World Wide Words Issue 921 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.

Contents WWW

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Satisficer.

3. From my reading.

4. Beside oneself.

5. Sic!

6. Archives (click on)

1. letter-to-editor

New elements Referencing my piece last time, Peter Jacobs told me there’s a petition to honour the late Ian (Lemmy) Kilmister of Motörhead by naming one of the recently discovered heavy metal elements after him as lemmium. And Barton Bresnik similarly noted another petition to do the same for Sir Terry Pratchett by naming a element octarine.

To fit the standard suffix -ium for chemical elements the latter might need to be recast as octarinium, though copyeditor Peter Morris points out that the name would work for element 117; this is in the same group as fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine, which by the rules of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry have names ending in-ine. A similar exception to the rule would apply to element 118, which belongs with neon, argon, krypton and xenon; it has been suggested that it should be called newton, after Sir Isaac.

Fifteen elements are named for people, including Albert Einstein, Dmitri Mendeleev, Lise Meitner and Nicolaus Copernicus. Most commemorate famous scientists and all but two are for synthesised elements beyond uranium. An exception is samarium, indirectly commemorating a little-known Russian mining engineer named Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets.

The chance of either petition being successful is extremely small.

Lucius Beebe & Charles Clegg

Ferroequinologist

My snippet on this word for a lover of trains led to an email from Bob Crowley: “The term originated from the writer Lucius Beebe. Beebe was a wealthy bon vivant, ne’er-do-well, hard drinker, newspaper columnist, railfan [railway enthusiast] and railway private car owner. Beebe had a passion for form and formality, and decided his hobby of railroading needed a formal Latin term to describe it, so he invented one meaning ‘one who studies the iron horse’ orferroequinologist.”

I had assumed that my earliest finding of the word in print wasn’t actually the first, but lack of time prevented me from following the trail further back. Mr Crowley’s mention of Beebe led me to Andrew Dow’s Dictionary of Railway Quotations, which has a substantial entry for the word. Dow cites a letter to Trains Magazine in April 1947 (which I’ve not yet been able to unearth) as its earliest use in print and its adoption as the title of the magazine of the old Central Coast Railway Club in 1952. Dow argues that Beebe picked up the term only later.

An item in the journal American Speech of December 1950 gave some additional background: “The comic spirit which produced such Latinisms as anti-fogmatic (an alcoholic drink that counteracts the effects of fog) and infracaninophile (a lover of the underdog) presided over the birth offerroequinologist. On February 5, 1950, a group of iron-horse lovers from Richmond, Virginia, who are fond of railroad lore, made a sentimental journey over the fourteen-mile-long Albemarle and Nelson Railway when it ran its last passenger train. These enthusiasts are members of the Old Dominion Railway Club; they enjoy using the nicknameferroequinologists of themselves.”

I can’t find the word in any of Lucius Beebe’s many publications that I’ve been able to access. But then, he was a writer of a generation and style that would have rejected the idea of coining words, especially mock Latinisms. We may never be able to link the word’s origin nearer than to some unsung railway enthusiast knowledgeable in Latin, perhaps sometime in the 1940s.

Words-001

 

Sconce Michael Keating and Andrew Shilcock tell me the college sense of a fine was in use during their studies at Cambridge University, respectively at Sidney Sussex and Downing. As I never came across it in my own college, Peterhouse, it would seem to have been restricted in its usage.

James Taylor commented, “At my Oxford college (Worcester), sconcing was a relatively formal and well-established process. At any formal dinner, guests could ask the Provost (or senior fellow present) to sconce a fellow guest for some alleged transgression, but the request had to be made in writing, in Latin (or perhaps Greek; either way it meant the universe of potential sconcers was pretty small). If the request was successful, a tankard full of beer would be brought in from the kitchen, which the transgressor was supposed to down in one. If the request was not successful, the sconcer could technically be sconced — but more usually the Provost would reward them with a bottle of wine.”

David Willbe added, “When I was at Oxford (1998-2001) the various sports teams did operate systems of punitive actions for (real and imagined) infractions but they were referred to as fines, penalties or forfeits. The only sense in which ‘sconce’ was used was for a specific punishment, usually reserved for serious ‘offences’, of having to down a large drink. I’d imagine it’s that practice to which the Cherwell andTelegraph articles refer. The folk etymology of sconce that prevailed at the time was that the word referred to an archaic drinking vessel, something like a stein, which had fallen into disuse other than for this punishment — hence the name had transferred to the punishment.”

Terry Walsh noted that the source Latin term was absconsa lanterna, notlaterna, and added that the term has been used in Roman Catholic countries “for the small light which was used to read scripture during nocturnal mass and other religious services.”

Thank your mother for the rabbits Janet Alton followed up my piece of two issues ago and comments last time: “I was thinking how people adopt little catchphrases and trot them out habitually. When I was very small in Rotherham in the 1950s, we used to visit an elderly relative who always gently admonished children who might be tempted to start tearing about: ‘Mind how you step over those mince pies!’ Much later, as an adult, I knew an elderly Sheffield man who, if he called at your house, would always say ‘I’ve come to tell you I’m not coming!’”

Ms Alton’s second one reminds me of a catchphrase of the late British comedian Max Bygraves from the 1950s: “I’ve arrived, and to prove it I’m here!” I’d guess Ms Alton’s pair come from similar, albeit forgotten, sources.

Words of the Year A late entrant to my collection of prize-winning words of 2015 was provided by Ursula Roth, who tells us, “In Germany, the Academy for German Language has chosen Smombie as word of the year 2015. It combines smartphone and zombie for those who stare at their smartphones without perceiving their surroundings.” A smart zombie: how curiously oxymoronic.

2. Satisficer

Image result for paradox

The idea here is the paradox of choice.

The classic story is the one about the donkey which was placed exactly halfway between two bales of hay. Unable to decide which one of the two bales was the more enticing, the poor animal starved to death. The modern equivalent is supermarket shelves laden with two dozen varieties of tomato sauce or twenty sorts of bread or shops with dozens of styles of trainers or jeans. The burden of having to decide among myriad options has been shown to leave people dissatisfied, stressed and miserable about the choice they finally make — perhaps one of the others was better?

A satisficer, on the other hand, is content with the idea that good is good enough. If the pair of jeans fits and wears well or the tomato sauce tastes pretty good then that’s fine. Another choice might have been better but almost certainly not so much better that the hassle of testing all the possibilities was worth the time and trouble.

Though the word is often applied to the consumerist lifestyle in developed countries, the American economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon coined it more than half a century ago in more general terms. His original creation was satisfice, a conflation of satisfy and suffice, which appeared first in an article in 1956. He extended his ideas the following year in his books Administrative Behavior and Models of Man.

His discussion was directed at all forms of decision making, in which he argued that people showed what he called bounded rationality. Contrary to the conventional view of economists, people don’t seek to maximise the benefit they get from some course of action because in most cases they don’t have all the facts or too much information would overwhelm them.

The best situation may not be, as might be thought, to have no choice at all (which brings problems of its own), but to have a relatively limited range of choices that makes it feasible to select the most appropriate.

3.

Read with me

Read with me

• An article on skincare introduced me to non-comedogenic. Ripping this into its constituent pieces suggests that it refers to something which prevents comedos. Next question. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry written a century ago gives a long and rather disgusting-sounding definition for comedo, which turns out to have nothing to do with comedy but refers to what we commonly call a blackhead. The OED helpfully adds that it’s from Latin, derives from the verb comedĕre, to eat up, and was originally a name given to worms which devour the body. Briefly, non-comedogenic refers to a product that doesn’t block the pores and so doesn’t risk the appearance of blackheads. Other works say that the more usual medical term these days is comedone, which the OED hasn’t yet got around to noticing.

• The long-standing children’s television series Pingu, about a family of penguins living in an igloo in Antarctica, is especially notable for using an expressive made-up language. It’s sometimes called penguinese but one of the voiceover artists on its remake, David Sant, called it grammelot. Invented speech has a long history in the theatre, going back to the Commedia dell’Arte 600 years ago. Actors took the sounds and intonations of the languages of their audiences and created expressive nonsense from them. The descriptions of it often call it grammelot and imply that this word is as old as the technique. The American etymologist Mark Liberman showed ten years ago that this certainly isn’t so and is most probably modern. Its first recorded appearances are in connection with Dario Fo’s use of the technique in his 1969 play Mistero Buffo, though it has been asserted that he didn’t invent it but borrowed it from slightly earlier French sources. Whatever its origin, grammelot seems certain to be a nonsense word itself.

• The word utopia is widely recognised and understood — in many other languages than just English — as shorthand for a perfect social, legal and political society in which everyone is happy. Its creator, Sir Thomas More, is less well known, though the 1966 Robert Bolt film, A Man for All Seasons, brought him vividly to life as Henry VIII’s lord chancellor who refused to support the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He also featured in the recent BBC series Wolf Hall about his rival Thomas Cromwell. Commemorative events are being held this year to mark the quincentenary of Utopia, his book that brought the word into being. Though More wrote his work in Latin, he took his title from classical Greek ou, not, and topos, place. By derivation, therefore, utopia doesn’t exist. At times the word has been written Eutopia, using the Greek prefix eu-, meaning good, to emphasise the positive aspects of such an imagined society.

4. Beside oneself

Q From Marcus Wisbech: “Why is it that when a person is angry about something, we might say ‘He’s beside himself with rage?’ How can one be beside oneself?”

A It puzzles us today because language has changed but the idiom hasn’t.

The phrase appears first in the language a long time ago. In 1490, William Caxton, who established the first English printing press in Westminster, published a book with the title Eneydos. We know it better as The Aeneidby Virgil.

Caxton records its linguistic travels in its title: “translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton”. This is the relevant passage, describing the grief of Dido at the departure of Aeneas. I’ll leave its rendering into modern English as an exercise for the reader:

She sawe the saylles, wyth the flote of the shippes that made good waye. Thenne byganne she, for grete distresse, to bete & smyte thre or four tymes wyth her fyste strongly ayenst her brest & to pulle her fayr heres from her hed, as mad & beside herself.”

Caxton was translating the French phrase hors de soi, outside oneself. He used beside because for him the word could mean outside of or away from. The idea was that powerful emotion had led Dido’s mind to escape her control. Her mind had got away from her and she wasn’t herself.

We use the phrase rather less now than we used to. When it appears, it is most often related to rage but it can also refer to delight, grief, amazement, excitement, horror, or any other powerful emotion.

5. SIC

• A reviewer on Amazon wrote of author John Grisham’s lawyer hero Sebastian Rudd that he has an “ongoing custardy battle for his son”.

• Marc Picard and John Pearson saw that on 28 January the BBC site reported, briefly, that a man arrested in Paris “co-manages a brassiere”.

• Larry Israel and Howard Sinberg spotted a headline error that turns up on US newspaper sites so often that it has become a perennial joke, Let’s give it one last moment in the sun because this time it appeared (on 26 January) on the website of the prestigious New York Times: “Police Officer Shoots Man With Knife in Lower Manhattan”. The NYT rapidly changed it.

• Robert Waterhouse came across a comment in The Guardian’s sports pages of 5 February about prospects for the Six Nations rugby tournament: “If England’s new captain can solidify their scums …”.


Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Created: 6 Feb 2016


 

World Wide Words Issue 921

6.

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World Wide Words Issue 920 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 920

from the UK’s Michael Quinions

 

Feedback, Notes and Comments
Lots of letters

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.

Peradventure

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

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.

Sconce

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.

Orchidelirium

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.]

Words of the Year-001
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.

Sic

SIC

  • 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

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About this newsletter: World Wide Words is researched, written and published by Michael Quinion in the UK. ISSN 1470-1448.

World Wide Words Issue 919 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 919

letter-to-editor 

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Bob’s-a-dying. Adam Sampson pointed out that the Bodleian Library in Oxford has copies of an early nineteenth-century song, Fancy Lad, whose chorus includes the line “Go along Bob’s a dying”. He added, “Thomas Hardy — an enthusiastic country-dance fiddler throughout his life — mentions My Fancy-Lad as a reel in the short story The Fiddler of the Reels and the poem The Dance at the Phoenix. Florence Hardy’s Early Life of Thomas Hardy lists this as one of the tunes he learned from his father, which would put it in the right time period for the broadsides. So I think that’s probably the place to look for a Napoleonic-era tune for Bob’s a dying!”

New Zealand readers were quick to point out that they know of a variant version of the expression: kick up bobsy-die, which is still in use though perhaps a little old-fashioned.

Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Bill of goods. Henry Clark was one of several who mentioned, “In engineering we often talk about a bill of materials. This is a list of all the parts and components needed to build a machine or a control panel.” Bob Johnson wrote of a usage in the piece: “Your American cousins would have to think hard to understand consignment note or despatch note. We would be more likely to say waybill or bill of lading.”

Swipe. Following my mention of swipe for selecting or rejecting an option on a smartphone or similar device, several readers pointed out that they knew it better in the sense of stealing something. The two are connected, both deriving from an old verb that was probably a variant form of sweep. Originally this meant to make a swinging blow or strike, as in cricket or fist fighting. The link to stealing probably came from a swift but surreptitious reaching out to take something without being noticed, or a more blatant and opportunistic attempt to grab something.

