Uninformed Comment


Posted in Grammar & usage by uninformedcomment on August 25, 2010
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In a conversation with my American lady friend L, I came to realise that the American term sappy, and the British term soppy, meant pretty much the same thing. Merriam-Webster defines the former as “overly sweet or sentimental”, and Cambridge Online defines the latter as “showing or feeling too much of emotions such as love or sympathy”.

Surely the two words are variations on the same, original word? Apparently not; in fact, it’s all a big coincidence.

Let’s turn to our my old favourite, the Oxford English Dictionary (available by subscription – check your library website if you live in the UK; you may have  free access). The OED has both words:

sappy (US)

The OED definition is “N. Amer. Excessively sentimental; soppy, mawkish.

The first recorded usage is actually from an Ira Gershwin lyric, a song called Oh Gree! Oh Joy! from 1928:

The birds are singing.
Because why?
Because I am in love!…
Folks complain I’m insane,
Because I act so sappy

They most certainly do not write them like that any more. It may be argued that it was already current at the time; songs do tend to reflect usage rather than drive it for the most part.

The derivation is clearly from the sap of a tree, by way of a secondary meaning, “foolish”. Sap is a sticky, often sweet substance – think of maple syrup as an example.

soppy (UK)

This version was first recorded in a novel by  H. G. Wells, Joan and Peter: A Story of an Education (1918):

What Joan knew surely to be lovely, Highmorton denounced as ‘soppy’. ‘Soppy’ was a terrible word in boys’ schools and girls’ schools alike, a flail for all romance

Again, its seems unlikely that Wells was coining the term; one can be pretty sure he’s truthful in his description.

And its derivation? Nothing to do with trees. It means “full of sop“. OK, so what’s sop? British readers may be familiar with the term “sopping-up”, meaning to use a piece of bread as a sponge to collect gravy or other liquid food as a means of getting it into your mouth. A sop is a “piece of bread or the like dipped or steeped in water, wine, etc., before being eaten or cooked”. In this sense, it shares its history with both the words sup (to drink) and soup, the broth.

Even going back to the earliest roots of both sap and sop, it’s clear that there is no relationship between the two words. Yet, by the first quarter of the 20th Century, sappy and soppy we both doing the pretty much the same job on each side of the Atlantic.

I can’t think of any other pair of words that exist in such close parallel, meaning the same but for entirely different reasons. Can you?

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... I wuv words.

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