Recency effect record?

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Martyn Cornell:

Check out the comment from sportzzzgirl at the link below, “Strange development in language”, where she is complaining about the use of the verb “spell” to mean “to be relieved at their post”, which has been in the English language, as someone else quickly points out, since the 16th century … surely a record for the recency effect!

The original story is "EMT Stays on Phone With Stroke Victim For 8 Hours Trying to Find Her", Gawker 6/16/2013:

An FDNY EMT dispatcher stayed on the phone with a stroke victim for eight hours as rescuers tried to pinpoint where the distressed and slurring woman had fallen. [...]

In a letter or recognition for her actions, Emergency Medical Dispatch Capt. Philip Weiss wrote that "throughout the entirety [Hilman-Payne] worked to keep the patient awake, she never lost her own composure and remained calm while attempting to elicit more information from the patient.”

Weiss continues that Hilman-Payne “remained on the phone with the patient for almost eight hours being spelled only briefly for reasons of personal necessity.”

The first commenter writes:

I can get what this means but "being spelled"? Never heard this term.

And sportzzzgirl responds:

Me either. Strange development in language.
Like … the athlete is hoping 'to medal' or 'medalled' in this-or-that event. *Bangs head against wall*

A third commenter sets her straight, quoting a source that dates the sense "to take the place of for a time; relieve" to 1585-95.

This is certainly a fine example of the way that people sometimes jump to the conclusion that if they are unfamiliar with a sense or a construction, it must be an ignorantly transgressive error.

But I don't think this case will set a recency-effect record. In "Cullen Murphy draws the line", 12/27/2003, I noted three cases where a well-known writer proposes that "surely there are a handful [of standards] on which we might all agree to hold the line—this far and no further, unto the end of days", despite the fact that the offending usages have been around since the introduction of the cited words into the English language. And two of the three proposed "standards" require us to defend the language against usages that are even older than 1585.

One is the assertion that "Notoriety does not denote 'famousness'". The OED has

1555 EDEN Dec. W. Ind. (Arb.) 198 His courage was such and his factes so notorious.
1575 N. HARPSFIELD Treat. Divorce Henry VIII (1878) 37 The notoritie of the manifest and open justice of our cause.

And another is the view that "religiosity does not denote 'religiousness'". The OED's first meaning for religiosity is "1. Religiousness, religious feeling or sentiment", with citations from 1382 to 1887:

1382 WYCLIF Ecclus. i. 17 The drede of the Lord [is] religiosite of kunnyng. Ibid. 18 Religiosite shal kepen, and iustefien the herte.
1483 CAXTON Gold. Leg. 245/1 There is treble generacion spirituel of god, that is to saye, of natyuyte, religyosite, and of body mortalite.





  1. The Ridger said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

    Personally, I love when that happens, especially when it's pointed out. I have no idea whether it ever makes anyone think twice, but if just one person learns…

  2. Martin J. Ball said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 7:25 pm

    As Sheldon Cooper would say, 'neener, neener' … :)

  3. ===Dan said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

    I've heard "spell," in the sense of a temporary substitution for providing a respite, many times over the years–by baseball announcers. This usage years ago brought to mind a punny answer to the old Rolaids catchphrase "how do you spell relief?": Complete games [in which a starting pitcher never needs to be removed for a relief pitcher, giving the latter a day off].

  4. Chris C. said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

    Spell is fine, but SetFiretoTheRoom seems to have used "arcane" in the sense of "archaic". Shocking! ;)

  5. Brett said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

    @Dan: "Spell" would seem unremarkable to me in many sports contexts, but I suspect that I would usually find it odd in baseball. To me, the term implies a relatively brief duration during which one person substitutes for another, often to provide rest. Baseball's substitution rules are unusual; once a player is taken out, they're out for the game. So there aren't so many contexts where one player could be said to "spell" another in America's national pastime.

  6. Jonathon Owen said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

    I was unfamiliar with this sense of spell until a couple of years ago. And even though I know that religiosity has multiple meanings and is often used in the neutral "religiousness" sense, I still struggled a little when editing a sociology text that used it frequently. I left them all as is, of course, but I couldn't help reading each instance in the "excessive show of religiousness" sense. I kept thinking, "Couldn't they just say 'religiousness' and avoid the potential misreading?"

