Back in 2003, Songdog alerted me to a pair of synonyms, gennel and snicket (and the resulting post sparked off almost three years’ worth of enjoyable discussion); now he draws my attention to an interesting column by lexicographer Erin McKean (discussed many times on LH, e.g. here and here) about synonyms:

Distinguishing between close synonyms (is the ground marshy or boggy?) is a point of pride for the word-minded, and being able to argue whether someone was nonchalant or blasé is a pleasurable parlor game, made all the more fun by there being no “right” answer. We may not agree as to the exact shade of difference, but we’re sure there is one.
Our desire for each different word to have its own meaning has deep roots. When children first learn language, one of the tenets of the language-acquisition process is a learning strategy called the “principle of contrast,” which posits that two words should never have the same meaning – and if they do, there’s something wrong with one of them. Children internalize this principle and eventually, with enough reinforcement, replace nonstandard forms with the correct ones. When a child says, “I did that goodly,” an adult will usually respond, “Yes, you did that well!”, and well eventually bumps goodly from its slot in the child’s vocabulary.

All well and good, but she goes on to discuss a phenomenon I find bizarre, the attempt to find semantic distinctions between spelling variants:

There are those who feel that grey is lighter than gray, or cooler, or yellower. One believer in the difference, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1902, suggested that gray was for “fur, and Quaker gowns, and breasts of doves, and a gray day, and a gentlewoman’s hair; and horses must be gray,” but that grey is for eyes (especially those of witches) and cold mornings.
There are other pairs, too, where what should surely be mere quibbles about spelling – ax or axe, omelet or omelette, catalog or catalogue – are taken to stand for perceptible differences in meaning. Omelette is held to sound “more sophisticated” than omelet (although they are pronounced in exactly the same way); to those who see a difference, a catalog is defined as a colorful publication listing things you can buy, but a catalogue is a list of (usually important) things, whether or not they are for sale. It wouldn’t surprise me to run into someone declaring that an ax is sharper than an axe, or bigger, or more useful.

Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with finding such differences; people do what they want with language, often unpredictably, and that’s great, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But finding a difference in meaning between grey and gray? Like I said, it seems bizarre to me.
Oh, and happy birthday, Songdog!


  1. Worth pointing out that we did this one:

  2. The omelette ~ omelet and catalog ~ catalogue distinctions, OTOH, are well motivated socially. Spellings have connotative meaning, after all. I wonder if that’s what’s happening here too—there’s something connotative going on with the Atlantic judgement on gray ~ grey, which may well have to do with a perception of Englishness.
    Within Britain of course that factor doesn’t apply, which is why your previous example from the OED (that Conrad points to) is still puzzling.

  3. Is there a difference between “donut” and “doughnut”? Maybe one is doughier than the other….

  4. There are those who feel that grey is lighter than gray, or cooler, or yellower
    This one is especially interesting to me, because I also make this distinction, and I have absolutely no idea where I picked it up. To me, “grey” is cooler, and “gray” is warmer. It must have happened in my childhood, but I have a hard time imagining anyone telling me to spell something “grey” versus “gray,” or vice versa.
    (These days, I try to pick one or the other, but I still picture different shades for each word.)
    As far as I know, there’s no other pair of spelling variants that I’ve made a semantic distinction between.

  5. we did this one
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

  6. I’ve had discussions with people who insisted there are differences between theater and theatre. One such proposed distinction was that the first refers to movies and the second to plays. Another was that the first is the building while the second is the art. Both left me scratching my head.

  7. I point again, as I did before (but this time nearer the top of the comment stack) to literary associations. When an American reads a book in a non-American spelling, the spellings get wrapped up with the book and become part, as Nick says, of the word’s connotations. Someone (Edmund Wilson?) satirizes this as “the mysterious lure of the East, as when Kipling writes pyjamas“, but the effect is real.

