Thursday 8 July 2010

elision (not!)

Every now and again I notice the words elide, elision being used in a way that is quite different from how I would use them. And it’s always in the same place: in an editorial in the Guardian newspaper.

We had an example two days ago. There had been some discussion whether the people who invaded England in 1066 are better described as ‘French’ or as ‘Normans’. Correspondents had pointed out that the two terms cannot be regarded as synonymous.
A correspondence on the letters page wrestles with the question of whether the French or the Normans invaded England in 1066, and whether there is any difference. As some contributors have pointed out, the elision of the French and the Normans is too crude.

The writer is clearly using elision here to mean something like ‘confusion, conflation, confounding’ of the two categories.

Another example of the same thing, this time involving the verb, is dated 12 April 2010 and bears the byline of Beatrix Campbell.
… towards the end of the 20th century within a single generation the numbers marrying halved, the numbers divorcing trebled, the proportion of children born outside marriage quadrupled.
Intimacy, however, did not diminish and parenting – as commitment, care and companionship – has flourished.
Yet, Tories subliminally elide these changes with the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

As far as I can see, no dictionary includes this meaning. Every dictionary I can lay hands on defines elision as ‘omission’ or words to that effect, particularly the omission of a vowel or syllable, or sometimes of a passage in a text. Correspondingly, to elide is to omit a vowel or syllable by elision.
1. The action of dropping out or suppressing: a. a letter or syllable in pronunciation; b. a passage in a book or connecting links in discourse. Also, an instance of either of these. Also fig.

That is how we use the term in phonetics, as when we refer to the possible elision of the t in next when we say the next day ðə ˈneks ˈdeɪ, or of the h in him when we say I’ve seen him aɪv ˈsiːn ɪm. (Contrary to my borrowed illustration above, you can’t elide the final t in night naɪt, though you can make it glottal, naɪʔ.)

See also the blog entry for 7 May 2010.

I consulted the Guardian in the person of my former student David Marsh, author of the Guardian’s Style Guide. He replied
In answer to your question, it is the journalist (and editors/subeditors) who don't know the meaning of the word, which still means (or should mean) what you understand it to mean.

Four centuries ago, the OED reveals a different misuse of the term. In 1626 Bacon, in an early debate about the mechanism of speech production, criticized another writer (Boyle?) for attributing sound to ‘elision of the air’.
The Cause given of Sound, that it should be an Elision of the Air (whereby, if they mean anything, they mean Cutting or Dividing, or else an Attenuating of the Air) is but a Terme of Ignorance.

Let’s have no more Termes of Ignorance in the Guardian or anywhere else.


  1. Still, where does that "elision" come from? Can't think of a satisfyingly similar word.

  2. Interesting observation. Here's my guess. I think the relevant definition of "elide" is 1) the action of dropping out or suppression." In each of the cases, there is something that is dropped out or suppressed. In the first example,it is the distinction between the French and the Normans that is "elided." In the second, it is the distinction between changes in 20th century life and the collapse of civilization more generally. I myself might use "conflate," but "elide" might have more of negative reading (i.e., the unscientific prejudice that elision is somehow lazy or sloppy?)

    By the by, the earliest reference to this use of "elide" I found in the BNC was from 1990:

    "While Dawkins can not be blamed for it, modern enthusiasm for the "enterprise society" may explain why his parable of selfish genes has commonly been elided with the selfish intentions of individuals."

  3. The OED recognises three senses

    1. To destroy, annihilate (the force of evidence) — obsolete except in the legal sense:

    b. Law, esp. Sc. To annul, do away with, quash, rebut. [So elidere in Roman Law.]

    2. To strike out, suppress, pass over in silence.

    3. Gram. To omit (a vowel, or syllable) in pronunciation. Hence elided ppl. a

    The citations for sense [2] show that, as used in the nineteenth century, elided would convey that the Normans and French were written out of history. Compare, for example,

    1851 SIR F. PALGRAVE Norm. & Eng. I. 750 Gibbon and Sismondi have elided these monarchs.

    I'm sure that Lipman's analysis is right that the notion 'difference' is understood — indeed, elided. However, I suspect that there may be some interference from the word collide and its associations.