    I wonder if anyone has studied this phenomenon. It seems that at some level we assume the version of the language in our head is pretty accurate, so it's fairly bothersome or even unsettling to hear words that we think we know used in ways that we don't know at all.

  7. Roger Lustig said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

    Great Red Sox broadcasting moment: "Evans is coming on to spell Yastrzemski."

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

    So religiosity in the "excessively religious" sense is a nominalization of religiose? Or is religiose a back-formation?

    [(myl) The morphophonological relationship is like that of heterozygous/hereozygosity, or bogus/bogosity.]

  9. bfwebster said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

    I'm the person who does this to my friends on FB when they start complaining about how a certain word doesn't really mean thus-and-thus or represents some modern distortion of its "original" meaning. Haven't had to do that in a while, which suggests either my friends have gotten more cautious in their assertions, or they have silently de-friended me. :-)

  10. David Morris said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

    Ummm, should that be 'spelt'?

  11. Kate said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

    I had never heard "spell" used in that way either. I don't think it's very common in the U.S.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    June 17, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

    @David Morris


    Okay, to be fair, Wiktionary, for that meaning, has both "spelled" and "spelt", but for me "spelt" doesn't work.

    Even the reading out letter by letter meaning can be "spelled" rather than "spelt". (It can be either of the two.)

  13. RobertL said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 12:38 am

    I hear "spell" used all the time in Australian English – particularly in relation to racehorses. Horses are often "spelled" by being given a break from racing and training. Popular horse wisdom suggests that their first race "back from a spell" is not their best as they are "short of a gallop".

    I'm not even a fan of horseracing and I know these terms.

    Also, I remember a cartoon as a child which showed a shop owned by a stereotypical witch. The door of the shop was closed and it had a handwritten sign on it that said, "Gone for a spell."

  14. SlideSF said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 12:40 am

    I'm not sure what sportzzzgirl does for a living, other than comment on online newsitems; but evidently she has never had to stoop so low as to work a tedious customer service job like being a cashier, a teller, a waitress, etc. Because anyone who has certainly knows what it means to be "spelled", and even more what it means when there isn't anyone available to spell you because they're all too busy too!

  15. Jukka Kohonen said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 1:20 am

    @The Ridger,

    I don't think it usually makes anyone think twice. If anything, it makes them switch sides: "Oh, you have to resort to citing some arcane 17th century usage? I knew it! The usage is OUTDATED! So there!"

  16. Peter Taylor said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 1:40 am

    The 1585-1595 citation for spell refers to an older spelling thereof as spele without giving citations. If the dating of religiosity can include the spellings religiosite and religyosite then spell may yet beat it.

  17. John Walden said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 1:58 am

    Another conclusion that people can leap to is that such-and-such is an Americanism, or a Britishism, just because it has been lurking beyond their ken. Or because things have to be black and white: I have been assured that I should be saying "tin" and not "can", or was it the other way round?

  18. David Morris said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 2:45 am

    @Ellen: Did you take my question seriously? The 'Ummm' was the sound of me planting my tongue in my cheek.
    I am a regular reader/occasional commenter on a general discussion site, and whenever someone uses the spelling 'spelt', someone else asks whether that should be spelled 'spelled', and a discussion of spelled/spelt ensures. I use the spelling 'spelled' (as in 'spelling of words'). I would certainly use the spelling 'spelled' (as in 'temporary replacing sports players, horses or dispatch operators').

  19. GeorgeW said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 5:03 am

    I (SoAmE, age 70s) am familiar with this meaning of 'spell' (the verb) and 'spell' (the noun meaning a short period of time) although they seem a little dated.

    FWIW, the noun 'spell' (meaning a short period of time) doesn't seem to take a definite article:

    She returned after a spell.
    *She returned after the spell.

  20. GAC said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 5:14 am


    I have a similar intuition for this meaning of spell (I immediately convert the asterisked example to refer to a magical spell).

    I'm not sure if it's strict grammaticality — it's really hard to think of a situation when a "spell" (short period of time) would be present in the discourse beforehand and then referred back to, so I'm having trouble finding a context that should force it.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    David Morris, we, the other people of the world who aren't you, can't read minds. And "Ummm" certainly is not specifically a signifier of not being serious. And I don't know you at all, so it's not like your personality gives any clue to meaning. And it's already been established that some people aren't familiar with this meaning of "spell".