  8. Actually in your first example, marshy and boggy, while it may seem the same to your feet as you slog through them on a dark night, there is quite a difference. Marshes are saltwater saturated lowlands while bogs are freshwater, generally covering peat. Still, nice site you have here.

  9. What’s the difference between a marsh and a swamp?

  10. A marsh is muck — soggy soil. A swamp has water covering the soil. This is the geographer’s distinction.
    Or so my memory tells me.

  11. marie-lucie says

    A marsh has saltwater as pointed above, but a swamp has freshwater. Both can provide nesting sites for aquatic birds. There is much more water in a march or swamp than in a bog, where you do not see water unless you disturb the mossy surface by stepping on and in it. I am not sure where “fen” fits in.

  12. I don’t recall the difference between a bog and a marsh — unless a marsh has trees, and bog doesn’t.

  13. I think that “marsh”, “bog”, “swamp”, “slough” are regional and somewhat interchangeable, rather like “brook”, “stream”, and “creek”.
    I don’t think that “marsh” only means salt water. People will say “salt marsh”, which (exception proves the rule) seems to indicate that there are fresh marshes.
    I believe that the one scientific difference is that swamps are bigger and have a mix of water, muck, and dry land with trees. But around here we use “swamp” to mean bogs and marshes, and either “slough” or “swamp” to mean swamps.
    Wobegon is rich in swamps, etc., but we only have two words for them. Take that, Eskimos!
    How often do you ever need to make fine distinctions between different kinds of muddy places that aren’t lakes? Not very damn often.

  14. Looking into online geographical dictionaries, I find that this is the proverbial can of worms.
    A fen is fed by rainwater, a bog by surface or groundwater. A swamp has more water than a marsh, and trees rather than low plants. There certainly seems to be no distinction between fresh or salt.
    A swamp can also have islets of land above waterlevel, called in one dictionary a ‘hammock’, but surely this is a typo, or perhaps variant. I thought it was a hummock.
    Back to the topic, anybody.

  15. Further evidence that a marsh can be fresh: Wiki calls the Florida Everglades the largest freshwater marsh in the US. In fact, it does so twice in the same brief article.
    Another Wiki article says that the Atchafalaya Basin, or Atchafalaya Swamp, of Louisiana (which seems to have a lot of salt water in it) is the largest swamp in the US — also that it has swamps and marshes in it.
    And, hey, let’s not forget mires.

  16. The better sort of vase is pronounced with the Italian or Arkansas vowel.

  17. @iakon. What the world calls hummock is known as hammock in Florida. They have more of them there than other places do, seeing as how they have more swampland than elsewhere.

  18. Thanks, Gary. I had a feeling it was a variant.
    Hey, empty, since you bring up mire, how about quagmire, quag, and morass? all synomyms. And it appears that bog is a hypernym (new word for me) or the generic, for some people. This doesn’t jibe with the specific sense I gave above. The generic is wetland, at least for geographers.

  19. “Wetland”, by my guess, was invented specifically to escape the questions we’re talking about. (And probably also to escape the pejorative association of the other words.)

  20. Etymology of omelet. A good messy story.

  21. You never marsh a boat, you swamp [ marais] it, a bog [marecage]is juxta positioned with WC you never marsh down you just get bogged down, a fen has a baseball yard in the States but it has lovely pimples to rest on after wading across on stilts. The fens exist below sea level while Romney marshes hide the smugglers in their unswomped boats at sea level when they bring untaxed wines from les marais.

  22. There are so many different points of view, which give us variants, some of which are regional.
    The Fens of East Anglia had to be drained because they were constantly soggy, in order to free up the land for agriculture. But was the source of water rain or groundwater or surface water or ocean? Maybe all four.
    And does it really matter when words are used metaphorically?

  23. “Wetland” seems to be a modern coinage used mainly in connection with efforts to save ecosystems from damage.
    Of the old terms, “marsh” is the one with the least negativity for me — but that may be partly because I am so fond of some particular salt marshes.
    “Bog” may sometimes be a hypernym of the others, but it is often used in quite a narrow sense.
    There is clearly a lot of variation in how all these terms are used.

