I seem never to have mentioned the Voynich manuscript on LH, which is a little surprising but not very, because I’ve always assumed it to be a hoax, which puts it outside the category “language-related” for me (though I can see how others would disagree). But “Cracking the Voynich Code” by Batya Ungar-Sargon, from Tablet‘s Longform series, is so good I can’t resist passing it on (thanks for the link, Paul!). It describes the history of the manuscript and the many attempts to crack its (supposed) code, and builds so nicely to its conclusion (which I find completely satisfying) that I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing. But I had known nothing about Voynich himself, and his story is so intriguing I’ll quote that paragraph here:

Wilfrid Voynich, born Wilfridas Mykolas Vojničius, had a life filled with instances of the uncanny. A Lithuanian pharmacist, Voynich was imprisoned for his role in revolutionary attempts to free Poland from Russian rule. While serving a two-year prison sentence, Voynich looked out the window of his cell one day and caught sight of a blonde in a black dress. Two years later, after escaping from a Siberian prison and arriving penniless in London (he had to sell his waistcoat and glasses for a third-class ticket and a piece of herring, the story goes), he found that same woman in the home of his contact, another revolutionary. She was Ethel Lillian Boole, daughter of the famous mathematician George Boole, and a revolutionary in her own right. They were married, and Voynich managed to become, quite mysteriously, a recognized antiques dealer in just eight short years.

Adventure! Romance! Herring!
Addendum. See the first comment for a link to Jerry Norman’s Concise Manchu-English Lexicon, if Manchu is your thing.


  1. slawkenbergius says

    The doomed hunt for the Voynich has had one very beneficial knock-on effect for an unexpected group of people. Apparently there is a theory that the Voynich manuscript is written in Manchu. This theory is clearly inaccurate. Yet, to aid fellow-searchers interested in pursuing the theory, one Voynichologist has scanned and rather accurately digitized Jerry Norman’s Concise Manchu-English Lexicon. [NB: the book is long out of print and has been superseded by a dictionary which came out this year, so morally speaking it’s in the clear.] It’s hard to convey how useful that big HTML file has been for me and other people I know in learning Manchu, which involves a whole lot of extremely tedious dictionary work. Thanks, Voynich!

  2. marie-lucie says

    Great article, thanks LH!

  3. Puts me in mind of the Vinland Map, also at Yale.
    Both are works of art, in the sense of skill.

  4. Thanks a lot, slawkenbergius. This Manchu dictionary is extremely useful to me

  5. slawkenbergius says

    Be warned: it’s missing a few pages, but my hit rate with it has been pretty good.

  6. slawkenbergius says

    (Also, it’s not always reliable with respect to S/Š and U/Ū.)

  7. Someone’s comment partway through the article, ‘I like the idea that it might have been created as an artwork,’ reminds me of a similar book that was created as an artwork, Luigi Serafini’s beautiful Codex Seraphinianus. It’s a lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of a nonexistent world. It never occurred to me before that it might have been inspired by the Voynich Manuscript.

  8. rootlesscosmo says

    Ethel Boole Voynich, under the name E. L. Voynich, published the novel “The Gadfly” which might be described as an anti-clerical swashbuckler. Shostakovich wrote the score to the Soviet film version.

  9. i remember crying watching the movie, the scene of the cardinal’s reconciliation with his revolutionary son before his execution, he is the most powerful man in the system and still can’t save his only son, such circumstances, and i almost never cry watching movies or reading books, must be its was the music

  10. it

  11. The Gadfly (Овод) by E.L. Voynich was almost required reading for Soviet schoolchildren. Somehow I wiggled my way out of reading it. I thought it was anti-Austrian, pro-Italian propaganda,

  12. The Believer magazine had a good article on the Codex Seraphinianus a few years ago. It describes the Voynich Manuscript as “the Codex‘s only real precursor”.

  13. Thanks a lot, slawkenbergius. This Manchu dictionary is extremely useful to me
    Little did I know when I started this blog that it would help connect people who study Manchu.

  14. Trond Engen says

    If they could only meet some students of Womanchu, it might spawn a community.

  15. It’s an interesting article, but I have no faith that the author has correctly understood the various arguments about the nature of the manuscript. I say this because the article displays a profound failure to understand the one topic it discussed that I know a lot about–how carbon-14 dating works. I am left to wonder whether the author is not merely parroting some interesting-sounding opinions that they heard, without being fully able to comprehend or evaluate them.

