NEWSLETTER 529: SATURDAY 3 MARCH 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Myriad Dozens of subscribers queried my writing last week “It’s easy to find a myriad of examples”. All believed that it should instead have been “myriad examples”. After a few moments of puzzled thought, I worked out that the questioners used myriad only as an adjective. But it was originally a noun, and often still is. The original sense, from the Greek, was ten thousand, but it has long meant an unspecified very large number or a countless multitude. A search for the noun found approximately that number of examples. The Oxford English Dictionary has a dozen citations from 1609 onwards, the last being from a British newspaper of 1987. An archive of recent newspapers supplied 29,000 examples, top of the list being the Miami Herald of 22 February: “Coordinating airline schedules is a complicated business that requires exquisite timing of planes, crews, passengers and a myriad of other things.”
Arsiness Many Australians noted that the Australian sense of the word arsey that I mentioned in this piece last week, is not bad-tempered, sarcastic, arrogant, or uncooperative. That’s the British sense. Australians mean by it that somebody is lucky, most commonly flukily or undeservedly so. This version turned up in its earlier form, tin-arsed, in a piece last December.
Lots of people pointed out that arsiness was an example of a new word ending in -iness, which I had suggested earlier in the issue may be the mark of an evolving form meaning “something that affects to have or gives the illusion of having some desirable property”. To so instantly refute myself is an exceptional achievement.
Vulgar fractions Several readers knew a vulgar fraction as one in which the numerator was bigger than the denominator, meaning that the fraction’s value was greater than unity. That is usually known as an improper fraction (the other sort, of course, being proper). The confusion is easy to understand, since vulgar and improper mean much the same these days. To add a mildly vulgar or improper addendum to the subject, Lisa Lineweaver noted, “My grade-school classmates sometimes referred to these ‘upside-down fractions’ as ‘Dolly Parton fractions’ after the buxom country music star whose curvaceous form is top-heavy as well.”
2. Weird Words: Bridewell
A prison or reform school for petty offenders.
In the early sixteenth century, what was modestly called a lodging was built for Henry VIII on the banks of the Fleet River in London. It was actually a brick palace arranged around three courtyards. Its claim to fame is partly etymological and partly artistic.
The latter came about because in 1533 it was the scene of Holbein’s famous painting, The Ambassadors. The former was due to Edward VI, who gave the palace to the City of London as a hospital, orphanage and prison. Later it was used mainly for the short-term confinement and punishment of petty offenders and those who were regarded as anti-social misfits, such as vagrants, itinerants, vagabonds and loose women.
The palace was sited near an ancient holy well called St. Bride’s (or St Bridget’s) Well and became known as Bridewell. The name was passed on to the prison. It was later applied to the hundreds of others that were set up throughout the country on the same model, for which an alternative name was houses of correction, though these were in practice mainly prisons for the poor and indigent. The term was also taken to the British colonies.
Bridewells had a shocking reputation. In a biography of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, Mrs E R Pitman wrote, “They made a point of visiting most of the jails and bridewells in the towns through which they passed, finding in some of them horrors far surpassing anything that Newgate could have shown them even in its unreformed days.”
The term is now only historical, as the formal distinction between bridewells and prisons was abolished in Britain in 1865, though much of the work of the old bridewells had by then long since been taken over by the workhouses. But the term lives on in the names of a few police stations that were once attached to a bridewell, such as those in Bristol and Leeds.
3. Recently noted
Vanishing dialect We regularly hear reports of languages disappearing as their few remaining speakers die. David Crystal has estimated that one vanishes about every fortnight. In Europe, we think of this as a concern for other continents, since a lot of work is being put into supporting minority languages. So it was a surprise to read reports this week that a local dialect in Scotland is now down to its last two fluent speakers, the brothers Bobby and Gordon Hogg, the former aged 87 and the latter seven years younger. They speak the Cromarty fisher dialect, confined to local fishermen in the town of Cromarty on the Black Isle north of Inverness. The dialect is very unlike the ordinary town speech and is said to have been formed through a fusion of the Scots language with the English of visiting soldiers in the seventeenth century. The Guardian said in its report, “Cromarty fisher sounds like a bizarre mixture of twee Shakespearean English and thick Geordie. Archaic words like ‘thou’, ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ are combined with a virtuoso use of the letter ‘h’: ‘ear’ becomes ‘hear’ and ‘herring’ becomes ‘erring’. The uninitiated listener is left in a daze as to which century they are in.” There are several more such very local dialects in the area, all of which are dying out. The brothers’ distinctive speech is to be recorded for an online archive, Am Bailie, as part of the Highland Year of Culture. To intrude upon a later section’s brief, Michael Hocken noted that The Scotsman’s online coverage of the story, on 21 February, added a level of linguistic confusion, “When Bobby and Gordon Hogg meet up for a chat, they enter a linguistic world that few, if any, can no longer understand.”