  24. Romping Through the Swamp with Dave Van Ronk.

  25. A WC is called a bog because of ahem, swamp gas.
    But does ‘pong’ refer to gas or heat, or both?
    On that note, I’m off to bed.

  26. People who feel this way should learn Japanese! For example, 青い、蒼い、碧い are all different spellings of the same word, “aoi” (blue/green/new), and many people do indeed feel that they have different nuances.

  27. because I am so fond of some particular salt marshes
    What is it with Massachusetts and salt marshes? I never understood the attraction.

  28. Gulls, herons, crabs, fish, clams, eelgrass, spartina. Mud, tide, sun. Smell.

  29. 青い, 蒼い, 碧い are all different spellings of the same word.
    They do have different meanings, and are meant to have different meanings.
    The way that Japanese is taught now, people just think they are different ways of ‘spelling’ the same Japanese word. In fact, they represent three different words in Chinese, and in their adoption into Japanese they specifically represent three different aspects of the same word from the Chinese point of view.
    If Russian borrowed from English according to the same principle, нога would be written either foot or leg, depending on the meaning intended.

  30. they specifically represent three different aspects of the same word
    Not quite right. I’m starting to sound like Simon Winchester.
    They represent three different meanings of the Japanese word as perceived from semantics of Chinese.

  31. michael farris says

    Well I would say there is such a thing as expressive spelling.
    Amerika, phat and hator are three examples of using altered spelling to create (or reinforce) new connotations that are not made in speech (though the last I think can optionally be pronounced differently).
    Similarly I can imagine someone in the US choosing to use the spelling ‘theatre’ for possible old-world connotations at least vs theater.
    So, I’d say that different spellings can have different connotations and some people might then actively look for or imagine differences that others would not agree exist. It’s not like they’re imagining the phenomenon of different spelling having different meanings, just extending it more than most of us would.

  32. Marshes and fens are pleasant-sounding places where naturalists record birdsong, whereas swamps have mosquitoes and bogs could be toilets.

  33. Trond Engen says

    The subject is a quagmire. We need a bog standard.

  34. Sinclair Lewis grew up in Sauk Centre (231,000 googles), not Sauk Center (67,000 googles).

  35. I’ve always found the Danish word bog to be completely inappropriate for “book”, even though Danes don’t pronounce it the same way I would.

  36. Absolute synonymy is probably impossible, but a case could be made for its existence in specialized contexts such as medical terminology. John Lyons offers the example of caecitis and typhlitis (both = “inflammation of the blind gut”). But I wouldn’t make that case.
    I have never imagined a semantic difference between gray and grey, but I’m not surprised that some people do. A word’s connotations might be widespread, uncommon, or idiosyncratic and entirely personal, but in all cases a subjective component is unavoidable.

  37. Nicholas Waller says

    I’d agree that most spelling differences are just regional or national differences – gray/grey, center/centre and so on, along with color/colour, so I would always use grey, centre, colour because I am British (except I know someone whose name is Gray).
    Program and programme would normally fall into this category too, except that inside the UK there is a real distinction: programme is the normal word, used for TV/radio show (I recorded that Lambing Live BBC2 programme last night), leaflet, plan of action or schedule (concert programme, for instance) and so on; but “program” is always used about computers (an image-editing program, I need to program this or that).

