E-MAGAZINE 674: SATURDAY 23 JANUARY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Avatard A chorus of disagreement came from readers over this. All were sure that it’s from Avatar + retard, as are celebutard and a few other slang terms, using retard” in its current abusive sense of a mentally retarded person. Another term of similar origin, I’m told, is freetard, which was supplied by several correspondents. Jeremy Ardley described it thus: “it’s an epithet used by those who pay for their software for those who choose to use free open-source software. The implication is that if you get it for free it ain’t worth diddly-squat and you’re mentally challenged if you choose to use it.” Others mentioned politically motivated insults of similar kind, such as conservatard (by coincidence, my newspaper last Sunday included the related term Libtard, though the initial capital letter showed that it referred specifically to the British Liberal Democrat party). On the other hand, there’s a fair level of agreement that Twihard is a pun on tryhard, a person who works too hard to gain favour or fit in, and doesn’t include the -tard ending.
It’s a fine old American slang term for a jail, still widely known today. Most people would connect it with the nineteenth-century cowboys of the Wild West. It’s very likely that they knew the word, but it didn’t start to be written down until the early twentieth century. The first known example was penned by Harry Fisher, better known as Bud, in one of his early Mutt & Jeff cartoons, of 1908: “Mutt ... may be released from the hooze gow.”
Laurel and Hardy were there early on.
Hoosegow is now the standard spelling, though in its early days it was written half a dozen different ways. We link it in our minds with cowboys largely because so much of their lingo was taken from Spanish and then mangled to fit English ideas of the way to say it. That included buckaroo (Spanish vaquero), bronco (from a word that meant rough or rude), lasso (lazo), lariat (la reata), chaps (chaparreras), hackamore bridles (jáquima), mustang (mesteña), cinch (cincha), as well as the direct borrowings of corral and rodeo.
3. What I've learned this week
By any other name In various countries you might be termed an astronaut, a cosmonaut or a taikonaut (from Chinese tai kong, space, although the official Chinese word is yuhangyuan). In 2006, the Indian Space Research Organisation sought a word from the ancient Sanskrit language for its own future spacefarers. The suggestions included antarikshyatri (antariksha means the firmament or space between earth and heaven and yatri is a traveller) and gaganaut (from gagan, sky). The first was thought unwieldy and the second made English speakers think of gaga. The final choice was vyomanaut. The term attracted attention in the western media when it was used in the Indian press at the beginning of this month, although I’ve traced it back a couple of years. It comes from another Sanskrit word for sky, vyoma, said as /viːəumə/ (“veeohma”). It’s the most recent in a set of words that contain the suffix -naut, which is from Greek nautēs, a sailor (as in Jason and the Argonauts). It appeared first in aeronaut in 1784, a balloonist, a term that came into English from French. Astronaut was modelled on it in speculative writing in the 1920s, long before one actually existed.
Swift kick in Hollywood Any one who uses a computer will know the verb reboot, to restart its operating system. Hollywood has taken this up as a jargon term meaning to dust off an old franchise such as Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek, Spiderman or the Fantastic Four. Vinegary commentators suggest the main reasons for borrowing it — apart, of course, from the eternal quest for novelty — is to avoid the dreaded word remake, which has all too often meant a third-rate version of a classic movie.
Windy words We’re familiar with economic inflation and its relatives, among them deflation, reflation, hyperinflation, stagflation and slumpflation (combined economic decline and rising inflation). In the past two decades, -flation has become a combining form. A writer in the journal American Speech in 1999 listed many minor creations — adflation, Euroflation, globflation, gradeflation, kidflation, legisflation, medflation, musicflation, oilflation, and taxflation. From my own searches I can add stickyflation (which has much the same sense as slumpflation), biflation (meaning simultaneous inflation and deflation, which feels like a perverse conjuring trick), and the temporary forms beerflation, coalflation and coinflation. Another example turned up last Saturday: trainflation. This is the regular rise in rail fares beyond inflation we are experiencing in the UK.
Initial lingo Every profession has its jargon, but especially one so influenced by government bureaucracy as is British teaching. The education section of the Guardian told me on Tuesday that once they have finished their ITT, NQTs can go in for an MTL run by the TDA. That is, following Initial Teacher Training, Newly Qualified Teachers can enrol for the Masters Degree in Teaching and Learning, operated by the Training and Development Agency for Schools. It would seem an essential part of ITT needs to be TIT, Teaching Initialisms to Teachers.
Inflated language My least favourite word of the week was in the Guardian on Monday: demetropolitanisation. In this case, it referred to the move of various BBC departments out of London to other parts of the UK. More generally, the term has been used by planners to refer to the movement of people and businesses out of metropolitan areas, especially to what are sometimes called urban villages.
4. Questions and Answers: Centre about
[Q] From Dasu Krishnamoorty: I found this sentence in Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger: “Henry appreciated the comparison although he finds that his own work often centers around a single character.” I think it should be center on. Am I correct?
[A] Several respected writers on language have agreed with you, very firmly in some cases. The form — which has been around since the 1860s but which has become much more common in the latter part of the twentieth century — has faced criticism from the 1920s onward, round the time it began to appear often enough to be noticed. One modern standard work summarises objections to it like this:
Something can “center on” (avoid “upon”) or “revolve around” something else but it cannot “center around”, as the center is technically a single point. The error is common.
Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A Garner, 2003.
However, many other writers down the years have disagreed, as do several other modern standard works. The problem is that geometric logic is fighting idiomatic and figurative usage. The other side is well put in another American work of the same year as Garner’s:
“Center around”, a standard idiom, has often been objected to as illogical. The logic on which the objections are based is irrelevant, since “center around” is an idiom and idioms have their own logic.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2003.
As a famous philosopher used to say on the BBC’s Brains Trust back in the 1940s, it all depends what you mean by centre. Outside the mathematical sciences, a centre isn’t a Euclidean point that has position but no extent, but a location with fuzzy boundaries. A town centre is a place that any speaker of English will understand, but it isn’t a point, it’s an area.
However, if we look at real-world examples of the way people employ the idiom, we find there isn’t too large a gap between the opposing views. Users usually implicitly agree that you can’t physically centre around something. When they use the idiom, it only rarely refers to real places but commonly to figurative locations:
Both the House and Senate bills center around a cap-and-trade system that limits carbon emissions.
Forbes, 7 Oct. 2009.
Weight-loss plans that center around a diet of below 1,000 calories do not, they say, lead to long-lasting weight loss.
New York Times, 22 Oct. 2009.
Centre around feels wrong to me, I have to admit, no doubt a result of my technical background. But — as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary points out — the idiom is now standard. That’s true not only of the US but other countries too, though the spelling varies:
Other concerns centre around pricing.
Daily Telegraph, 3 Oct. 2009. Round used to be more common, but there has been a noticeable shift in the UK towards around in the past decade or so.
As Bryan Garner’s and other style guides note, many other phrases are available if centre around is unacceptable. And it might be better avoided in any case if you worry about being charged with illogicality. You have centre on and centre in and also revolve around as possibilities.
• An article of 16 January in the Arizona Republic describes a New Orleans resident as a “lifelong native”. This differentiates him, Bob Kelly guesses, from late-arriving natives.
• Gregory Haines was stopped dead by the opening paragraph of a story in the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 20 January: “A couple were left red-faced during a late-night dash for a takeaway when they were pulled up by RBT police wearing nothing but their undies.”
• Also in Australia, John Straford spotted a notice in a cake shop in Balwyn, Melbourne: “TODAY ONLY, HALF BAKED CHEESECAKE $4.50.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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