I have always enjoyed citing Jane Austen's use of "their" with a singular antecedent in rebuttal of the pedants who claim it must only be used with the plural (see the reference on Henry Churchyard's Linguistics page, and many other citations on the Internet). As a technical writer using "their" in the singular is particularly useful (you can search for "+Austen +their +singular"). It is a boon to write phrases such as "the user may change their own password" and the like, rather than the inelegant "his or her password". (I do know that there are other ways round this particular conundrum which may more easily appease the more formidable of the pedants.)
I was delighted therefore to glean another potential tidbit of linguistic knowledge from the lips of Jane Austen earlier this week - though this time, it was from a fictional incarnation of Jane rather than from the great lady herself. The film Becoming Jane is the story of a love affair which may or may not have taken place between the young Jane Austen (played by Anne Hathaway) and Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy). An early encounter between them is at a local ball, while the sophisticated Lefroy is still disdainful of the modes and manners of the rural way of life. Jane tells Thomas that the the English "country dance" is so named because it derives from the French "contre-danse" (as couples stand opposite each other) rather than from the fact that it is danced by people in the countryside who know no better.
This etymology sounds plausible enough. But a good researcher always checks his sources so I trundled off to my trusty OED to see what they had to say on the subject (note the plural pronoun with the singular antecedent again). Well, they were having none of it. They could find no evidence at all for the assertion that the French term "contre-danse" predated the English "country dance", and called the derivation quoted by the fictional Jane "erroneous". They did however go into some detail on the origin and popularity of this incorrect etymology, even citing an article from the Gentleman's Magazine in 1758 which supports it.
So although the etymology quoted by the fictional Jane to the fictional Lefroy was not correct, it is certainly something that an educated person in the 1790s may well have believed to be true. An accurate inaccuracy, in fact, as Jane herself might have put it.
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