Category Archives: history

Persons of interest

One of my readers (Hi Chris) sent me an email regarding the use of’people as opposed to persons. I have been doing some research and my first skim tells me that it is mainly a personal choice, however on some further deeper reading it appears that opinion is divided on what is the proper usage.

Some deride persons as being outdated and old fashioned, others say that it is the logical plural use of the word person.

Often people is used as the logical plural of person and this is wrong, as the two words derive from different latin roots and do not mean the same thing; the former from populum, referring to the people in the sense of the populace, the latter from persona, “an actor’s mask; a character in a play” and which in the English form person, came to refer to an individual human being.

The proper plural of person is persons, however it appears that writers from the time of Chaucer onwards have been using people as a plural for person, not only to mean in the general sense of a mass of uncountable individuals, but also in a specific sense where numbers were countable.

This persisted until around Victorian times, when for some reason the Victorians rebelled agaisnt this and decided that the plural of person is persons when a specific, countable number of individuals is meant, but that people should be used when the number is large or indefinite.

However modern style guides, those pesky creatures, disagree; as they can point to any number of examples where they can use people as the plural of person in both situations.

Persons seems to survive mainly in a legal context, you often hear the Police wanting to talk to “persons of interest” or “so and and so was killed by person or persons unknown“. Persons seems to be a very formal and somewhat clunky word in this modern time. So this is why it seems to have fallen out of favour, with people replacing it.

The popularity of people is increasing as persons falls into disuse, though from the outset even though people is the singular collective term, it seems to have always been used to describe plural as well. It’s a very versatile word and depending on the context can mean one group, or it can mean a whole collective of groups.

This particular usage of people has become second nature to most and so the singular form of people as in “this people is lonely” seems just as clunky and outdated as persons.

The use of peoples as the plural of people has in the past been derided as an uncouth word, but it has gained popularity of late and is now considered a legitimate use of the word e.g:  “the peoples of this land are many and diverse“.

I hope that helps Chris in some small way, thanks for the interesting idea, much appreciated.

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i before e, except after c… no longer

As a few people have pointed out the old mnemonic device to teach children their ie and ei words is to be thrown on the scrapheap, the British Government has decided that i before e, is no longer a valid method of learning what is what because there are now too many exceptions to the rule.

Well THAT is what the press would have us believe is what the report says, that’s what the press have made of this particular note in the report, on page 106 I do believe;

Note: The i before e except after c rule is not worth teaching. It applies only to words in which the ie or ei stands for a clear /ee/ sound and unless this is known, words such as sufficient, veil and their look like exceptions. There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive,deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling.

It appears that the old menomic has undergone quite a few changes, when I went to school it went;

‘i before e except after c,  or when pronounced like an a’.

In the 1930’s it seems that they had a much more complex one;

“I before E
Except after C,
Or when pronounced “ay”
As in “neighbor” or “weigh”.

and this one;

“If the letter c you spy, put the e before the i.”

What in actuality the report is suggesting is that we teach the words, the ei words after the c, because there are so few of them, rather than relying on the mnemonic.

Ahh, changes always bring out the best and worst in people


I have not been lollygagging, certainly not.

My apologies for my absence, but I have been up to my eyebrows in University assignments, I just finished the final one for this semester, so now all I have to worry about is exams next month.

Simple, surely.

It would have gone much smoother if I had not, in the delightful words of the Online Etymology Dictionary which by the way is MY go to place when I am looking for the antecedents of a word or phrase, been dilly-dallying, or even shilly-shallying around.

Shilly-shally “vacillate,” 1703, earlier shill I, shall I (1700), fanciful reduplication of shall I? (cf. wishy-washy, dilly-dally, etc.).

Dilly-dally;  “Dilly-dally is from 1741, a reduplication of dally. c.1300, possibly from Anglo-Fr. dalier “to amuse oneself,” of uncertain origin.”

But to accuse me of lollygagging, certainly not.

Lollygag; “dawdle, dally,” 1862, lallygag, Amer.Eng., perhaps from dial. lolly “tongue” + gag “deceive, trick.”

So I shall dilly-dally, shilly-shally and lollygag my way out of here.


I hope your point ISN’T mute.

I’ve come across this particular error a lot lately, especially and unfortunately in a quite a few of my text/work books for University, which just goes to show that relying solely on a spellchecker is NOT a good idea.

