NEWSLETTER 625: SATURDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
On the fourth hand ... Oh, dear, dear. SF aficionados rapped my knuckles regarding my attribution of on the third hand to Larry Niven. His version of the expression was on the gripping hand, in reference to a three-handed race of aliens that had one particularly powerful arm. A 1983 book by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has the title The Gripping Hand. However, on the third hand is much older: the earliest example I can find is in A Book of Prefaces by H L Mencken, dated 1917, but no doubt the incongruous image was well known even then.
Boilers I was also chastised as a result of my my translation of the British central-heating boiler to the American furnace. Several readers commented that boiler is indeed a US term. Bill Lauriston wrote that in American English “boilers heat water and furnaces heat air”. Dodi Schulz said, “The gas-fired device down-cellar that circulates hot water through pipes and radiators in our building is expressly referred to by its manufacturer as a boiler (and it was accompanied by a boiler manual); the city requires annual boiler inspection reports be filed attesting to its safe condition; the certification is provided by a boiler inspection company.” OK, I hear you. This newsletter is educational, at least for its editor.
Boards with holes in Following up Gwyn Headley’s request to learn the name for a photographer’s painted board with a cut-out for the head, Michael Hocken tells me that the Web site of a British seller of the things calls them head through the hole photo booths, a term that hardly trips off the tongue. Peter Casey discovered many examples of carnival cutouts, which seems to be a common US term. Jack Hartfield e-mailed from Sydney to say that he had rented three of these things and that the invoices had called them photo cutout boards, which meant nothing. Scott Langill commented from Washington DC that “The traditional [American] carnival term for these props is mugboard, the classic images being the muscle man and bikini girl. The contemporary term used by vendors is photo stand-ins and less often standees or standups. However, the latter two terms also refer to the celebrity photo figures without face cut-outs that subjects pose next to, like the Barack Obama standees that have proliferated since January 20.” He sent me to Wayne Keyser’s online Dictionary of Carny, Circus, Sideshow & Vaudeville Lingo, in which the devices are also called mugboards, no doubt with a double meaning for mug. In lieu of a name that will be understood everywhere, a couple of readers suggested that they be called Headleys in honour of the questioner.
Abandoned apostrophes My little item last time about the decision of the Birmingham City Council in the UK to ban the apostrophe from street and neighbourhood signs mentioned that the US experience had been taken as a precedent. A message came from Roger Payne who, as the emeritus Executive Secretary of the US Board on Geographic Names, knows whereof he speaks. The Board has discouraged the use of apostrophes since its formation in 1890 (though five exceptions have been allowed, the most recent, in 2002, being Clark’s Mountain in Oregon), but its remit is in practice limited to natural features, so perhaps ought not to be claimed in support. In 2000, he discussed the reasons for losing the apostrophe in the Journal of the American Name Society: “Words when forming geographic names have lost their connotative aspects; the name is merely a label, and therefore ownership or association is no longer relevant.”
Those who oppose losing the apostrophe may argue that the final s should then go, too, since you need both to mark possessives. This is happening in medical practice, which — as two examples — frequently refers to Down syndrome and Alzheimer disease, since they’re named after the medical men who identified the conditions but who didn’t suffer from them (I assume Lou Gehrig’s disease will keep its apostrophe, as it’s named after a famous man who contracted it.)
Terry Davidson noted that Australia has similar rules to those in the US and pointed me to Section 4.12 of the Guidelines for the Consistent Use of Place Names, a publication of the Committee for Geographical Names in Australia, which says in full: “In all cases of place names containing an element that has historically been written with a final -’s or -s, the apostrophe is to be deleted, e.g. Howes Valley, Rushcutters Bay, Ladys Pass. This is to facilitate the consistent matching and retrieval of placenames in database systems such as those used by the emergency services.”
I’ve updated my piece about apostrophes from 1997.
2. It’s a new month, votewise ...
World Wide Words has achieved an absolute majority of votes each month in the LISTSERV Choice Awards 2009 competition since it was nominated at the very beginning of the contest last Autumn. We’re currently second following the reset of the counts at the beginning of February, but a sustained push by all subscribers will ensure we top the poll this month as well. May I urge you to continue your support of World Wide Words? You can vote once a day, every day.
To outwit by trickery or deception; to cheat.
Outrageous impostor! fool, dotard, oaf! Did he think to bejuggle me with his preposterous gibberish!
Mardi, by Herman Melville, 1849.
Since we moderns know juggle only to mean expertly tossing a number of things in the air and catching them, this antique word will puzzle us. That’s because down the centuries jugglers have become more specialised.
When the word came into English, getting on for nine centuries ago, it had the same sense as its French, Italian and Latin forebears: a jester, one who amuses through stories, songs, tricks and clowning. The Latin source was joculator, from joculari, to jest or joke. The first of these bequeathed us the now-obsolete joculator, a jester or minstrel; from the same source came the better-known jocular and jocund and their relatives.
Over time jugglers became less and less general entertainers. They set aside their music and stories and became exclusively conjurors, in particular that sort who deceives his audience by legerdemain or sleight of hand. It was only at the beginning of the nineteenth century that they came to practice exclusively the specific type of manual dexterity that we now associate them with (as an historical note, later in the same century the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t include this sense of the verb juggle because the word hadn’t yet acquired it).
