-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

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shall pt 2

After posting about shall yesterday, I noticed it several times during the church service this morning. Looking at everything again on the train home, it became apparent that the earlier sources (two 19th century hymns and a congregational response based on a bible verse) used shall exclusively and the later sources (a 20th century translation (or two) of the bible – I’m not sure which one(s) we use) used will, regardless of I/we v you/she/he/it/they and simple v strong intention.

The hymns were:

And those who put their trust in thee / Nor death nor hell shall harm


I shall not fear the battle / If thou art by my side
O Jesus thou hast promised … That where thou art in glory / There shall thy servant be

The congregational response is:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

This is based on Matthew 8:8, where a Roman centurion says:

Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed. (KJV)

Bible Hub has 25 versions; 16 use will and 9 (apparently the more traditionally based ones) use shall.

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Far from the madding crowd

The latest movie version of Far from the madding crowd is being advertised and previewed. When I first saw the title (of either the book or an earlier movie version) many years ago, I first processed the fourth word as maddening.

The adjective mad dates from ‘before 900’, which is a far back as reliable written evidence of English is available. Dictionary.com marks the verb mad ‘archaic’ without separately listing a date for it. The adjective madding dates from 1300-50, predating the verb madden (1725-35) and the adjective maddening (1735-45) by about 400 years.

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‘Than when we first began’

During the week I went the funeral of the mother of a dear friend. I hadn’t met her, but I wanted to support him. The service started with a recording of ‘Amazing Grace’, which included the extra verse:
‘When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less time to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.’

Perhaps I should put my language analysing functions into neutral while at a funeral, but sometimes it’s just too strong a habit. ‘begin – began – begun’ is a member of a small group of irregular verbs which change the vowel in the order i > a > u in the spelling and /ɪ/ > /æ/ > /ʌ/ in the pronunciation. The first issue is that in many non-standard forms of English, people use the past participle form in place of the past simple form: ‘I done it’.  The second issue is that even in standard English, it is very easy to accidentally use the past participle form instead of the past simple form, particularly with the ‘i/a/u’ group of irregular verbs. People who would never say ‘I eaten it’ could easily say ‘I drunk it’ (particularly if they had, indeed, drank it).

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clean, cleanse

English has many pairs of words with basically the same meaning, but with important differences in meaning and/or usage. The front page of our church’s weekly bulletin today had an illustration of ‘Jesus cleansing the temple’ (John 2:13-22). ‘Cleansing’ basically means ‘cleaning thoroughly’, but ‘Jesus cleaning the temple’ would bring to mind a completely different image. Even though no English translation of that passage actually uses the word ‘cleanse’, the episode is generally referred to in this way; Wikipedia’s article is titled ‘Cleansing of the Temple’. (Compare the fifth labour of Hercules, which is more often called ‘cleaning the Augean stables’ and less often called ‘cleansing …’)

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‘We three kings of orient are’

Three? Probably not. Kings? Certainly not. Matthew knew the Greek word for ‘king’; he uses it in the same passage to refer to both the ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘King Herod’. Instead, he uses the word magoi. The magi were ‘the class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia, reputed to possess supernatural powers’ (Random House Dictionary), and the word spread through various middle-Eastern and European languages, expanded to include those who practiced ‘astrology, alchemy and other forms of esoteric knowledge’ (Wikipedia), and eventually entered English as ‘magician’. In any other circumstances, Matthew and many translators since would have condemned their beliefs and practices in no uncertain terms. Instead, because the magoi sought, found and worshipped Jesus, they are labelled as ‘wise men’ and tacitly approved.

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‘Round yon virgin’

There is a story of a young girl in a Sunday school class drawing a picture of the Nativity. Her teacher looked at it: there were Jesus, Mary and Joseph, an angel, shepherds and sheep … and a very fat man. The teacher asked ‘Who is he?’ and the girl replied ‘Oh, that’s Round John Virgin’.

The line is, of course, ‘round yon virgin mother and child’. In fact, the line is ‘All is bright round yon virgin mother and child’, but most people take too much time and breath after ‘bright’. There are two linguistics issues here, possibly reinforcing each other: misunderstanding the archaic word ‘yon’ (and the meaning of ‘virgin’), and running the /d/ of ‘round’ and the /j/ of ‘yon’ into /dʒ/. (Note that the IPA symbol /j/ stands for the English consonant sound ‘y’. The IPA symbol /y/ is something completely different.)

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