The Creation of the Manchu Script.

I’m almost finished with Part One of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, by Peter C. Perdue; I’m enjoying it greatly, and I thought I’d share this passage from pp. 126-7:

The greatest gift of the Mongols to the Manchus, of course, was the Mongolian script. In 1599 Nurhaci ordered Erdeni Baksi and G’ag’ai to create a script for the Manchu “national language” (guoyu). They objected that the Manchus had long used the Mongolian script and language, and they could not create a new one. Nurhaci then said, “When the Chinese read out their writing, people understand it, whether or not they can read Chinese; likewise for Mongols; but our words must first be translated into Mongolian; then [the Manchus] don’t understand it.” He then ordered them to create a new alphabetic script, using the Mongolian script as a model:

Taizu [Nurhaci] asked, “Why is it difficult to write down our language, but easy to learn the languages of other countries?” G’ag’ai and Erdeni replied: “It would be best to create a script for our country’s language, but we do not know how to transcribe the sounds.” Taizu said: “If you put a letter for ‘ma’ after a letter for ‘a,’ is this not ‘ama’ [father]? If you put a letter ‘me’ after a letter for ‘e,’ is this not ‘eme’ [mother]? My mind is made up; you just try it out.” Thereupon they took the Mongolian script and wrote the Manchu language. The creation of the Manchu script began with Taizu.

So Erdeni and G’ag’ai, following Nurhaci’s orders, created the new writing system, and soon began to translate Chinese texts into Manchu, as well as using Manchu in imperial proclamations. Dahai, in 1632, added the diacritical marks to distinguish different Manchu vowels, along with extra symbols for particular Chinese consonants; this “pointed” script became the standard Manchu writing system for the rest of the dynasty.

Nurhaci was, of course, wrong to assume that classical literary Chinese could be understood when read out loud. His advisers, well acquainted with Mongolian imperial language, resisted the introduction of Manchu writing probably in order to maintain ties to the Mongolian institutional tradition. To judge from his discussion, Nurhaci had in mind a syllabic script (like Japanese hiragana and katakana), not the actual Mongolian or Manchu scripts, which were alphabetic. Nurhaci’s motives were political, not linguistic. What he stressed was oral communication of written commands by the ruler to the entire Manchu population, literate and nonliterate. He needed a scriptural apparatus to bolster his new state because he, like all previous Central Eurasian rulers, needed to communicate his personal will beyond the boundaries of person-to-person contact. His edicts could now be read out in their own language to all his Manchu subjects, and texts could be translated into their native language for their own education. In effect, by creating a distinctive script, Nurhaci broadened the cultural horizons of his people, allowing them to adapt non-Manchu ideas but maintain their distinct identity. The new technology of writing made possible the expansion of the state to cover all the Manchu people. But it also allowed the introduction of large quantities of Chinese classical literature through translation into the Manchu literate world, which had formerly been much more closely tied to Mongolia and the Buddhist world of Central Eurasia.

(Suggestions for the etymology of the name Manchu in this 2009 post.)


  1. Bathrobe says:

    To judge from his discussion, Nurhaci had in mind a syllabic script (like Japanese hiragana and katakana), not the actual Mongolian or Manchu scripts, which were alphabetic.

    This is a drastic simplification of the real situation regarding the Mongolian script. The Mongolian alphabet is indeed an alphabet, although of the pesky Arabic kind where the same letter is written different ways depending on its location in the word (initial, medial, final). The alphabet has roughly 22 letters, not including letters used to write foreign words. For an alphabetic treatment of the Mongolian alphabet, see Omniglot. Of course, 22 (or so) does not exhaust the number of forms since there are different forms (indeed sometimes more than one different form) for different positions in the word. For example, the letter ᠰ ‘s’ in initial position is ᠰ᠊, in medial position ᠊ᠰ᠊, in final position ᠊ᠰ. Keep in mind that ᠰ is one of the easy ones. For the letter ᠠ ‘a’, initial position is ᠠ᠊, medial is ᠊ᠠ᠊, and final position is either ᠊ᠠ or ᠊ ᠎ᠠ with attached and detached versions (this may not render correctly one your screen).

    But in actuality, the Mongolians and the Manchus both learn their script as a syllabary. Syllables are similar to the Japanese kana, that is, of the (C)A format. In addition, for closed syllables (C)AC, the final consonant is learnt as an individual letter. The same goes for lengthened vowels, i.e., (C)AA. I cover this at my page on Making sense of the Mongolian script (which was written as I was trying to make sense of the script).

    For instance, sa, se, si, so/su, sö/sü (initial position) is ᠰᠠ᠊ ᠰᠡ᠊ ᠰᠢ᠊ ᠰᠤ᠊ ᠰᠦ᠊, medial position ᠊ᠰᠠ᠊ ᠊ᠰᠡ᠊ ᠊ᠰᠢ᠊ ᠊ᠰᠤ᠊ ᠊ᠰᠦ᠊, and final position ᠊ᠰᠠ ᠊ᠰᠡ ᠊ᠰᠢ ᠊ᠰᠤ ᠊ᠰᠦ. For final sa there is also the separated form ᠰ᠎ᠠ.

