Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Amphiboly, achoo

An example — or so it seems — of amphiboly, “a fallacy produced by ambiguity of syntax or grammatical structure”:

Feed a cold and starve a fever.

Here feed is subjunctive. The sentence is a warning; it means: If you feed a cold, you will have a fever to starve. As commonly interpreted, however, feed is taken to be imperative, and a meaning just the opposite of the one intended is derived.

Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, ed. Marguerite McGlinn (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books 2002).
The editor adds a note: “Surely, this explanation of the ‘feed a cold’ conundrum solves one of life’s minor mysteries.” Or as Mac Dictation would have it, “one of life’s murder mysteries.” But there’s no explanation in this book of why feed should be read as subjunctive.

The notion that one should starve a fever is widely attributed to the lexicographer John Withals, who is said to have written, in 1574, that “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer.” I can find no evidence that he wrote that. The notion that feeding a cold leads to a fever has been attributed to Hippocrates: “If you feed a cold, you will have to starve a fever.” The notion that feeding a fever leads to a cold has also been attributed to Hippocrates: “If you feed a fever, you will have to starve a cold.” Google Books has all the answers. The closest approximation I can find in the works of Hippocrates is this aphorism:
If the same diet be given to a patient with fever as would be suitable for a healthy man, although it would strengthen the healthy it would cause suffering to the sick.

Hippocratic Writings, ed. G.E.R. Lloyd, trans. J. Chadwick and W.N. Mann (London; Penguin, 1978).
But also:
Hippocrates[’s] “On the Method of Diet in Acute Disorders,” gives the foundation of all the correct rules which pertain to dietetics in the treatment of fever connected with a high grade of arterial excitement. And so much did he insist upon their strict observance, that his plan of treatment, by one (Asclepiades) has been spoken of “as merely a contemplation on death.” Although abstinence was a favorite measure with the Father of medicine in commencing the treatment of what, in his day, were called acute fevers, he, nevertheless, says that “a diet which is a little too plentiful is much safer than that which is too sparing and thin.”

John Dawson, “Diet in Typhus Fever,” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 34, no. 20 (1846).
What to do? An Scientific American article from 2014 resolves the feed/starve problem nicely: “The answer is simmering in a bowl of chicken soup.” In other words, cold or fever, feed it. Eat something. You need to keep up your strength, right? How else are you gonna learn about the trivium?


3:05 p.m.: Chris recalled another version of this maxim in a comment: “Feed a cold, starve of fever.” Starve here means “to die, or cause to die.” This version is often rendered as “Fede a cold and starb ob feber,” with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales named as the source. Here’s a linguist making the claim for Chaucer. But there’s never a tale or line number to go with these attributions. And as you’ll discover if you search the text of the Tales, “Fede a cold and starb ob feber” won’t be found therein.

Reasons to discount an origin in anyone’s Middle English: The obsolete fede never meant “feed”; it meant “an enemy; spec. the Devil.” And though the Swedish feber appears in the OED’s etymology for fever, the dictionary has no record of feber or starb as an English word. And here’s the most interesting part: the OED first records the preposition ob in 1839, as “U.S. regional (chiefly in representations of African-American usage).”

With all that in mind, look at the faux Middle English again: “Fede a cold and starb ob feber.” Starb, ob, feber: the language begins to look more and more like a relic from the world of the minstrel show. But whatever the source, it’s still better to eat something.

[If it doesn’t go without saying: I’m unable to find a source for the Hippocrates passage that Dawson quotes.]

comments: 7

Chris said...

I was always told, not necessarily on sound authority, that the original phrase was "starve of fever," with "starve" having its older meaning of "die." The whole thing, in that case, would mean "If you feed a cold you will starve (die) of fever."

Michael Leddy said...

Huh — another rabbit hole. I will have to look.

Michael Leddy said...

“Starve of” looks like a rabbit hole of some size. I’ll have to look more later. (I know though that I’m under no obligation!)

normann said...

My go-to remedy for colds and flu (and winter season prophylaxis) is homemade chicken soup made with leeks, celery, carrots, six whole garlic cloves and a whole chicken. That said, my most recent cold with fever was during my most recent Christmas vacation in Rome. I suppose I starved it, since I was too sick to go out for lunch and otherwise ate very little for three days. Got over it quickly enough, but still made a pot of chicken soup when we got home and otherwise took it easy.

Michael Leddy said...

Chicken soup FTW!

When I feel a cold coming on, I chop up three or four cloves of garlic and wash them down with orange juice. (That means buying orange juice, which we never have on hand.) A teaspoon of cider vinegar (which we always have) in water is another good one. I’ve fought off many a sinus infection with garlic, orange juice, and cider vinegar.

normann said...

Thanks for the tip about cider vinegar, which I always have on hand for making red cabbage (the local variety that comes in pouches is far too sweet, just the way Norwegians like it).

Michael Leddy said...

It’s good with honey mixed in too. We have the Bragg brand, the unpasteurized kind with “the mother” (kindly bacteria!).