NEWSLETTER 536: SATURDAY 21 APRIL 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Tolley Last week’s piece on this word and on the vocabulary of the game of marbles in general produced many memories of childhood and of terms used in the game. Bart Edmondson commented, “Growing up in Liverpool in the forties and fifties, we never played ‘marbles’, we always played ‘ollies’, some of which (the larger ones, I think) were called ‘bottle washers’. When we played with ball bearings, these were called ‘bollies’.” “When I was a child in Lancashire in the 1940s,” Anne O’Brien Lloyd said, “my dad always referred to marbles as ‘glass alleys’.” Brandon Sussman noted that he is more familiar with alley-taw than with the inverted form taw-alley from which the Oxford English Dictionary derives tolley. John Neave also remembers it from his childhood in London. The OED doesn’t know of alley-taw, although it appears in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 1911 edition and as alley tor in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens and in Stalky & Co by Rudyard Kipling.
Melvin Moyer was brought up in Pennsylvania and recalls, “The large glass shooter we called ‘mommy troller’, because you could troll it from the edge of the circle for your target. The baked clay marbles (which we hated) were called ‘nertz’.” Roger Drews — brought up in Ohio — commented: “We old-timers (I’m 70) remember that our term for getting closer than the rules allowed, instead of ‘cabbaging’, was ‘hunching’. If our opponent tried to ‘hunch up’ on marbles, even by so much as a sixteenth of an inch, a chorus of cat-calls followed, ‘No hunching!’” “In my time,” Joel Anstett said, “‘molly’ was the term for a clay or non-glass ‘marble’. I had never heard ‘tolley’ — we called it the ‘shooter’. We also used ball bearings, called ‘steelies’. I do not recall where we found them, but they usually were the favorite shooter, because they would usually knock more marbles out of the circle.” Morgiana Halley remembers her grandmother, who played marbles in California a century ago, kept her favourite shooter marble: “She sometimes called it a ‘taw’, but also used the term ‘lagger’. The latter term was well-known to me as the term for a marker in the game of hopscotch.”
Several subscribers pointed out I’d missed a sense of knuckling down, which they correctly say is also now used in the sense of applying oneself seriously to a task, as a player of marbles will get down to the job of casting his tolley. It turns out that that meaning is very much more recent than the submission one — the OED says it appears in Webster’s Dictionary in 1864, but I’ve not been able to find an example even as old as that and the OED’s entry, published in 1901, contains no example of the usage.
Many subscribers leapt on my reference to the baseball World Series, arguing that I’d misunderstood the title. It came, they said, from its first sponsor, a long-defunct newspaper called the New York World and has nothing to do with a global contest. I’d heard that as well. But it’s a myth, albeit a very persistent and widely-known one. The full story is outside the remit of this newsletter, but in brief: there was an attempt to create the series in the 1880s, when it was called the World’s Championship Series (and similar names) on the grounds that baseball was American and that the winner was unassailably the best in the world. Other countries, such as the UK and Australia, were welcome to join, it was said, but of course they never did. The name was retained when the first modern contest was held in 1903, though by 1910 at the latest it was being called the World Series. The New York World never sponsored the games.
WILF It turns out that this acronym, mentioned last time, is not as new as it seemed. Andrew Billington is a trainee teacher in the UK: “I often come across WILF as ‘What I Am Looking For’, which we are encouraged to share with the children as lesson objectives, along with WALT, which is ‘We Are Learning To’. Another British teacher, Ben Merritt, enlarged on this: “WALT and WILF are sometimes, and especially in primary schools, actual names of two imaginary characters to help link the process in young learners’ minds. Some companies even manufacture classroom posters and charts with these characters on.”
Sharpshooter A further comment on this word, recently featured in this newsletter, comes from Barbara Zimmerman. “I don’t know how universal it is in the US, but in my family, that has its roots in South Texas, a ‘sharpshooter’ by any other name would be called a ‘drain spade’. It is used to trench and to cut roots of things that are growing where you intend to plant something. It can also be used very handily to cut through plumbing and buried utilities, if they are not buried very deep, so it is wise to know where they are buried.”