    Proprietary implementations of the Mongolian script in China adopt a syllabic approach, assigning code points to syllables, a decision that makes sense. On the other hand, Unicode adopts an alphabetic approach, which causes complications.

    The first complication is the situation where letters can be read two ways. For instance, ü and ö are both written identically with the letter ᠥ᠊, but Unicode treats them as two separate letters, ᠥ and ᠦ. The difference doesn’t show up in ordinary writing, although they can be distinguished in isolated form (although you probably won’t see the difference on your screen). This means that theoretically Mongolian should always be input on computers with the correct spelling, i.e. s+ö or s+ü, even though the difference isn’t apparent at all in the final form: ᠰᠥ᠊ vs ᠰᠦ᠊. As might be expected, most Mongolians entering Mongolian script on a computer ignore the distinction and type ᠥ or ᠦ depending which is more convenient.

    The other complication is the fact that selecting the correct form often requires intervention from the user. The most obvious example is the distinction between attached and detached ᠠ. The words ᠰᠠᠷᠠ and ᠰᠠᠷ᠎ᠠ are both ‘sara’ but have different meanings (‘moon’ or ‘month’). This requires the insertion of a special character known as ‘mvs’ in order to ensure that the ᠠ in ‘month’ is separated from the word. There are three other special characters, fvs1, fvs2, and fvs3, that are used in various ways to ensure that letters render in the correct form. The need for these special characters is partly caused by the Unicode decision to treat the Mongolian script as an ‘alphabet’.

    (The above explanation is less clear than it might be because Mongolian script does not always render properly on computers. For example, the detached ᠠ is supposed to be rendered as a long, elegant tail inclining to the left. On my computer, at least, it renders incorrectly as a clunky appendage that tends to the right.)

  2. The dots and circles added to the second version of Manchu writing disambiguate not only vowels, but also the consonant /n/ from the vowels /a/ and /e/ (all three of which look the same in Mongolian). In addition, Manchu is treated as a syllabary in China: people learn the possible CV combinations without regard to the fact that they can be seen as a C followed by a V.

  3. Greg Pandatshang says:

    One thing that’s interesting about this is that it refutes the facile idea that, before modern nationalism, no one ever cared if written language had no connection at all to the spoken. Of course, no one around here could fall for an obvious oversimplification like that. I suppose the more interesting approach to the same topic would be to ask the question if why classical languages unmoored from the spoken form thrived in some times and places but were replaced by written vernaculars in others. This excerpt briefly treats the advantages that Nurhaci got from the reform. It also very briefly mentions the reasons for the scholars’ reticence. But the tricky part is getting a sense of why one side or the other got their way in a particular case.

  4. “To judge from his discussion, Nurhaci had in mind a syllabic script (like Japanese hiragana and katakana), not the actual Mongolian or Manchu scripts, which were alphabetic.”

    This is a reasonable interpretation of: “If you put a letter for ‘ma’ after a letter for ‘a,’ is this not ‘ama’ [father]?”, but it’s not correct. Instead, as John Cowan points out, the Manchu writing is treated as a syllabary, especially when learning to read and write.

    A similar thing used to happen in Europe. If you look at old primers and alphabet books – they usually first list the letters of the alphabet followed by a list of syllables, starting with:
    ba be bi bo bu…

    In Croatian there is a verb “bubati” meaning “to swot”, that reflects and preserves the old practice of memorising these syllables as part of learning to read.

  5. Greg Pandatshang says:

    By the way, the Panchen Lama is often referred to in sources originating from China as Panchen Erdeni (if not, as voice recognition suggests, “punching air Denny”, which sounds like the nickname of a boxer, an amiable jobber). Erdeni means “treasure” in Manchu (equivalent to Tibetan rinchen, Sanskrit ratna, or I don’t know what in Mongolian), making P. Erdeni, I believe, the only Tibetan Buddhist lama with a Manchu name. Said hierarch has a Qing emperor to thank for the honour, naturally.

  6. ba be bi bo bu

    Swinging the Alphabet

  7. f you look at old primers and alphabet books


  8. Thank you @bathrobe for trying. Mongolian script does not always render properly on computers indeed.

    pesky Arabic kind I did find word-final forms helpful in reading Hebrew (especially if the nikudim were omitted). You could at least make a stab at guessing (the position of) the vowels. But having a medial form as well does seem overkill. Is the script written as a continuous ribbon such that it would otherwise be difficult to spot word boundaries?

    How does one get it to render words top-to-bottom as shown in your ‘Making sense’, rather than the left-to-right that you’ve used above? (It’s hard enough to mix l-to-r with r-to-l scripts.)

    wrt spelling reform for English: was there ever an attempt to produce a syllabary for English? Thank you @MMcM, but The Three Stooges were cringe-making.

