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Warren Clements: Word Play

Does the fall goeth before the autumn? Add to ...

A slight chill in the air indicates that fall is on the way, or, for those who prefer their seasons with silent letters, autumn is coming.

Fall entered English long before autumn did. Old English was using fal and fall by 1200, having joined Old Saxon, Old Norse and other early languages in adapting it from a speculative Germanic root, fallan, to fall. However, the earliest known printed reference to fall as the season didn’t appear until 1545, and even then it was part of a longer expression, “fall of the leaf.”

In the meantime, autumn, which came from the Old French autompne and Latin autumnus, had entered the language by 1374, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote: “Autumn comes again, heavy of apples.” (What he actually wrote was closer to “Autumpne comes ageyne heuy of apples.” Students preparing for a fall course in Chaucerian English are in for a treat.)

In other words, anyone who hasn’t yet decided whether to refer to the season as fall or autumn may base the choice on brevity (fall), first use (fall), first specific use (autumn) or silent letter (autumn). Whatever the verdict, fall arrives in the second half of September, which is derived from the Latin septem, seven, since September was the seventh month in the ancient Roman calendar.

By the way, if an apple tree, heavy with apples, dropped a large McIntosh or Granny Smith on your head this summer and displaced the wall between your nostrils, the resulting deviated septum will have derived not from septem but from the Latin sepire, to enclose. Your doctor should proceed accordingly, and not waste valuable time searching for six other nasal walls.

I hope you had a good summer. I spent too much of it reading old mysteries and watching reruns of the engaging detective series Murdoch Mysteries. They all had an element in common; they referred to fingerprints as finger-marks. In an Aug. 31 rerun, for example, Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris) spoke to Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) about a mallet used to murder a man who was in costume as the Mock Turtle from Alice in Wonderland. “There were two sets of finger-marks” on the mallet, Crabtree said.

I assumed from this preoccupation with marks that fingerprint was a Johnny-come-lately word (no offence to Jonny) and that finger-mark was the original term. However, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests the contest was a draw.

The first citation for finger-marks does precede that for fingerprints by a couple of decades, but in both cases the sense is of ordinary marks left by fingers, in the same way that hands leave handprints. In 1841, Charles Dickens wrote in Barnaby Rudge of “dirty finger-marks upon his face.” In 1859, a periodical called North American Review wrote of “the chapel of St. Verena, where the finger-prints of the young maiden still remain in the rock.”

However, the first references to finger-marks and fingerprints in the context of forensics both date from 1891, and both come from the pen of Francis Galton, a statistician and eugenicist later knighted for his work. In the proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Galton referred to “methods of indexing finger-marks.” In a monthly journal called Nineteenth Century, he referred to “my collection of analyzed finger-prints.” The same journal wrote, in the same year, that “finger-prints have been proposed ... as a means of identification.”

Conceivably, then, Murdoch and Crabtree, whose adventures are set in the 1890s, could as easily have referred to fingerprints as to finger-marks. But the distancing effect of finger-marks better captured the feeling of a bygone era, in which Murdoch was forever delighting in the discovery of fresh forensic tools.

I was on the verge of feeling proud that I had investigated this subject until I remembered that pride goeth before an autumn.

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