NEWSLETTER 480: SATURDAY 25 MARCH 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Returned! To a vast accumulation of e-mail, which I’m only slowly working through. Thank you all for your forbearance while my wife and I took so much time off to potter our way around New Zealand and Australia. I would have done the traditional thing and sent each of you a picture postcard, but you might not have appreciated a large image appearing in your inbox. So I hope you will accept the photograph below as a belated gesture towards vacation convention.
2. Topical Words: Bloody
“So where the bloody hell are you?” is the punchline of a print and television advertising campaign launched by Tourism Australia last month. It features Australians relaxing in beautiful settings, with lines like “We’ve poured you a beer”, “We’ve got the sharks out of the pool”, and “We’ve saved you a spot on the beach”, ending with a nubile bikini-clad blonde uttering the line. Click to see the ad.
You might not believe, let alone understand, all the fuss this has caused. Critics within Australia argued that the line is crude and will remind people of the outdated boorish and aggressive image of the Australia of previous decades. And prime minister John Howard couldn’t bring himself to utter the slogan when asked to do so by an Australian radio interviewer. The kerfuffle would have remained confined to Australia had not the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) banned it from television screens in the UK.
Americans might guess the offensive word is hell, which is still an expletive with some force in that country. But no, it’s bloody that’s causing all the spluttering and high blood pressure, a word that Americans have never much used, but which Australians took to their hearts well over a century ago. The tourism minister, Fran Bailey, argues that it isn’t at all offensive. “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.” That’s largely true for Australia, but not for Britain.
What we’re seeing here is a vestige of a British attitude to the word which is ancient but hard to explain. From about 1750 bloody became taboo in polite society. In an entry published in 1887 in what was then still called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, James Murray noted that it was “now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered ‘a horrid word’, on a par with obscene or profane language”. In 1880, John Ruskin commented that “[t]he use of the word ‘bloody’ in modern low English is a deeper corruption, not altering the form of the word, but defiling the thought of it.” British police reports of the time usually wrote it as “b----y”, a practice that continued well into the twentieth century.
George Bernard Shaw caused a sensation when his play Pygmalion was first performed in London in 1914. He had the flower girl Eliza Doolittle flounce out in Act III with the words, “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi”. The line created an enormous fuss, with people going to the play just to hear the forbidden word, and led to the jocular euphemism not Pygmalion likely, which survived into the 1970s.
It’s hard to explain why the word had such shock value, though it is likely that people mistakenly believed it derived from old oaths like Christ’s blood or by God’s blood. The real origin, still in doubt, may be traceable back to the aristocratic rowdies, the bloods, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The word lost much of its force during the last century, especially after World War II. When Alan Jay Lerner wrote the musical My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s play, he felt bloody was too weak to make the point to American audiences about Eliza’s low-class origins breaking through under stress. In the Ascot scene, which isn’t in the play, he has Eliza urge on her horse with “Move your blooming arse!” I remember hearing gasps from members of the audience when I saw the film in Britain on its release in 1964. That euphemistic blooming is rather sweet; bloody turns up a couple of times elsewhere in the film, but perhaps Lerner felt that “Move your bloody arse!” would be pitching it too strong even for his more tolerant times.
The response to the BACC ban has been uniformly mocking. Australian papers, as you might expect, saw this as a case of stuffed-shirt hypocritical Pommie attitudes. “This from the country,” wrote the Sydney Daily Telegraph, “that gave the world such marvellously tasteful TV fare as Benny Hill, the Carry On genre, Little Britain, Ali G and so on.” Australian Andrew Mueller wrote in the Guardian on 18 March, “One supposes that it’s quite difficult to end up with a job on a regulatory body like the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre unless one is, at heart, a humourless, purse-lipped, lemon-sucking wowser—what other sort of person seeks to appoint themselves a guardian of public morality?” After protests from Fran Bailey, the Centre has agreed to review its decision.
The controversy is wonderful publicity for Tourism Australia, of course, though compared with the Australian press the British media have hardly noticed the spat. It shows the word still has some force, confirming the comment in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage about British usage that “[i]t probably still offends more delicate sensibilities”. But there are so few of these to be found these days that the ban makes little sense.
3. Weird Words: Anatine
Resembling or characteristic of a duck.
There’s a whole set of adjectives derived from Latin that refer to animals, of which the most common are bovine, relating to the ox, ovine for sheep, and lupine for fox. Others are murine for mouse, leporine for hare, sciurine for squirrel, cervine for deer, and anserine for goose.
Anatine is from Latin anas, a duck. The principal stamping ground of this word is in scientific papers, in part because the zoological family containing the ducks is the Anatinae. However, it does very occasionally appear in literature. Perhaps its best-known recent manifestation is in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon of 1997: “I took refuge in wild theorizing,—if Angels be the next higher being from Man, perhaps the Duck had ’morphos’d into some Anatine Equivalent, acting as my Guardian,—purely, as an Angel might.”
