NEWSLETTER 615: SATURDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2008
1. Turns of Phrase: Stag-deflation
This new term is yet another consequence of the interesting times we’re living through. Its first known use was by Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University, writing in Forbes Magazine on 29 October.
It’s obviously enough a combination of stagflation, persistent high inflation combined with stagnant demand, with deflation, which is being discussed as a likely outcome of the current global financial turmoil. Deflation is thought a greater evil than inflation because it leads to people hoarding money rather than spending it because of expectations that prices will fall. Stag-deflation combines stagnant deflation with recession, leading to a state in which the economy stalls and unemployment rises rapidly, while commodity and goods prices continue to fall.
The term has received much attention, as much for its intriguing neologistic flavour as for the recipe for gloom that it foretells.
People who own things like houses and publicly traded financial instruments and so forth, they’re walking around looking as deflated as the value of their acquisitions while the world slouches toward depression or recession or stag-deflation or whatever odd neologism they coin for the impending global economic trainwreck.
[See Magazine, Canada, 19 Nov 2008]
For now, the prospects of the euro being the next victim of a rate cut have already turned that currency back towards the low road, and the growing odds of some kind of stag-deflation in the US and Europe spreading to Asia have commodities speculators selling into rallies.
[International Business Times, 30 Oct 2008]
Resembling or having the form of the buttocks.
Ammon Shea mentions this word in his book Reading the OED, in which he records his experience of spending a year scanning the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover, all 21,730 pages of it. He wrote that he was surprised to learn that it had never been used as an insult, so refuting the premise of an entry in Depraved and Insulting English, which he earlier wrote with Peter Novobatzky.
This may be explained easily enough. The word never moved beyond a very limited medical circulation and so it never gained the instant recognition necessary for it to be applied insultingly. It derives from Latin nates, plural of natis, a buttock. It has never been used to refer to the buttocks themselves, instead always to some anatomical feature that contains a deep cleft. The OED marks it as obsolete, though natiform skull, bony nodules on the surface of the skull in infants with congenital syphilis (also called Parrot nodes), is in some current medical dictionaries.
3. Recently noted
Malus If this word brings apples to mind, then you’re probably a gardener or a horticulturalist, since it’s the botanical name for the genus, from the Latin word for an apple tree. Though malus isn’t in any general dictionary that I’ve consulted, it’s also a fairly common term in the world of banking, insurance and contracts. A malus is the opposite of a bonus — you might call it a forfeit or a clawback instead. It’s receiving more attention as finance houses seek to rein in excessive payments to senior staff (it was in the news last week because the Swiss bank UBS has introduced malus provisions for its executives). It turns up in particular in the form bonus-malus system, for a contract that rewards success but penalises failure. The word is from Latin malus, bad. Bonus is also from Latin, from a word for a good thing, an association of ideas that may be open to doubt as a result of recent upsets in the financial world.
Romanette Eugene Volokh discussed this oddity of legal terminology last week on his blog The Volokh Conspiracy. He had never heard it, despite being the Gary T Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA, but a search found a number of examples in legal opinions. The word means “small Roman numeral”. It’s used in speech to refer to sub-clauses or subsections in contracts, so that “subsection (iv)” is said as “subsection romanette four”. He found that lawyers either used it as a natural part of their vocabulary or had never heard of it. It seems to have emerged among contract lawyers (who spend much of their time among sub-clauses identified by Roman numerals), and may have begun life back in the 1980s, since he found it, without explanation, in a 1993 work, Corporate Internal Investigations. It is mainly an oral term, something easily understandable because in writing one would naturally refer to “subsection (iv)” or whatever. Because of its oral nature, it has — so far — escaped every general and specialist dictionary.
