NEWSLETTER 608: SATURDAY 11 OCTOBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Kippers and curtains As many subscribers pointed out, there’s no lack of disparaging terms for people who are thought to be trying to live above their station. John Davies mentioned one common in Coventry in his childhood: Brown boots and no breakfast. Pat Mackay recalled, “Another variation is Curtains on the windows, no sheets on the beds. It was common in Northern Ireland when I lived there 40 years ago.” Sandra Parker mentioned, “My Dad used to say Queen Anne front and Mary Anne behind”. Jake Morgan wrote, “The town of West Bridgford, lying just south of the river Trent and proudly independent of the City of Nottingham, is locally referred to as bread and lard island. This started in the late Victorian era to reflect the price of the then new houses in West Bridgford. It stemmed from a popular belief that once you had spent all your money on the house all you could afford to eat was bread and lard.” Steve Flood noted: “Phrases for outward prosperity cloaking poverty are not confined to English. I have been working in Dalian in north-east China for 18 months and have discovered Mandarin is a rich source of unique phrases including Silk trousers with corn in the belly — corn being the cheap feed-all in Northern China.” Anton Sherwood noted another version of she’s no better than she ought to be — she’s no better than she should be; this appears more frequently than the other one, though both are fairly common and neither is exactly a model of linguistic clarity.
Of- words My throwaway query on Ofsted last time, wondering what might be a term for words formed from the first syllables of other words, rather than first letters, led to some interesting further examples. Eryk Vershen noted Nabisco; Michael Delaney pointed out Benelux and Amex; Bernie Corbett gave Gestapo. The view is that these are acronyms — most dictionaries (including the Shorter Oxford but not my other Oxford dictionaries), say this term covers pronounceable abbreviations formed from elements or syllables of a phrase or series of words, not just the initial letters.
A wild frenzy caused by desire for an unattainable ideal.
That’s one sense, which Edward Bulwer-Lytton described in Godolphin in 1833: “The most common disease to genius is nympholepsy — the saddening for a spirit that the world knows not.” It can also refer to the passion or desire aroused in men by young girls, which is, unsurprisingly, in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. As a result, it’s often equated with paedophilia or the Lolita complex, though it’s strictly an unappeasable longing, not one that can be acted upon.
Nympholepsy started life in English in the late eighteenth century with the idea behind it of a person in a frenzy from beholding those mythological spirits of nature the ancients imagined as beautiful maidens living in rivers or woods. It’s from the Greek numpholeptos, caught by nymphs. George Moore wrote about it in his Memoirs of My Dead Life:
I have always thought it must be a wonderful thing to believe in the dryad. Do you know that men wandering in the woods sometimes used to catch sight of a white breast between the leaves, and henceforth they could love no mortal woman? The beautiful name of their malady was nympholepsy. A disease that every one would like to catch.
By the early nineteenth century it had added the meaning in my definition, the one Lord Byron called “The nympholepsy of some fond despair”.
3. Recently noted
Happy, happy fat Jane Steinberg tells me she was researching the residual toxicity of a termiticide (itself an interesting word, for a substance that kills termites) when she came across lipofelicity in an article. “I like to think of it as meaning happiness at being fat,” she wrote. The writer was undoubtedly in search of lipophilicity, the property of being soluble in fats, oils and other non-polar solvents. It means “fat loving”, not a million miles from the other sense, but both she and I rather prefer the mistake. More on lipo-.
Superlatives ahoy! The Guardian covered the Monte Carlo boat show recently, mentioning that “Boats built to personal specifications have grown to such vast proportions that the labels superyacht and megayacht are no longer enough. Those on the dockside now talk of the gigayacht — multi-storey, 120-metre floating mansions that resemble cruise liners.” I’ve fallen behind in my research on names for the nautical playthings of the mega-rich, as a search finds gigayacht from 2002; as a mark of its acceptance, compounds such as gigayachting and gigayachtsman are also used in the business. As you would expect, megayacht is older still, recorded from 1986. I was going to write that we should be looking out for terayacht any year now, then thought to look for it and found examples from 2005. But we’ve not yet reached the giddy heights of petayacht. More on number prefixes.
