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Newsletter 820
23 Feb 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Defenestrate.

3. Oddest book title of the year.

4. Whale of a time.

5. Demitarian.

6. Sic!

7. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Jane Halsey commented on the phrase not on your tintype: “It might have started out as an expression of absolute disbelief, meaning ‘You could show me a photo and I still wouldn’t believe you!’ and then morphed into a more general expression of absolute disagreement or refusal. The cheapness of this kind of photo might have added a backhanded swipe at the person you were disbelieving or disagreeing with.” Jane Steinberg suggested a similar idea: “I had a friend, a Jewish refugee from Munich, who would vigorously opt out of a choice by declaring, in a thick Münchener accent, ‘Nett ahngemahlt!’, ‘not even in a painting!’ It seems similar to the tintype expression, to be so averse to something you wouldn’t even do it in a picture.”

A common response to the piece was to quote a little puzzle poem in various versions, which I have been able to trace back as far as this, though it’s presumably rather older:

Once a big molice pan met a bittle lum Sitting on a sturb cone chewing gubber rum. “Hi,” said the molice pan, “won’t you simme gum?” “Tixxy on your nin type,” said the bittle lum.

Ice-breakers, by Edna Geister, 1920.

Many subscribers picked up on the unfamiliar word overhauls in a quotation in the piece that came from George Ade’s Fables in Slang (“Git into some Overhauls an’ come an’ he’p me this afternoon.”) It’s a mistaken spelling of overalls, a term of the latter eighteenth century in army and civilian life for protective over-trousers (in the US and British armies, these were originally worn over breeches and stockings but the overall replaced them as part of the uniform). In the following century the term was extended to protective clothing with a bib top or a complete top, the latter also being called coveralls. Almost from the beginning there was confusion about their name in the US: the Dictionary of American Regional English has an example from 1781 in which the word was written as overhalls. Overhauls came along later as a very common version, in the mistaken belief that they were called that because they were hauled on over the trousers. Similar reasoning caused coveralls to be written as coverhauls.

Several readers pointed out following my piece on nidicolous and nidifugous that two other terms form a pair with senses that are equivalent. They are altricial and precocial, introduced by the Swedish zoologist Carl Jakob Sundevall in 1836. He coined the former from Latin altrix, foster mother or wet nurse. Altricial refers to a bird or other animal born in an underdeveloped stage, needing care and feeding by the parent, the same idea as nidicolous. The latter is from scientific Latin praecoces, the plural of classical Latin praecox, early or premature. (You may know it from dementia praecox, literally “early insanity”, an old medical term for schizophrenia that presents in adolescence; it’s also the root of precocious.) Precocial means a creature hatched or born in an advanced state, able to feed itself almost immediately, the same sense as nidifugous. It’s curious that we’ve ended up with two equivalent pairs of technical terms.

2. Defenestrate

Perhaps my brain sees patterns where none exist, but this verb seems to be more than usually popular at the moment. I read recently, for example, that the former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had been defenestrated by her party.

The root of the word is the Latin fenester, a window. Architects speak of a building’s fenestration, by which they mean the style and placement of its window openings. To defenestrate, then, might be to remove or block up a window, as happened during the period of the window tax in England. But it’s never been used that way. In its earliest appearances, it referred to throwing somebody out of a window.

There have been many cases of people being so thrown as a means of execution, at least as far back as the fate of Queen Jezebel, who the Second Book of Kings says was defenestrated by Jehu. The most famous came during a confrontation in Prague Castle in May 1618 between a group of Bohemian Protestants complaining about infringements of religious freedom and regents of the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. The altercation led to two of the regents and the council secretary being thrown out of the window of the council room. An account by one of the regents, Jaroslav Martinic, says that they fell thirty cubits (13 metres or 45 feet) into the dry moat but survived. Catholic writers claimed that the three were saved by the intercession of the Virgin Mary while Protestant ones argued that they fortuitously landed on a heap of manure.

The first mention in English of its being called a defenestration is in an account by an anonymous engineer serving in the French Army at the siege of Prague in 1743. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the events of 1618 came to be known in English history books as the defenestration of Prague.

Around 1900 we start seeing defenestrate as a joking term, actual throwing not being implied. In the early 1990s or a little before it took on a colloquial sense of removing a person from office by sacking them, as happened to Margaret Thatcher:

Mr Bob Hawke, Australia’s long-serving prime minister, has been defenestrated.

Financial Times. 22 Feb. 1992. Mr Hawke had lost a leadership challenge in December 1991.

This figurative sense is either too recent or too slangy to have reached any of the print dictionaries that I’ve consulted. It has over time broadened further to mean confounded, defeated or removed. A football team that had been knocked out of a competition was said to have been defenestrated. Abandonment of a government retail prices index has been described as its defenestration. Another example:

There were some sweet moments — like the pre-ordering requests and dedications from the audience on their website — but this was a performance defenestrated by its own timidity.

Independent, 30 Jan. 2013.

3. Oddest book title of the year

The shortlist for the Bookseller-Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year has just been announced. It is as fine a set as has ever appeared in its 35-year history.

Covers of the shortlisted titles for the Bookseller-Diagram prize 2013

The titles are: Was Hitler Ill? (A historian and professor of medicine analyse whether the Führer was fully responsible for his crimes.); Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts (A pigeon fancier’s professional guide to pigeon housing.); God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis (An analysis of the schizophrenic, up-and-down relationship between man and his manhood.); Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop (How to identify, track and destroy bothersome members of the fairy realm.); How Tea Cosies Changed the World (A comprehensive and inspirational guide to the humble tea cosy.); How to Sharpen Pencils (The art of achieving the perfect point.)

