E-MAGAZINE 713: SATURDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Backronyms Lots of messages came in following the piece, mostly quoting the writers’ favourite examples. Curiously, most concerned car manufacturers and airlines — I leave it to the cultural commentators among us to work out why. A complete list would fill this issue, but a few will give the flavour: the name of the one-time Belgian national airline Sabena was said to be an acronym for “Such A Bad Experience, Never Again”; Alitalia meant “Always Late In Taking off, Always Late In Arriving”; Delta: Don’t Ever Leave The Airport; Fiat: Fix It Again, Tony; Ford: Fix Or Repair Daily. You may note that Sabena, Alitalia and Fiat were created as acronyms (Sabeba derives from “Société Anonyme Belge d’Exploitation de la Navigation Aérienne”, bless the guy who shortened it) and so strictly speaking ought to be classed as reinterpreted acronyms and not backronyms.
Robert A Rothstein, Professor of Judaic and Slavic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells us that a similar idea “has a long history in Jewish tradition. The ancient rabbis called the device notarikon (from the Greek meaning ‘stenographer’) and used it to interpret words in the Bible and Talmud.”
Tony McCoy O’Grady mentioned that he and a friend created the word apronym for an expansion of a word as though it is an acronym for a phrase that’s linked to the meaning of the word. They created it from á propos plus acronym. For example, he has expanded gate to “Grants Access To Everyone”. Thousands of other examples are on their website.
Corrections As several readers pointed out, the example of NTSC that I quoted in the piece on backronyms isn’t an acronym but an abbreviation. In the book review I referred to Finnigan’s Wake; it’s actually Finnegans Wake, without an apostrophe. Robert Hooke, although he died in 1702, would better have been described as a seventeenth-century scientist.
In centuries past, merchants selling goods by number often supplied a larger quantity than the nominal total. The baker’s dozen of 13 is well known. Less so is the measure of 120, which was once known variously as the great hundred, long hundred or small gross.
The number 120 is the result of measuring items by twelves rather than by tens, a survival of the duodecimal system used by many civilisations in antiquity and of which relics like the dozen and the gross still survive. It’s known, though very rarely, as the tolfraedic system. In origin the word is Icelandic, from tólf, twelve, plus ráða, to speak. Relatives of the term were used in Iceland and throughout Scandinavia to distinguish between hundreds that were ten tens and hundreds that were ten twelves (in Icelandic called tolfrátt hundrað).
The long hundred was so widely used at one time in England that a proverb was created to remind people that:
Five score’s a hundred of men, money and pins; six score’s a hundred of all other things.
Quoted in Curiosities in Proverbs, by Dwight Edwards Marvin, 1916.
It was common, as one example out of many, to sell nails by this measure (though why pins weren’t is a curiosity now lost in history). The medieval Anglo-Saxon Chronicle even stated that the year is 305 days long. This wasn’t an astronomical error, but the tolfraedic system in action. Three long hundreds is 360; add in the extra five and you have the usual year length.
Seasonal words The New Oxford American Dictionary (which ought to lose the new, as it was first published ten years ago and is now on its third edition) is as usual first out of the gate with its words of 2010. The runners-up included Tea Party, vuvuzela, webisode, and crowdsourcing. The winner is Sarah Palin’s error back in July of writing refudiate in a Twitter posting when she meant repudiate. The editors say they won’t add it to the dictionary, though they commented that “From a strictly lexical interpretation of the different contexts in which Palin has used ‘refudiate’, we have concluded that neither ‘refute’ nor ‘repudiate’ seems consistently precise, and that ‘refudiate’ more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of ‘reject’.” I think that means they see some merit in it. They also make the point, not passed on in news reports, that Sarah Palin wasn’t the first user — there are examples in books and newspapers going back decades. Incidentally, the Huffington Post take on the story was headlined “Palin Exonerized by New Oxford American Dictionary”.
My words of the week These turned up in my reading in the past few days and may be worth a moment of your time. An entomophagist is a person who eats insects. Thermogeddon (a thermal Armageddon) is the point at which, if the earth warms sufficiently, humans will no longer be able to survive in parts of the tropics. The cultural background of somebody who is WEIRD, according to New Scientist, is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. A cavoodle is a cross between a poodle and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (also known as a cavapoo). Planemo is formed from “planetary mass object” and is a planet-sized mass that doesn’t orbit a star. 4D man, according to the magazine Gaz7etta, is the 21-century successor to the metrosexual. Fashbassador (a blend of fashion and ambassador) was invented for the founder of Jimmy Choo, Tamara Mellon, who with 31 others has been appointed a business ambassador by the British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Wicked stepmother Linguistically, this week’s royal engagement was enlivened by the comment by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William’s stepmother, who said it was wicked. The word is too well established in British slang to need any comment, though some writers were surprised to hear it from a 63-year-old granny. Most people equate it with the 1970s African-American scene, but lexicographer Jonathon Green has traced its sense of “excellent, wonderful” to the 1840s. And P G Wodehouse employed it as long ago as 1925 in the appropriately upper-class milieu of Carry on, Jeeves: “A most amazing Johnnie who dishes a wicked ragout.”
4. Questions and Answers: Squilgee
Q From Lucy Banks: A recent game of online scrabble turned up the word squilgee, which I had never heard before. The online dictionary says that it is a variant of squeegee, but only lists vague perhapses for the origins of both words. Can you give a more definite response?
A I can give more information about it, though — as with so many words — the ultimate origin is somewhat obscure. Whether this may reasonably be described as a definite response, I’ll leave to you.
