POIGNANT.

A correspondent wrote that he had come across the following in an aviation newsletter:

The tipping point seemed to be the geared turbofan, which may improve efficiency by as much as 15 percent, a major consideration for any airliner but especially poignant on the short- and medium-haul routes that its chief competitors, the Boeing 737 and Airbus A319 and A320, serve. [Emphasis added.]

He said he was about to send an e-mail to the editor telling him he had got the wrong word when he looked it up in Merriam-Webster Online and “was totally discombobulated by the M-W definitions”:

1: pungently pervasive <a poignant perfume>
2 a (1): painfully affecting the feelings : piercing (2): deeply affecting : touching b: designed to make an impression : cutting <poignant satire>
3 a: pleasurably stimulating b: being to the point : apt

He wrote: “So def. 3, ‘apt’, would be right in the sentence, by M-W’s standards. But I have never heard such as usage. Is it US-E?” I responded: “I too am puzzled; I have never (to my knowledge) seen or heard it so used, but if M-W includes it, it must be another example of the language passing me by.” So I turn to you, Varied Reader: are you familiar with the use of poignant to mean ‘to the point, apt’?

Comments

  1. I find it entirely acceptable, though I don’t think I could provide an examble.
    I find that 3b leads to 2 in general, 2a1 from being to the point, and 2a2, 2b from aptness. It’s hard for me to imagine something being deeply affecting or cutting without it also being apt.
    Mentally I think it’s the result of writing off the emotional content of the word, as poignancy does not refer to a specific emotional state: it can be experienced as pleasure, pain, or even awe… without some context implying such emotion, one can still conclude that whatever poignant thing was still “to the point: apt”.

  2. Paul Clapham says:

    That’s news to me, too. Although I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word myself, in speech or in writing, in any way at all.

  3. Wiktionary includes the usage applicable, relevant:
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/poignant
    and gives the example, “A poignant reply will garner more credence than hours of blown smoke.”
    My Shorter OED fails to provide this usage.

  4. Never heard of it either. The closest thing the OED has this:
    5. Of words or expressions: sharp, stinging; severe; (also) pleasantly keen or pointed, piquant. Obs.
    Like Matthew, I can imagine a sense shift from “pointed” (words) to “apt” (words), then an extension to “suitability” in general.

  5. I’ve definitely both heard and used that sense of “poignant;” reading the first half of this post I was quite puzzled as to where you were going to go with it.

  6. SnowLeopard says:

    I don’t use the word myself because it sounds too affected, but definitions 2(a)(1) and 2(a)(2) are the only ones I find acceptable. Before reading this post I had not come across the other uses, except possibly in my role as an irascible supervisor imperiously correcting the writing of junior employees.

  7. Nope. Never heard it used that way, and the sentence made no sense to me at first – all I could decide was that short-haul airliners had some need to be efficient or go out of business that was sharper than their competitors’ and which they might (must?) be failing at. It was interesting – more interesting than the real meaning, in fact.

  8. In fact, definition #1 is also strange to me. “A poignant perfume” would be (or would have been) one that made you wistful, for some reason … I’m not sure what it would smell like.

  9. Wasn’t April Fools yesterday?

  10. In fact, definition #1 is also strange to me.
    But that’s strange because it’s obsolete (1386 Chaucer Nun’s Pr. T. 14 “Of poynaunt sauce hir neded neuer a deel”; 1864 Hawthorne Deliver Rom. 61 “The rich, poignant perfume spread itself through the air”). If I could change one thing about M-W, it would be their annoyingly misleading practice of listing definitions in chronological order, thus frequently presenting obsolete meanings first. The “apt” sense is strange because it’s brand new.

  11. “Poignant” meaning “apt”? Never heard of it, won’t use it. It doesn’t enlarge or enhance the resources of English. It competes quite unnecessarily with the “pungent”, “touching” meaning. In a word, it stinks. At the end of this post I will qualify this apparently PRESCRIPTIVIST attitude.
    Re Breffni’s quote from the OED:

    5. Of words or expressions: sharp, stinging; severe; (also) pleasantly keen or pointed, piquant. Obs.

    In my version 2 of the OED on CD there is no “Obs.” at the end of this entry. This is a current sense, not an obsolete one, so Breffni’s imagining “a sense shift from “pointed” (words) to “apt” (words)” loses plausibility as a shift over time. The “pointed words” sense is current usage along with “apt words”. Also, “stinging words” are not “apposite words” – unless you fail to distinguish between “precise” and “what they’ve got coming to them”.
    We can ask how apt came to be applied to words. That has a straightforward answer, independent of considerations about “poignant”: aptus = “suited to a purpose” already in Latin is evidenced by the OED in 1398:

    1398 Trevisa Barth. De P.R. xvii. clvii. (1495) 707 Stoble is apt to many dyuerse vses.

    We can also ask how pointed came to be applied to words. That’s easy too:

    2. fig. Having the quality of penetrating or piercing the sensations, feelings, or mind; piercing, cutting, stinging, pungent, ‘sharp’; having point.

    … a1704 T. Brown Sat. on Quack Wks. 1730 I. 62 Th’ impartial muse, in pointed stabbing verse, Shall all thy several villanies rehearse….

    4. b. Exact to a point; precise.

    1727 P. Walker Life Peden (1827) 85, I doubt nothing of the Truth of them in my own Mind, tho’ I be not pointed in Time and Place. 1860 Gen. P. Thompson Audi Alt. III. cxv. 48 The identical member .. who was most pointed in showing up the dishonesty of the act inculpated. 1878 Gladstone Prim. Homer vi. 63 Its harbour is described with pointed correctness. 1893 Mrs. Oliphant Lady William I. viii. 130 How often must I tell you not to be so pointed with your half-hours?

    One possibility is that “poignant” may have had the sense of “apt” and “apposite” foisted on it by someone who simply misused the word, thinking of “pertinent”, say – or misunderstood “poignant expression” as meaning “an expression suited to the circumstances”, but missing the “deeply affecting” part. Others then pick up the use from him, in the belief they’ve learned a new snazzy word (but to me “affected”, as SnowLeopard says), and the infection spreads. For what it’s worth, the Petit Robert says only “Qui cause une impression très vive et pénible; qui serre, déchire le coeur”.
    I reject any accusation that I am being PRESCRIPTIVIST here. I am DESCRIBING how I myself use “poignant”, and giving reasons for it. That I am able and willing to give reasons is probably the only difference between me and the garden-variety descriptivist. Others may do as they please. But there will be hell to pay if I am their proofreader.

  12. Hat, when I pressed F5 to refresh the page just now, the entires appeared without formatting – as if they had been served without HTML. When I pressed F5 again, a formatted page appeared, but with the new spam post. Somehow I have the thought that the spam post didn’t arrive at your server in the normal way. It seemed to have entered in the middle of normal processing, destroying the formatting. Maybe you can pass this idea on to your son-in-law (is it?) who takes care of server business for you.

