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At the time of this writing there is no explanation on wiktionary, and searching the web does not yield an answer, only more instances of its use:

Page 57 in Speijer

My intuition is that this is an outdated Latin abbreviation similar to "e.g." and "i.e.". (Perhaps something like verbis aliis?)

Edit: More examples from the same book (Speijer, Sanskrit Syntax, 1886), pages 2, 32, and 43:

शान्तं पापम्  (v. a. malum absit)
उषिताः स्मो ह वसतिम्  (v. a. we have passed the night)
कस्तेन सह तव स्नेह  (v. a. how are you his friend?)

The English gloss is more or less a translation of the Sanskrit. The only thing distinguishing these translations from others (without "v. a.") is that they are a tad less literal.

I am convinced that this is not a problem of Sanskrit or grammar but of academic language of the late 19th century. The text is riddled with Latin abbreviations that would have been instantly apparent to the contemporary scholar.

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Verb,active, perhaps? I see the first work also uses v.n., which seems equally mysterious. –  Barrie England Jan 11 '13 at 21:13
@BarrieEngland That seems plausible for the first two examples. However, the third example is what made me ask the question in the first place: the English bit is a rough translation of the Sanskrit bit, but the "v. a." is a mystery. –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 21:17
The English is definitely verb active; I don't see how we can be expected to parse Sanskrit in ELU. –  Andrew Leach Jan 11 '13 at 21:21
@AndrewLeach The abbreviation is English. The book has a lot of transparent abbreviations like "Rem." for "remark", "cp." for "compare" etc., but "v. a." remains opaque to me. –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 21:25
According to this dictionary from 1819, v.a. is verb active and v.n. is verb neuter. –  coleopterist Jan 12 '13 at 20:39
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4 Answers

OED has under A:

15. Of various English words.
c. Grammar. In form a or (occas.) A. (a) adjective; (b) active (of a verb). Now rare.
1838 J. Bosworth Dict. Anglo-Saxon Lang. p. ccvii, v. a. or act. verb active.

So v.a. stands for verb active.

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I'm afraid the dictionary examples I gave may just be interference: for these your explanation is likely correct. The Sanskrit example is from Speijer's Sanskrit Syntax (1886) where most definitely does not mean "verb active". –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 21:23
I think I would expect the abbreviations used to be explained in the book (eg: the OED citation is on page 207 of the introductory/end material of Bosworth's Dictionary). –  Andrew Leach Jan 11 '13 at 21:26
They're not. This is an old grammar book from the 1880s, a lot of words are abbreviated to save space. Probably, the educated contemporary reader was assumed to know what these meant. –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 21:34
Possibly. "Grammar requires" certainly is an active verb; but maybe Sanskrit has some syntactical construction which Speijer abbreviated as v.a. but which doesn't occur in English. I've no idea about Sanskrit. –  Andrew Leach Jan 11 '13 at 21:39
No – there are other occurrences "v. a. an astrologer", "v. a. malum absit", the verb active qualifier just doesn't make sense. Given the style of the book I'm fairly certain it's a Latin(ate) abbreviation, but the fact that there's no answer on the internet is puzzling. –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 21:47
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EDIT: I think the confusion here is that your first source and perhaps also your second are using the abbreviation to mean something different from what the third one is using it for.

If you look at the abbreviations in the first, and what they are used for, the v.n. abbreviation is always attached to intransitive verbs. It turns out intransitive verbs were once referred to as neuter verbs, as shown here from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913):

(b) Intransitive; as, a neuter verb.

The v.a. appears to be attached to transitive verbs. It is possible that these were called active verbs because, since they took a direct object, they could be formed into a passive. It is also possible that they are contrasting them with stative verbs. The same source as referenced above gives three possibilities:

(a) Applied to a form of the verb; -- opposed to passive. See Active voice, under Voice.
(b) Applied to verbs which assert that the subject acts upon or affects something else; transitive.
(c) Applied to all verbs that express action as distinct from mere existence or state.

That source also uses v.s., which may be a stative verb, at least in the case of beis, which it says is the 3s form of to be. However, it also uses it for things like bele to burn, conteyne to continue, etc. So that may not be right.

It also has v. imp., v. impers., v. aux., and v. subst.. Considering it seems to be using v. subst. are verbs that mean “are”, the v.s. as stative is probably wrong. Besides v.n. and v.a., it has these:

  • AFFERIS, EFFEIRS, v. impers.
  • ARN, v. subst. Are, the third pers. plural;
  • AUCHT, (gutt.) v. imp. Ought, should.
  • To BECK, BEK, v. s.
  • To BEIR, BERE, v. s. To roar, to make
  • BEIS, v. s. Be, is; third p. sing. subj. S.
  • To BELE, v. s. "To burn, to blaze."
  • BENE, v. subst. Are.
  • BYRD, v. imp. It behoved, it became.
  • BOOST, v. imp. Behoved, was under
  • BUT, v. imp. Expressive of necessity, S. of another, S. from the E. v. catch.
  • To CONTEYNE, v. s. To continue.
  • DOID, v. imp. It becomes, Fr. doit.
  • GURDEN, v. 3 pl. Gird.
  • ILD, v. imp. Would not.
  • LYK, LIK, v. impers. Lyk til us, be agreeable
  • MEDIS, v. impers. Avails.
  • METHINK, v. impers. Methinks.
  • MIRKLES, v. pl. The radical leaves of
  • MOT, v. aux. May.
  • MUN, v. aux. Must.
  • TID, TYD, v. impers. Happened.
  • WALD, v. aux.
  • WAR, v. imp. War him, befal him.
  • WORDIS, v. imp. It wordis, it behoves,
    1. It worthis, v. imp. It becomes.