  38. > I’ve always found the Danish word bog to be completely inappropriate for “book”, even though Danes don’t pronounce it the same way I would.
    Presumably they say it, /’b mumble mumbleˤ/

  39. Scientists frequently eliminate synonyms either by choosing one of them or by inventing a third name and eliminating both of the others. It’s really functionally necessary.
    So regarding wetlands, I’m sure ecologists have a well thought-out way of designating the different sorts, but whether they use the words “bog”, “swamp”, “slough” or “marsh I don’t know. Very possibly they compound these terms in such a way as to give them specific meaning.
    [But then I thought: wiki!]
    Slough means several distantly related things and is regional.
    A swamp has hummocks and trees, lots of water, and can be flooded permanently or only part of the year. Fresh or salt.
    A marsh has no trees, and some say, less open water. Morass = marsh. Fresh or salt.
    Mire= bog or fen. Seemingly always fresh (same below).
    “Bog” is acidic, sedge (poor fen) is less acid, “fen” is alkaline or neutral.
    Fen (tall plants), sedge (medium plants) and bog (flat cover) are a series. Whether this conflicts with above I don’t know.
    Wiki is wiki, of course. Wiki is often just the outcome of the kind of conversation we’re having, at a more specialized level. I’m pretty sure that the wiki definitions are frequently violated in practice; whether they’re valid at all, I don’t know.
    My theory of regional variation seems valid for “slough”.

  40. A good bog is the Danish author P.V. Glob’s The Bog People, which is not, however, about Frank Murphy’s Bog Irish (Penguin Non-Classics, 1988), but about pickled dead people.

  41. In Ireland “bog” is very specific and would never be used synonymously with “marsh” or anything else. But this all reminded me of childhood trips to the North Slob, from the Irish “slab” mud, which turns out to be the source of the “slovenly person” sense.

  42. Methane is colorless and odorless. The various, um, ‘earthy’ odors attributed to methane always come from other stuff.

  43. Interestingly, or perhaps not, “zwamp”, pronounced indistinguishably from “swamp”, is how I generally refer to my adopted homeland’s landscape.
    Less (or perhaps more) relevantly I always thought the fenlands of East Anglia must be unspeakably dreary and refused (on those grounds) to ever go there; the local flatness on the other hand I actually find rather charming.
    I’m not sure I have an opinion left about the topography of Kansas, little dogs notwithstanding.

  44. I like the swamps around here, and when I moved to Oregon, which is rarely flat, I missed them. Once when my son was in school I went looking for a swamp to gather cattails for a project. It was then that I first realized that the absence of swamps was possible. (And what I mean is “marsh”.)

  45. Marsh is just better than swamp. There is no Mr Swamp or Ms Swamp nor anyone who wants to be one; but there is Rodney Marsh, Ngaio Marsh and Jean Marsh.

  46. And Pete Bog.

  47. Interesting. I just went through this with nol’ and nul’ in Russian (both mean zero). There isn’t any difference between the two (except for conventions of usage), but people see all kinds of complicated, and, to my mind, obscure and preposterous differences. I can see why this happens in Russian — some words (mostly foreign borrowings) — have different gender endings that determine meaning/usage (spazm: medical term; spazma: figurative term). Are there any examples like that in English or than the programme/program distinction Nicholas Waller notes?

  48. Isn’t the hallmark of English the availability of abundant near-synonyms, although this is usually attributed to promiscuous borrowing?

  49. “Come, friendly bogs, and fall on Slough.
    It isn’t fit for hummocks now.”
    (with apologies to the shade of Betjeman)

  50. Ø, do you know David Updike’s collection of short stories called Out On The Marsh? Someone mentioned it on my salt marsh post.

  51. Someone (Edmund Wilson?) satirizes this as “the mysterious lure of the East, as when Kipling writes pyjamas”, but the effect is real.
    “Britannia Rules of Orthography”. I cannot link to Google Book’s preview because the book’s id ( is questionable. (Now I wonder: does Google’s algorithm avoid swears.)
    It’s only attributed to “Firth” there, so that’s what Granger’s has, too. Espy’s Almanac has it on Bloomsday; I don’t see any connection, so that’s probably a coincidence. Maybe that’s where you saw it, too.
    Do you know that pseudonym to really be Wilson?

  52. Then if you’re a Canadian trying to make the tar sands look better you can call the artificial ponds that are made to store leaching waste “lakes”.

