NEWSLETTER 629: SATURDAY 7 MARCH 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Meld It’s been a quiet week for comments, with the most common one being a slight surprise that in discussing one sense of meld, I should have omitted to include Mr Spock’s Vulcan mind meld from Star Trek. It would have been a relevant reference, since mind meld appeared in a programme from the first season, broadcast in November 1966, whereas the noun is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary only from 1973.
Updates Jan Freeman, who writes the Sunday Word column in the Boston Globe, has pointed out an appearance of carrot and stick in a letter of 1938 by Sir Winston Churchill, which changes the conclusions to my piece last month about the idiom. So it has, yet again, been updated. Robert Geuljans spotted an error in the piece on antimacassar; having corrected it, I’ve taken the opportunity to update the whole piece.
L-Soft contest We were put in our place last month: second, after the ICORS list, which consists of a large number of determined people. If we’re to have a chance of winning the overall contest, we must come top in this final month. I urge every one of you to vote every day during March — don’t wait for my weekly reminder. You have one vote from each IP address each day. One last heave, please!
2. Topical Words: Cricket
Two academics claimed this week that the archetypal English game of cricket is really Flemish, not — as traditionally believed — based on English children’s games that date from Anglo-Saxon times. As the Ashes test matches between Australia and England will be played this summer in England, this challenge to England’s claim to be the homeland of cricket has provoked much uncritical newspaper comment in cricket-playing nations.
Paul Campbell, in the department of English and theatre at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the German linguist Heiner Gillmeister, professor in the department of English at the University of Bonn, claim to have discovered an Elizabethan poem that proves the matter.
Press reports say in varying detail that Mr Campbell uncovered a poem by the sixteenth-century poet and playwright John Skelton, dated 1533 and entitled The Images of Ipocrisie (we would spell this last word “hypocrisy”) which has these four lines in it:
O lorde of ipocrites,
Nowe shut vpp your wickettes,
And clape to your clickettes, —
A farewell, kinge of crekettes!
Combining various incomplete newspaper reports, it appears that Mr Campbell is arguing that the poem shows the game of cricket was imported from the Low Countries by Flemish weavers, who settled in parts of the south-east of England and played it on fields close to where they tended their sheep, using shepherd’s crooks — or curved sticks — as bats to strike a ball.
There are several insuperable objections to this extraordinary theory. The poem is hardly unknown: it has been included in at least three collections of Skelton’s works that I know about. Though the date is accepted, Skelton can’t have written it, as he died in 1529, and it must have been penned by another poet in Skelton’s style. The four lines were misquoted in all the reports in which they appeared — in particular, in the last line kinge appears as kings, a subtle but significant error, since Campbell argues that this stanza is a call by Skelton for all these cricket-playing Flemish immigrants to leave the country. But the major problem is that the poem is a long diatribe, full of satire and bitter invective, directed against the hypocrisy of every level of churchman — the Pope, cardinals, bishops, monks, friars, down to churchwardens and bell-ringers — and contains no reference whatsoever to weavers or of their bringing cricket to England. Something very odd is going on here, which I hope for the reputations of the academics is the result of press misunderstandings.
The quoted lines don’t support a reference to cricket. The word clickettes that ends the third line was a common way at the time in which to write clickets, the plural of an obsolete word for the latch of a gate or door. That suggests that wickettes at the end of the previous line is the modern wickets, small gates or doors, often within larger ones, not the cricket type of wickets, which aren’t recorded before the eighteenth century. Clape to meant to slam a door. The poet is saying, in essence, “go away and shut the door firmly behind you”. This pulls the rug out from under the suggestion that the final word in the stanza, crekettes, means the game of cricket. The lines are in a part of the poem that castigates the Pope in powerful terms as a liar and “the devil’s vicar” as well as “lord of hypocrites” (in the first line of the stanza); how the Pope might in addition be excoriated as a king of cricket is hard to imagine. It could be the other sort of cricket, of course, for which crekette is a known contemporary spelling, and the poet might be saying that the Pope is a noisy chattering insect.
The first known reference to the game of cricket that we have at the moment is from a court case in Guildford in Surrey in 1598, in which a local man swore that as a child, fifty years before, he had played creckett and other games on a disputed piece of land. The similarity of that word with the one in the poem is intriguing, but hardly firm evidence of anything.
