World Wide Words Issue 930 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 930

letter-to-editor

It was a pleasure to learn on Tuesday that Randy Cassingham, who writes the This Is True newsletter, had included World Wide Words in his Top 11 Hidden Gems of the Internet suggested by his subscribers. He described the site as “a treasure trove of past articles: the kind of site where you pop in … and don’t look up again for hours.” Check out the others here: http://wwwords.org/hdngms. A special welcome to the new subscribers who joined through consulting the list.

Fizgig

Today — 5 November — is one of those periodic celebrations of failure we Brits so much enjoy, in this case the inability of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament on this day in 1605. For the four centuries since, the day has been celebrated with fireworks and bonfires.

Image result for fizgigOne such firework was the fizgig, an unspectacular device that hissed rather than banged, for which reason it has also been called a serpent; a conical form has the name volcano. A English poet once compared a man to one:

Northmore himself is an honest, vehement sort of a fellow who splutters out all his opinions like a fiz-gig, made of gunpowder not thoroughly dry, sudden and explosive, yet ever with a certain adhesive blubberliness of elocution.
Letter from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Thomas Poole, 16 Sep. 1799.

Fizgig in the sense of the firework is now quite dead, as are most of the other senses that this weirdly Image result for ficklecatholic word has had. The original was a frivolous woman, fond of gadding about in search of pleasure — an alliterative-minded seventeenth-century man wrote of “Fis-gig, a flirt, a fickle …. foolish Female”. The word was built upon gig, another word that has had many meanings; Chaucer knew it as a fickle woman but Shakespeare considered it to be a child’s top. The first part of fizgig is obscure. It can’t be fizz, effervescence, because that came along much later, probably as an imitative sound. It may be the same word as the obsolete fise for a smelly fart.

Another defunct meaning of fizgig is that of a harpoon, a fish-spear:

Two dolphins followed us this afternoon; we hooked one, and struck the other with the fizgig; but they both escaped us, and we saw them no more.
Journal of a Voyage from London to Philadelphia, by Benjamin Franklin, 1726.

This was sometimes perverted into fish-gig by popular etymology. It has no link with the other senses but derives from the Spanish word fisga for a harpoon.

Image result for stool pigeonFizgig principally survives in Australian slang, where it means a police informer. It turns up first in the 1870s, perhaps as an extension of the female sense, considered stereotypically as dashing about madly and gossiping indiscreetly:

Without their allies — “the fizgigs,” the police seem powerless to trace the authors of the robberies which are now of such frequent occurrence.
Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA), 15 Nov. 1882.

Lots of letters

Spin a yarn

Q From From Ada Robinson: I came across the phrase spinning a yarn (in the sense of telling a story) recently, and for the first time wondered about its origin. Can you shed light on how the word yarn acquired the second meaning of a tale?

A It’s puzzling because we’ve lost the context.

We know that sailors were the first to use spinning a yarn — often in the extended form spinning out a long yarn — to refer to telling a story that described a speaker’s adventures and exploits.

We start to see the expressions in print in the early nineteenth century, though its ultimate origin is unclear. However, we do know that one task of sailors was to make running repairs to the various ropes of the ship — the cables, hawsers and rigging. As with people on shore, yarn was their word for the individualImage result for spinning gif strands of such ropes, often very long. Their term for binding the strands into fresh rope was spinning or to spin out. The next part is a jump of imagination, for which you may substitute the word guess, though I would prefer to call it informed speculation. The task of repair was necessarily long and tedious. We may easily imagine members of the repair crew telling one another stories to make the time pass more easily and that this practice became associated with the phrases.

By the second decade of the century, the term was being used ashore and became a popular slangy idiom. One appearance was in a jocular report of a police court action in Edinburgh which centred on a sailor who had stolen a milk cart:

When the first witness was put in the box, and had his mouth most oracularly opened, preparing to speak, Jack, twitching him by the collar with his forefinger, caused him at once to descend, and exclaimed — “Avast there; none of your jaw; who wants you to spin out a long yarn?”
The Edinburgh Advertiser, 17 Nov. 1826.

Image result for a yarn

In time, yarn came to refer to the stories. Many must have been exaggerated or bombastic and that sense of something not readily believable still attaches itself to the word. In Australia and New Zealand the word has softened in sense to mean no more than chatting.

Chalazion

Peter Gilliver, the eminent lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary whose book I mentioned last time, quoted this word in an interview a couple of weeks ago. He said he had found it when a youngster in a children’s dictionary that was full of such unusual words.

