NEWSLETTER 571: SATURDAY 19 JANUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Safe harbour/haven Members of the legal profession in the US pointed out that safe harbor is a term of art, which refers to some procedure in a law or regulation that affords protection from liability or penalty if followed. Irving S Schloss noted, “I do not mean to denigrate the creativity of my brethren at the bar, but we would be hard put to create a synonym or an equally descriptive tag phrase.” Another specialised sense was noted by Lin Gilbert: “To shipping, ‘safe haven’ means a port where a ship that is damaged or threatened by the weather may take refuge. The more common term now seems to be ‘port of refuge’.”
Scamble Following my notes on the close relationship between this Weird Word last time and the newer verb to shamble, many people asked about the noun, which in the plural is an ancient term for a slaughterhouse and survives, for example, the name of the street in York. In Old English a shamble was a stool (it’s from a diminutive form of Latin scamnum, a bench) but later it came to refer to a trestle table, then to a butcher’s stall in a market and so to the slaughterhouse sense. Oddly, it was the legs of the trestle tables that provoked the modern verb shamble, since it developed out of the phrase shamble legs for someone who walked with their legs straddling like those of the trestles of a shamble.
Decimation David Tuggy e-mailed from Mexico to tell me about the verb vigesimate. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include it, though it has vigesimation, the act of putting to death one in every twenty, a less severe punishment. It is an exceedingly rare word about which I can find no further information. The OED has it from only one source, Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary of 1727.
2. Weird Words: Cad
A man who behaves dishonourably, especially towards a woman.
If ever any person justified this epithet, it was Major-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE. George MacDonald Fraser, who has just died, borrowed the fictional bully of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and made him the hero of a series of novels. The conceit of the books was that Flashman ended his life as a famous and highly decorated soldier, though by his own admission he had throughout been a scoundrel, cheat, lecher, poltroon and cad.
Cad is the classic British contemptuous epithet of the nineteenth century. It appears, for example, in Jerome K Jerome’s Passing of the Third Floor Back: “That you and your wife lead a cat and dog existence is a disgrace to both of you. At least you might have the decency to try and hide it from the world — not make a jest of your shame to every passing stranger. You are a cad, sir, a cad!”
The shift seems to have happened at the university of Oxford. Lads from the town who hung about colleges in the hope of casual work of the caddie type were called cads by the undergraduates. It became a contemptuous way to describe townsmen and by about 1840 it had achieved its full flowering as a term for a man whose behaviour was unacceptable.
3. Recently noted
Words of the year 2007 Don’t groan. This lot are more interesting than most we’ve featured here, not least because there are more to choose from. This contest, surely the final one for 2007, is being run by the Macquarie Dictionary in Sydney, Australia. Its editors have chosen five words in each of 17 categories and want visitors to its Web site to vote for one from each set. The closing date is 31 January.
Most sets, such as those entitled Carbon Terms (including carbon footprint and carbon sequestration) and Travel (including slow travel and health tourism) contain newish terms with wide circulation in the English-speaking world. But others are what the Adelaide Advertiser called Australish terms or the Sydney Morning Herald has referred to as Strine (from a famous typically slurred pronunciation of Australian by Australians that was immortalised a quarter century ago in the title of a book, Let Stalk Strine, by Afferbeck Lauder, whose pseudonym has to be said by an Australian for you to fully appreciate the joke. 1)
Colloquial terms include floordrobe, lady garden and salad dodger, which are respectively a floor littered with discarded clothes, a woman’s pubic region, and an overweight person. Other body terms include arse antlers (a tattoo just above the buttocks, having a central section and curving extensions on each side), butt bra (a garment worn as a support for the buttocks), and manscaping (a male grooming procedure in which hair is shaved or trimmed from all over the body). The Social Terms section has kipper for an adult child still living in their parents’ home (supposedly Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings) and slummy mummy, for a mother of young children who has given up onl care of her personal appearance, a play on yummy mummy for an older, immaculately-groomed and attractive woman.
A couple of characteristically Australian terms in the Environment section are toad juice, liquid fertiliser from pulverised cane toads (a nasty introduced pest in the north of the continent), and green shoe brigade, the group of people who stand to profit from dubious practices conducted in the name of environmental protection (this is from white shoe brigade, a deeply derogatory term for the unscrupulous property developers who built up the coast of Queensland in the 1980s).
Unword of the year Perhaps a quick dose of inverted selection will clear the head. On Tuesday, a jury of German linguists announced its Unwort des Jahres, the word the group considered to be the worst linguistic misjudgement (sprachliche Missgriff) of 2007. It’s Herdprämie, literally “stove reward”. A debate has been taking place in Germany about the need to provide more childcare facilities, the alternative being to persuade more mothers to stay at home to look after their children by paying them Betreuungsgeld (child-raising money). The chairman of the jury, Prof. Dr. Horst Schlosser, said that “the word defames parents, especially women, who educate their children at home instead of claiming a place at a day nursery.”
