NEWSLETTER 606: SATURDAY 27 SEPTEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Scunthorpe matters My comment last week about the barriers that some online filters put on places like Scunthorpe provoked Andre Roy to write: “I work at Nipissing University. We can’t enter our domain name, nipissingu.ca, in some places.”
Gnathonic David Bowsher pointed out that this Weird Word last week might have referred to the lower jaw, since there are words in the language like prognathic, having a projecting lower jaw or chin and gnathology, the dental study of the process of chewing. It may be the Roman writer Terence intended a pun when he gave the name of Gnatho to his character in Eunuchus. Another case Mr Bowsher gave was agnathic; lampreys belong to this group because they haven’t got a lower jaw. He commented, “Some of our colleagues may perhaps be categorised as micrognathic miracles, because they are chinless wonders.”
Affixes Thanks to everybody who visited the new affixes site and made helpful suggestions. The site is the better for it. If you haven’t yet been to look at it, please do! I’ve now also got the search function working.
2. Topical Words: Satisfactory
A report by the British educational standards body Ofsted last week said that teaching in almost half of maths lessons was satisfactory. That doesn’t sound too bad. But when you read the actual words of the report, the implication is different: “teaching in almost a half of all maths lessons was only satisfactory or worse.” The Guardian felt it necessary to gloss the word satisfactory with the parenthetical note “Ofsted-speak for not good enough.”
We have an ambiguous relationship with satisfactory. Sometimes it can mean “fulfilling expectations” or “all that can be reasonably desired”. But more often it says something is rather less good than that. A patient who is in satisfactory condition is some way from being well; in law it means the evidence is merely sufficient for the needs of the case. Satisfactory says that something is OK but it’s most certainly not going to win any prizes. If you’re told that your work is satisfactory you’re left with a suspicion you’re being damned with faint praise. As the saying goes, it might be good enough for government work. It belongs somewhere around the level of middling and mediocre in the grade spectrum, better than bad but a whole lot less good than excellent.
However, one common meaning is of meeting requirements set in advance. A candidate may satisfy the examiners that he can proceed to a degree; a film may satisfy one’s expectations; a meal can be satisfying. Taking the word in this way, Ofstead’s pronouncement reads oddly, since presumably that body’s examiners are applying predetermined measures of competence. I can hear teachers arguing that if they’ve met the requirements, then why criticise them? The reason is that Ofsted has found that mathematics is being taught by rote — “taught to the test”, in the catchphrase — so that students can pass their exams but are left without any sense of what the subject is all about. Nothing new there, though the hothouse atmosphere of continual testing and examinations in British schools nowadays means that it is often hard to do anything else.
The sense of mere adequacy is present in the Latin words it derives from: satis, enough, plus facere, to do. The verb appeared first in English, in the fifteenth century, meaning to discharge some obligation, comply with a demand, pay off a debt, or atone for an offence by reparation or punishment (think of a glove slapping a face and a cry of “I demand satisfaction!”). These all had a idea of complete fulfilment absent from modern usage. The adjective appeared the following century with the initial meaning of atoning for sin, but it broadened a century later still into the range of senses we have now; over time it has come to mean no more than adequate, passable, acceptable or barely competent.
To do merely enough isn’t good enough: a hard lesson to learn.
A handbook or concise treatise.
In origin, an enchiridion is literally a small thing for holding in the hand, from Greek enkheiridion, which is made up of the parts en-, within, plus kheir, hand, plus the diminutive suffix -idion.
A famous example of a treatise with this name is the one St Augustine wrote around the year AD421, the Enchiridion de Fide Spe et Caritate (a treatise on faith, hope, and charity), in whose title appears the Latin form of the original Greek, the version that English has borrowed. Another example was penned by Erasmus in 1503, Enchiridion Militis Christiani, in English “Handbook of a Christian Knight”.
Outside references to such works, the word is extremely rare. It does appear in the SF novel Shadowfires by Dean R Koontz:
Sharp had remade his reputation by the manipulation of electrons, and Eric Leben had attempted to remake himself from a corpse into a living man by the manipulation of his own genes, and to Sharp it was all part of the same wondrous enchiridion to be found in the sorcerer’s bag of twentieth-century science.
Chocker? “Is the English language full?” was the intriguing title of a piece by Alex Beam in the Boston Globe on Wednesday. The answer seems to lie between “maybe” and “possibly”.
Save our words! A cute publicity campaign is under way in the UK, led by public figures that include the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, to prevent 2,000 terms being removed from the Collins English Dictionary to make room for new ones like credit crunch, equity release or toxic investment. The Times wrote about it last Monday and the same day the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 covered the story, interviewing Andrew Motion and Elaine Higgleton of Harper Collins Dictionaries. Some excellent weird words are mentioned, some of which may appear here in future weeks.
5. Questions & Answers: Take the biscuit
[Q] From John Czeiner in Salzburg: “Does the phrase take the biscuit have something to do with winning a prize? It seems strange since it seems to mean that something is ‘worse than expected’.”
[A] Does it perhaps feel to you as though a person has had their biscuit taken away from them? No, take here has the sense of acquire, in the same way that one might take a trick in a game of cards.
Take the biscuit could indeed once mean winning or excelling. In 1882, George Peck, whom the blurb to one of his books described as “America’s favourite humorist”, used it in his Peck’s Sunshine: “Any good play writer can take the cue from this article and give the country a play that will take the biscuit.” But these days, it’s an exclamation to suggest that somebody has done something unprincipled that would win them a prize in a contest of unethicalness. An early example that shows how this sense developed was in the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette of Indiana in November 1880. There seemed to be a quarrel going on between the editor of the Gazette and a rival paper: “For pure cussedness, the new and exceedingly fresh young person [at] the Sentinel takes the biscuit.”
You might think any expression containing biscuit ought to be British, as we use it as the standard term for those sweet items of food that Americans call cookies. Americans have biscuits, too, of course, though they mean something different by them. But the examples I’ve quoted show that take the biscuit was originally American.
It appears to be a variation on take the cake or on take the cakes, a couple of older Americanisms. It’s sometimes said that this refers to the strutting dance called the cakewalk, but the first known examples of that word — for a contest in graceful walking among blacks in the Southern states that had a cake as a prize — appears some 30 years after take the cake.
Take the cake may be a classical reference: the ancient Greeks awarded cakes as prizes to the imbiber in a drinking contest who lasted the longest.
• Scott Milsom reports: “On the edition of CBC Television’s Newsworld on 18 September, Canada Votes 2008 (a federal election campaign is underway), viewers were asked how well they thought the various political parties had kept their manifesto promises. One response displayed as the show ended claimed the Conservatives had done ‘an admiral job’ of keeping its previous election promises.” Were naval battles among them?
• An ad in the October issue of Black Belt magazine had the following caption, spotted by RoseAnne Mussar: “What price would you pay for excellance?” It would be worth a bit to get better spelling.
• George Mannes found a curious sentence in a report on 18 September from the Associated Press, about a complicated issue with the rules of American football: “NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday he expected the league’s competition committee would review the rule that possession could not change because the whistle blew during the offseason, as it has in the past.”
• Vance R. Koven noticed a sentence in the official National Public Radio transcript of a radio program broadcast on 16 September. It concerned the conversion of Catholic schools in Washington DC to public charter schools: “A marquis in front of the school now reads, Center City Public Charter School, tuition free.” He feels the city could have saved a good deal of money by hiring a mere baronet.