World Wide Words
from Michael Quinion
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Oops. Stephen Brasher was first off the mark to tell me of an error in the last issue: “Captain Marryat didn’t write Coral Island, that was R M Ballantyne. Marryat’s famous work was The Children of the New Forest.” Many others subsequently emailed, often mentioning Marryat’s Mr Midshipman Easy as well. To claim, as I did, that Coral Island was “still known a little” was clearly an understatement. The moral is always to check your sources, especially when you’re sure you’re right.
Caparisoned. Fionnuala McHugh sent a link to a Daily Telegraph book review from 2009, which said “The riderless horse is known as a caparison, a custom that dates to the time of Genghis Khan. It symbolises a fallen warrior.” Having now found more examples, it appears I was wrong last time to say this sense is an error. The idea comes from a riderless horse in a funeral procession often being richly decorated. No dictionary on my shelves, nor the online Oxford English Dictionary, includes this meaning of caparison.
Sic! The item in the last issue about menagerie lions was queried by many readers. Larry Osborne considered it intentional on the part of the writer. Many others recall encountering it in their youth as a classic example of a supposed schoolboy howler: “the equator is a menagerie lion running around the centre of the earth.” John Pearson found that it appears in that form in Frank Sidgwick’s Old Ballads of 1908 as an example of “corruption in oral tradition”.
The phrase reminded Martin S Taylor of an eBay advert he once saw for a camera with a why-dangle lens. Correspondents to the Guardian this week have recalled hearing people say that they were going to see the Blackpool hallucinations and doctor’s patients asserting that they were on infidelity benefit. The spirit of Mrs Malaprop is with us still.
Crizzling. Keith Hallam introduced me to crozzled , which may be a derivative of crizzle. The Collins English Dictionary says it means bacon blackened or burnt at the edges. Mary Jackson concurs, knowing it as a Derbyshire word for “what happens to food when cooked for too long: all shrunken and burnt.” A crozzle or crozzil was once northern English dialect for a half-burnt cinder or coal or anything burnt up or singed; the verb means to shrivel or curl up with heat or to burn something to a cinder. Mr Hallam says his wife and he use it for “bacon cooked to perfection”, not quite the same idea, unless you like your bacon really crispy.
More odd names. Saul Newman mentioned that fine fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii and provided a link to Mark Isaac’s site Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, which lists among many others Arthurdactylus conandoylensis, a fossil pterosaur from Brazil that may remind you of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World . And Mike Odell introduced me to 1,2-dimethyl-chickenwire, a fictional two-dimensional hydrocarbon consisting of hexagonal blocks.
Vellichor. “Are you familiar with the idea,” Clifford Daniels wrote, “that cellar door is the most euphonious phrase in the English language? What struck me about vellichor is its potentially similar pronunciation. As such, one could say that our attraction to vellichor derives from the marvellous union of both semantic and phonaesthetic beauty.” There’s a considerable history of comment on the qualities of the compound noun cellar door, including Grant Barrett’s article in the New York Times in 2009 and the Wikipedia article on it.
Galoot. From Adam Quinan: “Arthur Ransome’s pirate heroine, Nancy Blackett, often refers to her younger sister Peggy as a galoot in Swallows and Amazons (published in 1930). That is where I first encountered it. Whether Ransome came across the word through his sailing interests or his Australian family connection or whether it was just part of his vocabulary acquired growing up I have no idea.” William Hommon added, “Your excellent discussion of galoot reminded me of one of the worst (ie, best) puns of all time. There was this old guy who was married twice and had 10 boys by his first wife and 11 by his second. He was a 21-son galoot!”
I stray into a minuscule no-man’s-land of disputed territory here. On the one hand is a tiny group of language pundits who consider that ilk still ought to mean exactly what it used to mean centuries ago in another country. On the other hand is a greater group who know what they mean by it and don’t give a toss, fig, hang or tinker’s damn about its antecedents. On the third hand, a substantial group don’t know it, or are put off using it through worry that they might use it wrongly and have somebody criticise them.
Its story begins in Old English with the adjective ilca. This meant “same” or “like” and survived in mainstream English until the sixteenth century, in the end being supplanted by same, an upstart intruder from Old Norse. However, it did survive in Scots, especially in the phrase of that ilk. This meant, and still does, a person whose family name is the same as that of the place he inhabits. Most strictly it indicates that the person is the proprietor or laird of the place. So we may come across usages like this:
The field and ground was chosen in St. Andrews, and three landed men and three yeomen chosen to shoot against the English-men, — to wit, David Wemyss of that ilk, David Arnot of that ilk, and Mr. John Wedderburn, vicar of Dundee.