Binge-watching. “Those of us who are fans of science fiction,” emailed Rupert Smith, “have a pre-existing term for this, to marathon. I remember it from the 1990s, but I expect it’s been around longer. Conventions used to hold ‘marathons’ of a television series. The word still persists in the same sense as binge-watching today, but in my experience usually refers to re-watching something you’ve already seen before. I once marathoned 135 episodes of Naruto over one Christmas break (pausing to sleep, of course), but that was an extreme example I won’t be repeating!”


Season’s greetings

Chhristmas card-001

 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone from WIF & Molly

Molly-001

She gets holidays mixed up


 

Nonplussed

If you’re nonplussed, that initial non- means you must be without something, right? That seems to be why many people in North America have interpreted this mildly odd word in recent decades to mean calm, undisturbed, unfazed, unimpressed or indifferent. In standard English and elsewhere it still means surprised, confused, perplexed or bewildered. Add to this a tendency to spell it with one s and a British reader can often be nonplussed in the old sense when encountering American examples.

When Billboard recently wrote, “She was very nonplussed and was happy to wait in the queue”, we may be sure the sense intended was “unbothered”. Similarly a sports magazine’s “MS Dhoni is popularly known in cricketing circles as ‘Captain Cool’ for his nonplussed demeanour in tense situations” is clear enough. But what about “I’m completely nonplused by most contemporary architecture” which was recently in the Wall Street Journal? What emotion was the writer feeling? His later comments make clear to a puzzled reader that he was unimpressed rather than confused.

Nonplussed is rather odd in its origin. Its first form was as a noun phrase borrowed directly from the classical Latin nōn plūs, not more or no further. As two words it appears first in an epistle by the Jesuit scholar Robert Parsons in 1582. He meant by it a state in which no more can be said or done, in which a person was unable to proceed in speech or action, resulting in perplexity or puzzlement.

Around the same time it became a verb, to nonplus, meaning to bring somebody to a standstill as a result of being perplexed or confused. The adjective nonplussed also soon appeared. In the early nineteenth century, somebody invented nonplussation, the state of being nonplussed, which had a brief period of popularity around the middle of the century but is now obsolete.

 

Goon (everybody needs one)

  1. From Dick Bentley: World Wide Words has many references to the Goon Show, the 1950s surreal British comedy radio programme, but none to goon itself. It’s a mysterious word in some ways: it seems to have two separate meanings; “idiot” and “hired thug”, which represent separate origins, perhaps? What is its true origin?
  1. Goon stepped shyly on to the public stage in the issue of Harper’s Magazine for December 1921. A whimsical article by Frederick Allen had the title The Goon and His Style: “A goon is a person with a heavy touch as distinguished from a jigger, who has a light touch. While jiggers look on life with a genial eye, goons take a more stolid and literal view.” He said the word was a family saying, but he might equally have made it up. After this, the word vanishes again for a decade.

 

The beginning of its popularity dates only from January 1934, when the cartoonist Elzie Segar got around to giving a new character a name: Alice the Goon. She had appeared in his Thimble Theatre comic strip on 10 December 1933, joining Popeye, Olive Oyl and others. Alice was a fearsome character, immensely tall with shaggy arms and legs and a long nose like a proboscis monkey. She was at first a guard employed by Popeye’s antagonist, the pirate and sorcerer called Sea Hag. Alice was powerful but dim-witted and goon came into the language first in the sense of a stupid person. It is said college students used it first.

In the later 1930s, goon began to be used for a ruffian or violent thug, particularly one employed by a labour union to frighten recalcitrant members and anybody who opposed the union. It appeared most often in the phrase goon squad:

Beck uses the mailed-fist and makes no bones about it. His staff includes a gang of imported strongarm men, known locally as the “goon squad.”

Joplin Globe (Missouri), 9 Oct. 1937. Beck was Dave Beck, union organiser for the Teamsters in Oregon and Washington states.

Goon in this sense was at first local slang; in early 1938 it achieved national notice through the jailing of union organisers from the region. It was most likely taken from Alice the Goon, who — at least in the early days before Segar softened her — was a subhuman brute. It might have come from the same source as Segar got it, whatever that was, but that seems less likely.

We may reasonably assume that the slang term for German guards in prisoner-of-war camps followed from this sense of an unintelligent thug. However, Spike Milligan says that he took the name of the Goon Show from the cartoon character and not from prison guards; he was using it in army training camp at Bexhill in Sussex in 1941 before that sense had become known or perhaps even coined.

This leaves us with the final part of your question: where did goon come from? We can’t be absolutely certain, but gooney has a long history in English, also as gony, gonnie, gawney and other forms, meaning a simpleton or fool. It may be from gone , implying that the person so described has lost their wits. Gooney is recorded in New England from the 1830s, though it’s probably older in North America. Sailors of the nineteenth century called various albatross species gooney birds (which was adopted during the Second World War for the Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft, which Brits know as the Dakota). It seems most plausible that Segar took goon from gooney.

Word-of-the-week

Emoji

Dictionaries are hard to promote. They’re utilitarian and unexciting works, to the extent that their users find it hard to differentiate between publishers and often lump them all together as “the dictionary”. The relatively recent wheeze of announcing Words of the Year has been a godsend to despairing publicity departments and an annual opportunity for lexicographers to slide modestly into the public eye for a seasonal rundown on what’s been happening with our vocabulary.

This year, however, Oxford Dictionaries has done something really odd. Its choice isn’t a word but a picture, an emoji, the one often known as face with tears of joy.

The news was greeted with all the publicity Oxford Dictionaries might have wanted, but much comment was puzzled or sarcastic. Didn’t a dictionary know what a word was? Did this render the idea of Words of the Year ridiculous? Was this the death knell of the language of Shakespeare? Was Oxford cosying up to the internet generation to the exclusion of more significant shifts in language? Had Oxford jumped the shark?

Though the choice looks seriously misguided, this wasn’t some mad whim. Oxford’s monitoring found that the word emoji increased its usage three-fold in 2015 over the previous year, which would have made it a candidate for Word of the Year. The little icons have become a widespread shorthand way of expressing emotion and ideas in texts and social media; they’ve moved way beyond the teenage texters who embraced them initially. Oxford Dictionaries argue that emoji and emoji culture have gone mainstream in 2015, “embodying a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.”

Emoji have without doubt come far since they were invented in Japan in the 1990s, as a development of smileys or emoticons (“emotional icons”), symbols created from keyboard characters that date from the earliest days of the internet.

 

Emoji in Japanese (e plus moji) literally means “picture character”. It predates the digital world by at least eight decades, and may have been based on the English word pictograph. The first use of emoji in English was in the Japanese publication Nikkei Weekly in October 1997, referring to a set of characters that had been created in connection with P-kies, a Japanese children’s show roughly equivalent to Sesame Street.

The popularity of emoji outside Japan was hastened by their inclusion in various mobile devices and led to their adoption as an international standard symbol set in Unicode in 2010 under names such as grinning face and winking face. Faces are the most popular — the set included persevering face, face screaming in fear (very Edvard Munch, this one) and extraterrestrial alien face. Face with tears of joy was chosen as the Word of the Year because it made up 20% of all the emoji used in the United Kingdom in 2015, and 17% of those in the United States, a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.

You can select from 1282 emoji in the Unicode set, including cats, hearts, hand signals, clothing, animals, plants, vehicles, the flags of all nations and lots more, including man in a business suit levitating and pile of poo. Their name might have helped them be accepted, though the similarity between emoji and emoticon is accidental.

In an electronic world in which brevity and speed are key, an image is potent, not perhaps worth a thousand words, but certainly removing the need for a description that the writer might not be willing or well-equipped to provide or have space for. But some commentators have gone further, arguing that emoji are no longer just a convenient shorthand but a nuanced form of communication in their own right.

Although Random House has published emoji-speak versions of Shakespeare and Herman Melville’s classic novel has been translated as Emoji Dick, neither can be called nuanced: 1282 pictures conveying a restricted and unsophisticated range of concepts is hardly a replacement for the subtlety and richness of a natural language.

Caspar Grathwohl of Oxford Dictionaries commented, “The fact that English alone is proving insufficient to meet the needs of 21st-century digital communications is a huge shift”. But it’s a shift restricted to one part of the online world. The suspicion must be that emoji are a passing fashion and that to try to read into them a seismic shift in the nature of communication is seriously misplaced.

Will the “Word” of the Year take its place in Oxford’s dictionaries? There are no plans to include emoji, the publishers say. A wise decision, you may feel.

Read with me

Read with me

  • There is truth in the adage “Thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just, but four times he who gets his blow in first”, which the military has pithily summarised as pre-emptive strike. On 9 November a British MP used pretaliation in a Twitter post, marking it as a “new word”. Not so. It appeared in September in guidance by the US Securities and Exchange Commission about whistleblower protection and I came across it in 2012 in Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds. It’s older still. By 2007 it had reached the online Urban Dictionary; around that time it was borrowed for the name of a US heavy metal band. It turns up in various Google Groups back to 1998 (“They believe in proactive security measures and pretaliation”). And an isolated example featured in The Listener as long ago as 1971. All of which forces us to conclude that if you’re inventing words, it’s best to get your pretaliation in first.
  • Quingel, flingam, blablesoc and probble. Do these sound funny? As in funny-ha-ha, not funny-peculiar, since you’re unlikely to have encountered them. They’re nonsense words created by a computer program for a project on humour by four researchers from the universities of Alberta and Tübingen and published in the current issue of the Journal of Memory and Language. Alberta students were asked to rate words for how funny they found them. The study proved that non-words are funnier the more they look like real words but aren’t, because they’re incongruous and contradict our expectation that what we read is meaningful. The researchers actually discovered that words are funniest when they sound “dirty” — the highest rated words were whong, dongl, shart , focky and clunt, though this may have been a function of the age and nature of the participants (also, shart and clunt are recorded as real slang words, while dongl is close to the computer term dongle). The study also demonstrated that judgments were consistent from one person to another, at least within the restricted group surveyed.

Thank your mother for the rabbits

  1. From Helen Jeffery in the UK: My late granddad had a quaint way of bidding people goodbye. He would say “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits”. Do you think that was just him being himself, or was it an expression in general use? He lived a bit further north than I do at the moment, in north-west Durham.
  2. You may be disappointed to hear that he didn’t invent it, though he was following in some famous footsteps.

A detailed discussion of this nonsense phrase appeared in the Australian language journal OzWords a decade ago, which made it clear that it has long been known in that country and is still to be heard. The stereotypical association of Australia with rabbits might suggest that the expression began its life there. Some Australians argue that it arose during the depression of the 1930s when money for food was scarce and rabbits were free to anybody who could catch them. It is said that rabbits became known during that period as underground mutton.

But the evidence says it isn’t native to Australia. One important pointer is this:

Bloom starts forward involuntarily and, half closing the door as he passes, takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it nervously to Zoe. ZOE: (Sniffs his hair briskly) Hmmm! Thank your mother for the rabbits. I’m very fond of what I like.

Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922.

More evidence comes from an oddly inconsequential snippet in an Australian newspaper, which happens to be the earliest occurrence of the phrase in print anywhere:

Lady Tree insists on trying to make her comrades laugh during the progress of the piece whilst she acts. One night, when she was playing the part of an elderly lady in “Diplomacy” she quite suddenly invented a new line in the play by saying “Thank your mother for the rabbits” to a parting guest. The audience enjoyed it so much that the actress has kept in the line ever since.

Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW), 8 Nov. 1913. Lady Tree was better known professionally as Mrs Beerbohm Tree, she being the wife of and collaborator with the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

We may guess the editors included this because they thought Australians would appreciate a reference to a phrase they knew. We may also be pretty sure Lady Tree didn’t make it up. The event, however humorous to the audience, wasn’t sufficiently important to spread public knowledge of it, since the number of appearances didn’t subsequently rise.

So is it Irish, as the Ulysses appearance implies? Almost certainly not, since Zoe makes clear in the book that she was born in Yorkshire. Your own experience also suggests an English source. Eric Partridge noted the phrase in his Dictionary of Catchphrases as having been “brought to my notice by the late Frank Shaw in 1969”. Frank Shaw was a Liverpudlian writer who did much to publicise the local dialect, Scouse. So the expression is quite strongly linked with northern England.

Beyond that, the trail runs into the sand. It’s probably late nineteenth century in date, perhaps from a catchphrase in some long-forgotten music-hall comedian’s act.

Sometimes mysteries are more fun than facts, though frustrating to enquirers.

Sic

SIC

  • The text below a photograph in the print edition of the Guardian of 7 November read: “Caption goes here and don’t forget to twiddle your triang.”

