E-MAGAZINE 678: SATURDAY 20 FEBRUARY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Chitting Following up last’s week’s note on this word, Candida Frith-Macdonald wrote: “This isn’t only applied to seed potatoes. There are some vegetable seeds (true seeds!) that are notoriously troublesome or unreliable or slow to germinate in cold ground (beetroot, carrot and parsnip spring to mind). You might chit — or pre-chit — these before planting, or even buy them so prepared.” She went on, “More fun with potatoes: for some reason the end with the most closely clustered ‘eyes’, the one you tend to turn upwards when chitting, is called the rose end. Take a good look at a potato and try to imagine why. I can’t.”
Parson’s poke Meg Ross wrote, “In response to the question about the Parson’s Poke in the game of crib, I am by no means certain about this, but I know that when my family plays crib my mom has referred to the Scottish Poke, which is a form of shuffling that is supposed to be good luck. You push a section of the cards out of the middle of the deck with a finger and then place them on top of the pile. Doing it too many times in a row, though, can be bad luck and it’s generally reserved for use in crucial hands.” It’s known to George Andres as the Chinese Poke. Might all three names refer to the same process?
The British Marxist magazine The New Left Review announced recently it had reached its fiftieth anniversary. True to its uncompromising intellectuality, it referred to its “quinquagenary issue”.
Here’s another relatively recent sighting of this rare word:
Having dubbed himself variously as the Man Who Sold the World, the Man Who Fell to Earth, and now, simply, Earthling, David Bowie has more than just his quinquagenary to celebrate at Madison Square Garden January 9.
The New York Magazine, 13 Jan. 1997.
The term is from classical Latin quinquagenarius, consisting of fifty, or fifty years old. This has also given the English language quinquagenarian, a slightly better known term, whose adjectival senses overlap with those of quinquagenary, in particular one that refers to a person in their fifties.
By the way, if the journal survives a further quarter of a century, it will reach its semisesquicentennial. The prefix sesqui- is a shortened form of a Latin word meaning “a half in addition” or 1½ times; it appears in the rather better known sesquicentennial that refers to a a 150th anniversary. So semisesquicentennial refers to half of 1½ of 100 or 75. (If you prefer, you can replace semi- with either of the other prefixes meaning a half, demi- or hemi-. All are extremely rare.)
In a further fifty years, the magazine might celebrate its quasquicentennial (125th anniversary, a century plus a quarter, created irregularly from Latin roots in the early 1960s). Assuming a longevity that’s extremely rare in any publication, it might one day achieve its demisemiseptcentennial (its 175th anniversary, a half of a half of 700) and perhaps even its semiquincentennial (its 250th, half of 500).
3. What I've learned this week
The digital finger writes ... Reading about something else last weekend I came across word of finger. It’s a punning revision of word of mouth for the digital age and refers to communication by e-mail, texts and the like. By its nature it is both recent and to be found mainly online. Here’s a rare example in print:
If you were a first-time visitor from Mars and you happened to drop into a marketing meeting somewhere in the United States, you might assume that marketing people do nothing but talk about “TGIF.” That’s Twitter, Google, the internet and Facebook. There’s no question these four revolutionary developments have forever changed the marketing function. Word-of-mouth has now become word of finger.
Advertising Age, 9 Nov. 2009. For most people, however, TGIF still means Thank God It’s Friday.
Acronymic country collections There are now so many collectives for international groupings that keeping track isn’t easy. We have the G7 group of finance ministers, which used to be the G6 before Canada joined; it became the G8 with the addition of Russia and turns into the G8+5 when Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa attend. There are also the G11, the G20, the G24, the G33, and the G77; others have probably passed me by. Recently, the crisis in Europe has generated PIGS for the group of countries with severe economic problems; this includes Portugal, Greece and Spain. Commentators disagree whether the I stands for Ireland or Italy — sometimes both are included, making PIIGS. If Italy, the term Club Med nations is sometimes substituted, a term taken from the holiday company. Last weekend, another unsavoury collective appeared: STUPID, for the countries thought to be in big trouble if the Greek economy falls apart. The acronym stands for Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy and Dubai. So the UK isn’t one of the PIGS but it is STUPID. That’s us put in our place.
4. Questions and Answers: Cock-a-hoop
[Q] From David Gullen: I know what cock-a-hoop means but not why! Do you have any ideas?
[A] You’re going to be a little disappointed. Many have speculated down the years on the origin of this puzzling expression for being very obviously pleased about some success — mainly known in Britain and Commonwealth countries — but have failed to arrive at any very satisfying conclusion, or at least to none that can be unequivocally substantiated.
The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary say of cock-a-hoop that it is a phrase “of doubtful origin, the history of which has been further obscured by subsequent attempts, explicit or implicit, to analyse it.” They then spend 400 words explaining why these various attempts are spurious. It’s impossible to improve on that quality of scholarship, but at least I can give the background.
We may be shaky on its origin, but we can say quite a lot about the way in which the expression has evolved. It started out meaning to drink and make merry with utter abandon, “to make good cheer with reckless prodigality”, as the OED’s editors wrote with linguistic exuberance. Over time — the expression is recorded from the middle of the sixteenth century — it evolved into meaning reckless or elated and hence arrived at its modern meaning.
The problem for word historians is that they’re unsure what the cock bit refers to. Was it a cockerel? That would make sense of the idea of crowing triumphantly but doesn’t work for the oldest sense (though some writers long ago suggested that hoop here is actually from French huppe, a tufted crest, in reference to the cockerel’s comb).
The first recorded guess (and we really have to call it that, even though it was put into print in 1670, more than 300 years nearer its origin) was by Thomas Blount, who suggested that the cock was referring to a spigot, so it was being used in the same way that it now appears in stopcock. Intriguingly, experts are sure this is the same word as the one for the bird, not least because the German equivalent, Hahn, has for much the same period of time had both meanings. The link might have come about because early examples looked like a cock’s head with its comb. If the cock is the tap of a cask, then the hoop might be one of those enwrapping the vessel. Blount suggests that when people intended to seriously make merry, they took the cock out of the cask and laid it on one of its hoops, signalling that those present should drink unceasingly. As the first form of the expression was cock-on-hoop, this argument is plausible on etymological grounds.
We have to leave it there. There’s little chance of finding further evidence to make the origin clearer or otherwise of seeing clearly through the mists of time. Let’s enjoy it as an unsolved puzzle.
• A headline from the Dayton Daily News of Ohio on 13 February was noted by Phil Wolff and John Nabors: “Man shot in chest, leg knocks on door for help”.
• “I waited and waited but she never did sit down,” e-mailed Russ Lynch. He was referring to a sign at the entrance to a restaurant in Hawaii: “Please wait for Hostess to be seated”.
• The Associated Press’s muddled sentence demon strikes again. From a widely reproduced AP news story, seen by Pete Saussy in The State, South Carolina: “Authorities say they have charged two South Carolina women with murder after finding them inside a trailer with the body of a man trying to clean up after he was shot in the head.”
• “Malapropistically apt ...” was the subject line on a message from Ryszard Pusz in which he sent a photo of a sign in Oman: “Telephone cards are available hear.” And speak, presumably.
• The online Hastings and St Leonards Observer of East Sussex had a headline over a story dated 12 February that intrigued Rob Coates (who read it in Perth, Western Australia): “Hastings councillor wants dog mess kept on agenda”.
6. Copyright and contact details
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