NEWSLETTER 613: SATURDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Book review Apologies to early readers of last week’s newsletter. I made two mistakes in coding the links that enable readers to buy the book from Amazon — codes should be four alphanumeric characters, but I made them five, then forgot to test them. My thanks to alert subscribers who told me about the problem. It needed 15 minutes of hurried reworking of the online translation routine, but the codes have since worked.
2. Turns of Phrase: Black swan
A black swan event is related to the butterfly effect. The latter was coined by the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1973 as a way to illustrate the chaotic nature of weather and the huge difficulties of modelling it on computers. A tiny change in the initial conditions can often lead to dramatically different outcomes. His example was of a butterfly that fluttered its wings in Brazil, setting off a tornado in Texas. (SF fans will know that Ray Bradbury anticipated the idea in his 1952 story A Sound of Thunder; a time traveller to the age of the dinosaurs accidentally kills a butterfly and learns when he returns to the present day that history has changed in a small but vital way. But Bradbury didn’t use the term.)
Black swan came into the language in 2008 because of the book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former market trader. He argued that the stock market is as unpredictable as any chaotic system and that people who thought they could forecast it on the basis of past trends were fooling themselves. At the time he wrote, 2007, this was considered a contrarian view, but recent events have convinced many doubters of its truth.
For Taleb, a black swan is an unpredicted and unpredictable event, like the finding of black swans in Australia by the seventeenth-century Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh. It was taken for granted by Europeans at the time that all swans were white, so his finding could not have been expected and was outside previous experience.
The term has been taken up in financial circles and now appears more widely. Though it mainly refers to the recent global financial turmoil, it is also used for unexpected happenings — the closure of the London Stock Exchange for most of 10 September 2008 due to a computer failure was called a black-swan event at the time.
Either the financial world as we know it is coming to an end — or it’s not! We’ll only know in hindsight. But unless this is the proverbial “black swan” — the unimaginable and unique event that annihilates capitalism — this panic will subside.
[Chicago Sun-Times, 10 Oct. 2008]
The credit crunch and banking crisis definitely qualifies as a black swan. No one saw it coming and no one knows how it is going to end. All we know is that it is messy.
[The Press, New Zealand, 8 Oct. 2008]
Having a changeable, varying lustre or colour.
No two dictionaries seem to entirely agree on the current meaning of the word. Some mention only the bright lustre of a gem that’s caused by reflections from within the stone, because the word now most frequently appears in discussions by gemologists; other dictionaries include the sheen of a bird’s plumage or the changing colours and texture of a material such as silk.
All agree, however, that the source of the concept is the gleam of a cat’s eyes in the dark. The direct source is the eighteenth-century French verb chatoyer, to shine like a cat’s eyes (based on chat, French for cat). Its French connections remain so strong that it is still sometimes said as though it were a French word (/ʃætwæjɑ̃/, roughly “cha-twai-yan”).
Many examples in English literature refer to shining eyes, as in The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, by Sax Rohmer, of 1913: “I managed to move sufficiently to see at the top, as I fired up the stairs, the yellow face of Dr. Fu-Manchu, to see the gleaming, chatoyant eyes, greenly terrible, as they sought to pierce the gloom.”
4. Vote for World Wide Words
Some of you may be jaded following recent electoral excitements in the USA, New Zealand and elsewhere. But your further and continuing help is required. Despite everyone’s endeavours, World Wide Words is dropping back in the contest for the 2008–09 Choice Awards. This is the competition organised by L-Soft, creators of the LISTSERV mailing list software on which the World Wide Words newsletter is distributed. Do please vote and keep on voting!
