Three words to marvel at

🐇 🐇 🐇 trois lapins to inaugurate November, the final month of autumn or spring (depending on which hemisphere you’re in), and celebrate the Day of the Dead. A day on which we’ll enjoy three English words that have entertained posters on Facebook (from now on, FB) recently: calceology ‘the study of footwear’; telamon ‘male figure used as an architectural pillar’; and hallux ‘the first and largest toe (on a human foot)’.

At this point, you might admit that these terms are English words but, quite rightly, object that it would be bizarre to talk about expressions that almost no speakers of English know or use as words of English. Certainly, if I asked you whether English has a word for the study of footwear, you’re almost surely going to say no, because part of our everyday understanding of word of English is that such an expression has some currency, and hardly any speakers of English know or use the expression calceology.

On discovering the technical term calceology, then, you might be willing to say that the term is an English word, or maybe even a word in English, but still balk at saying it’s a word of English. It should by now be clear that we’re dealing with distinct concepts here, and grappling, awkwardly, with putting labels on them. At least one fresh label is called for. I’ll hold off on choosing a label to cover the territory that includes words of English until after I’ve looked at three other characteristics of CTH — calceology, telamon, and hallux — separate from their lacking currency.

The special-purpose property. As opposed to ordinary-language (for short, everyday) expressions, CTH are all special-purpose expressions, in this case technical terms from various domains; compare the everyday big toe ‘first toe (of the human foot)’ with its anatomical-terminology counterpart hallux. But special-purpose expressions might be markedly poetical or archaic, dialect-specific, register-specific, quotations from another language, or set apart from everyday expressions in other ways.

This is a property on which we can expect considerable variation from speaker to speaker. In particular, technical terminology is inclined to bleed into everyday usage. So, for example, what starts as the technical usage of anthropologists who study kinship relationships — like sibling, referring to ‘brother or sister; parent’s child’ — can (because it fills a gap in the everyday vocabulary of kinship) get picked up by some speakers as an item of their everyday (though stylistically elevated) language. In general, there are no bright lines distinguishing special-purpose from everyday expressions, nor could there be. That doesn’t preclude there being some clear cases of the distinction.

The monolexemic property. CTH are all single lexemes, all monolexemic, as opposed to polylexemic words like the the N + N compound Ns shoe science, man pillar, and monster toe. And of course to polylexemic nominals like shoe-oriented science, masculine pillar, and big toe. And to more complex polylexemic expressions, like men’s room, go off the rails, get someone’s goat, and so on (here I’ve chosen examples that are all also fixed, rather than open, expressions).

The fixity property. As single lexemes, CTH are also all fixed (to some degree conventional) expressions — as opposed to open, semantically compositional, expressions — but so are many polylexemic expressions. The polylexemic expressions man pillar (with multiple senses) and masculine pillar (also with many senses) are both open, and big toe is available in English as an open expression, referring to any toe of notable size (my second toes are in fact big toes, longer than all the others). But there is also a fixed expression big toe, which refers to the first toe of the human foot (known in anatomical terminology as the hallux), regardless of its actual or relative size in any particular person; there is nothing contradictory about the sentence

My big toes are tiny (due to a congenital defect).

Putting it all togther. From my 12/2/06 Language Log  posting “Does anyone have a word for this? Probably not.”, about interpreting claims that “language L has no word for X”, or that “there is no word for X in language L” (as in “English has no word for the study of footwear” / “There is no word for the study of footwear in English” — which I would claim to be true in ordinary English usage of “word for X” — though it is also true that there is an English word for the study of footwear, but it’s a technical term, one not of any currency), with initial bold-facing added to make my alphabetic abbreviation olfesc clear:

I argue that a useful interpretation of word for X in language L is something like ‘ordinary-language fixed expression [AZ added 2023: an expression, not necessarily monolexemic] of some currency’ (olfesc) [for X]

It then follows that: English has no olfescs for the study of footwear or a male figure used as an architectural pillar; it also has no monolexemic olfesc for the first toe (of the human foot), but it certainly has an olfesc, namely the nominal big toe. So this case is not entirely parallel to the other two. But the configuration in the first-toe case is not at all uncommon: a polylexemic olfesc (big toe) paired with a special-purpose counterpart expression, in particular a (roughly) synonymous technical term (hallux), often monolexemic — as in English expressions for the hollow under the arm at the shoulder: the olfesc N+N compound N armpit paired with the technical term axilla (which happens to be monolexemic).

