World Wide Words Issue 888 – WIF Style

Leave a comment
Worl Wide Words

Issue 888




World Wide Words

Issue 888: Saturday 26 July 2014

Feedback, Notes and Comments


 “This is a wonderful word that we have long needed without knowing it,” wrote Frederica Postman. “Doesn’t everybody have a device to postpone the required tasks? Before I learned this word, I was just wasting time. Now I know I was precrastinating. Thank you for your informative and amusing newsletter.”

“As an inveterate procrastinator of this particular sub-type,” Cynthia Harvey emailed from Virginia, “I have discovered, and come to love, the term ‘laterally productive’ instead. I get all sorts of things done — just not the important stuff I should be doing. It is very difficult to break this habit.”

John Mills wrote, “When I was studying music composition, the word ‘quill-sharpening’ was used in a deprecatory way to describe getting ready to compose, rather than composing. I’ve been unable to find a reference to this usage on the Web. It does seem to be common in the context of writers, satirists and critics ‘sharpening their pens’ in anticipation of penning a trenchant attack on something.”

Ron Witton recalled, “While travelling in India, I have heard fairly often the term ‘prepone’ as in ‘Your flight has been preponed’, meaning brought forward in time. It has happened sufficiently often for me to assume it is not an individual construct but a socially accepted word form.”

The verb is widely known in India and dates from the 1970s.

“Summer of 1969, aged 17,” Henry Larsen recollects, “I was taken on at a factory as a seasonal helper. I was assigned to an old steamfitter by the name of Vern. Every Monday morning the foreman gave us all of our tasks for the week. My third or fourth week on the job, having settled in a bit and built up a little confidence, I looked at the new list and saw one particularly onerous job. In my youthful enthusiasm, I opined that we should do that one first and get it out of the way. ‘No’, said Vern. ‘Always do the easy jobs first. You never know, you might die before you get to the shit work’.” Precrastination meets procrastination.

Alan Weyman says that he lives his life by the rule he calls Mañanismo, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow”. He believes, as many people do, that Mark Twain invented it. I query such attributions on principle (this one has also been ascribed to Oscar Wilde and others) but it’s half right. Garson O’Toole wrote about it on the Quote Investigator website; he discovered that Twain really is the source, in an article of 1870 criticising the way Benjamin Franklin popularised folksy aphorisms. Twain created the saying as a comical instance of something that Franklin might have said. He would surely have hated its being credited to him as a humorous proverb worth repeating.

Bounding main. Pat Spaeth commented on one of the snippets of poetry I cited in the piece last week: “If you look a little earlier in the text, you’ll see that your author knew little about the bounding main or sailing in general. The original verse starts: ‘Heave ho, me lads, the wind blows free / A pleasant gale is on our lee.’ First, I doubt a gale would ever be called ‘pleasant’. And ‘lee’ means the side away from the wind (as in the Leeward Islands or in another song, ‘bring your ship under our lee’).” Beware landlubberish poetasters!


Today a lucubration (or lucubrations — the word more often appears in the plural) is a derisive reference to a pedantic, over-elaborate or muddled attempt to make a point.

But Coleridge was an unselfdisciplined monologist addict who left a few brilliant poems and poetic fragments behind him, along with a blather of sometimes suggestive but mainly inane lucubration.
A C Grayling, in the Financial Times, 14 Oct. 2006.

Lucubration literally means thought, study or writing that has been undertaken by artificial light. Its origin is Latin lux, light, via the stem of the verb lūcubrāre, to work by lamplight. Imagine a scholar hunched beside a guttering flame, striving late into the night to get his ideas on paper.

The word appeared first in English around the time of Shakespeare at the end of the sixteenth century. People soon started to use it for the result of the activity as well as the activity itself.

Unfortunately, as every student struggling against a deadline to write an essay will know, such burning of the midnight oil is likely to produce work that won’t stand the light of day. Hence its current meaning.


Changing colours. Being a keen wine drinker, though an ill-informed one, I was delighted recently to have my knowledge expanded by coming across a French word that every English-speaking viticulturist seems to knows: véraison. It refers to the point when grapes stop growing and start to ripen, in the process changing colour. It’s from the obsolete French verb vérir, to ripen, presumably influenced by raisin, grape.

