Mobile.

I was reading a NYRB article by Hilary Spurling about Alexander Calder when it occurred to me to look “mobile” up in the OED. I was very surprised to find there were five separate entries for it as a noun:

mobile, n.1 Brit. /ˈməʊbʌɪl/, /ˈməʊbᵻli/, U.S. /ˈmoʊb(ə)l/, /ˈmoʊbəli/ “In the medieval version of the Ptolemaic system: the outermost of the concentric spheres supposed to revolve around the earth (Obsolete); A body in motion or which is capable of movement (Now archaic and historical); A cause of motion; a motive for action (rare).”

mobile, n.2 “The mob, the rabble; the common people, the populace (Obsolete).”

Mobile, n.3 Brit. /məʊˈbiːl/, U.S. /moʊˈbil/ “A member of a North American Indian people formerly inhabiting the Gulf Coast of Alabama and areas nearby; The unattested language of the Mobiles.”

mobile, n.4 Brit. /ˈməʊbʌɪl/, U.S. /ˈmoʊˌbil/ “A sculpture consisting of hanging or pivoting pieces of metal, plastic, etc., in abstract or (more recently) representational shapes, connected by wires and threads so as to be able to move and rotate in response to air currents or when propelled by an internal mechanism; A small-scale decorative structure resembling this, used as a domestic ornament or to provide visual entertainment for young children; Music. A composition consisting of units or sections which can be performed in any of a number of different orders according to the performer’s choice or to specified parameters.”

mobile, n.5 Brit. /ˈməʊbʌɪl/, U.S. /ˈmoʊb(ə)l/, /ˈmoʊˌbaɪl/ “colloquial. A mobile canteen. Also (Australian): a large trolley from which food is served; Horse Racing (Australian and New Zealand). A foldable barrier used in trotting races to facilitate a flying start.”

Number 4 is, of course, the one I was looking for; the first citation is from 1932 (Art News 21 May 11/2 “Mr. Calder..calls his newest phase, ‘Mobiles’. This brand new art form, signifying abstract sculptures which move..were [sic] first shown in Paris in February”), and the etymology says “< French mobile mobile n.1 (1931 in sense 1a) […] The French noun was apparently first used in this sense by Marcel Duchamp, French artist (1887–1968), to denote the moving abstract constructions of Alexander Calder, U.S. sculptor and painter (1898–1976).”

As for the adjective (which is from Latin mōbilis ‘capable of being moved’), the “Pronunciation” section is interesting:

N.E.D. (1907) gives the pronunciation (mōu·bil) /ˈməʊbɪl/. This agrees with the majority of late 19th-cent. dictionaries, but the pronunciation clearly varied widely: Cent. Dict. (1890) gives the variant /ˈmɔbɪl/, while D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. (1917), alongside /ˈməʊbiːl/ and /ˈməʊbɪl/, recommends /ˈməʊbaɪl/ as its preferred variant. By the end of the 20th cent. this variant, apparently originally a spelling-pronunciation, had become universal in British English, while North American English continued to show variation.

“N.E.D.” is the first edition of the OED (then called the New English Dictionary); I myself say /ˈmoʊb(ə)l/, to rhyme with “noble,” except in the Calder sense, for which I do not have an established pronunciation. Fortunately, I rarely have occasion to talk about Calder mobiles.

Comments

  1. Michael Vnuk says:

    And the noun ‘mobile’ is also a mobile phone. Certainly, that is a very common usage in Australia.

  2. It is odd they don’t include that; naturally they have an entry for “mobile phone,” but it doesn’t mention that it can be abbreviated to “mobile.” Their definition:

    Originally: a radio-telephone installed in a vehicle. In later use: a portable wireless telephone that transmits and receives signals via a cellular (cellular adj. 6) network; a cell phone; esp. (in later use) a smartphone.

    The citations:

    1945 Wall St. Jrnl. 17 Jan. 6/6 The Bell System has estimated that in the next five or ten years mobile phones will be used by perhaps 10,000 vehicles in New York City.
    1975 Brownfield (Texas) News 12 Jan. a4/3 General Telephone Company is..attempting to up fees for mobile phones from $45 a month to approximately $75.
    1989 T. Clancy Clear & Present Danger xiii. 255 El jefe thought to call Cortez on his mobile phone, but remembered that his hireling refused to discuss substantive matters over what he called a ‘nonsecure’ line.
    1998 Total Football Nov. 64/1 Suddenly a muffled ringer sounds from his pocket as his mobile phone trills to life.
    2010 Guardian (Nexis) 11 May 27 Mobile phones using Google’s Android operating system have outsold Apple’s iPhone in the US for the first time.