  9. the question if why classical languages unmoored from the spoken form thrived in some times and places but were replaced by written vernaculars in others
    The cases I know where a language different from the vernacular is used as literary language are all based on intertia and tradition – a written standard is kept while the vernacular evolves (Latin vs. Romance, Classical Arabic vs. vernacular Arabic) or is replaced (Sumerian is kept as literary language while the vernacular is Eastern Semitic). The literary language has high prestige, it allows access to a written tradition, and it allows its users to communicate even though they speak different vernaculars. The prestige and the usefulness for international communication allow the language to spread to other groups and regions outside the sphere where the literary language was spoken originally.
    One factor here is whether literacy and book-knowledge are treated as elite skills or as a skills that should be widely shared; in the first case, the number of literate people is small and it’s more important to them to communicate with each other, regardless of the vernacular they speak, than with the ignorant broader public. Knowledge of the literary language becomes an additional mark of the educated elite.
    The more people become literate, the more the demand will grow for writing in the vernacular – it’s easier to learn reading and writing than to learn a non-native literary language on top of that, and when the number of literate people grows, a market forms for literature in the vernacular. This is just a tendency – whether and in which spheres of literary life that happens depends on many other factors, often cultural, as well.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    was there ever an attempt to produce a syllabary for English?

    Several shorthands were abugida-type scripts. One of them, Pitman’s shorthand, is the ancestor of Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics.

  11. Bathrobe says:


    You do it with CSS. The following is the css for vlr (vertical left to right):

    .vlr {
    -moz-writing-mode: vertical-lr;
    writing-mode: vertical-lr;
    -webkit-writing-mode: vertical-lr;
    -o-writing-mode: vertical-lr;
    -ms-writing-mode: tb-lr;
    writing-mode: tb-lr;
    -webkit-text-orientation: sideways-right;
    text-justify: inter-ideograph;

    I haven’t actually tried, but I don’t think it’s possible to achieve this at comments on this blog.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, great. Now I have the beginning of this Mongolian “alphabet” song as an earworm. Thanks, Bathrobe.

  13. Bathrobe says:

    Actually, at that page I mostly used images. But you can create pages with the correct orientation using ordinary html and css, as outlined here:

    How to put Mongolfont’s Traditional Mongolian Script (Unicode) on your Website

    (Hopefully it will render full-width as it is supposed to.)

  14. Bathrobe says:

    @Greg Pandatshang

    Erdeni is ‘treasure’ in Mongolian. Like the ‘dalai’ in Dalai Lama, I would not be totally surprised if the ‘erdeni’ in Panchen Erdeni was actually Mongolian.

    ᠡᠷᠳᠡᠨᠢ (erdeni) = Cyrillic эрдэнэ (erdene).

  15. Oh, so the place name Erdenet means something like “treasures”? Would make sense as it is a mining town.

  16. Bathrobe says:

    The final ‘t’ in Erdenet means ‘having’. So I assume it means ‘having treasure’.

    ᠡᠷᠳᠡᠨᠢᠲᠦ erdenitü = Эрдэнэт erdenet

  17. an amiable jobber

    Greg: Was that a typo for jabber? I’m familiar with jobber ‘someone who professionally loses fights’ in a wrestling context, but not in a boxing one.

  18. Thanks @David M, yes I meant Abugida-type.

    As earworms go, I’m finding it a great improvement on The Three Stooges.

    Thank you again @Bathrobe. Must rush back here next time I want a vertical script. (Which I actually did to make an avatar; but CSS wasn’t an option.)

  19. I made this post, needless to say, with Bathrobe in mind, but I had no idea he’d respond so spectacularly.

  20. @John Cowan: The oldest meaning in the OED for jobber is:

    A person who or thing which pecks, pokes, thrusts, etc.
    Originally as the second element in compounds. Recorded earliest in nutjobber n.

    As this is now regional and rare, I doubt it was the intended meaning, but it fits.

    The OED doesn’t list the keyfabe meaning among the senses for jobber, n.2, but it is interesting that many of the older senses have implicit or explicit implications of skullduggery. For example, definition 4.a, attested since 1739, is:

    A person who uses a public office or position of trust for personal gain or political advantage; a person involved in jobbery.

    Definition 2 is:

    A person who buys and sells goods as a middleman or dealer; a small trader or salesman; a wholesaler.

    None of the OED quotes seem to suggest an underhandedness, but I have certainly encountered this sense having that implication; for example:

    A confidential secretary of the Office of Interstellar Trade was astonished when the frozen intelligences of a methane planet ordered forty thousand cases of Munich beer. He suspected them of being jobbers, not consumers. But on the instructions of his superiors he kept the matter confidential and allowed the beer to be shipped.

  21. I appreciate your preserving the anonymity of the planet so as to avoid getting LH embroiled with the Office of Interstellar Trade.

