More Words You Won't See on 6/17
Bill Long 5/30/06
One of the rules at the National Senior Spelling Bee, which will take place this year in Cheyenne on June 17, is that no word of multiple spellings will be used. I suppose they do this so as to remove all possibility of confusion, which often reigns when you hear words that sound like so many other words you think you know. In any case, this method gives the false impression that there is a proper or standardized way to spell words in English. I will examine four perfectly good words briefly here which have two spellings each in the Collegiate. The are socage/soccage; sockdolager/sockdologer; somber/sombre; and spandrel/spandril. Of course they won't be used in the Bee, and so I am sort of "wasting my time." But sometimes you never are more productive as when you think you are wasting your time.
The word, pronounced SOAK age, brings us into the world of English feudalism. Socage (or soccage, though the OED only has the former) is a form of land tenure. Tenure is a system of "holding" land (from Latin "teneo"--"I hold"). During the earlier feudal period a person might hold land of a lord by knight service, which meant that he owed a certain number of days in service to his lord for the privilege of living on and cultivating the land. But, as warfare became more complicated and the idea of the modern state arose, the concept of knight service waned. Socage arose to fill in the gap. It is officially defined (by Blackstone, the great 18th century expositor of the common law), as "a tenure of lands in England by the performance of certain determinate service." It is distinguished both from knight's service and villein service, and entailed the payment of a sort of annual tax to live on the land. As you must expect, things are much more complicated than here indicated. Maybe one of you, my readers, will try to clarify the nature of the English feudal system, which still awaits someone to make it crystal clear to the rest of us.
The Century only lists it as sockdologer while the Collegiate has both spellings. In the Collegiate it is defined rather blandly as: "Something that settles a matter: a decisive blow or answer: FINISHER. 2 Something outstanding or exceptional." But the Century gives us a likely etymology that makes a lot of sense. It says the word is a perversion of doxology, taken in the sense of a "finishing act" of a worship service, since the doxology traditionally closed the worship service. Thus, a sockdologer is the big knock-down, decisive blow that brings an argument or a debate to a conclusion. Maybe it is sort of a portmanteau word, with the "sock" emphasizing the "blow" and the "dologer" being the corruption of "doxology." I found one reference to the use of the word in a private correspondence between Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis." Holmes wrote to Brandeis that his opinion was "A-1. A sockdologer." But, interestingly enough, the word sockdolager, which goes back to the mid 1830s, has only been used 66 times in federal court cases since the 1800s, with the first usage only appearing in 1983. When I learned this was true I smiled inwardly, because I knew the judge that must have introducted the term--a Providence-based Harvard-educated classical-scholar federal judge named Bruce Selya. Sure enough, I was right. Selya wrote as follows in 1983:
"Scuncio argues that because the 1982 amendment was to become effective upon passage, it must follow, as the night the day, that the General Assembly desired to enswathe previously executed agreements and stipulations within the blanket effect of the new law. The sockdolager to this contention, however, is a decisive one; the Rhode Island Supreme Court, itself, has flatly rejected just such an argument" (555 FSupp.1121, 1129).
Thus we see the term sockdolager means a decisive riposte or a winning argument. I think the word still has some utility, but I bet it won't get you a promotion.
Somber/Sombre and Spandrel/Spandril
What I don't quite understand is why sombre and somber are given as variant spellings of the same word in the same listing. This automatically takes the word off limits. But the Collegiate lists "center" with a separate entry for "centre" later on, mentioning that it is a "British variant." Unless someone can point me the reason for this different treatment, I remain confused. In any case, somber, meaning melancholy or sad, is a perfectly good word.
No matter how you define spandrel, a picture makes it clearer than the words. Just to prove the point, a spandrel is "the sometimes ornamented space between the right or left exterior curve of an arch and an enclosing right angle." The Century is even harder to understand--something about "the triangular space comprehended between the outer curve or extrados of an arch, a horizontal line through its apex, and a vertical line through its springing." You have to be an architectural genius to figure out what is in view. Here is a picture:
And, in case you want another picture of one, let's see if I can find one and fit one here.
Now we have two pictures of spandrels: one is the triangular area between arches and the other is the triangular area above an arch.
This should suffice us for now. I hope you have found this useful. As for me, I know I will never forget now what a sockdolager is, what it was to hold something in socage tenure, and what a spandrel is. Too bad the dictionary had to spell them two ways.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long