NEWSLETTER 531: SATURDAY 17 MARCH 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sic? Several readers were puzzled by a Sic! item last week, which contained the advice to avoid ticket scallopers. For non-Americans, the original writer should have written scalpers, for people who resell tickets at a profit. In the UK and elsewhere, they’re ticket touts. My punchline for the item puzzled others. Glenn Cardwell e-mailed: “As many people will no doubt write and ask what ‘deckle edging’ is, I won’t add to your burden of email requests.” Thank you for not doing so. Deckle edging is the rough uncut edge to handmade paper, or to paper or card that imitates that appearance. Deckle is a German word meaning a little cover; it’s the usual name for the frame that encloses the pulp during papermaking.
Hugger-mugger Several readers disagreed with my definition of this word last week. I took it from standard dictionaries, none of which give the sense readers cited, that of being crowded together or close packed. Alec Cawley gave as an example “There were five of us hugger-mugger in a two-man tent”. It would seem to derive from the idea of clandestine or secretive activity, or perhaps that of muddle and confusion.
Happenstance My note about this word in this section in the last issue defined it as “coincidence”. This was challenged by several readers, supported by numerous dictionaries. All said it meant a meeting or event happening by chance, not quite the same. Several quoted “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time is enemy action”, which Auric Goldfinger quotes in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger.
Not a word to Bessie! An editor in South Africa found this in the memoirs of an elderly diplomat. The catchphrase is a bit specialist for this newsletter, unless you’re a British radio listener with a very long memory, so I’ve put my response online instead.
2. Weird Words: Titch
A small person.
This is a mainly British and Australian colloquial term.
The original was Little Tich, a famous music hall performer whose real name was Harry Relph. He was born in 1867 with slightly webbed hands that had an extra finger on each. He stopped growing at age 10 and as an adult was only 4 ft 6 ins tall (about 1.4 m). As a child, he was nicknamed Tichborne because he was short and stoutly built, like Arthur Orton, the famous fraudulent claimant to the Tichborne inheritance.
It was weeks since any one (except Second Lieutenant M’Corquodale, newly joined, and addressed, for painfully obvious reasons, as “Tich”) had found himself at table in an apartment where it was possible to stand upright.
At some point — it’s hard to be sure when, though presumably long enough after Little Tich’s death in 1928 for the connection to him to have been forgotten — the spelling shifted to titch to match that of rhyming words like itch, pitch and stitch.
3. Turns of Phrase: Claytronics
Confusingly, and perhaps annoyingly for the firm concerned, this relatively new technical term has no direct connection with the business of the same name selling educational products for young children.
This type of claytronics is definitely grown-up play dough, also known as programmable matter or dynamic physical rendering. The project — at the moment still a long way from realisation — is to create nanoscale robotic mechanisms with computing ability, capable of changing form and joining together to form larger-scale mechanisms or objects. The researchers have called these individual micro-robots catoms, claytronic atoms. The name claytronics was deliberately chosen to suggest modelling clay. The research — at Carnegie-Mellon University in the US — goes by the name of the Synthetic Reality Project.
One of the aims of the project is to create a new communications medium that the researchers called pario, which will reproduce moving, physical, three-dimensional objects (made up of collections of these catoms) that are realistic enough that you will accept them as real, so creating in effect 3D television.
Researchers in the US ... reckon that within two decades a talking, walking Claytronic human morph could be visually indistinguishable from the person it represents.
[Personal Computer World, Jan. 2007]
If it works, claytronics could transform communication, entertainment, medicine, and more. The research may help scientists learn how to better manage networks that consist of millions of computers. It will also advance their understanding of nanotechnology — how to make tiny, tiny parts do useful things.
[Science News for Kids, 17 May 2006]
4. Recently noted
Newpeat This television term appeared this week in announcements about the US version of The Office. Instead of just rerunning episodes, NBC is putting together pairs of episodes with previously untransmitted material to make one-hour slightly new specials. It seems to be a genuinely new term, albeit formed from a partial blend of new and repeat. To judge from the sarcastic comments in US newspapers, it’s not one destined to survive.
