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Newsletter 729
26 Mar 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Lustrum.

3. Wordface.

4. Turns of Phrase: Clicktivism.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Sorry, schmorry Thanks to everybody for your good wishes for my recovery from my recent illness. Many readers took me to task for apologising last week for deficiencies in the mailing because I had been unwell. They felt I had no need to. So I apologise for having inappropriately apologised. However, I do regret (without seeming to apologise) having been unable to answer much of my huge backlog of mail dating back two weeks.

2. Weird Words: Lustrum

My guess is that more people have met this word as the title of the Robert Harris bestseller about politics in ancient Rome than have encountered it in real life. It came to mind when looking through the 32-page monster of a census form that recently arrived in my letterbox (27 March is enumeration day for the 2011 UK census).

In English, a lustrum is a rather rare literary word that means a period of five years, a quinquennium.

What is very remarkable, a comparison of different editions will show, that the fundamental doctrines of a whole “Series of Grammars, English, Latin, and Greek,” may so change in a single lustrum, as to rest upon authorities altogether different.

The Grammar of English Grammars, by Goold Brown, 1851.

Robert Harris gave his book that title because it covers the five years following 63 BC.

There’s a link between a five-year period and a census because in classical Rome the population was counted not every 10 years as is conventional in modern nations, but every five years. The census was carried out by two magistrates called censors, as part of a valuation of the property of Romans for tax purposes — taxes which the censors were responsible for collecting. When the enumeration was over, one of the censors held a ceremony called a lustratio or lustrum in the Campus Martius at which a pig, a sheep and an ox were sacrificed in the presence of the people. Lustrum came to mean by extension both the ceremony and the period of time between two censuses.

Dictionaries don’t agree about the source of lustrum. Some argue it comes from luere, to wash, because the ceremony originally involved ritual cleansing; others say it’s from lustrare, to purify or brighten, which would make lustrum a close relative of lustre and some other English words. Others warily include variations on “ultimate origin unknown”.

Censor, by the way, has its modern English meaning because the magistrates who conducted the census and collected taxes were also responsible for maintaining public morals. Busy men.

3. Wordface

Make, put, run A regular quarterly update to the OED came out on Thursday, which brings the revision to the end of the letter R. One entry has again broken the record for the largest. In the Second Edition of 1989, set was the largest, requiring 60,000 words to describe 430 senses. As entries began to be revised for the Third Edition, the longest entry progressively became that for make in 2000 and then put in 2007. Now run has easily taken the title, with the verb by itself containing 645 senses and the whole entry running to some 124,000 words. There’s no doubt that when the OED’s lexicographers again conquer the mountain of set that that entry will again be the largest.

Seeing further? The Guardian on Wednesday noted that the lexicon of politics in Britain has added a new term. It quoted one of its own reports from the day before: “Senior cabinet ministers admitted ‘the emotional optics’ of cruise missiles raining down, backed by coalition military briefings, had unwelcome echoes of Iraq” and one from the London Daily Star: “US President Barack Obama temporized for weeks, worrying about the optics of waging war in another Arab state after the Iraq fiasco”. Optics is political shorthand for the public perception of some situation. It isn’t new. Ben Zimmer commented in his On Language column in the New York Times in March 2010 that he had found it in The Wall Street Journal on 31 May 1978 in a quote from Robert Strauss, Jimmy Carter’s special counsellor on inflation, but that its early heartland had been Canada, not the US. Bilingual Canadians know optique, which in French can refer to optics but can also mean “perspective, point of view”. Its English translation became established as part of the political jargon of that country, was taken over by its US counterparts and has now reached the UK.

The winner Yesterday, 25 March, The Bookseller magazine announced the winner of the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year (see the issue of 19 February for the shortlist): Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way by Michael R Young. Horace Bent, The Bookseller’s custodian of the Diagram Prize said: “In the end, it wasn’t even close. Much like the tyrant himself, Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way ruthlessly slaughtered the opposition, and scored twice as many votes as the runner-up, 8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings.”

4. Turns of Phrase: Clicktivism

The tumultuous events in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 have been called Twitter revolutions or Facebook revolutions, though the role of these social networks in shaping political events in these countries has been disputed.

Commentators have taken the same view about other online protests, arguing that adding your name to an electronic petition or sending out a tweet in support of some cause is an effortless activity that makes you feel good without achieving anything useful. This view was forcefully put forward in October 2010 by Malcolm Gladwell in an article in the New Yorker, “Why the revolution will not be tweeted”.

Though clicktivism has been appearing as a derogatory collective term for such purely symbolic actions, oddly it began life several years ago as a positive term for the online support of good causes and has only recently flipped sense.

Newspaper articles particularly refer to clicktivism in order to compare it unfavourably with groups that employ networking sites to take disciplined and strategic action. One notable example is UK Uncut, which carries out peaceful high-street protests, such as occupations of bank branches in protest against bankers’ bonuses.

“Clicktivism” has become the common, derogatory catch-all for online protest. But it’s not always a fair one. Allying yourself to a cause online may be easy, but that’s not to say it accomplishes nothing.

The Independent, 1 Feb. 2011.

The latest clicktivists are smart, media-savvy, highly engaged with social media, accessible, usually only loosely organised, and well aware of the pitfalls of clicktivism.

Evening Standard, 17 Jan. 2011.

5. Sic!

• An unfortunate inversion of events has occurred, according to The Independent of 20 March, Hazel Parry notes: “A British tourist who has been missing for five days in Hong Kong is suspected to have been murdered after being found dead, police said Sunday.”

• Helen Cushion at first thought the story on the BBC Sport website referred to a miscarriage of justice: “Jordan banned after Gattuso spat” but it turned out that the Tottenham Hotspur’s first-team coach Joe Jordan had been banned for having an argument with AC Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso.

• CNN’s health section on 22 March, reports Ari Sigal, advised its readers that “Exercising or having sex roughly triples a person’s risk of heart attack in the hours immediately afterward.” Rough exercise, the curse of the sedentary classes.

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