Word Matters Podcast

Is 'vice versa' changing?

Word Matters, Episode 49

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We're back to the mailbag this week with some of our favorite recent inquiries!

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: we reach into the mailbag for more questions from listeners like you. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Vice versa is a Latin phrase familiar to many English speakers, but are all those speakers using it to communicate the same thing? Here's Neil Serven with our first question.

Neil Serven: We have a question from someone who just goes by a high school student and they say, "I am a listener of Word Matters and I was wondering if you could talk about the definition of the phrase 'vice versa'. Merriam-Webster defines it as 'with the order changed' or 'with the relations reversed', but I've noticed many people use it in a slightly different sense. For example, if they say, 'A1 goes to B2 and vice versa', they mean that A2 goes to B1, which is not exactly the reverse of a relationship between two items." That is a really good observation in regards to our definition in that it doesn't really cover the complexity of that example that you're giving, where A2 goes to B1 and A1 goes to B2. I would say the definition might cover a more general use, a more flattened use, that we see in English where people simply just use it to mean in the other order or conversely, rather than more complex relationships where we have four parts and they're switching to each other. The common definition that we give is that it's with the order reversed. So if you can say, "You can wear a red shirt with blue shorts or vice versa," you are switching the roles. You're saying, not that you can wear blue shorts on a red shirt, but you can wear a blue shirt with red shorts. So the qualifiers of adjective and noun that are switching. Then you can say, "Emily, can you bring the cups and Ammon, can you bring the plates, or vice versa?" That would mean that Emily brings the plates and Ammon and brings the cups. It's sort of just implied that you know what parts are being switched when you say vice versa at the end of this. The more complex switching of A1 going to B2, that's not wrong, but it's certainly more complex than we are typically seeing in usage. This kind of semantic drift happens, especially when we're borrowing phrases from Latin, from other languages, where they have more of a firm meaning in that language, and then we're stretching them out and trying to make them more flexible for our purposes in English. It doesn't strike me as wrong, I would say, just maybe a bit unusual.

Emily Brewster: I do think that the letter writer should be commended for making this observation. It's the kind of observation that lexicographers are constantly making or trying to make.

Neil Serven: Yeah, if you keep this up, you have a very good chance of making a very bad living, [inaudible 00:02:57] with words someday, disappointing your parents and everyone else that had high hopes for you.

Emily Brewster: I'm really struck by the fact that you're saying [vice-a-versa 00:03:05], and I have always said vice versa. I know that has nothing to do with the question that this writer asked, but it made me curious and I looked up the entry at Merriam-Webster.com and we give both pronunciations: vice versa and [vice-a-versa 00:03:20]. It strikes me that the [vice-a-versa 00:03:22] pronunciation is probably closer to the Latin. I am not a Latin scholar, can any of you confirm this hunch?

Neil Serven: I'm not a Latin scholar. I did take Latin in school and I might've learned somewhere along that line that it wasn't just pronounced as the word vice that we have in English, but I can't say that really stuck with me, I guess it did.

Emily Brewster: And vice is Latin, meaning vicis or V-I-C-I-S. I don't know how those Latin speakers would pronounce it, but that word means "change" or "alternation" or "stead".

Neil Serven: So it is related to vice-president though, right? Vice-president is in the stead of the president.

Ammon Shea: Right, you thought vice-president was related to the vice squad kind of vice.

Emily Brewster: No, that's from a different Latin word. That is from Latin vitium, meaning "fault" or "vice". So we've got two different Latin sources here for the word vice as it functions in English.

Ammon Shea: Since I had nothing of substance to add, I did want to interject a useless bit of information, which is that Neil, you introduced this letter writer as someone who describes themself as a high school student, which is a nice way of introduction that we used to refer to as a demonym. Now when we think of a demonym, we only define it as "a word or a term to denote a person who inhabits or is native to a particular place", like New York. However, before it had that meaning, it had a meaning of a generally descriptive name and people used to use it, particularly in the 18th and 19th century, they would sign their books as a gentlemen or a lady, a lady of substance, or something like this. I'd like to see the demonym a high school student come back, that would be nice. I'd like to see demonym come back.

Peter Sokolowski: I think we added demonym to the dictionary.

Ammon Shea: Referring to a place designation, so a New Yorker or Nevadan. That use dates to the 1980s and 1990s, the use as a generally descriptive name, which is how the OED defines it, goes back to the middle of the 19th century and is obviously considerably older.

Emily Brewster: Demonym is a good word, and it has the word demon in it. So that's fun.

Ammon Shea: Considering that this is about a word that has demon in it and we're talking about vice, this is an extraordinarily staid conversation we're having here very.

Neil Serven: This happened very quickly.

Emily Brewster: And I should clarify that the demon in demonym is just a coincidence really because the nym means "name" and the demos means "district, country, people, common people, political district in Attica".

Ammon Shea: Attica's a good word to end on

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: If you enjoy Word Matters, check out the Science Diction podcast from the producers of public radio's Science Friday. It's a podcast about words and the science behind them. On a recent episode, Language Evolves, Peter and I talk with Johanna Mayer about words born out of mistakes. That's Science Diction, available wherever you get your podcasts. Our second question also involves a widely known phrase with a somewhat mysterious element: beck and call. With apologies to the Grammy winning musician, what is a beck? Ammon Shea may not have two turntables, but he has the microphone.

