NEWSLETTER 582: SATURDAY 5 APRIL 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Mineral patience Many readers were struck by the image created by this phrase from Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez which a subscriber asked about last week. Dan Perlman tells me it’s a direct translation of the author’s Spanish, paciencia mineral. He said “I’ve seen the phrase used here in South America as ‘paciencia mineral de montaña’, or ‘mineral patience of the mountain’; it may not have originated with Márquez. The English ought idiomatically to be something like ‘the patience of a rock’, but the translator probably decided to go with the more poetic-sounding literal translation.” John Laybourn concurred and added, “All the examples I have found, from South America and Spain, seem to describe heroic degrees of long-suffering.” Many readers noted the similarity of form to Andrew Marvell’s vegetable love in his famous poem To his Coy Mistress (“My vegetable love should grow / Vaster than empires, and more slow.”) However, it seems likely from the dating of the few non-Márquez English-language examples we know of that their writers have taken the phrase from the English translation of his work.
Mosey Other theories about the origin of this word were mentioned by a number of readers; several noted one put forward by Eric Partridge. In his Name Into Word in 1950, he suggests it might have derived from the slouching manner of itinerant Jewish vendors, so many of whom were named Moses or Mose or Mosey. Others had been told that it originated in the name of Moses because of the Biblical flight of the Jews into Egypt and their wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. Neither story survives scrutiny. Some readers argued that a Spanish origin from vamos in the south-western US wasn’t out of the question, listing several other Spanish words that had undergone substantial modification, such as jacquima becoming hackamore. Perhaps I should have said that the argument against a Spanish origin is as much geographical as linguistic, since the earliest recorded examples are from the East Coast of the US (Virginia and Philadelphia).
Quocker-wodger “I knew the toy as a child,” the Rev John Carl Bowers e-mailed from Brooklyn. “It’s a marionette whose limbs and body parts are loosely connected by loops of string, the whole suspended from a single string attached to the head. Jerking that single string causes the marionette to flail about in grotesque and unpredictable postures; it’s not ‘controlled’ as we understand a puppet to be. The amusement is in seeing what extremes of posture your jerking can generate. Hotten’s description matches my memory — note that he refers to jerking ‘a’ string. Forcing the puppet into grotesque postures also accords well with the political meaning.”
Royal Navy If you are a serving or former RN member and would like to help me with a language question, please e-mail me with the subject line “Royal Navy”.
Whenever the prefix nano- appears, referring to any manipulation of matter at near-molecular levels, controversy follows. The opponents of such techniques hold in particular that they shouldn’t be used in foodstuffs until we know much more about their effects on human bodies.
Nanofood refers to the employment of nanotechnological techniques in any part of the food chain — cultivation, production, processing or packaging — not just in food itself. Big companies are researching the possibilities, some of which sound like science-fiction — smart dust that’s inserted into plants and animals so that farmers can monitor their health in real time; packaging that includes smart sensors that can sniff out gases given off by deteriorating food or alternatively tell you when it is ripe; a drink whose flavour can be changed just by microwaving it; and stabilise nutrients in food, such as omega-3 fats, iron or vitamins — which degrade quickly in storage — by enclosing them in separate tiny containers. The only foodstuffs currently available that have been modified through nanotechnology are a few nutritional supplements, but this is expected to change within a year or two.
The word first came to public attention as the title of a report of in 2004 by a German firm, the Helmut Kaiser Consultancy. It is in the news because of another report, published by Friends of the Earth in March 2008, which takes an extremely sceptical view of the technology and the likelihood of it being accepted by consumers.
Food packaging using nanotechnology is more advanced than nanofoods, with products on the market that incorporate nanomaterials that scavenge oxygen, fight bacteria, keep in moisture or sense the state of the food.
[Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Mar. 2008]
But while the food industry is hooked on nanotech’s promises, it is also very nervous. For if British consumers are sceptical about GM foods, then they are certainly not ready for nanofood.
[Daily Mail, 20 Jan. 2007]
A tax upon hearths or fireplaces.
