World Wide Words
Issue 891: Saturday 16 August 2014
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Going spare. Barbara J Mann commented, “It occurred to me while I was reading your article about go spare that I’ve seen spare used to indicate the duty of a current title holder to his family to produce an heir and a spare before he goes into some potentially fatal activity (like war). Moving from that thought to the ‘spares’ having a traditional literary reputation for being disgruntled or caustic or downright rebellious because of their complete uselessness while a more direct heir lives, could probably get you to the meaning of being in a rage or in distress.”
Though the concept is probably as old as primogeniture, the phrase heir and a spare is more recent than you might think. In Britain, it became popular only after the birth of Prince Harry in 1984, the “spare” to Prince William. So far as I can discover, the first example in print is in a US-published book in 1976 and then in 1988 in a piece in the New York Times about the princes’ father, Prince Charles, that seems to be quoting from British sources.
Corybantic. “That consummate wordsmith W S Gilbert,” Bruce Graham wrote, “was not unfamiliar with the Corybantes, although he preferred the adjective Corybantian. In his little-known and seldom-performed final collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Grand Duke (1896), Ludwig, a theatrical manager, is encouraging his company to adopt Ancient Greek manners, including ‘rather risky dances’, namely:
‘Corybantian maniac kick — Dionysiac or Bacchic —
And the Dithyrambic revels of those undecorous days.’
An erudite, if somewhat contrived, rhyme. As Gilbert himself said: ‘That kind of fun’s the lowest.’ Keep up the fascinating work!”
Only a writer with an extensive vocabulary and the confidence to make use of it without sounding a prat will venture this verb. One such is the British journalist and author Will Self, though he says that he started using big words because he felt insecure.
Ralph imagines a conversation between Marcel Duchamp and Luis Buñuel, in which the venerable — and now, quite dead — Surrealists animadvert on the relationship between chance encounters, narrative and destiny.
Will Self in the Independent, 5 Jan. 2008.
His boldness is the more striking because he’s using animadvert in a way that’s considered obsolete — to comment upon something. Dictionaries say the only current sense is to criticise or pass censure on someone or something. This shift in sense parallels that of criticise, whose standard sense less than a century ago meant to judge the value of a work, a view that might be either positive or negative. Though that survives in literary and similar criticism, our carping age permits everyday criticism to be solely censorious. Those rare persons who — at the risk of sounding pompous — animadvert or create animadversions do so to disapprove.
The verb is from Latin animadvertere, to notice something or remark on a subject. It was created from animum, the mind, and advertere, to pay attention, hence to turn one’s mind to something. Even two thousand years ago, the Romans were using animadvertere to mean (adversely) criticise or even punish, so it’s surprising that animadvert ever had a neutral sense in English. Its second element is the root of advertise and advertisement, which at their most neutral contain the idea of making something known.
Ivor Brown, who wrote many books on the oddities of English, remarked of animadvert that “Surely the word animadvertisement should also exist” in the sense of a warning announcement or admonition. He surely hadn’t checked his Oxford English Dictionary, for it includes the word, though it’s firmly marked as obsolete and has its most recent example from 1661. I know of only one writer who has used it since, though his seems to be a neologistic blend of animated advertisement:
Flanked by an animadvertisement for deodorant pills and by a poster for Altars 0f the Heart, a newsscreen showed me its dormant glassy face.
The Continent of Lies, by James Morrow, 1984.
Synonymising fallacy. An article dated 7 August in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) introduced me to the new word Rogetism. Its creator is Chris Sadler, a lecturer at Middlesex University.
He had wondered about mysterious out-of-context phrases such as tarry forth of the conquest, modern store guides, bequest mazes and Herculean personalised liturgies, which kept appearing in student essays. Eventually he twigged that they were plagiarising online material but trying to hide it by changing some of the words using a thesaurus. Unfortunately, they were using what they’d looked up without caring about its meaning.
The phrases above resulted from applying this process to, respectively, stay ahead of the competition, new market leaders, legacy networks and powerful personalised services.
Sadler’s favourite Rogetism (coined, of course, from the most famous of all thesauruses, that created by Peter Mark Roget) is sinister buttocks, which he has entered for this year’s THES exam howlers competition. The original was left behind.
