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A Nice Chint for your Curtains and a Juicy Quin on your Tree

21 Jul 2018

A listicle of ten words that used to be plurals. (Depending on what you mean by "used to be". Or by "plurals".)


If I'm going to have a language blog, sooner or later I'm going to have to do a listicle. I'm not honestly sure what makes a listicle different from a list, but it sounds more social-media-friendly, so I'm calling this a listicle.

You've almost certainly seen articles that purport to tell you about some modern English nouns which, while treated as singular, are actually plural. Never eat a panini with a paparazzi who has an agenda. Not because it's dangerous - you're a big kid, you can look after yourself - but because those three singular nouns are actually plurals. That one sentence is capable of causing grown men to write florid, furious letters to their daily organ of choice.

What's really worrying, though, is that you may be missing some of the less-obvious words that were, once upon a time, in another language, in some sense, plurals. To help you out, I've compiled this listicle of ten English (if you count loanwords as "English") words which (depending on what you think "used to be" means) used to be plurals (depending on what you think "plurals" are) but which we now use as singular. Or possibly as uncountable. This is no longer a good title. Just read the list.


Back in the olden days, when the British Empire was ruling the waves and stealing all kinds of stuff from all kinds of people, we used to import an awful lot of exotic goods from India. Amongst these were various fabrics, including a kind of calico printed with floral designs. This was originally known by its Hindi name, chint, but people became so used to seeing the plural form in advertising that they slowly began to mistake it for a singular. A bit of spelling variation ensued, with chince and chinse making appearances, before finally chintz became the settled form in the late 1800s.


It consumes more calories in the eating than it contains in its fibrous, bitter stalks; but as if a single celery weren't bad enough, the word is probably originally a plural. Rumour has it that it's derived from an Italian dialect word, selleri, the plural of sellero, presumably derived from a Greek word for parsley.


As a way of getting another of my five a day, I'm going to talk about lettuce, too. It may be less horrid than its cousin Celero, but it's equally plural, coming from the Anglo-Norman plural form letues. The singular was letue or laitue, so called from French lait ("milk") after the weird milky stuff that comes out of the stalk when you cut it. If you've never experienced that, think yourself lucky, and carry on buying pre-prepared salad.


If you know some basic Latin, you're probably thinking "erum" as a potential singular here. But you'd be wrong! Era is believed to derive from the Latin word aera, meaning a number used for counting or measuring, which is the plural form of aes, a piece of metal used as a counter.


If you've been sending invoices, you've been double-pluralling in a professional context, which is surely a sackable offence? Invoice or invoyes was originally the plural of invoy, which is closely related to envoy. Both derive from French envoyer, meaning "to send".


If you're a puzzle fan, you'll be familiar with the rebus, which contains phrases to be guessed from a combination of letters and pictures. The word is the plural form of Latin res, meaning "thing". Why the puzzle is referred to as "things" is another question, of course. Luckily, I didn't promise to write about anything other than plurals, so I can save displaying my astounding ignorance of Latin for another time.


Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a major language of large parts of Africa, spoken by between 50 adn 100 million people. Before contact with Arab traders, the language was known as Kingozi, but as the language gradually incorporated Arabic vocabulary, it became known as Swahili, from an Arabic word for "coasts".


Like a couple of other Jewish festivals, Sukkot and Shavuot, the name of Purim is a plural. However, unlike the other two, it's not the plural of a Hebrew word. The root word pur is from an unknown source, though evidently it's related to the extinct Akkadian language. It is explained in the biblical book of Esther as being equivalent to the Hebrew word for "lot" (in the sense of "lottery"), and in the name of the festival it's given a Hebrew plural suffix, "-im". The same suffix is seen on "cherubim", which is another of those words you'll often find in listicles of "words you didn't know were actually plural". This is starting to feel a bit like Inception.


Here's another word that started off as a regular English plural. In medieval English, qunices were also called coyn or coyne. The plural form was, predictably, coynes, which seems to have been reinterpreted as a singular, giving us quince. If you've never tried quince jelly or quince butter or quince anything at all, rush out and get some. It's another of your five a day. Go ahead - there's only one entry left in the listicle, in any case.


I'm going to confess something which will reveal how parochially British I am. I thought "succotash" was just a made-up word said by Sylvester the Cat, until my partner (The Texan, as he shall henceforth be known) said he was making some. After a conversation that went, roughly, "That's not real though", "Yes ma'am it is", "No but it isn't", "And yet I appear to be making it...", I finally referred to my friend Google and discovered that, indeed, it's a special kind of American delicacy. The name comes from the Narragansett language, and means "boiled corn kernels".

Well, the beans and sweetcorn in the succotash bring me up to my five a day, so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. I hope this listicle will help you keep your plurals plurals and your singulars singular for many years to come.