Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Subjunctive, as it were


Colleen asked about the phrase, “as it were.” It means in a manner of speaking, and it often reveals a reservation in the speaker’s mind or a delicacy of expression. It has a companion in “so to speak.” What stands out is the verb form used; contrast these verbs, all of which are correct:

  • My niece nests here, as it were, every summer. [subjunctive mood]
  • As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be. [indicative mood]
  • If I were a policeman, I’m sure I would feel stress. [subjunctive mood]
  • When I was a policeman, I felt stress. [indicative mood]

Verbs have a quality called mood. It doesn’t mean that they’re all emotional, ready to burst into tears at any second. Mood could very well be spelled mode. It designates the form of a verb chosen by a writer based on his or her intention: to express a fact, a command, a wish, a question, or a condition.

The indicative mood is the most frequent mood in English; it deals in objective fact. The indicative mood also includes questions.

  • I was young once.
  • Was she ever young?
  • This is erroneous.
  • Is this an error?
  • If I was rude to you last night, I apologize.
  • Was I rude to you last night?

The imperative mood issues commands.

  • Act your age.
  • Be certain of your facts.
  • Don’t be rude.

The subjunctive mood is used to talk about conditions that are contrary to fact or events that may not happen (hypotheticals), to promote a sense of urgency and thus exhort someone to action, or to express a wish.

  • Were I younger, I would beat you in tennis.
  • If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
  • It is necessary that this issue be settled now.
  • If I were a rude person, your anger would be understandable.

The subjunctive mood is not used very often in modern English, and when it has the pronoun you as the subject, it slides right on by, unnoticed. There is no special list of verbs that are found only in the subjunctive mood. Rather, the same verbs can do double duty and more.

  • I want to be helpful. [indicative mood]
  • Could you be more clear? [indicative mood]
  • Be a man! [imperative mood]
  • Be that as it may. [subjunctive mood]

Many subjunctive verbs are encased in clichés, like flies in amber:

  • , as it were
  • Be that as it may.
  • Far be it from me to complain.
  • If this be treason, make the most of it.
  • If I were you,
  • We demand that he be impeached.
  • I move that the motion be tabled.
  • Suppose that she were here.
  • So be it.
  • I insist that cursing not be allowed.
  • Were an epidemic to break out, we’d all die.

Sometimes we use should, could, or would instead of the stand-alone subjunctive:

  • I wish that he were here.
  • I wish that he could be here.
  • Had she listened to me . . . .
  • If she would have listened to me . . . .
  • Be you ready or not, the bus leaves at 6:00.
  • You should be ready to board the bus at 6:00.

Finally, the verb in the subjunctive mood will always be found in a dependent clause. Most of the time, the subordinating conjunction that introduces the dependent clause will be overt (If an epidemic were to break out, we’d all die), but sometimes it is merely understood (Were an epidemic to break out, we’d all die).


SIDEBAR: If I Were a Rich Man


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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Harrowing Experience


Harrowing is a powerful adjective. Something harrowing shreds the feelings. It is deeply distressing and agonizingly painful.

The word comes from Scandinavian and Dutch terms that meant a rake, but not the household type used to gather up leaves. Instead, it was an industrial-strength agricultural tool, usually consisting of a heavy frame set with iron teeth or tines. It was used to break up clods of earth, crushing them and pulverizing them. Later versions included the disc harrow and the chain harrow.

Thus, the metaphorical extension to a person’s feelings and psyche packs a powerful impact.

Theologically, the Harrowing of Hell was a common theme in early Christian poetry and medieval drama, though it came from a different harrow. It referred to Christ’s descent into hell between his crucifixion and resurrection, a time in which he raided hell and released its inhabitants. Although the Descent into Hell is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed and in New Testament sources, the Catholic Encyclopedia points to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus as the primary influence on British religious literature.

Sir Walter Scott used the word in his Lady of the Lake:

Yet, witness every quaking limb,

My sunken pulse, mine eye-balls dim,

My soul with harrowing anguish torn,

This for my Chieftain have I borne!


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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Bounceless Ball


Tony inquired about the origin of rubber game, the final and deciding game of a tied series. While the rubber game is often the third in a series of three, it can also be the fifth or the seventh game, depending on the sport. The unwavering requirement is an odd number.

