The latest of Mark Lieberman’s series of posts on the language of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels discusses the usage and history of the word mere; he ends by quoting a Catullus drinking poem (demanding unmixed [merus, or “mere” in the old sense] Falernian wine), which in turn led me to this page on ancient Italian wine varieties, which has a most useful map (scroll down) of denominazioni (not yet controllate) c. 100 BC.


  1. I am reminded of Gordon R. Dickson’s “The Dragon and the George”. In the novel there are two characters, one a mere dragon (as in a dragon who lives among some meres along the shore) and an older dragon who befriends the first. The doughty old fellow keeps chiding his young friend and protege for calling himself a mere (as in “I’m really nothing special”) dragon.

  2. I don’t think the novel ever used the word `mere’ on its own, though its meaning is implied when the dragon of the title meets the mere-dragon in a swamp. The latter keeps saying “I’m only a mere-dragon.”

  3. The first usage I thought of was that of Yeats in “The Second Coming,” “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

  4. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    I think this is an example of how O’Brian has so successfully soaked himself in his period that his characters use just such words in their older rather than their modern context. Mark Lieberman’s discussion of the abandonment of older meanings, supported by OED references, is interesting. Unlike us O’Brian probably had no need to refer to the OED, but could adopt the older style at will. Certainly most of us who read a lot unconsciously apply a context filter for the former sense of many words. Part of O’Brian’s charm, then, is that in reading him we apprehend the flavour of the era.
    Yeats’ usage of “mere” probably should be read as having the strength of the original meaning. Particularly since Yeats was something of an autodidact and likely to have heavily absorbed the way words were used in older writing.

  5. Off topic, but I have to ask: Eimear, would your name be correctly pronounced EH-mer nee VAY-load (in an English context)? And what is the “English equivalent” of your family name (as Milligan is of Ó Maoileagáin)? (For those unfamiliar with Irish names, Ní is the feminine equivalent of Ó, and it “lenites” the following consonant, so that the masculine equivalent of Ní Mhéalóid would be Ó Méalóid.)

  6. Mere such an interesting word. A matter of mere semantics from :
    then from the dictionary :
    mere meaning a sheet of standing water
    archaic mere -boundary from maere
    or take the latin merus pure,unmixed
    or the greek meros -merit?
    then you have this:redundancy “Glen Mere Lakes”
    or did he get wet “Craven Gets Win By Mere Inches”
    then there many meres in the UK and Holland
    many geographical locations with Mere {mere this or that} in England or like lake windermere,then the Dutch use mere too.
    Finally from the “Cambridge dict.”
    All this happened a very long time ago, when you were a mere twinkle in your father’s eye.

  7. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    Languagehat, that’s almost it except the first name would be Ee-mer. And I’m not quite sure why as other words with “ei” have the eh-pronunciation you suggest. It’s the same name as Emer, wife of Cuchullain. Hers was probably pronounced Ay-ver, mind you. The surname is “Mellett” in English.
    The spelling of Irish personal names can be a treacherous guide to their pronunciation as archaic spellings are preserved. E.g. the name Conchubhair, usually pronounced and spelled as Conor but sometimes pronounced CRU-hoor. Or my own personal favourite, Toirdhealbhach O Cearbhallán aka Turlough O’ Carolan. Again this first name sometimes pops up as Traolach – different regions picked different syllables to slur together. All of which means I should slap myself on the wrist for spelling Mark Liberman’s name wrong.
    About that archaic mere meaning boundary – Tolkien uses it, he has a “Mering Stream” somewhere derived from Middle English, but in Ireland people still use “mearin” to mean a field boundary.

  8. Aha — go raibh maith agat! (Which, for the Irishless, means ‘thank you’ and, in the Connemara dialect I was taught, is pronounced /go ro MWAH aad/; like the lady said, spelling is a treacherous guide to pronunciation.)

  9. Words, words, mere words
    Troilus :reference

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