Site name and logo

Newsletter 756
01 Oct 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Wanion.

3. Questions and Answers: Beck and call.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Inenarrable Many subscribers got in touch with me about one word I used in this piece last week. Andrew Haynes commented, “I loved your reference to authors borrowing the word inenarrable ‘to enpurple their prose’. But shouldn’t the word be empurple? (I was tempted to suggest that you had chosen enpurple to demonstrate the breadth of your own vocabulary, but that would have been too rude, so please ignore this sentence.) Anyway, your use of that lovely word has started me thinking. Are there are other colours that can be verbed by adding the prefix en- or nl-? I have searched for words such as enyellowed and emblued, but without success. In fact, apart from redden, whiten and blacken, I can’t think of any other verbs meaning to imbue something with a particular colour.”

You’re right, Mr Haynes, to suggest that I included the word to have a little fun with vocabulary. Empurple is indeed much more common, though even after all the readers’ responses the en- form still feels better in my mouth. It has been in the language since about 1590 and has been variously spelled down the centuries, not only with nl- and en- but also with im- and in-. The default spelling of the prefix in English is en-, in the sense “to bring into a certain condition or state or to invest with a certain quality” (from the OED), but it derives from the Latin in-, which is why those forms have also appeared as variants, in many other words as well as this one. En- and in- usually turn into nl- and im- before b, p and m. I know of no other verbs for instilling a colour apart from the ones you quote.

Batmanning “I hadn’t heard of that new use of the verb,” wrote Neil Hesketh. “The term has been around for decades in the mountaineering community, in reference to a method of climbing up a rope hand-over-hand, leaning back with your feet braced against the rock to imitate the way Batman and Robin climbed buildings in the old TV show with Adam West.”

Gazump I wrote last week that this curious term is probably from the Yiddish gezumph, to overcharge or cheat. Robert A Rothstein responded, “I doubt that there is any such word in Yiddish, although numerous sources cite this alleged etymology (probably borrowing from one another). The closest that I could find in any Yiddish dictionary is the expression aynfirn in a zump (literally, ‘to lead into a swamp’), which means to lead someone astray, to lead someone into a jam, to ensnare someone.” Dr Rothstein is Professor of Judaic and Slavic Studies at MIT and — among his many other duties — he teaches Yiddish, so he surely knows whereof he writes. I would better have reproduced the cautious comment in my online piece of 11 years ago about the word: “Some dictionaries suggest this odd word comes from the Yiddish gezumph, to cheat or overcharge.”

“The mention of gazunder,” wrote David Chase, “reminded me of two related faux-portmanteaux words that are occasionally used in my field (music arranging for Broadway). When we are discussing music written for the purpose of transitioning into (or out of) a song, dance or underscored scene, we will refer to this usually brief but well-crafted bit as a guzzinta or a guzzoutta. I can’t swear to the proper spellings, but saying them aloud will quickly reveal their intended nature.”

2. Weird Words: Wanion/ˈwɒnjən/ Help with IPA

The first generation of editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were especially literate men and this shows in their definitions, which sometimes needed a dictionary to interpret them (luckily, the reader always has one immediately to hand, if rather cumbersome).

Take wanion. Its still-current OED definition, written nearly a century ago, says: “An altered form of ‘waniand’ used in certain formulas of asseveration or imprecation.” A modern dictionary aiming at plain English definitions might say instead that in set phrases it meant an emphatic statement or curse.

In itself, wanion means “in the waning of the moon”. It’s from the Old English verb wanian, to lessen, from which we get wane. You may feel wanion is too mild and agreeable a word to be attached to a curse, but in bygone centuries the waning of the moon was thought to be an unlucky time. Various fixed expressions took on the word and the idea, such as with a (wild) wanion (with a plague or with a vengeance), a wanion on (a curse on) and fetch one a wanion (bring one a misfortune).

Up, with a wild wanion! how long wilt thou lie?
Up, I say, up, at once! up, up, let us go hence:
It is time we were in the forest an hour since.

