WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 857: Saturday 9 November 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
Recumbentibus I feared there might be something amiss when I wrote in this piece last week, “It’s the ablative plural of recumbere, to recline or rest.” I was right. Giles Watson was first to respond: “You’ve missed a bit. Verbs don’t have ablatives, although verbal nouns and adjectives can. Recumbentibus is in fact the ablative plural of the present participle of the verb.”
Rita Beyers commented, “I never heard of a recumbentibus, but like it very much, especially because of the impossible combination of an article and the ablative plural of the present participle of a verb. That’s the kind of wordplay one might expect from people who are familiar with the word, so that they come to use it in a completely different context.” Other examples in English of the same ending are omnibus and the fake Latin circumbendibus. Rita Beyers doubts whether the word was ever used in Latin for a blow: “I cannot think of any comparable use in medieval Latin of such a form of a present participle as a noun. It simply would not work in Latin.”
There’s often more to recumbentibus than merely reclining. It appears in St Mark’s gospel in the Vulgate, the Latin bible that was compiled in the fourth century: “novissime recumbentibus illis undecim apparuit”. This is rendered in the King James Bible as “Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat”. More recent versions translate recumbentibus in the words “as they sat at table” or “as they were eating”. Its sense is explained by Romans liking to recline on couches to eat their meals.
Proustian Tony Augarde wrote, “Some young people may not understand the clever double entendre in your heading Marcel wave for the piece about Marcel Proust. It has an interesting but debatable history: see here and also here.” Notably, all the messages about this were from readers who, rather than querying it for themselves, similarly wondered whether other readers would understand the reference.
Hey, rube! Ron Davis wrote, “In the quotation from the Cincinnati Enquirer, the cited phrase is punctuated as Hey! Rube!, which makes the two words into separate ejaculations. This may just show a change of convention between then and now, but it could also mean that Rube! is not an invocation of the intended recipient(s) of the message, but is rather a reference to the source of imminent trouble, reflecting circus people’s opinion of their customers.”
Ryan Kelley commented, “Your discussion of rube to mean a fight led me to the term rhubarb, a somewhat antiquated Americanism related to a fight during a baseball game.” This seems to have begun in New York in the early 1940s, originally as an loud argument, or what Baseball Magazine in 1943 called “Brooklynese for a heated verbal run-in, especially between players and umpires”. I suspect that it comes from the same source as the older muttering of the word by extras or supporting actors to simulate the sound of a mob. Paul Dickson also cites this origin in his baseball dictionary.
Two centuries ago, some Americans believed that an anti-fogmatic, a dose of spirituous liquor, would relieve the unhealthy effects of damp and rain. A dram before breakfast was said to counteract the figurative or literal fog of the early day, hence its name. It was even supposedly recommended by physicians:
Its great utility in preserving the planters from the effects of the damp and unwholsome air of the morning, has given it the medical name of an Antifogmatick.
The Massachusetts Spy, or the Worcester Gazette, 12 Nov. 1789.
The writer of a letter in 1812 to the delightfully named New York magazine, the Halcyon Luminary and Theological Repository, was critical of any possible medical advantages:
Some of my neighbors were in the practice of taking a morning dram, well known in the lower counties of Virginia, by the term anti-fogmatic, but I perceived that this did not charm away disease from their houses, though its effect on their rationality was evidently injurious.
Much similarly sarcastic writing was directed at its ingestion, though a book of 1825 that claimed Bostonians habitually guarded against the New England fogs by taking an anti-fogmatic of half a pint of whisky before breakfast was spinning a tall tale. However, a travelogue of 1810, which recorded some splendid contemporary names for tipples, implied that an anti-fogmatic was a prescribed aperitif:
Speaking of the Virginians, he gave us the following specimen of their dram-drinking. A gum-tickler is a gill of spirits, generally rum, taken fasting. A phlegm-cutter is a double dose, just before breakfast. An antifogmatic is a similar dram before dinner. A gall-breaker is about half a pint of ardent spirits.
Travels Through Lower Canada, and the United States of North America, by John Lambert, 1810.
Lambert noted that anybody who had progressed to gall-breakers was regarded by his neighbours as a lost soul not expected to live another six months. No surprise in that.
In the first edition of The American Language in 1919, H L Mencken wrote that anti-fogmatic was by then extinct. Not utterly, though I can count its written usages in the period since on the fingers of one hand. Any appearance today is merely a mildly humorous hint of an earlier age, though opaque to most people. This is a recent case, the one that started me on this linguistic exploration:
Whatever time of day or night you arrive at Hawksmoor, there’s always a drink to sort you out. In the morning, it might be an “anti-fogmatic” such as their Marmalade Cocktail: gin, Campari, lemon juice, orange bitters and marmalade.
Observer, 20 Oct. 2013.
Apian intruder Last week’s issue of New Scientist featured a photo of a cuckoo bee. The caption introduced me to inquilinism, a word that sent me, fruitlessly, to the Oxford English Dictionary, though it does have inquiline. More recently revised dictionaries such as Collins say that inquilinism is living in close association with another animal without harming it; it’s from Latin inquilinus, a sojourner or lodger. Unfortunately for New Scientist caption writers, the cuckoo bee, as its name suggests, is actually a parasite. It lays its eggs in the brood cells of a host bee; after its larvae have eaten the pollen provided by the host for its own larvae they then eat the larvae. That would make it the lodger from hell.
