NEWSLETTER 508: SATURDAY 7 OCTOBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Expletive-deleted spammers Spammers have recently stepped up their use of the worldwidewords.org domain as a dummy one from which they falsely appear to be sending their messages. As a result, I’ve had a few annoyed responses from spammees, and some sites have barred me from sending e-mail messages to their customers. There’s little I can do about this except try to explain that, honest, it wasn’t me who sent out a million messages advertising the latest penny stock or anti-impotence medication. You can all help, though, by keeping your anti-virus and anti-spyware precautions up to date (you have some, right?), so that there’s less opportunity for the black hats to harvest addresses from newsletters or correspondence.
2. Turns of Phrase: Darknet
This is a confusing term because it has two meanings.
The older one, popularised by an influential discussion paper The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution, of 2002, saw it as the collection of peer-to-peer systems that permitted the illegal sharing of copyright digital material across the Internet. In a review of J D Lasica’s 2005 book Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation, it was explained thus: “Darknet is the lawless underground economy in which computer users share and trade music, movies, television shows, games, software, and porn. In a sense, it’s the black market of the Internet.”
The second meaning has grown up in the past couple of years and is now the more common. To evade crackdowns on public file-sharing systems, some users have set up private, invitation-only networks. Others have adopted similar methods to circumvent censorship or to avoid legal oversight for other reasons—some private forums are said to be used by hackers and paedophiles.
A darknet is an encrypted, anonymous section of the internet where users meet, chat and swap data.
[Daily Record, 1 Sep 2006]
Fed up of controls imposed on the internet by everybody from the government to workplaces and the service provider at home, Charles Assisi tries exploring the darknet. A part of the internet where entry is by invitation only.
[Times of India, 4 Dec. 2005]
3. Weird Words: Oxter
This is still to be heard in parts of Northern England as well as in Scotland and Ireland, and most of the works in which it is to be found are by authors from those regions.
It can be used more widely to refer to the underside of the upper arm or the fold of the arm when bent against the body, or even the armhole of a jacket. It can have an even more general sense, to judge from the way Robert Louis Stevenson used it in Catriona in 1893: “I’ll confess I would be blythe [blithe: happy] to have you at my oxter, and I think you would be none the worse of having me at yours.” George Macdonald Fraser almost made it sound rude in his Flashman and the Mountain of Light of 1990: “A lackey serving the folk in the gallery put a beaker in my hand. What with brandy and funk I was parched as a camel’s oxter, so I drank it straight off”.
The word is from Old English oxta, which has related forms in some modern Germanic languages. It appears to be linked to Latin axilla in the same sense, a diminutive of ala, the wing of a bird, and so is a distant cousin of aisle.
4. Recently noted
Reprotected Kevan Pegley found this puzzling term on the Virgin Atlantic Web site: “We are sorry to announce the cancellation of certain flights between Manchester and Orlando in the next month. Passengers will be reprotected onto our Manchester/Orlando services operating on the same date.” It turns out that this is jargon of the airline business. As another example, it has recently also been used on the lastminute.com site: “In the unlikely event of company failure, or airline failure the consumer will be protected either by being reprotected onto another airline or receiving their money back.” Protected is understandable, but why reprotected?
Mancation This is from man plus vacation, a fairly appalling formation, and refers to a man going on holiday with his male pals (the implication is that they’re all heterosexual). It’s newish and was popularised in this summer’s romantic comedy film The Break-Up. A hotel is to open in Florida devoted to poker parties, hand-rolled cigars, buckets of beer and sports tickets in order to attract the mancation crowd.
Futoshiki For its readers who are sated on sudoku, the Guardian last weekend introduced another fiendish Japanese logic puzzle, futoshiki. This is played on a five-by-five grid using the numbers 1 to 5; no number may appear more than once in the same row or column. Some squares are linked by greater-than or less-than signs to show relationships between numbers and a square or two are filled in to start you off. The name is said to mean “not equal”.
