NEWSLETTER 550: SATURDAY 25 AUGUST 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Tax, glorious tax Several subscribers commented that I over-simplified the British sales tax (value-added tax or VAT) system when I said in the piece on fat tax last week that food was untaxed. Inessential foods such as sweets, chocolate, ice cream and savoury snacks do incur VAT, but you will appreciate I preferred to oversimplify the situation rather than undertake a disquisition on the British tax system. (VAT experts will, I hope, also forgive my use of the terms untaxed and taxed rather than the official taxed at zero rate and taxed at the standard rate.) The cases I quoted on which it was suggested that a fat tax might be applied — cakes, biscuits and puddings — are not currently taxed, although chocolate biscuits do have VAT on them. The makers of Jaffa cakes went to court in the 1990s to successfully challenge HM Customs and Excise, who classed them as chocolate biscuits and imposed VAT. The court ruled that they were cakes and so were tax-free.
2. Weird Words: Omnium-gatherum
A miscellaneous collection.
One of my reference books disparagingly calls this expression Dog Latin and it’s a fair description. The first part is genuine enough, being the genitive plural of omnis, all (omnibus, for what we prefer nowadays to call a bus, is the dative plural of the same word). The second part, however, is just the English word gather with a fake Latin ending. The 1788 second edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue says it’s a “jocular imitation of law Latin” and this seems plausible.
There’s an older form, omnigatherum, mainly Scots, which the OED says was used from the seventeenth century for a group of craftsmen in Stirling, such as coopers, glassworkers, dyers, and gardeners, whose skills weren’t recognised in a formal trade guild but who were lumped together for some purposes, mostly taxation.
Omnium-gatherum has been known since the sixteenth century. In view of its bastard form, it’s odd that the first recorded user should have been the highly educated Greek scholar Richard Croke, in a letter to Thomas Cranmer in 1530.
3. Recently noted
Bosh The same programme mentioned that Sir Thomas Bouch was the first architect of the Forth Bridge but that he had been dismissed following the catastrophic collapse of his Tay Bridge in 1879. The programme pointed out that his family name was pronounced “boosh” and claimed that it was the origin of bosh, nonsense or rubbish. It was too good a story not to use in the context, though a casual glance at a nearby dictionary would have shown that the word was actually more interesting than that. In reality it’s from Turkish, in which language it means worthless or empty. It came into English largely through its appearance in James Morier’s novel Ayesha, the Maid of Kars in 1834, which was highly popular at the time but which is now almost forgotten.
Bariatrics As an aside on last week’s piece about the fat tax, the Guardian printed an article by Raj Patel on 17 August, one sentence of which caught my eye: “Bariatrics, the medical branch concerned with obesity, is so new that it has yet to find its way into the OED.” (It is due to appear online in September, I’m told.) Out of curiosity, I went word-hunting. It turns up in a 1964 news report about the annual conference of the American Society of Bariatrics, and so is presumably rather older still (incidentally, the report warned that “Some 65 million Americans are overweight and thus subject to quicker death than the lean and hungry”, so concern about the risks of obesity go back quite some way). The word was coined from Greek baros, weight; this is also in barometer, a device to measure the weight of the air (physicists will wince at the sloppy thinking behind the etymology, since barometers actually measure pressure, not weight). A practitioner is a bariatrician.
Bacn To quote the actor and writer Stephen Fry, “the e-mail of the species is more deadly than the mail” — but there are levels of deadliness. Several net bloggers have reported on this word this week, all saying that it was coined at the Pittsburgh Podcamp last weekend. At this meeting developments in online communications were discussed. (As an aside about another term that was new to me, the Podcamp was called an unconference, an unorganised conference; haven’t we all been to some that felt like that?) Bacn (pronounced “bacon” and a creative misspelling along the lines of site names like Flickr) lies between e-mail and spam; it’s all that stuff you do want but which is low-priority and which you often don’t have time to read. A Web site discussing it has already appeared, which says that bacn might for example be “notifications of a new post to your Facebook wall or a new follower on Twitter. It’s the Google alert for your name and the newsletter from your favorite company”. Don’t bother learning it; it doesn’t have the feel of a stayer.
