World Wide Words
from Michael Quinion
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Vigintillion. Following my piece on this and other words for big numbers, all ending in -illion, Steven Burkeman wrote, “Your piece calls to mind the (sadly, probably apocryphal) story about President George W Bush who, on being told by Donald Rumsfeld that three Brazilian soldiers had been killed in Iraq, looked shocked and close to collapse, then pulled himself round, and nervously asked ‘How many millions in a brazillion?’”
Richard Friedberg noted that in discussions of computer storage capacity the terms for big numbers don’t stop with the yotta- prefix (10 24). Some sites list xenottabyte (1027), shilentnobyte (1030), domegemegrottebyte (10 33), icosebyte (10 36) and monicosebyte (10 39) as continuations of the established set. I can’t find out who invented these, nor anything about their etymology. They appear rarely, either in lists of numbers big enough to boggle the mind or as indications of numbers that are likely to be needed if data storage continues to increase at its current rate. All appearances are within the past six years, though one source claims to have obtained it from a 1996 webpage.
My school maths teacher would be saddened to see me describe vigintillion as 10 followed by 120 zeros (10120). It should of course be 1 followed by 120 zeros. Similarly for all other numbers expressed as powers of 10. Thanks to all the numerate readers who pointed that out.
Many readers told me, following my snippet about this term used by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that it is well known to them, but most often for a standard method of storing documents in a filing cabinet. However, Pete Jones wrote, “I was a European Commission official from 1974 to 2005 and can assure you that vertical filing as a euphemism for binning something was in use then. Boris Johnson’s dad worked at the Commission for a while, so might have passed the expression on.” Anneli Kavald and several other readers suggested: “One possible source is that it’s a word-by-word translation of the French classement vertical , meaning to put something directly in the dustbin.” I had asked Boris Johnson about his usage when writing the original piece; a reply eventually came from his executive assistant, who said that the mayor meant “the report won’t be acted upon and will languish on some dusty shelf for years to come”.
Some who wrote mentioned that the wastepaper basket was known to them as the round file or the circular file and others that dropping a document in it was filing it in bin 13. Why 13? Was it superstition that led to its use?
Hingle. Tony Long, who mentioned his foster father had been a professional poacher, commented, “To us in East Sussex, a hingle was a snare that lifted the victim out of the reach of passing stoats and foxes. Some locals used it for any kind of trap involving a trigger. None of us would have called an ordinary loop-prop-and-peg snare a hingle. This seems to fit with the ‘hinge’ link quite well.”
A newspaper report in July 2015 about the reopening of long abandoned and forgotten Second World War tunnels in the white cliffs of Dover mentioned the latrinalia that had been found there.
We may correctly surmise that the word is linked to latrine. The -alia suffix indicates a collection, often implying triviality — a good example is marginalia and latrinalia was presumably created by analogy with it. Latrinalia is graffiti on lavatory walls.
Latrine is from Latin. The Romans have bequeathed us much scatological or bawdy text on lavatory or brothel walls. Many have been recorded in Pompeii and Herculaneum, preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 that buried the towns in ash. Most are too rude for this column but this one is in the Casa della Gemma (the House of the Gem) in Herculaneum: “Apollinaris, medicus Titi Imperatoris hic cacavit bene.” (“Apollinaris, doctor to the emperor Titus, had a good crap here.”)
Despite their seeming fondness for graffiti, I’m told the Romans didn’t have a specific word for writings on walls, but called them just writings, sometimes trivial or offensive writings (Latin taedia; we get tedium from the same source, though in classical Latin taedium could also mean an object of loathing or disgust).
So latrinalia is modern. It was coined by the late Alan Dundes, a pioneering academic folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote — among much else — about the homosexual symbolism of American football, the Bible as folklore and the social significance of jokes. He showed that folklore isn’t found only in ancient ritual, fables and superstitions but in contemporary cartoons, poems and lore such as urban legends.
Dundas coined latrinalia in his 1966 paper Here I Sit — A Study of American Latrinalia. Archaeologists and folklorists use it for this subset of graffiti, though the general public hardly knows it.
How are you saying that?
Widespread broadcast coverage of the flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft led to criticism of the pronunciation of the name of the planet’s largest and innermost moon, Charon. Officially, it’s from Greek mythology, the name of the ferryman who conveyed the souls of the departed across the river Styx into the underworld, whose god, Hades, was often euphemistically called Pluto, the rich one (hence plutocracy) because of all the good stuff that comes from the earth. So Charon ought to have an initial k sound, as the dictionaries firmly say. But some astronomers pronounce it with an initial sh.
The reason lies in the story behind its naming by the American astronomer James Christy, who discovered the moon in 1978. He suggested modifying his wife’s name, Charlene, by adding -on to its first element to match the names of elementary particles like proton and meson. Hence, Charon. He wasn’t well up on Greek mythology and was surprised and pleased to find that it fitted neatly. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), arbiter of celestial nomenclature, preferred the Greek mythological origin to the personal one and so implied the word should have an initial k sound. But many American astronomers, those in the New Horizon team especially, know where the name really came from and say it with initial sh as an in-joke, to the annoyance of classically aware listeners unaware of the story.
