World Wide Words Issue 851- WIF Style

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Issue 851: Saturday 28 September 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Epizeuxis.

3. Snippets.

5. Grass.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Umbrage: Following my remark in this piece last week that “Umbrage has almost entirely severed its associations with shadows,” Candida Frith-Macdonald wrote: “One recent revival, of course, being Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, who manages to be miserable, shade-casting, offended and offensive all together. If there were a Dickens prize for naming characters, Rowling would hold it. English may be tricky to spell, but it does allow for some great puns.”

Lookshurry Last week I quoted a comment in The Times about a match that had to be abandoned because the pitch was waterlogged: “Wimps. Waterlogged pitch indeed. Lookshurry!” My mailbox was filled by messages from dozens of readers hastening to point out that it’s intended to convey the word luxury uttered in an exaggerated Yorkshire accent, a disgusted retort by hardened northerners on pampered individuals who are put off by minor deprivations. (My error was reading it as looks + hurry, when it’s said more like looksh + urry.) The connection is to a famous British television sketch by four successful Yorkshiremen who sought to outdo each other in increasingly bizarre descriptions of their deprived childhoods.

Many readers suggested that it’s a Monty Python sketch; it has been performed by the Python cast on stage but it’s earlier. It appeared in 1967 in At Last the 1948 Show (whose title disparaged the commissioners of television shows for their dilatoriness) and was performed by John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman. You can watch it here (but don’t believe the accents). I hope that this detailed exegesis makes up for my ignorance of the term’s provenance. Rod Nicholas noted, “The sketch is so well known, even here in Canberra, Australia, nearly 50 years after it was first aired, that any cry of poverty will be met with an enthusiastic cry of Lookshurry!

Pre-loved and pre-owned My gently deprecating comment about these words provoked some American readers to point out they didn’t use them either. Greg Holmes wrote, “As an American, I must tell you that pre-owned and pre-loved are purely terms of advertising (or possibly self-conscious humor), at least in any circles in which I operate. Auto dealers may sell pre-owned cars, but actual people drive used ones. Those who solicit for charity do ask for gently used items but never pre-loved or pre-owned items, unless they are being deliberately self-conscious and precious.” Of a third word that I mentioned, upcycled, Loren Myer commented, “I have heard it used on more than one occasion, but usually by the ‘artsy-fartsy’ crowd. We have not taken it to our hearts. By far the more common word for this process of creatively recycling items for new owners — decorating and restyling beyond their original state of newness — is repurposed.”

Sic! The item about selecting a password provoked Paul Witheridge to email, “I’m sure you’ve heard of the dumb individual who read ‘Your password must be at least eight characters long and contain at least one number’ and selected ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’.”

2. Epizeuxis/ɛpɪˈzjuːksɪs/

A writer in an American scholarly journal in 1914 felt that it was hard on schoolchildren of his time to get a grip on the concepts of rhetoric when they had to describe them in mouthfuls like epitheton, catachresis, hendiadys, aposiopesis, hysteron proteron, hypallage, anacolouthon, hyperbaton, parrhesia and epizeuxis.

Few of us of any age have to struggle these days with such words or the concepts that they represent, though the tricks of effective communication they stand for are still very much with us.

When in 2001 the Labour Party leader Tony Blair told the country that a top priority of his administration was “education, education, education”, he was committing epizeuxis, the repetition of a word for emphasis. Other famous examples are Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break / On thy cold grey stones, O sea” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Boots, boots, boots, boots, movin’ up and down again.”

It’s not necessary to follow the rule of repetition so strictly. Richard the Third’s “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” and Captain Ahab’s “Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen — Moby Dick — Moby Dick!” are other examples of epizeuxis.

Epizeuxis is from Greek epi-, in addition, plus zeuxis (from zeugnunai, to yoke), hence fastening together.

3. Snippets

What’s in a name? I’m continually surprised by the names people give to flora and fauna. An article in the Scientific American introduced me to two insects called the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the ultragreen sweat bee. A piece in the Observer described the Amazonian bluntnose knifefish, which sounds as if it could do with sharpening. But the biological sciences don’t have a corner on odd names. A report in New Scientist featured an astronomical phenomenon called an asymptotic giant branch star.

Hairbrained? Sarah Weidinger asked me about the phrase on a wild hair, which left me in a minor tizzy since I’d never come across it. An online search found it in the lyrics to the Jake Owen song Anywhere With You (Mexico on a Wild Hair) which obviously puzzles other people, too. There are examples such as “I would do Mexico or Hawaii for a beach vacation on a ‘wild hair’ but not Europe” and “She is leaving on a wild-hair jaunt.” This suggests a spontaneous or unpremeditated excursion through the image of rushing off with one’s hair flying in the wind. An earlier line supports this: “If you wanna just ride the breeze. I’ll go anywhere”. But I can find nothing more, not even whether Jake Owen invented it.

Greek as it ain’t spoke Bernard Long tells me that he heard a BBC news item in which someone was described as “hoi polloing with the Putins of this world.” He is aghast at the thought that this Greek term for the masses, ordinary people, should have been turned into a verb. I had to tell him that I’d found a couple of other examples, though it’s rare, thank goodness, not least because it doesn’t make any sense. I suspect it may be an error for hobnobbing.

5. Grass

Q From Bill Brown: Today I came across the phrase grass them up which I gathered from the context means to turn in to the authorities. Searching the web confirms this, but I didn’t come across any explanation of its origins. I have faith you can explain this phrase. [Bill Brown

A It’s good that you have such faith in my etymological detective work, Mr Brown, but I doubt whether in this case I’ve tracked this well-established slang term to its origin.