As today, 5 April, is the end of the tax year in the UK, a curious choice of date that derives from the change to the calendar in 1752, it seems appropriate to feature a word relating to taxation.
English kings and their advisors were ingenious in devising ways to tax their subjects. Hearth-money was brought in during the reign of Charles II in 1663. It was levied at two shillings a year on every hearth in the kingdom. This may not sound like a lot, but a couple of shillings went a great deal further then than today’s equivalent of 10 pence does now. It was also called hearth-tax and chimney-money. People hated it. It was repealed as one of the first acts of that curious composite sovereign William-and-Mary in 1689 on the grounds that it was
not only a great oppression to the poorer sort, but a badge of slavery upon the whole people, exposing every man’s house to be entered into, and searched at pleasure, by persons unknown to him.
It should not be confused with hearth-penny, which was a pre-Conquest name for a payment of one penny a year by better-off householders to the papal see at Rome, a tax that ended with the Reformation. As every home had to have a hearth for cooking and heating, to have one was equivalent to being a house holder. The tax was also known as Rome-scot and Peter’s pence. There were also smoke farthings, which were offerings that were made by householders to their cathedral church at Whitsun. The payment is known from the fifteenth century under that name, but in the eighteenth century, when the tradition was spluttering to its end, writers began to call it by the grandly Latinate moniker fumage (from fumus, smoke).
4. Recently noted
No mo’ phone Our times are hardly short of issues that can induce anxiety, so do we need any more, let alone words to describe them? These musings were induced by a survey (that word might better be in quotes, since it was an online one, whose respondents were self-selected) for the Post Office in the UK. It found that 55% of the 2,000 people who replied said that they never switch off their mobile phone as they want to keep in touch with friends or family; 9% said that having their phone switched off makes them anxious. The Post Office has coined a term for this fear: nomophobia, which only makes sense in a country that calls the devices mobile phones, because it’s short for “no mobile phobia”. It’s a dreadful term, no doubt fated to vanish along with the papers it was printed in this week, but then there’s no classical Greek term for being without a telephone that could have been used instead (Julane Marx suggests the rather neat atelephobia, which does have Greek roots, though presumably it would refer to a fear of losing access to any kind of telephone). The term cellphobia is known online, but hasn’t yet reached the print media; we also have crackberry for BlackBerry addicts. Stewart Fox-Mills of the Post Office was quoted in the Glasgow Daily Record as saying that “Being out of mobile contact may be the 21st century’s latest contribution to our already hectic lives. Whether you run out of credit, lose your phone or are in an area with no reception, being phoneless can bring on panicky symptoms.” The Post Office press release claimed hyperbolically that nomophobia “now ranks alongside traditionally stressful situations such as getting married, starting a new job and going to the dentist.”
Spirit helpers It’s not unusual to encounter words in widespread use within a group that are almost entirely unknown outside it and which aren’t recorded in dictionaries. One such turned up this week, egregore, which derives from Greek egregoroi, watchers (the personal name Gregory, “watchful”, is from the related Greek verb gregorein, to watch; grigori has been used as another name for egregores). It has two distinct meanings in occult practice. One refers to a spirit created by a witch or wizard to carry out a specific task, often a mundane one, as Susan Moonwriter Pesznecker describes in her book Gargoyle, 2007. “There are all sorts of jobs that can be given to an egregore, with ‘guard dog’ type duties and going out to fetch information being the most common”. The other sense is that of a group mind or group soul brought into being by a group of people united by emotional or spiritual ties of any sort, though the term is most common in Wicca to refer to the collective spirit of a coven. This sense is more common in European languages; it is linked to the concept of the group mind in psychology and to the ideas of Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. The earliest example in English I can find — which is in the first sense — is in a book by Benjamin Charles Jones, dated 1884: “I must be fair, and point out that there are those who fancy he is a fallen angel, an Egregore, a guardian angel of somebody else’s property.”
