E-MAGAZINE 693: SATURDAY 3 JULY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Alphabeticised nouns Y Tani was one of several readers with good knowledge of Japan who responded in mystification to my Wordface item last week. This, you may recall, concerned mature Japanese students of English who insisted that English nouns should always be listed in alphabetic order. He wrote “I am Japanese and a long-time resident of Japan, although I spent my linguistically formative years in the US. I’m also 53 years old, putting me in the same age group as Mr Daniel’s English class. I have never in my life heard of such an odd rule. I was so surprised that I called around to various acquaintances in their 50s and 60s, plus my father (who is 81), to ask. All say they have never been taught such a rule.”
Liuzhou e-mailed: “The question about alphabetical nouns in Japan amused me greatly. I’ve been teaching in China for fifteen years and have come across equally idiotic claims. My favourite was when one professor, the editor of the university’s English language journal, suddenly banned four letter words, because he had read somewhere that they were taboo. But he banned not just obscenities but all four letter words, including when, next, time and even his own name! He used a figure 4 to avoid spelling the word. I wrote him a note composed solely of four letter words congratulating him on his wisdom. The edict was withdrawn.”
Globish I confused some readers with an over-abbreviated reference to the etymology of the word that Robert McCrum spelled honkie (which I might have pointed out is almost always spelled honky). It is correct to write, as I did, that it came into Black English from the older hunky, which was being used at the time for Polish immigrants working in the Chicago stockyards. In the interests of keeping the explanation short, I didn’t explain that hunky was originally applied to Americans of Eastern European ancestry (it’s an abbreviated form of Hungarian), but came to include any immigrant of Slavic origin.
Fiddlesticks Following my recent rewrite of the piece about the origin of the term, several readers commented on a sense that doesn’t appear in my dictionaries. Jary Stavely wrote: “Old-time dance music in the southern mountains of the US featured rhythmic fiddling, sometimes accompanied by a banjo or other stringed instrument. Sometimes, though, the rhythm was accentuated by a second person actually tapping on the strings with ‘fiddlesticks’ which were different from the fiddler’s actual bow.” It’s impossible to be sure, but fiddlestick for a violin bow is so old that this would seem to be a comparatively modern derived sense.
It’s a fine word, which hints of galloping about in frolicsome high spirits. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, written in an earlier age, suggests it means “to gad about in a showy fashion”.
I’m not at all sure how often people still describe themselves or others as gadding about (it feels very old-fashioned to me) but you do it by going from place to place in search of entertainment or pleasure, usually with a person of the opposite sex. Its origin in an old and obsolete German word gadling for a vagabond points to its disreputable nature.
Gallivanting is much like gadding about, though ideally you should adopt a more ostentatious or indiscreet demeanour. Its antecedents are rather less clear: the experts wave vaguely in the direction of gallant, meaning a dashing man of fashion, a fine gentleman, or a man who pays special attention to women. That’s from the Old French galant, from galer, to make merry.
Full-Blown Two readers e-mailed to tell me that last week a column in the Sydney Morning Herald had a discussion about the origin of this term and to ask for my view of it. Published suggestions have mentioned flowers, glass manufacture and superchargers on hot-rod cars. You have to go back a long way to find the true answer. One sense of the verb blow, dating from the fifteenth century, was to inflate or puff up; nowadays we use blow up in this sense, as in blowing up a balloon, but that’s a later formation. Something full-blown was completely inflated. Originally it was literal (as in full-blown sails on a ship) but changed into our modern figurative term for something fully developed. Later, it was confused with a different ancient verb, also spelled blow, meaning to blossom (as in a line of Dryden’s, “The Blossoms blow; the Birds on Bushes sing”), so that full-blown took on the specific sense of a flower in full bloom.
Inflations We also know about inflation in the financial sense, as well as other words in -flation, such as deflation and stagflation. A newish example blew into the vocabulary of economics in an article by Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday. He introduced his readers to negflation. He suggested that Western nations may be facing this new type of financial crisis, which be described as “static or gently declining real levels of output in combination with higher-than-desirable inflation.” The word isn’t new — the US blogger MaxedOutMama used it in May 2009 — but its appearance in a national newspaper has given it wider exposure. It’s unlikely to stick around long enough to enter the standard vocabulary.
