NEWSLETTER 632: SATURDAY 28 MARCH 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Copper-fastened Following my item last week on this idiom, subscribers pointed out copper-bottomed. This is also from the age of sail, since it referred to a wooden-hulled vessel that had been sheathed with copper to stop toredo damage. The technique was first applied to ships of the Royal Navy in 1761; its first example of the figurative sense, “thoroughly sound, authentic, genuine, trustworthy” is dated 1807. Some readers argued copper-fastened probably derives from the copper rivets on Levi jeans. However, in a literal sense, it’s almost as old as the other term — the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from the appropriately titled Hull Advertiser of July 1796: “She is copper-fastened and copper-bottomed, and a remarkable fine ship.” The copper sheets had to be copper-fastened, attached to the hull with copper nails rather than iron ones, or electrochemical action in seawater would soon have corroded away both metals where they touched. To correct one small error: The Irish Voice, the newspaper that I mentioned in the item, is an Irish-American journal published in New York, not in Ireland. I’ve now put an extended version of the piece online.
The headline in the New York Times blog The Lede on 20 March summed up the lexical situation: “Canada Bars ‘Infandous’ British Politician, Journalists Reach for Dictionaries”. They would have had to heave down a really big one from the shelf. So far as I can discover the only one that contains the word is the mammoth Oxford English Dictionary, which reports that it’s long obsolete.
The politician who has been stopped from entering Canada is George Galloway, a firebrand left-wing British MP for a minority party, Respect. Though Mr Galloway is a figure about whom controversies swirl, not least because he supports the Palestinian cause and Hamas in particular (banned as a terrorist organisation in Canada), we have to wonder if it’s appropriate to brand him with an epithet that the OED records being last used in 1708.
Alykhan Velshi, a spokesman for Canada’s immigration minister, said that Mr Galloway was an “infandous street-corner Cromwell”. Infandous means “unspeakable” or “too odious to be expressed or mentioned” and comes from Latin infandus, abominable. If he mined the waste tips of English for a year, it would be hard to uncover a stronger word with which to express disgust.
Infandous has never been popular. The first known user is another figure of controversy, James Howell. His accomplishments included acting as a Royalist spy in the 1630s; appropriately, in view of Mr Velshi’s comment, Cromwell imprisoned him during the English Civil War. Howell wrote a letter to a friend from York in 1628: “This infandous custom of Swearing, I observe, reigns in England lately more than any where else.” The word appeared in 1693 in a work by Cotton Mather about the Salem Witch trials but after that it went into permanent decline. It was briefly resurrected in Dreams in The Witch-House, a story by H P Lovecraft published in Weird Tales in 1933: “He found himself swaying to infandous rhythms said to pertain to the blackest ceremonies of the Sabbat.” Nobody now is sure even how to say it (if it tempts you, the OED suggests the stress should be on the second syllable).
Mr Velshi might instead have unearthed another cast-off term with similar sense that also ultimately derives from Latin fari, to speak — nefandous, unmentionable, abominable, or atrocious, which was likewise first used by Howell. Several other English words can also be traced to the same verb, if indirectly. He might have gone for infamous (could this have been what he was groping for?) since for the Romans, as for us, fame meant that you were being spoken about. To be fated signified that the sentence of the gods had been said over you; if you were affable in its original sense you were easy to speak to, while something ineffable is too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.
Mr Velshi may be set for fame himself. His comment is a candidate to appear in future editions of books of modern quotations. His extraordinarily rare choice of word may even be enshrined in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
A fairy, dwarf, imp, or elf.
Avid readers of the Harry Potter stories will know that Ron Weasley had an tiny owl he named Pigwidgeon. It was appropriate because the word has often meant a small or insignificant person or thing. It has also been used for a stupid or contemptible person:
“Think?” I queried, “do I ever really think? Is there anything inside my head but cotton-wool? How can I call myself a Thinker? What am I anyhow?” I pursued the sad inquiry: “A noodle, a pigwidgeon, a ninnyhammer, a bubble on the wave, a leaf in the wind, Madame!”
More Trivia, by Logan Pearsall Smith, 1921.
The fairies of the original sense were also small, though lacking the deep cunning and capriciousness of many other little people. They were often considered to be more mischievous than nasty:
In Malvina, side by side with much that is commendable, there appears to have existed a most reprehensible spirit of mischief, displaying itself in pranks that, excusable, or at all events understandable, in, say, a pixy or a pigwidgeon, strike one as altogether unworthy of a well-principled White Lady, posing as the friend and benefactress of mankind.
Malvina of Brittany, by Jerome K. Jerome, 1916.
The experts guess that the first part of the word may be connected with pug, another old name for a fairy, which may be a variation on puck. The second part was once wiggen, an unknown word that was said with a hard g; later it shifted to widgeon with a soft j sound because in the seventeenth century the duck that went by that name was a byword for being stupid.
