NEWSLETTER 523: SATURDAY 20 JANUARY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Fudge Lots of subscribers blinked when they saw I’d used the word blench in this piece last week — surely, many of them e-mailed me to argue, it should have been blanch. There are two words spelled blench, one of them a variant spelling of blanch (to grow pale from shock). The teachers in question might equally have blenched (made a sudden flinching movement out of fear or pain). The latter comes from the Old English blencan, to deceive, which has been influenced by blink and has changed its meaning substantially down the centuries.
Others queried the writer’s use of receipt in the 1895 quotation from the Davenport Daily Tribune in the same piece. This is an old form that means the same as recipe. Both derive from Latin recipere, to receive or take. Receipt was first used in medieval English as a formula or prescription for a medicinal preparation (Chaucer is the first known user, in the Canterbury Tales of about 1386). The sense of “a written statement saying that money or goods have been received” only arrived at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Recipe is the imperative “take!” from the same Latin verb. It was traditionally the first word in a prescription, heading the list of ingredients (frequently abbreviated to R with a slash through its leg (℞), a form that still often appears on modern prescription forms). Recipe has been used alongside receipt since the early eighteenth century in the sense of cookery instructions, gradually replacing it over time so that receipt is now archaic.
Stick one’s oar in Many Americans responded that the questioner was wrong in his belief that this expression was unknown in the US. It may be better known by older people. Several writers pointed to its repeated use in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, a work still known to many Americans as well as in its native Canada. It may also be familiar from W S Gilbert’s libretto for The Mikado: “And you’re just as bad as he is with your cock-and-a-bull stories about catching his eye and his whistling an air. But that’s so like you! You must put in your oar!” [To pre-empt any enquiry about cock-and-a-bull, this is the original form, dating from the eighteenth century, of the more common cock-and-bull.]
Mail Problems My main mail system has been out of order on and off for a large part of this week. I don’t think any mail has actually been lost, but there seems still to be a substantial amount locked up and inaccessible. This situation may continue into the weekend. Apologies for consequent delays to replies.
2. Turns of Phrase: Chindia
As a portmanteau term for China and India considered together, this word has been around in the Western press since 2004, though it may have been used earlier in the Far East. The blend of the two names is intended to suggest that they are becoming a powerful economic force whose global influence may change the pattern of the world’s trade over the next couple of decades.
It has been in the news this month because of a new book by the US futurist and trendspotter Marian Salzman, Next Now: Trends for the Future, which is co-authored with Ira Matathia. This includes the term as one of the issues that American and European business must watch in the coming years. It is also, coincidentally, the title of an art exhibition in London this month that focuses on these two countries.
Some analysts argue that neither country sees itself partnered with the other in any meaningful way because of historic distrust and that the two are based on different economic and social models. But others argue China’s manufacturing strength complements the powerful IT sector in India.
Globalisation is the subject of Italian artist Patrick Tuttofuoco’s art. His first solo show ... Chindia, focuses on the world’s two main emerging powers, India and China.
[Independent, 8 Jan. 2007]
Globally, Salzman says, beware the Chindia factor. She says China and India will become technology strongholds and leave the U.S.A. in the dust.
[The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 Jan. 2007]
3. Weird Words: Protologism
A word newly coined in the hope it will become accepted.
This may be thought a useful invention, one that’s particularly relevant to this list — coiners often submit linguistic inventions in the hope that they might be promoted and become a settled part of the language.
The difference between a protologism and a neologism is that the latter has actually been used somewhere, even if only once. On the other hand, a protologism exists only as a suggestion of a word that might be used.
Wikipedia says that it was coined by Mikhail Epstein, the Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and that it was first used in 2005. It’s from Greek protos, first, plus logos, word, but might equally be taken to be an blend of prototype and neologism.
As protologism is quite often used within the Wikipedia community, it is itself no longer a protologism, but has now ascended to the status of jargon.
4. Recently noted
Eskimo words for snow For many years, one of the most persistent language myths has held that Eskimos have 50, or 100, or 200, or a zillion words for snow. This was debunked as long ago as 1986; the linguist Geoffrey Pullum wrote a piece about it in 1991, published as the title essay of his book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. This month he has returned to the issue with a further comment, at The Language Log, because an airline magazine (Holland Herald, published by KLM) has published an article debunking the myth. Progress at last. Read his piece for the full story, but the essence is that a) there isn’t just one Eskimo (properly Inuit) language but eight; b) the number of discrete words for snow in any one of these languages is about four or five, about the same as in English; c) the number of words is meaningless because Inuit languages are polysynthetic — they can create great numbers of words based on a few roots. He explains, “Where English uses separate words to make up descriptive phrases like ‘early snow falling in autumn’ or ‘snow with a herring-scale pattern etched into it by rainfall’, Eskimo languages have an astonishing propensity for being able to express such concepts (about anything, not just snow) with a single derived word.”
