Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 11 12:15:39 UTC 2011

On May 8, OED WOTD was "fluent". I habitually scan all the WOTD posts to
see if the dates lend themselves for antedating, but I also check the
lemmas. Here, something appears to be missing. Aside from the
definitions that deal with physical fluidity and fluxions (fluent 6.),
there is this pair of subentries that deal with language:

Fluent, adj. and n.

> 5. a. Of speech, style, etc.: Flowing easily and readily from the
> tongue or pen.
> 1625 Bacon Ess. (new ed.) 250 Such as is a fluent and Luxuriant Speech.
> 1660 A. Wood Life & Times (1891) I. 360 Their fluent praying and
> preaching.
> 1670--1 J. Narborough Jrnl. in Acct. Several Late Voy. (1711) i. 70
> Their Language is much in the Throat, and not very fluent, but uttered
> with good deliberation.
> 1729 Pope Dunciad (new ed.) iii. 197 How fluent nonsense trickles from
> his tongue!
> 1828 I. D'Israeli Comm. Life Charles I I. ii. 21 The pain which
> conversation occasions him whose speech is not fluent.
> 1866 'G. Eliot' Felix Holt I. v. 126 A soft voice with a clear fluent
> utterance.
>  b. Of a speaker, etc.: Ready in the use of words, able to express
> oneself readily and easily in speech or writing.
> 1589 W. Warner Albions Eng. (new ed.) v. xxvii. 119 Rhetoricall I am
> not with a fluant tongue to ster.
> 1610 T. Heywood Golden Age i. i, in Wks. (1874) III. 5 Fluent Mercury
> Speakes from my tongue.
> 1737 Pope Epist. of Horace ii. i. 16 Fluent Shakespear scarce effac'd
> a line.
> 1785 W. Cowper Task iv. 19 His fluent quill.
> 1832 H. Martineau Ireland i. 6 Fluent story-tellers.
> 1882 Farrar in Contemp. Rev. 807 As a speaker..Dean Stanley was by no
> means fluent.

Does anyone else notice anything peculiar about this? Well, let me
suggest some other OED examples that did not make it:

Under fluent 4.a. (flowing freely and abundantly):
> 1611    J. Speed Hist. Great Brit. vii. xii. 321/1   Destitute of
> vertue and fluent in vice.

Under fluent 2.a. (Of a painter: Producing a fluid or liquid effect.)
[<-- this is, incidentally, the only example of this kind; the rest
conform to the main definition under 2.a.]
> 1822    Examiner 347/2   Backhuysen is often heavy in his shadows, but
> admirably fluent in the representation of water and air.

conceit 1.a.
> 1639    T. Fuller Hist. Holy Warre i. vi. 7   Fluent in language to
> expresse their conceits.

Cultural, special uses: cultural lag:
> 1963    L. Jones Blues People xii. 205   To a certain extent these
> mixed groups reduced the cultural lag somewhat, and many white
> musicians by the mid-forties were fluent in the new jazz language.

> 1981    Washington Post 4 Apr. a14/1   State Department sources denied
> a waggish report that Walters, a phenomenal linguist who is reputed to
> be fluent in eight languages..has been hired to translate 'Haigspeak'
> into English.

> 1969    Nationalist (Dar es Salaam) 25 Jan. 6/2 (advt.)    Candidates
> must be Tanzanian Citizens fluent in both Kiswahili and English.

> 1980    J. McClure Blood of Englishman ix. 86   Zondi was fluent in
> Afrikaans..and Sesuto.

Tex-Mex, A.:
> 1949 Time 14 Feb. 38/1   Fluent in Texmex Spanish, he had been one of
> the most promising rodeo riders around Tucson, Ariz... The half
> English, half Spanish patois of the U.S.-Mexican border region.

Venusian 1.
> 1972    P. Moore Can you speak Venusian? xvi. 167   He is fluent in
> Venusian, Plutonian and Krügerian.

OED shows 21 quotations that contain "fluent in". All but 5 of them (the
5 including the first two listed above) are of the type "fluent in
[language(s)]". That's 16 examples of the same kind and no lemma to go with.

Fluency is similar. There is one entry dealing with speech:

> 3. Readiness of utterance, flow of words.
> a1684    J. Evelyn Diary anno 1654 (1955) III. 138   Dr. Collins so
> celebrated for his fluency in the Latine Tongue.
> 1814    I. D'Israeli Quarrels Auth. II. 89   He had indulged his
> satirical fluency on the Scientific Collectors.
> 1834    Macaulay William Pitt in Ess. (1854) 293/1   The fluency and
> the personal advantages of the young orator.

Again, none of the examples mention a specific language. Is this really
such a new expression that there is nothing relevant before 1949?? But
even if it's been around only post-WWII, why is it not in OED?

Or is this simply hidden in other lemmas, as is the case with AHD4?
(Webster's Collegiate and RHU are similar.)

> 1.a. Able to express oneself readily and effortlessly: a fluent
> speaker; fluent in three languages.
> b. Flowing effortlessly; polished: speaks fluent Russian; gave a
> fluent performance of the sonata.

Macmillan has it as the first entry and it's quite separate from "fluent

> 1. able to speak a foreign language very well
> fluent in:
> I'm fluent in three languages.
> 1.a. spoken well and without difficulty
> Steve speaks fluent Japanese.

MWOL also lists it as a separate category, but actually broadens it
somewhat (which is why I've included a couple of quotations above that
don't involve language):

> 2.a : capable of using a language easily and accurately <fluent in
> Spanish> <a fluent writer>
> b : effortlessly smooth and flowing : polished <a fluent performance>
> <spoke in fluent English>
> c : having or showing mastery of a subject or skill <fluent in
> mathematics>

But all of these are quite different categorizations from both 5.a. and
5.b., as well as 4.a.

> +4. a. Flowing freely or abundantly. Also, abounding in. Obs.

Was the omission deliberate or does it need to be addressed? As
omissions go, this is a pretty big one. I'd be more inclined to believe
that it was deliberate and similar to AHD4 or RHU had there been
specific examples under other entries for "fluent". But there are /none/!

So there are four types of examples that need to be addressed:

He speaks fluent Russian.
He spoke in fluent Russian.
His Russian is fluent.
He's fluent in three languages. [Think of R2D2...]

There are subtle differences between the first three and a more radical
change in the fourth. Still, they may be combined in some ways--or even
all together--but they need a home.

Things such as "fluent in mathematics", "fluent in vice" (current
placement notwithstanding), "fluent in the history of middle ages" also
need a home--either under one of the existing categories or as a
splinter from the languages one.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list