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24/02/2014

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John Cowan

The er > ar change was near-universal in the 18th century, but has now mostly been backed out, with the exceptions you mention. Some early ones were adopted before the spelling was stabilized, as farm, star for Middle English ferme, sterre, and these have stuck. Person and parson have become separate words, and in AmE so have vermin and varmint. Likewise in AmE the university sports team is still the varsity team, a term extended also to secondary schools' teams, though the etymology is no longer obvious to us. And Patrick Leigh Fermor's name is just Farmer, perhaps a case of hypercorrection. But anglophones no longer say sarvant, marcy, marchant, larning as we once did.

A minor point: all of could, might, should, would are used as preterite forms in the "sequence of tenses" construction: consider direct She said "You may go" versus indirect She said I might go, and likewise for the rest.

Peter Harvey

Varsity is used in Britain especially for Cambridge and Oxford, but it is dated. It is the name of the student newspaper at Cambridge.

Agreed about the past forms of modal verbs. They can be used in the present You may/might go, proving that verb tense and chronological time are completely different concepts. Even, It might/could rain later uses a past tense for future time, as happens with the second conditional.

John Cowan

It certainly does seem to be dated. In Dorothy Sayers's story "Murder at Pentecost", an Oxford undergraduate says:

Certainly [...] And you might add that "To call the university the 'varsity is out of date, if not precisely narsity." I apologise for the rhyme. 'Varsity has somehow a flavour of the nineties.

By which he means the 1890s, since the story was published in 1933. Of course the rhyme would be impossible in AmE, in which /varsəti/ doesn't come close to rhyming with /næsti/.

m-w.com defines varsity as 'the main team of a college, school, or club in a particular sport' and AHD5 as 'the principal team representing a university, college, or school in sports, games, or other competitions'.

Peter Harvey

The COED says:
varsity
· n. (pl. varsities) Brit. dated or S. African university. Ø [usu. as modifier] chiefly N. Amer. a sports team representing a university or college.
– ORIGIN C17: shortening of university, reflecting an archaic pronunc.

The quotation from Dorothy L. Sayers (she was very particular about her middle initial) is interesting. When I was at Cambridge (1969-72) I heard the word used by elderly people but no-one used it naturally, except for the newspaper of course.

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