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Newsletter 895
13 Sep 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Porphyrogeniture.

3. Wordface.

4. Set one’s cap at.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Bushel. I was forcefully reminded of the logical gulf between some and none when dozens of readers told me that my assertion that nobody now used the bushel measure was quite wrong. The USA (to a lesser extent Canada) continues to use the bushel measure for grain, fruit and other commodities as well as the peck, a quarter of a bushel. Many subscribers reminded me of the Frank Loesser song lyric from Guys and Dolls, 1950, sung by a line of chorus girls: “I love you, a bushel and a peck ...”. And the expression hide one’s light under a bushel is much older than the King James Bible of 1611 — a similar version is in John Wycliffe’s bible of the late fourteenth century.

Epicaricacy. Nancy Spector of the Wordcraft website pointed out that I was wrong to say the word epicaricacy doesn’t appear in any of Nathan Bailey’s dictionaries. It is included in An Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1721 but in the spelling epicharikaky. Ammon Shea, whom I doubted in my piece, tells me it’s also in John Ash’s New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language of 1775 and in A Dictionary of the Synonymous Words and Technical Terms in the English Language by James Leslie of 1806, both in the same spelling as in Bailey’s. The word appears several times in various works in the original Greek spelling; a writer on the Wordcraft site found it a century before Bailey in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621. It was familiar to Burton and other Greek scholars because Aristotle had used it.

Going away. It’s time that I took another holiday, it would seem. As it happens, I shall be away most of next week, 15-19 September. The next issue might be sent out late.

2. Porphyrogeniture

If we had this inheritance principle in Britain, Prince Charles would lose his pre-eminent right to succeed to the throne to his younger brother Andrew.

That’s because porphyrogeniture refers to a child who has been born to a reigning monarch and specifically to a right of succession to the throne based on having been so born. Queen Elizabeth’s two eldest children, Charles and Anne, were born before she became queen in 1952, but Andrew was born in 1960.

The prefix here, porphyro-, derives from classical Greek porphura for the colour purple. The second part is from Latin genitura, a person’s birth, which is from the root of gignere, to beget. So the word means “born to the purple”, an English idiom dating from the seventeenth century for being born to a reigning monarch. Porphyrogeniture was created around 1860 as a high-flown Latin version of the idiom.

In ancient times, to wear clothing coloured purple was the prerogative of royal or imperial families, because the dye, Tyrian purple, was rare and costly. (It was a variable shade often much nearer red than we would now consider purple; it was also called Tyrian red.) This was probably where the idea of being born to the purple came from, though it was reinforced by Byzantine empresses who gave birth in a room in the Constantinople palace that was lined with a purple stone called porphyry.

Porphyrogeniture isn’t as rare a word as you might think. Historians find it useful when discussing some cases of disputed royal succession, where having been born to a reigning monarch potentially trumped the rights of an older son who had been born before his parent became sovereign.

It’s a member of a set of words of which the best known is primogeniture, which is strictly speaking the state of being the first-born child, but which is more often used for the practice of making the first-born male child the automatic heir. Others are secundogeniture, the right of succession of a second son, the rare tertiogeniture for the third son and ultimogeniture for inheritance by the youngest son, which was once the custom in some counties in southern England.

3. Wordface

Whereabouts? I learned from last week’s issue of Nature that each of us has acquired a new line in our celestial address. We’re not just of Earth, or of the Solar System, but of Laniakea. Brent Tully and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii have given this name to the supercluster of about 100,000 galaxies to which our galaxy, the Milky Way, belongs. The team took the name from the Hawaiian words lani, heaven, and akea, spacious or immeasurable.

Disorder. Howard Denson asked about an expression of his wife’s late aunt, from South Georgia, concerning evening meals, “I guess we'll just mess and gom tonight.” Mess and gom, also mess and gaum, is mainly a Southern US expression for a state of disorder and, as a verb, for creating one: “Don't mess and gom up this living room!” The second word may be from the Scots gaum, gome or coom, perhaps from the Middle English culm, for messy black stuff such as soot or coal dust, which is probably connected with coal. This doesn’t seem to be relevant to a meal, unless another sense of mess, a portion of food, was lurking in her mind.