To grass in British slang is indeed to inform on a person to the authorities; a grass is an informer. The noun starts to appear in print in the 1920s and the verb a few years later. We’ve since had grasser in the same sense; in the 1970s supergrass appeared for a police informer who implicated a large number of people at one go.

It has been proposed that grass is from snake in the grass, a treacherous person or a secret enemy. This echoes the ancient idea that snakes are perfidious creatures, a view that famously appears in the Book of Genesis. I’ve also come across a curious argument that it derives from grass in the park, rhymingly a copper’s nark. (Nark is known from the last third of the nineteenth century and comes from Romany nak, a nose, that is, somebody who sticks his nose into others’ affairs or sniffs out information; it’s no relation to the US narc, short for narcotics officer). We’re quite sure that neither of these ideas is correct.

Instead, the experts point to grass as being a short form of grasshopper. We may pass over the latter’s earliest slang sense of a waiter in a tea-garden — which brings to mind an overworked server bounding from customer to customer — and concentrate instead on the meaning first recorded by John Farmer and W E Henley in volume three of Slang and its Analogues in 1893: a policeman, by rhyming slang a copper.

Earlier writers on slang assumed that grasshopper was extended to refer to informers because of their police connections. More recent writers are less sure.

The experts are instead favourably disposed towards another slang term, to shop. This dates from the sixteenth century, when it meant to imprison (it comes from the noun shop, which in low slang then referred to a prison). By the early nineteenth century it had taken on the sense of providing the evidence by which a person was sent to prison, hence inform. A grasshopper might therefore have more obviously been a shopper, not a copper. Shopper begins to be recorded in the sense of an informer around the time grass starts to appear.

So far as I’ve been able to find out, there’s no direct evidence for either copper or shopper. The current predisposition among slang lexicographers to prefer the latter is basically that it has a more direct semantic association with grass via grasshopper.

5. Sic!

Foreign Policy Magazine’s summary of news headlines on 19 September contained this sentence, Daniel Piotrowski notes: “Eduardo Campos’s Brazilian Socialist Party withdrew from President Dilma Rousseff’s coalition government on Wednesday, paving the popular state governor to run for president.”

• Jim Getz found this in an item on the ARS Technica website dated 18 September: “The research was in part prompted by … the foiling of a plot to use explosives-packed, radio-controlled model airplanes to attack the Capitol and the Pentagon by the FBI.”

• Paul Thompson received this realtor listing in the mail in Calgary, Alberta: “This home will not disappoint and will not last long!”.

• An excerpt from the issue of Energy North for Summer 2013, sent in by James Fleming: “The Scottish Conservative Party has … also called for subsidies for renewables to be reduced and for wind farms to be built a minimum of 2,000km away from homes.”

• This appeared in an article about Johnny Vegas in the Guardian on 24 September (David Mackinder and Tim Riley both saw it): “He had gone from a close and loving family in St Helens, Merseyside, to this large institution with cold showers and mice that forbade any questioning of one’s faith.”

World Wide Words Issue 851- WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 842 — WIF Style

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1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.<!–

2. Slangwhanger.<!–

3. Smelling of the lamp.<!–

4. Sic!<!–


Penny dreadfuls

“Oh dear!” commented Richard Feaver, “Inflation strikes. By the time I graduated from Radio Fun and similar comics in 1937 your penny dreadfuls were already tuppenny bloods.” This name came about because a set of weekly boys’ magazines published between the two World Wars by D C Thomson of Dundee had a cover price of twopence (tuppenny being a common contraction for two penny). They included Rover, Wizard, and Hotspur and I can remember them from my childhood in the early 1950s.

Taradiddle Lyn Lloyd-Smith provided a variant: “While I have never heard of taradiddle, faradiddle is a word I know well. Not quite a fib but more of a fanciful silly story, I might consider using it in certain contexts.” It’s not so common as taradiddle, but this is one example:

He smiled, obviously about to spin her some faradiddle, and Sarah’s frayed patience snapped.
The Shadow of Albion, by Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill, 1999.

Among my many unaccomplishments is that of drumming. I picked up an incorrect definition for paradiddle. It does consist of four drum strokes, but either left-right-left-left or right-left-right-right (LRLL or RLRR). I have since learned that the vocabulary of drumming is full of such exotic terms. There’s the flamdiddle, for example, a paradiddle with added flam (a flam being a quick double stroke, one heavier than the other) and the paradiddlediddle, which is LRLLRR or RLRRLL.

2. Slangwhanger

When this went out of fashion, the English language lost one of its more flamboyant words. Its early days, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, are marked by association with two distinguished American men of letters, Washington Irving and John Pickering.

Irving started a satirical magazine in New York in 1807 with the whimsical title of Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others. Salmagundi was a popular salad of the time whose many constituents led to its name being borrowed for a miscellaneous collection.

A slangwhanger was what we would now call a newspaper columnist, a writer who was free to express his personal opinions, which he often did with great energy and notorious political partisanship. Irving wrote with heavy irony of them in one issue:

In this country every man adopts some particular slang-whanger as the standard of his judgment, and reads everything he writes, if he reads nothing else; which is doubtless the reason why the people of this logocracy are so marvellously enlightened.