I made the mistake of looking for it in Google Books, where I found several works which explained it in Image result for styeterms such as “a common lipogranulomatous inflammation of the sebaceous glands of the eyelids, most often the meibomian glands.” Some works also noted that it’s sometimes known as a hordeolum. In confusion, I visited Dr Gilliver’s wonderful online repository of knowledge, in which chalazion is defined as “a small pimple or tubercule; especially one on the eyelid, a stye.”

Chalazion is the diminutive of Greek chalaza for almost any lump, including a small hailstone and a pimple. The OED helpfully pointed me to its entry for chalaza, which stated that in English it’s a zoological term for “Each of the two membranous twisted strings by which the yolk-bag of an egg is bound to the lining membrane at the ends of the shell.”

The meibomian glands make a lubricant for the eye. Their name isn’t from a classical language but derives from a seventeenth-century German anatomist named Heinrich Meibom. And hordeolum derives from the Latin word for barley grains

The plural of chalazion, should you ever suffer from more than one, is chalazia.

In the news

Words of 2016. The annual lexicographical wordfest began on Thursday with a list of topical terms from Collins Dictionary. Its choice for Word of the Year was Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union. The words-of-the-year-001term went from nowhere to established part of the language in an extraordinarily brief time. The earliest recorded use may have been the one in The Guardian on 1 January 2012 but it became widely used by the general public only in the early months of this year. The publisher suggests it “is arguably politics’ most important contribution to the English language in over 40 years”. It has spawned many spin-offs, including Bremorse for the regret by people who voted to leave but realise they made a mistake and would like to Bremain or Breturn. Other words in the Collins topical list are hygge, a suddenly fashionable and much written about Danish concept of creating cosy and convivial atmospheres that promote wellbeing, and uberization, derived from the name of the taxi firm Uber, for the adoption of a business model in which services are offered on demand through direct contact between a customer and supplier, usually via mobile technology.

Fount of fonts. Subscriber Bart Cannistra came across a news item about a new pan-language collection of fonts from Google and Monotype that supports more than 100 scripts and 800 languages in a common visual style. Its name is Noto, which its website says is short for “no more tofu”. It explains that tofu is digital typographer’s jargon for one of those little rectangular boxes that appear when your browser doesn’t have the appropriate font to display a character. The boxes sometimes have a question mark or cross inside them but it’s their rectangular shape that has given them the name, since they reminded some unheralded type designer of the cuboid blocks of tofu.

Not that kind of girl. Readers outside the UK are most likely unfamiliar with the term Essex Girl, Image result for essex girlwhich Collins Dictionary defines as “a young working-class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous.” It’s in the news because two Essex women have begun a petition to have the term stricken from dictionaries because they’ve had enough of derogatory references. They have been criticised for starting the petition because it only leads to more public mention of the term. The term came to public attention in 1991 with the publication of The Essex Girl Joke Book (typical example: “How does an Essex Girl turn on the light after sex? She opens the car door”), but the stereotype is best known through the long-running ITV programme The Only Way is Essex. The OED has already refused to remove the term, on the excellent grounds that it’s part of our living language.

Lots of letters

What am I? Chopped liver?

Q From Mary Clarke: Your piece on Joe Soap made me think of the phrase What am I? Chopped liver? Is this a New York expression or a Jewish expression? I ask this because we seem to eat more chopped liver here than anywhere else and because one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from a friend who said my chopped liver was better than her Jewish grandmother’s.

A This takes me back. In November 1999, when this newsletter had already reached issue 167, I mentioned that a reader had asked about this but as it was unfamiliar to me, I asked for elucidation. The resulting flood of emails was overwhelming. Though I summarised the results the following week, I realise now that I never went into detail, nor posted anything on my website.

Image result for chopped liverA dish of chopped liver — fried chicken livers with eggs, spices and, if you’re being really traditional, schmaltz and gribenes (respectively rendered chicken fat and fried chicken skin as a form of crackling) — is common at Jewish celebratory meals. It’s also a standard dish in New York Jewish delicatessens. But it’s inexpensive and never a main dish, wherein lies the core of the idiom. Sol Steinmetz, the American linguist and Yiddish expert, explained that “Chopped liver is merely an appetizer or side dish, not as important as chicken soup or gefilte fish. Hence it was used among Jewish comedians as a humorous metaphor for something or someone insignificant.” Robert Chapman argued in his Dictionary of American Slang that the idiom originated in the 1930s in this sense.

