NEWSLETTER 548: SATURDAY 11 AUGUST 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Glurge Snopes.com says that this word, for a mawkishly sentimental story with facts fabricated to tug on the heart strings, was coined on its urban legends mailing list by Patricia Chapin in 1998. The site comments that “At a loss for words to describe the retching sensation this then-unnamed category of stories subjected her to, she fashioned a word that simultaneously named the genre and described its effect.” Many thanks to everybody who pointed me to this explanation of its origin.
Hump day Many readers told me that hump day, which I mentioned last time, has a long pedigree, their memories taking it back into the 1960s. The reason for including it was its appearance in the new edition of the Collins Australian Dictionary, but it’s actually an Americanism. Though it’s usually understood to mean midweek, Harry Hickey recalls that he came across it in the US Army in the mid-1950s to mean the halfway point in one’s term of enlistment.
Jericho Following my slightly puzzled comments last week on the use of this word for a outdoor privy, Bill Stewart pointed out that one Web site says that the road to Jericho is the path to the privy. That would suggest that Jericho is a known term for the outhouse, perhaps with a nod to the story of the Good Samaritan who came to the relief of the traveller on that road, but I can find no other example of road to Jericho in this sense, so if anything the mystery deepens!
Bowser Continuing with this word that featured two weeks ago, Roy Zukerman asked whether the American usage of Bowser as a name for a dog might have derived from Bowser the Hound, the children’s book by Thornton W Burgess, published in 1920. It turns out that Burgess didn’t invent the name, but borrowed one already in circulation — I’ve found it an 1883 issue of the Allen County Democrat of Ohio.
Saviour sibling This term was mentioned in the newsletter back in 2004. Its reappearance last week in a British parliamentary report suggests it should be given a substantive entry.
2. Turns of Phrase: Activitystat
Several recently reported research findings suggest that there’s a setting in the brain that determines how active each of us is going to be or wants to be.
The EarlyBird project at the Peninsula Medical School in Devon, led by Professor Terence Wilkin, is following the progress of a group of 300 British children from age 5 to age 16, monitoring their activity levels and metabolism as they grow up. Although children vary a lot in how active they are (Prof Wilkin’s group found a four-fold variation between children in their test subjects), each child is consistent in how active he or she is day-to-day. This doesn’t depend on how much organised physical activity there is at school, or on daily routine, socio-economic status or background. If children are more active at school, they’re less so at home and vice versa. In particular, confounding a popular view, how much TV a child watches didn’t affect how much exercise he or she takes. One implication is that you can’t necessarily assume that obese children are that way because they’re sedentary.
Professor Wilkin coined activitystat for the mechanism in the brain — probably in the hypothalamus — that sets energy expenditure and hence physical activity for an individual. The word comes from activity plus thermostat, a parallel formation to appestat, a known brain mechanism that controls appetite. Activitystat is first recorded in print in The Journal of Diabetes Nursing in 2005.
This activitystat, like a thermostat, will adjust your energy expenditure down when it thinks you have been too active, and up when you haven’t been active enough.
[Guardian, 7 Aug. 2007]
The activitystat hypothesis emerged after trials suggested that no matter how much or how little exercise children were offered, they found their own level. “Like horses brought to water,” says Professor Wilkin, “children with low-activity settings may simply not participate.”
[Times, 23 Apr. 2007]
3. Weird Words: Pitmatic
A vernacular used by miners in the north-east of England.
Its name is hardly known even in the area in which it was once best known, though it has received attention from dialectologists and was featured in Melvyn Bragg’s The Routes of English BBC Radio 4 series back in 2000. It has been in the news recently as a result of the publication of a book on it by Bill Griffiths.
Trying to classify it isn’t so easy. It isn’t a dialect, because it is mainly vocabulary, lacking grammatical features that separate it from other types of speech (the main dialect of the area is the one commonly called Geordie). It isn’t just a workplace jargon, though that’s where it comes from, because some of the terms have escaped into the wider community, such as greaser, a device to lubricate the wheels of the coal tubs, which led to the expression “gan canny ower (go carefully over) the greaser”, meaning “mind how you go”; It can’t be called an argot, which is a semi-secret vocabulary with criminal associations, or a patois, which is a low-status dialect, which Pitmatic certainly wasn’t. Call it a vernacular.
The term is first recorded in print, in a slightly different form, in an article in The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle back in 1873:
A great many of the lads, especially from the Durham district, had evidently never been in Newcastle previously, and the air of wonder with which they gazed at the crowds, at the buildings, and especially at the fine folks who occupied the windows, was very amusing. If the quality criticized and quizzed them, the lads returned the compliment, and it was entertaining enough to catch snatches of criticism on the manners and customs of the upper ten thousand of Newcastle, reduced to the purest “pitmatical”, shouted across the streets, as the men and lads belonging to collieries swept by where I stood in the crowd...