  4. Wasn't I, but collide as an intermediary step is interesting. That would imply first collide was used in the meaning of other co(n)- words such as conflate, confuse, collate, then the meaning was associated with the -lide part as well. Possible, but quite strange.

  5. Lipman

    Ah yes, it was Anonymous. My glance 'elided' the space below your posting.

    If I'm right, then the semantic influence is to suggest conflation etc through violent impact.

  6. Hi, me again, anonymous (Joe). I think David Crosbie and sorta agree, but I don't think violent impact really works here. I think it is more that the boundary two closely related concepts get lost. So if we think of two semantic fields as closely aligned, the loss of the border between them would me that they would be (crudely) merged. The reason why thw word "boundary" can be, er, elided, is due to pragmatics, and is kind of like cutting an end of a piece of wire. Technically, that's impossible, but we know that there is a pragmatic extension of "end" into some contextually defined area of the object in question. I think it's the same here: rather than saying something like, "the boundary gets elided," the idea is that the boundary is actually part of a given field, and that's why the word "boundary" can be elided. (I also think that one of the pairs has to be a smaller than the other, and thus can mistakely be construed as a subset, but I'm not sure if I am correct about that).

    Looking at various corpora that I have access to, I still haven't found an unambiguous use of this sense of "elide" prior to 1990.

  7. The proposed overlaps of meaning between elide and confuse don't convince me, frankly. I rather suspect it's either quite arbitrary, filling an inkhorn term with some random meaning, or some weak similarity to an existing word.

  8. The origin of the conflation meaning may have to do with French orthography. An elided vowel in the definite article is indicated by an apostrophe which also joins the article with the noun.

    l'arbre elided, joined
    le garçon unelided, unjoined

    Of course, elision refers to the deletion of the vowel, but people may assume it refers to the joining of two forms and extend the meaning.

  9. Of the 19 hits for "elided" in the BNC, at least 5 are in the deprecated "conflated" sense.

    It seems to me that the confusion is similar to that between "replace" and "substitute". If X and Z are two things separated by Y, then eliding Y results in conflating X and Z.

  10. Speaking through my hat, I'd say that both misuses makes sense if they instead talked about "eliding the differences between the two subjects".

    So it may be that Beatrix Campbell has picked up "elision" in that context and then gone on to misremember or misconstrue it.

  11. (Joe again, I do need a Google account).

    Obviously we are dealing with low frequencies, but the sense of "conflation" (which actually i don't think quite captures the meaning) is so common in both COCA and BNC that I don't know if I would characterize it as a mere mistake. Here are some representative samples:

    1) "For these groups, "classy" and "classic" have become elided, identical."

    2) "Hilary Frome was ornamental rather than creditable, but the two things elided in his mind."

    3) "Over vast distances the monotonies, as well as the varieties and contrasts, elide with such painful gradualness one into another as to be scarcely noticeable."

    4) "in which the self-portrait was humorously elided with another of Munch's images, Madonna."

    5) ". . . is the persistent elision of "gender" with "women,"

    6) "In both texts, the authors elide medieval Islamic and ancient Greek identities in order to ridicule both traditions."

    One sense of "elide" here seems to mean an unfortunate conflation between two closely related concepts. Another sense of "elide" seems to be a gradual process where one gradually slips into another. And I also think these are related to the ordinary meaning of the word, but I don't really have to work this yet. But thanks for the observation, Professor Wells.

  12. in a happy confluence (or elision, even?) of my Wikipedia-based procrastination and the coincidence of this blog post being made today, I came across today this sentence from :

    'in an unsuccessful lawsuit in 1999... Justice Neuberger wrote: "I accept that the word Spork involves a clever idea of making a single word by eliding [the] beginning of the word spoon and the end of the word fork."'

    which as a linguist gives me a double-take -- surely it's the *end* of 'spoon' that's elided and the *beginning* of 'fork'. But Neuberger must have meant the "merge" sense.