  16. It’s just a little unfair to say that if the author misunderstands one technical detail, he or she is incompetent at all other disciplines.

  17. It’s also unfair to expect journalists writing for a general audience to know and accurately convey all the details of every specialty they wind up writing about. I’m sympathetic to your complaint, since I frequently have occasion to rail against the things journalists write about language, but the complaint is only well founded if whatever specialist the journalist consulted gave them a clear and accurate description, designed for a lay audience, of whatever phenomenon is under discussion and the journalist didn’t bother trying to understand it or pass it on correctly. I suspect that it’s often the case that the specialist gives a garbled or overly technical explanation and the poor journalist has to make the best of it, inevitably getting some details wrong.

  18. marie-lucie says

    I read the article and I remember being a little surprised at the explanation of carbon-dating, which seemed to be mixed up with dendrochronology, but I went on with the rest of the article, which sounded very good. How carbon-dating works was not crucial to the argument anyway, so the author (or editor) could be forgiven for the error. The major point was the nature of the text itself, whether it is a cipher (and if so, of what type) or a hoax, while the age of the parchment or paper could help in ruling out some authors but is secondary to the mystery of the text.

  19. Dendrochronology – that’s what was going wrong with that explanation. I knew something there was out of place.
    Of course, to be fair to Brett, it does sound like the experts are all amateurs – there’s a WWII cryptologist, two physicists, a computer scientist, a psychologist, an engineer and a jeweler turned writer. (Which is perfectly understandable, this doesn’t sound like a very fruitful use of a professional historian’s time, no one would take it up except as a labor of love.) So it’s certainly possible that some of them are out of their depth here. But that cast of characters makes for a far better story than you’d get out of questioning half a dozen historians who all say, “I don’t know, it’s probably a fraud, I have better things to do with my time”.

  20. Some of the works on Voynich are monuments of creative fantasy in themselves. I’m thinking especially of Newbold, himself quite a character, whose book I have a copy of.

  21. When I first read about the Voynich I talked to my father (who studied at the University of Pennsylvania) about Newbold. He confirmed that even undergraduates widely considered him a nutbar. This even though they knew nothing about his “decoding”, which has the interesting property of being not in general reversible; it can be decoded but not encoded unless you pick your plain text very carefully.

  22. John Cowan says

    I missed this before: I don’t see anything wrong with the article’s discussion of carbon-14 dating. It says:

    Because the unstable form of carbon, or C14, decays at a known rate from the day that an animal or plant dies, its measurement can yield a time frame of death, Hodgins explained to me patiently on the phone. This time frame is then compared to a database assembled of known C14 measurements gathered from trees, whose rings correspond to years. “Radiocarbon dating is not accurate, but it is precise,” Hodgins explained.

    That corresponds exactly to what Wikipedia says:

    The measurement of the remaining proportion of ¹⁴C in organic matter thus gives an estimate of its age (a raw radiocarbon age). However, over time there are small fluctuations in the ratio of ¹⁴C to ¹²C in the atmosphere, fluctuations that have been noted in natural records of the past, such as sequences of tree rings and cave deposits. These records allow fine-tuning, or “calibration”, of the raw radiocarbon age, to give a more accurate estimate of the calendar date of the material.

  23. In an announcement straight out of the Edo Nyland playbook: the Voynich manuscript is written in proto-Romance. We’ve got Dominican nuns and all.

    (Proto-Romance “Not a thing” says a Medievalist.)

  24. Oy gevalt.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Discussion on Language Log with links to several articles panning it.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    This shows such a thoroughgoing failure to comprehend even the basics of scientific method that It makes you wonder rather a lot about the academic standards in Cheshire’s actual PhD field (don’t tell me: I really don’t want to think about it.)

    But that is to miss the point, I think. What Cheshire is evidently very talented at indeed is self-promotion. This is likely to stand him in good stead in his future career as a used-car salesman, advertising executive, politician … the world is his oyster.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    A good part of this Voynich business appears to be booleshit.

  28. David Marjanović says

    I just noticed the “paper” is in open access – I didn’t expect that from Taylor & Francis! Thanks, DMT.

    Yup, this “Proto-Romance” consists of random words randomly drawn from random Romance languages. It’s not a language.

  29. There’s another Voinich attempt from 2018 which may be interesting. It’s from a Turkish engineer who knows old Turkish and who says that he, together with his son, have already deciphered 30% of the manuscript.

