NEWSLETTER 520: SATURDAY 30 DECEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Schinfing Following my comment last week about this British Army slang term for complaining, many people e-mailed to put forward a different source to the one I suggested, among them Reinhold Aman, the editor of the slang magazine Maledicta: “As the author of a Bavarian ‘Schimpfwörterbuch’ (dictionary of terms of abuse), I am certain that the English slang term is derived from the German verb ‘schimpfen’, ‘to complain about, to grouse, to grumble, to rant, to rail against, to bitch about’.” Some writers commented that they remember it from British Army service in Germany, so the word has some history.
2. Turns of Phrase: Wave and pay
In recent years, many of us in the UK and other countries have had to learn about chip and pin as a security method when we pay for things using a credit card. Wave and pay is the next new idea in the field, which is described formally as a contactless payment card.
The card works by a radio-frequency detection method that requires the card only to be placed close to the merchant’s terminal for the details of the transaction to be transferred and logged. The main value of the system is that it’s fast, so small transactions — at newsagents, fast-food outlets, coffee shops and pubs, car parks, ticket machines and the like — can be carried out without causing queues to lengthen unnecessarily.
The concept is already being used in the US and other countries. In the UK, a scheme has been recently announced to begin next summer. It will run in association with Transport for London and the new cards will double as the Oyster cards that for some years commuters in London have used in a similar way to pay bus and tube fares.
Card issuers, including Chase and KeyCorp., have been building U.S. consumers’ familiarity with the habit of “wave and pay” technology by issuing a total of about 10 million contactless credit and debit cards.
[Banking Strategies, Nov 2006]
Visa signed a deal with Barclaycard to offer a new generation of “wave and pay” plastic cards for small change purchases such as the morning paper, a bus fare, a loaf of bread or a pint of beer.
[Daily Mail, 14 Dec. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Plenilune
The full moon or the time of a full moon.
In a letter to his aunt in 1961, J R R Tolkien wrote of this word that it was beautiful even before it was understood, that he wished he could have the pleasure of meeting it for the first time again, and that “Surely the first meeting should be in a living context, and not in a dictionary.”
Sadly, that is unlikely, its having dropped almost entirely out of use. Even coming across it in dictionaries would be unlikely, as only the very largest include it these days. But then it has always been poetic and literary, from Ben Jonson’s “Whose glory (like a lasting Plenilune) / Seems ignorant of what it is to wane” of 1601, down to James Joyce’s “What counsel has the hooded moon / Put in thy heart, my shyly sweet, / Of love in ancient plenilune, / Glory and stars beneath his feet” in Chamber Music in 1907.
Tolkien employed it in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, published in 1962: “Of crystal was his habergeon, / his scabbard of chalcedony; / with silver tipped at plenilune / his spear was hewn of ebony.” [Habergeon: A sleeveless coat or jacket of mail or scale armour.] A rare recent sighting is in William Weaver’s translation of Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before (1995): “You can see ... when recur the Sundays and the Epacts, and the Solar Circle, and the Moveable and Paschal Feasts, and novilunes and plenilunes, quadratures of the sun and moon.”
4. Recently noted
Minigarch A minigarch is like an oligarch, only less well-endowed in the back-pocket department. It’s a weird formation, not least because oligarch means a member of a small group that holds power in a state (from Greek oligoi, few, plus arkhein, to rule), and strictly has nothing to do with money. But the term has long been tainted with the implication that oligarchs use their great power to gather riches; in particular it has been used for the members of the nomenklatura, former Communist Party appointees, who were most directly involved in gaining wealth in post-communist Russia. The Financial Times wrote in January 2001, “The oligarchs divided up among themselves the most valuable state companies, which Yeltsin privatized under fire-sale conditions.” Minigarch has appeared at least three times in British newspapers this year, most recently in the Observer a couple of weeks ago. Another appearance was last May in an article in the Independent: “Vladimir Gusinsky, 53, used to be one of Russia’s most powerful media magnates, but he lost almost everything and is now more minigarch than oligarch.”
