NEWSLETTER 499: SATURDAY 5 AUGUST 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Democrazy My squib on this word last week ended with a note that it was the title of the Smith’s album in 1991. Subscribers were quick to tell me that the Smiths have never had an album of that title; others criticised my grammatical error, since it should have been Smiths’, or perhaps Smiths’s. The album was actually a little-known solo one by Judge Smith, a founder member of the band Van der Graaf Generator, so the error was including the the!
Epeolatry Learned subscribers pointed out that it is not possible for this word to have come from ancient Greek epeos, since there was no such word. The correct derivation is from epos.
2. Topical Words: Gunsel
In modern American slang a gunsel is a criminal carrying a gun. So it was natural that it should be spoken in the episode of Deadwood aired in the US this week. The two saloon keepers Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver both refer to the brothers Wyatt and Morgan Earp, who had supposedly saved the stagecoach from road agents, as gunsels, meaning gunslingers. The summary of the plot on the Home Box Office Web site says: “Cy presents to Hearst his plot to engender a duel between Bullock and Wyatt Earp; ‘...whether Bullock or this gunsel stood at the finish there’d be no losing in it for you.’”
This man was not a gunsel, trust me.
Wyatt Earp, the famous marshal of Wichita and Dodge City, was certainly recorded as being in Deadwood in 1876, so the historical setting is right. But nobody could have called him a gunsel for two reasons: the word didn’t exist then, and even when it came into existence, about twenty years later, it didn’t mean a gunman but a raw youth. In particular, in convict and tramp slang a gunsel was a young homosexual male, especially one who was the companion of an older man. It is generally taken to derive from the Yiddish gendzel, a little goose, from German Gänslein, a gosling.
A plausible story of the way the word changed sense was set out by Erle Stanley Gardner in an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1965. He claimed it was the fault of Dashiell Hammett. Together with Gardner, Raymond Chandler and others, he was a contributor to the old Black Mask pulp magazine edited by Joseph Shaw that featured naturalistic crime stories. But Shaw was dead against including vulgarisms and blue-pencilled some of Hammett’s underworld usages. To retaliate, as Gardner told the story, Hammett laid a trap for Shaw. In his next story he included the term gooseberry lay. Shaw pounced on this and rejected it, though it wasn’t a rude term at all but tramps’ slang for stealing washing off clotheslines to sell. But Hammett also included gunsel in the story, which Shaw left in, thinking it meant “gunman”.
The significant appearance of the word was in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, serialised in Black Mask in 1929 and published as a novel the following year: “‘Another thing,’ Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: ‘Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.” The word was spoken by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the 1941 film of the book and so became much more widely known. If you read Hammett’s description of the boy, you’ll realise that he was subtly making the point that he actually was gay, but if you hadn’t been tuned into that you might miss it.
3. Weird Words: Astrobolism
The blasting of plants by the sun during high summer.
Literally, it’s the result of being struck by a star, as it comes from the Greek astron (as in astronomy and many other words), plus bolis, a missile (which is also the source of bolide).
The star is Sirius, the dog star; because it rises and sets with the sun during summer in the northern hemisphere, it has lent its name to dog days for the hottest part of the year in places north of the equator. The dog days are those from about the middle of July to the middle of August (though the exact dates vary depending on where you live).
The thought behind astrobolism is connected to the old idea that this period of summer is under a malign influence, in which dogs run mad, the air is unwholesome, sunstroke is common, and all useful works stagnate for want of effort.
It was first recorded in Nathaniel Bailey’s Dictionary, dated 1721. Apart from very occasional appearances in other reference works, it has had almost no circulation at all.
4. Recently noted
Cellywood John McNeil spotted this the other day. By a strained analogy with Hollywood and Bollywood, it refers to films being made to be shown on cellphones. As that is the usual US name for the devices we in Britain prefer to call mobile phones (or just mobiles or even mobes), it is probably an American creation. The earliest instance I can find was in Wired Magazine in March 2005 and it seems to have had its brief fling of popularity last year.
Ludology This is in the Jargon Watch column of the current issue of Wired Magazine (August 2006). It refers to the study of games, in particular computer and video ones. The word derives from the Latin ludus, which is also the source of the name of the board game Ludo. The earliest example I can find is from a Usenet posting in 1996, but it began to be more widely known around 2004, to judge from its appearances in newspapers. By that date many colleges in the USA and elsewhere had begun to offer courses in video-game design. A person who studies such games is, of course, a ludologist.