Local expressions. Susan Walker poses a query: “My father, who came from Warwickshire, often said ‘If you come in late you’ll get the slick side of the door.’ I thought this was a common expression until people did not know what I was talking about. I believe it may be from old style doors having the crosshatch wood bars inside but the exterior smooth — thus if you come home late the door will be closed against you. My grandmother, also from Warwickshire, told me, when she thought I was not getting married young enough, ‘You’ll go round the orchard and come up with a crab apple.’ I wonder if these are local Warwickshire sayings or known more widely?”


Q From Dave McCombs, New Zealand: Has the word blooper ever been traced to a source?
A Yes, it has, and it’s rather a surprising one.
We have to go back to the pioneering days of radio broadcasting in the US in the early 1920s. The primitive valve radios of those times suffered from a serious problem. To make them more sensitive, they fed back part of the amplified signal to the input. But if the user increased that feedback too far to try to pick up a weak station, the radio became a transmitter and blotted out reception for up to a mile around it.

If you’ve heard a public-address system screeching because somebody has put the microphone too near the loudspeaker, you’ll have a very good idea of the experience for suffering nearby listeners. Two technical names for it are positive feedback and oscillation; it has many others (during my time at the BBC, the jargon term for it was howl-round).

The same problem bedevilled the early days of the BBC. Its chief engineer, Peter Eckersley, used to go on air and entreat listeners not to be so anti-social as to allow their sets to transmit: “Is this fair? Is this British? Don’t oscillate. Please don’t oscillate. Don’t do it.” He did this so often that he was nicknamed “Don’t Do It Eckersley”.

Americans didn’t call it oscillation, perhaps because it sounded a touch highfalutin. They named it blooping. The perpetrator was a blooper and the noise was a bloop.

Then some evening he wants to listen to a program clear through and the occassional [sic] “bloop” of his neighbors calls for his most blood-curdling curses.
Nevada State Journal, 16 Dec. 1923.

Nobody tried to explain where it came from at the time and nobody has managed to put forward an entirely satisfactory suggestion since. My guess, having heard lots of variations on the sound that feedback makes, is that the term imitated the noise in affected receivers, which probably wasn’t a shriek or whistle but a rapidly pulsing howl that sounded vaguely like “bloooop … bloooop … bloooop”.

The problem quickly grew worse as the number of sets mushroomed during the radio craze. The first example of blooper in print I’ve found is this, though for the sets rather than the perpetrators:

On account, perhaps, of the word of warning that was published in yesterdays paper in connection with the announcement of the presidents speech against improper handling of the radio sets of the radiating type, or “blooper” sets as they are coming to be called there was less interference than has been noted heretofore.
Lubbock Morning Avalanche (Texas), 23 Apr. 1924. To cap the typos in the item, the headline to the story misspelled the word as “blopper”. An early self-referential blooper.

Everybody knew what bloopers were and everybody hated them. To accidentally bloop was an embarrassing error; to do it deliberately was a crime against your neighbours.

In the middle 1920s blooper was taken up by baseball. I am, as you know, no expert here, and so I rely on descriptions by experts to say that it’s a sloppily hit ball that lofts into the gap between the infield and outfield for a base hit, an embarrassing error on the part of the fielding team.

The Gambles tied it up in their half of the fourth when five hits and an error brought in four runs. Four of these hits were tantalizing “bloopers” which fell between the infielders and the outfielders about a yard inside of the left field foul line.
Freeport Journal Standard (Illinois), 27 Jun 1933.

The sense of a verbal or written error or indiscretion began to appear in print around 1940 (a writer to the Racine Journal Times of Wisconsin in January 1940 used bloopers for the typographical mistakes that he had found in the paper). The following year pull a blooper appeared, to make an embarrassing mistake:

We pulled a blooper, and we’re sorry. Here we were told that Dave Henry lost to Axel Johnson when the two softball greats teamed up in the Southern California playoffs three seasons ago. Actually the reverse was the case.
Oxnard Press-Courier (Oxnard, California), 12 Jun. 1941.

The specific sense of making a mistake before a microphone or camera is from movie jargon. The word started to appear in films in the early 1930s with the coming of the talkies. The short-lived blooping patch was a black strip stuck on a film’s optical soundtrack to cover the noise resulting from a splice. Compilations of errors in film, called bloops, are known from the 1930s, initially for private enjoyment:

But some of the nabobs of the films began collecting celluloid records of the “bloops” of which the screen players were guilty in reciting their lines, and so most of them now play safe with antics and verbal outbreaks that have become both unique and amusing.
Los Angeles Times, 15 Dec. 1935.

