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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-08-6)

The last Contextually Yours contribution described South African English as “a language under stress”. The severity of that stress was handsomely illustrated a day or two later in a Sunday newspaper. One of its regular columnists had received a statement from the ANC, the ruling political party, relating to Kwazulu-Natal’s Minister of Education. This good lady, having demonstrated a considerable fondness for parties (of the social kind) and a marked distaste for official duties, apparently decided to resign. After a short time, she attempted to withdraw her resignation, evidently without success.

The ANC’s statement on this matter deserves a wider audience. It read as follows:

We call the legislature to full investigate whether the former MEC, Mrs Faith Gasa, has resigned as the Premier call it on Friday. We believe the MEC was push hence she denied her intention to resign. If she real resigned why the matter is refer to lawyers. The Premier must resolve this drama speediciously without placing the Education into a deeper crisis."

One hates to think what a deeper crisis in the Education might produce.

A helping of humble pie might seem appropriate for the good MEC, and the origin of that phrase was going to be the subject of this column. Alas, a certain Wordsmith on the Internet has beaten me to it and given the game away (no pun intended), but it’s worth recalling. The word “umbles” or “numbles” means “the entrails (liver, heart, etc), esp of a deer”. It would be possible to make an umble pie, or a numble pie, from this material, and since the best parts of the deer would presumably be eaten by the gentry, the umble pie would be for the humbler participants in the hunt. “Umble” and “humble” derive from quite different Latin words – “lumbus”, a loin, and “humilis”, low, respectively – but the confusion between the English words was inevitable, and “eating humble pie” was born.

That shift between “an umble” and “a numble” is a familiar piece of folk-linguistics that puts in an appearance from time to time. Much the same thing happened with “aught” and “naught”.

As Mr Micawber famously remarked in David Copperfield ,” Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” What did he mean by “ought”? He meant “nothing”: annual expenditure was twenty pounds, no shillings and sixpence.

My dictionary describes “ought” as “a variant of aught; also an illiterate corruption of naught”.

And confusion reigns supreme when you look up “aught – anything, anything at all; a whit, jot.” So there we are – aught can mean “anything” or “nothing”, depending on what you want it to mean, just as Humpty Dumpty said: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, - neither more nor less.” Perhaps fortunately, “aught” and “ought” have become more or less obsolete, and their opposites are unequivocal – “naught” equals “nought” equals 0, and that settles that. Well, for the time being, anyway.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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