  22. @ Bathrobe: Thanks!
    Re: jobber
    In German, there is Börsenjobber “speculator on the stock exchange (= Börse)”, mostly at least somewhat pejorative. AFAIK, this is the only instance of “jobber” in German; the word is clearly a loan from English.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    In Norwegian jobb n.m. and jobbe v. have been the unmarked words for honest work my whole life, that is half a century. The sense of hunting easy money, as in fixing shady deals and surfing on a rising stock market, is mostly historical, as in the still current jobbetida “the jobbing era” for the WW1 boom and (less known) the earlier boom in the 1890’s.

  24. From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, the Judge’s song (choral lines in parentheses):

    For now I’m a Judge!
    (And a good Judge, too!)
    For now I’m a Judge!
    (And a good Judge, too!)
    Though all my law be fudge,
    Yet I’ll never, never budge,
    But I’ll live and die a Judge!
    (And a good Judge, too!)

    It was managed by a job —
    (And a good job, too!)
    It was managed by a job!
    (And a good job too!)
    It is patent to the mob,
    That my being made a nob
    Was effected by a job.
    (And a good job too!)

    I also remember a line from a mid-Victorian novel: “You know there are no jobs in the Civil Service”, meaning none that could be obtained by influence rather than competence, but rather comic when read in today’s sense.

    There is a chain of stores called Ocean State Job Lot, which sells manufacturer’s overruns, overstocks and packaging changes.

    And it’s Cordwainer Smith (“From Gustible’s Planet”) who keeps the planet of the frozen intelligences anonymous rather than Brett.

  25. While job on its own is unremarkable and neutral, compounds ending in –job do often still seem to have connotations of negativity or covert activity (e.g. bank job, hand job).

  26. Handwritten American English has initial, medial, final, and isolated forms for letters, but they are not taught as such.

  27. ‘AFAIK, this is the only instance of “jobber” in German; the word is clearly a loan from English.’

    Maybe, but of course Germans have a habit of coining English words or meanings. E.g. “Oldtimer” in the meaning “vintage car,” or “Beamer” in the meaning “digital projector.” Much like that the ‘standard, norm’ meaning of the word ‘standard’ was coined in English (as opposed to the pre-existing ‘flag’ meaning), thence spreading to the other European languages.

  28. Greg Pandatshang says:

    So, Mongolian earworms, is it? Well, there’s always Jixiang Sanbao: (fair warning: starts out in Chinese)

  29. David Marjanović says:
  30. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Certainly not a typo for “jabber”. Denny the Jabber isn’t punching air; not on a good night, anyway.

    I’ve always thought of a “jobber” as someone who takes unambitious fights, including getting beaten by better fighters on their way to (or from) the top, rather than making a serious try for the championship, that is, they treat fighting like an unglamorous day job rather than a chance to be a star. But a little googling indicates that might be a mild misapprehension on my part. It’s possible to develop subtle misunderstandings of words that go undiscovered for quite a while. If one had wildly the wrong idea about the word, then there would be many incongruous examples which would call that into question. “salient” and “nonplussed” are words that turned out to have slightly different meanings than I once thought.

    In the context of pro wrestling, of course, the distinction between a workaday contestant vs. someone who takes a dive is particularly unsalient, since dive-taking is a basic part of the job description rather than illicit and exceptional. “job for sb” definitely means to take a dive.

    Etymonline has lots of good tidbits on “job”. ( … “act as a broker” seems to be the original and early meaning as a verb, although a noun meaning of some sort is earlier.

    P.S. I’ve had a couple jobs at a “job shop”, i.e. one-off and small batch metal fabricating. This discussion puts that experience in a whole new light. They never once asked me if I wanted to be a judge. I do! (and a good one, too)

  31. Now, that’s a catchy alphabet song! But some of the vowel qualities are startling.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Kazakh is halfway through the whorl that has caused the Tatar vowel flip-flop.

    Jixiang Sanbao

    Is that full of syllabic [n]?

  33. There are some interesting parallels with King Sejong’s creation of the Korean alphabet one and a half centuries earlier. The ruler wants to be able to disseminate his commands to the entire vernacular-speaking population, while his advisors are keen to protect the status quo where they have privileged access to the literate apparatus conducted in a language foreign to most of the population. You can read a snippet of one scholar-official’s objection to King Sejong’s new creation, though you have to read between the lines to see the real motives.

  34. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Is that full of syllabic [n]?

    It sure ain’t in the Chinese part, I can tell you that much. Knowing nothing of Mongolian, for all I know they’ve substituted Cherkess or Ōgami in the second part. Assuming it is Mongolian, I wonder if it has distinctive Chakhar dialect elements.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    Assuming it is Mongolian, I wonder if it has distinctive Chakhar dialect elements.

    Pretty much has to. Chakhar is standard in Inner Mongolia, Khalkha in Outer; there is no common standard.

    a snippet of one scholar-official’s objection to King Sejong’s new creation

    Best part of the reply: “What do you know about the book of rhymes [presumably this]? Do you know how many vowels there are in the Four Tones and Seven Sounds? If I do not correct the book of rhymes now, who is going to do it?”

  36. Trond Engen says:

    Greg Pandatshang: Etymonline has lots of good tidbits on “job”.

