NEWSLETTER 626: SATURDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
More mugs Following my notes last week on mugboards, carnival painted boards with cut-outs for the head, a couple more comments have come in that show that the range of names for these obscure items is greater even than I had suggested. Michael Turniansky found that another term used by a number of the makers of such items is faceless cutouts. Richard Beard, former director of the California Renaissance Faire, says that back in the 1970s such a panel was being referred to as a lookie loo. I know lookie-loo only as a US slang term for a rubbernecker, a person who is “just looking”, with no intention of buying; the same word has been used to describe the call of the whippoorwill. Whether either of these has anything to do with the matter, I have no idea.
I confused a few people by suggesting a double meaning to mug in mugboard. One meaning, of course, is the face, a term that goes as far back as eighteenth-century England and possibly derives from the drinking mugs in the shape of a grotesque human face that were common at the time. The other meaning I had in mind was that of a stupid or gullible person, which is much better known in the UK than the US.
That would contribute an extra shade of meaning to another American term, mug book. Though common in police contexts for a collection of photographs of the faces of known criminals, Judith Rascoe knows another sense: “I’ve encountered it in the writings and conversations of very correct genealogists. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries salesmen travelled the US, persuading the citizens of small towns and cities that they were compiling directories of the distinguished men of a locale, large books with biographical sketches, often illustrated. Contributors were invited to tell their life stories and this information was turned into literate prose. Inclusion was free, but contributors were invited to buy copies of ‘Distinguished Men of Hardrock, Wyoming’ for their families and libraries, volumes that were somewhat expensive. These volumes seem to be have been known as mug books to their publishers. They later became important sources of information for local historians and genealogists, and mug book is decorously used today. I suspect their publishers were aware of their participating in a racket and that they called them mug books in the same spirit that their carnie cousins named those things mugboards.”
Bringing a person's latent ideas into clear consciousness.
The maieutic method is Socratic: a person is engaged in a dialogue by a questioner until frustration caused by challenges to his ideas leads him to dissatisfaction with his settled convictions and makes him refine his views. In practice, of course, the questioner knows the answers already and leads the dialogue by supplying clues to allow the other person to work them out.
The word is from Greek maieuesthai, to act as a midwife, from maia, a midwife. Socrates compared himself to a philosophical midwife, who through his questioning could induce the delivery of superior understanding in the other person, because the knowledge was already present in that person’s mind.
Though the word is first recorded in the seventeenth century, it has become very much more common in modern times, especially in discussions of philosophy, education and psychotherapy.
3. Recently noted
CSI: Birdland You had best skip this item if you’re eating or have a delicate stomach. Scott Langill and Luciano Eduardo Oliveira have independently told me about a technical term of the aviation investigation business: snarge. When a bird strike causes an air accident — such as the one that forced a plane to ditch in the Hudson River last month — it’s important to determine the species involved. There are usually bits of mixed-up bird remains on the aircraft, such as feathers, beaks, blood and flesh. This is snarge. The standard technique for collecting it involves spraying the area with water and wiping it with a paper towel. The towel is then sent to the Feather Identification Lab at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. National Public Radio reported in January that 4,000 samples were sent to the Lab for identification in 2008. An article in the magazine Flying Safety in 2003 says snarge was invented there. One of its researchers is Carla Dove (an example, by the way, of what New Scientist magazine used to call nominative determinism — the tendency of people to do jobs that match their surnames). She tells me that they didn’t invent it but borrowed it from the experts who prepared bird specimens for the collections: “Everyone referred to the bird goop, guts, tissue, etc. as snarge. I think anyone who works in a museum and prepares bird specimens for research collections is familiar with the word.”
Tin A report last week noted that the stannator of Plympton, near Plymouth in Devon, died in a road accident during our brush with winter. Stannator is a fascinating word with a very long local history. These days in Plympton, it’s the title given to the mayor, but that’s a recent innovation to mark the ancient link of the town with tin mining. (The word is from Latin stannum, tin, which also supplies the metal’s chemical symbol, Sn.) Tin mining in medieval times was so vital an industry that by royal charter the tin miners of Devon and Cornwall were governed by a stannary parliament, which had the power to pass laws — administered by stannary courts — and also veto national legislation from Westminster. Stannators were the elected representatives to the parliament. From 1307 onwards, Plympton was one of the stannary towns where stannary courts were based. The courts were abolished in 1896 but the parliament was never formally done away with (although the Cornish stannary parliament last met in 1752) and attempts have been made from the 1970s on to resurrect its powers. This has not gained favour in the House of Commons.
