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Newsletter 790
23 Jun 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Mastigophorous.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Wrong and wrongly.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Great Wen Someone I know only as Dick commented, “Being familiar with the word wen I have been amused recently to see it being used as the brand name for a heavily promoted line of hair-care products in the US. It doesn’t conjure up an appealing image ...” After exhaustive research (that is, I asked my invaluable US associate) it transpires that this has nothing to do with the Great Wen but is merely new spelled backwards.

Two comments suggest I sounded the death knell on Great Wen too precipitately. Louise Bolotin wrote, “It’s still in common use in speech in the north of England — possibly because of the north-south divide and the general feeling in the north that London is positioned as the centre of everything. People up here only travel to London when they absolutely have to and so you hear a fair bit of grumbling along the lines of ‘I’m off to the Great Wen on Tuesday for a meeting’. I first heard it in frequent use in Leeds in the 1980s, I’ve seen it a lot on Twitter and indeed use it myself. It has by no means become archaic, at least not in speech.” Richard Bos wrote from the Netherlands: “It is alive and well in certain parts of the internet, specifically certain Usenet groups, in the same spirit which keeps alive garden sheds, sloe gin and pickled walnuts. Even digitally, the English do love their traditionality; perhaps they love their traditionality even more than their traditions.”

Megatsunami Following last week’s piece, Peter Casey introduced me to the related term seiche (pronounced as /seɪʃ/ Help with IPA), a phenomenon of lakes and bays, in which water can bounce back and forth between the banks as a result of changes in air pressure. It is commonly associated with the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Michigan, but the word came into the scientific literature as the result of studies carried out on Lake Geneva in Switzerland in the late nineteenth century. It is from Swiss French seiche, perhaps taken from German Seiche, the sinking of water.

Act of creation Philip Arnold e-mailed, “I am wondering if we may credit you with coining a new word. In the snippet on Great Wen you use eruditism. I could not locate it in any online dictionary, finding only erudite. Congratulations.” It’s very kind of him, but I can’t take any credit. Though it’s not in any dictionary that I’ve consulted, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, a search found a number of examples — one from the nineteenth century — which use it in the same sense as I did, for an erudite word. It wasn’t an error for erudition.

2. Weird Words: Mastigophorous/mastɪˈɡɒf(ə)rəs/ Help with IPA

Mastigophoros is classical Greek, derived from mastix, a whip, and -phoros, bearing or carrying. A mastigophore was an attendant or officer carrying a whip.

This rare word is about to celebrate its 200th birthday, having been used in English in a letter from the writer and minister Samuel Parr to his close friend Charles Burney on 12 December 1812. The letter is effusive and academically humorous in the way of one scholar of the time to another, peppered with classical allusions in Latin and Greek.

It may have been some mental association with Parr, who had been a schoolmaster, and Burney, who then still was, but the word was used subsequently as a jocular way to refer to a pedagogue who was over-fond of corporal punishment. Sydney Smith wrote in 1826 of a boy who was trying to look up words in his dictionary while his “mastigophorous superior” frowned over him; another writer in 1832 described how the boys of Winchester College rebelled against their “mastigophorous tyrant”; the reviewer of Sir Walter Scott’s biography of John Dryden in 1842 noted that Dryden was educated at Westminster School under “the celebrated Dr Busby”, who had “mastigophorous propensities” and “who revelled in groans, and tears, and learning”.

Mastigophorous, a bit of obscure academic drollery, is now as dead as dead can be, but the Greek word and its Latin successor remain in the vocabularies of zoologists. The Mastigophora are single-celled organisms that propel themselves with whip-like flagella (another Latin word, singular flagellum, a whip or scourge). The related adjective is mastigophoran.

3. Wordface

Over the top A number of articles in recent months have discussed the idea of peak stuff, that beyond a certain level of economic development people simply stop consuming so much. The term was created in imitation of peak oil and peak coal, the points in time in which our consumption of a commodity will reach a maximum before falling away as it runs out. The term was coined by the British environmental activist Chris Goodall, who claims to have found that in the decade since 2001 Brits have been consuming less building materials, water, paper, food, cars, textiles and fertilizers, are travelling less, using less energy and producing less waste. He argues that the trend was clear before the economic woes of 2008 onwards. The concept is disputed by other environmentalists.

An abbreviation too far? The use of mobile phone applications and wireless sensors to gather information about a person’s health is growing rapidly. There are apps for gauging nutrition, counting calories, tracking workouts, calculating your body mass index and quitting smoking. Wireless monitors can transmit information such as blood pressure or blood glucose level, providing instant indications of a person’s state. The umbrella term for these technologies is mobile health, usually abbreviated to the inelegant mHealth. The term has been around for about a decade but is becoming more common in parallel with the huge growth in recent years of smartphones, tablets and other portable wireless devices.

