Friday, April 17, 2009

Parvum Opus 321 ~ Endowed Purposes


Herb H. sent a really interesting query about the beautiful theme song from the movie High Noon, as sung by Tex Ritter (his voice was rather weak in this 1970 live version on the Dick Cavett show; the movie soundtrack from 20 years earlier is on YouTube also). One verse goes:

"He made a vow while in State Prison

Vowed it'll be my life or his’n,

I'm not afraid to die but oh

What will I do if you leave me?"

Herb says in some transcriptions the lyrics have been been changed to “my life or his, And I’m not afraid to die.” He writes:

I have the impression this language structure has been with the southern Appalachian, yet universally recognized and understood by Americans, at least.

For example, a joke from decades back, about an Appalachian GI who's a new arrival in Germany, dining in a big restaurant. He needs a particular facility that he cannot find, and he asks the headwaiter, who points emphatically to the sign on a nearby door, which reads, "Herren." "Yes, I saw that Herren," says the Kentucky GI, "but I'm a-looking for ‘His'n’."

Well, I was reading yesterday about how High Noon was one of the great western movies. Came to be reading that because I was interested in the theme song from the movie and wondering about its surprising musical complexity — at least the fact that accomplished guitar entertainers have considerable difficulty with a request for that song and can't really reconstruct the melody entirely from memory. I think the lyrics don't provide enough memorability to hang the melody on — they're maybe too complex.

… It was a western, and this has been suggested to be generalizable, in which the men were the adults and the women the unrealistic children. Grace Kelly just opposes violence in any form and rejects any action by Coop to uphold not only his honor as a man but the oaths he has sworn to protect his town of which he is the sheriff. He's the one who knows what the choice is.

And I think Americans were always comfortable with the language they partly remember… . "His'n" is manly speak, at least when it comes out of the mouth of Tex Ritter as we look at the visage of Gary Cooper.

… Now after all these years, I see that some heard or remembered the lyrics differently, with no "his'n." How is that possible?

It’s possible because you really can’t hear the difference in the singing and I think younger people transcribing the lyrics would be unfamiliar with “his’n”. I guess I’ve heard people say “his’n” and “her’n” and “your’n” and even “our’n” and “their’n” as possessives (as well as “you’ns” as a plural), and read them used on “hillbilly” type kitsch. I didn’t think of it as specifically manly, but as country, indicating a class difference between Cooper and Kelly in the movie. She was a Quaker, maybe from a city, maybe better educated. (As an actress, Kelly was considered unsuitable for the role; she was too young and refined.) The Quaker/sheriff roles represent the pacifist vs. the one who must actively face down evil, which would fit her youth and his maturity as well as her femininity and his masculinity.

Be that as it may, I found two good Web entries on this form. First, from Barry Popik, whoever he is:

A classic little saying about short selling on Wall Street is: “He who sells what isn’t his’n, must buy it back or go to prison.” The origin of the saying is unknown, but by 1898 it was attributed to financier Daniel Drew (1797-1879).
An older English couplet (dating from the 1830s) and supposedly written by a 14-year-old criminal in chalk on a prison wall is: “Him as prigs wot isn’t his’n, Ven he’s cotch’d, wil go to pris’n.”

There’s a suggestion that “his’n” goes back very far to “his one” as an old English possessive.

But H. L. Mencken is quite thorough about it in The American Language, pointing out that the form is retained in standard English in the archaic “thine” but also in “mine”. Why the other forms have faded out of standard English I don’t know, but some old English usages did remain in Appalachia for at least a couple of centuries after the great migrations from Scotland, Ireland, and England. Speaking of which…

I endow'd thy purposes

With words that made them known.

Rich Lederer sent along his “disquisition on the Bard's contribution to our English language” from The Miracle of Language. (He also recommended Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: the World as Stage.)

First, Lederer asks what these phrases have in common:

Has Will a peer, I ask me.

I swear he's like a lamp.

We all make his praise.

Wise male. Ah, I sparkle!

Hear me, as I will speak.

Ah, I speak a swell rime.

Got it? They’re all anagrams of William Shakespeare. But Rich is really writing about the many words Shakespeare introduced to the language. At least, there’s no written evidence of the following words being used before him. Anyone can make up words, but so many of Shakespeare’s new words still live. Here are a very few:

hurry, impartial, laughable, bedroom

bump, misplaced, countless, obscene

courtship, critic, critical, pious

dwindle, reliance, eventful , road

exposure, fitful, frugal, sneak

generous, gloomy, submerge, useless

I do not now have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, so I’m not looking up the etymology of these words. It’s easy to see how a writer might invent a word such as “gloomy” by adding “y” to the root word, and his audience would understand it. Likewise “bedroom” would be comprehensible even if it were a new compound. Anyone with “a little Latin and less Greek” could form words from Latin and Greek roots. And we can understand how an invented phrase like “cold comfort” could be understood, and repeated, for centuries. But “road” and “sneak”? How could single syllable words be understood if they were brand new? Shakespeare is an enduring mystery.

Same Man

Dave DaBee sent along a selection from Daily Writing Tips about the two homos:

One commonly known Latin word is homo (”man”). Many Bible translations quote Pilate’s comment about Jesus in Latin: “Ecce Homo!” (”Behold the Man”).

And of course, anyone who has ever had a basic science course has learned the name of the modern human species: homo sapiens (”Man the Wise”).

The first time I heard the word homosexual and learned its meaning, I assumed that the prefix homo- meant “man” since the word refers to a relationship between men. Only later did I learn the difference between Latin homo (”man”) and a Greek homo (>homos “same”). NOTE: “Man” in Greek is anthropos.

The word homosexual entered English via a translation of Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis. The second part of the word, sexual, is from a Late Latin word. Mixing Latin and Greek elements in this way annoyed another student of human sexuality:

” ‘Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it.” –H. Havelock Ellis, “Studies in Psychology,” 1897

Of course Latin and Greek are quite different languages, but if both languages came from Sanskrit, considering how geographically close they were, why should the same word have two quite different meanings? I know, I know, geography means nothing. You can’t understand the folks across the sea or on the other side of the mountain.

Susan Boyle

If you’re the one person remaining in the world who hasn’t yet heard Scotswoman Susan Boyle sing on Britain’s Got Talent, be sure and listen (and look for Simon Cowell with a sweet expression on his face).


I’m publishing for the Kindle digital reader with Amazon and now also on for download to computer and for printing. I mistakenly thought that the Kindle books could be downloaded to computer but they can’t. So now these titles are available in both locations. Search for Rhonda Keith on Kindle store and

* A Walk Around Stonehaven is a travel article on my trip to Scotland last fall, with photos.

* The Wish Book, a novella, is fantasy-suspense-romance featuring the old Sears Roebuck catalogues.

* Carl Kriegbaum Sleeps with the Corn is a short story about a young gambler who finds himself upright in a cornfield in Kansas with his feet encased in a tub of concrete; how would you get out of a spot like that?

* Still Ridge is a short story about a young woman who moves from Boston to Appalachia and finds there are two kinds of moonshine, the good kind and the kind that can kill you.

The CafePress shop is down for repairs.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2009. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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