John Pickering was a lawyer, philologist and scholar, an authority on North American Indian languages and compiler of one of the earliest lexicons of classical Greek. In 1816, he compiled the first collection of Americanisms, under the ponderous title, typical of the age: Vocabulary, or a Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America. He wrote of slangwhanger:

This word, which is of very recent origin in America, does not denote merely a “writer;” It means also a noisy talker, who makes use of that sort of political or other cant, which amuses the rabble, and is called by the vulgar name of slang. It is hardly necessary to add, that this term (as well as slang-whanging) is never admitted into the higher kinds of writing; but, like other cant words, is confined to that familiar style, which is allowed only in works of humour.

Pickering wasn’t a fan of slang or the evolving American dialect but sought to preserve the purity of the English language in America. He wrote Vocabulary to warn his countrymen against using the words he listed in it because they would be thought provincial barbarians by British scholars. He would have been saddened to learn that slangwhanger retained a place in the language throughout the century, though he might have been comforted by this:

A “slang-whanger” is a noisy, turbulent fellow, whose language is not of the best, and slang itself is generally considered disreputable.
Bucks County Gazette (Pennsylvania) 24 Sep. 1891.

By then, the word could mean a political orator, bar-room pundit, hell-fire preacher or bullying court lawyer. It could at times also mean something written by a newspaper slangwhanger or a violent political harangue.


3. Smelling of the lamp

Q From Ed Shaw: Anthony Cave Brown writes in his Bodyguard of Lies of a deception plan being considered by the Allies at the beginning of the Second World War: “Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s plan was not only thought to smell of the lamp …” I wonder if you might tell me what he meant by that strange phrase, and what its origin might be.

A The smell of the lamp is what remains when you have burnt the midnight oil.

You have — say — toiled over a work with immense effort, working late into the night to revise and polish and perfect your creation. The end of all your efforts is likely to be a work with the vitality and freshness of a three-day-dead rat. Your overwrought effort has lost the spontaneity and ease of good writing. James Thurber once described a much-reworked piece in the New Yorker as exhibiting the “strains of rewrite”, another way of expressing the same idea. In the book that you mention, it’s probably suggesting that the plan is over-designed — too complex and theoretical to be useful.

The expression is first recorded in English in 1579, in Sir Thomas North’s translation of a work of two millennia ago by the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch. Its figurative force remained obvious until gas and electric lighting allowed writers to slave into the night without the aid of oil lamps.

The editor of a short-lived theatrical review in Dublin two centuries ago put it like this in his inaugural issue:

Such a man may produce a good paper, but then it will smell of the lamp. … The strife and struggle of his style will render his sentiments cramp and pedantic.
The Stage, 9 Apr. 1821. Cramp is in an old sense of being difficult to make out or comprehend; a cramp-word was difficult to say or understand.

The phrase has often had a flavour of academic hackwork. It had a brief flurry of popularity in the early 1800s but has otherwise never been common. This is a rare modern appearance:

Rose [Wilder Lane] wrote adult novels of pioneering life, stealing her mother’s material but substituting the sourness of maturity for the warm-heartedness of Wilder’s children’s fiction. They smell of the lamp.
The Guardian, 29 Dec. 2012.


4. Sic!

• The vocabulary of TV and radio weather forecasters everywhere seems to be full of extraordinary phrases. Gareth Wynn-Williams heard one on BBC Radio on 20 July speak of “a sea-change in the landscape”, a remarkable geographic occurrence.

• Dr Frankenstein lives, at least according to this BBC news item of 17 July found by Jago Tremain: “A team led by Dr Jeanne Lawrence inserted a gene called XIST into the stem cells of a person with Down’s syndrome grown in the lab.”

• Brian Barratt found this on the website of an Australian wholesaler of microwave meals: “By ooming straight to you we can afford to give your customers a better price point and intern increase your GP.”

• “That’s a relief!” emailed Gary Puckering about a flash report on the BBC’s website on 23 July: “The Duchess of Cambridge has given birth to a child, Buckingham Palace announces.” Coincidentally, Dr Ray Brindle made exactly the same comment about a headline on the Guardian’s site: “Royal baby: Duchess of Cambridge leaves hospital with new prince — live.”

World Wide Words Issue 842 — WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 841 — WIF Style

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World Wide Words


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Taradiddle.

3. Penny dreadful.

4. Sic!

John Weiss followed up last week’s story of a dictionary error by recounting one of his own. “I found several very literate Swedish friends referring to a person as a quiz, which I could not understand until they showed me a much-acclaimed English-Swedish dictionary, pointing to a meaning something like ‘a peculiar person’. Some research into English-Swedish dictionaries that had been published over a long period of time revealed, in their forewords, that all relied on what appears to have been the first modern such dictionary, from around the 1900s. And then I discovered that it was in fact an archaic English usage, and I presume the author of that dictionary had found it and used it with no indication that it was no longer current.”

2. Taradiddle

Not so much known now as it once was, this is mainly a British way of saying something is a minor lie. A contributor to Punch wrote in October 1892, “Lie, indeed! There is a middle course — say ‘fib’ or ‘tarradiddle’.”

These days, she lived, thought, dreamed horses, almost like Verrall himself. The time came when she not only told her taradiddle about having “hunted quite a lot”, she even came near believing it.
Burmese Days, by George Orwell, 1935.

