WOTD back on track

January 7, 2007

english noun gendering seems incredibly arbitrary. english is generally ungendered except when denoting natural gender, e.g. the gender of the person. yet not all nouns change to denote gender. i’m sure there’s been a lot of good research on the topic, but i hardly have time to read anything non-work related; keeping current with aeronautics trade journals is tough enough. my guess is that a lot of gendering in english comes from foreign loan words, as is the case of today’s word: doyen.

a doyen is, “the senior member of a group or society,” and has a corresponding feminine form, doyenne. both words are derived from the modern french. this is actually the second time that doyen entered the english language from french. the old french doyen entered as, “A leader or commander of ten. Obs,” without a feminine form, which makes sense because there probably weren’t many lady commanders back then. (commaderettes?)

feminine forms are rapidly dropping in modern American and their contemporary usage generally marks the text in some way. Tori Spelling is referred to as “Jewess” by her friend’s parents in the “So NoTORIous” pilot as a source of oh-too-delicious comedy (that was not a joke). This marking tendency is perhaps most notable in the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”:

“One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”

the term “executrix” is both a hilarious segue into Pynchonian madness and a substantive statement about the role of gender. the foreignness of “executrix,” and the casual nature in which it is introduced, highlight its absurdity: one’s first thought on being named an executor, a reminder of the loss of someone important, would hardly be grammatical.

yet at the same time it charts an interesting development in gender roles. Ms. Maas has just returned from a “Tupperware party” where she was disappointed with her “hostess.” Executrix parallels hostess, and serves as the bridge between the “feminine” home and the “male” business world of executors. Within this first sentence, Ms. Maas leaves the world of female domesticity and enters the “man’s” world of hardly honorary duties, still self-consciously aware of her womanhood.

and, by the way, i have no idea why i abandoned my love of post-colonial feminist thought in favor of aeronautical gallantry.

Yesterday’s Word.

January 7, 2007

well, you can’t blame a guy for falling a little behind. anyway today’s word (and special bonus word) comes to us from across the pond, where it is apparantly quite common.

stroppy: Bad-tempered, rebellious, awkward, obstreperous, unruly.

AHD lists the word as Chiefly British, while the OED labels it colloq. Let this be a reminder to Americans that the OED is not exactly our dictionary. Although it may have something to do with my provincial uprising, I can’t remember ever hearing the word stroppy in my life. Supposedly, it comes fromĀ  OBSTREPEROUS which comes from the LatinĀ  obstrepere to make a noise against. So, to be rebellious or bad-tempered is really to be noisy.

Not the most entertaining word of the day, I know. But it’s late, and I’m really just posting to make sure I don’t fall out of it. Hopefully the special bonus word will make up for it.

Volver: spanish for return

Volver is related to the French revenir which “enters” the English language as “revene.” “Revene,” however, is never used. The OED entry for Revene lists no real quotes. They simply cite someone else’s definition of the word (which is, to return or come back). In English, the revenir root most frequently occurs in the word “revenant,” or ghost. a revenant is one who has returned. Interestingly enough, even though revene never seems to have been used in English, it’s citation is about two hundred years earlier than the first reference for revenant.

But, for those who like their linguistic connections a little tighter, volver also gives birth to the English verb “volve.” Volve is completely obsolete. as a transitive verb, “Volve” is to turn over, as in the pages of a book, or consider, as in to turn over in one’s mind. Its intransitive meaning is just as interesting. Listed as nonce-use (which I’m pretty sure means it was neologized), the intrans. form of the word means: To turn over, to roll. So, I suppose, one volves down a hill.

Volve does have a current form in English. Its present participle “Volvent,” means Turning round.

Question for a linguist: do many obsolete indicative verbs survive in their participle form?

Hope the bonus obsolete verb made up for stroppy.