Gibbous “Gimme a break!” Clark Stevens wrote, voicing the views of many other readers, “Were you giddy or loaded to the gills when you declared it a rule that ‘g followed by i is soft’?” Mea culpa. I must have had some rule in my mind: it may have been the one that reader Bron Forman was taught, that g followed by e, i or y may be soft. That one small word makes all the difference since — as Mr Stevens’s examples show — my version of the rule is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. It’s true that g before e and i is often soft, but that’s so only for words from Romance languages; those from Germanic sources are almost always hard. This makes it useless as guidance unless you know the etymology of every word you use, in which case your pronunciation is probably expert anyway. (Incidentally, and for the avoidance of further queries, Germanic isn’t a Germanic word; it comes from Latin.)
Vireya Jacquard wrote from Australia: “Until now I had assumed that gibbous was the adjectival form of gibber, a stone, because once the moon was past half-way, it looked like a stone.” You have to be Australian, I think, to know that word (which, by the way, is said with a hard g, like gibbous but unlike the other meaning of gibber, as in gibbering idiot, which is soft). It most often appears in gibber plain, a phrase describing extensive stony areas, and is from the Dharuk Aboriginal language of the area around Sydney.
Roger Clark wrote, “Just a stickling comment. Gibbous is used to refer to both waxing and waning phases of the moon, not just moving towards full.”
“I tell the people in my parish,” Fr Noel Burke wrote from Glasgow, “about the gibbous moon they’ll see on Palm Sunday. Easter is set by the first full moon occurring after the Spring equinox. So on the Sunday before Easter the moon will always be gibbous. They also learn a new word!”
Giving the mitten Following up my piece two weeks ago, Antero Ranne emailed: “To get mittens is a common Finnish expression for having a marriage proposal rejected. The Institute for the Languages of Finland says: ‘Many Germanic nations had a custom of giving gloves as a present when an agreement, for example a marriage contract, was made. If the gloves were returned, it meant that the proposal was rejected. The custom had its origin in the Middle Ages.’ ” This greatly strengthens the view that the expression was borrowed from continental European custom, as several sources assert.
Shipper Debi Smolinske emailed, “I love how well you research your subjects. But I just had to write to let you know that you got it horribly wrong in your usage of the term slash fiction. Slash fiction is always of the homosexual variety. Slash fiction is never heterosexual. That is the whole point of it. It is the frequent on-screen bromances that lead fan writers (nearly always female) to create slash fiction. You are correct that the term slash fiction comes from the written Kirk/Spock, because they were the first pair to become the subject of this type of fan fiction.”
Lee Billings added: “The term slash is still very much in use to describe fanfic [fan fiction] involving same-sex relationships; the corresponding term for male-female relationships is het. Both of these imply a sexual component is involved; if not, it’s described as gen (from for general audiences). The Kirk/Spock pairing has been written as sexually explicit from the very beginning; those stories probably predate the bromance versions.”
“My recollection of shippers,” John Bradford wrote, “though I didn’t know it had a name until now, was in the late sixties (probably) when I saw a newspaper headline “Will Perry Marry Della?”. Those born in the final part of the last century or later won’t have a clue what that’s about. I’ve no idea when The X-Files began, but it’s surely later than Perry Mason.”
Waitlisting Jeremy Weatherford pointed out that there is another term used in the email field that’s close in sense: greylisting, which is the automatic temporary rejection of incoming email from unknown senders with instructions to the originating server to send the message again after a delay. Spammers’ systems don’t usually bother to re-queue messages, so it’s a simple way of ensuring it’s genuine.
Whet and wet The piece on this last week made the assumption that wet and whet are pronounced alike, as they are in most English varieties. But some speakers, for example in Ireland and parts of the US, maintain the historical difference in sound in which wh is a breathy sound said as though it’s written hw. Such speakers also distinguish many other pairs, including which-witch and wine-whine (hence wine-whine merger for the loss of the distinction).
“You didn’t mention one of the major reasons for the confusion between whet and wet,” wrote Charlotte Riggle. “If you are using a whetstone to sharpen a knife, you have to wet it. It’s natural, then, for folks who no longer use the word whet as a synonym for sharpen to call it a wetstone. Even some manufacturers of whetstones call them wetstones!”
David Rosen recalled an etymological story that whistle was an old term for a scythe. He thinks he may have heard it in a broadcast by the late American poet John Ciardi. Steve Shervais found a reference to the same idea in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle: farmers, it is said, would whet their whistles with a whetstone. Thus whet one’s whistle. But there’s no example known of whistle being used as a term for a scythe and the idiom is certainly wet one’s whistle. This story is surely fanciful and muddies the etymological waters.
Paul Hatt wrote: “One use of whet is to be found in Shakespeare’s King John, at the end of Act 3; but the line with it in has been cut on the two occasions I have seen the play. Cardinal Pandulph urges the Dauphin to join him in trying to get the French king to take action against wicked King John with the words ‘I will whet on the king.’ [He means he would sharpen the king’s resolve.] You can see why the line has to be cut, as even the best actor emphasising the h in the word would, I think, be greeted with laughter at a solemn moment.”
