World Wide Words
from the UK’s Michael Quinions
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Lots of letters
Thank your mother for the rabbits. Bruce Warne provided a personal memory of the expression: “When I was a little boy in Middlesbrough, in the very early 1950s, my older sisters often visited an elderly neighbour. When they returned home, or when he noticed them over the common garden fence, he always said ‘Thank your mother for the rabbit’. I was only about four or five years old at the time, but the expression is fixed in my memory as my sisters were perplexed by it, and constantly referred to it.”
Edna Heard, formerly of Liverpool, commented that the expression “reminded me of my father’s greeting when he met someone: ‘How’s your belly where the pig bit you?’ I often wondered if it was from an old music hall song. He was born in 1902.” That sounds like a variation on the equally weird and mysterious one that my father used to say: “How’s your belly off for spots?”
Thank your mother for the rabbits put many readers in mind of a phrase in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Book four of the “trilogy” has it as its title: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. This was said by the dolphins as they left Earth just before it was destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, so it was intended literally, not as a nonsense phrase, though fans have adopted it as humorous way to say goodbye. I would have included it in the original piece had I thought of a neat way to work it in.
Goon. Many American readers told me about Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid, a labour song written in 1940, which includes the line “goons and ginks and company finks”. Someday I must write about gink and fink …
Australians introduced me to the goon bag or goon sack , a bulk dispenser of cheap wine of variable quality. I know the device as a wine box, but Australian producers seem to prefer wine cask, which is a truly pretentious term for a plastic bag in a cardboard container. Its construction led to the contents sometimes being identified as château de cardboard. Goon was used in Australia from the 1970s for cheap wine in large glass bottles called flagons and was later transferred to wine in boxes. How the wine got known as goon is uncertain. Some argue that it’s from an Aboriginal word for a pillow but the general feeling is that it’s a short form of flagon , perhaps with a nod to the other senses of goon.
The online Oxford English Dictionary has added a note to each entry showing how often it appears in current use. Peradventure appears in band 2, which the dictionary says contains “terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people.” The Times mocked Labour MP Harriet Harman in April 2015 for using it on a BBC television discussion programme (“if I make it absolutely clear, beyond peradventure …”). The Times writer admitted he had to look it up.
Peradventure means “uncertainty” or “chance”. Beyond peradventure (sometimes as beyond a peradventure) is a fixed phrase that can pop up from the subconscious of a well-read but stressed person without allowing its owner time to think about whether it would be understood. It may be rendered in everyday English as “beyond question” or “without doubt”.
It may be adventurous to use it but where’s the adventure in it?
Historically, there is none. It comes to us from Old French per aventure, by chance. Aventure has had a mildly exotic history. We can trace it back to Latin adventūra, a future form of the verb advenīre, to happen — so something that may occur. By the time it reached Old French it could variously mean destiny or fate, a chance event, an accident, fortune or luck. The sense of aventure that was first taken into English was that of a chance event or accident.
The French word also came to be used in English as adventure, also at first for some chance event, but then for a risk of danger or loss. (Marine insurers still sometimes use adventure to mean the time during which insured goods are at risk.) Its sense shifted to a hazardous undertaking or audacious exploit — especially the sort carried out by medieval knights — but much more recently softened to sometimes mean merely a novel or exciting experience.
Read with me
- An article about Chinese railways introduced me to ferroequinology, literally the study of the iron horse. This mock Latinism turns out to have been around for yonks . An early example is from the Walla Walla Union Bulletin of 19 August 1951. It noted that it was “among those easily drummed up latinizations designed to lend a certain amount of prestige to any profession from medical specialist to garbage collector” and described ferroequinologists as “avid fans, who really get a kick out of the romance of the railroads, who thrill to the shotgun cough of the engine on a long drag up a heavy grade or the raucous kaleidoscope of color that is a hundred-mile-an-hour streamliner on the high iron.” Those were the days.
- On 30 December, four new chemical elements were added to the periodic table, bringing the total to 118 and instantly making all science textbooks out of date. Like other elements created in accelerators and not present in nature, they have existed only for small fractions of a second. The research institutes that made them have yet to name them and they’re currently known by placeholder names derived from Latin numerals: ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium, for elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The first of these was created in the Nishina Center in Japan by a team from the Riken Institute, so the names japonium, rikenium and nishinarium are being considered.
- Watching dramatisations of historical events on television often makes me wince internally at anachronistic word usage. An example appeared in the current BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Prince Vassily Kuragin tells Pierre Bezukhov that one doesn’t own possessions but curates them for one’s heirs and generations to come. Curate has been fashionable in the past decade in the broad sense of editing, selecting or presenting anything at all, from blogs to playlists to trendy menus to corporate mission statements. (The Times on 29 December defined curated sarcastically as “Assembled, cobbled together with no care or talent or purpose”.) The verb was previously limited to the function of museum curators — preserving and studying objects. Though Kuragin’s meaning is close to this, the verb isn’t recorded before 1935, so definitely not right for 1805.
