NEWSLETTER 495: SATURDAY 8 JULY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Over To You World Wide Words subscribers are a knowledgeable lot. Within an hour of the newsletter going out last Saturday, a reply to Martin Rose’s query about the name of the traditional building material used around Brighton came in from Pam Davies. The name is bungaroosh, also spelled bungeroosh and in other ways. It was basically lime mortar, bulked out with anything else that was handy, like bricks, flints, bits of wood and lumps of chalk. Rob Fraser, at the time the Conservation Officer of Brighton Borough Council, said in an interesting and detailed article (thanks to Terence Sims and others for the link), that the material is a horror for those looking after old buildings: “Bungaroosh has to be a little damp. Too dry and the now leached mortar crumbles, too wet and it becomes mobile ... You could probably demolish a third of Brighton with a well-aimed hose.” Its origin is obscure, though it has been suggested that it’s from bung because anything handy was bunged in with the lime mortar. The ending sounds vaguely French. But these are just guesses—we don’t really have a clue.
2. Turns of Phrase: Net neutrality
Debates in the US Congress have recently brought this term to wide public attention inside and outside the US. The questions sound simple: should the Internet remain equally accessible to everyone, or should a two-tier system be created that requires companies who pay more or who use more of the Net’s capacity to pay a greater share of the cost? And should those who want a faster and higher quality service be asked to pay more for it?
The telecommunications companies (the telcos) argue that firms such as Google, eBay and Amazon, and online telephone companies like Skype, have built highly profitable businesses on the Net without contributing their fair share of the cost of running it. Providers of bandwidth-hungry technologies like video-on-demand should pay a higher fee to recognise the risk that they will clog the network. The decision by Channel Four, a British network, to stream many of its broadcasts online at the same time as they are transmitted conventionally is an example of what they’re worried about. Earlier this year AOL and Yahoo! announced they were introducing a two-tier e-mail system, in which senders of messages who paid a fee would receive faster service, bypassing the spam filters and other checks that slow transmission.
Opponents argue that a dual-pricing system would remove the key characteristic of the Net—that it is equally accessible to all comers. They point out that this neutrality is the reason why it has grown so spectacularly. They are afraid that the scheme would hand power to big businesses at the cost of the individuals and small groups who are its current main users. It might Balkanise the Internet into fiefdoms that would be controlled by individual telcos and ISPs, a possibility which Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has described as an Internet “dark age”.
The earliest example of the term I can find is in the title of a conference held in Washington in June 2003. A supporter of net neutrality is a net neutralist.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that idea is often borne out by overzealous regulation, which often has entirely unexpected side effects. Despite net neutrality’s proponents’ claims, such regulation might actually mean that somewhere down the line, all of us will be stuck on a dirt road instead of an information superhighway.
[The Motley Fool, 30 Jun. 2006]
Net neutralists also fear that telcos will use the new freedom to block content that interferes with their own business interests. Telcos could do this by charging extortionately high rates to competitors, slowing down their bits so that their applications do not work well or simply blocking them outright.
[New Scientist, 24 Jun. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Sabrage
The act of opening a bottle with a sabre.
Imagine opening a bottle with great ceremony by striking off its neck with one sweep of a blade. Traditionally the bottle contains champagne and the implement is always a sabre.
Success! the bottle neck and cork go
flying. (Photo courtesy of Le Confrérie
du Sabre d’Or)
You might think the result will be lots of broken glass and mess, but the skill of sabrage lies in hitting the bottle hard just at the bottom edge of the annulus, the glass ring at the top of the neck. The blow breaks the neck off cleanly, complete with cork. Experts advise you chill the bottle very well and avoid shaking it, remove the foil and wire cage, hold it away from you at an angle of about 40 degrees and strike with the bottle seam uppermost. Do not try this at home, kiddies. In truth, a sabre is optional: almost any hard object with an edge will do it.
At least one organisation, the Confrérie du Sabre d’Or, maintains this tradition at its champagne parties. But otherwise, both it and the term are rarely encountered. Stories hold that it dates from Napoleonic times and was invented by cavalry who found it difficult to open champagne bottles while on horseback, but did have usefully heavy sabres handy. You may celebrate the ingenuity of this story with a small glass of something bubbly if you wish.