The correct phrase is ‘it’s a MOOT point’  which means that though the point may be up for discussion, circumstances render it not worth while discussing or cogent to the matter at hand.

“Moot” is a very old word related to “meeting,” specifically a meeting where serious matters are discussed. Oddly enough, a moot point can be a point worth discussing at a meeting (or in court)-an unresolved question-or it can be the opposite: a point already settled and not worth discussing further. At any rate, “mute point” is simply wrong, as is the less common “mood point.” (taken from http://www.wusu.edu)

I can’t say that I have come across anyone using the term “mood point” which is probably a good thing as the mere mention sets my teeth on edge.

Let us hope that the trend towards using “mute point” even in jest does not continue, “moot” is a lovely old word, full of a rich history and meaning.

And today I find that something I always thought was correct was in fact wrong, for years I was under the impression that a group of Owls was called a Moot, today I am sadly disambiguated, a group of Owls is called a Parliament. I am sadly disappointed, a Moot sounds much more distinguished than that rabble we call Parliament.


Odds and Ends.

  • I have returned, the place I had this website hosted at changed hands and resulted in a slight, UNPLANNED disturbance to service, everything seems stable once again.
  • Do you have a favourite word or words? I do mine is;

    e-vis-cer-ate

    <a href=”http://dictionary.reference.com/audio.html/lunaWAV/E03/E0368100″ target=”_blank”><img src=”http://cache.lexico.com/g/d/speaker.gif” border=”0″ /></a> [v. i-visuh-reyt; adj. i-vis-er-it, uh-reyt] Show IPA verb, -at?ed, -at?ing, adjective

    –verb (used with object)

    1. to remove the entrails from; disembowel: to eviscerate a chicken.
    2. to deprive of vital or essential parts: The censors eviscerated the book to make it inoffensive to the leaders of the party.
    3. Surgery. to remove the contents of (a body organ).

    Origin:
    1600–10; < L ?viscer?tus, ptp. of ?viscer?re to deprive of entrails, tear to pieces, equiv. to ?- e- + viscer(a) viscera + -?tus -ate 1

    e-vis-cer-a-tion, noun
    e-vis-cer-a-tor, noun
    “eviscerate.” Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 19 Apr. 2009. Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/eviscerate.
    1. It has a lovely lovely ring to it, and is almost onomaetopic in its sound.
    2. Unrelated note, I have Pocky.

    10 strange common sayings (and getting them right and wrong)

    OOOPS!!  Apparently this list has previously been published on Listverse recently, but thats not where I found it, I found it hanging off another page that was apparantly taken from the Listverse post, I just liked it, I made no claim to having wrote it originally, I did however rewrite a lot of it my way.

    One of the things that almost always confuse people who are learning English as a second or third language are some of the sayings that we all use, without really knowing what they truly mean, or in some cases totally mangling the real meaning.

    Here are ten common strange sayings that most people have used at some time or another, it’s very interesting to trace these sayings back to the original and see how the meaning has changed over time.

    1. Scot Free

    This saying in fact is not a reference to the old myth about Scottish people being tight with their money, meaning that they’ll get something for free if they can. The word “scot” come from old Norse, and it means “payment”, usually a payment to a landlord or official. So “scot free” simply means to get away without having to pay. It’s most often used today in conjunction with discussions about penalties for committing a crime, if someone gets off with a light sentence or no sentence you’ll often hear someone say that he/she got off “scot free.”

    2. Fit as a Fiddle

    This one often confuses people, because the word “fit” has a different meaning now than when this saying originated, “fit” as in the meaning of being healthy is a 19th century word. The original meaning is “suitable”, which is still used in the phrase “fit for a king”. Originally “fit as a fiddle” just meant “as right or appropriate as it can be”.

    3. Another Thing Coming

    This one annoys me somewhat, because if you actually think about the saying
    that most people use “If you think that, you have another thing coming” you’ll realise that it doesn’t make any sense at all, whereas the proper saying “If you think that, you have another THINK coming” means exactly what it says. That what you think is so wrong, you’ll have to think again, that makes perfect sense.

    4. Eat Humble Pie

    This one means exactly what it says, apologising for something in a humble manner, the origins of this come from the middle ages when the poorer people ate the cuts of meat and portions of the animals that the rich people wouldn’t touch, the offal and various other bits, they called this “umble”.  So eating humble pie signifies that you are lowering yourself by apologising for a mistake.

