Monday May 31, 2004

Grammar and Swashbuckling

The Wife and I watched the 1952 version of Scaramouche tonight. I'd been wanting to see it, in part because it has a reputation as the Best Fencing Movie Ever. The fencing was pretty impressive all through, too. One of the DVD extras is an interview with Mel Ferrer, who said they never repeated a sequence of blade movements in any of the duels so that they wouldn't look repetitive. Still, I was always aware of the usual stage-fencing problem: the fencers always stood too close together, so it'd be over the first time somebody thought to lunge. Fencing aside, though, two language-related points came up during the movie.

The first point was a joke about grammar. Scaramouche takes place just before the Revolution in France. Early in the film, our hero Andre Moreau visits his friend Philippe (played by a young Richard Anderson—Oscar Goldman with a ponytail!), who has written a subversive pamphlet, subtly titled "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité". He asks Andre's opinion of it:

Philippe: Well? What do you think of it?

Andre: The grammar is appalling. On the first page, you've doubled a negative, split an infinitive, and left out three commas.

Oh, Andre, you rake. Two problems, though: in French, the double negative ne...pas is obligatory (at least in written French), and you can't split an infinitive, because the infinitive is a single word. Oops. I wonder if this error is in the original novel. It was written in English, but by Rafael Sabatini, an Italian (who ought to know better).

The second point is the etymology of a word. The Wife wanted to know where swashbuckling comes from. I didn't know, and rather than guess, I went straight to the OED. Here's the etymology of swashbuckler:

[f. SWASH v. + BUCKLER n.2; hence lit. one who makes a noise by striking his own or his opponent's shield with his sword.]

But what's swash?

3. To make a noise as of swords clashing or of a sword beating on a shield (cf. SWASHBUCKLER); to fence with swords; to bluster with or as with weapons; to lash out; hence, to swagger.

So a swashbuckler is someone who swashes your buckler (small shield). It's not derived from a verb, although the adjectival form swashbuckling is apparently derived from that misapprehension, but is instead a verb-object compound like pickpocket. That sort of compound isn't very common in English (I don't have any more examples on the tip of my brain)—that rarity, combined with what appeared to be the agentive -er suffix must have led people reanalyze it as derived from the verb *swashbuckle.

One last bit of movie trivia. Several times, I was struck by the fact that Stewart Granger looked like a younger version of Jimmy Stewart. In watching the aforementioned Mel Ferrer interview, he mentioned that "Stewart Granger" was actually a stage name, and that when Granger had come over from England, he had had to stop using his real name because it was already being used by another actor. His birth name? James Stewart. [Cue Twilight Zone music.]

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Aaah! Thanks for reminding me that I need to see that movie. My instructor back home occasionally raves about the movie, but lazy me never got around to seeing it. Though, it might be hard to get my hands on while I'm in Japan...

As for V+Obj compounds, I could come up with killjoy, but not much else. There are a fair amount of V+Obj (or comp) compounds in Japanse, though, like

付け火, 入れ歯, 貼り紙, and the -mono compounds like 買い物. Of course, this is the opposite of the typical word order; N+V compounds are practically endless in number.

Posted by: Russell at May 31, 2004 7:16:21 AM

lickspittle, heal-all, breakwater, breakfast

Posted by: Keith at May 31, 2004 8:29:02 AM

Rakehell, singsong, tattletale.

The exchange is not in the book, which is online at:

Posted by: language hat at Jun 1, 2004 3:47:43 PM

Ah, that's right, 1921 was before the copyright event horizon. I should have thought to check.

Of the compound words mentioned so far, "lickspittle", "breakwater", "rakehell", and "tattletale" are definitely of the same sort as "swashbuckler": a verb and its direct object, where the referent of the compound word is the agent of the verb. "Heal-all" is possibly in the same class too, although "all" is a quantifier and so maybe has a more adverbial meaning.

"Breakfast" is a different sort of compound. A person breaks his fast, but a "breakfast" is a meal, not a person. We don't say, "The scrambled eggs broke my fast", we say, "I broke my fast with scrambled eggs" -- except that we actually say neither, because "break X's fast" is really old fashioned. I suspect that for many speakers, "breakfast" is completely lexicalized as "the morning meal" without any awareness of its etymology. That would fit with the shift of the first vowel and reduction of the second. All this assumes that the "break" in "breakfast" was originally a verb and not a noun, by the way, but the OED implies that was the case.

The usual modern meaning of "singsong" makes it the wrong kind of compound, too. Something is "singsong" if it has a particular songlike vocal quality, but the thing with that quality (a tone, for example) isn't necessarily singing a song. However, the OED does list the verb+object=agent meaning as well: "A singer, minstrel. Obs." Is that the meaning you were thinking of, Hat?

I originally thought to include "scofflaw" in the list, but a scofflaw doesn't scoff the law, he scoffs *at* the law. How about "scapegrace"?

Posted by: The Tensor at Jun 1, 2004 8:05:30 PM

cutpurse; scapegrace?

Posted by: Anton Sherwood at Jun 12, 2004 2:29:07 PM

VO compounds like these are called "tosspots" (itself an example), and _Verbatim_ magazine once published an article with hundreds of them, though I can't lay my hands on the issue date at present. It was reprinted in the eponymous book, anyhow.

Shakespeare seems to have been fond of them: he uses "mumblenews" (rumor-monger) and "pleaseman" (yes-man) in _Love's Labour's Lost_ (I never know where to put the apostrophes in that).

Posted by: John Cowan at Jan 29, 2005 9:06:28 AM