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The urge to categorise is always with us. It’s a way of making sense of the world around us, to record it if not actually to control it. Under the influence of the impending millennium, newspapers are currently full of lists. Everyone’s compiling them: the hundred best plays, the hundred best Inuit bee-keepers of the century, the hundred strangest words ever invented. We’re all at it, one way or another. This week, BBC Radio 2 announced its list of the 100 best tunes of the century, in which the Beatles’ Yesterday came out top.

This is by way of being what computer types would call a meta-list, a list about list, since the noun and verb list have had well over a dozen meanings in the last thousand years, derived from five different words that arrived at various times. Only a couple are still with us.

“I’ve got a little list,” sang the Mikado‘s Lord High Executioner. This sense, the one we know best nowadays, arrived only in the seventeenth century, having been borrowed from the French liste, which could variously mean a border, a band, or a strip of paper. It turns up first in Hamlet, in which young Fortinbras of Norway had “shark’d up a list of landless resolutes” to invade Denmark. So a list was just a lot of names written down on a strip of paper, and to be on a list meant that you had been tagged for some special status or enterprise (hence enlist for joining the army).

The French word liste came from an ancient Germanic root. Through the path of Old English this bequeathed us another form of the word that kept to the meaning of the original: a border or selvage. We’re familiar with it in the plural as the name for a tournament area, which was enclosed or bordered by rails or the like. Some etymologists say the sense here was heavily influenced by the Old French lisse or lice, “place of combat”.

The only other sense of list we still use is the verbal one of something which leans over at an angle, especially a ship. But nobody seems able to say where it comes from, though we know it appears in the early part of the sixteenth century.

One of the many senses of list that hasn’t survived is that of “to hear; be attentive”. About 1200 this transformed itself into the modern listen, though the old form survived for many centuries, slowly becoming more and more archaic. When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a poem in 1857: “Great Napoleon stops his horse, and lists with delight” he didn’t intend to say that Napoleon was happily leaning over, though the image is almost irresistible now. The adjective lasted even longer in English dialect in the sense of “quick of hearing”. Another noun form of list that hasn’t survived is one that meant “craft; art; cunning”; that one didn’t even outlast the medieval period.

That diminishing band which is familiar with the King James’ Bible will recall the phrase “the wind bloweth where it listeth”. This is another verb form of list, which comes from an Old English verb lystan that meant “to please; desire”, so the phrase meant that the wind blew where it wanted to. It’s conceivably a source of the sense of a ship leaning over: it may be that a ship leant over or listed because either the wind or the ship felt inclined, so to speak. This sense was obsolete by the end of the seventeenth century, though it was reintroduced as an archaism in the nineteenth century (Sir Walter Scott used it a lot, as in Peveril in 1832: “We will, if your ladyship lists, leave him”).

The Old English word is very closely linked to another Germanic word, lust. If at the end of this catalogue you’re feeling listless (you should be so lucky), that’s where it comes from.

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

Page created 10 Apr 1999