Q. From Bill Waggoner: We are doing some home renovations and were looking at lighting options. Sconces were one of the items we considered. I was curious what the origin of the word is but when I looked it up the meanings were a weird collection: a wall bracket, a skull, or a punishment. Strange dictionary-fellows indeed. Can you help clear it up?
A. It’s even more weird than those suggest, because the word originates in the Latin verb abscondere, to hide, from which we also get the verb abscond, originally and specifically to flee into hiding.
In Latin the term absconsa laterna literally meant “hidden lantern”. We used to call this in English a dark lantern, a portable device with a door that could be closed to obscure the light when needed. The Latin name was shortened to absconsa and after many centuries became the Old French esconse. When it turns up in English at the end of the fourteenth century, as sconce, it referred to a portable lantern with a handle. Not long after, the name was transferred to a wall bracket for holding a candle, often with a mirror behind it to reflect the light. The light source is nowadays often electricity but the name stuck.
In the sixteenth century, sconce became a slang term for a head:
A curled Sconce he hath, with angrie frowning browe.
Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonets, by George Turberville, 1567.
Most dictionaries avoid explaining how this came about. However, there was another meaning of sconce, one you don’t mention, for an earthwork or fortification. This has a different and unconnected origin, the old Dutch schans, brushwood. It could be a bundle of sticks, a screen of brushwood for soldiers or a protective earthwork made from gabions, cylindrical baskets filled with earth. (It’s also the source of ensconce , to settle somebody in a safe or comfortable place.) In this context, sconce seems to have shifted to refer slangily to a type of helmet as protection for the head and was then transferred to the head itself. This association was made specific in the 1823 edition of the slang dictionary Lexicon Balatronicum: “ Sconce. The head, probably, as being the fort and citadel of a man: from sconce, an old name for a fort.” Despite some dictionaries, it doesn’t seem often to have been used for a skull, if ever. The other linked figurative meaning was of a function of the head, one’s intelligence, brain or native wit. A pig-sconce was once a foolish or pigheaded person.
So far, so good. Now to the punishment sense, which is associated specifically with the University of Oxford. This is the way it was described by John Camden Hotten in the 1874 edition of his Slang Dictionary:
Sconce, to fine. Used by Dons as well as undergrads. The Dons fined or sconced for small offences; e.g., five shillings for wearing a coloured coat in hall at dinner-time. Among undergrads a pun, or an oath, or an indecent remark, was sconced by the head of the table.
Sconcing still exists in some colleges in Oxford in a minor way; a piece in the student newspaper Cherwell in 2007 noted it was most common among rowers (that is, sporting persons in boats, not those of a quarrelsome disposition) and one in The Telegraph in 2013 associated it especially with crewdates , social events for Oxford sports teams.
This sense puzzles etymologists. A clue may be in a work by a contemporary of Shakespeare named John Minsheu; in 1617 he published a monumental dictionary in eleven languages, which was, incidentally, the first book ever sold by subscription. He defined sconce to mean “to set up so much in the buttery book upon his head to pay for his punishment”. The buttery book was the ledger that itemised purchases of food and drink by undergraduates from the college buttery (which has nothing to do with butter but was historically the place where the butts, large barrels, of ale were kept). The book would seem from this to have also recorded fines. “Upon his head” we may presume refers to the entry in the book which was headed with his name. So this usage may be linked to the head sense of sconce.
The same sense appears in another long-obsolete phrase, build up a sconce, to run up a big bill at an inn or tavern, especially with the intention of never paying it, and in the related verb sconce, to defraud somebody.
This word turned up in a review I read over the holiday break of Richard Mabey’s new book, The Cabaret of Plants. Checking my files, I found that I’d seen it in two earlier articles in British newspapers in the past decade. Both say, as Mabey does, that it was a word invented in the nineteenth century as a derogatory reference to the obsessive collection of rare orchids.
A search found other examples in British and American books and newspapers, most of which likewise suggested that it was well over a century old. The earliest was in the Daily Herald of Chicago in April 1999: “the Victorians coined a word, ‘orchidelirium,’ for their peculiar obsession.” However, searches in databases of nineteenth-century books and newspapers in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand failed to find a single example. Nor was there any usage on record of the full phrase orchid delirium, though orchid mania was used.
What struck me also was how uncommon a coinage of the period it would have been. Though blended words — what Lewis Carroll called portmanteau terms — were invented and used to some extent, they weren’t usually devised by joining the final letter of one word to the first letter of the second.
So if it wasn’t Victorian, where did it come from?
The clue came in the journal Biology Digest of 1986. A reference there led me to an article in the July-August 1986 issue of Garden magazine, published for the New York Botanical Garden. It was about the avid orchid collectors of the nineteenth century and was written by Peter Bernhardt, now Professor of Biology at St Louis University, Missouri.
His article was entitled Orchidelirium. However, he tells me he didn’t invent the word: it was most probably coined by the editor of the magazine, the late Ann Botshon.
