NEWSLETTER 580: SATURDAY 22 MARCH 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Pinguescence Several readers asked whether the penguin might have got its name from the same source, Latin pinguis, fat. The word history of penguin is very confused and uncertain, with one favoured origin being from Welsh (or perhaps Breton) words meaning “white head”. This is said to have originally been given to the great auk in the northern hemisphere (since it had large white spots in front of its eyes) and then later applied to the penguin in the southern. The recent revision of the entry in the online OED runs to nearly 1,000 words of etymological speculation without coming to any very definite conclusion; an origin in pinguis is said to be possible, however. There is supporting linguistic evidence for this as well as the fact that great auks and penguins were hunted for their fat.
A kind of bun or small cake made of fine flour.
On Good Friday 1664, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary, “Home to the only Lenten supper I have had of wiggs and ale.” Though they were sometimes said to be like Good Friday buns, ancestors of hot-cross buns, they seem to have been linked not only with the end of Lent but with other special occasions, too; Clement Miles noted in his book Christmas in Ritual and Tradition in 1912, “In Shropshire ‘wigs’ or caraway buns dipped in ale were eaten on Christmas Eve.” They were also recorded as being associated with St Andrew’s Day on 30 November, for some reason notably in Bedfordshire.
A Lincolnshire variation on an old children’s rhyme goes:
Tom, Tom, the baker’s son,
Stole a wig and away he run;
The wig was eat, and Tom was beat,
And Tom went roaring down the street.
In the nineteenth century, wiggs (or wigs or whigs; spellings have been very variable) were widely known and equally widely variable in their recipes. Caraway was one constituent mentioned in some parts of Britain (these were presumably the type recorded in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter: “But a person cannot live on ‘seed wigs’ and sponge cake and butter buns”); in other places it was said they should be sweet and contain currants (though in northern England this was a spice wig, a plain wig being without them). In Lincolnshire, plums were considered to be a vital ingredient, while in Hampshire honey was essential. On the other hand, the austere burghers of Bristol said a wigg was a local name for a plain halfpenny bun. They were nearest its origin, since a wigg was at first simply a fine wheaten loaf lacking these later elaborations.
Most recorders of this dialectal term said that wiggs should be long or oval, though in 1900 The Farringdons by Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler includes the line, “Elisabeth helped herself to one of the three-cornered cakes, called ‘wigs.’” Etymologically speaking they should be wedge-shaped, as the word is from old Germanic wigge, a relative of wegge, from which wedge is derived. The word is recorded from about 1375.
3. Recently noted
Mirdle This popped up in a couple of US newspapers this week, including the Wall Street Journal, though sightings go back to the Washington Post in January. It’s the strangest neologism spotted so far this year. Mirdles are man-girdles, also known as support boxers and compression shorts and even more euphemistically as shapewear, bodyshapers, and waist eliminators. This last one must surely be a marketing own-goal, as the point is to get rid of pear-shaped beer-bellies and to put the waist back. Men who exhibit muffin tops, the Wall Street Journal reports, are turning to such garments to retrieve that svelte shape from the effects of ageing and overindulgence. Though one thinks of them as the preserve of women, the report reminds us that in the nineteenth century there was quite a male fashion for them. Thin is in again.
Blogvertising This unlovely term appeared in New Scientist last week. It’s a combination, as you will easily guess, of blog, an online personal journal (a Weblog), and advertising. It’s especially advertising associated with custom content, leading to a blog that blurs the distinction between editorial content and advertising, so that it’s the online equivalent of the advertorial). It’s not much seen in print, not as yet anyway, though the term is recorded from the latter part of 2005.
4. Questions & Answers: Between versus among
[Q] From Lynne Baker, Dave Olander and others: “In your discussion of Ivy League colleges you referred to a competition “between the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton”. I think the correct usage is between two people or entities and among when three or more are mentioned. Am I right or wrong?”
[A] William Safire commented in the New York Times in 1999 that three style guides — those of his own newspaper, the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal — all “stand foursquare for the between/among rule” that you cite. He commented that the AP guide included the maxim that “between introduces two items and among more than two”, arguing that as a result it was correct to write “between you and me” but “among the three of us’”.
This is still a matter capable of arousing controversy in the US. John McIntyre, an editor with the Baltimore Sun, was criticised for saying in a radio broadcast on National Grammar Day earlier this month that between could be used for more than two. He wrote in the paper on Thursday that he had come across a passage in Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger that made his point: “Between February 25 and March 4, Kissinger resumed his shuttle diplomacy, traveling between Damascus, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and Bonn, before his return to the United States.” Mr McIntyre comments, “He did not travel among those six cities; he traveled between one and another seriatim.”
Most US style guides agree with Mr McIntyre that between can be used for more than two. British guides say the same, following the statement by James Murray in the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century ago: “Between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two”, with his earliest example being from the year 971. Noah Webster made the same point in his dictionary in 1828; Sir Ernest Gowers described the rule as a superstition in the Second Edition of Fowler in 1965. It seems to have grown out of a view by grammarians of the eighteenth century that was falsely based on etymology, since the second part of between is from a Germanic source that’s related to twain and two. This led Dr Johnson to assert the rule as you have given it in his own dictionary in 1755, although he added, “but perhaps this accuracy is not always observed”.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that, “the enormous amount of ink spilled in the explication of the subtleties of between and among has been largely a waste; it is difficult for a native speaker of English who is not distracted by irrelevant considerations to misuse the two words” and ends “you are going to be better off following you own instincts than trying to follow somebody else’s theory of what is correct”, a statement that may equally apply to this article.