It’s one of a select class of English words, including crapulent and formicate, that are guaranteed to mislead readers and raise a giggle among children of all ages.
I’m reminded of a wonderful monologue that the British comedy actor Ronnie Barker gave many years ago on a television show called The Two Ronnies. In a sketch peppered with real and fictional Cockney rhyming slang he claimed to have encountered a small brown Richard the Third on the ground, which he picked up and put on a wall out of the way. The story ends with it flying off.
There’s a good reason for my bringing that up, apart from wanting to share a memory, because turdiform is an adjective that refers to birds of the thrush family. It comes from Latin turdus for one of the European thrushes, probably the song thrush or mistle thrush (the latter having been given that name because it was noted for eating berries, particularly those of the mistletoe).
Turdiform is found exclusively in old-time ornithological works. It has always been specialist and technical; its appearances lie mainly in the period from 1870 to 1910 and it is obsolete. We may guess that a certain fastidiousness on the part of writers has led to their expelling it from their vocabulary.
Hucking off The British snowboarder Billy Morgan could finish only tenth in his slopestyle final at the Sochi Winter Olympics. While being interviewed live for the BBC he said “I knew that maybe if I landed my run it’d put me up there on the podium, so I just thought, I’ll just huck it.” The presenter heard a very different four-letter word and apologised for it. I’m not acquainted with the terminology of skateboarding, but I have learned that huck is a verb used as a macho cry meaning to go all out or to hurl oneself into the air with great force. The first known example in print was in the Washington Post in 1989. Despite the similarity, huck it isn’t a euphemism, although we might guess there’s an element of faux innocence in it.
Q From Chris Sheldon: I have been reading a book on Devon customs published in 1900 with the odd title of Nummits and Crummits. Even after reading this I still don’t know what these words mean!
A Yes, it’s a nuisance that Sarah Hewett doesn’t define these two crucial words in her book, though she gives hints. She writes in the introduction, “Apologies are offered to any one whose Crummits have been appropriated without permission or acknowledgment” and in the chapter headed Nummits and Crummits she quotes an old Devon verse about mealtimes:
A wee-bit and breakfast,
The place to get the answers is the English Dialect Dictionary, a huge compilation in six volumes published between 1898 and 1905. It was based on submissions by a large number of local dialect field workers, of whom Mrs Hewett was one.
The EDD defines crummit as a small bit or a crumb. A nummit is a meal eaten in the field by farm labourers, either in the middle of the morning or in the afternoon, at nummit-time. The phrase nummit and crummit meant a snack, a bit of something taken between meals. You might translate the title of Mrs Hewett’s book as “bits and pieces” or “miscellany”.
As to the other words in the rhyme: a wee-bit is a snack taken early in the morning before the regular breakfast; stay-bit means likewise a snack, something to stay your hunger before a main meal. Arter is a local form of after. If you take the bit after supper to be another snack, the rhyme lists three main meals a day plus five snacks. We might assume Devon agricultural labourers were notably well-fed, but a description in a little book of sketches of Devon life shows that the verse particularly applied to one type of work (note the different version of the rhyme):
“Haymakers are the hungriest folks out — ‘Fore-bit and Breakfast, Rear-bit and Dinner; Nummit and Crummit, And a Bit after Supper’ — that’s what they had when my mother was a maid, and that’s what they want to-day and for ever.” ... Perhaps, if Aunt Charity were alive now, she would lament for the good old times when haymakers expected their eight meals a day, and earned them.
Devonshire Idyls, by Miss H C O’Neill, 1892.
Nummit is widely known in English dialect and has other many other spellings. The Oxford English Dictionary has it under that spelling and says it’s a variant of noonmeat. It would seem that mealtimes and their names have changed somewhat since noonmeat was current (it died out in the eighteenth century). Nobody seems to know the origin of crummit but it might be from crumb.
• An advertisement for an ethnic grocery store in the Mississauga News of 6 February seen by Dave Tracey: “Free butter running chicken”. We may guess that free range was meant.
• The 2013 issue of the Journal of the Ceredigion Historical Society of Wales contains this sentence, Rhys Jones tells us: “Evan is described as the vicar of the parish, the church being dedicated to St Michael, aged thirty-one and unmarried”.
• We know what they mean. Richard Mellish found this in a BBC report online on 10 February: “Trains between Exeter St Davids and Waterloo are now able to run normally following a landslip near Crewkerne.”
• A good example of a classic error appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News of 5 February, courtesy of Nicholas Radcliffe: “A once forlorn and deserted area of Edinburgh, Iain Mercer finds new life at the West End...”
• No news in the headline Victor Steinbok found over a Reuters report of 10 February: “Sexually active midlife women continue to have sex.”
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