NEWSLETTER 509: SATURDAY 14 OCTOBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Buffaloed A sentence in a quotation from a newspaper article in my piece last week about on the ball—“The two innings he worked he had the Pirates buffaloed”—caused several subscribers to ask for the origin of buffalo in the sense of overawing, intimidating or frightening. This is known from the 1890s and derives from an older Western sense of a heavyset, aggressive man, known from the 1850s. In turn this certainly derives from the animal, likewise large and potentially aggressive.
2. Turns of Phrase: Aerotropolis
When this first appeared, from the mind of Professor John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina in 2000, it looked like one of those words whose life would be short and its death unmourned. But it shows signs of achieving some permanence in the vocabulary of aviation, economics, and urban planning.
The idea behind the term is that major air transport hubs are now linked with levels of economic importance that were once the preserve of major seaports. The jobs directly generated by the airport itself are obviously significant; much more financially important, however, are the firms that relocate near the hub to take advantage of the speed with which passengers and high-value cargo can be flown all over the world.
In several places, new airports are being created explicitly to exploit this, for example the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand and the Dubai World Central airport.
The term is a combination of aero-, in its aircraft sense, with metropolis. There’s some doubt in writers’ minds what the plural should be; both aerotropolises and aerotropoli have appeared.
A vast assemblage of logistics firms, warehouses, industrial production and other businesses that rely on rapid air delivery, the aerotropolis has been a shimmering vision since county officials proposed it several years ago.
[Detroit Free Press, 14 Apr. 2006]
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is a prime example of an aerotropolis according to Euromonitor. Around 58,000 people are daily employed at the airport itself, and the surrounding business district stretches for 15 miles and includes the regional head quarters of such firms as Unilever.
[Cosmetics International, 8 Sep. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Leechcraft
The art of healing.
Leeches have in earlier times been widely used in medicine as a way to remove “bad blood” from patients and to restore the balance of the humours or bodily fluids. After a century and a half in which they fell almost totally out of use, they are returning in some specialised areas, a practice called hirudotherapy, a term formed from hirudo, the Latin name for the little beasts.
So it would be reasonable to assume that that’s where leechcraft comes from. But this is a case where language trips us up. There have been two meanings for leech in English. The other one, long defunct, refers to a doctor or healer, from Old English læce, of Germanic origin.
Though it’s hardly an everyday word, you stand a good chance of coming across it in modern works of fantasy, to which it lends the necessary feeling of ancientness or otherworldliness, as in the late André Norton’s Wizard’s World of 1989: “But she was renewed in mind and body, feeling as if some leechcraft had been at work during her rest, banishing all ills.”
At one time a dog-leech was a vet, though that term could also serve as a pejorative name for a quack doctor. The ring finger was once called the leech-finger (also the medical finger and physic finger), a translation of Latin digitus medicus. We’re not sure how it got that name, though some writers say it was because the vein that pulsed in it was believed to communicate directly with the heart and so gave that finger healing properties, for example in mixing ointments.
4. Recently noted
Item girl A report in the Times of India on 6 October featured the entertainer Shefali Zariwala. She comments that “There is no such word as item girl in the dictionary. People have created this word and I don’t believe that I am an item girl.” She’s right about the word not having reached the dictionaries, but it is an established colloquial term in India. An item song or item number is a upbeat dance or song that’s interpolated in a Bollywood film but has no connection with the storyline. An item girl sings or dances them, which are often used as teasers to publicise the film. The term may be from Indian slang item bomb for a sexy woman, as a reference to atom bomb; it may also contain a hidden reference to it girl. There are also item boys, but the term is less common.
Clickprint Though this term has been used for the computerised online printing of documents (and in that sense is a US trademark), another meaning has appeared very recently. Its source is a paper by Balaji Padmanabhan and Catherine Yang, entitled, Clickprints on the Web: Are There Signatures in Web Browsing Data? A clickprint is like a fingerprint, a unique identification of an individual. It is a pattern of online usage: how many pages viewed per session, the number of minutes spent on each web page, the time or day of the week the page is visited, and so on. The authors argue that by watching the pattern of usage, businesses can distinguish between visitors with almost 100% accuracy. This may be a way to deter fraud.
Conkerer No, that isn’t a misspelling, but a name sometimes given to a person who plays the ancient British game of conkers. (A few words of description for those unfamiliar with it: conkers has two players, each armed with a nut of the horse chestnut threaded on a string. Players take turns hitting their opponent’s nut with their own. The player whose nut breaks is the loser.) It has been a bad year for gathering nuts, since our horse chestnut trees have been suffering from the dry summer and from a disease with the unfortunate name of bleeding canker. The organisers of last Sunday’s World Conker Championships in the village of Ashton in Northamptonshire had to search as far away as Cambridgeshire to find enough that fitted the tournament regulations (no flat sides and 32–35mm in diameter). The winners in the men’s and women’s events respectively were Chris Jones from London and Sandy Gardener from France. Conker is a dialect word originally meaning a snail shell, with which a form of the game was once played, though without the strings (it would be classed as animal cruelty these days, as the shells were still occupied); it might be from conch, but could equally well be a respelling of conqueror, since the version with chestnuts on a string was often spelled that way in the nineteenth century.
