Good day for authors

minnow at minnow at
Wed Aug 17 19:04:16 EDT 2005

>Bettina said:
> . . .But the sheer mass of words the English language has (accumulated)
>e.g. in the field
>"smile/grin/chuckle/sneer/guffaw/snicker/..." leaves me speechless :-)

and Elizabeth (Evans, not Bentley) suggested

>A theory I have heard for this plethora of similes is that it all harks
>back to the tradition of medieval alliterative poetry, when you had to
>have a word with the right sounds to fit into the line, and consequently
>there are lots of words with the same meaning which can be called on to

(grabs nearest book to hand containing anything alliterative -- J.A. Burrow
and Thorlac Turville-Petre's *A Book of Middle English* -- in order to find
an example that doesn't have any thorns and yoghs and things this email
programme doesn't do)

It's a lovely theory, but I'm not sure it entirely works.  Alliterative
poetry is about the initial sound/letter of the word:
   "And clansyd hom in Cristes nome and kyrkes hom callid;
        ^              ^                ^          ^
   He hurlyd owt hor ydols and hade hym in sayntes,
      ^          ^             ^    ^
   And chaungit chevely hor nomes and chargit hom better"
       ^^       ^^                    ^^
which doesn't really call for more synonymous words than the need for
rhymes at the end of lines or a strict metric form does.  In any case
alliteration happened mostly (even if one includes the alliterative
revival) before the English language got into its stride and started
chasing other languages down dark alleys and mugging them and going through
their pockets for their spare words and phrases.  Chaucer (who died in
1400, which is roughly when the quotation above was probably written) was
already pretty dismissive about alliteration as being an old-fashioned and
countrified sort of poetry, and English was only just being recognisably
English in 1400, really.  It wasn't until a couple of centuries later that
characters like Shakespeare took to simply coining words to fit not
alliteration but iambics -- I think he invented about four hundred words,
or something, some of which (incarnadine!) haven't stuck but lots of which
have.  The addition of Latinate coinages gave a huge extra vocabulary to
English, and wasn't really much to do with alliterative verse at all, being

The other thing English does is have umpteen meanings for the same
sound/word: look up "fare/fair" some time, or "pink", and marvel.  :-)


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