1 Alphabetical Order.
4. Questions & Answers: Reticule
[Q] From Anne Breden: “I was recently told that reticule, a lady’s small purse of the 18th century, was actually called a ridicule because some thought it was a silly fashion accessory. Is reticule the correct term, or is this a sort of folk etymology that sounds very logical but may not be correct? Thanks for your assistance.”
[A] If it’s not just a silly joke, then it may be a folk etymology. But it’s more likely that the person who told you the story has got their facts backwards.
The reticule was indeed sometimes slangily called a ridicule during the early nineteenth century, but it was either an ignorant or a joking transformation of the older term. Charles Dickens used it in Oliver Twist in 1838:
”Tills be blowed!” said Mr. Claypole; “there’s more things besides tills to be emptied.” “What do you mean?” asked his companion. “Pockets, women’s ridicules, houses, mail-coaches, banks!” said Mr. Claypole, rising with the porter.
This explains the name. Reticule comes from Latin reticulum, a diminutive of rete, a net, from which we also get such words as reticulation, a pattern or arrangement of interlacing lines that resembles a net (you may recall Samuel Johnson’s famous definition of network here: “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections”).
It was a variation on the older term reticle, which survives (mainly in North America, I’m told) as an alternative for graticule, a network of lines such as the latitudes and longitudes on a map or crosshairs in the eyepiece of a device such as a telescope, for which reticule is also used.
5. Questions & Answers: Naff
[Q] From Robert L Sharp: “The Economist often gives me a new word, but I’m confused by its reference to the British entertainer Bruce Forsyth: ‘The jokes he makes in his high-camp nasal voice are too naff for reproduction in an upmarket newspaper. Yet Mr Forsyth is the improbable face of Britain’s favourite television programme.’ Is naff an odd way to spell naif?”
[A] No, it’s a word in its own right, though it’s one that has a mysterious and intriguing history. Something that’s naff in Britain (and also in Australia) is inferior and lacks taste or style. I’d not describe Brucie’s jokes by that word, though they’re often so old they have whiskers on.
Many attempts have been made to explain the origin, which are made more difficult by there being not only an adjective but also a verb, which usually appears as the impolite instruction to naff off!, an obvious euphemism for fuck off!
To what extent the verb and adjective are connected is disputed. The verb is recorded some years earlier (in 1959 in Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse) and may simply be a variation on eff off, where eff is a written version of the letter F, meaning fuck, as in to eff and blind, to use vulgar expletives.
Some hold that naff is an acronym from the phrase Not Available For Fucking, though this seems, if it ever existed, to have been a post-hoc reinterpretation. Some dictionaries, such as Collins and Chambers, suggest that it was formed as backslang from fan, a short form of fanny in the British sense of the female genitals. The idea that it derives from NAAFI, the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes, who provide canteens and shops for British service personnel, is a stretch too far.
More sensible is the idea that it comes from dialect, either from the northern English naffy, naffhead, or naffin for an idiot or simpleton, or Scots nyaff, a puny or insignificant person.
But the most plausible origin takes us back to Julian and Sandy. Their patois was Polari, the old showmen’s private language that had been taken up by homosexuals. If naff is from Polari, as in phrases like naff omi, a dreary man, it’s most probably from the sixteenth-century Italian gnaffa, a despicable person.
• Commenting on the item last week about a bag of peanuts that was labelled “may contain traces of nuts”, Scott Pollard noted that such warnings are common these days: Sainsbury’s smoked salmon is labelled with the useful allergy advice “contains fish”.
• A bad case of cliché overload vexed Mary Ellen Foley. The Winter 2007 number of Keeping You Posted, a free publication for customers of the British Post Office, includes this comment from actor and director George Clooney: “I think the internet is a free-for-all. Until someone figures out how to tame the wild wild west, then I don’t really know if you can put the genie back in the bottle.”
• Alan Featherstone heard a comment from cricketer Geoffrey Boycott on BBC Radio 5 Live on 11 January. Referring to the recent squabble between the Australian and Indian cricket teams about taunts passed between opposing team members (it’s called sledging, derived from sledgehammer), he said that umpires who were seeking a quiet life tended to “turn a blind ear” to sledging.
• The San Francisco non-profit organisation Community United Against Violence has some unfortunate phrasing in job titles, according to Mara Math. “They have just posted an opening for a ‘Hate Violence Advocate’ who will report to the ‘Hate Violence Director’. The job description offers ‘long-term disability’ as the position’s final benefit. It’s a really tough job hating all that violence.”
• Simon Behenna says “G’day Michael” from Australia and notes, “This is from the first line of an online car ad: ‘Deceased Estate, this car was my father’s pride and joy. The only reason it is being sold is because he no longer requires it.’”
• Marie-Louise Edwards forwarded a fractured foreignism from a hotel in Paris: “Cultivate a different art of life to make your life being be our purpose. On this subject, the colors harmony gives a very chic parisian charm, an invitation to relaxation an dreams, particularly in our romms who will provide to you the most marrowy comfort. To make your trip to Paris one of the most unforgivable moment of your life.” She says her sister has booked in for a visit shortly. I hope she will find the romms to be as marrowy as advertised.