  13. No.
    I’ve seen this word in print many times, but have never heard it spoken and would not know how to pronounce it–I would guess the g is like a y–but .
    My Webster’s 7th definition #3 says:

    3a: pleasurably stimulating b:being to the point: APT

    Turning to definition 3 of “apt”: (isn’t that why “apt” is capitalized?) “suited to its purpose; specifically: being to the point”
    The way I interpret this is an “apt” phrase being so well put that it gives a sense of emotion at the accuracy of the expression.
    “Tipping point” is also used incorrectly. It has to do with social movements and stuff going viral.
    For “tipping point” they seem to mean “major advantage”, or “main selling point” and for poignant they seem to mean “useful” or “advantageous”. I have found that techie and engineering type people (maybe 90% or more) very rarely have good writing skills and almost never have good spelling skills.

  14. I’ve definitely heard it in the sense of “apt,” but only in terms of def. #2, i.e. “suited to its purpose in terms of being touching/affecting.”
    “Playing Grandpa’s favourite flute piece at his funeral was a poignant choice” wouldn’t raise any eyebrows at this desk, but the aviator’s usage would.

  15. SnowLeopard says:

    The word “refute” seems to be undergoing a similar change; a lot of people seem to think it means “to deny” rather than “to disprove”. To my great distress, some go even further and seem to equate the two meanings. I am tempted to editorialize at length about this, but upon reflection, it would not rescue the world from self-destruction, so I will put everyone’s time to better use by going for a walk instead.

  16. I guess this usage is common for the author and editor of the newsletter (assuming they aren’t one and the same). For me, it’s one I’ve never heard of before. I would have used “apt” or “important” instead.

  17. OED has a sense:
    5. Of words or expressions: sharp, stinging; severe; (also) pleasantly keen or pointed, piquant. Obs.
    Last citation is 1844 from Coningsby by a certain B. Disraeli.
    By the way, I get access to the OED online courtesy of my local public library. I have a suspicion that it’s actually pretty common for libraries to offer the OED online…

  18. mollymooly says:

    Either MattF’s library needs to renew its OED subscription or MattF needs to scroll down the screen a little further. My OED online [DRAFT REVISION Mar. 2009] ends with:
    1896 Times 23 Oct. 10/1 The search for the telling, the poignant phrase is instinctive.
    Still marked Obs. So it seems the word was considered current for OED1 c.1896, ignored and passed over through to OED2 in 1989, and now OED3 has decided it’s obsolete; as Hat, his correspondent, others, and I would have thought, but contra Matthew, Sol, et al. Ye should write to them forthwith and demand a resurrection.

  19. This is a current sense, not an obsolete one, so Breffni’s imagining “a sense shift from “pointed” (words) to “apt” (words)” loses plausibility as a shift over time.
    Even were it current (which I doubt), your argument wouldn’t work, because a sense does not need to die out before influencing other senses. As for the rest, your argument basically boils down to “it’s new, therefore it’s wrong,” which is classic prescriptivist bosh. See: Coleridge on “talented” and Swift on “mob.”

  20. mollymooly: Ooops. Yer right.

  21. It’s funny that it’s considered by some to be a pretentious sounding word to use in the USA, because I think poignant is a completely normal everyday word in England, though obviously not with this third usage. I like this meaning, it sounds reasonable, but I’m not going to start using words that I know most people are going to misunderstand, except on a day when I’m feeling more bloodyminded than usual.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    As a French speaker I am amazed by the definitions offered for the word “poignant” as used in English. Instances of this word that I have seen in English seemed to me to agree with the French definition as in the Petit Robert, quoted above: “Qui cause une impression très vive et pénible; qui serre, déchire le coeur”, that is “causing a very keen, painful impression; [refers to something] which [literatlly] grabs/squeezes, tears apart the heart”, ie “heart-wrenching, heart-rending”. For instance, I would have interpreted the sentence “Playing Grandpa’s favourite flute piece at his funeral was a poignant choice” as meaning that the grieving family was even more forcefully affected by the choice of the piece, on top of their natural grief.
    The French word, a comparatively recent borrowing into English, was originally the present participle of the old verb poindre in the now obsolete meaning of ‘to stab, hurt with a sharp pointed object’; it is also related to the noun le poignard, borrowed into Middle English as poniard, a kind of dagger. Perhaps this association has kept the meaning and connotations of poignant within the bounds of ‘sharp pain’, while the meaning of the English word, having no such associations, has weakened but also extended and shifted into very different directions.

  23. your argument basically boils down to “it’s new, therefore it’s wrong,” which is classic prescriptivist bosh.

    But that is not my argument, boiled or cru. When you say I think new means wrong, and that this is bosh, I take it to imply that you think new is (unqualifiedly?) right, or good, or something like that. But surely we are in agreement that “new is good” and “new is bad” are both silly attitudes?
    At the beginning of my post, I stated my reasons for not wanting to use pungent in the sense of “apt without being (deeply) touching”: It doesn’t enlarge or enhance the resources of English. It competes quite unnecessarily with the “pungent”, “touching” meaning. This means I do not want to encourage, by my own practice, the use of a specific word with a meaning that seems to be tacked on more or less arbitrarily, and may originally just be due to a misunderstanding. I describe older use patterns of that word, and say that I want to maintain them because a particular modification adds nothing of value.
    As I understand it, a linguistic descriptivist position is incompatible with saying that the use of words is good, bad or bosh. All such a descriptivist can do is to describe that usage – noting, for instance, that “some people use pungent in this way, others don’t”. In practice, however, it seems that this position is compatible with saying that arguments about words are good, bad or bosh.
    This is a curious distinction. You welcome without reserve some speech practice, but feel free to criticize other practice – namely the presentation of arguments about speech practice. As if the way we use words in arguments about words is susceptible of criticism, while the way we use words when not arguing about words is exempt from criticism.
    Lurking in this distinction is a kind of class consciousness (I don’t say that is good or bad, I merely take note of it). The working class produces words and meanings naturally, without thinking, the way rabbits breed. The commenting class studies these words and meanings. Commenters comment, and permit themselves “value judgements” in the form of arguments about their comments, mais pas devant les gens. A commenter doesn’t want to interfere with the productivity of the workers by encouraging them to argue, evaluate and choose. Use-sensitive rabbits have less time to procreate, with the result that the commenters have less to feed on.

  24. Matthew says:

    Coming from someone apparently so concerned with word choice, I find “The working class produces words and meanings naturally, without thinking, the way rabbits breed,” particularly offensive.

  25. Breffni says:

    Grumbly Stu:

    It doesn’t enlarge or enhance the resources of English.

    If you must use economic metaphors, the value of words isn’t intrinsic to them, it’s negotiated in the marketplace of language use. The best you can do is guess at how valuable a word (or product or service) is likely to be.

    I do not want to encourage, by my own practice, the use of a specific word with a meaning that seems to be tacked on more or less arbitrarily, and may originally just be due to a misunderstanding.

    Sense shift is often based on misunderstanding. If you’re going to avoid senses of words that originate in misunderstandings, you’ll wipe out an enormous chunk of your vocabulary.

    As if the way we use words in arguments about words is susceptible of criticism, while the way we use words when not arguing about words is exempt from criticism.

    You’re missing a crucial distinction: descriptive approaches to word meaning investigate as impartially as possible general patterns of word use. No sane person would suggest that specific, in-context uses of a word – by a particular speaker/writer, for a particular audience, to a specific purpose – cannot be evaluated. Botanists don’t classify plants according to their beauty or usefulness, but that doesn’t mean a botanist is guilty of inconsistency if she advises against using a nettle as a houseplant.