  53. I actually insisted on going to see the fens when I was in the neighbourhood, because the quaint name so intrigued me. It was a total disappointment — nondescript farming land. The impression I took away was “grey”, although when I think of it now, the place was so characterless that I don’t even have a mental snapshot of what it looked like.

  54. There seems to be a functional difference between “disk” and “disc”. A computer disk is usually “disk”, but a CD is a “compact disc”.

  55. And, of course, there is “tyre”, where a different spelling has been adopted (outside North America) to differentiate the new sense of the word.

  56. And without actually checking, perhaps “kerb” (again non-American usage) is a similar phenomenon. “Kerb” is only used for the “curb” of a street.

  57. And there is “check” and “cheque”. There is a clear difference in meaning between the two. What you write is a “cheque”. What you pick up at a restaurant is the “check” (what used to be known as the bill — some English friends once told me that “the check” is now quite normal in the UK).

  58. OK, one last one: “storey” and “story” appear to be another pair where spelling has been used to distinguish different senses of the word. Etymologically they have the same origins.

  59. Based on wiki, a fen seems to be a more than usually soggy pasture. We have tons of them around here, but we don’t call them anything. We’re not eskimos, for god’s sake.

  60. Since John has posted a comment, I can now give another example of deliberate differentiation through spelling: “come” and “cum” 🙂

  61. Hmmm. The Online Etymological Dictionary says:
    Tire: “late 15c., “iron rim of a carriage wheel,” … The notion is of the tire as the dressing of the wheel. The original spelling was tyre, which had shifted to tire in 17c.-18c., but since early 19c. tyre has been revived in Great Britain and become standard there. Rubber ones, for bicycles (later automobiles) are from 1870s.

  62. There’s a convenience store chain called the Kum n Go. There’s a fast food place called the In n Out. There’s about three Google pages of joges about the two before you get to mine.
    Their territories don’t overlap, but they come pretty close in the Colorado Arizona Oklahoma Kansas area.

  63. Oh Bathrobe, why you gotta be so confrontational?
    “The way that Japanese is taught now, people just think they are different ways of ‘spelling’ the same Japanese word.”
    That’s not just the way Japanese is taught now — it’s the way Japanese IS now, and ever has been.
    “In fact, they represent three different words in Chinese, and in their adoption into Japanese they specifically represent three different aspects of the same word from the Chinese point of view.” + “They represent three different meanings of the Japanese word as perceived from semantics of Chinese.”
    So… don’t we actually agree?
    – There is a single Japanese word, /aoi/, corresponding to a semantic area divided up more finely into Chinese
    – There are multiple ways of writing this single word (=spellings), borrowed from Chinese and corresponding to different parts of the overall semantic area
    – It’s thus possible to emphasize different facets of the meaning of /aoi/ via spelling
    It’s exactly the same principle as declaring “gray means lightish, grey means darkish”, except the spellings aren’t arbitrarily chosen.
    I suspect that maybe you are reacting to my “many people do indeed feel” thing — all I meant by that was that there are also people who don’t know or care enough about kanji to make these fine distinctions.

  64. Dressing Gown is doing an excellent job. He’s on a roll here, leave him alone.

  65. In & inn, by the way.

  66. And “how’s that?” and “howzat!”

  67. Frank (discussions) & frank (a letter).

  68. Sorry, that was a mistake, wasn’t it.

  69. Hmmm… so the differences in spelling that indicate different concepts is only in British English? Hey you Amuricans, got any examples? I can’t think of any, but then lately I can’t spell to save my life, so this is not an exercise I’m going to excel in.

  70. A word’s connotations might be widespread, uncommon, or idiosyncratic and entirely personal, but in all cases a subjective component is unavoidable.
    Some of us have idiosyncratic synaesthetic responses to words, of course. When grey and gray were last discussed here, I wrote:

    For me the spelling has to be grey, since I am Australian. And as a grapheme synaesthete I happen to find the spelling gray disconcerting: grey is dominated by its rather light g and e, according well with the colour in question; but gray has an intrusively vivid and non-greyish green a.

