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Newsletter 823
16 Mar 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Swanning around.

3. Landing.

4. Solutionism.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Betwixt Following my piece on this word last week, several readers asked about twixt. Randall Bart recalled the one-time slogan of the Yorkshire Post, Twixt Trent and Tweed, in reference to the rivers that border its circulation area. Grammarians call this an aphetic form, in which an unstressed syllable at the beginning of a word has been lost. Twixt was often written with an initial apostrophe to indicate this.

Taffy Other readers followed up my item on toffee-nosed two weeks ago that mentions this word by asking about the nickname Taffy for a Welsh person, which notoriously appears in the old nonsense rhyme that begins “Taffy was a Welshman / Taffy was a thief”. It has no connection with the toffee sense, being supposedly from the Welsh pronunciation of the common personal name David (Dafydd in Welsh, said rather like “davith”).

Sitting bodkin As an addition to the original story I have since found this further definition for bodkin:

Amongst sporting men, applied to a person who takes his turn between the sheets on alternate nights, when the hotel has twice as many visitors as it can comfortably lodge; as, for instance, during a race-week.

The Slang Dictionary, by John Camden Hotten, 1869.

What, if anything, this has to do with sitting bodkin escapes me!

Boontling Despite my assertion in the last issue, there is no such place as Anderson County, Northern California. It’s Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. And it was incorrect to describe Boontling as a dialect, though this was the term Time magazine used. It’s actually a private vocabulary, a jargon or cant.

Forefront In the last issue I wrote at the forefront, a form Warren Montgomery queried, since he felt it was correctly in the forefront. It’s worth mentioning as an example of a recent change in prepositional usage that has gone largely unnoticed. In works of the nineteenth century and before, the at version was rare. The Google Ngram viewer, based on an analysis of Google Books, suggests it has greatly risen in popularity since the 1960s and overtook the in form around 1995:

Ngram view of phrases

Current newspaper databases suggest that the shift is much greater even than this, with the at form more than five times as common as the in one. The original idea was of being in the front ranks of an army rather than being at a specific place, and it’s the loss of the specific military image and the conversion of the phrase into an idiom that has led to the shift.

Sic item Numerous readers commented on my inclusion of the second Sic! item last week, “Baby born after crash kills parents”. The usual response was puzzlement, those readers only having read it in the intended sense of “(baby born after) crash kills parents” and failing to spot the alternate reading “(baby born after crash) kills parents”. I included it as an example of a type of syntactic ambiguity which linguists have taken to calling (perhaps all too appositely in this case) a crash blossom. The name was coined following a headline in the newspaper Japan Today in 2009, “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms”. Three readers found its inclusion to be in bad taste. If I had had known more about the circumstances, I might well have avoided including it.

2. Swanning around

Q From Dvora Yanow: Reading about peacocking as a descriptor of promenading brought to mind the English swanning around, which as an American I found highly amusing when I first heard it (we don’t, or haven’t, used it). How and why did the English pick up on swans, rather than peacocks, for this showy form of ambulatory display?

A We Brits are thoroughly conversant with peacocks and find them to be an excellent analogy for ostentation. If we say that somebody is swanning around we may indeed be implying that they’re doing it to impress, but the key idea we’re trying to express is that they’re being irresponsible or carefree, doing exactly as they like. Envy or disapproval often lies at the back of it — they’re a useless drone, the thought goes, and wouldn’t it be nice to be like that?

But the main point of buying one of these things [bus passes] is to get to school and back, not to swan about the further reaches of the West Country.

The Bath Chronicle, 11 Oct. 2012

Where do they get their money from, I want to know? Swanning about big cities with champagne lifestyles but never struggling.

The Herald (Glasgow), 17 Nov. 2012.

The early examples are from the end of the nineteenth century and simply refer to swimming like a swan. Since swans glide through the water without any apparent effort, seemingly aimless and laid-back, the idiom “swan about” came to mean ambling about without a care in the world or travelling idly or purely for pleasure.

Curiously, the evidence suggests this was initially military slang of the Second World War. The Oxford English Dictionary has this rather opaque example, which I think refers to the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa, but can’t get access to the original story to confirm it:

Breaking up his armour [armoured vehicles] into comparatively small groups of ... tanks, he began “swanning about”, feeling north, north-west and east for them [ie, British tanks].

Daily Telegraph, 3 Sep. 1942.

