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Newsletter 809
10 Nov 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Mulct.

3. Miscellany.

4. Questions and Answers: Eggy.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Mrs John Dylan asked when mistress became a term for the female half of a long-lasting extra-marital relationship. It’s on record from 1601, though it’s probably older. Incidentally, miss, the conventional term for an unmarried woman, began life at about the same time as the shortened form of mistress in the kept-woman sense but by the middle 1600s was already being used as we do now for any unmarried woman. And Ms was then very occasionally used as an abbreviation for mistress, in all its meanings, though its application as a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss is a modern US introduction. Though popularised during the 1960s, it is on record as having been suggested by a correspondent to the Springfield Sunday Republican of Massachusetts in November 1901.

Mistress has been used as a form of address in relatively recent times,” wrote Gill Dunn. “In the late 1950s, my stepmother, as the wife of the headmaster of a village school in Northumberland, was addressed as Mistress Wood.” George Chamier concurs: “Mistress as a term of address to a married or mature woman was still used until very recently in the Scottish Highlands — and may still be by the elderly. I recall a railway official at Inverness station (I suspect he was a Gaelic speaker which may account for the usage) addressing my wife as such in the 1970s.”. “In 1954, as a young teenager living in Exeter (UK),” wrote Roger Clark, “I took part in a school exchange with a French boy who stayed with us for three weeks. When he came downstairs the first morning he greeted my mother with ‘Good morning, Mistress!’ I never did discover where he learned this but I suspect he had a rather old-fashioned teacher.”

2. Weird Words: Mulct/mʌlkt/ Help with IPA

I’ve been spending too much time in the garden: my mind keeps trying to insist this word is said as mulch. No, the c is hard, like the effect on the person being mulcted.

It derives from classical Latin, in which multa or mulcta meant a fine or penalty. The c was probably introduced as the result of confusion with the verb mulcare, to handle roughly or damage, an unsurprising association of ideas. But many centuries passed before the change became general. Both Anglo-Norman and Middle French had multer, to pay a fine. It came into in English in the fifteenth century as mult and it was a century before the c became wedged permanently into place. (The same thing happened in French, in which mulcter evolved from multer at about the same time, though the verb has disappeared from the modern language.)

Mulct remains in English, though in its original sense it is now restricted to the world of lawyers and judges. Elsewhere, it has shifted to refer to the illegal extraction of money through fraud or extortion. Since it appears in phrases such as “mulcting the poor taxpayer”, we may assume people subject to some legally sanctioned mulct came to regard it as excessive to the point of extortion.

The [energy supply] industry is quick to pass on price increases, and damnably slow to give customers the benefit of today’s tumbling costs. It is no good urging these hardfaced profiteers. The only thing they understand is the brute force they use to mulct their customers.

Daily Mirror, 12 Dec. 2008.

3. Miscellany

Nevermore? Never event is well known in the medical profession but new to me. It’s a mistake in surgery that, by definition, ought never to happen. A recent report records the UK’s National Health Service as having had 326 never events during 2011, including 161 in which a foreign object was left in the body after an operation and 70 in which patients had surgery on the wrong part of the body. We may take some small comfort from learning that 326 is a minuscule number compared with the 4.2 million operations carried out each year in England alone.

Fifty shades of swans? We learned of figurative black swans as a result of Nassim Taleb’s book of that title in 2008, a term that he coined for an event which is both unpredicted and unpredictable. (The analogy was with the finding of black swans in Australia by the seventeenth-century Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh, at a time when all swans were thought to be white.) Last week, Sir Martin Sorrell, the chief executive officer of the WPP advertising agency, invented similarly figurative grey swans. These are events we do know about but whose outcomes are equally unpredictable. He cited four: the crisis in the Eurozone, the turmoil in the Middle East, the slowdown in the fast-growing economies of China, Brazil and India, and the consequences of the US presidential election. As to the last of these, it’s too early to tell, though the swan in this case may be said to have turned blue.

Pots and kettles A word turned up in my newspaper that I thought had outlived its fashionableness, even its utility: whataboutery, but it turns out to have significant currency still. It’s associated particularly with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Bitter arguments by one side about terrorism were often countered, not by reasoned argument, but by accusations of similar atrocities by the other. In 2000, The Scotsman attributed the coinage to the former West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt, and gave this example: “Aye, the IRA might be bad, but what about ...”. That makes clear it’s what about turned into a noun. The Belfast Telegraph used it on 29 September: “Both sides are steeped in historical ‘whataboutery’ and they cannot see the historical woods for the modern trees.” A less contentious form was known in the nineteenth century: whatabouts, which was a pun on whereabouts. One’s whatabouts were one’s activities, doings or occupations, in British English what one was about.

