Tuesday, 14 October 2008

one seraph is enough to sing about

Today I was listening to a beautiful rendition of 'Let the bright Seraphim' by Lesley Garrett and I thought seraphim would be a plural noun, based on the rules of the Hebrew language. But was the singular seraph?

Yes, my computer's dictionary said it was.

But it's a back-formation, a word formed by deleting the suffix from 'seraphim'. The Princeton WordNet explains a back-formation as 'a word invented (usually unwittingly by subtracting an affix) on the assumption that a familiar word derives from it.' For instance, the verb burgle came into use because of the mistaken assumption that burglar is a noun formed by adding the ar ending.

As William Safire said in the New York Times, "People do not consciously work out the backward step, but they have a sense that burgle is to burglar what sail is to sailor."

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the first use of seraph to 1667, by Milton, and suggests he formed this singular noun by analogy with cherub/cherubim.

I guess Milton wouldn't have had much experience with Hebrew plurals used in English, as they're not common. Nowadays there are only a handful in use. Laurie Bauer, in the book Morphological Productivity, says there are probably only cherubim, seraphim, kibbutzim and goyim in regular use.

After considering all this information I was left with the question: what did people before 1667 call one of the seraphim?

Maybe they just didn't talk about them.


Anonymous said...

Love your blog! I guess people would still have called them seraphs but just not written about them. I really wonder if they were much thought of in the singular. They seem so much more alluring as a host of seraphim.

parlance said...

Sally, thanks for visiting.
I think maybe they were too busy figuring how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

Of course, I dashed across to see your blog and found it fascinating. I wondered about the pineapple you grew and I thought that would not have been in Melbourne. I grew one once, in my glasshouse, but it was only a tiny one and we couldn't eat it. I think I'll pop back to your post on that and ask you.