    Etymonline:[…] pervert pubic service to private advantage […]

  37. David Marjanović says:


  38. @David Marjanović: Everyone thinks King Sejong created the Korean alphabet so that people could write in the vernacular language, but I have a hunch that at least as great a part of his motivation was so that he could push his peevish ideas about how to pronounce Chinese characters correctly in the Korean style according to the classic Chinese rhyme books.

  39. @Greg Pandatshang: I too had slight misconceptions about the (traditional) definitions of salient and nonplussed. These actually seem to be common enough that I think new senses really have emerged, which many dictionaries appear to be surprisingly slow to accept.

    I am pretty careful with how I use salient now, and I do not use nonplussed at all. I don’t like the way it sounds, and I have literally only used that word once in my life, and even then, it was only because I needed it for a pun.

  40. I’ve always thought of a “jobber” as someone who takes unambitious fights, including getting beaten by better fighters on their way to (or from) the top, rather than making a serious try for the championship, that is, they treat fighting like an unglamorous day job rather than a chance to be a star.

    That’s more or less what I thought you meant. Here’s A.J. Liebling, “The Jollity Building”:

    The prizefight managers who hang in the Jollity Building are, as one might expect, of an inferior order. The boys they handle provide what sports writers like to call the “stiff opposition” against which incubating stars compile “sterling records”. “When the Garden brings in some fellow that you never heard of from Cleveland or Baltimore or one of them other Western states, and it says in the paper he has had stiff opposition,” says a Jollity Building known as Acid Test Ike, “that means the opposition has been stiffs. In other words, the class of boys I got.”

    It is Acid Test who manages Jack [another Jollity Building personality] in all of his comebacks. For each comeback, Ike and Jack go to some place like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, or Wheeling, West Virginia, where there happens to be a novice heavyweight, and Ike tells the sports editor of the local newspaper, “My man will give this kid the acid test.” Then Jack gets knocked out. Naturally, Ike also has to manage smaller fighters who will get knocked out by middleweights and lightweights. “A fellow could make a pleasant dollar with a stable of bums,” he sometimes says, “only the competition is so terrific. There is an element getting into the game that is willing to be knocked out very cheap.” […]

  41. @Brett: I’m familiar with the variability in nonplussed, but I only really know salient (the adjective, that is) with one meaning. What would you take the newer one to be?

  42. I have the same question as Lazar.

  43. The AHD gives four meanings:

    1. Noteworthy; important: the salient points of the argument.

    2. Prominent; conspicuous. [His most salient feature is his irrepressible sense of humor.]

    3. Projecting or jutting beyond a line or surface; protruding: the salient angles of the polygon.

    4. Springing; jumping: salient tree toads.

    I think the first two senses may be what Brett has in mind: clearly 3 is the literal sense underlying 2, and 4 is the etymological sense that ultimately underlies all of the others. (Sense 2 cross-references noticeable, and I pulled the example from there.)

  44. I most commonly see “salient” used to mean “important,” as per definition 1 above; and that’s the primary meaning that I originally learned for it. Historically, the meaning was supposedly “noticeable,” as in sense 2, derived by metaphor from sense 3. When I discovered (fifteen or twenty years ago) that I had not quite understood the traditional sense of the word, I looked at a number of dictionaries, and several of them did not list definition 1, only definitions 2 (and 3). There’s a good chance that has changed in the intervening years, as definition 1 does seem to get the most use now. I haven’t had time to look at the entry in the OED today (and I can’t seem to get it to work from home right now), but I wonder whether the transition from “noticeable” to “important” happened quite a while before it was widely recognized by lexicographers.

  45. I would guess so, since it’s subtle enough it wouldn’t jump out at you unless it was particularly… salient.

  46. @Brett: Oh, okay. “Noticeable” has always been part of my understanding of the word, but the two meanings seem intertwined for me. Oxford’s online dictionary rolls them into one, with a ‘physical’ addendum:

    1. Most noticeable or important.
    ‘it succinctly covered all the salient points of the case’

    1.1 Prominent; conspicuous.
    ‘it was always the salient object in my view’

    2. (of an angle) pointing outward.

  47. Bathrobe says:

    There is also the noun:

    a piece of land or section of fortification that juts out to form an angle

    “Poking out” is closer to “noticeable” than it is to “important”

  48. Greg Pandatshang says:

    I had thought of “salient” as meaning relevant or significant, in way that could readily be contrasted with being prominent or notable. The thing that catches your attention might not be the truly significant thing.

    As for “nonplussed”, I certainly never thought it meant what Wiktionary lists as the second meaning: “Unfazed, unaffected, or unimpressed.” That strikes me as a major difference, not a subtle one. On the contrary, I thought it had a stronger sense of meaning displeased, peeved, frustrated. “nonplussed” probably does often carry that connotation.

  49. Bathrobe says:

    I have never heard “nonplussed” used in the meaning “not disconcerted; unperturbed”. For me it has always meant “bewildered; unsure how to respond or act”. I guess we’ll have to get ready for the new meaning. What starts in North America, reasonable or not, generally makes its way around the world.