You’re a what? The columnist Charlie Brooker wrote with undiluted venom in the Guardian on Monday about the new series of The Apprentice in which aspiring entrepreneurs are presented with challenges. He execrated in particular what a writer in another newspaper called moronic businessisms. He quoted one contestant as boasting that, “I’m a red-shelf player; I give 120%; I’ll kick, scream and gouge my way to the top of the boardroom and no force in the universe can stop me.” I can find no reference to red-shelf players anywhere. Did Charlie Brooker mishear? Did the contestant invent it? Or is there some cultural reference that I’m missing? If you know, do tell.
5. Questions & Answers: Shoot oneself in the foot
[Q] From J Michael Mollohan: ““Eric Partridge says that to shoot oneself in the foot dates from the 1980s and means a person has made a self-defeating, counter-productive blunder. I remember the expression much earlier. In the post-World War Two days it meant to take a self-inflicted, relatively minor wound in order to avoid the possibility of death or greater peril, essentially an act of cowardice. When and how did this change to the modern meaning?””
[A] In the sense of a minor self-inflicted injury for the reasons you give, it is certainly older. My erratic memory suggests it was a well-known tactic in the First World War, rather too well known to officers and medics even then to be easily carried off. I found a reference in a 1933 book, Death in the Woods and Other Stories by Sherwood Anderson. An American tells of his experiences as an aviator in the British Army in that war, in which he suffered a bad crash and was taken to hospital: “The fellow who had the bed next to mine had shot himself in the foot to avoid going into a battle. A lot of them did that, but why they picked on their own feet that way is beyond me. It’s a nasty place, full of small bones.” The technique has indeed continued into recent times: hearings held in November 1969 into the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War were told that one soldier had “shot himself in the foot in order to be medivac-ed out of the area so that he would not have to participate in the slaughter.” It still happens on occasion.
As a literal expression describing an accidental injury it is earlier still: it turns up in the nineteenth century and is perhaps even older. I would guess that such accidents have been occurring ever since firearms became portable enough for men to be careless with them. The first example that I can find is a sad report in the Appleton Crescent newspaper of August 1857: “Mr. Darriel S. Leo, Consul to Basle, accidentally shot himself through the foot, four or five days ago, in a pistol gallery at Washington, and died on Sunday of lockjaw.” A search of US newspapers found 187 items between 1960 and 1965 reporting that a man had accidentally shot himself in the foot; it’s no doubt a common injury down to the present day (it’s difficult to search for, as most examples are now figurative).
I’m sure the expression shoot oneself in the foot derives from such accidents, usually the result of incompetence, and has led directly to our current meaning of making an embarrassing error of judgement or inadvertently making one’s own situation worse. That men did it deliberately as a way to avoid combat is only a side meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first figurative example, from the US, is dated 1959. It’s in an extended metaphor in William White Howells’ Mankind in the Making: “Many a specialist has shot himself in the foot when he thought he was only cleaning a paragraph.” The OED’s next example is from Aviation Week in 1976: “Why we seem to insist on shooting ourself in the foot over this issue, I’ll never know.”
So the conversion to the modern figurative sense was in the air in the US from the end of the 1950s (and may indeed, as I suspect, be older). But it became common from the early 1980s and by 1986 had given rise to the shortened allusive description foot-shooting.
• “Don’t most people know this already?” was Tom Gould’s comment about a front-page teaser headline advertising an article inside (what’s the newspaper term for these?) that appeared in The Tennessean of 26 March: “Don’t expect smart car dealer soon.”
• What a difference a misplaced hyphen makes. Annie Clarke reports that the London freesheet Metro included a headline on 27 March: ANTI-YOUTH CRIME EVENT.
• “The instructions on a carpet cleaner,” e-mailed Pete Swindells, “caused me momentary confusion: ‘Empty when full’.”
• Department of athletic horticulture. Henry Drury was reading the Home & Living section of the Sunday Telegraph for 30th March and found this advert: “Paradise Cottage, West Berkshire, a glorious Grade II listed four bedroom hotchpotch of a cottage. Gardens and a stream run through the property.”
• Bankers struggle against their reputation for unfeeling arrogance but error messages like the one that Roger Jones encountered on the Barclays Bank Web site don’t help matters: “We suggest you try to log in later and apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.”