2. Weird Words: Hircocervus
A fabulous beast, half goat, half stag.
When one reads Umberto Eco one must be prepared for exotic words. This one appears in the English translation by William Weaver of Eco’s The Island of the Day Before: “Perhaps he would have done the same if he had taken up creating scenes for the theater: do not playwrights derive improbable and clever events from passages of probable but insipid things, so that they may be satisfied with unexpected hircocervi of action?”
The idea of the goat-stag goes back at least to Plato, who used it as an example of a thing that was knowable even though it didn’t exist. But its first appearance in English is in a manuscript of 1398 now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In origin it is just the Latin word for a billy goat (hircus) attached to that for a stag (cervus). (The more usual Latin for a male goat is caper and for a female capra, as in the astrological sign Capricorn; hircus appears only in some rare words such as hircose, goat-like, and in the formal scientific name for the common goat, Capra hircus.)
The fabulous animal has not, however, always had a simple form of a goat and a stag. In a book by Arthur Cleveland Coxe, Impressions of England, published in 1856, he wrote about a famous painting at Winchester College:
I must not omit to mention the time-honoured Hircocervus, or picture of the ‘trusty servant,’ which hangs near the kitchen, and which emblematically sets forth those virtues in domestics, of which we Americans know nothing. It is a figure, part man, part porker, part deer, and part donkey; with a padlock on his mouth, and various other symbols in his hands and about his person, the whole signifying a most valuable character.
The views of the college menials on this characterisation are not recorded.
3. Questions & Answers: Blower
[Q] From Dennis List: “I was reading Henry Green’s novel Loving, first published in 1945. I was surprised to find that one character mentioned the blower. I’d have expected that slang term to be much more recent. Then I began to wonder why it’s called a blower. What actually blows?”
[A] As a British slang term for the telephone, it’s actually a good deal older than that book. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1922. My suspicion is that it’s even older, though.
That’s because the slang term comes from a mechanical precursor to the telephone, the speaking tube, each end of which was stoppered with a whistle. In order to attract the attention of the person at the other end, you took out your stopper and blew down the tube to make the other whistle sound.
There is one small caveat. The very first usage noted in the OED is from Edgar Wallace’s story Flying Fifty-Five: “The club enjoyed a ‘blower service’. The ‘blower’ is difficult for the outsider to understand.” This presumably wasn’t a speaking-tube device but an announcement service from a racecourse of the kind well known to frequenters of betting shops. This would seem to be a transferred sense of blower from an earlier, unrecorded, usage.
4. Questions & Answers: Eggcorns
[Q] From Jonathan McColl, Scotland; related queries came from Betsy Cramer, Andrew Billington and Edie Bonferraro: “I think that you throw in these things to see if we are paying attention and to ensure correspondence for the next week’s World Wide Words issue. Why did you describe changes due to errors as eggcorns?”
[A] As well as last week’s piece on the evolving shift from home in on to hone in on that provoked this question, eggcorns have been mentioned before in passing: in December 2004, on hearing about a shift of centrifugal towards centrifical, and near the end of 2006 when discussing the appearance of flying collars for flying colours and much adieu for much ado. But I’ve not before talked about them in any detail, so now seems a good time.
The term was invented by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum in September 2003 in an online forum called The Language Log. Another linguist, Mark Liberman, had mentioned a woman who wrote eggcorn instead of acorn, since in her American regional speech the first vowels are the same; she also probably says beg like the first syllable of bagel. Professor Pullum suggested this example should lend its name to the whole class of such misanalyses. Their essential quality is the change of a word into another which is either said the same or is closely similar and which seems to make at least as good sense in context as the original. It has now become quite well established, not least because journalists find it great fun to explain such an odd term and give examples.