Blooper for such compilations became popular in the US in the 1950s through a series of records by a television producer named Kermit Schaefer under the general title Pardon My Blooper. Blooper reel was first used publicly of outtakes from Star Trek episodes in the early 1970s.

The evidence suggests that all these usages can be traced back to those anti-social individuals who let their radios oscillate in the early 1920s.


• Len Morrison found this headline on Google News, which was taken from the Birmingham Mail on 19 July: “Grandad hit by three bus lane tickets in Birmingham city centre.” The story explained the man had received three fixed-penalty fines for driving in bus lanes.

• An email offer Vance R Koven received from Groupon was headed “Apple iPad mini 32GB with WiFi, 14K Gold Swarovski Earrings, Men’s Spiked Golf Shoes & More.” His comment: “Talk about bells and whistles!”

• Dana Cook Grossman contributed a sentence from an obituary in the Valley News of Vermont and New Hampshire with the comment, “He must have been quite a headstrong guy”: “First thing in the morning Donal enjoyed using his skull to travel the perimeter of Pleasant Lake.”

• On 18 July the Atlantic online had a photo of Argentinean youths, who rioted after the World Cup final, trying to escape tear gas and a water cannon. Amy Briggs spotted that the caption ended, “Police said more than a dozen officers were injured and many more were arrested.”

• F J Bergmann reports that the Publishing Perspectives e-newsletter of 23 July includes this: “Spanish author Javier Marias argues that while there are plenty of reasons not to write novels, there’s one that is very important — a shot at immorality.”

World Wide Words Issue 888 – WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 887 – WIF Style

Leave a comment




World Wide Words

Issue 887: Saturday 19 July 2014


Feedback, Notes and Comments

Formatted emails  The majority of comments on the new format came from readers who favoured continuing with it, some preferring it even over the older version that came in an attachment. The general view was “whatever works for you”.

However, it’s clear that matters are less simple than I thought. A minority of subscribers object to any use of HTML in email. Some told me they were happy to read formatted text in blogs and online but not in email. A few use email programs that aren’t easily able to handle formatted mail. As plain-text email isn’t as dead as I thought it was, I have returned to sending out newsletters in both formats, but with a different system.

Some readers reported that long lines made the text unreadable. The line length in the current formatted version isn’t set by me but is determined by the width of the frame in which the message is displayed. To make the lines the length you want, reduce the width of the viewing area and the text should reflow accordingly.

File  Robert Rosenberg wrote, “You mention an office spike. In the States that was called a spindle, as in IBM’s famous admonition regarding their punchcards: ‘Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate’.”


Getting ahead of yourself  Many of us are procrastinators, putting off inescapable tasks as long as possible. At Pennsylvania State University, David Rosenbaum and  colleagues Lanyun Gong and Cory Adam Potts have carried out experiments they have written up in the July issue of Psychological Science.

These suggest that we often work the other way round, doing jobs earlier than needed in order to get them out of the way, even if this means additional effort. The researchers have called it by the invented term precrastination. This might seem desirable, but it can be a disguised form of procrastination, by which we tire ourselves out doing trivial and non-urgent tasks that we think of as clearing the decks before getting down to the really important stuff.

Down these mean streets 


American lexicographer Erin McKean sent me a word she spotted in the New York Times recently: noirchaeologist, a blend of noir and archaeologist that’s easier to say than it looks. It was created by, and is almost the personal property of, the San Francisco reporter Eddie Muller. Among his other interests he’s a film historian fascinated by film noir, the dark Hollywood genre of the 1940s and 1950s. He founded the Film Noir Foundation, which is dedicated to finding and restoring vintage examples of film noir and making them publicly available once again.

How’s that again?  Dr Alexander Baratta of the school of education at Manchester University recently discussed his research into why people change their natural accent and how it makes them feel. Many modify it to counter prejudice but this can lead to them feeling like fakes and that they’ve somehow sold out. They can lose a sense of where they belong, which Dr Baratta calls linguistic homelessness, a term first used by the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. Dr Baratta used accentism to describe discrimination on the grounds of accent, which he argues needs to be fought as much as racism or sexism. It’s is known to academic linguists — it can be traced back at least to the middle 1980s — but it’s rarely found outside the field, so press comment has suggested wrongly that it’s new and some have disparaged it as a fake -ism.

