NEWSLETTER 603: SATURDAY 6 SEPTEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Gossypiboma David Hocken has found a much earlier example, in the title of an article that appeared in the journal Radiography in November 1978: Gossypiboma: The problem of the retained surgical sponge.
”On receipt of your newsletter,” wrote Tony Chabot, “I found an immediate use for the wonderful gossypiboma, but wished to use the plural. I was tempted to try to use a Swahili plural. I ended up adding an s.” As the Swahili plural of boma is maboma, you would get either gossypimaboma or magossypiboma, which would confuse your readers totally. Standard English s is definitely the way to go here.
The supposed Swahili derivation of the second part of the word may in any case be an invention. Douglas Fleming tells me, quoting his trusty Swahili dictionary, that the word does not mean a place of concealment, as the online dictionaries say, but a raised enclosure of some sort, especially for protective or defensive purposes (it comes from a Persian or Farsi word for a garrison or a place of safety). Gossypiboma may just be from the Latin word for cotton with a b added before the -oma ending to make it easier to say.
Indexes My apologies for including miasmata in my list of Latin plurals; miasma is, of course, Greek (my thanks to several readers for putting me right).
2. Turns of Phrase: Virosphere
The virosphere is all those places where viruses are found or in which they interact with their hosts. It has also been spelled as viriosphere, though this is less common and seems to have been supplanted by the other form.
Its appearance shows how scientists are coming to realise that the viruses are not mere causes of disease and parasitic nuisances on the fringes of life but a key part of the living world. Vastly more virus species exist than previously thought (100 million or more, outnumbering any other type of organism) and they are to be found in pretty much every environment on the planet. They contain more genetic material than the rest of life, so much of it unique that it’s no longer possible to dismiss them as a irrelevant aside but a separate class of biological existence that may be even older than bacteria. A significant part of the human genome turns out to consist of viral genes and it is beginning to look as though the ability of viruses to transfer genes to and from their hosts and each other — so spreading genes throughout the biological world — may have been an important factor in the evolution of species.
The term appeared no later than 1997 in a poster issued by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, in the slightly different sense of the diversity of virus types. Professor Curtis Suttle of the University of British Columbia used it in the current sense (but spelled viriosphere) in the journal Environmental Microbiology in 2005 and its current usage dates from that. It remains uncommon, even in scientific literature, but a few straws in the wind suggest it is becoming a standard term.
The need to periodically update the classification schemes testifies to the dynamic nature of the “virosphere”.
[Animal Viruses, by Thomas C Mettenleiter and Francisco Sobrino, 2008]
Only three of these systems survive to this day in the form of the three domains of cellular life; much of the rest lives on the virosphere.
[New Scientist, 30 Aug. 2008]
This turned up in The Masks of Time, a 1968 SF novel by Robert Silverberg that I was re-reading recently: “I had seen his colossal esurience, his imperial self-indulgence, his gargantuan appetite for sensual pleasure of all sorts.”
It comes from Latin esurire, to be hungry, a relative of edere, to eat. It’s rare. However, its linked adjective esurient is more common, though it’s hardly an everyday word. Both can be used literally, though when they are they’re often intended humorously or to imply excessive indulgence, as in this Independent on Sunday piece from June 2007: “She is proportioned like a well-upholstered Hottentot in consequence of her perpetual esurience”.
However, they’re much more likely to refer to figurative hunger, perhaps for power or riches, hence greed: “As a world leader in greenhouse-gas emissions, the United States is woefully behind in curbing its esurient fuel-consumption habits. — The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah, 29 July 2007.
4. Questions & Answers: Bespoke
[Q] From Edward Shaw, Michigan: “In a book on the breaking of the German Enigma codes during World War Two, written by a man whose family once owned Bletchley Park (where most of the codebreaking was done), I came across this sentence: ‘By 1941 he was swanning around in a bespoke Burberry suit’. I’m virtually positive that this usage of bespoke is unknown on this side of the pond, and I wonder exactly what it means on your side?”
[A] It’s widely used in Britain and Commonwealth countries.
Something that is bespoke has been specially ordered and made. It can apply to any goods — a quick look though newspapers in August 2008 found it attached to jewellery, cars, beer, banking services, specially recorded music in films, guided tours, wedding cakes and furniture (“The kitchen/breakfast room is equipped with a good range of matching bespoke units with soft close drawers” — The Herald Express, Torquay, 19 August 2008).
However, it has in the past mainly referred to clothes and is in everyday speech the opposite of off-the-peg, off-the-rack or ready-made. (from the Guardian, 10 February 2008: “If I were a man, I’d happily remortgage myself senseless to wear bespoke.”) British readers with long memories may recall a play and film of 1955, The Bespoke Overcoat, starring Alfie Bass and David Kossoff, based on a short story by Gogol. However, tailors make a clear distinction between bespoke and made-to-measure: Ozwald Boateng, described in the Independent on 16 August 2008 as a bespoke couturier, explained, “With bespoke you have a pattern made for you whereas with made-to-measure it’s based on an engineered pattern.”
Bespoke looks rather strange, because it’s an adjective formed from the past tense of the verb bespeak. Though rare, that verb is still in the language, though these days it means “suggest the presence of or be evidence of” (as in the Roanoke Times, Virginia, for 22 March 2008: “Their utterly convincing performances bespeak deep familiarity with their characters.”)
Bespeak can be traced right back to Old English, before the Norman Conquest. It meant not merely to speak, but to speak up or speak out, call out or exclaim. Later it had a sense of discussing or deciding on some matter; by the end of the sixteenth century it had come to mean arranging for something to be done, engaging a person to do a job, or ordering goods. The adjective bespoke came out of that sense in the middle of the eighteenth century.
• Rich Sturchio notes: “I was wandering through a convention center, when I noticed a sign announcing an Underage Drinking Enforcement Conference. It’s good to know here in the US we have places where people can go to learn how to enforce underage drinking.”
• A story in Monday’s New York Times, Doug Harris reports, contains this sentence: “Anyone could show up at one of 17 pickup stops throughout New Orleans, get a ride to the Union Passenger Terminal and then stand in line for a bus, plane or train to shelters scattered throughout the region.” Planes that depart from downtown New Orleans? That’s a first.
• A sign at Bell’s Sports Centre, North Inch, near Perth in Scotland, surprised Martha Higgins: “We offer a wide range of hot and cold snacks, speciality coffees, soft drinks, home-baking, ice-cream and confectionary [sic] to sit in or take away.” It sounds messy.