A word to the wise

A word to the wise

Verbum satis sapientibus:    A word to the wise is sufficient.

Curious thoughts can walk into a mind vacant and relatively free of concerns.  Now and then, while I’m taking a walk or lying half asleep, my own mind opens the door to some conundrum involving language.  Take the word overwhelmed, heard pretty often in news reports especially.  Can any situation, I’m wondering, be simply whelming?  Must we exaggerate it always?  Or there’s the phrase denoting an event in the near future—in the offing.  What on earth is such a thing, and can the word offing be used in other contexts?  I know of it only in this odd phrase.  For the sake of some unifying principle here, let’s call such usages Lonesome or Isolated Language.

Quandaries like these generally lead me to an old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary.  In case you are not acquainted, the OED is like Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, only moreso.  It is a truly voluminous (and at least whelming) treasure of the language.  For each word, it lists dozens of quotations in historical order that trace a word’s history, going as far back as the tenth century.

Checking whelmed and overwhelmed, I discovered that the root form has indeed had currency.  I don’t recall ever encountering it, but one can be simply whelmed.  It is first a nautical term, meaning “to overturn, capsize.”  Thence it came also to mean “to engulf,” as in a storm or avalanche, or even “to cover,” the way you might use an overturned bowl to keep food warm.  Milton in Paradise Lost (1667), addressing Satan, declares that “with solitarie hand,” God “could have … whelmed thy legions under darkness.”  And in his translation of the Odyssey, Alexander Pope tells of heroes “Doom’d to welter in the whelming main.”  Whelming sounds drastic enough.  Why do we need to be over-whelmed?

Offing is also nautical, describing the distant but still visible sea.  It may be still current among seamen, but with the phrase we hear today—“in the offing,” meaning quite soon, the concrete term has become abstract.  It’s also a word seemingly used now in no other context. Here’s a usage of the original concrete sense in an 1860 geography: “In the offings of the Belize, sometimes as far out as a hundred miles or more from the land, puddles or patches of Mississippi water may be observed on the surface of the sea.”

The word abash, to my knowledge, is inevitably used today in the passive voice, and in the negative as well.  We may be unabashed (or unbothered) by adversity, but can that same adversity abash us?  Well yes, although this active voice has always been less common.  Novelist Henry Fielding in Amelia (1752) tells of  “a man whom no denial, no scorn, could abash.”

An alert reader recently asked about the spelling and use of the word while, in its peculiar verb form, as in the Tinman’s wish “to while away the hours, conversing with the flowers.”  The entry for the word while in the OED fills two pages, but mostly showing its uses as a noun (“We spent a long while together.”) and as an adverbial conjunction (“They whistled while they worked.”)  These usages are a thousand years old, but the less common and distinct verb form did not appear till the 1600s.  The three are really distinct words, all spelled alike.  To while means to occupy a person or fill the time.  Here’s an instance from 1659: “They busied others but whiled me.”  In the majority of OED quotations given, however, the verb is accompanied by a preposition, as in “while away.”  Byron illustrates another preposition in The Corsair (1813): “Then shall my handmaids while the time along.”

Figurative terms sometimes have histories that surprise me, hidebound for instance.  It means obstinately backward, and I had reckoned that it could be traced to the practice, now long abandoned, of binding books in hide. However, the word’s origin signifies an animal, or sometimes a person, whose skin so closely clings to ribs and back that the skin cannot be pinched and raised.  This emaciation of course is a sign of weakness, or of worthlessness in livestock.  Metaphorically, the word came to mean a cramped point of view, as Stevenson illustrates here, describing “an excellent fellow, … but a hidebound pedant for all that” (Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, 1880).

Word for the month 

Cess (sess), a word isolated, as far as I knew, to the Irish curse, “Bad cess to you” (and often “to you and your kin”).  It’s another of those lonesome words, apparently unused in any other context.  But what on earth is a cess?  Can we wish a good sess?  A common sense of the word, at least in Britain and Ireland, described a tax or levy.  It seems related to assess.  In England, the word was superseded by rate, but in Ireland, cess continued as the official term for a tax, often with specific purpose, as to support the church vestry or the military.  The curse, however, seems to have nothing to do with this sense of the word; it stems from success and is the equivalent of “Bad luck to you.”  And may you enjoy good cess this midwinter month.

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