Bounding main

Q. From Kathleen Watness: In the phrase over the bounding main, what is a main and where does it come from? And why bounding? I came across an exchange about a song lyric and what the words actually meant. It got to be a heated discussion.
A.  The song that was being discussed was presumably this, a children’s song written under a pseudonym by the British organist and composer James Frederick Swift:
Sailing, sailing over the bounding main
Where many a stormy wind shall blow
’Ere Jack comes home again.
Sailing, Sailing, by Godfrey Marks, 1880.

It’s clear enough from this and other examples that it means the open ocean. But as you say, it’s odd: why should main be the sea and why should it bound? That’s enough to arouse disputation, though it might not be worth fisticuffs. The puzzle isn’t easy to resolve because no reference book that I have consulted explains it. Perhaps their editors think it’s self-evident?

Main first. One sense, known from the 1550s, was of “mainland”, as in a famous passage by John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624.

From about the same time people were also using main as a short form of main sea, the open sea, the part outside territorial waters.

They dare not venture into the main, but hovering by the shore, timorously sail from one place to another.

Travellers Breviat, by Giovanni Botero, translated by Richard Johnson, 1603. I’ve slightly modernised the spelling.

Both these senses are obsolete but most of us lighted upon main in childhood when reading about pirates, perhaps in sentences like this one:

His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were; about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883.

By “places”, we can tell Stevenson is using Spanish Main for land. That was its first meaning, from the early 1700s, using main for “mainland”. The Spanish Main was the part of the coast of America nominally under Spanish control that stretched roughly from the isthmus of Panama to the mouth of the Orinoco.

However, some writers have meant by it a broad area that includes the mainland, the adjacent Caribbean islands and the waters around them. And confusion between the two senses of main has led to a belief that the Spanish Main is a seascape, part of the Caribbean Sea.

“Where did you break your Queen’s peace?”
“On the sea called the Spanish Main, though ’tis no more Spanish than my doublet,” says the elder.

Rewards and Fairies, by Rudyard Kipling, 1910.

The idea is supported by all those parts of ships so fondly described in seafaring fiction: main-mast and main-course, main-brace and main-deck. Surely main must be nautical?

We now only encounter the nautical sense of main in set expressions, of which another is rolling main. This is a little older than bounding main, turning up first in the early eighteenth century in translations of classical Roman authors such as Horace and Virgil and in Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad. It was more common than bounding main until about the middle of the nineteenth century.

Bounding might mean the marking of a boundary, or somebody leaping forward in great strides. It’s a poetic image and so may be allowed some looseness in interpretation. But the earliest case of bounding main I’ve so far uncovered suggests movement:

Fam’d Albion’s Sons, whose Rock encircling Coast,
Emblem of Virtues in your noble Race,
Repels each boisterous Billow of the Deep,
And stands triumphant o’er the bounding Main.

The Sentiments of Truth, by Mr P———y, reproduced in Volume 9 (September) of The Poetical Calendar, by Francis Fawkes and William Woty, 1763.

So the bounding main is the open ocean with its waves that surge, billow and break. A later poem makes the image still clearer:

Toss’d at the mercy of the bounding main,
Now mounting high upon the billowy steep,
Now plung’d in an unfathomable deep.

The History of the Incas Continued, by John Stagg, 1805.

The phrase is evocative and was borrowed by other poets, including Byron and Tennyson. Long ago it became a cliché to be mocked:

Add to this delay the deplorable fact that the bounding main bounded that night with more than its accustomed freedom and buoyancy, and I think I may leave the fertile imagination of the candid reader himself to suggest unaided the correct conclusion that we all enjoyed thirty-six hours of almost speechless misery on the heaving bosom of the blue Mediterranean.

Eclectic Magazine, July 1888.


Anthony Shaw tells us that an article in the Los Angeles Times on 13 July reported on the conflicting opinions of swimmers, surfers and fishermen about water use after a swimmer was bitten by a shark. The headline read: “Shark bite leaves beach users divided”.

On 13 July, the Belfast Telegraph’s website invited readers, of whom Michael Hocken was one, to “Watch Rory [McIlroy] hit his longest ever 430-yard drive.”

James Popple was listening to the PM programme on ABC radio on 11 July and heard an interviewee say, about proposals to compensate victims of poor financial advice: “There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before this structure is set in concrete.”

A story on the Huffington Post site on 11 July presented Donald Eckhardt with this photo caption: “The Apamea ruins were built in Syria’s Orontes Valley under the direction of Alexander the Great.”


World Wide Words Issue 887 – WIF Style