NEWSLETTER 528: SATURDAY 24 FEBRUARY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Robinson Crusoe I gave the wrong publication date last week for Daniel Defoe’s novel. It should have been 1719, not 1721.
Praise indeed I don’t usually blow my own trumpet in this forum, but a comment in the Mail Tribune of Oregon on 18 February cannot be let pass, simply because it was so extravagantly excessive. A reader posed a question about the phrase “teach your grandmother to suck eggs”, to which the writer said “For the answer, we turned to the infinitely wise and humorous Michael Quinion”. It was the least he could say, you might feel, since I’d done his work for him!
2. Weird Words: Egyptian days
Days of ill-omen or evil.
As far back as the historical record can be traced, we know that certain days have been thought to be unlucky. In medieval times they were often listed in calendars as the dies Aegyptiaci, the Egyptian days, since they were supposed to have been identified by Egyptian astrologers, considered to be authorities on such matters. Some said they were days on which calamitous events had occurred in ancient Egypt, such as the plagues described in the Bible.
Medieval calendars precisely identified the days that were to be considered inauspicious, on which no project or enterprise should be begun: 1 and 25 January; 4 and 26 February; 1 and 28 March; 10 and 20 April; 3 and 25 May; 10 and 16 June; 13 and 22 July; 1 and 30 August; 3 and 21 September; 3 and 22 October; 5 and 28 November; and 7 and 22 December. It was considered especially important that doctors should not let blood on these days.
Another Latin term for them was dies mali, the unlucky, evil, or unpropitious days. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Latin phrase had been Anglicised into dismal, at first in direct reference to the evil days, but later to any event that brought misfortune and disaster. By the seventeenth century the word had weakened to our modern sense of something that merely causes gloom or depression. When in 1849 Carlyle described economics as “the dismal science”, he meant only that it was cheerless.
3. Recently noted
Fame-Iness A few days after Ben Goldacre coined referenciness in the Guardian on the model of Stephen Colbert’s truthiness — as noted in the last issue — the Los Angeles Times headlined a piece with fame-iness. It doesn’t refer to real fame, but to celebrity, the illusion of fame. The writer commented, “Now that the mystique of so many celebrities is rooted less in their accomplishments than in their ability to get our attention by provoking our disgust, perhaps it’s not fame they’re offering but ‘fame-iness.’” Do I detect a trend here? Is -iness in the process of becoming a new combining form, meaning something that affects to have or gives the illusion of having some desirable property? Watch this space, or your favourite newspaper.
Nom de blog Alex MacDonell spotted this in the New York Times of 15 February. “It looks,” he suggests, “as though ‘blog’ is joining ‘plume’ and ‘guerre’ as an American-French appellation.” It turns out to be fairly common and has already reached several online glossaries of terms. There’s also nom de Web and the much older nom de Usenet, which is recorded as far back as 1990.
E for everything So many words in the public prints now come with the e- (for electronic) prefix that I’ve long since given up mentioning them here, or in most cases even reporting them to the Oxford English Dictionary. But a big row in the UK last week led to the terms e-petition and e-petitioner becoming widely known. It all started with a bright young person in the Prime Minister’s office — some papers have fingered the in-house Web guru, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, surely an escapee from a Wodehouse novel. He had the idea that the Number 10 Web site should allow electronic petitions to be submitted. Some spectacularly silly ones have been organised, one of them demanding that mice be allowed to travel free on public transport and another one — which has gained a surprising level of informal support — arguing that Spandau Ballet’s Gold should become the new national anthem. The row, however, was over very tentative proposals to introduce road-pricing — charging road users by the distance they travel. At the last count, 1.8 million signatures had been added to an e-petition demanding that the scheme be scrapped, even though trials are several years away and full run-out could not happen for a decade. Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, was understandably displeased with the whole idea of electronic petitions. “Whoever came up with this idea must be a prat,” he said. (Prat: an incompetent or stupid person, from an old term for a person’s buttocks that also appears in pratfall.)
Arsiness Talking of buttocks, this British slang term refers to the quality of being variously bad-tempered, arrogant, sarcastic, or uncooperative. It is from the Australian arsy, which is in turn from arsy-versey (upside down, back to front, or contrariwise), which derives in its turn from the slang English term arse for the backside. Arsiness appeared in an article in the Observer last Sunday about the Unicef report that children in the UK came last of the 21 most developed countries for their quality of life. Barbara Ellen argued that no survey of the views of young people in Britain can be taken at all seriously because “British teenagers have always loved nothing more than to pose, bitch, rebel, slag everything and everyone off, and blow endless anti-establishment raspberries.” She went on, “it may be that it’s the very restlessness of British youth, its inbuilt dis-affection (or, to call it by its technical term, ‘arsiness’) that keeps our cultural heartbeat healthy and racing, as it continues to be, in terms of everything from pop to comedy, from art to fashion.”