Part of the delight that the FB commenters take in CTH — part of their wow factor — is that these three technical terms are monolexemic, like sibling and axilla.

The three FB discussions. Starting with the most recent, and the simplest.

calceology ‘the study of footwear’. Asya Pereltsvaig on FB on 10/25:

— This year’s Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded for work on quantum dots, which, it turns out, have different colors depending on their size. Today I learned that with ballroom dance shoes, as with quantum dots, size and color correlate! The same size and width of a shoe fits larger in tan shoes vs white shoes. Why this is so is a puzzle best left to scholars in calceology, which is the name of shoe sciences (another thing I learned today!)

The technical term calceology (< Latin calceus ‘shoe’ + the ‘science, study’ element ology) is morphologically complex, but it’s monolexemic.

telamon ‘male figure used as architectural pillar’. Some discussion on FB on 10/16 before David Preston provides the (monolexemic) technical term.

— Steven Levine [writing from the Czech Republic]: Hello, Brno! It’s good to be back.

[from SL:] Street scene in the city of Brno

— Robert Coren: Those are some fierce-looking caryatids.

— Michael Palmer > RC: Caryatids are by definition female.

— AZ > MP: Rather than just noting Robert’s error, it would have been more helpful if you’d supplied a general term for human figures serving as supportive pillars in this fashion, or for specifically male figures in this function (male counterparts of caryatids, as here). Or noted that (as I suspect) there are no standard architectural terms for these things. What should Robert have written? “Those are some fierce-looking male caryatid-counterparts / caryatid-like figures”? “Those are some fierce-looking male supportive (architectural) pillars”? Or do you recommend that he just abandon the attempt to note the architectural function of the figures, by saying “Those are some fierce-looking (male) figures”?

— David Preston (quoting):  “In architecture, telamons are colossal male figures used as columns. These are also called atlas, atlantes, or atlantids; they are the male versions of caryatids.”

To expand on DP about telamons, from NOAD:

noun telamon (plural telamones [AZ: or nativized English plural telamons]): Architecture a male figure used as a pillar to support an entablature or other structure. ORIGIN early 17th century: via Latin from Greek telamōnes, plural of Telamōn, the name of a mythical hero.

The mythical Telamon sailed with Jason as one of the Argonauts and

He and [his younger brother] Peleus were also close friends of Heracles, assisting him on his expeditions against the Amazons and his assault on Troy. (Wikipedia entry)

hallux ‘first toe (on the human foot)’. Elizabeth Coppock on FB 10/9:

— Larry Horn has just alerted me to a serious omission in the paper on the cross-linguistic pragmatics of “finger” and “toe” that Danielle Dionne and I published last year in Glossa: a journal of general linguistics: There *is* a word for ‘big toe’ in English after all, and it’s “hallux”! Who knew?

Luckily, this word is so obscure that its existence has no impact on the implicatures generated by “toe”. Which is kind of the point of the paper.

This is a hard tangle to unravel, but I’ll repeat some of the ideas I tried to clarify above. First, big toe is itself an olfesc, an ordinary-language (two-lexeme) fixed expression of (great) currency, that is, a kind of idiom for referring to the first toe. To put this baldly, English does indeed have a word for ‘big toe’, and it’s big toe.

Then there is also a special-purpose item (which happens to be monolexemic) — specifically a technical term of anatomy for the bodypart in question that is of little currency, though some people suffering from bunions (as I do) — a bunion is an obtrusive and sometimes painful bony swelling on the first joint of the big toe — might know hallux as part of the medical term for this affliction, hallux valgus (hallux naming the affected bodypart, valgus referring to a type of deformity). In any case, hallux is of little currency, indeed of little utility so far as I can see. Well, some people have an irrational fondness for Latin-derived medical terminology, perhaps because they think such obscure vocabulary lends an air of learning and antiseptic seriousness to  talk about intimate, down-to-earth matters of the body and its care.


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