  22. Ellen K. said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 7:01 am

    P.S. Interesting, David Morris, that you, in talking about spelt versus spelled, treat it as a spelling difference. To me, it's not merely a spelling difference, but two different forms with different pronunciations, one ending with a voiced sound and one with an unvoiced sound.

    And not having witnessed any conversation such as the one you refer to, I certainly have no way to realize you were referencing such a conversation. We also don't all have your same experiences.

  23. Faldone said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    Spell, 'name the letters of', spell. 'incantation, charm', and spell, 'work in place of (another)' all seem to be from different roots.

  24. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    The fact that a usage is attested a long way back does not necessarily mean that its present use is not recent. For instance, Fowler, if I remember rightly, notes that 'enormous' and 'enormity' have now come apart, so that one can no longer say 'enormous sin' or 'the enormity of these elephants' – clearly quite aware that things had been different in the past. Yet now 'enormity' is quite widely used in a way that would be applicable to elephants, having recovered its ancient sense. It seems clear that in the present case 'spell' as a verb has a continuous history of use, but for 'notoriety' and 'religiosity' it remains possible, on present evidence, that these are usages that fell out of use and are now coming back.

    I also wonder if this use of 'religiosity' may be impelled by the thought that 'religiousness' 'isn't a word', a thought which quite often arises with words in '-ness' if they are not very common or are a bit cumbersome in form. I have also seem 'virtuosity' for 'virtuousness' – are there any historical precedents for that?

  25. Theophylact said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 9:00 am

    Then, of course, there's the noun "spelt" (with a loooong argument whether it's the same as/different from farro).

  26. Anthony said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    David Morris, that's too fine-grained a distinction.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    I recall picking up in an undergraduate class on morphology that ADJ+ness is about as arbitrarily productive a word-formation rule as English has. I suppose there's a question as to whether the existence of a well-known noun derived from the given ADJ whose meaning is the same as ADJ-ness will discourage or block the formation of ADJ-ness in that particular context. But then you get the problem that, e.g., "virtuosity" doesn't mean the same thing as virtuousness, at least not for all meanings of virtuous, and indeed the sense of virtue/virtuous that does map to virtuosity (i.e. high degree of technical skill with no obvious moral overtones) is rare-to-obsolete in modern English. Similarly, "acuity" is potentially synonymous with "acuteness" for some but not all of the semantic range of "acute." So "acuteness" is certainly "a word"; the interesting question would be (which I guess someone could try to figure out how to do some poking about in appropriate corpora to test) how overwhelmingly "acuity" is favored over "acuteness" in the more limited semantic domain where the former is available.

    I think Andrew's broader point that debunking a "recency" claim is best done with evidence of continuous use, not merely ancient use, is well-taken. It's also always possible (and this is now a much easier proposition to test via corpus work) that a particular usage can be found quite a ways into the past but was quite rare for a long time before experiencing a recent spike in popularity.

    Maybe the best debunking evidence would be substantial usage in culturally-prestigious publications during the time-frame matching the peever's own high-school/college years or whatever other developmental life stage one might hypothesize corresponds with a typical prescriptivist's personal inventory of peeves becoming fixed? Of course some prescriptivsts might believe that they themselves were alas born too late and grew up after the deluge, so you'd need to identify their own proposed Golden Age/Good Old Days to find the best debunking evidence.

  28. Boris said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    I've never heard this use of spell before. I was able to figure it out because I know the expression "for a spell", which, by the way, I don't hear often either . It sounds old-fashioned to me. But for me, "for a spell" has always been a set expression, so I would find "spell" used as a noun in this sense outside this expression baffling as well.

  29. Rod Johnson said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 11:46 am

    Mark, re religious/religiose/religiosity: the semantic relationship between the admittedly obscure religiose and religiosity in the "excessive piety" sense is more transparent, which is why I asked. And there is a set of mildly pejorative -ose adjectives—verbose, otiose, lachrymose, grandiose, religiose—which prompted me to wonder whether there was something there. There are a number of not-quite-suffixes (like the -age of baggage, luggage, garbage), or -aster (poetaster, criticaster, and some other extremely rare words) that are sometimes extended semi-productively (e.g., doobage, tuneage). I was wondering whether -ose might be one of those.

  30. SlideSF said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

    @Faldone- Perhaps my etymology is apocryphal, but I always thought there was a connection between "spell" meaning "naming the letters of" and "incantation". The supposed connection is that to uneducated simple folk of the "Dark Ages", the ability to "name the letters of" things gave one an almost magical power that they themselves did not have, and indeed the ability to read words from a book was much like an incantation. This suggests that a "grimoire", or witches book of spells might have originated as nothing more than a "grammar" book.