5. Questions & Answers: Gringo
[Q] From Michael B Grossi: “While pondering weird words last night, I wondered if you had ever researched the word gringo. We all know what it means, but where and when did it originate? I heard a story that when Anglos from the US were settling in Texas in the 1820s and 1830s they used to sing a song that had the repetitive chorus ‘Green Grow the Lilacs Oh’. It is said the Mexicans in that same land (which was part of Mexico until the Revolution of 1836) took this phrase and sobriqueted us thusly.”
[A] This derogatory Spanish term for a white English-speaking person does indeed have interesting stories linked to it, the one you mention probably being the most common. Some tellers prefer to associate the song with Irish volunteers serving in Simon Bolivar’s army in the early 19th century, or to American troops attempting to track down Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916-17, all of whom were supposedly singing from the same song sheet (the last of these often mentions Black Jack Pershing, since to attach a famous name to a story improves its credibility no end). Other tales link gringo with the green uniforms (hence green coats) that were worn by American troops of the period, who might have been urged by the locals “green go home”.
The real story is rather more interesting, since it takes us to two continents and involves four languages. A medieval Latin proverb referred to something unintelligible: Graecum est; non potest legi (“It is Greek; it cannot be read”). Shakespeare borrowed it in Julius Caesar: “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” It’s the origin of our modern saying “it’s all Greek to me”.
The Spanish version of this Latin proverb was hablar en griego, literally to talk in Greek, and hence to speak unintelligibly. This was known in Spain no later than the last decades of the eighteenth century. Esteban de Terreros explained in his dictionary of 1787, El Diccionario Castellano, that “gringos llaman en Málaga a los estranjeros, que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo, y por la misma causa con particularidad a los Irlandeses” (“Foreigners in Malaga are called gringos, who have certain kinds of accent that prevent them from speaking Spanish with an easy and natural locution; and in Madrid they give this name to the Irish in particular for the same reason”). He explained that gringo was a phonetic alteration of griego.
The first recorded use of the word in English is in 1849, which does rather suggest it was the Mexican War that brought it to the attention of Americans. It appears in the diary of John Woodhouse Audubon, the son of the wildlife illustrator, who recorded on 13 June in that year that “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes’”. As his diary wasn’t published until 1906, public notice of the word in America more probably first came about through a book by one Lieutenant Wise of the US Navy that appeared in January 1850: Los Gringos; or, an inside View of Mexico and California, with Wanderings in Peru, Chili, and Polynesia.
[This is a version of a piece from my book Port Out, Starboard Home (Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds in the USA), which is available from—as they say in the adverts—all good booksellers, and even from some frankly terrible ones, too.]
• Speaking of conkering, as we were earlier, Chris Sunderland found an article about it in the Evening Standard this week, which says that the city council in Newcastle Upon Tyne is picking the ripe nuts off the chestnut trees to stop children climbing for them. A representative of the council is quoted. “Someone might ring us because there’s a horse chestnut tree near their house or property and there’s a risk of damage. When kids are trying to get the conkers down they can fall and damage cars.” There’s no problem with the kids falling out of chestnut trees if they don’t damage cars, of course.
• An e-mail arrived from Dublin resident Eoin C Bairéad concerning a particularly egregious example of apostrophe misuse. “At the end of that interesting film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, credit is given to British Actor’s Equity. How singular, I thought.”
• J Holan’s local music society in Vermont, the Friends of Music at Guilford, reported a recent event in the current issue of their newsletter Continuo: “The lunch was delicious and folks munched away merrily on folding chairs.” What does one drink with those?
• Yahoo! News reported on 5 October, Peter Casey tells me, about an anti-piracy feature to be introduced: “Reduced functionality is already a part of the Windows XP activation process, but Windows Vista will have a reduced functionality mode that is enhanced, Microsoft said on its Web site on Wednesday.” Enhanced reduced functionality? Those Redmond programmers are geniuses.
• The story was widely reported in US newspapers on Wednesday, under headlines like that in the Boston Globe (noted by Barton Bresnik): “Typo Will Cost Michigan County $40K”. The report explained that “Ottawa County will pay about $40,000 to correct an embarrassing typo on its Nov. 7 election ballot: The ‘L’ was left out of ‘public.’”
6. Over To You
Lynn Humfress-Trute e-mailed from Canada to baffle me with this question: “When my father and I play cribbage, he often uses the expression ‘And in my hand I have Morgan’s Orchard’, meaning he has no score. Could you tell me the origin of this expression, please?” The only reference I can find came in an e-mail from Ed Matthews back in 2004 (he’s based in the UK); he said his grandfather used it, also when playing crib, to mean a hand with two pairs, which he guessed was a pun on two pear trees, or a small orchard. To find two examples of a previously unknown phrase, both used in the same game from two different countries (though Ms Humfress-Trute’s father is British and the two senses are distinct) makes me wonder if there might be more to it. But there’s nothing in reference books or my historical archives about it. Can anybody help?