4. While I was otherwise occupied ...
One for all you zombies On 5 March, the British trade magazine The Bookseller awarded its Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year to People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It, by Gary Leon Hill. It was described by Joel Tickett, the deputy editor of the journal, as “a lively practical guide to dealing with the undead”. Runners-up were Rhino Horn Stockpile Management: Minimum Standards and Best Practices from East and Southern Africa by Simon Milledge, Ancient Starch Research by Robin Torrence and Huw J Barton, Soil Nailing: Best Practice Guidance, and Bullying and Sexual Harassment: A Practical Handbook. The 2005 winner is a worthy successor to Bombproof Your Horse (winner in 2004), The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2003), and Living with Crazy Buttocks (2002).
Nimfism The British government is to try out car-sharing lanes in a toe-dipping exercise next year on one mile of motorway. Motoring organisations point to US experience that drivers are reluctant to let other people share their vehicles. In an invention that surely will not succeed, one linguistically experimental writer has taken the older nimby (“not in my back yard”) and created from it the ugly nimfism—“not in my front (seat)”.
Own If you own something, you possess it indefinitely, right? Not according to some advertisements that have been spotted by members of the American Dialect Society mailing list. One on a Web site has a special offer: “House on Haunted Hill will not be available in stores until later this year. But you can own it for a limited time only exclusively through Legend Films.” The text makes it obvious that it’s an invitation to purchase, not to hire. My American marketing consultant tells me that own has indeed in some circumstances come to mean “buy”. It began with high-end products like expensive cars or exclusive limited-edition items. The implication is that their buyers are blessed with the resources and discriminating taste to make sophisticated “ownership” choices. This may sound right when one is selecting, say, a private plane, but it becomes silly in the context of buying a special-offer horror film DVD.
Zillowing People just love turning nouns into verbs, something that deeply troubles trademark lawyers and owners. It didn’t take long for Google to become an unremarkable verb, for example. A Web site named zillow.com has been set up recently to provide valuations of homes in the USA. On 10 March the Christian Science Monitor commented that “You’ll find yourself zillowing your friends and neighbors. (They’re probably zillowing you, too.)” Earlier examples appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Herald Tribune in Florida during late February.
5. Questions & Answers: Top dog
[Q] From James Meredith: “A display at a museum I was at recently featured pit-sawing. It said that the man who stood on the top of the log hauling on one end of the saw was called the top dog and the one in the pit below pulling the other end was the bottom dog. This was claimed to be where the expressions come from. Is this right?”
[A] The story’s quite common and you will find it in other museum displays and also online. As it happens, I came across it during my recent holiday in an exhibition at the former convict settlement of Port Arthur in Tasmania. The idea behind it is that the top dog was the senior of the team, who controlled the cutting, but that the bottom dog contributed nothing more than muscle power and had the worst of it, not least because he got covered in sawdust.
The Oxford English Dictionary records both terms (and notes that bottom dog is equivalent to the more common underdog and that the same idea as top dog appears in overdog). It has examples of top dog from 1900 and of bottom dog from 1884. I’ve been able to find earlier examples in newspaper archives, the oldest from 1859.
I can’t prove the stories untrue, but I’m extremely suspicious of them. That’s because all the early examples I’ve been able to trace refer to literal dog fights, in which the dog on top is clearly getting the better of the dispute and is able to impose himself on the one underneath. I can’t find a single historical example that refers to the sawing of wood.
As always, it’s hard to prove a negative. But I remain sceptical. It wouldn’t be too surprising to find that top dog, bottom dog and related terms later became attached to the upper and lower sawyers through the obvious association of ideas (though, as I say, I can’t find any evidence for this at all). But the earliest examples show that the origin does lie in literal dog fights.
If anyone can find a usage of top dog before 1859 that relates to sawing wood, and hence before the first known example that refers to a dog fight, I shall accept the tellers of the tale are right. But not otherwise!
• In the New Scientist for 4 February appeared an advertisement for a regulatory scientist, whose specified duties included helping with “wash-up meetings”. (Wash-up was—I believe—originally a Royal Navy informal name for a post-mortem discussion following a sea exercise.) How appropriate that the body advertising the post was London’s water-supply company, Thames Water.
• Neil Reid found a news item in the Independent online for 14 March about two US detectives who were accused of acting as killers for the Mafia and who, the report claimed, were guilty of “abetting no fewer than eight grizzly underworld murders”. Bearly believable.
• Errors of omission are at times as comical as those of commission, as Lisa Simone discovered from an AP report of 10 March that she picked up off the wire. We both suspect that it left out a numeral: “A 9-year-old suspected drunken driver was arrested today in Cosa Mesa after he allegedly told officers he was a Los Angeles police detective, authorities said.” Or was he really so extraordinarily precocious?
• An e-mail came while I was away from Peter Weinrich in Canada: “I cannot resist sending you this, which appeared in our local paper, Saanich News, for 10 February: ‘As we run through the information technology revolution, the underbelly of society follows along in our footsteps.’ Sluggishly, one assumes.”
• David Luther Woodward bought some eye drops and was intrigued by a sentence in the leaflet inside the box: “Do not use this product if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, narrow angle glaucoma or trouble urinating unless directed by a physician.”