Tuesday, November 29, 2005


A shout out from where?

I've been surprised twice today by the quality of the writing appearing in the usage notes of the The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. I think of dictionaries as utilitarian and, thus, don't expect to find pretty prose therein. Instead I found interesting passages that I'd be tempted to describe as melodious or even mellifluous. Admittedly, my literary diet has been a bit bland lately, composed of mostly news articles and technical material; perhaps this has left my pallet askew. What do you think? Feel free to tell me that I need to get out more.

From the entry for whence:

The construction from whence has been criticized as redundant since the 18th century. It is true that whence incorporates the sense of from: a remote village, whence little news reached the wider world. But from whence has been used steadily by reputable writers since the 14th century, most notably in the King James Bible: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (Psalms). Such a respectable precedent makes it difficult to label the construction as incorrect. Still, it may be observed that whence (like thence) is most often used nowadays to impart an archaic or highly formal tone to a passage, and that this effect is probably better realized if the archaic syntax of the word—without from—is preserved as well.

From the entry for kudos:

Kudos is one of those words like congeries that look like plurals but are etymologically singular. Acknowledging the Greek history of the term requires Kudos is (not are) due her for her brilliant work on the score. But kudos has often been treated as a plural, especially in the popular press, as in She received many kudos for her work. This plural use has given rise to the singular form kudo. These innovations follow the pattern whereby the English words pea and cherry were shortened from nouns ending in an (s) sound (English pease and French cerise), that were mistakenly thought to be plural. The singular kudo remains far less common than the plural use; both are often viewed as incorrect in more formal contexts. It is worth noting that even people who are careful to treat kudos only as a singular often pronounce it as if it were a plural. Etymology would require that the final consonant be pronounced as a voiceless (s), as we do in pathos, another word derived from Greek, rather than as a voiced (z).

What more could you ask for in a passage? It's got conflict, history, a grammar lesson, etymology, and resolution. I'd like to offer a kudo to the pen of the dictionary O. Henry from whence these word nerd short stories flowed.

Kudo on a fine entry.

I am grateful for drawing my attention to the respectable lineage of 'from whence', a construction I had always poo-pooed.
I've always thought of it more as pooh-poohing, not poo-pooed. Ah well, I pooh-pooh on your poo-pooage.
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