NEWSLETTER 540: SATURDAY 19 MAY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sic! One item last week amused those American readers for whom a display of pot plants would be more likely to attract the attention of the law than of potential purchasers of a house. I introduced pot plants in a summary of part of the item without thinking of cannabis implications — it’s so commonplace a phrase in the UK that it didn’t occur to me. Those who replied suggested potted plants would have been better. In my version of the language, I pot plants, but once they have been potted, they become pot plants, not potted plants. Meat and shrimps can be potted, as can histories, but not plants (though the phrase is by no means unknown in the UK).
The poor translation quoted in the same section (“if the car dash to piecesed, and should pass by the per son check or profession personnel maintain the rear can continue to use”) was re-translated from the Chinese by several helpful readers. The consensus is that it would be more idiomatically rendered as: “if the car is badly damaged, it should be inspected and repaired by an adult or qualified technician before using it again.” Why didn’t I think of that? Though this will not become a regular feature of the newsletter, since making fun of such poor translations quickly palls, I can’t resist quoting from a leaflet for a child’s scooter that Australian John Greig bought in 2002: “No guaranty these: 1. the disstria and derogate from the misdaventures; 2. normal frazzle.” I’m glad to say I’ve never suffered from disstria, surely an unpleasant condition, but frazzle is undoubtedly a normal part of my life.
Bought versus brought Firm rebuttals arrived from New Zealand in response to the comment from a reader last week that brought for bought was commonplace in that country. Richard Bentley wrote: “The misuse is not uncommon, but to suggest that it’s used ‘almost exclusively’ is quite incorrect in my experience.” Russell McMahon wrote to agree, “Although we have friends and acquaintances from a wide cross section of backgrounds, it’s not something that I or my wife hear very often here.” On the other hand, Christine Shuttleworth wrote on Monday to say she had just received a message from friends in New Zealand: “Just wanted to let you know, that we brought a house across the road from us on Sunday”. She felt this must have been a major operation.
Two-factor authentication Technology advances quickly and so does its language, sometimes leaving aged lexicographers like me panting in its wake. Almost as soon as I’d written about this arcane term two weeks ago, several British banks announced that they were about to introduce devices to improve the security of online transactions under the more friendly-sounding name of chip and pin at home. I’ve updated the online version of my piece to reflect this.
2. Weird Words: Vomitorium
An access passage in a Roman theatre.
Several decades ago, I was briefly involved with a theatre in west London that had been built in the round. The theatre chairman delighted in referring to the access ways for patrons, some in passages under the seating, as the vomitoria, to the confusion and mild disgust of some patrons.
The disgust might merely have been due to the form of the word, but there has also long been an erroneous belief about the purpose of a Roman vomitorium. A classic example appeared in a totally forgotten American publication for children, Evening Round-Up by Col William C Hunter, dated 1915:
The residents of Pompeii had fine plumbing, baths and luxuries. They had a place called a vomitorium. The old Roman sports were gluttons; they stuffed themselves, then went to the vomitorium and threw up so they could eat more.
This is most definitely not true. H Rider Haggard, who had earlier written King Solomon’s Mines and She, got it exactly right in his book Pearl-Maiden of 1901, about the fall of Jerusalem:
Beyond lay the broad passage of the vomitorium. They gained it, and in an instant were mixed with the thousands who sought to escape the panic.
There’s some excuse for the error. Latin vomitorium also referred to an emetic and vomere meant to vomit (and indeed is the source of our English word, via French); the figurative idea of violently issuing forth gave rise to its application to an exit.
The theatre world continues to keep the word alive in the sense that Romans would have understood.
3. Recently noted
Blagging I’ve recently been watching episodes of a 1970s ITV police series called The Sweeney, whose name is rhyming slang: Sweeney Todd (the demon barber of Fleet Street) = Flying Squad, the Metropolitan Police quick-response major-crime squad, now officially named the Central Robbery Squad. The term blag is used in episodes to mean a violent robbery or raid, a slang term that dates from the 1880s. But there were then — still are — two senses of blag in British English, the other meaning to lie or to use clever talk to obtain something, a verb recorded from the 1930s. Both senses are variations on the idea of theft, though they have separate origins. The first may derive from an abbreviation of the word blackguard (often pronounced blaggard); it’s more than likely that the second is from French blaguer, to tell lies, as the word has at times been spelled blague. A version of the second sense has been appearing in the British media recently. It refers to what is sardonically called social engineering: getting passwords, personal details and confidential information over the phone from unsuspecting workers in a government department or business through a persuasive manner coupled with inside knowledge. The trick has long been used by private investigators working for debt collectors, national newspapers and criminals. A man was imprisoned recently for blagging civil servants into giving him the home addresses of 250 people.
Neet You might be a neet, though you would have to be in the UK to be officially called one. It’s a dehumanising bureaucratic acronym for young people, aged 16-24, who are “Not in Education, Employment or Training”, that is, unemployed. The term dates from 2005. The current estimate is that there are 1.3 million neets in the UK.