Early in its development a negative reference to chopped liver developed, which instead suggested something excellent or impressive. It parallels another American idiom, that ain’t hay. The idiom appeared in various forms, such as it ain’t chopped liver, that’s not chopped liver, and it’s not exactly chopped liver. The first of these forms is noted by Jonathan Lighter in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang from a Jimmy Durante television show in 1954. It must surely be older. This is another version, from a little later:

Some of the critics put it right up there with “My Fair Lady.” Even before it lifts the curtain there is a Image result for chopped livermillion dollars in advance orders and this as the boys say is not chopped liver …
The Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), 8 Mar 1959.

The form that you mention appears in the historical record a few years later still. Somebody exclaiming What am I? Chopped liver? is expressing annoyance at being thought unworthy of attention: “What about me? Why am I being ignored? Don’t I matter?”

It could be New York Jewish. It has the right cadence for a Yiddish exclamation and chopped liver, as we’ve seen, is an archetypal Jewish dish. And the experts suggest it grew out of a catchphrase of comedians in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains patronised by Jewish people from New York City. But there’s no certain connection. What is clear that it filled a need and that even by its earliest written appearances it had already reached places well away from centres of Jewish life.

Happy as a sandboy

Image result for sandboy

Q From Niki Wessels, South Africa; a related question came from Robert Metcalf in Singapore: Our family recently discussed the expression happy as a sandboy, and wondered where and how it originated. My dictionary informs me that a sandboy is a kind of flea — but why a boy, and why is it happy?

A Let me add an explanatory note to your question, as many readers will never have heard this saying. It’s a proverbial expression that suggests blissful contentment:

Made me think it might be a good idea to mark the occasion. Nothing too big, you understand. Not looking for fireworks and flags or anything. I’m a modest man with modest needs. Give me a bit of cake, maybe some tarts, throw in a couple of balloons and I’m happy as a sandboy.
Bristol Evening Post, 11 Aug. 2015.

It’s mostly known in Britain and Commonwealth countries. An older form is as jolly as a sandboy, which is now rarely encountered. The first examples we know about are from London around the start of the nineteenth century.

A sandboy in some countries can indeed be a sort of sand flea, but this isn’t the source of the expression. Incidentally, nor is there a link with the sandman, the personification of tiredness, which came into English in translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories several decades after sandboy.

The sandboys of the expression actually sold sand. Boy here was a common term for a male worker of lower class (as in bellboy, cowboy, and stableboy), which comes from an old sense of a servant. It doesn’t imply the sellers were young — most were certainly adults — though one early poetic reference does mention a child:

A poor shoeless Urchin, half starv’d and suntann’d,Image result for sandboy
Pass’d near the Inn-Window, crying — “Buy my fine Sand!”
The Rider, and Sand-Boy in the Hereford Journal, 13 Jul. 1796. The title contains the earliest known reference to a sandboy. The poem was unattributed but is almost certainly by William Meyler of Bath. Note that to be described as suntanned wasn’t then a compliment; it implied an outdoor worker of low class.

The selling of sand wasn’t such a peculiar occupation as you might think, as there was once a substantial need for it. It was used to scour pans and tools and was sprinkled on the floors of butchers’ shops, inns and taprooms to take up spilled liquids. Later in the century it was superseded by sawdust.

Henry Mayhew wrote about the trade in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. The sand was dug out from pits on Hampstead Heath and taken down in horse-drawn carts or panniers carried on donkeys to be hawked through the streets. The job was hard work and badly paid. Mayhew records these comments from one of the excavators: “My men work very hard for their money, sir; they are up at 3 o’clock of the morning, and are knocking about the streets, perhaps till 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening”.

Their prime characteristic, it seems, was an inexhaustible desire for beer. Charles Dickens referred to thesandboy saying, by then proverbial, in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841: “The Jolly Sandboys was a small road-side inn of pretty ancient date, with a sign, representing three Sandboys increasing their jollity with as many jugs of ale”. An early writer on slang made the link explicit:

“As jolly as a sand-boy,” designates a merry fellow who has tasted a drop.
Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-tom, and the Varieties of Life, by John Badcock, 1823. To have become an aphorism by this time, sandboy must surely be older than the 1796 poem quoted above.

Quite so. But I suspect that the long hours and hard work involved in carrying and shovelling sand, plus the poor returns, meant that sandboys didn’t have much cause to look happy in the normal run of things, improving only when they’d had a pint or two. Their regular visits to inns and ale-houses presented temptation to a much greater degree than to most people and it has also been suggested that they were often paid partly in beer.

