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Newsletter 800
08 Sep 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Percontation.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Strop.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Lurching The item on left in the lurch prompted several readers to ask about the breed of dog called a lurcher. (“Did it lurk in the bushes or just have a poor sense of balance?” asked Judith Taylor.) A lurcher is a cross-bred dog originally created by English and Irish poachers to be an intelligent and speedy hunter. Its name is said to be from a sense of lurch that does derive from lurk. This took on several meanings, such as using guile to get ahead of other people to obtain food. Presumably, the dog’s name was a special application of this because of its speed.

Cheez! My story last week about the hotel menu item a selection of cheese and biscuits brought a variety of responses, many more than I was expecting from my humorous squib.

Some reasonably suggested that the menu should have read “selection of cheeses and biscuits”. However, cheese and biscuits is a fixed term for the food item in British English and it’s common in menus to see an item listed as I gave it. Some Americans were puzzled by the biscuits, which for us Brits in this situation are flat crackers also called water biscuits (sold in the US, I am told, as water crackers). Ken McAllister did not agree with my analysis, “I cannot defend one-item selections, I admit, and like you I would protest at two-item selections. However, I feel that they breach hospitality, not semantics.” Among others, Mavis Emberson sought a logical answer to the conundrum: “No doubt the kitchen selected the cheese for you.” I hadn’t thought of that.

Bob Kelly responded: “Your item reminded me of an experience I had in 1977 in Budapest. The Iron Curtain was still up and I’d had a difficult time reaching my destination. When I got to my hotel room, I decided to order dinner from the room service menu. One item was listed as ‘Assorted Cheeses’. It turned out that the assortment consisted of a square slice, a round slice and a three-sided slice — of the same cheese.”

Double sic! Many readers pointed out that the Sic! item about John Sununu last week said he was a former governor of New Jersey instead of New Hampshire. The error was by the New York Times. It has since corrected the reference to the state but hasn’t changed the wrongly spelled rouge to rogue.

Cynosure Several readers reminded me that at the time when the star was given the name Cynosura, it wasn’t the pole star, because of a very slow circular motion of the Earth’s axis called the precession of the equinoxes. However, it was one of three bright stars close to the celestial pole that were used to navigate by. The star, now called Polaris, is currently nearer being a true pole star than at any time in recorded history and will be at its closest to the celestial pole in about a century.

2. Weird Words: Percontation

A question is just a question, right? Not according to one ancient idea, according to which there were two sorts — those intended to elicit confirmation or denial, the other to obtain information. A nineteenth century writer explained it like this:

Between a percontation and interrogation, the ancients made this distinction — that the former admitted a variety of answers, while the latter must be replied to by “yes” or “no”.

The Dark Ages, by Rev Samuel Maitland, 1844.

Though it might be useful to logicians today, the term was never popular and shortly after vanished from the active language. Its source is the Latin noun percontatio, the action of questioning. Curiously, its root is contus, a long pole, either a boat-pole or a spear, lance or pike, prefixed with per-, meaning “through” in this case. It appears that percontatio was so vigorous or uncivil that it was like being pierced with a pole.

A percontation markIronic, isn’t it?

In the late sixteenth century, the printer Henry Denham (some say his client, the translator Anthonie Gilbie) invented a punctuation mark to differentiate this kind of question from the yes/no sort, called the punctus percontativus or percontation mark. In shape it was a reversed question mark. (Henry Denham was a pioneer in typography: he also advocated the semi-colon, an Italian invention.)

Since a percontation question could admit of many answers, it might also mark a rhetorical question, one that didn’t require an answer at all. There seems to be no evidence that Denham employed it in this way but the playwright Thomas Middleton did so early in the following century. Nobody else has since bothered with it, mainly because the character has never been available in standard type founts.

As rhetorical questions are often sarcastic or ironic in tone (“What was the use of sending you to school?”), it has been suggested that the mark would be useful to express such emotions in online forums. Its advocates have given it new names, such as snark and irony mark. The old name is never used — it would seem percontation is too long, unfamiliar or hard to spell to be acceptable.

