NEWSLETTER 553: SATURDAY 15 SEPTEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Yeomen of the Guard Robert Ward commented on this term I used last week: “Oops! A common mistake — they’re actually ‘Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London’. The ‘Yeomen of the Guard’, properly the ‘Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard’ are a distinct body, the ceremonial bodyguard of the Queen, and the oldest unit of the British armed forces.” I blame W S Gilbert, who got it wrong in his Savoy Opera.
Ernest Smith disputes my assertion that the word yeomanette went out of use after World War One: “Following World War Two, many sea-going positions in the US Merchant Marine were opened up to women, including department secretaries or writers. Yeoman positions became yeomanette ones, generally on passenger vessels. Of my own knowledge, I know that yeomanettes served until the very early 1970s when the United States basically went out of the passenger-ship business. I think that at least one American-flag passenger liner still may be cruising between the islands of Hawaii, and if so, it will no doubt have at least one yeomanette in the steward’s department. Also, Department of Defense MSTS (Marine Sea Transport Service) troop transports may be using yeomanettes in place of yeomen currently.” My conclusion was based on the absence of examples of yeomanette in a major historical newspaper archive in the period in question; clearly yeomanettes have been keeping a low profile!
Heterography Tony Augarde, author of the Oxford Guide to Word Games, e-mailed after last week’s issue, “The full form of the verse you were sent half of is: ‘Though the rough (or tough) cough and hiccough plough me through, / O’er life’s dark lough my course I still pursue.’” He went on to give another demonstration of just how heterographic the English language is: “Someone suggested that the proper spelling of potato is ghoughphtheightteeau, if the p is sounded like the gh in hiccough, the o is pronounced like the ough in dough, the t like the phth in phthisis, the a like the eigh in neighbour, the t like the tte in gazette, and the final o like the eau in plateau!” By comparison, spelling fish as ghoti is a mere student’s exercise.
Going like the clappers Several subscribers pointed out that longer versions of the expression may be relevant. Nev Robinson commented, “As a member of aircrew in the RAF during the last war, I recall that it was common to describe a person needlessly rushing around in confusion as ‘going like the clappers on the bells of hell’.” This might have been a fanciful elaboration, but might equally be the original long form that was shortened, first to going like the clappers of hell (a recorded form) and then to going like the clappers. The expression ties in with the mild oath hell’s bells, which appeared in the US in the 1840s and later became widely known in the English-speaking world, no doubt because of its rhyme. The version hell’s bells and buckets of blood, however, is definitely a later elaborated form. Many people have suggested that another influence might have been the First World War soldiers’ song “The bells of hell go ding-a-ling, / For you but not for me”. (This may be familiar because it was used in the musical and film Oh, What a Lovely War in the 1960s.) I’ve amended the online piece.
2. Turns of Phrase: Locavore
The word began life two years ago, according to reports on the west coast of the US, and has grown in popularity, so much so that Adam Platt wrote in the issue of New York magazine dated 17 September 2007: “What self-respecting restaurant critic isn't weary of the whole locavore phenomenon?”
It’s about the distance that food travels to reach our plates. For supermarkets, it makes commercial sense to source foodstuffs where they can be grown most cheaply and consistently, which can be thousands of miles from their markets. Consumers want to eat fruit and vegetables all year round, so they have to be brought in from where they’re in season. There’s nothing new in transporting foodstuffs to markets but what concerns environmentalists is the extent to which they’re now being moved long distances by road and air, leading to great expenditures of energy and the dumping of masses of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The British term food miles, dating from the 1990s, is a measure of the distance that food travels to reach us and the complexity of the supply chains involved.
Locavore is a compound of local with one of the words ending in -vore, such as omnivore or carnivore; localvore is also used. Locavores try to obtain their food from as near as possible to where they live and so restrict themselves to seasonal produce. They argue that local food is often fresher, better-tasting and more nutritious than that from supermarkets, and helps to improve their health as well as support local enterprise and save the planet. What “local” means is open to interpretation, but a radius of 100 miles is often quoted, leading to the term 100-mile diet. The area from which food is sourced is sometimes called the food shed, presumably taken from watershed, which for Americans is the area drained by a river (this needs to be explained, since in the UK a watershed is the boundary between two drainage systems, which in the US is a divide).
[Many thanks to Dave Cook for pointing me to this word.]
The Windsors do emerge in this book as “locavores” before the trend, relying on foods raised or caught on their own estates for much of their diet. And they eat seasonally. As McGrady notes, woe to the chef who would dare serve the queen a strawberry in January.
[Chicago Sun-Times, 4 Sep. 2007]
On a cloudy May Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, the self-described “locavore” is making a meal of almost all local ingredients — not an easy feat for an unabashed foodie who waitresses at a local restaurant.
[Advertising Age, 4 Jun. 2007]
3. Weird Words: Zymurgy
The chemistry or practice of fermentation processes.
Though a useful term, people’s interest in it outside winemaking and brewing focuses on its supposedly being the literal last word. The phrase from aardvark to zymurgy is sometimes used to mean everything, these supposedly being the first and last nouns in the dictionary.
However, a check on my big stack of single-volume dictionaries shows that — apart from the New Oxford American Dictionary — zymurgy is rarely the last word. Some have one of related sense, zythum, a beer that was made by the ancient Egyptians; others prefer to end with Zyrian, another name for the language now usually called Komi; the American Heritage Dictionary selects zyzzyva, a genus of tropical American weevils, which is also the last word in The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary; you may feel that The Bloomsbury English Dictionary has cheated by including zzz, “a representation of the sound made by somebody sleeping or snoring, often used in cartoons”.
