May 26, 2011

Vermawnt slang!

I spent ski season in Vermont this year and picked up some funny lingo. Up here, soft-serve ice cream is a "creemee." A local who does his venison shopping during hunting season is a "woodchuck."

Even stranger: In Vermont, and from upstate New York through Maine, a "camp" isn’t just a collection of tents and lean-tos—it’s a real house. You might not live in it year-round, but it has plumbing and electricity. Most Americans would call one a "cabin," but "camp" is used and understood up here. "Camp" can mean a pretty big place--
"Van Patten Camp, Charlotte,1 1896. William Van Patten built his impressive summer camp on a cliff overlooking Converse Bay on Lake Champlain." Paul A. Bruhn, compiler, Vermont's Historic Architecture: A Second Celebration (1985).
"Camp" in this sense is listed in speech and in casual books for areas from New York to Maine in the Dictionary of American Regional English, and in Louisiana and Georgia too from the middle of the twentieth century.

The “kee-imp,” as Vermonters pronounce it, is on every lakefront. Places that are pleasant and accessible are kind of expensive, so the owner of a lakefront farm can raise a lot of money selling off his lake shore in long, narrow strips. Sometimes a parcel with ten feet of lake frontage will extend 50, 100, 150 feet back to the public road that gives the "camp"-owner access. The "camp" home will be perched right on the water, and much less than a stone’s throw from the neighbors.

Is "camp" slang? I don’t think so—it’s a regional, proper word for what it denotes. It’s used commonly in speech and in books, and it even comes up in court decisions in Vermont,2 although I couldn't locate it in the statutes of any state. ("Camp" appears, in them, only to refer to temporary summer tent camps and hunting camps in their commonly held senses.)

It happens that, in South Africa, a "camp" is "a fenced enclosure for grazing, equiv. of paddock," from the Afrikaans kamp. Jean Branford, A Dictionary of South African English (1991).

1. Charlotte, Vermont, pronounced “shuh-LOT.”

2. For instance: “There is a camp or cottage and outhouses located on the lot in question.” Montgomery v. Branon, 278 A.2d 744 (Vt. 1971); “At the sentencing hearing, defendant used the term ’seasonal dwelling’ to describe the structures at issue in his burglary convictions. On appeal defendant refers to the buildings as ’summer camps.’ In either case, defendant recognizes that the buildings were used as dwellings when seasonally appropriate.” U.S. v. Fredette, 15 F.3d 272 (2d Cir 1994)(reviewing a Vermont case).

May 22, 2011

"To rapture"

The surprising snafu for Robert Camping and his followers illuminates the verb "to rapture."  It means to carry a Christian believer to Heaven in the "rapture" or "Rapture" so that he avoids the pains of the "Tribulation" at the end of the world. I'm used to the verb "enrapture"--to seize someone's attention, to make someone rapt; but for me "to rapture" has the specific meaning of taking someone up to Heaven.  Use of "rapture" to mean "enrapture" is attested in dictionaries, but I'd bet that meaning is on its way out.  The word is from the Latin "rapere," meaning to "seize" or take away.  In an old-fashioned English use "to rape" meant to kidnap or carry off, among other things.  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the sexual meaning of rape came later, by transference; a Latin word for that was "stuprare," and if you look up the English words "stuprate" and "stupration," you will find them.

May 17, 2011

NPR show about words

Here's an NPR show about word histories and rare English words. They're a little cute but very responsible about giving accurate answers. It's called A Way With Words. Something to listen to while changing diapers or hacking at tree stumps.

May 11, 2011

I'm not reticent about "reticent to"

To be "reticent" means that one is quiet or unwilling to speak (that is, "reserved in speaking"); it can also be used for unwillingness to talk about a specific subject--as in "very private and reticent about the practice of personal religion"1. It originates in the Latin reticeo, "to not speak," and the adjective reticens. "Reticent" is typically used alone or in the phrase "reticent about."

