NEWSLETTER 611: SATURDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Phthisick Several readers queried this word, which was in the quotation from John Evelyn in the piece on Fuliginous in the last issue. Gavin Deane put it like this: “Do I sense a new game coming on? Is it a coincidence that the Weird Words item on Fuliginous contained a particularly fine example of weirdness, Phthisicks? I wonder if you’ve challenged yourself to include in each Weird Words piece a word more weird than the one being discussed?” Hardly so, though it would ensure a perpetual ever-renewing discussion. The old term phthisick has appeared in many spellings; it refers to conditions or diseases of the lungs, such as asthma, bronchitis and tuberculosis. It could also refer to a sufferer from any of these. It looks as though it might be linked to physic, medicinal drugs or the art of healing, but that has a different origin. Phthisic, as dictionaries now spell it (said as /Tizik/ - “thizick”), is a near relative of phthisis (said /Taisis/ - “thysis”), an old term for tuberculosis and similar conditions; it comes via the classical Latin phthisicus, consumptive, from an even older Greek verb, phthinein, to decay.
In-laws Cheryl Caesar noted that “In French your ‘belle-mère’ could be either your father’s wife (step-mother) or your husband’s mother (mother-in-law). Giving these people the special prefix of ‘beautiful’ always seemed to me to show a welcome diplomacy, missing from the distancing idea of ‘step’ and the forced-sounding acceptance of ‘in-law’.”
Sicced! The Sic! item last time about killing people dead brought a rapid response from Arnold Zwicky, Visiting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University: “We had a discussion of the construction on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list in April, in which it was pointed out that the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for kill has a subentry for kill to death and kill dead with citations from 1362, c1400, 1614, 1670, 1700, and 1882, so it’s not a recent development. A Google search will get you a huge pile of examples, including the famous slogan for the bug spray Raid: ‘kills bugs dead!’ Professor Laurence Horn noted that in some languages causative verbs such as kill require an explicit adverb or secondary verb that indicates the result, such as to death. He hadn’t thought English that could work like that, but conceded it obviously can. As a special bonus, a posting of 20 March 2005 included ‘which would kill the theory dead’. It is from one Michael Quinion.”
2. Turns of Phrase: Carborexia
To exhibit carborexia is to have an extreme dark green attitude towards environmental issues. This can show itself as excessive recycling and in other ways, but in particular it refers to an obsessive desire to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint. The term first appeared in an article in the New York Times on 17 October. The adjective is carborexic.
It’s the newest addition to the group of words based on anorexia, in full anorexia nervosa, the medical term for obsessive desire to lose weight. Other examples are bigorexia, a slang term for muscle dysmorphia, in which a false body image leads bodybuilders to work out too much; orthorexia, in which sufferers are obsessed with eating the right diet, in particular avoiding foods thought to be harmful to health; and tanorexia, a obsessive desire for a suntan. Others of lesser staying power that have appeared in recent years are yogarexia, excessive practice of yoga to lose weight, and drunkorexia, consuming alcohol in place of food as a way to keep thin.
The implication of these various forms is that -orexia is turning into a suffix that refers to an obsessive-compulsive attitude often related to body image. The chances are that carborexia will not survive, unlike bigorexia and orthorexia, which are already in major dictionaries. But who knows?
Certainly there is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the compulsion toward living a green life. But Dr. Jack Hirschowitz, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan and a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said that certain carborexic behaviors might raise a red flag.
[New York Times, 17 Oct. 2008]
What do you think: Is carborexia a mental condition or a noble way of living?
[US News & World Report, 21 Oct. 2008]
The word comes from Latin mansuetus, tamed or made gentle. It contains manus, hand (from which English got manicure, manual, manufacture, command and other words), and suetus, accustomed (which is from the verb suescere, the source of very few words, of which the best known is desuetude). The idea behind mansuetus is that if an animal has become accustomed to the hand, it has been tamed.
An example of the English word appears in The Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian, in which Dr Stephen Maturin is extolling the virtues of laudanum: “Presently, with the blessing, you will see Padeen’s face return to its usual benevolent mansuetude; and a few minutes later you will see him glide insensibly to the verge of an opiate coma.”
