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Newsletter 745
16 Jul 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Yealm.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Meteoric rise.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Put a sock in it Several readers suggested that early non-electric gramophones would produce more noise than I had asserted. Geoffrey Ogden Browne wrote, “I have a friend who has a large cabinet wind-up gramophone which can make quite a sound. I can assure readers that putting a sock in it is the most efficient way to lower the volume.” Rob Coates added, “An episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue recently broadcast here in Australia had that question in one of the rounds. Humphrey Lyttelton claimed — to the incredulity of the panellists — to have muted a gramophone with a sock in his younger years. As he was born in 1921 and probably had experience with horn gramophones this may be true. However, I suspect his claim may also have been a device to provide the punch line about the underpants.”

2. Weird Words: Yealm/jɛlm/ Help with IPA

This is a term of the thatcher’s trade. A yealm — in older works spelled yelm — is one of the individual bundles of straw, a sort of straw tile, that’s laid on the roof. A writer in East Anglia in 1825 explained that a yealm was the largest quantity of straw that could be carried under the arm at one time.

As befits such an ancient trade, yealm is Old English, spelled then as gielm, gylm and in other ways. Its first sense was of a sheaf of reaped corn (wheat or barley) and only later changed to mean the long straw that remained after threshing. It has often been confused with halm or helm in the same sense, and with haulm for the stems or stalks of peas, beans, potatoes and other crops that remain after harvesting. However, these last three are from a different Germanic source which comes from an Indo-European root that appears in Latin culmus, a stalk, and Greek kalamos, a reed.

Yealm doesn’t often appear outside technical descriptions of thatching. This is a rare example, from a novel:

Luxuriously full, the cat slept on the window-ledge. Meantime a roadman was cleaning a gutter, a thatcher pegged down his yelm.

In a Green Shade, by Maurice Hewlett, 1920.

The yealms are fixed in place by hazel sticks called brotches, a word that was once commonly spelled broach or broche and which could mean a pointed device of several kinds. It’s the same word as brooch for the ornamental pin. The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry that was written rather more than a century ago, says of brooch that the differentiation of spelling from broach was recent “and hardly yet established”.

3. Wordface

Multiloquent verbosity This week I stumbled upon a review in an American magazine, The Academy, dated 1 October 1881. It was of E W White’s Cameos from the Silver-land; or the Experiences of a Young Naturalist in the Argentine Republic, a classic work of economic geography and natural history. The reviewer complained, “The author is terribly fond of long words. To him plants become bosquetish, plains are sabulous, cattle are meat-bearing beeves, dead men are cadavers, parrots are psittacs. The Republic is ‘a vast cerealic and frugiferous as well as a lanigerous and pelliferous region’.”

A glossary — bosquetish: of bushes or woods (related to bosky); sabulous: sandy; psittac: parrot (the review is one of only two citations for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, the other being from 1425); cerealic: of cereals (the only example in the OED); frugiferous: fruit-bearing: lanigerous: wool-bearing (related to lanolin, from Latin lana, wool); and pelliferous: this is unknown to the Oxford English Dictionary or any other source I’ve checked. I’m guessing the author created it from the old word pell for an animal’s hide (a close relative of pelt, from Latin pellis, skin, leather, or parchment), from which came the equally rare pell-monger, a dealer in skins and furs; from context the word means “rich in fur-bearing animals”.

4. Questions and Answers: Meteoric rise

Q From Jeff Grindle: I am curious about the term meteoric rise. Since meteors fall to the earth and do not rise back up from it, this term doesn’t appear to make sense. Several online sources I’ve consulted agree that it’s an oxymoron but have no further explanation for its origin. I consider World Wide Words to be one of the premier English language sites available, and I would appreciate your insight on this strange term.

A Many thanks for your kind words and your interesting question. From our modern perspective, your puzzlement is understandable. The idiom does sound like a contradiction. However, when we look into the history of meteoric, it isn’t as silly as it sounds.

To start with, the phrase meteoric rise is a lot older than you might think. It starts to appear in print in the 1860s, though there are hints that it may be older. Since then, the phrase has itself rapidly risen in popularity and has become a cliché best avoided. This is an early example:

He [Lord Byron] called himself, in one of his poems, “The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme;” and there is some similarity between the suddenness and splendour of his literary career and the meteoric rise and domination of the First Bonaparte.

A Complete Manual of English Literature, by Thomas Budd Shaw, 1865.

Older forms are meteoric career, known from the early part of the century (for example, in A Year in Europe by John Griscom, dated 1823), and meteoric talent, which is recorded from 1833. These and your form are all based on a figurative sense of meteoric that came into existence about 1820.

One reason why the expression now seems wrong is that we’ve lost a key part of the image in the minds of these early users. For them, something meteoric began unexpectedly and spectacularly but soon sputtered and died. People had in mind the sudden appearance and transient brilliance of a meteor or shooting star streaking across the night sky. By implication, a meteoric rise was swiftly followed by a meteoric fall that led to extinction of talent or reputation. Both rise and fall here are themselves figurative, with no implication of physical direction.

I’ll leave it to psychologists of language to explain why we should now stress the rise and not the fall.

5. Sic!

• “Those precocious colonial boys” commented Robert Wake on a line in the New York Review of Books of 23 June: “It is probably true that Bancroft’s farmer father succumbed to an epileptic fit in a pigsty when he was a small boy.”

• Julie Egan saw a headline in The Sydney Morning Herald of 12 July (it appeared in other news outlets, too): “Dismembered man quizzed by men posing as police”.

• An advertisement in the Racing Post of 9 July caught the attention of Simon Rowlands: “Editorial Internship at Racing Post. “It is essential that applicant’s have a high standard of written English and excellent attention to detail.”

• The difference a missing hyphen can make, noted Steve Hirsch. He saw a sign outside a medical office building recently: “TOBACCO FREE FOR YOUR HEALTH”.

• Allan Price submitted this intriguing snippet from the Shropshire Star of 12 July: “July has five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays this year — something which hasn’t happened for 823 years. The same happened last October.”

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