It has also appeared as tallydiddle and tarradiddle, a mark of people’s confusion about its origins. These are shared by modern etymologists, some of whom point uncertainly at the verb diddle, to cheat, as the source of the second element. This is recorded from the middle of the eighteenth century but they argue that it derives from the Old English dydrian, to deceive or delude. Other writers have been dismissive of this ancient etymology, mainly because, if it were true, diddle had been lurking unnoticed in the linguistic undergrowth for about seven centuries. All the experts are silent about the first element of taradiddle, which may be no more than a nonsense addition.

This is also true of the first element of a very similar word, which musicians in particular may be reminded about — paradiddle, one of the basic patterns of drumming, consisting of four even strokes played with alternate hands. This is equally mysterious, though the second part might be from an old dialect verb meaning to shake or quiver.

In recent decades taradiddle has taken on a divergent sense of empty talk or nonsense:

The Tarot, its origins misty until 15th-century printers got on to it, is one of those allegorical fortune-telling taradiddles beloved of fretful teenagers.
The Times, 7 Sep. 2012.

3. Penny dreadful

Q From Bob Taxin, San Francisco: I was watching an Australian murder mystery on television where a teacher criticised her student’s grotesque theory of what might have happened to the victim by saying that she must have read too many penny dreadfuls. I presume this refers to some sort of horror story, perhaps which sold for a penny. Any thoughts on this?

A They were indeed sold for a penny, a British penny. And they were considered to be dreadful for reasons that will become clear.

It was common in the nineteenth century to publish works in serial form or in magazines — Dickens’s novels, for example, first appeared this way. Such magazines were directed at the educated and affluent reading public and were usually priced at a shilling, unaffordable by the working man.

To meet demand among the less well-off, some publishers brought out serials of inferior technical and literary quality, accompanied by vivid illustrations, which were sold in penny instalments. These featured sensationalist and lurid tales of highwaymen, pirates and murderers as well as exaggerated stories of real-life crimes. They were most popular among young men, who would sometimes club together to buy single copies which one person might read to others who were illiterate. The genre was widely regarded by the middle classes and by magistrates as a corrupting influence among young people and a cause of the rise in juvenile crime. This was contested by others and most famously disputed by G K Chesterton in his essay of 1901, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls.

Among better-known examples of the stories were Varney the Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood; Black Bess or the Knight of the Road (stories of Dick Turpin, built on William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood of 1834); Ela the Outcast, or The Gipsy of Rosemary Dell; Wagner the Wehr-Wolf; Spring-Heeled Jack, or The Terror of London (a leaping madman who attacked women, a mythical character of the early part of the century); and The String of Pearls (despite its innocuous title this featured Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street).

They started to be called penny dreadfuls around 1860, a term that in its melodramatic and exaggerated disdain adequately communicated the way reputable society thought of them. Similar publications were common in the US — British and American publishers often “borrowed” each others’ material — and came to be called dime novels, a less sensational term that likewise started to appear around 1860. Later, terms such as penny blood and penny awful were used for them in Britain.

In the 1880s, the alliterative shilling shocker — also called a shilling dreadful — began to appear for a type of more substantial short sensational novel, often by writers of some ability (Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was put in this category when it first came out). An early instance was The Dark House, by G Manville Fenn, described in The Pall Mall Gazette on 22 June 1885 as “a ‘shilling dreadful’ of the most hair-stiffening and sanguinary description.”

These didn’t achieve the same depths of condemnation as the earlier penny dreadfuls. They were often bought for reading during a railway journey, the precursors of today’s airport novels, whodunits and other entertaining genres. They suffered merely from being described in slightly disparaging terms by literary critics as examples of popular culture.

4. Sic!

• Harry Campbell emailed from Glasgow with the cooking instructions that came with his purchase of sliced haggis: “Defrost thoroughly before cooking in a refrigerator”.

• “Is this how new words are formed?” asked Bron Forman. “My sister found this in June’s edition of The Rip, a local rag circulated in Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale at the treacherous entrance (called ‘The Rip’) to Melbourne’s harbour, Port Phillip Bay: ‘It’s that time of year when … Sea Pilots perform seemingly deftifying feats in huge swells…’.”

• Anne O’Brien reports from British Columbia that a TV advertisement for Raid, an insecticide spray, claims that it “kills ants for two weeks.” She wonders what happens then — a resurrection on the fifteenth day, perhaps?

• A headline in the Daily Telegraph on 12 July quoted the Liberal Democrat MP Mark Williams: “Parents ‘should be prosecuted for not loving or ignoring their children’.”

World Wide Words Issue 841 — WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 840 — WIF Style

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Issue 840: Saturday 13 July 2013



1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Gist.

3. Fly in the face of.

4. Sic!

Loophole Lots of people asked whether there was a link between the old Dutch verb that I mentioned, lûpen, to watch or peer, and loupe, a small magnifying glass that is typically used by jewellers and watchmakers. It appears that there isn’t. Loupe was borrowed into English from the French word of the same sense about a century ago. It has been suggested that its source lies in the old German word luppe from the Rhine region, meaning a shapeless mass of material. In French, it early on meant a mass of pasty iron from the smelter ready to be hammered. This seems to have been flattish and round and led to its meaning a kind of sebaceous cyst and a knot or bur on a tree before it took on its modern sense about 1680. To pre-empt any query about cantaloupe, that’s named after Cantaluppi near Rome, where it was first cultivated in Europe after being imported from Armenia.

Duct tape: I have been roundly told off for implying last week that gaffer tape and duct tape are related. Wayne Simpson wrote, “They are definitely not the same thing, as any motion picture lighting technician (such as me) or grip will tell you. Gaffer’s tape (with or without the apostrophe) is cloth tape, not vinyl; the adhesive is more friendly and doesn’t leave the disgusting residue that duct tape does. It’s meant to be removed without destroying what it was attached to (though you shouldn’t use it on wallpaper).”