The word is not entirely obsolete, though it is rare to the point of being marked as archaic in most dictionaries and is definitely literary even when it does appear. To use it may be to gratify the ego of the writer rather than communicate with the reader.
4. Vote for World Wide Words
The World Wide Words nomination for the 2008–09 L-Soft Choice Awards is going well, as of the time of writing. This is the contest run by the creators of the LISTSERV mailing list software on which the World Wide Words newsletter is distributed. A brisk shift of fortune occurred last weekend: early voters quickly moved us from lying a poor second to being first by a substantial margin. Thanks to everybody who voted. The closing date is April 1 next year and more nominations are likely. If you can stand the tedium of doing so, you can vote every day until then!
5. Questions & Answers: A flea in one’s ear
[Q] From Ron Witton, Australia: “Why does sending someone away with a flea in their ear mean they have been given a rebuke?”
[A] This expression goes back a long way. It appeared in English for the first time about 1430 in a devotional work with the title (in modernised spelling) The Pilgrimage of the Life of the Manhood, in which the last word meant the state or condition of being human. It was a translation of a work in French of about a century earlier by the Cistercian monk Guillaume de Deguileville.
Intriguingly, the French expression then had a different sense, of provoking or having amorous desire, though de Deguileville used it figuratively for a spiritual emotion that was evoked by the contemplation of great wonders. The amorous sense was still in the French language when Jean de la Fontaine wrote in the seventeenth century:
A longing girl
With thoughts of sweetheart in her head,
In bed all night will sleepless twirl.
A flea is in her ear, ’tis said.
In modern French, to have a flea in your ear means you have some fixed idea or notion. A better translation of the title of Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear (in French La puce à l’oreille) might be A Bee in Her Bonnet. The same expression occurs in other European languages. In modern German it refers to putting a weird or fancy idea into somebody’s head; in Italian and Greek it means introducing mistrust or doubt or to insinuate; in Dutch, it’s a way to say you’re fidgety or restless. In English it principally refers — as you say — to a stinging reproof, though to send a person away with a flea in their ear can mean to snub them or angrily refuse a request.
The root association must surely be the result of getting a literal flea in one’s ear, something that wasn’t so rare in earlier times when hygiene was poor and houses — and their occupants — were often infected with fleas. A flea accidentally entering one’s ear would jump about in its attempts to get out and bite in frustration. It’s hard to imagine anything more vexatious or frustrating — it’s known to have driven some people almost mad (the old remedy was to pour oil into the ear, which drowned the flea).
It’s not easy to understand why so many different implications have been drawn from one simple circumstance. A flea moves fast, so it may have suggested something desirable but unattainable, or a thing that’s excitable and uncontrollable like a sudden passion. A flea may have been thought to be an external influence that whispered messages of distrust or ardour into the ear. English speakers may have judged that the physical and emotional discomfort aroused by a flea in the ear resembled severe criticism or rebuke. It may be that several of these ideas fused in various language versions of the expression.
• The mention of fractured translations last time prompted Bronwyn Cozens to comment from Australia that “In my hotel room in Taiwan, I found this sign — ‘In order not to metamorphose please don’t dry your clothes on lamp shade’. It would be so tempting to try life as a butterfly!” Still in Australia, Chris Bell remembered, “We had a pack of chop sticks which included (on the packet) ‘Fearless of boiling water. Fearlessnes of acid. If putting in hot soapy water, coming all clean and good like a new one’.” And finally, Robert Bendesky was given a gnomic fortune cookie about a year ago: “Now is the time to make circles with mints, do not haste any longer.”
• A missing comma in a report about the arrest in North Carolina of a man on a charge of first-degree murder surprised both Brian Mason, who heard about it on CBC, and Susan Fitzgerald, who found it on the ABC Web site. The reports said that the man could receive “life imprisonment without parole or death.” Brian Mason quipped, “The secret of eternal life has at last been uncovered, in the most unlikely of locations.” (A comma should appear after parole but an online search finds lots of other examples without it.)
• Colin Burt reports from Australia that the BBC e-mail to subscribers on Thursday read in part, “A man dies after being shot dead in a confrontation with police in a street in east London.”