4. Questions & Answers: Apostrophes
[Q] From Michael Wilson: “I was watching Never Mind The Full Stops on BBC4 recently, in which an altercation broke out between Julian Fellowes and one of the panellists over spelling. Was it mind your ps and qs or mind your p’s and q’s? When the programme ended I logged on to World Wide Words for your views. It was as usual very interesting. But as a struggling apostrophe user I was puzzled when you wrote mind your please’s and thank-you’s. Are you not simply talking about the plural of please and thank-you, which surely require no apostrophes? What have I missed?”
[A] Your puzzlement is understandable. Everybody gets confused these days about when to use the apostrophe, never more so than in this situation. It doesn’t help that style guides differ somewhat in their advice, that the rules are changing, and that, as so often, US usage is more conservative than in some other countries.
The older rule was that apostrophes formed the plurals of letters of the alphabet (you have too few s’s in Mississippi), of abbreviations and numerals (none of the MP’s voted for the measure; he was stoned for most of the 1960’s), and in those situations in which the word was being referred to as a word rather than being used normally (if if’s and an’s were pots and pans!).
Nowadays, it’s normal to omit the apostrophe when we make plurals of abbreviations and numerals (both the CPUs overheated; married by their early 20s). That the superfluous marks are often recycled to make plurals (lettuce’s and cucumber’s) is just one of those little ironies of usage.
But opinions differ on what to do with words being referred to as words without regard to their usual meaning. Take the phrase do’s and don’ts. Some style guides — such as the Oxford Style Guide — suggest writing it as dos and don’ts and that’s how it usually turns up in British sources. But it also often appears with the apostrophes — this is the advice in some books (we may ignore Lynne Truss’s suggestion in Eats, Shoots & Leaves that it should be do’s and don’t’s; it’s logical, but it’s also awfully ugly). There’s less argument over words that have become part of fixed phrases (whys and wherefores, oohs and ahs, ins and outs) with the consensus being that apostrophes are otiose here. It’s also still standard for single letters of the alphabet to be made into plurals with apostrophes; Dr Burchfield’s advice in the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage is to retain them in situations in which leaving them out might lead to confusion (dot your i’s and cross your t’s; there are three i’s in “inimical”; mind your p’s and q’s).
This leaves the situation you query. Should the phrase be written as mind your please’s and thank-you’s or mind your pleases and thank-yous? The advice is inconsistent, though the style guides mostly say the version with apostrophes is better. The piece you’re quoting was written a decade ago and my gut feeling is that these days I’d prefer to leave the apostrophes out, such is the speed of change (I’d now rewrite another of Lynne Truss’s examples without the fly specks as Are there too many ands and buts at the beginnings of sentences these days?).
The apostrophe still also appears in phrases like he sent brief thank-you’s to his teammates, though by a clear margin more often in US usage than British. That case is much more clear-cut, since thank-you is a elliptical form — which has been known since the end of the eighteenth century — for a letter or other expression of thanks (did you send her a thank-you?), not a word that’s being commented on, so it’s an ordinary noun that should take a standard plural (Hannah Poole wrote in the Guardian in November 2006: I leave a trail of hellos and goodbyes and thank-yous wherever I go). Americans may remain unconvinced that this is quite the done thing, despite thank-yous having a long history in that country (I’ve found it as far back as the 1860s).
The shift is towards leaving out the punctuation and letting the context determine whether — for example — you mean the verb is or the letter plural i’s. However, it will be a while yet before it becomes accepted by everyone.
• “As a professional typesetter of several decades’ standing in the printing industry,” wrote Nancy Klee, “I figure I’ve seen it all. Today, I spotted a new eggcorn that I think you and your readers would appreciate. The text came from a hotel in Japanese ownership. It was a press handout announcing a number of newly renovated and updated rooms. They were also quite proud of some added amenities provided for each guest in these new rooms, including a high-end Asian brand of ‘toilet trees’. My internal visual on this was, I must say, quite stunning.”
• Ask not for whom the eggcorns toll ... Robb Hoover visited the Web site of the American football team the Green Bay Packers and read that “32 rolls of Kentucky bluegrass sod” were to be laid and that “Each roll weighs between 1,200 and 1,300 pounds, which calculates to half a million pounds of sod all-tolled.” (That reads strangely to me for a second reason: in Britain we don’t use sod in this sense, less still sod farms, also mentioned; we call it turf.)
Nigel Ross sent this photograph, taken in the Sainsbury’s supermarket in Stockton-on-Tees. He worked out that as the sign free from foods was next to the health-food section, it would make more sense if there were a hyphen in it. The shelves actually contain free-from foods that are “free from” gluten and the like. The term — albeit with a hyphen or quotes — is common in the food business.
• John Cray saw a sign at a Chinese Restaurant in Beverly, Massachusetts. It was posted next to an urn full of hot water and read, “Please avoid boiling water and your children.” He wasn’t sure whether he was being asked to avoid boiling his children, or just to avoid them.
• One of those “I know what the writer meant but it could have been better expressed” moments occurred in the Society supplement of the Guardian last Wednesday (it was noted and submitted by Gideon Koch): “In an effort to intervene as early as possible in troubled families, first-time mothers identified just 16 weeks after conception will be given intensive weekly support from midwives and health visitors until the unborn child reaches two years old.” So that’s a two-year-old unborn child that had been identified as a first-time mother only 16 weeks after conception, then?