    Such effects are surely generalisable beyond colour; they (thay?) are exquisitely subtle and pervasive. Any poet or translator of poetry (who must of course be a kind of poet also) needs to pay attention to them with great care, and weed out what is dangerously idiosyncratic from what is usefully widespread.

  71. Sorry if I sounded confrontational. I just happen to disagree that it’s the way Japanese IS now, and ever has been.
    After I started learning Chinese, a lot of fuzzy things about Japanese writing fell into focus. This includes variations like those on あおい. Jack Halpern, if my memory serves correctly, characterises 掛かる, 架かる, 係る, 懸かる etc.(all kakaru) as different words that Japanese people have trouble telling apart and often resort to kana to write.
    It also explains the weird creature known as a Kanwa Jiten. A Kanwa Jiten, which is an authoritative source for the correct use of Chinese characters, doesn’t make sense except as a kind of dictionary of the Chinese language with specific adaptations and explanations to accommodate Japanese. It’s kind of a dictionary of Japanese spelling that’s based on a foreign language. If you think this sounds garbled, let me put it this way. A Kanwa Jiten is most easily grasped as a (largely Classical) Chinese dictionary, showing how Chinese writing has been adapted to Japanese. This is rather different from a Kokugo Jiten, which is closer to the Western idea of a dictionary – showing Japanese words in kana order, the way they are customarily written, and their meanings.

  72. And yes, we do essentially agree.

  73. “Ye olde ice cream shoppe” has much more ambiance than a Dairy Queen; you can tell by the spelling.

  74. Back on that other thread, we never found out what happens when a grapheme synaesthete looks at something in a different language. Does the effect hold for all words, all alphabets, or just the first language, or for someone who is multilingual to various extents, just the ones that are understood?

  75. If it’s not too personal, that is.

  76. Hey you Amuricans, got any examples?
    Fat & phat.

  77. “Phase” and “faze”.

  78. Lots of rap artists’ names:
    Eminem,Ludacris, Mos Def,Outkast, Snoop Dogg, Boyz II Men, Lil’ Bow Wow, Lil’ Fizz, Lil’ Kim.
    Not to mention Howlin’ Wolf.

  79. The Beatles. I read that Led Zeppelin was spelled that way to stop people mispronouncing it “Leed”.

  80. To elaborate on what I said above about Kanwa Jiten and Kokugo Jiten:
    The Kokugo Jiten presents the Japanese language as an independent, self-contained system. This is how Westerners are used to seeing languages. An approximation of the entry for aoi ‘blue’ would be something like this:
    * あおい (青い): (1) (also written 碧い) the colour blue, also extends into the range of green, (2) (also written 蒼い) (of a face) pallid, (3) green, inexperienced.
    On the other hand, a Kanwa Jiten treats Japanese as part of a larger system, the East Asian cultural sphere centred on China. Instead of a self-contained unit, Japanese is connected by thousands of strands to what we would regard as a foreign language. An approximation of entries relating to 青, 蒼, and 碧 would be:
    * 青: On-yomi – Kan reading SEI, Tō reading CHIN, Go reading SHŌ. Kun-yomi – Ao, aoi. Explanation of formation of character. Meaning: 1. Aoi Blue colour. 2. Colour of plants, green. 3. Luxuriance of foliage. 4. Green or blue things. 5. Black. 6. In the theory of the five elements, the colour corresponding to wood, east. 7. Green bark of the bamboo, bamboo slats used for writing. 8. Qīngzhōu, one of nine regions of ancient times, modern Shandong province. [Meanings developed in Japan]: Ao a. (Of horse) Black-haired. b. Young and inexperienced.
    * 蒼: On-yomi – SŌ. Kun-yomi – Ao. Explanation of formation of character. Meaning: A: 1. Ao 1a. Blue (倉), 1b. Green of grass, 1c. Dark blue. 2. (Of foliage) luxuriant. 3. Dim or dark. 4. Aged, old-fashioned. 5. With flecks of grey hair, grey. 6. Be flustered (倉). B: 莽倉 MŌSŌ: The green of luxuriant vegetation.
    * 碧 On-yomi – Kan reading HEKI. Kun-yomi – Midori, Ao. Explanation of formation of character. Meaning: 1. A beautiful stone. 2. Ao, Midori: Blue/green. Dark blue.
    Many of these meanings are associated only with the Chinese Classics.
    The world that the Kanwa Jiten presents is an older way of perceiving Japan and its writing system, as part of the larger cultural world of East Asia. This world-view has been progressively discarded as each country seeks to assert its individuality in the modern age.
    This is why I disagreed with the statement that “it’s the way Japanese IS now, and ever has been”.

