Stupid Thorns and Sassy Emoticons

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February 18, 2021 by libroshombre

            Old BBC Britcoms provides excellent escape from the pandemic to carefree, less restrictive times for my cellmate and me.  However, a couple of English idiosyncrasies in pronunciation have become more apparent, especially their gemination of the word “stupid.”  Webster’s defines “gemination as “a sequence of identical speech sounds,” and in this instance “stupid” becomes a juicy “schhhtuupid” in English mouths.  For example, the wife of Rene, the protagonist café owner in “‘Allo ‘Allo,” regularly catches Rene “canoodling” with one of the barmaids, and he just as regularly rebukes her with “Schhhtuupid woman”! before providing a far-fetched reason why the canoodling was entirely innocent.

            “Stretched words like ‘heeeellllp’ or ‘heyyyyy’ are a regular feature of spoken language, often used to emphasize or exaggerate the underlying meaning of the root word, according to “Hahahahahaha, Duuuuuuude, Yeeesssss!,” an online article by Tyler Gray, et al.  “While stretched words are rarely found in formal written language and dictionaries, they are prevalent within social media.”  The authors studied 100 billion tweets over an 8-year period and determined that “with the advent and rise of social media, stretched words have finally found their way into large-scale written text.”  They also cited a study on emoticons that “looked at the differences between Twitter users who include a nose with their emoticon faces [ 🙂 ] and those who don’t [ : )]  … in general, users with noseless emoticons tended to have less formal writing, including increased use of stretched words, compared to users who included noses with their emoticons,” who also “tended to use more standard writing, including fewer stretched words.”

            Really clever users of emoticons will add a thorn, an Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic letter that looks like a capital “I” with a hump in the middle of the right-hand side, i.e., þ or Þ and sounds the same as “th.”  Thorns were was used in Old English and throughout medieval Scandinavia and are still part of the Icelandic alphabet.  When added to the happy face emoticon it becomes sassy: :-Þ.  Thorns were used into the Middle English era but were superseded by Willam Caxton, the first English printer.  Caxton brought printing to England from sub-Scandinavian Europe, where Þs were unknown; consequently, the metal type fonts he brought with him to England didn’t include thorns.  Since Caxton wanted to print in English, he substituted the letter “Y” for thorns, getting the idea from earlier handwritten English manuscripts where scribes often mistook thorns for Ys and wrote the definitive article “the” as “Y-e.”  Gradually the mistake became the standard.  For example, “The Boke of Margery Kempe,” an illiterate English mystic, who died in 1438 shortly before Gutenberg’s press came along, dictated her memoirs to a couple of scribes who used “Y”s to express “th”s instead of thorns.  During the Middle English era, when our language evolved in many ways, “Y-e” morphed into “Ye,” as in “Ye Olde Shoppe.”

            In “The Story of English,” Robert MacNeil wrote that Caxton “was as important for the language, in his own way, as Geoffrey Chaucer, whose work he printed … He was an attractive, original, and thoroughly English character: a man of gusto and humor, of business acumen, and pronounced political loyalties.”  Born in 1422, Caxton was apprenticed to a leading London mercer, or wool merchant, and moved to Bruges, Belgium, the Continent’s main wool market, where he prospered for 30 years, being named to the high post of Governor of English Nation of Merchant Adventurers and becoming the financial advisor to Margaret the Duchess of Burgundy, who happened to be the sister of Kind Edward IV.

            In 1469 Caxton’s hobby in Bruges was translating books into English, mainly “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,” a courtly French romance by Raoul Lefevre.  “Recuyell” meant “collection” in English, and part way through it Caxton started burning out.  Like countless scribes before him, Caaxton wrote that his “pen became worn, his hand weary, his eyes dimmed,” but the Duchess wanted that book and commanded its completion.  Caxton moved to Germany in 1470, learned the new art of printing, then returned to Bruges and set up a printshop, where, in 1474 he printed “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,” the first book printed in English.  Two years later he returned to London and, with the Duchess’ brother’s blessing, established the first English printshop.  “As the pioneer printer in England,” the Encyclopedia Britannica noted (in a nice turn of phrase), “Caxton showed no great typographical originality, and produced no books of remarkable beauty, but he filled the hungry with many good things.”

            His books were costly and he catered to the wealthy, focusing on the English people’s “late-medieval tastes,” including “chivalric romance, conduct, morality, history, and philosophy.”  In 1481 he printed an encyclopedia, “Myrrour of the Worlde,” at the request of a fellow mercer who wanted a fancy gift, the first illustrated English book, to present to the king’s Lord Chamberlain.   According to Glasgow University, “The work was translated from a prose version of the French “L’image du monde”  …  Encyclopaedic texts were very popular throughout the Middle Ages. During this period it was commonly believed that it was possible to create one volume digests of all knowledge.”  

            Being an effective mercer meant being a successful polyglot.  Caxton himself translated 24 books from French, Latin and Dutch, “some of them immensely long” the Britannica pointed out, adding he worked “at great speed.  He is fairly accurate, but his style is usually clumsy,” but “he improved with practice … Occasionally he rises to a well-told anecdote.”  And as MacNeil noted,” Caxton’s decision to reproduce the English of London and the South-east is crucial.  Caxton and his successors gave a special currency to London English.”  However, Caxton’s was an era of gemintive spelling and superfluous letterings, like when he wrote, “He that wil wynne, he muste laboure and aventure.”  And sometimes, as Rumi noted, “The rose’s rarest essence lives in the thorns.”

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