Fornication I got my Latin inflections confused last week, as many readers told me. I wrongly said that fornacis is an adjective, but it’s the genitive of fornax, a furnace.

Nosopoetic “While nosopoetic may have lost out to pathogenic,” Shayna Kravetz commented, “its half-sibling nosocomial is alive and kicking. This refers to an illness arising from a stay in hospital and is sometimes seen as a synonym for iatrogenic (caused by doctors), although it’s not quite the same. With the rise of various treatment-resistant pathogens, nosocomial infections are a hot topic in medicine. This word has been earning its money for the last two decades or so.”

“My education as a health economist began in 1972,” Peter McMenamin emailed, “and I soon encountered the concepts of nosocomial infections and iatrogenic diseases. But the word that fascinated me was pathognomonic. A pathognomonic symptom was one whose presence meant that a particular disease was present beyond any doubt. And the reason medicine is so complicated is that there are very few diseases that have pathognomonic symptoms.”

Harry Lake wrote, apropos of another word in noso-: “Some years ago, doing a translation from Dutch into English, I needed to know the English for the Dutch smetvrees, which means an irrational fear of dirt or germs but appeared to have no direct equivalent in English. I looked it up in the Van Dale Dutch-English Dictionary, and there it was: hosophobia. Hosophobia? Never heard of it. It turned out that the entry should have read nosophobia, which is of quite a different register in addition to meaning something else. (I have since found mysophobia, which is more accurate but very rare, unlike smetvrees, which every Dutch person understands.) Wondering how this error might have come about, I recalled that someone had told me that Van Dale worked with handwritten slips, and it occurred to me that in all likelihood the handwriting of whoever had written the word nosophobia had had an uncommonly — if only slightly — long vertical in the n. And nobody had checked the entry …”

What is most intriguing about Mr Lake’s story is that a search of Google Books finds a number of examples of hosophobia, most of which have authors with Dutch-sounding names. Entering smetvrees into Google Translate gets hosophobia as its English equivalent. The error in the Dutch dictionary seems to have had some small influence on the English language, but no longer, as the entry was corrected in the 1999 edition.

2. Gist

There are three senses of gist in the Oxford English Dictionary. We’re not concerned with the obsolete sense of a right of pasture for cattle (from Anglo-Norman agister, to pasture animals) nor the equally obsolete one of a stopping place or lodging (from old French giste, in modern French the more familiar gîte for a furnished holiday home). This one is the essence or substance of a speech or text.

It evolved out of the legal language in medieval England after the Norman Conquest at a time when court cases were recorded in French. There was a fixed phrase, cest action gist, in which gist is from Latin jacere, to lie, via Old French gesir, to lie. Its literal translation was this action lies. It didn’t mean that the accusation was untruthful (though we may guess that many of them must have been), since the original Latin verb could also mean “be situated”. It meant that sufficient grounds existed for continuing with the action. This sense of lie is still known in legal English.

Early in the eighteenth century gist shifted from meaning that an action was admissible or sustainable to referring to what the action was actually about. The phrases “the gist of the action” or “the gist of the indictment” were common:

Mr Sturgeon, the surgeon, depos’d, That being sent for, he came to Mr. Crispe at Coke’s about Eleven, found him wretchedly cut in seven places … It will be too tedious to describe the other Wounds, only that on the Nose, because it was the Gist of the Indictment.
The Historical Register, 1722.

It took another century for this usage to extend beyond the legal world to mean in everyday language the essence of some speech or text.

3. Fly in the face of

Q From Jonathan in Tokyo: While recently reading an article on the BBC about one of the latest pop stars over here in Japan, I came across the phrase fly in the face: “Her quirkiness and imperfections fly in the face of the conventional view of Japanese culture.” Being an English teacher myself, I anticipate my students asking me to explain the phrase and be asked its origins. It’s something I have never thought about and so I wondered if you could shed some light on the matter.

A You’re in good company, as I suspect few English speakers have stopped to wonder why we should have this odd expression. I must confess to never having done so myself.

The idiom usually refers to something that appears to deny the truth of a statement or belief (“Their actions fly in the face of their claim that they are looking to avoid civilian casualties”). Rather less often, it describes a person who defies someone else or shows disrespect for someone or something (“He is above all a tease. Like Gore Vidal, he likes to fly in the face of received opinions.”) There’s also the much less common and relatively recent derivative fly in the teeth of, which is, I think, solely American.

The first version, from the 1550s, was to fly in a person’s face and its literal meaning was of a dog that attacked by springing at a person. Very early on, it acquired the figurative sense of verbally attacking someone who disagreed with your opinions or your actions, decidedly getting in their face. This is now rare but not yet obsolete:

Don’t fly in their face with it. Don’t try to browbeat them with your point of view.
Independent on Sunday, 9 Aug. 1998.

It’s not clear from the record when the impersonal form took over, but it was at least a century ago.


4. Sic!

• Richard Kuebbing found that the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 7 July asserted, about the crash in San Francisco of the Asiana flight 214, “All have been unaccounted for among the 307 passengers and crew, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel.”

• Liz Moynihan emailed: “Our local newspaper, the SanTan Sun News in Chandler, AZ, had this headline in the July 6-19 issue: ‘Chandler City Council to address urban chickens’. I have a feeling the sheep and cows might demand equal time.”

