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Newsletter 815
19 Jan 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Prestidigitator.

3. According to Cocker.

4. Elsewhere.

5. Virotherapist.

6. Sic!

7. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Bill Marsano wrote about the hash sign, mentioned last time: “I’ve always known it as the trepan. Brain surgeons having to put a hole in a patient’s skull at one time used four shallow saw cuts to do so, as using a conventional drill bit would almost certainly injure the brain. The procedure, called trepanning or trepanation, works well on any spherical form.” Lots of others pointed out that in my brief list of names for the sign — not intended to be comprehensive — I’d omitted octothorpe, a less common term but one with a tale. John Gray commented that in the UK you would never hear the equivalent of hit the pound key. “In our gentler society we simply press the hash key.”

Statistics about the pronunciation of GIF came from Stan Carey: “In a post on my Sentence First blog a few weeks ago, I conducted a poll to informally quantify people’s preferences. At the time of writing, it’s 69% hard-G and 23% soft-G (the remaining minority pronounce the letters individually).” Rowan Collins added: “As a footnote, you might be interested to note that the official standard for another image format, PNG, explicitly states that it should be pronounced ping. The existence of an official pronunciation was frequently listed among its advantages over the earlier format.”

“Your item on Jobation,” Anthony Massey e-mailed, “referred to a cabin lecture, which reminded me of the British Army term for a dressing down of an officer by his superior, an interview without coffee. Apparently the next stage, when you’re really in trouble, is to be ordered to attend a carpet parade. In the Royal Navy I’m told that the standard admission of guilt, again by an officer to his superior, is to say at the very beginning of the hearing, I’m thinking of buying a pig farm, sir.”

At one moment it felt as though every Australian subscriber was communicating with me about the term fibro majestic. They all pointed out that it was a local joke on a once-famous up-market hotel in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the Hydro Majestic. Tony Rodd revealed, “In our younger days it was renowned as the place Sydneyites took their mistresses off for what was then called a dirty weekend, no questions asked.” Christopher Yates recalled, “Rumour had it that the staff would ring a bell at 6am as a cue for philandering guests to return to their own beds, such was the reputation of this pretentious pile.” Margaret Neville categorised the phrase as “another typical Aussie tongue in cheek case of naming something as its opposite.” Jack Harvey corrected my description: “Fibro does not specifically refer to asbestos. It is a contraction of fibro-cement sheet and variants thereof — thin cement sheeting reinforced with fibres — formerly asbestos, now cellulose.” David Barklay noted: “Fibro was a very common building material in the post-war building boom and enabled many people to build their own homes”. The Maquarie Dictionary’s voting page, by the way, does include a fuller description of fibro, together with the origin of the joke; I didn’t include it, not wanting to overload what was intended to be a brief note accompanying a link.

Numerous readers responded to my piece on swiz by mentioning its appearance in the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans, especially Down with Skool! of 1953: “A chiz is a swizz or a swindle as any fule kno.” Chiz is almost certainly an abbreviation of chisel, a slang term first recorded in 1808, meaning to act deceitfully or to cheat (the image must be of slicing material from the person being cheated). Willans is the first known user of chiz as a noun (one earlier example is known for the verb) and it would seem that he modelled it on swiz.

2. Prestidigitator/ˌprɛstᵻˈdɪdʒᵻteɪtə/ Help with IPA

Etymologically speaking, a prestidigitator is a person with nimble fingers, an entertainer for whom in the cry of the old-time three-card-trick men, “the quickness of the hand deceives the eye”.

The word was created in 1823 in French as prestidigitateur from preste, an adjective meaning quickly that had been borrowed four centuries before from the Italian presto. To this the unidentified inventor added the Latin digitus, finger. He may not have known of the classical Latin praestigia, a trick or hocus-pocus, nor of praestigiator, a juggler or trickster.

English was well ahead of him, since prestigiator had been in the language since about 1595. Though prestidigitator appears in an uncompleted work by the third Lord Shaftsbury dated 1712, it wasn’t published until 1914, so our word has definitely been borrowed from French.

Mildly exotic and not a little grandiose, it’s hardly suited to the banalities of everyday speech. It demands to be said in exaggerated Gallic fashion, accompanied by an eloquent gesture and the swirl of an imaginary cloak. Or at least by words similarly resplendent:

Famously, [Stephen] Fry is a gothically logorrhoeic consumer of, and dealer in, words. He is the Warren Buffett of adjectives, verbs and nouns, speculating and accumulating. He likes to pile them up into steepling edifices. He loves the way they tintinnabulate and cascade; he likes the playfulness of double meanings. He yearns to toy with them, cavort and gamble with words. He is a human Scrabble bag, a consonant-juggler, a gerund prestidigitator.

AA Gill, in the Sunday Times, 2 Oct. 2011.

3. According to Cocker

Q From Sheila Napier: An expression I have heard before but just encountered again in the works of Austin Freeman is according to Cocker. Where does it come from and who was Cocker?

A R Austin Freeman wrote his detective stories, which featured the medico-legal forensic investigator Dr John Thorndyke, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. By then I think the idiom was well on its way to falling out of common use. Its heyday was the previous century — Freeman would have learned it in his youth in the 1870s. This is one example in his works:

There was no sign of the driver, and no one minding the horse; and as this was not quite according to Cocker, it naturally attracted his attention.

Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke, by R Austin Freeman, 1931.

Something done according to Cocker was done properly, according to established rules or what was considered to be correct.