WOTY updates It was the turn of the editors of Webster’s New World College Dictionary to announce its candidates for its 2008 Word of the Year last week. The five words on the short list are leisure sickness, in which some people are more likely to report feeling ill outside work hours; overshare, to divulge too much personal information; cyberchondriac, a hypochondriac who gets his medical information from the Internet; selective ignorance, the practice of ignoring distracting or irrelevant information; and youthanasia, a word best known from the 2004 Megadeth lyric and the film of 2005, which I’ve never seen in the wild but which Armand Limnander said in the New York Times in April 2007 referred to the “controversial practice of performing a battery of age-defying medical procedures to end lifeless skin and wrinkles; advocated by some as a last-resort measure to put the chronically youth-obsessed out of their misery”. It’s an eclectic and slightly strange bunch of words, but as the Editor in Chief, Michael Agnes, said, “The choice does not reflect an opinion that the term will eventually be found in the dictionary. In short, it’s merely one that made us chuckle, think, reflect, or just shake our heads.” Add your vote to those of the dictionary’s editors and researchers.
This week, Merriam-Webster’s choice for Word of the Year 2008 was bailout, an act of giving financial assistance to a failing business or economy to save it from collapse. The Oxford English Dictionary marks it as rare, but that entry was written for the second edition back in 1989. The first recorded example is from 1955 and it’s clearly from the aviation verb bail out or bale out. The publisher says that it was looked up so often at its online dictionary site that it was an easy choice; people seemed to know what it meant but wanted to learn whether it had negative nuances or suggested irresponsibility or blame.
Valedictocracy Readers in North America may immediately recognise this new word as a combination of valedictorian, the person who comes first in their high-school graduation class and who delivers the farewell or valedictory address, with the ending -cracy for a particular form of government, rule, or influence. It appeared in an article by David Brooks in the New York Times on 21 November. He was writing on the intellectual qualifications of the foreign and domestic policy teams of president-elect Barack Obama (mostly graduates of Yale and Harvard law schools): “This truly will be an administration that looks like America, or at least that slice of America that got double 800s on their SATs. Even more than past administrations, this will be a valedictocracy — rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes.”
4. Questions & Answers: Not to be sneezed at
[Q] From Sybil Cubilette: “During a visit abroad I was having a conversation with a friend. As he doesn’t speak English as a first language, he would often ask the meaning of slang I used quite frequently, such as not to be sneezed at. Could you could provide some information as to where this comes from?”
[A] Since the expression dates from the early nineteenth century, we are in the realm of supposition here, since nothing on record gives any convincing evidence about where it comes from.
We do know that it’s almost exactly contemporary with the form without the negative. To sneeze at something was to despise, disregard or underrate it, to treat it with derision or consider it worth little or nothing. We may guess that a sneeze was considered to be a gesture of contempt or disrespect. The first known example is in a popular novel of 1806, A Winter in London, by Thomas Skinner Surr:
“A word in your ear,” said his lordship: “Do you know, I have quite changed my mind about that business since I met the marquis. He tells me that it’s a sort of thing a young fellow of my expectations ought to sneeze at. ‘It would be well enough,’ says he, ‘for a fifteenth or sixteenth son of lord Roseville’; but, my dear fellow, it would be murder of the foulest dye for one of your spirit, with such an exchequer as your dad possesses, for you, an only son, to turn engrossing-clerk, and copy a parcel of humdrum dispatches.”
The first example of our modern negative form — for something that shouldn’t be rejected without careful consideration, or something that’s worth having or taking into account — is actually slightly older than Surr’s novel. It appeared in a popular play, Fortune’s Frolic, by John Till Allingham, which was first produced at Covent Garden in 1799: “Why, as to his consent I don’t value it a button; but then £5000 is a sum not to be sneezed at.”
Indeed it wasn’t: £5000 then would be very roughly £150,000 now (about US$225,000, as of the time of writing).
• Gloria Bryant read an item on BBC news on 22 November that included an unfortunate juxtaposition of words: “A former police chief in Argentina, wanted for alleged crimes against human rights, shoots himself dead live on television.” The article has since been corrected to read, “... shot himself dead in front of television cameras.”
• Gordon Caruana Dingli communicates that The Malta Housing Authority is offering social housing as an environmentally friendly measure, but with a special feature, so its Web site says: “All the properties have environmental friendly measures including roof insulation, double glazing, lovers and wells.” Hello, young louvres, wherever you are ...
• Sporting News Today for 21 November — John Carlson reports — seemed to look into the future with this muddled sentence: “Jazz musician Wayne Tisdale will make his first musical appearance since having a portion of his right leg amputated at halftime of the Sooners basketball game against Virginia Commonwealth next month.”