E-MAGAZINE 646: SATURDAY 4 JULY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
I before E Following my piece about this last time, many readers reported having learned different versions of this rule. It was noticeable that nearly all were Americans — British readers were presumably in my situation of only having learned the “I before E except after C” basic rule. Many versions were no more than slight variations on the ones that I quoted, but others introduced new ideas. Sister Mary Elizabeth Mason was taught “I before E except after C when the diphthong rhymes with KEY.” A F Dias learned an addition: “When I and E in separate syllables go, you only need listen to know.” Several learned a rider listing common exceptions. Larry Sewell’s version was “Neither leisured foreigner seized the weird heights”, while Jane Steinberg had learned the longer form “Neither leisurely foreigner could be inveigled into seizing the weird heights.” (As I pointed out in the piece, neither and either are exceptions to the rule in the US because of the way they’re pronounced.)
Esperanto I didn’t realise until messages began to come in after my book review last week that Esperanto had dialects. I wrote that I had learned the Esperanto words for “Do you speak Esperanto?” as “Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?” Several readers wrote to say that they had learned it as “Ĉu vi parolas Esperante?”. Kim Braithwaite told me it was the version he learned many years ago: “The -e is an adverbial ending and seems originally to have been motivated by the counterpart adverbial structure of the inventor’s Polish or Russian, something like ‘Do you speak in the Russian or Polish manner?’” Both forms appear online, though mine is about ten times as common. A third form is also common, which leaves out the -n ending on Esperanto that indicates a direct object. Arika Okrent noted this in her book; there is a strong tendency, perhaps under the influence of English, to lose the case marker. While searching, I also turned up Esperanglish, the term for a hybrid Esperanto-English argot.
Why is Q Always Followed by U? Several clever readers pointed out, having read the title of my new book, that it isn’t always, for example in words imported from Arabic, such as qat, the narcotic drug obtained by chewing the leaves of a shrub. That, of course, is part of the point and is thoroughly explained in my answer in the book. Penguin has no intention of renaming it Why is Q (Nearly) Always Followed by U?
Issue delivery problems Some subscribers have reported not getting the last couple of issues or that issues have arrived very late. The problem is particularly severe for those on the various Yahoo! systems. We’re not sure what’s causing it, but we’re working on it.
When the word first appeared, it was always paired with another to make what looked like a personal name. Dominus Factotum was a ruler with absolute powers, Magister Factotum was a master of all, while a Johannes Factotum was a would-be universal genius who could turn his hand to anything. His modern equivalent is Jack-of-all-trades, which probably derives from it.
For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Robert Greene, A Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, 1592. Spelling modernised. The object of his ire was William Shakespeare.
Greene wrote factotum as two words, as was common at the time, since he would have known very well that it derives from two Latin words, fac!, the imperative of facere, to do, plus totum, the whole thing. The experts aren’t sure where it was coined, since similar expressions turn up in French and German in the middle to late sixteenth century at about the same time as they appear in English.
Since then, factotum has gone down in status. It now refers to a servant or employee of lowly status who is expected to turn his hand to any job that comes up.
Uncle Fred continued his job as roundsman and general factotum when Mr Wigley replaced the horse-drawn vans with new electric delivery vehicles around 1952.
Derby Evening Telegraph, 25 May 2009.
3. My new book: Why is Q Always Followed by U?
Not only a new book, but the first to be published by Particular Books, a new imprint of Penguin Books. It came out officially on Thursday and should soon be available worldwide. The question of the title is just one of 200 that I answer. Though all have been taken from this e-magazine and its associated Web site, every one has been freshly researched with new information not available at the time the answer was originally written. Indeed, such is the pace of etymological discovery at the moment, several had to be rewritten a second time to accommodate new facts that came to light during the writing of the book. Almost every one is illustrated by annotated quotations that help readers to understand how words and phrases evolved and place them in their cultural context. A review by Erin McKean, formerly editor in chief of the second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and editor of Verbatim, will appear here shortly.
[Michael Quinion, Why is Q Always Followed by U? Word-perfect Answers to the Most-asked Questions about Language, published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, on 2 July 2009; hardback, 352pp; publisher’s UK list price £12.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-846-14184-3; ISBN-10: 1-846-14184-2.]
4. Questions and Answers: Two hoots
[Q] From Peter Evans, Australia: I wonder if you could tell me the origin of I couldn’t give two hoots meaning “I couldn’t care less”. It is an expression that was used widely when I was a boy (a long while ago) in Australia though I don’t hear it used much these days. I was told that it was an old expression based on the old British word for the hoot of an owl. If so, why two hoots? Is it English or is it a more recent Australian and New Zealand idiom? A theory I’ve heard is that the word came from Maori utu meaning a small amount of money.
