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Newsletter 801
15 Sep 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Hoity-toity.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Grand slam.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Percontation Marc Picard commented on my piece: “The distinction between percontation and interrogation is alive and well in modern linguistics, except that they’re called wh-questions [who, what, why, when, which, where, plus how] and yes-no questions. In spoken English, as well as in many other languages, I suspect, there’s a clear-cut prosodic difference between them in that the former have a rising-falling intonation and the latter a simple rising intonation.” Another pair of terms for them, Catherine Hurst explained, is open-ended and closed questions.

Several other readers asked about a type fount, which I had where they would have used font. Fount is an unfashionable British English spelling of the same word; both forms derives from French fondre, to melt or cast. The other fount, meaning source (as in “fount of all wisdom”), is a different word, a back formation from fountain on the pattern of the pair mountain, mount. The church font is — like fountain — from the Latin for a spring, fonte, in this case in the phrase fontes baptismi, the waters of baptism; in time font moved from the thing contained to its container.

2. Weird Words: Hoity-toity

This word, another example of the love of English-speaking peoples for reduplicated creations, has had an interesting 360 years since it first appeared in the language. We use it now to mean somebody who is haughty or snobbish or puts on airs. My mental image of a hoity-toity person is one who has his or her nose elevated in continual condemnation.

Look at Fawlty Towers. Every joke is stewed in class resentment. Basil, the Torquay hotelier, is a mass of lower-middle class insecurities. He is infuriated by the hoity-toity airs that his coiffured wife Sybil gives herself.

Daily Mail, 4 May 2012.

When hoity-toity first appeared in the language, however, it had rather a different sense. Take this example:

By the way, Jack, there is generally a certain hoity-toity inelegance of form and manner at seventeen, which in my opinion is not balanc’d by freshness of complexion, the only advantage girls have to boast of.

The History of Emily Montague, by Frances Brooke, 1769.

That isn’t snobbishness. The writer is using an older sense that was by then almost obsolete. About a century ago the editor who created the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary defined that sense as “frolicsome, romping, giddy, flighty”. We might say that the young lady exhibited boisterous or silly behaviour or was coltish.

Hoity-toity derives from the long-obsolete verb hoit, meaning to “indulge in riotous and noisy mirth” (have you hoited recently? it’s supposed to be very good for you) or to “romp inelegantly” (again from the OED; is it even possible to romp elegantly?). Where hoit comes from is uncertain, although an early form suggests a link with hoyden, which is now an unfashionable way to describe a noisy or energetic girl but which at the time could also mean an ignorant or clownish man. This is probably from the Middle Dutch heiden, a heath, hence a yokel; if so, hoyden is a close relative of heathen.

The shift to our current sense probably came about through a variation, highty-tighty, that was current between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The first part may have evoked the idea of height and so led to assumptions of superiority, although no such link ever actually existed.

3. Wordface

New words on the record Since July the British dictionary makers Collins have been accepting suggestions for words to be added to their online site. Having sorted through 4,000 entries, this week they announced a list of 86 that have been added. As you may guess, they're an eclectic set, though many of them have circulated for some time online. A selection: amazeballs, an expression of enthusiastic approval; bridezilla, a woman whose behaviour while planning the details of her wedding is regarded as intolerable; claustrophilia, abnormal pleasure derived from being in a confined space (a rare condition, I'd have thought); floordrobe, a pile of clothes left on the floor; laymanize or laymanise, to simplify technical information into a form that can be understood by ordinary people; lollage, the practice of using the text messaging abbreviation LOL (laugh out loud, not lots of love as the British press has reported Prime Minister David Cameron used to believe); mummy porn or mommy porn, a genre of erotic fiction that is designed to appeal to women (think Fifty Shades of Grey); podium, to finish in one of the first three places in a sporting competition (much used by commentators during the Olympics); squadoosh, a US slang term meaning nothing; and touch-ready, usable immediately on touch-screen devices and computers.

4. Questions and Answers: Grand slam

Q From Jonathan Odell: There’s been lots of talk about grand slam as a result of Andy Murray’s success in the US Open. Where did it come from?

A Etymologically this slam has no connection with the word for a violent action, such as slamming a door. The immediate origin was the card game, bridge. Grand slam, to take all 13 tricks in a hand, has for more than a century been part of the vocabulary of players. Bridge became hugely popular in the US from the last years of the nineteenth century on and the term very soon began to take on other associations.

