My Dear Aunt Sally

English-speaking students of mathematics used to learn (and some still do) the mnemonic My Dear Aunt Sally, which is a reminder that in algebraic expressions we are obliged to carry out multiplication and division before addition and subtraction. But in addition to the capitalized Sally, English has the verb sally, which Noah Webster defined in his 1828 dictionary as ‘To issue or rush out, as a body of troops from a fortified place to attack besiegers’ and ‘To issue suddenly; to make a sudden eruption.’ The verb is usually followed by an adverb, e.g. the out in Webster’s example: “They break the truce, and sally out by night.” Even more common as a traditional follower is forth, as in this line by Washington Irving: “To-morrow at break of day I will sally forth and make for the city gates at the moment of their being opened….”

English also has sally as a noun, and in fact the verb followed from the noun, which was borrowed from Old French saillie. But that brings us back to verbs, because saillie was a nominal use of the feminine past participle of Old French salir (modern saillir), which of course is the cognate of Spanish salir ‘to go out.’ The Spanish and French verbs developed from Latin salire, which had the senses ‘to leap, spring, bound, hop, jump.’ The modern Spanish verb salir has leapt forth from those meanings into the realm of more generalized movement outward and usually now involves no jumping.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Sep 09, 2012 @ 22:03:36

    I was reminded of the related noun, sallyport, the restricted entry to a fortified place. It’s not just for castles, either. I found this reference to its use today.


  2. shoreacres
    Sep 10, 2012 @ 07:33:39

    And not only Sally. I first learned the word when I was hanging around Rice University. The Sallyport at Lovett Hall is the center of campus life. New students enter through it, graduates go out into the world through it. The Rice magazine is called “Through the Sallyport”, groups will meet up there and events like social hours are held there. And if you find “Sallyport” in a business name, you can be almost certain there’s a Rice Grad involved!


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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