  31. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    One online source gives this for an etymology of spell in the sense of "work in place of (another)": Old English spelian "to take the place of," related to gespelia "substitute," of uncertain origin. Perhaps related to spilian "to play" (see spiel). Related: Spelled; spelling. The noun meaning "indefinite period of time" first recorded 1706.

    This is said to be different from Anglo-Saxon "spellian" in the sense of writing or narration. It would be amusing if "spiel" in the narrative sense (i.e. a sales-pitch) was taken from a German/Yiddish ancestor cognate to the first (non-narrative) Anglo-Saxon word rather than the second.

  32. Ellen K. said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

    Looking at Wiktionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary, spell "naming the letters of" and "incantation" do appear to come from the same proto-germanic word or root, but via different routes. (Ironically pronounced the same, for some of us, as the different roots Faldone claimed.)

  33. Corey B said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

    I am American (SE, Atlanta) and I definitely know the usage, although I wouldn't say it's common in speech here. It doesn't occur to me as strange when I hear it.

    I remember Stephen Crane's The Open Boat, (1897) with the shipwrecked sailors asking each other "Will you spell me?" at the end of each's turn at the oars. But that does ring to me as a slight bit archaic.

    What is more common is the slangy, rustic noun usage of "spell", as in "Come over and sit a spell." (mentioned above by @Boris.) Is this related at all to the verb? It strikes me as Southern, although for all I know it's widespread in the English world.

  34. mollymooly said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

    I agree with Andrew (not the same one). An early citation for a given word or sense doesn't necessarily mean a continuity or breadth of currency through all the intervening years. The OED sometimes has comments like "now rare" or "rare before 19C", but I'm not sure that absence of such comments proves the opposite. It is possible that a given sense was first recorded in 1400 and yet was much less common in 1990 than in 2013. Or not, obviously.

  35. David Morris said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

    'Ummm' is the sound I make when I plant my tongue in my cheek, and anything which follows should be taken with a grain of spelt.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 12:00 am

    I don't see that it counts as a recency illusion unless the person specifically says that the usage is recent, as sportzzzgirl did, but I don't think Cullen Murphy did.

    [(myl) I took his "hold the line" to imply that he views the deprecated usages as new incursions, not a stubborn residues.]

    As for the oldest language feature that's still peeved in English, hasn't negative concord has been around since the earliest times? Also "ax" meaning "ask". I think pretty much everyone agrees that both are still non-standard.

    SlideSF: According to etymonline, "grimoire" is indeed from "grammar", as is "glamor".

    J. W. Brewer: To me, -ness compounds often sound odd, and the suffix doesn't feel productive, but maybe that's just me.

  37. Geoff Nunberg said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    I tend to be indulgent of these recency misconceptions, recalling that when I was nine years old I asked my dad, "Have you noticed a lot of dirty jokes going around lately?"

  38. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 19, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    My feeling is that -ness is semi-productive, in that people do quite freely form words with it, but they also frequently pause to wonder if what they have formed is 'really a word'.

    Regarding 'virtuosity': I was brought up to believe the same as J.W. Brewer, i.e. that it doesn't mean the same as 'virtuousness', but I have seen people using it to mean 'virtuousness' (in a moral context). I'm taking it that this, as a current development, is indeed new, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that some older sources used it, and that the now standard distinction is something that only developed gradually.

  39. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 20, 2013 @ 6:22 am

    @Andrew (not the same one):

    "The fact that a usage is attested a long way back does not necessarily mean that its present use is not recent. For instance, Fowler, if I remember rightly, notes that 'enormous' and 'enormity' have now come apart, so that one can no longer say 'enormous sin' or 'the enormity of these elephants' – clearly quite aware that things had been different in the past. Yet now 'enormity' is quite widely used in a way that would be applicable to elephants, having recovered its ancient sense."

    This is true in principle, but in practice it almost always turns out upon further examination that the denigrated usage is not a revival and independent later invention, but in fact had been in use all along. See the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage entry on 'enormity' for that example. Fowler, for all that he is revered in some circles, is not a reliable source for this sort of thing. He had a prejudice for supposed distinctions, and wasn't above seeing them where they simply didn't exist.

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