  50. Bathrobe says:

    Incidentally, “resilient” is a word which I long understood wrongly.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    So that’s why I couldn’t figure out nonplussed. I had tentatively arrived at “not impressed, not amused”, but that clearly doesn’t fit in every case.

  52. I don’t think I ever use “nonplussed,” because it’s a rare example of a word that is actually skunked (in Garner’s sense) — nobody will know what I mean by it, so why bother? There are plenty of other words.

  53. I just looked in some dictionaries for nonplussed, and one only had an entry for the noun nonplus, which I am pretty sure I have never seen.

  54. Here’s the OED2 with some updates; I don’t have the energy this morning to win the HTML Award.


    a. Leaping, jumping; esp. of animals, saltatorial.
    Used by Sydney Smith apparently for ‘dancing’: cf. saltant adj.

    1646 Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica v. iii. 237 Salient animalls, and such as move by leaping.

    1655 T. Fuller Church-hist. Brit. x. 41 Behold a straw besprinkled with some drops of his blood..leaped up on this Wilkinson… For, when this straw salient leaped first up into Wilkinson’s lap [etc.].

    1803 G. Shaw Gen. Zool. IV. 167 Salient Blenny.

    1803 G. Shaw Gen. Zool. IV. 585 Salient Mackrel.

    1826 S. Smith Wks. (1859) II. 89/1 With ten or a dozen stars and an Oonalaska chief, and followed by all vicious and salient London, Mrs. Clotworthy takes the field.

    1848 S. Maunder Treasury Nat. Hist. Gloss. 804/1 Salient, moving by leaps, as frogs.

    b. Of water: Jetting forth; leaping upwards.

    1669 R. Boyle Contin. New Exper. Physico-mech. iv. 17 We could take notice of the Lines describ’d by the Salient water, as the ejaculation of that Liquor grew still fainter and fainter.

    1728 Pope Dunciad ii. 143 Who best can send on high The salient spout, fair-streaming to the sky.

    1830 Tennyson Adeline in Poems 70 Do beating hearts of salient springs Keep measure with thine own?

    1892 Ld. Lytton King Poppy ii. 289 Nor any better could that Dragon sage Hinder the sources of the salient springs From listening.


    1796 E. Burke Let. to Noble Lord in Wks. (1815) VIII. 46 He had in himself a salient, living spring, of generous and manly action.

    c. Of the pulse: Beating strongly. poet.

    a1791 Blacklock Ode written when sick 15 The salient pulse of health gives o’er.

    d. Math. salient point (see quot. a1832).

    a1832 Encycl. Metrop. II. 122 The points of curves which have been called shooting or saliant points, when the function dy/ dx becomes discontinuous by changing suddenly of value.

    2. Heraldry. Having the hind legs in the sinister base and the fore paws elevated near together in the dexter chief, as if in the act of leaping.

    1562 G. Legh Accedens of Armory 78 He beareth Argent, a Lion saliaunte,..this lifteth up hys right pawe to the right corner of the Escocheon, and the Rampande, lifteth up his left pawe to the same corner.

    1614 W. Camden Remaines (rev. ed.) 193 A demy Ramme salient Argent.

    1718 A. Nisbet Ess. Armories Index Salient, when any Beast is erected Bendways.

    1864 C. Boutell Heraldry Hist. & Pop. (ed. 3) xx. 334 A pegasus salient.

    1740 Gentleman’s Mag. 10 460/1 [A little cur] salient on her nether feet, Extorts your very fav’rite bit.


    a. salient point [= French point saillant, modern Latin punctum saliens; the source of this use is Aristotle, Hist. Anim. vi. iii, Τοῦτο δὲ τὸ σημεῖον πηδᾳ̑ καὶ κινεῖται ὥσπερ ἔμψυχον, ‘this point [representing the heart in the egg] leaps and moves as alive’] : in old medical use, the heart as it first appears in an embryo (cf. quot. 1706); hence, the first beginning of life or motion; the starting-point of anything. Obs. or arch.

    1672 Sir T. Browne Let. to Friend §5 His end was not unlike his beginning, when the salient point scarce affords a sensible motion.

    [1706 Phillips’s New World of Words (new ed.) Punctum Saliens, a little Speck or Cloud that appears in a Broodegg, and seems to leap before the Chicken begins to be hatch’d.]

    1712 R. Blackmore Creation vi. 285 The Salient Point, so first is call’d the Heart.

    1769 ‘Junius’ Stat Nominis Umbra (1772) II. xxxv. 31 That was the salient point, from which all the mischiefs..of the present reign took life.

    1822 J. M. Good Study Med. II. 7 The heart is the salient point of the circulation.

    1837 T. Carlyle French Revol. II. i. v. 42 What a progress, since the first salient-point of the Breton Committee.

    1869 E. M. Goulburn Pursuit of Holiness iv. 39 What is the salient point, the spring, of a virtue?

    b. Similarly, †salient motion.