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5. Questions & Answers: Carrot and stick
[Q] From Norm Brust: “Your recent item on carrotmobbing makes a slight reference to carrot and stick and its popular usage to describe rewards and punishments intended to motivate a person. This is a corruption of the original metaphor which implies an incentive system in which the prize seems within easy reach but can never be attained. The source is a trick concocted by men who use asses as beasts of burden. They suspend a carrot from a stick tied to the back of the animal’s neck in such a way that the carrot hangs a foot or so in front of the animal’s muzzle. The normally stubborn ass, thinking it is within easy reach of a tasty morsel, moves forward to grasp it but, of course, never quite does. Do you know how this change in meaning came about?”
[A] Strangely, few of my reference books discuss this neat little metaphor in any detail and none of them suggest a source. I can’t give you the full story, since nobody seems to know it, but some pointers are possible to its age and development. They show that the trick you mention was only ever a joke.
The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for carrot in the figurative sense of something presented as an inducement to action, with its earliest example being from 1895. Here’s an earlier one:
He never had carrots dangled before his nose, and he hoped he never would have, but if any one did such a thing, he would get a very sharp answer.
In a debate in the House of Representatives in New Zealand in 1872.
Though figurative, it must refer to the even older literal idea of a carrot being flourished as encouragement in front of a draft animal. I’d guess that the idea is as old as draught animals (the OED describes it as proverbial). However, the oldest reference to a donkey I can find is this:
But all nature says, “Lead! don’t drive!” from the experiment of the carrot-persuaded donkey.
The Eclectic Magazine, New York, Aug. 1851.
I surmise that the animal was given the reward when it obeyed, otherwise the carrot would quickly cease to encourage. The trick of suspending the carrot in front of the animal on a stick that was attached to it — and so forming a reward that was forever out of reach — must have come along later as a comic idea.
But that morning, as I rode along, there flashed into my mind a cartoon I had once seen of a donkey race, in which the victory had been won by an ingenious jockey who held a carrot on the end of a stick a foot or two in front of his ass’s nose. In its eagerness to reach the carrot, the donkey put on such a tremendous burst of speed that it immediately outstripped its competitors and won the race.
Through Russia on a Mustang, by Thomas Stevens, 1890.
Real donkeys, as I say, are too intelligent to be fooled by such a stratagem for very long, and the idea behind the recorded examples of a figurative carrot was that it was an actual inducement, not the false promise of one.
The combination of carrot and stick, with the image of an animal being offered a tasty encouragement at one end while being thumped with a stick at the other, is of the nineteenth century:
It was this carrot and stick discipline to which Mr. John Mill was subjected, and which he accepted dutifully as flowing from that perfect wisdom of which up to this time his father had been the representative.
The Reality of Duty: As Illustrated by the Autobiography of Mr John Stuart Mill, by Lord Blatchford; Contemporary Review, August 1876.
The next example I can find, however, is much more recent, in an article on the problems of post-war Britain in The Economist in July 1946, which said that a healthy economic system required both the carrot (the incentives of reward) and the stick (the threat of poverty if a man was unwilling to work) and that the trouble with the country was that in recent years both the carrot and the stick had been whittled away until there was little of either left. The editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, which reproduced part of the article the following month, was struck by its novelty, calling it “an arresting metaphor”.
Had it been lurking in the language for nearly a century, or did The Economist writer reinvent it? What seems more than probable from the written evidence is that the modern metaphor of carrot and stick for encouragement combined with punishment derives from this article or another in the same journal two years later.
• Esther Cup Choy reports that a notice in a senior residence library read: “Book donations accepted from residents in good condition.” It was quickly changed when the librarian was asked, “who’s going to confirm their condition?”
• A classified advertisement in the Florida Keys Keynoter listed a 50-foot boat for sale that came equipped with an “Electric anchor wench”. Michael Welber wonders what else she did on the boat.
• The Visit Scotland site intrigued Mike Reilly with this enticing promotional offer: “To find those special heirloom quality things takes real dedication and lots of time. Thistle & Broom, Ltd. has brought together the penultimate collection of authentically made-in-Scotland treasures.” Mr Reilly admires the canny Scots who hold back the ultimate collection from foreign visitors.