Dun dreary Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and professional atheist, tweeted on 3 November: “Bin Laden has won, in airports of the world every day. I had a little jar of honey, now thrown away by rule-bound dundridges.” He tweeted in February that dundridge was “a coining I am trying to introduce into English. It means a petty, bossy, bureaucratic little rule-hound.” We may feel that we have in that sentence almost all the words we need to describe such types without Prof Dawkins adding to the language. He wrote in his memoir An Appetite for Wonder this year that he based the word on a character in Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe. He pleaded with readers to use it as he is trying to get it into the OED, as he did with meme, which he coined in The Selfish Gene in 1976. It may not catch on because it’s in the name of several places, including a hamlet in Hampshire, as well as being an English surname. So far as I know, neither place nor person has ever been named jobsworth, so perhaps he could use that instead?
The end is nigh?
The ending -pocalypse from apocalypse has become popular as a way to create neologisms that exaggeratedly imply a situation is of terminal seriousness: oilpocalypse (the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), snowpocalypse (severe winter storms in the US), beepocalypse (destruction of bee colonies by pesticides or disease), Marmapocalypse (a transient New Zealand term for the absence of Marmite after its factory was damaged in the Canterbury earthquake in 2011), debt-pocalypse (a consequence of the financial crisis), and even non-pocalypse. The most recent is airpocalypse for the extensive damage to health being caused by air pollution in Chinese cities. The word appeared first in January this year as shorthand for a dense, yellow smog that cloaked Beijing for several days and reappeared last month for a similar episode in Harbin.
Q From John Gould: I teach a grammar course at Bennington College, and one of my hobby-horses is comprise, which is misused more often than used correctly. Would you weigh in on this issue?
A I shall, with some trepidation, because its correct application has become a shibboleth of good writing. Recently, arbiters have become more tolerant of it, which may sadden some readers.
The first issue is word order. The standard view is that comprise is used correctly if the writer precedes the verb with a group noun (one that refers to a set or collection), and follows the verb with a complete listing of the components of the set. Put simply, the whole comprises its parts. That sounds terribly abstract and some examples may help:
• A pack comprises 52 cards.
• The evaluation will comprise a process study and an economic study.
• Our fun-filled shows comprise comedy and music.
The experts say it’s wrong to use it the other way round, to list the parts first and then the whole, as in
• Governors, mayors and tribal leaders comprise the task force.
• Fourteen categories comprise the field of competition.
• Scissors, thread and sewing cards comprise the kit.
These rules seem to have arisen only during the twentieth century. Before then, grammarians made no mention of this second version as wrong. It is ancient: as long ago as 1579, Thomas North translated a sentence in Plutarch’s Lives as “There were but one and thirty cities comprised in the league.” The rise in condemnation parallels its rise in use; until the twentieth century it was more frequent in technical prose. In the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1965, Sir Ernest Gowers objected strongly to it:
This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.
However, disquiet over it has been dying back. Thirty years later, in 1996, R W Burchfield commented in the third edition of Fowler: “It cannot be denied that the sheer frequency of this construction seems likely to take it out of the disputed area before long.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage goes so far as to say “This active construction … is flourishing and can be found in quite a wide range of writing.” Popular usage is returning this item of English to the acceptable state it was in before writers such as H W Fowler began to decry it a century ago.
By the way, if you use comprise in its accepted active role, what follows must be a complete list of the parts that make up the whole. If it doesn’t, you should use a word such as include, since that signals that the list is of examples, not of the whole set.
The other disputed form is the passive construction is comprised of. Style writers take an even dimmer view of this than of the other one. Bill Bryson wrote in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words of 1984, “If you remember nothing else from this book, remember at least that ‘comprised of’ is always wrong.” Bryan Garner concurred in his Modern American Usage of 2003, “This phrase is always wrong and should be replaced by some other, more accurate phrase.” I have to confess to disliking it with an almost visceral emotion, in part because I don’t like the passive (I also object, though less violently, to is composed of), but mainly because I was taught decades ago that it was utterly wrong.
However, opposition is weakening here, too: the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style notes that in 1996 63% of its advisory panel approved of is comprised of against only 47% in 1965. It’s easy to find examples in print; these are all from newspapers of October 2013:
The new exhibition at the Wallace Collection is comprised of nothing but drawings of naked men (Daily Telegraph).
The Kenya Lake System is comprised of three inter-linked shallow lakes (The Australian).
Home prices changes for the national index, which is comprised of 20 cities, peaked in April (Chicago Tribune).
This passive construction has been in use for nearly two centuries. (The earliest I’ve so far found is in The Jamaica Planter’s Guide of 1823 by Thomas Roughley: “The great gang is comprised of the most powerful field-negroes.”) The complaints against it may be thought illogical, because the passive construction puts the whole before its parts in the way that’s approved for the active form.
However, having noted that the times they are a-changing, I have to say that it would be wise for a serious writer who values their reputation to be careful of the is comprised of form. It will still attract criticism.
• We really ought not to mock poor English in foreign signs, but they are often too good not to. Gordon Caruana-Dingli photographed this one at Seville airport: “Drinking water only in lavatory”.
• Hazel Flynn wrote, “Lou Reed’s life was well chronicled, but after he died the Sydney Morning Herald had a scoop on his little-known Australian years: ‘As a young Canberra punk, Lou Reed had an enormous impact on Rhys Muldoon.’”
• A headline on the website of the Boston Globe over a story dated 1 November was spotted by Dave Kearns: “Royal Bank of Scotland to sell off Citizens”.
• “If only it were that easy” was the subject line of Ellen Sheffer’s email about a notice on Facebook: “Find out how Women for Women International helps women rebuild their lives after war and conflict by signing up for email alerts.”
• Paul K Davis found this caption to a video clip dated 31 October on townhall.com about Cory Booker becoming a US senator and resigning as mayor of Newark: “The Newark City Council is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting to decide his predecessor.”
• Heidi Brubaker found an item listed for sale on Amazon, a plastic flavour injector