This is the last issue of the World Wide Words newsletter in its present form. It’s been fun for the past 18 years, but writing a scheduled weekly newsletter has become increasingly arduous. After months of indecision this issue, number 900, seemed a good point at which to stop.
But it’s not the end, just a change of pace — I shall go on writing pieces, just less regularly and in smaller numbers. They will continue to be sent by email as they always have been. They will also continue to be posted to the website and announced on Twitter, Facebook and RSS.
So keep your subscription going. And continue asking questions, sending comments and finding examples of awful public prose. My pieces have frequently been improved through the input of subscribers with specialist or local knowledge and I hope this will continue.
There’s going to be a whiff of the experimental about the next few weeks as we all discover exactly what I mean by “less regularly”. Stay with me to see how it works out ...
A particular word of thanks goes to the 373 subscribers who have been on the mailing list since it began to be operated on a list server in December 1998 (the newsletter started in July 1996, but I don’t have records from that early).
This is also an appropriate moment to thank my volunteer copyeditors, Julane Marx, Robert Waterhouse, John Bagnall and Peter Morris. Julane, who lives in California and whom I met for only the second time three weeks ago, has been reading drafts since 1998. All four are happy to continue correcting my errors and omissions under the new system.
The redesigned website is now online. This should make it much easier to read pages on mobile devices with small screens. I’ve removed some little-used features and simplified the site navigation. Your comments on the new format and reports of any problems will be welcome.
To complicate matters, the Linguist List at Indiana University, which very kindly distributes this World Wide Words newsletter without charge, has this week changed to a new system. This affects you only if you want to change your email address or (heaven forbid) leave the list. There is now no way to manage your subscription via the website — you must do so by email. For revised instructions, please visit the mailing list page.
Immensikoff. Hilary Powers commented, “One reason for the name’s attachment may be its appropriateness for the garment described in the quote — the greatcoat in question was clearly a shuba, a fur-lined overcoat designed for the Russian winter. I can still remember my college Russian teacher describing such coats with wonder: ‘Dazhe norka!’ (‘Even mink!’) they could be lined with, and they could almost double the size of the wearer. I got one from a thrift shop once: outer wool as thick as a navy peacoat, then a thin layer of padding, then spotted skunk, then heavy satin — a treasure, but no California winter was ever cold enough for it.”
Several readers recalled a music-hall favourite of the 1880s, words by Will Herbert and music by Bessie Belwood (real name Kathleen Mahoney) , with the title What Cheer ’Ria, in which Ria (short for Maria) splashes out a whole shilling to sit in the stalls, only to have all her pals in the gallery mock her, “Oh ’Ria she’s a toff and she looks immensikoff”. The word clearly had an enduring legacy in its original sense of somebody trying to rise above their station in life.
Kathleen Dillon wondered if immenseikoff was a fake Yiddish word with the intended meaning of “big head”. That sounds highly probable, though as always the lack of evidence is a nuisance.
Some subscribers were astonished and horrified that there were a couple of typing errors in the piece, caused by a hasty last-minute revision. It may be hard to believe, but I do occasionally make mistakes.
Sic! or not? Last week Bill Clarke reported printed instructions from a doctor: “put one drop in the eye four times per day while awake.” This prompted physician Duncan Salmon to write, “I can remember more than once finding out that my frazzled but compliant patient was taking the instructions ‘every 6 hours’ or ‘four times a day’ quite literally, setting alarms at 6 and 12 am and pm which usually woke up the spouse as well. I suspect that the ‘while awake’ phrase is a way of avoiding this too-literal interpretation of the instructions.”
A correspondent identified only as J Hooker wrote a disgusted letter to the Lady’s Newspaper of London in January 1863 about slovenly and unhygienic rural servants in France:
If I were to do more than hint at their hydrophobic habits, their pulicidal, pulicivorous, and even phtheirophagous propensities, I should call down, not undeservedly, the Zoilism of our correspondents.
