NEWSLETTER 612: SATURDAY 8 NOVEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
A flea in my ear Just one letter different, resulting in dozens of querying or correcting messages. I wrote in the piece on flea in one’s ear that “houses — and their occupants — were often infected with fleas”. Infested would have been better.
In the same piece, I suggested that the French puce à l’oreille meant that you had some fixed idea or notion. Several French speakers disagreed. The full phrase mettre une puce à l’oreille, to put a flea in one’s ear, means to make one suspicious or put doubts into one’s mind. I was confused by notes from three twenty-first century translators about George Feydeau’s farce La puce à l’oreille, all of whom suggested that a better English title would be A Bee in Her Bonnet, that is, an obsession or (to stay with French) an idée fixe. I’ve not been able to discover whether this was a meaning of the French phrase at the time Feydeau wrote his farce in 1907.
Yes we can Several subscribers wrote in mildly shocked terms about the use by President-elect Barack Obama of enormity in his speech of acceptance. One writer commented on my uncharacteristically prescriptive condemnation of it in a piece written some ten years ago. On re-reading it, I agreed with him and have rewritten it in more positive terms.
In other updates online, I’ve been expanding pieces that started out as brief items in the newsletter into Turns of Phrase entries. This week I’ve included hypermiling; I forgot to mention last week that I’d added pages for two other new words: recessionista and minigarch.
2. Turns of Phrase: Mycodiesel
On 2 November, this word was known only to a very few people, all associated with Montana State University. Within two days, it had appeared in hundreds of press reports worldwide. Of such is the speed of linguistic evolution in our wired world. The stimulus was a press release from the university, announcing a discovery by a plant scientist named Gary Strobel.
He and his team at MSU have found a remarkable fungus living inside the ulmo tree in northern Patagonia. Unlike any organism previously known, the fungus produces a range of hydrocarbons to fight off competitors that are similar to compounds in existing fossil fuels and which, he says, could be used in a diesel engine without modification. Better still, the fungus feeds on cellulose — the main constituent of the organic waste, such as sawdust and plant stalks, that’s left after timber and food production — so valuable agricultural land to grow its raw material wouldn’t be needed.
The fungus may be just what’s needed to make biofuels to replace fossil fuels; or the genes that enable it to produce hydrocarbons could be transferred to organisms that could do the job better. Though this discovery has excited many researchers, it’s as yet a long way from being a practical method of making biofuels.
The word includes the prefix myco-, an irregular creation from Greek mukes, a fungus or mushroom, which is in words such as mycology, the scientific study of fungi.
Scientists were amazed to find that it was able to convert plant cellulose directly into the biofuel, dubbed “myco-diesel”. Crops normally have to be converted to sugar and fermented before they can be turned into useful fuel.
[Press Association, 4 Nov. 2008]
Some car manufacturers who shun ethanol might consider myco-diesel or fuels produced by other microbes, said a MSU release.
[The Hindu, India, 4 Nov. 2008]
Unmarked by laughter or rarely laughing.
The Oxford English Dictionary not only marks this as obsolete, but finds only two examples, from seventeenth and eighteenth century dictionaries.
Searching the literature shows that the word’s not that rare and in fact seems to be enjoying something of a mini-boom in popularity at the moment. Its modern recrudescence may have been provoked through its use by George Meredith in An Essay on Comedy, dated 1877: “It is but one step from being agelastic to misogelastic” (miso- means hatred of something, as in misogyny, the hatred of women by men), though nearly all the examples that I can find are in works of the 1990s onwards. It turned up in an article in the Guardian recently, together with agelast, meaning a person who rarely or never laughs. Walter Redfern utilises it in his book French Laughter: Literary Humour from Diderot to Tournier (2008): “Is not sex spasmodically but regularly comic, for everyone except the most mechanical, brutal, and agelastic performers?” (You do get less elastic with age, but that’s not what he means.)
Its opposite, gelastic, is more common and hasn’t suffered the vicissitudes of fortune of its negative partner. You will come across this most often in medical terminology, principally in gelastic seizure, a form of epilepsy in which brief bursts of pathological laughter is a symptom.
Both words derived ultimately from Greek gelos, laughter.
4. Recently noted
Something for the weekend A phrase known in the spoken language in Britain for generations but rarely written down, this euphemistic expression has long frustrated lexicographers. It was traditionally a discreet query in a hushed voice from a barber to his customer at the end of a haircut or shave, asking whether he wanted any condoms (though they were never called that). Despite extensive research, the Oxford English Dictionary has found nothing earlier than 1972 (on a Monty Python record). But anybody in the UK with a long memory knows that it had much earlier become a nudge-nudge wink-wink allusion to anti-procreative purchases. I’ve been reading the reminiscences of Dennis Norden, one half of a British script-writing duo with Frank Muir, now best remembered from their regular appearances on My Word and My Music. He recalls that when — back in 1950 — they began to write the scripts for a Saturday morning radio comedy show that was to star Bernard Braden, their working title was Something for the Weekend. Auntie BBC was not amused, refusing to countenance such vulgarity (times have changed, as anybody will know who has been following the recent furore over a broadcast by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross). The show was broadcast instead as Breakfast with Braden. Unfortunately, but with good reason, the anecdote of an 86-year-old more than half a century after the event isn’t by itself good enough evidence for the OED’s editors. But if a draft script with that title had only survived, it would have taken the written record back a generation.