    5. Rule of Thumb

    This one is a great one, there has sprung up around this one a lovely and sadly highly untrue reference to a law that stated that a man could beat his wife if he used a rod no thicker than his thumb. The reality is much more commonplace, it just means that you’re doing something by estimating, rather than using an exact measure.

    6. On Tender Hooks

    This is another phrase that is also misspelled, like thing for think, the actual phrase is “on tenterhooks”. A tenter is a medieval tool used to make cloth, tenterhooks were small hooks over which the fabric would be stretched, hence it came to mean to be left hanging, or in a state of suspense.

    7. Take a Raincheck

    Another common phrase that has now come to have three different meanings, the original meaning originated from the practice of offering a replacement ticket to a baseball game that had been rained out, for a game at a later date, hence a “raincheck”. This morphed into retail jargon to mean an offer to sell an out of stock goods AT the currently advertised price when it arrived back in stock. Now it has also morphed into a general response, as in ‘I’ll take a raincheck on that”. However it seems to have an acquired a negative connotation as in most “rainchecks” are never picked up on, like dates, or drinks.

    8. Free Reign

    Also another spelling error, though in essence the phrase still retains the original meaning, the etymology is vastly different. Most people seem to think that a person given “free reign” has the “royal” power to do what they want, when in fact the correct phrase is “free rein” and comes from the time when Horses were the only means of mass transport, when navigating a rough track or winding mountain path the horses were given “free rein” on the understanding that the horse was better equipped to find a safe path through than the rider.

    9. Wreck Havoc

    Another spelling error, which has more to do with how people pronounce the word than not knowing how to spell it properly, the proper word is “Wreak” which is properly pronounced “reek” however a lot of people pronounce it  “rek” hence the obvious error. “Wreck” means to destroy something, whereas “wreak” means to “cause something to happen” so you “wreak havoc”.

    10. Beg the Question

    Something that most people think they know the correct meaning of, but in reality 99% of you would be wrong. “To beg the question” does not mean “to raise the question”. Originally the phrase was “to begge the question” and first appeared in the late 1500’s in English and is a reference to a question (or phrase) which implies the truth of the thing it is trying to prove.

    And now I bet you are VERY confused, so lets have an example; “Why does England have fewer trees per acre than any other country in Europe?” This is a “begged question” – the person asking is implying that England has fewer trees – when in fact, it may not. If you feel you must use this saying, then perhaps using an alternative would be better “prompt the question” means the same thing and is not open to confusion.


    A whole (n)other world of meaning

    This concerns words that have one meaning in one country and an entirely different or less fraught meaning in another, the word that made me think about these things was the word spastic.

    The word spastic is used differently depending on location which has led to some controversy and misunderstanding. The term generally originates from spasticity, a medical condition characterised by hypertonia, or a high degree of muscle tightness. Spasticity underlies spastic diplegia and many other forms of cerebral palsy. But the word in common speech can also be used in a pejorative context. The level of severity depends on whether one understands it as it is used in the United States or the United Kingdom . In the UK it can be considered an offensive way to refer to the disabled, while in the US it is more closely associated with hyperactivity or clumsiness and carries few offensive connotations.

    In a forum I read someone commented on a customer that had a ‘spaz’ attack, in Australia as in England calling someone a ‘spaz’ is considered to be offensive, because it is a slang term for the word spastic.

    Spastic was a medical term used in the past to describe someone who had certain physical disabilties, unfortunately now it has acquired an offensive meaning, and is more often than not used as insult.

    “Gee, you’re such a spastic”

    “Dude, you dance like a spaz, it’s so funny”

    This also applies to the word ‘tard which is short for retarded, another medical term from the past to describe someone who had certain mental limitations, and has recently hijacked by popular culture to describe anything or anyone that the person doesn’t like.

    “He’s such a ‘tard, no wonder people avoid him”

    “Did you see that dress, she looks like a real ‘tard”

    I try to be aware of cross cultural meanings, like the word fanny, in America it’s another word for the bum, bottom, buttocks, etc etc. In Australia and the UK fanny is a slang term for the female genital area, so the useage of the term fanny pack had me in stitches,  also the theme song from The Nanny, which always gave me lovely mental images (yes, I am five).

    I try to steer clear of using pejoratives that have been ambushed in this manner, words like moron, spastic and retard, if you feel you must insult someone use a word with style and flair, bone up on your Shakespeare, he had some brilliant insults you can use.