NEWSLETTER 475: SATURDAY 7 JANUARY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Thirteen and the odd Last week, I mentioned having found this US expression for male formal dress but that its origin was unknown. Dan Denver summed up the comments of several subscribers: “Don’t know if it is related, but the ‘Cracker Jack’ uniform, worn by junior enlisted men in the US Navy, is fastened by a thirteen-button flap in the front.”
Specialism I used this word last week and was instantly challenged by lots of people (my copy editor had also flagged it in the draft, but I overruled her). Some said they’d never encountered it before and wondered why I didn’t use speciality or specialty instead? I was a little puzzled by your puzzlement to start with. If one is a specialist in some subject, that can be your specialism, surely? The word is in my dictionaries with that sense and is common. But it turns out to be largely a British English term. Over here, we use specialism, speciality, and specialty pretty much equally, though the last of these—the most common version in the US—has largely taken over from speciality in the sense of a medical specialisation. Speciality for me is coloured too much by its sense of a thing that’s special or distinctive (“the speciality of the house”) for me to easily use it in the narrower sense of an area of professional expertise, and specialty was linked too much with the medical world, so I settled on specialism.
Partridge Dictionary of Slang The price of this work was wrongly given last week as rising to £140.00 next Spring. The price will in fact rise to £120.00 in March 2006.
2. Turns of Phrase: Web 2.0
Web 2.0 is a classic case of a new term being bandied about by commentators and publicists without anybody having a very clear idea what they’re talking about. Almost every new application or idea for anything to do with online commerce or user interaction with the Web is being described as part of this wonderful new concept, but trying to tie down what it means is really hard.
What we do know is that the term was coined by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty in a discussion about the future of the Web. Their view was that the companies that had survived and prospered after the dot.com bubble had burst had certain qualities in common. All had a strong connection to and involvement with their user base or customers (think of Amazon.com’s reader reviews, for example) or they were collaborative, like Wikipedia or Flickr, or they relied on people telling each other about good ideas in a process called viral marketing. Tim O’Reilly summed their ideas up in an article in September 2005 as “Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era”. Or, putting it more simply, “Users add value.”
But others argue that the term means something rather different. As the Birmingham Post put it in December 2005, “Typically, a Web 2.0 service is one that uses the very latest technologies to provide a website that works more like an application on your desktop.” And others suggest it can include the idea of taking various sources of Web information and mixing them to make a new interactive service, for which the term mashup has been coined.
Perhaps one day everybody will come to a consensus about what Web 2.0 actually means.
All that guesswork underlines another fundamental shift in the web: the move away from static web pages to a more interactive, real-time environment. It’s the next generation. It’s the Web 2.0. And it’s already underway.
[Entrepreneur, 1 Jan. 2006]
Furthermore, some believe that the future of the Internet is a trend dubbed Web 2.0 (though some skeptics call that moniker an empty phrase, born of marketers and smacking of empty sloganism). Community-based sites like Wikipedia are a big part of the supposed Web 2.0 movement, and companies like Yahoo! are moving to capitalize on what they apparently believe will be a big part of the Web’s future.
[The Motley Fool, 20 Dec. 2005]
3. Weird Words: Stultiloquy
William Venator pretty much brought this word back from oblivion in his self-published 2003 satire, Wither This Land, which told of political upheavals following the opposition by saboteurs to fox hunting in Britain (a vast controversy in the UK at the time): “The day had proceeded well at Stanthorpe but Downing Street was fuming. Cramp, caught unawares, had given an excellent stultiloquy, much to the press’s amusement, on the need for ‘action, containment for flaunting the law, overweening disapproval, community and tolerance needed.’” (Was flaunting part of the satire or an authorial error, I wonder?)
It’s a pity it’s so rare, as there are quite a number of current political figures to whom it could be applied (no names, no pack drill). The only other modern writer I know of who has used it is John Steinbeck. It appears in his fictional portrayal of the life of the buccaneer Henry Morgan, Cup of Gold (1929): “In all the mad incongruity, the turgid stultiloquy of life, I felt, at last, securely anchored to myself.”
You might instead prefer the even rarer stultiloquence. Both are from Latin stultiloquus, speaking foolishly, which come in turn from stultus, foolish, plus loquus, that speaks.