  13. I think I've cracked it.

    A number of people associate elision exclusively with verse, and the elisions they think of are when a word-final vowel sound precedes a word-initial vowel sound. Instead of suppressing one of the vowels, they blend them. So, they conclude, elision means 'blending'.

  14. The number of people you refer to is something like "6" or "7", I gauge.

  15. As a Guardian-reading non-phonetician, I read the offending paragraph the other day without noticing anything awry. I think, like most people only casually acquainted with the term, I came across it when learning French at school when we were taught that 'elision' was the running together of adjacent words and have thought of it ever since as conveying a blurring of boundaries. I doubt that much attention was given to precisely what was elided - the omitted sound or the words on either side. I think the similarity between 'elide' and words like 'slide' and 'glide' possibly contributes something to the misapprehension.

  16. Lipman

    By googling hymn lyrics and th I've found a plentiful sample of what I mean. The six seven alone involve five different initial vowel sounds:


    True elision would consist of suppressing the happY vowel of the. What far more than "6" or "7" sing is a blend of two vowel sounds.

  17. Of course - sorry if I sounded sarcastic. What I meant is that hardly anybody would know the technical term even if they sometimes encounter elided vowels in their lives, probably not even those who had Greek in school. And even then it's a big step from there to the meaning of merging (rather than joining).

    Not that I had a better idea.

  18. The New Oxford American Dictionary (which comes installed on Macs, mine being 2nd edition, 2005) does give a meaning like that, both for the noun and the verb:

    elision (...) the process of joining together or merging things, esp. abstract ideas : unease at the elision of so many vital questions.

    elide [ trans. ] (...) join together; merge : whole periods of time are elided into a few seconds of screen time | [ intrans. ] the two things elided in his mind.

    The verb entry then ends with a usage note conveniently proposing an explanation for this "deviant" extended sense (which quite closely echoes a hypothesis that was put forward in one of the earlier comments above):

    USAGE The standard meaning of the verb elide is ‘omit,’ most frequently used as a term to describe the way that some sounds or syllables are dropped in speech, e.g., in contractions such as I'll or he's. The result of such omission (or elision) is that the two surrounding syllables are merged; this fact has given rise to a new sense, with the meaning ‘join together, merge,’ as in : the two things elided in his mind. This new sense is now common in general use.

  19. Thanks for bringing this! It's possible, but it still doesn't really convince me, also because the (original) term is too narrowly used in too narrow circles of users.

    Generally, the dictionary author's on the same hypothetical level as the attempts here. But as I mentioned, I at least don't have a better idea, and chances are we shan't find any documented intermediate stages or the like for any of the explanations.

    Somehow I'd prefer a solution that involves not only semantic but also phonetic similarities or overlaps, probably because the purely semantic explanations are far-fetched or complicated, involving invisible common thirds.

  20. Well, there's no phonetic support for the semantic development from OE sǣlig 'happy, blissful' to ModE silly either. Semantic change is not necessarily (or even usually) constrained by formal factors.

  21. No, no, I don't claim there always has to be a phonetic factor, only in the case of elide, elision the purely semantic side is so nebulous that a phonetic aspect might have played a role. That isn't the case in 'happy' -> 'silly', which are more or less in the same semantic field in many languages. (To prevent comments: I don't equate the concepts.)

  22. At COCA 8/51 uses of "elided" look to me to be instances of the conflate/blend sense under discussion. This is not low frequency. The collocation "elide with" is telling.

    I wonder about the influence of the usage "differences are elided" or of metonymy. If distinguishing parts or aspects of concepts are "omitted" (older usage), then the wholes are "blended".

    BTW, "elided over" appeared in an Analog story. But that has a simple explanation: glide=>elide.

  23. Elision is also used to refer to the omission of sounds as a result of joining words together. I guess that in this case the journalist has used the term to indicate the amalgamation of separate entities, and the resultant omission of their respective characteristics.

    Whether or not it is 'proper' to use the word in this way, I'm in no more of a position to say than anyone else, but in my opinion it is a logical progression of our language...which has been occurring organically since well before the arrival of those Frenchy-Norman folk. Long may it last. ;)


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