NEWSLETTER 594: SATURDAY 5 JULY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Anousia My attempt in a Recently Noted piece in the last issue to guess how A C Grayling derived his neologism anousia led to some critical messages from readers. Prof Grayling has since put me straight: “I was thinking of the Greek nous (mind) and the privative prefix a (not) to yield anous- (thus, anousic and anousia). As you will recognise, this is a false coining, because an Anglicised version of Greek ‘mindless’ would be anoic. But I chose anous- partly because most people who would recognise the allusion would do so because they had come across nous for mind without knowing much else — or any — ancient Greek, and partly of course as a convoluted pun (‘without substance’).”
Flat The piece last week on this British term for an apartment might well have mentioned Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle, several subscribers noted. He used the Old English flet in The Fellowship of the Ring for platforms built by the elves of Lothlorien in mallorn trees: “As he climbed slowly up Frodo passed many flets: some on one side, some on another, and some set about the bole of the tree, so that the ladder passed through them.” Professor Tolkien knew more about Old English than anyone and the reference was undoubtedly deliberate.
Ahoy Philip Warwick supplied an intriguing anecdote: “Having lived in the Czech Republic for the last ten years I have heard a number of stories relating to the origin of ahoj — apparently it has been used for less than 100 years. One of the most interesting stories related to an American film shown in the country between the two world wars; it was one of the first talkies (in English) and as such, much discussed in Prague — much of the language was, of course, not understood by the audience, so a key phrase like ‘ahoy’ stuck. People got in the habit of shouting it out as two trams passed in the street (as pirates did when two ships passed in the film) and given the demographics of the country (roughly 50% of the population live in or around Prague) this spread quickly.”
Jan Čulík, Senior Lecturer in Czech Studies at the University of Glasgow, confirms my strong suspicion that — though a nice tale — this is a classic folk etymology. The bit that’s true, and which must have started the story off, is that the word did begin to become widely known in Czech around the time the talkies arrived. A Czech etymological dictionary of 2001 says that ahoj was introduced by hikers, boy scouts, sportsmen and young people; it came into wide use when hiking and scouting became generally widespread, in the 1930s, though there are examples on record from as far back as the 1880s. There is no doubt among Czech etymologists that it was based on the English sailors’ hail. So when the original questioner said he had been told that ahoy was brought into English by Czech sailors, his informant had it exactly backwards! I’ve updated the online piece.
Concerning, belonging to, or inhabiting the underworld.
The biggest problem with this word, once you’ve worked out how to spell it, is how to say it. American dictionaries suggest that the initial ch should be silent, while British ones say that it should be said as k, reflecting the Greek source, khthon, earth.
The classic Greek word referred not to the surface of the ground, which would be gaia, but to what lies underneath. Both gaia and khthon were associated with the supernatural beings that dwelled in these domains, Gaia being the personification of the Earth and the original mother of all beings, while the deities of chthonic realms were Pluto and Persephone.
The English word is comparatively new, from the late nineteenth century. It has flowered in recent decades as a favourite term of SF and fantasy writers. “Like the rumble of a live volcano it came,” wrote Piers Anthony in his 1985 collection of short stories, Anthonology, “throbbing up from the fundament, pressuring chthonic valves, gathering into an irresistible swell.” One of Charles Stross’s characters was heavily sarcastic with its help in The Jennifer Morgue:
“Really?” asks the woman. “Are you sure it’s all over?” Billington glances at her. “Pretty much, apart from a few little details — mass human sacrifices, invocations of chthonic demigods, Richter-ten earthquakes, harrowing of the Deep Ones, rains of meteors, and the creation of a thousand-year world empire, that sort of thing. Trivial, really.”
3. Recently noted
Edupunk This neologism appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 1 June and has been the subject of a great deal of debate online. Jim Groom, a US-based educator, coined it in late May. Defining it presents a problem, partly because it’s so new that the idea hasn’t yet settled down, but also because, as Stephen Downes notes in his blog, “true edupunks deride definitions as tools of oppression used by defenders of order and conformity.” Edupunk is an anti-authoritarian, even anarchistic, DIY approach to learning and teaching using computers and the Internet. It’s linked to the concept called elearning 2.0, which applies the collaborative and participative ideas behind Web 2.0 to teaching, on the principle that computer-based teaching must be designed for learners and not for teachers. It uses online techniques such as wikis, mashups and blogs to create new ways to learn. The edupunk activists argue that commercial computer applications designed for teaching are ways for big business to package instruction and put a straitjacket of corporate control around learning.
