Kidding on the square David Mackenzie e-mailed from Australia to argue that my association of on the square to Freemasonry was too tentative. “Freemasonry is redolent with references to square and on the square. If you’re on the square you’re a fine, upstanding, genuine fellow or you’re a fellow mason, or both. Anything or anyone qualified with square is similarly genuine and reliable. Its use has spread well beyond freemasonry, of course, and related meanings have branched out.”
The writer Max Beerbohm wrote in 1930 that his period as the drama critic of the Saturday Review between 1898 and 1910 (he got the job on the recommendation of his predecessor, George Bernard Shaw) was like walking a “hebdomadal tight-rope”. However, he found it to be a salutary discipline for a freelance writer, since the requirement to provide a regular “fugitive article for a largish public is no bad thing for a writer”. How true.
More recently, a similar plaint has been expressed:
Its full moniker is Pre-Deadline Tension, the bane of wordsmiths such as myself with a hebdomadal column to devise, write, rewrite, endlessly tweak and, usually at the eleventh hour, email to a hotly expectant press.
Alison Taylor, in the Liverpool Daily Post, 7 Feb. 2008.
Hebdomadal, you will have gathered if you didn’t know already, refers to something that occurs every seven days. In the UK it is rare enough that almost all of its appearances in recent decades referred to the executive body of the University of Oxford, the Hebdomadal Council. Since that body’s demise in 2000, to be replaced by the prosaically named University Council, the word is now even rarer.
Its source is, suitably for an ancient university, classical Greek. Hepta meant seven, still familiar in the name of the athletic contest, heptathlon, and somewhat less so in heptagon, a seven-sided figure. The immediate Greek origin was hebdomad, a group of seven things or a period of seven days. English acquired it from late Latin hebdomadalis early in the seventeenth century. Its sense of something happening every seven days was first employed by Richard Steele in the Spectator in 1711.
Its decline may be due to its being surplus to requirements, English having the perfectly serviceable weekly from Germanic languages. Those few people who use it today mostly intend it humorously.
Green with age The American expression, not one red cent, was the subject of a query from Jean Palmer, who wondered if it had anything to do with being caught red-handed. Perhaps with one’s hand in the till? Nothing so complicated. The phrase red cent dates from the early days of the Union, certainly no later than the 1820s. One-cent coins were then made from pure copper. When newly minted, they would look reddish and red cent became an idiom for a minuscule amount of money. Pure copper coins are rather soft: from 1837 the US mint made them of bronze instead (which was mostly copper but with 5% zinc and tin), which altered their colour. This had no effect on the idiom, which must by then have been too well fixed in people’s minds to be affected by such mundane changes. Copper is too valuable to waste on coins today and US pennies are now copper-plated zinc.
Pride and prejudice During the attack last week by the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard on the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, she accused him of misogyny and sexism. She has since been accused of using the former wrongly. It has in the past been defined in terms such as “the pathological hatred of women by men”. A decade ago, however, the Oxford English Dictionary responded to evidence of a shift in its meaning — originally among feminists in the US — by redefining it as “Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.” The Australian Macquarie Dictionary decided this week to amend its own online definition along these lines, so making misogyny not as strong as hatred but stronger than sexism. Its editor, Sue Butler, noted, “Since the 1980s, misogyny has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of an entrenched prejudice against women rather than a visceral hatred.” She argued that sexism is moving towards a description of surface actions while misogyny is being applied to underlying attitudes that give rise to sexism. The Macquarie Dictionary has now been accused of playing politics with the English language. A member of Abbott’s party commented, “It would seem more logical for the prime minister to refine her vocabulary than for the Macquarie Dictionary to keep changing its definitions every time a politician mangles the English language.” The change will be made to the online dictionary in the new year as part of a regular update. It will reach the paper dictionary later in 2013.
Q From Brenda Kock: I am wondering as to the origin of the phrase lump it. It is often used in this form: “If you don’t like it you can lump it”.
A Or, in more pithy vein, like it or lump it.
Lump in this case isn’t the common one for an irregular compact mass of something, such as a lump of coal, an obscure word dating from about 1300. Our lump is even more obscure in origin, were that possible, and begins to be recorded in the language near the end of the sixteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary points to other words of similar form, such as dump, glump, grump, hump and mump to support its surmise that lump is what it calls symbolic, presumably meaning imitative.
Lump then meant to look disagreeable or sulky. It was usually paired with lour, or lower, to look angry or threatening (as in lowering sky, one that is overcast and threatens a storm). An early example:
She beganne to froune, lumpe, and lowre at her housebande.
Farewell Military Profession, by Barnaby Rich, 1581.
The lump it expression took another two centuries to arrive, in our modern sense of putting up with something. My mental image is of a young person sitting sulkily silent, having been told that some aspect of the world wasn’t to their liking.
By 1807, it was sufficiently well known that it formed an example in a wordily satirical article on how dreadful puns were as a source of humour:
Mrs. —— purposely sends a dish of tea to a lady, without sugar, of which she complains. Mr. —— (Handing her the sugar basin) —— Well, ma’am, if you don’t like it, you may lump it.
The Monthly Mirror (London), Sep. 1807. At this time, sugar would indeed have come in lumps, irregularly cut from a sugar loaf.
(The writer commented, “I must not forget to observe, that if you can add any practical jokes, which lead to puns, and fall at all short of murder, the treat will be infinitely improved”.)
There is some polite disagreement about its country of origin. The earliest example on record is American, in a magazine published in Philadelphia. It appeared in an article with the title Thoughts on Proverbs:
“Throw your lump where your love lies” plainly argues that every lover ought to make a beneficial settlement on his beloved. But I will not be positive as to this solution, since another proverb, viz. “As you like it, you may lump it” evidently contradicts it.
The Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine, Aug. 1790.
The writer’s other examples are genuine proverbs, so we may assume that the two quoted above are likewise real, even though they’re not recorded elsewhere and aren’t in any book on my shelves. If true, it says that the expression was necessarily some time away from being new, which in turn implies it was common to the English of both sides of the Atlantic.
It is still often found wherever English is spoken:
This is free speech folks, like it or lump it.
Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), 23 Apr. 2009.
Like it or lump it, however, Labour knows it must make a serious dent in Key’s credibility if it is to have any chance of winning this election.
New Zealand Herald, 9 Nov 2011.
While shopping online for a present for her niece, Marianne Lukkien came across the following in a GrabOne advertisement: “Add brilliant colour with hair chalk without the long-term commitment of dying”.
Joan Butler bought a pair of shoes from Marks & Spencer in the UK and found a sticker on the soles: “The uppers of this footwear have been treated to reduce the effect of water marking and staining. This repellancy will diminish over time and can be restored by use of a propriety spray.” She can think of a good few uses for such a spray.
A sentence in a story on the Yahoo! Finance site dated 10 October intrigued Fred Roth: “Many large regions, including the entire world, saw growth forecasts cut by the IMF.”
A sidebar on the website of the Australian Government’s Department of Human Services announced, “Help in your langauge. We can help you if you speak a language other than English.” But not, Dallas Stow reckons, help you spell correctly.