E-MAGAZINE 654: SATURDAY 29 AUGUST 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Ripsnorter Several readers disagreed with my assertion that the rip part of the word is a meaningless intensifier. Pamela Wagner suggested that it meant “tear off roughly” and went on: “This sense, of an extreme tearing apart, would then lend itself to metaphorical extension to storms and to anything extraordinary.” Anne Virtue suggested that, because of the storm sense of its second element, rip might be linked to its sense of a stretch of broken water, as in rip tide and rip current.
EDNOS A severe but luckily temporary senior moment had me expand this medical abbreviation into Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Recognised. It should have read Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified. Thanks to the teeming millions (or so it felt) who put me right on this.
Short-break holiday My wife and I plan to be away for a few days on either side of next weekend. Your e-mail comments will be as welcome as always but won’t be replied to until the middle of the following week at the earliest.
“We want to replace decimal numeration by dozenal,” is the aim of the Dozenal Society of Great Britain. That will give you the necessary clue to its meaning — it’s from the word dozen and it refers to a system of counting by twelves. You’re much more likely to be familiar with the well-established duodecimal. If you did New Maths as a child you might also remember base 12.
In a dozenal system, with counting based on twelve, not ten, the number “100” would mean 144 in our base-ten counting system, and twelve “dozades” (each twelve years long) would make up a grossury, with 144 decimal years.
Coast Lines, by Mark S Monmonier, 2008.
Dozenal is a rare adjective (sometimes a noun for an advocate of the numbering system) that’s absent from every dictionary on my shelves, though it does appear occasionally in technical literature as well as in reports about the system:
Dozenals contend much of life already is divided into twelves: People buy dozens of eggs and dozens of doughnuts. There are 12 months in the year and 12 inches to a foot.
Los Angeles Times, 17 May 1982.
Any popularity it has would seem to be the result of its adoption in its title about a couple of decades ago by the Dozenal Society of America (the successor to the old Duodecimal Society of America) and by its British cousin.
An enthusiast for the duodecimal number system has been called a dozenalist or a dozener. Both are highly unusual.
3. What I've learned this week
• Duncan Morrow pointed me to a New York Times article dated 13 August that mentioned masstige. It sounds like a disease of cows but instead turns out to be a marketing term well known in the business (and can be traced at least to the early 1990s). It’s a fusion of mass and prestige. Michael J Silverstein and Neil Fiske called it “luxury for the masses” in their book of 2008, Trading Up. A more formal, if jargonistic, definition is “downward brand extension” — making a premium brand more accessible by taking it down-market with cheaper materials and lower prices. It was at first principally used for the cosmetics business but is now much more widely employed.
• Pedants and clever-clogs reviewers complain that the title of my book Why Is Q Always Followed by U? is incorrect, citing words like Al Qaida or qat as counter examples (one e-mailer went so far as to call me a liar because of the title). I’ve become slightly depressed through having to point out repeatedly that a) these are Arabic words, not English ones; b) they’re part of the point of the question that’s answered in the book; and c) I didn’t choose the title anyway. An awful gaffe in a press release last week by the office of Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister, demonstrated how ingrained putting the two letters together is among English speakers and at the same time found for me another language in which Q isn’t always followed by U. It’s Inuktitut, spoken by the Inuit of Nunavut. Their capital is Iqaluit (“many fish”), but the PM’s office spelled it Iqualuit, which means “people with unwiped bums”.
• The nearly-new neologism staycation, for holidaying at home, has become almost as popular in the UK as it has in the US. Various British newspapers, short of news at this tag-end of the silly season, have this week reported receiving a PR e-mail from an online holiday company. It claimed to have seen a 41% increase in customers enquiring about honeymoons in the UK and a 448% increase in such enquiries over the last two years. Its press release was headed “Honeymooning at home — the rise of the staycation-moon”. So much derision has been poured on it that the likelihood of encountering staycation-mooners or staycation-mooning seems thankfully slight.
