E-MAGAZINE 660: SATURDAY 10 OCTOBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Yahoo! problems I was told by Susan Smith of the Linguist List last Friday (too late to amend the following day’s issue, which had already been sent) that Yahoo! had confirmed that it had resolved the issues affecting transmission. Special thanks go to her for her persistence in finding a solution to the problem. Many delighted subscribers e-mailed the following day to say they had received the issue promptly, in some cases for the first time in months. Let’s hope the matter stays resolved! Many thanks to everybody for their forbearance while we sorted matters out.
We are in apple-harvest time in England, which makes me think of the one-time rural childhood pursuit of stealing apples from orchards. That’s what scrumping means over here. (Americans have another, low-slang, sense
He sighed, more in sorrow than in anger; in fact there was hardly any anger at all, like vermouth in a really dry martini. God probably sighed like that when he looked at the tree and saw that someone had been scrumping apples.
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard, by Tom Holt, 2005.
It might sound like an immemorial practice, and probably is, but the word for it is surprisingly modern — the earliest example is from 1866. The source is uncertain but seems to be from a dialect term meaning something withered, shrivelled or dried up. It may be linked to the old adjective scrimp, scanty or meagre, from which we get the verb scrimp, to economise or be thrifty.
Support for this comes from an early meaning of scrumping, which referred to taking windfalls or the small apples left on the trees after harvest. This evolved into illicitly taking any sort of apples. It can even more broadly mean theft of any kind, though this is rare:
When wireless networking first kicked off in the corporate world a couple of years ago, I honestly thought the concept of loitering outside with a Wifi portable, scrumping for free access would be incredibly short-lived.
Personal Computer World, Aug. 2004.
The American adjective scrumptious, for food that is appetising or delicious or which describes a very attractive person, seems not to be connected.
3. This week
Whatever ... On Wednesday, the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion of Poughkeepsie, NY, published the results of a telephone poll it conducted to find the words or phrases that most annoyed Americans. The word that came out top was whatever, when employed as a conversational term indicating indifference. Others mentioned were you know, it is what it is, anyway, and at the end of the day. A table of detailed results is available.
Out of date? Another survey published on Wednesday, this time by the charity Bookwatch in the UK, suggested that traditional nursery rhymes may be dying out because parents think them old-fashioned or uneducational. The survey found that only about a third of parents regularly read rhymes with their children; nearly a quarter said they had never done so. The survey was published to mark National Bookstart Day yesterday (Friday 9 October) in which a million books containing the nation’s eight favourite nursery rhymes were to be distributed throughout the UK. Another survey by the same charity found that the top eight, in decreasing order of popularity, were Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Incey Wincey Spider, Round and Round the Garden, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The Grand Old Duke of York, If You’re Happy and You Know It, Humpty Dumpty, and This Little Piggy.
4. Questions and Answers: Punchline
[Q] From Greg Balding; related questions came from Peter Morris and Bruce Beatie: Despite your concern about its linguistic entertainment value, I found your piece on collapse of stout party fascinating. Among other things it highlights just how different humour is in different cultures and times. The question it didn’t answer for me though (and to be fair it wasn’t asked) is which came first: Punch the magazine or punch the line?
[A] It would be reasonable to guess that Punch, at one time the premier humour magazine in Britain, gave the language our term for the climactic final words or phrase of a joke or story.
But it didn’t. It isn’t even British, since the first recorded usages — a century ago — are from the US. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from the Marion Star of Ohio in 1916, but the idea was around earlier:
The play was ‘The Power of Politics’ and it had a punch in every line.
Racine Journal-News (Wisconsin), 28 Feb. 1912.
It is true that ballads are deliberately written with all sorts of mathematical calculation as to “punch lines” and similar technical detail. But for all that success remains an inexplicable incident.
The New York Times, 7 Sep. 1913.
Punch magazine, by the way, took its name from the puppet companion to Judy, which was borrowed from a buffoonish stock character in the Italian commedia dell’arte, usually known as Punchinello. No connection at all with punches of the physical sort.
5. Questions and Answers: Grasp the nettle
[Q] From Alex Keenan: Is there any chance you can solve the grasp the nettle versus grasp the mettle debate? With grateful thanks.
[A] Until you wrote, I hadn’t heard there was a debate about this mainly British and Commonwealth idiom, which means to tackle some difficulty boldly.
We have got to grasp the nettle to try and prevent tragic accidents like this one.
Highland News (Inverness), 1 Oct. 2009.
It transpires that a significant number of people believe that it’s correctly grasp the mettle and that grasp the nettle is a meaningless corruption. The former version reaches the printed page often enough that it’s clear this view is fairly widespread:
At least there’s a sizeable market for publishing firms to go at, with an estimated 1.6bn internet users across the globe. Only those that grasp the mettle will prosper.
Evening Gazette (Middlesborough), 29 Sep. 2009. This form is far from new; the earliest example I’ve so far come across appeared in the Burlington Hawk-Eye of Iowa in April 1932.
The answer lies in a minor but intriguing bit of botanical lore. It is said that the hairs on the leaves of nettles sting you if you brush up against them but don’t if you grasp them firmly. I haven’t experimented myself and it’s always possible that it’s just an old wives’ tale, or perhaps a wicked country joke on ignorant townies, though the story was first mentioned in Elizabethan times:
True it is Philautus that he which toucheth ye nettle tenderly, is soonest stung.
Euphues, by John Lyly, 1578.
Whatever the truth of the belief, the idiom grasp the nettle is based on it.
The earliest example of the full-grown idiom in its modern form that I know about is in a British book of 1830. As a proverb, on the other hand, it is much older, and was put into verse in the eighteenth century:
Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
Works, by Aaron Hill, Vol 4, 1753. Hill was a dramatist and poet and at one time manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where — in 1724 — he staged the first-ever performance of Handel’s opera Rinaldo. The inclusion of mettle might seem to give comfort to those who prefer the grasp the mettle form, but it has obviously been included for the rhyme.
• “My favourite ambiguous headline,” Andrew Haynes wrote from London, “was written years ago by a colleague at the pharmacy journal for which I used to work. Luckily for the journal’s reputation, it was intercepted at page-proof stage and did not reach the printed page. A piece about appointments to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was headed, ‘Two pharmacists on drugs misuse body’.”
• Ralph Caruthers e-mailed from Texas to mention a headline in a recent issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology: “China offers U.S. a first look at its next human spacecraft.” He wondered for a while where they attached the rockets, but later discovered that the headline had been changed to read “... its next manned spacecraft.”
• On 3 October, the Irish Times reported on the referendum about the European Union’s Lisbon treaty. Peter Fellows-McCully found this sentence in it: “The group delivered 1.5 million leaflets to every house in the Irish Republic in the run-up to the EU reform poll.”
• The Web site of The Citizen newspaper of Gloucester had a story on 2 October under the headline “Police found heroine on Gloucester driver”. John Gray found the story included a comment from his solicitor: “My client has made significant changes in his life.” Clearly!
• The sweet smell of failure: a large number of news outlets reported the sentencing on Tuesday of Ian Clement, a former deputy mayor of London, for fiddling his expenses. (Margaret Chandler read it on Yahoo! news.) Many of the reports noted: “Sentencing Clement, the judge said he ‘fragrantly and arrogantly’ abused public money to indulge himself with meals.” Did the judge really say that, or did the Press Association (which wrote and circulated the story) make a mistake and nobody queried it?