NEWSLETTER 627: SATURDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Carrot and stick Following last week’s piece, Timothy Williams noted that, intriguingly, the idiom is recorded also in Italian. Benito Mussolini published a brochure with the title Il tempo del bastone & della carota (The Time of the Carrot and the Stick) in the newspaper Corriere della Sera of Milan in August 1944.
Born to blush unseen This not being video, you have been spared the sight of my embarrassed face when I heard Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett praise this newsletter to the skies on the US NPR programme A Way With Words this week. Thanks to them both. And a warm welcome to everybody who joined the mailing list as a result.
Snarge and stannator Last week’s pieces on these two words have now been expanded and put on the Web site. You can reach them via links on the home page.
2. Turns of Phrase: Altermodernism
This has appeared, like a dusty fly speck dotted across the review pages of the more upmarket British newspapers this month, because Altermodern is the name given to Tate Britain’s Triennial 2009 exhibition. The term was coined by the exhibition’s curator, the French cultural theorist Nicolas Bourriaud.
Explanations of it are varied and more than a little difficult to get one’s mind around if one hasn’t already had a firm grounding in Barthes, Derrida and their successors. The exhibition catalogue says that it refers to “the in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalisation, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and medium.” More simply, the curator argues that, just as modernism was succeeded by post-modernism, the latter’s era is ending and a new one is being born, which will be expressed in the language of a global culture and will be an alternative style to both its predecessors. Hence Altermodern and Altermodernism.
The trouble with the idea is that the critics dislike the result. The Observer called the Triennial dull and came close to saying it was a waste of space; the Financial Times said it was “confused, aimless and hideous” and that it was drowned in its curator’s own critical theory jargon; The Times complained that even reading the catalogue was “ball-crushingly dispiriting”. The Telegraph’s critic noted that “too many artists were allowed to bang on and on without taking us anywhere in particular or giving us anything of interest to look at.”
The general feeling is that, rather than being the next big thing in the art world, Altermodernism isn’t going anywhere and isn’t a term likely to be included in dictionaries any time soon.
Altermodernism, if I understand it, is international art that never quite touches down but keeps on moving through places and ideas, made by artists connected across the globe rather than grouped around any central hub such as New York or London.
[Observer, 8 Feb. 2008]
It isn’t easy to work out what Altermodernism might be – even when it’s been explained to you several times. The description given in the catalogue leaves you with the distinct suspicion that Postmodernism has been towed off to a chop-shop, given a quick respray and they’re now trying to sell it back to us as this year’s model.
[Independent, 13 Feb. 2008]
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Land that once supplied part of a clergyman's income.
This came to mind when passing a field in the town where I live. It lies opposite the church and a house beside it, Glebe Cottage, was the vicarage centuries ago.
In England, the glebe was historically endowed land that provided the rector of a parish with part of his income, either through his farming it himself, or by his letting it out to a tenant.
The Parson, who farmed his own glebe and bred cattle in its rich pastures, had won a prize at the county show.
Kenelm Chillingly, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1873.
I’m not well up on the history of my local glebe land, but even a casual glance at the small field shows it couldn’t have brought in much income. A gazetteer of 1845 noted that even then the glebe was a mere 1¼ acres. To find out more I’d have to search out the local terriers, the church registers of landed property, a word that derives from Latin terra, earth. (The name of the type of dog comes from the same source, because terriers followed their quarry underground into burrows or earths.) At one time, a rector’s living included other income, mainly tithes (from a Latin word meaning a tenth), based on the produce of the parish.
Glebes and tithes were sometimes extensive, providing rich returns for a few absentee rectors who might accumulate multiple livings called pluralities. They would appoint vicars (from Latin vicarius, a substitute) to be the parish priests.
Crabtree Canonicorum is a very nice thing; there are only two hundred parishioners; there are four hundred acres of glebe; and the great and small tithes, which both go to the rector, are worth four hundred pounds a year more.
The Warden, by Anthony Trollope, 1855. £400 a year at that time would be worth now about £15,000 or $22,000. The great tithes came from wheat, barley, hay and wood, small tithes from other growing things and from animal produce. The small tithes usually went to the vicar.
Tithes have long since vanished and glebe lands are no longer part of the livings of rectors. However, the word survives widely in parts of the UK and Ireland in names such as Glebe Farm, Glebe Field, Glebe Pasture and Glebe Cottage. The word derives from Latin gleba, meaning a clod or lump, more broadly soil or land.
[My thanks to David Primrose, Vicar of Thornbury, for his help in sorting out the ecclesiastical vocabulary.]