Ammon Shea: Don sent us a letter in which he states, "Despite its presence in your dictionary, I refuse to believe that there is such a word as beck, as used in the equally non-existent phrase, 'beck and call'." Don submits that the real words, beckon call, B-E-C-K-O-N followed by call, whose meaning he believes is obvious, have been misused into the three word deformation — his words, not ours — that have undeservedly gained acceptance for reasons that may form the basis of an interesting inquiry. The first thing we should start with is beck is, we regret to inform you, in fact, a real word. Beck has been in use as a verb, meaning "to beckon", since the 13th century and as a noun, meaning either "a bow", "a beckoning gesture", or "a summons", "a bidding". It's been in use as a noun since about the 14th century. So seven or 800 years, depending on which part of speech we're looking at. In the last sense of the noun, the summons, the bidding sense, that's where we see it in the phrase "at one's beck and call", which we define as "ready to obey one's command immediately". So both beck and beckon share a route, they both come from the middle English bekenen, B-E-K-E-N-E-N, which is "to give a mute signal". Beck has been in fairly constant use since the last seven, 800 years. We see it in this sense, this is Romeus and Juliet, an anonymously written play in 1565, "And saith unto his soldiers, all obedient at a beck. My mates, my friends, my brethren dear, my fellows, all in a field." So that's 1565. Within several decades, we also start seeing evidence of beck and call. This is from John Downame, his perhaps unfortunately named work, The Christian Warfare from 1604, "Moreover, we know that true repentance is the gift of God and that we have it not at our own beck and call." So we also then see beck and call in near constant use from there on over the last 400, 500 years. However, just to be fair to Don, I did some searches on some databases to look whether beckon, B-E-C-K-O-N, call comes up and I compared that to beck and call. The database that I was using, which a variety of a data set called ProQuest, gives about 50 or 60,000 results for beck and call. It does, in fairness, give several hundred for beckon call, however, most of these are false positives. They're either trademarks or optical character misreadings and stuff. The one case where that does come up, which is an interesting linguistic subset, is letters to the editor, which are perhaps edited less-

Peter Sokolowski: Not, maybe, copy-edited to the same standards that the journalists would be.

Ammon Shea: So they still count as linguistic evidence. In fact, letters to the editor can often serve as really important linguistic evidence, and a lot of times we will see in unedited prose, whether it's diaries or letters to the editor, we'll see the beginnings of when words change form or changed meaning. So they're very useful for that. However, in this case, it is such a very minute portion of the use and it's all fairly recent. So beck and call goes back many, many hundreds of years. Beckon call is a recent shift. So it's not to say that it might not increase as time goes on, but for the moment, it is not yet at the stage that we would call it a variant.

Peter Sokolowski: It's almost like an acorn, right?

Ammon Shea: Yeah, sure.

Neil Serven: Yeah. It reminds me of a term like "spitting image", I believe is said to alter from an older phrase, "spit and image", which sounds a little strange to the modern ear. We are used to hearing spit as a verb or in a jargon form. So we hear spitting image, as "he's a spitting image of his father", you're not realizing the understanding that spit had been a noun at one point. Spit was a noun, it meant "the perfect likeness". So we don't know that, and so we're hearing spitting image, we're thinking there's the action of spitting happening somehow, maybe, I don't know. But it's easy to justify it that way, and so when you hear beck and call, you might hear beckon, the verb beckon, in there and you're more familiar with that than any noun beck, so that makes more sense.

Peter Sokolowski: That's sort of what we call folk etymology. This gravitational pull toward the logical when we don't have a familiar sound.

Emily Brewster: Although, it could also be considered a form of metanalysis, which we've talked before, which is false division. So the idea of the phrase beck and call is being divided differently from beckon call. In any case, in speech, it can be really hard to distinguish where one word ends and another word begins. In a running conversation, auditorily, for most speakers and most listeners, there's not going to be a distinction between beck and call and beckon call.

Peter Sokolowski: But with beck and call, we have this term beck, which we basically encounter in any other circumstances, is that right? It's sort of attached permanently to this phrase and is otherwise, what linguists sometimes call, a fossil word. In other words, it initially had all of the traits of a word, and now it's only found in this one usage.

Ammon Shea: Well, now it is. However, it did have a significant usage, and particularly if you look at a historical dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, they have several dozen instances of it across various meanings. Many of which, in fact, almost all of which, occur independent of the word call.

Peter Sokolowski: How interesting. To show that the word was alive and well. My point is though, that people today encountering that term beck by itself, really wouldn't understand it. There are others like this, like "bumper crop". What is the bumper of a bumper crop? It turns out that bumper began as a word for a drinking vessel that is filled to the brim, and so a full vessel, and therefore became a little image for that. Or the term "beyond the pale". What's the pale? It turns out pale meant "steak" or "pole". It's the same etymological root as pole. So it meant a fence or a barrier, so beyond the pale meant "beyond the gate or the fence". So there are a bunch of these that are interesting.

Neil Serven: You think of nap in the word kidnap. You hear kidnap now, you hear dognap, and all that, but you never say, "They went and napped my dog." You never hear that as the verb. It refers to an old custom that we don't use anymore, and so now it's just kidnap or dognap or something else nap. It's almost used as a combining form.

Peter Sokolowski: And doesn't mean a short sleep.

Emily Brewster: In kidnap, what is the nap?

Neil Serven: Nap is a verb originated in 17th century slang meaning "to arrest or to seize unexpectedly".

Emily Brewster: That makes sense.

Peter Sokolowski: There's also "bated breath", which is B-A-T-E-D. Bated breath.

Neil Serven: Which is often misspelled as baited, like a baited hook on a fishing rod.

Peter Sokolowski: So people kind of attribute an entirely different logic to the phrase, but bated is just a shortened form of abated. So in other words, short of breath, holding your breath. So bated breath is a form of that word that we don't use in modern English anymore.

Neil Serven: Well, your breath could just smell like herring or worms or something.

Emily Brewster: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or comment, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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