Via ferrata Those actively engaged in adventure sports will know this Italian phrase, which may be translated as iron road and for which the German is klettersteig. English doesn’t have a word for it and has borrowed the Italian one, which appeared recently in the Observer. A via ferrata is a system of fixed metal cables, ladders and bridges that take you through the mountains by a combination of walking and climbing. They’ve been common in the Alps for decades (one report says that they originated in the First World War to enable mountain infantry to travel safely through the Dolomites). The technique, and the term, have become fashionable in recent years, with the first British via ferrata being opened at Fleetwith Pike in the Lake District a year ago.
Brandjacking Fraudsters are eternally inventive in finding ways to con Internet users. This new term refers to a technique whereby the brandjackers set up a Web site that purports to be of a legitimate business, using a domain name closely similar to that of the real firm; by fooling search engines, their site draws visitors to it. The technique isn’t new, but the word is, coined in a report that was published in June by the market analysis firm MarkMonitor.
Fluther Next time you get roped into a discussion about collective names for groups of living beings, test the mettle of the company by asking for one for jellyfish. At least four have been recorded, though all are rare outside lists of collectives. One is fluther, which appeared in the Guardian last week; others are smuth, stuck and smack. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to discover anything about the history or origin of any of them, or one would by now have become a Weird Word.
4. Questions & Answers: Finagle
[Q] From David Bourque: “I was wondering where finagle originates? Does it commemorate some crafty Irishman?”
[A] You’re perhaps thinking of Fingal’s Cave, or of another Irish person with a similar name? Though some Irish writers like to find an Irish origin in any odd term, this one isn’t from that tongue. Others have suggested it’s Yiddish, perhaps because it rhymes with bagel. In The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time, William Safire mentions a theory that it derives from the name of Gregor von Feinaigle; he was a German monk and educator who worked out a method of improving the memory that he introduced in lectures in Paris in 1807 and later in Britain.
A link with a real person might be suggested by two creations of the science and computing communities. One is Finagle’s Constant, an ad hoc mathematical device that’s inserted into a formula to make the answer come out right, and Finagle’s Law, a corollary to Murphy’s Law — anything that can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible moment. This can be expressed as “Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it makes it worse”. An elaboration is in Essential Public Health: Theory and Practice by Stephen Gillam and Jan Yates (2007): “The information you have is not the information you want. The information you want is not the information you need. The information you need is not what you can get or is not known. The information that is known can’t be found in time”. Or, putting it yet another way, the perversity of the universe tends to a maximum.
Finagle is US slang and means to obtain something by dishonest or devious means, to wangle or manoeuvre, or slyly gain an advantage by deceit. It dates from the 1920s, with the first known use being of finagler, a person who finagles. Harold Wentworth noted it in his American Dialect Dictionary as “political cant”. Wentworth and Flexner’s slang dictionary suggested it could mean in particular “one who stalls until somebody else pays the check”, a tightwad or miserly person.
Finagle has been traced to an English dialect word, once widely known along the Welsh Marches and down into the West Country in a variety of spellings, including fainaigue. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago supplied two main meanings. One was to revoke at cards (that is, to fail to follow suit despite being able to do so); the other was to shirk or to fail to keep a promise. A glossary of Herefordshire words dated 1839 says “If two men are heaving a heavy weight, and one of them pretends to be putting out his strength, though in reality leaving all the strain on the other, he is said to feneague.”
Taking it further back is almost impossible. The English Dialect Dictionary suggested it might derive from Old French fornier, to deny, and that the odd ending -aigue (often spelled -eague in dialect sources) might derive from the card-game sense of renege, with the same meaning as revoke, which was at one time spelled reneague.
• News from the Netherlands of a potentially painful piece of equipment: “I was in an Aldi yesterday,” Harry Lake noted (Aldi is a discount supermarket chain), “and was surprised to see a special offer of a ‘laptop barbecue’, a mind-boggling concept. Slightly smaller print on the box gave more details of this ‘portable’ barbecue, at which point everything became clear. Obviously the makers, presumably Chinese, had reasoned that since a laptop computer is a portable computer, ‘laptop’ = ‘portable’.”
• “My wife and I,” wrote Ed Sundt, “leased a phone from Vodafone to use while traveling in Europe. The package arrived but we have yet to open it, stymied by a statement on the seal: ‘Before you break the seal on this phone/product, please carefully review and read all the printed material enclosed’.”
• John Neave e-mailed from New Zealand: “There was great rejoicing when New Zealand won the cricket series against England. However, I was surprised at a commentator’s remark at the end of the game when he described the New Zealand coach, John Bracewell, as giving the team ‘an elongated round of applause’. I wondered if they had been playing at The Oval!”
• Several readers forwarded an AP wire report that had appeared in a number of US newspapers on Tuesday: “Police and FBI agents captured an ex-convict suspected of killing eight people in two states as he smoked a cigarette outside of a southwestern Illinois bar Tuesday night.” Was this a case of the long arm of the outlaw?