The idea of movement has become less significant as the idiom has wandered away from its avian roots:

There are kayaks for hire (from $15), or if that’s too strenuous you can take a yoga class, swan about in a hammock, strum a guitar or drip in the sauna.

New Zealand, by Charles Rawlings-Way, 2010.

3. Landing

Q From Nick Redmond: I recently heard on BBC Radio 2 that landing came from the days when people were transported in carriages and then carried up the stairs and deposited on the landing in the house. I have my doubts. Could you help?

A You are wise to doubt this. Either the speaker had his tongue firmly — though necessarily figuratively — in his cheek or he was making a wild guess.

This isn’t to say it never happened. Sick or disabled individuals must have been carried up and down stairs but it could hardly have been commonplace. I suspect there’s a confused memory here of ladies in previous centuries being carried from their carriages to the door to save their shoes and clothes from the mud and muck of the street.

Landing started out in the seventeenth century as the obvious word to use for a place where one alights from a boat — where one comes to land. It was applied for the first time to the action of bringing an aerial vehicle to ground when the Italian balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi made a famous ascent from the Honourable Artillery Company’s Artillery Ground in London on 15 September 1784. He wrote that year in his Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, “My principal care was to avoid a violent concussion at landing.”

Coincidentally, or even perhaps not, the Oxford English Dictionary has its first example of the word in your sense in an architectural treatise published the year after. It’s an extension of the same idea. Having ascended the stairs, the landing is where you “come to ground” and perhaps may rest before attempting the next flight.

4. Solutionism

This word is in the news because Evgeny Morozov uses it in a deeply derogatory way in his polemical book, To Save Everything, Click Here, which was published in Britain this week.

By solutionism, he means the mistaken belief that technology can benignly and efficiently solve all our problems and produce a world that is trouble-free. The temptation, he says, is to assume that a easy technological solution exists for all problems — from crime to corruption to pollution to obesity — which can be eliminated by digitally measuring, tracking and correcting our everyday behaviour. He argues that digital engineers, however expert in their fields, lack the skills to address issues with ethical, philosophical and human implications that derive from our natural states of being.

Two recent examples from discussions about the book:

It’s a book littered with -isms and -ists, pejoratives and insults: “solutionism”, “epochalism”, “Internetcentrists”, “technoescapism”, “technonaivety” (they’re all bad things). Everyone who disagrees with Morozov is blind or stupid or corrupt.

Daily Telegraph, 9 Mar. 2013.

Morozov says people like Zuckerberg and Bell espouse Silicon Valley philosophies that are pervasive but shallow. Bell’s desire to catalogue everything, for example, is an example of “solutionism”: the relentless drive to fix and to optimise; to take problems — in this case an imperfect biological memory — and propose solutions.

New Scientist, 23 Feb. 2013.

The term isn’t new — its relative solutionist is recorded from 1885 and came to mean a solver of crossword puzzles. Solutionism was used during the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a derogatory term for those people, also called solutionists, who urged facile solutions which ignored the complex human problems of the Province. The earliest example of solutionism that I’ve so far found is in The Soldier and the State by Samuel P Huntington, published in 1957. Two years later Edward Hodnett commented in The Art of Working With People: “Beware of solutionism — the flabby optimism that there is a simple answer and that it will yield to the magic of a personality, brainstorming, sitting down and talking things over, or other tribal nostrums.” In the way Morozov uses it, it can be traced back at least to this:

The rejection of politics among intellectuals often takes the subtler form of what I call technocratic solutionism. Experts who practice solutionism insist that problems have technical solutions even if they are the result of conflicts about ideas, values and interests.

Engines of Culture, by D M Fox, 1963.

In the US, solutionism is a registered trademark of The Dow Chemical Company, which employs it in the baffling advertising slogan “Solutionism: the new optimism”.

5. Sic!

• William C Popik submitted a headline from the Hartford Courant of 8 March: “Middletown Man Hides Crack In His Buttocks”. Don’t be shy, we all have one ...

• Evelyn DeLuna was intrigued to learn from a website about ulcerative colitis that “Yogurt was thought to be the reason for the extra long life-span of Bulgarian pheasants.”

• Leon Hides points us to a link in a search result on the Australian PhysioAdvisor website: “PhysioAdvisor provides a lower back pain diagnosis guide for patients suffering from back injury created by experienced physiotherapists.”

• On the Etsy website, Wilson Gray found the heading “Leonard Cohen Felt Finger Puppet”. Not a news story but an item for sale.

6. Copyright and contact details

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