chaste virginity,” (a phleonism;) “my most sanguine expectations could expect;” “a place vacant;” pro vacated, by some one or other.

I discovered it via Google Books, which brought to my attention J. Y. T. Greig‘s 1929 book Breaking Priscian’s Head: Or, English as She Will Be Spoke and Wrote, which Greig apparently wrote in reaction to an essay by Basil de Sélincourt:

I am not a typical Englishman, but a Scotsman born abroad, and in all the ninety-odd pages of Mr de Sélincourt’s essay on the future of the English language I can find scarcely a paragraph to agree with. Inevitable, that. To nine Scotsmen, ten Americans, and eleven Irishmen, his essay breathes just that spirit of Englishry — rather insular, but oh how gentlemanly ! — which has always infuriated them.

One of his points is that the English should not be so worried about encroaching Americanisms, and in a lively passage on page 83 he says “Certain modern American slang terms are so appropriate and necessary that only incorrigible purists will deny them entrance into good English,” listing, among others, “Bellhop (a page in a hotel, a far better word than page, if only because its use would reduce the number of homophones),” “Blurb (an indispensable word that I am glad to see coming into general use,” “Get one’s goat,” “Junk (which combines into four letters the notions of rubbish and odds-and-ends),” “Movies (a great improvement on cinema),” and “Rubberneck (one of the best words ever coined),” admitting that there are unfortunate terms as well (“the use of mortician for undertaker is ridiculed by the Americans themselves”) but concluding “to cry out for a barrier against all Americanisms as such — that is sheer imbecility.” He then goes on to canvas other sources for “the freshening and replenishment of our language”: “I am not overlooking sources in the British Isles. We have the local dialects, for example, and in particular the virile local dialects of the North, which have been quite absurdly neglected by Southern Englishmen for more than two centuries.” I like his attitude.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    “chaste virginity,” (a phleonism;)
    A what? is this the original of pleonasm, or a fancy version of the word? Google does not seem to know it.

  2. The Latin expression, by the way, is Prisciani capitem diminuere, rather to smash than merely to break the old fella’s caput.

  3. Caput is a neuter noun, so “capitem” is impossible.

  4. A what? is this the original of pleonasm, or a fancy version of the word? Google does not seem to know it.
    Yes, that took me aback as well; I think it can only be a typo.

  5. Or, of course, a joke of some now-impenetrable Caledonian variety.

  6. “Movies (a great improvement on cinema)”
    Really? Why?

  7. “Certain modern American slang terms are so appropriate and necessary that only incorrigible purists will deny them entrance into good English”. Really!!! What’s a good example?

  8. Greig gave examples. Whether they are good examples is obviously a matter of opinion.

  9. Actually, Google is quite familiar with ‘phleonism’, thanks to a certain blog known as LanguageHat (two hits).

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Google is quick on the uptake.

  11. Yeah, well, gender mistakes are the birthright of the anglophone. Caput, of course, just as the original post says; post in haste, repent at leisure.

  12. Or, of course, a joke of some now-impenetrable Caledonian variety.
    Given that φλέω means “teem with abundance”, perhaps the writer means to say not only that “chaste virginity” is a superfluity, but also chaste virginity. That is, there is far too much of it for his taste.

  13. Lewis and Short http://tinyurl.com/lzu9wqo gives two definitions for ‘diminuere’. The first is ‘to break into small pieces, to dash to pieces, to break’. The second is ‘to violate, outrage, destroy by outrage’, which perhaps comes closer to the intended meaning here.
    Anyway, a useful which expression of which I was unaware, and one which I shall try to find an early opportunity to use.

  14. Lewis and Short http://tinyurl.com/lzu9wqo gives two definitions for ‘diminuere’. The first is ‘to break into small pieces, to dash to pieces, to break’. The second is ‘to violate, outrage, destroy by outrage’, which perhaps comes closer to the intended meaning here.
    Anyway, a useful which expression of which I was unaware, and one which I shall try to find an early opportunity to use.

