NEWSLETTER 555: SATURDAY 29 SEPTEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Whelm The famous nineteenth-century geologist mentioned in this piece last week was of course Sir Charles Lyell, not Lyall.
Sic! In the item about the extraordinarily translated English text on a Web site outlining the Prague 2016 Olympics bid, I said that it was the official site. It isn’t. The official one is in Czech, though it also has an English-language version. Several subscribers pointed out that the unofficial site has a note at the bottom: “translated by robot”. Presumably robot here is a bad translation of software, but as the word robot is from Czech, who knows?
Pusillanimous Interestingly, most readers who wrote about this word after last week’s issue did so to recall where and when they first came across it — it would seem to impress itself on the hearer. Many mentioned they remember it from the film of The Wizard of Oz, in which the wizard says to the scarecrow, “Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.” Alison Taylor commented, “I was surprised you did not mention Look Back in Anger when you wrote about pusillanimous. My first encounter with this word was watching this play — and I still cannot hear the word without remembering Jimmy Porter hissing it at Alison.” I clearly recall my own first encounter with it, on the BBC Home Service in the early 1950s during a radio programme called In Town Tonight. Peter Sellers did a fake interview as a down-and-out who collected words; one choice specimen that he proudly introduced was pusillanimous.
I committed a shocking solecism in the last sentence of the piece: I wrote it’s, though its was correct. I was surprised that only four subscribers remonstrated with me. To all those readers who noticed my error but forbore from e-mailing me, many thanks. To those who didn’t write because they didn’t notice the error, I send my commiserations.
Such things happen even in the best-regulated circles. I sympathise with the Readers’ Editor of the Guardian, who posted this sentence in her Corrections and Clarifications column yesterday (Friday 28 September): “We misspelled the word misspelled twice, as mispelled, in the Corrections and clarifications column on September 26, page 30.”
2. Weird Words: Fletcherise
To chew thoroughly.
The word commemorates The Great Masticator, a title that these days might lead to hearers getting the giggles. He was Horace Fletcher, a food faddist of the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth. He advised people to chew each bite of their food 32 times, to eat small amounts, and only to eat when hungry and free from stress or anxiety. Hence this rhyme of the time:
Eat somewhat less but eat it more
Would you be hearty beyond fourscore.
Eat not at all in worried mood
Or suffer harm from best of food.
Don’t gobble your food but “Fletcherize”
Each morsel you eat, if you’d be wise.
Don’t cause your blood pressure e’er to rise
By prizing your menu by its size.
Fletcherism was taken seriously by many people and had some distinguished adherents; it lasted until the 1930s. Unfortunately, eating meals took much longer than usual and there were complaints that it severely restricted the conversation at dinner parties.
3. Topical Words: Hyphen
The five-yearly update of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) came out last week. One matter has caused a lot of comment — the decision by its editors to omit the hyphen from some 16,000 words in the work.
A hyphen is a short dash specifically used to connect two words or to join syllables of a word that have been separated by the end of a line in printing. Its name is from the Greek huphen, together, though the Greek hyphen was a half circle under the words to link them. The use of hyphens to fill out or justify lines of text of fixed length goes back to Gutenberg. The hyphen is not the same as the dash — in typography, a dash is a form of parenthesis; it was once also used to mark the omission of words or letters, perhaps because they were considered rude.
Compound nouns have traditionally begun as separate or hyphenated words but with a strong tendency over time to collapse into single words. A century ago, it was standard practice to write to-day, but the hyphen has long since evaporated from the page; similarly with teenager (teen-ager from its first use in 1941 until the later 1950s) and lipstick (it was two words in the 1880s, but became hyphenated around the 1920s). Americans have long been much more willing to write words such as postmodern without the hyphens that British standards require. It will be no surprise to learn that the SOED writes email, not e-mail, and website rather than Web site, since neither is new — they were so listed in the 11th edition of the Concise Oxford in 2004 (I’m old-fashioned in preferring the separated forms). The new SOED lists many hyphenless words such as leapfrog, bumblebee, crybaby, pigeonhole, lowlife, and upmarket, which will be a relief to those of us who have been spelling them like that all along (and all except lowlife are written without hyphens in the 2004 Concise Oxford anyway). The SOED does retain hyphens for compound verbs such as court-martial.
But what is more interesting is the number of words that — on the evidence of the big Oxford English Corpus and the Reading Programme of the Oxford English Dictionary — are bucking the conflationary trend and are returning to separate words without their dashing copulas. So the SOED writes the terms — among many others — as fig leaf, fire drill, ice cream, pot belly, test tube, and water bed. It’s notable that this extends to attributive forms, such as ice cream headache (I ache to change that to ice-cream headache). Standard grammar books argue a hyphen is required here. In this situation, leaving the hyphen out can sometimes lead to misunderstanding (twenty odd people is not the same as twenty-odd people) which is why its inclusion has been urged. But most of the time the meaning is clear without it, so the trend towards omitting it isn’t causing many problems.