The History of Jacob and Esau, 1557, probably written as a school play by an unknown headmaster for his pupils to perform.

Look how thou stirrest now! come away, or I’ll fetch thee with a wanion.

Pericles, by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, 1608.

By the early nineteenth century the phrases were old-fashioned, if not archaic. They were resurrected by Sir Walter Scott, who loved such expressions and single-handedly made a number of them familiar to his readers in his historical romances, if not going so far as to return them into daily use.

But, as he pressed upon her with a violence, of which the object could not be mistaken, and endeavoured to secure her right hand, she exclaimed, “Take it then, with a wanion to you!” — and struck him an almost stunning blow on the face, with the pebble which she held ready for such an extremity.

Woodstock, by Sir Walter Scott, 1855.

Our views of the moon today are coloured by romantic ideas of love or unrequited yearnings and we see no harm in its phases, whether waxing or waning.

3. Questions and Answers: Beck and call

Q From Jim Black: It is my pleasure to contact you in the hope that you can explain the derivation of the phrase beck and call, if indeed I spelled it correctly. Perhaps it ought to be beckoned call. I might deduce that beck is a derivative of beckon but in that case why should we need call as well? I await your thoughts.

A Many people think the phrase is indeed beckon call, as beck has vanished except in poetic or literary use and beckon seems to make more sense. It is becoming common online, though I’ve not yet seen it in print here in the UK. In the US it appears from time to time in the less literate, or less well sub-edited, newspapers:

With knowledge from a lifetime of growing produce at his beckon call, Wenzloff has turned his favorite hobby into a small business that helps keep the professed busybody from getting bored.

West Fargo Pioneer, 6 Sep. 2011.

However, beck and call is undoubtedly correct. Your belief that beck in the phrase is closely connected with beckon is quite right; it’s actually a shortened form of beckon that evolved from it in Middle English around 1300. The verb beckon was then spelled in a number of ways, all with an -en ending. People thought that was a mark of the infinitive and shortened it to make a new verb and later a noun.

In its early years, beck meant several kinds of gestures, not just the one of summoning that we mean by beckon today. It might be a nod of agreement or of salutation or a curtsey or bow as a mark of respect.

Giving a beck with his head to his Shepherdess in token of thanks.

Diana, by the Spanish playwright Jorge de Montemayor, translated by Bartholomew Yong, 1598.

By the time this appeared, beck had already taken on the idea of a summons or command to one’s social inferiors. By the early part of the next century various phrases had appeared to suggest a person had continually to be standing by, ready to obey the orders of a superior. These included to have at one’s beck and to hang upon the beck of. The version that we know today, which folds the archaic beck into the fixed phrase beck and call, came along a little later. The first example that I know of is in a work about the existence of witches that was written by Joseph Glanvill, a member of the Royal Society and chaplain to Charles II, which was published in 1681, the year after Glanvill’s death.

Putting beck and call together in this way, signifying ways to issue imperious commands to underlings by both gesture and voice, is an example of a doublet form in which the repetition adds emphasis. It may echo ancient conventional legal doublets, such as aid and abet, sale or transfer and terms and conditions, which evolved through adding French terms to English after the Norman Conquest to ensure everybody understood what was meant.

4. Sic!

• Markets have crashed on less. On 23 September John Branch found this in a Financial Times e-mail summarising the morning’s headlines: “The G20 has pledged its support for the global economy by offering assurances that the global banking system will now be allowed to fail.”

• “Make up your mind!”, commented Gill Teicher about a link on the Telegraph site on 25 September that seems to have fallen through a time warp from last May: “Osama bin Laden is dead: Live”.

• It’s not that often that rogue is mistyped, but it can evoke an incongruous image when it is, as it did in a Guardian report on 28 September about a campaign against “rouge landlords”.

Support this website and keep it available!

There are no adverts on this site. I rely on the kindness of visitors to pay the running costs. Donate via PayPal by selecting your currency from the list and clicking Donate. Specify the amount you wish to give on the PayPal site.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.