Unmatchable rhymes Todd Sidwell asked me a question that has given poets much grief: “Is there an English word that rhymes with month?” It is usually considered to be almost as difficult to match as those notorious rhyme-breaking hues orange, purple and silver. Some poets have argued that number words such as millionth, seventh or dozenth can work. A jokester has created dunth, defined as “a word that rhymes with month”, presumably without knowing that Dunth is a real, though unusual, family name. By coincidence, a letter to The Observer newspaper two Sundays ago from Liz Ratcliffe quoted a brief snatch of doggerel that Robert Browning wrote when presented with the same challenge:

From the Ganges to the Blorenge Comes the Rajah once a month. Sometimes chewing on an orange. Sometimes reading from his Grunth.

Browning wasn’t cheating by inventing words: Blorenge is a small mountain in Wales, while Grunth is a Sikh holy book. This exotic solution may merely illustrate the truth of the generality.

4. Questions and Answers: Eggy

Q From Valerie B: I’d be interested to learn more about the history of the British slang eggy, meaning slightly annoyed. A couple of Idahoan friends have taken to using it (I’d lay money that P G Wodehouse is behind the conspiracy), and my curiosity has risen like a well-executed soufflé. Thank you!

A I’m not so sure that Wodehouse could be an influence. The only example of the word I can find in his books is a character called Eggy, who appeared in Laughing Gas in 1936. Another character said of him, “I can’t imagine anybody more capable of worrying a family than Eggy”, but that’s because he was idle, dissolute and a drunkard. He was annoying, but not himself annoyed.

The Oxford English Dictionary records eggy from the year before Laughing Gas was published, in Judgment Day, the last of the Studs Lonigan trilogy by the American author James T Farrell, set in Chicago. So there’s a good argument for saying that eggy isn’t originally British at all. Your Idahoan friends might have taken it from the books or — if they have long memories — from the 1960 film or the 1979 miniseries made from the trilogy. However, you’re right to say that it’s known to some extent in the UK — I’ve come across it as school playground slang from the 1990s.

If one has figurative egg on one’s face, appearing ridiculous or foolish, the result may well be annoyance, but linguistically the two seem unconnected. It has been argued that eggy is a modified version of aggravated, but that’s too much of a modification to be easily accepted as the source. Others suggest it’s from edgy, nervous, tense or irritable, which may have been an influence. Edgy comes from, or is associated with, being on edge, though it has a more recent sense of being unconventional — on the cutting edge of style, so to speak. Though the OED does suggest a link between eggy and edgy, it’s through another sense of the verb to egg, one that has nothing to do with soufflés or hens, but is associated with the idiom to egg someone on, to incite, provoke or encourage.

The egg in this phrase is from Old Norse eggja, to incite, which has the same source as the verb to edge, to sharpen a weapon. (In 1603 the Bishop of Lincoln, William Barlow, wrote in his Answer to a Catholic Englishman, “Not blunting the sword of Justice, but rather edging it.”) For centuries, down to the late 1800s, egg on also appeared as edge on. I guess that the idea behind egging on is that a person is being encouraged to take action by figuratively suggesting he sharpen his sword.

We’ve lost to edge on and this has made a puzzling idiom more so. The unknown person who derived eggy from its egg on version to suggest somebody who had been egged on or provoked to the extent of becoming annoyed almost certainly wasn’t thinking of blades.

5. Sic!

• Paddy Crean was attending the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland and found this entry on a handwritten menu at the Talbot Hotel: “Locally caught chunks of fresh fish.”

• “I came across an unfortunate use of words on the bottom of a new kitchen appliance,” wrote Frances Cave: “This kettle is made from completely tasteless materials”. Peter G Millington-Wallace noted a label on his purchase, a pack of replacement toothbrush heads, which claimed, “Effectively remove plague”.

• Grant Agnew e-mailed: “On 1 November, Australia’s SBS-TV World News had an item about our latest Victoria Cross winner. The reporter told us that he is the 96th ‘since the Boer War at the turn of the century’. I hope this doesn’t mean that the twentieth century is going to be repeated.”

• An article in The Australian on 7 November commented, “The risk of having a heart attack and developing heart disease increased with each additional sign of aging among both men and women, who made up 45 percent of survey participants.” Thanks to Christine Robey for that.

• Still in Australia, Chris Gray noted that the Business Spectator wrote on 1 November: “Filippo and Maria had emigrated to Australia from Sicily in 1950s and settled in Griffiths, NSW, where they eventually bought 50 acres and planted grapes, peaches and prunes as well as four children.”

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