WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 859: Saturday 23 November 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
4. Honour and honorary.
5. Comprise redux.
Rile and neeb Wendy Magnall wrote, “I concur with the likelihood of rile and neeb being fictitious postcard terms. Out of curiosity, I searched a trio of postcard collecting glossaries and found no listings for the terms. I did come across the quite practical term stamp box for the latter, suggesting that neeb, at least, is unnecessary.” Rick Burdsall, who contributes to the Encyclopedia of United States Stamps and Stamp Collecting, also made enquiries and concluded, “as you suspected, the writer who suggested neeb may be pulling his readers’ legs. Through supplying an outrageous derivation for the word, it made it more likely that they would accept that the word itself was valid.”
Might could be wrong Numerous readers leapt upon my last-minute editing error: “That must be apocryphal, though it’s certainly possible that an early user might could described it that way.” (If you didn’t see it, that’s because it was only in the HTML and RSS versions, not the plain-text one that had been carefully checked by my copyeditors.) Several readers even submitted it as a possible Sic! item. The biter bit, indeed.
A feghoot is a brief story, usually in a science-fiction setting, whose punchline is an elaborate pun.
The canonical feghoots feature the eponymous Ferdinand Feghoot, a member of the Society for the Aesthetic Re-Arrangement of History. Beginning in 1956, a Russian-born American author, Reginald Bretnor, created more than eighty of them under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Grendel Briarton.
They are collectively known as Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot and always end with Feghoot solving some tricky problem by way of some of the most atrocious puns ever committed to paper. The late Anthony Boucher remarked:
A true Feghoot not only culminates in a pun of singular beauty and terror; it is, even before that point, an entertainingly absurd episode of a possible history.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Apr. 1973.
One concerned poaching of cock pheasants at Balmoral. Gillie John Brown discovered they were being shot by the Lord Chief Justice of Scotland, who would hide them in a hole in the wall before coming up to the house to pay his respects to Queen Victoria. Clearly, it was impossible to treat him as a common criminal and drag him to court for poaching, so Feghoot suggested that he be charged instead with male pheasants in orifice.
The stories appeared in several science-fiction magazines and are famous in SF circles. They have been affectionately imitated by other writers, including Spider Robinson. Many feghoot-like tall tales were created by Frank Muir and Denis Norden in the BBC radio programme My Word; my favourite punchline of theirs (I think it’s theirs) is “The squaw on the hippopotamus equals the sons of the squaws on the other two hides.”
Words of the year First away from the starting gate this year is Oxford Dictionaries, whose word of the year is selfie.
A young woman takes a selfie from a high angle (2011)
It defines this as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. Its editors noted that selfie can be traced back to an appearance in an Australian online forum in 2002 (ABC News identified its sender as Nathan Hope, who remarked that it may have been the first example found but it certainly wasn’t the first one ever used, as it was common Australian slang at the time). It has become much more popular in 2013 because it has evolved from a purely social media buzzword to a mainstream term. The editors say that its popularity can be measured by the large number of spin-off terms that have already been created. Some refer to parts of the body, such as helfie (a picture of one’s hair) and belfie (of one’s posterior). Others describe an activity, such as welfie (a workout selfie) or drelfie (one taken while drunk). Shelfie and bookshelfie indicate that your picture includes furniture in the background, the latter being a neat way to showcase your cultural pretensions.
Doctor Who’s words In British television, only one character is always referred to just as “The Doctor”. BBC Television is pulling out every stop to hymn the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Dr Who in 1963.
Lexicographically speaking, the series is not especially productive, with only four words in the Oxford English Dictionary: Tardis, Dalek and Cyberman, plus the first use of The Matrix in the sense of cyberspace, from a Dr Who novelisation of 1976. We also have Whovian for a fan and Whoniverse, a blend of Who and universe, for the fictional setting of the series, including its offshoots. Tardis (an acronym, as any aficionado will at once be able to tell you, of Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is the only one which has taken on meanings beyond Dr Who itself, such as a structure which seems bigger on the inside than the outside.
Origins A study published this month of the origins of the folktale Little Red Riding Hood introduced me to the term phylomemetics. It’s based on phylogenetics, a range of techniques that have been developed to study evolutionary relationships among species. Folklorists are starting to apply these techniques to their own work. In both words, phylo- derives from Greek phulon, a kind, race, or tribe, as in phylum, a principal category of living things. Phylomemetics is first recorded in an academic paper of 2011, though the adjective phylomemetic is about ten years older in a different context. Both terms derive from memetics, the study of memes — cultural ideas passed from one person to another by imitation. Phylomemetics encapsulates the idea that cultural constructs such as folktales and languages are living entities classifiable in an evolutionary tree just like plants and animals. The authors of the study suggest that the Little Red Riding Hood tale is most likely a European creation of two millennia ago that began as The Wolf and the Kids (in one form of which a wolf tries to gobble up little pigs by persuading them to open the door for him), with the Red Riding Hood version splitting off from it about a thousand years later.
4. Honour and honorary
Q From Sir Peter Bottomley: Why in British English is there no u in “honorary”?
A American readers, accustomed to honor, might instead ask why a u appears in British honour. And that’s an equally interesting question.