  26. It might be offensive if there actually were a working class in W. Europe, but there isn’t. Immigrants do the low-paid service jobs and goods are imported from the third world. Stu is really talking about gradations of middle-class society in my opinion. References to a contemporary ‘working class’ in England or Germany are, in my view, usually little more than nostalgia for something or other.
    (Although Language is so extremely tolerant about the topic-relatedness of my comments, I’m talking (well, at least partly) about the way language is used, here. I’m definitely not interested in a political argument.)

  27. Just think “working class” with scare quotes, if that makes things clearer. After all, in what I wrote I am mentioning “working class” as a historical concept expressing disparagement by some persons towards others. I am not myself using “working class” to classify anyone, nor to compare anyone with a rabbit. That kind of insolence was a feature of certain portions of British society down into the 20th century. I didn’t invent it.
    The contrast of “working class” with “talking heads” is indeed intended to excite outrage – but not against me, rather against the imaginary descriptivists to whom I impute it.

  28. In view of this outbreak of literalism, maybe I should point out that the metaphor of “working class” and “commenters” was deliberately exaggerated sarcasm. How can one be so sensitive about shifts in the meanings of words, and yet so obtuse about shifts in rhetorical register?
    I still feel that there is something condescendingly tolerant, involving double standards, about the shirt-sleeved “descriptivism” that I sometimes read here. All I said was with respect to one specific word “pungent”. According to Breffni, the reasons I gave mean I would have to give up “enormous chunks of my vocabulary”, if they originated in misunderstandings. But that’s not so.
    The difference here is that I take “poignant” in the sense of “apt without being (deeply) touching” to be an example of a newish meaning in statu abortandi. There’s still time to save the mother, if not the child. I’m certainly not going to go over the established, multifarious corpus of English to pick and chose on the basis of whether something was a misunderstanding hundreds of years ago.

  29. Isn’t anyone going to point out that I mistakenly wrote “pungent” when I meant “poignant”?

  30. I thought about it, Stu. Then I decided you meant it and I must be wrong. Damn.

  31. Gotcha!

  32. This is a vaguely site-related comment! Lol!
    Rent a goat for Easter — we do wedding alterations!
    Cheers!
    AJP

  33. It’s about time a sociolinguist turned his/her sights on the phenomenon of descriptivists and prescriptivist at loggerheads. And I mean a sociolinguist, not an essayist. There is an interesting asymmetry here in the fact that linguists study languages, but not the languages of linguists. As if linguistics were the gathering of pure, higher knowledge, and so were exempt from scientific scrutiny – self-scrutiny, in fact.

  34. outrage – against the imaginary descriptivists
    We’re all imaginary here, Stu.

  35. JJ, what wonderful pictures! I see you get your goats too, not just other people’s.

  36. I find “The working class produces words and meanings naturally, without thinking, the way rabbits breed,” particularly offensive.
    Actually, the way I read it, Grumbly Stu wasn’t himself saying that the “working class produces words and meanings naturally, without thinking, the way rabbits breed”; he was imputing that kind of thinking to a kind of class consciousness, which he was roundly criticising. I don’t see what there is to be upset about. Not sure to whom it should be deemed offensive — to the working class? Or to the “commenting class”? Or just people who don’t like seeing class attitudes criticised?

  37. Stu: It doesn’t enlarge or enhance the resources of English.

    Breffni: If you must use economic metaphors, the value of words isn’t intrinsic to them, it’s negotiated in the marketplace of language use. The best you can do is guess at how valuable a word (or product or service) is likely to be.

    “Resources of English” is not an economic metaphor. True, “resources” has been used for a long time in classical economic theorizing to mean “something of (intrinsic) value in the world that can be exploited” (such hypostasizing of value is part of what the epithet “classical” gives you to expect, when applied to economic theory).
    But “resources” has also been used in a more general way, for just as long, to mean “A means of supplying some want or deficiency; a stock or reserve upon which one can draw when necessary”, as the OED has it. As far as I can tell from the Petit Robert and the OED, the word in both meanings came to French in the late 16th century, and to English in the 17th century. Clearly the meanings are related, and “stock” and “reserve” are also used in economist meditations. The very idea of value is hard to pin down, or do without.
    Would it really heighten clarity if I added “in my view, for my purposes” to everything I say? I suppose I am entitled to regard English as something that can supply my wants, whose words I draw on when I find them appropriate, neglecting the rest – without standing accused of buccaneering? Of course in some sense the value of words is “negotiated”, in the “marketplace of language use” even – but doesn’t this amount to saying that not value, but negotiation is the source of value? Are you talking free markets? Where should I pay my stall fee? Who’s economizing (with) the subject-matter now?

  38. When you say I think new means wrong, and that this is bosh, I take it to imply that you think new is (unqualifiedly?) right, or good, or something like that.
    You take it wrongly. New is just new: it hasn’t been around long. That does not make it right or wrong.
    It doesn’t enlarge or enhance the resources of English.
    That is the standard prescriptivist “argument” against any new development they don’t happen to like. All but the most hard-boiled prescriptivists are willing to accept new terms for new phenomena; they may mutter about “radar,” say, not being a very pleasant-sounding word, but they accept the necessity to have a word for it. But other than that, any new addition to the vocabulary gets greeted with cries of “Unnecessary! We can already say that with the good old English my grandfather spoke!” What they (and you) are missing is that language does not operate on a basis of parsimony and logic. People do not use words because they fill a special hole in the semantic universe, they use them because they enjoy using them. If the collective unconscious decides it needs yet another slang term for “drunk,” up it will pop, even though there are already 5,000 perfectly good ones they could use instead. People like variety and they like novelty, and all the dictionary-waving outraged inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells won’t stop them.
    None of which is meant to say that you shouldn’t feel the way you do. As I’ve said many times, it’s impossible to be objective about language, and even those of us with expensive linguistic educations under our belts have irrational objections to particular usages and have a hard time accepting new ones. That’s only human. All I ask is that you acknowledge that your objection is just that, an irrational clinging to the form of English you know and love, and that the language will carry on perfectly well despite your reluctance to go along with it. It’s the conflation of one’s own prejudices and preferences with the well-being of the language that gets my goat.
    Speaking of which, everybody should visit AJP’s goat site—they do wedding alterations!

