Using Sibelius music notation software, I work under the name of Smoot Scoring as a music typesetter and editor.

Nobody has ever asked me what Smoot means, but I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s a word I came across in Chambers, during one of our daily Scrabble games.

“A compositor who does odd jobs in various printing houses. — vi to work in this way. [Origin obscure].”

Chambers is the best dictionary for Scrabble because it is the most inclusive. Shorter and Concise Oxfords are shockingly exclusive: my Shorter Oxford has no entry for futon, and declines to mention euphoria. Why should we suddenly burst into Greek, when there is the perfectly good English word euphory? And yet it includes euphrasia and euphonia. The ways of Oxford are certainly ineffable; useful as an arbiter of correctness.

I wrote to the OED over two matters: they acknowledged my input but didn’t put it in. The first was their ridiculous attribution of the neologism grotty to John Burke instead of Alun Owen. Owen wrote the script of A Hard Day’s Night and tried the experiment of getting a phrase to catch on by putting it in George Harrison’s mouth. He was so kind as to get George to explain it:

“Yeah, grotesque.”
“Make a note of that word and give it to Susan.”

Oxford are dedicated to printed sources, however (at least for words that entered the language after the invention of printing) and although the celluloid record predates the print version, it was Burke who had the job of novelising the script, so he gets the citation. Idiots! The film is a print too, you know.

My second letter to Oxford was about the phrase ground-breaking. Their sources for the figurative sense (doing pioneer work) date back only to 1709, ignoring the musical sense, which was surely in mind when people first used the phrase. It takes musical skill and knowledge to break a new ground. Christopher Simpson’s Book The Division-Viol was published in 1659 with plentiful instruction and examples:

There are other musical etymologies missed in OED, notably full stop meaning a full chord on a lute, which gave its name to the dot at the end of a sentence. They cite Shakespeare as the first to use the name full stop to mean the punctuation mark, but this is an unnecessary presumption. The reference, if it was not established yet as naming the punctuation, would have been taken by the audience as a musical one: “Come, the full stop.” (Merchant of Venice.) I didn’t come up with that observation, José Vázquez passed it on to me.

Smoot was quite likely originally someone’s name: names are what you get when you google it. At one time to smoot was an illegal pursuit—hey, rhyme alert! Limerick on the horizon!

5 Responses to “Smoot”

  1. malo Says:

    I never asked what it meant because I trusted that it would be something clever. Isn’t that curious?! Do you think I am more like Locke than Marsh?

  2. recumbentman Says:

    It is curious that we can give credit for cleverness and not be curious to know the details. Yeah whatever. I do it myself.

    It would be honourable to be more like Locke, the practical musician, than Marsh the theorist. Theory is often ridiculous within a century or two, but quality in music persists.

    I had written ‘always ridiculous’ there, but changed it when I thought of Guido d’Arezzo. Sol-fa is approaching its millennium, and is equally useful today.

  3. willy Says:

    Once to smoot was
    an illegal pursuit—
    Haiku on the horizon!

    Sorry about that. Really nice entry this one, thanks for all the words – w

  4. recumbentman Says:

    Thanks Wil. OK, it’s not a gem but here it is:

    A compositor lacking discretion
    But keen to advance his profession
    Could be tempted to smoot—
    An illegal pursuit
    When a man was his boss’s possession.

  5. recumbentman Says:

    I’ve finally had a kind of revenge on OED over their ignorance of the provenance of the phrase ‘break new ground’.

    I put it into a limerick, which has been approved by OEDILF (the Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form).

    The OED’s case is even worse than I said in my blog above; their first citation for ‘break new ground’ is dated 1631, but this is entirely misleading. The 1631 poem was in Latin, and mentioned neither ground nor breaking, which were added in the translation of 1872.

    Donne, 1631: Illos quod sequeris novator audis [or audes]
    Grosart, 1872: As thou, who, following, darest break new ground

    In fact the earliest use of ‘break new ground’ properly cited in OED is dated 1857.

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