Eating Our Words

by Mary Jackson (April 2010)

I have observed before that the word “plight” has become devalued by its association with the “Palestinians”. Their “plight” consists in not suffering the consequences of their own actions and of Islam, cushioned as they are by Western largesse. A recent piece at Pajamasmedia has the tagline: “The plight of the Uighurs is beginning to inflame Muslim populations”. That does it for me and “plight” – it is but another tool in the arsenal of combustible Muslims.

“Plight”, it has been nice knowing you, but I will never use you again, at least not as a noun. But there is another use: as a verb in the formula “plight one’s troth”. This raises the question – it certainly doesn’t beg it – of whether you can plight anything other than a troth. If any readers have plighted other things, please let me know.

The plighting of troths, and the absence of other known plightables, came up in The Times recently. Plight is what Sally Baker and others call a single context word, and it is not the only one. For example, is anything ever “in kilter”, or must things always be out of it?

“Can one gird anything other than one’s loins?” asks a reader. “Indeed, can one do anything with one’s loins except gird them?” A fair, unbeggable question. Another thing – can shrift be anything other than short? And can you have a bit of truck with someone, or is truck something you must always have none of?

Here are some more, from another column in The Times by the same author.

The Feedback campaign to save our single-context words from English extinction (new readers, start here: to hull strawberries, to shuck oysters) has taken off so magnificently that I’m thinking of buying a campaign bus to take round Britain and rally more support, although I’m not sure if it’s OK to put a whole bus on expenses.

First, a few items from last week. Victoria Solt Dennis (among others) confirms that to don and doff (clothing) are indeed related to on and off: “They are elisions of ‘do on’ and ‘do off’. We also used to dout (do out, ie, put out) candles, and dup (do up, ie, lift) door latches. Talking of candles, can you snuff anything else (except it, of course)?”

Several of you also referred to the textile industry, including Ian Calderbank: “In the early 1970s I went on a date with a young lady and the conversation turned to our respective employments. In response to ‘And what do you do?’ she replied ‘I doff’, and went on to explain that she took the full bobbins off and put empty ones on. She was a doffer. As our last textile businesses close, I guess there aren’t many doffers left.”

I disagree – you can doff your hat. Remember this from the inimitable Two Ronnies?

As Bold Sir John walked on afar,
He spied a maiden fair;
“I beg you sir don’t come too near,
For I’ve seen many a maiden here;
Get lost amongst the new mown hay,
So doff your hat I pray”.
Get lost! Get lost! Get lost! Get lost!
Get lost amongst the new mown hay.
Sod off! Sod off! Sod off! Sod off!
So doff your hat I pray.

Baker concludes with what she describes as “the most singular single-context word”:

“Taghairm: (in the Scottish Highlands) divination, especially inspiration sought by lying in a bullock’s hide behind a waterfall.” Oh, come on, Anne, there must be lots of words for that.

As well as words, is it possible that some constructions are confined – or mainly confined – to certain contexts? An example that springs quickly to mind is of legal doublets, such as “breaking and entering”, “will and testament”, or “fit and proper”. David Crystal explained how this arose: mediaeval lawyers using a mixture of English, Latin and French wished to avoid ambiguity by using pairs of words from different languages, and later the doublets became a stylistic habit. Can an explanation always be found for constructions that cluster in a particular context? In the kitchen, for example?

A few years ago, I was delighted to read some news from Dot Wordsworth in The Spectator:

A creature so rare that its existence had been discountenanced has been discovered in South Africa. The creature is the English gerundive, a relative of the extinct Latin gerundive, and its discoverer is Jean Branford, the respected editor of A Dictionary of South African English. I had never believed in the existence of the English gerundive until now. Just to place it in its habitat, let us remember that:

1.      The participle (Latin amans) shares properties of verbs and adjectives, as with reading, ‘the reading public’.

2.      The gerund (Latin amandum) is a verbal noun, active in meaning, as with reading – ‘reading occupies Charles’ (where reading acts as a subject); ‘reading law journals occupies Charles’ (where the noun phrase is the subject of the sentence, and reading takes an object, law journals, in the noun-phrase); ‘Charles enjoys reading’, where the gerund functions as an object.