  39. Oh, and I don’t know how the working class got into this, but that’s just silly. None of this is about class, it’s about clinging to the Old Ways, something all classes have in common.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly Stu: It’s about time a sociolinguist turned his/her sights on the phenomenon of descriptivists and prescriptivist at loggerheads.
    This blog is not quite the place to suggest this: write to Mark Liberman at Language Log. Besides, how do you know it has never been done? By now the conflict between the two attitudes is so well-known among linguists that it hardly seems to deserve comment. In any case, such a study would be a comment on attitudes to language, probably not on the features and use of language per se: both “camps” (seem to) use standard styles typical of academic writing.
    . There is an interesting asymmetry here in the fact that linguists study languages, but not the languages of linguists.
    (Would you say the same thing about, for instance, biology? eg “biologists study living organisms, but not the bodies of biologists”? They do not dissect themselves, but they do study the human organism as well as other types of organisms.)
    Linguists study languages, such as English, German, japanese, Cherokee, Swahili, Yoruba, Hiligaynon, Warlpiri, etc. Some linguists focus on their own language, others on languages vastly different from their own. The works they produce are also written in real languages (although mostly restricted to languages of wider distribution), such as English, Japanese, etc. Do you mean that linguists are not studying their own languages or the ones that they write their works in? But the language most written about by linguists is English, and the bulk of the writing about English linguistics is also done in English, mostly by English-speaking linguists. Most studies of Japanese are now done by Japanese linguists, etc. So perhaps you mean something else by “the languages of linguists”, but I am not sure what you would mean in this context. The conflict between descriptivists (linguists) and prescriptivists seems particularly acute in English (for historical societal reasons) but the details they disagree on concern relatively minor aspects of the language.
    As if linguistics were the gathering of pure, higher knowledge, and so were exempt from scientific scrutiny – self-scrutiny, in fact. Now, now! On what basis are you saying this?

  41. jamessal says:

    Here’s Coleridge on talented.

  42. All I ask is that you acknowledge that your objection is just that, an irrational clinging to the form of English you know and love, and that the language will carry on perfectly well despite your reluctance to go along with it. It’s the conflation of one’s own prejudices and preferences with the well-being of the language that gets my goat.

    Of course I acknowledge that, and have never said otherwise! But, as one of the carry-oners, I am just as entitled to prod, tweak and grumble at the machinery of language, as other carry-oners are entitled to walk in beatific silence, surveying the spectacle of language unfolding itself without let or hindrance. What else is this site about?
    I find it peculiar that so many people appear to feel that, when someone (a bit too) forcefully airs his views on something, that person is trying to impose his views, or at least sell them a used car sight unseen – or maybe is practicing to do that on a large scale, so the butt must be nipped while still hot. Why do I not suffer from this fear of unwanted influence? Possibly because having strong opinions (aka being opinionated) has made me relatively immune.
    But possibly too many people imagine INTOLERANCE behind every tree. jamessal wrote that, in another context, the propensity to see danger everywhere is called “sketching”. Note my ability to pick up on this apt new meaning with nary a prescriptivist shiver.

  43. jamessal says:

    I find it peculiar that so many people appear to feel that, when someone (a bit too) forcefully airs his views on something, that person is trying to impose his views
    I do take your point, Grumbly. But still: when someone with your rhetorical skills condemns a word for bad reasons in public (others who don’t comment, do read) I’m glad to see Hat et al. take issue — if for no other reason than that then I don’t have to. (Than that then?)
    jamessal wrote that, in another context, the propensity to see danger everywhere is called “sketching”.
    Ha! I fear you’ve read my book. (My life has changed, I hope you know: these days I’m burning cigarette holes in drapes, trying to catch a glimpse of the prescriptivist bushmen!)

  44. rootlesscosmo says:

    marie-lucie’s first comment exactly captures my sense of “poignant,” which has never included the meaning “apt.” I know the French word “poignard,” which adds to my general sense of “sad,” exemplified in Billy Strayhorn’s song “Lush Life:” “I thought for a while that your poignant smile/Was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me…” (I think it’s a weak lyric–the internal rhyme of “awful” and “trough-full” makes me squirm–but Strayhorn was only seventeen (!) and the music is brilliant, as John Coltrane and others have shown.

  45. I am just as entitled to prod, tweak and grumble at the machinery of language, as other carry-oners are entitled to walk in beatific silence, surveying the spectacle of language unfolding itself without let or hindrance. What else is this site about?
    Indeed, and heaven forfend you should stop grumbling! But I reserve my right to grumble about your grumbles.
    Strayhorn was only seventeen (!)
    !! I did not know that. Amazing.
    and the music is brilliant
    Indeed it is.

  46. You can counter-grumble all you like, Hat! It’s just that you seem to have overlooked the fact that I am almost completely unprincipled. So it doesn’t make sense to charge me with fabricating prescriptivist bosh. The only categories of behavior and belief in which I don’t weave and duck are bristliness and … (there was another one, I’m sure of it).

  47. Rudeness.

  48. Crumbly Stew: am almost completely unprincipled.
    I love that ‘almost’, Stu. It’s as if you were going to say you are completely unprincipled, but your principles got the better of you.
    Anyone who wants to see what a real German intellectual looks like should take a look at Stu’s photo, here.

  49. You found me out, JJ. I did add “almost” only at the last minute. Oh, the shame of it!

  50. “The working class produces words and meanings naturally, without thinking, the way rabbits breed,”
    The only writer of an aviation newsletter I know personally has several degrees. Unfortunately one of them is in engineering, so I’m sure the newsletter is written with lots of help from spellcheck. They (the presumed blue collar writers of aviation newsletters) are not “producing” words and meanings, they are getting the words and meanings wrong. They’re just not good at it, although they’re probably very good at calculus.

  51. “Apt” does have an emotional resister. Otherwise you would say “okay” or “adequate”. “Apt” has the sound of self-satisfaction attached to it, as if agreeing with opinion that resonates strongly.

  52. marie-lucie says:

    poignant in old french is ‘prick’ or ‘point’
    No it is not, just backtrack a few posts.

  53. mollymooly says:

    If I could change one thing about M-W, it would be their annoyingly misleading practice of listing definitions in chronological order, thus frequently presenting obsolete meanings first.

    It’s more misleading if you’re not aware of it, though you might get a clue if the first sense is marked “Obsolete”.
    The OED, being a historical dictionary, does this of course; the “now the usual sense” note is a half-hearted attempt to counteract the disadvantage. In the computer age, the web version also represents the family-tree structure implicit in the numberings and subnumberings as a graphical tree in the left pane. Which is cute.
    I hope and expect that soon some good online dictionary will offer the ability to toggle between diachronic and synchronic orderings. The awesomest would be diachronic-synchronic: which senses were more or less common in 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000, say. I doubt we’ll see that any time soon.

  54. J-Sal: Here’s Coleridge on talented.
    A lot of people don’t realise that Coleridge was a terrible old conservative, much more so than Wordsworth. There’s a good book called ‘The Friendship’, by Adam Sisman, available from Amazon. One of the reviews there says ‘This book was extremely poignant and sad’.*
    *See, the thread is about the word ‘poignant’, so that’s a coincidence.

  55. Oh, I forgot to say it’s a book about the friendship between Coleridge and Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth.