• On 10 July, the Femail section of the Daily Mail website had this tagline: “Shorts can be chic: And you don’t have to be a twenty-something to pull them off.”

World Wide Words Issue 840 — WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 839 – WIF Style

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Issue 839: Saturday 6 July 2013





1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Nosopoetic.

3. Loophole.

4. Fornication.

5. Sic!


Duct tape Readers were quick to mention other names for the stuff, including 100-mph tape, supposedly so named in the US military because it was strong enough to hold together a jeep travelling at that speed; an older form is 90-mph tape. Jim Tang mentioned that a more recent aircraft version is 500-mph tape, though I wouldn’t care to fly in one so mended. Another term is gaffer tape, a version used by film electricians, whose boss is the gaffer. A paragraph about these was in the piece as first written but I accidentally left it out during the revision. Now included again, together with the 500-mph variant.

Jitney Lots of readers asked about jeepneys in the Philippines. It is generally agreed by the experts that they get their name from combining jeep and jitney, having been so named by US service personnel in the country after the Second World War, when many ex-army jeeps were used as informal transport.

Michael Grosvenor Myer recalled, “When I worked for a canned goods importing firm in Eastcheap in the 1950s, a jitney, sometimes shortened to jit, was the smallest size of canned fruit container. Do you know anything of this usage?” It isn’t in any dictionary I’ve consulted but there’s a reference dated May 1927 in a trade journal called The Canner: “Examination of 1926 pack statistics show rapid progress toward smaller cans that will sell at popular prices. The small 8-oz. jitney appeared for the first time.” There are other contemporary references to the name being applied to the eight-ounce can. There are examples also of its being used today for a size of sardine can. We may guess that its name derives from the small value of the jitney coin.

2. Nosopoetic/,nɒsəʊpəʊˈɛtɪk/

Despite its form, this has nothing to do with poetry (or noses). The first part is from Greek nosos, a disease, while the second is a disguised form of pointikos, creative or productive, which is the source of the English adjective poietic with the same sense. So something nosopoetic causes disease.

You might think the term would have found favour with doctors, as it would be a useful addition to their vocabulary. However, it never caught on — despite appearing in a couple of glossaries of medical terms in the early nineteenth century — and around the middle of the century was supplanted by pathogenic.

Nosopoetic was invented by the extraordinary mathematician, physician and satirist Dr John Arbuthnot, who also created the persona of John Bull who symbolises the English character and nation. He introduced nosopoetic in his work of 1733, An Essay Concerning the Effects of Air on Human Bodies.

More than a century later, it appeared in a work I’ve had cause to quote from previously, written by a pioneering educationalist in Indiana to encourage students to learn new words by putting them in context:

The multifarious cibarious substances engorged into inane and jejune stomachs, during the nuptial festivity, were extremely nosopoetic on the guests.
Letters to Squire Pedant, by Samuel Hoshour, 1856.

Cibarious means relating to food, or edible; inane is being used here in its ancient sense of void or empty; jejune is likewise in its earliest meaning of fasting or being hungry. This periphrastic conglomeration may be reduced to “The wedding guests became ill from overeating on empty stomachs.”


3. Loophole

Q From Will Thomas: Where do we get loophole from?

A A typical medieval English castle would have had — in addition to barbicans, machicolations, crenellations, a portcullis or two and other useful features — a number of loops.

This loop isn’t a “doubling or return into itself of a portion of a string, cord, thong, or the like, so as to leave an aperture between the parts”, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains it. (Defining geometric shapes is a good test of a lexicographer’s skill. It may remind you of the trouble Dr Johnson had with network: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”)

These castle-type loops were small gaps or holes in the fortified walls for keeping watch, for archers to shoot through, or to let light into a chamber. Later, the word was applied to arrow-slits to the exclusion of the other senses.

There’s no connection between the two meanings of loop, though one nineteenth-century scholar did attempt to square the semantic circle by suggesting that the apertures were in the shape of loops. It’s likely, the experts suggest, that it comes from the old Dutch verb lûpen, to watch or peer, or glupen, to spy or lurk, to watch with narrowed eyes, whose source is a word for a crack or slit.

In the sixteenth century, loop began to be expanded to loophole. It seems that Englishmen were as puzzled and confused then by the two senses of loop as we might be today and added the second part to make it clear they were talking about openings in walls and not doubled-over bits of string.

Around the middle of the following century loophole began to be used figuratively for a means of escape and by 1700 could have our modern sense of an ambiguity or inadequacy in rules or laws that allows somebody to evade their provisions.

4. Fornication

Q From B J Wise: I’ve just read a suspicious description of the origin of the word fornication. Supposedly, it comes from fornacis, the Latin for furnace, which has to do with prostitutes operating out of bakeries and advertising with bread baked in the shape of penises. They would wait for the oven to cool, and crawl inside to “heat the ovens back up again”. Is there any merit to this?

A That’s an utterly unfounded but delightful story. The writer has vaguely recalled the real origin and has built a shaky tower of invention on no foundation whatsoever except a misunderstanding of Latin vocabulary.

For the Romans a furnace was a fornax (fornacis is actually the adjective, “relating to a furnace”, best known in the formal names of several stars in the constellation Fornax). The word the teller of your tale was searching for is fornix, an arch or vaulted chamber. It’s true that furnaces and bread ovens were often built in an arched shape, and some writers have consequently sought to derive fornix from fornax, but the two words had distinct senses in classical Latin.

