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Newsletter 731
09 Apr 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Hedera.

3. Questions and Answers: Burke.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Bounty hunter Michael Templeton suggests I hadn’t found early examples of the term being used for a hunter of humans because my sources didn’t include libraries of western pulp fiction. He found an example in The Crimson Horseshoe by Peter Dawson, dated 1941. As it happens, I’ve now taken the phrase back a bit further (Justin Beam also found it, in another source):

The first four chapters deal with noted western characters: Charles Goodnight, the trail-blazer, John Chisum, the cattle king, Clay Allison, the man-killer, and Tom Horn, scout and human bounty-hunter.

A review of Fighting Men of the West by Dane Coolidge, in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly of Texas, July 1932.

As the writer felt it necessary to specify that the bounty hunter was after human beings and not animals, that sense of the term must have then been new. Justin Beam confirms that Dane Coolidge didn’t use the term himself, describing the protagonist as a “man-hunter”.

Brosiering As a further comment on the linguistic peculiarities of Eton College in the nineteenth century, Kirk Mattoon quoted from Boys Together by John Chandos, about British public schools in that period. Chandos wrote, “Everyone, male or female, except classics tutors, who kept a boarding house to accommodate Eton boys was a ‘Dame’.” What was so different about classics tutors?

Experiment Following a suggestion from a reader, I’ve set up a new RSS feed — The Word File — as a trial. It will run from Monday to Friday of next week, though last Friday’s test will still be available over this weekend if you want a sneak preview. Each day a new random link will be presented to a page on the World Wide Words site. Try it and let me know what you think. Worth having? Waste of effort? Needs modifying? Send your comments to the usual address, but include “Word File” in the subject line.

2. Weird Words: Hedera

Gardeners will prick up their ears in the expectation that they are about to hear something interesting about ivy, as Hedera is its genus name (Hedera helix is the common English ivy, where helix refers to the spiraling growth of the ivy stems). Ivy is closely involved, but I’m actually writing about punctuation.

Most of the dots, marks, slashes and dashes that separate our words are relatively modern inventions that followed the introduction of printing in the fifteenth century. Commas date from the sixteenth century, while exclamation and question marks didn’t appear until a century later, around the time semicolons came in.

Classical Latin writers didn’t have any of these and didn’t feel the lack, but then written texts were intended to be read aloud rather than silently. They did have the capitulum, or chapter marker, which turned into the symbol we now call a pilcrow. Romans indicated the ends of texts with an ivy leaf, which they naturally called a hedera. Why they chose ivy is unknown. It was a symbol of Bacchus, the Greek and Roman god of wine, but that hardly seems to fit; perhaps it was just common and easy to draw.

The mark was carried over into English printing but by then it had become an ornament, one of a group that became known as fleurons (from Old French floron, a flower). You may still sometimes come across the hedera as a graphic symbol for a section break or as a decorative marker at the beginning of a paragraph.

3. Questions and Answers: Burke

Q From John Boaler: In one of C P Snow’s Strangers & Brothers series, Time of Hope, I came across a verb that I’d not seen before: “I did not burke the certain truths”. What did Snow mean by burke?

A It’s an intriguing verb.

It takes us back to the 1820s and that notorious pair, Burke and Hare. Medical schools were finding it difficult to get enough cadavers for the anatomic dissection essential to train students. The only official source was executed criminals but their numbers had been decreasing because fewer were being condemned to death, while the number of students needing corpses was increasing. One source was grave-robbing, carried out by low-life scavengers who were given the ironic name of resurrectionists.

Brendan Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants to Edinburgh, started their grisly trade by selling the body of a recently deceased tenant of their boarding house to Dr Robert Knox, a local anatomist. Having learned that bodies could be profitable, they began to murder individuals, usually by getting them drunk and then smothering them, to leave no marks on the bodies that would reduce their value as specimens.

Burke was convicted of 16 murders and executed in January 1829; in a fitting end, his body was publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College. Hare had turned King’s Evidence and had been given immunity from prosecution. The case caused a huge sensation, as did the imitative but much more widespread activities of a gang in the English capital which became known as the London Burkers. With the public outcry over grave-robbing, these led to the passing of the Anatomy Act 1832, which legitimised the donation of bodies for medical science.

The Times report on 2 February 1829 of his public hanging recorded of those attending that “every countenance wore the lively aspect of a gala-day” and that Burke’s name had already become an eponymic verb: the spectators shouted “Burke Hare too!” By the time Charles Dickens was writing his first novel less than a decade later, the term was known to everybody:

“Why, sir, bless your innocent eyebrows, that’s where the mysterious disappearance of a ’spectable tradesman took place four years ago.” “You don’t mean to say he was burked, Sam?” said Mr. Pickwick, looking hastily round.

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens, 1837.

By this time, too, the verb had become figurative. To burke is to suppress, hush up, or avoid discussing something. It’s from the idea of metaphorically smothering an issue. This is the sense in which Snow used it. Though it’s hardly common, it’s still around:

In the case of the BNP [the British National Party], both Government and Opposition need to be compelled to confront the issue they have for so long burked; for it is the mishandling of this which has allowed the BNP to raise its ugly head.

Belfast Telegraph, 20 Oct. 2009.

By the way, burke has no connection with the British slang term berk for a stupid person. That’s rhyming slang, known from the 1920s if not earlier, short for Berkeley (or Berkshire) Hunt, even though in British English the first parts of both are pronounced “bark”.

4. Sic!

• Ella Poindexter spotted a headline on the Sky News website over a story dated 3 April: “Police Name Severed Arms In Lake Victim”.

• Once you know decedent is a formal term for a deceased person, a summary of an article in Zaritsky’s Estate Planning Update for 1 April contains — as Kathleen Magone points out — a rather unfortunate error. It ends “... despite the fact the decedent lived there for six months after her death.”

• Aoife Bairead saw a headline in the Sunday Business Post of Ireland dated 3 April: “Bishops agree sex abuse rules”.

• After last week’s instance, further higher mathematics in a news item came courtesy of Andrew Hawke: “The four candidates on the list ahead of Ms Wall (Judith Tizard, Mark Burton, Mahara Okeroa, Martin Gallagher and Dave Hereora) all turned down the role.” This was in the New Zealand Herald on 6 April.

• Cecelia Poole found a job posting by Sutter Health for a secretary in a medical centre in northern California. Qualifications required included, “Type 75wpm. Excellent grammar, speloing, editing and composition skills.” Suggestion: first hire a proofreader.

The Daily Maverick of South Africa (masthead boast: “Not entirely omniscient”) had an article on 5 April, Kristina Davidson notes, about changes at a government agency: “The position of CEO became vacant after all four full-time members, Smunda Mokoena, Thembani Bukula, Ethel Teljeur and Rod Crompton, expired on 31 March.”

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