    See here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6keMgLmFEk

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    A good part of this Voynich business appears to be booleshit.

    Indeed. And Proto-James-Bond seems to be implicated too. It’s got everything.

  31. Owlmirror says

    The discussion above about radiocarbon dating is from 2013/2014, so maybe no-one is interested anymore, but a good lay explanation of dating systems is Nature’s Clocks, by Doug Macdougall. Chapter 4 discusses radiocarbon dating, and specifically states that the scientists working on the system collaborated with dendrochronologists so as to calibrate yearly differences in radiocarbon going back many years.

    At the moment, I am able to preview in the Google book, so here’s page 81.

  32. Whoever used to be interested is still interested, and I can see the Google Books page, so thanks!

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Sorry to discover that the journal that actually published this crackpottery has associations with my home town:


    I hereby apologise to the world of scholarship on behalf of my fellow-citizens, who currently seem to be brazening it out.

  34. David Marjanović says

    There’s another Voinich attempt from 2018 which may be interesting. It’s from a Turkish engineer who knows old Turkish and who says that he, together with his son, have already deciphered 30% of the manuscript.

    Under the video it says:

    Currently, a formal paper of the philological study was submitted to an academic journal in John Hopkins University.

    Welp, I’ll wait for the paper then. Incidentally, it’s a massively stupid thing to announce that you’ve submitted a manuscript. Wait till it’s accepted, because it might not be.

  35. Well, “massively stupid” applies to almost everything connected with these alleged decipherments.

  36. John Cowan says

    Wait till it’s accepted

    In 19C India (and for all I know, later than that), being matriculated at a British university was a source of prestige even if you didn’t get a degree; indeed, even sitting the entrance examinations, even if you didn’t pass them, was also. So Indians of consequence would write things like “B.A. Oxon. (Failed)” on their business cards.

  37. For very junior researchers, it often makes sense to list submitted papers on their CVs. If you are looking for a post-doc position, it can look quite different to have one paper published, versus one published and two submitted. However, that assumes they are coming through the normal process of academic training, so that their advisors (who ought to know the field) have signed off on the quality of the submitted papers.

    A crackpot listing their (totally unvetted) submitted papers before acceptance is just them being a crackpot. No crackpot understands that they are engaging in crackpot behavior.

  38. David Marjanović says

    it often makes sense to list submitted papers on their CVs

    Oh yes, I do that myself. But announcing in public that you’ve submitted a mind-blowingly groundbreaking paper to a journal that you’re not naming but still trying to brag about is a different beast.

    Numerous are the groundbreaking manuscripts that were rejected, in this order, by Nature, Science and PNAS and ended up in a much less widely known journal.

  39. I don’t list submitted manuscripts, in part because I submit a fair number if things to Physical Review Letters, with little expectation they will be accepted. Physicsts often liken submitting to PRL to a barrier penetration problem. For most submissions, there is a small, random chance of quantum tunneling through the barrier. However, there are also multiple broad resonance regions, so that papers in certain topic areas have much higher chance of getting in.

    My most recent submission to PRL languished for a few weeks, before the editor wrote back to me that they would not consider it without a stronger justification. I am usually pretty good at such justifications, and I had tailored my paper carefully for the journal. I happened to be at a conference last week, and several colleagues told me that PRL was simply not publishing pure theory papers in particle physics these days, even if the papers introduced new methods or placed new limits based on existing data (both of which my paper did). After I transferred the paper to Physical Review D, I got the acceptance notice less than three hours after I got the notification that the paper had been sent out to a referee.

  40. Too bad. I imagine PRL as what physicists read on the bus on the way to work.

  41. @Y: The condensed matter theorist David Mermin published a book of humorous essays about his work as a physicist. The first one told about how had brought a couple of issues if PRL with him on a long plane ride, feeling he should catch up on the journal. However, he was astonished to discover that PRL had apparently changed the spelling “Lagrangian” to “Lagrangean.” When he landed, he checked to see whether any of his colleagues had noticed, and nobody had. His conclusion was that nobody was actually reading PRL any more.

  42. So Indians of consequence would write things like “B.A. Oxon. (Failed)” on their business cards

    It was also the case that Indians who had spent time in Britain, whether for education or other reasons, would describe themselves as ‘England-returned. I think I learned this from reading The Jewel in the Crown long ago. I suppose the idea was that being ‘England-returned’ was a mark of sophistication, no matter how idly you might have spent your time in Blighty.

