E-MAGAZINE 703: SATURDAY 11 SEPTEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Chops Steve Haywood wrote: “The word chaps in the sense that you highlight survives in that tasty Somerset morsel called the Bath chap. This is the inside of a pig’s mouth, which has me salivating just to think about. With some freshly-baked wholemeal bread, a dusting of white pepper and a dribble of white wine vinegar it’s food for the gods.”
Dr Steve Britt-Hazard asked “Whence the use of choppy referring to a state of the sea?” This is actually from chap, the same word that is now used in the sense of cracking the skin, as in chapped lips. It refers to the sea being broken up into cracks or clefts through the opposing forces of wind and tide.
Bugs and flies OK, so I’m better at etymology than entomology. A number of readers told me that I had muddled my insect taxonomy. A comprehensive critique came from Professor Denis J Brothers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa: “As a professional entomologist, I enjoyed your bit about insect common names. As an aid to my students over the last 35 years, I have informed them of the rule you explain. Your piece also illustrates the hazards of common names divorced from the relevant scientific names. In my experience, a June bug and tumblebug are beetles and greenfly is a bug. Blackfly is more interesting, since it can be used for a true fly and also for an aphid/bug — its usage would be clarified if the rule were followed in this case — black fly for the true biting fly, and blackfly for the aphid. I agree, though, that such ‘rules’ cannot be enforced, but merely provide useful guidelines.” I've added a piece on bedbug to the website.
To bedizen is to dress up in a gaudy way:
But every time one of the trapezoidal doors on Douglas Stein’s set blows open, it is to let in a bewigged and bedizened buffoon very nearly her match.
New York Times, 4 Jun. 2010.
Despite this example, if we were true to the history of European culture, we might argue that it is only women who can be bedizened. It would be fruitless to do so, of course, because its users apply the word as often to men as to women,
The female connections exist because the word is linked to distaff, which people now use most often for matters relating to females. That’s because spinning thread with the yard-long wooden rod called a distaff was traditionally women’s work. The staff part of the word presents no difficulties, but few of us now know that the dis beginning derives from an ancient Low German source that meant a bunch of flax. (The implication that the distaff was first used for spinning linen thread, not wool, is confirmed by the archaeological evidence.)
Nearly 500 years ago, the verb dizen appeared, presumably from the same source as dis (though nobody knows how), which meant to dress a distaff for spinning. A century or so later it started to refer to decking a person or a thing with finery. Within decades, be- had been added to it to make the verb stronger. Ever since, bedizened has implied that the bedecking has gone to excess.
Walking dead A Bloomberg report this week says that Ireland is suffering from zombie hotels, up to 300 of them. They have been built in recent years with generous tax breaks and bank loans. The recession is cutting business travel and many are now unviable; they are accused of undercutting established hotels to generate cash flow. The term is based on the rather older zombie bank for one that’s virtually bankrupt but still staggering along.
Palindrone On Wednesday, the US dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster announced its Word of the Summer, the word that had been searched for more often than any other in its online dictionary. The one that came top by a big margin wasn’t there, or indeed in any other dictionary — it was Sarah Palin’s confused blending of refute and repudiate in a news show and a Twitter message back in July: refudiate. Merriam-Webster says they think searchers had worked out what Sarah Palin was groping for, since refute and repudiate were also looked up a lot.
Game on! I avidly read Victoria Coren’s regular poker column in the Guardian, not because I’m a player but because each one is a surreal prose poem of magnificent opaqueness. This is from last week’s: “The flop came 2 5 6. A set! The big blind checked and the original raiser bet 1000. I called, hoping the button might try a ‘squeeze play’ or that the original raiser would keep betting. But the button folded and it was the big blind who check-raised up to 4000.” Don’t tell me what it means: that would spoil it.
5. Questions and Answers: Troop
Q From Rosemary Delnavine: For at least as long as Western troops have been occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, news reports have routinely misused the word troops when talking about soldiers. Am I right in thinking that “three troops were wounded” not only sounds daft but is incorrect when what is meant is “three soldiers”? “Three troopers”, yes, if they were part of a regiment that is or was mounted.
A This usage has been bugging Americans in recent years, with a lot of comment appearing on language-related sites.
The traditional position that you are likely to find in reference books is that troop is a collective term for a group of people of unspecified number (it’s from medieval Latin troppus, a flock, and is the same word as troupe for a theatrical group). You can refer to more than one troop in the sense of a set of such collections (“the jamboree was attended by several dozen scout troops”) and use troops as a generalised collective term for the forces (“the occasion was full of emotion and flag-waving as the crowds lined the streets of Morpeth to give the troops a rousing Northumbrian welcome.”).
