Saturday, 2 March 2013

The bookcase has landed

The diary entry
Long before the date in 1951 when my mother, whom Saints preserve, wrote in her diary the less-than-flowery 'Robert was born', she had a corner bookcase. It had the characteristic of all such handed pieces of furniture (MrsK has inherited a chaise longue quite like it in this respect): it never fits. Or, more accurately, it fits perfectly very occasionally. It did in the first home I remember, where it housed a number of small-format books (the shelves are rather dinky) – notably a dictionary that would only fit diagonally (with a spine that reflected this mistreatment), a number of green Penguins, the Ogden Nash book I quoted from in an earlier post (I remember wondering what 'Thoughts Thought After a Bridge-Party' was about, although I enjoyed the rhyming of canteloupe' (whatever that was) with  'a lioness opening up an antelope'), and a book of comic verse that included a ballad starting: 
Prope ripam fluvii solus
A senex silently sat

Super capitum ecce his wig

Et wig super ecce his hat.
My big sister, who was just starting Latin at school, translated for me. It was not a very exciting story; it involved an old man sitting by a river wearing a wig and a hat. The first action was 'Tunc blew zephyrus...'; and, to cut a long story short, everything ended up in the water; and the moral was 'Mehercle, you're gratus to that'.

When we were divvying up her [my mother's] post-mortem chattels, it was decided that I should have the bookcase. But, as I said, it didn't fit in most places; in particular, it didn't fit in the life of a young man in his thirties. But last month it came home, as I'd finally found a room where it would fit, and my big brother, who'd been minding it for over thirty years, brought it back to what I like to think of as its home - the place where some of the contents I remember (small format, do not forget that, Best Beloved) were being kept.

The other books that had caught my young attention were a pair of slim volumes by Ivor Brown, called A Word in Your Ear and  Just Another Word, published in the early 1940s, and adhering to the Book Production War Economy Standard. They are charming compendiums of words that just happened to interest Mr Brown – published by Jonathan Cape, now swallowed up by Random House, who published them at a time of trial. (Incidentally, I think there may be a relation between troubled times and the publication of whimsical books like this;  Gallimaufry: A hodgepodge of our vanishing vocabulary was published in late 2006, when the capitalist boat was starting to rock, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language was published in late 2011, a little over a year after the onset of George Osborne's reign of terror, or as Wikipedia in its section on 2011 puts it 'Osborne's policies caused continuing concern as a series of bad data indicated the deteriorating state of the UK economy.'... Maybe there's a blog idea here... <thinks>). Ivor Brown's two gems  are now in the bookcase, in my study.

I was reminded of these books while I was listening the other day to John Lloyd's The Meaning of Liff at Thirty, which included an interview with Steven Pinker. Pinker introduced the word – new to me and to John Lloyd (whose cv in Wikipedia for some reason omits reference to one of his earlier  professional productions, Paradise Mislaid [get it?]) (As it was one of the highlights of my misspent youth, I'd better get editing....) – Pinker introduced the word (I was saying) phonesthesia, more vulgarly known as 'sound symbolism'. Phonesthesia, says Pinker (the discussion of this feature lasts for a bit more than a minute, starting at 18'40") is 'the way that the sounds of words remind you of what they refer to'. And the example he uses is 'sn-' words - snout, snuff, sneer, sneeze, snooty.... - all which have something to do with noses.

Here's where Ivor Brown comes in:
...[W]hen the snob is spurning or rebuking his supposed inferiors, he conforms  to the habit of his first letters. Here is a catalogue of proud, contemptuous 'Sn's' – sneer, snub, snicker, sniff, sneap, snotty or snooty,  snub, snuffy. Sneap is the most dignified of these, a word of pedigree as well as pride. Falstaff used sneap for rebuff: 'I will not undergo this sneap without reply'....It is regrettable that snub should have grown so far in favour as to make us forgetful of sneap...Snirrup or snurp is (or was) a Northern term for turning up the nose.
As seun as she fund I depended on labour
She snirpt up her nose and nae mair leuked at me.
occurs in a Cumbrian ballad.
Just Another Word, sv SNEAP, SNOB, AND SNUB

When I first read this, I thought sn- words were unique in this quality, a belief that seemed to be confirmed when Steven Pinker gave this as an example (talking over 70 years later – which I thought was long enough for scholars to think up other examples). But he did give another one: cl- words often refer to gathering things together: clutch, clench, clasp, class, cling....; the same does not apply to all such words, though I suspect it's hard to clamber or climb without clutching something on the way. And, now I think of it, nonsense verse and other sorts of word play exploit phonesthesia: 'Oh frabjous day!' free and fruitful, marked by frantic celebration* – rather like what I feel about about the bookcase and its new-found and long-lost familiar contents, those two books..

† She had yet to learn that my name is 'Bob'.

Update 13.03.13:15.30: a few tweaks, and new TES stats
Update 04.04.13:12.20: * And joyous, of course. Note to self: never underestimate the intricacies of comic verse.

* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

Update: 2013.10.02.16:05 – Footer updated
Update 2013.11.10.10:30 – Footer updated
Update 2014.10.05.14:30 – Footer updated again (but not yet with today's figures naughty TES), and added this PS:
Another common source of examples of phonesthesia is words that start st- : steady, sturdy, staunch, stalwart, stout, stolid, stanchion, staddle stone, staid, steadfast .... And, I suspect, stud – in the sexual sense if not the fixing. I was reminded of this in last night's Crimes of Passion, when Eje had been caught out in circumstances that could suggest straying from loyalty to his new, and extraordinarily (not to say implausibly) nosy wife Puck. The programme is subtitled, but I couldn't help taking in (although the nearest I know to Swedish is a smattering of German, Best Before November 1969) the Swedish word he used in his defence. This surprised me rather, as he seemed to be using a word cognate with stud. But no, he said stödjande [='supportive'] (I tested the subtitle against Google Translate.)

But the 'Google translate' test isn't really enough. When you translate, you have to do something about the imagery as well; I said a bit more about this here. An over-protective, interfering, fierce woman (xanthippean is the word  – which I didn't call out at the Wilde Theatre the other night (in response to a challenge to find a word beginning with X other than xylophone, X-ray and xenophobe [much to the relief, no doubt, of my companions but that's another story]) kept telling her daughter not to slouch. I think the subtitle said 'slump'  – not quite the right word. But then she said 'You look like a sack of flour' – not quite the right image. In this context (my father and his sister Katy were sticklers for deportment, in a gentle sort of way) the only simile I've heard is 'You look like a sack of potatoes'.

Update 2015.03.25.22:30 – Added picture of the diary mentioned in the first para.

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  over 46,200 views  and over 6,225 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,350 views and 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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