  81. But you’re not really disagreeing, you’re just presenting a different context. Matt is correct in that Japanese as linguists understand it—that is, a primarily spoken language passed down from parents to children and available to all native speakers, barring a few highfalutin’ fripperies available only to the educated—has only one word aoi, and the Chinese senses are irrelevant to it. You are presenting Japanese “as part of the larger cultural world of East Asia,” in which Chinese meanings and symbols are basic and each subaltern culture borrows as much as it can digest and uses it for its own purposes. That is the world of the Kanwa Jiten, and as a card-carrying* esthete I approve of it, as long as one remembers that it is one of those highfalutin’ fripperies available only to the educated.
    *The card is conceptual, like the art in all those ’70s galleries.

  82. In the course of my Mad Baron studies I have just verified by Google that the pun “Hungarian / unwilling / Ungern-Sternberg” is an actual German pun made by Germans, including the Ungern family itself, and not just some stupid thing I dreamed up that would get me nothing but uneasy stares. There’s even a book “Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite” which without the pun would make sense only if you assumed that the Czechs and the E. Germans were joyful satellites.
    Now német, the Hungarian for “German” traces back to a Slavic word meaning “mute” or “dummy”. Thus, the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy was a partnership (or coalition) of the unwilling and the dummies. It’s surprising that it lasted as long as it did.
    So yes, I’ve been using my time productively.

  83. One the other hand, the French name for Germans, allemand, comes from the Latin name alamanus, which was rather exceptionally derived from a German tribe’s designation for itself, Alemanni, which rather chauvinistically means “all men” when the Alemanni weren’t even all of the Germans. So basically, the French were conceding far too much when they decided on the name allemand. This strikes me as a case when you definitely do not want to accept a neighboring nation’s self-designation.

  84. I think there are two points where I disagreed with Matt on matters of detail.
    1) “青い、蒼い、碧い are all different spellings of the same word, “aoi” (blue/green/new), and many people do indeed feel that they have different nuances”. My point: It’s not merely a “feeling”; it’s clearly accepted that the nuances are different.
    2) My second point was less clearly expressed: Modern Japanese (in line with Kokugo Jiten) just see these as “spelling differences”, whereas I would argue that historically there has been a diminution in awareness of what these “spelling” differences represent. Right up until Meiji, knowledge of written Classical Chinese was widespread among educated people. People just don’t know Classical Chinese any more, so the nuances are, I think, now just perceived as the properties of characters.
    I totally agree that Japanese has only one word, aoi. As Matt quite rightly implies, the modern view is that these are merely nuanced ‘spellings’. Since they lack the old literacy in Classical Chinese, modern Japanese aren’t highly aware that these different kanji reflect the semantics of Chinese. In contemporary times the writing system has been largely cut off from its Chinese roots, with the result that people know that they have a choice of using 蒼 or 碧 instead of 青, but they don’t have much idea why.
    Even if the vague contextless, ahistoric perception that modern Japanese have is not a modern development, I think its widespread acceptance without an awareness-raising knowledge of the Chinese context is, arguably, a modern development.
    And given the importance of written culture in East Asian cultures, I think it’s a bit extreme to call this kind of awareness high-falutin’ frippery. Literate people, and there were a lot of them even in pre-modern times, devoted an immense amount of effort to this “high-falutin’ frippery”.