So sandboys were happy because they were drunk.

At first the saying was meant ironically. Only where the trade wasn’t practised — or had died out — could it became an allusion to unalloyed happiness. To judge from the answers to a question about its origin in Notes & Queries in 1866, even by then its origin was obscure.

SIC

• A headline on the Hertfordshire Mercury site on 14 October — “Tributes paid to Waltham Cross Labour councillor who was a ‘real character’ following his death” — led Ross Mulder to wonder what the man was like during his life.

• If you’re going to do something, do it properly. Ted Dooley found this news in an email from the Minneapolis Star Tribune on 7 October: “Ryan D. Petersen, 37, was convicted Friday morning of first-degree premeditated murder for fatally shooting a law clerk eight times earlier this year.”

• A puzzling statement from The Age of Melbourne of 10 October about the illegal demolition of a heritage-listed pub was submitted by Susan Ross: “A petition law students started this week demanding the pub be rebuilt by Tuesday afternoon had more than 5000 signatures.” A comma after “rebuilt” might have helped.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 1996-2016.


World Wide Words Issue 930

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World Wide Words Issue 928 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 928

WIF Etymology-001

Nimrod

Words-001Q From Barbara Murray, Wisconsin: Oxford Dictionaries online defines nimrod in UK English as a “skilful hunter” and, across the pond where I reside, as an “inept person”. Can you explain these more or less opposite meanings?

A Let’s start, as all good stories should, at the beginning. In the Bible, Nimrod was said toImage result for nimrod be the great-grandson of Noah. Genesis reports “And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”

From the seventeenth century, Nimrod was conventionally used in literature on both sides of the Atlantic as the personification of a hunter, an eponym:

In front of him is the sporting Earl of Sefton, and that highly-esteemed son of Nimrod, Colonel Hilton Joliffe,— men of the strictest probity, and hence often appointed referees on matters in dispute.
The English Spy, by Bernard Blackmantle, 1825.

He was a complete Nimrod, now almost worn out.
The Adventures of Daniel Boone, by “Uncle Philip”, 1843.

In the UK, the name stayed largely a literary reference but even in that context it is now extremely rare. Several Royal Navy ships down the years have borne the name, as has a class of submarine-hunter aircraft.

Nimrod

But we probably know it mostly as a piece of music much used on solemn state occasions. For geographical and social reasons it has never become a popular term in daily life for a hunter. When it did appear, it usually meant a rider to hounds:

The weather in the past few days has been so open, that the whole Nimrod school have had a fine run of enjoyment this season, except in cases where foxes are somewhat scarce.
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 27 Jan. 1855.

In the US, with its longstanding and widespread tradition of hunting, much greater opportunities existed to describe individuals as Nimrods. It appears in sources such as newspapers from about the middle of the nineteenth century. At one time in the US it was also a moderately common given name in communities that went to the Bible for inspiration.

Early on, references were neutral in their implications, simply a figurative way to describe a person who hunted. Occasional descents into derision were prompted by a person falling short of competence, as in this tale about a group of young people out for a day’s sport:

Zindel was the mighty hunter of the crowd and after expostulations of his nimrod abilities the others watched him walk into a flock of a hundred quails and snap both triggers of his gun upon empty chambers.
Fort Madison Weekly Democrat (Fort Madison, Iowa), 11 Jan. 1911.

Note that Nimrod here has lost his initial capital letter, sure evidence that the word was losing its mental links with an historical personage. This is the way that eponyms evolve — we no longer capitalise wellington, cardigan, pasteurise, diesel, silhouette, boycott or dozens of others of the same type.

From the 1930s onwards we see an increasing tendency for nimrod to be used much more in a disparaging or sarcastic way for a hunter with limited skills. Bugs Bunny, you may recall, referred to hunter Elmer Fudd as “poor little Nimrod”.

Over time, nimrod shifted still further towards meaning a damn fool who shot at anything that moved and even things that didn’t. By the 1960s, this transition was pretty much complete:

In Wisconsin, as I was driving through, a hunter shot his own guide between the shoulder blades. The coroner questioning this nimrod asked, “Did you think he was a deer?”
Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck, 1962.

and was being applied in particular to people who shot up road signs for fun:

Martin estimated that nimrod sign destruction in Kansas costs taxpayers more than $1 million a year.
Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City, Kansas), 9 Jan. 1960.

