NEWSLETTER 578: SATURDAY 8 MARCH 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bird-dog minute Harald Beck pointed out that the term appears in two reports of US congressional hearings. The older is from January 1984. This predates Hillary Clinton’s first recorded use in 1991, but the speaker is one Governor Clinton. The expression would seem more likely to be a family saying than a general Arkansas one.
A bundle or burden.
For many people, it will instantly bring to mind Hamlet’s famous To be or not to be soliloquy: “Who would fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat under a weary life, / But that the dread of something after death ...”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s editors more than a century ago must have thought that was too familiar to need citing and instead included another Shakespeare quotation, from A Winter’s Tale: “There lyes such Secrets in this Farthell and Box, which none must know but the King.”
A fardel was a bundle, a pack, a parcel or similar item. It came into English around 1300 from the Old French fardel, a diminutive of farde, a burden. It is said by some authorities, for example Le Petit Robert, that that derives from the Arabic fardah, half a camel load. Carrying that would be enough to make anybody grunt and sweat.
A fardel could also be a quarter of something; it’s from the Old English word that’s also the origin of fourth. One use was as a measure of land — William Noy wrote in The Compleat Lawyer in 1651, “Two Fardells of Land make a Nooke of Land”, a nook being an old land measure of 20 acres in Northern England and Scotland.
3. Recently noted
Shining lights of language For reasons linked with my being webmaster of a seniors volunteering group, I was researching online this week and came across a report dated November 2007 entitled Predictors of Beaconicity. Its writers created beaconicity as a measure of the success councils in Britain have with the Beacon Scheme, which rewards excellence in local government. So another way of saying predictors of beaconicity is “what makes councils good”. Hunting around, it turned out that beaconicity was one of a hundred terms the Local Government Association said in early February should not be used to communicate with the general public. Others are coterminosity, having the same boundaries, which is also used for bodies or persons who are acting in concert; improvement levers, the tools to do the job; holistic governance, taking everything into consideration, which is often translated to another clichéd expression loved by the civil service, joined-up government; and place shaping, creating places where people can thrive.
It’s all in the soil A recent article on changing tastes in wine mentioned terroiriste. It’s a pun on terrorist combined with terroir, the subtle French concept that every place has special characteristics of climate, exposure and soil that give the wine created there its unique flavours. A few winemakers in California who believe in terroir (not everybody does) have adopted terroiriste as a name for themselves because they want to apply the French concept to their own products. I’ve also found the word used in American stories about a French cheesemaker nun to refer to the different qualities of product derived from her various maturing cellars.
Title prize It’s voting time once again in the Bookseller/Diagram contest for the oddest book titles of the year. The shortlisted six titles are these: I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen by Jasper McCutcheon (fiction, alas); How to Write a How to Write Book by Brian Piddock (those who can, do ...); Cheese Problems Solved by P L H McSweeney (a bargain at a mere £135.00); If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs: A Guide to Understanding Men by Big Boom (experts say this may be a pseudonym); Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues by Catharine MacKinnon (which is described as a critique of the transnational status quo); and People who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood by Dee Gordon (“promises to bring Southend to life”). Visit the Bookseller site if you want to vote.
4. Questions & Answers: Ivy League
[Q] From Elos Gallo; a related question came from Robert Levy: “It has been my understanding that Ivy League referred to a sporting competition held long ago between four colleges, so ivy was formed by saying the Roman numerals IV. I’m now told that ivy is that actually growing on the walls of these ancient universities. I took this ivy explanation as being folk etymology. Would you know which is correct? I don’t trust Wikipedia on this one.”
[A] Although it’s often stated as fact elsewhere, Wikipedia to its credit doesn’t accept a derivation from the Roman IV for four. The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins gives more details of this supposed origin than do other works, calling it “a plausible theory”. It quotes a letter from a Columbia graduate who argues that it refers to a nineteenth-century athletic competition between the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. Wikipedia notes there was a meeting in 1873 between four colleges, though not those four, to try to fix the rules of college football, but only three attended and no formal link was established.
