Issue 171, page 4

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From David Mein:

I just read the suggestion that your fine webzine should contain an anti-curmudgeon page (it did take me a while to get "Aunty Curmudgeon"). I want to chime in and say it sounds like a good idea.

3 to 1 in favor of the Aunt.  Anyone else?

From Brad Daniels:

The other day, I had cause to want to use the word disempowered. My spell checker disagreed with my opinion that disempowered is a word, and suggested disemboweled, instead. I mistakenly pressed "change" instead of "ignore", and thus unfortunately advocated disemboweling someone instead of simply reversing their state of empowerment. 

As it turns out, disemboweling might actually have been a valid course of action in that particular case, but that's beside the point. My point is that I wanted to specifically negate the word empowered by prepending dis-, and my spelling checker (as well as the dictionaries I checked) refuse to validate the practice. Sometimes, adding prefixes or suffixes may reflect fuzzy thinking, or unwillingness to search for a proper antonym or alternate form, but I say that most of the time, the practice reflects a desire to express a modification of a very specific meaning. 

Let the anti-anticurmudgeons sling what mud they may! I shall gladly stand and de-mudify myself in utter unabashment. 

From Joseph Byrd:

While I am an enthusiast of the Curmudgeon Page, and often cringe seeing the language mistreated, I have also managed to conquer my innate snobbery, to the degree of even accepting some conventions thrust upon us by the new generation. E.g., in instant messaging, my wife and I routinely use "k" to signify acknowledgement or agreement - it makes perfect sense. I have not yet been able to convert to "c u," however.

From Richard Hershberger:

I am writing about the use of that as a relative pronoun referring to people, discussed in Curmudgeon's Corner of issue 170. The issue is more complex (and more interesting) than your curmudgeon believes. 

That has always been available in literary contexts for humans, except for a period in the 17th and early 18th centuries when all uses of that inexplicably dropped out of literary use. For an earlier example, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes from Hamlet, "By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me -". 

When the word re-entered literary use in the 18th century it, inevitably, provoked disapproval. This is when the first suggestion arose that it was unsuitable for humans. Through the 19th century writers largely ignored this prescription. It is notable that the original 1926 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage devotes over five pages to discussing that as a relative pronoun, yet the question of that vs. who is not even mentioned. Since then, however, this prescription has gained popularity. The most recent major prescriptive usage manual, Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, flatly rejects the human that. He doesn't include any historical discussion, so we can't tell if he is aware of the evidence. 

If we concede factual evidence any place in this discussion, then the claim that the human that is an error can only be based on the argument that, while it was formerly correct, the language has changed and this usage is not correct in present-day English. This is the explicit basis for the judgment of the 1996 Burchfield edition of Fowler that you cited. It cites earlier usage but then says The 20c. abounds with writers who keep to the rule that only 'who' is appropriate when the antecedent is human... The problem is that Burchfield has made a logically invalid argument.  Who has always been available to writers, so observing that many writers make use of it proves nothing about the availability of alternatives. What we need is to show that the that usage is no longer current with whatever set of English-users one considers authoritative. While one can of course simply restrict this set to those English-users who eschew the human that, any less specifically defined group will show that this isn't the case.  MWDEU quotes, in a relatively short article, five examples from the 20th century. It would not be difficult to find more. MWDEU's conclusion from this evidence is 'That' is definitely standard when used of persons.

If nothing else, we should recognize that the that curmudgeons are the wild-eyed, red-flag waving radicals, manning the barricades to protest theconservatism of others.

That does indeed have a venerable history of use in instances where last week's curmudgeon feels who should be employed.  We ourselves did read of that's  history in Fowler and elsewhere.  However, the history is not the issue.  The issue is that who is available for use in those instances, so why even use that, despite the history?  Does the fact that ain't has been used for centuries cause one to use it in place of isn't or aren't or am not?  Using who is more elegant and more efficient, we curmudgeons [Malcolm and Barb] believe.

From Gordon Barlow:

I suppose it would not be kosher, then, to propose that the motto of Curmudgeons' Corner be "To give light to them that sit in darkness..."? 

(For the heathen, the quote is from St Luke's Gospel 1.79, attributed to the father of John the Baptist.) English is a living language, and it would seem that our distinction between "who" and "that" may be more recent than King James's famous committee.