The next stage seems to have been largely catalysed by students in the 1980s and 1990s, for whom nimrod had lost its associations with hunting but retained those of a contemptible or inept person. By the turn of the new century, that sense had become the dominant one:

When you’re followed, you can’t know if it’s an experienced expert or some bloody nimrod who can’t find his way to the loo.
Red Rabbit, by Tom Clancy, 2002.

Words-001Isabelline

Pronounced /ɪzəˈbɛlɪn/

Isabelline refers to a colour. The dictionaries variously describe it as greyish-yellow, light buff, pale cream-brown, dingy yellowish grey or drab. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary tries hardest to tie it down: “a moderate yellowish brown to light olive brown that is lighter and stronger than clay drab or medal bronze”. It has also been described as the colour of parchment or sand.

The female name Isabella can similarly refer to the colour. Its first appearance in English is in an inventory of the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth I in 1600: “one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten … set with silver bangles”. Versions of it are known in various European languages from about the same date, including French, German, Spanish and Italian, usually for the colour of a horse.

Image result for Isabella Archduchess of Austria

Archduchess Isabella of Austria with her husband, Prince Georg of Bavaria, c. 1918.

The origin is unclear. That has led to stories growing up that associate Isabella (and by implication isabelline) with an historical event involving a noble lady by that name. One identifies her as Isabella, Archduchess of Austria, daughter of Philip II of Spain. He laid siege to Ostend in 1601 and in a moment of filial fervour Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. Unfortunately for her (and no doubt for those around her) the siege lasted another three years, supposedly leading to this off-colour word for over-worn underwear. Other European nations have a similar story, though they apply it instead to the siege of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille in 1491.

Isabelline is comparatively recent, appearing from about 1840 in descriptions by zoologists of a wide variety of species of bats, fungi, fish and mammals, but mainly birds, such as the isabelline wheatear and the isabelline shrike. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both used it, as did other writers of the nineteenth century:

Image result for isabelline

Isaballine Shrike

To begin with, all the smaller denizens of the desert — whether butterflies, beetles, birds, or lizards — must be quite uniformly isabelline or sand-coloured.
Falling in Love; With Other Essays on More Exact Branches of Science, by Grant Allen, 1889.

It’s a specialist word of natural history writing and it’s rare to find it elsewhere other than occasionally as the horse colour.

Most experts say the proper name is the source, though nobody can explain how it came about. Some writers in French and Spanish say instead that it derives instead from an Arabic word, given either as izah or hizah, referring specifically to the colour of a lion’s pelt. However, there seems to be no such word in Arabic and we must disregard the suggestion.

No soap

Words-001Q From Anthony Pennock: Why do we say no soap?

A I’m not sure that people do any more. From my vantage point in the UK, this classic Americanism appears to have largely died out, remembered and occasionally used only by older people.

A speaker usually means by it that there’s no chance of something happening or no hope of some outcome, that the enquirer is out of luck or more generally that some request is being denied.

When he called the Georgia senator to ask for his help on the defense reorganization bill, Russell replied, “No soap.”
The Sputnik Challenge, by Robert A. Divine, 1993.

For me, perhaps through reading too many old American crime novels, it brings to mind the 1930s and 1940s as a term of the underworld and hard-bitten detectives:

I dropped quietly on the running board and waited. No soap. Canino was too cagey.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, 1939.

The first examples of the idiom appear near the end of the First World War in letters home from Image result for no soapdraftees. The more literate of such letters were often reprinted in small-town newspapers to let readers know how their boys were doing. The ones which I’ve uncovered that mention no soap all came from recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. This is a late example:

Saturday came along and we all dressed up in our best, as that was our liberty day, when the Commander came in and said “No Soap” on liberty as we were in a draft. No one is allowed liberty when they are on a draft, afraid that someone would run away.
Versailles Republican (Versailles, Indiana), 3 Oct. 1918.

An article a few months later headlined “Demobilizing War Words” confirms that the expression was widespread within the US Navy:

A particularly pathetic case is that of the nautical term, “No soap!” I say “particularly pathetic” because I myself have found the phrase so much more satisfying than the more classical “nothing stirring!” which it has so amply replaced. “Nothing stirring” will find strong support among the purists, but half a million sailors and an equal number of sailors’ sweethearts are not going to surrender the new-found phrase without a fight.
Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 Feb. 1919.

Later evidence suggests that it did remain popular and met a need within a wider audience for a sharply colloquial dismissive saying.

