NEWSLETTER 546: SATURDAY 28 JULY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Gordon Bennett In the full piece online about this expression, I omitted to point out that its popularity was probably in part as an alternative to such mild oaths as God help us or Gor blimey. It is most likely, I would guess, that it was employed in the early days as a humorous reference to such imprecations. But, as several writers noted, Gordon Bennett is a very satisfactory exclamation in its own right. Numerous subscribers remarked on the Australian general of that name, who controversially left Singapore after the Japanese reached it in 1942, abandoning his men. I have in the past wondered whether this might have been the source, but the recent discovery of a pre-war citation rules it out. However, it might be that the general’s notoriety gave a fresh impetus to the expletive in Australia.
2. Weird Words: Venery
Hunting; the chase.
Let us leave unexplored the other meaning of this word, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “The practice or pursuit of sexual pleasure”. At times it may seem to its participants to resemble a hunt, but it’s not connected etymologically. It comes from Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty and love.
Venery dates from medieval England and is closely connected with the royal forests established by the Norman kings and nobles after the Conquest of 1066 (despite the name, the royal forests included fields and open ground as well as woods). The beasts of venery were those that were considered most noble to hunt. There were animals of a lower order, too, the beasts of the chase, which included the fox, as well as beasts of the warren, such as the rabbit and the pheasant.
3. Topical Words: Bowser
Floods have caused enormous damage in parts of southern Britain in the past week or so; ironically, one result is that in the worst-hit areas local residents have lost their water supplies because treatment plants have flooded. On Monday, BBC News reported that drinking water was to be brought into the stricken areas using bowsers. This word had presumably been taken from information supplied by Severn Trent Water, the water company that is most affected. BBC reporters — plus other radio and TV news broadcasters and some newspapers — felt it necessary to explain this odd term in case it would not be understood.
Bowser is rather specialist, not being the sort of word that you naturally drop into daily conversation unless you run a service station or an airport. But it’s neither archaic nor especially rare, though it doesn’t mean the same thing in every country in which it’s used.
We owe the word to the late Mr Sylvanus Bowser, of Fort Wayne, Indiana. At the beginning of the twentieth century he invented what he then called the self-measuring gasoline storage pump but which we in these days of haste and clamour abbreviate to gasoline pump or petrol pump. That’s why such pumps in Australia and New Zealand (and to some extent also Canada) are called bowsers, because his firm, S F Bowser & Company, had a thriving export trade to those countries in the early days of motoring. The device consisted of a measuring pump attached to a tank that — those being more carefree days — could be put at the kerbside in front of a garage.
In consequence, Bowser’s firm was in the business of making fuel storage tanks from early on, though it trademarked the name only in 1921. The firm later made its fuel tanks mobile and self-propelled, while keeping the core idea that their contents would be dispensed from them directly to the end user. This is what distinguishes a bowser from the tankers that serve petrol stations, which don't supply the public direct but pump the fuel into underground storage tanks. Bowsers have long been used on airfields to resupply planes, and they became well known to service people in many countries during the Second World War.
It is only in the UK, for some unknown reason, that bowsers supply drinking water, something for which many people are currently very grateful.
4. Recently noted
2.0 Fitting this term into the standard alphabetical layout of a dictionary is going to be hard, but it looks as though the bigger ones may have to find a way to include it, since it’s now all the rage. It began with Web 2.0 three years ago, but the numerical second element is now turning up all over the place. As Computer Weekly pointed out last month, “We have had Marketing 2.0, PR 2.0, Democracy 2.0, Identity 2.0, Jobs 2.0 and even Lunch 2.0.” I’ve also seen Travel 2.0 and Government 2.0 plus several examples of Television 2.0. I’ve even encountered it as a verb — to 2.0-ify. But don’t look too closely at what 2.0 means. It’s all too often shorthand for a broadly technological, especially Web-related, development which its promoters would like people to believe is new, fashionable and exciting. The boring old Web that most of us are still using is deprecated as Web 1.0.
Wizard Rock To be topical, this should have appeared last weekend, when the last of the Harry Potter books was published. According to Wikipedia, it dates back to 2002, so I’m hardly au fait with the zeitgeist. However, better late than never, though if I were any later it would have to be never. Wizard Rock bands are fans of the series who write and perform songs that relate to characters or events in the books. Groups have names like Harry and the Potters, The Whomping Willows, Wingardium Leviosa, Draco and the Malfoys, The Parselmouths and The Remus Lupins. Nobody takes wizard rock very seriously, including those involved. WizardRock.org, a fan genre site, quotes a member of The Whomping Willows: “Half of these bands are populated by kids who are just learning to play an instrument and record music. The beauty of Wizard Rock is that for many of the bands, it’s nothing more than a learning experience.”
Cosplay The Wikipedia article used this term to refer to Wizard Rock band members dressing as their character while performing. Obviously enough, it’s a blend from “costume play”. To judge by the 17 million hits I got when looking the word up on Google, it ought to be in all the dictionaries, it’s so widely known. The Wikipedia article on cosplay referred me to one on glomping, which says that this is a form of greeting, often consisting of a fervent running hug, common among fans at Anime conventions. My vocabulary expands ...
5. Questions & Answers: Rear its ugly head
[Q] From Arthur Hart: “So many bad things today seem to be rearing their ugly heads! What was the first thing that reared its ugly head, and who first turned this colourfully descriptive phrase?”
[A] This has indeed become a cliché. It refers to something that has made an unwelcome appearance or has become a troublesome subject that requires attention. This, for example, appeared in the Irish Independent on 5 July 2007: “Critics have noted the short battery life, an issue that has already reared its ugly head for the iPod.”
Though the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1946, the use of reared suggests it’s much older. Reared here means to set something upright or hold it in an elevated position. We don’t use the verb in that way any more, though we do speak of a horse rearing. Raised is a good equivalent and raised its ugly head is now often used instead. Reared its ugly head is not only a cliché, but also an idiom, preserving an outdated verbal usage.
Tracking it down, as with most clichés, has proved impossible. So far as I can discover, it dates from the nineteenth century. The first appearance I know of in that exact form is in The Defiance Democrat of Ohio of 28 June 1883: “And now the brief peace she had known was broken. The serpent had reared its ugly head amid her roses; it could be Paradise to her no more.” The earliest example of all is in the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg of 29 January 1867: “He is still in the front rank of those who are determined that rebellion shall not again be able to rear its ugly head in this land, and that our government shall not again go into the hands of traitors.”
Might it be scriptural? It seems not, or at least it doesn’t appear in Genesis, where you might expect it to from the first quotation. But the simpler form reared its head has been around since the time of Milton, the middle of the seventeenth century. My guess is that some mute inglorious writer enlarged reared its head sometime in the nineteenth century to provide a satisfactory image of a disagreeable manifestation.
• While Bert Forage was browsing in a gardening shop near his home in Hobart, Tasmania, he noticed a gadget for crushing empty aluminium cans. The advertising blurb said “Can not supplied”. Duh. Not even an empty one for practice?
• “I had occasion,” e-mailed Wendy Pomroy, “to look up the definition for ‘atheist’ in the Encarta World English Dictionary provided with Microsoft Word 2004 for the Apple Mac. I was delighted to find it defined as ‘somebody who does not believe in God or dieties’. A fat disbeliever perhaps?”
• On 11 July, the Guardian reported how a diver wrestled with a 3ft lobster after it attacked him. “The lobster came at me, its claws snapping. I could hardly get my hand across the back of its shell. I managed to get it with a pincer movement.” How else?