NEWSLETTER 565: SATURDAY 8 DECEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Predator Several correspondents commented on this jargon item of the television business in the US, which was mentioned in a Sic! item two weeks ago and which Anthony Massey discussed last time. They argued that a better abbreviation of producer/editor would be preditor. That would certainly be so, but a Google search for each word in combination with producer and editor shows that predator occurs about 30 times as often.
2. Weird Words: Sardoodledom
A play with an overly contrived and melodramatic plot.
It certainly looks weird enough. Until recently it was known only to historians of the theatre, but it’s having a rare moment in the spotlight. It was one of the words in the 2007 US National Spelling Bee, which brought on a fit of giggles on live television from the 11-year-old, Kennyi Aouad of Indiana, who was asked to spell it. So many people then went to the Merriam-Webster Web site to look it up that the firm has recently included it in a list of 20 words from which visitors have been asked to choose their Word of the Year for 2007.
In June 1895, George Bernard Shaw wrote a critical article in the Saturday Review under the heading Sardoodledom, a word he invented for the piece. He described Fédora as “claptrap” and he criticised Sarah Bernhardt for becoming involved in “a high modern development of the circus and the waxworks”. Shaw used the word again two years later in the same publication: “It is rather a nice point whether Miss Ellen Terry should be forgiven for sailing the Lyceum ship into the shallows of Sardoodledom for the sake of Madame Sans-Gêne.”
The word has since become shorthand for technically well-crafted works of the period — “well-made plays” — that were created as pure entertainment, lacking any moral or ethical position and featuring what one critic called “a poverty of thought”.
3. Recently noted
More voting When the 2007 edition of Susie Dent’s Language Report came out from Oxford University Press this autumn (reviewed here on 6 October), suggestions were invited, to mark the fifth publication year of the series, for the word which best represented the events or moods of the early 21st century. About 1,000 people took part. By a small margin they chose 9/11, referring to the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Susie Dent commented that the term not only commemorates the events of that day but will remain as a permanent marker for the political actions that followed it. “Like ‘ground zero’,” she said, “it illustrates perfectly how history can be preserved in a word which is packed with associations and which will evoke it instantly.” Runner-up was footprint, as in carbon footprint (noted here in February 2007). Third was sex up, whose specific associations for us in the UK are to a BBC report in May 2003 which gave huge offence to the government and led to the resignations of the BBC’s director-general and chairman. In the report the journalist Andrew Gilligan said that the British intelligence documents on Iraq had been “sexed up” in order to justify war.
Moofing I’m behindhand with a report on this word. It appeared in July in a press release from Microsoft, seemingly invented by an ingenious PR person. I thought it was too transient to bother you with, but an item in the Guardian last weekend resurrected it, so perhaps I should note it for the record. A moofer is a person who moofs, who works from anywhere except in an office. MOOF stands for “Mobile Out Of Office”, one of the more strained acronyms in the language. There’s now a Web site, moof.mobi, at which moofers can exchange experiences (not moof.com, as the Guardian had it).
4. Questions & Answers: Safe as Houses
[Q] From Heather Upton, Los Angeles: “I am curious about the saying safe as houses, which is more common in England than here in the States. What is it about houses that makes them so safe, compared with anything else?”
[A] It’s not immediately obvious, I agree. And in the history of similes about security, safe as houses is a relative late-comer. You might at various times have been as safe as a bug in a rug (an alternative to the much older and better known snug as a bug in a rug), as a sow (or a crow) in a gutter, a mouse in a malt-heap (or in a mill or a cheese), as safe as a church, or a bank, or a fort, or a bunker, or simply as anything. Several of them suggest comfort or freedom from disturbance as much as physical safety.
The reason for many of these puzzling forms is that at one time safe could mean “certainly; for sure; assuredly”, especially in dialect and colloquial English. The antiquarian Captain Francis Grose wrote in 1790, “He is safe enough for being hanged” as an example of Cumberland dialect, which meant that the person was certain to be hanged. Among other cases, The English Dialect Dictionary a century later includes “it is safe to thunder”, Lincolnshire dialect meaning it was sure to do so.
As a result, safe as houses has often meant something that was certain to happen. In 1894, Mrs Arthur Stannard, writing as J S Winter, used it in her novel Red Coats, “You know the Colonel is as safe as houses to come round after church parade.” In The Penang Pirate by John Conroy Hutcheson (1886) appears this: “If you was to strike one with a rope’s end — if only in lark, mind you, to make him move quicker — why, you’d be a dead man ’fore morning, safe as houses!” In Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy of 1874 this dialogue appears: “‘He must come without fail, and wear his best clothes.’ ‘The clothes will floor us as safe as houses!’ said Coggan.”