Recently, "reticent to" has come to be used in place of "reluctant to" with respect to doing something.  "…He'd be reticent to hire a lawyer…"2  Maybe it sounds fancier to some people? See also here. The new use has been noted in two comprehensive dictionaries, Webster's Third New International and the Oxford English Dictionary--but that doesn't mean I have to think it's correct.

I think it's just plain wrong. And using "reticent to" to mean "reluctant to" opens up the possibility of redundant "reticents": I was recently told by someone that he was "reticent to speak about" something. He meant that he was "reluctant to speak about" x or that he was "reticent about" x; if he had been using "reticent" correctly rubber-lips would have been saying, "I'm reticent about not being reticent."

1. B. Hoey, Her Majesty: Fifty Regal Years (2002), cited in the online Oxford English Dictionary s.v. (that is, sub verbo or sub voce--"under the word") "reticent-adj."

2. Faye Kellerman, The Mercedes Coffin (2008), cited in the same online Oxford English Dictionary article.

May 5, 2011

Royal wedding edition

I recently came across the term "morganatic marriage"--one that limits the inheritance rights of one of the spouses--and there's no hint in the press that William and Kate's is one such.

The suggestion is relevant because Prince William, heir to the British throne, has gotten away with marrying Catherine Middleton, a commoner. That is, she is not a member of the gentry, the nobility, or a royal house--but her half-common children will be in the direct line of succession. Marriage to commoners by men in the line of succession has been a troubled business: Prince Charles, the more immediate heir to the British throne, could not marry commoner Camilla Parker-Bowles until he had married and then divorced Lady Diana Spencer (who was the noble daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer).1 More seriously, King Edward VIII decided, in 1936, to abdicate after he expressed his desire to marry an American commoner, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Simpson was divorced by the time of the abdication from two living husbands, Earl Spencer (plain, old Earl Spencer, not related to Lady Di's father) and Ernest Simpson. In 1936, the unmarried king's affair with a married woman, not to mention her series of divorces, could still raise moral hackles. Worse, it might prevent the marriage from being celebrated2 in a Church of England ceremony. The abdication was the culmination of Edward's unwillingness to give up the marriage in the face of the resistance of the Church, the parliamentary leadership, and the governments of the various imperial dominions.3

One of the suggestions made by the king's advisors was that the wedding be a "morganatic" one, whereby Mrs. Simpson would not become Queen of England (and instead would be just a princess-consort or something like that) and her children would not be in the line of succession. However, although there's a word "morganatic" in English, there's no morganatic marriage in English law--Parliament would have had to legislate one for the king, and that was not politically feasible.

Instead, "morganatic marriages" were celebrated primarily in German-speaking areas of Europe, and provided a convenient way for royalty, noblemen or other wealthy men to marry a woman of poverty or of a lower social class. Upon the husband's death, the wife and the children she bore would only inherit that which had been granted to her in the Morgengabe, the "morning gift" on the day of the wedding from bride to groom. The integrity of the groom's social class, or the bulk of the inheritance of the groom's children by a deceased or former wife, would be preserved.4

The word "morganatic" comes to us via the medieval Latin morganaticum, a bastardization of Morgengabe.

Some art historians have suggested, inconclusively, that the wedding in Jan van Eyck's famous "Arnolfini Wedding" double-portrait is a morganatic one, because the groom gives the bride his left hand--considered a traditional element of celebrating a morganatic, or "left-handed" marriage.5

1 "Fergie," Sarah Ferguson, is a commoner who married Charles' brother Andrew. 

2 If you can find it, a good source is Lord Beaverbrook, How the Duke of Windsor Lost his Throne, Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 29, 1966, pp. 38-51.

3 "To celebrate" is the American law term for undergoing the legal ceremony; the bride and groom are the "celebrants."

4 General information on morganatic marriage is in Max Radin, "Legal History of the Morganatic Marriage," University of Chicago Law Review 4: 597-617 (1937).

5 E.g., Lucy Freeman Sandler, "The Handclasp in the Arnolfini Wedding: A Manuscript Precedent," The Art Bulletin 66: 488-91 (1984).