NEWSLETTER 485: SATURDAY 29 APRIL 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Formatted newsletter Apologies to everyone who tried to access the formatted version last week, only to find it wasn’t (yet) there. I forgot to upload it the evening before, my usual practice. By the way, there's now an index to the back issues of the formatted newsletter.
Only language The cockcrow critics were out in force last week. I awoke to find a dozen messages, whose gentle ire was focused on the item on Vril: “But during his lifetime he was widely read, only being outsold by Dickens.” All objected to my placing of only and said that it should have ended “... being outsold only by Dickens.” May I quote H W Fowler on the enduring controversy concerning where to put only in a sentence? “Since the risk of misunderstanding [is] chimerical, it is not worth while to depart from the natural.” A couplet by Lewis Carroll is also apposite, though you shouldn’t take the sentiment as relevant to the present case: “He only does it to annoy, / Because he knows it teases.” People have been upset by the placing of only for at least the last 250 years, though throughout that period all the best authors have—in theory—been getting it wrong. The rule—that only should be placed as close as possible to the word it modifies—was first promulgated by Robert Louth, who in a varied career was a celebrated Hebrew scholar, professor of poetry at Oxford, and bishop of London. If I could take a time machine back to 1762, I’d try to dissuade him from writing A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which—though immensely popular at the time—has left a legacy of misplaced prescriptivism.
Life imitates art, again The Sic! section last week featured neckless when necklace was meant. Jim Barrett comments: “I’ve seen this in the US as well, and wondered just what the neckless would do with a necklace. But in New York City last autumn, I saw an ad for a piece of jewelry that is actually called a neckless. It was the sort of bauble a woman might normally wear on a chain around her neck, but was meant to be attached directly to the skin with adhesive in the appropriate position.”
Hangover Anne Chippindale pointed out a more modern appearance of the idea of sleeping by leaning on a rope. It appears in Dido and Pa, by Joan Aiken (1986), in which Mrs Bloodvessel charged 83 children a farthing a night for sleeping much the same way: “Dido was puzzled, also, by the forest of ropes that dangled from bacon hooks in the ceiling, with knotted loops at their lower ends, as if this were a kind of hangman’s warehouse; then she guessed what their use must be as she saw Mrs Bloodvessel march over to a corner where a sleeping boy dangled motionless with his head, arms and shoulders through the loop of rope, and his feet dragging on the flagstones.”
Others said that they had come across the same story as a supposed origin of to be able to sleep on a clothesline, meaning to be so tired one could sleep anywhere. There might be an association with the dosshouse here, though it’s impossible to be sure. But the idea behind sleeping on a clothesline is that one lies along it, as in a very thin hammock, being too dead tired to move about and so fall off. It seems not to fit the situation.
2. Weird Words: Quillon
The cross-guards of a sword.
Early in the history of sword-making it was realised that a guard between the blade and the hilt was essential to stop the blade of your opponent from sliding down yours and cutting into your hand. The quillons are cross-pieces at right angles to the blade and hilt, usually cast as an integral part of the hilt to give them strength.
Though swords have had them for many centuries, this word for them isn’t recorded in English until R F Burton’s The Book of the Sword in 1884: “The quillons may be either straight—that is disposed at right angles—or curved.” (Before then, they seem simply to have been called cross-guards or just guards, as they often still are.) The origin is said to be the French quille, a ninepin, though that makes more sense when you learn the French also used it as a colloquial term for a leg, and so figuratively for the two legs represented by the jutting quillons. You may prefer to write the word as quillion instead, though this is less common.
In modern times, such technical terms have become useful in giving a sense of place and time in sword-and-sorcery fantasy tales, as here in a 1970 story by Fritz Leiber that was republished in 1995 in Ill Met in Lankhmar: “He took a few shuffling steps, tapping the cobbles ahead with wrapped sword, gripping it by the quillons, or cross guard, so that the grip and pommel were up his sleeve—and groping ahead with his other hand.” The other spelling appeared in The Oathbreakers by Mercedes Lackey (1989): “The sheath looked as if it had once had metal fittings; there were gaping sockets in the pommel and at the ends of the quillions of the sword that had undoubtedly once held gemstones.”
[The image above is of the type of two-handed broadsword used in the film Braveheart. It is reproduced by courtesy of Fulvio Del Tin of Del Tin Armi Antiche, Italy.]
3. Recently noted
Fratire This turned up in the New York Times recently: “Young men, long written off by publishers as simply uninterested in reading, are driving sales of a growing genre of books like [Tucker] Max’s that combine a fraternity house-style celebration of masculinity with a mocking attitude toward social convention, traditional male roles and aspirations of power and authority... [T]hey collectively represent the once-elusive male counterpart to so-called chick lit, and so perhaps deserve an epithet of their own.” The Guardian said, “The fratire writers are cyber-characters, who hold themselves up as a paragon of backlash—cocksure in the discovery that the more misogynistic they are, the more attractive women seem to find them.” An older term, dick-lit, might seem to have already filled the linguistic need, but that’s a more direct equivalent to chick-lit, in which male narrators fret over their romantic screw-ups. The Times’ article didn’t explain the origin of fratire but it presumably comes from fraternity + satire.