  • Grant Agnew sent me to the opening sentence of a story on ABC News on 11 November: “Queensland beef producer Mick Hewitt has been elected to the new grass-fed position on the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) board selection committee.”
  • From the Department of Unfortunate Phrasing: Margaret Joachim found this sentence in the Acton W3 Gazette of West London: “Thames Water apologises for over-running sewer works”.
  • The website of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Daniel reports, had an article dated 9 November under the ambiguous headline “How Can the Justice Department Help CIA Torture Victims?”
  • A BBC news item of 19 November seen by Timothy Conway featured the finding of a large hoard of Roman coins by a small Swiss farmer: “Weighing around 15kg (33lb), he discovered the coins after spotting something shimmering in a molehill.”
  • The Age of Melbourne surprised Jack Harvey with news of a novel process for decontaminating asbestos found in a school. The school president was quoted as saying, “The ground is contaminated and needs to be fixed. … We have been raising money for it to be fixed with cake stalls and art shows.”

World Wide Words Issue 919

(CLICK ON)

(CLICK ON)

– WIF Style

This post has been altered by Gwendolyn Hoff of Writing is Fun-damental

World Wide Words is researched, written and published by Michael Quinion in the UK. ISSN 1470-1448.

World Wide Words Issue 918 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 918

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.

 

.letter-to-editor

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Snow. One dialect term in my list brought this comment from Hilary Maidstone: “The word hogamadog you mention as being obsolete Northumbrian is sufficiently similar to the still current Norfolk dialect word for a snail, hodmandod, to describe rather nicely the act of rolling a ball of snow, I would have thought.”

The Great Eskimo Naming Problem. Many readers living nearer the peoples in question were quick to criticise me for using the word Inuits. John Nightingalb was among the first: “A Canadian would urge on you that Inuit is, itself, the plural form. Inuk is the singular.” Adam Thompson sent me a link to the Canadian government advice on usage, which points out that in French, Inuit is both singular and plural and Inuk isn’t used. He notes that the same is often true in English.

Martin S Taylor wrote “What do you call it when falling snow, rather than melting as it touches the ground, remains in its frozen, snowy state? I’m from Bristol, where this is pitching. But other parts of the country have it as laying or settling or landing, or a whole variety of dialect terms.”

Chi-ike. Lesley Shaw recalled this as very common in Australia when she was growing up: “Chi-acking was light-hearted and essentially good-humoured back-and-forth banter involving a bit of verbal horseplay between two people, a bit of ‘chucking off’ at each other. There was equality between the banterers and neither was trying to win. You might do it during ‘smoko’ to ‘get a rise out of the other fellow’ but you would expect to get back as good as you gave. ‘Chi-acking’ was a public activity as much to amuse onlookers or listeners. Someone might chime in and ask ‘What are you two chi-acking about?’ It’s a great word.”

“For what it’s worth,” Vanessa Westwood wrote, “my nan, who was born in London but married into a Cannock family, used to say ‘Stop chi-iking about!’ to mean ‘stop messing about’ when I was a kid.” Ross Drewe recalls that a similar sense has been known in Australia: “In my youth (1960s–70s) this word was still in use, in the Australianised form of chyacking. It had suffered a minor shift of meaning from ‘mocking exchanges between men’ to ‘generally boisterous and noisy behaviour by young men’, usually in the phrase ‘they were chyacking around.’ However the older meaning was still recognised in the form ‘he couldn’t stand all the chyacking and left the site’.”

Tony Thurling commented in similar vein: “Your latest newsletter reminded me of my early life [in Australia] where shiacking was a common term for anyone playing the fool or larking or having a joke. I only ever encountered it in spoken form so don’t know how it should be written, although I do recall Sydney newspapers at the time (1970s) using shiack and shyack. It was usually spoken as shyacking about , with shyacking by itself, both verbal and written, being rare.”

Australian and New Zealander readers confirmed that this term, in its various spellings, has now almost vanished from daily life.

British slang expert Jonathon Green tells me he has found earlier appearances of chi-ike than those he included in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. One, in the oldest sense of a hearty greeting, appeared in an 1835 ballad entitled Cock-Eyed Sukey: “If chance his mot male chyhoik hear, / And sneaks at once into her nest”, where mot means girlfriend. This was reproduced in the 2011 four-volume collection Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period by Patrick Spedding and Paul Watt, a snip at £350. Jonathon commented: “The 1835 citation, with the usual double entendre of ballads, might be interpreted as linking to a bird-call and thus suggesting a new line of etymology.”

Cardiac Celt. Several readers pointed out that this term, mentioned last time, is most probably based on the older Cardiac Jew, someone who feels Jewish “in their heart” but not in their actions. Rick Turkel recalled, “I was in high school and college during the 1950s and 1960s in New York City and Long Island and recall a similar usage dating back at least another three decades. A self-referenced Cardiac Jew was someone who was born Jewish but knew little or nothing of Jewish law, customs or behavior (and observed less), and was often proud of that. In my crowd it was not considered a favorable description.” Several other readers recalled that they knew this term from the same period or a little later, so it seems to have achieved fairly wide circulation by that time, at least within Jewish communities. Robert Kernish has traced it back to an article of 1942 by I. Steinbaum, A Study of Jewishness of Twenty New York Families. As Mr Turkel suggests, it may indeed be even older.

Bob’s-a-dying

Q. From Les Kirkham: I know this phrase is used in the navy to mean “drunk”, even “raucously drunk”, often as “kicking up Bob’s a-dying”, but what are its origins? Is it anything to do with Bob’s your uncle?

A. The usual dictionary sense of Bob’s-a-dying is of a disturbance or uproar, perhaps with physical violence involved. It requires no stretch of imagination to connect this with sailors on shore leave getting well tanked up, but drunkenness as such doesn’t seem to be the idea behind it.

It’s rare these days and most people will probably have come across it only in such works as the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. He uses it five times in various books, as here about his crew:

Once ashore they kicked up Bob’s a-dying to a most shocking extent and then set about the soldiery.

Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O’Brian, 1999.

The dating of the expression fits the Napoleonic period in which the books are set. We begin to see it in print in 1828 but may reasonably assume it’s at least a decade or two older. It’s much too old and too different in sense to be linkable to Bob’s your uncle , though it may be added to the list of sayings involving somebody or something named bob that may just possibly have been an influence.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had largely dropped out of public writings but was being recorded in dialect, from Cornwall to Northumberland, sometimes in modified forms such as bobs-a-dial or bobs-a-dilo. It was said to mean “boisterous merriment”, though it could also mean causing a row or making a huge fuss. Thomas Hardy has a character in Under the Greenwood Tree say, “You see her first husband was a young man, who let her go too far; in fact, she used to kick up Bob’s-a-dying at the least thing in the world.”

When it first appeared, people seemed clear enough what it was referring to. A story in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1835 has “I could dance a hornpipe and kick up Bob’s a-dying.” Two years earlier a short story appeared that described setting sail on a warship:

Man the haulyards — let go reef-tackles, cluelines, buntlines — light up in the top — hoist away! Up they went to the tune of “Bob’s a dying”.

The Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1833.

If any doubt should remain, let me dispel it with this later example:

The bridal party marched in regular order next, and over them a parasol, attached to a long rod of iron, was carried by another man, and by his side was an accordeon player, striking up some lively strains, such as “Pop goes the Weasel,” “Bob’s a dying,” &c.

Nottinghamshire Guardian, 29 June 1854. Accordeon was a contemporary spelling of accordion, derived from its original German name.

Patrick O’Brian was also sure of its musical origin:

He too had danced to the fiddle and fife, his upper half grave and still, his lower flying — heel and toe, the double harman, the cut-and-come-again, the Kentish knock, the Bob’s a-dying and its variations in quick succession and (if the weather was reasonably calm) in perfect time.

The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian, 1981.

The many references to kicking up Bob’s a dying suggests a high-kicking dance. This presumably wasn’t a sea shanty but a tune particularly popular with seafarers. It’s a pity that this doesn’t now seem to be known. It must have been particularly lively to have become linked to uproar ashore, though sailors putting the boot in during an affray would at once have seen the connection.

Who or what was bob is likewise not known. One theory has it that it referred to a shilling in old British currency, known as a bob since the latter part of the eighteenth century; bob might have been dying because the sailor’s money was almost spent. On drink, we may reasonably suspect.

Binge-watching

Image result for binge-watching

Binge-watching, consuming several or all the episodes of a television programme in quick succession, was announced by the British dictionary publishers Collins on 5 November as its 2015 Word of the Year.

Once upon a time, we had to wait for the next episode of our favourite television show and had to be sure to catch it when it was broadcast or it was probably gone for ever. Technology has changed all that, of course, not only providing box sets for easy access to programmes we want to watch again but more recently giving online access to the whole of a new series at once.

My face is unshaven, my eyes are bloodshot and I haven’t showered in days. Such are the ravages of binge-watching. Welcome to the latest addiction affecting America. … Other than hiding the remote or changing the victim’s Netflix password, there is no known cure.

Clearfield Progress (Pennsylvania), 13 Jan. 2014.

The term derives from binge-eating and binge-drinking , terms first found in the US in the 1950s (though binge drinker is a couple of decades older and the noun phrase eating binge is of 1930s vintage). An immediate precursor was binge-reading from the 1990s.

Though binge-watching is recorded in the US as far back as 2003, it widened its popularity in that country greatly from 2012 on. In December 2013 the American Dialect Society selected it as its word “most likely to succeed”, a prediction that has proved accurate. It is now widely known wherever English is spoken:

Forget binge-drinking, the celebrated vice in Tellyland is “binge-watching” and the BBC is the latest to jump on the bandwagon. Director-General Tony Hall is to release whole drama series on iPlayer. I know it’s what people want but I want to stand up for the slow burn.

The Independent, 11 Sep. 2015.

Binge is itself an intriguing word, though its ultimate origin is obscure. It derives from the dialects of the midlands counties of England, such as Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. The English Dialect Dictionary of the end of the nineteenth century notes that to soak a wooden vessel such as a cask or a tub to swell the wood and render it watertight was said to binge it. By extension a man who “soaked” himself in alcoholic drink was said to binge or be on a binge, a usage recorded from Northamptonshire in 1854.

Two slang dictionaries, in 1889 and 1890, note it in the sense of a drinking bout but it seems to have become socially acceptable in Britain only during the First World War — early examples are in letters from airmen. Noun and verb were carried to the USA a little later.

We might guess that P G Wodehouse had a hand in its adoption in the US because he was rather fond of it. However, he uses it loosely for a party, outing or situation, with no implications of drinking:

I had had experience of one or two of these binges, and didn’t want to run any risk of coming early and finding myself shoved into a seat in one of the front rows.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse, 1923.

Binge can also be used in the sense of any extended immersion in an activity or situation, such as a guilt binge or a workout binge, though this is less common.

Collins’ words of the year 2015

As well as binge-watching, Collins’ editors have listed nine other words of 2015. The most obviously new member of the collection, dating only from July, is Corbynomics , the economic policies of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Transgender (of a person whose gender identity does not fully correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth) and associated words have been used much more this year, stimulated by the media attention paid to Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox among others. The editors note that shaming (to embarrass a person on social media by drawing attention to some supposed failing) has had a large rise in popularity this year in compounds such as fat-shaming, slut-shaming and single-shaming.

Others in the list are dadbod (the untoned and slightly plump physique of a man who is nevertheless attractive to women), manspreading (of a male passenger in a bus or train splaying his legs in a way that denies space to the passenger sitting next to him), ghosting (to break up with someone by refusing to respond to phone calls, emails and texts), and clean eating (following a diet that avoids processed foods, consuming only those in their natural state).

Some words in the list, including binge-watching, have been around rather longer and it seems slightly odd to attach them specifically to 2015: contactless (of smart cards that use radio-frequency links to make payments) could have been included in any year from about 2011, though its use has been steadily increasing since; similarly swipe (to move a finger across a touch screen on a mobile phone to approve or dismiss some item) is far from new.

methinks

The Australian-born humorist, broadcaster and poet Clive James wrote in the Guardian on 24 October “I save time on the web by reading nobody’s opinion that contains the word ‘methinks’.”

His dislike is understandable. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as archaic, poetical and regional. It might have added “pretentious” because that’s surely the quality of online writing that James finds unattractive and likely to waste what little time he has left in this world. He would presumably have passed over an appearance in the Guardian the week before: “So, where will the steel be purchased? Methinks from George Osborne’s new friends in China.” Luckily for the reputation of the paper in James’s eyes, that was in a reader’s letter.

Methinks has long ago fallen out of spoken usage, except in expressions such as “Methinks the witness doth protest too much”, a misquotation from Hamlet . Style guides mostly don’t bother to include it, not even to tell readers to avoid it, which would be good advice. Brian Garner does provide an entry in his guide, without castigation but calling it “an ever-popular archaism”. I would have contested that, had I not found more than a thousand examples in a database of British newspapers from the past 20 years.

Many appearances of methinks suggest that the OED should have added “humorous” to its list of likely contexts, though the jocularity can be so ponderous that the eyelids droop in sympathy. Some journalists do seem to believe it marks prose as elevated or serious, as in the down-market Sun in July 2015: “Time, methinks, for author John O’Farrell to republish his excellent memoirs”, and in May in the mid-market Daily Telegraph: “Methinks that a bit more modesty about how ‘rich’ we are, and accordingly about our ability to dish out largesse, might not go amiss.”