It’s in the Dictionary
The online world continues to be a significant generator of language, including hate-watch (watch a television programme for the enjoyment derived from mocking or criticizing it), listicle (an internet article in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list), live-tweet (post comments about an event on Twitter while it’s taking place), second screen (a mobile device used while watching television), cord cutting (cancelling a pay television subscription or landline phone connection in favour of an internet-based or wireless service), and hyperconnected (the widespread or habitual use of internet-connected devices).
Abbreviations added to the dictionary include adorbs (arousing great delight; from adorable), cray and cray cray (crazy) and dox (search for and publish private data on the Internet, typically with malicious intent; from doc, short for document).
Slang and informal terms added include hench (strong, fit, and having well-developed muscles; probably from henchman), hot mess (something spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered), mansplain (a man explaining something, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing), side-eye (a sidelong glance expressing disapproval or contempt), spit-take (as a comic technique, an act of suddenly spitting out liquid one is drinking in response to something funny or surprising; a play on double-take), and side boob (the side part of a woman’s breast, as exposed by a revealing item of clothing.)
Q From Dawn Govender: I can’t seem to find any information as to how the word vigorish came into use in English or when it took on its present meaning. I would also like to know if it is peculiar to American English or if other English-speaking cultures use the word as well.
A Vigorish is a classic item of current American slang. It can mean either the rate of interest charged on money borrowed from a loan shark or the percentage taken by bookmakers or operators of gambling games from winning bets.
It appears in print quite suddenly early in the twentieth century because of a book, The Apaches of New York. This was a collection of stories about the low life of the big city written by the Chicago-based journalist Alfred Henry Lewis, who had researched and written about corruption in New York politics. He commented in his preface to the book:
These stories are true in name and time and place. None of them in its incident happened as far away as three years ago. They were written to show you how the other half live in New York. I had them direct from the veracious lips of the police. The gangsters themselves contributed sundry details.
The Apaches of New York, by Alfred Henry Lewis, 1912.
Extracts from his book were widely syndicated and serialised during 1911, including this, which contains the first appearance of the word:
When the victim gets up from the table the “bank” under the descriptive of “viggresh” returns his one-tenth of his losings. No one ever leaves a stuss game broke and that final ray of sure sunshine forms indubitably the strong attraction. Stuss licks up with a tongue of fire a round full fifth of all the East side earns, and to “viggresh” should be given the black glory thereof.
Wanatah Mirror (Wanatah, Indiana), 30 Mar 1911.
A couple of things stick out from this: the vigorish here isn’t a charge on the punter, but a sum paid to a loser (contemporary writings say it was to give him car fare home and the price of breakfast); and the word hadn’t yet taken on its modern spelling or pronunciation because it had up to then been transmitted orally. Stuss, by the way, was a simplified version of the card game faro, popular in the cities of the east coast.
The experts think vigorish was borrowed from Yiddish, which may be supported by an alternative name for stuss, Jewish faro. It’s presumed that Yiddish had taken it from the Russian выигрыш (vyigrysh), which means gains or winnings.
The word first appears in its modern spelling in 1913. It was popular for a while but by about 1920 had vanished again, only to reappear in the 1930s in one of its modern senses, the interest on a loan:
When negotiating a loan from a Broadway usurer, one asks how much “vigorish” or interest, will be charged. “How much off the top?” means the same thing, since interest is deducted in advance and thus comes off the top of the bills counted out by the money lender.
Lowell Sun (Lowell, Massachusetts) 15 Feb. 1935.
It is now often abbreviated to the vig and is sometimes figurative:
Two weeks after a hike across hills of heavy scrub long scratches still scab my legs — a kind of vigorish paid for abundant living. You pay as you go.
The American Poetry Review, 1 Jan. 2011.
• Norman Berns found a headline of 10 August on the website of the Argyll Free Press (not the Scottish paper but the one of Mitchell, South Dakota): “Conference addressing issue of human trafficking by US attorneys: A major concern.”
• The San Francisco Chronicle website startled Jim Tang on 4 August with the headline: “Man killed after turning down ride from police.”
• Yet a third headline, from the website Engadget, struck Eugene Cassidy as entirely plausible: “IBM’s new supercomputing chip mimics the human brain with very little power.”
• Padmavyuha Green read a BBC report about Rhosllanerchrugog, a village in North Wales: “Investigators found a number [of] cannabis plants following the fire, which forced neighbours to leave their homes.”