Image result for soap bubbles

Soap film stretched over frame by Andrew Davidhazy

As with most slang expressions, where it comes from is uncertain. In the past, the experts have pointed to the much older use of soap to refer to money, a term that was first recorded in a slang dictionary in 1859 but which had a long run right down into the 1920s, overlapping with no soap. This overlap, I suspect, led etymologists to infer a connection between the two and it’s not implausible. It might well have been that a person who said “No soap!” meant something like “No, I haven’t any money” or “No, I won’t give you a loan”.

But other letters home from First World War navy recruits, coupled with newspaper articles from the period about naval slang, suggest a more mundane source. Recruits often complained they weren’t being supplied with soap, a need that was at times met by the Red Cross in the comfort kits they supplied. Soap was in short supply in the US at the time — as it was throughout Europe — because its raw materials of gelatine and fat were being diverted to make explosives. It seems likely that no soap, at first a rueful complaint, became for recruits a saying that meant — as early references confirmed — “you’re out of luck”. The slightly broader senses naturally followed.

World Wide Words is researched, written and published by Michael Quinion in the UK.


World Wide Words Issue 928

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Alpha Omega M.D. – Episode #36

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Alpha Omega M.D. – Episode #36

The orchestra is playing “The Band Played On”, Master Mister Smythwick…

But just when the hooch is taken off the front burner, on hops the inimitable Jefferson Smythwick. “I hear tell that your son is courting my daughter, Ferrell. Are his intentions to ask her hand in marriage?”         

Surely in these modern times, the contemporary world has passed the poor man by. His direct line of questioning, amidst a crowd of mixed company, surprises some, confounding the rest.

“We have had the privilege of meeting your charming daughter this very night, Mister Smythwick and I must say that our son James is quite taken by her charms. Marriage however, is not a logical option at this time.” John speaks for his drop-jawed spouse.

“Perchance I am not expressing myself properly.” He clears his throat and mind. “Marriage may be jumping the gun, but questioning his intentions in advance is not.”

“James aspires to be a lawyer,” Martha explains, “and additional family obligations would interfere with them.”        

“I know he wants to be one of those shyster lawyers. I just want to know that my Abigail will be taken care of if’n she turns up lookin’ like a rain barrel.”

All this acumen sprouts from one goblet of Grandma’s punch… with oodles of tact to boot.

There may as well been a skunk loose in the ballroom, for all the polite exits to points elsewhere.

“The orchestra is playing “The Band Played On”, Master Mister Smythwick,” a Freudian-slip before its time, “it is our prompt to begin the drawing for the name of the grand prize winner.” John is ad-libbing his way out of an uncomfortable occurrence. “We will see you later, perhaps to award you with that holiday in Puerto Rico,” a Spanish held island with more strife than you can cut with a knife.

  The old man scuffles off saying, “Why would I go where there are more savages than on my plantation.”

          To be in the same room, let alone within five feet of Jefferson Smythwick is first degree torture for the Loves. It is not hatred of the man, as it is severe distaste for what he stands for.

          “I find that man more repulsive every time I have to see him!” Harsh words from Phoebe Love, a Godly woman with a good and quiet spirit.


Alpha Omega M.D.

Shotgun Wedding

Episode #36


page 34

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Derogatory Nouns – WIF Grammar

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WIF Grammar 101-001

Collectively Offensive  Nouns

The English language is no stranger to phrases and words with curious origins. But have we ever sat and wondered why? There are collective nouns for almost everything. Some widely known, some not. Some accurate, some not. Some meaningful, and some downright offensive. For example, a Mayflower of Americans makes sense. So does a melody of harpers. But what about the bizarre ones?

Though the entries in the following list appear quite offensive to us, they were oddly appropriate and accurate in the Middle Ages and earlier. There’s a certain levity and whimsicality about the undermentioned collective nouns. Many are sarcastic in tone but do understand the fact that these were originally intended to educate the lords and ladies of the time. So, in order to not be offended, read them as though you were one of the snobbish aristocracy.

10. A Herd of Harlots

harlots

The word “harlot” comes from the Old French word, “arlot” or “herlot”, meaning vagabond. Soon, it became an uncomplimentary word for a prostitute. Though frowned upon, prostitution was an inevitable and excused social evil. Primarily an urban institution, it existed but was restricted. Brothels entertained men from all classes of society. Women who went into the profession did so out of economic circumstances, to make a living. Women, who could not make sufficient money through their chief profession, turned to prostitution for the extra income.

What more?