There can be no doubt from the accumulated evidence that the hyphen is on its way out, though reports of its demise are premature.
4. Recently noted
Grammies The English language contains hundreds of words that end in -gram, such as cardiogram, diagram, epigram, pentagram and stereogram. All can be traced back to Greek gramma, a thing that is written. An odder set of such words is that of humorous inventions based on cablegram or telegram with the idea being of an entertainer who delivers a message in an outlandish or risqué way, such as a strippergram, kissogram, gorillagram, candygram or poetrygram. In the 1990s came the herogram, a message of congratulation or support. More recently, we have begun to hear of the dreaded lawyergram, which has nothing entertaining about it, being a cease-and-desist warning from m’learned friends — though a stripper in wig and gown delivering the letter would take some of the sting out of it. The earliest example I’ve so far found appeared in Wired News in 2001.
That internet thingie This week, I’ve been made more aware of a couple of deprecatory terms for the medium by which this missive is transmitted. Both internetweb and interweb have popped up in newspaper columns, as well as the very rare adjectival form of the latter, interwebular (though the writer made it even rarer by using it as a noun). All are conflations of Internet, net, and World Wide Web. Both internetweb and interweb were created online and are mainly used as joking terms to imply ignorance or naivety about the Net, real or assumed. They’re not especially new: internetweb goes back at least to 1995; Wikipedia says the first use of interweb was in an episode of Babylon 5 first broadcast in July 1994. Writers in newspapers sometimes use these forms to show their antipathy towards online matters or that they’re above having to bother themselves with them. But there are enough examples of internetweb used neutrally in books and newspapers to make me unsure what’s going on; do naive writers really believe it’s the right way to describe the online world, do they think they’ve invented a neat new shorthand term for it, or is it a real, albeit rare, term? It appears, to take one instance, in the Cambridge World History of Food (2000): “Monthly magazines and internetweb sites listed enormous numbers of hot and hotter dishes.”
5. Questions & Answers: Reticent versus reluctant
[Q] From Alison Chan: “People are using reticent when they mean reluctant, as in the following sentence: “I felt quite reticent to take part in the event”. How has it been hijacked? And is it widespread enough to be taking over the previous meaning of the word?”
[A] We are indeed witnessing an extension in sense that has been developing over the past four decades or so, originally in the US but now widely in the English-speaking world. While researching this answer a few days ago, I found an example of the related noun in the Guardian, a British newspaper: “Theatre critics habitually complain about artistic directors’ reticence to tackle untried repertoire.” A few US dictionaries have begun to notice it (recent American Heritage and Merriam-Webster ones, regarded as dangerously permissive by purists, now note it as a subsidiary sense), though style guides suggest that it should be avoided and many language watchers are vociferous in disliking it.
So why has it taken on this new sense? It may be partly that reticent sounds more classy than reluctant. But it’s easy to understand confusion arising between reticent and reluctant, since the context is often similar. If a person is reluctant, he’s unwilling to do something; if reticent, he’s unwilling to speak. Compare “He’s reluctant to talk about that issue” with “He’s reticent on that issue”. The result is the same either way. If you’re reticent, you can very easily also give the impression of being reluctant to act or hesitant about doing so.
Merriam-Webster’s editors put it this way in their Word of the Day mailing in September 2001: “We first tended to use the reluctant sense of reticent when the context was speech (as in reticent to talk about her past), thus keeping the word close to its silent sense. Eventually, however, exclusive association with speech was abandoned. Now one can be reticent to do anything.”
There can be little doubt this meaning will continue to spread, in spite of much criticism. It’s a pity, as we will lose precision — we will have no word available that expresses quite the same idea. Though taciturn will still be to hand, it implies a person with a reserve that borders on unsociability rather than one who merely wishes to avoid discussing his private affairs.
• David Armstrong passed a restaurant in downtown Ottawa last week and saw a notice advertising its Indian cosine. Clearly a sine to treasure.
• “I always feel guilty laughing at foreigners’ attempts at English,” writes Stephen Turner, “but I couldn’t help being tickled by this sign (right) I saw in Slovenia last week.”
• Congratulations to Charlotte on her new arrival, but if you don’t know all about the songstress, your mind might be as boggled as John Pearson’s was when he saw the headline on the BBC news Web site on 22 September: “Church gives birth to baby girl”.
• An article about the melting of Arctic ice appeared in the Times on 22 September: “John Sauven, of Greenpeace, said ‘The canary in the coal mine is singing very loudly now.’” Jeremy Shaw asks if we are witnessing metaphoric fusion in the making or whether Mr Sauven is just a bit confused?
• It appears dead men do tell tales in Adelaide, Australia. Ray Wood discovered this from a report in the Advertiser of that city: “Mr Xenikis died when his Mazda sedan and Longbottom’s Holden Commodore collided. He will appear in court again in November.”