  56. The primary reason these dictionaries don’t offer toggling between synchronic-diachronic maps, and other such useful features, seems to be a general reluctance on the part of commercial lexicography, and of its consumers, to embrace in word and deed where technology has taken us. When you consider what standard browsers could do with HTML even 10 years ago, it’s astonishing how clunky the (apparently homegrown) OED V3 browser is. The same is true of Duden on CD.
    When I received an email notification recently that the OED V4 would be coming out soon (it’s now available), I wrote to the publishers expressing the hope that they had made the background color configurable – against that pale yellow, the purple and black letters tend to form after-images in my eyes after looking at them for a while. I received a prompt response from someone who assured me this was the case. Not one to spurn the hand when a little finger is extended, I wrote back to ask if they had made all colors configurable – it should be easy using the appropriate browser technology. The answer was that no, they hadn’t done that yet, but they would make a note. I would have to adjust to purple highlighting.
    And those poor heroic old darlings (as I imagine them) at the Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé , working their butts off with handcrafted javascript! But they’re moving into the present – if you look at the démonstration, you find lots of nice stuff (like highlighting different categores of text) that neither the OED nor Duden has. But no graphics, and the layout and response are mid-nineties. The Petit Robert on CD is the best of the lot. If only French were not such a nightmare for root-minded Texans, who react to “admettre” with “admit”, and to “pertinemment” with “pertinently”.
    Maybe I’m being unfair. I can well imagine it’s one hell of a job to get lexicographical entries, with their multiple fonts, into a workable electronic form. The thing is, I get the impression that these publishers are not taking competitive, professional advice about their technology (the French are the honorable exception, except in the area of television). The chief executive’s young mistress volunteered to design the database and layout – and that’s good enough for him. But if the basic elements (database scheme, database product, browser technology, compression scheme, UI design etc) are not up to the demands, then fitting the data into these things is a chore, and getting them to serve you the information you want as a consumer becomes a burden.
    If the publishers planned for, and provided, programming APIs for the disk-based and online versions, they would encourage people to develop add-ons, such as chronomaps. But they are zillions of miles away from that mindset.

  57. scarabaeus says:

    tennis anyone

  58. It’s more misleading if you’re not aware of it
    Which nobody is. Nobody apart from professional dictionary people, of course. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people point to the first (often irrelevant) sense in M-W, either in triumph or with dismay, as if it were “the meaning.” Has to be, since it’s first, right? (And after all, the first pronunciation listed is the preferred one.)
    The OED is different; it’s a dictionary on historical principles, it tells you so up front, and it’s expensive enough it’s not used by the casually curious. But M-W has successfully promoted itself as The Dictionary in the US, it’s used in just about every office as a standard reference and mandated by most editorial houses, and it’s just nuts that they have such a counterintuitive ordering.

  59. mike robinson says:

    I did not check every comment, but it appears nobody went to the core of the question, the oldest forms of the word (Indo-European). Some referred to it obliquely. But “APT” seems apt if we allow for someone particular enough in using language to want both the beauty of collusion and the specificity of a point. (Makes me think of Stevens: “the blackbird whistling/or just after.”
    Anyhow: here’s the I-E dictionary history of the word.
    peuk-. To prick. Oldest forms *peu-, *peu-, becoming *peuk-, *peug- in centum languages. Zero-grade form *pug-. 1. Suffixed form *pug-no-. poniard, pugilism, pugil stick, pugnacious; impugn, oppugn, repugn, from Latin pugil, pugilist, and pugnus, fist, with denominative pugnre, to fight with the fist. 2. Nasalized zero-grade form *pu-n-g-. bung, pink2, poignant, point, pointillism, pontil, pounce1, pounce3, puncheon1, punctilio, punctual, punctuate, puncture, pungent; bontebok, compunction, expunge, spontoon, trapunto, from Latin pungere, to prick.

  60. rootlesscosmo says:

    @mike robinson: thanks for that information. It hadn’t occurred to me to connect “poignant” with “-pugn.” Edmund Wilson used a fairly obscure word containing that element in a story to describe a character who is “as tough and inexpugnable as a caraway seed caught between the teeth.”

  61. marie-lucie says:

    rootlesscosmo: “inexpugnable” is a borrowing from French too. The context is usually a military one: une forteresse inexpugnable, “an invincible fortress” (from which the defenders cannot be dislodged).

  62. At first I thought “inexpugnable” here was a misspelling of “inexpungible”. This, to my surprise, means only “undeletable”, and seems to be used mostly in a legal context, as here:

    (8) When an expunction proceeding is commenced by application
    of the person whose records are to be expunged, the person shall
    set forth as part of the application the names of the juvenile
    courts, juvenile departments, institutions and law enforcement
    and other agencies which the person has reason to believe possess
    an expungible record of the person.

    It seems that indeed polemos pater esti of a lot of useful words, if not panton.

  63. Thinking about the French poignant not originally meaning “pricking”, as marie-lucie has explained, I encountered this in the OED entry for “expunge”:

    The L. word was by the earlier Lat.-Eng. lexicographers taken to denote actual obliteration by pricking. The Eng. use is prob. influenced by phonetic association with sponge.

    Is is just white noise, or are my antennae picking up the idea that, in olden golden Roman times, deletions were accomplished by pricking the (ink?) out of (from the surface of?) the (papyrus, parchment)? For example: invalidated arena tickets for the previous gladiator event, to make them reusable?
    And the idea that “earlier Lat.-Eng. lexicographers” (who they? when?) used sponges (only on slates)? What materials were involved? Did pricking-out save time overall, since the result was that the page did not need to be completely rewritten? Was this a specialized task? À l’époque, was being a prick a profession?

  64. rootlesscosmo says:

    marie-lucie: Wilson was vain of his French, whether deservedly or not I can’t say. In one of his stories the Devil turns up at a suburban party to tempt one of the guests; they conduct their conversation (two or three pages’ worth) in French, because, they agree, it seems more civilized. So it would be like him to borrow a fairly common French word and use it as though it were part of his readers’ English vocabulary.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    rootlesscosmo: I wouldn’t say the French word is “fairly common” as its use is limited. But I don’t recall seeing it in English, except for your example. Is it included in English dictionaries?

  66. rootlesscosmo says:

    marie-lucie: the Apple online dictionary calls it Archaic and gives the etymology as “late Middle English : via Old French from Latin inexugnabilis, from in- ‘not’ + expugnabilis ‘able to be taken by assault.’” From your mention of a standard usage in “une forteresse inexpugnable” I assumed it was more familiar in the vocabulary of French speakers. When I read the Wilson story–I was about twenty and ashamed to resort to dictionaries for definitions of English words–I thought it had something to do with spitting, from a vague memory of Italian “sputare,” whose first syllable sounds a bit like the third of “inexpugnable.” The reference to “a caraway seed caught between the teeth” strengthened this erroneous belief.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    rootlesscosmo: “late Middle English : via Old French from Latin inexugnabilis
    The word may have been borrowed in Late Middle English, but it cannot have been in Old French, unless the lexicographer confused Old French, Middle French and Early Modern French. It is too close to the Latin original to have been subject to the series of changes which resulted in Old French, and must have been formed directly from Latin (along with a number of other words) when the study of Latin non-religious texts caused the appearance of similarly “learned” borrowings. The mention “archaic” probably indicates that the word was borrowed and has a few attestions in English around the relevant time but never became really adopted.

  68. I’ve found a little information about “obliteration by pricking” in manuscripts. First off, there is the difficulty that pricking is also a book-preparation technique:

    prickings – Small holes made in the margins of a page, which were the guides for laid lines

    laid lines – The usually faint lines which marked the baseline for a line of text on the page. Although rare in modern printed books and common in modern notebooks, medieval readers expected text to be framed by these lines (someone, I forget who, suggested that medieval readers felt text was ‘naked’ without these lines).