  15. I am confused: he is not an Englishman, but he says he is a ‘Scotsman born abroad’ so therefore he is not Scottish either. So what is he?

  16. dearieme says:

    “A what? is this the original of pleonasm, or a fancy version of the word? …
    … I think it can only be a typo.
    Or, of course, a joke of some now-impenetrable Caledonian variety.”
    Let me rise to the bait: maybe it’s a joke in very much the same style as referring to “Muphry’s Law”. Or like someone saying that American academics are too wordy, verbose, long-winded and sesquipedalian. Or my favourite apology for a typing error: “I’m sorry about the topy”.

  17. dearieme says:

    On his list of Americanisms I agree with his welcome for “rubberneck” and “blurb”: new phenomena need new names; why shouldn’t those new names should come from the US? “Movies” seems a syllable too long compared the “films” or “flicks” of my childhood, though no longer than pickchurs. It has no obvious advantage over any of them.
    “Junk” seems to me an example of a word whose meaning is too vague (or too vaguely understood by Britons, at least): I was puzzled lately to see someone distinguishing “junk DNA” from “garbage DNA”. Seemed like rubbish to me, but presumably means something to Americans. Some Americans? A few Americans? Virtually all Americans?

  18. “Movies (a great improvement on cinema)”
    I don’t think it’s a question of either movies or cinema, these words have their own slightly different uses. That’s the whole point of English: we have more than one word for the same thing and it’s a good thing, it’s not a waste of our very limited storage space. ‘The movies’ are made in Hollywood, ‘cinema’ is made in France as well as being an Art Deco building with red-velvet seats, ‘film’ is what you study at university, ‘films’ for many non-Americans is a collective word for all moving images, ‘pictures’ is what producers with fat cigars call their products, ‘motion pictures’ is what they’re called at the Oscars.

  19. Crown, I agree that near-synonyms are a source of much pleasure and convenience. I also agree with Hat in liking Greig’s attitude. Maybe Greig had a beef against cinema as a red-velvet word for a popular form of entertainment. Or maybe he disapproved of French imports. Or maybe he would have agreed with you about keeping both words around, each with its own uses, but overstated his case.
    Before movies came along, how did one say “I saw a good X last night”? Or “Do you want to see that new X with Errol Flynn ?”? X is not cinema. Motion picture? Picture? Film?
    My father sometimes said “moom pitches”, fondly imitating the way some people said “moving pictures” when he was young.
    I don’t get this part:
    ‘films’ for many non-Americans is a collective word for all moving images
    Can you give an example of this use?

  20. dearieme, yes, I suppose one answer to my “how did one say” question is “films, or flicks”. Is “pickchurs” shorter or longer than “pictures”, or are they tied?
    I wouldn’t worry about “junk” if I were you. It says here that the scientist who drew attention to what is called “junk DNA” initially called it “garbage DNA”, but that name never caught on.
    I think it’s fair to say that to Americans literal junk is stuff that you discard in large quantities. I think of rusting equipment. A junkyard is a place where old automobiles go to have their parts removed as needed and sold as replacement parts.
    Literal garbage is either (narrower sense) the leftover bits of food that we discard, or (broader sense) everything that gets picked up by the garbage truck when it comes around.
    Trash is maybe a better word for garbage in the broader sense, but we never call the truck the trash truck.
    Rubbish (more common over there than over here) seems to mean essentially the same as trash. But I tend to think of rubbish as being covered with dust. And maybe rubbish is the broadest of all these words. It probably covers everything from a slimy lettuce leaf to a rusty boat trailer.
    Note that in calling it “broad” I am not accusing it of being “vague”.
    Then there are “waste”, and “refuse”, neutral terms that the authorities use–to avoid what sounds like value judgements? Related: sanitation trucks.
    And all the container names: garbage can, trash can, ashcan, bin, wastebasket, wastepaper basket, trash barrel, …

  21. dearieme says:

    I had a friend who, for a while, was always careful to pronounce it “kinema” because, he said, it should be like the “kinematics” we’d studied in applied maths.
    But, but, but we said dynamics but dinasty, I’d reply.
    But it mattered not a button because he was just taking the mick.
    P.S. In the central belt of Scotland, “films” is (or was) pronounced “fillums” which is not an improvement on “movies”.

