WORLD WIDE WORDS
Issue 839: Saturday 6 July 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
Duct tape Readers were quick to mention other names for the stuff, including 100-mph tape, supposedly so named in the US military because it was strong enough to hold together a jeep travelling at that speed; an older form is 90-mph tape. Jim Tang mentioned that a more recent aircraft version is 500-mph tape, though I wouldn’t care to fly in one so mended. Another term is gaffer tape, a version used by film electricians, whose boss is the gaffer. A paragraph about these was in the piece as first written but I accidentally left it out during the revision. Now included again, together with the 500-mph variant.
Jitney Lots of readers asked about jeepneys in the Philippines. It is generally agreed by the experts that they get their name from combining jeep and jitney, having been so named by US service personnel in the country after the Second World War, when many ex-army jeeps were used as informal transport.
Michael Grosvenor Myer recalled, “When I worked for a canned goods importing firm in Eastcheap in the 1950s, a jitney, sometimes shortened to jit, was the smallest size of canned fruit container. Do you know anything of this usage?” It isn’t in any dictionary I’ve consulted but there’s a reference dated May 1927 in a trade journal called The Canner: “Examination of 1926 pack statistics show rapid progress toward smaller cans that will sell at popular prices. The small 8-oz. jitney appeared for the first time.” There are other contemporary references to the name being applied to the eight-ounce can. There are examples also of its being used today for a size of sardine can. We may guess that its name derives from the small value of the jitney coin.
Despite its form, this has nothing to do with poetry (or noses). The first part is from Greek nosos, a disease, while the second is a disguised form of pointikos, creative or productive, which is the source of the English adjective poietic with the same sense. So something nosopoetic causes disease.
You might think the term would have found favour with doctors, as it would be a useful addition to their vocabulary. However, it never caught on — despite appearing in a couple of glossaries of medical terms in the early nineteenth century — and around the middle of the century was supplanted by pathogenic.
Nosopoetic was invented by the extraordinary mathematician, physician and satirist Dr John Arbuthnot, who also created the persona of John Bull who symbolises the English character and nation. He introduced nosopoetic in his work of 1733, An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies.
More than a century later, it appeared in a work I’ve had cause to quote from previously, written by a pioneering educationalist in Indiana to encourage students to learn new words by putting them in context:
The multifarious cibarious substances engorged into inane and jejune stomachs, during the nuptial festivity, were extremely nosopoetic on the guests.
Letters to Squire Pedant, by Samuel Hoshour, 1856.
Cibarious means relating to food, or edible; inane is being used here in its ancient sense of void or empty; jejune is likewise in its earliest meaning of fasting or being hungry. This periphrastic conglomeration may be reduced to “The wedding guests became ill from overeating on empty stomachs.”
Q From Will Thomas: Where do we get loophole from?
A A typical medieval English castle would have had — in addition to barbicans, machicolations, crenellations, a portcullis or two and other useful features — a number of loops.
This loop isn’t a “doubling or return into itself of a portion of a string, cord, thong, or the like, so as to leave an aperture between the parts”, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains it. (Defining geometric shapes is a good test of a lexicographer’s skill. It may remind you of the trouble Dr Johnson had with network: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”)
These castle-type loops were small gaps or holes in the fortified walls for keeping watch, for archers to shoot through, or to let light into a chamber. Later, the word was applied to arrow-slits to the exclusion of the other senses.
There’s no connection between the two meanings of loop, though one nineteenth-century scholar did attempt to square the semantic circle by suggesting that the apertures were in the shape of loops. It’s likely, the experts suggest, that it comes from the old Dutch verb lûpen, to watch or peer, or glupen, to spy or lurk, to watch with narrowed eyes, whose source is a word for a crack or slit.
In the sixteenth century, loop began to be expanded to loophole. It seems that Englishmen were as puzzled and confused then by the two senses of loop as we might be today and added the second part to make it clear they were talking about openings in walls and not doubled-over bits of string.
Around the middle of the following century loophole began to be used figuratively for a means of escape and by 1700 could have our modern sense of an ambiguity or inadequacy in rules or laws that allows somebody to evade their provisions.
Q From B J Wise: I’ve just read a suspicious description of the origin of the word fornication. Supposedly, it comes from fornacis, the Latin for furnace, which has to do with prostitutes operating out of bakeries and advertising with bread baked in the shape of penises. They would wait for the oven to cool, and crawl inside to “heat the ovens back up again”. Is there any merit to this?
A That’s an utterly unfounded but delightful story. The writer has vaguely recalled the real origin and has built a shaky tower of invention on no foundation whatsoever except a misunderstanding of Latin vocabulary.
For the Romans a furnace was a fornax (fornacis is actually the adjective, “relating to a furnace”, best known in the formal names of several stars in the constellation Fornax). The word the teller of your tale was searching for is fornix, an arch or vaulted chamber. It’s true that furnaces and bread ovens were often built in an arched shape, and some writers have consequently sought to derive fornix from fornax, but the two words had distinct senses in classical Latin.
A fornix might be a triumphal arch marking a successful battle or a mundane one supporting the upper floor of a Roman building. Arched passages in public buildings such as the Stadium and Colosseum in Rome were popular with prostitutes seeking trade. Brothels of the poorer sort were often established in vaulted cellars. So fornix became a slang term for a house of ill repute.
The late Latin verb fornicari and the noun fornicationem came from fornix. English took over the noun from French around 1300 but the verb only appeared 250 years later.
It’s curious that the noun was recorded a century ago in the English Dialect Dictionary as in use in several English dialects for telling lies. A fornicator was a liar and a fornicating person was deceitful or treacherous. We may guess this evolved because a person who was suspected of sex outside marriage was strongly tempted to tell lies about it.
• Ira Rimson stumbled across this in The Innocent by David Baldacci: “An hour later a chubby man in a wrinkled suit with pasty skin walked in.”
• Alan Harrison found this sentence in the Birmingham Mail of 28 June, beginning an article on the discovery of the grave of Major Harry Gem: “Enthusiasts have rediscovered the long lost grave of the Birmingham man who invented tennis in a city cemetery.”