5. Reviews: Damp Squid
”A word,” said Humpty Dumpty to Alice, “means just what I choose it to mean” and went on to assert dogmatically, “The question is which is to be master.” Is the language to rule us or we it?
This goes to the heart of modern dictionary-making. Their editors feel, almost to a man or woman, that language is what language does and that if people at large choose to join the fragile old egg in believing that glory means “a nice knock-down argument”, then the word means just that, “neither more nor less”, as Humpty Dumpty peremptorily told Alice. This permissive approach (descriptive in lexicographic jargon, as opposed to a prescriptive one), by which dictionaries record usage without claiming authority, still saddens some people.
It’s magical what a skilled researcher can pull out of this conglomeration. One quarter of all that we write, on average, is made up of just ten words: the, be, to, and, of, a, in, that, have, I; it requires only another 90 words to cover half of our writing. (Strictly, as Butterfield is careful to explain, we should replace word by lemma, the term for the version of the word that appears at the head of an entry in a dictionary and which stands in for all the varied forms that it can take; for example, drive in corpus discussions implies also the other forms of the verb — drives, driving, drove, and driven.)
Butterfield shows how the corpus illustrates the presence of common errors, some of which are well on their way to acceptance. The incorrect just desserts, for example, is nearly twice as common as just deserts (60% against 40%), suggesting that it may well become the standard form. On the other hand, baited breath, though common at 34%, is some way as yet from taking over from bated breath. He notes that in the past ten years, Web site (which is how, in my conservative way, I still write it) has been largely replaced by website, with 80% of examples in the latter form. One day, I’m going to have to change, or people will think I’m making a mistake. His title is taken from another error of similar type: damp squid instead of damp squib, which makes sense if you don’t know about the firework and feel that squid are more likely to be wet.
In later chapters, he continues to use the corpus to tease out the nature of English. He focuses for example on collocations, another technical term, this time for words that tend to appear together. These provide dictionary editors with personality profiles that help to make clear how words are being used, in particular in the kinds of ways that entrap unwary learners of English. One pair he uses is naked and bare. We don’t much talk about naked knees or feet, for example — they’re bare — but when we’re speaking about the body we almost always use naked, not bare. Each word has its well-defined constituency of associations.
His style is chatty and examples are plentiful. If you want a quick glimpse into the way dictionaries are compiled today, along the way getting insights into our language, both static and changing, you could do worse than buy this book.
[Jeremy Butterfield, Damp Squid: The English language laid bare, published by Oxford University Press on 29 October 2008; hardback, pp179, including index; ISBN-13: 978-0-19-923906-1, ISBN-10: 0-19-923906-1, publisher’s list price £BP9.99.]
• We’ve been having fun with bad translations from Chinese in recent weeks, but it’s by no means the only language that loses a lot in translation. The BBC news on 31 October, too late to mention it in last week’s newsletter, had a story about a bilingual road sign in Swansea, South Wales. In English it reads “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” Underneath, the text in Welsh is “Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu”, which may be translated as “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” This was the text of the e-mail that came back from the translation service used by staff of Swansea council when a Welsh equivalent of the English sign was requested. The BBC site has a picture of the sign, which has now been taken down.
• Another translation problem, this time from Europe. Bram Amsel e-mailed from Antwerp: “The Dutch word nuchter means both fasting and sober. In a hospital release letter written in English a doctor stated that the patient should be ‘non-sober’ when he comes back for his blood test. Fortunately the gaffe was caught in time.”
• This one will startle you if you know any chemistry. Steve Hirsch discovered that the advertisements for a currently available Student Chemistry Kit from Arbor Scientific assert it’s an “Introduction to the elements from Ammonium to Zinc.” To stay with scientific howlers, Tim Weekes thought we might like to know about a report in the Bristol City Council’s October Your City newsletter: “Bristol City Council’s plastic recycling subcontractor — Recresco — uses a completely new way of collecting plastic bottles: a high-pressure vacuum to empty the bottle banks.”
• ”Our local bakery,” reports Fred Wallis from Perth in Australia, “has a sign proudly proclaiming, ‘Tuesday is Pensioner’s Day — buy one, get one free’. But what would you do with two half-price pensioners?”