Methinks isn’t only archaic but also ancient. It’s in one of the oldest works in English, King Alfred’s translation before 899 of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiæ , the Consolations of Philosophy. It was then two words, me thyncth (but then written me þincð, using the old characters thorn and eth).

The word looks like a thrusting together of me and think , meaning “it seems to me”, and as though it comes directly from the Old English equivalent of think. But at that time there were two closely similar verbs, in modern spelling thencan, to think, and thyncan, to seem or appear. The source of methinks is actually the second one. In Middle English the two became confused and coalesced into one form that evolved into our modern verb to think. Methinks followed.

If you’re ever tempted to use the past tense, it’s methought. But please don’t.

From my reading
Read with me

Read with me

  • I had thought that dadager, a father who manages a show-business son or (more usually) daughter, had gone the way of other temporary formations — the first examples on record are from 2006 in reference to Joe Simpson, father-manager of Jessica. But I came across it last week in reference to Matthew Knowles, described as former dadager of Beyoncé, and a hunt around found a number of other recent usages. There are, of course, also momagers, and I’ve also turned up one reference to a sistager. Of the three, momager is by far the commonest and also the oldest: a newspaper search revealed an isolated early use from 1977.
  • A recent BBC television programme, The World’s Weirdest Events, featured a firenado. I come late to this one, as it started to appear in 2013 and became more widely used in the US in 2014. A firenado is a tornado caused by a big fire, which carries burning embers and flame across the land. Firenados have been recorded much earlier under names like fire whirl, fire devil, fire tornado and fire twister.
  • After the discussion of words for snow in the last issue, it was intriguing to come across another Antarctic cold-weather term: brinicle, from brine and icicle . This was filmed for the first time in 2011 for the BBC television programme, Frozen Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. A brinicle is an underwater icicle. Brine at a temperature well below 0C is extruded from the under-surface of sea ice and, as it falls, seawater freezes around it to make a column which grows down to the seabed.
  • A recent article in the Observer introduced me to the term social freezing, which has been written about several times this year in the UK. This is the freezing of eggs by women for social or personal reasons rather than medical necessity. In theory it permits them to postpone having children until later in life without problems associated with declining fertility, though experts warn it isn’t an insurance policy as reimplantation can fail. Reasons for social freezing include wanting to have a career first or not having yet found the right partner.

Bill of goods

Q. From BJ Wise: I’ve just come across the phrase bill of goods. I might or might not have read it before, but I had to look it up. Why would selling someone a bill of goods mean to swindle them? I’m not even sure what a bill of goods in the plain sense means.

A. Let’s start with your last comment. Other than in the swindling sense, bill of goods is now hardly known, but unless you understand its more literal associations, the idiom doesn’t make sense. A century ago bill of goods was a US expression meaning a consignment of goods of any sort:

He purchased a bill of goods from Brackton, and, with Creech helping, carried it up to the cabin under the bluff. Three trips were needed to pack up all the supplies.

Wildfire, by Zane Grey, 1917.

This is confusing for us today because we would think of this sort of bill as being a piece of paper, most commonly the sort giving notice of money to be paid. This comes from bill having once meant any formal written document, a sense which survives in a number of special cases, such as parliamentary bill, dollar bill and handbill . It can also be a list, as in bill of rights or the old-fashioned bill of fare for a menu.

Based on this idea, bill of goods originally really did mean a list of goods to be provided, what we might today call a consignment note or despatch note:

The merchant, who receives a bill of goods from his correspondent in London or Liverpool, is particular not only to file that bill for future reference, but to copy it entire into an invoice book, that he may at pleasure look to the quantity, quality, and price of the various articles.

Gould’s Universal Index, And Everybody’s Own Book, 1842.

At some point in the nineteenth century, it changed from being a list to the goods that were listed.

Incidentally, bill comes from the classical Latin bulla for various globular objects such as a bubble, boss or stud. In medieval Latin it shifted to being the seal on a document; in time it came to mean the document instead. In English bulla became bill. It also became bull, as in a Papal bull and similar edicts.

Sometime around the 1920s bill of goods took on the meaning that you’re asking about — to cheat, swindle or get something over on somebody. We don’t know exactly when or why. However, the two ideas are intimately connected, since there’s nothing new in the idea of somebody cheating another by selling them inferior items or taking money for goods that never arrive. The link is expressed pithily in the first example of the phrase’s use we know about:

What has become of the old fashioned salesman who got his customer drunk and then sold him a bill of goods?

Atchison Daily Globe (Kansas), 5 Jan. 1933.

More recently, as the literal sense of bill of goods has fallen out of memory, the expression has contracted again:

He’s already indicated plans to draw sharp contrasts between his ideas on the economy and the Republican approach, which the president recently dismissed as a “bill of goods” that amounts to little more than slashing spending on vital programs like education and Medicare.

Carroll Daily Times Herald (Carroll, Iowa), 15 Aug. 2011.

In the reverse of the coin, people may sometimes buy a bill of goods.

Sic!

SIC

  • Diane Ellerton emails to say that the Care2 site reported on 29 October: “Dog owners and breeders in British Columbia will no longer be able to have their ears cropped.”
  • Still in Canada, Jon Ackroyd came across an advert by a chain of clinics in the Times Colonist of Victoria BC: “Do You Have a Brain Injury? FREE Demonstrations.
  • From Massachusetts, Jessie Brown tells us of a man featured in a story in her local paper for whom selling sand to Arabs would be easy-peasy: “An Arlington man who prosecutors said sold heroin laced with fentanyl to two victims of fatal overdoses has been convicted on drugs charges.”
  • The Guardian could use Greg Payne as a subeditor, since he spotted an item in the New York Times on 10 October about Paul Ryan being pressed to stand as Speaker of the House of Representatives: “His close associates warned that he had no intention of fighting for the job and would most likely accept it only by acclimation.” After he’d got used to the idea.
  • Thanks to Robert Ferrando we learn that a headline on the San Francisco Chronicle’s site on 31 October read: “Man saves dog from mountain lion in his underwear.”

World Wide Words Issue 918

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World Wide Words Issue 917 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 917

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.

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Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Salop. Jane Halsey commented on my piece last time: “I read with interest and nostalgic pleasure your item on the second meaning of salop, or salep, and I hope to return the pleasure by telling you that salep is still around, and still used to make a restorative drink. In Sheepshead Bay, part of the Brooklyn, NY, waterfront, more or less around the corner from the more famous Coney Island and Brighton Beach, there are a lot of Turkish restaurants and cafés. When I lived there 12 years ago, one traditional Turkish coffeehouse used to serve — but only in winter — a hot drink made of salep, milk, and sugar; it was supposed to be very protective against the ills flesh is heir to in cold weather. As I remember, it had a thick, slightly viscous texture and tasted of vanilla — not surprising, since vanilla also comes from an orchid.”

“In the medical world,” Jim Muller wrote, “the male organ which lay people call a testicle is referred to as the testis, plural testes. But once something goes wrong with it, or it has to be operated on, it turns into an orchid: orchitis for inflammation of the testis, and orchidectomy or orchiectomy for its surgical removal. Did the plant get its name from the organ, or was it the other way round?” The twin tubers of orchids were linked with the testicles in classical times and probably long before. The Greek word for testicle was orchis and this was borrowed in classical Latin for the plant because of the association. So the name of the organ came first. Testicle is from classical Latin testis (as you say, still the medical term), literally “witness”, in reference to virility, hence testify and testimonial.

Polly & Maladict of the Monstrous Regiment

Polly & Maladict of the Monstrous Regiment

Julia Cresswell pointed out, “As I’m sure lots of fans will tell you, the divine Terry Pratchett, who had a liking for taking obscure words and repurposing them, used saloop as soldiers’ slang for sweet, milky tea in Monstrous Regiment. Which means that this is probably now the best-known sense.”

Several readers queried the origin of the British term fly-tipping for dumping waste illegally, which appeared in the 1960s. We Brits often tip waste rather than dump it, most often on a rubbish tip. The first element, fly, is also in the older fly-posting, putting up posters without permission. These usages are from the verb fly in that the culprits tip and fly, or post and fly, the idea being of an action done surreptitiously and rapidly, followed by the rapid departure of the perpetrators. Another British sense of fly, knowing or worldly-wise, as in “he’s a fly one!”, may be lurking in there as well.

More on handraulic. Several readers commented further on terms for having to fall back on more primitive methods of carrying out some operation. Gavin Deane wrote: “The term I’m familiar with is mandraulic rather than handraulic. The image for me has always been of a man having to do the work instead of a machine, rather than the idea of working by hand, so I imagine mandraulic is a smashing together of man and hydraulic rather than manual and hydraulic.” The word was submitted to Collins Dictionary recently but rejected because too few examples were on record, though a search would certainly find enough to make it worth considering. Many online dictionaries do include it and I suspect it’s more widely known in engineering circles than the written evidence suggests. Mandraulic is actually much older in the written record than handraulic:

At Droylsden they had no machine for handling coke. Everything was, as one of the workmen had phrased it, “mandraulic.”

The Gas Journal, 1928.

Leucism. I mentioned this in the last issue. John Rostron commented, “Wearing my retired zoologist’s hat, I can tell you about leucism. As you say, it means white plumage or colour. We had a white sparrow in our garden last year. We described it as leucistic rather than albino because it had dark eyes. An albino would have had pink eyes (with no pigmentation in the iris). Albinism is the total inability to produce pigment. In leucism, the production of pigment is suppressed in the fur or feathers.”

Hairy eyeball. My comments last time brought many responses. Most pointed to an early example in Arlo Guthrie’s famous Alice’s Restaurant of 1967, a spoken blues song in which he tells how a court conviction for littering leaves him seated with hardened criminals at his draft-board screening:

He said, “What were you arrested for, kid?” And I said, “littering”. And they all moved away from me on the bench there, and the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean nasty things, till I said, “And creating a nuisance.” And they all came back, shook my hand, and we had a great time on the bench, talking about crime …

Others suggested that the meaning I gave for the verbal eyeball by itself was less than the full story. “In American English, as I’ve experienced it,” John Burgess wrote, “to eyeball something — without preceding adjectives — is simply to look at for oneself, to not take another’s assessment as necessarily valid. I might be interested in buying something, but will insist on eyeballing it to make sure it is what is advertised or that it will meet my needs. There is no built-in negative to it, just the fact that one will look at it with some discrimination.” Michael Bawtree concurred: “Here in Nova Scotia, and I think generally in Canada, to eyeball something means to measure it by eye as opposed to using a ruler. They say that in wooden-boat-building days an experienced shipwright could eyeball a length of wood as much as 35 feet long, and be accurate to within an inch of its actual length. Tape measures for these lengths were often not used at all.”

Atlatl. Readers were quick to point out that an atlatl isn’t a throwing dart or spear but a wooden rod with a hollow at one end. It’s used to throw the spear with more force than is possible by hand alone.

Gibberish

To describe some attempt at communication as gibberish today is most likely to disparage it as mere meaningless verbiage. But at its strongest, in its earlier days, gibberish was speech that belonged to no known language. It was worse even than calling it double Dutch or asserting that it was all Greek.

Etymologists have been scratching their heads over its origin almost since it first appeared in the language in the middle 1500s. There’s a set of words — gibber , jibber, jabber, gobble and gab (as in gift of the gab) — that may be related attempts at imitating incomprehensible utterances. But how they arrived and in what order is unknown. An eighteenth-century writer linked gibberish with the French word geber, meaning to cheat, which is now not thought to be in the least likely. Other experts prefer an origin in an unrecorded Germanic word.

The best of the invented stories about its origin is the one that Dr Samuel Johnson subscribed to in his Dictionary of 1755: “[I]t is probably derived from the chymical cant, and originally implied the jargon of Geber and his tribe.” Geber is a Latinised form of the name of a prolific eighth-century Arabic writer, Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan. His name is attached to hundreds of books, covering such an encyclopaedic range that some scholars have argued he was the pseudonym of a syndicate or was awarded authorship by posterity.

One work attributed to him is The Book of Stones According to the Opinion of Balinas. This says: “And, as always, we deliberately abrogate in one book what we say in another. The reason is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for.” He seems to have succeeded splendidly in this aim, for the work — like most of the writings attributed to him — is hard to understand, full of mystical musings and technical terms that can’t easily be translated. Hence, the story goes, gebberish or gibberish. There is, you will appreciate, no truth in this.

One notable point about gibberish is that it has shifted pronunciation. Today, it’s almost always said like jibberish, with a soft g sound. But at one time, it had a hard g; some current dictionaries give that as a variant pronunciation though it survives only to a small extent — a British survey in 1998 found the hard g form was used by only 4% of respondents. That version may suggest a closer connection with gobble and gab and a lesser one with jibber and jabber.

You snowing me?

“Snow in Helsinki” Deviant Art

In 1989, the American linguist Geoffrey Pullum wrote a sarcastic piece with the title The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, in which he derided and deconstructed claims that the Inuit (as we have since learned to call them) had 50, or 100, or 200 words for snow. The numbers have enlarged in the telling, starting with an article in 1940 by Benjamin Lee Whorf (one half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and grossly extended subsequently through sloppy research, careless copying, half-understood references and the desire for a good story.