When not the focus of wordsmiths’ musings and occasional wordplay, zymurgy is rather rare, though as you would expect it’s well known among brewers and winemakers. The journal of the American Homebrewers Association has that title and its readers may be either zymurgists or zymologists, to taste. If you need a related adjective, there’s zymurgical. All these words come from Greek zume, meaning a leaven, typically a yeast, that is added to make a substance ferment.
Notwithstanding the pronunciation that’s given in some word books, the first vowel is like that in bite, not bit, so it’s roughly “ZAI-mur-jee”.
4. Recently noted
Kneck and kneck On the American Dialect Society mailing list, James Harbeck reports he has found a significant number of examples of this phrase (“Still I’m going pretty fast and I’m kneck and kneck with another girl in the lead.”) as well as many examples of “kneck ties”. Laurence Horn followed this up and discovered 600 examples on Google of “pain in the kneck” and many of “sore kneck”. There are Google search results in double or triple figures for “kneck brace”, “scoop kneck”, “kneck collar”, “kneck injuries”, “kneck pain” and “V-kneck sweater”. I’ve found one example of the idiom in a newspaper, The Sunday Capital of Annapolis, dated 1997: “The crew of Chessie skippered by Mark Fischer is racing Silk Cut kneck and kneck for fourth place.” Prof Horn also turned up instances of “broken knose” and “knavel gazing” (one appeared in a reader’s review on Amazon: “Why oh why do we have this kind of self-absorbed knavel gazing pretending to be academic research”). So what’s going on here? Some cases may be jokes, the sort of creative respellings of words that have become an Internet trademark, but all the ones that I’ve looked into are clearly intended seriously. Though neck and neck is a fixed phrase that may be puzzling to some people (it’s actually from horse racing) that it might have been misunderstood and given a new spelling, this can’t account for the other cases. Prof Horn suggests that bad spellers might be applying the spelling of knee to other body parts that begin with the n sound. Whatever the cause, it’s weird.
5. Questions & Answers: Fist
[Q] From Robert L Sharp: “I love the Economist, the only publication I read that gives me at least one word per issue that I have to look up. One obvious Briticism puzzles me. I wonder about the source of “an attempt to make a better fist of it.” Understandable, but fist?”
[A] Phrases such as good fist, better fist and poor fist all refer to degrees of competence in attempting something. If you make a good fist of something, you’re doing it to the required degree of success. An example appeared in the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette recently: “Music star Timberlake makes a pretty good fist of this acting lark but Yelchin is the real star of the show.” Contrarily, if you make a poor fist of a task you are incompetent or inadequate at it.
In various forms, it goes back to the early part of the nineteenth century. Fist is closely related to figurative senses of hand, as a factory workman would be described as a hand, or in phrases such as to give somebody a hand. To make a fist was to have a go at some task or enterprise, to try doing it, the idea being to get to grips with it. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Caroline Gilman’s Recollections of a Southern Matron (1838): “He reckoned he should make a better fist at farming than edicating.” It also notes a book of 1880 by William D Howells, The Undiscovered Country: “Mrs. Burton is really making a very pretty fist at a salon.”
Confusingly enough, fist can sometimes be used by itself to mean a poor attempt or a failure; “he made a fist of that job” meant he made a complete mess of it. The OED’s first example is from The Life and Adventures of Dr Dodimus Duckworth, published in 1833 by the American writer Asa Greene. Dodimus, later a quack doctor, is an apprentice dentist at this point; in his master’s absence he tries pulling a rotten tooth, but he pulls two by mistake. His patient objects vigorously. Dodimus says coolly that he will only charge for pulling one tooth. The patient rejoins with spirit. “You had’nt ought to ax any thing for pulling either of these, seeing you’ve made such a fist of it.”
Fist used figuratively this way is these days British, and British Commonwealth, English. However, and slightly surprisingly, the Oxford English Dictionary says it was at first a US expression and its early examples bear that out. But the English Dialect Dictionary of a century ago noted it was northern English dialect; presumably it was taken to the US and has since returned home. My impression is that it is most often used these days on the sports pages.
• “Found under my windscreen wiper”, wrote John Rooke, “was a flyer from a local (East London) watering hole that describes itself as a ‘GASTRO PUB W ORGANIC PRODUCTS’. It seems to have been printed from someone’s rough initial notes; featured alongside such attractions as ‘ORGANIC PIZZAS’ and ‘SUN BRUNCH W ROASTS & NEWSPAPERS’ are ‘BATTERED SOFAS’. A touch indigestible I’d say, though it is nice to be offered a sit-down meal.”
• In an article by Jennifer Ferguson about beers in the 6 September issue of Buzz Weekly, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois, appears this: “The ol’ factory system has a lot to do with taste.” Industrial-scale brewing, the curse of the zymurgy business. Thanks to Rick Larson for noting that.
• “‘For the first time in its 522 years, a woman began work on Monday as a member of the Yeomen of the Guard who act as warders at the Tower of London.’ I don’t think I need to quote the source on this one. Sometimes even Homer nods.” Thanks, Peter Scoging.
• Donna M Farrell found a feature story in the Washington Post last Saturday about the memorabilia of gay activist Frank Kameny being included in the Smithsonian. It commented about his firing by the government in 1957: “He got busted in Lafayette Square across from the White House (a gay cruising ground).” “Who knew?” Ms Farrell marvelled. “And during the Eisenhower administration, no less!”