E-MAGAZINE 700: SATURDAY 21 AUGUST 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Silly season “In Germany,” noted Werner Eppinger, “we have two really silly equivalents to the comparatively boring term ‘silly season’: Sauregurkenzeit (pickled gherkins time) and Sommerloch (summer hole).” Martin Cleaver e-mailed, “You reminded me of the Dutch translation, komkommertijd. The term — literally ‘cucumber time’ — was apparently borrowed from English.” James Campbell noted that agurktid in Norwegian also means “cucumber time” and is likewise said to be from English.
Cucumber time appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the first example from the Dictionary of the Canting Crew of 1700; the entry is prefaced by the slightly mystified comment, “used with some obscure reference to a tailor”. A correspondent to Notes and Queries in November 1853 gave an explanation that I hope isn’t a popular etymology: “Cucumber Time. — This term, which the working-tailors of England use to denote that which their masters call ‘the flat season,’ has been imported from a country which periodically sends many hundreds of its tailors to seek employment in our metropolis. The German phrase is ‘Die saure Gurken Zeit,’ or pickled gherkin time.” So it would seem that the Dutch and Norwegian expressions were borrowed from English, which got it from German. Who said etymology was simple?
Nine days’ wonder J B Segal, Leslie Klinger and Nicholas Willmott all pointed out that Shakespeare probably wasn’t the first to use the phrase. For a bet, William Kemp (or Kempe), a famous clown of the Elizabethan stage, Morris-danced the 130 miles (200 km) from London to Norwich over a period of nine days during February and March 1600. He published his account of it later that year under the title Kemp’s Nine Daies Wonder. His play on words suggests that the idiom was already known in that form.
I referred to Shakespeare’s use of the idiom in his play As You Like It. There is some doubt about when that was written. The date of 1616 that I gave is wrong, not least because Shakespeare died in April 1616 after some years’ retirement. It is the date included, very cautiously, in the OED’s rather elderly entry, but modern scholarship suggests that the play was recorded at the Stationers’ Company in 1600 and was probably first performed in 1603; it was published in the First Folio of 1623.
Numerical note Since this issue is number 700, I’ve now reached another milestone along the way to wherever I’m going (at least I don’t have to Morris-dance the route). Following a whimsical fancy I wrote a little computer program to count the number of words in every issue since the first, dated 12 June 1996. It came to 1.42 million. My last book, Why Is Q Always Followed by U? (the paperback is coming out worldwide on 28 October: reserve your copy now) has about 100,000 words, so 14 years of World Wide Words is equivalent to another 14 such books. No wonder I occasionally feel a bit tired.
If this reminds you of the inarticulate cry of disgust that’s most often spelled ugh! then you’re on the mark. Ugh comes from the much less familiar ugsome, something loathsome or horrible. In a case of linguistic turn-and-turn-about, ugsome derives from the ancient and long defunct word ug, which about a millennium ago came into English from the Old Norse ugga, to dread. That Old Norse word is also the source of ugly (which meant frightful or horrible before it weakened to refer to something merely unpleasing in appearance). You could argue that ugsome is the opposite of handsome.
In the centuries before Shakespeare, ugsome was common enough, mostly in Scotland and northern England, but then almost completely died out except in dialect. It was resurrected in the eighteenth century by writers seeking an archaic word to help set a historical scene. The following century, popular authors such as Sir Walter Scott (“Like an auld dog that trails its useless ugsome carcass into some bush or bracken”), Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“‘’Tis an ugsome bit of road!’ said the Corporal, looking round him”) and Charles Dickens (“One very ugsome devil with goggling eyes, seems to hold up frightful claws, to bar the traveller’s way”) regained it some small exposure, though it was never very popular.
Today, ugsome is unknown to most English-speaking people. This is a rare modern example:
The link between motorists and rats may not be immediately obvious — except to that tiny proportion of the population for which car-users are pests and their vehicles ugsome — but drivers and rats both react badly to the stress brought on by crowded conditions.
Yorkshire Post, 6 Sep. 2004.