  43. They are coming in fast and furious: a new paper by King, PhD, et al., A Proposal for Reading the Voynich Manuscript:

    In this work, we provide a proposal for the transliteration and translation of the text of the Voynich Manuscript. Based upon our findings, the language of the Voynich Manuscript is a Vulgar Latin dialect, likely affected by a contemporary Italian dialect. We also provide evidence regarding the origin of the writing system of this manuscript: it appears to be a late modified subset of a once widespread shorthand known as Tironian Notes. In this work, we provide transliterations and translations of two pages of continuous text, an analysis of the language reflected in the text, and a proposal for the content and purpose of the manuscript: it is a late Medieval manual for medical practices regarding women’s health matters. We also provide an epigraphic analysis of the Voynich writing system: orthographic principles of this system, punctuation, and the sound values of the Voynich writing system characters. We also provide a proposal for the location of the authorship of this manuscript, based upon iconographic and linguistic materials: the Veneto region of northern Italy, in the vicinity of the provinces of Verona, Padova, and Vicenza. In this work, we also provide prescriptive materials for future work on the translation of the Voynich Manuscript; namely, that further work on the Voynich Manuscript will require a team of individuals with advanced and specialized knowledge in Vulgar Latin, epigraphy, paleography, late Medieval northern Italian culture, Medieval medical practices, medical botany, and medical practices regarding women’s health.

    The typesetting is the best I have seen in any Voynich paper so far.

    See also a popular article here. Discussion by some Voynich heavies here.

  44. John Cowan says

    The typesetting is the best I have seen in any Voynich paper so far.

    “Dick Cheney’s advice was consistent and strong.” —George W. Bush

    “Many users consider Wikipedia to be good enough.” —president of the Encyclopedia Britannica

    “Has a more coherent plot than Plan 9 From Outer Space” —TVTropes

  45. Lars (the original one) says

    “Well, the sauce was warm.”

  46. David Marjanović says

    Tim King describes himself as: “Archaeologist, Linguist, and Epigrapher. Also excavate Mammoths.” He has no other works on academia.edu.

    The “paper” avoids a bunch of the mistakes of the previous “Proto-Romance” attempts, but continues to make some of the others. For instance it assumes that “late Medieval Vulgar Latin” was a thing (and had an ablative case), and at least some of the assumed sound changes from Classical Latin are random irregular nonsense.

    I like the idea that the script is based on the Tironian Notes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fake…

  47. From Anatoly Liberman’s Word Origins, a review of available English etymological dictionaries:

    Ferdinand Holthausen, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der englischen Sprache (extremely brief entries, often shorter than, for example, those in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary; of limited use, and only for a beginner who prefers to be introduced to English etymology in German); Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, and A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English ; Joseph T. Shipley, Dictionary of Word Origins (a misleading ramble among English words); Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (chaotic and uninformed); Ernst Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (fine cover, excellent paper); Robert K. Barnhart, ed., The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (unoriginal); T. F. Hoad, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English (of the same type as Holthausen’s and much more condensed than Skeat’s “epitomes”)…

    His review of Klein is what came to mind.

  48. Lisa Fagin Davis, a medievalist, paleographer, and previously a curator at the Beinecke, is quoted in the linked paper article: “I can say without reservation that their proposal is not new to Voynich research, and it cannot possibly be correct”. She also has a long comment on the linked Voynich board, where she writes, “My current VMS research has to do with determining particular features that distinguish different hands in the VMS, using the methods and methodologies of classical paleography. I will have two articles coming out next year on the subject, one in a journal called Manuscript Studies, and the other in a collection of essays on Digital Paleography. I hope that this work will help linguists refine the dialectal distinctions uncovered by Currier et al.”

  49. David Marjanović says

    His review of Klein is what came to mind.

    Thread won.

  50. John Cowan says

    “Unoriginal” is not a critique that any writer of etymologies ought to use, any more than a lexicographer should. A fully original dictionary would be full of missing words and riddled with errors.

    What’s with Weekley that he gets not a single word of praise or blame?

  51. Lars (the original one) says

    not a single word — since there are no words of praise for the content of any of the entries, we might conclude from silence that there is no blame to attach. Unlike the faint praise to damn Klein. I might give it a try at £3.25 per volume ex-library if I needed something off-line, though it’s likely to be quite dated. (Weebley was an editor of the Collins dictionaries; he died in 1938, the first edition of the dictionary was published in 1921, and the currently available versions seem to be Dover reprints of the 1967 edition).

