Flattery and incongruous mixtures in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Flattery and incongruous mixtures in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED

One of the words added to the OED this update is plámás, used in Irish English to mean ‘flattery; insincere or exaggerated praise, esp. when used to cajole or persuade’ (plámás can also be used as a verb meaning ‘flatter’, and a flatterer is a plámáser). Plámás was borrowed into Irish English from Irish in the 19th century, and the Irish word plámás, a variant of an obsolete form blámás, probably derived from the English word blancmange (though the Irish word plás meaning ‘flattery’ may also have influenced the form). But what does blancmange – a type of sweet gelatinous dessert – have to do with flattery? The OED entry for blancmange includes a figurative sense denoting flattery, and we can get a fuller picture of the underlying metaphor by looking at the category flattery in the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED), which shows the various words that have been used to express this concept over the centuries.

Words meaning ‘flatter’ or ‘flattery’ have long had an association with the idea of smoothing or softening: flatter itself probably has an etymological origin in the sense of making something flat or smooth, while blandish and blandishment are (like the later adjective bland) from Latin blandus meaning ‘smooth, soft’. Following these are numerous figurative uses from words originally referring to smooth or oily substances. For example, the verb anoint, originally (and still mainly) meaning ‘to smear or rub with oil’, developed a figurative sense ‘to flatter’ in Middle English, first recorded in Chaucer’s Romaunt de la Rose in a description of “losengeris” (false flatterers) who “the world with word anoynten”. Similar figurative developments can be seen in the word butter (used since the early 17th century as a noun meaning ‘flattery’, and since 1700 as a verb meaning ‘to flatter’, now often in to butter someone up), soft soap (used since the 19th century in the sense ‘flattery’) and schmear. Words referring to smooth and sweet foodstuffs which take on a sense of ‘flattery’ include honey words (Middle English) and treacle (18th century in the figurative sense, as in this example from Smollett: “He began to sweeten the natural acidity of his discourse with the treacle of compliment and commendation”). These are followed by blancmange and flummery, originally denoting types of gelatinous desserts and then also used figuratively to refer to flattery, as in this 1790 letter by Edmund Burke: “Whenever that politic prince made any of his flattering speeches..when he served them with this, and the rest of his blanc-mange, of which he was sufficiently liberal.”  Plámás fits smoothly into this semantic set.

Another category in HTOED which is rich in food metaphors is incongruous mixture. This category contains many words which have an original or early sense referring to a type of dish (such as a stew) made of a mixture of different ingredients, and which then develop a figurative sense of an incongruous or heterogeneous mixture. Examples already in HTOED include hotchpot, peasemeal, gallimaufry, porridge, olio, salmagundi, haggis, and mulligan, exemplified in the OED by uses ranging from Chaucer’s “Ye han cast alle hire wordes in an hochepot” (c1405) to modern examples such as “a provincial Mulligan stew of professional and trades certification requirements” (1993) and “a porridge of Lib-Left platitudes” (2004). In this quarterly update of the OED another sense has been added to this mix. With the revision of bisque n/1 (originally denoting a type of soup made of many ingredients, before the modern sense of a type of seafood soup),a previously unrecorded figurative sense has been added: Any mixture of many heterogeneous elements; a hotchpotch, a medley’. This use, recorded in Early Modern English in examples such as “God has made this Bisk of varieties, in which are hotchpotch’d high and low, sad and cheery, rich and poor conditions” (1665), adds some flavour to the category by showing another example of this particular type of metaphorical pattern.

For more insight into these and many other categories showing systematic figurative developments of food-related terms, see this article by Christian Kay, one of the original editors of the Historical Thesaurus at Glasgow University:

‘Food as a fruitful source of metaphor’ (2016) in Wendy Anderson, Ellen Bramwell, and Carole Hough (eds.) Mapping English Metaphor Through Time,published by Oxford University Press. See also the Mapping Metaphor project: https://mappingmetaphor.arts.gla.ac.uk/

In total, HTOED links have been added to 1,800 senses in this update, with a particular focus on:

  • Entries and senses added to the OED this update: e.g. there are HTOED links at new additions such as biracial, bodge-up, burner phone, chapess, Colonial Revival, Corkonian, dinosauric, doctor’s surgery, gumshoe, hijabi, to lean into, siblinghood, sixty-nine, tweaky, vaxxed and many more;
  • Senses current in Early Modern English (c. 1550–1700);
  • High-frequency subentries: e.g. there are now HTOED links at subentries such as armed robbery, best guess, book bag, caller ID, chip pan fire, Christmas shopping, custard cream, customs officer, drug trafficker, foreign aid, maritime law, mind map, online shopping, pay-per-view, reality TV, service revolver, special agent, and student loan.

For more information about HTOED and its uses, see this blog post.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.