E-MAGAZINE 672: SATURDAY 2 JANUARY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Facebook Just a reminder that World Wide Words is well represented on Facebook. I have a personal page and there’s also a discussion group about topics of interest to language lovers. All Facebook members are welcome.
2. Turns of Phrase: Climate velocity
This technical term suddenly started to appear in non-specialist publications as a direct result of a paper by a group of US scientists that appeared in Nature on 24 December.
Scott Lowrie and Professor Chris Field, two co-authors of the Nature paper.
One big worry is that there may be no suitable habitat for species to move into, as a result of human activity. Another is that many plants will not be able to migrate that fast. The research group suggested that human intervention may be needed if vulnerable species are not to die out.
Nevertheless, while the climate-velocity concept is still crude, it’s promising enough that [David] Ackerly is collaborating with an organization called the Bay Area Open Space Council on habitat conservation strategies in central California.
Time, 24 Dec. 2009.
The scientists say that global warming will cause temperatures to change so rapidly that almost a third of the globe could see climate velocities higher than even the most optimistic estimates of plant migration speeds.
Guardian, 24 Dec. 2009.
This mythical beast is a favourite villain in fantasy stories and games, so much so that it is surely more widely known today than it has ever been. As one example, Harry Potter fans will know that Hagrid bred those nasty blast-ended skrewts from manticores.
From the mid-13th century bestiary, A Book of Beasts (MS Bodley 764), which is contemporary with the description by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.
It is said, that in India is a beast wonderly shapen, and is like to the bear in body and in hair, and to a man in face. And hath a right red head, and a full great mouth, and an horrible, and in either jaw three rows of teeth distinguished atween. The outer limbs thereof be as it were the outer limbs of a lion, and his tail is like to a wild scorpion, with a sting, and smiteth with hard bristle pricks as a wild swine, and hath an horrible voice, as the voice of a trumpet, and he runneth full swiftly, and eateth men.
De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Order of Things), by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, written about 1240. It was an encyclopaedia of science and theology compiled for Franciscan student friars in Magdeburg. The first English translation of the Latin original, from which this extract comes, was made by John Trevisa in 1398.
Despite this detailed and authoritative-sounding description, other writers and illustrators say the manticore had wings, or that his body was that of a tiger (which led to his name occasionally being rendered through folk etymology as mantiger); he has been said to come from Africa as well as India. In heraldry, he has been drawn as a beast of prey, sometimes with spiral or curved horns or the feet of a dragon.
But everyone agreed the beast ate people, ate them up so thoroughly in fact that nothing was left behind. If a person vanished from a village without a trace, it was assumed that a manticore was to blame (a splendid cover for murderous villainy, you may think). The name can be traced back to an Old Persian word meaning a man-eater, and first appeared in English in John Trevisa’s text.
4. What I've learned this week
Supermarket slang In a couple of articles about Christmas at supermarkets in the UK, I learned that a send-out refers to despatching items for home delivery, but that a push-out is the removal of a trolley of high-value goods such as alcohol from the store without bothering to go through a check-out. It came up in a report about a security man who was congratulated for thwarting a double push-out by two athletic thieves.
More words of the year The WOTY season continued this week with a list of words from the Oxford University Press that summed up 2009. They were chosen by Susie Dent, who is dictionary expert of the Channel 4 television programme Countdown and author of several annual volumes about word change from Oxford. Some have been mentioned here already, such as unfriend (although she also includes defriend as an alternative), staycation, bossnapping, epigenome and geoengineering. Others in her list are zombie bank (a financial institution whose liabilities are greater than its assets, but which continues to operate because of government support), jeggings (close-fitting leggings of a fabric that resembles denim; from jeans plus leggings), and freemium (a business model in which some basic services are provided free, with the aim of enticing users to pay for premium features or content; from free plus premium).
Susie Dent also mentions snollygoster, a wonderful US political insult, never much known in the UK, which everybody had thought had virtually disappeared from the language until it was used in May by Richard Graham, the Conservative parliamentary candidate in Gloucester, in a letter to The Times demanding that the sitting Labour MP, Parmjit Dhanda, publish his expenses so that voters “could see he isn’t a snollygoster”. This led to a brief flurry of press articles explaining that a snollygoster was a shrewd, unprincipled politician. (See my piece on the word.)