    Did the rhætors have a name for this figure, if a figure it is? WP attributes damning with faint praise to Pope 1734.

  52. Stu Clayton says

    It has been characterized as meiosis. But there oughta be a more precise term for this eternal figure.

    # A kind of humorous understatement that dismisses or belittles, especially by using terms that make something seem less significant than it really is or ought to be. #

  53. Lars (the original one) says

    Hmm, the examples there don’t really exploit the kind of Gricean implicature that I think is in play here — they use words from the low end of the relevant continuum, while the DWFP trope uses high words from another continuum to imply that only low words from the relevant one would apply.

    A fine cover and good paper are not bad things in themselves, and if added to “Great scholarship” they would not be meiosis nor an example of DWFP.

  54. Stu Clayton says

    I do wish people would stop invoking “Gricean implicature” as if to clarify a point. What GI amounts to, as far as I can make out, is “lots of suggestiveness and ambiguity” intended to distract people from the subject under discussion.

    Look, a squirrel ! [I leave it to the reader to figure out the Gricean implications of that]

  55. Lars (the original one) says

    Heh, well, let me unpack what I meant then: There is an expectation in interactions between two people, and by extension when you write something that you intend to publish, that you will try to say the thing that your recipient is most likely to find relevant, good or bad, and simply refrain from bringing up a subject if you have nothing to say. So if you utter something that is not very relevant, you know that your recipient is likely to assume that you want them to understand that you did have something relevant to say, but chose not to — in this case, because the only relevant thing you had to say was bad.

    And I don’t think that mimesis as explained in your link covers that implicature.

    (You can also make your refusal to comment explicit. Ja, jeg siger ikke noget! = ‘Well, I’m not saying anything’ is one of the most damning sentences in the Danish language).

  56. Stu Clayton says

    Ja, jeg siger ikke noget!

    What a useful exclamation ! And yet somehow its practical appeal for me would be in the form “Well, I’m not saying anything”.

    I put the link in because of the main two points at the top of the page, one of which could be taken to cover DWFP. I merely glanced at the examples, and was a little surprised that none of them addressed DWFP. I should have realized the Gricean implications of that, and not linked at all.

    One could get the impression that many people believe Grice was the discoverer of insinuation, paranoid speculation and reverse psychology in human communication. But he wasn’t. Furthermore, I tax “implicature” with being a cognitive parasite feeding off “(logical, strict) implication”. As I gather from my superficial research into this business, Grice himself didn’t know what the hell to call whatever it was he was talking about.

  57. Stu Clayton says

    Oh, and it’s “meiosis” there, not “mimesis”. But it doesn’t make any difference, because the examples don’t contain any DWFP.

  58. I think the association with Grice is less complicated than that. Although it was not exactly Grice’s original formulation, a usual interpretation of the Maxim of Quantity is that one should try to make the strongest true, relevant statement one can about a topic. Thus, faint praise* indicates that the speaker probably cannot say anything more posity about a topic. It does not necessarily even need to be faint praise along a different scalar axis; saying something is “adequate” or “acceptable” is classic damning with faint praise.

    * It works in reverse as well. A mild statement of disapproval in what is expected to be a censorious context can be perceived as practically a compliment. My father described Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry as “praising himself with faint damns.”

  59. Stu Clayton says

    Thus, faint praise* indicates that the speaker probably cannot say anything more posity about a topic.

    There’s that word “probably”, ensuring that what the speaker says is not the strongest true, relevant statement about the topic. “Probably” implies that there is a different reading, though perhaps one of “lesser probability”. Leaving the superfluous invocation of probability aside, I immediately find a different reading by simple negation of terms – the speaker can or could very well say something more posity [positive?] about the topic, and he knows it full well. But why, you ask, would he not do so ? I answer, there are a multitude of reasons: he is motivated by spite or resentment, for instance – and knows about damning with faint praise.

    It is a pragmatic fact that not all statements can be subordinated to each other in a (transitive!) hierarchy of relevance and/or value and/or “truth-strongness” [whatever that may be in the Maxim of Quantity]. If there were a root node, it would have to be a First Principle, and we would return to theology. Various philosophers have tried in vain over centuries to plant such trees, and they’re all dead now, the philosophers and their trees.