  22. Can you give an example of this use?
    Oh, I just meant your ‘X’. I’d probably say I like the films of Howard Hawkes; I just don’t use ‘movies’ much even though it’s a more appropriate usage in the case of US works. ‘Movies’ used by a middle-aged Englishman has for me the same feeling that ‘films’ might have for a middle-aged American, it sounds a bit phoney.
    Rubbish and trash have very different meanings when they’re used metaphorically. ‘That film about white trash was pure rubbish’.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Here in Canada I have occasionally heard “fillum(s)”, though most people say “movies”.
    typo/topy
    A few years ago I submitted a paper for a conference in Europe, with a title which included the word VERBAL. When I received the preliminary program through email, the word had become VARBEL, so I wrote right back asking for a correction. When I got to the conference and received the printed book of abstracts, I saw that the word had been duly corrected, to VARBAL.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    junk/garbage
    What is junk to one person could be a treasure trove to another, but garbage always needs to be thrown out, sent to the landfill, burnt, etc. So junk DNA could include material that has some still unknown function, while garbage DNA suggests that it is just cluttering the body and perhaps has some toxic effect.
    There is a children’s book about Andy Warhol, written by his nephew, whose father (Andy’s older brother) had a junkyard. The nephew describes how wonderful it was for children to grow up with all that junk around! Andy himself lived in a house full of all sorts of strange, useless things, again a wonderful place for the children to visit.

  25. very different meanings when they’re used metaphorically
    Yes. Eurotrash. Trash talk.
    Wow! I just looked at the etymology of “garbage” and found that it’s distantly related, through some French giblets and entrails, to the German Garbe (which I know because it means “sheaf” both in the agricultural sense and in the mathematical one).

  26. I had a friend who, for a while, was always careful to pronounce it “kinema” because, he said, it should be like the “kinematics” we’d studied in applied maths.
    Interestingly, kinema was an early spelling, and there were Kinema Theatres in Brooklyn, Fresno, Sydney (well, Mosman), etc.; London had a New Gallery Kinema, and there’s an interview with Bernard Shaw from Picture Plays (13 March 1920): “Do you consider that kinema plays have an artistic value? Yes. Do you, as a dramatist, consider that the kinema is a serious rival to the theatre? Yes and No. The kinema will kill the theatres…” And Pound, in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” talks about “A prose kinema.”

  27. There are Kino Cinemas in Melbourne now, with a stylish bar area where you can enjoy a drink and a chat. I wonder if it’s a remnant of those Kinemas. Of course cinema is kino in Scandinavia & Germany (and probably other places).

  28. In the central belt of Scotland, “films” is (or was) pronounced “fillums” which is not an improvement on “movies”.
    Both Irish people and people from Northumbria say “fillums”.
    Considering what an ancient word “film” is in the English language, it seems odd that there isn’t a good rhyme for it.

  29. mollymooly says:

    Mrs Doyle says “films”, not “fillums”; but then Pauline McLynn’s real accent is middle-class.
    “The movies” are made in Hollywood, but “movies” are shown on Youtube. The connection between the cinema sense of “film” and other senses of the word will soon be a mystery to most people.

  30. We now conscientiously say “movies” (on the analogy with “talkies”) when we speak of the things my husband makes and puts on digital versatile disks, or sometimes on “flash drives” (or sometimes I put them on YouTube, but not often enough), because they aren’t “videos” (no tape), or “films” (no film).
    Yeah, we’re a bit pedantic?
    We never go to the cinema anymore (digital or otherwise) because there are loads of people texting, and we are almost never in the city. (And in Barcelona, the back row of original-language version films shown with subtitles is often full of wildly animated, possibly noisy (and fully entitled to be there) deaf people enjoying the subtitles.
    Some people sit in the back because they have long legs. Some people stay home, buy a projector, and get DVDs out of the library.
    It is a dilemma. I am watching for a consensus here?

