NEWSLETTER 513: SATURDAY 11 NOVEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Department of I’ll get this right if it kills me My correction in the last issue about the Breton language contained its own error. The Welsh, Cornish and Breton word for wine is gwin, not gwyn. The latter means “white”.
Across the board Following my slight puzzlement about the nature of the board in the horse-racing contexts I mentioned in this piece last week, subscribers suggested I rent a copy of The Sting to see an example of bets listed on a board in the way presumably meant. Others pointed to the tote—in the first years of the twentieth century then more commonly called the pari-mutuel—as the type of board in question.
2. Turns of Phrase: Eco-auditor
Every problem, the business gurus say, should be viewed instead as an opportunity. Now that the economic and climatic consequences of our profligate Western lifestyles are regularly held up to adverse scrutiny, as they have been recently by the Stern report commissioned by the Treasury in the UK, a new group—eco-auditors—becomes available to advise us. Through eco-auditing we can learn to become environmentally responsible in our daily lives by reducing our gas, electricity and water use, by recycling more, and shopping responsibly—it’s like having a personal trainer for our homes. The job and the term grew out of European Union initiatives of the 1990s—and was discussed as a case of widening EU professionalisation in an article dated 2000 in the journal European Sociological Review—but until very recently has been unfamiliar outside the EU administration.
A new deal just struck with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes to provide as many of its 215,000 members who want it with detailed eco-auditing advice, funded by a government grant, will increase demand still further.
[The Observer, 5 Nov. 2006]
Donnachadh McCarthy, author of Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth and a home and business eco-auditor, is concerned about how much water is wasted.
[The Independent, 27 Sept. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Bellwether
Something that leads or indicates a trend.
It’s not uncommon these days, even though the word is still widely used, to find it spelled bellweather or even bellwhether. For example—I do not shrink from naming the guilty—the Washington Times for 29 October 2006: “That’s why we should have used some bellweather event like the signing of the Iraqi constitution, or the parliamentary elections as our moment to declare victory and exit stage left.”
There’s some excuse for this, assuming a lack of prior knowledge and the absence of a dictionary, since the second part of the word is now rare in our urbanised existence. Wether is an old English word for a castrated ram. The experts think it comes from a prehistoric root meaning a year, perhaps because the ram concerned was a yearling; it’s a relative of veal, via the Latin vitulus, a calf.
The shepherd used a wether as the leader of the flock, whom the rest would follow. To be sure to know exactly where he was, a bell was hung around his neck. So: bellwether. By the fifteenth century, it was being applied to people, as a contemptuous term for a leader whom only sheep would follow, especially one who possessed a loud mouth but little judgement. That was still in use centuries later, as you may tell from Captain Francis Grosse’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1811, in which the word is defined as “[t]he chief or leader of a mob”.
In more modern times—within the past century or so—it has moved sense to refer to things, rather than people, that lead or indicate a trend, such as the way we are likely to vote in an election. A bellwether security is one that predicts the way the stock market is moving. To blindly follow trends as though we were sheep, of course, merely returns us to the old meaning.
4. Recently noted
Another week, another survey My Monday began badly with the widely reported results of a survey by the British company Investors in People (IIP). This suggested that workers were fed up with jargon in the workplace, wanting plain talk from managers. An IIP director was quoted as saying: “Bosses need to lead by example, ditch needless jargon and concentrate on communicating clearly with their employees.” You won’t hear a dispute from here. What saddened me were the examples put forward as being bad management jargon: get our ducks in a row, blue-sky thinking, sing from the same hymn sheet, think outside the box, joined-up thinking, push the envelope, and grab the low-hanging fruit. Few of these are jargon expressions in the principal technical sense of the word—a verbal shorthand used by the members of a group to simplify internal communication—but rather exhortatory clichés.
Mongo A Talk of the Town piece in the current issue of the New Yorker reports on an anthropologist-in-residence programme in the city’s Department of Sanitation. An aside mentions mongo, a word said to be used by sanitation workers for the act of creatively recycling refuse, reclaiming and putting back into useful purpose items that have been thrown out. It’s one of that very large group of terms which is almost impossible to research and about whose origin nobody seems to know anything. But we may assume it is not the same word as the US slang terms meaning “huge” or “idiot”, nor that it refers to the Flash Gordon planet. It matches least badly to mungo, another name for shoddy, an inferior cloth made from recycled fibres taken from old woven or felted material. The Oxford English Dictionary points, very cautiously, to an origin in mung for “a mingling, a mixture, a confusion, or a mess” (a definition that ought to be set to music, it has such rhythm); in turn this may be from ymong, a company of people, which is a precursor of among. The OED retells an old tale told to explain mungo: when the first sample of the article was made, a Yorkshire foreman said “It won’t go” (it’s inadequate, it won’t fill the need), to which the master replied “But it mun go” (it must go).
5. Definitely the last time round
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6. Articles: The mighty burger
Hunting through an electronic database of ancient US newspapers the other day, I came across this squib by the editor of the Mansfield News Journal of Ohio, dated March 1942:
Hamburgers are known to everybody. Newer, but still familiar, are steakburgers and cheeseburgers. Now comes a Florida restaurant advertising turtleburgers. The idea has possibilities. There could be fishburgers, jellyburgers, eggburgers and chickenburgers. No one contemplating these developments could call our language dead.
It set me on a trail to discover more about the linguistic legacy of this iconic American food. It’s well known that the original was Hamburger steak, a thin patty made of ground beef seasoned with onions and fried. It began in (or became associated with) the north German port of Hamburg in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the ending -er being the standard German way of making adjectives relating to place. The hamburger concept was introduced to North America by immigrants from Germany from the 1870s onwards (the exact sequence of events still being a matter of historical controversy), with the term being recorded in print for the first time in The Caterer and Household Magazine in August 1885. The idea of putting it in a sandwich followed in the 1880s (it’s often said it was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, but it certainly predates this event) and the classic bun seems to have followed shortly afterwards.