Pluto has five known moons, the others being Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Nix is also spelled Nyx, the Greek goddess of the night, the mother of Charon. Hydra is the nine-headed monster slain by Hercules, the nine referring to Pluto being the ninth planet in the solar system. A related beast guarded the entrance to the underworld, the three-headed watchdog whose name is spelled in English as Cerberus and said with an initial s. In that spelling, it came second in a public poll in 2013 to name the moons. But the IAU prefers the classical Kerberos so it’s always pronounced with an initial k.
Reports in British newspapers these past few days have featured the menace from seagulls, particularly in Cornwall. Earlier this month a dog was killed by a seagull in that county and a tortoise died after being flipped over and pecked to death. The birds are brazen in grabbing food from visitors and in doing so have caused injuries. Young people have taken advantage by inventing a game called gull running. It’s said to have started in Whitby but has since spread to other seaside towns. One person holds food above their head — usually fish and chips — and runs a set course. The winner is whoever can run the furthest without a seagull grabbing the food.
One correspondent to my newspaper was less concerned about the physical injuries the birds can cause than about the purity of language. There are no such things as seagulls, he argued. In the UK there are herring, great black-backed, lesser black-backed, black-headed and common gulls and the kittiwake, but something called a seagull doesn’t exist. A touch pedantic, perhaps? We may be sure it won’t change his view to be told that English has had seagull as a popular collective term since medieval times.
Q. From Rob Nachum: I am in lexicological heaven for having found your site. Thank you. For random curiosity, I clicked on smithereens. Within the piece is a quote from an Irish Catholic signed as “True Blue”. As an Australian, true blue is equivalent to dinkum or dinky di , meaning honest or genuine. But would it be a stretch to hypothesise that your quoted “True Blue” refers to an Irish-Catholic symbolism that was transported literally and figuratively to Australia by the convicts in the late 1700s to early 1800s? Is to be true blue Australian nothing more than a convict Catholic-Irish relic?
A. There are connections between the two usages, but Australian English has much modified the usual British English sense. In Britain (as it has for the past two centuries), the term means a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party, a person of right-wing views. In Canada, it also suggests conservative opinions. In Australia, however, it instead became associated with the working class and the Labor Party and has developed from there.
The link is loyalty.
In medieval Europe blue was the colour of faithfulness or constancy, whose opposite was green. A poem of about 1450, Against Women Unconstant — some claim it was written by Geoffrey Chaucer — criticises an unsteadfast woman for being like a weathercock, that turns its face with every wind; it says, “In stede of blew, thus may ye were al greene.”
True blue starts to be recorded in the 1630s. The story used to be told that the city of Coventry in the English midlands was famous for dyeing a blue that would neither change colour nor fade in washing, and that true blue was coined to indicate a person who would likewise never alter their principles nor their allegiances. We may prefer to think that Coventry had nothing to do with the matter but that true blue was simply an almost inevitable rhyming extension whose meaning was based on the ancient associations of the colour. A proverb, first recorded around 1630, “True blue will never stain”, embodied the ideal of constancy in the figurative stain but that may have been prompted by the blue aprons traditionally worn by butchers in order not to show bloodstains.
Blue began to be associated with politics in Scotland in the seventeenth century through Scottish Presbyterians who formed the Whig party, notably to oppose Charles II being succeeded by his brother James in 1688. Their equivalents in England were the Tories, originally a term for dispossessed Irish people who became outlaws but which became a nickname for English conservatives in the following century (and, of course, is still much used). The 1810 quotation you mention places it in this context.
In Australia, the first meaning was the British one — many letters to newspapers in the nineteenth century advocating conservative views are signed True Blue. (The term was used later in the century for abstainers who joined temperance organisations.) Near the end of the century, it began to be applied to striking workers who were loyal to their comrades and steadfast in resistance. The Advertiser of Adelaide, reporting on 29 September 1890 about a strike of sheep shearers in New South Wales, quoted a telegram sent to the Shearers’ Union: “The men are true blue, and will rather be imprisoned than yield.”
The working-class associations remain (and occur also in blue-collar from the US with a different origin) but from early in the twentieth century true blue, especially in true blue Australian and true-blue Aussie, came also to refer to a quintessential Australian, straightforward, loyal and supportive of his mates.
These phrases are so widely known that they have become clichés. They’ve been shortened again to true-blue in the same sense as the originals for something characteristically Australian (“Christmas in Australia: Howzat for a true-blue celebration”, headlined The Australian in December 2014). It has also borrowed a sense from another attribute of a classical Australian — a genuine person or thing (just like dinkum, explicitly equated here in the same newspaper in May 2015: “There’s plenty of support for the true blue, fair dinkum idea”.)
American readers will be poised to tell me that true blue is common in their country, too. It describes a committed supporter of some cause or a loyal fan. In the political sense it’s often applied to the Democrats but a person can also be a true-blue Republican, loyalty being more significant than conventional party colours.
