E-MAGAZINE 652: SATURDAY 15 AUGUST 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Aristology Many readers were misled by the start of this word into thinking it might have a link with aristocracy. However, my dictionaries say that the two aristo- elements come from different roots: aristocracy is from aristos, the best, while aristology is from ariston, breakfast or lunch. It would seem to be one of those accidental similarities of language.
Max Coltheart, Lesley Beresford and Gordon Andrew all told me about another sighting of the rare term aristologist, in Australia. Mr Andrew explained: “When my wife and I were courting, our favourite restaurant was the Uraidla Aristologist, in the town of Uraidla in the Adelaide Hills. The part-owner, Michael Symons, was a food commentator and critic who wrote the definitive book on the history of Australian food, One Continuous Picnic. The restaurant has since closed, which is a great loss. But anyone who dined there knew what aristologist meant.”
Allergologist Following my mention of this word in the What I’ve learned ... section last time, contributors to the World Wide Words group on Facebook queried where it might be in use. The word turned up in an article about allergies in the issue of New Scientist dated 1 August. The full quotation is: “‘The proportion of severe reactions is higher than for peanut,’ says Montserrat Fernández Rivas, an allergologist from the San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Madrid, Spain.” On checking through my sources again, it’s noteworthy that many appearances refer to allergy specialists in non-English-speaking countries such as France, Austria and Russia. The earliest example I’ve found, in the New Yorker in 1952, refers to Finland. It may be that the word isn’t used by English-speaking specialists, but is a translation of terms used in foreign medical cultures. The pronunciation causes problems, too: the first g ought to be soft, since the word is from allergy, but g followed by o is hard in English.
This is where I recently came across this very rare word:
If it was hard being a small boy in a time of rapid change, it was a doubly hard burden to be a meter-tall rabbit cursed with human sentience and cunicular instincts.
Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross, 2003. It would take too long to explain the background to this Carrollian image (the rabbit does have a waistcoat, but no pocket watch is mentioned).
It’s better known to biologists than to SF authors. It simply means “rabbit-like”. It derives from Latin cuniculus, rabbit (itself taken from Green kyniklos), which is also the source of the old English name for the animal, coney or cony. The Latin word could also mean a burrow, an underground passage, or a military mine. Variations on it appear in systematic scientific names — an American owl, to take one example, is formally known as Speotyto cunicularia because it lives in burrows.
Cunicular has occasionally been used in botany and medicine for various kinds of tubular formation. Apart from that, sightings are extremely rare.
3. What I've learned this week
• Deadlock is too familiar to warrant comment, but this week I came across livelock. It’s a jargon term in computing for a state in which two processes each continually change their state in response to changes in the other without either doing anything useful. A close analogy in meatspace (a charming term for the real world) is two people meeting in a narrow passage who each dodge about trying to get out of the other’s way but succeed only in blocking each other.
• Those of us outside the US who read the Doonesbury cartoon strip know all about the rise of birthers, those opponents of President Obama who hold that he wasn’t born in Hawaii and so is ineligible to be president. That term has now spawned deathers. It has been traced back to an article on slate.com at the end of July, in which Christopher Beam coined it for those who believe that Obama’s health-care reforms are a cover for a secret plot to kill off the old and the sick.
• I have learned, thanks to a question about it from Jo McRae, that in Australia something that’s cactus is unserviceable, broken, or defunct. It derives from the phrase in the cactus, military slang of World War Two, to be in trouble or to be in difficulties, as one would be if caught up on the spines of a cactus. As there are, so far as I know, no native cacti in Australia, the idea has presumably been imported.
• On Monday, the New York Times headed a economics blog piece with the word mancession. Blending man and recession, it makes the point that the US economic downturn has disproportionately hit men, who are more likely to work in industries such as manufacturing and construction that are sensitive to bad times. The word has gained a fair bit of press usage since it first appeared back in March, even appearing in papers in Russia, the Netherlands and China. But I doubt it has become part of anybody’s working vocabulary. Other commentators have coined he-cession for the same idea.
4. Questions and Answers: Bully pulpit
[Q] From S O Waife, Florida: We’ve been hearing a lot about the President using his bully pulpit. We know what it means, but where did the term come from?
[A] It’s certainly in the news at the moment.
I wonder, though, if the meaning that I think you have in mind is really known to everybody? When I first came across it, years ago, I assumed that bully was in the usual current sense of a person who intimidates others through force and that bully pulpit meant that some person in authority was abusing his powers. This is by no means an uncommon assumption:
Consider the case of the government using the bully pulpit of eminent domain to effectively seize a business it didn’t like.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 29 May 2009.
It was a while before I realised that bully here had a different sense, one now hardly known, of something first-rate or excellent. Oddly, the two senses are from the same source, since bully was originally a term of endearment, from Dutch boel, lover, and later became a compliment for a male companion, meaning admirable. Our current sense grew out of this as the word went down in public estimation. At one time you might have heard people say bully for you! as a way to express admiration for another’s action.
Enough on the background. This is the origin:
Half a dozen of us were with the President [Theodore Roosevelt] in his library. He was sitting at his desk reading to us his forthcoming Message. He had just finished reading a paragraph of a distinctly ethical character when he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair and said “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”
Lyman Abbott, in The Outlook, 27 Feb. 1909. Dr Abbott, a notable Protestant theologian and author, was editor-in-chief of the magazine. The anecdote was thought worth repeating in the New York Times on 6 March. Roosevelt was fond of bully as an adjective; when he returned to the US following his successful campaign in Cuba in 1898, he said “I’ve had a bully time and a bully fight!”
To quote William Safire’s Political Dictionary, a bully pulpit is “active use of the president’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.” That’s certainly the most common meaning, directly arising from Roosevelt’s usage, but it’s now wider in application than just the presidency and is used of other persons and also of organisations.
The term became known, though hardly fashionable, in the years that followed its first appearance, most frequently in commentaries on Roosevelt’s presidency, but then largely fell out of use. It’s notable that one newspaper archive I consulted has no examples between 1909 and 1958. It returned to significant use in the language in the 1960s, becoming widely known from about 1985. An early stimulus was its use in books about the Kennedy administration, such as Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days and Theodore C Sorensen’s Kennedy.
• Some of these new cars are really compact, as Dodi Schultz found on reading an item in last Saturday’s New York Times: “One of the two safes that Mr. Brinkmann kept in his apartment, along with his car, a Honda Civic, had been stolen.”