A fornix might be a triumphal arch marking a successful battle or a mundane one supporting the upper floor of a Roman building. Arched passages in public buildings such as the Stadium and Colosseum in Rome were popular with prostitutes seeking trade. Brothels of the poorer sort were often established in vaulted cellars. So fornix became a slang term for a house of ill repute.

The late Latin verb fornicari and the noun fornicationem came from fornix. English took over the noun from French around 1300 but the verb only appeared 250 years later.

It’s curious that the noun was recorded a century ago in the English Dialect Dictionary as in use in several English dialects for telling lies. A fornicator was a liar and a fornicating person was deceitful or treacherous. We may guess this evolved because a person who was suspected of sex outside marriage was strongly tempted to tell lies about it.


5. Sic!

• Ira Rimson stumbled across this in The Innocent by David Baldacci: “An hour later a chubby man in a wrinkled suit with pasty skin walked in.”

• Alan Harrison found this sentence in the Birmingham Mail of 28 June, beginning an article on the discovery of the grave of Major Harry Gem: “Enthusiasts have rediscovered the long lost grave of the Birmingham man who invented tennis in a city cemetery.”

World Wide Words Issue 839

– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 834 — WIF Style

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World Wide Words

 Issue 834: Saturday 1 June 2013





1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Argosy.

3. Possessives with verbal nouns.

4. Barber’s cat.

5. Sic!


Adoxography Erik Midelfort commented, “I enjoyed your entry and thought I might tell you that the Renaissance had another word for it: the mock encomium, in which the writer might laud silly things like a flea or a bit of dust. The classic of the genre was Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Praise of Folly (1516). You mentioned Erasmus but erroneously claimed that he had written something in 1556, which was 20 years after he died. [A typing error for 1536. Apologies.] You get into another bit of trouble on the origins of the word because the Greek word (doxa) did not mean primarily ‘glory’. That was the common meaning in the Bible, but the root meant something more like ‘opinion’, or ‘belief’, or ‘what seems to be true’.” Hence, as Allan Paris pointed out, our orthodox (conforming to generally accepted rules or beliefs), which derives from doxa, opinion, preceded by orthos, straight or right.

Short end of the stick “I would have surmised,” Alan Weyman wrote, “that getting the short end of the stick conflated getting the wrong end… with getting the short straw.” This last idiom is from the ancient selection method of drawing straws randomly from a set, which usually committed the person choosing the shortest one to an onerous or undesirable task. However, the expression is relatively modern, with the first example I can find being from the New York Times in 1904. This suggests it couldn’t have contributed to the creation of short end of the stick.

2. Argosy

This was the name of a magazine which my eldest brother brought home when I was a child. Its cover featured a line drawing of an ancient vessel in full sail, which linked the word and the craft for me.

The etymological link is with the modern Croatian port of Dubrovnik, which was called Ragusa until after the Second World War. Together with Venice, on the other side of the Adriatic, it was an important Mediterranean trading port in the sixteenth century. A ragusa came to mean a ship from Ragusa and this was twisted by the English into argosy.

By Shakespeare’s time, it had become established as the term for a merchant ship of the very largest size, especially those of Venice and Ragusa, which is why Portia is able to say to Antonio at the end of the Merchant of Venice, “Unseal this letter soon; / There you shall find three of your argosies / Are richly come to harbour suddenly.”

Much later, argosy became a figurative way to speak of a rich supply of a material or something with valuable contents. It was given as a title to a literary digest, notably to the American pulp magazine published by Frank Munsey in 1882, but rather earlier to an English journal created by Alexander Strahan, which was revived in 1926 and was the one that I saw about 1948.

There’s no connection with the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed on the ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.


3. Possessives with verbal nouns

Q From Matthew Brand: I was wondering if you could help me with a grammatical matter that has recently been vexing me. When a pronoun is immediately followed by a verbal noun, should it be an ordinary pronoun or a possessive pronoun? Take this example I found in Alice Montgomery’s biography of Katy Perry: “Now scarcely a day went by without them being mentioned in the press.” Shouldn’t it be “their being mentioned”?

A This is a tricky one, not easy to understand or explain.

The construction has been the subject of scholarly disputation for about the past three centuries. A verbal noun, also called a gerund, is the present participle of a verb (ending in -ing) used as a noun. Examples may help to explain the ways these -ing forms are used. In “Fred is driving home” or “Fred has been driving all day”, driving is a participle, part of a compound verb. In “The driving instructor told Fred to stop the car”, it’s a participle acting as an adjective. In “Driving is hard work” it’s a verbal noun — it’s acting like a noun, but has active implications like a verb. Take another example: “Hunting otters is outlawed”. Hunting here is a verbal noun which has both noun force (the concept of hunting) and verb force (the activity of hunting).

The verbal noun was known in Latin, hence its alternative name of gerund, which is from gerundum, fittingly the gerund form of the verb gerere, to do. But eighteenth-century grammarians who tried to analyse English grammar on Latin models were baffled by this dual nature of the English verbal noun and the way it was commonly preceded by a noun or preposition in the possessive.

To made matters more awkward, many writers used possessive and non-possessive forms, sometimes even in the same text. In a letter in 1867, Lewis Carroll wrote “in hopes of his being able to join us” (the verbal noun being preceded by his, a possessive pronoun) and also “I suppose the music prevented any of it being heard” (being again, but this time with it, a non-possessive pronoun).

