NEWSLETTER 597: SATURDAY 26 JULY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Chequered In last week’s piece, I mentioned exchequer, a table covered with a cloth divided into squares on which the accounts of the revenue were kept by means of counters. Dvora Yanow e-mailed from Amsterdam to ask if this was the origin of counter for the serving position in a shop. It is. The word was at first anything used in keeping count or accounts, such as tokens; later — in the fifteenth century — it became a table or desk on which accounts were kept; two centuries later still it began to be used for a money-changer’s table and also for a table in a shop where the money for goods was paid over.
Laws Following up comments in this section last week about the Law of Prescriptive Retaliation and McKean’s Law, several readers told me about Muphry’s Law, which is pretty much identical. One way of putting it is this: “if you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.” Wikipedia says that it is attributed to John Bangsund of the Victorian Society of Editors in Australia. A classic example appeared in the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times site on 8 July, in which Stephen J Dubner accused The Economist of making a mistake when it referred to Cornish pasties, assuming this was an error for pastries. Lots of people put him right, including the editors of The Economist, who sent him a genuine Cornish pasty.
The scientific study of lighthouses and signal lights.
Pharology is first recorded in 1847 in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Arts of London. The author of the paper noted it had been “first introduced by the late Mr Purdy”. This otherwise unsung gentleman must have had in mind the famous lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, that was erected around 280BC on the island of Pharos, off the coast of Alexandria.
The word is well known among those whose hobbyist or professional interest lies in studying or looking after lighthouses. Now that all the British lights are automated, and the job of lighthouse keeper no longer exists, you might think that pharologists have less to interest them. Not so. Many of the lights are in remote locations that required great determination, skill and endurance to construct them and special qualities in the men isolated on them for a month at a time. In Britain, the Association of Lighthouse Keepers helps keep knowledge of them alive.
A rare appearance of the word in literature is in E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News of 1993: “Pharology. Science of lighthouses and signal lights. Dawn knows elevations and candlepower, stuff about flashes and blinks and buoys. Bore you silly with it.”
3. Recently noted
#@%$?*! Dave Aton pointed out an interesting word, which he found on the Ask section of typography.com. It’s the name given to those strings of random non-alphabetical characters that cartoonists use in speech bubbles to indicate profanity. They call them grawlixes. The word was created by the cartoonist Mort Walker. He first used it in 1964 in an article he wrote for the US National Cartoonists Society and then included it in his book The Lexicon of Comicana of 1980, a satire on the comic devices that cartoonists use but which ironically became a textbook for art students. Other terms that he invented for various comic-artist graphical conventions include waftarom, squean, spurl, neoflect, plewd, vite, dite, hite, direct-a-tron (and throwatron, sailatron, staggeratron, swishatron ....), briffit, solrad, whiteope, indotherm, crottle eyed, neoflect, jigg, and three other ways to indicate maladicta: jarn, quimp, and nittle. And no, I’m not going to define any of them, not least because you can really only do it by illustrating them, as Walker did. If you’re interested, buy his book: it’s still in print.
Suffixification “I had to vent my disgust,” wrote Garth Summers, “at the dreadful word ‘additionalize’ that I heard on a BBC radio documentary. It was used there in the context of adding different elements to achieve different results. Why not just ‘add’?” There is a subtle difference of meaning intended, I would guess, but too small to be worth the effort of all those extra suffixes. My own candidate for any linguistical additionalising prize that might be on offer would be the polysyllabic monstrosity evolutionising (“We’re evolutionizing the textbook model by offering full-text and chapter-by-chapter sales with enhanced content, any time of the day or week” — Business Week, February 2005). There are, I find to my mild surprise, examples going back at least as far as an article in the Los Angeles Times dated March 1920 (“Picture theaters seem to be gradually evolutionizing into a sort of screen vaudeville show house”).
4. Questions & Answers: Faffing
[Q] From Raymond Wargo, Vancouver: “What’s the origin of faffing which means to aimlessly waste time doing useless tasks?”
[A] It’s originally British, informal but not rude, and moderately common, especially in the form to faff about. The Daily Telegraph included this on 15 March 2008: “The early boarders certainly bag their seats quickly, but then they immediately relax and happily faff about putting their things in the overhead locker, generally getting in the way of the other passengers.”
It can be used as a politer alternative to another four-letter word beginning with f but has no link with it. It starts to appear as a dialect word in Scotland and Northern England at the end of the eighteenth century, as a description of the wind blowing in puffs or small gusts. A North Yorkshire glossary of 1868 described how it was used: “As when a person blows chaff away from corn held in his hands, or the wind when it causes brief puffs of smoke to return down the chimney.”
It may have been imitative of the sound of gusty wind, or it may be a variation on maffle, a more widely distributed dialect term in Scotland and England that means to stutter or stammer, or to waste time and procrastinate; this might be from the old Dutch regional word maffelen, meaning to move the jaws. There’s also faffle, another dialect word, which also means to stammer or stutter, and which might have influenced the sense.
The word started to move into the wider language in its modern sense around the end of the nineteenth century, though it didn’t much appear in print until the 1980s.
5. Questions & Answers: Hoodwink
[Q] From Frank Danielzik, Germany: “I know what to hoodwink means, but cannot imagine how it came about. There seems no connection between its meaning and the individual words it is made up from.”
[A] The original sense of hoodwink was to prevent somebody seeing by covering their head with a hood or blindfolding them. Our main sense now is a figurative one derived from it, to deceive or trick (as we might also say, to pull the wool over someone’s eyes), which appeared in the early seventeenth century.
There’s no problem with the first part, but wink here isn’t in the sense we use now of closing and opening one eye quickly as a signal of some sort. When it first appeared, in Old English in the form wincian, it meant to close both eyes for some reason, or to blink, or close the eyes in sleep (hence forty winks). A hoodwink forcibly lost somebody the power of sight as though they had closed their eyes. And hoodwink was long ago an alternative name for blind man’s buff.
When we say that somebody winks at some offence, meaning that they connive at it, we’re also using a relic of the same sense. And long before wink became a flicker of one eyelid it meant a significant glance instead. If you find something written before the nineteenth century that says one person winked at another, a glance is what’s meant — both indicate that the person is sending a message, but the method is slightly different. Today’s meaning first appears in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837: “Mr. Weller communicated this secret with great glee, and winked so indefatigably after doing so, that Sam began to think he must have got the ‘tic doloureux’ in his right eyelid.”
• Another Eden? Barry Prince, a retired journalist in Auckland, New Zealand, sent through a e-mail he’d received on Friday promoting BBC World. A blurb about a forthcoming programme on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel says, “This programme explores some of the main challenges he faced by recruiting two modern fresco artists, Fleur Kelly and Leo Stevenson, to produce their own version of the iconic scene where God creates Adam at a church in London.”
• “A notice was posted at the local Shoppers Drug Mart,” Vin Murph e-mailed from Canada. “‘Shopping carts are no longer allowed to leave the store.’ Are they being punished for bad behaviour?”
• Ann Jones was looking at the Web site of the Solomon Star, based in the Solomon Islands. An item quoted the New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, commenting on his country’s sanctions of the islands: “You don’t have a coup, change a government at the barrel of a gnu and it comes without a cost.” A wonderful image.