  3. Clearly they need more Australians on their editorial staff.

  4. Eli Nelson says:

    The pronunciations /ˈməʊbıli/ or /ˈmoʊbəli/ for n.1 violate the usual rule for the distribution of short and long o in English Latin. Because the Latin word mobile is stressed on the third-to-last syllable, its expected pronunciation according to the traditional English system would be */ˈmɒbıli/, with a “short o” vowel despite the long quantity of the original Latin. There are other words that violate that rule, such as onyx (an example in the other direction); but for onyx, some old pronouncing dictionaries do mention a regular pronunciation with a long o sound in the first syllable (John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1823) and Richard Soule’s Pronouncing handbook of words often mispronounced (1894); the latter proscribes the pronunciation with short o, which implies that it was at least somewhat common for Soule’s contemporaries).

    I wonder whether the pronunciation of “mob” is derived from an obsolete English pronunciation of Latin mobile that contained /ɒ/.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hey, mob comes from mobile vulgus! Who knew? (Well, not me, obviously.)

  6. David Marjanović says:

    I did. I think the Latin teacher mentioned it as soon as we learned vulgus (a word that hardly ever occurs, but is considered notable for being a neuter exception of a usually masculine declension class).

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Don’t know about it hardly ever occurring.
    It’s right there in Horrible Horace’s odi profanum vulgus et arceo, for example, which must be one of his best-known odes.

  8. AJP Crown says:

    When I was younger, the English pronunciation of Calder’s usage was mo-BEEL – like Norwegian for the phone – but by now I think it’s usually mo-BILE.

    Fortunately, I rarely have occasion to talk about Calder mobiles.

    Jesus, Language. What have you got against poor old Calder?

  9. The pronunciations /ˈməʊbıli/ or /ˈmoʊbəli/ for n.1 violate the usual rule for the distribution of short and long o in English Latin. Because the Latin word mobile is stressed on the third-to-last syllable, its expected pronunciation according to the traditional English system would be */ˈmɒbıli/, with a “short o” vowel despite the long quantity of the original Latin.

    That’s funny — I have always used a short o in “mobile vulgus,” presumably influenced by the vowel in “mob.” Never knew it was “supposed” to be long.

    What have you got against poor old Calder?

    Nothing! I love Calder! I just (like, I presume, most people) rarely have occasion to talk about him!

  10. The Calders to me are MO-beels.
    Somewhat related – in the late 60s there was an anti-war organization called the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, which was known as the Mobe.

  11. Hey, I remember the Mobe! Ah, college days…

  12. Somewhere I’ve still got my copy of Handbook for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO, 11th ed., 1971).

  13. I thought you meant that your not having occasion to talk about them was fortunate. I’ll never understand commas. Then you might also like Tim Prentice, my first-year studio teacher in arch. school who gave up a very successful NY practice for kinetic sculpture and lives probably not a million miles away from you in Cornwall, Conn. (Warning: background music.)

  14. I thought you meant that your not having occasion to talk about them was fortunate.

    It’s fortunate only because I don’t know how to say the word. But I think I’ll adopt Bloix’s MO-beels.

  15. Calder’s mobile is 모빌 mobil in Korean, while the much more recent loanword for mobile phones are 모바일 mobail, reflecting different prevailing pronunciations in English for the respective words at the time of the borrowing.

  16. A useful distinction!

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    I use /ˈmoʊbil/ for the Calder/sculpture sense of the noun and also for the proper-noun toponym, as in “(Stuck Inside of /ˈmoʊbil/ with the) Memphis Blues Again.” I don’t think I use the noun otherwise, and pronounce the adjective differently.

    [ETA: okay I cut and pasted that w/o bothering to tweak the IPA to reflect how fronted my own GOAT vowel can sometimes be, so I may veer more towards /ˈmeʊbil/ when my regionalistic tendencies are most, as it were, pronounced.]

  18. Stuck Inside of /ˈmoʊbil/ with the) Memphis Blues Again

    That’s it. If it’s good enough for Bob with his pointy shoes, it’s good enough for me.

  19. “mobile” and “smartphone” are obsolescent, replaced by “phone”.

  20. Or, in some cases, “camera”.

  21. There are still contexts where the term “cell phone” (I’m American), rather than simply “phone”, is used. Some people even still have landlines at home. But more commonly, plenty of work environments still have landlines (or VOIP phones, which, for this discussion, are basically the same). I might call someone at their extension, or their cell phone. “Phone” doesn’t differentiate between these two.

    And although in some contexts we might replace “smartphone” with now “phone” (like, “Hey, look that up on your phone”), we do still have speech contexts where we want to specify smartphones as distinct from other phone devices.

