NEWSLETTER 501: SATURDAY 19 AUGUST 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Stiff upper lip What would an issue of World Wide Words be without errors for subscribers to spot? Beau Geste, mentioned in this piece last week, was of course written by P C Wren, not by James Hilton, who instead wrote among others Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr Chips.
2. Topical Words: Planet
If a resolution at the International Astronomical Union’s meeting in Prague is passed next week, the word planet will formally change its meaning, requiring the reference books to be rewritten.
The reason lies with the development of observational astronomy. The discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Pluto, orbiting beyond the then known limits of the Solar System, was a sensation at the time. Because the initial estimates of its size were way too big, it was immediately included in the list of planets. But in recent years many similar objects have been found even further out, in a distant part of the Solar System called the Kuiper Belt, at least one of them larger than Pluto. So is Pluto a planet or a minor body? And if it is a planet, are these other new bodies also planets?
It will seem an arcane and irrelevant argument for many people, but for astronomers a definitive answer will end a controversy that has been running for years, with many in the field wanting to downgrade Pluto’s status. The problem is that if they continue to consider Pluto a fully fledged planet, they will also have to include many of these newly discovered bodies.
It would not be the first time planet has changed its meaning. It comes from Greek planetes, a wanderer, and was applied in ancient times to any celestial object that moved against the background of the fixed stars. This included not only all the bodies visible to the naked eye that we still call planets—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—but the Sun and Moon as well. With greater understanding of astronomical realities—that the Earth revolved around the Sun, that the Moon was a satellite of Earth, and that the Sun was very different to the others—the word changed its meaning to the modern one of a large body that travels around the Sun in a roughly circular orbit. There are currently nine major planets—including Pluto—plus thousands of minor planets.
The proposed solution is rather neat, though a lot of astronomers don’t like it. A planet will be defined as any celestial object not a star that orbits a star and whose mass is large enough for it to have been pulled into a spherical shape by its own gravity. Pluto, by that definition, remains a planet; Charon, its former satellite, becomes the other half of a double planet; Ceres, the largest of the asteroids orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, joins the big-kids’ club; the body officially known as 2003 UB313 but informally as Xena becomes the twelfth planet.
But don’t be in a hurry to rewrite those reference books: there are dozens of other candidates in the outer darkness that are likely to be added to the list, including those with unofficial names Varuna, Quaoar and Sedna. Three other asteroids, Pallas, Vesta and Hygeia, may become planets, too, if detailed astronomical observations prove them to be spherical. The definition would make the planetary Solar System a great deal more complicated.
3. Turns of Phrase: Pluton
The same resolution at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) would officially create this new word as a way of distinguishing among several classes of bodies orbiting the Sun. The classical planets are the most massive bodies: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. There are also large numbers of small rocky bodies called collectively the minor planets.
In between would be this new class. They are massive enough to have been formed into a spherical shape by their own gravity, they orbit the sun so far out that one revolution of the Sun takes at least 200 years, and they have elliptical orbits that are inclined to those of the classical planets, the implication being that plutons have a different origin.
The word has been created from the name of Pluto, the ninth planet, which is from Greek mythology, in which it was a euphemism for the god of the underworld, Hades. Literally, pluto meant “rich one”, in reference to the wealth that came from the Earth. The planet was famously named as a result of a suggestion by the 11-year-old Miss Venetia Burney, of Oxford. Walt Disney’s dog, by the way, was named after the planet, not the other way round; popular culture didn’t have the influence it does now, when names like Xena—the warrior princess of the US television series—can be seriously considered.
This week’s news reports often implied that the committee which put forward the word had invented it. But there are earlier examples: the astronomer Tom Burns used it in the same sense in an article in the Columbus Dispatch in June 1997, as did Frederik Pohl in his SF novel Mining the Oort of 1992; Robert Heinlein created an Earth currency of that name in his novelettes Gulf (1949) and Tunnel in the Sky (1955), though that was based on plutonium. Pluton is also an established geological term, for a large body of intrusive igneous rock beneath the Earth’s surface; that was created in the 1930s as a back-formation from the adjective plutonic, itself taken from the Greek name, that referred to the action of intense heat at great depths upon rocks forming the Earth’s crust.
Little Pluto, which had been in peril of losing its place among the planets, keeps its status, but only in a new category of “plutons,” distant oddballs wandering outside Neptune in weirdly shaped orbits.
