WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 861: Saturday 7 December 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
4. Six ways from Sunday.
Drown My comment last time about a weakening in sense of drown drew numerous comments.
John Douglas noted that a similar shift has already occurred with electrocute, which originally meant to execute a person by means of electricity. It soon shifted to include dying by an accidental shock and has since come to mean suffering either injury or death. Gregory Harris similarly commented on starve, which originally meant to die by any means (a close relative, German sterben, retains that meaning) but in Middle English that sense was passed to die, a word from Old Norse, and starve took on the specific sense of dying through hunger; it has now become diluted in meaning to the point that it can colloquially mean merely that the speaker is very hungry; we have to say starve to death to make it clear that the process has been fatal. Michael Moore pointed out that a parallel change is beginning to take place with drown because we are seeing examples of drown to death.
Dr John Smith commented, “Common usage in the US medical community describes near-drowning as the condition following immersion from which resuscitation is successful. If unsuccessful, the patient’s death is due to drowning.”
The fuzziness about the finality of drown is not new. Dick Kenney reported, “In 1970, I went with a fellow worker onto a Massachusetts low tide flat to dig clams. He told me on the long way out that he drowned once and was wary of incoming tides. I was kind of startled by this statement as he looked pretty much alive as far as I could tell. Since then, I’ve heard other uses of drowned where the victim survived.” On the American Dialect Society list, John Baker noted a couple of examples from 1869 that referred to a person having drowned but then been resuscitated.
Thirteen and the odd Several readers wondered if the term might be linked to the old superstition that it’s unlucky for thirteen to sit down to a meal. It’s an intriguing speculation but it’s hard to see how the association might have grown up. Christopher Philippo asked if it might be an example of phrase inflation, as has happened with the whole nine yards, with the idiom having started out with a smaller number which has increased over time.
Brian Cassidy commented: “Being an English speaker living in Quebec, I have often heard the French expression se mettre sur son trente-et-un (literally to put on one’s 31), the equivalent of English dressed to the nines.” Might the American 13 be the Quebecois’ 31 inverted? Alain Gottcheiner wrote from Belgium about the same idiom, noting that the usual explanation is that it derives from trentain, a fine cloth. He wondered if the original English might have been a mistranslation of the French as thirty and the odd, which might then have been confused with or influenced by the card game I mentioned in the original piece.
In The Book of Hours in 2007, Kevin Jackson described this word as “rare and archaic”, but also as “the precise or pedantic word for the gloom before dawn”. There you have it in a nutshell.
Rare it certainly is, though a few well-known authors have taken advantage of its precision and its unusualness, among them Thomas Carlyle, Thomas De Quincey, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Joyce. One more:
Hardly anything could be more isolated or more self-contained than the lives of these two walking here in the lonely antelucan hour, when gray shades, material and mental, are so very gray.
The word derives from Latin lux, light, which becomes luc- in compounds. Put -an on the end to turn it into an adjective and ante- in front to mark it as referring to something beforehand, and it becomes a term for the moments before the coming of the light.
The first time that I encountered the word, in The Uplift War, an SF classic by David Brin, I was momentarily derailed from his narrative by being reminded of a famous missing-persons case in Britain, that of Lord Lucan. What came before Lucan? Presumably another Lucan, maybe the one who sent Lord Cardigan and his troops on the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. But that was the wrong kind of light.
Harried Richard Mellish asked about by the Lord Harry. Who was Harry and why was he invoked? It’s a mild oath with a long period of popularity, from the late seventeenth century down to the end of the nineteenth, and even beyond in humorous contexts. Mr Mellish found it in The Perishers, a British cartoon strip that began in the Daily Mirror in the 1950s and is still reproduced today. (It has also been made into a TV series.) In the cartoon, Boot the sheepdog often says it to himself and his gentle expletive became so well known that many younger people think it was invented there. But the earliest example I’ve found is in a very different context, a translation in 1688 of the Spanish classic Don Quixote: “By the Lord Harry, quo Sancho, these Men of Business are so troublesome.” Lord Harry may be the Devil, as Old Harry is one of his many nicknames.
