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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

A Reader's Notes

page 65

A Reader's Notes.

Two Wellington dailies, a week or two ago, one in a leader and the other in its current notes, treated us to « the oi polloi, » « the hoi polloi. » The mistake, perhaps in one case a mere inadvertence (even a newspaper reporter would not, I think, write « the l'Espérance, » « the la Redoutable » ), in giving the definite article first in English and then in Greek, is more pardonable than the unnecessary use, or rather misuse, of the phrase. Each writer seemed to think that hoi polloi is a synonym for the profane vulgar, the plebs—a word that is not in common newspaper use, or down it would have gone on paper. One cannot object to borrowing a word from any tongue if it has not an exact or nearly exact synonym in English, or if the English equivalents are worn threadbare or have too wide a significance; but most of these lately-adopted words and phrases serve no purpose but to mystify the uninstructed, and to vex the compositor by sending him to the italic case first to set the words up, and again to correct the type; for what newspaper writer takes the pains to pen his foreign phrases plainly enough for them to be setup without « literals »? The schoolboy's translation of the phrase gives, I believe, its accustomed meaning in Greek writers —the many, the multitude. » We have English equivalents, and one need not go to the Greek, unless one has in mind some particular passage in Plato in which the word occurs; but this, we may be sure, the writers had not. There is a prominent member of the House of Bepresentatives whose favorite term of emphasis is in toto. « I object to the honorable gentleman's proposal in toto: » by which he means not « upon the whole, in general, » which is the proper meaning of the phrase; nor always even « totally, » which is that usually intended by those who use it (as so used, according to the dictionaries the phrase has not classical authority); but « emphatically » —as unworthy of consideration. In toto seems a useless phrase to introduce into English speech. The slip in grammar that I noticed above—the doubled article—reminds me of a difficulty in regard to Maori proper names. Some native names of places in common usage retain the definitive te. Is it correct to print « the Te Awamutu Township, » « the Te Aute School »? The collocation has an ugly sound, but it may, I suppose, be defended as grammatically correct, for obviously the English article qualifies « township, » « school; » the proper name here is rather a compound adjective than a noun in apposition. I noticed long ago that Mr Carleton, for many years member for the Bay of Islands and at one time editor of the Southern Cross at Auckland, avoided the use of « the » before the name of a tribe beginning with « Ngati- » —considering, I presume, the nga to be the plural definite article agglutinated to the name. We might print « the Arawa, » but not « the Ngatimaniapoto. » Sir F. D. Bell, the present Agent-General, good Maori linguist, I believe, observed the same rule. Williams's Dictionary gives: « ati, n., a word used only in the names of tribes or clans…..Ngati, probably a contraction for nga ati, as Ngatimaru, etc. » I have somewhere seen this derivation disputed: but, whether it be correct or not, the Maoris themselves seem to so understand the syllable, for, though you find the arthritic particles (as Dr Maunsell calls them) ko and a before tribal names beginning with Ngati-, you will never find the real definite article so placed. I have looked into Mr John White's Ancient History of the Maori, to satisfy myself on this point. There we find, in the Maori original, « te Atiawa, » or « Ngatiawa, » &c. But Mr White has not followed Mr Carleton's rule in the translations, and possibly even some Maori scholars would style it a piece of pedantry. Probably it is knowledge of the etymology of the word that has led to « Alcoran » being of late years discarded by all English writers for the more correct « Koran. »

A paragraph in Typo of April opens the question whether it is proper to invent distinctions to be made in print that cannot be made in speech. The Editor will find many to agree with him that phonetic spelling would not result in any appreciable confusion of meanings, and that the innovations of vyce, pi, etc., are indefensible. There is, however, this to be said for some of these variations: that the oldest word of each sound is not now phonetically spelt, but carries its history and its first or more common meaning in the spelling. Why should a new word be also mis-spelt? (In the ease of pi, which is, I think, an American invention, there is etymological connexion, of course: pie, mixed type; pie, a magpie; pie, in the English Prayer-book; and pica, a size of type, have a common derivation.) An example comes to my eye while writing this. Carlyle says of De Quincey and his dependence on magazines for a living, « launched so into the literary career of ambition and mother of dead dogs. » — (Reminiscences of T. Carlyle, vol. i., p. 257). The spelling « mother » suggests parentage, and would suggest nothing else to most readers, who would be merely in doubt whether it was the magazines, taken collectively, or the practice of writing for them, or the great city to which De Quincey was turning his steps, that begat the dead dogs. (Carlyle elsewhere applies the like expression to the City of London.) Without much doubt, however, « mother » here is Skeet's third word of this spelling, meaning « lees, sediment. » Skeet says, « The form should really be madder, as it is nothing but an extension of mud. » If the spelling of « muther » were established for this word in the phrases « mother of wine, » &c, it would be more nearly phonetic, and would prevent mistake as to meaning and derivation. Of course we cannot spell phonetically without an extension of the present alphabet; but there is a centre sound, I think, to each vowel that is generally recognised even by children.

A Wellington newspaper day after day some weeks ago, and again last week, described a person who held an exhibition of babies in that city, and who afterwards slipped away without distributing the prizes, as « the baby showman. » He should have been called « the baby-show man. » If he was himself a baby he rivalled the infant Hermes in precocity.