World Wide Words
Issue 888: Saturday 26 July 2014
Feedback, Notes and Comments
“This is a wonderful word that we have long needed without knowing it,” wrote Frederica Postman. “Doesn’t everybody have a device to postpone the required tasks? Before I learned this word, I was just wasting time. Now I know I was precrastinating. Thank you for your informative and amusing newsletter.”
“As an inveterate procrastinator of this particular sub-type,” Cynthia Harvey emailed from Virginia, “I have discovered, and come to love, the term ‘laterally productive’ instead. I get all sorts of things done — just not the important stuff I should be doing. It is very difficult to break this habit.”
John Mills wrote, “When I was studying music composition, the word ‘quill-sharpening’ was used in a deprecatory way to describe getting ready to compose, rather than composing. I’ve been unable to find a reference to this usage on the Web. It does seem to be common in the context of writers, satirists and critics ‘sharpening their pens’ in anticipation of penning a trenchant attack on something.”
Ron Witton recalled, “While travelling in India, I have heard fairly often the term ‘prepone’ as in ‘Your flight has been preponed’, meaning brought forward in time. It has happened sufficiently often for me to assume it is not an individual construct but a socially accepted word form.”
The verb is widely known in India and dates from the 1970s.
“Summer of 1969, aged 17,” Henry Larsen recollects, “I was taken on at a factory as a seasonal helper. I was assigned to an old steamfitter by the name of Vern. Every Monday morning the foreman gave us all of our tasks for the week. My third or fourth week on the job, having settled in a bit and built up a little confidence, I looked at the new list and saw one particularly onerous job. In my youthful enthusiasm, I opined that we should do that one first and get it out of the way. ‘No’, said Vern. ‘Always do the easy jobs first. You never know, you might die before you get to the shit work’.” Precrastination meets procrastination.
Alan Weyman says that he lives his life by the rule he calls Mañanismo, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow”. He believes, as many people do, that Mark Twain invented it. I query such attributions on principle (this one has also been ascribed to Oscar Wilde and others) but it’s half right. Garson O’Toole wrote about it on the Quote Investigator website; he discovered that Twain really is the source, in an article of 1870 criticising the way Benjamin Franklin popularised folksy aphorisms. Twain created the saying as a comical instance of something that Franklin might have said. He would surely have hated its being credited to him as a humorous proverb worth repeating.
Bounding main. Pat Spaeth commented on one of the snippets of poetry I cited in the piece last week: “If you look a little earlier in the text, you’ll see that your author knew little about the bounding main or sailing in general. The original verse starts: ‘Heave ho, me lads, the wind blows free / A pleasant gale is on our lee.’ First, I doubt a gale would ever be called ‘pleasant’. And ‘lee’ means the side away from the wind (as in the Leeward Islands or in another song, ‘bring your ship under our lee’).” Beware landlubberish poetasters!
Today a lucubration (or lucubrations — the word more often appears in the plural) is a derisive reference to a pedantic, over-elaborate or muddled attempt to make a point.
But Coleridge was an unselfdisciplined monologist addict who left a few brilliant poems and poetic fragments behind him, along with a blather of sometimes suggestive but mainly inane lucubration.
A C Grayling, in the Financial Times, 14 Oct. 2006.
Lucubration literally means thought, study or writing that has been undertaken by artificial light. Its origin is Latin lux, light, via the stem of the verb lūcubrāre, to work by lamplight. Imagine a scholar hunched beside a guttering flame, striving late into the night to get his ideas on paper.
The word appeared first in English around the time of Shakespeare at the end of the sixteenth century. People soon started to use it for the result of the activity as well as the activity itself.
Unfortunately, as every student struggling against a deadline to write an essay will know, such burning of the midnight oil is likely to produce work that won’t stand the light of day. Hence its current meaning.
Changing colours. Being a keen wine drinker, though an ill-informed one, I was delighted recently to have my knowledge expanded by coming across a French word that every English-speaking viticulturist seems to knows: véraison. It refers to the point when grapes stop growing and start to ripen, in the process changing colour. It’s from the obsolete French verb vérir, to ripen, presumably influenced by raisin, grape.
Local expressions. Susan Walker poses a query: “My father, who came from Warwickshire, often said ‘If you come in late you’ll get the slick side of the door.’ I thought this was a common expression until people did not know what I was talking about. I believe it may be from old style doors having the crosshatch wood bars inside but the exterior smooth — thus if you come home late the door will be closed against you. My grandmother, also from Warwickshire, told me, when she thought I was not getting married young enough, ‘You’ll go round the orchard and come up with a crab apple.’ I wonder if these are local Warwickshire sayings or known more widely?”
Q From Dave McCombs, New Zealand: Has the word blooper ever been traced to a source?
A Yes, it has, and it’s rather a surprising one.
We have to go back to the pioneering days of radio broadcasting in the US in the early 1920s. The primitive valve radios of those times suffered from a serious problem. To make them more sensitive, they fed back part of the amplified signal to the input. But if the user increased that feedback too far to try to pick up a weak station, the radio became a transmitter and blotted out reception for up to a mile around it.
