Loophole Lots of people asked whether there was a link between the old Dutch verb that I mentioned, lûpen, to watch or peer, and loupe, a small magnifying glass that is typically used by jewellers and watchmakers. It appears that there isn’t. Loupe was borrowed into English from the French word of the same sense about a century ago. It has been suggested that its source lies in the old German word luppe from the Rhine region, meaning a shapeless mass of material. In French, it early on meant a mass of pasty iron from the smelter ready to be hammered. This seems to have been flattish and round and led to its meaning a kind of sebaceous cyst and a knot or bur on a tree before it took on its modern sense about 1680. To pre-empt any query about cantaloupe, that’s named after Cantaluppi near Rome, where it was first cultivated in Europe after being imported from Armenia.
Duct tape I have been roundly told off for implying last week that gaffer tape and duct tape are related. Wayne Simpson wrote, “They are definitely not the same thing, as any motion picture lighting technician (such as me) or grip will tell you. Gaffer’s tape (with or without the apostrophe) is cloth tape, not vinyl; the adhesive is more friendly and doesn’t leave the disgusting residue that duct tape does. It’s meant to be removed without destroying what it was attached to (though you shouldn’t use it on wallpaper).”
Fornication I got my Latin inflections confused last week, as many readers told me. I wrongly said that fornacis is an adjective, but it’s the genitive of fornax, a furnace.
Nosopoetic “While nosopoetic may have lost out to pathogenic,” Shayna Kravetz commented, “its half-sibling nosocomial is alive and kicking. This refers to an illness arising from a stay in hospital and is sometimes seen as a synonym for iatrogenic (caused by doctors), although it’s not quite the same. With the rise of various treatment-resistant pathogens, nosocomial infections are a hot topic in medicine. This word has been earning its money for the last two decades or so.”
“My education as a health economist began in 1972,” Peter McMenamin emailed, “and I soon encountered the concepts of nosocomial infections and iatrogenic diseases. But the word that fascinated me was pathognomonic. A pathognomonic symptom was one whose presence meant that a particular disease was present beyond any doubt. And the reason medicine is so complicated is that there are very few diseases that have pathognomonic symptoms.”
Harry Lake wrote, apropos of another word in noso-: “Some years ago, doing a translation from Dutch into English, I needed to know the English for the Dutch smetvrees, which means an irrational fear of dirt or germs but appeared to have no direct equivalent in English. I looked it up in the Van Dale Dutch-English Dictionary, and there it was: hosophobia. Hosophobia? Never heard of it. It turned out that the entry should have read nosophobia, which is of quite a different register in addition to meaning something else. (I have since found mysophobia, which is more accurate but very rare, unlike smetvrees, which every Dutch person understands.) Wondering how this error might have come about, I recalled that someone had told me that Van Dale worked with handwritten slips, and it occurred to me that in all likelihood the handwriting of whoever had written the word nosophobia had had an uncommonly — if only slightly — long vertical in the n. And nobody had checked the entry ...”
What is most intriguing about Mr Lake’s story is that a search of Google Books finds a number of examples of hosophobia, most of which have authors with Dutch-sounding names. Entering smetvrees into Google Translate gets hosophobia as its English equivalent. The error in the Dutch dictionary seems to have had some small influence on the English language, but no longer, as the entry was corrected in the 1999 edition.
There are three senses of gist in the Oxford English Dictionary. We’re not concerned with the obsolete sense of a right of pasture for cattle (from Anglo-Norman agister, to pasture animals) nor the equally obsolete one of a stopping place or lodging (from old French giste, in modern French the more familiar gîte for a furnished holiday home). This one is the essence or substance of a speech or text.
It evolved out of the legal language in medieval England after the Norman Conquest at a time when court cases were recorded in French. There was a fixed phrase, cest action gist, in which gist is from Latin jacere, to lie, via Old French gesir, to lie. Its literal translation was this action lies. It didn’t mean that the accusation was untruthful (though we may guess that many of them must have been), since the original Latin verb could also mean “be situated”. It meant that sufficient grounds existed for continuing with the action. This sense of lie is still known in legal English.
Early in the eighteenth century gist shifted from meaning that an action was admissible or sustainable to referring to what the action was actually about. The phrases “the gist of the action” or “the gist of the indictment” were common:
Mr Sturgeon, the surgeon, depos’d, That being sent for, he came to Mr. Crispe at Coke’s about Eleven, found him wretchedly cut in seven places ... It will be too tedious to describe the other Wounds, only that on the Nose, because it was the Gist of the Indictment.
The Historical Register, 1722.
It took another century for this usage to extend beyond the legal world to mean in everyday language the essence of some speech or text.
Q From Jonathan in Tokyo: While recently reading an article on the BBC about one of the latest pop stars over here in Japan, I came across the phrase fly in the face: “Her quirkiness and imperfections fly in the face of the conventional view of Japanese culture.” Being an English teacher myself, I anticipate my students asking me to explain the phrase and be asked its origins. It’s something I have never thought about and so I wondered if you could shed some light on the matter.
A You’re in good company, as I suspect few English speakers have stopped to wonder why we should have this odd expression. I must confess to never having done so myself.
The idiom usually refers to something that appears to deny the truth of a statement or belief (“Their actions fly in the face of their claim that they are looking to avoid civilian casualties”). Rather less often, it describes a person who defies someone else or shows disrespect for someone or something (“He is above all a tease. Like Gore Vidal, he likes to fly in the face of received opinions.”) There’s also the much less common and relatively recent derivative fly in the teeth of, which is, I think, solely American.
The first version, from the 1550s, was to fly in a person’s face and its literal meaning was of a dog that attacked by springing at a person. Very early on, it acquired the figurative sense of verbally attacking someone who disagreed with your opinions or your actions, decidedly getting in their face. This is now rare but not yet obsolete:
Don’t fly in their face with it. Don’t try to browbeat them with your point of view.
Independent on Sunday, 9 Aug. 1998.
It’s not clear from the record when the impersonal form took over, but it was at least a century ago.
• Richard Kuebbing found that the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 7 July asserted, about the crash in San Francisco of the Asiana flight 214, “All have been unaccounted for among the 307 passengers and crew, said airport spokesman Doug Yakel.”
• Liz Moynihan emailed: “Our local newspaper, the SanTan Sun News in Chandler, AZ, had this headline in the July 6-19 issue: ‘Chandler City Council to address urban chickens’. I have a feeling the sheep and cows might demand equal time.”
• On 10 July, the Femail section of the Daily Mail website had this tagline: “Shorts can be chic: And you don’t have to be a twenty-something to pull them off.”
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