The etymological story starts in 1678, when John Hawkins published the manuscript of a book which Edward Cocker had left at his death two years earlier. Cocker had been the master of a grammar school in Southwark, across the Thames from the City of London, and Hawkins was his successor in the post. (It has been claimed that the book was actually by Hawkins, trading on Cocker’s name, but the current view is that Cocker really had written it.) The book, after the fashion of the time, had an expansive title — Cocker’s Arithmetick: Being a Plain and familiar Method suitable to the meanest Capacity for the full understanding of that Incomparable Art, as it is now taught by the ablest School-masters in City and Country.

The Arithmetick (like musick and other words it has since lost its final letter) was an enormous success. It had reached its twentieth edition by 1700 and went through more than a hundred altogether. It was widely used to teach basic arithmetic in English schools for well over a century (“if 13 yards of velvet cost 21 l. what will 27 yards of the same cost at that rate?” — l here stands for pounds, as in the old LSD for pounds, shillings and pence). One of the main reasons for its popularity was that Cocker directed it at the needs of practical men of business, and included examples of real transactions in commerce, the building trades, and elsewhere.

The book was so much part of every educated person’s childhood that it became the authority to which everybody turned when in need of confirmation of the accuracy of a calculation. This lies behind this early appearance of the phrase, in a letter from a lady complaining that she had had no success getting up a game of cards to be played for guineas:

Mrs. Buckram, wife to the deputy of Portsoken ward, purtested [protested] she never played for above sixpences, and added, that her husband had calculated, according to Cocker, that an alderman might be ruined in a month, if his wife cut in for shillings.

The Town and Country Magazine, Mar. 1785.

Many other examples of this appeal to arithmetical authority are recorded in the years that follow (“The Dividend payable at the Bank upon 23l. 8s. is (according to Cocker) 23s. 22d. per annum.” — Morning Post, 25 Oct. 1816; “In this house it happened that the ale was sevenpence per quart, at which rate, according to Cocker, it would be three halfpence and a farthing per half-pint” — Aberdeen Journal, 12 Aug. 1829). (These aren’t quite according to Cocker to me, having grown up with this monetary system. There were 12 pennies to a shilling, so “23s. 22d” would have been better rendered as “24s. 10d.” And, a farthing being a quarter of a penny, “three halfpence and a farthing” would surely have been simpler said as “a penny three farthings”.)

It was easy to extend an appeal to arithmetical authority to any action that was carried out according to an established rule or convention.

Curiously, Edward Cocker wasn’t known in his lifetime for his skill in arithmetic. He was an expert engraver and what was then called a pen-man, a calligrapher. Samuel Pepys praises him several times in his Diary, in particular because Cocker was the only man Pepys found with the skill to engrave his new slide rule.

There are several related expressions. The most famous is according to Hoyle. Edmond Hoyle wrote several works on card games from the 1740s onwards and was often cited as an authority on their rules, in particular whist. At one time, an equivalent Americanism was according to Gunter. Edmund Gunter was an English mathematician of the sixteenth century who invented the Gunter’s chain, widely used in surveying, and Gunter’s rule, an early type of slide rule.

4. Elsewhere

A couple of weeks ago, New Scientist magazine published an article arguing that the Inuit really do have many words for snow, despite linguists’ arguments that this is a mere folk tale. Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at Edinburgh University, satirised the tale in an article (download as PDF) which appeared in his 1991 book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The New Scientist piece is available only to subscribers but the Washington Post has reported it, which has prompted a rebuttal by Professor Pullum.

5. Virotherapist

This term is currently very rare. The name for the field of study, virotherapy, has been known for a decade but has only occasionally strayed outside specialist or academic publications. The magazine Scientific American explained its meaning succinctly in a headline to an article in October 2003: “virotherapy harnesses viruses, those banes of humankind, to stop another scourge — cancer”.

Anecdotal reports have appeared for more than a century that certain viruses can counter tumours, but it has only been in the past couple of decades that a growing understanding of genetics has enabled medical researchers to begin developing treatments using oncolytic (cancer-attacking) viruses. The then state of the art was summed up in a report two years ago:

Research has shown that virotherapy, in which viruses are programmed to attack cancer cells, leaving healthy cells undamaged, could be beneficial, but this treatment is at present experimental.

Daily Telegraph, 21 Mar. 2011.

The field has moved on since then. A viral therapy to treat prostate cancers and one to help treat head and neck cancers are currently working their way towards approval in the US. Others are stymied for lack of funding.

6. Sic!

• Warren Quinton noticed an English-language menu item for Lasaña Vegetariana in what he described as a fairly decent restaurant in Lima, Peru. As well as zucchinis, grilled mushrooms, spinach and other “delicious veggies”, it was said to contain “aborigines”.

• You may have heard of the snake that stowed away under the wing of an aircraft in Australia. Michael Duffy tells us that ABC North Queensland reported on 10 January the words of the passenger, Rob Weber, who had photographed the snake: “Believed to be a scrub python, Mr Webber [sic] wrote that he felt sympathy for the scaly reptile.”

• The crash of a Second World War fighter plane at the East Midlands Airport led to a Daily Telegraph report on 7 January, spotted by Roger Downham: “The spitfire, which is based at the airport, is one of around 35 still able to fly around the world.”

• Bill Schmeer found this on MSN (it appeared on other news sites, too): “Reputed Detroit mobster, 85-year-old Tony Zirilli, says he knows where Teamsters Union boss, Jimmy Hoffa’s body is buried. ‘All this speculation about where he is and he’s not,’ Zerilli said. ‘They say he was in a meat grinder. It’s all baloney.’”

• Department of Unfortunate Headlines, from the Seattle Times site on 10 January: “With Dicks in, all 6 WA congressional Democrats favor repeal of gay-marriage ban.” It was rapidly changed to remove the name of Democrat congressman Norm Dicks.

7. Copyright and contact details

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