When people say a slither of cake, do they not remember that snakes slither? ‘Slither slide; sliver small piece,’ says the Guardian style guide. ‘Writers often get this wrong.’ True. The Guardian’s sport pages recently wondered what could give ‘Man United the faintest slither of hope’. All the papers do it. I got Veronica to make one of those word-searches of a newspaper database and, of the eight occurrences of slither in British nationals in a month, only four were of the serpentine kind. Half were the erroneous spelling of sliver.
To complicate matters, there is a popular way of speaking at the moment that makes no distinction between th and v. Akala, the well-known rapper, aged 37, was reading his Natives as Radio 4 ‘book of the week’ recently and spoke of his fava. He made little of the letter r either. Yet he was brought up by a Scottish single mother, or muvva, and Scotland is a hotbed of rolled rs and differentiated ths. I suppose things in Kentish Town seemed bad enough without speaking in a Scots accent.
Akala, though, could distinguish the word invented by Lewis Carroll, slithy, even if he pronounced it slivy. Carroll wrote the first stanza of ‘Jabberwocky’ at his father’s Yorkshire rectory in 1855 when he was 23, as ‘A Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry’, for his home-made magazine Mischmasch. There he used the spelling slythy, but the meaning he gave it, ‘smooth and active’, as a compound of slimy and lithe, is the same as in Humpty Dumpty’s explanation in Through the Looking-Glass (1871).
Sliver and slither do come from Anglo-Saxon, like most common English words. Sliver is from a verb that produced slive, ‘cleave, split’, which survives in dialect speech. Philemon Holland, the Jacobean translator, liked it, but more than once supplied a synonym to clarify the meaning: ‘slived or cleft’ (a branch) and (of cuttings) ‘slived and divided from the very brain (as it were) of the green tree’. Slither, related to slide, comes from slidder (as gather used to be gadder). And father was once fader, so perhaps fava isn’t such a step. After all, to the Mitford sisters, Lord and Lady Redesdale were Farve and Muv.
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