NEWSLETTER 592: SATURDAY 21 JUNE 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Square one The discussion rumbles on. Nelsen Spickard joins many others in putting forward a different origin: “Why do folks keep fixating on Chutes and Ladders? The street game hopscotch has been around since the Romans were in Britain. Hopscotch has a square one. In the older rules (as when I was a kid in the 1950s), when you make a mistake you return to square one and start over.”
As countervailing arguments to the point made last week that almost no snakes and ladders boards have a snake taking players back to square one, readers suggested that one had to allow for licence in creating figurative expressions; another reader noted that in some versions of the rules two players’ pieces could not occupy the same square and that if a player’s piece landed on an occupied square, the first player was sent back to the start, to that figurative square one.
Orientation Several readers asked, as a sideline on the comment last week regarding orient and orientate, why a verb that in its form seems to refer to the east is now used for any alignment. The older of the pair is orient; its earliest meaning was indeed to arrange something so that it faced east. It began by referring to the alignment of a Christian church to face Jerusalem and to the custom of burying people with their feet facing east. It was in the nineteenth century that its meaning broadened to mean any alignment with a compass point or other specified point and to add the idea of turning towards a specified direction. The figurative sense of mentally getting one’s bearings is from the same century. Orientate dates from 1848 and has gone in the same direction and taken on the same extended senses as orient. Several US readers noted that they’d been taught that orientate meant face east but that “orient” meant “to fix and locate one’s position on a map”. This is a distinction not given in standard dictionaries and which doesn’t fit the history of the words.
Alternate Several readers queried my phrase “Harry Turtledove’s alternate history”. No, they cried, it should be alternative. Alternate history, for an SF story which takes place in a world in which history has taken a different course, is first recorded in 1957 and is older than the other form by 20 years. It was coined in the US, in which alternate has taken over much of the territory of alternative in the past 50 years. It’s mostly the British who prefer alternative history, though even here — as you will note from my using it — the other form is often used because of US influence. Let us not, please not, argue the relative merits of the two words.
Having a strong, pleasant taste.
An example appeared in a restaurant column by James Chatto in Toronto Life on 30 April 2008: “It was an inspired pairing with a sapid Berkshire pork tenderloin stuffed with lightweight shrimp-and-saffron mousse.”
More than a century ago, H G Wells employed the word in his story, Filmer, which was collected in Twelve Stories And a Dream, published in 1903: “As he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face, pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane.”
It comes from Latin sapidus, savoury, in turn from sapere, to have a taste or savour, from which we get insipid as well as savour. That verb had another sense, to be sensible or wise, and has given us sapient, savant, sage and the French savoir-faire.
3. Recently noted
Super-spike This term has become relatively common in newspapers in recent weeks as a result of the recent unprecedented rise in the price of oil. The reference is to the sharp peak on a graph as a result of a sudden change in price. It appeared first in a prescient report by oil strategist Arjun Murti at Goldman Sachs, dated March 2005: “We believe oil markets may have entered the early stages of a ‘super spike’ period”. The price was then $55 a barrel; he predicted that it would reach $105. The Bank’s prediction now is for $200 a barrel within the next 6-24 months.
Gossipologist Starting the day with the Dilbert comic strip, as I often do, Monday’s strip presented me with the new word gossipsize. It was presumably invented by Scott Adams on the model of downsize, since he used it to mean spreading slanderous gossip about an employee until he’s compelled to quit. While unavailingly searching for prior examples, Google suggested gossipist, a gossip columnist. Though this hasn’t reached dictionaries, and probably never will, there are a number of examples on record. It looks like a coinage of Time magazine, since it appears many times in its columns, the earliest being on 7 April 1930: “One of his best friends is Walter (‘Vulture’) Winchell, gossipist of the New York Mirror, who writes his blurbs only with a heavy-leaded Variety pencil.”
It’s a dog’s life? Back in August 2006, you may recall some fuss over the decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to downgrade Pluto from planetary status to dwarf planet. Those of us who follow the evolution of language were relieved, once the furore was over, that the matter was settled. We relaxed too soon. The IAU executive committee met in Oslo last week and resurrected one of the proposed neologisms, plutoid, as the class name for Pluto and another distant object, Eris. The formal definition of a plutoid is of a celestial body in orbit around the sun at a distance greater than that of Neptune that has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a near-spherical shape and has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. The issue is being rehashed because planetary scientists were left out of the 2006 debate and want their voice heard. In particular, they want to differentiate between rocky dwarf planets such as Ceres, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, and icy outer worlds like Pluto, Eris and others they expect to discover. The naming issue will be thrashed out as one topic at a conference in August in the US. Editors of dictionaries and school textbooks may be aghast at having to rewrite the books again, but that’s the way it goes.
OED updates The quarterly update of the Oxford English Dictionary was posted on 12 June. John Simpson, its chief editor, discusses some of the interesting words. The OED’s Senior New Words Editor, Katherine Connor Martin, contributes notes on new words and senses added from across the alphabet.
4. Questions & Answers: Soapbox
[Q] From Brian Fawcett: “In the light of all the campaigning in an American election year, I mentioned the term soapbox and got a few strange looks from people who had never heard the term. I refer to politicians using a platform or box to speak or preach. Can you find any other history to the use of soapbox or perhaps soapboxing?”
