Green ferret Following last week’s Weird Word, Stephen Britt-Hazard updated the story: “During my service for solicitors as an articled clerk, and then a managing clerk/litigation executive during the 70s [ferret] was still a vital article in the clerk’s inventory. Made of cotton dyed bright green, it was universally known as grass tape or green tape. It was used to ensure that the pages of deeds and other important documents were secured together in the correct order, and most importantly that any plan referred to was securely inserted.” I have now found that grass tape, so named, is listed for sale on the website of the British legal stationers Oyez.
Correction Apologies to Geoff Pullum for spelling his name wrong in the last issue.
Returning home from holiday recently, I was struck by the intense green of the vegetation and how vigorously it had grown, the result of our wettest April on record. Shakespeare used foison for such energetic growth (“Earth’s increase, foison plenty”), meaning plenty and abundance.
Etymologists have traced it to Latin fundere, to pour (a good description of our April weather). Though French has it still, English abandoned foison well over a century ago, except for a very few examples of what I recently identified as gotwottery:
Many days they rode that pass of the mountains, though it was not always so evil and dreadful as at the first beginning; for now again the pass opened out into little valleys, wherein was foison of grass and sweet waters withal, and a few trees.
The Well at the World’s End, by William Morris, 1896.
A rare modern user is the journalist and politician Boris Johnson, currently Mayor of London, who may not be to everybody’s taste as a politician but whose English vocabulary is as copious as the word suggests:
What did we have, to put next to the rich foison of the French dairy? Cheddar, leicester, wensleydale and a handful of perhaps seven others: magnificent species, but not exactly a tribute to British powers of innovation.
Sunday Telegraph, 15 Feb. 2001.
Lookalikes, feelalikes Sometimes advances in technology look back too fondly to their precursors. Digital cameras generate the sound of a mechanical shutter to reassure users that a picture has been taken. One calendar app has faux-leather covers and graphically tears off pages for previous months as you step forward. E-book readers sometimes simulate the turning of pages in a physical book. These ape older technologies to retain familiarity for the user. They are one form of skeuomorphism (Greek skeuos, a container + morphe, form; the first part is said like skew), the process of copying the design of a similar artefact in another material. New Scientist reported last week that the designers of computer screens are adding haptic functions, that simulate the sense of touch, to make digitally generated images of surfaces not only look like something physical, but feel like it as well.
Phew! I came across fumehead the other day, meaning somebody who delights in perfumes and loves to track down new varieties. It’s an obvious play on petrolhead (motor-car fanatic), airhead (a silly or foolish person) and other terms ending in -head. Online sources show that I’ve come to it rather late, as it has been around for a couple of years. Other terms for aficionados of such sniffable stuffs include perfumistas and scentoholics.
Weather waves We’ve become very familiar with the term tsunami in recent years, not least because of the one that devastated part of Japan last year. Most tsunamis are caused by earthquakes but high winds in the ocean can generate a series of waves that merge into one, creating a similar effect when it reaches land. The experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US call such an event a meteotsunami. Another name is ghost storm, but don’t confuse that with the B-grade SF movie of the same name.
Q From Betty Thaeder, Toronto: I came across a reference in a newspaper last week to the Great Wen, which appeared to be London. Why that name and where did it come from?
A It is indeed a reference to London, an uncomplimentary one. Off the top of my head, I would have said that it’s now almost totally forgotten other than by historians — Oxford dictionaries mark it as archaic — except that nobody seems to have told the great British journalist, who still occasionally finds it a useful mock-eruditism with which to pepper his prose. Even more curiously, an archive of British newspapers that I consulted shows that it underwent a mild revival in the early 2000s.
It’s particularly puzzling to many people because they don’t know the meaning of wen, a word almost as rare as Great Wen. A wen is a type of benign tumour, a sebaceous cyst, most commonly found on the scalp. It’s an Old English word of obscure origin, though it’s known to have had parallels in several ancient Germanic languages.
From medieval times, people generalised the idea to refer to any sort of protrusion and used it figuratively as an insult.
I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.
Henry IV, Part 2, by William Shakespeare, 1600. Prince Hal is referring dismissively to the obese Falstaff.
In the eighteenth century, it came to refer to cities, London especially, that had grown hugely following industrialisation and changes in the rural economy. To many observers, their choked, noisome and polluted environments did seem like an outgrowth on the English landscape, which sucked in people and produce from their hinterlands.
If therefore the Increase of Building [in London], begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?
Four Letters on Important National Subjects, by Josiah Tucker, 1783. Tucker, an economic theorist, was then Dean of Gloucester.
You might be reminded of a comment by Prince Charles in 1984, when he referred to a proposed extension to the National Gallery in London as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”. Two centuries earlier, he would most likely have called it a wen.
The origin of the fuller phrase Great Wen is usually attributed to the English writer and political reformer William Cobbett:
But what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, “the metropolis of the empire”?
Rural Rides, by William Cobbett; first published in Cobbett’s Weekly Register, 5 Jan. 1822.
Though the term quickly became accepted, it usually appeared as “the great wen of London”. It was only in the 1850s that it started to be capitalised as the Great Wen, with a reference to London being assumed.
• Jon Ackroyd submitted a headline from the Times Colonist, Victoria, BC, of 9 June: “Offgassing leaves bad smell in drawers”. The story was about furniture. Of course.
• The CHS Capitol Hill Seattle Blog had a headline on 14 April that puzzled Terri Ise: “The adaptive reuse of Capitol Hill chickadees”. The item made clear that it was the chickadees that were doing the adapting, of old nests.