E-MAGAZINE 702: SATURDAY 4 SEPTEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Jumentous Several readers pointed out that the Latin word is also the source of French jument, a mare. Others noted the reference to lateritious in one of the quotations and asked whether it was related to the clayey stuff called laterite (Tim Conway recalls it as “a much-sought-after soil for road building that I encountered when I was a civil engineer in Kenya a few decades ago”). It is. Like lateritious, it’s from Latin later” for a brick, because laterite is reddish and on exposure to the air sets rock-hard.
Robert Rosenberg connected the word with the history of the the horse collar: “This is an even more interesting story than you might think, because there has been a historical debate about the role of horses as draft animals in the Roman era, and this word provides evidence in that debate. In a nutshell, there was an early twentieth-century argument that horses could not have been draft animals because of the harness used by the Romans. That argument has fallen, but this word might have given some of its proponents pause had they known it.”
Cabbage Last week, I mentioned this term for offcuts of material which tailors took as a perk of the job. Peter Weinrich e-mailed from Canada to recall, “when I was in the drapery trade — over 50 years ago — the term for ends of discontinued fabrics was ‘cold pork’.” From the US, Jeff Coghill remembers that “rabbit” was the term used by electricians for the copper wire left over after installing a circuit. The insulation was burnt off, the copper sold to a scrap metal merchant and the proceeds shared among the members of the crew.
This is principally British, an apt descriptive term for a pedantic and interfering person, one who is always poking his nose in where it’s not wanted. A recent example:
And life is like that: in the depths of extreme personal grief there is always some official prodnose of a parking authority or bullying tax inspector to harass you into intemperate rage against the universe.
The Sunday Times, 18 Apr. 2009.
Its genesis was a surrealistic column in the Daily Express with the title By The Way, often witty but as often bafflingly off-beat and obscure. For many years it was written by the humorist J B Morton, who introduced his readers to many strange characters, such as Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, who presided over the recurring case of the twelve red-bearded dwarves. The eccentric scientist, Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht made frequent appearances. So did that archetypal cad Captain Foulenough, who attended the notorious public school Narkover, which specialised in horse-racing, card-playing and bribery under the supervision of its headmaster, the dubious Dr Smart-Allick. Prodnose was a character who represented the general public, a pedantic oaf who interrupted Beachcomber and had to be booted out.
Reporters found prodnose to be an excellent term to describe subeditors, because — in the view of the reporters — they were continually asking awkward questions and pedantically correcting the text of their pieces. For that reason, when the term appears — which isn’t often — it is usually in newspaper columns.
Will it or won’t it? A storm in a teacup has erupted as a result of an unguarded comment by Nigel Portwood, the Chief Executive of Oxford University Press. In an interview in the Sunday Times last weekend, he was asked whether the forthcoming third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, due out in about a decade or so, would be published in book form. He said he didn’t think so. Within a few hours, this uncontroversial statement went around the world about twice and has appeared in at least 700 newspaper reports. It could be predicted by anybody who is versed in the economics and technology of big reference books, especially in the case of the OED, which has never made a profit in its history. As Mr Portwood explained, “The print dictionary market is just disappearing, it is falling away by tens of per cent a year.” His comments ruffled his colleagues at the OUP. Though it was a holiday weekend in the UK, Anna Baldwin, its Communications Director, rushed out a press release whose only significant sentence was “No decision has yet been made on the format of the third edition.” The two statements, you will note, do not actually conflict. The gasps of shock at Mr Portwood’s throwaway comment seem to have been fuelled by a sense that ending publication of such an iconic work as the OED in book form would be a milestone in the story of the printed word. Allied to that may be nostalgia for the smell of printer’s ink and the rustle of the printed page, though presumably not for the risk of hernia from lifting 20 volumes collectively weighing 130 pounds.
When is a bedbug not a bedbug? An item on 30 August in The Well, the online blog section of the New York Times, about the resurgence of bedbugs (so written), provoked this orthographical comment:
Bed bugs is TWO words – not one. The general rule for writing out common names of insects is as follows. If the insect name is a misnomer (e.g., the dragonfly is NOT a fly and neither is a damselfly), then the whole name is written as one word. If it is not a misnomer, then it is written as two words (e.g., house fly, which is a real fly). The bed bug is a “true” bug and therefore is two words.
