1880s English


A few more interesting entries from the Dictionary of Blunders:

“ABSQUATULATE (introduced from America) means to run away from your ‘squatting’ or settlement. The word is applied in England to any one running away from his creditors.” OED1 has the word, but the first fascicle of the OED was published in 1884, probably three years after this little book. OED gives three quotations, the latest from 1861, so its appearance here may show that the word was in more-or-less common use nearly twenty years later. This is one of the few entries that does not try to correct a perceived blunder, but simply defines a word.

“DONATE, meaning give, grant, present, is an Americanism, and should be avoided.” Even as recently as OED2, this word is still categorized as “chiefly U.S.”, although the 9th edition of the Concise Oxford (1990), has no such comment. I have never thought of it as an American import, so its use in the UK must have been common for many years before that. Incidentally, OED2 defines it: ‘To make a donation or gift of; hence, vulgarly (in U.S.), to give, bestow, grant’. I can see very little difference between “make a gift of” and “give”, so why one usage of donate should be ‘vulgar’ but not the other puzzles me.

DOCILE, FEBRILE, and FRAGILE are all to be pronounced with -ill as the final syllable. This is not a surprise – the BBC recommendations as late as 1928 agree with this. The memory of these pronunciations in Britain is completely lost now, and they are thought of as American only. SENILE, on the other hand, has always been /ˈsiːnaɪl/ on both sides of the Atlantic, and is given so in this book. The /-aɪl/ pronunciations in the UK presumably arose when Classical education declined, leaving no one certain which words originated in a Latin -ĪLIS, and which in -ĬLIS. How then did US English manage to retain the distinction? I’m not sure how well Americans think Peter Sellers did with his accent in Dr Strangelove, but one of the obvious ‘mistakes’ was that he referred to /’mɪsaɪlz/ throughout.


  1. Yes I noticed that. How could such an obvious infelicity have been allowed to stand?

    It may of course have been because Sellers was too august to direct, or because he thought the idea of Doomsday missals flying in all directions was gratuitously hilarious, but he was so accomplished it may not have been a ‘mistake’ at all. He may have judged that a German of that age who would have learnt BrE would succeed in an approximation to AmE pronunciation but not its variant preferences with respect to individual lexical items.

  2. BTW the character’s original name was (less plausibly?) Merkwürdigliebe, you know!

  3. DONATE: With respect, aren’t you being a bit precious here? The definition may not be a masterpiece but I for one have no trouble seeing a difference between “make a gift of” and “give”. I imagine what they’re driving at is that while you can (stricto sensu) donate an old clock or a fiver to Oxfam, to “donate” a fiver to your nephew at Christmas would be (oh dear) “vulgar”. In other words “donate”, used “properly” means more than simply “give” — which surely no-one would disagree with. This broadening of the precise meaning of a word is surely a frequent type of “vulgarism”.

    DOCILE, FEBRILE, and FRAGILE: I don’t understand the point about “words originated in a Latin -ĪLIS”: febrile is one (of many) such. Incidentally OED *still* hasn’t got round to updating the pronunciation of that word and only allows V/-ɪl/. As usual the OED transcriptions are hopelessly inconsistent; apparently quintile is usually /-ɪl/ in the UK, while quartile is always /-aɪl/ and /-ɪl/ for the Americans; sextile is /-aɪl/ both sides of the Atlantic but bissextile is /-ɪl-/ with no mention of America (these entries make a nice study in the utter chaos of OED’s phons!). The only mention I’ve found of the diachronic change is at fissile which is /-ɪl/, “now usu.” /-aɪl/.

  4. Graham,
    If anyone was ever that fussed about Classical quantities, why didn’t they say /ˈsɛnaɪl/?

    I suppose the devil was always in the detail with a monstrous project like OED and its shambolic updates, but the chaos of the phons is indeed especially utter. The detail of the inconsistencies in the etymological treatment and in the alloseme/lemma status of the quintile and sextile that you mention is no less diabolical!

    I have treasured for 45 years the “vulgarism” with which an Australian businessman regaled me. He had “sourced” a doll’s house for his daughter. I have never heard anything to equal it since.

  5. I can’t believe that the distinction between short and long -ile was lost in BrEmerely because Britons forgot their Latin, since Americans forgot it too. Rather, we retained the older pronunciation because we are the periphery of the language, even though the periphery has physically outgrown the core by a factor of four or so.

  6. Michael – senile could be /ˈsi:naɪl/ because of the “long-by-position” rule, which gives us /’heɪbɪəs/ corpus and the semi-jocular /’peɪtə/ to go with /’meɪtə/.

  7. John C – I didn’t use the word “merely”, as you seem to imply, but there seems no reason to me why this should not have been one of a number of contributory factors.
    AE used to be peripheral, but to assume that that is still the case is, in my view, misguided: surely the centre changes depending on cultural attitudes: if enough people think that the US is where it’s at – to use an Americanism – then the US is now the centre and the UK peripheral. BE is picking up all sorts of Americanisms (and I’m not using that in a derogatory sense), but reverting to the short /-ɪl/ doesn’t appear to be one of them.

  8. I assume all of us know the “long-by-position” rule, so my question was rhetorical, picking on the fact that your example ‘senile’ had never been /ˈsɛnaɪl/ rather as a reductio ad absurdum of any argument from Classical quantities rather than from English orthography, though by all means intending it to be semi-jocular.

    But in any case the “long-by-position” rule is not much of a rule: we don’t have to look any further from Harry’s examples than decile, /ˈdɛsaɪl/ or /ˈdɛsl/ to find an exception that ‘proves’ it to destruction. I did check this extensively, and I haven’t found a single dictionary that gives any pronunciation but one or the other or both of those.

    My point was that “Classical quantities” are a pretty \ˈstɛraɪl\ criterion.

    Yes of course the US is now the centre and the UK peripheral. The PoW would kick up a bit wouldn’t he? And I acknowledge that some of the rest of us have done so about some things. But hasn’t even the BBC adopted a US standard for its EFL provision?

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