Words and Stuff
English abounds with words to confuse the unwary. ‘Fruition’ has everything to do with enjoyment and pleasurable possession; nothing to do with fruit. A ‘bellwether’ is a sheep with leadership qualities and a bell, not a storm warning. ‘Wrack’ is about vengeance or shipwreck – or perhaps seaweed. It is not a device for stretching brains, bodies or countries at war, which may be ‘racked’. ‘Quixotic’ is all about impractical idealism and dreamy generosity. It has no link to caprice or unpredictability.
Which brings us to words ending ‘-ing’. Really? Well, yes: they too can cause confusion, though usually without embarrassment.
We generally think of ‘-ing’ words as formations from verbs. You can stick ‘-ing’ onto any old verb and you’ll get a participle,and with luck a noun (gerund) and an adjective as well. True, ‘I was sitting’ seems to have given way almost everywhere to ‘I was sat’, but no matter: the point is that some ‘-ing’ words are not formed in the standard fashion from a verb. They’re the interesting ones.
A few of these are onomatopoeic: ‘ping’; ‘zing’; ‘ring-a-ding’; perhaps also ‘sing’. Many more are in the ‘-ling’ group. Some of these have long been used for a person connected to or employed by another – a ‘hireling’ or an ‘underling’, for example, or even a ‘darling’. More recently, ‘-lings’ have been applied contemptuously to ‘earthlings’, ‘striplings’ and ‘worldlings’ (defined by Dr Johnson as ‘mortals set upon profit’). They come from Old English.
More come from Old Norse, bringing with them a diminutive force. The natural world is rich in little ‘-lings’. It has ‘ducklings’, ‘goslings’, ‘fledglings’, ‘nestlings’ and ‘codlings’. These ‘-lings’ also turn up in the arts, whether as Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, the ‘kidlings blithe and merry’ of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, or W S Gilbert’s stolen prince, left gaily prattling with a highly respectable gondolier and ‘his own beloved bratling’.
One other Norse ‘-ling’ deserves a mention. Vidkun Quisling, the wartime head of Norway’s puppet government, had odious views but gave the world an excellent name for collaborators. ‘To writers,’ wrote the Times in April 1940, ‘the word Quisling is a gift from the gods... They could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous.’
A few other ‘-ing’ words have a hint of menace. The adverb ‘darkling’ seems sinister, but in Milton’s lines – ‘the wakeful bird sings darkling’ – is surely quite benign, meaning only ‘in the darkness’. I don’t know about the surnames Greening and Grayling. The Romans considered umbra, the grayling, to be a ghostlike fish.
In general, ‘-ing’ words give pleasure. On the plate or on the palate, we enjoy both ‘stuffing’ and ‘crackling’. We like an ‘outing’ – except perhaps in its newest sense – and a good ‘innings’ (a plural used as a singular too in British English, though not in American). And though we do not ‘miche’ much these days, we can appreciate Herrick’s adjective to describe a skulking, stealing rodent: ‘A cat / I keep, that plays about my house, / Grown fat / With eating many a miching mouse.’ ‘Oddling’ is even rarer than ‘miching’ and I’m not sure what it means (‘slightly eccentric’?) but, as used by John Clare in his description of a crow swinging in idle motion on a ‘half-rotten ash tree’s topmost twig’, I like it.
I also like ‘gloaming’, which I took to be Scots but learn is Old English. And I like ‘inkling’, a Middle English word for ‘mentioning in an undertone’, or a ‘hint’ or ‘slight intimation’; hence ‘suspicion’. Better still is the ‘offing’, that part of the sea beyond the anchorage but before the horizon, whose first citation (1666) in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘At Two this day… the Generals discovered Trump… in the Offen.’ Nothing changes.
All this, of course, can be dismissed as footling – a smattering of scholarship signifying nothing.