[Daily Telegraph, 16 Aug. 2006]
Dozens more plutons could be added after the objects are more thoroughly reviewed by the IAU.
[The Seattle Times, 16 Aug. 2006]
4. Weird Words: Malarkey
Meaningless talk; humbug; nonsense; foolishness.
It’s still known in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK and elsewhere, but where this odd-looking word comes from is decidedly uncertain. What we do know is that it began to appear in the US in the early 1920s in various spellings, such as malaky, malachy, and mullarkey. Its first known user was the cartoonist T A Dorgan, in 1922, but it only began to appear widely at the end of the decade. By 1930, Variety could pun on it: “The song is ended but the Malarkey lingers on.”
Various theories have been advanced. Eric Partridge pointed to the modern Greek word malakia but he formed a group of one. His later editor, Paul Beale, noted the London expression Madame Misharty, the personification of sales talk, exaggerated claims, and wild predictions, a name that was supposedly that of a fortune teller. But this is stretching a possible linguistic link to breaking point and, in any case, we know it started life in North America. Others point to the family name Malarkey, though who the eponymous member of the tribe might have been whose Irish-derived gift of the gab could have given rise to the name remains unknown. Jonathon Green likewise suggests a Irish origin in mullachan, a strongly-built boy or ruffian, though this, too, seems a stretch of meaning.
We’ll just have to settle for the unsatisfactory “origin unknown”.
5. Recently noted
Phone-screwing There has been a great fuss in Britain about the discovery that private investigators working for newspapers have been tapping into the voicemail messages of members of the royal household, celebrities, and a government minister. There’s nothing new about the practice, since in recent years most journalists have subcontracted the dirty work of investigation to third parties. What did appear in print last week, seemingly for the first time, is this slang term of trade for the practice. The newsworthiness of the story meant the term appeared in newspapers and magazines in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
6. Questions & Answers: Fink
[Q] From Shona Krishna: “I was reading a comic strip, The Wizard Of Id, and came across the word fink. What does this word mean? Could you tell me its origins?”
[A] Brant Parker and Johnny Hart seem to use the word quite a bit in the strip—as I don’t regularly follow it, I don’t know which sense its authors mean. There are three possibilities. The first sense recorded is of an unpleasant or contemptible person, but the more common one today is that of someone who informs on people to the authorities. There’s also a third sense, now dated, of a strike breaker. You definitely wouldn’t want to be called one, whichever sense was meant.
Where it comes from has been debated a lot down the decades. One school of thought says it’s a modified form of Pink, short for Pinkertons. Pinks was the name given to the strike breakers who were hired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency during the infamous 1892 strike at Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks at Homestead in Pennsylvania. If this sounds a bit far-fetched to you, I’m not surprised. The supposed shift from pink to fink is very unlikely and it isn’t supported by the early evidence. The story caught on largely because it was asserted as fact in a 1925 article in the American Mercury.
Though the first known example dates from 1894 (in George Ade’s book Chicago Stories) only two years after the strike, Ade used it in the sense of a worthless freeloader. The strike-breaking meaning didn’t appear until 1917, far too late to have come from the strike, and well after the informer one, which is first found in 1902 in another of Ade’s books, People You Know.
The consensus is that it comes from German student slang. Fink here is the German word for finch. In the nineteenth century, students who were not members of a college fraternity were called finks, perhaps because they were considered to be wild birds, uncaged or undomesticated. Later it became modified to refer to somebody poorly regarded, “not one of us”. An alternative German source sometimes suggested lies in one of the insulting slang terms Dreckfink, Schmierfink, or Schmutzfink, all terms for a low, dirty person.
• Prentice Cushing noted a sign on the door of a restroom (which I would call a public toilet) in a park in Norfolk, VA: NO BICYCLES ALOUD IN RESTROOM. Don’t ding that bell, boy!
• The London free newspaper The Docklands of 9 August 2006 featured the front-page news that “A deranged cheese counter assistant has been convicted of terrorising a leading Limehouse psychiatrist for more than a year.” Fabian Moynihan passed this on and wonders if the cheese was a schizophrenic Stilton or a mad Mozarella ...
• That sentence would have intrigued the reader even if it had been better hyphenated. You may feel the same about the headline that appeared over an online story in The Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon, on 14 August. When Lew Hundley visited the Web site, it read, “Salem driver sited when manufactured homes collide”. The report concerned two trucks, each with half a home on it, which ran into each other. The headline has now been corrected.