Its language origin is definitely the French sabrer, to hit with a sabre. It’s a close relative of sabreur, one who fights with a sabre, best known in beau sabreur, a fine soldier or dashing adventurer. But the modern French sabrage mundanely refers to cleaning vegetable detritus from sheep fleeces.
4. Recently noted
Blawging Those who write or read blogs on legal topics will know I’m behind the curve here, since this term for the type has been around for a year or two. The coiner is said to be the California technology lawyer Denise Howell. It was coined by stuffing law into the middle of blog. (I don’t know a proper linguistic term for the process, though it might be referred to as infixing.)
Globalisation An example of how legends can accrue around a major figure appeared in the Boston Business Journal on 29 June, in an item announcing the death of the marketing guru Professor Theodore Levitt. The article said that “Levitt was the first to use the word ‘globalization’, in a 1983 article asserting that technology had created worldwide markets for standardized consumer products at lower prices.” The article, The Globalisation of Markets, did appear in that year (Harvard Business Review, 1 May 1983). But he didn’t invent the word: the first instance in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry is from the Spectator magazine of October 1962: “Globalisation is, indeed, a staggering concept.” However, he did popularise it in the current business sense and he did invent other terms, such as marketing matrix.
Gak-Addled This might be of interest to Grant Barrett (see below). It turned up in this spelling in a piece in the Guardian a week ago last Saturday. The more usual British spelling is gack-addled. The first part may be from the Irish dialect gack, to talk idly or chatter. As that’s one of the symptoms of cocaine usage, the word came to be used in UK drug culture in the 1990s as a slang term for the drug. As long ago as the seventeenth century addled moved from its standard English sense of a bad egg to refer to somebody whose brains were addled (as in addle-pated and addle-head). The following century it became part of the vast vocabulary of slang terms for somebody who was under the influence of alcohol. Like gack, it was re-borrowed in the 1990s to refer to somebody whose brain has been scrambled through imbibing drugs.
5. Reviews: The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English
Much has been said and written about the influence of the Internet on our language, a lot of it by commentators who feel that its love of slang and unconventional terms, its informality, and the poor linguistic abilities of many of its users, show English is going to hell in a handbasket. What is less appreciated is that the Net is semi-formalising the way that people have always communicated, so that we’re now able to eavesdrop on unedited conversations that show us the way the language operates when it isn’t being mediated by editors and professional writers.
Conventional lexicographical research is still largely wedded to the printed page. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, does not cite Net sources and so its researchers don’t search for new words and revised senses online. Grant Barrett’s book is different. He has created it from the Internet using methods impossible before the Net existed, such as the Google Alerts that send you e-mails when some word or phrase you specify turns up in a news report. Once he has identified a term, he hunts for its origin in the many electronic databases available online: as he says, “etymological work has never been easier”. Or more fun.
The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English is a teasing title (its subtitle even more so: A Crunk Omnibus for Trillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age), one that you might expect from a lexicographer who has given his Web site the name Double-Tongued Word Wrester (which is from an obscure 1571 citation in the OED). Grant Barrett spends his life immersed in colloquial language and slang, since his day job is as the project editor for Oxford’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a work that everybody with an interest in such matters is waiting for with ill-disguised impatience. This book, however, is firmly an extramural activity, though his professional background results in a work created on the best principles of historical lexicography, with terms carefully researched and every entry defined, discussed and illustrated by a set of citations.
Despite the modern means of identifying and researching the words in this book, the most obvious feature is how many of them predate the Net. Some of the terms have been around for long enough that they could easily already be in standard works on informal English: armchair pilot, an aviation enthusiast, recorded from 1934; cat face, an irregular appearance on fruit or vegetables, which dates from 1890; heartsink, a feeling of disappointment or dismay, from 1937. Some have indeed already appeared in dictionaries, such as ASBO (“Anti-Social Behaviour Order”), a British term from 1997; colourway, any of a range of combinations of colours in which a style or design is available; Ediacaran, a Precambrian period; and molecular gastronomy, the application of science to food choices and preparation. Others are modifications of terms that are well known, such as to blue-sky, to propose ideas that are as yet unfeasible, which even in its verb form predates the Net.
