E-MAGAZINE 687: SATURDAY 24 APRIL 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Boughten Many readers reported knowing this form, both in the UK and North America, suggesting that its distribution in the US (and in Canada) is wider than I had stated. In the US it is found from coast to coast in a swathe across the northern states, though it occurs patchily and is usually confined to older speakers. Several readers in the UK also commented that it was still in use by them or relatives.
Arnold Zwicky corrected my comment that boughten is “formed from the irregular past tense of the verb to buy”; it is, of course from an irregular past participle; the -en that marks the past participle of some strong verbs has been added to an existing strong form created using internal vowel change to make a double-strength form.
Lazy Susan James O’Brien pointed out that there is indeed a real link between dumbwaiters and Thomas Jefferson, since Jefferson came across them while in Paris and introduced them to his residences in the US. This may be why he is often credited with their invention, although his were small tables with shelves, not the rotating trays of earlier English type. He also introduced two lifts to bring wine from his cellar to the table, which may be part of the reason why dumb waiter became a term for that device.
2. Topical Words: Hung parliament
We live in interesting times. While the UK was blanketed in Icelandic dust, a political volcano was rumbling on the ground beneath. The innovation of televised leaders’ debates has caused a big upset in the current general election. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg did so well in
The polls were close even before this discombobulation. Now every member of the commentariat is once again discussing the possibility of a hung parliament. In the terminology of British politics, this is one in which no party has an overall majority. Even before the LibDem upset, that outcome was likely, as the presence of several minority parties meant the ruling Labour Party only had to lose 24 seats to forfeit its absolute majority, while the Conservative Party had to win 116 seats to gain one.
The term hung parliament came into the British political lexicon as a result of Harold Wilson’s failure to win conclusively in the election of February 1974. He led a minority administration until another election was forced the next October. The Times wrote in early August, “The House is up, and the odds are that our ‘hung’ Parliament will not meet again.” The related term hung Senate had been used in Australia during that country’s elections in May 1974. The phrase came into wider popular use in Britain in 1978, when the slim Labour majority at the second 1974 election had been eliminated as the result of by-election losses and the party was kept in power though the support of the then Liberal Party.
Using hang for an indecisive situation has a long history. For example, a firearm whose gunpowder was damp might hang fire, with the powder smouldering until it went off, a potentially dangerous and unpredictable state of affairs. However, the metaphoric sense predates firearms, being known from the fourteenth century. It was linked with the figurative idea of suspense, of a matter that was undecided or in abeyance (we may presume it had nothing to do with hanging a person, as that kind of suspense is notoriously final). But the immediate precursor that the coiners of hung parliament must have had in their minds was hung jury, one that is unable to agree. That was created in the US as long ago as 1848.
It’s a common enough word that few people stop to think what how odd comeuppance really is. Why should it mean the punishment or fate that someone deserves, a just retribution or just deserts?
The Oxford English Dictionary directs enquirers about its origin to sense 74 of the verb come, implying that it derives from come up. That’s reasonable, since the most common early written form in the US — where the word seems to have been invented around the middle of the nineteenth century — was come-up-ance, which we may guess is the situation or consequence of having come up.
The OED and some other dictionaries suggest it refers to coming up before a judge or court for judgement. That’s supported by the earliest evidence for the related expression come-uppings, known in American English from rather later:
I was led away, and I got my come-uppings, or the other fellow’s come-uppings, for I wa’n’t to blame any, and I always said so, and I guess the judge would say so too, if it were to do over again.
The Minister’s Charge, by William Dean Howells, 1886.
Curiously, come-upping is recorded in Cornish dialect in 1880 in the sense of a flogging. It’s possible that it’s a quite separate form, which was taken to the US by migrants and became associated with come-up-ance.
4. This week
Never say new Dick Pountain wrote in the June issue of the computer magazine PC Pro, “Thinking about all this tempts me, much against my better judgement, to coin a new word: the ‘psychosphere’.” He used it, and the adjective psychospheric, to describe the whole human world, considered as a massively connected network that includes idea, words or thoughts (such as Richard Dawkins’s memes) plus rituals, dances and other physical behaviours. Unfortunately, he has been beaten to its invention by a man he has certainly never heard of, the late Dr Charles Redway Dryer, an American professor. Dr Dryer introduced the word in his 1905 book, Lessons of Physical Geography. See the OED. Sorry, Dick.
5. Questions and Answers: Come the old soldier
[Q] From Caroline Devlin: The Life and Loves of a Victorian Clerk is the 1846 diary of a Pimlico wharf clerk named Nathaniel Bryceson. In it, I came across the following: “Fellow clerk, Edward Heskett, absented himself this day as also last Monday. This is coming the old soldier strong, but it will not last.” I’ve never heard coming the old soldier strong and haven’t been able to find any reference to it in a search. Can you shed any light?
[A] Though it’s recorded in British English only from the early part of the nineteenth century, I suspect that the idea behind coming the old soldier is as ancient as armies. The Greeks probably had a word for it.
Your diarist was clearly referring to the actions of Edward Heskett in the second sense. Strong here isn’t part of the basic idiom, but it indicates that his fellow clerk was behaving particularly inappropriately. To come the old soldier has also appeared as act the old soldier and play the old soldier”.
This is a classic early example, in the first sense:
Why, hang it, I cannot tell,” replied Mowbray — “were it not that I think he has scarce the impudence to propose such a thing to succeed, curse me but I should think he was coming the old soldier over me, and keeping up his game. — But no — he can scarce have the impudence to think of that.”
St Ronan’s Well, by Sir Walter Scott, 1823.
• An item on BBC News last Saturday was sent in by Jack Bottomley and Pete Jones: “An Australian publisher has had to pulp and reprint a cook-book after one recipe listed ‘salt and freshly ground black people’ instead of black pepper.”
• Sally Springett forwarded this item from the issue of The Writer’s Almanac for 18 April: “On this day in 1906 an earthquake struck San Francisco. ... The world-famous tenor Enrico Caruso had performed at San Francisco’s Grand Opera House the night before, and he woke up in his bed as the Palace Hotel was falling down around him. He stumbled out into the street, and because he was terrified that that shock might have ruined his voice, he began singing. Nearly 3,000 people died.”
7. Copyright and contact details
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2010. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this e-magazine in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this e-magazine and would like to contribute to its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.