March 30, 2008


In my last posting on open vs. closed, I looked at the question of why signs on shops and the like oppose these two words, and not opened vs. closed, or open vs. close (both of which would be morphologically parallel in a way that open vs. closed is not).  I assumed, but did not say explicitly, that what we want for the signs is two ADJECTIVES with appropriate meanings, and then explained that opened wouldn't do because it was pre-empted by open, and noted

the absence of an adjective close (pronounced /kloz/; there is an adjective close /klos/, the opposite of far, as in "Don't Stand So Close to Me", but it's not relevant here).

And people wrote to dispute, or at least query, my claim about close.  I will now try to fend off these criticisms.

Since my claim was made in the context of selecting adjectives to put on signs, I didn't go on to stipulate that what we wanted was an adjective of current English, in general use, with the appropriate meaning, and usable on its own, solo, on a sign -- that is, something people reading the signs would understand easily.  To exclude the adjective close that's a homograph of the verb close, but is not in current general use in an appropriate meaning, I added a stipulation about pronunciation.  Unfortunately, that wasn't enough stipulation, and a fair number of readers read the "absence" claim above out of context.

Now, into some messiness.  I'll need to distinguish various lexemes spelled CLOSE by pronunciation (/klos/ vs. /kloz/), part of speech (adjective A, verb V, or noun N), and meaning.  The historical story includes the following actors:

1: a V /kloz/ 'stop an opening, shut' (close to its modern meaning), in the OED from ca. 1205;

2: an A /klos/ 'closed, shut' (not at all its modern meaning), in the OED from ca. 1325;

3: a N /klos/ 'an enclosed place' (still in use, especially in British English), in the OED from 1297;

4: a N /kloz/ 'act of closing, conclusion', a N derived from the V /kloz/ (still in use), in the OED from 1399.

Item #2 has a very complex semantic history, with a variety of meanings branching off in various directions over the centuries: 'confined, narrow' (close streets), 'concealed, hidden' (close secrecy), 'private, secluded' (a close parlour), 'stifling' (close weather), [of vowels] 'pronounced with partial closing of the lips', 'stingy' (close with his money), and more; not all of these are still in use, and many of them are used only in very restricted contexts.  As for the original #2, the OED's most recent cites are from 1867 (Trollope: a close carriage 'a closed carriage') and 1873 (close hatches 'closed hatches').  These have attributive (rather than predicative) uses, as do the cites for #2 going way back.  But what we need for signs is a predicative adjective, and in any case the attributive uses are no longer available to modern speakers. 

What we DO have in current English, in general use, and usable both predicatively and attributively, is the A /klos/ in the meaning 'near' and related senses.  This is a distant descendant of #2, and it pretty much holds the field these days: ordinary dictionaries (not ones organized on historical principles, like the OED) treat it as the primary sense for the A /klos/, with other senses treated as specialized uses.

One survivor (pointed out to me by grixit on 3/28) appears in the noun close stool / close-stool (the OED's preference) / closestool, which the OED defines decorously as "a chamber utensil enclosed in a stool or box".  The OED's most recent cite is from 1869, and I had thought that the noun was now archaic -- the hospitals and care facilities I've dealt with all use commode for the object in question -- but I see from some googling that it's still in use.  But the A in it is pronounced /klos/, it's not usable predicatively, and it's not even clear that it has the meaning 'closed'; close-stool is an opaque idiom, not relevant to the original question about signs.

Possibly more relevant is the noun close season (pointed out to me by Cameron Majidi on 3/28).  This item was new to me, but it's in the OED, in the two senses Majidi noted in his mail to me:

1. The period of the year when hunting (of a particular variety of game) or fishing is prohibited.  [nicely contrasted with open season; cites from 1843 to 1999; has variant closed season]

2. Brit. In professional sport: the period of the year when a particular sport is not played.  [cites from 1890 to 2004]

The OED gives /klos/ and /kloz/ as alternative pronunciations for both British and American English.  This gets us (oh dear) closer, in both pronunciation and meaning, to what we're looking for.  But in both senses, close season is a fixed expression, and I assume that the A in it can't be used predicatively: *The season is close [with either pronunciation].  So there are As /klos/ and /kloz/ hanging around in the corners of modern English, but they aren't available for use on signs.

One more nomination in my mailbox: from Andrew Clegg on 3/29: close /kloz/ circuit and close /kloz/ minded, to which I can add close /kloz/ caption(ed).  (From Google searches, Clegg finds the first to be primarily U.K. usage and the second to be more widespread; I believe that the third is primarily North American usage, if only because closed-caption(ed) itself is, according to the OED, originally and chiefly North American.)  In each of these cases, close is a variant of standard closed in a fixed expression.  As Clegg notes, the variation surely began in speech, where as Mark Liberman said a little while ago:

There's a long history in English of the final [t] or [d] of -ed forms being lost in lexicalized phrases...

(and there's a huge literature on English "final t/d-deletion" in general).  These spoken variants are eventually recognized in spelling (though dictionaries are slow to record the "reduced" variants), and some speakers seem to have reanalyzed some of the expressions -- so that for some people, ice tea is now understood as having the N ice as its first element.  I don't know if some speakers have come to see the close /kloz/ of close circuit etc. as a new adjective.  But even if they do, it appears only in certain fixed expressions and then only attributively.  So, once again, it's not available for use on signs.  (Well, not at the moment, so far as I can tell; who knows what might happen in the decades or centuries to come.  After all, the A /klos/ 'closed' ended up with the primary sense 'near' in about 700 years.)

Let this bring this topic to a (sigh) close for now.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 30, 2008 02:44 PM