Designee When this unfamiliar word appeared in a magazine article recently, I wondered for a moment whether it was a person who had been subject to a makeover by a designer. No, of course not, silly me, it was someone who had been designated by another to carry out some official purpose. It’s formal and bureaucratic, widely known in the USA but rare in the UK. The Oxford English Dictionary has yet to notice it, though the earliest example I can find is from 1912, in an advertisement by a senatorial candidate in Colorado.
Pedantry? The Manchester Evening News last Tuesday reported that the British retailer Marks & Spencer had refunded a customer her money, apologised, and removed a product from stores because of a grammatical error. The item was a children’s pyjama top, on which above a picture of two giraffes were the words “Baby Giraffe’s”. The buyer was reported as saying that she didn’t want to dress her child in a top containing a glaring grammatical gaffe. It’s a small victory for the Lynne Truss Tendency, but how sad that a follow-up report in the Guardian on Friday was headed “M&S: The pedant’s store”. While M&S is correcting grammar, perhaps it could amend the “Five items or less” notice that I spotted in the Bristol branch the same day.
5. Questions & Answers: On the ball
[Q] From Bill Morris: “While visiting England recently I went to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. While I was there I was told that the red ball on the observatory was raised each day. In the old days the ship captains in the Thames would look for it in order to set their timepieces. I have no problem with that. We were then told this is the origin of the expression on the ball. Far be it from me to question an actor dressed as John Flamsteed, but I thought I would check with you. Can you confirm or deny this information?”
[A] I deny it, vehemently. It’s sad that someone who works for a famous scientific institution like the Royal Observatory should go so badly wrong when it comes to a simple matter of looking up a phrase in the dictionary and checking a bit of history, but that’s the way it so often is.
On the ball, but
Details first. (As you’ve been there, you know all this, but I’ll just explain to the masses.) The red ball is what’s called a time ball. The one at Greenwich was—still is—used to signal 1pm local time. At 12.55 the ball is raised halfway up its mast and at 12.58 it is sent all the way to the top. At 1pm exactly, it falls. Time balls were common in the nineteenth century before easy access to wristwatches and radio made them redundant. They were especially important to seafarers, who needed an accurate time reference to set their navigational chronometers.
The Greenwich time ball was first used in 1833. If we turn to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang we find that the first recorded appearance of the phrase on the ball is from much later: the early years of the twentieth century. By itself, that’s not enough to disprove your costumed interpreter’s thesis, but when we look at the way it was used around that time, it’s obvious that it comes from sports, in particular from baseball.
The original form was to put something on the ball, meaning that the pitcher gave it deceptive motion or unusual speed. I’ve found this from 1909: “Cates had something on the ball. The two innings he worked he had the Pirates buffaloed.” An example that appeared in the Washington Post in July 1906 shows the way the expression developed:
Hahn’s case is no different from that of many other good pitchers. He has simply arrived at the stage which all good pitchers dread. Ball players do not attempt to explain why these things are. They say: “He’s got speed and a curve, but, there’s ‘nothing’ on the ball.” This vague “nothing” is the thing. It means that the pitcher has lost that little “jump”, or some peculiar deceptive break with which he has fooled batters. If he loses that, he is gone.
By the 1930s, it had broadened its application and appeal to mean somebody who was especially alert or capable, presumably by being amalgamated with an earlier expression that advised budding sportsmen to “Always keep your eye on the ball”. On the ball was later still exported to Britain.
• Sometimes jargon out of context leads to weird images. From a job advertisement that appeared in New Scientist last week: “You will be responsible for driving the development pipeline”. Incidentally, the same issue featured an ad for a “robotic scientist”.
• And sometimes headlines reek of a perverted sub-editorial sense of humour, as did one in the Sun on Thursday, forwarded by Steve Clarke: “Cops drop probe into Joey’s bum”. The story concerns a footballer named Joey Barton who mooned Everton fans after a match against Manchester City last weekend; the report said that the police have now decided to take no action following an investigation.
• Wendy Pomroy has been re-reading Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, in which an oddly dispersed dwelling appears: “Tom had moved out of the guest-house and had built himself a fine two-room house, with a chimney in the village.”