This week this hoary old folktale has reappeared in headlines asserting that the Scots language has more words for snow than the Inuit languages do. The stories below the headlines explain that academics compiling the pilot Historical Thesaurus of Scots (which by no sort of coincidence was launched online the same day) have unearthed 421 words for snow used in the language from the earliest times to today.

Examples include feefle (to swirl, as of snow round a corner), flindrikin (a slight snow shower), spitters (small drops or flakes of wind-driven rain or snow), snaw-pouther (fine driving snow), feuchter (of snow, to fall lightly, to come down in odd flakes), snaw-ghast (an apparition seen in the snow), blin-drift (drifting snow), sneesl (begin to rain or snow), and skelf (a large snowflake).

Not to deride the linguistic inventiveness of the Scots (or the Inuits), but English can also claim an excellent count of snow-related language, even if we exclude words borrowed in relatively recent times from other languages, like the Latinate niveous (relating to snow), French névé (uncompressed granular snow on a glacier) or the originally Russian sastrugi   (parallel ridges formed on snow by the wind). If we’re being strict about this exclusion, we ought also to reject avalanche from French (we have our native snowslide, though it lacks the cataclysmic implications of the French word). We might also feel obliged to exclude the special vocabularies of skiers, such as crust and powder, and the colloquialisms of Antarctic scientists, which include sago snow (very fine round balls of snow), piecrust (soft snow with a covering of hard but brittle snow) and degomble (to clear snow off clothes or sled dogs).

Words such as slush, sleet and blizzard are common. We may legitimately include our several dozen other compounds of snow, such as snowflake, snowdrift , snow-bank, snowstorm, snow cover, snowscape, snow cloud, snow-glare, snow shower and snow-driven, because that word-forming process is close to that used by the Inuits, who can generate a large number of compounds from a few roots.

But there are many more: shelling (a fall of snow on the back of a sheep), flother (a flake of snow), windcrust (a crust formed on the surface of soft snow by the wind), hap (a heavy fall of snow), besnow (to cover or whiten with snow), reek (a pile of snow), penitent (a spike or pinnacle of compact snow that has been sculpted by the elements), whited (covered with snow), blind-drift (a drift of heavy snow), mafting (drifting snow), balter (snow adhering to horses’ hooves), blunk (to snow lightly), snittering (the fall of snow), plodgy (of deep snow that’s not yet trodden down), oversnow (whiten over with snow), and hogamadog (a huge ball of snow made by boys rolling a snowball over soft snow, which is, you may like to know, defunct Northumberland dialect).

If you conclude from your ignorance of the great majority of these that I’m cheating by featuring rare, obsolete or dialectal words, you would be right, though the same may be said of the Scots thesaurus. However, it makes a good story for the papers on publication day, though linguists might wish that it hadn’t given yet more exposure to that daft story about the Inuits.

Werifesteria

Leonie Bell wrote to ask about this word, which is circulating in social media. It’s said to be Old English, meaning “to wander longingly through the forest in search of mystery”. Its popularity suggests that it meets an inchoate spiritual desire for a term to sum up a concept that hasn’t previously been possible to articulate briefly. To be mundane about it, however, the evidence suggests it was created in late 2014 by an unknown person out of thin air. No record of it exists before then and there’s no root in Old English for forests or longing or wandering that matches anything in the word. It’s an intriguing neologism, a minor mystery of its own, and I would love to uncover the process of thought that led the anonymous author to create it.

Chi-ike

Q. From Adam Sampson : My grandmother, who’s from North Kent, surprised us by using the verb chi-ike recently, meaning “banter”. We’d never heard of this before. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, but with no etymology; are you able to shed any light on this?

A. This takes me back. Having been brought up in London and being — I guess — roughly contemporary with your grandmother, I’m familiar with chi-ike. That you don’t recognise it confirms that it has now vanished from the living language.

Banter is a good way to explain it: friendly but rough or heavy-handed mocking exchanges between men, say on building sites, the factory floor or across the street. However, in less friendly situations it can also be heckling and taunts. The first part, by the way, rhymes with sky and the second with like.

I can’t give you a firm answer about its etymology — the experts are baffled and it remains a puzzling mystery. There are one or two hints, but I need first to tell you more about its history.

It arose among London costermongers in the early to middle nineteenth century. The date is uncertain because we encounter it first in the UK in John Camden Hotten’s Dictionary of Slang of 1859: “Chi-ike, a hurrah, a good word, or hearty praise”, by which date it had probably been around for decades. The 1870 edition adds that chi-ike was “a term used by the costermongers, who assist the sale of each other’s goods by a little friendly, although noisy, commendation.” It’s also often said to have been a hearty greeting.

Early appearances suggest that the quality of friendliness in the exchanges was often lacking. It could imply jeering, mocking or making fun of somebody. This is the sense that was taken to Australia, where it appears in print before it does in the UK, though in a wildly variant spelling due to oral transmission of an unfamiliar term in accents unfamiliar to an English visitor:

The “skyhacking”, to which the police were subject … was brought on principally by their own individual overbearing conduct … bullying and swearing at every one.

What I Heard, Saw and Did at the Australian Gold Fields, by C Rudston Read, 1853.

A ditty in the London humorous magazine Punch in 1887 told of a lad who liked to visit the seaside because he could go on the pier to observe seasick passengers arrive back from boat trips: “And it is sech a lark to chi-ike them, the best bit o’ fun of the day.”

By 1871 the term had entered popular culture as one of the names of the Chinese policemen in the pantomime Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. One instance was at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool, in which the part was played by Che Mah, the “original imperial Chinese dwarf”, claimed to be thirty inches in height and so “the smallest man in the world”.

In Australia it has been spelled chiak or chyack . It reached New Zealand by the 1880s, additionally as shiack or shyack. My understanding is that it’s now virtually unknown in these countries, too. Oddly, the various Oxford dictionaries prefer to spell it chi-hike, which has never been common. Do Oxford’s lexicographers have special information or did someone assume Cockneys were dropping their hs and put one in?

It is sometimes suggested that it’s from English dialect, though nobody has pointed to a specific word and there’s nothing relevant in the various glossaries. A writer to Notes and Queries in 1898 wondered if chi-ike could be an attempt to reproduce the Cockney pronunciation of cheek, to address a person saucily or cheekily. We may choose to believe otherwise. A few early usages hint at a connection with the Jews of London’s East End, some of whom were costermongers. This is probably just a guess, based on the second element ike, which at one time was a derogatory name for a Jew (a form of the personal name Isaac, also as ikey, or as ikeymo, Isaac and Moses; the American variant form kike wasn’t then known).

Read with me

Read with me

  • The British Museum’s exhibition on the Celts — from accounts of the previews a stunning show — has introduced me to the term Cardiac Celt. This is mainly an American colloquial term and refers to a person who has no Celtic heritage but who feels themself to be Celtic “in the heart”. It was invented by Dr Marion Bowman, now Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University, in a paper of 1995.
  • A different short of show recently, New York fashion week, is reported to have featured a newish bit of insider slang —the Guardian called this year’s “breakout buzzword” — nodel. A nodel is “not a model”, a non-professional, perhaps a friend of the designer. The word can be traced back to 2011.
  • An article about the final season of the ITV period soap opera Downton Abbey, which recently began airing here in the UK, has introduced me to set jetting, which isn’t a Spoonerism but a play on words to describe the plans of visitors to Britain to explore sites where films or television programmes have been shot (for Downton Abbey, the Hampshire stately home Highclere Castle). I was surprised to discover the term isn’t new: it appeared in an article by Gretchen Kelly in the New York Post in February 2008. Wikipedia says that another term is location vacation, which has a ring of its own, though set jetting is better.
  • My weird word for September is nixtamalization. It’s a process of preparing maize by cooking it with an alkali such as lime. It’s better known in Spanish, particularly Mexican Spanish, than in English; its origin is Nahuatl nixtamalli, a blend of terms for maize dough and ashes.

Disburse versus disperse

WIF Grammar 101-001

Getting on for a decade ago, I wrote about the confusion between reticent and reluctant. I was reminded about this by an email from Martin Turner: “I just came across a misuse of disperse for disburse. A cursory check suggests that this may now be the dominant usage. Do you know if disburse is really on the way to obscurity?”

I can find no evidence in printed works (such as newspapers and books) of this shift, but these are to various extents edited by people who would be likely to pick up the usage as a misspelling. A search of social media such as Twitter, however, shows that phrases such as “disperse money” are often used where “disburse” is clearly meant. It may be, as Peter Morris has suggested, that the curse of predictive texting is at work. Disburse is a fairly rare word which may not come up on some mobile phones when users type in the letters.

However, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the difference has become blurred: the two words are sufficiently close in both sense and spelling for the less common member of the pair to slowly slip out of use. But not yet, I think!

SIC

Sic!

On 19 September, Addeane Caelleigh and Michael Smiszek tell us, the online version of the Dan Ariely weekly column in the Wall Street Journal featured this from a reader: “On a recent business trip to San Francisco, I showed up early for a meeting, so I went to wait in a coffee shop. A cup of coffee was $8, and it was full of young people.”

The same day, Norman Berns spotted, the New York Times had an article about the Republican nomination fight, which included this: “‘You’ve got a set of unintended consequences that weren’t planned for,’ said Richard F. Hohlt, a Republican donor and Washington lobbyist.”

Child abuse is a serious matter but taking it seriously might not have been helped by a headline Jim Hart saw in The Age of Melbourne on 17 September: “School to pay $1m to abuse survivor”.

And finally, two examples of a classic error. Linda Fullerton heard this on CBS News on 27 November: “And next, the story of a tiny baby born on a cruise ship weighing one pound.

Henry Peacock found the other on the Lancashire Evening Post site on 19 September: “He pleaded guilty to breaching a byelaw by committing an indecent act during a short court hearing.”

World Wide Words Issue 917

– WIF Style

World Wide Words – Issue 916

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 916

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.

 

Feedback, Notes and Comments

letter-to-editor

Vacaday. In the last issue, I rejected this possible conflation of vacation and holiday as being silly. Peter Armstrong pointed out that real life disagrees: “A vacay-day is already a commonly used term among many working people here in California and I imagine elsewhere. It comes from filling out one’s online time sheet, and designating a day off as a ‘Vacation Day’.”

Manual. Comments were prompted by my thoughts about the use of manually for operating something with the foot. Michael Tremberth noted: “Organists are accustomed to the directions manualiter for passages to be performed with only the hands on the manuals, and pedaliter for passages to be executed similarly with the feet on the pedal board.”

“I recall an alternative,” Ian Williams wrote from the UK, “used when a piece of equipment that is supposed to act automatically fails to do so. In that case, the only option is to fall back on more primitive methods and perform the operation handraulically. Being a software engineer, I came across this also in the context of the failure of automatic code generation to do its job. Is it just me or has anyone else come across the concept of handraulic engineering?”

Searching throws up Handraulic as a trademark of an emergency hydraulic starting system for diesel engines, originally designed in France. The first recorded reference I can find is in the Shipbuilder and Marine Engine-builder of 1950, announcing that the UK firm Berger Fuel Injection had gained the rights and were selling it under the Handraulic name, trademarked the same year. The devices became widely popular (they’re still being made and sold by a successor business) and the name became well known. The evidence suggests that handraulic and handraulically derive as informal terms from the trademark. This is the earliest I’ve found:

An examination of the present information and the way it is obtained, handled and displayed, shows that none of it is yet in a form which enables it to be handled automatically. Information handling is, in other words, at present entirely “manumatic” or “handraulic”.

British Communications and Electronics, 1959.

Sicced. The last issue included a Sic! item from the Guardian. A more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger message came from one of the staff at the Readers’ Editor office, saying that they had corrected the story and would have done so much earlier had anybody told them about it. Subeditors: a vanished breed.

Oxford Dictionary Quizzes. Last time, I mentioned four quizzes set by the people at Oxford Dictionaries to test visitors’ knowledge of the vocabulary of four regional Englishes. I wondered how well natives would succeed with the quiz for their own language. Ada Robinson wrote: “I did all four of the Oxford Dictionary quizzes. I’m from far western Canada (Victoria, BC), and wasn’t surprised I did worst on the Australian test. However, I did better on the British and American tests than I did on the Canadian one! A number of words in the Canadian quiz were unknown to me — I suspect they are eastern Canadianisms. There’s a lot of prairie and muskeg between BC and Ontario.”

Salop

A British reader encountering this word would be likely to think of the county of Shropshire, whose name is thus historically abbreviated. Somebody who lives there is a Salopian. It might not look it but Salop and Salopian are indeed connected to Shropshire. It’s in part the result of a split a thousand years ago between the Old English and Norman-French names for the county town of Shrewsbury.

My recent reading of John Warren’s The Nature of Crops has thrown up a quite different sense of salopian, one which the Oxford English Dictionary notes only as a one-off invented word dated 1822. The link is with a foodstuff that has been spelled salup, saloop and salep as well as salop.