Geeing up We have begun to see the abbreviation 5G in articles about advances in mobile telephone technology. It’s short for fifth generation, claimed by the Chinese firm Hauwei to be 100 times faster than the best speeds achievable with the fourth generation (4G) networks currently being rolled out in the UK and elsewhere, which reach speeds of 30Mbps or more. But why all these generations? Working back, 3G was the first generation that had internet access using smartphones, 2G phones could only make voice calls and send text messages, while 1G was the analogue standard used by those brick-sized devices of the 1980s. It’s said such new technological generations become available to the public about every 10 years, so expect 5G early in the 2020s.
4. Six ways from Sunday
Q From Martin Schell: I’m unsure of the origin of six ways from Sunday, but generally it expresses completeness. Could it refer to patterns of activity during a week, from one Sunday to the next?
A You’re not alone in feeling unsure of the origin; you are in the company of every etymologist who has looked at it. People do guess that it has something to do with the days of the week. One over-specific and quite certainly false tale lists the punishments once meted out on the six days following a Sunday to a person who failed to attend church.
The problem with this derivation is the wide disparity in forms that have appeared down the years, such as four different ways from Sunday, eight ways from Tuesday, forty ways till Sunday, and a thousand ways for Sunday. The common factor is a day of the week and ways, with the number and preposition variable at will.
Clues to its origin may lie in two stories by the American writer James Kirke Paulding and an unanswered question posed to the British publication Notes and Queries in 1861. Paulding is the first author to record any version of the saying:
The brow projected exuberantly, though not heavily, over a pair of rascally little cross-firing twinkling eyes, that, as the country people said, looked at least nine ways from Sunday.
“As the country people said” suggests that Paulding recognised it as a folk saying of some age. Later writers, such as Thomas Chandler Haliburton, also used this version. For them it meant askew, at a slant, in every direction. In another of Paulding’s tales, Westward Ho! of 1832, a character criticises some needlework, “stitched with the needle of a compass that pointed nine ways from Sunday”.
The correspondent to Notes and Queries asked, “Looking nine ways for Sunday (sometimes varied to ‘Looking two ways for Sunday’) appears to be used for being completely at a loss, ‘nonplussed’. But why Sunday?” This is the only early example that I can find in a British source, but it hints that it may not originally have been American but an older British idiom. This ties up with Paulding’s view of it as a folk saying. If so, it died out in the UK long ago and it isn’t now known here except as an Americanism and — in the form Six Ways to Sunday — the title of a 1999 film starring Deborah Harry.
As well as the multitudinous versions, the sense has swung about like the needle in Pauling’s story. One common one is “completely” or “thoroughly” or “by every imaginable method”, as in this example from 1894: “if you want to collect any bills from them you will have to chase them seven ways from Sunday”. Another one, from 2013: “They both insist that their staff are the best in the business, and have been checked five ways to Sunday before they get hired.”
None of this gives much of a clue why Sunday was originally chosen, although it was short, simple and expressive and would have been regarded as the most significant or special day of the week. The most common form probably owes its success to the alliteration of Sunday with six.
• Reading a document about his dental insurance brought on an attack of duh! from Paul Brady. “IMPORTANT: Can you read this document? If not, we can have somebody help you read it. For free help, please call …”
• Military exercise: Naomi Rosen pointed out that on 20 November the Huffington Post suggested that “If you’re having trouble losing weight or having trouble maintaining weight loss, just get out there and maintain a regular regiment of physical activity.”
• It’s all too easy to misread this report of 28 November in the Wells Journal of Somerset, despite the careful commas: “The Journal has been inundated with tributes to Les Small, who could be seen playing his harmonica and chatting with passers-by, following his death.” Thanks go to Ama Bolton for that.
• A report on a care home published by the UK Care Quality Commission was sent in by Jeremy Shaw: “The provider did not always take proper steps to ensure that people were at risk of receiving care that was inappropriate.” We must hope there’s a missing not somewhere.
• The builders of the hanging gardens of Babylon were clever, at least according to this ungrammatical sentence from the Sunday Telegraph of 24 November, which Patrick Williamson told us about: “Knowledge of them is based on a few accounts, written hundreds of years after it was said to have been built by people who never saw it.”
• Yet another example of a misplaced modifier, found by Rupert Snell on 4 December in the BBC news magazine online: “Made out of wood and with a wheel at the bottom, Hamon has carried the cross throughout Britain and to remote parts of the world including Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.”