  31. Catanea, instead of digital versatile disk, you can try saying digital video disk. Then the home movie is a video after all.
    Doctors sometimes call X-ray photographs “films”. Or maybe they don’t, any more, now that that’s digital, too.

  32. Tangentially, photographers call lenses “glass”, as in ‘Leica makes top quality glass’.

  33. garbage can, trash can, ashcan, bin, wastebasket, wastepaper basket, trash barrel
    You forgot ‘rubbish bin’.

  34. dearieme says:

    Our ever-loving council provides us with three wheelie bins for our varieties of rubbish. We also have a feral one in the back garden.

  35. marie-lucie: Here in Canada I have occasionally heard “fillum(s)”, though most people say “movies”.
    Back in the Pleistocene, before PCs came along and stole many of the pre-press trades, there was an occupation called film stripper. This person’s job was to assemble in correct register the several pieces of “fillum” containing, in negative form, the images and text of the advertisement, newspaper, book or whatever was to be printed by offset lithography. Over more than two decades of working with such people in the Toronto area, I heard only the pronunciation “fillum.”
    See here for a peek at the cameras that were used to make the negatives. And here’s a pic of a stripper in action. (Cool it, guys!)

  36. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, Paul O. “Fillum” in this case did not refer to movies, I suppose?
    Those cameras were really something. With present-day methods, another highly skilled profession has disappeared.

  37. Did my suggested derivation of “phleonism” from φλέω fail to convince ? Just wondering …

  38. Paul O. gets my vote for consistently showing the widest range of obscure specialised knowledge at Languagehat.

  39. Indeed.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    My vote for Paul O. too!

  41. marie-lucie: “Fillum” in this case did not refer to movies, I suppose? . . . Those cameras were really something.
    I suppose the film strippers knew the words cinema and motion picture, and perhaps too film in the sense of cinema. But I’m sure they went to the movies and likely that when they came across a layer of greasy dirt on a car windshield, it too was “fillum.”
    AJP and Hat: Thanks for the votes. In this particular case, and going back to marie-lucie’s
    “Those cameras were really something,” I confess to having owned and operated a mid-size process camera. Mid-size means that 18″ x 24″ was the largest sheet of film it would take and that the bed/rail was about six feet long. Daily newspapers used roll-film cameras twice that size.

  42. Irene Enriquez says:

    I can’t locate “a phleonism” either.
    And btw, film stripper sounds like a stellar job title. :)

  43. My daughter’s podiatrist said “Let’s look at the film”, then walked over to a PC and clicked the mouse. So I think X-rays are still “film”.

  44. Isidora says:

    I have no trouble using “video” for for any non-still visual medium or format, unless I’m seeing it in an actual theater, though I will most often call those things “movies” when viewed at home,as well. I think my preference for “video” probably comes from having taken a lot of Latin when I was young. Video, videre, vidi, visus – see.

  45. Isidora says:

    dearieme – our city/urban county also helpfully provides us with three different types of wheeled bins with hinged lids. Ours even come with personal names :-0 The Herbie the Curbie is the large dark-green bin for trash to be taken to the landfill. Rosie is the somewhat smaller blue bin for any and all recyclables. Years ago we couldn’t recycle as broad a variety as we can now, and we had to place the glass in a separate part of the Rosie. These days we just toss all the recyclables in together and let them sort it out. Then there is Lenny, dark green, nearly black, for yard waste. The city composts it and often hands it out again to the citizens.
    I can’t say that we have a feral bin out in the back yard, but we do keep a small compost pile as a convenience. Since we don’t have, or really want, a Lenny, and we have a pair of guinea pigs who like to use their hay as food, supplementary bedding, and entertainment, I need somewhere to dump the spoiled hay and droppings when I clean the cage. Compost pile works.
    What are your three bins for?

  46. Here in NYC trash cans are labeled blue for glass, metal, and certain plastics; green for paper of all sorts; and unlabeled for everything else. My building has two green-labeled cans, though one is more typical, probably because my family gets more junk mail than any ten other people in our neighborhood.

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