    1660 N. Ingelo Bentivolio & Urania (1682) ii. 119 The earthly bud of young Life first appears in a salient Motion.

    4. Of an angle: Pointing outward, as an ordinary angle of a polygon (opposed to re-entrant); chiefly in Fortification, ‘formed by two lines of works meeting and pointing towards the country’ (Voyle), i.e. away from the centre of the fortification. So salient point, etc.

    1687 J. Richards Jrnl. Siege Buda 19 We pierc’d the Wall of the Lower Town looking into St. Paul’s Valley, and carry’d on a 3d Angle Salliant.

    1702 Mil. Dict. at Bonnet A Work consisting of two Faces, which make an Angle Saillant in the Nature of a small Ravelin.

    1739 C. Labelye Short Acct. Piers Westm. Bridge 79 Each Point, or Saliant Angle of each of the Piers.

    1812 Duke of Wellington Dispatches (1837) IX. 12 When the attack upon the salient angle..succeeded.

    1816 R. Jameson Treat. External Characters Minerals (ed. 2) 170 In ordinary crystals, the faces adjacent to each other always form salient, and never re-entering angles.

    1838 Penny Cycl. X. 375/2 We obtain about 360 yards for the distance between the salient points F and E of the two bastions.

    1876 G. E. Voyle Mil. Dict. (ed. 3) Salient Order of Battle, an order of battle, the front of the army being formed on a salient or outward angle.


    a. Of material things: Standing above or beyond the general surface or outline; jutting out; prominent among a number of objects.

    1789 E. Darwin Bot. Garden I. 32 He..Crowns with high Calpè Europe’s saliant strand.

    1834 H. McMurtrie tr. G. de Cuvier Animal Kingdom (abridged ed.) 268 The hinge always furnished with salient and well-marked teeth.

    1844 A. W. Kinglake Eothen vi. 93 The town is on a salient point.

    1854 C. D. Badham Prose Halieutics 451 Large salient eyes.

    1859 T. J. Gullick & J. Timbs Painting 201 The salient parts of the body and limbs should always be seen through the drapery.

    1878 R. B. Smith Carthage 229 The salient physical features of the spot.
    1881 St. G. Mivart Cat 480 The Mastoid is never salient.

    b. Of immaterial things, qualities, etc.: Standing out from the rest; prominent, conspicuous; often in phr. salient point (cf. A. 3). Also Psychol., standing out or prominent in consciousness.

    1841 T. Carlyle On Heroes iii. 177 The great salient points are admirably seized.

    1846 G. Grote Hist. Greece II. i. xx. 87 His personal the salient feature in the picture.

    1863 A. P. Stanley Lect. Jewish Church I. viii. 179 Some few salient points emerge full of eternal significance.

    1873 J. A. Symonds Stud. Greek Poets xii. 401 In the midst of our activity we have so little that is salient or characteristic in our life.

    1874 J. R. Green Short Hist. Eng. People vii. §7. 421 No salient peculiarity seems to have left its trace on the memory of his contemporaries.

    1938 H. D. Spoerl tr. Stern Gen. Psychol. from Personalistic Standpoint iv. 74 Dissonance is constant by being augmented or diminished. All experience consequently tends to become either salient against or embedded with the totality.

    1938 G. W. Allport Personality xx. 553 The most important of all facts about consciousness is that it is graded; sometimes it stands out, as it were, against the diffuse background of personal life. It is salient… The more salient an experience, the greater its objective meaning.

    1953 C. I. Hovland et al. Communication & Persuasion v. 161 A communication will produce more immediate change when the opposing group norms are at a low level of salience than when they are highly salient.

    1965 T. M. Newcomb et al. Social Psychol. ii. 37 We shall use the term ‘salient’ to describe stored information that has been prompted to the forefront of the individual’s conscious thought.

    6. Electr. salient pole, a type of field pole used in electrical machinery in which the energizing coil is wound on a pole-piece projecting inside the yoke of a stator assembly or outside the cone of a rotor assembly.

    1886 S. P. Thompson Dynamo-electr. Machinery (ed. 2) vii. 121 This pattern differs from that of the better known ‘A’ Gramme in using salient poles instead of having the ‘consequent poles’ at the middle points of the electro~magnets.

    1904 G. F. Goodchild & C. F. Tweney Technol. & Sci. Dict. Salient Pole, when the poles of a dynamo project inward towards the armature, from a closed ring of iron, and are each magnetised by one coil only, they are termed Salient Poles, as distinguished from Consequent Poles.

    1910 N. Hawkins Electr. Dict. Salient Poles, the poles of a dynamo or motor field magnet occurring at the ends of the pole pieces, as distinguished from consequent poles.

    1920 Whittaker’s Electr. Engineer’s Pocket-bk. (ed. 4) 169 The turbo-alternator is now the standard a.c. generator, and is almost invariably built with a cylindrical (or non-salient pole) rotor, the salient pole construction being confined to slow-speed alternators and water turbine-driven alternators.

