Words and Stuff

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Johnny Gri­mond

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.

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