NEWSLETTER 587: SATURDAY 10 MAY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Pilcrow Lots of people supported my view that this word isn’t as dead as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is. But it turns out they mostly meant that the symbol is still common, as indeed it is, since it is widely used — as just one example — in word-processing programs to display otherwise hidden paragraph breaks.
Chickens roosting My mention of the incongruous image created by the phrase “wild oats are coming home to roost”, reminded Anelie Walsh of one of her favourite mixed metaphors, in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound, in which the character Birdboot comments, “The skeleton in the cupboard is coming home to roost.”
Know-All Donald Kaspersen picked up on a term that I employed in this section last week, “The expression ‘know-all’ seems to be missing something for Americans, who always say ‘know-it-all,’ something that I am constantly accused of due to my peripatetic quests for knowledge. It is strongly pejorative rather than mildly irritating. Is ‘know-all’ the same?” Know-all is the British version, which is indeed just as derogatory as the US one.
Tending to hide one's head in the sand.
This is a modern weird word, used a few times after the late Arthur Koestler invented it in 1963, but now almost unknown. His aim, in an article he wrote in Encounter magazine, was to describe pundits who prefer honest self-deception to ignoble truths.
An ancient, rare and defunct name for the bird, by the way, was struthiocamel, from Latin struthiocamelus. The Romans took it wrongly from Greek strouthokamelos, literally “sparrow camel” or, more loosely, “camel-bird” (the scientific name of the ostrich to this day is Struthio camelus). It’s difficult to imagine a cross between a sparrow and a camel, but the Greeks managed it. In later Latin it became avis struthio, the struthio bird.
The only recent example of struthonian I can turn up is in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute dated July 2007: “Even if looking into the future can be demonstrated usually to be futile, you still need to practise; you might get better, and one day you strike lucky and you hit a tipping point. As the wisdom of snooker players informs us: ‘The more I practise, the luckier I become’. Being struthonian is not an option.”
3. Recently noted
Ketogenic diet This phrase was all over the newspapers this last weekend following a report in The Lancet of a study at University College London that showed epileptic children had fewer seizures if they were given a special diet high in fat. One intriguing aspect of the story is that there’s nothing at all new in the idea. The diet, and its name, are recorded in the literature as being helpful in reducing epileptic seizures as far back as the 1920s. It went out of favour when anticonvulsive drugs became available; interest in it has been growing again in recent years to help sufferers who don’t respond well to drugs. The study is surprisingly claimed to be the first ever gold standard clinical trial (one conducted using the very best controlled and randomised methods) to have been carried out. The diet is similar to the famous Atkins diet and has been used for various therapeutic purposes for many years. It’s said to be ketogenic as it leads to ketosis, overproduction in the body of ketone bodies, ketones being members of a chemical group that includes acetone. The ketone bodies alter the behaviour of the brain, decreasing the number of fits.
Non, non, non! The latest issue of NZWords arrived on Tuesday from the New Zealand Dictionary Centre. One item was on the slang term rat, now not much used, which referred to “an under-the-counter or subsidiary job carried out by journalists, who naturally use a non-de-plume”. I mention it not to take a cheap shot at an error in a journal on language (though it appears there twice in successive sentences) but to point out that non-de-plume has become an extremely common reformulation of nom-de-plume, presumably because it makes more sense to writers who know no French. It’s even getting into some textbooks, for example in a comprehension exercise on foreign words and phrases in Vocabulary Success by Murray Bromberg & Cedric Gale of 1998, and in High School English Grammar and Composition by P C Wren (2005), “If the writer does not wish his name to be published, he can sign his letter with a non-de-plume”. It’s recorded from as far back as the nineteenth century, though these might merely be typographical errors.
4. Questions & Answers: Cock and bull story
[Q] From David Armstrong, Ontario, Canada: “Whilst at a meeting recently, someone told the story of how Cock and bull story got its name. According to the tale-teller, there were two inns in England (the name of the town escapes me), The Cock and The Bull. To entice customers into either inn, each had its own barker, constantly extolling the virtues of his inn. Each time the barker tried to get a customer to come in, the story would be more outlandish than the previous, and hence the term. This seems simplistic to me, is there a grain of truth in this?”
[A] Nary a smidgen of a trace of a germ of truth. It’s a cock-and-bull story in two senses.