  60. Stu Clayton says

    I’m beginning to suspect that this Grice maxim stuff is a genetically modified version of Habermasian dicta, at least in spirit. Maxims here, maxims there – and your life will be a better one.

  61. @Stu Clayton: I really only put “probably” in there because, in ordinary conversation, one can never be certain that an interlocutor is actually adhering to Grice’s Maxims.

  62. Stu Clayton says

    Of course not. One can never be certain of anything, with or without Grice. That bit of knowledge is unlikely to qualify for the 6 o’clock news.

    So what is the cash value for you of this “Gricean implicature” business, banalities aside ?

  63. Lars (the original one) says

    For someone who like me has only read third-hand accounts of what Grice actually meant, “Gricean implicature” is a shorthand for what happens when you are the recipient of a speech act that doesn’t follow the usual pattern of a discourse — you look for a possible reason why the sender chose to do that.

    Shorthands are useful but risky, not everybody has the same ideas what they mean as you do.

    I know that Grice tried to formalize those “usual patterns” with his maxims, but personally I won’t undertake to try to analyse any given speech act in those terms. So it’s just handwaving on my part, for lack of a less pretentious name for the process I described in the first paragraph. You don’t really need a formalism to know that this sort of thing happens in daily life, except maybe if you are a philosopher.

  64. Incidentally or not Wikipedia’s examples of DWFP are unsatisfactory:

    1. “. . . [Cauz [Encyclopedia Britannica president]] said a big problem was that many users considered Wikipedia to be ‘fine’ or ‘good enough’.”

    This is straight up criticism.

    2. “They wrote that “Our readers report that they find some merit in your story, but not enough to warrant its acceptance.”

    Again, where is a faint praise?

    3. “. . . when [George] W. [Bush] could avoid it no longer, he mentioned Vice [President Dick Cheney], damning with faint praise: “Dick Cheney’s advice was consistent and strong.””

    This might be OK, but in it’s purest form DWFP requires a desire to criticize. And I am not convinced that W wanted to criticize Darth Vader.

  65. Stu Clayton says

    @Lars TOO: thanks for the explanation of what you mean by “Gricean implicature”. I suspect that’s what other people have meant by it – the everybody process of looking for sense in what is said. As I myself have been doing with the speech act “this is GI”, though perhaps not quite as Grice groupies anticipated ! The use of the expression in this way is merely an egregious instance of putting solemn lipstick on a pig.

  66. Lars (the original one) says

    Sometimes you can only see the pig if you put lipstick on it. If there was a term without the implied deep philosophical meaning, I’d happily use it.

  67. Stu Clayton says

    I don’t know if there is a single “term”. That’s an unreasonable expectation anyway. Perhaps it’s a hangover from your mild case of the GIs (general medical practitioner slang for diarrhea, “the gastrointestinals” – here “the Gricean Implicatures”).

    How about “looking for sense in what is said”, or even “trying to understand” ? Nothing philosophical about those.

    I like the idea of a pig invisible except when it’s wearing lipstick. A children’s cartoon series could be based on it.

  68. How about “looking for sense in what is said”, or even “trying to understand” ? Nothing philosophical about those.

    And also nothing remotely equivalent to the term you’re (for some reason) trying to deprecate, although everyone who uses it knows what they mean by it. You sound like a peever trying to banish a perfectly good term because it’s not “logical” or something. In fact, you sound very much like one of those people who objects to “begging the question”!

  69. Stu Clayton says

    I had never heard of “Gricean implicature” until a few weeks ago, here at this blog. I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be meaning here, after checking around at the Stanford Enc. of Philosophy etc. My response about “trying to understand” was directed merely at Lars’ explanation of what he meant by it. Others will do as they please, as they always do.

    BTW, I used the word “logical” only once: in claiming that “implicature” is a cognitive parasite on “(logical, strict) implication”. I’m not saying “Gricean implicature” is not logical – it’s only an expression after all, not a statement or assertion. It does, the more I find out about it, seem to me to be pretentious “discourse”. Pigs have been discussed for centuries without Grice.

    everyone who uses it knows what they mean by it.