There was a notable debate about this in 1926-27 between W H Fowler, who had just published his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and the Danish etymologist and grammarian Otto Jespersen. Fowler argued that the possessive pronoun should be used in every situation but Jesperson refuted him with copious counter-examples, commenting that Fowler was an “instinctive grammatical moraliser”. Grammarians have since then exhaustively researched the verbal noun and have come to an understanding of it that unfortunately hasn’t universally reached student textbooks.

What has become clear is that the distinction between an -ing form as a verb and as a verbal noun is rather artificial and that there’s no easy test for which construction is the right one. Good writers follow unconscious rules in deciding whether to use the possessive before a verbal noun, rules they’ve developed from their experience of using the language.

Current style books (such as Robert Burchfield’s third edition of Fowler) attempt to codify practice by providing a detailed list of these rules. One is to use the possessive with proper and personal nouns and with personal pronouns but not with impersonal ones. In your case that would lead to the correct version being “their being mentioned” and explains why Lewis Carroll used both forms, his first being personal and the second impersonal. Another rule often put forward is that personal nouns aren’t put into the possessive if they’re plural (“Girls chasing boys is nothing new” versus “Annie’s chasing boys is nothing new”, though the only way that you can tell in the first example that girls isn’t in the possessive is that there’s no apostrophe after the s).

However, the rules are much less well observed now than they were a few decades ago, so that a sentence like “I have unhappy memories of him screaming at me” doesn’t strike most of us as wrong in the way that it would have done for Fowler. This is part of a move towards informal modes of expression in which possessives are less common.

As an illustration, the late William Safire wrote about verbal nouns in his On Language column in the New York Times in February 1994. He gave the examples “It’s a matter of women being exploited by men for centuries”, “the cliché about love being blind” and “Liberals did not appreciate the President lecturing them”. He asserted that they were all incorrect. I’d argue the opposite for the first two, as would Dr Burchfield, on the basis that the first contains a plural noun (women) and the other an impersonal one (love). The third should be possessive by the rules but both forms feel right to me, perhaps because president is an insufficiently personal noun.

4. Barber’s cat

Q From Mike Lean, Australia: I’ve come across the phrase wet and windy like the barber’s cat. Can you tell me anything about it? Why would a barber’s cat be so? Does it relate to a particular cat of fable or legend? Initial researches have yielded nothing.

A That’s a very old-fashioned expression, once known throughout the Anglophone countries, though not I think in the USA. It was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but we rarely come across it now. Deputy Willie O’Dea alluded to it in the Dáil, the Irish parliament, on 26 September 2009: “There is no point coming into the House acting as the parliamentary version of the barber’s cat. We know what components made up that creature.”

I’ll bet few readers could tell Mr O’Dea what those components were. Looking into its history is complicated because one part of it was considered to be “an expression too coarse to print”, as John Camden Hotten commented in his Slang Dictionary in 1864. The form that he refused to print was “full of wind and piss, like the barber’s cat”. One meaning, surely the one Mr O’Dea had in mind, was of a uselessly and unnecessarily loquacious person. That sense was made explicit in this early appearance, though in a carefully euphemised version:

He should be the very last man in Dundee to call any one a windbag, for it is a well-known fact that, among his own class as well as among those who he says are “sometimes called the working classes,” he is generally considered the very Prince of Windbags. Indeed, it is often remarked about him that he is all wind and water, like the barber’s cat.
The Dundee Courier and Argus, 8 Sep. 1877.

Another version was as poor as a barber’s cat, which was expanded to refer to somebody who was half-starved, sickly or weak, though some later slang researchers said that it meant no more than that he was thin. Curiously, all dolled up like a barber’s cat is also on record, as is as conceited as a barber’s cat. Give a cat a bad name, it seems, and you can insult him as much as you like.

It was low slang of the working classes, so its early history and origin are unclear. J Redding Ware argued in his Passing English of the Victorian Era in 1909 that it might be a corruption of the term bare brisket, which he said was “also used for a thin fellow, the brisket being the thinnest part of beef”. This is imaginative but too much so to be acceptable. More plausible was the hypothesis that a cat in a barber’s shop would find little to eat and so be poor or ill-served, an idea expanded much later to explain your version of the phrase:

As he walked back he said to Mathews: “Do you know the expression — wet and windy, like the barber’s cat?”
”I know it well,” Mathews confessed. “Why the barber’s cat, I wonder?”
”A consequence of frugality,” the poet explained. “Its staple diet is hair and soapsuds.”
Strumpet City, by James Plunkett, 1969.


5. Sic!

• Terry McManus found an article on The Independent’s website on 26 May about an exhibition at the British Library which mentioned “David Cameron and Tony Blair in calculated open-necked shorts and casual wear visiting the troops in the field.”

• A feature piece on the local DeLorean Automobile Club in the York Sunday News of Pennsylvania was sent in by Bill Schmeer: “The car was manufactured by the DeLorean Motor Company in Northern Ireland, which went bankrupt in 1982.”

• David Luther Woodward forwarded an extract from a front-page story in the Madison News-Record, North Carolina, for 30 May: “25 percent of net profits will be allocated to the superintendent of the county administration unit to be exasperated solely for the use of Hot Spring Elementary School.”

• Elena Cicinskaite recently visited the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. In the section about the work of the Women’s Land Army in the Second World War she found an object captioned thus: “Bicycle Lamp with a ‘black out hood’ to stop light being invisible to German bomber pilots above.”

 World Wide Words Issue 834

— WIF Style