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Newsletter 854
19 October 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Eximious.

3. Snippets.

4. Brown as a berry.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Preantepenultimate Last week, I mentioned suprapreantepenultimate as a very rare word that meant “fifth from last”. In Wikidictionary, Gary Mason found an alternative: propreantepenultimate. This is just as rare: its only appearance that my investigations have turned up is in a book of 1825, A General Critical Grammar of the Inglish Language on a System Novel and Extensive, by Samuel Oliver (that’s not an error but the way he spelled English):

In its minute divisions, accent is ultimate, penultimate, antepenultimate, preantepenultimate, propreantepenultimate.

Softly, softly, catchee monkey Mike Cahill more closely identified the African source of this idiom: “In the Koma people of northern Ghana, with whom we worked for some years, there’s a proverb that translates literally as ‘small-small catches the monkey’s tail’. Other languages in northern Ghana have it as well. It was explained to me as follows: if there’s a monkey in a tree, and his tail is hanging down, you have to move very slowly (‘small-small’ here has that meaning) to catch him. In other words, patience and bit by bit will accomplish your goal.”

Turkey talk The most frequent comment following the last issue came from readers who live north of the 49th parallel. May I reassure them that I did know there are two Thanksgivings in North America and that the Canadian one is earlier than the American? That was why I specified the date, to remove any possibility of ambiguity. It didn’t work.

2. Eximious/ɛɡˈzɪmɪəs/ Help with IPA

One of the first pieces that I wrote for World Wide Words, nearly 20 years ago, was on inkhorn terms. They are bookish words of the sixteenth century, for the most part generated from classical Latin or Greek precursors, which we invented to fill what seemed to their creators to be gaps in the language.

Some achieved a permanent place in our vocabularies, but most disappeared again through being thought unnecessary or pretentious, such as adnichilate (destitute), exolete (obsolete), oblatrant” (reviling), pervicacy (obstinacy) and trutinate (estimate). A small number survived but never quite fitted in, remaining on the margins as the province of wordsmiths with a taste for the exotic or obscure. Eximious is one such. It refers to something excellent and derives from the Latin adjective eximius, choice or select, a relative of the verb eximěre, to take out or remove. Relatives in English include example and exempt.

Eximious appeared first in The Breviary of Health, a book of 1547 by Andrew Borde, who was variously a monk, writer of an excellent travel book about Europe, spy for Thomas Cromwell, popular physician and reputed compiler of several books of jokes (he wrote in the Breviary that nothing comforted the heart so much as honest mirth and good company). He died in prison, having — it’s said — been found guilty of keeping three whores in his chamber in Winchester, though a contemporary explained that he was merely pimping them for members of the clergy.

He wrote in the Breviary about “The eximious and arcane science of physic”, that is, the excellent and mysterious science of medicine. That comment notably contains two neologisms, since he is also the first known user of arcane. He created other medical terms in the book which are still familiar, such as constipated, hydrophobia, head louse and ulcerated, but many of his terms didn’t catch on: a writer two centuries after him observed that he was as fond of hard and uncouth words as any quack could be.

3. Snippets

Naming the nameless Professor June Flanders wrote to tell me of a neologism she had just encountered, deanonymise. As it happens, I’d come across it in a report a few days earlier about attempts by the US National Security Agency to find the identities of users of Tor, The Onion Router, a system that enables people to communicate anonymously online. (Onion because its security is achieved in part by routing messages through a series of servers, so that tracing their origin would be like peeling back the layers of an onion.) Since users are anonymous, to reveal them would logically enough be to deanonymise them. In technical jargon, this has a quite specific sense, more precise than reveal or uncover. Anonymise as a verb dates from the 1970s, at first in medical statistics for the need to protect the identities of individuals. The earliest example of deanonymise I’ve found is from an educational journal in 1996. The noun, deanonymisation, appeared the following year.

Leaning towers Peter Bottomley forwarded, with raised eyebrows, a jargon-laden notice that he had been sent at the House of Commons about a forthcoming event: “Increasing deverticalisation of public sector delivery, collaborative online platforms and hyperlocal participation is creating a need for new structures that can service digital communities.” Deverticalisation, you will appreciate, is the opposite of verticalisation, which describes the situation in which a business controls all the stages of production, from raw materials to marketing. To deverticalise is to arrange for some of the steps to be undertaken by outsiders. We may more pithily describe it as farming out, subcontracting or outsourcing. Deverticalisation is from the 1970s but it became more common, alas, in the 1990s.