Phonetically correct sports A question came in from a subscriber: “I was recently with some friends at a trivia evening. One question asked ‘What is the only correct phonetically spelled sport?’ The answer turned out to be ‘golf’.” I was as puzzled as she was. On the face of it, the question was daft, since a lot of people don’t pronounce the l in golf, so the word can hardly be said to be correctly spelled phonetically. It required help from people with minds more tuned than mine to solving cryptic puzzles to work this out (take a bow, Jim Parish). It really refers to the international phonetic alphabet, which begins “A Alfa, B Bravo, C Charlie”. The only sport in the list is Golf, for the letter G.
CO2lonialism The word is a blend of CO2, the chemical abbreviation for carbon dioxide, with colonialism. It popped up in last week’s issue of New Scientist in reference to the growth in the number of firms offering to offset your carbon emissions, say those you create by flying abroad for a holiday or on business. For a fee, the firms organise the planting of trees or invest in renewable-energy projects on your behalf. As a way of reducing your guilt, it’s effective, but environmentalists query the value of such schemes, especially if they happen in developing countries, which some see as carbon colonialism. So far as I can discover, the term was invented by Harald Eraker in a report for Norwatch, a Norwegian non-governmental organisation, in 2000. This oddly constructed and hard-to-say word has rarely appeared since and is unlikely to find a permanent place in the language.
5. Questions & Answers: Dribs and drabs
[Q] From Lynn Peterson: “I overheard someone recently saying money was arriving in dribs and drabs. What is the origin of that phrase? Is it to do with art or painting?”
[A] Neither of those things, as it happens. Through its survival, dribs and drabs — scattered or sporadic amounts of something — contains some interesting etymological archaeology.
Drib is known in some English, Irish and Scottish dialects from at least the eighteenth century, meaning an inconsiderable quantity or a drop and most probably is a variant form of drip or drop. It was taken by emigrants to the US and at one time was fairly common there. The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a letter written by Abraham Lincoln in 1862: “We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore as we can spare to Harper’s Ferry”.
The experts are undecided whether the second half is a mere echo of the first, as in reduplicated compounds like helter-skelter, see-saw and hurly-burly, or if drab is a real word in its own right.
Drab certainly existed as a dialect term that could mean much the same as drib, though it was used in particular for a minor debt or a small sum of money. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a glossary of the dialect of Craven in Yorkshire of 1828 with that meaning: “He’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.” [He has gone away for ever and he’s left some debts.] The OED is fairly sure that it isn’t the same word as the one which describes a dirty and untidy woman, which is probably linked to the old Low German drabbe, a mire. Nor is it the word for something drearily dull — this originally referred to undyed cloth and comes from French. The English Dialect Dictionary, written at the end of the nineteenth century, notes that the word is recorded only from Yorkshire and Cheshire.
The limited distribution of drab suggests that the word in the phrase is indeed a mere variation on drib for the sake of a neat and bouncy phrase.
• A New York Times headline on 13 March: “Mexican President Presses Bush on Border Fence”. Robert Bendesky’s response was “Ouch!”
• The morning news show on WBAL-TV in Baltimore has a “Water Cooler Question of the Day”. Michael Turniansky tells me a recent question was “Should mandatory drug testing for steroids be required for high school athletes?” His immediate response was that mandatory drug testing should certainly be required. Of drug testing that isn’t mandatory, he says that he hasn’t yet formed an opinion. He suggests that mandatory English courses should be required for television news staffers.
• While we’re being careful about language, I’d like to object to a headline on The Independent’s Web site last Sunday: “Subliminal messages do reach your brain — but you won’t know it”. But isn’t that the point? [“Subliminal”, below the threshold of sensation or consciousness, from Latin “limen”, threshold.]
• The Saanich News of 7 March reported: “The rainfall has since been attributed to a mudslide in Doumac Park and overflow at Colquitz Creek.” Peter Weinrich suggests that global warming is producing some very strange effects.
• Andy Baxter saw a headline on Sky News for 11 March. It concerned plans by the British Conservative Party to reduce carbon emissions, especially from air travel. It read, “Tories Want To Hit Frequent Flyers”. He felt this seemed a tad harsh as a disincentive.