    1962 Newnes Conc. Encycl. Electr. Engin. 337/2 The turbo-alternator is essentially a high-speed construction..for coupling to steam or gas turbines..the salient-pole alternator is suited to..lower speeds and may therefore be driven by water turbines or internal-combustion engines.

    1970 J. Shepherd et al. Higher Electr. Engin. (ed. 2) x. 331 An alternative arrangement to having uniform slotting on both sides of the air-gap is to have salient poles around which are wound concentrated coils to provide the field winding. The salient poles may be on either the stator or the rotor.

  55. salient point [= French point saillant, modern Latin punctum saliens; the source of this use is Aristotle, Hist. Anim. vi. iii, Τοῦτο δὲ τὸ σημεῖον πηδᾳ̑ καὶ κινεῖται ὥσπερ ἔμψυχον, ‘this point [representing the heart in the egg] leaps and moves as alive’] : in old medical use, the heart as it first appears in an embryo (cf. quot. 1706); hence, the first beginning of life or motion; the starting-point of anything.

    Fascinating; I had no idea “salient point” was the source of the whole metaphorical/analogical semantic spread, still less that it came from Aristotle!

  56. I will have to use that mathematical definition of salient point, since discontinuities in the derivative come up very frequently in my work.

  57. 1728 Pope Dunciad ii. 143 Who best can send on high The salient spout, fair-streaming to the sky.

    Is that a poetical description of a pissing contest?

  58. Greg Pandatshang says:

    The pope and the dunces were involved in no few of those in the bad old days.

  59. SFReader says:

    Manchu “erdeni” is a borrowing from Mongolian “erdene” which in turn is an early borrowing from Sanskrit “ratna” (via Uighur).

    Mongolian, like many other Altaic languages, tends to insert vowels before initial “r”

  60. SFReader says:

    Regarding Manchu script. The Manchu language is actually a Jurchen language which had two different scripts created back in 12th century (when they ruled all of North China as Jin dynasty).

    Apparently native use of these scripts disappeared after Mongol conquest and the Jurchens switched to Mongol script instead (or to be exact, for all writing purposes they used Classical Mongolian language. It seems that they also spoke Mongolian, at least at the tribal elite level).

    Ming dynasty bureaucracy however felt that they should use Jurchen script in dealing with Jurchens (even though they stopped using it!), so all such records (mostly in form of petitions of Jurchen chiefs to the Ming emperor) were translated into Chinese (either from oral statements or from Mongolian original text) and then translated into Jurchen. The latter was produced exclusively for the sake of Chinese sense of propriety since it was not read by anyone and was sent to archives immediately.

  61. Is that a poetical description of a pissing contest?

    That’s exactly what it is:

    See in the circle next, Eliza placed,
    Two babes of love close clinging to her waist;
    Fair as before her works she stands confess’d,
    In flowers and pearls by bounteous Kirkall dress’d.
    The goddess then: ‘Who best can send on high
    The salient spout, far-streaming to the sky;
    His be yon Juno of majestic size,
    With cow-like udders, and with ox-like eyes.
    This China Jordan let the chief o’ercome
    Replenish, not ingloriously, at home.’

    Osborne and Curll accept the glorious strife,
    (Though this his son dissuades, and that his wife)
    One on his manly confidence relies,
    One on his vigour and superior size.
    First Osborne lean’d against his letter’d post;
    It rose, and labour’d to a curve at most.
    So Jove’s bright bow displays its watery round
    (Sure sign, that no spectator shall be drown’d),
    A second effort brought but new disgrace,
    The wild meander wash’d the artist’s face:
    Thus the small jet, which hasty hands unlock,
    Spurts in the gardener’s eyes who turns the cock.
    Not so from shameless Curll; impetuous spread
    The stream, and smoking flourish’d o’er his head.
    So (famed like thee for turbulence and horns)
    Eridanus his humble fountain scorns;
    Through half the heavens he pours the exalted urn;
    His rapid waters in their passage burn.

    Swift as it mounts, all follow with their eyes:
    Still happy impudence obtains the prize.
    Thou triumph’st, victor of the high-wrought day,
    And the pleased dame, soft-smiling, lead’st away.
    Osborne, through perfect modesty o’ercome,
    Crown’d with the Jordan, walks contented home.

  62. David Marjanović says:

    Mongolian, like many other Altaic languages, tends to insert vowels before initial “r”

    That’s more widespread: Armenian does the same, Hittite lacked word-initial /r/ as well, and whether PIE did is controversial (unambiguous cases of *h₁r- exist, unambiguous ones of r- apparently don’t).

  63. If you look at the illustration accompanying this Wikipedia article, you will find that the full title of The Wipers Times (“a trench magazine that was published by British soldiers fighting in the Ypres Salient during the First World War”) was “The Wipers Times of Salient News.” Now, that’s what I call a pun.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    The Cree syllabary has a song, too! It’s in the first minute and a half of this podcast.

    That’s more widespread: Armenian […] Hittite […] PIE […]

    Also Proto-Uralic.


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