Word envy

Tuesday October 26, 2010 @ 05:29 PM (UTC)

Every time I listen to the Franz Ferdinand song “What You Meant,” I am struck by the opening line: “As I took step number four/ Into the close of your tenement”. It’s obviously not American English. The band is Scottish, so this isn’t simply the matter of, as George Bernard Shaw* had it, England and America being separated by a common language. Scotland has its own English as well as its own Gaelic.

In Scottish, the word “tenement” is, according to the OED, used primarily for a single edifice subdivided for multiple tenants. Each subdivision is a “house”, even if it’s quite small (In England, the OED informs, this is precisely reversed.) A little different from our American sense of the word, which falls under the OED’s more general denotation “A building or house to dwell in”, but in my experience of modern usage has a connotation of being run-down or slummy.

But that’s not the part of this phrase that appeals to me, while it is part of its strangeness to my ear. The word is close. The first definition is “1. gen. An enclosed place, an enclosure.” and it’s interesting to see all the other definitions depart from this in a series of semantic narrowings, or as the OED puts it: “2. In many senses more or less specific…” You can almost see the lines of the enclosure jump around as you run down the several meanings and shades of meaning for this one, now largely marked with the shameful “Obs.” for obsolescence or confined to local shadings: the continuation of #2, “An enclosed field (now chiefly local, in the English midlands)”; #3b, “A farm-yard” in Kent, Sussex, and Scotland.

But it’s #4 that fits snugly with our tenement:

4. An entry or passage. Now, in Scotland, esp. one leading from the street to dwelling houses, out-houses, or stables, at the back, or to a common stair communicating with the different floors or ‘flats’ of the building. Also variously extended to include the common stair, the open lane or alley, or the court, to which such an entry leads.

This is what I wish we had: a word for an entryway that sounds this cozy, that seems to emphasize by its sound and its accidental neighbors in etymology, nearness. And I don’t think we do, for all my maundering about the OED’s captured language as birthright. I don’t think this use of “close” is at all active in my part of America, or that you could rationally expect any random conversational partner or reader to grasp this meaning. It’s too bad. I reached for “close” today as I worked on my novel, took it down, looked it over, and found that its plug was not adopted for American sockets.

*Apparently: this is one of those quotes attributed to almost everyone witty who has lived in the last few centuries.


Well, I like the word maundering. And Scotland is a lovely place filled with lovely people. And if we had two million pounds sterling, we’d be allowed to live there.

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