It might seem simply that honour and honorary are following a spelling rule, on the pattern of glamorous, humorous, rigorous and vigorous, whose nouns all include a u in British English. At various times, all these adjectives have been spelled with a u — except glamorous, which is much more recent than the others and fell into step from its inception — but none has had a history as complex as the honour/honorary pair.
Their story is a muddle. English imported them via the Anglo-Norman onour, itself a respelling of the older French forms onor and onur. The earliest Middle English spelling was anour. The h has never been sounded but was inserted early in its English history by scholars who knew its Latin source was honor, repute or esteem, and felt that its English descendent ought to be spelled to match. Honour, honourable and honorary have been lumbered with that unnecessary initial letter ever since.
Common forms in the 1500s, before standardisation of spelling, were honur, honor and honour. Shakespeare used both honor and honour but preferred honor. Honour became usual in the seventeenth century but the pendulum swung back in the eighteenth. John Ash had it as honor in his New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language in 1775, and commented that it was “a modern but correct spelling, from the Latin.” Less than two decades later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, recommended instead that preachers should “Avoid the fashionable impropriety of leaving out the u in many words, as honor, vigor, &c. This is mere childish affectation.” His advice seems to have been prescient, since honour has been so spelled in Britain pretty much ever since.
The story of honorary is of similar confusion. At its inception in the seventeenth century it was spelled without a u. There was a period in the eighteenth century when the u-form became fashionable, weirdly around the time that people were leaving it out of honour. In his Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1733, Nathan Bailey thought the u-less form the better spelling but recommended honourary because it was then more usual. By the century’s end, the fashion had abated again and we’ve spelled honorary without the u ever since.
The spelling reforms of Noah Webster in the US that led to the loss of the u in honour in that country in effect returned that word to a spelling that had been common in England for several centuries. If only he had gone the whole hog and removed the h as well.
5. Comprise redux
Following my piece about the usage of comprise two weeks ago, several readers raised a subtle grammatical issue. You may feel this is too arcane a topic for this newsletter, but it explains why comprised of appeared and why it is gaining in popularity.
The issue centres on my description of the comprised of version as a passive construction. A couple of readers bluntly told me that to call it that meant that I didn’t understand the passive. I said it was passive because almost all of the grammar and style guides that I consulted, going back to H W Fowler’s Modern English Usage nearly a century ago, describe it as one.
Help came from an acknowledged expert. Geoffrey Pullum is professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. His first comment was “It’s an extraordinarily tricky topic!”
He said that comprise is a member of a class of verbs that take a noun phrase as their object. With comprise, this noun phrase is the list of the parts that make up the whole, as in “The executive committee comprises the heads of the three main divisions.” A key point is that comprise can’t be followed by a prepositional phrase beginning with of. Many verbs can, including one with a related sense, consist. “The executive committee consists of the heads of the three main divisions” is good English but in the standard language you can’t replace consists of with comprises of.
If you try to turn comprise into a passive, you run into trouble. With the sentence I quoted earlier, you end up with “The heads of the three main divisions are comprised by the committee”, which nobody says. The form is comprised of can’t be a passive, because there’s nowhere for the of to come from. Though genuine passives can contain of, as in “Her dress was strongly disapproved of by her parents”, in those cases the of is also present in the active form: “Her parents strongly disapproved of her dress.”
Professor Pullum pointed out that a similar situation occurs with compose. You can write, “The heads of the three main divisions compose the executive committee” but if you tried to make a passive out of that you would get “The executive committee is composed by the heads of the three main divisions.” Nobody says that either.
But you can say “The executive committee is composed of the heads of the three main divisions.” What has happened, he concludes, is that composed in sentences such as “Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen” has evolved into an adjective of a type that may be followed by of, in the way that afraid is used in sentences such as “Jack is afraid of spiders.”
In the version, “Water is comprised of hydrogen and oxygen”, people have unconsciously substituted the comprise root for the compose one to make a new adjective, comprised, which can also be followed by of. But while the usage with compose is standard English, the one with comprise is still widely regarded as an error.
What we’re seeing is English quietly evolving through analogy. Of course, few people pay close attention to what they’re saying, or even notice, and as Professor Pullum says, it’s not the easiest construction to analyse anyway.
When you look at it in this way, it’s hard to justify continuing to object to comprised of other than through convention.
• Another misplaced initial modifying clause: “After about two hours of marching and attacking the Russian embassy, the Polish police asked that the permit for the march be cancelled.” This came from a report of 14 November on the Al Jazeera site via Reg Brehaut.
• And another of the same day, spotted by Maggie Westera in a caption to a photograph in the Independent: “The Mausoleum at Castle Howard, Malton, North Yorkshire which was ranked the second best place to live in the UK.”
• All quiet on the prairie … Duncan Morrow found a headline on the website of the Hillsboro Star-Journal of Kansas, again on 14 November: “Buffalo heard growing at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.”
• Words to live by … Brian Redman submitted another headline, again of the same date, from Science Daily: “Where someone drowns determines their chance of survival.”
• In the December issue of Waterways World, Bruce Napier found this in a review of a new style of wide-beam boat: “A good sized wardrobe would provide space for guests to stay for a week or more.”