The one part that’s correct is that you must use between if only two things are in consideration: “he stood among two people” feels obviously wrong. But to put the complete rule into words isn’t easy. James Murray said that between expresses the relation of things to surrounding things regarded separately and individually but among expresses it to them only collectively and vaguely. A modern guide says that between is right when the relationships of the members of the group is essentially reciprocal or mutual, while among suggests there is no close relationship.
I leave the last word with subscriber Malcolm Ross-Macdonald: “I was cured of this shibboleth when I was challenged to use ‘among’ instead of ‘between’ in the sentence, ‘He lived in that ill-defined triangle between East Town, West Town, and South Town.’”
5. Questions & Answers: Steam radio
[Q] From Eiður Svanberg Guðnason, Faroe Islands: “Could you enlighten me about the origins of the English expression steam radio? In Icelandic we have a related term which probably came into being with the advent of television in Iceland in 1966. Channel One on the radio, The Icelandic State Broadcasting Service, is often called Gufan, “the steam” or endearingly gamla gufan, “the old steam”. Was the English term born with television to distinguish the old “voice radio” from the new medium?”
[A] That’s pretty much it. It was coined in the UK no later than the early 1950s at a time when television was the coming medium.
Radio, or sound broadcasting as it was still called in the BBC at the time, was starting to be thought old-fashioned and out of step with the times by the pioneers of television. It was also a period in which steam locomotives were being phased out on British railways and in which steam power had gained the image of a technology that was moribund and characteristic of the previous century. The equation of steam with old-fashioned most probably occurred to several people around this time and we may never learn whose fertile mind came up with it first.
The first example I know of is in a 1953 book by Percy Cradock, Recollections of the Cambridge Union, “Today radio broadcasting is so commonplace that the TV men speak of it patronisingly as ‘steam radio’.” Four years later, Val Gielgud, a pioneer of radio drama on the BBC in the 1920s, wrote that “The flight from ‘steam-radio’ to television has become an admitted rout.” Radio, of course, has long since shaken off this defeatist and depressing belief and is still a very important force in British broadcasting, belying the critics who thought it would waste away in the face of the visual medium.
Until I came to research the term, I had believed that it was the writers of the Goon Show, Spike Milligan in particular, who coined the term as a defensive epithet for the older medium. The show used it so often, however, with sound effects, that it must have done a lot to popularise it.
6. A note on Grog
Last week’s piece on grog, which told the conventional story of its origin, led to two very interesting countervailing suggestions. Martin Watts told me that the Wikipedia article on the word asserts that an earlier example exists in Daniel Defoe’s The Family Instructor of 1718, which has a Barbados slave boy say that “black men” in the West Indies “make the sugar, make the grog, much great work, much weary work all day long.” Jonathon Green records in his Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that another earlier example is given in The Roxburghe Ballads, a famous collection of broadsheet songs, mainly from the seventeenth century. He tells me that it appears in volume 7, edited by Joseph Ebsworth and published in 1893, in a ballad whose title is Pensive Maid and whose date is given as 1672-85: “In a public-house then they both sot down / And talk’d of admirals of high renown / And drunk’d as much grog as come to half-a-crown.”
On the principle that you only need one white crow to disprove the assertion that all crows are black, either of these would be enough to sink the Admiral Vernon story full fathom five with no prospect of rescue. However, matters, as so often in etymology, aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. The Defoe citation is given in later editions of the book and in quotations from it (I’m still trying to get access to a first edition) not as Wikipedia cites it, but as “makee the sugar, makee the ginger; much great work, weary work, all day, all night”. Ebsworth, despite his many failings, was a scrupulous editor, and his dating ought to be on the mark (though I can’t find Green’s date in the volume). But it’s a one-off example in a collection that had been bedevilled by fakes and which has later additions (there’s one about the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, for example). The reference to admirals, and the general tone of the piece, hints it might have been written after 1740 in knowledge of the Vernon tale. The only firm date is that it must be older than its reproduction in a book of comic songs of 1818 compiled by Thomas Hudson.
Incidentally, the comic song might be our source for the expression before one can say Jack Robinson, meaning very fast, since its last line reads “And he was off before they could say Jack Robinson.” The first known use of the phrase in the OED is dated 1778. It’s more likely, however, that the comic song uses an already known expression, which would be a further pointer to its being of post-1740 date.
• Derek Helling found this on the Web site of the television station KSDK in St Louis: “The St. Clair County coroner’s jury found Mitchell was driving 126 miles-per-hour just moments before the accident on November 23. The grand jury determined Mitchell was going to fast while responding to an accident call”. See what happens when you don’t keep your sugar levels up?
• Last Saturday I started to giggle while reading a Guardian profile of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s one-time chief of staff. Powell says of Blair, “He would get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and write in his underpants, then we’d have to dash downstairs and give it to the No 10 secretaries to type up.” We have to assume Blair had a spare pair to change into.
• Department of hydrological excess: Jim Woodfield noticed that the issue of the Vancouver Sun of 23 February included this sentence under the heading “Canada’s water crisis ‘escalating’”: “Canada is crisscrossed by innumerable rivers, some of which flow into three oceans.”
• Jim Getz e-mailed from Columbus, Ohio. He had found this first paragraph on a story dated 10 March on the Web site of TransWorldNews: “Representative Sally Kern said that gays are a bigger threat to American society than terrorists on Saturday.” It’s good of gays to limit their depredations to one day a week.
• Education Guardian on Tuesday included an article about the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow that mentions the history of the airport: “Some fascinating film footage from 1949 shows ... the rather gentile first travellers.”