There seems to be no institutional memory of its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary posits two pieces of information: it is not connected to the stretchy or bouncy substance, and the earliest instance in print (1599) was in reference to the game of bowls, a lawn game that has a cousin in bocce. At first, it was spelled in the plural form, rubbers.

There has been speculation over the years that the verb rub is at play here. In some versions, if your ball hits or rubs against the marker ball, it is significant. But I find nothing definitive.


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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bachelor


Andy asked about the origin of bachelor’s degree, then wondered how that is connected to bachelor, the unmarried male. A young lad was originally involved in both.

There is some uncertainty about the origin of bachelor, the unmarried male. There is conjecture that it is related to the Latin word meaning cow pasture, and thus designated a young male who worked on a cattle farm. One of its early extensions was a young novice knight. That led to the speculation that it was related to a Latin word for stick (baculum), since a novice knight would practice Swordplay 101 with a stick, not a real sword. Eventually, bachelor transmuted into a junior member of an organization, then to an unmarried man.

Bachelor’s degree is probably related to baccalaureate, a student with a post-secondary first degree. It is said to come from bacca lauri. a wreath made from laurel leaves and berries. In ancient times, a wreath was placed on the head of someone to be honored. Such a person was a victor, whether in an athletic competition, a poetry slam, or a military campaign.

There is a connection to “resting on one’s laurels,” meaning coasting on past victories without current effort. “Poet laureate” is also connected.

SIDEBAR: History of the Laurel Wreath


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Saturday, May 15, 2010

An Ordinance About Ordnance


Ron asked about the connection between ordnance and ordinance. Ordnance refers to military materials, stores, or supplies. It might include implements of war such as ammunition, large artillery pieces, missiles, bombs, etc. There was a Latin phrase, ordinantia ad bellum, which may be translated as “things lined up for war.” That, in turn, was based on a Latin verb meaning “to arrange.”

It is significant that the word ordinance also came from the same Latin verb. Ordnance was originally spelled that way, but when it took on the specialized military meaning, the spelling changed as a way to distinguish it.

According to the OED, ordinance now means a public injunction or rule of narrower scope, less permanent nature, or less constitutional character than a law or statute. In the United States, it is usually narrowed to an enactment of a municipal or other local body.

It is instructive to show the gradations of meaning for ordinance as they developed through the centuries.

  • 1180: decision made by a superior
  • 1260: ruling made by person or people with appropriate authority
  • 1263: ceremonial event
  • 1269: arrangement in a certain order
  • 1280: provisions
  • 1330: legislative decree issued directly without parliamentary vote
  • 1340: something ordained by God
  • 1377: machinery, engine
  • 1384: direction, control, management
  • 1385: battle order
  • 1386: appointment to a church office
  • 1390: arrangement in regular sequence
  • 1400: a religious or ceremonial observance, such as the sacraments
  • 1400: an authoritative instruction as to how to proceed or act
  • 1425: methodical arrangement of artistic or literary material according to a plan
  • 1465: large body of troops
  • 1475: material goods, such as furniture
  • 1490: cavalry company
  • 1510: decision of a judge
  • 1548: arrangement of elements of a building in relation to each other
  • 1558: medical prescription
  • 1616: political rank or order
  • 1621: sketch for a picture; arrangement of elements in a painting
  • 1642: a law of secondary power
  • 1676: number and disposition of columns in architecture

SIDEBAR: U.S. Army Ordnance Corps


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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Antic Attic


Roger asked if there’s a connection between attic and antic. Both started as architectural terms, but they came from different directions.

Antic originally referred to decoration that was deliberately grotesque, even monstrous. It might depict animals acting as humans, or vegetation blending into a human body, and it often appeared as a feature in Roman baths.

Incongruity and bizarreness was the norm. Though it was sometimes spelled antique, it derived from an Italian word that was intimately connected with a grotto. [Insert grotto in the search box at the top right of this page.]

Eventually, antic was applied to ludicrous or over-the-top behavior, especially on the part of a theatrical performer, perhaps someone who played the clown or a stereotypical figure. Hamlet warns Horatio that he is going “to put an antic disposition on,” but in that case, it’s more the role of a madman than a jesting man.

Attic came from a Latin word referring to Attica and its capital, Athens. Used in architecture, it designated the smaller decorative structure used to cap a larger façade. By the 18th century, attic was used to name a garret, the top story under the roof beams. Stereotypically, it became the abode of starving artists and poets.