Credit crisis neologisms On Monday, The Times reported a new term for our times: recessionista, describing it thus: “Apparently a recessionista is a fashionista (natch) who is decisively on trend in these straitened times and dresses exclusively in black (it’s grim), vintage (it’s all we can afford) and long skirts (going short during bad economic times is as frowned on in hemlines as it is in hedge funds).” It’s not new — it has previously been sighted in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Washington Post and the Daily Mail. The word is clearly based on fashionista, a term which borrows the -ista suffix for a committed supporter of a person or organisation.
Another credit-crunch neologism this week is square mile syndrome, where the square mile is the City of London. It was coined by an independent mental health hospital in Marylebone. It has experienced a 33% rise in the number of City workers in banks and hedge funds seeking treatment for depression, stress and anxiety as a result of the current financial turmoil. The hospital stresses that the term isn’t a diagnostic definition.
4. Questions & Answers: Jay-walking
[Q] From Marty Ryerson; related questions came from Matthias Werner, Fred A Roth, Richard Hacker, Robert L Hamm and Dalia Wolfson: “When someone crosses the street in a city illegally, it’s called jay-walking. This usually means crossing at a point other than the intersection. What does the J stand for, or who is Jay? What is the origin of this term?”
[A] It has been said that people who take their lives in their hands in the big city by crossing the street anywhere dodge across in the pattern of a letter J — hence J-walking. Do not believe this.
The experts are sure the jay is the bird, one of the American jays, presumably the common bluejay. From around the last quarter of the nineteenth century, jay had been a slang term in North America for a stupid, gullible, ignorant, or provincial person, a rustic, bumpkin, simpleton or greenhorn. I would guess it’s a reference to the noisy squabbling of these slightly dim-witted birds. The jay I sometimes see on country walks, the European species, is placed in the genus Garrulus and garrulous is just the right word for it — jay was an insulting term for a foolish chattering person back in the 1500s. It’s not hard to see how country cousins, unversed to city ways, could have had this well-established sobriquet attached to them by supercilious metropolitans when they cluelessly wandered across a busy street or hopped about dodging the traffic.
In the second decade of the twentieth century we start to see references in US newspapers to jaywalkers, usually because city councils are passing ordinances to stop pedestrians crossing the street anywhere they like. The earliest I’ve so far found is from February 1912 in a periodical called The Survey, reporting on restrictions proposed in Kansas City. Numerous others turn up in newspapers the following year: in March in Washington DC, in June in Fort Wayne, Indiana (in a report which defines a jaywalker as “an alleged human being who crosses the street at other points than the regular crossings”) and in October in Lincoln, Nebraska. These show the term had quite suddenly become widely distributed and fairly common. I would guess that it had been around for some time in the spoken language and private usage but that something had made it break out into public discourse at this time.
The Nebraska appearance was in an open letter in the Lincoln Daily Star to the city commissioners from a disgruntled citizen: “Dear Friends: Forget all about that ‘jaywalking’ ordinance, the very name of which insults every citizen. Give the people credit for having a grain of common sense, like yourselves, and of being able to take care of themselves, as they have heretofore managed to do without your grandmotherly help.” It had no effect — the ordinance became law the following month.
• On Wednesday, the Guardian reported the auction of a rare medieval Islamic ewer: “The bid was annulled by ‘private agreement’, prompting rumours that the vendor had agreed to sell the item along with the buyer.” But who will buy the buyer?
• Gerry Zanzalari shook his head over a Fox News online headline dated 26 September: “Jury Convicts New York Man of Killing Wife for the Second Time”. He comments, “I thought you only got to die once. Silly me.”
• Paul Birch recollects: “Some time ago a choir in which I sing was advertised here in Vancouver as having performed previously in several countries. The conductor was to be the well-known Bernard Labadie. Unfortunately, the copy was passed through a spell checker without human review before it was sent out to subscribers. Our friends were somewhat surprised to read that the choir, ‘conducted by the famous maestro, Mr. Libido, had recently sung in London at St. Martini’s in the Field.’”