5. Recently noted
Thieves that pass in the night The Guardian this week had an item on a report to English Heritage, the statutory body responsible for safeguarding England’s historic environment. It claims that stealing valuable objects from historical sites has become a semi-professional criminal activity. Thieves mainly work by night and use metal detectors to identify and unearth objects such as bronze axes, Roman coins, Saxon jewels and other saleable objects. The practice is called nighthawking, with those involved being, as you would expect, nighthawkers. Nighthawking has been known among archaeologists in the UK since at least 1995 (it appeared in an article in the magazine Antiquity in that year). It’s a specific use of a US term that’s at least a century older, which was taken from the name of an American bird. To nighthawk meant to go out at night because you were working or seeking entertainment (and in that sense formed the subject of the famous Edward Hopper painting of that title of 1942) but has since also been linked with various nefarious nocturnal activities. The British usage is a reasonable extension but sounds slightly odd because we have no bird of that name to make a mental connection with (we have the closely related nightjar instead). Another colloquial sense is used by doctors in the US for sending x-rays for analysis overnight to a country in a different time zone to speed diagnosis, a form of offshoring.
Time passes A piece in The New York Times on Thursday quoted the new director of the National Economic Council, Lawrence Summers, responding to a question at a press conference: “I just don’t do ticktock.” It’s US newspaper jargon. William Safire defined it in The Times as far back as September 1973: “Journalists’ argot for a story detailing the chronology leading up to a major announcement or event.” An article in Slate in 1999 explained the term in more detail: “Ticktock was reporter-ese for a portentous narrative about the making of some significant event, usually having to do with the government. It had been invented decades ago by the newsmagazines, but appropriated in recent years by the major newspapers, which liked to scoop the newsmagazines by running big ticktocks on Sundays.” These days, it can refer to books and TV programmes. Mr Summers presumably took the word to mean no more than insider gossip about the making of some decision, which in practice is often a major constituent of a ticktock.
6. Questions & Answers: Getting a word into dictionaries
[Q] From Michael Day: “If someone wanted to pose a new word to the major dictionaries, what would they do? How would they go about it?”
[A] Readers ask this question frequently of World Wide Words, as they do of dictionary publishers. Your pithy question provides an excellent opportunity to supply a definitive answer.
The experience of Mary O’Neill, the editor-in-chief of Chambers Dictionaries, is typical: “People often call or write to us with words they would like to see in a dictionary. Alex Horne created a Edinburgh Festival Fringe show in 2008 around his attempts to have dictionary publishers recognise words that he had coined. The Edinburgh publisher Canongate recently launched a campaign to have the word eunoia — translated from Greek as ‘beautiful thinking’, and the title of a book by one of their published poets — entered into The Chambers Dictionary.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to tell you not to waste your time, but dictionaries base decisions on what to include on a wide variety of factors; information from members of the public about words they have invented that are untested in the forum of public opinion forms only a tiny part of the process. As Mary O’Neill went on to say: “At Chambers, we’re always happy to receive suggestions for new words. However, like other dictionary publishers, it’s not our policy to include words until we have evidence that they have been used by a range of people over a reasonable period of time. We do not include words just because they are etymologically plausible if we don’t have evidence that they are in current use.”
The traditional method of collecting evidence of new words and of how much they’re used has been for editors and freelance helpers to systematically read books and newspapers (I do this for the Oxford English Dictionary). These days, with computing resources at their disposal that would have been the envy of earlier generations of lexicographers, all dictionary publishers maintain vast databases of current usage, collectively called corpora (from Latin corpus, a body). Chambers has the Chambers Harrap International Corpus of nearly one billion words; Collins and Oxford have collections that are similar in size and scope. Mary O’Neill told me, “With a little analysis, such a corpus can show how frequently a word is used and whether it is restricted to a small group of users.”
As a result of systematic reading and corpus enquiry, editors can decide whether to include a word. Cormac McKeown, a senior editor at Collins English Dictionaries, comments: “If we find it used a sufficient number of times across a sufficient number of sources, over a sufficiently long period of time, we include it in our dictionaries. What these thresholds are depends on the size of the dictionary — generally, the smaller the dictionary the higher the requisite number of hits in our corpus.”
If you want to persist, Mary O’Neill has some encouragement and advice: “If people do find words useful, and start to repeat them, it is possible that they will catch on and eventually merit a place in the dictionary. If someone wants to have their coinage included, they should use it as much as possible, encourage others to do so and, if they can, use it where it will ensure a wider audience, for example a letter to a newspaper, or a radio or TV interview or phone-in. Keep a record of where and when you have heard it used by others. Then, when you have enough evidence to prove that the word is established, send it to your dictionary publisher of choice.”
Over to you and good luck!
• “In the newsletter of the American Birding Association,” e-mailed Harlow Bielefeldt, “a caption under a photo of a boat-billed heron described the bird as ‘incredulous’. Perhaps it had never before seen a photographer.”
• Tom Watkins reports that Bay Harbour News, the community newspaper for the eastern suburbs of Christchurch, New Zealand, ran a feature in their 11 February issue advertising a “delightful and charming cottage” for sale which boasts a “lamented benchtop finish”.
• The New York Times E-mail Headlines for 11 February included this comment, spotted by Peter Strauss: “Improved technology has made the use of frozen sperm commonplace at the breeding of dog shows.” So that’s why there are so many dog shows!
• The Fox News site, Dennis Ellenburg tells us, features the story of the English and French nuclear submarines that earlier this month bumped together like a pair of mildly amorous whales. It reported that, because of the nuclear warheads on board, “An accident, even an unintentional one, could have had serious consequences.”