  85. Actually, the second point was my own, not actually in disagreement with Matt. Matt disagreed when he pointed out that “it’s the way Japanese IS now, and ever has been”.

  86. Finally, Matt and LH are quite right: we basically agree. I was merely elaborating on my point that I think there’s been a historical change in how the use of different characters to write the same word is perceived.

  87. I think it’s a bit extreme to call this kind of awareness high-falutin’ frippery.
    Come come, that’s just my populist manner. Surely it’s clear to all that I love me some high-falutin’ fripperies.

  88. I don’t know how much chengyu are used in China now, but they’re an example fo a way that elite written literature intrudes into oral language. Some of them are ordinary proverbs in archaic language, but many of them only make sense with an explanation based on ancient tradition, even though they might be used orally by illiterates.
    The way high culture is transformed and adapted in popular drama and puppet shows is another case. The elite / mass dividing line is there for sure, in a big way, but the elite tradition really permeates the mass too. It’s rather like an exoteric / esoteric distinction.

  89. The spread of literacy among all classes of society is itself a massive expansion of elite culture. I wonder how many inhabitants of 18th century England could even read, let alone worry about “grey” vs “gray”. The spread of a particular linguistic form (writing and all its pernickety rules and speechways) is a massive expansion of a certain semi-fossilised kind of culture that was previously the preserve of only a few.

  90. Very few of them could spell, even among the literati. “Gray” v. “grey” was the least of their problems.
    One of the odd things about language prescriptivism and spelling prescriptivism is that it came along rather late, in the second half of the 18th century, and didn’t triumph immediately.
    Another weird thing is that prescriptivists tend to worship classic literature, but much of the classic literature breaks the ex-post-facto rules they also worship.

  91. Another weird thing is that prescriptivists tend to worship classic literature, but much of the classic literature breaks the ex-post-facto rules they also worship.
    That always amuses me. Their answer, of course, is “Well, X could break the rules because he was a genius, but you’re not X, so you don’t get to!”

  92. ignoramus says

    “The Fens of East Anglia had to be drained because they were constantly soggy, in order to free up the land for agriculture. ”
    nice myth?.
    They were drained because they were looking for the kings [John?] lost Jewels and Charles needed monies to keep his mistresses in oranges, and to keep the Dutch occupied, as they liked draining lands?????
    All the soggy parts of the out “skirts” of London, [ Essex, Surrey, Middle sex } had to be ‘debogged’, and as a side effect got rid of the ague and other fevers.

  93. Around here, for the sake of the birds the state buys up marginal farmland and lets it revert to marsh (or maybe fen). It isn’t as easy as that; they have to go through the fields and laboriously dig out the drainage tiles which had been so laboriously put in 10 to 40 years earlier.

  94. I wonder how many inhabitants of 18th century England could even read, let alone worry about “grey” vs “gray”.
    I read in an article in the Guardian this week that nearly half of the adult inhabitants of Detroit are functionally illiterate.

  95. The protagonists of Kelly Link’s short story “The Specialist’s Hat” are a pair of identical twins who can only be distinguished by the color of their eyes: one has gray eyes, the other, grey.

  96. An excellent conceit!

  97. Given the religious wars over how to make a real omelet(te), I’m not the least be surprised that some people will distinguish the words.
    So is a fritatta an omelette or an omelet?

  98. John Emerson says

    I once spent several minutes using Google to figure out the right spelling of *[omelet]*. Nothing seemed right, and Google didn’t help.

  99. marie-lucie says

    So is a fritatta an omelette or an omelet?
    It depends of which language you are using around those words.

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