But from early times, Scots also used it to refer to the head of a clan, such as Mackintosh of that ilk (a Scottish trial in 1539 referred to “Duncane Macfarlane of that ilk”). This eventually led to ilk weakening its sense around the time of Scott to mean people who had the same name because they were related. It later weakened still further to include people of the same class or who had some characteristic in common. This much broader connotation annoys language purists, though it has long since become common and is now regarded as standard English:
I’m pretty no-nonsense myself, and I know plenty of other women of that ilk.
These days the grouping need not always be human (“Such are the magpie, the crow, the jackdaw, and all of that ilk”; “it wasn’t a unicorn, but it was something of that ilk”) nor even alive (“She discovered the ace of that ilk peeping coyly out from behind the seven of spades”; “A body may chatter about ideals — about right and wrong and matters of that ilk”).
A blurred survival of its aristocratic, landed origins sometimes emerges in negative comments about class bias:
Given that David Cameron seems to be comfortable only when surrounded by Etonians, and that the Labour MP Chris Bryant has complained about “Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk” rising in their professions thanks to their privileged public-school education, a toff upbringing doesn’t feel terribly cool or right-on at the moment. Lewis is definitely a member of that “ilk”.
- The new term senolytics appeared in the press in the middle of March. It was created by scientists from the Scripps Institute in Florida who had found two drugs that appeared to invigorate elderly mice. Senolytics are a new class of drugs designed to delay the ageing process. The word would appear to have been formed from the first part of senescent plus the adjectival -lytic ending which links to nouns in -lysis (from Greek -lutikos, able to loosen), as in medical terms like spasmolytic, mucolytic and thrombolytic.
- What, by all that is medically appalling, is exploding head syndrome? It turns out — thankfully — not to be a literal description, but an imaginative way to describe a harmless but disquieting loud noise which some people experience suddenly as they are dropping off to sleep. It is said to be caused by a misfiring of neurons in the brain.
- A writer in my daily newspaper recently claimed to have a huge fondness for the hairy-footed flower bee. It turned out to a real insect, Anthophora plumipes. Similarly genuine but equally pleasantly exotic were two in last week’s issue of New Scientist: the rusty-patched bumble bee and the fuzzy-legged leafcutter bee .
- It was a surprise to learn that the organisation Human Rights Watch had recently produced a report opposing laws. It transpired they were actually against LAWS, a military acronym for lethal automated weapon systems, which the press prefers to call killer robots.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition
A new edition of this venerable guide always repays close study. The previous revisions of W H Fowler’s magisterial work of 1926 — by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965 and Robert Burchfield in 1996 — led to accusations that its editors were being too kind to ill-educated speakers of English who perverted its splendour by introducing barbarous usages. This time around, apart from a few polite notices in the British press, criticism has been absent.
Perhaps conservatives have given up on Fowler (the brand, not the person) after Burchfield had dared to base many of his recommendations on the way people actually used English rather than the way over-careful and traditional users thought it ought to be used. Jeremy Butterfield, whose qualifications include being the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, has continued his immediate predecessor’s policy of basing his recommendations on a study of Oxford’s vast collection of examples of current English. In lexicographic jargon, his work is frequently descriptive rather than prescriptive though, as he points out, the editor of a style guide is continually subject to a tension between these extremes. He remarks in his entry on less versus fewer, “Regrettably, the facts of language, as so often happens, are more complicated than simple, or simplistic, rules allow.”
A significant change, and one to be welcomed, is the replacement of much of the rather fusty and outmoded language of the first edition — unchanged by later editors who were perhaps too much in awe of H W Fowler’s prose — by fresh and warmly conversational text leavened by humour, if sometimes a little heavy-handed, and the occasional burst of sarcastic grumpiness. He comments in the introduction that every editor of Fowler has brought personal “preferences, tastes, habits, and bugbears” to his writing and Fowler wouldn’t be the same without them.
Almost every entry provides an example of his personal style. About absolutely, he says that “it is no exaggeration to say that, at least in Britain, it has altogether ousted ‘yes’ from the speech of middle-class media persons and pundits … it is enthusiastically bludgeoning ‘yes’ to death.” Of another word that frequently infuriates, he concurs with the recent decision of the Oxford English Dictionary to recognise the figurative use of literally to mean “figuratively”, a sense that goes back at least to Dickens. But he cautions, after nearly two pages of discussion: “Knowing that your readers may have the screaming abdabs (dated British slang for ‘have a fit’) if they read literally prefacing a metaphor … you might want to avoid using it altogether.” Under ambiguity, he writes: “some highly ambiguous — and often comical — phrasing does get into print … and provides an easy target for satire”, including in an online forum called World Wide Words. (I must declare, in the interests of full disclosure, that he also cites me in the entry on bog standard .)