The Medieval sumptuary laws compelled prostitutes to dress in a manner befitting the profession. Often, they were made to wear a colored sash or striped hood to distinguish them from the respectable “gaggle”. They were referred to as a herd to mark their inferiority and show them their standing in the social hierarchy.

9. An Obedience of Servants

servants

This further illustrates the social hierarchy of the time. Servants, usually peasants, were usually employed in aristocratic households to cook, clean and run errands. They often had very demanding lives, overseeing the lives of the lords and ladies. The average upper-class households had around 100 to 200 servants. Each task had a servant assigned to it and there was a pecking order for the whole staff. Yes, very Downton Abbey-like.

What more?

Disobedience was dealt with harshly. Servants who broke rules or misbehaved were in for a pay cut or a lashing in more serious cases. Servants, who tried to escape from service, could be tried under law. Yes, very Kunta Kinte-Roots like.

8. A Superfluity of Nuns

nuns

During the middle ages, the number of nunneries increased greatly. Any woman, rich or poor, noble or peasant could become a nun. Soon, there were too many of them. So, one can understand why the people were tired looking at these nuns. They were everywhere and being a buzzkill to their daily, hedonistic lifestyle.

What more?

With time, people began to question the point of it all. With church reforms and the advent of Protestantism, people began to wonder if the monastery and the convent were now, well, superfluous!

7. An Abominable Sight of Monks

monks

This clearly reveals the public opinion of the time towards the men of the cloth. They were men who dedicated their lives to religion. They were forbidden from marrying or owning property. But what about the eventual American dream? Aargh!

What more?

During the Middle Ages, though allegedly charitable, the monks themselves led a fairly comfortable life, unlike the general public. This soon turned to resentment with the constant plagues and famines that devastated medieval societies. While the general population starved, the forever increasing number of monks allegedly led comfortable, well-fed lives. Just imagine such a sight! Surely abominable.

6. A Rascal/Blush of Boys

delinquents

This referred to a gang or group of juvenile delinquents who scourged medieval society. Though they were regular trouble makers, they weren’t considered a threat that warranted constant observation. They shared the noun with the fawn of deer. Young deer too weren’t deemed to be worthy of the effort of the hunt.

What more?

The “blush” does not refer to the sudden reddening of the face of hormonal boys, as if in embarrassment or shame on a pretty girl walking by. Rather, it refers to the reddening after being flogged for being a troublesome transgressor. No, there wasn’t such a thing as Social Services then.

5. A Fighting of Beggars

beggars

Though the phrase brings to mind an image of several beggars quarrelling over a serendipitous coin, the word “fighting” or “fyton” in Middle English implied dishonest or lying. Unlike today, there weren’t ample homeless shelters, unemployment, and disability benefits in medieval times. Also, the people weren’t always charitable.

The Church levied a tax of 10 percent on the annual production. But as poverty increased, the twisted solution of the Franciscan movement led to further malnourishment and dread. The Franciscans principally stole the jobs and food meant for the beggar. So, the beggars had to improvise and come up with inventive methods to obtain money. So, many of them feigned illnesses or handicaps in order to coax people into almsgiving. The courts of law often had to interfere to inhibit such practices.

What more?

In one such incident, two men tried to obtain handouts by pretending to be merchants who had their tongues cut out by alleged predators. Later, they were found out and punished for their fabrication. Now, it doesn’t seem so offensive, does it? “A fighting of beggars” sounds more appropriate considering the medieval times.

In all societies, modern or medieval, begging has been historically considered a social evil. Though the wealthy are shoveling in large amounts of money, there are still people around us collecting change, hoarding inessential commodities and sleeping in cardboard boxes. Some cultures advocate alms-giving while the others advocate the principle, “if you want money, get freaking a job”.

4. A Gaggle of Women/Bevy of Ladies

gossip

Talk about male chauvinism. This sounds like something the English linguists of the time came up with during a drinking game on poker night.

What more?

Funnily, women and gossip share a common noun, too: a gaggle of women. A gaggle of gossips. Gaggle, much like geese, obviously being a reference to the sound of chitchat among women. Though not all, some women exercised power. Thanks to a lack of respect towards privacy at the time, women with sources to information could cause a lot of problems. They could destroy reputations and create great shifts in balance of power in the society.

3. An Impatience of Wives

wives

What’s funny though is the same men who glorified the ethereal nature of young women, now affront their wives. Note that it is a bevy of ladies. Yet, an impatience of wives. The same “ladies” who shared a noun with the tender and docile swan and roe deer, have been terribly rebranded after marriage.

