Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"carry the question farther back, but leave it still more obscure"

Today I found an interesting example of a sense lost for words – by which I mean a concept that it was once possible to express in English in one word but isn't any longer.

How would you say "bear fruit" or "pay off" or "yield results" or "benefit me" in just one word? You could say "succeed" or "flourish", but that doesn't quite capture the sense of an endeavour producing some dividend that is separable from the endeavour itself.

The OED's historical thesaurus has a section called "be advantageous or beneficial [verb (intransitive)]". Under this category, we find: dow, frame, freme, help, hold, gain, yain, it is speedful, profit, vail, speed, prow, boot, prevail, avail, mister, skill, stead, conduce. That's in chronological order of their earliest citation, from c. 950 for "dow" to 1624 for "conduce". Of those nineteen, seventeen are marked as obsolete or archaic.

That leaves only "boot" and "avail". I was unfamiliar with "boot", but apparently you can say, for instance, "It boots thee not to be compassionate." (That's from Richard II, which I studied for A-level, so at some point I must have learned this meaning of "boot", and subsequently forgotten it.)

(A lovely aside in the OED about the etymology of "boot": "An early but dubiously genuine use appears under booty adj., which, if really used by Lydgate c1430, would carry the question farther back, but leave it still more obscure.")

The OED is not ready to declare this sense of "boot" to be obsolete or archaic. The problem is, even if you could still say "it didn't boot me much to sign the contract", you couldn't say "the experiment booted" or "my efforts did not boot." Whereas you could once have said "the experiment profited", meaning "the experiment bore fruit."

That leaves "avail." We all know "it was of no avail" or "I availed myself of some biscuits". But here are some citations for "avail" from the OED under "intr. To be of value, profit, or advantage."

1489 (▸a1380) J. Barbour Bruce (Adv.) i. 338 For knawlage off mony statis May quhile awailȝe full mony gatis.
a1538 T. Starkey Dial. Pole & Lupset (1989) 25 What avaylyth hyt to have ryches..to hym wych can not by wysdome use them.
1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis ii. 24 Whilst counsel auayled, Then we were of reckning.
1844 B. Disraeli Coningsby III. vii. vii. 153 What avail his golden youth, his high blood..if they help not now!

The first and third I cannot interpret. The second uses "avalyth hyt" i.e. "it avails" which is no advance on "it boots". And the fourth actually reads to me like Disraeli is using "avail" as a noun instead of a verb. So there are no citations that really show how "avail" could be used in the context of "the experiment availed" or "my efforts did not avail". Until I find one, "avail" is out.

Which leaves no word in the English language that does this job!

That is strange to me. Of course there are plenty of things for which English once had a word but the word died. But I expect most of them are obsolete behaviours or ideas. There can't be many gaps like this, where for some reason we abandoned the ability to express such a basic concept in one word, and never regained it.

As a writer, why do I care?

Firstly, because there are some sentences where the rhythm simply insists on one word instead of two. So if I can't use just one word there, I have to restructure the whole sentence.

Secondly, because the two-word substitutes aren't always viable. "Yield results" is clunky and formal; "benefit me" brings along a pronoun that isn't necessarily welcome; and "bear fruit" and "pay off" both have a tinge of metaphor, which can interfere with other metaphorical content in the sentence.

I'd like to advocate that we bring back "profit" as it was once used. Today, if you said "the experiment profited", people would be waiting for an object at the end of that sentence, because they're not used to hearing "profit" used as an impersonal intransitive. But the old sense of "profit" is there in the dictionary, long slumbering but still fit for duty. I'll finish with this excellent citation:

1658 J. Rowland tr. T. Moffet Theater of Insects in Topsell's Hist. Four-footed Beasts (rev. ed.) 1119 But for nauseating that ariseth from worms, and gnawing of the stomach, a grain of salt held in the mouth, and melted and swallowed down, profits wonderfully.

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