Despite the fact that it was well known that hamburgers were made from beef, Americans somehow got the idea that the word was made up from ham and burger. When inventive cooks started to make the patties from other sorts of meat, or add other ingredients, the linguistic basis was there for -burger to become a semi-detached ending to be stuck on to other words (what grammarians call a combining form); it began life around 1930 and became so popular during that decade that a writer in American Speech in 1939 was able to call it “a favorite broth of the word-brewers”.
The first compound I can find evidence for is lamburger. An example turned up in the Helena Independent of Montana in September 1930: “The dinner and banquet originally planned has been called off but Eddy Gallivan will serve ‘lamburger’ sandwiches and coffee during the sale. Lamburger is a comparatively new dish, the principal ingredient of which is lamb meat, which takes the place of beef in the old-time hamburger.”
Cheeseburger was next up, which is listed in diner menus in newspaper advertisements from 1936 onwards. Also from that year is beefburger, strictly a redundancy or tautology, but perhaps a signal to word watchers that people are beginning to be unsure about what actually went into those flat fried slabs. The following year, fishburgers and steakburgers appear, as does another variety, one promoted in the Limestone Democrat of Athens, Alabama: “These chickenburgers are a versatile dish, too, for they go equally well as the entree of a Sunday supper or luncheon and as a ‘snack,’ disguised like its more lowly relative, the hamburger.” Turtleburgers appear in 1940; a newspaper in Massachusetts reported that the residents of Key West, Florida, had solved the problem of being 180 miles from their nearest suppliers of meat by making creative use of what was available; turtleburgers were a luxury item among tourists, the reporter wrote—25 cents each. An enterprising but unsuccessful businessman advertised during 1941 for entrepreneurs to invest in his scheme for selling oysterburgers, oceanburgers and seaburgers, the last of these made from lobster and shrimps.
The editor of the Mansfield News Journal was clearly lagging behind the breaking wave of linguistic invention by suggesting that some of these terms were new or even yet to be invented. He was right about eggburger, though, which is first recorded in the newspaper database only in 1947. We have yet to see a jellyburger, at least not in print.
The step that the editor missed was the development of burger as a generic standalone term. This starts to appear in earnest the year after he wrote. The evidence suggests that it was made popular by meat rationing (older Americans will remember the red points that controlled how much you could buy). Many ingenious ways were sought to pad out limited supplies, especially using up scraps and offcuts of several kinds of meat in patties. Government-inspired articles and ingenious advertisers suggested veal burgers, liver burgers, and even Bologna burgers, as well as eking out what you had through creating the potato burger and the bran burger, the latter made in part of Kellogg’s All-Bran.
The next culinary-linguistic wave came in the decades after the end of the war, when exotic varieties spawned, such as turkeyburger (1945), porkburger (1947), gatorburger (alligator, 1959) and mooseburger (1953, appropriately from Alaska). Vegetarians were also active, creating the nutburger in 1945 and the vegiburger in 1967. The soyaburger appeared first in fiction, in 1953, in the futuristic SF satire on the Madison-Avenue advertising industry, The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth; in real life it was first noted in Canada in 1973.
A wide-eyed piece documenting further fantastic varieties appeared in The Newport Daily News of Rhode Island in April 1953:
These Californians have also forsaken beef entirely and come up with the shrimpburger, the tunaburger, the chickenburger, the lambburger, and the whaleburger. The lobsterburger and the crabburger are just around the corner. Not far away are the beanburger and the peanutburger for vegetarians. But the apex or summit or something has been reached in Kansas City, where, according to reports, they are now serving the coonburger, made from carefully chopped raccoons, with onions and garlic salt added. The Constitution guarantees every man the right to eat a coonburger if that’s what he wants, and here it is — the finest flowering of the lowly hamburger.
After that, it’s a relief to learn that jumboburgers (1945) don’t contain real elephants, that bunnyburger (1941) was a short-lived name for a kiddies’ treat devoid of disquieting associations with our furry friends, and that a mouseburger isn’t designed to be eaten, but is a US slang term for “a young woman of unexceptional appearance and talents”.
The oddest thing about the false analysis that spawned all these compounds is that few people make literal hamburgers out of ham, though baconburgers—beef hamburgers embellished with strips of bacon—have been sold since at least 1947.
• Laurie Graham found this in Oh, Danny Boy by Rhys Bowen: “It had a fancy chandelier in the center, lit by hundreds of electric light bulbs, a row of red plush chairs around the perimeter, as well as little tables on which candles flickered.” That’s one hell of a chandelier.
• “Having bought a miniature tripod for my camera,” Tom Briggs wrote from Vancouver, “the instructions assured me it could be placed on any vertical surface!” That’s an interesting error for horizontal, one that may have more to do with faulty brain processing than with poor use of language. Another classic case is the confusion between ancestor and descendant. Steven Abrams found an example in the Baltimore Sun for 3 November. An infant’s tombstone, dated 1848, had been found by the side of a road in Baltimore. It was eventually traced to a family cemetery in West Virginia about 150 miles away. The article goes on to say: “A couple, believed by several genealogists to be ancestors of the child, came to retrieve the tombstone.” They live a long time in West Virginia, it would seem. Though it would be equally odd, now I come to think of it, if a deceased infant had descendants.
• Bernard Long’s reference to a Chinese medical form that asked him if he had the snivels reminded Rebecca Ewert of the sliming tea available in Asian food stores and supermarkets around Wellington, New Zealand. But isn’t it on the menu at Hogwarts?