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Newsletter 816
26 Jan 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Pardon my French!

3. Brexit.

4. Pavonine.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Jan van den Berg followed up my item on according to Cocker: “in Dutch we have a similar expression: volgens Bartjens (‘according to Bartjens’). Willem Bartjens was a schoolmaster who wrote a book on arithmetic in 1604. Its last edition appeared in 1839.”

Many subscribers commented on the quotation that I attached to the article on prestidigitator last time, which included the phrase “cavort and gamble with words”. Should gamble not have been gambol? As Joel Karasik put it, “I would assume he wants to play with words, rather than put them at risk.” I copied the text from an online database, NewsBank. It probably was a misprint, but I’ve been unable to check the Sunday Times’s original as its site is behind a paywall.

Thanks to everybody who voted in the Love English Awards 2012 from Macmillan Dictionary. World Wide Words finished well down the ranks, with the winner being the Hungarian English-language teaching site 5Perc Angol.

2. Pardon my French!

Q From Jan Rudge: Where does the phrase pardon my French or excuse my French come from? Some people use it to apologise for using a swearword.

A Yes, that’s its present-day meaning, usually accompanying some blunt or offensive language. The speaker tries to divert criticism from the objectionable term by pretending that it’s innocuous French.

Well, look who is laughing now. And if you’ll excuse my French, Thierry, go stick your va va voom where it hurts.

Charleston Daily Mail, 27 Aug. 2012.

Gov’mint’s run by a buncha goddamn morons. Pardon my French.

The Good Neighbour, by William Kowalski, 2004.

However, in recent times we have become so inured to hearing rough language that the annotation is now often applied humorously or coyly to terms that would need euphemising only for the supremely squeamish:

The bar menu at Muse helps — their cocktails aren’t for sissies (pardon my French) — they might look feminine to a hard core beer drinker, but I really love the way they’ve kept the sweetness.

Daily News & Analysis, 22 Apr. 2012.

The phrase began to appear around the first third of the nineteenth century, the excuse version then being more common. This is a typical early example:

Dreadful good brandy o’ yourn. Ha! ha! ha! My respects. Excuse my French.

Marian Rooke, by Henry Sedley, 1865. We must presume that dreadful was stronger language then.

The background is the centuries-old adversarial relationship between the British and the French, which had culminated in the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the century. French had long appeared as one element in deprecatory formations, often with implications of sexual adventurousness or explicitness — French pox (syphilis), French letter (condom), and French novel and French print (pornographic material) — together with French leave (going somewhere without asking permission). There is a parallel with the Dutch, who had been maritime competitors of the English in the seventeenth century and whose name appears in such formations as Dutch uncle and Dutch comfort.

The compliment has been returned: in France, French leave is filer à l’anglaise, to flee in an English way, a French letter is a capote anglaise, an English cap, and the French pox has been called la maladie anglaise. Then there’s le malaise anglais and le vice anglais, which seem to have been used for everything the French have from time to time found distasteful about the English: rickets, economic incompetence, football hooliganism, depression, food, flagellation and homosexuality.

The earliest examples, however, are attached to actual French words and phrases. Most seem to have been genuine apologies for using a French term that the listener might not have understood:

Bless me, how fat you are grown! — absolutely as round as a ball: — you will soon be as embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.

The Twelve Nights, by Baron Karl von Miltie, 1831.

Teddy and Lord Radstock’s son, Waldegrave, boarded the French commodore, and carried him l’épée à la main; — excuse my French.

Memoirs and Letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, 1833.

3. Brexit

On Wednesday, the Daily Mail described David Cameron’s much-delayed speech on Europe that day as an “historic ultimatum”. He proposed that Britain’s membership of the European Union should be renegotiated, to be followed by what he called an “in-out referendum” on whether the country should stay or leave. Wits immediately dubbed it the hokey-cokey referendum (Americans will prefer hokey-pokey), with one headline reading “In-out, that’s not what it’s all about”.

His speech has pushed the neologism Brexit, short for British exit, to the foreground. Strictly, of course, it’s the United Kingdom that would be leaving, but Ukexit is too clunky to be acceptable.

Brexit began to appear in the British press at the start of 2012:

The PM indulges loose talk of a renegotiated relationship with a jittery, distracted Europe which could spiral into a risky in/out referendum. No wonder Ukip’s Nigel Farage hopes for a breakthrough or that Brussels has a new word: “Brexit”.

The Guardian, 1 Jan. 2012. UKIP, said as u-kip, is the UK Independence Party, meaning independence from the EU.

It appeared often enough during 2012 to be noticed in passing in a couple of Words of the Year compilations. But it was overshadowed by the term it was modelled on, Grexit, the possibility that Greece would leave the euro currency zone. Its visibility has grown hugely following Mr Cameron’s speech, not only in Britain and other English-speaking countries, but also throughout Europe, including France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden and the Netherlands. An Austrian news site commented sadly on the day of the PM’s speech: “Und jetzt droht eine lange Brexit-Debatte” (Now a long Brexit debate threatens) and a Czech one the day after wrote, “Odchod Británie z Evropské unie neboli „brexit“ by byl katastrofou” (Britain leaving the European Union, or “Brexit”, would be a disaster.) Such widespread popularity in Europe suggests that The Guardian was right to attribute its invention to EU bureaucrats in Brussels.

It’s a bit early in the year to be making predictions, but I suspect that Brexit will be a strong candidate for the British Word of the Year 2013.

4. Pavonine

This word has too little intrinsic character to convey the meanings that authors have attached to it that evoke the gaudily patterned, the iridescent or the ostentatious. All these senses are linked to its literal meaning: “like a peacock”.

But perhaps I’m being too hard on this import from Latin pavo, a peacock. The native English equivalent is peacocky, surely an equally poor word with which to communicate the flamboyant vanity for which it is most commonly employed.

Authors have described pavonine seas and deep-hued pavonine dusks, both reminiscent of the blue of the peacock’s tail. Others have conjured up a pavonine strut like a peacock in full display.

This isn’t to say that [Freddie] Mercury’s presence wasn’t absorbing. He was an enthralling performer. Here he was again in all his pavonine glory, a camped-up, balletic “macho man”, singing “I Want to Break Free”, wearing fake breasts.

The Independent, 17 Oct. 2012.

Pavonine turns up most frequently, which is to say not often, in the common names of some birds with peacockish plumage, including the pavonine cuckoo, the pavonine quetzal and the pavonine toucan. One rare linguistic relative is pavonise, to comport oneself like a peacock, to strut and display one’s imaginary plumage. Another of equal uncommonness is pavonious, to have eyespots like those on the tail of the peacock.

5. Sic!

• Gareth Williams found a photo caption in the Guardian online site on 22 January: “The Security Council votes on a resolution condemning North Korea’s rocket launch in December that sent a satellite into orbit at United Nations headquarters in Ney [sic] York.”

• A widely reproduced Associated Press report of 25 January into a murder was spotted by RG Schmidt of Florida: “Nothing was stolen from the home of the victim, whose body was bound with rope at her wrists and ankles and wrapped around her neck, police said.”

6. Copyright and contact details

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