    In the “scribal corrections” section of an article on the Aberdeen Bestiary, there is a link to a photograph of a page showing the prickings and two corrections in the text. The latter appear to be done with a sponge, however.
    There is a slide show (complete with plainchant on the audio track) on how to create a manuscript in the comfort of your own home. It won’t stress Holly and Misty to watch too if they want, JJ, since “the best parchment comes from white sheep or cows”. It says you can get into scrapes to correct mistakes:

    If by chance you were ever to make any mistakes, please make sure you have a knife at hand. Take the knife and scrape off the ink before it really sets into the parchment. The quicker this is done, the less your mistake will show.

    It’s not obliteration by pricking, but I hope I’m getting closer. I’m getting the idea that this technique would work only on parchment, not paper. The ink should dry on the surface, and not penetrate too far into the substrate.

  69. So “obliteration by pricking” would be the dislodgement of minuscule flakes of dried ink using a pointed instrument, i.e. expugnation of them. Wilson’s character must not have been very tough if he could be chased off with a toothpick, like an interdental caraway seed.

  70. So perhaps you mean something else by “the languages of linguists”, but I am not sure what you would mean in this context.

    You’re right, marie-lucie. What I wrote is not clear at all.

    As if linguistics were the gathering of pure, higher knowledge, and so were exempt from scientific scrutiny – self-scrutiny, in fact. Now, now! On what basis are you saying this?

    I was thinking along the lines of what Luhmann did in sociology. But that’s way over my head right now. Perhaps I’ll think of something worth saying about it at my site, sometime.

  71. Grumbly: You forgot to include a URL with your “photograph” link; let me know if I’ve supplied the right one.

  72. Yep, thanx! Could you also please correct “Willson’” to Wilson’s, a bit farther up?

  73. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly: Wilson’s character must not have been very tough if he could be chased off with a toothpick, like an interdental caraway seed.
    I take it to mean the opposite: he was someone relatively insignificant, a hanger-on who could not be got rid of, like a caraway seed stuck between one’s teeth (and no toothpick around). Some such people don’t realize they are making a pest of themselves, others do and hang around on purpose, in any case both types crave attention, even if it is negative.
    what Luhmann did in sociology
    So that’s who the older man is on your site! I briefly read the Wiki article about him and can’t say I have any idea of how his work applies to linguistics, but that could be just a superficial impression. His work is described as difficult to understand though. Do comment when you have a chance, or when you are in the mood.

  74. Codicology seems to be the topic of my weekend. Yesterday, when I was visiting Ralf at the rehab, he used a very strange expression I’d never heard before: “Ich bin nicht mit einem Klammersack gepudert”. The meaning is “I wasn’t born yesterday”, but what the devil is a Klammersack?? He didn’t know either, having just picked it up from somebody who probably also didn’t know what it meant, esoteric as it is.
    It later occurred to me that a cloth bag to hold laundry clips is a “(Wäsche)klammerbeutel”. Today I read that a perforated bag full of powder can be used to reproduce manuscript images:

    Pouncing is a method of copying images from one sheet of vellum to another by making a series of tiny prick marks around the required image. The image would be pricked straight through to a sheet below. This would become the template from which several copies could be made without further harm to the original. The pricked sheet would be sprinkled with a very fine dust like charcoal or pumice, which would trickle through the holes producing the required image below. It was a convenient way to duplicate images in a scriptorium where many similar copies of a book were required

    This raises the possibility that, by some devious etymological route, the expression means “I’m not a pounce”. There’s just that “u” to explain away.

  75. So that’s who the older man is on your site!

    What a flatteuse charmante you are, marie-lucie! As if, until now, you thought the picture was of me. Of course you know I’m the croc in the middle.

  76. marie-lucie says:

    In French, “pumice” is la ponce. The verb poncer means to use a pumice on some material in order to smooth it. It is likely that the word also referred to using pumice powder in the manner described. The evolution from Frencb ponce to English “pounce” is quite regular, as in rond “round”, profond “profound”, mont “mount”, montagne “mountain”, etc. (written “ou” was originally a “long oo” sound, not a diphthong as now). (“To pounce on something”, as a cat on a mouse, must have a different origin).

  77. marie-lucie: Here is a bit of Luhmann on sense and meaning that I translated. The foreword to “Social Systems” describes what I was sketchily referring to by “lack of self-scrutiny”. Unfortunately, I have only the German here. This is how it begins:

    Sociology is stuck in a crisis of theory. Empirical research, quite successful on the whole, has increased our stock of knowledge, but has not led to the construction of a theory that would unify the various subdisciplines. Being an empirical science, sociology cannot abandon its ambition to validate its pronouncements against data gathered from reality, however old or new the bottles may be into which the pressings are poured. Yet sociologists have been unable to apply precisely this principle to demonstrate that sociology has its own special area of study, and is a unified scientific displine. Resignation about this state of affairs is so profound that no one even tries anymore.

  78. Theory sucks, so Yay Sociology!
    “Pricksong” just means notated music in general. “Prick” just means dot or point. I had not known that. I thought that it was some specific obsolete method of notation.

  79. Theory sucks, so Yay Sociology!
    “Pricksong” just means notated music in general. “Prick” just means dot or point. I had not known that. I thought that it was some specific obsolete method of notation.

  80. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly, I looked up the link and wrote a comment in your linguistics section.

  81. marie-lucie says:

    \ep-uh-STEE-mik\
    I hate the kind of transcription that quotes just about every unstressed vowel as “uh”. Some people do use that pronunciation, eg “America” pronounced “uh-MUR-uh-kuh (which overuses the “uh”), but I don’t think it should be encouraged, for instance by placing it in books for schoolchildren. What do native speakers think?

  82. I agree. Too much uh is degrading. But what books for schoolchildren would these be that contain transcriptions? ESL books, or “remedial English” books?

  83. marie-lucie says:

    There are American graded “readers”, also widely used in Canadian elementary schools, which use this method for “difficult” words, including foreign names. I think it’s awful.

  84. Is it pronounced “uh” or “ə”? To me there is a difference. Or is it yet another dumbing down for children who are incapable of learning what a schwa is.

  85. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, I am only writing what I have seen written. I suppose “uh” is meant to be schwa, but I don’t know what difference you are making.

  86. Surely “uh” is quite adequate as a transcription for schoolchildren. They will be able to reproduce sounds more accurately when they hear them, if it becomes important to them later. It would surprise me to hear that that does not apply to phonologists as well.

  87. To me “uh” is the vocalized pause that speakers use when they are trying to think of what to say next. It’s a heavy sound. A schwa is the sound of an unaccented syllable of any vowel, but I think it’s a shorter sound. We were capable of learning the schwa in at least maybe the fifth grade, but of course we weren’t normal fifth graders. Being right across the border from Lake Wobegone, we were Above Average.
    Some of my Mexican students never finished the 3rd grade, and I teach it to them, even if I’ve never seen it in an ESL text. The Hispanic students have such an awful time with English pronunciation. I think the u and h thing would just confuse them since the j is used for the h sound in Spanish, the h is silent and the u always has the long sound (as in cute).
    So, uh, am I right?

  88. marie-lucie says:

    Isn’t it strange (from the point of view of learning to read), that most short words can be contrasted with similar but slightly different ones, eg cat/sat/mat/rat/ etc, or cat/cab/cad/can/ etc, but “uh” is alone, and there is no word which includes this letter sequence?

