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Newsletter 732
16 Apr 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Cotton on.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Hedera and fleuron From David Nissen Kahn: “In the for-what-it’s-worth vein, ‘fleuron’ is also a professional kitchen term, with a meaning akin to the typographic one: ‘a tiny, crescent-shaped piece of puff pastry used as a garnish, usually atop hot food’.”

Tim Nau felt that I’d left a lot out of my brief description of punctuation before printing arrived. I agree that there was a long hiatus in my description that omitted the developments that came out of post-classical scribal practices, including the full stop (period) and the slash or virgule, used to mark brief pauses in reading and which evolved into the comma (in fact, virgule is from the French word for a comma, but it derives from the Latin “virga” for a rod).

Burke Michael Templeton pointed me to a once-famous Edinburgh skipping rhyme that commemorates the activities of Burke and Hare:

Up the close and down the stair,
But and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

But and ben can mean “backwards and forwards”, “to and fro” or “everywhere”. These days, it’s more often the name of a traditional two-room cottage, an in and out, sometimes used as a holiday home.

New RSS feed Though numerous readers looked at the experimental new RSS feed — The Word File — after my note last week, comments came in from just 15 people, mostly favourable. It seems worth continuing, but following a suggestion from Randall Bart I’ve modified it so that each day’s feed includes not only the current day’s item but the previous four as well. Further comments welcome.

2. Weird Words: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis

Having come across it the other day in a popular science book, it seemed time to recognise this notorious weird word, the longest to appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, beating out such horrors as honorificabilitudinitatibus. It’s supposed to be a lung disease that’s caused by the inhalation of the very fine sand and ash dust found around volcanoes.

This 45-letter monstrosity (word lovers prefer, with good reason, to refer to it as p45) primarily exists as an example of a very long word, a trophy to be exhibited as evidence of the superior knowledge and intellect of the person presenting it. Hardly anyone who does so realises that they’re perpetuating a joke.

The story starts in New York in 1935. The famous National Puzzlers’ League of the US, the longest-surviving puzzle organisation in the world, was holding its 103rd semi-annual meeting at the Hotel New Yorker. The then president of the NPL was Everett M Smith, whose day job was news editor of the Christian Science Monitor but who in these circles was known as Puzzlesmith. Mr Smith introduced p45 to the meeting to illustrate the ever-increasing length of medical terms. But doctors knew nothing of it, because it was the creation of Mr Smith’s nimble mind.

The word was reported in the issue of The New York Herald-Tribune of 23 February 1935, spelled -koniosis. Frank Scully included it in Bedside Manna, the Third Fun in Bed Book the next year, though he spelled it wrongly. It gained a semi-official stamp of approval when in 1939 Merriam-Webster added it to the supplement of its New International Dictionary (it has been claimed that this was the result of a campaign by members of the NPL). Subsequently, p45 has so often been recorded that many publishers have felt obliged to include it in their larger dictionaries, though usually with disclaimers.

If you need to refer to the disease, pneumoconiosis is shorter and means much the same. Or you could use the popular terms silicosis or black lung.

3. Wordface

Goose-step Tony McCoy O’Grady asked me why the stiff-legged army ceremonial march has this name. The Prussians, who invented it in the eighteenth century, called it the stechschritt or stabbing step. The English name was clearly mockingly pejorative, though in a curious lexical twist it has since been widely adopted in other armies. One suggestion is that it made a soldier performing it look as silly as a goose (in the sense of a simpleton, goose is from the 1500s). Another notes the application of the term, around 1800, to a bit of basic army drill in which a recruit stood on each leg alternately, so similarly being compared to a goose. This is a description of the drill:

Imagine him standing on the right leg, the other being raised so that the foot just clears the ground. Upon the word “Front” from the instructor of the drill, he advanced the raised foot to the front to an extent rather short of a pace, and there keeps it suspended till he hears the word “Forward.” He then places the suspended foot on the ground, and raises the other, keeping it off the ground in the rear, till at the further word “Tow,” he brings it up to the standing foot, though still keeping it off the ground. He is then in the position from which he started; and at the successive words, “Front,” “Forward,” “Tow,” each leg goes through the alternate standing and suspension required: and so on for as many hours as the drill is ordered to last.

Memoirs of Dr Blenkinsop, by Adam Blenkinsop, 1852.

4. Questions and Answers: Cotton on

Q From Evan Parry, New Zealand: In composing an email to a friend, I used the phrase cottoned on, meaning I’d understood. It suddenly struck me that it’s an odd way to describe taking a liking to, or taking advantage of, or becoming a fan of, or coming to understand something. Where and how did the expression originate?

A It’s complicated, but I’ll try to unravel it for you.

We’re sure that the verb comes from the noun cotton for the plant and the fibre. This derives from Arabic qutn, because the plant’s homeland is the Middle East.

The very first sense of the verb was to raise the nap on cloth such as wool to draw out the loose ends of the fibres before shearing it to give it a smooth finish. It may have been because freshly woven cotton has a natural fuzzy nap that means it can be sheared without first having to artificially raise it. To call a fibre cotton at that time meant it had the finish of cotton, but was actually wool or linen or a mixture of linen and cotton. Confusingly for people who know Manchester as the traditional centre of the cotton trade (to the extent that in Australia and New Zealand Manchester means cotton goods such as household linen; it’s short for Manchester wares), in the sixteenth century Manchester cotton could be a type of woollen cloth.

By the middle of the sixteenth century the verb sense of cotton had become a figurative expression meaning to prosper or succeed. A writer in 1822 tried to explain it: “a metaphor, probably, from the finishing of cloth, which when it cottons, or rises to a regular nap, is nearly or quite complete.”

By about 1600, to cotton together or cotton with a person meant you got on well together. It has plausibly been suggested it came from the use of mixtures of cotton and other fibres in clothing. A little later, cotton up meant to strike up a friendship. In the early 1800s, to cotton to somebody implied that you were drawn or attached to that person. It may be that the idea here is how well a thread of cotton sticks to the surface of cloth. Cotton to was taken to Australia and became common there:

“My word! Dick,” Jim says, “it’s a murder he and Aileen didn’t cotton to one another in the old days. She’d have been just the girl to have fancied all this sort of swell racket, with a silk gown and dressed up a bit.”

Robbery Under Arms, by Rolf Boldrewood, 1888.

Around 1900 this became cotton on to and then cotton on, still in the same sense. Within a decade it was known both in Britain and the US and remains so in the latter country, though it is rather regional and feels old-fashioned or homely.

By the 1920s, cotton on had developed the last of the meanings that you mention, of coming to understand some matter. It’s not too surprising — if you can cotton on to a person, you can equally cotton on to an idea. The best clue I’ve found to its origin is in a glossary of English army slang used in World War One, published in Notes and Queries in December 1921. This included cotton on (to) in the sense “to understand”. We may guess that it evolved in Australia and was communicated to British and American soldiers during that war.

5. Sic!

• Gordon Drukier noted that new signs have appeared In the past few months on the approaches to State Route 3 from Interstate 91 in Connecticut. These warn: ROUTE 3 NO PERMITTED LOADS ALLOWED.

• A BBC News story on 14 April began: “The NHS in England could save money by carrying out fewer, less effective procedures” was spotted by Martin Wynne, who noted, “An operation to remove a harmful comma would be a start!” By the time I got to see it, that had happened.

• “The disclaimer on the back page of the Ford Accessories Pocket Guide booklet from my local Ford Garage,” reports David Jackson, “optimistically rephrases the usual E&OE [Errors and Omissions Excepted] to become ‘Errors and Omissions Expected’.”

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