3. Wordface

Creations of the moment None of the terms that follow are likely to become a fixture in the English language, though they give a little light relief. The turn by Clint Eastwood at the Republican Convention in Tampa, in which he held an imaginary conversation with Barack Obama in an unoccupied chair, led online wits to create eastwooding for it. Younger women who are worried about becoming obsessed with their appearance have vowed to abstain from such matters by not looking in the mirror for a month or even a year; they’ve called it mirror fasting. The slangy term glamping, meaning luxurious camping, has been updated to make gramping, in which you send your children camping with their grandparents. Last year saw the rise of humblebrag for deceptively self-effacing boasting by celebrities; it has been joined by underbragging, the post-modernist inverted brag; Atlantic magazine introduced it online on 14 August: “The irony of the underbrag is that it shouldn’t be a brag. It’s a terrible brag, the un-brag, not really a brag at all — except for the fact that the underbragger is bragging about it and therefore changing the rules of bragging as we know them.”

4. Questions and Answers: Strop

Q From Andrew Haynes: As well as enjoying the weekly World Wide Words e-magazine I also receive the daily A Word A Day e-mail. One of this week’s words was strop, for which the only meanings given were the noun and verb related to blade-sharpening. It seems that in the USA strop is not used in connection with petulance. Is this UK sense somehow derived from the blade-sharpening one or does it have an entirely different origin? I promise not to get in a strop if you should ignore my suggestion.

A You’re too kind.

Strop with the meaning of throwing a hissy fit or losing one’s temper is definitely a British creation. It’s unsurprising that the American A Word A Day hasn’t heard of it. Here’s a recent example, about a former British television chat show host, the late Russell Harty:

[He] will no doubt be best remembered for his interview with Grace Jones who threw a diva-ish strop that resulted in the singer slapping Harty across the face for not paying her enough attention.

Guardian, 17 Aug. 2012.

Strop is fairly recent as words go, only appearing in print in the 1970s. We’re sure that it originated as a back formation from the adjective stroppy. In Britain a stroppy person is bad-tempered and argumentative. In South Africa, Australia and New Zealand it has overtones of somebody who is rebellious and hard to control. This is its first known appearance, in Britain but by an Australian writer:

There ain’t nothing clever about answering him back and being stroppy.

Seagulls over Sorrento, by Hugh Hastings, published 1951. The play was first performed in June 1950.

The play came out of Hastings’s experiences in World War Two and it is probable that it was wartime services slang. So far as anybody has been able to establish, it has nothing at all to do with leather straps. The most probable origin suggested by the experts is that it’s a much-messed-about version of obstreperous.

That’s not as unlikely as it sounds. The English Dialect Dictionary records several versions of the word at the end of the nineteenth century, including obstropolous and obstropilous. Others include obscrophulous (“Just the place for a little lady like her, when she gets too obscrophulous” — Alexander Harris, An Emigrant Family, 1849) and obstropolis (“What could a simple Barber do against an obstropolis horse; an animal that frequently would not answer the whip; play tricks in spite of the curb; kick over the traces; and ‘bolt’ right away from all his drivers, and no help for it” — Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, 1832).

Obstropolous is the form most often found in old writings, as a way of indicating a non-standard or uneducated pronunciation; one writer on slang in the middle of the nineteenth century said it was Cockney, though 50 years later the English Dialect Dictionary noted it was then in general dialectal use in Scotland, Ireland, England and America. The previous century it appeared in works by Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer, 1773), Tobias Smollett (Sir Launcelot Greaves of 1762 and Roderick Random of 1748) and Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, also 1748). That’s a distinguished pedigree, you may agree. Another slight variation is actually a little older still:

Fearing she would grow obstrepulous, they each of ’em took hold of one of her Arms.

The English Hermit, by Peter Longueville, 1727.

Since several of these forms, including the most common, contain a stressed strop, it’s reasonable to assume it was shortened to that. If so, considering the age of the examples, it’s something of a surprise that stroppy is so comparatively recent and that it appeared before the noun.

5. Sic!

• “I thought he’d already done that!” wrote Gill Teicher, in reference to a headline in the Daily Telegraph on 26 August: “Prince Harry is to face a ‘dressing down’ by his commanding officer.”

• Chris McCulloch wrote, “The Melbourne CAE Book Groups Newsletter for August began: ‘Almost through winter! We hope that you have been enjoying your time with good books and exiting discussions.’ Well, only when I went to put the kettle on!”

• “Notify the Press! New Sex Discovered!” cried Joel Karasik. The Financial Services Online site says that “The Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics reports that of those age 65+ in long-term care facilities, 31% are women and 21% are men.”

6. Copyright and contact details

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