Lacking the supposed evidence from the poem, the link with Flemish rests on a comment from Professor Gillmister, who is quoted as saying, “I immediately thought of the Flemish phrase ‘met de krik ketsen’ which means to ‘chase a ball with a curved stick’.” This might, of course, be a description of any number of games, from hockey to golf, though cricket was indeed initially played with a curved bat. Professor Gillmister’s suggestion is not new, since a link with krik has been suggested before and is mentioned in the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. But no compelling evidence exists for it, let alone for importation of the game to England by Flemish settlers.
There still isn’t.
A pun; a hoaxing question or conundrum.
This pops up first in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fayre of 1614 and appears a few times afterwards, but is effectively extinct by the middle of the nineteenth century.
Notwithstanding the advantage which this age claims over the last we find Mr. Dryden himself, as well as Mr. Jonson, not only given to Clinches, but sometimes a Carwichet, a Quarter-quibble, or a bare Pun.
London Magazine, August 1824. The writer is paraphrasing a line in John Dryden’s comedy The Wild Gallant of 1662 in which these forms are given as examples of dubious wit. A clinch was a type of sharp repartee or word-play; a quarter-quibble was a poor or weak quibble, a quibble at the time being a pun or a play on words. Dryden’s use of pun was among the earliest in the language.
The origin of carwichet is obscure, though it has been suggested that it comes from colifichet, a French word of the time for a fantastic small object of no great value, but which now means any knick-knack or trinket (it’s said to be from the older French word coeffichier, an ornament that was fixed to and formed part of one’s coiffure).
4. Questions & Answers: Importantly
[Q] From Jerry Miller: “I just subscribed and am delighted by the site. The epidemic of importantly, with or without most or more, has bothered me for some time. It has been well over 70 years since I studied grammar here in New York City, so forgive me if I err in terminology. Is importantly a real word; can something be termed as such? It seems that you haven’t used the term since 2007. If so, I am happy for your recovery and, more important, I look forward to your newsletters.”
[A] Thank you. But the cessation of importantly is both temporary and unpremeditated. No doubt I shall use it again sometime soon.
Importantly is a real word all right. It entered the language in the seventeenth century (the first recorded user is our good friend William Shakespeare, in Cymbeline, 1611) and has long since become standard in the meaning “in an important manner”. To take one example out of about a million pretty much at random:
“It certainly does need a chimney,” said John importantly.
Peter Pan, by J M Barrie, 1904.
The big change in the way it's used has been more recent than your studies of grammar. From the 1930s, some adverbs have increasingly been used at or near the start of a sentence to modify the whole of the sentence that follows. These are called sentence adverbs and have been heavily criticised in the past — the case of hopefully is notorious. Importantly appears six times on the World Wide Words site, always as part of a sentence adverb, which is perhaps why you were particularly struck and dismayed by it.
As importantly used in this way became more popular, people came almost exclusively to put more or most in front, which is the way it remains:
More importantly, they require hard currency from customers flowing into their corporate bank accounts.
Daily Telegraph, 15 Dec. 2008.
Objections to sentence adverbs have now largely subsided. In the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, dated 1996, Robert Burchfield says of more importantly and most importantly that both “must now be considered standard and useful additions to the language”. Even Bryan Garner, usually a conservative in matters of style, says in his Modern American Usage that writers need not fear criticism in employing them and that if any is made, “it’s easily dismissed as picayunish pedantry”, though you shouldn’t take that dollop of clever wordsmithery personally.
However, we remain allowed to wince at examples like this:
More importantly to McBride is this afternoon’s Premiership game at home to Bangor.
Belfast Telegraph, 23 January 2009. Importantly should be important, because the word in that position has to be an adjective, not an adverb.
• Victor Dewsbery e-mailed from Berlin, having encountered a comment on the BBC’s online football pages by the Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate: “This win should give the players an unbelievable amount of belief.” It made Mr Dewsbery wonder how much belief is actually believable.
• “My somewhat overweight banker called me to recommend an investment with a relatively low guaranteed interest rate,” reports Bram Amsel from Antwerp in Belgium, “claiming that interest rates on bank accounts were dropping gastronomically.”
• Bill Waggoner commented sadly “I guess guys are completely obsolete now”. He had just read a bullet point on a Web page of the British National Gamete Donation Trust: “Sperm donors should be healthy women between the age of 18 and 45 years.” All lovers of splendid inaccuracies must regret that it has since been corrected.