360-degree commissioning The business field has long known of 360-degree appraisals, 360-degree evaluations, and 360-degree feedback as terms for getting formal reviews of an employee’s performance from everybody he or she comes into contact with. It’s a jargony way of saying “all-round”. But this week, the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, used this variation in a press conference about the future of the organisation. It turns out that 360-degree commissioning is a BBC insiders’ term for creating concepts for programmes that can employ several media at one time—not just television and radio, but also interactive TV, local radio, mobile phones, and the Net. The term goes back at least to 2004 and is conceivably somewhat older.
4. Questions & Answers: Up to speed
[Q] From James McAdams: “I am accustomed to hearing and using the phrase up to speed. I have always assumed it was a reference to the motion picture industry practice of having film cameras ramp up to operating speed before action is announced. Do you know the origin of this phrase?”
[A] These days, up to speed mostly often appears in non-technical writing in the figurative sense of being fully informed or up to date on some matter: “Kids know much more about these technologies than their parents, and it’s heavy lifting to get the adults up to speed”; “Following the private meeting, the board now is up to speed on the investigation”.
To bring up to speed was reported by the New York Times in 1974 as a new jargon term, in the sense of “to brief”, that had been used during the Watergate hearings the previous year. It seems to have been around earlier than that—there’s a example in April 1970 in a report about the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon shot in which John Swigert was a last-minute replacement for another astronaut: “It’s really a compatibility sort of thing to get him up to speed, in language and responses.”
So many examples refer to a machine being brought up to operating speed—a boat, an electric motor, a car, or indeed a film camera—that it looks as though that was the source. It goes back a long way—I found an example in an advertisement for a waterwheel that appeared in a lot of US newspapers around 1867; a letter from a satisfied customer noted that “The wheel drives all my saws truly up to speed, and gives abundance of power to do all the work the saws are capable of doing.”
However, the origin may not be mechanical but a person or animal that was performing at its best rate. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the New York Times of 1879: “The mare was shown and her qualities and record were expatiated on. She looked decent and up to speed.” I found another in a book of 1857 about a voyage of exploration, in which the writer is chasing a boat that’s floating away, which he knew would leave them stranded if he didn’t retrieve it: “It was this conviction which, combined with my ‘badly-scared’ condition, served to keep me up to speed, while I felt every moment more and more like fainting.”
5. Reviews: The Ring of Words
Unless you’ve been imitating Rip Van Winkle for the past umpteen years, any book with the word ring in its title will probably remind you of J R R Tolkien’s three-volume epic The Lord of the Rings and the memorable films derived from it. The reference is deliberate, as Tolkien’s inventive use of language is its central theme. Though it is accessibly written, The Ring of Words is serious and scholarly both in intent and execution.
It’s little known that, before he wrote his famous books, Tolkien worked as a sub-editor at the Oxford English Dictionary for two years, helping to compile the last section to be published. Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner—the authors of this book—are among the present-day senior editors of the same work. Their commemoration of his linguistic facility comes a little late to the Tolkien party, but will interest anybody who regards the language of the books to be one of their prime qualities.
This book is divided into three main parts. The first describes Tolkien’s work at the OED, which by a quirk of publication dealt with many words in W, such as waggle, wain, waist, wallop, walnut, walrus, and wampum. The second section focuses on the influences that shaped Tolkien’s linguistic invention, including the deliberate archaisms of writers such as Sir Walter Scott and his literary descendants. The third is a detailed treatment of a hundred or so of Tolkien’s most characteristic words, ranging from amidmost to wraith, via confusticate, eleventy-one, ent, hobbit, orc, waybread, and weregild.
Among them is mathom, an archaic Old English word which he revived to mean “anything that hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away”. It’s a favourite word of mine, since I had a small hand in drafting the word’s OED Online entry, having found it, of all places, in an old issue of the computer magazine Byte.
An afterword discusses Tolkien’s influence on the English language and shows how more recent writers—especially those working in the fantasy genre—have frequently adopted his style and language.
[Peter Gilliver et al, The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press on 27 April 2006; hardback, pp240; ISBN 0-19-861069-6; publisher’s UK price £12.99.]
• Alan Turner found this in the Shrewsbury Chronicle, dated 20 April: “Police are appealing for witnesses to a road traffic collision at Albrighton in which a cyclist suffered a broken ankle. The man was cycling along the A528 when the collision occurred between the Albrighton Hall Hotel and the Albright Hussey Hotel on March 25.” It gives an entirely new meaning to the term mobile home.
• Chester Graham read this in last weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald, in an interview with Glenn Richards of the Augie March music group: “At the same time I’d been reading the poet Galway Kinnell and his poem After Making Love We Hear Footsteps, a really lovely poem about hearing a child walking up the hallway on a summer’s evening after making love to your wife.”
• “As a former magazine editor,” Anthony Prete comments, “I usually grin at typos rather than grimace. But I am less forgiving when the mistake appears in the headline of a full-page ad opposite the editorial page of the New York Times (Sunday 23 April), in which a publishing company (Pantheon Books) spells the name of the biblical prophet ‘Jerememiah’!”
• Louden Masterton reports, “I use some Hewlett-Packard equipment, and yesterday my Inbox displayed an unsolicited item entitled ‘HP Technology at Work’. Item 4 of the section ‘E-mail etiquette at work’ is headed ‘Spelling and grammar still matters’. I’m sure that you and I agrees with this assertion, as HP might put it.”
• Karen Hassall reports that a job ad in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today of Alberta, Canada, claimed to have “positions available for new and used salesmen.”