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Newsletter 739
04 Jun 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Sphexish.

3. Questions and Answers: Lush.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Summer break I’m about to take a holiday. In previous years, I’ve stopped publication of World Wide Words, but as the break this year would be four weeks, this would be too great a gap between issues. So I’m trying something different. Each issue from 11 June to 2 July will contain a revised version of an article that appeared in my book Gallimaufry (now out of print; apologies to those readers who have bought it and for whom these will be familiar). The only issue for which problems might occur is that of 25 June, when internet access could be difficult. Normal service will be resumed on 9 July. As it’s automatically generated, the Word File will go out as usual on RSS and Twitter each weekday throughout. But don’t stop writing — in particular offerings for the Sic! column will continue to be very welcome during my absence.

Criticaster From Andrew Haynes: “Your Weird Words piece mentions some other words that use the -aster ending but it omits one that may be useful in that it no doubt describes some of the people you encounter through World Wide Words. That is grammaticaster, a contemptuous term for a petty or inferior grammarian, which now appears only in dictionaries of weird words but does have the cachet of having been used by Ben Jonson, who wrote in a work with the title Poetaster: ‘He tells thee true, my noble Neophyte; my little Grammaticaster, he does.’”

As the crow flies As a side effect of writing about this idiom I am now much better informed about the habits of corvids, thanks to the many readers who took the trouble to educate me. I’ve learned the North American crow is gregarious, unlike its British relative, though I’m told that the latter isn’t quite as solitary as country lore would suggest.

Susan Bryan was one of the many who commented: “I live in British Columbia and I guess the crows here haven’t heard they shouldn’t flock. In agricultural areas, they can be found in early morning roosting in what we call crow trees or nesting trees. They leave at early light and come back at dusk. No one would like one of these trees in their yards as they can hold what appear to be up to 100 or more birds at a time, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds.”

A couple of readers suggested that the idiom derived from the tale of Noah in the Bible. Most people who know the story, including me, remember that at the end of the flood Noah sent out a dove to test for dry land, which was why I didn’t mention a possible link. Not being a regular reader of Genesis (Chapter 8, Verses 7-8), I hadn’t realised he had first sent out a raven. The folk tales about seamen using crows to search for land may be based on this. But they might equally be memories of old navigational practices. Ned Ludd told me that the Vikings released ravens to point them towards land. This is known, for example, from the saga of Floki, also called Ravna-Floki (Raven-Floki), because he took three ravens with him in his journey from Shetland to search for Iceland. However, the two folk tales cited in my piece remain etymologically false.

2. Weird Words: Sphexish/sfɛksɪʃ/ Help with IPA

Scholars of ancient languages will immediately spot that this word has something to do with a wasp, since sphex is the name of that insect in classical Greek. In more modern times, it has been given to a genus of solitary digger wasps. Therein lies a tale.

When such a wasp returns to its burrow with a paralysed cricket to feed its grubs, it will leave it at the entrance while it checks inside that all is well. It then comes out again and drags its prey inside. This gave a naturalist with a cruel streak an idea for a bit of behavioural research. He moved the cricket a little way away while the wasp was in its burrow. When the it surfaced and found its cricket was missing, it searched for it and returned it to the entrance to its burrow. It then repeated its search of the inside. No matter how many times the cricket was moved, the wasp repeated the same steps robotically without working out what was going on.

Douglas Hofstadter recounted the story in one of his Metamagical Themas columns in Scientific American in 1982 and coined sphexish for this unthinking deterministic or pre-programmed behaviour, in which the wasp was at the mercy of its instincts and environment. In a book derived from his columns, Hofstadter later suggested that humans might likewise exhibit such robotic behaviour:

To the extent of having an individual style, any artist is sphexish — trapped within invisible, intangible, but inescapable boundaries of mental space.

Metamagical Themas, by Douglas Hofstadter, 1985.

So far as I know, the term hasn’t appeared in any dictionary, but it has some circulation among behavioural psychologists. Daniel Dennett created the related noun sphexishness in 1984. Hofstadter coined antisphexishness in his book for the opposite state: free will.

Thanks to Barry Rein for telling me about this word.

3. Questions and Answers: Lush

Q From Jonathon Hargreaves: It’s getting a bit old-fashioned nowadays, I think, but it has always intrigued me that one word for a confirmed drunkard is lush. How did that come about?

A Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a London club. Its members were actors and variety artists, who met for the purposes of convivial drinking in the Harp Tavern in Great Portland Street. (Stage hands and other theatre technicians excluded from joining banded together in the same pub around 1822 and formed a friendly society now called The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.) The club was organised on humorous lines after the model of the governance of the City of London, electing a “lord mayor”, four “aldermen”, who presided over “wards” called Juniper, Poverty, Lunacy, and Suicide, and lesser officers with names such as City Physician, City Taster and City Barber. The club called itself the City of Lushington.

The idioms Lushington, Alderman Lushington, voting for the Alderman, dealing with Lushington and Lushington is his master were used from the early 1820s for a person who habitually imbibed not wisely but too well. Here’s an example of the first of these terms from a little later in the century:

For this club-room tippling induces drinking habits in some young men, confirms them in others, and affords convenient opportunities for indulgence to those who are already confirmed “lushingtons.”

Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867.

Some writers have asserted that these slang terms come from the name of a prominent London brewer who has, however, never been identified. They must instead surely derive from the humorous rituals of the club.

You might deduce from all this that lush is an abbreviation for Lushington. It’s an attractive and plausible idea. Lush began to refer to a drunkard in the early 1820s, around the same time as the Lushington expressions appeared. By the 1850s it had arrived in California and it was in the US that it flowered into a long-lived common deprecatory term. But the truth about this suggested origin depends on the chronology of Lushington and lush, which in the current state of knowledge is hard to work out.

Some reports put the founding of the City of Lushington club in 1750. This can’t be confirmed, though Pierce Egan, in his Real Life In London of 1821, described it as “this ancient city”. That would put it well before lush and suggests that the club’s founders based its name on something else, perhaps that unrecorded London brewer. But Egan added, “we doubt not our numerous readers will discover that its title is derived from an important article in life, commonly called Lush.” Egan means lush in an associated but older sense — that of alcoholic drink, specifically strong beer.

It seems probable — albeit based on incomplete evidence — that the slang lush for alcoholic drink came first, that the club’s name of Lushington was based on it, presumably as a joke on the family name, and that its members’ fondness for drinking to excess helped lush to shift from drink to drunkard.

If lush did come first, we then have to work out where it comes from. Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, suggests that it might be from German Loschen, which also means strong beer, or possibly from lush in the Irish traveller argot Shelta, which meant to eat and drink.

4. Sic!

• Sally Springett told us of a letter to a columnist in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of New Jersey, dated 28 May: “Dear Edith: I found a multi-unit house with four tenants for sale.”

• A juxtaposition of links on the BBC news website on 28 May struck Robin Dawes as unfortunate: Bin Laden Killed | William and Kate.

• A paragraph in a church newsletter from Orland Park, IL, reminded Richard Olson of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: “The first Saturday of every month we will be cooking and serving 60 homeless in Roseland.” It reminded me of a James Thurber quip about using verbs; a hostess remarked, “In this house, we can sleep 18 but we can only eat 10.”

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