But the group that is largest and most interesting is that of colloquial or slang terms that rarely appear in mainstream works. Bustdown, for example, a Chicago Black-English term for a woman who is promiscuous or undesirable; merk, to attack, overcome or defeat somebody or something, a hip-hop term recorded from 1999; otherkin, people who believe themselves to be something other than human; skidiot, an unsophisticated computer hacker; temp, a slang abbreviation for “interpreter”; wad, to crash, probably a motorcycle, perhaps because that’s what the result looks like; the television series The West Wing accustomed us to POTUS (“President Of The United States”) but Barrett includes the more recent TMPMITW (“The Most Powerful Man In the World”).
Terms come from every national variety of English: half-past-six is from Singapore and means something bad or shoddy; gronk, as a general derogatory term for a man, is Australian; gbege, for an act of vengeful violence, is from Nigeria; freeco, a cost-free performance, service, or item, is West Indian; vernac, a casual abbreviation of “vernacular”, is a derogatory Indian term meaning culturally backwards or unfashionable; trapo, from the Tagalog word for a dirty rag, in turn from Spanish, is a Philippines term for a corrupt politician. Others come from creative meetings of English and another language, such as Spanglish, Hinglish, or the many other glishes, as he calls them: goonda tax, protection money or a bribe, is from Pakistan, with goonda being Hindi or Urdu for a ruffian; freeter for a temporary worker or freelance is known in German, Japanese and Korean and is variously identified as a blend of free with Arbeit, German for work, or Japanese arubaito, part-time or casual work. Some foreign terms are included because of English exposure, such as the Austrian Verwaltungsvereinfachungsmassnahmen, a drive against bureaucracy and bureaucratic jargon.
From a British perspective, I must query handbags at ten paces, a British term for a verbal spat, often in sports—it may have had its origin in a Monty Python sketch, but its earliest datings shows it was influenced by Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister, in which she was said to keep order among her ministers by hitting them with her handbag; frogspawn, a schoolboy’s term for tapioca, is surely a lot older than the first citation from 1991 would suggest, as I can remember it from my childhood.
But these are minor quibbles. If you want to find out more about the way English is being creatively used worldwide, then this is the book for you. Recommended.
[Grant Barrett, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, A Crunk Omnibus for Trillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age, published by McGraw Hill in May 2006; paperback, pp412; ISBN 0071458042; publisher’s price US$14.95.]
• The People, a British Sunday newspaper known for its exposés, ran a story two weekends ago under the headline “Disgraceful security lapses at Prince William’s military academy are today exposed by The People”. An appeal appeared at the bottom: “Do you know of a sandal? Call our newsdesk ...” I know of two, size nine, that may be disreputable enough for them.
• Campbell Downie e-mailed from South Africa: “Our municipal public library has been extended and modernised recently, aided by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. The official opening is to take place today, and the following notice appeared in the newspaper, ‘The library will be closed today due to the opening’.”
• The caption under a photo in The Independent of Northumberland County, Ontario read: “Seven students were part of a drum quartet at Spring Valley’s talent show this month.” Denis Barter felt this to be seriously numerically challenged. “How many would be needed to form an octet?” he wonders. And anyway there are actually nine people in the picture.
• Bitter complaints are raging about leakage from the pipes of Thames Water, the water company that supplies London. The Notes & Queries column of the Guardian was asked where all the lost water went. One reply began “The aquifers for London are the North and South Downs, which are made of chalk and continue under London where they are capped by a thick bed of London clay laid down by Thames Water.”
• Janet Swisher was listening to a report on National Public Radio. “It probably made better sense when the reporter wrote it out with parentheses, she says, “but it gave me a giggle when I heard it read on the radio.” It concerned the launch of the space shuttle Discovery: “The astronauts will resupply the space station and do some experiments. Some fruit flies are hitching a ride. They’ll take a couple of walks in space to inspect the shuttle and do some chores.”