Unboildownable Stephen Moss produced this conglomerated succession of word elements in a piece in the Guardian on Wednesday. It refers to a book that’s impossible to abridge without losing its essential qualities. This led me to a brief and unsystematic examination of some long words I’ve collected over 15 years of methodical reading. Leaving aside the many jaw-breaking terms of physics and biology, like superantiferromagnetism, pharmacometabonomics and hydroxysteroidsulphotransferase, and the cross-disciplinary specialisms of many modern researchers — archaeogeophysics, astropalaeobiology, biochronostratigraphy — complex words seem to be the special province of the various social sciences: debureaucratisation, embourgeoisification, deinstitutionalisation, revernacularisation, prepositionalisation and subcategorisational. I leave working out what these mean to the reader.
4. Questions & Answers: Hap
[Q] From Allan Todd, New Zealand: “I have heard and used hapless, but have often wondered where this word originated, what its opposite is and what a hap could possibly be!”
[A] Hapless is another of those famous unpaired negatives, like gormless, ruthless, and feckless.
At one time, you could indeed have had some hap. It was a state of luck or fortune, in particular some chance occurrence that might befall you, for good or ill, though — like luck and fortune — it tended to accentuate the positive. It comes from a Scandinavian source, was first recorded in the Middle English period, around 1200, but survived in mainstream use into the nineteenth century — it was still well enough known to appear in the definitions of some words in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary around the end of that century. If you were hapless, you lacked the chance to gain good fortune and so were unfortunate or unlucky.
Though hap itself is now archaic, some very familiar words come from it, including happy; this originally referred to a state of good fortune, from which today’s meaning evolved in the sixteenth century. The verb happen evolved out of hap, and can still have a strong sense of something coming about by chance (“We happened to meet in the supermarket.”) Haphazard once meant mere chance or a lack of design, from which comes our modern idea of an absence of organisation. Other compounds we still use today are perhaps and mishap (which was once a state of misfortune, ill chance, or bad luck). Mayhap, perhaps or possibly, survives in dialect.
There has never been a direct opposite — no hapful — though there have been at various times a number of other compounds: by hap or haply (by chance or accident), and goodhap (good fortune).
5. Questions & Answers: Pinch of salt
[Q] From Mark Lipman: “I was wondering where the expression take it with a pinch of salt came from?”
[A] There are two standard versions of this idiom, the much older one being grain of salt. Both suggest a need for scepticism or reserve in believing something you’ve been told: “Take everything she says with a pinch of salt — she’s unreliable”.
The expression has been used in English since the seventeenth century at least. It’s puzzling to us now because it’s based on a misunderstanding of a comment in a Latin document nearly 2,000 years old. Around 77 AD, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that the Roman general Pompey had discovered something odd a century before when he conquered Pontus, a small country on the shores of the Dead Sea. On searching the private apartments of the king, Mithridates VI, Pompey discovered that the king had built up his famous immunity to poisoning by first fasting and then taking doses of a mixture of poisons until he was able to tolerate lethal levels. (This is the origin of mithridate, an antidote to poison.)
Pliny wrote that the king had taken his doses of poison with the addition of a grain of salt (“addito salis grano” in his Latin). He meant this as a simple report. But later readers thought he was saying that one shouldn’t necessarily believe this story about a king who had been a notorious enemy of Rome. Modern scholars say there’s no evidence in Latin literature of writers using salt as a figurative expression of scepticism. The Latin tag usually taken to be the original, “cum grano salis”, is very likely to be medieval Latin.
But there is a sort of rationale to the idiom even if you discount the Plinian link. Someone who says this to you could be taken to suggest that if you’re really intent on believing what you’ve been told, then taking a figurative pinch of salt with it will help you to swallow it, just as taking a literal pinch with your meal makes it taste better.
• David Laurie, based in Wellington, New Zealand, sent a leaflet from a local bank advertising an account-opening service for those who are thinking of moving to Australia: “It only takes a few minuets and best of all, we provide this service absolutely free!”
• Wednesday’s Wisconsin State Journal included this headline: “Car hits tow truck driver, flees”. Janice Minardi wondered if the car left the scene because it felt so guilty and frightened.
• Richard Glynn Burton found a note from a mathematically challenged writer in the International Herald Tribune dated 24 February: “The typical New York rat weighs about 1 pound (45 kilograms).” He feels this lends credence to the general belief that everything really is bigger in the United States. But only in metric units.
• Ah, ambiguous headlines! Judith Gordon found one on the Web site of the Federal Times, a US newspaper designed for government managers: “Security needs swell federal work force”. “As a federal employee,” she wrote, “I had to ask, ‘Aren’t I swell enough?’”