4. Noted this week
Words of the Year At their annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Friday evening, the members of the American Dialect Society voted for their words of the year in a process that was described as “serious but far from solemn”. Their Word of the Year is the odd term truthiness. First heard on the Colbert Report, a satirical mock news show on the Comedy Channel, truthiness refers to the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true rather than those known to be true. Podcast, a digital feed containing audio or video files for downloading to a portable MP3 player, was voted Most Useful Word, while whale tail, the appearance of thong or g-string underwear above the waistband of pants, shorts or skirt, won the Most Creative section. The award for the Most Outrageous Word of 2005 went to crotchfruit, a child or children (perhaps inspired by the expression the fruit of one’s loins, it began among proponents of child-free public spaces, but has since spread to parents who use it jocularly). The word voted Most Likely to Succeed went to sudoku, the number puzzle (which has already succeeded in the UK beyond all understanding) while the one Least Likely to Succeed was pope-squatting, registering a domain name that is the same as that of a new pope before the pope chooses his official name in order to profit from it. In a special category for this year only, the best Tom-Cruise-Related Word was jump the couch, to exhibit strange or frenetic behaviour, a term inspired by the couch-bouncing antics of Tom Cruise on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in May; it derives from an earlier term, jump the shark, meaning to (irretrievably) diminish in quality; to outlast public interest or popular support.
Gas wars Americans have often used this for various outbreaks of competitive pricing at the petrol pumps. In the UK this week, it is the rubber-stamp term in the press for the row between Russia and Ukraine about how much the latter should pay for the former’s gas supplies.
Futurology My personal word of the week has been provoked by the acreage of newsprint devoted to prognostications about the trends and events of 2006. The general view, backed up by some research, is that futurology is a pretty dodgy endeavour, echoing the wise man who said, “Predicting is difficult, especially the future.” The word in my mind is inextricably linked with the physicist Herman Kahn, the model for Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film, and with Alvin Toffler, who made the word widely known from the late 1960s on. But it’s older—the OED’s first example is from a letter written by Aldous Huxley in 1946.
5. Questions & Answers: Shot
[Q] From Ellen Smithee: “At a recent re-enactment of the infamous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, the narrator claimed that the term a shot of whiskey comes from paying for drinks with bullets. (He displayed his empty ammo belt as evidence of this.) Is this true?”
[A] Heavens—the curse of the tourist guide hits etymology once again. They’re a wonderful breed, these guides, but they’re capable of unblushingly telling the most extraordinary stories about word origins. No, this one most certainly isn’t true.
But it’s an odd word when you stop to think about it. What possible connection could there be between shot and a measure of drink? The truth is that your one, and the more common term that’s linked with the verb to shoot in many different senses, come from two different sources.
The whiskey shot actually derives from an ancient Scandinavian word that became the Old English scéotan, to pay or contribute. Its more direct descendent is scot (which, of course, has nothing to do with the Scots) and which we still have in the phrase scot free, to get away from a situation without suffering punishment or injury; the original sense was “not required to pay scot”.
But scot also became known and spelled as shot, perhaps under the influence of the other word. It developed several senses and associated idioms meaning paying or contributing, most of which closely parallel those of scot and are now defunct. For example, shot could once mean one’s share of the bill at an entertainment or at an inn, from which came to stand shot, to pay the bill for everyone. As a related idea, the shot could be one’s contribution to a fund to pay for some purpose, often like the modern drinkers’ pub kitty.
There was also a seventeenth-century sense of a supply or amount of drink, this presumably being from the idea that the supply was the result of everybody’s clubbing together by paying shot. There’s a big gap between that and the modern sense of a specific serving of strong liquor. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1928 quote from P G Wodehouse. But it is older—I’ve found an instance in a story of 1912 and it’s almost certainly earlier still (it’s not the easiest word to search for, you will appreciate). We have to assume that it had been lurking in the spoken language for generations without being much noticed.
But, I say again, nothing to do with bullets.
• David Brooks’s column in The New York Times on 29 December gave an award to an Atlantic Monthly article about Yasser Arafat by David Samuels. Harold Pinkley e-mailed, “While I’m sure Mr. Samuels was gratified by the award, he may not have been overjoyed at this sentence in Brooks’s article: ‘After his death, Samuels interviewed Arafat’s intimates and put together the pieces of the man.’ Neat trick.”
• Anne O’Brien Lloyd was given The Book of Who? for Christmas. She comments, “The editing leaves a fair amount to be desired, but I wouldn’t change the definition of a totter, as ‘One who sifts rubbish to find items worth savaging.’”
• Following on from last week’s item that featured “house cleaning, dusting, and moping”, Kristy Foulcher tells me that near her home in Melbourne, Australia, a dog minder refuses to care for “pick bulls or rock weilers”.
• In the 3 January issue of her daily newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, Elsi Dodge came across this headline: “Fewer middle-class jobs cripple workers”. This left her wondering whether upper-class jobs were still attacking people.
• Mara Math found a Goodwill store in San Francisco advertising its Manager’s Special throughout the store with the tongue-in-cheek sign, “SHOES! BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE!”