New dictionary words Thursday saw the publication of a new edition of the single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English. Since the last update was in 2005, the 2,000 new entries present an interesting snapshot of changes to our vocabulary since. The editors are able to react quickly to new terms, as you can tell by the inclusion of vuvuzela, the football fan’s trumpet which noisily blasted into the public consciousness at this summer’s World Cup.
Climate change has brought several terms into the new edition, including carbon capture and storage (trapping and storing carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels) and geo-engineering (the manipulation of the global environment to counteract the effects of global warming). The internet has generated paywall (which restricts website access to subscribers), microblogging (posting short entries on a blog or in Twitter), netbook (a small laptop computer mainly used to access the internet), tweetup (a meeting arranged through Twitter), viral (of information or advertising that’s transmitted person-to-person online) and interweb (a humorous term for the internet). Politics and business have contributed several new words and phrases including exit strategy (a way out of a situation, especially military), surge (of troops), toxic debt, debt which has a high risk of default, and deleveraging (the process or practice of reducing the level of one’s debt by rapidly selling one’s assets). On a personal level, new entries include overthink (to analyse or think too much), catastrophise (view or present a situation as much worse than it actually is), and soft skills (personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively with other people).
Not every freshly included term is new. Many appear for the first time because they are now used enough that the editors feel people will want to turn to the dictionary for enlightenment. Among these are turducken (a roast dish consisting of a small chicken inside a duck inside a turkey) and LBD (short for Little Black Dress), plus the phrases on the naughty step (of a way to punish a toddler for misbehaviour) and national treasure (a person or thing deemed to be of value to a nation, particularly culturally).
[I plan to write a fuller review in the next few days, which I hope to put on the website next Saturday.]
4. Turns of Phrase: NDM-1
Press reports in the past week have been predicting the end of the antibiotic era if bacteria that generate an enzyme that’s known as NDM-1 (“New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase-1”) spread widely. The enzyme is able to counter all known antibiotics. Bacteria containing it are potentially a more serious threat to public health than the most resistant kind currently known, MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus).
As its full name suggests, NDM-1 is linked to India, first being identified in a Swedish patient who received medical treatment in New Delhi in December 2009. It is spreading to other countries as a result of medical tourism, in which people travel to the Indian subcontinent to get less expensive medical treatment. The gene that generates NDM-1 is at the moment known to exist in two species of bacteria, which can respectively cause fatal pneumonia and urinary tract infections. However, in common with other bacterial genes it can transfer to other species, so potentially widening its impact.
The threat was reported in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases on 11 August, which concluded that NDM-1 is “potentially a major global health problem” and that “co-ordinated international surveillance is needed”. The Indian government has responded angrily to the claim that it originated in India and in particular to its name.
NDM-1-producing bacteria are resistant to many existing antibiotics including carbapenems — a class of drugs often reserved for emergency use and ‘last resort’ treatment.
Daily Mail, 12 Aug. 2010.
A team of researchers from a leading private hospital in Mumbai came to similar conclusions as the British study, which warned that foreigners coming to India for cut-price treatment could pick up NDM-1 and spread it worldwide.
Vancouver Sun, 13 Aug. 2010.
• A classic misplaced modifier appeared in a CBC News headline on 14 August: “Days from death, Fla. wildlife officials free plastic jar that was stuck on bear cub’s head”. Thanks to Yin Liu, Mike DiCola and Didi Pollock for sending that in.
• Ian Price tells us about a headline from Sky News on Tuesday: “Travel operator Kiss Flights has ceased trading, leaving thousands of holidaymakers abroad and future bookings up in the air.” Or perhaps not.
• Another headline, this time in the Cincinnati Enquirer of Ohio last Sunday (sent in by Brian Halsall), could be taken two ways: “Camp helps burn survivors”.
• A front-page headline in the Buffalo News last Monday was noted by Glor: “Four fatally shot outside downtown City Grill as part of anniversary celebration”. So it happens every year, then?
6. Copyright and contact details
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