  89. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, in phonetic transcriptions of English, the schwa symbol is used for an unstressed (“light”) vowel, as in the one at the end of your name, and there is another symbol (looking like an inverted v) used for the same sound when stressed (“heavy”), even though the sound quality is almost the same for the two. So even though you are not using technical terminology or transcription, you are basically right.
    It seems to me that a word like “epistemic”, when pronounced slowly, usually has an [I] (short i as in bit) in the second syllable, not an “uh” as if it were written “epastemic”. Also, isn’t there another acceptable pronunciation as “ep-I-stEm-ic”? I am sure I have heard the word spoken that way.

  90. Huh?

  91. Duh.

  92. That’s all I can think of. Not exactly words, but they’re online staples.
    I have never heard anyone pronounce the word, but if it’s like epigastric, epicenter, or epidemic, I would pronounce it more like the short i than a schwa. My Merriam Webster says schwa for all of those words–only one pronunciation for epistemic, though.

  93. rootlesscosmo says:

    Grumbly Stu and marie-lucie:
    Grumbly: Wilson’s character must not have been very tough if he could be chased off with a toothpick, like an interdental caraway seed.
    I take it to mean the opposite: he was someone relatively insignificant, a hanger-on who could not be got rid of, like a caraway seed stuck between one’s teeth (and no toothpick around).
    The character is a a Jewish woman, which means the caraway seed draws on an ethnic stereotype (caraway ➔ rye bread ➔ Jews); her “toughness” consists in holding strong political opinions which she stubbornly defends. I find it’s not always easy to tell, with Wilson, where his principled anti-Stalinism ends and his Princeton WASP snobbery begins.

  94. (Fixed the ital problem. N.b.: the ital marker doesn’t carry across paragraph breaks, so you have to add a separate <i> for each new paragraph. I’ve been bitten by this more than once.)

  95. marie-lucie says:

    rootlesscosmo: thank you for providing more context to Wilson’s use of “inexpugnable”. I guess the character cannot be dislodged from her position, as opposed to dislodged from one’s circle of friends as I thought without knowing more.

  96. m-l: isn’t there another acceptable pronunciation as “ep-I-stEm-ic”?
    I haven’t heard it, but perhaps it comes from the pronunciation of ‘epistemological’.

  97. Noetica says:

    On epistemic:
    Among philosophers (whose word it is, perhaps), EpistEmic is normally stressed on the third syllable (varying between /ɛ/ and /iː/) with a light secondary stress on the first syllable. No syllable is normally rendered with a schwa. I have never heard any variation from this description.
    As for epistemology, epistemological, and epistemologist, these are the normal stress patterns:
    epIstemOlogy
    epIstemolOgical
    epIstemOlogist
    But one philosopher I know (generally very concerned to promote his own personal and disputable view of “correct” pronunciation, and a specialist in epistemology) says EpistemOlogy, EpistemolOgical, and EpistemOlogist.

  98. In Foucault you also have episteme, which I don’t know how to pronounce either in English or in French. I believe that it has a grave accent on the the e.

  99. In Foucault you also have episteme, which I don’t know how to pronounce either in English or in French. I believe that it has a grave accent on the the e.

  100. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma: EpistEmic is normally stressed on the third syllable (varying between /ɛ/ and /iː/)
    Thank you, this variation of the third vowel is what I was asking about, since I am familiar with it as /ɛ/ but not as /iː/ as others insisted. I also objected to the i of the second syllable being transcribed as schwa rather than I (the capital meaning the symbol for vowel of bit, not an indication of stress).

  101. Oh, that wasn’t me, it was Noetica. Here’s M-W:
    \ֽep-ә-’stē-mik\

  102. marie-lucie says:

    Oops, sorry, Noetica. I must have read too fast and skipped the letters between N and a.
    But while you are here, perhaps I can ask you if you have run into the word épistème that John Emerson is asking about? I haven’t, but then I rarely read philosophy.

  103. Never heard of it. I would have guessed Dravidian, but apparently it’s both Greek and French, if that is possible:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episteme
    “Episteme, as distinguished from techne, is etymologically derived from the Greek word ἐπιστήμη for knowledge or science, which comes from the verb ἐπίσταμαι, “to know”.
    Michel Foucault used the term épistémè in his work The Order of Things …”
    http://loret.canalblog.com/archives/2009/03/23/13097043.html
    Épistème
    Autre atelier dans mon parcours d’intervenante en Arts plastiques : Épistème. Société et organisme de Formation, zone d’intervention : bassin d’emploi de Bruay-Béthune.

  104. I have had little to do with continental philosophy since I wrote an honours thesis analysing a part of L’Etre et le Néant, decades ago. I noted then a good deal of carelessness with words of Greek origin. Why hyletic (or the German or French equivalent), when hylic is better formed, and has precedent in Aristotle’s ὑλικός? So it is with ἐπιστήμη once it gets into French. Petit Robert:

    épistémè [epistemɛ; episteme] n. f. v. 1965; gr. epistêmê « science »
    Didact. Ensemble des connaissances réglées (conception du monde, sciences, philosophies…) propres à un groupe social, à une époque. « Telle est, dans son esquisse la plus générale, “l’épistémè” du XVIe siècle » (Foucault). — On écrirait mieux épistémé [episteme].

    And this form épistème turns up in an OED citation (at the entry for “Lévi-Straussian”):

    1981 P. Jorion in J. Wintle Makers of Mod. Culture 306/1 Foucault’s ‘épistème’…functions much like a Lévi-Straussian ‘group of transformations’.

    Compare OED’s hurrumphing “[sic]” inserted in a citation at “episteme” (which OED pronounces with the third of its four syllables stressed):

    1966 M. Foucault Mots & Choses 13 Ce qu’on voudrait mettre au jour, c’est le champ épistémologique, l’épistémè [sic] où les connaissances, envisagées hors de tout critère se référant à leur valeur rationnelle ou à leurs formes objectives, enfoncent leur positivité et manifestent ainsi une histoire qui n’est pas celle de leur perfection croissante, mais plutôt celle de leurs conditions de possibilité.

  105. I’d “sic” it too. I’ve never seen a weirder-looking French word than épistémè; how could anyone think that final accent grave was a good idea? I think I’ll just pretend I never learned about it.

  106. marie-lucie says:

    N-a, thank you both for your research.
    épistémè: this is not meant to be a French word, any more than “Dasein” is meant to be a French or English word. It shows off the writer’s knowledge of Greek. The grave accent on the last syllable is found only in some foreign words.
    The quotation from Foucault doesn’t make me feel like reading him: “Le champ … où les connaissances … enfoncent leur positivité …” …. (makes me think of pushing posts down into a muddy field).

  107. épistémè: this is not meant to be a French word, any more than “Dasein” is meant to be a French or English word. It shows off the writer’s knowledge of Greek.
    Ah, that makes sense. Thank you! (And I agree about the Foucault quote.)