That’s all right, jack I’ve been firmly told more than once that the British national flag should correctly be called the Union Jack only when it is being flown at sea, while on land it is the Union Flag. A forthcoming report from the Flag Institute, the UK organisation which advises the British government and other bodies on matters vexillological, is intended to settle the matter once and for all. Its conclusion is robust: you can call it what you like. There is no official name for the flag and the distinction between jack and flag is an artificial one invented by some vexillologist in the nineteenth century. This came about on the grounds that a jack was a small flag flown from a ship’s bowsprit and that traditionally the national flag has been flown by Royal Navy ships in harbour on a small mast called the jackstaff rigged in the bows. The two names were actually being used interchangeably as far back as the late 1600s and the matter has, strictly speaking, been beyond dispute for more than a century, since in 1902 the Lords of the Admiralty had decided that either name could be used officially.

4. Brown as a berry

Q From Sheila Napier: Why do we talk about somebody with a good suntan being brown as a berry? Berries are usually red, occasionally blue or black but I can’t think of a brown one.

A This has long puzzled people and readers have asked me about it in the past. The simple truth is that nobody really knows, though there are theories.

The first thing to say about the expression is that it’s ancient. It appears twice in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, dating from the 1380s, firstly in the Prologue (“His palfrey was as broun as is a berye”, referring to a horse ridden by a monk) and then in the unfinished Cook’s Tale as a description of the cook (“Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe”, which in modern English is “brown as a berry, a good-looking small fellow”.) We may reasonably presume that as a conventional simile it is even older in speech.

A suggestion often made is that it refers to coffee beans. It can’t, because coffee hadn’t been introduced into England in Chaucer’s day. Another idea is that in the English of the time berry could refer to a nut, but there’s no suggestion in the Oxford English Dictionary or the Middle English Dictionary that people used it that way. The OED does remark that in Old English, four centuries before Chaucer, berry was most commonly used of grapes, which then grew quite well in southern Britain in the warm climate of the time. But it would be a stretch for us to describe any variety of grape as brown.

Curiously, brown was also used of armour or glass to mean shining bright — a text of about 1330 described a “sword of brown steel”. Some berries are shiny, but we can hardly imagine brown in this sense being used of a person’s face, unless it was slick with sweat, of which there’s no hint in any early example I’ve looked at.

Another possibility comes to mind. Some ancient writers seemed to be insensitive to colour and emphasised light and dark in preference to hues. There is some support for this in the OED, which gives the earliest sense of brown as dusky or dark. One medieval writer, for example, describes lead as being brown. This link to gloom apparently led to brown study. Most native English berries are relatively dark-coloured, so a link may exist.

5. Sic!

• A neat example of a hanging modifier came from Tim Conway, who found it on the BBC website: “Vibrant, surreal and deliciously silly, an astonishing 21 million viewers tuned in to watch it in 1983, a record for a children’s programme which has yet to be beaten.”

• “A mail order gift catalogue called Bits and Pieces arrived in the post,” Anne O’Brien tells us. “My husband just noticed that they offer teleidoscopes as “A unique gift for any collector measuring 5¼ inches long.” [A teleidoscope, I learn, is a type of kaleidoscope with an open end and a lens so you can make patterns from objects outside the instrument.]

• There’s either some chronological confusion in the photo caption from Life magazine that Angie Jabine sent in or Eric Clapton was an infant financial wizard: “In 1970 Rose Clapp shows off her tea service and Eric Clapton, the rock-god guitarist grandson she raised in the home he bought for her and her late husband in Surrey, England.”

• Stephen Follows spotted that the Telegraph’s coverage on 11 October of Peter Higgs’s Nobel Prize included this: “Professor Brout died in 2011 and could not share the prize post humorously.” It has since been corrected.

• On 17 October, the Guardian revealed the identity of a whistleblower from forty years ago: “He was Reg Dawson, a senior civil servant and lifelong railways buff, who died last year alongside his wife, Betty, pictured above on their wedding day at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.”

6. Useful information

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 19 October 2013

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 19 October 2013.