4. Questions and Answers: Boot camp
Q From Peter Needham: Do you have any clues as to where the odd American term boot camp comes from? The meaning seems to have spread to correctional “short sharp shock” facilities, but I’d imagine it is from the military originally. Is it because new recruits wear boots? They wear a lot of other stuff as well. It seems an odd term.
A It’s definitely a services term. Dictionaries often suggest, following the current entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, that it dates from the Second World War period, but it’s easy to find examples dating back to the First World War. The earliest I know about is one dated 1916 that’s cited by Jonathan Lighter in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. This is a slightly later reference:
The fellows are kind of rusty on this wash the clothes stuff because they haven’t done much of it since they came out of the boot camp, which is another name for a training station.
Galveston Daily News, 16 May 1918.
This is in a column headed “Marine Corps Musings”. It and other examples confirm Professor Lighter’s finding that it was at first a term of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps (it continued to be used solely in those services until after the Second World War, I’ve been told). It derives from a slightly older slang term boot for a recruit in basic training or an inexperienced enlisted man, on record from 1911.
Why this should have appeared is uncertain. While it’s true that new recruits were issued boots at the start of basic training and seemed to spend much of the rest of their time breaking them in, I agree with you that this seems a slim basis for the invention.
There is a persistent legend that it appeared during the Spanish-American War of 1898, or at least around that period. Two versions are told. One has it that sailors’ leggings were known as boots and that the term was transferred to recruits. Another version turned up half a century ago in the Words, Wit and Wisdom column written by William Morris; he quoted a letter that he had received from C E Reynolds, a retired Navy radio chief:
“When I entered the Navy in 1911,” he writes, “an old-timer called me a ‘rubber-boot sailor.’ When I asked for an explanation, he told me that prior to about 1890 all the men prided themselves on getting out on deck and scrubbing down barefooted in the coldest weather. Then there was an influx of kids from the midwest. They didn’t intend to act foolish, so they went ashore and bought boots to wear when it was cold. The older hands sneered and called them ‘rubber boot sailors.’ By the time I came on the scene, they had shortened the nickname for recruits to ‘rubber boots.’ That gradually was shortened and by World War I we just said ‘boots.’”
Reno Evening Gazette, 16 May 1962.
I’ve not been able to find a contemporary example of rubber-boot sailor but Mr Reynolds’s recollection is first-hand, is so tightly dated, and fits so well with other early examples of boot for naval recruits, that we must take his suggested origin seriously. Certainly, as matters stand, it’s the best we can hope for.
• A headline Benjamyn Lockwood spotted in the Herald of Bellingham, WA, on 22 June came from the Associated Press: “Sound Transit train hits teenage girl, survives”. Many other news outlets had the same headline. Kudos to the Seattle Times, which rewrote it to “Teen girl hit by Sound Transit train, survives”.
• Continuing with confusing headlines, Louis DeFalaise would like to put in evidence one from the Washington Times on 25 June: “Police: Woman sought to kidnap baby.” Proactive policing?
• While not wishing to make a joke from death, Janusz Lukasiak found this sentence in an obituary of 21 June on the Cosmopolitan Review website to be a remarkable enough example of medical malpractice to be worth quoting: “All this was cruelly interrupted by illness. The first signs came soon after the Chilean earthquake in February, wrongly diagnosed as epilepsy.”
• Jocelyn Dodd felt that the Malaysian Star might have worded its report on 26 June rather better: “Teenage pregnancies are becoming a disturbing trend in the country based on the swelling number of girls seeking help from the Welfare Department about their predicament.”
• On its website, Bay Realty is advertising a “studio New York style apartment” that is apparently designed for an Arab leader, as it is “Situated in Sydney’s sheik suburb Darlinghurst”. The blurb also mentioned a useful feature: “This new warehouse conversion offers floorboards throughout.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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