All that glisters. A piece on the British shopping channel Gems TV mentioned the unusual semi-precious gemstones it specialises in, such as spinel, tourmaline, spessartite, sphene and labradorite. This last one was originally named Labradorstein in 1780 by a German geologist, Abraham Gottlob Werner, because it was found in Labrador; its name was modified in English to include the -ite suffix denoting a mineral. When mentioning labradorite, the presenters were told to emphasise its labradorescence. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the “brilliant play of colours exhibited by some specimens of feldspars, especially labradorite.”

Do as you will. Ed Matthews asked me about the expression Liberty Hall, a place where, at least notionally, one may do just as one likes. The Oxford English Dictionary says that it may originally have been alluding to a patriotic song with that title of 1770, the last line of which runs “For Liberty-Hall is an Englishman’s heart”. Three years later it was picked up by Oliver Goldsmith in his play She Stoops to Conquer: “This is Liberty-hall, gentlemen. You may do just as you please.” There are many real locations with that name but they all seem to have been established more recently than 1770.

4. Set one’s cap at

Q From John D Arnold: Do you know the provenance of the idiom to set one’s cap for someone or something?

A It’s often set one’s cap at, though both forms now feel rather dated. The idiom conventionally refers to a woman who sets out to gain the affections of a man, often with a view to marriage. The idiom starts to appear in the middle of the eighteenth century:

She was never known to set her Cap at any Man, and her Conversation is always so negligently sensible, that she cannot be suspected of studying to be brilliant, and if she captivates every Heart, it is without any premeditated Design.

The Gray’s Inn Journal, 5 Jan. 1754.

It has been suggested by at least one writer that the phrase was borrowed from the French expression mettre le cap sur. Today, that has the sense of “head for”, “set out for”, but in the eighteenth century it was specifically a seafaring idiom meaning to set course for some place.

We may imagine some young woman of the period, determined to marry well, aiming herself like a ship in full sail at the eligible bachelors of her acquaintance. Unfortunately for that fantasy, nobody has found any link between the French and English terms and none of the early examples of the idiom have nautical associations. The supposed connection seems to be based principally on cap appearing in both versions.

It’s much more likely that it derives from the conventional female dress of the period. At that time, unmarried young women would have worn a lace cap in public. When at an entertainment where she might meet an eligible male, she would naturally have worn her best clothes, including her cap. This is hinted at in this comment by Miss Kate Hardcastle to her father on the matter of a suitor, Mr Marlow:

My dear papa, why will you mortify one so? — Well, if he refuses, instead of breaking my heart at his indifference, I'll only break my glass for its flattery, set my cap to some newer fashion, and look out for some less difficult admirer.

She Stoops To Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith, 1773.

The idiom remained common throughout the nineteenth century, used by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and others. American authors have also used it, though it has remained mainly a British idiom.

There were signs early in the nineteenth century that it was becoming unisex and was broadening its sense to refer to trying for some goal:

So the Rev. Mr. Begg of Paisley is leaving his good folks at last for the parish of Libberton. The minister of Libberton appeared just a-dying, and he [Mr Begg] began to set his cap at it.

The Reformers’ Gazette, 31 Jan. 1835.

By the end of the century, a gentleman setting his cap at some objective was no longer unusual, the cap having become so figurative that no image of maidenly lace was evoked. That is still true, as in this reference to the late John Updike:

But from earliest adolescence, he set his cap at The New Yorker as the summum of American literary production; and by the tender age of 22 he attained his goal.

Newsweek, 9 Feb. 2009. Summum: Latin for highest or greatest.

5. Sic!

• William Logan read in the New York Times about the problems city householders were having in getting promised money for repairs after Hurricane Sandy. James S Oddo, the Staten Island borough president, was quoted: “They turned the spigot so tightly that we went to the other end of the pendulum, and we created this gridlock.”

• Gary Mason explained that Heartwood Forest north of London is much used by dog walkers. Bins for disposing of dog waste have notices placed alongside: “Help keep Heartwood beautiful. If this bin is full please take it home with you”.

• An Associated Press report of 9 September on a fire in Yosemite, seen by Hilary Powers, quoted a hiker who had been rescued by helicopter from on top of Half Dome: “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I don't think I'll do it again.”

• Norman C Berns overheard a repeated national NBC News broadcast comment about the asteroid that passed Earth this week: “Even with a telescope, this object can't be seen with the naked eye.”

• Roger Clark notes that BBC America online reported on Wednesday: “In a nationally televised speech outlining his strategy against IS, [President Obama] said that any group that threatened America would ‘find no safe heaven’.”

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