5. Recently noted
Ephebicide George Monbiot created this word in an article, Lest we forget, in the Guardian on 11 November: "There are plenty of words to describe the horrors of the 1939–45 war. But there were none, as far as I could discover, that captured the character of the first world war. So I constructed one from the Greek word ephebos, a young man of fighting age. Ephebicide is the wanton mass slaughter of the young by the old." The root appears in a few English words, including ephebe, the Greek word filtered through Latin, which means a young man aged between 18 and 20 who undertook military service. Ephebiatrics is a rare medical term for the branch of medicine that deals with the study of adolescence and the diseases of young adults; an ephebophile is a homosexual adult sexually attracted to adolescents. Though George Monbiot created it afresh, there is one previous example of ephebicide on record, in a work of 1979, Saul's Fall: A Critical Fiction. This purported to be a collection of critical essays about a play by a forgotten Spanish author, but the whole book, including the play, was an invention by Herbert Lindenberger, now Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.
6. Questions & Answers: Widow’s peak
[Q] From Ton Hayward, The Netherlands: “I read a sentence in a book and can’t figure the last part out: “Her dark hair was drawn back in a simple chignon that accentuated the elegance of her widow’s peak.” I cannot find an explanation of what widow’s peak means. I hope you can explain.”
[A] Widow’s peak is a well-known English term for a V-shaped protrusion of hair at the forehead.
There has been a widespread superstition — I’ve found it recorded in Britain, Ireland and North America, and it was probably at one time a common belief throughout the English-speaking world — that a woman with this shape of forehead hair is destined to outlive her husband.
Some writers argue the superstition actually refers to another hair feature, the widow’s lock. G F Northall noted in his Warwickshire Word-book in 1895 that it was “a small lock or fringe growing apart from the hair above the forehead”; he commented that “Credulous persons believe that a girl so distinguished will become a widow soon after marriage.” Another version of the superstition was recorded in Notes and Queries on 7 May 1853, which reproduced the report of a jury, dated 4 July 1692, on the physical examination of several women who were accused of witchcraft in Ipswich, Suffolk: “Upon searching the body of Widow Hoer, nothing appeared on her unnaturall, only her body verry much scratched, and on her head a strange lock of haire, verry long, and differing in color from the rest on her head, and matted or tangled together, which she said was a widow’s lock, and said, if it were cutt off she should die.” A book with the title Current Superstitions, published in 1896, recorded that in Labrador it was believed that if a girl’s lock were cut before marriage, she would be a widow.
Many writers have traced the widow’s peak superstition to old conventions about the clothing appropriate to a mourning widow, the traditional widow’s weeds. (Weed was a millennium ago a standard word for an item of clothing; only in the sixteenth century did it become restricted to mourning clothes, and in particular to those of a widow.) It is said that part of the widow’s costume at the time was a hood (perhaps a version of the bycoket, worn by both men and women) with a pointed crest at the front that resembled the widow’s peak. We have to presume that, through a kind of sympathetic magic, a woman who had that shape at the front of her hair was believed to be destined to wear widow’s weeds.
The term widow’s lock is recorded from about 1540 but widow’s peak doesn’t arrive until the eighteenth century, in an entry in Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1721. He equates it with the bandore, a form of head-dress that was even then quite out of fashion; a book of 1712 said that it was part of the costume of “our grandmothers”. This suggests people may indeed have imagined a link between hair shape and headwear.
Though it’s explicitly female, these days men are at least as often described as having widow’s peaks (widower’s peak is known but is rare), since the receding hairline of a balding man often leaves a central protruding peak. The term frequently turns up in books about genetics, because the hair shape is a classic example of a dominant inherited trait.
• “I submit this example to the Department of Funny Mistranslations,” Claude Baudoin wrote. “Salad with believed ham. It was an English subtitle on the menu at a brasserie in Paris I dined at last month. It comes from the fact that cru is the adjective meaning raw (in this case, it refers to air-cured ham) and also the past participle of croire, to believe. I would like my ham to really be there but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
• John Leonard continues the theme of unfortunate translations: “My friend’s son is in northern China on business. The other morning his breakfast buffet offered fungus burning rape. We guess it was wood-ear mushrooms sautéed in canola (rapeseed) oil. Jay said he was afraid to even lift the lid.”