Good Questions: Playing it by the numbers

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The Independent Culture
MY WHOLE family has been intrigued by references to 'Morton's Fork'. Could you kindly explain the meaning and derivation of the phrase?' (Elizabeth Jones, Lutterworth, Leics.)

Named after John Morton (1420-1500), Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England in the reign of Henry VII, it was the medieval version of 'heads I win, tails you lose'. Morton's fork, also known as 'Morton's crutch', was a piece of sophistry designed to extract funds from the rich and poor alike. The rich could obviously afford it, while those who claimed to be poor were equally obviously concealing their savings. If one prong of the fork didn't get you, the other one would.

Why do people say 'Ups-a-daisy' and not 'Ups-a-buttercup' or 'Ups-a-rose'?

Flowers have nothing to do with it. The history of the expression starts with the downbeat expression of gloom, alack-a-day, which turned into lackaday, which brightened up slightly into lackadaisy in the first half of the 18th century. Jonathan Swift introduced, by analogy, the upbeat interjection up a-dazy in 1711, which turned into up-a-daisey in 1756 and up-a-daisy in 1854. 50 years later, we had upsidaisy, which the OED describes as a 'fanciful version' of up-a-daisy, and more recently upsadaisy, oops-a-daisy and hoops-a-daisy.

Why do so many words associated with the nose, or with rhinological attitudes, begin with the letters 'sn'? I have counted 21 without including somewhat dubious ones such as sneer, snarl or snuggle. (S C Thomas, Bexleyheath, Kent)

There is a concept in linguistics known as 'primary sound symbolism', whereby a sound may represent something outside language itself. This may involve mimesis (or onomatopoeia) where the word, or part of the word, mimics its meaning (for example cuckoo) or phonesthemes which involves a crossing-over from sound to some other sensation. Often quoted examples are the initial 'sw' indicating a smooth, wide-ranging movement (as in swirl, sweep, swing) and the final 'rl' (as in curl, twirl, swirl) indicating a roundness.

Both may have their original in the tongue, lip and palate movements needed to make the relevant sound, which suggest the generic meaning.

The same may be true of 'sn', which is hard to say without a twitch of the nose. The OED, incidentally, can double your list of 21 such words, many of which may derive from the Old English snytan, which gave us the 14th-century verb snite, meaning: 'to clean or clear (the nose) from mucus esp. by means of the thumb and finger only.' The earliest quotation given is from St Dunstan in 1305: 'Mid his tonge he snytte hise nose,'with later references including 'Pike not youre nose, snyff nor snitynge hyt to lowd.'

Finally, J C Mistletoe of Dublin asks: Why is there only one word for thesaurus?

Dictionary, encyclopaedia, lexicon, repository, storehouse, synonymicon, synonymy, treasury, vocabulary, wordbook.

Source: Chambers Thesaurus.

FEEDBACK: from Mr Mike Fox of Edgbaston:

(Owing to the sensitive nature of some of the material in this letter, we have felt obliged to substitute certain words by the Scrabble values of their letters.)

Re: Four-letter words.

3111, 1411, 4135, 3111.

These are some of the 100 or so words removed this year from America's Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary, following pressure from the Anti-Defamation League. Since the OSPD uses only words up to eight letters, anomalies arise: 413511 is now unplayable; but if you link it to the word 'mother', you have a 12- letter word which, since it's in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary - the ultimate authority - is entirely acceptable. British Scrabble players, you will be pleased to hear, are resisting this nonsense. We shall not easily relinquish our 4135s or our 1411s.

Coincidentally, last night in a family game, I managed to play 3111 on a triple word score, claiming that, to the dedicated Scrabble player, all things are pure. My wife, a notoriously poor loser, took the Anti-Defamation League standpoint.