Uncanny Valley It’s a real place, California residents will tell me, but it’s also the name of a principle in computer animation that turned up in an article on the gamasutra.com Web site this week. As imaging techniques improve and faces become progressively more photorealistic and human-like, our attitudes to them change in an interesting way. In the early stages, we become more positive about them as they become more realistic, but once they reach a critical point they begin to look eerie and disquieting because they’re just wrong enough to make us extremely uneasy about them. As the quality of the images improve further we once again begin to react positively to them. A graph of our responses against realism has a big dip in it—this is the Uncanny Valley. The concept was formulated in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, but the earliest English translation of the phrase dates from about 1995.
Black dollars This term usually refers to money belonging to black Americans, but another sense turned up this week in reports of a London libel case. Black dollars are black pieces of paper. In parts of Africa and India some people believe that if these are dipped in the appropriate chemicals, they turn into real US dollar bills. Fraudsters have reportedly sold paper dyed black to gullible businessmen. The scam reported this week added another level of confusion by alleging that red mercury was needed to make the change. This would be difficult, as red mercury doesn’t exist. It was supposedly a powerful explosive that could be used to make fusion bombs; it was invented by the KGB during the Cold War as a sting for terrorists. If they tried to buy it they were arrested.
5. Questions & Answers: List slippers
[Q] From Peter Chitty: “Any idea what list slippers are? Arnold Bennett’s book, The Old Wives’ Tale, refers.”
[A] The passage you refer to reads: “Sophia wore list slippers in the morning. It was a habit which she had formed in the Rue Lord Byron—by accident rather than with an intention to utilize list slippers for the effective supervision of servants.” That, by itself, serves only to deepen the mystery, since it’s far from immediately clear why such footwear should help with that.
Let’s take it from the top. There are eight different senses of the noun list in the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant one is now rare. It came into English from the Germanic languages with the meaning of a border or boundary (the lists, the place where a medieval jousting tournament was held, is an example of that sense; it derives from the name given to the barriers that enclosed the space in which the tournament took place).
More particularly, a list was the border or edging of a piece of cloth, its selvage, woven in a slightly different way from the body of the material so that it would not fray or unravel. List slippers were made of material woven in this way.
List slippers were often worn when quiet was needed, say when somebody in the house was ill and people walking about in ordinary shoes on bare floors would disturb them. In an old parenting manual, Advice to a Mother on the Management of her Children, by Pye Henry Chavasse, of 1878, the author noted that in a sick room nurses ought to wear “list slippers—soles and all being made of list” to maintain quiet. So Sophia could more easily supervise her servants through wearing them because she could creep up on them unawares. The same idea turns up in Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, in which the put-upon spectre “gave up all hope of ever frightening this rude American family, and contented himself, as a rule, with creeping about the passages in list slippers”.
The same footwear was worn by gunners on board ship when working with gunpowder, as C S Forester explained in Lieutenant Hornblower: “Mr Hobbs, the acting-gunner, with his mates and helpers, made a momentary appearance on their way down to the magazine. They were all wearing list slippers to obviate any chance of setting off loose powder which would be bound to be strewn about down there in the heat of action.”
• “Did you know the lung is a memory device?” asked Ron Krueger. He had been reading the Claim with Colchamiro column in the July 2006 issue of Bridge Bulletin, produced by the American Contract Bridge League: “COPA is a pneumonic device that helps players understand signaling better.”
• The New York Times of 29 June reported: “The F.B.I. has said that a separate raid on Mr. Jefferson’s home in Washington turned up $90,000 in cash hidden in a freezer that had been provided to the lawmaker as part of an F.B.I. sting.” Amy Livingston read this through several times but still isn’t sure whether it was the cash or the freezer that was provided as part of the sting.
• On the job wire of the US National Association of Science Writers Merry Maisel spotted an advertisement for the post of director of public relations and communications at the San Diego Supercomputer Center: “Develop communication vehicles that meet the highest editorial standards and follow the tenants of communications etiquette.”
• “I don’t know whether this is eligible for the ‘sic’ part of your newsletter,” e-mailed Ted Friethoff from the Netherlands, “but when on holiday in Ireland I passed a sign which read: ‘Waterfall closes at 7’. I imagined Paddy turning a huge tap.”
• Sometimes spelling errors can be terribly public. Jayne Mahoney tells me that a trailer currently running on Sky Movies in the UK for the six Star Wars films focuses on the Roman numeral VI. Words such as vile and vicious caption shots of the baddies. The first one, a shot of Darth Vader, is captioned villan.
• Martin Turner noted this on the Yahoo! Movie Directory listing: “Official site of the animated movie The Ant Bully, about a boy who is shrunken down to the size of an aunt and put on trial by the ant colony after repeatedly stomping on aunts and their homes.” That’s a relatively minor error, you may feel.