The writer — from the tone of the piece he is likely to have been the famous biologist Joseph Dalton Hooker — must have had an uncommonly large vocabulary, or a talent for word coining, for that set of alliterative insults is uncommon. The first two — pulicidal and pulicivorous — have not reached the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, though their form suggests “flea-killing” and “flea-eating”, from Latin pulex. The third word, phtheirophagous, is from Latin, based on a Greek word that literally means louse-eating but was used figuratively for persons with unsavoury habits. The original epithet was applied by the Roman writer Strabo to a tribe living near the Black Sea, the Sulae, whom he disgustedly renamed the Phthirophagi.
Zoilism is another unfamiliar term. This is Greek and its initial capital letter gives the clue that it’s an eponym, a noun derived from a personal name. Zoilus was a Greek grammarian of the 4th century BC, who wrote savage criticisms of such Greek literary worthies as Homer, Plato and Socrates. He gained the nickname Homeromastic, one who assaults or chastises Homer.
Writers with good Greek but poor knowledge of word histories assumed that Zoilus and Zoilism were from the Greek word for zeal. This usually means an enthusiastic devotion to something (originally religion) but at one time could also imply jealousy or envy. This false connection caused people to assume that critics described as Zoilist were panning the work of others through resentfulness or spite.
There having never been any shortage of critics, Zoilus gained the plural Zoili. It and the other terms are now almost unknown, though bitter and carping criticism by envious hacks has not yet vanished from the world.
Q From Katya Epstein: In the movie The Producers, Max Bialystock says to Leo Bloom, “Am I correct in my assumption, you fish-faced enemy of the people?” Does fish-faced have a specific meaning, or did Brooks write this because Gene Wilder looks kind of like a fish?
A You may say that of Wilder. I’m staying quiet.
It’s been a long time, I suspect, since this playground taunt, meaning that the person so described is ugly or stupid-looking, has suggested that a person’s face literally looks like that of a fish. We may guess it started out describing a person either with bulging eyes or a receding chin that pushed the mouth forward.
I can remember it from my school days, a lot longer ago than I care to think about. But I also associate it with P G Wodehouse and was delighted to find that the Oxford English Dictionary concurs, since its only example of the insult is from his Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published in 1963: “He’s no worse than that fishfaced blighter.”
However, it’s much older than that. Raymond Chandler wrote in a short story in 1938 about “fish-faced blondes trying to shake a hangover out of their teeth.” George Orwell’s novel of 1936, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, has “Flaxman was propping up the bar with two fish-faced pals who looked like insurance-touts of the better type.” The American author and actor Emery Pottle, better known in the movies from 1921 onwards as Gilbert Emery, wrote in a story about the theatre in 1910:
It made me sore to see the fish-faced chump who had to make love to her in the piece. One night I punched the fish-faced boy’s eye because he got too gay with her. And there was a row and he got me fired.
Racine Daily Journal, 30 Dec. 1910. Making love at this date meant either flirting or courting and to be gay was to be light-hearted, carefree or flirtatious.
It’s easy to take the expression back even further. George Augustus Sala, a British journalist with a name to remember, wrote a piece in the Temple Bar magazine in 1875 about a painting: “It was a half length of a fish-faced gentleman, in oil”. It makes him sound like a sardine.
All these must bow before Four Plays in One, conventionally ascribed to Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher around 1610, though scholars now doubt the former was involved. In a scene set before the walls of Athens, the authors have the philosopher Socrates say to two captains who were discussing executing him, “Away, ye fish-faced rascals!”
It’s far distant in time and context from those insults in the playgrounds of my youth, but not so far in spirit.
• Perpetuity isn’t what it used to be, Rob Bernstein discovered on reading an advertising email: “Buy a one year perpetual license for Iron Speed Designer and receive an extra year of updates and support for free!”
• Lee Schlesinger was amused by a headline in the Boston Globe of 9 October: “Police detonate ordinance handed over by Cohasett resident”. Not just breaking the law but pulverising it.
• A subscriber who perhaps ought to remain anonymous reports “An email from our company’s CEO about a competition the company is currently running: ‘Any shops caught cheating will be illuminated’.”