3.      The gerundive (Latin amandus –a –um) is a verbal adjective passive in meaning. It is translated as ‘fit to be loved’, ‘fit to be read’, or ‘lovable’.

It is easier to spot a part of speech if you know what it looks like. Fans of How To Be Topp, will have no trouble recognising a gerund, an aggressive, egotistical predator with a racy private life. Here a gerund attacks some peaceful pronouns:

This is in keeping with its active nature. The gerundive, as befits its role, is a puny, passive little thing. Below, the gerund, a social snob, “cuts” the gerundive, who meekly takes it on the chin:

No wonder it is all but extinct.

No gerundive was found to exist in English. But Dr Branford says, ‘What about reading matter? Or whipping boy?’ The form of the gerundive is in English the same as that of the participle, but then so are the forms of the participle and the gerund. The meaning of the gerundive is distinct from that of the gerund: distinguish reading room and reading matter, where the latter has a passive sense. Or distinguish whipping boy and whipping post. With whipping post or reading room, the gerund acts as a modifier, just as nouns can, in constructions such as violin case, dog whistle.    

The newly discovered gerundive in chewing gum (‘chewing gum sold here’) is distinct from the gerund identical in form, (‘chewing gum is a horrible habit’). Other examples of gerundives from Dr Branford are stewing steak, cooking apples, bedding plants. Don’t forget that a passive element is present in the gerundive, so pickling onions include a gerundive (‘onions fit to be pickled’) but pickling spice (‘spice for pickling onions’) does not.

In passing, Dr Branford notes that Kingsley Amis, in The King’s English (1997), gets the gerundive completely wrong. Homer nods. She also remarks that the great Henry Fowler’s ‘notion of the grammar of participles was at best hazy’. Fowler said that English does not happen to possess a gerundive. The late Robert Burchfield, in his revision of Fowler’s Modern Usage, notes that Latin does. Only now has the English gerundive, thanks to Dr Branford, been bred in captivity.

The distinction is clear. Chewing gum is gum that gets chewed. Stewing steak is steak that gets stewed. These are gerundives. Chewing gum is a bad habit. Stewing steak can take a long time. These are gerunds.


Since reading Dot Wordsworth’s article, I have struggled to find further examples of the English gerundive, although I know they must be out there somewhere. By analogy with cooking apples, we have baking apples or eating apples, in the sense of apples to be baked or eaten rather than the activity of baking or eating apples. And there is whipping cream, that is cream for whipping. I started wondering about “writing paper”, but I think that is a gerund, meaning “paper where you write”, as a reading room is a room where you read. The trick in catching the gerundive is to ask what you can do to the object under consideration:


Baking apples – can you bake apples? Yes.

Writing paper – can you write paper? No.

Reading room – can you read a room? Possibly, and some people can work a room, but that is not what is meant.


So far I have thought of only nineteen examples of the English gerundive, including those mentioned above. Note that you would always emphasise the first word in each pair, for example “stewing steak”, not “stewing steak:


Stewing steak
Braising steak
Frying steak
Frying chicken
Boiling chicken
Roasting chicken
Roasting pig
Cooking apples
Eating apples
Pickling onions
Milking cow

Drinking water
Piping jelly
Whipping cream
Chewing gum
Scratching post
Bedding plants
Reading matter
Whipping boy

Out of these nineteen, fifteen (just under 79%) are things you can eat. Arguably you could eat a bedding plant – or bed a whipping boy – but such activity would be marginal. If readers can come up with non-culinary gerundives I would be pleased to hear from them. I think I would eat my hat, even though my hat is not an eating hat.

In the absence of examples to the contrary, I must conclude that the English gerundive prefers lurking in the kitchen to reading – or working – the drawing room. Neglected and misunderstood, it is tasty only if you work on it. And like Alice’s pudding, once rudely cut, it never recovered.

If you have tracked down any more English gerundives, please click

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If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read other articles by Mary Jackson, click here. 

Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.  



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