He writes about the “tsunami of illiteracy unleashed by the Internet” (though surely internet is now lower-case? No, his entry on it says it is “standard and recommended” to spell it with an initial capital letter. Many would disagree, including this writer, whose house style downcases it.) Of address, he remarks, “People in the business of not really meaning what they say love this verb” and suggests they should instead “put their head over the parapet and say that they will resolve, deal with, or sort out the question.” (Note the singular they, which he says elsewhere is now hardly noticed and an irreversible shift in usage.) He is similarly disparaging about the misuse of awesome, of issue when “problem” would be better, and challenging , which he calls “treacherous woolliness” and says should be avoided with the help of a good thesaurus.
Butterfield holds that and at the beginning of a sentence is fine, especially as a marker of a continuing narrative; usage evidence suggests that alibi no longer solely means a defence on the grounds that the accused was somewhere else at the time but can be used of any excuse, pretext or justification; to say the letter h as haitch, he argues, will eventually prevail in British English, “unspeakably uncouth though it may appear” to older speakers. Of like as a sentence filler, he remarks that “Overuse will cause listeners outside the speaker’s immediate social circle, wider social group or age cohort to ignore the content of the message, to assume that the speaker is little short of brain-dead, or, in extreme cases, to wish they had a discreet firearm to hand.”
His advice makes clear the dangers for the inexperienced writer that lie behind many innocent-looking words and phrases. But the new Fowler is worth consulting even by writers who think they know the language well. Butterfield has created a guide that is readable for entertainment as well as enlightenment.
[Jeremy Butterfield, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition, published March 2015 (UK and Australia), April 2015 (Canada), June 2015 (US); ISBN 9780199661350; list prices £25.00 (UK), $39.95 (US), $52.50 (Canada) $50.95 (Australia).]
Q. I’m a fan of the Andy Capp comic and one weird word keeps appearing that apparently means “broke” or “without funds”: skint. Can you tell me anything about it? [Bill Waggoner]
A. This is a very well-known, originally British English slang term that’s also known throughout the Commonwealth, though to a lesser extent (I think) in Canada. It’s fairly rare in the US, though not unknown: knowledge of it there is probably thanks to Andy Capp.
The meaning is the one you give, illustrated by this sentence from The Sun of 16 Apr. 2015: “Hayley doesn’t care that she is skint, she is going to use loans to redecorate.” It can also sometimes refer to lacking some necessity other than money.
It can be traced back in that spelling and pronunciation to the early years of the twentieth century as a variant of skinned. To be skinned or skinned out was to be deprived of all your money by gambling, frequently of the rigged sort.
Henry Mayhew noted in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861 that sailors often suffered being skinned, which he said was being “stripped of his clothes and money from being hocussed, or tempted to helpless drunkenness” (to hocuss was to cheat a man by drugging his drink; it’s a variation of an obsolete eighteenth-century noun hocus, trickery or deception, from the magician’s magic formula hocus-pocus ; hoax is from the same source).
To skin was by then almost half a century old in the gambling sense and is known from the middle of the previous century for thieving goods. Skinned in the penniless sense survived into the first decades of the twentieth century alongside skint but was gradually ousted by it.
British English also has a related term for being without money: boracic, often said like brassic. This is rhyming slang, from boracic lint, a once common type of surgical dressing.
I understand that he’s now all but skint, totally boracic, with the arse nearly out of his trousers.
Americans once knew skinning in the related sense of cheating in exams and, often in the form skin out, for absconding or running away; it has also been a dialect or regional form of the past participle of skin in various senses.
A typing error provided the first of this week’s easy targets for satire. Tom Knight learned from the Independent of 10 April that a feuding billionaire had been “forced to flea the Bahamas”.
A statement of the bleeding obvious came in a cautious headline on the News 24 site of South Africa, seen by Rob Bernstein: “Foul play suspected after Marikana cop stabbed to death.”
Neil Houston was at first excited by a glossy Australian magazine advert for Crystal Cruises but the next sentence dampened his excitement: “Embark on an immersive odyssey … .”
It was 1 April but Cambridgeshire Constabulary weren’t joking when they posted on Facebook that “Throughout April we are running a campaign to promote motorcycle safety and enforce poor riding and driving.” Thanks go to Mark Swingler for that.
“Post-death weight loss”, was Claire Loughheed’s comment on a sentence from Dr Joseph Mercola’s site: “This type of workout tends to burn far more calories than others — thanks to the calories you burn after your heart stops pumping.”
“British electoral politics are weird” was Pattie Tancred’s comment on seeing this in The Times on 11 April about Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party: “They fell in love when Ed bandaged her hand after a doberman bit it while leafleting.” Some dogs are so clever.