October 21, 2004

Etymology porn

When I see a blurb-worthy quote on the web about Language Log, I squirrel it away in a file. Maybe someday I'll add a random blurb-o-matic to the weblog template? No, I don't think so. Anyhow, my second-favorite blurb is "Many thanks to ___ for pointing me towards Language Log. It's like etymology porn. Mmmmm."

Since Word Love is not universal, even among Language Log contributors, I should warn you that we're about to spend a few minutes poking around in odd corners of the OED. Along the way, we'll touch on some insulting 18th-century stereotypes about the French. But our main topic is the origin and progress of (the word) boring. You have been warned.

The backstory is a striking phrase from the New York Times Sunday magazine: "after boring of the task".

Current English dictionaries don't sanction an intransitive form of the verb to bore, nor the use of "of" for the source of boredom. The evidence from the net is that neither usage is very widespread. But anyone who believe in the power of grammatical consistency should find this odd:

That tires me. I'm tired of that.
*I'm tired with that.
I'm tiring of that.
??I'm tiring with that.
That wearies me. I'm wearied of that.
??I'm wearied with that.
I'm wearying of that.
??I'm wearying with that.
That bores me. *I'm bored of that.
I'm bored with that.
*I'm boring of that.
*I'm boring with that.

However exactly you assign the question marks and asterisks, this does not look like a consistent pattern. There seem to be some generalizations that have been missed -- not by the linguists, but by (most of) the speakers of English. In the original example ("before boring of the task"), Scott Anderson is just being logical, isn't he? I mean, it's not like anybody ever told me that I can't use bore intransitively. It just never occurred to me to do so. What's curious is that so few English speakers seem to have followed the same path as Anderson -- so far.

This is another good example of the quasi-regularity of language. Though I know very little about the philosophy of the law, this sort of thing reminds me of what I've read about the interplay of logic and precedent in legal reasoning.

The logic of this case depends on what you think about the grammar of transitivity and of prepositions. Depending on your views, Anderson's phrase might seem like an obvious generalization of a pattern, or an egregious failure to observe a distinction. Or both. But that's a topic for another time. This post deals with the precedents, the "case law" -- (some of) the relevant usage history of the words in question.

OK, first tiring. The verb to tire comes from from OE tíorian meaning "to fail, cease (as a supply, etc.); to diminish, give out, come to an end".

By 1000 A.D., there's an extended meaning "to become weak or exhausted from exertion", and simultaneously (in the same source) a causative (transitive) version "to wear down or exhaust the strength of by exertion".

As of 1500 A.D., there's another extension, meaning "to have one's appreciation, power of attention, or patience exhausted by excess", and again the same new source also exhibits a causative (transitive) version "to weary or exhaust the patience, interest, or appreciation of (a person, etc.) by long continuance, sameness, or want of interest".

From the first citations, this sense of tire uses "of" to express its cause:

1500-20 DUNBAR Poems lxvi. 94 Of this fals failȝeand warld I tyre.
a1578 LINDESAY (Pitscottie) Chron. Scot. XXI. xi. (S.T.S.) I. 307 The quenis grace tyrit of him and pairtit witht him.

Now wearying. The verb to weary comes from OE wériȝian (intr.) and ȝewériȝian (trans.), meaning "to grow weary" (intransitive/inchoative) or "to make weary" (transitive/causative). The OED's first cited use of "of" to express the source of weariness is from 1400:

c1400 Destr. Troy 12997 Thai werit of þere werke þe wallis to kepe.

In this case, not a lot has changed in the past millennium and a half, except that we're more likely to be wearied by tedium, ennui or heartsickness than by physical fatigue.

And finally, on to boring. Oddly enough, this one is both more recent and more mysterious. Suddenly, at some point after 1750, the British began using bore as a noun to refer to "The malady of ennui, supposed to be specifically ‘French’, as ‘the spleen’ was supposed to be English; a fit of ennui or sulks; a dull time":

1766 G.J. Williams Let. 30 Dec. in Ibid. 121 Your last letter was the most cheerful that I have received from you, and..without that d__d French bore.
1767 LD. CARLISLE Let. 8 Mar. in Ibid. 150, I enclose you a packet of letters, which if they are French, the Lord deliver you from the bore.

The OED confesses that the etymology is unknown. It's usually seen as a figurative extension of the verb to bore meaning "drill", in the sense of a persistent annoyance; but this is inconsistent with the historical record, which shows that nominal uses such as those above were first. The OED goes on to suggest that

The phrase ‘French bore’ naturally suggests that the word is of French origin; bourre padding, hence (in 18th c.) triviality, bourrer to stuff, to satiate, might be thought of; but without assuming some intermediate link these words do not quite yield the required sense.

I venture to suggest that the connection with annoying drills might have started as a late 18th-century eggcorn -- tedium is due to padding, or is that drilling? Whatever.

Of course the noun bore quickly took on the various expected metonymical extensions: "one who suffers from 'bore'"; "a thing which bores or causes ennui"; "a tiresome or uncongenial person". And a denominal verb very soon appeared as well:

1768 EARL CARLISLE Let. 16 Apr. in Jesse G. Selwyn I. 291, I pity my Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen.

The -ed form bored was first used in print by Byon in 1823:

1823 BYRON Juan XIII. xcv, Society is now one polished horde, Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.

The adjectival -ing form boring first appears in 1840:

1840 T. HOOK Fitzherbert III. iv. 66 Emily was patiently enduring..Miss Matthews's boring vanities.

And the derived noun boredom appears first in 1864.

A hundred and forty years later, the inchoative generalization of the verb has shown up in the New York Times.

I'm shocking, are you?

[Update 1: Jonathan Mayhew writes

For me, the intransitive use of "bore easily" is a minor cliché, that is, a phrase I recognize when I see it as a set phrase, even though I might not see it all that often. Google reveals that this phrase comes up often in comparisons among breeds of dogs, in astrology, and in education. Gore Vidal, Geminis, middle-school students, and Irish setters all "bore easily," apparently. Once the intranstive use is established, it is not too much of a stretch to add a preposition, whether "of" or "with."

This is a good point, but I'm not sure that it's specifically relevant here. The VERBs easily construction is one that allows many verbs to show an intransitive-like face that they don't exhibit more generally: "This kind of balloon punctures easily", but not "??His balloon punctured."]

[Update 2: Mike Escárzaga wrote

In Spanish 'to bore' is aburrir, 'boredom' aburrimiento, etc. The Real Academia dictionary cites the Latin root abhorrere. Do you think this might deserve any credence as an ancestor of the English word, too?

Maybe so. But the French equivalent abhorrer retains the Latin meaning "to shrink back from, have an aversion for, shudder at, abhor":
ABHORRER. v.a. Avoir en horreur. Les honnêtes gens abhorrent les fripons. Les Saints abhorrent l'impiété. [From the 1762 edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française]

To get "bore", the Brits in 1760 or so would have had to borrow a term from Spanish (did that meaning for aburrir exist then?), drop the initial "a" and strip the "imiento" part in making a noun, and then for some reason use it to name a stereotypical property of the French nation. This is worth looking into, though I wonder whether it isn't just a likely that aburriri reflects a later influence from English "bore"? Anyhow, English abhor is part of the phonetosphere near bore -- as are boor and so on. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 21, 2004 10:33 AM