Unionised The late Isaac Asimov said that he could tell somebody’s academic background by asking them to say this word. If it came out as “un-ion-ised” he knew the person was a chemist; everybody else would say it as “union-ised”. Until recently, these were the only two senses of the word. Pat Crowley points out that there is now a third. The state of New Jersey recently passed a bill to legalise civil unions between members of the same sex. He heard on a local talk show a man saying that he and his partner were going to get unionised. It turns out to be well attested online, not least in the phrase civil unionised. This has appeared in some newspapers, including an article in the San Jose Mercury News back in June on the problems couples have with the language of these new unions. But the view of someone quoted in the piece will surely echo those of most readers of this newsletter: “‘Let’s get civil unionized’ just doesn’t cut it, she said. It’s just not a natural part of our vocabulary.”
5. Questions & Answers: Bringing Home the Bacon
[Q] From Ed Smits, Canada: “While looking in Wikipedia for something else, I found a page that said Bringing Home the Bacon came from a twelfth-century practice that survives only in the English town of Great Dunmow. The church promised a side of bacon (a flitch) to any man who could swear that he and his wife had “not wisht themselves unmarried again” for a year and a day. Men who “brought home the bacon” in this way were held in high esteem in their communities. This is one of those too neat explanations that defy belief.”
[A] Agreed. It’s also been said that it refers to the old fairground contest of catching the greased pig, whose prize was the pig, so the winner literally brought home the bacon. Your story reminded me at once of one of the tales told in that infamous e-mail about life in the 1500s that endlessly circulates online. That claims “it was a sign of wealth that a man could ‘bring home the bacon’.”
That’s true today, though usually in a broader sense of supplying material support to one’s family or achieving success, but it’s hard to assert with a straight face that it was so back in 1500 or 1300. We can’t absolutely prove it wasn’t around then — proving a negative is always difficult — but its total absence from the historical record before 1906 rather gives a pointer to its being modern.
The first recorded user of the expression was Mrs Gans, mother of Joe. He was a famous boxer at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the first native-born black American to win a world title. That was in 1900, when he was 26. Six years later he fought Oscar “Battling” Nelson in Goldfield, Nevada, now virtually a ghost town but then a booming community, the largest in the state. The match has been rated as the greatest lightweight championship bout ever contested, whose fame has endured enough that its centenary was recently marked in the area.
This is the way the crucial linguistic moment was reported in the Reno Evening Gazette for Monday, 3 September, 1906:
The following telegrams were read by Announcer Larry Sullivan. Gans received this from his mother: “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring back the bacon.”
Various stories say that after he won the fight (it ended in Gans’s favour after 42 rounds when his opponent hit a low blow and was disqualified) he sent a telegram back to his mother in Baltimore: “Bringing home the bacon”. Other reports claim that what he really said was that he wasn’t only bringing back the bacon but the gravy, too. These are probably later elaborations of what clearly soon became a widely known story.
Was Mrs Gans repeating a saying that was already well known to her? Perhaps, even probably. But it isn’t recorded anywhere that I can discover before she sent that telegram. And it clearly struck a powerful chord of both originality and relevance with those at the 1906 bout. She repeated the phrase in another telegram at his next match the following January and her words were greeted with laughter and repartee.
Almost immediately — within weeks rather than months — it became common on the sports pages of the newspapers, at first referring to boxing but later to baseball, football, horse racing and rugby. By 1911 it had started to be used of politics. When P G Wodehouse used it in Ukridge in 1924 (“It may be that my bit will turn out to be just the trifle that brings home the bacon”) it had become firmly established in the US.
• Paul Kujawsky came across a brochure from AJOP, the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs, announcing their convention in Baltimore in January 2007: “Three packed days of intensive programs designed to stimulate, educate and enervate!”
• Glenda Millgate found an article on the News.com.au site dated 26 December: “possums may hold the key scientists have been looking for to help treat some prostrate problems in men.” It makes them get up and go?