There’s clearly more going on than at first sight we might think. After all this time, we can’t penetrate the minds of the inventors of the expression. But it’s unwise to draw parallels with related expressions. As safe as a church and as safe as a bank suggest the security of a physical structure. But the reference is probably figurative in both cases — to God’s protection and to financial security.
John Hotten argued in his Slang Dictionary of 1859 that safe as houses may have arisen when the intense speculation on railways in Britain — the railway mania — began to be seen for the highly risky endeavour that it really was and when bricks and mortar became more financially attractive. But that ignores the figurative nature of the phrase, which, even so early after its coining, must have had little in users’ minds to do with any actual building.
5. Questions & Answers: Toise
[Q] From Daniel J Matranga: “I came across toise in St Ives, by Robert Louis Stevenson: “‘Are you acquainted with the properties of the spine?’ he asked with an insolence beyond qualification. It was too much. ‘I am acquainted also with the properties of a pair of pistols,’ said I, toising him.” Any idea what it means exactly? Is it a typographical error?”
[A] This is possibly the most obscure question I’ve ever been asked. My reason for including it is that it leads us up an interesting linguistic byway, where I hope you will not abandon me in despair at my antiquarian investigation of the incredibly obscure.
The rag-bag of miscellaneous recollections that I call my memory reminds me that a toise was an old French unit of length. By an unremarkable coincidence, it appears in an SF book I’ve just been reading, Brasyl by Ian McDonald, in which the speaker is French: “The Amazon drops only fifty toises over its entire length”.
The most interesting thing about it, the word in this sense being long defunct in France and virtually unknown everywhere else, is that it’s closely similar to the nautical fathom, long regularised as six feet. Fathom is from Old English, in which it refers to the same distance measured in the same way.
Without doubt, fascinating cross-language stuff. But what does it have to do with the matter?
The only person the Oxford English Dictionary cites as a user of the verb is Stevenson, both in St Ives and in his earlier work, The Master of Ballantrae: “At the same time he had a better look at me, toised me a second time sharply, and then smiled.” The OED says that it is “very rare”, an undeniably accurate statement, since no other example exists in literature — at least that I can find. Stevenson being Scottish, I wondered if it might be a Scots term, but nothing like it appears in any of my dictionaries. It seems to derive directly from the French verb toiser, originally to measure.
My Larousse tells me that in French toiser today means to regard someone with contempt or defiance. So, to toise is figuratively to measure someone, to eye them from head to foot in an appraising and disapproving way. A century ago a critic in The Reader said that Stevenson’s usage “seems a trifle strained”. Can’t dispute that.
• Cliff Card was browsing the Web to find out about the newly elected PM of Australia and came across the opening sentence of the biographical entry in Wikipedia for Mr Rudd’s wife: “Thérèse Rein is the 26th Spouse of the Prime Minister of Australia.” Busy man. [Ms Rein is actually the spouse of the 26th Prime Minister of Australia.]
• Remaining with Australia and the new PM, Lesley Beresford reports that The Advertiser of Adelaide commented on changes to overseas positions in the wake of the election: “A brace of former Liberal heavyweights — three from [South Australia] — hold diplomatic posts and could be recalled by Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd at short notice”. How many are there in a brace? [My dictionaries confirm just two. It’s from Old French bracier, to embrace, from Latin bracchia, arms.]
• Across the water in New Zealand, John Neave scratched his head over an announcement on the TV One Sports News last weekend: “The All Blacks have only two weeks to complete their last-minute training.” Something, as he says, doesn’t quite add up.
• A Guardian piece on Tuesday described the current political cooperation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, even though sectarian separation between communities in Belfast is maintained by 30 “peace walls”. Michael White noted that this separation is increasing: “A new wall opened last month”, which is of course the exact opposite of the intended effect.
• Greg Putz, the clerk of the Saskatchewan legislative assembly, was quoted on the CBC News Web site last Monday as saying “Many members have springs coming through and there’s lumps and holes and they’re hard to move.” It might sound like politicians everywhere. But no, he was actually talking about the 100-year-old chairs that they sit in, which are to be replaced at a cost of about CDN$125,000. Many thanks to Harold Crandall for sending that in.