4. Recently noted
Another contest Thirty years ago, to assuage boredom at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Bruce Robertson of the Diagram Group invented a contest to choose the oddest book title of the year. Ever since, it has been run by Horace Bent of The Bookseller. Some wonderful titles have been featured, including the first winner, Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, and last year’s If You Want Closure In Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs. Others of note have been Bombproof Your Horse, Highlights in the History of Concrete, The Joy of Sex: Pocket Edition, The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, and Living With Crazy Buttocks. Last autumn the best winner of the last 30 years was chosen: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers with runners-up People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It and How to Avoid Huge Ships.
The shortlist is said to have been particularly difficult to create this year. It must have been, to exclude the title Excrement in the Late Middle Ages, which should have replaced Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring, an utterly mundane and sensible title. The others on the list were Curbside Consultation of the Colon, The Large Sieve and its Applications (a mathematics treatise), Baboon Metaphysics, Strip and Knit with Style, and The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais (since the usual size is 60g, I’m betting that the market is as minuscule as the pots).
The winner was announced on Friday as the result of voting by the public. By a significant margin it was the last title. It turns out that it’s not a real book, being the product of a patented method of automatic production of print-on-demand works from databases. It won’t actually exist until a tragic soul desperate to learn about the subject forks out $795 for a copy. Professor Philip Parker, who invented the production method that avoids the tedious part of the publishing business called authorship (and, it seems, the bit that sanity-checks numbers), has some 200,000 titles on tap, including — Horace Bent swears — marketing advice for toilet brush makers thinking of emigrating to Kyrgyzstan.
5. Questions & Answers: Ditto
[Q] From Pat Thomas: “I was rereading Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, as I do about once every year, but for the first time thought about this bit of dialogue: ‘“If I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?” “Ditto” said Tweedledum. “Ditto, ditto” cried Tweedledee.’ It’s an odd word, ditto. Where did it come from?”
[A] This commercial term was originally Italian. Merchants from that country, you may recall, were versed in bookkeeping and accountancy very early. Double-entry bookkeeping, for example, was invented in that country and was popularised in a famous book of 1494 by Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, a monk and friend of Leonardo da Vinci, though there are known examples of the method going back to the thirteenth century.
It was in the early seventeenth century — about a century after Frater Pacioli’s work appeared — that ditto is first recorded in an English book. It had been borrowed from the Tuscan dialect, in which ditto was a variant of detto, the Italian word meaning said. In turn, this derives from Latin dictus with the same meaning.
At first, English used it like Italian, to avoid having to repeat the name of a month already mentioned:
Anno 1577. Decemb. 13. Mr Francis Drake with five Ships and Barks and 165 men, set out from Plymouth, 27 ditto he came to Madagor, where the Natives treacherously got one of his men.
An Introduction to Astronomy, by William Leybourn and Robert Morden, 1702.
Late in the seventeenth century its meaning widened to refer to anything at all that had gone before. It became common in lists, frequently in abbreviated form as do.
Ditto — by the way — could at one time be a verb, say ditto to, meaning to endorse or agree with something said by somebody else:
Mr Cruger, being called upon to follow him after one of these harangues, was so lost in admiration that he could only cry out, with the genuine enthusiasm of the counting-house, “I say ditto to Mr. Burke! I say ditto to Mr. Burke!”
Quoted in Select British Eloquence, by Chauncey Allen Goodrich, 1853. The Burke in question is the celebrated orator Edmund Burke, at election hustings in 1774. The anecdote became sufficiently famous that “I say ditto to Mr Burke!” was a catchphrase in the nineteenth century meaning “I agree!”
• An article at physorg.com about a laser mosquito-killing device has this sentence in it: “The anti-mosquito laser is just one of many novel ways to kill the disease-carrying insects, in addition to the conventional strategy of vaccinating humans.” Wilson Fowlie wishes he’d known before now that getting a vaccination was sufficient to kill mosquitoes.
• While we’re on the subject of eradicating troublesome insects, Ian Whiting came across an article on the Daily Telegraph site from last August that begins, “The top five tips on how to kill flies have been unveiled by a professor who has spent decades studying the pests” and goes on, “In the light of his investigations, he shares his top tips on how to swat them with Telegraph readers.” Topmost tip: use a newspaper instead.
• “A local bakery,” wrote D L Warnick, “recently displayed a hand-made sign on a self-serve bin admonishing customers: ‘Please do not use your fingers to take cookies. Use the tongues.’”
• Remaining with food, last Tuesday Reuters reported, “A top quality Sydney bistro is combating the recession with a menu ranging from Wagyu beef pie to fresh lobster that lets diners decide the price.” Adrian Cook, who sent this in, wonders how you would communicate with a lobster, fresh or otherwise.
• While reading the online summary of an episode of The Roommate on his cable network, AT&T U-Verse, Laurence Horn encountered this delicious dangling participle: “Hours before giving birth, a woman’s boyfriend leaves her for her best friend.”
• The following, John Samphier reports, was the heading for an article in the Sydney Sun-Herald of 22 March: “One in four anorexic kids is a boy, and one in 10 adults is a man.”