By the sixteenth century, the verb had developed the negative ideas of a man who deceived in earnest, not just for entertainment, who tricked or cheated another. The be- prefix was added to it in the seventeenth century to suggest that the process was happening thoroughly or excessively.
From the Spanish school of comedy came these three-ply intrigues, intricate plots, and continual disguises that weary and bejuggle the modern reader.
Portraits and Backgrounds, by Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield, 1917. The sense has here softened towards mere confusion rather than outright deception.
[Many thanks to Daniel Matranga of the Adriance Memorial Library in Poughkeepsie, NY, for introducing me to this word.]
4. Recently noted
Word up! Martin Turner pointed me to a BBC opinion piece of 30 January by Harold Evans that suggested that now would be a good time to revive an Americanism from the 1930s, bankster, a blend of bank and gangster. Mr Evans is a little behind the curve: it has already been brought out from the rest home of retired words, dusted down and put back to work. Way back in 1991, the Washington Post said it was “A term whose revival is long overdue, coined by Time in the 1930s for the agents whose scheming precipitated a string of bank collapses at the dawn of the Depression.” (Mr Evans suggests it was really invented by Ferdinand Pecora, chief counsel to the US Senate Committee on Banking that was investigating the causes of the 1929 crash.) Eleven years ago, in January 1998, the same paper wrote, “With all the high risk and the fast money being made on Wall Street, it is not surprising that the word bankster has begun to creep into the language.” Archives show a few examples from 1998, some from 2002 and more from 2006 on. The most recent appearance on record is in the Black Agenda Report of New Jersey, dated 4 February: “In the process of attempting to breathe life into the bankster zombies, Obama and his bipartisan buddies will exhaust the capacity of the federal government to make money out of nothing.” On its present limited showing, it’s unlikely to feature in any list of words of the year, but it’s out there all right.
And now, the last of 2008 ... Lagging all the other announcements of words of the year is the one from Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary. This choice is straightforward: toxic debt, which I suspect few readers will fail to recognise immediately. Sue Butler, publisher of the Dictionary, said “as a lexical creation it has a visceral impact.” She also noted GFC (Global Financial Crisis), which she said had now also been added to the lexicon. Among the runners-up were bromance (a non-sexual but intense friendship between two males) and lawfare (the use of international law by a country to attack or criticise another country on moral grounds). The winner of the popular vote — chosen in an online poll — was flashpacker (a backpacker who travels in relative luxury).
5. Questions & Answers: Card
[Q] From Thomas Burton, Australia: “I have just finished reading Arnold Bennett’s The Card. The meaning of card in this context — a “character” — is so very different from the other meanings of card that I wonder how this meaning came to be.”
[A] A card is certainly a very individual person, one who stands out from the crowd because he is odd or amusing, because of a clever or audacious nature or because he is one of a kind.
Though it doesn’t seem to have any connection with real card, an association does exist, through playing cards. There have long been figurative expressions based on a playing card as a token of action or manoeuvre or a stratagem or gambit. In modern usage, we have playing the [something] card, to obtain political advantage through raising a particular contentious issue. We might have a card up our sleeves, meaning we have a plan or resource in reserve. In some situation, we might play our best card or our trump card.
A long way back in history, around 1560, the phrase sure card appeared, for some expedient certain to work. Another of similar meaning was sound card. People were often referred to as good cards, meaning that they were reliable or had abilities or qualities that made them effective in some situation.
Arnold Bennett’s sense grew out of these references to individuals as types of card. It’s relatively new — it’s not recorded before Charles Dickens used it in Sketches By Boz in 1836: “Mr. Thomas Potter whose great aim it was to be considered as a ‘knowing card’”. He used it again in Bleak House in 1852: “Such an old card has this; so deep, so sly, and secret.”
By the time that Arnold Bennett used it in his story of the Five Towns, in 1911, it was well-established as a colloquial term. It has dropped away markedly since, though it’s still around:
He’s a card, isn’t he, that Phil Tufnell? Bit lairy, bit of a geezer, a whiff of the bad egg about him. But bright with it.
Independent on Sunday, 13 Nov. 2005. Lairy: flashy; vulgar; socially unacceptable.
• “As an ex-pat living in Sweden,” e-mailed Antony Ryan, “I’ve been following the recent news stories about the United Kingdom’s plunge into the icy grip of the first real winter in years. I have been concerned for my friends and relatives during the snow-induced chaos. Now it seems I should be concerned for the mental well-being of the highways, too, according to the BBC at least: “Roads worry as temperatures fall”.
• Thanks to Julane Marx I learned that the Health Section of the Los Angeles Times on Monday included this headline: “Fasting cuts down on calories”. Who would have known?
• Norman Simons noted a report that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 1 February: “TV’s Emma Crosby chased burglars dressed only in pyjamas”. Surely, he commented, this is carrying dressing down too far.
• Jerry Miller received a cheque recently whose top edge contained a warning: “This document contains security mark & invisible fibers. Do not accept if features are not present.” He is understandably puzzled how to proceed.
• Wednesday’s Toronto Star discussed the safety of eating cheese made from raw milk and mentioned a Cheesy Soirée at which a number will be on offer. Denise Altschul considered attending until she read that “Attendees will be able to taste and buy the raw-milk cheeses. Experts debating the risks and benefits are also on the menu.”