  108. Je vous salue, marie-lucie! (I’m aware of the resonance, and just being half-facetious). I wrote, but set aside, a rant about that phrase. It is such an assurance to read that you think the same. Here is what’s left of the rant:

    As for the Foucault in the OED entry, for a change I’m not going to expend any effort to figure out what is happening when a connaissance enfonces its positivité. I’m heartily [sic] and tired of such phrase-carbohydrates. They get me riled more than their English and German counterparts because my French is still not sufficiently spiffy. My basic tendency is to assume that again, and yet again, the fault is with me, and that I am being misled by cognates. The French fries get the benefit of the doubt, so I end up chewing over them longer than the other two kinds, which I immediately recognize as inedible and spew out, on the Johnson model.

  109. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly, if you are using “French fries” literally, you should know that they were originally a Belgian specialty. They have nothing to do with the word salad that some French intellectuals come up with, as in the example above, or in the works of Lacan and Derrida.
    Years ago I picked up a French translation of a book by the Danish linguist Hjelmslev (I forget the title). It was a slim book, extremely simply and clearly written. It also had a long preface by the Lithuanian-born French linguist Algirdas Greimas: the preface was absolutely unreadable.
    I am not sure when somebody (a French person) came up with the idea that the French language was distinguished among other languages by its clarity: Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français “What is not clear is not French”. Some French writers seem to have understood the maxim to mean “If it is written in French, it is clear”, no matter how obscure their prose.

  110. marie-lucie: Apparently you live a healthier life than me – when I mention phrase-carbohydrates, you counter with word salad.
    I knew that about fries. In Germany they’re just called pommes frites, or “Pom-mes” for short in Cologne.
    Doesn’t the “French is clarity” business go back at least as far as the Port-Royal grammarians?

  111. marie-lucie says:

    Grumbly, perhaps we could compromise on “pasta salad”.
    I seem to remember that the “clarity” thing occurred in the essay by the minor 18th century writer Rivarol on why French had become the prestige language of Europe. This essay was written for a competition by the Académie de Berlin (which had a many expatriate French Huguenot members) and won the prize. Of course the reason for the preeminence of French had to be the intrinsic qualities of the language, not historical reasons such as the prestige of Louis XIV. I don’t think that there was a link with the Port-Royal grammarians: the latter would have been concerned with improving clarity (of their presentation and of the language), not proclaiming it above other languages.

  112. designer mirrors says:

    Never heard of it either. The closest thing the OED has this:
    5. Of words or expressions: sharp, stinging; severe; (also) pleasantly keen or pointed, piquant. Obs.
    Like Matthew, I can imagine a sense shift from “pointed” (words) to “apt” (words), then an extension to “suitability” in general.

  113. marie-lucie: I thought I remembered something like “French is clearer than other languages” in the Grammaire Génerale et raisonnée, and I just located it.
    Thanks to the University of Toronto and archive.org, I downloaded an 1810 “seconde edition” of the Grammaire in PDF. The book has a long 1810 preface, the actual Grammaire beginning on PDF page 245.
    Skimming through it, I had almost given up hope of finding what I remembered, because Arnauld and Lancelot seemed to be treating all their languages impartially. But in the second part, at the end of the section “Des figures de construction” (PDF page 382), which is actually the end of the book (followed only by “Commentaire de M. Duclos”), there it is:

    La façon de parler qui a quelques mots de plus qu’il ne faut s’appelle PLÉONASME, ou Abondance; comme, vivere vitam, magis maior, etc.

    Et celle qui renverse l’ordre naturel des du discours, s’appelle HYPERBATE, ou Renversement.

    On peut voir des exemples de toutes ces figures dans les Grammaires des langues particulières, et surtout dans les Nouvelles Méthodes que l’on a faites pour la grecque et pour la latine, où on en a parlé amplement.

    J’ajouterai seulement qu’il n’y a guère de langue qui use moins de ces figures que la nôtre, parce qu’elle aime particulièrement la netteté, et à exprimer les choses autant qu’il se peut, dans l’ordre le plus naturel et le plus désembarrassé, quoiqu’en même temps elle ne cède à aucune en beauté ni en élégance.

  114. Well found, Grumbly!

  115. marie-lucie says:

    Bravo, Grumbly! Obviously an impartial opinion based on a vast knowledge of many languages. Perhaps they were still trying to prove that French was not inferior to Latin and Greek (where, of course, mixing up the order of words for effect was a lot easier than in French). At least they did not try to prove that French was the language of Adam and Eve. So Rivarol did not invent la clarté française but only popularized it later. Thank you!

  116. It should be simply “l’order naturel du discours”. I suppose that, while copying, I had “l’ordre des mots” in my head, and part of that got written out.

  117. marie-lucie says:

    No problem!

  118. David Marjanović says:

    It seems to me that a word like “epistemic”, when pronounced slowly, usually has an [I] (short i as in bit) in the second syllable, not an “uh” as if it were written “epastemic”.

    Except, famously, in Missoura. They’ve done a little merger there.
    For a large number of people, [ə] and the-not-quite-[ʌ]* seem to be unstressed and stressed versions of the same phoneme. Exhibit A: the thummer.
    * For most people it’s more open, I think, landing on a spot on the vowel chart that has no IPA symbol. Actual [ʌ] is what unstressed Russian o sounds like.

  119. The OED3 says this (in “hide quotations” mode):

    1. Sharp, pungent, piquant to the taste or smell. Now rare.

    c1387-95—1998

    2.

    a. Originally: painfully sharp to the physical or mental feelings, as hunger, thirst, a pang, an affront, etc.; also said of a state of feeling, as grief, regret, or despair. Later, chiefly of a mental or emotional experience or condition: regretful or painful, sometimes in a pleasurable way; tenderly sorrowful, bitter-sweet.

    c1390—1994

    b. Stimulating to the mind, feelings, or passions; pleasantly or delightfully piquant. Now rare exc. as merged in later use of 2a.

    a1657—1915

    c. Arousing or expressing deep emotions, esp. of sorrow or regret; keenly or deeply moving or affecting; (now esp. of art, literature, etc.) evoking a sense of sorrowful tenderness; touching.
    In early use not clearly distinguished from sense 2a.

    a1763—2000

    †3. Of a weapon or other pointed object: sharp-pointed, piercing. Obs.

    a1425—1695

    †4. Of elements, features, attributes, etc.: sharp, piercing, keen. Obs.

    ?a1439—1820

    †5. Of words or expressions: sharp, stinging; severe; (also) pleasantly keen or pointed, piquant. Obs.

    ?1473—1896

  120. Alon Lischinsky says:

    (Yay! Old threads open!)

    @Grumbly Stu:

    It’s about time a sociolinguist turned his/her sights on the phenomenon of descriptivists and prescriptivist at loggerheads.

    Wasn’t that the whole point of Debbie Cameron in Verbal Hygiene?

  121. marie-lucie says:

    Poignant was originally the present participle of the verb poindre. Nowadays the verb is only used (I think) in literary phrases such as le jour commence è poindre ‘the daylight is just beginning to show’ [as a "sliver" of light].

    In past centuries there was a proverb (obviously originating with the nobility):

    Oignez vilain, il vous poindra.
    Poignez vilain, il vous oindra.

    “Rub the peasant, he will stab you.
    Stab the peasant, he will rub you”.

    (The old verb oindre ‘to rub with oil, ointment, etc’ had the past participle oint(e), hence the Old French noun which was borrowed into English as “ointment”).

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