Cooking the commas Lots of people have been sending me links to the cover of an edition of Tails magazine which purports to say “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Nah. It’s a fake, which has had two commas neatly excised. It’s also old — the cover is dated October 2010 and I first saw the fake shortly after that issue came out. The real cover is here.

4. Questions and Answers: Wrong and wrongly

Q From Dr Peter Rose, Australia: Correction to a correction. When you wrote in the last issue, “Apologies to Geoff Pullum for spelling his name wrong”, surely you meant “wrongly”?

A The 20 exclamation marks Dr Rose added at the end of his message surely said “Aha! I’ve caught you in an error.” Rob Brennan, also from Australia, questioned my usage in a more restrained way: “Am I being too much of a prescriptivist by suggesting that one may sometimes spell a name wrongly, not wrong?”

Was I doing something wrong? Have I been wrongly accused? These are not easy questions. They remind me that people get confused about when to use many such pairs, not just wrong and wrongly.

One cause is that the form of the two suggests that the first is an adjective and the second an adverb, with wrong only to be used to modify nouns (“this is the wrong colour”) and wrongly to modify verbs (“several men were wrongly detained”). But wrong can also be an adverb. There’s nothing in the least new about this — the Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the thirteenth century onwards.

Robert Burchfield noted in his 1996 revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage that “The subtleties attending the various uses are considerable”, pointing out that the OED devotes five times as much space to adverbial wrong as it does to the notionally correct wrongly.

The quick and easy rule is that wrongly appears before the verb being modified (“the earlier case was wrongly decided”) and wrong after the verb (“he answered the question wrong”). Like most such rules, it’s not even half the story. Style guides and grammars for learners try to give more complete guidance, variously stating that, if the situation is formal, wrongly may be the better choice in either position; if the adverb comes before the verb, wrongly is the only possible form; if the verb is a common short one, such as do, get, have or go, it often forms a set phrase in which wrong is the idiomatic choice (“don’t get me wrong”, “she did him wrong”, “how did he go wrong?”); wrong is preferred after the verb when the intended meaning is “in an unsuitable or undesirable manner or direction” or “incorrect” (as in spelling something incorrectly); if it means “falsely”, then wrongly is the correct form (“rightly or wrongly”, “the award was denied him wrongly”, “he was incapable of acting wrongly”); if it is followed by a “that” clause, then wrongly is used (“she guessed wrongly that he was a teacher”). I suspect that this profusion of advice aiming to codify the eccentricities of English idiom confuses the learner rather than helping.

More generally, English makes much less distinction between adverbs and adjectives than the more elementary grammar books would have us believe. It might be better to class such words under the general title of modifier (though contemporary grammarians reserve this word for a different phenomenon); often the form of the modifier doesn’t match the rule we learned in childhood about adding -ly to make adverbs. Lots of words that look like adjectives can act as adverbs, particularly in idiomatic English: “try hard”, “turn sharp left”, “hold tight”, “he had spread himself too thin”, “the desk was piled high with files”, “he burrowed deep into his memory”, “leave it as late as you can”, “the ships were wide apart”, “teach him to hold his pen right”.

In his article entitled unidiomatic -ly, Robert Burchfield wrote that “Standard speakers for the most part instinctively know which form is appropriate in a given context” but added “To regard the addition of -ly as the only way of turning an adjective into a word meaning ‘in the manner of, after the style of, etc.’, is to fall far short of understanding how the language works.”

To sum all this up, in the phrase “spelling his name wrong”, wrong is idiomatically correct but wrongly is acceptable, though formal and less common. However, both questioners are Australian, so I must enter a caveat that antipodean English may march to the beat of a different drummer.

5. Sic!

• John Pearson spotted a reader’s travel tip in the Guardian on 16 June: “The swordfish and revueltos (scrambled eggs) in particular are incredible and the wine list, concentrating on local wines from Málaga and Cádiz, never fails to disappoint.”

• Robyn Arvier found an advertisement in the Tasmanian newspaper, The Examiner, on 16 June for what was presumably intended to refer to a fowl (or foul) housing: “Poultry Chicken Coup”. What other sort of chicken is there? And what will they do, peck us into submission?

• Brian Clark sent a link to a report on the WAFF site in Huntsville, Alabama, dated 21 June: “Researchers at Washington State University said spontaneous combustion is common among farmers.” The story was actually about a fire in a haystack.

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