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Newsletter 887
19 Jul 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Wordface.

3. Bounding main.

4. Sic!

1. 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’.”

2. Wordface

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 that she recently spotted in the New York Times: 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.

3. 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.

4. Sic!

• 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.”

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