4. Questions & Answers: Crib
[Q] From Martin Turner, Hong Kong: “A simple question, but it’s bothering me. Where does crib come from in the sense of a cheat’s answer sheet or illicitly copying somebody else’s work? It’s listed as the same word as the baby’s bed, but the connection is beyond me.”
There are other senses of crib, especially that of a small house, cabin or hovel (from an extension of the sense of an animal stall), which eventually led to the New Zealand meaning of a small house at the seaside or at a holiday resort, to thieves’ slang of the early nineteenth century for a house, shop or public-house and to the slightly later US slang usage for a saloon, a low dive, or brothel (and also the current US Black English sense of one’s room, house or apartment). The sense of the baby’s bed doesn’t arrive until the seventeenth century as an application of the barred container idea, others being a repository for hops during harvest and a wickerwork basket or pannier. A shift from container to contents may explain why in Australia and New Zealand the word can mean a light meal or snack, though it’s also suggested that an eighteenth-century slang sense of the stomach may be the direct link.
The basket sense was used in particular for one in which a poacher might conceal his catch. The experts guess this may have led to the thievery sense around the middle of the eighteenth century. Much rests on an appearance in Samuel Foote’s play The Nabob of 1778: “A brace of birds and a hare, that I cribbed this morning out of a basket of game.” The plagiarism sense arrived at around the same time, though it seems to have become applied to stealing another’s school work only in the following century.
5. Reviews: Faux Pas?
On being criticised by Kermit in a long-ago edition of The Muppet Show, Miss Piggy flounced, tossed her head, rolled her eyes, placed one trotter on her ample bosom and cried, “Pretentious? Moi?” In the flagging system of this book, moi is given the highest possible pretentiousness rating of three exclamation marks.
The idea behind this helpful little guide, reissued in paperback last month, is firstly to explain puzzling expressions from other languages that have made their way into English, and then in many cases to warn prospective users of the risk of sounding like a pompous prat.
Many of the book’s entries are straightforward explanations of words and phrases that may puzzle or confuse you: arcanum, coup de foudre, de jure, encomium, femme fatale, idiot savant, kowtow, memento mori, nota bene, picayune, reductio ad absurdum, shtum, ukase.
Miss Piggy’s usage is in a select group of only four expressions that get the top pretentiousness rating. Even moi, he noted, is most often used in a mocking, self-deprecatory way to defuse a preceding statement that might be thought to be pretentious. The others are dégringolade, decline or fall into decadence, rarely found in English and which Mr Gooden points out is more or less the preserve of a single (unnamed) newspaper columnist; au contraire, on the contrary, disparaged because of “the slightly camp context in which it’s usually found”; and quartier for a district in a (French) town or city, which he argues deserves the full raspberry because it sounds ridiculous or precious if used about a district of a British city (“We have suburbs.”)
Well worth the small investment involved.
[Philip Gooden, Faux Pas? A No-nonsense Guide to Words and Phrases From Other Languages; published in paperback by A & C Black in July 2007 at £7.99 in the UK; pp231; ISBN-13: 9780713685237, ISBN-10: 0713685239.]
• The Channel 4 Web site recently promoted a program about John Wayne Bobbitt: “Twelve years on, after [a] brief porn career, a job as a Las Vegas minister, a stint as a limo driver for a brothel and a spell in jail, film-maker Vicky Hamburger went to find out what happened to the man with the world’s most famous penis.” Phil Wolff submitted that and wondered which of Ms Hamburger’s adventures landed her in jail.
• Reuters posted a story on 16 August with the headline “Earthquakes can move faster than thought”. Jim Grusendorf commented, “I can’t begin to imagine what sort of experiment could compare the speed of earthquakes to the speed of thought.” Adding previously before thought would have helped ...
• “I was intrigued,” wrote Eli Jacobs, “to find on the menu at the Fook Yuen Chinese restaurant in Millbrae, California, a listing for ‘Wanton Soup’. I was going to ask the waitress whether they were referring to its sensual properties or its merciless character, but restrained myself, and opted for the egg drop soup instead.”
• The Boston Globe site reported on the progress of an injury to the Red Sox backup catcher: “Doug Mirabelli’s sore ankle is still in a boot and is not with the team. He’s expected to join the Sox on this trip — perhaps in New York when he can begin working out.” Josh Weiland suggests that Mirabelli’s ankle should continue its rehab in the Sox’s training centre in Fort Myers until it’s ready to play again.