German words of the year One feature of 2009 was various schemes to persuade people to dump their expensive and polluting old cars and buy new ones, in the process passing a lifeline to the auto industry. In the US it was called Cash for Clunkers; the UK had the closely similar Scrappage Scheme (though the American term became popular later in the year). Germans have several names for their version, all based on Prämie, which means a bonus, reward or premium: Verschrottungsprämie (scrappage), Umweltprämie (environment) or Abwrackprämie (wrecking). The last of these was selected as Word of the Year 2009 by the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (Association for the German language). The runners-up included Wachstumsbeschleunigungsgesetz (Growth Acceleration Act), a package of financial measures which came into force on 1 January.
Scary games Nightmares I know about, even daymares, nightmarish fantasies you might experience while awake. But kitemares? It’s a common term, I have learned, for those frightening moments when something goes wrong while kiteboarding, such as getting your lines tangled with those of another kiteboarder. One Web site compiled a list of 13 common kitemares, the reading of which reinforced my enduring New Year’s resolution to keep my feet on the ground.
5. Questions and Answers: Pearls of wisdom
[Q] From Tonnie LaRue: I looked up the word wisdom on your site, and I noticed you did not have the phrase pearls of wisdom. I do not know where it came from or any other information about the saying. I have used it when talking about a person’s advice or qualities.
[A] It usually refers to advice or to some sage saying, these being compared to precious pearls dropping from the lips. These days, it has to be classed as a cliché, a hackneyed phrase whose shine has been worn off through constant repetition.
It has had plenty of time to become shopworn. The first example I can find in the standard form is this:
“Oh, how beautiful you will be!” said Osborne, looking in at the door. “My! my! all gold and feathers and precious stones and pearls of wisdom! A perfect aide-de-camp!”
The Conspirators, by Robert William Chambers, 1807. The narrator is being measured for his new uniform.
Pearl fishermen, 1683.
But wisdom is a pearl with most success
The Task, by William Cowper, 1781.
The reference here is undoubtedly to the pearl fishermen of various parts of the tropics.
The saying is decidedly modern compared with the other well-known expression involving precious concretions: pearls before swine, giving valuable things to people who won’t appreciate them. This has appeared in many forms since it was first written down:
That we ne thrauwe naght our preciouse stones touore the zuyn.
Ayenbite of Inwit, by Dan Michelis of Canterbury, 1340. The title means “Remorse of Conscience” (see my piece on inwit for more details). We might today render the line as “That we do not throw our precious stones towards the swine.”
The pearls first appear in John Langland’s poem Piers Plowman in 1362 and we’ve since had versions such as cast not your pearls before hogs and the much more recent admonition do not throw pearls to swine. The reference is Biblical, to the Gospel of Matthew, which in the King James version is “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.”
• If you read them casually, many news reports over Christmas might have evoked incongruous images. The headline that I found on the Harlow Herald’s site on Christmas Day might have been read as an anti-environmental message: “Recycle your wrapping paper and waste this Christmas.” Ron Hann noted that Yahoo! 7 News of Australia reported the same day on transformational floods: “The system has already dumped torrential rain on Central Australia, turning Uluru [Ayers Rock] into a waterfall as it heads east.”
• A headline over a widely reproduced Associated Press item of 19 December struck several readers as slightly weird: “Man sought in deadly shooting over iPod shot by police”. Another headline that turned up in many places first appeared on LiveScience.com on 18 December; it caused Randal Bart to worry about the young men of today: “Boys Explore Cell Phone Features More Than Girls”.
• Bill Seymour found this headline on The Speaker’s Lobby blog on Fox News on 16 December: “President Signs Bill That Allows Gun-Slinging AMTRAK Passengers to be Locked in Boxes”. It’s not a mistake, at least not by the headline writer. The bill actually specified that passengers were to be allowed to carry guns on to trains, provided that the guns were locked away in safes during journeys. A typing error during the printing of the bill led to the change in meaning. As the President has now signed the bill into law, another law is going to have to be passed to amend the wording.
• The snowstorms in the US before Christmas led to unconventional outdoor attire, according to the Associated Press on 19 December: “White, dressed in a toboggan, scarf and flannel-like jacket, said she works long hours at the law firm she owns and doesn’t get much time to shop.” Thanks to John Gillespie for that.