The usage of troops that you refer to is actually not that new. For more than two centuries writers have used it for a countable number of individuals, provided the number is large and not closely specified. An early example:
This Attack is to be commanded by General Alvinzy; and the Army which he will lead to it will consist of Fifty Thousand Troops in the highest order and spirits, and confident of success.
The True Briton (London), 1 Feb. 1797.
It’s easy to find many similar instances throughout the nineteenth century, so it’s notable that the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for troop, written in the early years of the twentieth century, doesn’t include this plural countable use.
Despite this long history, many people continue to be unhappy about it. The linguist John McWhorter objected to it on National Public Radio in March 2007: “Calling 20,000 soldiers ‘20,000 troops’ depersonalizes the soldiers as individuals, and makes a massive number of living, breathing individuals sound like some kind of mass or substance, like water or Jell-O, or some kind of freight.”
He noted in particular that “This usage of troops is only possible in the plural. One cannot refer to a single soldier as a troop. ... This means that mothers do not kiss their troop goodbye as he takes off for Anbar Province. One will never encounter a troop learning to use her prosthetic leg.” It’s becoming clearer that this objection won’t survive the pressure of current usage, at least by the US media. Troop is increasingly being employed in reports for an individual member of the armed forces:
The international force in Afghanistan says three American troops have been killed by a roadside bomb in the violence-wracked south. A NATO statement says two troops died immediately after the blast Tuesday.
AP News, 7 Jul. 2010.
It came particularly to public notice in early November 2006, when Senator John Kerry made an unfortunate joke and had to apologise: “As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop.”
I’m told that singular troop for an individual has been recorded in US military slang from World War Two. People who were in the services during the 1950s and 1960s say it was then common in the Army. The Oxford English Dictionary added the sense to the entry for troop in 1993 (despite continuing to omit the countable plural form), with one isolated case from 1832 (“As the wounded ‘troop’ was not much hurt, a sort of truce was proclaimed.”), but noted it was then chiefly military. That’s no longer true.
Troop has developed into a singular and small plural count noun for several reasons. There are now many more women in the various US armed forces and this presents gender-related difficulties in finding suitable terms for individuals (serviceman doesn’t work any longer). More significantly, it’s been difficult to find an inclusive term for a single member of the combined services — soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and so on. Serviceperson or member of the armed forces hardly trip off the tongue. The US Department of Defense likes servicemember but that works only in bureaucratese, not in news headlines or everyday speech. Though trooper is available in theory, it’s restricted in American usage mainly to a member of the state police, and otherwise to a mounted soldier in a cavalry regiment. Warrior has been popular, within and outside the military, but has connotations that have rendered it unpopular or unsuitable for some. Combatant is almost always pejorative (“enemy combatant”). Not least, troop is usefully short for fitting into headlines.
Despite wide unhappiness about it, there’s no doubt that singular troop has become a settled part of the language of the US media. But I agree with John McWhorter that it will be some while, if ever, before a member of the armed forces describes himself or herself as a troop, not least because mutual pride and loyalties within a service mean that specific terms such as soldier or airman will continue to take precedence.
• On 3 September, Victor Dewsbery came across a news item on the BBC website about the police seizing a high-performance car from a suspected drunken driver. The story noted: “Officers were driving the car away — against force policy — when it crashed through two gardens. One was injured.” Poor garden.
• On Friday 3 September, Rodney Kennett tells us, the Daily Mail had this in a news item: “Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and one of Britain’s top imams also joined the condemnation.” Versatile clergyman ...
• The restaurant business,” complained Darren Zanon, “is hard enough without this kind of press.” A report in a CNN blog on 2 September quoted Terry Goddard, Arizona’s Attorney General: “What is hurting us right now economically are statements ... about how Arizona has become so violent, that we are a place of fear, and we have beheadings in the dessert.”
• Harry Lake found a questionable sentence in a full-page advert in the New Scientist of 28 August: “Calculus has made it possible to build bridges that span miles of river, travel to the moon, and predict patterns of population change.” It had never occurred to him that bridges were so versatile.
• An AOL home-page link in its business section, Jim Tang noted, read “Most Dangerous Places to Drive” and was followed by this blurb: “Residents of Washington D.C. are more likely to have a collusion than any other U.S. city.” That’s unsurprising, Congress is there.
6. Copyright and contact details
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