There are hundreds of eggcorns. Jeanette Winterson wrote in the Times in 2006 about a repairman who told her that her washing machine had given up the goat (and who had invented a wondrous story to explain it about farmers passing on their livestock to their heirs when they died). People give reign to their emotions or await some event with baited breath, tell others to tow the line or that they’re acting like a bowl in a china shop, or assert that they’re not going to mix their words. They might claim something is fullproof or that their chickens are coming home to roast or that an item cost a nominal egg instead of an arm and a leg. In March 2007, the Economist said that an eruption of mud in Indonesia was of scolding slurry. People sometimes describe scary experiences as nerve-wrecking instead of nerve-wracking. (In a recording for a BBC programme recently on eggcorns I pointed out that the wrecking form appears 17 times on the BBC’s Web site; somehow this didn’t make it to the final broadcast.) Bernard Long e-mailed from Borneo after last week’s item to say that people there often change damp squib into damp squid, they being more familiar with the sea creature (which can very reasonably be described as wettish) than with firework displays. (This shift is known in the USA, as well.) There are so many eggcorns that Chris Waigl has a Web site devoted to them, The Eggcorn Database, verily an eggcornucopia.
Several subscribers roundly dismissed such shifts as errors. They are indeed just that, at least to start with, when they are made by only one or two people. When they become common, as hone in on is becoming in the US, one has to start treating them as signals of a possible impending shift in acceptability. A good case is chaise lounge in the USA (which has reached some dictionaries), instead of chaise longue. There are hundreds of words and expressions in the language today that began similarly as mistakes; if we were to continue to insist on their being errors, the language would be to that extent impoverished. The formal name for such permanent changes occurring through ignorance is folk etymology (a confusing term because it can also refer to stories that people invent to explain the origins of words). Acorn itself is a good example of a mistake becoming established; in Old English it was akran, meaning a fruit of the forest, but by an eggcornish process it was later taken to refer to both oak and corn (as a seed) and took on its modern form.
For the sake of completeness, it may be worth saying what eggcorns are not. They are not (yet) folk etymologies, because — at the stage at which they’re being recorded — they are errors made by individuals, not by an entire speech community. They are also not malapropisms, although they do share some characteristics with them, because in a true malapropism the correct word is replaced by one with no more than a glancing similarity (allegory for alligator or oracular for vernacular). They are not mishearings of song lyrics so can’t be called mondegreens. Another type of error outside the ambit of eggcorns has been given the cumbersome name of morphological reanalysis, with examples like doctorial, mischievious and mixature, and the notorious shift of nuclear towards nucular in the US. These evolve because native speakers reanalyse words and change elements in them to fit a pattern they are more familiar with — doctoral changes to doctorial because the -ial ending is more common than -al. (Some would put centrifical in this class, because it has been influenced by the common ending -ical, which is better known than the correct -(f)ugal.)
Linguists are interested in eggcorns because they illustrate how speakers think about the words they are producing. For the rest of us, we can either ridicule them as errors and complain about how the language is going to the dogs, or we can view them in an inquiring spirit as one aspect of the unending evolution of the English language. For me, many eggcorns provoke thought-provoking or surreal imagery that takes them halfway to poetry. Can you encounter damp squid, scolding slurry, bowl in a china shop or flying collars and not be struck by the exotic mental pictures they evoke?
We return this week to the joys of misplaced modifiers, a frequent mistake that produces many incongruous juxtapositions.
• On 15 April the Washington Post surprised Jack Shumway with a strapline: “Get the latest research and understand the politics of saving the planet from Post environment reporter Juliet Eilperin.” “Ms Eilperin,” he comments, “is clearly a greater threat than we had suspected.”
• I found a heading like that in the Guardian the day before: “Branded Stalinist, languishing in the polls and facing the most crucial period in his career, Ian Jack spoke to the man aiming to be the next prime minister.” You will gather it wasn’t Ian Jack who was suffering such trials, but the person being interviewed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.
• Roy Zukerman encountered an article at AsianWeek.com, datelined 6 April, about Edmund C Moy, Director of the US Mint: “Established in 1792, Moy now oversees a self-funded agency that generates more than $1 billion annually and is responsible for the country’s coinage.”