[A] I like the theory about the Maori origin, even though it’s quite wrong. There’s nothing Australasian about it at all but the phrase isn’t British either. The evidence shows it’s from the US.
A hoot in this slangy sense is the tiniest little bit of something, a whit or jot. To care not even that much shows just how little you really do care about some matter. The original form — which started to appear in the 1870s — had just the one hoot, but it got doubled up later for dramatic effect, around the time that it started to be elaborated into phrases like I don’t care a hoot in hell! My first example of the dual hoot is this:
New Russian doesn’t give two hoots for a warm water port or for the state of the southern Slavs; he considers himself a citizen of nothing less than the world
The headline (no need to read the story) over an article by Charles Edward Russell in the Sheboygan Journal of Wisconsin, 24 Aug 1917.
It might refer specifically to the hoot of an owl but some examples suggest it’s more general than that, most likely harking back to two senses known in the seventeenth century: either a loud cry or a shout of disapproval (as in hoots of derision). The owl hoot was taken from the human cry and doesn’t appear until near the end of the eighteenth century; the slang sense of an amusing situation or person (“your mother’s a real hoot!”) is of the early 1920s.
5. Questions and Answers: Ducks in a row
[Q] From Leo Campbell: What is the origin of the phrase, getting your ducks in a row? It seems to be common in the English-speaking world, and I know that the meaning conveys the idea of getting one’s affairs sorted, but how and why did the phrase come out this way? Why ducks? When you get them in a row, do you shoot them all with just one bullet?
[A] It does indeed refer to having matters neatly and efficiently organised and all your duties taken care of. It became known in the 1980s as a management exhortation to staff but is now a cliché. This is an early example:
“Be there eleven earliest,” Toby had said; “Eleven is already too early, George, they won’t arrive till twelve.” It was only ten-thirty but he wanted the time, he wanted to circle before he settled; time, as Enderby would say, to get his ducks in a row.
Smiley’s People, by John le Carré, 1980.
Until recently, it was thought that the first written example was only a year earlier, in Stephen King’s novel The Stand with the variation to line up one’s ducks, from 1978 (though I’ve since found it in a report of a Congressional hearing from 1956). Then Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society found it in an issue of the Washington Post dated 13 June 1932 (“We have a world filled today with problems and we are trying to get our economic ducks in a row”), suggesting that it had been around much longer. I’ve now found this:
“Didn’t we have a grand meeting?” she said, nodding lightly to first one and then the other. “I believe it’s going to be all right, and you can tell your wives their children will go to a high-school yet. I’m so glad all you men came. Thank you very much —” “You didn’t need us.” The man standing next to the steps laughed. “The work was done before to-night. You had your ducks in a row all right.”
Miss Gibbie Gault, by Kate Langely Bosher, 1911.
The first image that comes to mind when I hear the expression is of a lower middle class living room in Britain in the 1950s or 1960s, which might well have a set of three painted plaster ducks marching in a neat diagonal line up the wall. They are not now often found, the fashion for them having been mocked out of existence by middle-class commentators.
Writers have suggested that the idiom comes from the game of pool, in which a ball in front of a pocket, an easy shot, is sometimes called a duck. To have a row of balls ready to be potted was to have all one’s ducks in a row. The term is known (it derives from sitting duck) but there’s no evidence it has anything to do with the idiom. More plausibly, it’s been suggested that it derives from the fairground amusement of shooting at a row of mechanical ducks.
But in view of the known age of the expression, it is most likely that it comes from real ducks. Think of a mother duck taking her brood from nest to water with her ducklings waddling in a line behind her. That’s an image that could have led to the idiom being created at almost any time.
• Bernard Madoff’s financial crime has been described as “violent” in its effects, noted Martin Turner, but one investor appears to have suffered exceptionally. The BBC News site reported on 29 June: “‘I think it was certainly a justified sentence,’ said Judith Welling, who lost $2.5m along with her husband.”
• Still on the BBC News site, Susie Elins says she’s worrying about Michael Jackson’s posthumous drug habit after reading this on 26 June: “Celebrities and fans pay tribute to Michael Jackson amid concerns over the singer’s use of pain medication following his sudden death.” Worry not, Ms Elins, the BBC has since changed it.
• In a story in the New Zealand Herald on 22 June about José Manuel Barroso, Iain MacLean found this sentence: “The President of the European Commission is dismissed by some as a bland pragmatist and by others as an invertebrate opportunist.” Lacking backbone, eh?
• What are we to make of the comment in the New Zealand Sunday Star Times on 28 June, noted by Cliff Walker, that obesity was “a growing problem”?
• Mike Troy asks what turns out to be a pertinent question, “Are pigs hogging the show in your halls of education?” They’re not in New York State, since a headline in the Putnam County Times on 24 June announced, “Health Department Confirms Brewster Schools Clear of Swine.”