ABA Journal


Bryan Garner on Words

For the Word Lovers: A look at linguistic phenomena

May 1, 2013, 08:00 am CDT


1. Metonymy

In a restaurant, the tables are numbered. If a waiter remarks: “Number 7 needs a spoon.”, it means that the person sitting at the table numbered “7” needs a spoon. This is metonymy.

Anglo-American law and language did not begin in 1776 or even 1603. According to Bede of Jarrow, it began in 450 A.D. when two Anglo-Saxon brothers named Hengist and Horsa landed their ships in the River Medway in Kent east of London. More specifically, English law has a continuous history that can be traced back to Ethelbert, who was the King of Kent from from 560 to 616.

In medieval times, judges sat on benches and pleading lawyers stood at a bar, hence “barrister”.
In an individual case during that time, we could have said, the bench found the defendant guilty. This would have been metonymy.

But, the “bench” and the “bar” are now collective nouns denoting the bodies of judges and practicing lawyers. And, “admitted to the bar” means that an advocate has rights of audience before the courts. So, bench and bar are no longer metonyms since they are meanwhile discrete notions (words) by themselves. In other words, they can be defined (i.e. explained) when standing alone as entries in a dictionary, while “Number 7” table cannot. A lexicographer knows that the Bar refers to the profession of barristers collectively.

2. Wotan’s Day

The middle day of the week in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) “Wodnesdaeg” was named for the Germanic god Wotan or Odin, i.e. Wotan’s Day. As we note in modern Dutch and English, the voiced medial consonant “d” has become silent: “woensdag”, “Wednesday”. But, unlike Dutch, English has preserved the archaic spelling. This is fossilized orthography, not ecthlipsis. Fossilized spellings are common in English, like the “k” in “knight”, “know”, “knife”, and “knave”, which was once pronounced but is now silent. We know the initial “k” was once pronounced on account of the modern German cognates: Knecht, Kennen, Kneif and Knabe. And, also, since in William Langland’s book “Piers the Plowman” (Plowman Pierce), written in 1362, the rhyme is alliterate, meaning that the initial consonants rhyme, see, for example, Piers Plowman, Passus I, line 105 (Christ/king/of kings/knighted) and line 136 (kind/know/ken) or Passus III, Line 67 (Christ/know/conscience/kind) as well as Passus IV, line 164 (know/cuckold/cut).

We can look to French and Gaelic to see ecthlipsis at work:

(a)  c’est ici. (the “t” is pronounced) [ English: it’s here ]
(b)  c’est moi, le roi (the “t” is silent) [ English: it’s me, the king ]

(c)  samhradh (the “s” is pronounced) [English: summer, a summer]
(d)  an tsamhradh (the “s” is silent) [English: the summer]

The two examples (b) and (d) are that of ecthlipsis.
  (note that the fossilized orthographic ”w” in “two” is meanwhile also silent,
    but not in Scots dialect: “wha saw the forty-twa” [ = who has seen the 42nd {regiment}] ).

Although the original cause may have been prosodic, the effect today is orthographic.

3. Classical Rhetoric

Medieval studies were comprised of the quadrivium (the four crossroads) and the trivium (the three crossroads). The trivium includes grammar, rhetoric and logic, studies that are still part of the European curriculum.

There is a 2,000+ year history of classical rhetoric on the European continent representing a continuous chain from the time of the ancient Greeks, who first coined the terminology, to the Romans to us, see, for example, Tuebingen University’s 10-volume great historical dictionary of rhetoric: “Historisches Woerterbuch der Rhetorik”, Tuebingen 1992. Over 400 scholars contributed to the Tuebingen project, and many of its entries, for example, those of Professor Ekkehard Eggs, border on the genius.

While it is indeed welcome to know that serious rhetorical thinking has established a home on the range in Texas, applying the appellation “the world’s leading expert on classical figures of speech” to Ward Farnsworth overlooks the work product of an entire present-day generation of European philologists. But, Anglophiles cannot easily access their works since they publish in major continental languages as has been their tradition for more than 2,000 years.

Donald the Black

By Donald the Black on 2013 05 31, 7:03 am CDT

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