4. Questions & Answers: Vulgar fractions
[Q] From Andrew Purkiss: “Some fractions were, maybe still are, called vulgar fractions. I cannot think there is anything rude about putting a numerator over a denominator, so why vulgar?”
[A] This bothered me at school and I can’t recall having been given a satisfactory answer at the time. The problem lies in the changing meaning of vulgar. It comes from the Latin adjective vulgaris that derives from vulgus, the common people. This is also the origin of Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible, which comes from the closely related vulgata, meaning “for the public” (it was so, when it was written, in the fourth century AD).
Vulgar turned up first in English in the fourteenth century and then referred to something that was in common or general use or something customary or done as a matter of everyday practice. There was nothing disapproving about it.
That old usage survived in a few fixed phrases. A couple that are now archaic are vulgar tongue, the language that was spoken by ordinary people, not one full of expletives; another was vulgar name, the common name of a species, as opposed to its scientific one. And a vulgar fraction is one based on ordinary or everyday arithmetic as opposed to these highfalutin decimal thingies. It refers specifically to one in which two numbers (the numerator and denominator) are placed above and below a horizontal line.
Over time, vulgar went down in the world, a shift suffered also by common. It moved from “in ordinary use”, and “relating to the ordinary people”, to “commonplace”; by the seventeenth century it had begun to assume our modern senses of “lacking sophistication or good taste” and “making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions”.
5. Questions & Answers: Under weigh
[Q] From Paul Bondin: “An office colleague of mine insisted on writing “a project got under weigh” rather than “a project got under way”, whenever he described the start of some task. His explanation was that the expression had a maritime beginning, along the lines of weighing anchor to get a ship moving. I rather fancied the idea at the time, but I suspect that his story is pure fiction. The next time I use the expression, should I use weigh or way?”
[A] According to the best current style manuals, definitely way. But your colleague has the ghostly support of generations of writers. In fact, at one time, under weigh could be regarded as the standard spelling.
What happened was that the Dutch, who were European masters of the sea in the seventeenth century, gave us — among many other nautical expressions — the term onderweg, meaning “on the way”. This became naturalised as under way and is first recorded in English around 1740, specifically as a maritime term (its broader meanings didn’t appear until the following century). Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. Weigh here is the same word as the one for finding out how heavy an object is. Both it and the anchor sense go back to the Old English verb, which could mean “raise up”. The link between the senses is the act of raising an object on scales.
It’s easy to find a myriad of examples of under weigh from the best English authors in the following two centuries, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens (“There were the bad odours of the town, and the rain and the refuse in the kennels, and the faint lamps slung across the road, and the huge Diligence, and its mountain of luggage, and its six grey horses with their tails tied up, getting under weigh at the coach office.” — Little Dorrit).
It was still common as recently as the 1930s (“He felt her gaze upon him, all the same, as he stood with his back to her attending to the business of getting under weigh.” — The Happy Return by C S Forester, 1937) but weigh has dropped off almost to nothing now. This paralleled another change, starting around the same time, in which the two words began to be combined into a single adverb, underway (though many style manuals still recommend it be written as two words). It may be that the influence of other words ending in -way, especially anyway, encouraged the shift in spelling back to the original and in the process killed off a persistent misunderstanding.
• Pat Bitton found a worrying development in breathalyzer technology in a local newspaper, the Eureka Reporter of Eureka, California: “Dollison [a local Assistant District Attorney] said the IID — which has a tube drivers must blow in — detects whether any alcohol is present on the driver’s breath. If so, the vehicle will not ignite.”
• An online article at Fox Sports about the Daytona 500 was noted by John Brunner as reporting a rare example of spontaneous combustion: “All hell broke loose behind the Nos. 01 and 29 as sparks flew, sheet metal mangled and Clint Bowyer landed on the roof of his car before flipping over and bursting into flames.”
• Our friends the sub-editors of the BBC News Web site have been at it again it would seem, though in one sense they are not alone. An item appeared on 14 February under the headline “Is sex on a plane legal?”: “Janet Jackson and Richard Branson are self-confessed members of the ‘Mile-High Club’ and Ralph Fiennes may have joined them.” Vivienne Smith suggests that really would be a story. Yes, a “three in a bed romp”, as the News of the World would headline it.
• Speaking of such matters, Pete Jones found this revealing comment in top chef Heston Blumenthal’s biography, at www.fatduck.co.uk: “Towards the end of 2001, I opened a brassiere in Bray Marina on the side of the Thames.” Is he telling us more than we need to know?
• We shouldn’t hurry to make fun of a typing error made in the rush to meet a deadline. However, it’s particularly unfortunate — though relevant to this newsletter — that the British MP Frank Field sent out a press release on Wednesday welcoming the proposal that immigrants to the UK should learn English before they arrive. It began “Endlsigh For Immigrants Is Common Sense”.