    Now there’s an extravagant claim for the books ! Read what Lars wrote above, July 14, 2019 at 5:31 pm:

    # So it’s just handwaving on my part, for lack of a less pretentious name for the process I described in the first paragraph. #

    From that paragraph:

    # “Gricean implicature” is a shorthand for what happens when you are the recipient of a speech act that doesn’t follow the usual pattern of a discourse — you look for a possible reason why the sender chose to do that. #

    That’s why I suggested that he could say “trying to understand”, as even shorter hand for “… recipient of a speech act … look[s] for a possible reason …”

    I don’t do banish, just merciless mockery of things I consider mockworthy. Not people, things.

  70. Trond Engen says

    “Trying to understand” is one side of a complex process. There’s much room to analyse and describe sub-processes or stages. A listener trying to understand will notice what a speaker choses to say and leave unsaid. A speaker trying to be understood will not only string together words with the right lexical meanings but also shape the uttering to create the right reaction in the listener. As a matter of linguistics this falls under pragmatics. How is the act of speech understood? How is it that it communicates just that? It’s not just about relevance, but about cooperativeness and doing what’s expected. The gricean maxims cover the secial case where relevance is expected. A nother special case is the expectation to say “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” to the courts or the police. Like an investigator will be interested in why a suspect or a witness says more or less than the truth, a listener always try to understand why a speaker says more or less than expected. If you don’t reply “I love you” when expected, someone may take the failure to meet expectations as a message in its own right. Saying more than expected can also be a message. “I love you to the last kilogram!” This is what people often mean by gricean implicature.

    In a more general form I’ve called it pragmatic implication. A word or a phrase may be used instead of some otherwise preferred word or phrase, and the listener will understand what is implicated by that choice. That may end up changing the meaning of it. I recently suggested that as a mechanism for how normal words for women (or men) become slurs.

  71. Lars (the original one) says

    pragmatic implication — that’s a good one, pragmatically much more useful that the Grice one (as this thread proves). I’ll do my best to remember it next time.

  72. ktschwarz says

    [Weekley] was an editor of the Collins dictionaries; he died in 1938

    Slight correction: Weekley didn’t die until 1954. Before then, in 1952, he published a revised and expanded edition of A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. All editions of this dictionary can be found on hathitrust and/or archive.org (the 1967 Dover edition is a reprint of the 1921 first edition).

    What’s with Weekley that he gets not a single word of praise or blame?

    What Y quoted is a footnote sweeping out the trash. Weekley merited some discussion in the main text. Liberman’s verdict:

    The last edition of Skeat’s dictionary (1910) marks a peak that English etymological lexicography never transcended. In 1928, the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary reached its completion. Etymologies in it are superb and complement Skeat’s. Although books with titles like Skeat’s continued to appear with some regularity, none of them has become an event in the history of English letters.[footnote goes here] This is also true of Weekley’s contribution. Its author was a first-rate expert in the history of French words in English (and indeed an outstanding popularizer), but his dictionary is original only to the extent that it traces many words to names (see pp. 110-13, above). To this day, someone who wants to know more about the origin of an English word than is given in “thick” dictionaries should consult Skeat and Oxford.

    And from pp. 110-13:

    Multiple references to Ernest Weekley in this chapter have a good reason. He went further than most in tracing common words to names both in his 1921 dictionary and in a special book. … All his suggestions are ingenious, though some are better argued than others.

    Pretty faint praise. The example that Liberman singles out as “One of Weekley’s most successful” is nincompoop from Nicodemus, the Biblical character; yet on the next page he qualifies it: “nincompoop cannot be shown, beyond reasonable doubt, to derive from Nicodemus, rather than from, for instance, Nicholas or Old Nick. Weekley’s conjecture is good, and that is all we are allowed to say.”

    “Unoriginal” is not a critique that any writer of etymologies ought to use

    This also needs to be read in its context: Liberman continues for a couple of pages lamenting the 20th-century decline of etymology and historical linguistics in the academy, so that new discoveries dried up. The public still likes word origins, and publishers keep putting out popular books, but they’re only rehashes. He ends on an optimistic note, though: there’s at least more academic work on etymology than there was in the 1970s! (Writing in 2005, he didn’t anticipate the golden age that was about to dawn.)

  73. Couldn’t nincompoop be a jocular deformation of non compos?

  74. David Marjanović says

    That’s what Samuel Johnson thought, but the OED disagrees because the earliest attested forms (16th century) don’t match that well.