  22. January First-of-May says:

    I think the mobile as in the swinging toy is мобиль in Russian [confirmed with Google search], while the mobile as in the phone is presumably мобильник, a regular(-ish) de-adjectival noun from the Russian adjective мобильный.
    (The above noun is in turn shortened further to мобила and/or мобилка in informal Russian.)

    The companies with “Mobile” in their name typically end up getting transliterated to Мобайл; I don’t recall offhand what the Alabama city is called, but if I had to guess I’d probably say Мобиле.
    Certainly the Latin word (as in “perpetuum mobile” and the like) is мобиле (initial stress).

    (Just checked and the Alabama city is Мобил, which is a fifth different version – apparently sometimes used for the company names as well.)

  23. Wonderful! (But exasperating if you’re trying to use them, of course.)

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am disappointed to learn that Russian wikipedia doesn’t even try to transliterate the title of the Боб Ди́лан song (although the article does transliterate the city when it is mentioned separately): https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuck_Inside_of_Mobile_with_the_Memphis_Blues_Again

  25. What were the mobiles you hang above babies in cribs called before Calder? Or did they not exist?

  26. January First-of-May says:

    I am disappointed to learn that Russian wikipedia doesn’t even try to transliterate the title of the Боб Ди́лан song

    …I’m sure that it would have, if the article was actually in Russian. It seems to be about half English at the moment.
    (Actual quote: “As the recording indicates, Дилан с трудом подбирал слова под темп, and evidently this led to its rearrangement”.)

    In fact, the one time that the city name appears, it is not transliterated: “Элвис Костелло исполнил соло версию песни в Mobile, AL 13 марта 2015 года.”

  27. Weird!

  28. I guess someone copied the text from the English article and started translating it but then lost interest.

  29. January First-of-May says:

    I guess someone copied the text from the English article and started translating it but then lost interest.

    This was my impression as well after reading the edit history.

  30. John Cowan says:

    I have always used a short o in “mobile vulgus,” presumably influenced by the vowel in “mob.”

    The short vowel is in strict accordance with WP’s rules on how English vowel “length” is assigned in Latinate words.

    What WP doesn’t point out is that when the word is formed within English, the rules don’t apply: motivate looks like it’s straight from a participle of *motivare in which case the vowel would be short in English, but it’s actually from motive < motif < motivus (deverbal adjective from movere) plus -ate, which is mostly unmeaning in English. In particular, onyx is spelled Hellenically, but its origin is Anglo-Norman onice, oniche and Latin only got mixed into the word later. Perhaps they were doublets for a while.

    When I was younger, the English pronunciation of Calder’s usage was mo-BEEL – like Norwegian for the phone – but by now I think it’s usually mo-BILE.

    I certainly say mo-BEEL in (sort of) French fashion for both the Calder thing (which I think did not appear over babies’ cribs until after Calder) and the Alabama city. I suspect mo-BILE has something to do with the BrE pronunciation of fertile, missile and indeed the adjective mobile with the same vowel, whereas in AmE it’s “el” in all such words, as in the infamous American references to “Eye-racky antie-antie-missels” (which did not exist) during the Gulf War. I don’t say “Eye-RACK”, but too many of my fellow-countrymen do, and my father said Eyetalian till the end of his days (1904-1993).

  31. Trond Engen says:

    The different pronunciations must be a result of mobile stress. That or s-mobile.

    I guess we could ask a urologist.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    When I made mobiles at school at about 5 years old they were /ˈməʊbʌɪlz/.

    They were the arty sort, not the talky sort, of course. “Radios” were then still wirelesses, and they had thermionic valves. Our wireless was made out of Bakelite.

  33. AJP Crown says:

    Uro
    I’d forgotten the name although I don’t think we ever had one of them. Otherwise in Norwegian uro means ‘restlessness’, so perhaps agitator? It’s not how Duchamp was looking at it.

  34. AJP Crown says:

    I suspect mo-BILE has something to do with the BrE pronunciation of fertile, missile and indeed the adjective mobile with the same vowel
    I don’t actually say mo-BILE, I must have been half asleep when I wrote that. I say MO-bile like all the other Brits. Sorry to mess you about, John.

    “Eye-RACK”
    Do you know the origin of these? Is it just spelling pronunciation or is there more to it?

  35. >I don’t say eye-RACK, but too many …

    There aren’t many ah vowels in American. Why expect one in Iraq? We probably modeled it after eye-RAN, which we got from the Flock of Seagulls song which was popular at the exact moment when the Middle East burst into our consciousness — “And Iran, Iran’s so far away … ”

    The ‘eye’ syllable in eye-RACK likely comes from respectful engagement with the Arabic.

    Well, maybe I should just say it’s as respectful an engagement as the one that led to the Brit/elitist pronunciation.

    It’s always interesting to me the things that the anti-prescriptionist crowd gets all prescriptionist about?