The third source is clearly using the abbreviation in a different way, one that means “meaning” or “roughly” or “for”. I do not think it stands for “version alternate” there, but I have been wrong before and doubtless shall soon be again.

Original posting. While v.a. does mean this, it at most applies to the third source only.

The abbreviation v.a. stands for the Latin vices agens, meaning “acting in place of”. That is, quite literally “vice agent”. Used in this way it should be read as for or meaning in English.

There is also v.a.l., which is vices agens legati, but that would not be used here.

Adolf Berger’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law (1953) covers this and much more.

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This looks promising! That meaning would be a good fit for most instances of "v. a." I've seen in the book. But was "v. a." understood as an abbreviation meaning vices agens in the sense you are proposing and used in English language publications at the time? –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 22:47
@glts Yes, I believe so. It’s annoyingly difficult to search for if you don’t care to read lengthy tracks of Latin, but one place I found it is here. –  tchrist Jan 11 '13 at 22:49
I am not convinced at this point. All your source is saying is that a vices agens has some kind of role in Roman law. We will still need a link to some usage of an abbreviation "v. a." with appropriate meaning to make this work. –  glts Jan 11 '13 at 23:04
@gits I think you have more than one v. a. abbreviation going for you here. –  tchrist Jan 12 '13 at 0:33
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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Two different abbreviations were conflated in the original question: One meaning verb active in the dictionary examples, and one possibly meaning verbis aliis, "in other words", in the Sanskrit example.

The first meaning, verb active or verbum activum, was given almost instantly by Barrie England, and then expanded upon in the answers by Andrew Leach and tchrist. Please direct your upvotes to their answers.

This is by all accounts the established meaning of "v. a.".

However, there seems to be a second meaning, verbis aliis "in other words", which is not certain, but I will make a hopefully convincing argument for it below.

By searching through other works by the same author, J. S. Speijer, I have found identical usage of "v. a." in Dutch and German publications, thus supporting a Latin origin of the abbreviation (my translations added):

  • Speijer, Blijspelen van Plautus, 1887, page 55:

    sese omnes amant "zij houden slechts van zich zelf" v. a. zij zijn egoïsten [they all love themselves "they love only themselves" v. a. they are egotists]

  • Same, page 106:

    vide sis "zie toch eens goed" v. a. "weet gij wel wat gij zegt?" [look, if you will "have a good look now" v. a. "do you know what you're saying?"]

  • Speyer, Vedische und Sanskrit-Syntax, 1896, page 23:

    Häufig bei tiṣṭhate v. a. "jemand an­erkennen als" [Often with stands v. a. "to acknowledge somebody as"]

Note that in the last example the verb form is medio-passive, not active.

My best guess is to translate verbis aliis (or aliis verbis), the idiomatic Latin for "in other words". To anyone with a knowledge of basic Latin this will arguably be the most immediately apparent expansion. In support of this interpretation, I have found one exactly parallel use of the Dutch equivalent "m. a. w.", met anderen woorden ("in other words"), in the first book cited:

bene sit tibi! zooveel als "God zegene u!" m. a. w. "De hemel beware u daarvoor!" [may you be well! meaning as much as "God bless you!" in other words "May heaven protect you from this!"]

What's more, Speijer abbreviates the conventional et alii, "and others", as "e. a." making it possible to assume aliis being abbreviated "a." instead of the more conventional "al.".

Finally, somebody on Reddit's /r/latin independently had the same intuition as I had.

(Another suggestion vices agens was made by tchrist, drawing from Roman law vocabulary. I can not find evidence for it having generalized meaning and usage nor would this expansion be apparent to readers without a background in Roman law.)

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it's a convincing argument for verbis aliis, though one wonders whether this is a peculiarity of the particular author. –  jlovegren Jan 12 '13 at 21:06
@jlovegren Certainly. If only Google books or JSTOR had precise full-text search I'd love to try and find other authors using it. –  glts Jan 12 '13 at 21:39
I believe verbis aliis is correct for the third example. It is used approximately this way in Latin (such as by Cicero). It seems likely that the author used it like that in English, even though it is not a standard abbreviation. In the first two, it is indeed verbum activum or verb active: the Latin dictionary is a copy of Lewis & Short, and you can see that v.a. is clearly in the place where they normally describe the part of speech in the case of etyma: impar: ... adj. (2. in-par). –  Cerberus Jan 13 '13 at 20:39
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The Latin Lexicon in the question provides a list of abbreviations via their info page:

a. or act., active, -ly.


v., verb, vide, or vox.

Similarly, the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in the question contains a list of abbreviations at the start of the book, including:

v. Verb.

The first is from 1818 and the second is from sources including 1879 and 1890 dictionaries, so I think it's fair to say this is contemporary with Speijer's Sanskrit Syntax (1886).

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