The main ingredient was the powdered root of orchids, boiled in water to make a thick starchy drink. In Britain the usual source was the early purple orchid, at the time so common in meadows and pastures that it was harvested in bulk. The first use of the roots was medicinal, to correct various internal problems. It was also thought to increase fertility in men and act as an aphrodisiac, because its twin tubers resembled testicles.

The orchid was once known as dogstones or dog’s cods for this reason. Salop comes from the same idea: it has been traced via Portuguese and Turkish to the Arabic khasyu ‘th-tha‘lab for an orchid, literally fox’s testicles.

Salop became fashionable in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a restorative drink, which at a shilling an ounce was much cheaper than the imported coffee, tea and chocolate drunk by more prosperous classes. A recipe:

Take a Quart of Water, and let it boil a quarter of an Hour; then put in a quarter of an Ounce of Salop finely powdered, and let it boil half an Hour longer, stirring it all the while; then season it with White-wine and Juice of Lemons, and sweeten it to your Taste; drink it in China Cups as Chocolate; ’tis a great Sweetner of the Blood.

The Compleat Housewife: Or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, by Eliza Smith, 1728. Why the author thought it necessary to boil the water for so long before adding the powdered salop is unclear, unless he was extraordinarily concerned about the bug-ridden state of English water.

The concoction (usually under the name saloop) was sold by street vendors in most English cities and also in specialist shops; it was usually flavoured with sugar and milk rather than wine and lemon. Charles Lamb wrote grandly in 1841, “Palates otherwise not uninstructed in dietetical elegancies sup it up with avidity”.

It became so popular as an early-morning pick-me-up by workmen before beginning their labours that English orchids couldn’t meet demand and supplies, thought in any case to be of superior quality, were imported from Turkey and India (countries where salop continues to be consumed under related names).

Later, salop was applied to a similar drink, made from sassafras bark imported from North America:

Passing on, in our way towards the Foundling Hospital, we perceived a groupe of wretches, male and female, round a kind of cauldron filled with an infusion of sassafras, well known by the name of saloop, which they seemed to drink with the greatest avidity.

A modern Sabbath, or, a Sunday ramble, and Sabbath-day journey, circuitous and descriptive, in and about the cities of London and Westminster, and borough of Southwark, by Anon, 1794.

Salop stayed popular until the early nineteenth century. It is sometimes said that it fell out of favour through a growing belief that it was a cure for sexual diseases and that as a result nobody wanted to be seen drinking it. In truth, it was superseded in fashion by coffee. It was drunk in its final years only by the poorest of the working classes. Among its most dogged consumers were the boys employed by sweeps to climb chimneys, who found that the hot drink helped soften the mouth cancers from which they frequently suffered.

From my reading

Read with me

etymology
  • A whiter shade of pale. When I encountered leucism in some nature notes, I naturally turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for an explanation, only to find to my mild surprise there was no entry for it. It looked like a formation from the prefix leuco-, meaning white, and a quick search using my favourite search engine found this to be so, since leucism is a zoological term for the whole or partial loss of pigmentation in an animal, leaving it white or patchy.
  • One-horned wonders. Unicorns are mythical beasts, except in Silicon Valley, where they are privately owned high-tech companies valued at a billion dollars or more. The term was coined by the American venture capitalist Aileen Lee in November 2013, after she had discovered that only 0.07% of start-up software and internet companies had grown so large, making them (almost) as rare as unicorns and members of what she called the Unicorn Club. But times change and unicorns of this specialised sort are no longer so rare (and more are in San Francisco than Silicon Valley). Bloomberg Business magazine has since invented decacorn for those valued at $10bn and the Canadian financial advisor Brent Holliday has coined narwhal (from the horned beast of northern waters, which has been called the unicorn of the sea), for Canadian companies worth more than C$1bn.
  • Language evolves, sometimes quite quickly. In early June the veteran left-wing British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn joined the contest to become the next leader of his party. His candidature has subsequently confounded critics and attracted great public support that has moved him from outsider to odds-on favourite. Language has followed, albeit based on well-worn suffixes, with Corbynites being invented for his supporters, Corbynmania (or more informally, Corbymania) for the euphoric reception he’s been getting at packed-out meetings, Corbynomics for his economic policies and even Corbynate, to convince somebody to become a supporter. We shall know on 12 September, when the result of the election is due to be announced, whether this rush of word creation has been a predictor of success.
  • The Frozen Past. I learned from the 14 August issue of Science that climate change is leading to a new scientific sub-discipline called glacial archaeology. This is the study of ancient human evidence exposed by climate change, which is causing glaciers to retreat, exposing unique archaeological finds that have remained frozen and well preserved for thousands of years. The best known are ancient human remains, such as the Ice Man, Ötzi, found in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991 and a similarly well-preserved 500-year-old “Inca Ice Maiden” discovered in 1999 in Argentina. Evidence of human activity — mittens, shoes, weapons, walking sticks — is turning up in southern Norway from the Stone Age, 7,000 years ago. The alpine regions of southern Yukon are giving up important collections of ancient hunting implements, including a 10,000-year-old atlatl, or throwing dart. Gruesomely, and oddly inaccurately, Science attached the term glacial archaeology to the bodies of modern mountain climbers which are similarly being revealed by melting ice.
  • Hard strikes. Swatting, as slang for a criminal activity, has been in the news recently in the UK, explained as an unfamiliar term. It derives from SWAT, Special Weapons and Tactics, police units originally from the US that deal with armed incidents. A person swats by making a hoax emergency call to the police to say that armed intruders are at a property. The resulting call-out by an armed response team, often during the night, causes deliberate distress and disturbance for the intended victim and their family. The term swatting may go back a decade, but became noticeable in printed sources from about 2011 as a result of celebrities being swatted. The link between fly-swatting and victim-swatting makes the term particularly appropriate in the minds of those who perpetrate the hoax.

Hairy eyeballs

Q. From Elizabeth Ullman : In a book by Cory Doctorow, I found a reference to somebody giving the hairy eyeball to another person. This is a weird thing to do. What does it mean and where does it come from?

A. Put simply, to give somebody the hairy eyeball is to stare at them in an angry or disapproving manner. Perhaps this was the example you read:

 

The shanty towners were used to tourists in their midst. A few yardies gave them the hairy eyeball, but then they saw Perry was along and they found something else to pay attention to.

Makers, by Cory Doctorow, 2010.

To eyeball somebody — without mention of hair — is an older American expression meaning to stare at somebody, specifically to do so from a short distance away in an intimidating or disapproving manner. This is the earliest example so far unearthed:

   

He straightened up, holding in his right hand, by its long locks, a dead head depending therefrom. Taking it gingerly, the Captain set it on the table directly before Mr. Marshall East, and arranged it squarely. … “God!” burst from the lips of the man as he eyeballed his attendant.
“Oh — well — you recognise him then.”

Natchez’s Pass, by Frederic Remington, in Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 1901. The eyeballer here may be said to have been intimidated rather than intimidating.

Hairy eyeball begins to show up in print in the early 1960s, though the saying is almost certainly older. Its first appearance, in a widely syndicated press interview with the American actress and comedian Carol Burnett, is intriguing because it has a very different sense to the current one:

With her [Carol Burnett’s sister] everything is boys-boys-boys. She’s really educated me. She was telling me about a boy looking at her and she said, “He gave me the hairy eyeball.” That meant he liked her. But if she didn’t like the boy she would say, “Oh, what a twitch!”

Galveston Daily News (Texas), 7 Nov. 1961.

This might seem to have been a short-lived meaning, as two years later the New York Times Magazine stated firmly that to give the hairy eyeball “means that somebody was disapproving.” However, in 1972, Zoe Brockman wrote in the Gastonia Gazette of North Carolina that she had just discovered this new expression and found that it meant girls fluttering their eyelashes at boys. To her way of thinking, flirting “sounds a lot better than this hairy eyeball bit.” Her view was presumably shared, as this meaning died out in favour of the disapproving one.

It seems highly plausible that eyelashes are the basis of the idiom. They may have originally fluttered, but in the standard sense it instead means looking with narrowed eyes through the lashes in displeasure or dislike.

Broom-squire

A house recently advertised for sale near the Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey mentioned that it had once been used by broom-squires. These weren’t the minor aristocracy of rural places that the second half of their title suggests but poor rural artisans.

They were famously evoked by Sabine Baring-Gould — Anglican priest, antiquarian and novelist — in his 1896 novel The Broom-Squire, set near the house:

At some unknown date squatters settled in the Punch-Bowl, at a period when it was in as wild and solitary a region as any in England. They enclosed portions of the slopes. They built themselves hovels; they pastured their sheep, goats, cattle on the sides of the Punch-Bowl, and they added to their earnings the profits of a trade they monopolized — that of making and selling brooms. On the lower slopes of the range grew coppices of Spanish chestnut, and rods of this wood served admirably for broom-handles. The heather when long and wiry and strong, covered with its harsh leafage and myriad hard knobs, that were to burst into flower, answered for the brush. On account of this manufacture, the squatters in the Punch-Bowl went by the designation of Broom-Squires. They provided with brooms every farm and gentleman’s house, nay, every cottage for miles around. A wagon-load of these besoms was often purchased, and the supply lasted some years.

Broom-squires were necessarily restricted to the heathlands of England, such as the Surrey Heaths of the story and the New Forest further south, though at times the brush of the broom wasn’t heather but birch twigs, strictly speaking turning their makers into besom-squires, a term that appears only rarely.

Squire is not a term of respect here. Alongside its sense of a country gentleman was a contemptuous one that evolved from its oldest meaning of an attendant on a knight, hence later merely a servant, and a lowly one at that. A close relative is the long obsolete apple-squire, which may be politely defined as a male companion of a woman of ill-repute, more accurately a pimp (we may guess the apple was a sly reference to the biblical Eve, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests a woman’s breasts were meant). Broom-squires, often itinerant and always poor, had an unsavoury reputation not so far removed from the then conventional view of gypsies.

A footnote in The Sporting Review in December 1840 to an article about hunting over yet another heath, in Somerset, described broom-squires negatively as “A variety of the genus homo found on Quantock, living on whortleberries, dwarf-birch, &c, &c. Towards winter they frequent the lower grounds, and prey on game of all sorts, preferring that of their own killing.”

Other reports mention the rude huts they inhabited. The thatched sixteenth-century former gamekeeper’s cottage mentioned in the property advert was unlikely ever to have been the home of broom-squires. However, it makes a good story for the sales brochures.

Sic!

SIC

Peter Moor sent a headline from the San Diego Examiner of 10 August: “Lost dog reunited with owner after 9 yrs speaks out.”

“Winner of the 2015 Fatuous Journalism Award?” was Grant Agnew’s comment on a reporter at Channel 7 News in Brisbane, who solemnly told viewers that “infertility is not hereditary”.

A label on the frozen slush which Brandon Callison bought read, “Warning! This product is for individual consumption and should not be re-sold after consumption.”

Channel CP24 in Toronto posted this weather forecast in its online section News You Can Use on 25 August: “Environment Canada is calling for a mix of sun and cloud and a 30 per cent chance of this afternoon.”

“That must have been worth watching,” wrote Mike Hannon of a headline on the Guardian site on 19 August: Determined koala chases woman on quad bike.”

This sounds about as likely as the image conjured up by a caption to a picture of the Australian outback spotted by Ian Short in the SilkAir in-flight magazine: “Drift across scenic parkland and see kangaroos bounding through the bush in a hot air balloon.”

The website of the East London & West Essex Guardian headlined a story on 18 August: “Men caught on CCTV fly-tipping [illegally dumping] a fridge wanted by Croydon Council”. We must hope the council got its fridge back.

Chris Buza tells us that Tasmania Police posted a Twitter message on 12 August: “Police have received a report of a white ute [utility vehicle] carrying a ladder that may have been used to impersonate police in the Hobart area.”

Spotted by Philip Stevens in the small ads in the Saffron Walden local newspaper in Essex: “Dark Maroon high quality leather suite, 9 years old. Senior lady owner, well cared for.” Nice about the lady, but what about the suite?

World Wide Words

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– Issue 916

World Wide Words Issue 915 – WIF Style

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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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World Wide Words Issue 914 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 914

from the U.K.’s Michael Quinion

Feedback, Notes and Comments
Letters

Crisp versus crispy. Several readers responded to the comments in this section last time, among them Andrew Haynes: “Crisp bacon would have the awkward feature of consecutive labial consonants, which would make it hard to pronounce other than as crisbacon. Crispy may convey nothing that crisp does not, but it allows a clearly enunciated description of bacon cooked to crispiness (or crispness).” Gould Thomas added, “I never hear that word without thinking of one of my favourite lines from The Goon Show: ‘Whatever happened to the crispy bacon we had before the war?’ When with friends and the conversation seems to be going nowhere I will throw that in just to ‘re-boot’ it.”

Deodand. Carl Moss was one of a number of readers who mentioned a curious usage of this old word. “Those of us who take a guilty pleasure in reading fantasy ‘literature’ will recognise deodand as a word appropriated by Jack Vance for his Dying Earth books as a type of humanoid creature. I don’t know why he picked the word. Perhaps it was for its splendid and slightly exotic sound.”