It’s yet another example of people copying from one another. Somebody must have mistakenly thought Prof Bernhardt had encountered the word during his research. Others reproduced the assumption. As time passed, the link with the original article was lost and the factoid about when orchidelirium was invented took on the status of received truth.
[ My thanks to Professor Bernhardt and to Esther Jackson of the New York Botanical Garden’s library for their assistance with this article. The image is reproduced by kind permission of The LuEsther T Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.]
After Oxford’s choice of a non-word — an emoji — for their word of the year, the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary followed suit. They noted that internet users have been searching its site in their masses this year for words such as fascism , racism, terrorism , feminism and socialism. So they chose the suffix -ism as their Word of the Year 2015.
This ending has an wide range of associations, such as a distinctive practice, belief, system, or philosophy, often a political ideology or artistic movement. Socialism was the form most often searched for, mainly because of the assertion by the Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that he’s an adherent of democratic socialism.
Merriam-Webster’s editors commented that there are 2733 English words ending in ‑ism in their unabridged dictionary, surely enough for everybody to find something to suit them. Incidentally, the word ism as a mildly disparaging term is recorded from as long ago as 1680.
The Word of the Year 2015 from the Australian National Dictionary Centre strictly speaking also isn’t a word: it’s the phrase sharing economy. The Centre defined it as “an economic system based on sharing of access to goods, resources, and services, typically by means of the Internet” and commented that “it had a special prominence in Australia in 2015 partly due to the impact of debates around the introduction of ridesharing service Uber into Australia, which has been seen as threatening the taxi industry.”
The American Dialect Society gently mocked Oxford’s choice by adding the category of Most Notable Emoji to its nominations for Words of the Year. These were voted on by participants at its annual meeting in Washington DC on 8 January.
The Word of the Year 2015 went by a landslide to they, the gender-neutral singular pronoun, often used when the speaker doesn’t know the gender of the person being referred to, but also more recently as a conscious choice by a person who rejects the traditional gender binary of he and she. After years of controversy the usage is at last becoming widely accepted— late last year Oxford Dictionaries had it as one of their runner-up words of the year and Bill Walsh, the style editor of the Washington Post , officially adopted it for his newspaper.
In other voting, the Most Creative word went to ammosexual, a firearms enthusiast;
Most Unnecessary was manbun, a man’s hairstyle in a bun; the Most Outrageous award went to fuckboy, a derogatory term for a man who behaves objectionably or promiscuously; the Most Euphemistic award went to the phrase netflix and chill, a sexual come-on masked as a suggestion to watch Netflix and relax; the word Most Likely to Succeed was the verb ghost, to abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially electronically; the Least Likely to Succeed category was won by sitbit, a device that rewards a sedentary lifestyle, a play on fitbit. The winner of the new category Most Notable Emoji was the image of an eggplant or aubergine, mainly because in social media it’s often sexual innuendo for the penis. The other new category this year was Most Notable Hashtag, building on the success last year of #blacklivesmatter as Word of the Year. The winner was #SayHerName, the Twitter call to bring attention to police violence against black women.
At the same meeting, the American Name Society chose its Names of the Year. The brand name of the year was Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that lost many staff members in a shooting a year ago; the place name or toponym award went to the new name of the tallest mountain in the US: Denali, formerly Mt McKinley; the personal name (or anthroponym if you’re feeling highfalutin) was that of the transgender person Caitlyn Jenner; and the fictional name category was won by three individuals from the new Star Wars film, Rey, Finn and Poe. The Grand Name of the Year award went to Caitlyn Jenner.
- Crows are renowned for being clever, but this headline in the Los Angeles Times on 24 December startled Dean Riley: “Wild crows use tiny cameras to film themselves using tools.”
- According to the menu of the Sun restaurant in Dedham, England, as seen by Alan M Stanier: “Our coffee comes direct from two growers in El Salvador who are paid 50% more than Fairtrade and roasted by Tate Gallery’s Phil Gevaux and Hamish Anderson.”
- The law moves at a gentle pace in Gloucester, where on 28 December John Gray spotted a headline in the local newspaper: “Speeding drivers caught in Seymour Road as police launch 20mph crackdown.”
- Irene Johnson submitted an email from the UK firm Cotton Traders she received on 9 December: “We have some unclaimed £5 off vouchers down here. We thought it would be great to offer these to our wonderful customers before they expire as part of the 12 deals of Christmas campaign.”
- In South Africa, Gerhard Burger found this on a Port Elizabeth-based community website just before Christmas: “Nearly 10 000 vehicles were screened for alcohol use while 194 were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.”
- The wonders of spellchecking: David Overton found this on the front page of The Telegraph on 7 December: “Britain’s response to terror attacks was called into question last night after uninformed officers were left to deal with a suspected Islamist fanatic.”
World Wide Words
– WIF Style
About this newsletter: World Wide Words is researched, written and published by Michael Quinion in the UK. ISSN 1470-1448.