Wikipedia repeats an origin that appears in numerous other works. It argues that the original form was ivy college, first used by the sports writer Stanley Woodward in the New York Herald Tribune in October 1933. Wikipedia says the term was borrowed by another sports writer, Caswell Adams, who changed it to ivy league. Charles Earle Funk, in Heavens To Betsy!, reprints a letter from Adams in which he recalls, a little vaguely, that he coined the phrase “in the mid-thirties”, but says that Woodward borrowed it, crediting him. So far I haven’t found an example of Ivy League earlier than the one from February 1935 and nobody has turned up anything from the New York Herald Tribune between Woodward’s 1933 ivy colleges quotation and the one from the San Antonio Light in 1935, so Adams’ claim to its invention remains unproved.
These days the sporting associations are only part of the concept that we understand by the term Ivy League. For many, it has become a disparaging term for long-established eastern US universities that exhibit, as Wikipedia says, “academic excellence, selectivity in admissions, and a reputation for social elitism”. Their great age is integral to the term, since there’s no doubt that it is the ivy on the college walls that led Stanley Woodward to create the term ivy college in 1933.
5. Reviews: Treasure-House of the Language
Reviewed by Jonathan Green, editor, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.
But should we? Sir James Murray, The OED’s first substantive editor, was no more omnipotent than any other old man with a long beard, and if his creation became a household god it was sired from human frailty. However authoritative the OED, it is a human work, one influenced by human considerations, and a close study makes this absolutely clear.
This is not a full history of the OED. That was essayed in 1977 by Murray’s granddaughter, and a replacement by Peter Gilliver of the OED will appear in perhaps a decade. Dr Charlotte Brewer, a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, considers the dictionary that evolved after its first publication. She has analysed the personalities of both the lexicographers and their managers at Oxford University Press (OUP), the plans, the promises, the smart moves, and the blind alleyways. Drawing inter alia on the exhaustive research that appears on her own Web site, she has looked in great depth at such topics as the sources of the quotations that underpin the dictionary (why, for example, was the 18th century so badly represented?), the choice of literary authorities (where are the women?), the influence of personality (the conscious prejudices concerning the importance of certain language areas that underline Robert Burchfield’s 1989 edition), the simple selection of what was put in (not to mention what was left out, and not only on grounds of alleged “obscenity”), and the thorny world of financing.
Indeed, if Murray and his successors are among the creators of our household gods, then it is in this last factor, as represented by the seemingly endless (if highly civilised) clashes between the lexicographers and the publishers, that one might discover one’s Lucifer. Kenneth Sisam, one-time Secretary to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press (we might call him OUP’s managing director in a less academic environment), pops up like some demon king to ensure that the lexicographers remained underpaid; that delivery dates were maintained, even if copy was not yet properly ready; that, as the self-interested canard has it, managers must have the right to manage. All this is documented by Dr Brewer; she shows how Murray and his successors have been faced with this unnecessary burden. OUP is regularly proud to remark that the dictionary is a national glory. To its credit it (or rather the University) does finance it; the British government, to its shame, doesn’t. But why has the Press invariably found it so hard to treat its makers as part of that glory?
This is not a simple book. (For easy reading we may recommend Simon Winchester’s enjoyable but hardly dependable essays.) And while the writing is a model of clarity, the subject is highly specialist, requiring a basic degree of lexicographical knowledge. But as an exploration of a national treasure-house it is second to none. Like Linda Mugglestone’s equally revelatory Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the OED (2005) it takes us behind the scenes in a way that more readers than just dictionary-makers will find fascinating and hugely informative.
[Charlotte Brewer, Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED; Yale University Press, 6 December 2007; hardback, pp334; list price £25.00 (UK), $35.00 (USA); ISBN13: 978-0-300-12429-3, ISBN10: 0-300-12429-5.]
• Peter Smith was browsing in a newsagents in Leicester this week and spotted the March issue of VolksWorld Camper and Bus magazine, the magazine for the Volkswagen bus fan. Unmissable on the cover in large blue letters is the title of an article inside — Family Air Loom.
• Department of posthumous achievement. Alistair McCreadie found this in an article about the filmmaker Derek Jarman in the film blog on Guardian Online dated 26 February: “Even though British and indeed international cinema took a decisive turn away from the kind of films that he made in the years since his death, his friends and acolytes have carried the flag for him in the intervening years.”
• On visiting the Daily Telegraph site, Ian Harrison encountered this sentence in a report dated 5 March: “Historians have been kept guessing over claims Dr James Barry, Inspector General of Military Hospitals, was in fact a woman for more than 140 years.” I can see the slogan already, “Transvestism: keeps you living longer”.