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Friday, February 9, 2018

Empty vessels

Some empty vessels (and one that isn't)

Goodness knows why, considering the current political situation, but I came to reflect on the proverbial phrase "empty vessels make the most noise" and got to wondering how long that bit of folk wisdom has been around.

Turns out that people were already onto blowhards in the 1500s:
1547   W. Baldwin A treatise of morall phylosophie contaynyng the sayinges of the wyse   As emptye vesselles make the lowdest sounde: so they that haue leaste wyt, are the greatest babblers. 
1589   R. Greene Menaphon: Camillas alarum to slumbering Euphues   Emptie vessells haue the highest sounds..and pratling gloriosers, the smallest performaunce of courage.
I definitely think it is well past time for the revival of the term "prattling glorioser".

While looking into this, I discovered three other folksy sayings that I was not familiar with:
an empty sack (bag) cannot stand (upright)  [after Italian sacco vuoto non puo star in piedi]: great hunger or need renders a person weak, weary, or desperate.
he could start a fight in an empty room

better are small fish than an empty dish

The "p" in "empty" has not always been there. Back in Old English (when the word could mean "at leisure" or even "unmarried" in addition to its current sense), it was √¶metteg. But the middle "e" got squished out of it, leaving "m" and "t" bumped up against one another. In this phonetic situation, a "p" inserted itself to make the transition from one consonant to the other easier. By the 1600s, a new spelling reflecting this, "empty", had ousted the old spelling "emty". 

But I'm pretty sure I don't pronounce the "p" myself, even when speaking very carefully (I don't pronounce it in "temptation" either). Do you pronounce it?

Photo by Paul on Unsplash

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.