That fuller form, Pitmatical, soon abbreviated, gives the clue to its origin. It’s a compound of pit and mathematical, which may have been intended to stress the skill, precision and craft of the colliers’ work.
[Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coalfield, is published by Northumbria University Press, £9.99. ISBN 1-904794-25-4. The book goes well beyond vocabulary to include many examples of songs and stories written in Pitmatic by colliers about pit life and shows how the speech fitted into the wider language-world of the region.]
4. Recently noted
Urographist This seems to be a true neologism. Paul Berman used it in posing a question to the Guardian’s Notes & Queries section this week. A urographist, he said, was a person who designs amusing symbols representing ladies and gents on toilet doors (I would guess like those in a sailing club I once visited that had pictures of buoys and gulls for this purpose).
No sex please, I’m a vegan The story broke in the Christchurch News at the end of July and has been picked up all over the world. Annie Potts, co-director of the Centre of Human and Animal Studies at Canterbury University in New Zealand, conducted research into the experiences of cruelty-free ethical consumers, who included vegetarians, pescetarians (who eat fish) and vegans (who consume no products of animal origin). Dr Potts found that some of the vegans she interviewed, mainly women, refuse to have sexual contact with meat-eaters because their bodies are made up of the dead animals they’ve eaten. She has coined the word vegansexual to describe this group. I suppose that makes the meat-eaters among us carnisexuals.
Water, water everywhere The recent serious floods in Britain might encourage people to look at creating a hydrometropolis. It’s a rather rare Dutch-inspired term for major housing areas that partly float and may be surrounded by water. Some houses have already been built on flood plains in the Netherlands that rise and fall with flood water levels.
5. Questions & Answers: Joe Soap
[Q] From Steve Campbell: “Who do you think I am — Joe Soap? My dear old mother used to use this expression occasionally. We migrated to Australia from the Old Dart in 1951. I’ve never heard it used by Australians. What is its origin and is it still in use in the UK?”
[A] It remains moderately common. This example is from the Mirror of 4 October 2006: “You believe in the tooth fairy if you believe that businessmen happen along to a posh hotel in Manchester to hear any old Joe Soap lecture on the Irish economy.” In 1994 Andrew Motion published a long poem with the title Joe Soap.
But the meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She was clearly using the expression to refer to a stupid person, one who could be easily put upon or deceived. That was the first sense; these days it usually refers to an archetypally ordinary person.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Service Slang by John Hunt and Alan Pringle, published in 1943: “Joe Soap, the ‘dumb’ or not so intelligent members of the forces. The men who are ‘over-willing’ and therefore the usual ‘stooges’.” A services origin is supported by an item in the Lethbridge Herald in Canada the same year: “Farther along the road to Enna I saw many captured German vehicles. German divisional and regimental signs had been painted out and flaring red Canadian maple leaves painted on sides and fenders. On one captured truck was painted in huge letters ‘Smith’s Transport.’ Another had the sign ‘Joe Soap and Company.’”
The usual view is that the second part is rhyming slang for dope, a stupid person, which started life as local English dialect (it’s first recorded in Cumberland in 1851). The first part is the short form of Joseph, widely used in compounds to refer to an ordinary person — Joe Bloggs, Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Joe Average, Joe Citizen, plain Joe, ordinary Joe, Joe Doakes, Joe Public — there are lots of examples. It was first noted as a generic term in 1846, in a different sense, when it appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide: “Joe, an imaginary person, nobody, as Who do those things belong to? Joe.”
• Dave Hay read in his local newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, about John Wayne’s 100th birthday party. His granddaughter, Anita LaCava Swift, was quoted as saying, “It’s always an amazing thing for our family whenever we are out among his fans because he’s almost been dead for 30 years.” Amazing isn’t quite the word.
• “Our New York City police department is known as an ace outfit,” says Dodi Schultz, “but this must be a first in crime-fighting history. On 8 August the Web site of New York 1, our all-local-news TV station had the headline ‘Boyfriend of Slain Woman Found in NYU Building Charged with Murder.’ I guess the suspect was unlikely to flee.”
• Brenda Clough forwarded an extract from an article in the New York Times on Wednesday: “India stands to bear the brunt of some of the worst effects of climate change, in large measure because it is ill-prepared. When the rivers swell, fragile embankments burst. Mud and thatch houses easily crumble. When the water rises, as it does year after year to varying degrees, Indian peasants are ritually stranded.” She says she would love to know more about the rituals. “Do they involve hymns? Vestments? Sacraments?”
• Mark Goucher has produced a musical at the Edinburgh Festival based on the 1978 adult film Debbie Does Dallas. The Guardian reported on Wednesday: “Goucher’s main concern is whether Debbie should be seen having sex. ‘I don’t want it to be offensive, but we need a bigger climax.’”