Shakespeare's writings, the King James Version of the Bible - these are all great (and old) literary works.  They sound like great and old literary works, too, in their usage of that.  "To them that sit in darkness" sounds to our curmudgeonly [M & B] ears very archaic and slightly clumsy, or quirkily poetic, depending upon our mood

From Beverly:

This has bothered me also especially as used in The Lord's Prayer: "Our Father which art in heaven" Did , or did the translators think of God as an inanimate object upon translation or were the translators just ignorant of correct pronoun usage or was pronoun usage different at the time of translation. I did notice that one of the modern translations NIV left out the "which art" altogether. 

Malcolm was always taught "who art in heaven".  Maybe that's the root of his preference for who over that, or which in this case!  Clearly, as we see it, it was (and still is with some) an issue of different grammar rules/preferences and not of ignorance.

From Julio Comello:

Just to add some metallurgical background as to why platinum was named "lesser silver."  Platinum is much harder to smelt, refine, and mold into useful objects than either gold or silver. When the Spaniards tried to work the platinum using the processes they used on silver, they found that it just would not work. So, they assumed that it was not silver at all, but something lesser - almost the equivalent of fool's gold.

Thanks, Julio!

From M. "Charlie" Ferrazzi:

Just finished Laughing Stock. Geeez! It's a good thing no one walked in the gallery while I was reading! For me they weren't groaners they were eye wipers! What a way to start a Sunday!

Glad you liked 'em!

From Joseph Byrd:

With respect, I have to say that the last page - your "humor" section - must serve a demographic who are either out of the repetitive-dumb-joke loop, or are spending way too much time isolated from real life. Perhaps that is the price you pay for being our saintly etymologists, sacrificing your sense of humor to the drudgery of linguistic research. In any case, I'm sure we forgive you.

Well, thank you!  Clearly humor tastes differ as widely as grammar tastes!

From Stephen Blackburn:

Your site is great; as a writer I especially enjoy learning new (& old) vocabulary. I'm writing a novel set in the U.S. Civil War, so I'm always on the lookout for word usages from that era that can flavor the story.

More re: kyklos.
According to my Webster's New Universal Unabridged (1983), the infamous KKK got the "Ku Klux" in their name from the Greek kyklos (a circle). 

Fascinating.  In a brief scan of resources, we haven't found anything to confirm that, but we've found nothing to deny it, either.

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From Bruce Yanoshek

Now my question. In this issue, you say, "The Old English word for ant was aemete which meant a 'biter-off'. Sometime in the 1300s, this word acquired a 'p' to become the Middle English ampte." I don't know why this didn't happen to you, but to me it immediately raised the question (or begged the question for your anti-curmudgeons, since that is how the phrase is most often used these days, especially by Alex Trebek) of whether ampte is related to amputate, which is sort of a biting off.  Thanks for keeping us informed and thoroughly entertained!

From Julie Brou:

In this week's Spotlight on Ants you mention: "The Old English word for ant was aemete which meant a "biter-off." Sometime in the 1300s, this word acquired a "p" to become the Middle English ampte."

The definition "biter-off" makes me think that there may be a connection between ampte and amputate. Is this so?

It's not surprising that you both suspected a connection between Old English ampte and our word amputate.  However, while the words are not directly related, the Germanic roots of ant are a- "off, away" and maitan "to cut" so that the ant was a "cutter off".  Amputate came to English from Latin amputare, formed from amb- "around" and putare "to prune, lop". The ant, in essence, is an amputator!

From Steve Parkes:

We learn something new every day, especially we TOWFI subscribers.  Discovering the verb to nimble, " to move nimbly", makes me wonder if there exists a verb to numble; e.g. "finding my leg had gone to sleep, I rose from my chair and numbled around the room"? 

From J. Alan Munro:

I'm not sure of my meteorological nomenclature but as an Albertan I'd venture that your "Alberta clipper" is what we folks refer to as a chinook. That, I believe has its roots in aboriginal usage.

Actually, a chinook wind is a wind that blows down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, warming and drying as it sinks*.  It can raise the temperatures of areas it passes by several degrees in a matter of minutes.  The word was taken from the name of a group of Indians who lived along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.  There is also the chinook salmon, so named because it was found in the Columbia River.

*The process by which the air warms as it sinks down the mountain slopes is known as adiabatic compression.  The Santa Ana winds of Southern California are formed by the same process.  The mother of all these winds is the foehn (or föhn) of the Alps.  All of these are katabatic winds (descending by force of gravity; from Greek katabatos "descending").

A reader asked last issue whether pizza might be related to piazza and other "flat" words (discussed in Spotlight of Issue 169).  We neglected to provide a link to our previous discussion of pizza last week, so here it is now.


Or read last week's issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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Last Updated 09/29/02 10:04 PM