SIDEBAR: Aliens in the Attic


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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Double-Cross


Dona from Cedar asked about the origin of double-cross, sometimes spelled without the hyphen. Originally, it was a sporting term, and it referred to someone who had deliberately engaged to lose a contest, but then—at the last moment—decided to win instead.

The meaning of cross involved here meant a thwarting, and as such it showed up in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: "Any barre, any crosse, any impediment, will be medicinable to me. . .How canst thou crosse this marriage? " [II. ii. 4]

Centuries later, double-cross showed up in John C.Hotton's A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words: “Double cross, a cross in which a man who has engaged to lose breaks his engagement, and ‘goes straight’ at the last moment.”


The noun cross has many meanings, most of them stemming from the characteristic shape of a cross.

  • the instrument of crucifixion
  • a prayer used in the adoration of the cross
  • the sign of the cross made with the right hand
  • a market place
  • a trial or affliction to be borne with patience
  • a mark made in place of a signature by one who cannot write
  • formerly in Scotland, a signal sent through a district to summon the inhabitants
  • a part of an anchor, hinge, or other object, which occupies a position transverse to the main part
  • the cross-piece dividing the blade of a sword, etc. from the hilt, and serving as a guard to the hand; the cross-guard
  • a surveyor’s instrument
  • a ‘dumb jockey’ shaped like the letter X, buckled across the back of a young horse, and having the reins of the snaffle bridle fastened to it, to make him carry his head properly
  • a coin bearing the representation of a cross
  • a movement from one part of the stage to another in acting
  • in boxing, a blow that crosses over the opponent's lead
  • in football, a cross-pass
  • the accidental contact of two lines or circuits so that a portion of the electric current is diverted or crosses from one to the other
  • an intermixture of breeds or races in the production of an animal; an instance of cross-fertilization in plants
  • an instance of the mixture of the characteristics of two different individuals; something intermediate in character between two things

SIDEBAR: Celtic Cross


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Fifth Column


John Dew asked about the term “fifth column.” It is a plot element in the TV series, V. It shows up in a couple of episode summaries on the ABC web site.

  • V: Heretic's Fork: Now that the computer with contact info for other Fifth Column members has fallen into the wrong hands, the lives of the Fifth Column members are in danger, prompting Erica, Father Jack and Hobbes to take drastic measures to protect them.

  • V: We Can't Win: Anna and Chad head to Switzerland for the U.N. energy summit; Erica discovers that the Fifth Column is being investigated; unable to trust Ryan, Valerie goes on the run.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a fifth column is a clandestine group or faction of subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation’s solidarity by means of infiltration. The term is credited to General Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). As four of his army columns approached Madrid, the general referred to his militant supporters within the capital as his “fifth column,” intent on undermining the loyalist government from within.

The term caught on in World War II, especially amongst the British, the Americans, and the Canadians. Fear of a Fifth Column led them to set up internment camps for people of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry.

The first instance cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the October 16, 1936, New York Times: “Police last night began a house-to-house search for Rebels in Madrid. . . . Orders for these raids . . . apparently were instigated by a recent broadcast over the Rebel radio station by General Emilio Mola. He stated he was counting on four columns of troops outside Madrid and another column of persons hiding within the city who would join the invaders as soon as they entered the capital.”

SIDEBAR: Hemingway’s Fifth Column


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Cotton-pickin'


Jeff asked about the adjective cotton-pickin’, as in Are you out of your cotton-pickin’ mind or Keep your cotton-pickin’ hands offa me!

Memory tells me that it was more common in the 50s and 60s than it is now, and that’s confirmed by sources such as the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Cotton picking, associated with slavery, was a back-breaking, finger-mutilating task, but I think worrying over that connection is fruitless in this case. Rather, what we have here is a euphemistic intensifier. It has companions such as Are you out of your mother-lovin’ mind?

Such intensifiers often start out as obscene adjectives with shock value, such as out of your G-D mind, your M-F mind, or your C-S mind. (Home schoolers read this blog, so adults can figure things out for themselves).

What made the adjective cotton-pickin’ so widespread at one time was the movie cartoon, especially Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny was fond of the usage. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, it was used to designate a contemptible person, but it softened as the decades rolled by.


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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