You need not chastise yourself for not knowing squilgee, because it has never been common and is now very rare. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick of 1851, but he described it better in a work of the year before:
Finally, a grand flooding takes place, and the decks are remorselessly thrashed with dry swabs. After which an extraordinary implement — a sort of leathern hoe called a “squilgee” — is used to scrape and squeeze the last dribblings of water from the planks. Concerning this “squilgee,” I think something [sometimes?] of drawing up a memoir and reading it before the Academy of Arts and Sciences. It is a most curious affair.
White-Jacket, by Herman Melville, 1850. The book was about Melville’s travels on a US Navy ship.
All the early examples are from seafaring contexts, particularly the US Navy. Volume 7 of The Century Dictionary, published in the US in 1895, recorded the sense that Melville describes but added that a similar instrument, which from the description is in its essentials the modern squeegee, was used by photographers to clean the glass plates that were standard at the time.
The Century Dictionary also included the squeegee spelling and implied that by then it was more common — photographic magazines of the period certainly spelled it that way and it is by far the more usual form in the decades that follow. Squeegee wasn’t then new, however — it’s actually recorded a little earlier than squilgee, although in its early appearances it refers to the same shipboard cleaning tool that Melville describes. It seems to have swapped spelling as soon as it arrived on dry land.
Where the words come from is hard to say. The OED hypothesises that both of them are variations on the older squeege, to compress, which is almost certainly a strengthened form of squeeze. Thinking about it, that probably isn’t so much better than the “vague perhapses” of your online dictionary.
As I can’t give you the whole story of squilgee, you might like to hear by way of compensation about a couple of things that turned up while I was looking for examples of it. This tantalising snippet was one:
Unless the Navy Department should choose to issue an official communique on the subject, the “squeegee” vs. “squilgee” controversy may now be considered closed, for we have received a letter from no less an authority than the great Elmer Squee himself.
New York Times, 12 Jul. 1942. Elmer Squee was created by Richard L Brooks, who produced a book of cartoons in 1942 featuring this timid Naval recruit. I’ve not been able so far to track down details of the controversy, though it seems to have been an argument in Navy circles about the correct name for the tool, some arguing it was really a squilgee, not a squeegee. Tradition dies hard.
I have also learned that there was at one time a second sense of squilgee, which I encountered in this poem:
Then come my guys, the boom to swing, —
Life in a Man-of-War, or Scenes in “Old Ironsides” During her Cruise in the Pacific, by a Fore-Top-Man (Henry James Mercier), 1841.
Seeking enlightenment, I turned to a manual of seamanship, written a couple of decades later by Captain Luce of the US Navy. You may wish to take careful note of the procedure which he describes so that you will not be caught unready (or even all at sea) the next time you need to set a lower studding-sail:
Overhaul down the outer and inner halliards, and bend them on, the former to the yard, and the latter to the inner head of the sail; overhaul in and bend on the outerhaul to the clew; pass a stop around the sail, and secure it by a toggle, having a tripping-line (the whole called a squilgee,) from it, leading in on deck.
Seamanship, by Stephen Bleecker Luce, 1863.
Is this is the same word as the one for the cleaning implement? Nobody seems to have the slightest idea.
5. Reviews: Begat
I once heard somebody on a radio programme describe how a lady had walked out of a performance of Hamlet. When quizzed for her reason, she complained, “the writer, whoever he is, should be ashamed — it’s full of quotations.”
Much the same might be said of the King James Bible (KJV) of 1611, one of the great works of literature in the language, whose words have engrained themselves into the minds of the English-speaking people. David Crystal has written this pithily titled book in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of its publication.
Whenever you hear phrases such as the salt of the earth, a man after our own heart, let there be light, two-edged sword, how are the mighty fallen, rod of iron, wheels within wheels, get thee behind me, Satan, new wine in old bottles, a voice crying in the wilderness, a fly in the ointment, you are hearing echoes of the prose of the KJV.
As David Crystal makes clear, however, these are not quotations but idioms based on allusions. They have entered the language, to the extent that their biblical origins have become obscured and they are used as often by non-believers as believers. They have become so fixed a part of the way we speak that — like gird your loins — they are frequently adapted for humorous effect.
He discusses each allusion in turn, illustrating it with usages old and new. There is for me too great a whiff of Google in the modern examples he has found from book titles, song lyrics, comic strips, newspaper headlines, social networking, even porn. But the results of his searching illustrate the depth of our familiarity with the words of the KJV, even if we often don’t know it.
But we mustn’t make too much of it. David Crystal discusses 257 idioms altogether. Though he notes that this number is greater than for any other source, including Shakespeare, in only 18 cases is the exact form found in the KJV; in the rest, the ultimate source is an earlier translation, or in a few cases the common stock of English expressions that predates Biblical translations. And he makes clear that he has restricted himself to discussing idiom, not direct quotation, stylistic influence or innovative vocabulary.
David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, published by Oxford University Press; pp327, including indexes; ISBN 978-0-19-958585-4; publisher’s UK price £14.99, US price $24.95.]
• Terry McManus suggests that the combined headline and byline over a BBC News story dated 12 November might be misinterpreted: “Maldives grapples with challenge of protecting majestic mantas FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT”.
• Visiting the website No Dig Vegetable Garden, Gill Teicher read, “I heard if you put an onion in a bowel in each room of your house it will absorb any flu virus that would be in your home.”
• Brian Mann bought a screen guard for his camera from a retailer in Hong Kong. Among its listed features were “2. The film was wearable maternal cure” and “4. Can take from glisten 90% bright 99% figure infocus, adhibit film Sans air bubble less can reiteration use”.
7. Copyright and contact details
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