[A] Useful things, soapboxes. In quantity, bars of soap are rather weighty and they used to be packed in stout wooden boxes or crates for transport. Once emptied, the boxes were in demand. The indigent turned them into improvised furniture; children loved to put old pram wheels on them and make them into mini-racing cars, so they could run soap-box derbies. They were also just the ticket to stand on so you could be seen more easily when haranguing an audience in the street.
The most recent literal example I can think of is the soapbox, so-called, that the British prime minister John Major spoke from in the 1992 general election. My journalistic contacts say it first appeared in Cheltenham on 30 March 1992; it was certainly a wooden box from a supermarket, but as nobody packed soap in wooden boxes even then, it was instead a more flimsy orange box or crate (at least that’s what it looks like in the news photographs, with black gaffer tape wound round it to make sure it didn’t fall apart and precipitate the PM into the crowd). John Major called it a soapbox to reinforce the idea he was conducting a traditional meet-the-people campaign — on the stump, as Americans say, in reference to another kind of wooden platform.
There’s no way of knowing when public speakers first turned to the soap box or exactly when it became the term for a certain kind of strident, in-your-face public oratory, the sort long famous at Hyde Park Corner in London or which Fannie Hurst wrote about in her Gaslight Sonatas in 1918: “It is the pulpit of the reformer and the housetop of the fanatic, this soapbox. From it the voice to the city is often a pious one, [or] impious one, and almost always a raucous one.” An early literal reference appeared in March 1896 in the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel of Indiana: “Then the band divided and scattered throughout the town, distributing their pamphlets and occasionally mounting a soapbox or a barrel to make a speech.” But I suspect it goes back a lot further.
The earliest example of the term used figuratively I can find is in the report of the National Convention of the Socialist Party of America in 1904, which referred to the party’s soap-box orators. Only three years later, Jack London wrote in The Road, his account of his hoboing experiences of 1894, “I get up on a soap-box to trot out the particular economic bees that buzz in my bonnet.”
The verb is also known, as is soap-boxer, both from early in the twentieth century.
5. Questions & Answers: Ahoy!
[Q] From Dave Nash: “I have heard that ahoy derives from a Czech greeting, apparently popularised by sailors docking in English speaking ports — from the Czech ahoj, meaning ‘hello’.”
[A] You’ve brightened my day by supplying yet another folk etymology to add to my growing collection. Ahoj, said the same way as ahoy, is indeed used informally in Czech, and more widely still, I’m told, in Slovak.
It’s too neat an origin not to be believable but there’s absolutely no truth in it. Too few Czech or Slovak sailors could have landed in English-speaking ports down the years for the word to become at all widely known. And in any case they would have had to arrive before 1751, when Tobias Smollett used it in The Adventures of Perigrine Pickle: “While he was thus occupied, a voice, still more uncouth than the former, bawled aloud, ‘Ho! the house, a-hoy!’”
Hoy actually goes back to medieval times. It was a formalised spelling of a natural, inarticulate cry. The first person known to have written it down was William Langland, in his poem Piers Plowman, in the fourteenth century. It was used when driving pigs or cattle, or when you wanted to attract a person’s attention.
In particular — and this is where the maritime connection really does appear — sailors used it to hail another ship. Ahoy was a development of this that added force to the cry.
I was wakened — indeed, we were all wakened, for I could see even the sentinel shake himself together from where he had fallen against the door-post — by a clear, hearty voice hailing us from the margin of the wood: “Block house, ahoy!” it cried. “Here’s the doctor.” — Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (1883).
Alexander Graham Bell suggested ahoy as the way to answer his new telephone and operators at the first exchange did just that. It’s sometimes erroneously said — by the way — that hello was invented by Thomas Edison because he didn’t like ahoy. This story has been finally scotched this week by the Oxford English Dictionary through the publication online of a revised entry for hello, which records it from the 1820s, long before the telephone was thought of.
• The devastating floods that hit the US midwest last week might not seem like a source of humour. But the hyperbole in a report in the Cedar Rapids Gazette last Saturday raised a smile: “Those who live in the 500-year flood boundary were advised to prepare to evacuate. ‘Never in a million years did anybody think that we’d be dealing with this magnitude of an event,’ Iowa City Manager Michael Lombardo said.” No, just every 500 years.
• Daniel Timms e-mailed to mention an article on the BBC News site on Wednesday about skills shortages: “‘We are facing a serious decline in the quality of graduates looking to enter the industry,’ said David Braben. ‘The death of maths, physics and computer science graduates is hitting us hard.’ A surge of sudden demise certainly would, but he wonders if the true skills shortage might be of BBC copyeditors.
• Elaine Blackman reported an advertisement feature in last week’s Hereford Times that included the featured establishment’s menu for Father’s Day. One of the starters was “French onion soup with greyer croutons”. Somehow she just didn’t fancy it.
• The Apple Store Web site, Padmavyuha found, is advertising their Ultimate Ears headset for the iPhone with a description whose last sentence reads: “The armature is embedded in an anodised aluminium housing that is both small and lightweight and is an atheistic complement to the iPhone.” Are they trying to tell us it isn’t the result of intelligent design?