  75. If one may judge from the following paragraph in the Preface to The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, its aim was to gather the best etymologies available rather than to offer anything new:

    “This dictionary is an interpretation of current scholarship, much of it based indirectly on their work. In specific instances not all of our conclusions represented agreed-upon knowledge, but the etymologies are formulated upon the standards and practices used in the working methods of most linguistic scholars today (p. viii), “their work” being that of “Edward Sapir, Edgar Sturtevant, Roland G. Kent, and Kemp Malone, and that of later specialists such as Zelig Harris, Yakov Malkiel, and Joseph Greenberg” (ibid.).

    Can the paragraph be interpreted in any other way?

  76. Owlmirror says

    I, too, originally thought that “nincompoop” was a garbled distortion of “non compos”.

    I am reminded that I recently found in the OED that there were obsolete imprecations of “lolpoop” (someone lazy or idle), and “liripipe”/”liripoop”/”lerripoop” (someone silly). I have no idea if the “poop” element of one or the other could have become transferred to “nickum”, but I offer the notion. For “nickum”, OED suggests seeing: “French nicodème simple or naive person”. The OED’s guess for the “poop” element is an obsolete verb, also of uncertain origin, meaning ” To fool, deceive, cheat, cozen; (also) to overcome.”

    The OED actually lists two sets of early usages for nincompoop, the earliest of all indeed without the second “n”. However, the earliest with that very “n” is only slightly later. The citations are labeled with α and β.

    c1668 (title) The ship of fools fully fraught and richly laden with asses, fools, jack-daws, ninnihammers, coxcombs, slender-wits, shallowbrains, paper-skuls, simpletons, nickumpoops, wiseakers, dunces, and blockheads.
    1673 T. Shadwell Epsom-Wells II. i. 28 Yes, you Nicompoop, you are a pretty Fellow to please a Woman indeed.
    1685 J. Crowne Sir Courtly Nice iv. 39 Ay, for me Nickumpoop.
    1694 L. Echard tr. Plautus Epidicus iv. viii, in tr. Plautus Comedies 109 Thou..hast led me by the Nose, as if I had been the meerest Nicompoop in the World.

    1678 Poor Robin’s True Char. Scold 6 Ninkompoop, or pitiful lowsy Tom Farthing.
    1697 T. D’Urfey Cinthia & Endimion iii. i. 15 Daphne uses him like a meer Nincompoop, she makes him carry her Slippers, or mend her Stockings.
    1706 Phillips’s New World of Words (new ed.) Nincumpoop or Nickumpoop, a meer Blockhead, Sot or Dolt.

    The OED suggests that the “nin” variant was influenced by “ninny”.

  77. I demand an etymology with ninjas.

  78. John Cowan says

    This seems to be the right place to mention that some years back Tom Shippey cracked the etymologies of Sam Gamgee’s derogatory terms for himself: ninnyhammer (also applied to him by his father) and noodle.

    For the former word, the h is a lie (as D.M. is fond of saying): it should be ninny-ammer. Ninny is one of those nunated nicknames (itself a nunated word) once so common in English: Ned, Nan, Nell < Edward, Anne, Eleanor, and the underlying name in this case is Innocent. So Sam is calling himself an innocent, that is, a fool. (In Tolkien’s fiction the etymological fallacy is no fallacy: as soon as you hear of the Riddermark, you understand (or the ideal reader would understand) that it is a borderland occupied by horse people. In his non-fiction, though, he rightly calls William Morris’s attempt to translate OE lēode ‘(a) people’ as leeds an epic fail: it neither translates lēode nor recalls leeds to life, he says.)

    As for ammer, the only direct evidence is an OE gloss: scorellus ‘amore’, and unfortunately this is all Iggy P. Ignotius. But we do have the word yellowhammer ~ yellow-ammerEmberiza citrinella‘, and the obvious German cognate Ammer < OHG Embritz ‘bunting’ (which is the source of the genus name). So Sam says he is not only an innocent but a birdbrain.

    As for noodle, we have recorded Yorkshire dialect nuidl, dim. of noddy ‘one who is half-asleep’, and this agrees well with his own name Sāmwīs ‘half-witted, lit. half-wise’. Indeed, the first Wikt citation for ninnyhammer is from an anonymous 1608 play A Yorkshire Tragedy, sometimes attributed to Shakespeare.

  79. David Marjanović says

    Ammer < OHG Embritz

    Huh. That looks like somebody interpreted it as a Slavic diminutive in -ica, took that off, and undid the umlaut it would have caused in German.

    (mb > mm is a regular 17th-century change.)

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