4. Whale of a time

Q From Julian Arkell: I cannot find on your website anything about the origin and meaning of the phrase a whale of a time.

A If someone says they are having a whale of a time they mean they’re enjoying themselves very much. It’s one instance of the more general idiom a whale of a ..., an exceedingly great example — for good or bad — of a particular thing. Grammarians call this kind of usage an intensifier, since it adds a superlative to what follows.

The idea behind it, of course, is that whales are big beasts. From the early years of the nineteenth century in the US — and also the UK — people were making the comparison in an idiomatic usage of the related word whaler:

They fib by equivocation — they don’t come plump out, with a tremendous whaler of a fib, but seek to do it by equivocation and confusion of words and ideas, but, in any way, it is all fibbing.

The Day (Glasgow), 28 Mar. 1832.

It may have originally been a saying of the literal sort of whaler, as Maximilian Schele De Vere suggested in his Americanisms in 1872: “That the huge size of a whale should have led sailors, and after their example others also, to speak of any man or event of unusual and imposing proportions as a whaler, seems natural enough.”

A little later in the century the formulation a whale on appeared, with the sense of having a great capacity or appetite for something:

“Of course I’ve got to keep up my authority, you know,” pursued Mr. Binney. “It won’t do to slack the rein yet awhile.” “By George, no,” said Dizzy. “I should be a whale on parental authority myself if I were in your place.”

Peter Binney, by Archibald Marshall, 1899.

I don’t think it was all gallantry that made me do what I did. I’d never been a whale on that sort of thing.

Aliens, by William McFee, 1918.

The first examples of the idiom you’re asking about seem to have arisen as part of student slang at the very end of the nineteenth century, at least to judge from this reference:

whale. 1. A person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually; one who is exceptionally strong, skilful, or brilliant. “He’s a whale at tennis.” “He’s a whale in mathematics.” 2. Something exceptionally large, as “a whale of a procession;” jolly, as “a whale of a time;” or severe, as “a whale of an examination.”

Student Slang, by Willard C Gore, in The Inlander, a Monthly Magazine of the Students of Michigan University, Dec. 1895.

Within a few years it was appearing more widely:

The other side from camp is straight up, and no man in God’s land need try to climb it; but we had a whale of a time rolling down rocks; and the way they went!

Manitoba Morning Free Press (Winnipeg, Canada), 21 Jun. 1901.

It has never gone away.

5. Demitarian

The UN Environment Programme published a study this week, entitled Our Nutrient World, which argues that people in the developed world eat far too much meat. Intensive meat production, it says, requires large amounts of fertilisers to grow grain for fodder, which leads to “a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health”. Our lust for cheap meat is unsustainable, the study asserts, and fuels a trade in undocumented livestock and mislabelled cheap ready meals that has, for example, led to the current European horsemeat scandal.

According to the lead author of the study, Professor Mark Sutton of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, one solution is for people to halve their consumption of meat, to become demitarians (a semi-blend of vegetarian with the prefix demi-, a half). Professor Sutton is credited with having coined the term, which first appeared in print in the title of the 2009 Barsac Declaration about ways to reduce usage of nitrogen fertilisers in Europe.

Dr Sutton ... and the other scientists involved in the project have signed an agreement pledging to be “demitarians” or eat half as much meat. He said the idea was to encourage people to cut down rather than go vegetarian completely. “We are not saying do not eat meat full stop,” he said.

Daily Telegraph, 11 Apr. 2011.

He said a good aim was to be demitarian, halving the amount of meat normally eaten. This would also benefit health, as Europeans currently consume 70% more protein per day on average than is needed.

MSN News, 18 Feb. 2013.

6. Sic!

• Robert Kernish read this in an op-ed piece in the New York Times of 14 February: “He focuses on African-American literature — not just books about black dysfunction, readily available in the marketplace, but a variety of texts that give students alternative role models to those provided by the media, who are too often seen toting semiautomatic weapons.”

• The Brisbane Times of 13 February 2013 had this headline, sent in by Bernard Ashby: “Police find footage of slain woman walking home.”

• In Jim Kelly’s 2012 book Nightrise, Ira Rimson found mention of a clerical nuisance: “Both of them had stayed awake, listening to the noises of the lonely fen: a door banging with maddening infrequency, the Tylers’ dog barking a mile away, the swish of the wind turbine towards dawn, and finally the dull percussion of the bird-scaring canon.”

• A classic mental inversion appeared in an article on the Australian Geographic website on 11 February: “Traditionally, a tree’s height was calculated by using a clinometer and working with the angle made between a tree’s crown and the ground. You would have to assume that the tree’s top was directly below the base and that never was the case,” says Brett.

• “Whilst shopping for a new wallet today,” e-mailed Ben Crompton, “I noticed this advert on ‘Denim wallet for men with brown trim and lining.’ My question is not about the sense of this, but rather how I can tell if I have brown trim and lining?”

The Guardian of 8 February (I’m running very behind with my reading) had a review of the film A Liar’s Autobiography about the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame: “Born in wartime, Chapman began life as a teenage fantasist (lonely, bookish, clever) who joined the Footlights at Cambridge.”

7. Copyright and contact details

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