November 17, 2003

Hic merus est Thyonianus

This is another in a series of posts on linguistic aspects of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels. (It also resonates with a different series of posts on scalar predicates.)

Everyone notices all the specialized, archaic and dialect words in these books -- catharpings, syllabub, marthambles and the like. I'm struck just as forcefully by the many words still in common use whose meaning has changed, more or less, over the time and space that separates us from the British Navy in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Sometimes the change is simple and easy to characterize, as in the case of reptile, which used to mean "crawling thing" and thus was applied to weevils and other insects. In other cases, the change in word sense is less clear, but one still feels that something is different. A good example is the use of mere.

When Jack Aubrey's dinner is delayed, he says that he may "perish of mere want." An admiral complains that many of his captains are "very mere rakes." I have the impression that O'Brian's use of mere is not only divergent from contemporary patterns, but also unusually common. (Without on-line copies of the novels, I can't conveniently test this idea, and it may only be that the word seems common because its uses are salient.)

The story about mere seems to be a combination of two senses that have passed out of modern use, along with a modern associative accretion.

The first adjectival lemma in the OED for mere is:

(obs) Renowned, famous, illustrious; beautiful, splendid, noble, excellent. In Old English also in negative contexts: notorious, infamous. (Applied to persons and things.)

In this sense, mere could sensibly be intensified -- "very notorious rakes".

The second adjectival lemma is described as

I. In more or less simple descriptive use.

1. a. Pure, unmixed, unalloyed; undiluted, unadulterated.

In particular cases, this sense will overlap with senses 4 and 5, described as representing "intensive or reductive use":

4. That is what it is in the full sense of the term qualified; nothing short of (what is expressed by the following noun); absolute, sheer, perfect, downright, veritable. Obs.
Although collocations such as ‘mere lying’ and ‘mere folly’ are still possible, these are now taken to belong to sense 5, mere being taken to mean ‘nothing more than’ rather than ‘nothing less than’.

5. a. Having no greater extent, range, value, power, or importance than the designation implies; that is barely or only what it is said to be. [...]

The OED's mere quotes give me the same out-of-kilter feeling that O'Brian's mere uses do:
1625 BACON Ess. (new ed.) 150 That it is a meere, and miserable Solitude, to want true Friends.
1719 T. D'URFEY Wit & Mirth III. 306 It blows a meer Storm.
1746 LD. CHESTERFIELD Lett. (1792) I. cviii. 295 You are a mere Oedipus, and I do not believe a Sphynx could puzzle you.
1892 Law Rep.: Weekly Notes 24 Dec. 188/1 The defendant had been maliciously making noises for the mere purpose of..annoying the plaintiffs.

The modern accretion on mere, which typically seems to be missing in the earlier usage, is the implication that the referent of the modified noun is somehow trivial or paltry: a mere trickle, a mere drop in the ocean, a mere gesture. In the last OED quote cited above, mere has the modern sense of "nothing more than" (as opposed to "nothing less than"); but "annoying the plaintiffs" may be a nontrivial accomplishment, even if it is true that the defendent no more legally substantive purpose in mind.

I was surprised to learn that mere probably comes from Latin merus, though perhaps with some reinforcement from Germanic and Romance sources. The OED's etymology is

[Prob. partly (esp. in early use) < a post-classical Latin form (with characteristic vulgar Latin lengthening of vowels in open syllables) of classical Latin merus undiluted, unmixed, pure < the same Indo-European base as MERE v.1, and partly (in Middle English) a reborrowing of its reflex Anglo-Norman mer, meer, mier, Middle French mer (c1100 in Old French as mier).

Lewis & Short says about merus:

merus , a, um, adj. [root mar-, to gleam; cf.: marmaros, marmor, mare; hence, bright, pure] , pure, unmixed, unadulterated, esp. of wine not mixed with water:

For those who like their etymological pedantry straight up, hic merus est Thyonianus.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 17, 2003 09:49 AM