Oy gevalt! Last Monday’s New York Times reported that: “In certain precincts of the Jewish community, a person who insists that the sky is falling, despite ample evidence to the contrary, is said to gevaltize — a neologism derived from the famous Yiddish cry of shock or alarm.”
5. Questions & Answers: Spot of tea
[Q] From Gary Mason: “In a recent letter to the editor in the Tucson daily newspaper, the writer claimed that spot of tea is an Americanism. Though he was born and bred in England, he had heard only Americans using the phrase and that the British would say cuppa instead. I asked a British friend about the letter and he said that spot of tea is used in Britain, but that it doesn’t mean having a cup of tea, but to having tea with food. Would you discuss this in your newsletter?”
[A] It depends on who you are, where you are, how old you are, and even what you mean by tea.
The phrase a spot of tea is certainly known in the UK as well as the US — the letter writer is wrong to suggest it isn’t used this side of the Atlantic — though it sounds old-fashioned to me, being more my parents’ generation than mine. British newspapers include enough examples to show that it’s still about, though not to anything like the same extent as in the US. Some dictionaries report it’s mainly a British expression, but the written evidence shows the balance has tilted heavily towards the US in recent decades. Quite why Americans have taken it to their collective bosoms isn’t clear, though it does seem to be used very often in a tongue-in-cheek manner, as a mock-serious way of affecting to be British about consuming the drink.
By spot of tea, Americans usually mean a cup of tea by itself. It can have that meaning in the UK, but not by any means always. Your friend is right to say that it’s frequently connected with food. That’s because tea in Britain can refer to a meal. Which meal depends on where you live. In southern Britain the meal is traditionally afternoon tea, a light refreshment around 4pm that includes cakes and sandwiches as well as a nice cup of tea. It’s rarely encountered now. Its image is of a Wodehousian country-house meal for the leisured upper classes, incomplete without thin cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. It is now the preserve of posh hotels and traditional tea shops.
In northern parts of the UK (my geography is hand-wavingly broad-brush) tea refers to a cooked evening meal, one that we southerners may instead call dinner or supper (the term has also been taken to Australia and New Zealand). At the risk of further confusing you, there’s also high tea, eaten in the late afternoon or early evening; this is a cross between dinner and afternoon tea, typically consisting of a cooked dish or cold meat or fish together with bread and butter and cake. A drink of tea may be consumed with either type of meal, but it’s not an essential accompaniment.
So spot of tea can refer to just a drink of tea or to a drink of tea with food accompanying it, or even certain meals without the drink. It depends on where you are in the country, the social situation, and the time of day. The meal sense turned up in the People newspaper in November 2006: “Six journalists were enjoying a spot of tea — that’s dinner to the more well-to-do among you.” Note the snobby implications: southerners sometimes regard the meal called tea or high tea as a lower-class usage.
Incidentally, the spot part, long since fossilised into a fixed phrase, is an eighteenth-century slangy term that means a small amount or a little bit; it’s the source of several other British usages, such as the outmoded spot for a small alcoholic drink and expressions like a spot of bother and a spot of rain. As Americans don’t use spot in any of these ways, spot of tea does seem to have been adopted by them as a way to sound British, an odd thing to do when the expression has almost vanished in the country of its birth.
• The Vancouver edition of the Globe and Mail of 12 January included this comment: “Far more interesting was Mr Baird’s direct plunge into the waters of global warming, where the Tories have been roasted.” Peter Weinrich comments, “‘Interesting’ is hardly the word: it’s a remarkable culinary achievement.”
• Dave Luck reports from Dorset: “The label on a bottle of Tesco bleach claims ‘Kills bacteria as well as the leading brand’. So that’s how Tesco achieves market dominance!”
• Nancy Trimble noted that Bloomingdale department store advertised a “rug closeout” in the issue of the Chicago Tribune for 11 January: “Authentic Persian Kashan in luxurious handmade wool.” So much more convenient than having to shear all those sheep.
• Last Sunday’s Observer reported on the young man missing from home in the US for four years: “Yesterday Shawn and his family appeared at their home-town school in Missouri to talk to reporters. Shawn walked on to the stage, festooned in well-wishing posters and blue and yellow balloons.”