It’s often said that the American journalist Allison Danzig took the card term and applied it to tennis in 1938. He was writing about the achievement of the Australian Donald Budge that year in winning all four major singles titles — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. (Budge wasn’t the first to win them all, Fred Perry having achieved that two years earlier with his US Open success, but Perry didn’t win all four in the same year.) Danzig’s employment of it, if he did, was beaten by five years by this:

Crawford, already the holder this year of the Australian, French and British singles championships, will make his bid for the first “grand slam” in tennis history when he plays Perry tomorrow afternoon for the American title.

Salt Lake City Tribune (Utah), 10 Sep. 1933. In a syndicated report by Alan Gould of the Associated Press. Crawford failed: Fred Perry beat him.

This wasn’t its first use in sports. Paul Dickson, in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, notes that it refers to a “home run hit with the bases loaded” (I have since learned this means that the first, second and third bases are occupied when a batter steps up to the plate; Americans may forgive my ignorance of baseball.) He notes that the usage dates from an article in the New York Times on 27 May 1929: “One pinch-hitter thus producing what is known in baseball as a grand slam is enough to make a ball game momentous”. He also says it was used earlier for any hard-hit ball that scored a lot of runs, or indeed any home run. This is the earliest baseball reference I can find:

After the game had been cinched in the sixth, the Infants couldn’t stop that awful stampede by the Camels. The herd almost pushed one across in the seventh but clever work by Sterling stopped it. The eighth however, was a grand slam for the Camels.

Muscatine Journal (Iowa), 15 July 1910.

I’ve found it in the same year as a figurative term for a decisive or knockout blow:

Lulu’s press agent, having exhausted all other schemes, advertises for a husband for his star, the idea being to give the victim the “grand slam” at the altar, thus affording the reporters a great first page story.

San Antonio Light and Gazette, 20 Oct. 1910. This is from a review of a comedy play, Lulu’s Husbands by Thompson Buchanan.

The venerable bridge sense seems in turn to have acquired it from whist, in which a slam (without the grand) was likewise the taking of all 13 tricks in a hand. The Oxford English Dictionary has taken this back to a book of 1660. But it’s older still. An earlier game called ruff and honours, an ancestor of whist, had several names, one of them slam. It’s now thought that slam here is likely to be from the obsolete slampant of the previous century, which meant trickery. To give someone a slampant meant to play a trick on a person or hoodwink them. It must surely be connected with trick in the card sense, which dates from about the same time.

This penumbra of sense around slam has long since vanished. The first figurative users of grand slam had slam in the bridge sense in their minds but coloured by the physical one. Today the physical sense overwhelms the other.

Incidentally, grand slam in tennis, in the sense of winning all four of the major singles tournaments, is so rare an accomplishment that the term has weakened to winning any of the four titles, which are often called grand-slam titles. When this happened is hard to pin down. Andy Murray is a grand slam winner in this weaker sense — he hasn’t won any of the four majors other than the US Open, though he has been finalist or semi-finalist in all of them. But getting Olympic gold and winning the US Open within one month is surely enough of a grand slam for anyone.

5. Sic!

• David Halperin and Gila Blits sent this headline from the English-language edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on September 7, reporting on the Israel cricket team: “Israel enjoys perfect week, earning birth in semifinals”.

• A headline in the Daily Mail on 6 September startled Paula Maier and Martin Brodetsky: “Bank worker tried to film naked women as they lay in tanning booths on his mobile phone.”

• In the Columbia Daily Tribune of Missouri, Dennis Wright found this Associated Press report dated 8 September: “The Army is taking over the prosecution of a Missouri soldier accused of killing a man who slept with his wife just hours before attending her funeral.”

• For want of a hyphen ... Bruce Robb submitted this sentence from an article in The Huffington Post on Jay Leno’s 50% pay cut for The Tonight Show: “In August, the Los Angeles Times reported Leno volunteered to the salary cut if it could save the jobs of some of the show’s 200 odd staffers.”

• Chuck Wuest called a headline he had found in the Chicago Tribune of 10 September “a case of a truant apostrophe”: “Teachers strike heads into second day”.

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