• Many Sic! items are newspaper headlines whose brevity obfuscates. A post on Tuesday on the Testy Copy Editors forum led to a suggestion for a generic term: crash blossom. This is from an example posted in the thread, taken from the Japan Today site: “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms”. To interpret — Diana Yukawa, who lost her father in the 1985 Japan Airlines crash, has become a successful violinist. Thanks to Chris Waigl for telling me about this.
4. Questions and Answers: Terrific
[Q] From Benny Tiefenbrunner: I am re-reading Little Dorrit, in which Dickens describes a character as terrific, meaning terrifying. When did this word change its meaning to its present sense, which is diametrically opposed to Dickens’s meaning?
[A] Words often shift in meaning and decay in power through being adopted as mere superlatives. Another example is horrid, which originally meant something so frightful as to make one’s hair stand on end but which — as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary noted in its gently chiding way a century ago — was then “especially frequent as a feminine term of strong aversion”. I was going to write dreadful instead of frightful but that’s another word which has lost much of its muscle and can often suggest the merely disagreeable instead of evoking dread.
Terrific, as you say, has gone further than either of these by not merely weakening but completely inverting its sense. It started out, around the time of Milton, as the adjective related to terror, “causing terror, terrifying; fitted to terrify; dreadful, terrible, frightful”, as the OED comprehensively puts it.
However, even before Dickens’s time, it had begun to be used for anything merely severe or excessive. A writer in 1809 complained that business was terrific when he meant that he was busy. Another in 1855 described applause as terrific when she wanted to say that it was intense and prolonged. Examples from later in the century mention a terrific explosion, which was powerful but didn’t evoke terror, while a terrific velocity was merely substantial. These senses overlapped for decades and it can sometimes be hard to be sure what was meant — a terrific storm might have presaged calamity or it might just have been exceptional.
The shift from this nineteenth-century sense of excessively large to our current most common one of being great in a positive sense seems to have taken place in the spoken language after 1900. It only began to surface in print in the 1920s:
“No doubt she had a terrific career.” “Terrific! What do you mean by terrific?” “Why, that she was what used to be called a professional beauty, a social ruler, immensely distinguished and smart and all that sort of thing.”
December Love, by Robert Hichens, 1922.
Another early example suggests through its accompanying slang that the word had completed its transformation in the public schools of Britain:
“Thanks awfully,” said Rex. “That’ll be ripping.” “Fine!” said Derek Yardley. “Great! Terrific!”
Young Livingstones, by D G Mackail, 1930. Ripping meant splendid or excellent, as in ripping yarn, a first-rate story. See also ripsnorter.
Today, of course, we can’t use terrific in its original sense but have to use terrifying instead.
• Sally Stephenson tells us: “I was going to tender for a contract with a local council in South Australia, until I noticed that item 4 of the ‘Outcomes/Deliverables’ states ‘two hard copies and an electronic version of the consultant are to be presented as the final report.’ Whilst I can’t deliver this, I am tempted to offer editing services instead!”
• “Cop fired after waitress poses with rifle on car” was the headline over a story on MSNBC dated 21 August that Peter Rugg encountered. The young woman was in no danger during the photo (ahem) shoot: the story beneath said that the policeman was dismissed for using an official vehicle and weapon as props.
• Similarly, an item in The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware on 20 August was less scary than its headline, “Mother smothers off-to-college son”. It was a Dear Abby reply and the mother was just being overly protective.
• “I should like to meet the grandmother to whom reference is made in this report in the Pensacola News-Journal,” David Luther Woodward wrote. The report, dated 20 August, included this, “Tom Barrett spoke for the first time Wednesday about being attacked by a man as he attempted to help a woman and her 1-year-old grandmother near the Wisconsin State Fair on Saturday night.”
• Medical science advances, scarily. An article on the front page of the Canberra Times on 15 August discussed swine flu fatalities and the lack of communication with the families of victims. Amanda Magnussen tells me it quoted the local Chief Health Officer, Dr Charles Guest: “We’ve had a number of conversations with agencies about communications and yes there has been adjustments to the way we communicate with people after they’ve died.”