If you’ve heard a public-address system screeching because somebody has put the microphone too near the loudspeaker, you’ll have a very good idea of the experience for suffering nearby listeners. Two technical names for it are positive feedback and oscillation; it has many others (during my time at the BBC, the jargon term for it was howl-round).
The same problem bedevilled the early days of the BBC. Its chief engineer, Peter Eckersley, used to go on air and entreat listeners not to be so anti-social as to allow their sets to transmit: “Is this fair? Is this British? Don’t oscillate. Please don’t oscillate. Don’t do it.” He did this so often that he was nicknamed “Don’t Do It Eckersley”.
Americans didn’t call it oscillation, perhaps because it sounded a touch highfalutin. They named it blooping. The perpetrator was a blooper and the noise was a bloop.
Then some evening he wants to listen to a program clear through and the occassional [sic] “bloop” of his neighbors calls for his most blood-curdling curses.
Nevada State Journal, 16 Dec. 1923.
Nobody tried to explain where it came from at the time and nobody has managed to put forward an entirely satisfactory suggestion since. My guess, having heard lots of variations on the sound that feedback makes, is that the term imitated the noise in affected receivers, which probably wasn’t a shriek or whistle but a rapidly pulsing howl that sounded vaguely like “bloooop … bloooop … bloooop”.
The problem quickly grew worse as the number of sets mushroomed during the radio craze. The first example of blooper in print I’ve found is this, though for the sets rather than the perpetrators:
On account, perhaps, of the word of warning that was published in yesterdays paper in connection with the announcement of the presidents speech against improper handling of the radio sets of the radiating type, or “blooper” sets as they are coming to be called there was less interference than has been noted heretofore.
Lubbock Morning Avalanche (Texas), 23 Apr. 1924. To cap the typos in the item, the headline to the story misspelled the word as “blopper”. An early self-referential blooper.
Everybody knew what bloopers were and everybody hated them. To accidentally bloop was an embarrassing error; to do it deliberately was a crime against your neighbours.
In the middle 1920s blooper was taken up by baseball. I am, as you know, no expert here, and so I rely on descriptions by experts to say that it’s a sloppily hit ball that lofts into the gap between the infield and outfield for a base hit, an embarrassing error on the part of the fielding team.
The Gambles tied it up in their half of the fourth when five hits and an error brought in four runs. Four of these hits were tantalizing “bloopers” which fell between the infielders and the outfielders about a yard inside of the left field foul line.
Freeport Journal Standard (Illinois), 27 Jun 1933.
The sense of a verbal or written error or indiscretion began to appear in print around 1940 (a writer to the Racine Journal Times of Wisconsin in January 1940 used bloopers for the typographical mistakes that he had found in the paper). The following year pull a blooper appeared, to make an embarrassing mistake:
We pulled a blooper, and we’re sorry. Here we were told that Dave Henry lost to Axel Johnson when the two softball greats teamed up in the Southern California playoffs three seasons ago. Actually the reverse was the case.
Oxnard Press-Courier (Oxnard, California), 12 Jun. 1941.
The specific sense of making a mistake before a microphone or camera is from movie jargon. The word started to appear in films in the early 1930s with the coming of the talkies. The short-lived blooping patch was a black strip stuck on a film’s optical soundtrack to cover the noise resulting from a splice. Compilations of errors in film, called bloops, are known from the 1930s, initially for private enjoyment:
But some of the nabobs of the films began collecting celluloid records of the “bloops” of which the screen players were guilty in reciting their lines, and so most of them now play safe with antics and verbal outbreaks that have become both unique and amusing.
Los Angeles Times, 15 Dec. 1935.
Blooper for such compilations became popular in the US in the 1950s through a series of records by a television producer named Kermit Schaefer under the general title Pardon My Blooper. Blooper reel was first used publicly of outtakes from Star Trek episodes in the early 1970s.
The evidence suggests that all these usages can be traced back to those anti-social individuals who let their radios oscillate in the early 1920s.
• Len Morrison found this headline on Google News, which was taken from the Birmingham Mail on 19 July: “Grandad hit by three bus lane tickets in Birmingham city centre.” The story explained the man had received three fixed-penalty fines for driving in bus lanes.
• An email offer Vance R Koven received from Groupon was headed “Apple iPad mini 32GB with WiFi, 14K Gold Swarovski Earrings, Men’s Spiked Golf Shoes & More.” His comment: “Talk about bells and whistles!”
• Dana Cook Grossman contributed a sentence from an obituary in the Valley News of Vermont and New Hampshire with the comment, “He must have been quite a headstrong guy”: “First thing in the morning Donal enjoyed using his skull to travel the perimeter of Pleasant Lake.”
• On 18 July the Atlantic online had a photo of Argentinean youths, who rioted after the World Cup final, trying to escape tear gas and a water cannon. Amy Briggs spotted that the caption ended, “Police said more than a dozen officers were injured and many more were arrested.”
• F J Bergmann reports that the Publishing Perspectives e-newsletter of 23 July includes this: “Spanish author Javier Marias argues that while there are plenty of reasons not to write novels, there’s one that is very important — a shot at immorality.”