Vigintillion

Reader David Hutchinson asked me about this word, which he had encountered in a well-known story by H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, which appeared in Weird Tales in February 1928: “After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.” Was this perhaps a creation by Lovecraft or a real word with some history?

It’s rather rare but vigintillion is real enough, though its meaning has been disputed. Some old references explain it as 10 followed by 120 zeros (10120) but modern ones as 10 followed by a mere 63 zeros (1063). This gross disparity in definition of a number that by any measure is awesomely huge (the universe is estimated to contain about 1023 stars) is the result of different French and English methods of naming big numbers.

When Lovecraft was writing a century ago, the word was known to many older Americans from the rote learning of arithmetic in school. This Gradgrindian approach to imparting facts was based on works such as A New and Complete System of Arithmetick: Composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States, written by Nicolas Pike in 1788 but later revised and extended by others. Most children would have met one of the abridged versions considered to be more appropriate for tender minds. It was one of Pike’s revisers, Chester Dewey, who introduced vigintillion , in the fourth edition of 1822:

These names of periods of figures, derived from the Latin numerals, may be continued without end. They are as follows, for twenty periods, viz. Units, Millions, Billions, Trillions, Quatrillions, Quintillions, Sextillions, Septillions, Octillions, Nonillions, Decillions, Undecillions, Duodecillions, Tredecillions, Quatuordecillions, Quindecillions, Sexdecillions, Septendecillions, Octodecillions, Novemdecillions, Vigintillions.

Pike had sensibly ended his list at duodecillions and to extend it was surely otiose. Successors and imitators perpetuated Dewey’s version of this utterly useless catalogue, few of whose members have ever been encountered in print other than as part of this list.

Most enforced learners must have forgotten almost all of these number words immediately after leaving school and probably felt the better for it. Some later recalled its final member, not in its specific sense but as a way to express some very large but unspecified number, much as we use words like gazillion or bazillion today:

Well when a boy we learned the numeration table as far as vigintillions by the English method, and it is well we did, for nothing short of this would tell of the corn crop this fall.

Freeport North West (Freeport, Illinois), 14 Sep. 1865.

The names never stood much chance of being adopted. When the need to refer to large numbers became urgent a century later, a set of prefixes were created (giga‑ , tera-, peta- , eta-, zeta-, yotta-) that take us to 10 24, about as far as most people will ever need to go. They mostly appear in computing (gigabytes and terabytes and the like) since recorders even of national expenditure haven’t yet needed to speak of sums of money much greater than a trillion. Douglas Hofstadter wrote wittily in his Metamagical Themas column in Scientific American in May 1982 about these old terms:

To be sure, there are some official names for bigger numbers [than trillions], but they are about as familiar as the names of extinct dinosaurs: quadrillion, octillion, vigintillion, brontosillion, triceratillion and so on. We are simply not familiar with them, since they died off a dinosillion years ago.

Let that be their epitaph.

Hingle

Hingle, an English dialect word that I suspect is now hardly known, appeared recently in a book by a father-and-son pair of poachers. In the language of their occupation, a hingle is a snare with which to catch a hare or rabbit. It’s essentially a bent twig or loop of wire.

At root, hingle means a hinge and the word has also been used in dialect in that sense; it can be traced to the Old English hengle that’s also the origin of hinge.

Hingle has been recorded across a band of English counties from Lancashire and Cheshire in the west to Norfolk in the east. A couple of references suggest that the snares were also used to catch wild birds. In 1880 The Zoologist wrote about Norfolk that “Sky Larks were, at that time, so plentiful in the ‘Fen,’ that from twenty to thirty dozen were taken daily in ‘hingles.’” An old ordinance about swans, said to be from the reign of Henry VIII and presented to a conference in Lincoln in 1848, read in part “It’m [Item] that no person shall set any hingles, snares or engines for foule, from Shrovetide to St Luke’s Day.”

The word appears from time to time in nineteenth-century court reports of poachers on trial, as here in the Bury and Norwich Post of December 1858: “I was watching a hingle with a dead partridge in it … and saw the defendant come along the hedge cutting up some sticks. When he got up to the stack he took up the hingle and the partridge, and went home with it.”

It’s perhaps not so surprising that the word has survived but the two poachers who wrote the book are from Gloucestershire, well outside the historical area in which the term has been recorded.

Bookaneer

A review of The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl produced a word new to me, one with an intriguing history.

His title term refers to literary thieves of the nineteenth century who exploited the lack of international copyright agreements to publish counterfeit editions in foreign countries. These buccaneers of the book trade were especially prevalent in the USA, reproducing new works by popular British authors such as Charles Dickens without bothering to pay for the privilege.

Matthew Pearl writes in The Last Bookaneer: “Bookaneers would not describe themselves as thieves, but they would resort to almost any means to profit from an unprotected book.” Dickens had a very public battle with piratical American periodicals and satirised their activities in Martin Chuzzlewit, the serial parts of which were reprinted in the very publications he was lambasting.

Bookaneer was coined by the poet and author Thomas Hood in a letter in The Athenaeum of 22 April 1837 under the title Copyright and Copywrong : “If a work be of temporary interest it shall virtually be free for any Bookaneer to avail himself of its pages and its popularity with impunity.” The extent of the problem was described in an American publication at the middle of the century:

No sooner is a literary venture of Bulwer, Thackeray, or Dickens afloat, than a whole baracoon of “bookaneers,” as Hood called them, rushes forth to seize it.

The Metropolitan (Baltimore), March 1853. A barracoon was a rough barracks used for the temporary confinement of slaves or criminals.

It’s curious that in an age when it was considered rather bad form for a serious writer to coin new words that bookaneer should have had the circulation it did. But it was of temporary popularity within a narrow field and there were few uses after the 1870s in the sense of a ruffianly publisher (though the word has had other senses since) until Matthew Pearl found it while writing a work about Dickens in 2009 and decided to focus on the pirates in his next work.

Weather-wise

A sentence in yet another book review, in the Guardian on 13 June, sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary: “FitzRoy was not the first European to establish a storm-warning system, but he coined the term ‘forecast’.” He did?

The reference is to Robert FitzRoy, who captained HMS Beagle on the famous voyage to explore and survey the coast of South America with Charles Darwin. He later became an admiral. FitzRoy was an early enthusiast for meteorology who in 1854 became head of a new government department that evolved into the Meteorological Office; he produced the first forecasts of stormy weather for shipping in 1861. (FitzRoy’s contribution to weather forecasting was marked internationally in 2002 when the shipping forecast area to the west of the Bay of Biscay known as Finisterre was renamed in his honour.) FitzRoy used forecast because, as he commented in 1863 in The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology, “Prophecies and predictions they are not. The term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as [it] is a result of scientific combination and calculation.”

Other writers similarly claim FitzRoy invented forecast but they are wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary does cite a letter he wrote to The Times in April 1862 as its first example in the sense of weather forecasting, but the noun has been recorded since at least the late seventeenth century, having been derived from the much older verb.

Those that perpetuate the story presumably think in this way: Admiral FitzRoy invented the weather forecast, therefore he must also have invented the word forecast. It is probably much too late to expunge this folk etymology from the public mind.

From my reading

WIF Prime

 

Leaves of chaos. Within the European Commission the evolving Greek financial crisis has led to insiders creating a jargon term that appeared in several places this past week: paperology. This isn’t the science or study of paper and its uses, though others have employed it in that sense, but refers to the series of economic reform proposals that the Greek government has submitted in recent weeks. It has been explained as the exchange of different discussion papers in order to seem to be demonstrating progress while actually acting as a delaying tactic. One source suggests that the term arose earlier in the crisis, in 2012. In that year, the risk that Greece may be forced to abandon the euro generated another jargon term within the EU bureaucracy: redrachmatisation. So much has been written recently about the crisis that Wall Street traders have reportedly invented Gretigue, a blend of Greek and fatigue.

Downward disposal? A curious idiom appeared in a tweet on 1 July by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and recently elected MP. He was commenting on the 342-page report published that day by the Davies commission. After three years’ work it has decided that a third runway at Heathrow Airport would be the best option for increasing air capacity in the south-east of England. Johnson opposes the enlargement of Heathrow and wrote that the report was “destined for vertical filing as 3rd r/way will never be built.” Vertical filing? Did he mean that the report is likely to languish on some dusty bookshelf or that it should be thoughtfully dropped into the nearest wastepaper basket? I’ve asked him.

Pig sick

letter-to-editor

Q. From Margaret Lethbridge-Cejku: I came across this recently, in a mystery novel set in Bath, Something in the Blood by Jean Goodhind: “She knew he was brooding. He’d lost the clock and he was pig sick about it.” I gather the character was near prostrate in his disappointment, but pig sick? Is this a common expression? When I encounter sick as a dog, I envision vomiting copiously. But pigs? Are they prone to histrionics? The context leads me to think that it’s an over-the-top but deeply felt heartache. Can you enlighten this Yankee reader?

A. The sense is as you describe it. The slang term pig sick refers not to a real physical sickness or illness but to an acute state of mind — annoyed, saddened, displeased, discontented or indignant about something:

If you are pig sick of the Kardashian clan, an app called KardBlock cuts them out of your digital life.

The Sun, 5 May 2015.

We’re pig sick of this political correctness

Daily Mirror headline, 25 Jan. 2015.

Sick by itself can have much the same idea of a feeling of affliction or mental unhappiness that’s powerful enough to mimic a physical ailment. It’s been used in English for about a thousand years and we have several phrases that include it, such as sick at heart (and heartsick) and the old-fashioned sick with love . A person might say “it makes me sick”, “I’m sick of it” or more fully “I’m sick and tired of it” when referring to some situation that seriously irritates. To express sadness or disappointment we have down the years been metaphorically as sick as horses, dogs, and even parrots.

And the pig in the expression isn’t a real animal either. Like dog, pig has long been used as what linguists call an intensifier, adding strength to an expression. Somebody may be pig-ignorant, for example. To be pig sick then is to have some adverse emotion in especially high measure.

The term is mostly found in Britain and Commonwealth countries and looks from the dating evidence to be a coinage of the Second World War. This is the earliest I’ve so far found, a letter to a British newspaper from a resident who is displeased by wartime regulations:

If a jay-walker is knocked down, blame the motorist; if he accidentally bumps the kerb he is driving dangerously; if his lights are too bright or too dim, he is a danger on the road; if his car is not smothered in white paint he commits an offence; if he drives over 30 m.p.h. he is a menace; if he drives under 30 m.p.h. he is impeding traffic. All these petty items are making the motorist just pig-sick.

Hartlepool Mail, 16 Jan. 1942.

There may be a literal source for the expression. At one time, land was said by farmers and vets to be pig sick if the animals were allowed to run on it for an extended period so that parasites built up in the soil, stopping the pigs thriving and sometimes killing them. It’s possible that early users of the expression had this agricultural usage in mind.

Sic!
SIC

Michael LaNoue read in the Denver Post of a police investigation into a person hoarding animals: “When officers arrived, they discovered hundreds of rats, snakes and geckos that Kelley said appeared to be stored in a garage. ‘We did find deceased animals living in very poor conditions’, she said.”

The East Oregonian became briefly notorious for its headline over a sports story on 6 June: “Amphibious Pitcher makes debut”. Thanks to the many people who sent that in.

Charles Veritie wondered if he were missing something, having read a report on Yahoo News on 29 June about Heathrow Airport: “The extension will be built on top of the existing Terminal 1, which is to be demolished.”

Craig Osborne encountered a paradoxical sign at a parking space: “No Unauthorised Parking Without Permission”.

The July issue of Allestree Life, a magazine for a suburb of Derby, caused Kate Bunting to hoot with laughter: “Heavily pregnant, my husband arrived home from work to find me under the kitchen table on all fours …”

Thomas Mannoia read in a report on the News10 site about the fate of one of the New York prison escapees: “Richard Matt was shot and killed in the head three times”. Once is usually enough.

A headline on the Mansfield Wicked Local site in New England was spotted by Barton Bresnik: “Mansfield shoplifting suspect nabbed after chase with halted train”.

World Wide Words

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Issue 914 – WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 912 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

from Michael Quinion

Issue 912

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Letters

Oops. Stephen Brasher was first off the mark to tell me of an error in the last issue: “Captain Marryat didn’t write Coral Island, that was R M Ballantyne. Marryat’s famous work was The Children of the New Forest.” Many others subsequently emailed, often mentioning Marryat’s Mr Midshipman Easy as well. To claim, as I did, that Coral Island was “still known a little” was clearly an understatement. The moral is always to check your sources, especially when you’re sure you’re right.

Caparisoned. Fionnuala McHugh sent a link to a Daily Telegraph book review from 2009, which said “The riderless horse is known as a caparison, a custom that dates to the time of Genghis Khan. It symbolises a fallen warrior.” Having now found more examples, it appears I was wrong last time to say this sense is an error. The idea comes from a riderless horse in a funeral procession often being richly decorated. No dictionary on my shelves, nor the online Oxford English Dictionary, includes this meaning of caparison.