My daily newspaper doesn’t often feature naked bodies — it’s not that kind of journal — so on opening it a few days ago I was mildly surprised to be faced, if that’s the right word, with a large photo of a naked guy’s bottom.
The male in the pic had been snapped while protesting against a ban on nudity in San Francisco in 2013. But the text alongside was a review of Mark Haskell Smith’s new book, Naked at Lunch: The Adventures of a Reluctant Nudist, in which he investigates non-sexual social nudism, as he is careful to describe it.
The most striking part of the review, ignoring the cheeky pic, were the words nakation and nakationing, both new to Brits. In context, it was obvious the words were an amalgamation of naked and vacation. That had to make it an American word; despite the increasing popularity of staycation in the UK, vacation is not the usual term for a break from work. We take holidays. (A uniregional version might help transatlantic communication. Anyone up for trying holication? We may reject vacaday as being silly.)
Nakation hasn’t achieved even the same small popularity as staycation, though it pops up from time to time. It seems to have appeared first in the Washington Post in February 2008. A piece about words for holidays cited a press release from the American Association for Nude Recreation (newsletter The Undressed Press). Their website attaches an R in a circle for a registered trademark to it wherever it appears, so presumably they invented it, though if they were hoping for big things from it they’ve been disappointed.
I also learn from the site that I’ve missed this year’s World Naked Gardening Day. Not in my rose garden, thank you.
A contributor to another language mailing list mentioned an announcement from Subaru about the failure of a device designed to stop the car if a frontal collision was imminent. In the light of this defect, Subaru wrote, the driver will now have to “manually apply the brake pedal”. Did this mean, the contributor asked, that manually can now also mean performed by the foot?
What was surely in the contributor’s mind was that manual and manually ultimately derive from Latin manus, hand. But as almost always there’s more to it than an argument from etymology.
As it happens, classical Latin seems not to have had a specific word for doing something by hand. The direct ancestor of our manual is Latin manuālis, something held in the hand or of a size to fill the hand. The ideas of “worked by hand” and “working with his hands” come into English a thousand years ago via Anglo-Norman French, in which manuel meant doing something with the hands but particularly physical labour rather than mental activity.
This distinction remains fundamental. As manual labour necessarily involved the hands through wielding tools, this allowed the ancient link with the source of the word to remain at the back of the mind.
The development of self-executing machinery in the past hundred years or so has led to a new sense for manually — we now contrast it with automatically. We meet this most often as a choice between automatic or manual gearboxes in cars but from as early as the late nineteenth century telephone exchanges could be automatic or manual. These days, computers often do jobs without requiring human intervention, so a sentence from What Personal Computer in 1991 makes sense: “The computer-generated statement of accounts couldn’t be used, and had to be recalculated manually.”
Conflict between this new sense and the traditional one does sometimes lead to odd phrasings. A 1942 issue of Diesel Power magazine, found by American researcher Garson O’Toole, reported: “Auto-Lite Two-Step Starting Motors are available in both manual (foot-pedal operated) and automatic (push button operated) types.” The Oakland Tribute of California noted in 1960 that “The surrey was originally operated manually by pedals.”
However, such confusions are rare (otherwise I suspect pedally would be much more often encountered) and because writers are thankfully well aware of the underlying incongruity.
- Last Sunday was the hundredth anniversary of the death of Dr James A H Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, a centenary that has gone almost unmarked, alas. Peter Gilliver wrote about the career of this extraordinary man two years ago.
- David Bagwell tells us about a wonderful collection of maps showing where and how people swear in the US, based on the analysis of a vast compendium of geotagged Twitter messages. The maps are the result of research by Jack Grieve of Aston University in the UK and are hosted on Stan Carey’s blog Strong Language. Not for the easily offended!
- No swearing in Oxford Dictionaries four quizzes, How Good is Your British English and equivalents for Canadian, American and Australian Englishes. Once you’ve tried one or two, have a go at your own variety of the language to see if you agree with its compilers.
A message came from Ron Miller in Cupertino, California, telling us that the title of a recent lecture in his local public library was “Replace Your Lawn With Stephanie Morris.”
Paul Kuppinger reports that he found this sentence in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of 11 July about the poet Adelaide Crapsey: “She never did quite receive national fame or poetic immorality.” It has, understandably, now been corrected.
“I wonder if he used one of those circus cannons?” was Loren Myer’s comment on a headline in the Orlando Sentinel of Florida on 20 July: “Apopka man accused of shooting stepdaughter’s teen boyfriend out of jail.”
Thanks to Michael Harvey for telling us about an Australian zombie sighting in the Sydney Morning Herald of 16 July: “Teens found the woman’s body walking on north shore.”
The image of a hysterical currency came to mind on reading a BBC News item of 11 July, seen by Jeremy Evans: “EU President Donald Tusk said [the meeting] would be a ‘last chance’ for Greece to secure a deal and avoid exciting the euro.”
The Guardian hasn’t yet corrected an error in a report of 5 July about the Greek financial crisis, spotted by Dennis Felmlee: “There was evidence that large expatriates were coming back for the referendum and that most leaned towards voting yes.”