NEWSLETTER 610: SATURDAY 25 OCTOBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
A special welcome to everybody who sought out World Wide Words this week following a mention by William Safire of my book Port Out, Starboard Home in the New York Times last weekend and of the Web site in the Good Morning Silicon Valley newsletter on Wednesday.
The diarist John Evelyn wrote in 1661 about the smoke of coal fires in London that was so bad that “Her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist, accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour ... corrupting the Lungs, and disordering the entire habit of their bodies, so that Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions rage more in this one City than in the whole Earth besides.”
Fuliginous can also refer to a sooty or dusky colour (“the whole body is of a rather light fuliginous or brownish grey”, which is in a description of the bird called Bonaparte’s shearwater) or to some noxious vapour said in old medical texts to be formed by combustion within the body and which affected the head in particular (“It is not amiss to bore the skull with an instrument to let out the fuliginous vapours” — The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton.)
The word is from Latin fuligo, soot, which has also been used in English with the same meaning. Fuligo ligni is the Latin for wood soot, a form of charcoal; it was once listed in the British Pharmacopoeia as an antispasmodic, for instance to help with the treatment of whooping cough.
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4. Questions & Answers: In-laws
[Q] From Mitch Kramer, Vermont: “In Nicholas Nickleby, Mr Snawley refers to himself as father-in-law of two boys he palms off to Mr. Squeers’ miserable school. As we would refer to him as their step-father, I was wondering if the latter term is relatively new and whether in-laws for the spouse’s family is a recent term as well.”
[A] Dickens is very clear about the meaning of the term. Mr Snawley says, “The fact is, I am not their father, Mr Squeers. I’m only their father-in-law” and goes on to say, “You see, I have married the mother.”
The law here is Canon Law, specifically the rules of affinity that prohibit any marriage between relatives. At one time, the rules not only prevented blood relatives from marrying, but also relatives in which the only connection was one through marriage. The most famous case was that at one time a man could not marry his deceased wife’s sister or a woman her dead husband’s brother. The sister of a man’s dead wife was considered as much off limits for marriage as if she were his own sister — she was a sister “in law”. (In the UK, such unions were explicitly made legal by Parliament early last century, as was marriage to the children of either — one’s niece or nephew by marriage.)
All these -in-law forms came into the language in the fourteenth century. For several centuries, they could also be applied to other relationships created by marriage. A daughter-in-law or son-in-law could be the child of a spouse from a previous marriage, since they were also covered by the Canon Law rules. As Charles Dickens makes clear, the reverse relationship of father-in-law was often applied to what we would now call a step-father.
The step- prefix has had a mixed history. The source is an old Germanic word that could mean bereaved or orphaned (in Old English, a stepchild or stepbairn was an orphan). Stepfather, stepmother and stepdaughter are much older than the -in-law equivalents and are known from Anglo-Saxon times, with stepson, stepbrother and stepsister coming along much later. However, Dr Johnson noted in his Dictionary in 1755 that only stepmother was in common use.
The position shifted in the early to middle nineteenth century for unknown reasons, with the -in-law endings shifting to relationships wholly created by marriage and the step- ones coming into much wider use for those where a relationship existed beforehand between one’s partner and another person. Around the same time, we start to see new step- forms appearing, such as stepfamily, step-parent, step-nephew (surprisingly old, in a novel by Bulwer-Lytton of 1857) and step-niece (from about 1890), showing how deeply the change had penetrated into the language.
5. Reviews: Chambers Slang Dictionary
Jonathon Green’s name is familiar to every student of slang in the UK: he has been researching it for 25 years and is an authority on this most intriguing and intractable aspect of lexicography.
Slang being the seamy underside of language, you shouldn’t expect a positive view of life to emerge from its pages. Jonathon Green has computed (using his huge database of material that will some year soon generate his magnum opus, an OED of slang) that among this book’s 85,000 words and phrases from the English-speaking world are 5,012 entries for crime and criminals, 4,589 for intoxicating liquor and its effects (with 3,976 more about drugs), 3,343 for money, 1,365 for penis, (and 1,131 for vagina), 1,740 for sexual intercourse, 945 for masturbation, 831 for death and dying and 219 for vomiting, but “sweet FA” for anything caring, sharing or compassionate.
[Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary, published by Chambers Harrap on 24 October 2008; hardback, pp1477; ISBN-13: 978-0550-10439-7, ISBN-10: 0550104399, publisher's list price £30.00.]
• I went to have my flu jab last Saturday at a temporary Clinic C in my doctor’s surgery. The practice operates a computerised check-in, which confirmed I had an appointment with a “Ms Flu C”. The nurse in charge, I am pleased to report, was utterly unfloozy.
• We haven’t had an inscrutable translation of Chinese instructions for a while. Vincent Murphy bought a flashlight, one of the cheap sort whose handle you squeeze to charge it. The notes on the side of the box read in part, “Constantly using this health torch, it can benefit to your palm, arm and shoulder stretching and blood circulation, so as to let your hands relax and brain clever, hand and brain coor dinate and promote your brain memory and health compostion.” How true, even today.
• Brendan Hale was browsing the BBC News Web site from Taiwan last Sunday morning when he noticed a ticker headline: “Flash floods triggered by heavy rains kill at least seven people dead in central Vietnam”. He says he’s not sure whether he should be relieved or scared that there’s a non-deadly version of being killed.
• The chalked board outside a cafe in Exmouth in Devon, Peter Kay reports, offers a mega breakfast and a small mega breakfast.