Sic! The item in the last issue about menagerie lions was queried by many readers. Larry Osborne considered it intentional on the part of the writer. Many others recall encountering it in their youth as a classic example of a supposed schoolboy howler: “the equator is a menagerie lion running around the centre of the earth.” John Pearson found that it appears in that form in Frank Sidgwick’s Old Ballads of 1908 as an example of “corruption in oral tradition”.

The phrase reminded Martin S Taylor of an eBay advert he once saw for a camera with a why-dangle lens. Correspondents to the Guardian this week have recalled hearing people say that they were going to see the Blackpool hallucinations and doctor’s patients asserting that they were on infidelity benefit. The spirit of Mrs Malaprop is with us still.

Crizzling. Keith Hallam introduced me to crozzled , which may be a derivative of crizzle. The Collins English Dictionary says it means bacon blackened or burnt at the edges. Mary Jackson concurs, knowing it as a Derbyshire word for “what happens to food when cooked for too long: all shrunken and burnt.” A crozzle or crozzil was once northern English dialect for a half-burnt cinder or coal or anything burnt up or singed; the verb means to shrivel or curl up with heat or to burn something to a cinder. Mr Hallam says his wife and he use it for “bacon cooked to perfection”, not quite the same idea, unless you like your bacon really crispy.

More odd names. Saul Newman mentioned that fine fungus Spongiforma squarepantsii and provided a link to Mark Isaac’s site Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature, which lists among many others Arthurdactylus conandoylensis, a fossil pterosaur from Brazil that may remind you of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World . And Mike Odell introduced me to 1,2-dimethyl-chickenwire, a fictional two-dimensional hydrocarbon consisting of hexagonal blocks.

Vellichor. “Are you familiar with the idea,” Clifford Daniels wrote, “that cellar door is the most euphonious phrase in the English language? What struck me about vellichor is its potentially similar pronunciation. As such, one could say that our attraction to vellichor derives from the marvellous union of both semantic and phonaesthetic beauty.” There’s a considerable history of comment on the qualities of the compound noun cellar door, including Grant Barrett’s article in the New York Times in 2009 and the Wikipedia article on it.

Galoot. From Adam Quinan: “Arthur Ransome’s pirate heroine, Nancy Blackett, often refers to her younger sister Peggy as a galoot in Swallows and Amazons (published in 1930). That is where I first encountered it. Whether Ransome came across the word through his sailing interests or his Australian family connection or whether it was just part of his vocabulary acquired growing up I have no idea.” William Hommon added, “Your excellent discussion of galoot reminded me of one of the worst (ie, best) puns of all time. There was this old guy who was married twice and had 10 boys by his first wife and 11 by his second. He was a 21-son galoot!”

Ilk

I stray into a minuscule no-man’s-land of disputed territory here. On the one hand is a tiny group of language pundits who consider that ilk still ought to mean exactly what it used to mean centuries ago in another country. On the other hand is a greater group who know what they mean by it and don’t give a toss, fig, hang or tinker’s damn about its antecedents. On the third hand, a substantial group don’t know it, or are put off using it through worry that they might use it wrongly and have somebody criticise them.

Its story begins in Old English with the adjective ilca. This meant “same” or “like” and survived in mainstream English until the sixteenth century, in the end being supplanted by same, an upstart intruder from Old Norse. However, it did survive in Scots, especially in the phrase of that ilk. This meant, and still does, a person whose family name is the same as that of the place he inhabits. Most strictly it indicates that the person is the proprietor or laird of the place. So we may come across usages like this:

The field and ground was chosen in St. Andrews, and three landed men and three yeomen chosen to shoot against the English-men, — to wit, David Wemyss of that ilk, David Arnot of that ilk, and Mr. John Wedderburn, vicar of Dundee.

The Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott, 1810. Wemyss (said as weems), and Arnot are indeed places in Scotland, both in Fife.

But from early times, Scots also used it to refer to the head of a clan, such as Mackintosh of that ilk (a Scottish trial in 1539 referred to “Duncane Macfarlane of that ilk”). This eventually led to ilk weakening its sense around the time of Scott to mean people who had the same name because they were related. It later weakened still further to include people of the same class or who had some characteristic in common. This much broader connotation annoys language purists, though it has long since become common and is now regarded as standard English:

I’m pretty no-nonsense myself, and I know plenty of other women of that ilk.

Daily Telegraph, 4 Apr. 2015.

These days the grouping need not always be human (“Such are the magpie, the crow, the jackdaw, and all of that ilk”; “it wasn’t a unicorn, but it was something of that ilk”) nor even alive (“She discovered the ace of that ilk peeping coyly out from behind the seven of spades”; “A body may chatter about ideals — about right and wrong and matters of that ilk”).

A blurred survival of its aristocratic, landed origins sometimes emerges in negative comments about class bias:

Given that David Cameron seems to be comfortable only when surrounded by Etonians, and that the Labour MP Chris Bryant has complained about “Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk” rising in their professions thanks to their privileged public-school education, a toff upbringing doesn’t feel terribly cool or right-on at the moment. Lewis is definitely a member of that “ilk”.

Sunday Times, 12 Apr. 2015.

In brief

  • The new term senolytics appeared in the press in the middle of March. It was created by scientists from the Scripps Institute in Florida who had found two drugs that appeared to invigorate elderly mice. Senolytics are a new class of drugs designed to delay the ageing process. The word would appear to have been formed from the first part of senescent plus the adjectival -lytic ending which links to nouns in -lysis (from Greek -lutikos, able to loosen), as in medical terms like spasmolytic, mucolytic and thrombolytic.
  • What, by all that is medically appalling, is exploding head syndrome? It turns out — thankfully — not to be a literal description, but an imaginative way to describe a harmless but disquieting loud noise which some people experience suddenly as they are dropping off to sleep. It is said to be caused by a misfiring of neurons in the brain.
  • A writer in my daily newspaper recently claimed to have a huge fondness for the hairy-footed flower bee. It turned out to a real insect, Anthophora plumipes. Similarly genuine but equally pleasantly exotic were two in last week’s issue of New Scientist: the rusty-patched bumble bee and the fuzzy-legged leafcutter bee .
  • It was a surprise to learn that the organisation Human Rights Watch had recently produced a report opposing laws. It transpired they were actually against LAWS, a military acronym for lethal automated weapon systems, which the press prefers to call killer robots.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition

A new edition of this venerable guide always repays close study. The previous revisions of W H Fowler’s magisterial work of 1926 — by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965 and Robert Burchfield in 1996 — led to accusations that its editors were being too kind to ill-educated speakers of English who perverted its splendour by introducing barbarous usages. This time around, apart from a few polite notices in the British press, criticism has been absent.

Perhaps conservatives have given up on Fowler (the brand, not the person) after Burchfield had dared to base many of his recommendations on the way people actually used English rather than the way over-careful and traditional users thought it ought to be used. Jeremy Butterfield, whose qualifications include being the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, has continued his immediate predecessor’s policy of basing his recommendations on a study of Oxford’s vast collection of examples of current English. In lexicographic jargon, his work is frequently descriptive rather than prescriptive though, as he points out, the editor of a style guide is continually subject to a tension between these extremes. He remarks in his entry on less versus fewer, “Regrettably, the facts of language, as so often happens, are more complicated than simple, or simplistic, rules allow.”

Fowler

 

A significant change, and one to be welcomed, is the replacement of much of the rather fusty and outmoded language of the first edition — unchanged by later editors who were perhaps too much in awe of H W Fowler’s prose — by fresh and warmly conversational text leavened by humour, if sometimes a little heavy-handed, and the occasional burst of sarcastic grumpiness. He comments in the introduction that every editor of Fowler has brought personal “preferences, tastes, habits, and bugbears” to his writing and Fowler wouldn’t be the same without them.

 

Almost every entry provides an example of his personal style. About absolutely, he says that “it is no exaggeration to say that, at least in Britain, it has altogether ousted ‘yes’ from the speech of middle-class media persons and pundits … it is enthusiastically bludgeoning ‘yes’ to death.” Of another word that frequently infuriates, he concurs with the recent decision of the Oxford English Dictionary to recognise the figurative use of literally to mean “figuratively”, a sense that goes back at least to Dickens. But he cautions, after nearly two pages of discussion: “Knowing that your readers may have the screaming abdabs (dated British slang for ‘have a fit’) if they read literally prefacing a metaphor … you might want to avoid using it altogether.” Under ambiguity, he writes: “some highly ambiguous — and often comical — phrasing does get into print … and provides an easy target for satire”, including in an online forum called World Wide Words. (I must declare, in the interests of full disclosure, that he also cites me in the entry on bog standard .)

He writes about the “tsunami of illiteracy unleashed by the Internet” (though surely internet is now lower-case? No, his entry on it says it is “standard and recommended” to spell it with an initial capital letter. Many would disagree, including this writer, whose house style downcases it.) Of address, he remarks, “People in the business of not really meaning what they say love this verb” and suggests they should instead “put their head over the parapet and say that they will resolve, deal with, or sort out the question.” (Note the singular they, which he says elsewhere is now hardly noticed and an irreversible shift in usage.) He is similarly disparaging about the misuse of awesome, of issue when “problem” would be better, and challenging , which he calls “treacherous woolliness” and says should be avoided with the help of a good thesaurus.

Butterfield holds that and at the beginning of a sentence is fine, especially as a marker of a continuing narrative; usage evidence suggests that alibi no longer solely means a defence on the grounds that the accused was somewhere else at the time but can be used of any excuse, pretext or justification; to say the letter h as haitch, he argues, will eventually prevail in British English, “unspeakably uncouth though it may appear” to older speakers. Of like as a sentence filler, he remarks that “Overuse will cause listeners outside the speaker’s immediate social circle, wider social group or age cohort to ignore the content of the message, to assume that the speaker is little short of brain-dead, or, in extreme cases, to wish they had a discreet firearm to hand.”

His advice makes clear the dangers for the inexperienced writer that lie behind many innocent-looking words and phrases. But the new Fowler is worth consulting even by writers who think they know the language well. Butterfield has created a guide that is readable for entertainment as well as enlightenment.

[Jeremy Butterfield, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition, published March 2015 (UK and Australia), April 2015 (Canada), June 2015 (US); ISBN 9780199661350; list prices £25.00 (UK), $39.95 (US), $52.50 (Canada) $50.95 (Australia).]

 

Skint

Q. I’m a fan of the Andy Capp comic and one weird word keeps appearing that apparently means “broke” or “without funds”: skint. Can you tell me anything about it? [Bill Waggoner]

A. This is a very well-known, originally British English slang term that’s also known throughout the Commonwealth, though to a lesser extent (I think) in Canada. It’s fairly rare in the US, though not unknown: knowledge of it there is probably thanks to Andy Capp.

The meaning is the one you give, illustrated by this sentence from The Sun of 16 Apr. 2015: “Hayley doesn’t care that she is skint, she is going to use loans to redecorate.” It can also sometimes refer to lacking some necessity other than money.

It can be traced back in that spelling and pronunciation to the early years of the twentieth century as a variant of skinned. To be skinned or skinned out was to be deprived of all your money by gambling, frequently of the rigged sort.

Henry Mayhew noted in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861 that sailors often suffered being skinned, which he said was being “stripped of his clothes and money from being hocussed, or tempted to helpless drunkenness” (to hocuss was to cheat a man by drugging his drink; it’s a variation of an obsolete eighteenth-century noun hocus, trickery or deception, from the magician’s magic formula hocus-pocus ; hoax is from the same source).

To skin was by then almost half a century old in the gambling sense and is known from the middle of the previous century for thieving goods. Skinned in the penniless sense survived into the first decades of the twentieth century alongside skint but was gradually ousted by it.

British English also has a related term for being without money: boracic, often said like brassic. This is rhyming slang, from boracic lint, a once common type of surgical dressing.

I understand that he’s now all but skint, totally boracic, with the arse nearly out of his trousers.

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett, 2013.

Americans once knew skinning in the related sense of cheating in exams and, often in the form skin out, for absconding or running away; it has also been a dialect or regional form of the past participle of skin in various senses.

SIC

Sic!

A typing error provided the first of this week’s easy targets for satire. Tom Knight learned from the Independent of 10 April that a feuding billionaire had been “forced to flea the Bahamas”.

A statement of the bleeding obvious came in a cautious headline on the News 24 site of South Africa, seen by Rob Bernstein: “Foul play suspected after Marikana cop stabbed to death.”

Neil Houston was at first excited by a glossy Australian magazine advert for Crystal Cruises but the next sentence dampened his excitement: “Embark on an immersive odyssey … .”

It was 1 April but Cambridgeshire Constabulary weren’t joking when they posted on Facebook that “Throughout April we are running a campaign to promote motorcycle safety and enforce poor riding and driving.” Thanks go to Mark Swingler for that.

“Post-death weight loss”, was Claire Loughheed’s comment on a sentence from Dr Joseph Mercola’s site: “This type of workout tends to burn far more calories than others — thanks to the calories you burn after your heart stops pumping.”

“British electoral politics are weird” was Pattie Tancred’s comment on seeing this in The Times on 11 April about Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party: “They fell in love when Ed bandaged her hand after a doberman bit it while leafleting.” Some dogs are so clever.

World Wide Words Issue 912

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 – WIF Style