You may consider this to be an instance of what one wit has already described as folk entomology. I doubt that one person in a thousand has heard of this supposed rule, but other comments on the item argued the same point and they’re supported by discussions in numerous books on insect classification. The idea is to separate what are often called the “true flies” in the scientific order Diptera from other insects commonly but unscientifically called flies, and to draw a distinction between the Hemiptera or “true bugs” and bugs of other kinds. This is one reference of many:
Because of the aerial prowess of insects in general, a great many nonflies bear “fly” as part of the name, such as butterfly, firefly, stonefly, and mayfly. Notice that the names are spelled as all one word. True flies are described by two words, such as mydas fly, robber fly, and soldier fly.
The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, by Eric R Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, 2007.
Various books likewise argue that the same rule should apply to the bugs. True bugs such as assassin bugs, June bugs and shield bugs should have their names written as two words, but those that aren’t should be written as one, such as pillbug or ladybug (though what one should do with the British ladybird for the same creature is unstated, though as it isn’t a bird, presumably a similar rule would apply).
Fly and bug are both ancient words of wide applicability and imprecise meaning that predate attempts at classifying the living world. Surprisingly, however, common usage follows the rule quite closely. It fails with bedbug and with spittlebug and tumblebug, all three of which are true bugs and so by the rule ought to be written as two words. Likewise, the blackfly, greenfly, horsefly, and blowfly are all true flies.
The rule seems to be a modern creation, an informal way of using the spelling of insects’ common names to distinguish Diptera or Hemiptera species from other flying beasties, but which lacks any etymological or historical justification. It is highly unlikely to affect the spelling of bedbug, since the tendency in modern English is to amalgamate multi-word terms into single words, not split them apart.
4. Questions and Answers: Chops
Q From William Armstrong, Atlanta, Georgia: In a book review in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “It’s as if an acrobatic but show-offy performance artist ... had decided to do an old-fashioned play and, in the process, proved his chops as an actor.” I’m sure she’s not referring to a delicious meal here. What do chops have to do with credentials?
A Nothing at all, Mr Armstrong. The two senses come from different sources.
A chop in the sense of a cut of meat is just a piece that has been chopped off the animal. It’s from the verb that means to cut with a quick and heavy blow. (This used to be spelled chap and survives separately in the sense of cracking the skin, as in chapped lips.) The other chop — for a person’s skills or talents — is a distinct word, originally meaning the jaws — as in licking one’s chops — but later extended to refer to the whole mouth area, especially the cheeks. This led to the British slang chubby chops for a child with a fat face.
In the 1940s or thereabouts, chops began to be used in American slang for the power of a jazz trumpeter’s embouchure, the way in which he applied his mouth to the instrument, and so came to mean the quality and versatility of his playing. It was extended to describe the skills and talent of any musician and then even more to those of any artist in any field, sometimes as a play on words:
She will present her Kazaam Salad at the State Fair, demonstrating not only her culinary chops, but also the science to back up her claim that it contains everything a person would need to eat in a day.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1 Sep. 2009.
Neither of these senses of chop have anything to do with others in the language, such as the one for an official signature or stamp; we think of it as Chinese, but it started out as the Hindi chap, a stamp or brand — it was taken to China by European traders, where it altered its meaning. Chop-chop, on the other hand, really is Chinese, a Pidgin English bending of the dialectal kuaì-kuaì. In chop and change, to continually alter one’s actions or opinions, chop is from a Middle English word, chap, that meant to barter or exchange (hence chapman for a peddler).
• A headline in the Sudbury Star of Canada on 30 August was sent in by Russ Hunt: “Wreckless decision to invade Somalia seeded chaos.” (It’s perhaps better than a seedless decision that wreaked chaos.)
• Elspeth Pope wrote, “While looking for an address in the Shelton, WA, phone book I came across the entry ‘Forest Funeral Home and Creamation’.” It’s an interesting business model, but it’s hard to see how it all fits together.
• The BBC website told Randall Bart: “Wireless power system shown off”. He would be more impressed if they showed it with the power on.
• The Oldham Evening Chronicle of Lancashire ran a story on 20th August 2010, Mary Pendlebury reports, which included the sentence: “One of three sisters, Hilda’s father was a butcher who ran four shops in Oldham.”
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