The tale is a variation on the standard version, which tells of two inns of those names which stand on High Street in Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire. The two inns were the staging posts for rival coach lines, whose passengers were regarded by the locals as sources of news. Unfortunately, the story goes, travellers were inclined to embroider or invent outlandish stories to entertain themselves and confuse the natives. There was even, it is said in one version, a competition between the patrons of the two inns as to which could produce the most eye-poppingly ludicrous creation. Hence the idea that a cock and bull story is a concocted tale or a over-elaborate lie.
The experts note a French expression, coq-à-l’âne, which appears these days in phrases such as passer du coq à l’âne, literally to go from the cock to the ass, but figuratively to jump from one subject to another (in older French, to tell a satirical story or an incoherent one). This meaning is said to have come about through a satirical poem of 1531 by Clément Marot with the title Epistre du Coq en l’Asne (the epistle of the cock to the donkey), though the phrase itself is two centuries older. Coq-à-l’âne was taken into Scots in the early seventeenth century as cockalane, a satire or a disconnected or rambling story.
The suggestion is that some similar story once existed in English, akin to one of Aesop’s fables, in which a cock communicated with a bull rather than a donkey. Nobody, however, has been able to discover what it might have been. Another idea is that the French phrase was borrowed in partial translation with donkey changed to bull for some reason.
5. Questions & Answers: Bad cess
[Q] From Ruth McVeigh: “I know Bad cess is an Irish curse, but where does it come from?”
[A] To say bad cess to you to somebody is to wish them bad luck, so it’s not pleasant, though as curses go there are worse. The second word is the problem in working out the phrase’s history. An initial idea might be that it has some connection with cesspits or cesspools, suitably revolting associations for any imprecation.
It’s a red herring, however, because it was possible at one time to wish a person good cess — to wish them good luck — and so there’s hardly likely to be a link with sewage. The US publication Putnam’s Magazine, in an issue of 1857, has an Irish character saying: “Oh, he’s a curious crayther [creature], the pig, an has his own ways, good cess to him!”. R D Blackmore’s Lorna Doone of 1869 also has good cess, said by a character native to Exmoor. That may seem odd, since cess is closely associated with Ireland, but the English Dialect Dictionary records bad cess from Devon near the end of the nineteenth century, so it’s not out of place. (The same work also records it from Cheshire.)
Deciding where cess comes from isn’t simple. Let’s round up the usual suspects. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might be a shortened form of “success”; J Redding Ware, in Passing English of the Victorian Era of 1909, prefers to find the origin in a dialect term that means a piece of turf — hence a place to be in or live, which is more than a bit stretched; Eric Partridge notes cess, a tax.
This last one makes a lot of sense. Cess, often in its early days in the sixteenth century spelled as sess, is from assess in the taxation sense. The first cess was an obligation put on the Irish people to supply the Lord Deputy’s household and garrison with provisions at prices “assessed” by the government. The word has been since become widely known throughout the English-speaking world and is still used for a tax in Ireland, Scotland and India.
Taxation, being one of life’s eternal verities, would seem to be a suitable subject around which to create curses. It’s easily the most plausible of the possibilities, although — of course — that doesn’t mean it’s the right one.
• Department of inadvertent inversion: David Killeen reports that on 1 May The Australian began an article headed “Literacy plan works, take it as read” with “A simple edict that Aboriginal children read and write for two hours every morning is finally reducing appalling levels of literacy in remote parts of Australia.”
• An advertisement for cleaning services in Arlington, Virginia, failed to impress Susan Gay: “Check listed deep cleaning by hard-beaten professional maids.” As a motivational technique, she felt it left something to be desired; she added, “I assume they were going for ‘hard-bitten’ but even that’s pretty awkward.”
• Alan Turner had to make a couple of attempts at understanding the headline over a story on AOL news this week. His first impression was that some poor schoolmaster had been kidnapped at the checkout and sent for recycling: “Co-op bags head for compost heap.”
• The issue of the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 April may have accidentally invented a new Olympic (or possibly Formula 1) sport, Sue Worthington suggests: “Drivers eastbound on Cesar Chavez Street near Highway 101 are prohibited from making U-turns: With so many cars hurdling along in both directions, a U-turn would endanger other vehicles.”
• Dennis Ginley saw this description on a bouquet of roses a friend received for Mothers’ Day: “Yellow variety with large size bloom, medium petal count, light shiny green foliage and thorns that open slowly into a teacup shape.” He plans to return in a few days to get another look at those thorns.