Plural Fixation

Or, “How not to be a pedant with the OED.”

I like a good hatchet job. Done well, the literary smack-down is thrilling and educative. Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins [“Lunging, flailing, mispunching”, LRB, 19.10.06] is among my favourite examples of the dark art: characterizing Dawkins’s idea of the Christian god as “some kind of chap”, Eagleton says:

He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is.

Say what you like about Eagleton or Dawkins (or God), “arguably” is just so well judged it almost makes you giddy.

I felt the blood-lust rising when I picked up a recent review of Eric Hayot’s On Literary Worlds (Oxford UP, 2012), and saw this opening whack of the hatchet: “This book promises many things and delivers none. The reasons for the dismal yield, however, are worth discussing.” By the time we get to the end, the blade has been twisted so many times, this feels almost like mercy:

the sole merit of this book will be to show our successors, who might perhaps come across a pile of unsold copies in many years’ time, how horrible intellectual life on earth once was.

The reviewer is Miguel Tamen (the review is published in Modern Philology, August 2014), who has written books on aesthetics and interpretation. Now, I haven’t read Hayot and have no pressing plans to, so I’m not interested in defending his book here. Neither would I like to serve Tamen a dose of his own medicine. But two little barbs sent Hayot’s way are of interest to me, since they ride on a set of assumptions about language, usage, and the Oxford English Dictionary. Here is Tamen describing the structure of the book:

part 4 is a series of appendices (which the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary have here chosen to term “appendixes”).

The implication is that the editors of Oxford University Press have let pass some barbarism in this book that their own flagship publication would never countenance. More evidence of the intellectual rot of today.

Has Miguel Tamen actually used the Oxford English Dictionary? Did he bother to look up appendix to see what the OED has to say about its plural?

No, he didn’t.

If Tamen had spent the short amount of time it takes to look up this word in the dictionary he holds out as a linguistic authority, he would have found two plurals listed for appendix: -ices and -ixes. No pleading contemporary intellectual corruption here: both plurals were listed in the first publication in 1885, and have been there ever since. That is because of a long history of appendixes in English writing, which OED editors diligently compiled, without prejudice.

Had Tamen looked up appendix as he should have, he would have found instances of appendixes going back to 1549, roughly the same time as the first appendices (1592), including this in Ellis Walker’s Epictetus (1692): “My Children…are but the Appendixes of me.” I don’t think appendices would have worked quite so well there, for some reason.

The dictionary can, of course, be used as an offensive weapon in some argument that depends on facts of language. But it should first be used for its intended purpose, which is to teach us those facts. Tamen forgot that part, and in doing so made the cardinal error of pedantry. That is, if you’re going to call someone else an idiot, you’d best be sure you don’t show yourself to be one in the same breath.

The second linguistically pedantic barb is but an echo of the first, but it is interesting for additional reasons. Here’s Tamen again:

However, the proper nouns denoting the various philosophers are oddly unrigid; they almost always denote the authors of commentaries thereon that are standard fare in graduate school syllabuses (as Oxford University Press would undoubtedly now say).

Undoubtedly, yes. But one needn’t doubt or not doubt, since the answer is there s.v. syllabus in the OED. In fact OED and OUP have been saying syllabuses since 1919, thank you very much, when that volume of the dictionary was first published.

However, the usage evidence is another story. Despite giving both syllabi and syllabuses as the plural forms, OED cites exactly zero instances of syllabuses (and only two of syllabi, both after 1880, despite syllabus being in use from 1656). How can this be? Apparently, the syllabuses plural is given purely on principle, since syllabi makes no linguistic sense, given the apparent Greek origin of the term, from syllabos. Like octopi, syllabi is a plural invented on a Latin model for a Greek-derived word, it would seem. Good enough for people with little Latin and less Greek, perhaps.

But whereas the etymologically correct plural of octopus is obviously octopodes (just say octopuses, you’ll be fine), syllabus is a whole other story, since syllabos isn’t a word in Greek at all. The longish etymological note tells a fascinating story of lexical misapprehension:

mod.L. syllabus, usually referred to an alleged Gr. σύλλαβος. Syllabus appears to be founded on a corrupt reading syllabos in some early printed editions—the Medicean MS. has sillabos—of Cicero Epp. ad Atticum iv. iv, where the reading indicated as correct … is sittybas or Gr. σιττύβας, acc. pl. of sittyba, σιττύβα parchment label or title-slip on a book. … Syllabos was græcized by later editors as συλλάβους, from which a spurious σύλλαβος was deduced and treated as a derivative of συλλαµβάνειν to put together, collect (cf. syllable).

So it’s all mostly ad-hockery, and has been from the beginning. There’s a somewhat subtle argument to be made that -us/-i is basically a productive English plural in many current dialects. But of course that’s not the argument that Tamen is relying on. And it does nothing to rule out -us/-uses, (or -usses), since we still ride buses (not bi), succumb to viruses (not viri… that would be something else entirely), and add with pluses (not pli). Just as we post-pose suffixes (not suffices), add to mixes (not mices), and ward off devils with crucifixes (not crucifices).

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