  36. AJP Crown says:

    You have to think beyond being prescriptive, according to Geoff Nunberg who did this in 2002:

    Hearing people ridicule ordinary Americans who say “eye-rack” can be like listening to American expatriates sneering at the tourists in line at the Louvre or the Coliseum. But it’s something else again when you hear that pronunciation coming from Administration officials who don’t come by it natively. In their mouths, it sounds a faux-bubba note, as if to tweak all those fastidious internationalists — we can go it alone phonetically, too. It has gotten to the point where you can tell people’s position on the role the UN should play in the reconstruction of Iraq just by listening to way they say the name.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t try to invade it.”

    Faux-bubba is good, too. I shall make an opportunity to drop it into conversation as soon as possible.

  38. J.W. Brewer says:

    Upon further investigation, it is apparently conventional style (or at least one common style) in Russian wikipedia articles about English-language rock music (even those articles not containing undigested chunks of untranslated running prose in English) to not transliterate song titles, band names, and certain other proper nouns. So the Who’s “Going Mobile” comes out in Russian as «Going Mobile». (In English that’s the adjective and one might expect a different Cyrillic representation than for the toponym, per some of the discussion above.) OTOH, names of individual musicians are transliterated, so in the same article the songwriting credit for «My Wife» goes to Джон Энтвистл. I suppose back in the days when English-language books aimed at an educated readership routinely contained bits of untransliterated ancient Greek, on the supposition or at least polite fiction that the assumed readership was perfectly conversant with the Greek alphabet and thus did not require transliteration for transparency, there were conventions as to what did or didn’t get transliterated.

    https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who%E2%80%99s_Next

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    BTW I’m not aware of any native Anglophone who routinely pronounces the English word “Italian” with the FLEECE vowel in the first syllable, as one would do if trying to mimic actual Italian pronunciation. The usual division is between KIT (prestige standard) and PRICE (non-prestige “Outer Borough” variant). It’s not as if the former is inherently more “authentic” or “cosmopolitan” or what have you. It’s just standard due to, I assume, some version of the usual historical-contingency reasons why a particular pronunciation variant ends up as the standard one.

  40. The non-prestige pronunciation of the country is “Itly”, eliding the second syllable.

  41. “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t try to invade it.” – Old Welsh saying.

    The Eyeties – meaning the Italian army – was a British WW2 usage that predated America’s entry into the war. My totally unreliable source is early 1960s British comics and Christmas annuals, the kind that often had stories about the Desert Rats (i.e. not the Beano).

  42. Nope. Goes back at least as far as the Canadian Thos Haliburton’s THE ATTACHE; OR SAM SLICK IN ENGLAND. I think it’s 1843ish. In Chapter 6, THE PRINCE DE JOINVILLE’S HORSE:

    “Sais I to myself, ‘A joke is a joke, if it tante carried too far, but this critter win be strangled, as sure as a gun, if he lays here splutterin’ this way much longer.’ So I jist gives the hoss a dab in the mouth, and made him git up; and then sais I, ‘Prince,’ sais I, for I know’d him by his beard, he had one exactly like one of the old saint’s heads in an Eyetalian pictur, all dressed to a pint, so sais I, ‘Prince,’ and a plaguy handsum man he is too, and as full of fun as a kitten, so sais I, ‘Prince,’ and what’s better, all his officers seemed plaguy proud and fond of him too; so sais I, ‘Prince, voila le condition of one colonist, which,’ sais I, ‘Prince, means in English, that leftenant is jist like a colonist.’

  43. Well found — you should alert Green!

  44. No, hang about. He also had it in 1835 here on p.111 of The Clockmaker.

  45. Do I get money?

  46. Stu Clayton says:

    ‘A joke is a joke, if it tante carried too far’

  47. AJP Crown says:

    OK, well I emailed Jonathon. A bunch of flowers or a smallish bottle of spirits would suffice.

  48. I once wanted to send him something, but couldn’t find a contact at the dictionary website.

    (If you have a link to a page that shows it, please post it instead of the address itself.)

  49. AJP Crown says:
  50. I like the fact that his photo prominently features a dog.

  51. AJP Crown says:

    Yes! I meant to say the same. And what a VERY nice dog, too. Not unlike Sparky (Stu’s dog).

  52. Thanks!
    And by the way, how does he pronounce his name? In the US I’ve seen the -o- spelling for a few people who pronounce their name Joe-Nathan, while the commoner -a- spelling reflects the commoner pronounciation, with initial stress. I have also seen the spelling Johnathan, but I have not heard it spoken.

  53. The politicians we agree with are wonderful code-switchers. Those we dislike are posers..

  54. David Marjanović says:

Trackbacks

  1. […] Hat looks at the different definitions of the word […]

Speak Your Mind

*