What more?

Most women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their family’s economic condition, were left with two options: to either marry or become a nun. Women, who married, became the lawful property of their oh-so-honorable husbands. Though they often helped their husbands with a wide variety of work, their primary responsibilities included waiting patiently (if possible) for their dear husbands to come and plant their seed after a hard day’s work. Hmm, one wonders why they grew impatient!

2. An Unhappiness of Husbands

husband

Oh, poor medieval husbands. Unhappy with their wives’ impatience, we presume? It is quite comical how the nouns for husbands and wives are quite negative. It’s almost like men and women of the time weren’t too cheerful about the whole institution of marriage. The women perhaps grew impatient of their husbands’ refusal to acknowledge them and the men grew tired and unhappy of their wives’ complaining. Have we got the etymology right?

What more?

In an obviously patriarchal medieval society, men were the domineering breadwinners. The submissive women existed merely to gratify men. Men were admired and respected in society. Blamed for man’s expulsion from paradise, the women weren’t particularly respected in medieval society. In fact, medieval art often depicted the serpent with a woman’s head. Women were generally considered inferior to men and more morally fallible. Yet, it’s an unhappiness of husbands. Hmmm! Interesting “logic” there.

1. A Disworship of Scots

scots

One of the oldest rivalries in history, the English and the Scots have been going at each other for a long while now. This terribly offensive noun though is just one of many ways the English have pissed off the Scots. What better way to describe their hostility than through the medium of film! Here’s Ewan McGregor, a Scottish actor in Trainspotting, a film by an English director, Danny Boyle.

Derogatory Nouns

– WIF Grammar

World Wide Words Issue 915 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 915

from Michael Quinion

Feedback, Notes and Comments

letter-to-editor

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.

Vertical file.

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.”

Latrinalia

Graffiti-001

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.

Gulled?

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.

True blue

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.

Clothing optional

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.

Cheeky

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.

Hands off?

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.

elsewhere

Elsewhere
  • 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.

Sic!

SIC

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.

World Wide Words Issue 915

(CLICK ON)

(CLICK ON)

– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 915 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 915

from Michael Quinion

Feedback, Notes and Comments

letter-to-editor

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.

Vertical file.

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.”

Latrinalia

Graffiti-001

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.

Gulled?

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.

True blue

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.

Clothing optional

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.

Cheeky

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.

Hands off?

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.

elsewhere

Elsewhere
  • 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.

Sic!

SIC

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.

World Wide Words Issue 915

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– WIF Style

CONSTANCE CARAWAY P.I. ~ Episode 203

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Forever Mastadon ~ Episode 203

…The librarian attempts to explain the inexplicable…

Oconomowoc Public Library

CC and AB thank their Danforth host and take to the back roads into Oconomowoc proper. Hwy 16 bisects the city from east to west, so once you locate that, informational signage will guide you to schools, hospital, or in this case, the library. Their concrete friend, Hwy 67, will take them 3 blocks north to the Oconomowoc Public Library.

Lodged between lakes Labelle and Fowler, the two-story wooden structure is full of books (duh) and one dedicated librarian named Sarah Sauer. Whatever the need, from Dewey D. to F. Scott, she is the go-to gal.

Aramaic

Once given, twice careful, Miss Sauer unfurls the mystery scroll, exposing what she identifies as Aramaic in nature.

“This is a script for exorcising demons. I believe the literal translation would be banishment. There is a reference to Jesus the Christ then the passage, ‘I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations…….’.”

Sarah’s delivery surely would cause Doctor Faust to hurtle itself from the shelves of OPL.

“From there, there seems to be a formula as a guide to handle Satan.”

Constance and even the hyperactive Ace are transfixed.

“The medium is lambskin vellum and I would estimate that it is only a few days old, the ink is barely dry.” Sarah was educated at the University of Haifa and is amazed at what she is reading. “Where did you get this? This is ancient text on brand new material. I don’t know why I’m sorry, but I’m sorry, this type of manuscript hasn’t been produced for 800 years.”

Word-of-the-week

She is kilig, in explaining the inexplicable…

“Papyrus replaced this type of parchment around 500 A.D. Chopping down a water plant is easier than killing a lamb. Eventually, mass papermaking started in China and spread from there.”

But the fact remains…

“This parchment is so pristine, so refined, that it is almost beyond human means to produce it.”

The librarian is exhausted by the sheer depth of this experience.


 

CONSTANCE CARAWAY P.I.

Episode 203


 

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