E-MAGAZINE 697: SATURDAY 31 JULY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Curtain lecture Several readers pointed out that the same idea occurs in German: Gardinenpredigt, literally a curtain sermon. Robert Rovinsky found it defined in the German dictionary Duden as a stern night-time lecture, delivered by a housewife from behind the bed curtain to her drunken husband on his return from the pub. Hasso von Samson asked “Who copied the term from whom?” I suspect independent creation.
Onpassing To judge from incoming comments, onpassing is fairly widespread and common in newspapers and broadcasting and goes back decades. Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, noted, “AP had an internal message wire on which such usages were frequent, such as wx for weather, whether or Washington; onpass; upsend; overhead (meaning to use the phone, not the wire); sappest (meaning urgent, easier to type than the all-cap ASAP, I guess). As a result, it also became common jargon in many newsrooms.” Chips Mackinolty and Jonathan Kern both noted the word in the similar compressed language, often called telegraphese or cablese, used for cables to and from reporters overseas. These were charged by the word and the need for economy in phrasing led to inventiveness.
The late William Safire supplied another example in an On Language column in the New York Times in 2004: “I recently ordered the Bush administration to ‘downhold nondefense spending.’ Readers who could not find this verb in their dictionaries were outraged. It is newspaper telegraphese. The old United Press, which wanted to hold down its costs, used to wire its overseas correspondents, ‘Downhold expenses,’ thereby saving the cost of a word.” Evelyn Waugh has a number of examples in Scoop, his 1938 satire about Fleet Street practices, such as: CONGRATULATIONS STORY CONTRACT UNTERMINATED UPFOLLOW FULLEST SPEEDILIEST. A famous example, surely apocryphal, was sent by a London news editor worried about the silence from a foreign correspondent: WHY UNNEWS. The reporter wired back UNNEWS GOODNEWS, to which the editor replied UNNEWS UNJOB.
Yet another example leaked into an article in the Guardian last Monday: “But all too soon, the party conference season will be here and so it feels the right moment for an up-sum.”
2. Weird Words: Roister-doister
This curious reduplicated noun turns up from time to time, almost always in British sources. Its meaning may be deduced from a couple of examples:
He said he’d think nothing of quaffing ale all night and coming home at 5 a.m., smashing windows. He said he was a bit of a roister-doister, not like these white-livered people today who can’t hold their drink.
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett, 1988.
I am due to talk to the veteran Hollywood roister-doister — a serially married, reformed and relapsed alcoholic, who was famously arrested, wild-haired and drooling, while driving under the influence of the date-rape drug GHB in 2002.
Evening Standard, 30 Jun. 2005.
Students of English literature may recall a play by Nicolas Udall of about 1553 with the title Ralph Roister Doister, a comedy that featured the eponymous Ralph, a swaggering buffoon who thought he was irresistible to women. It features a letter to the virtuous widow whom Ralph is wooing, written for him by somebody else. Appropriately for a play written by the master of Westminster College for his pupils to perform, the script makes a teaching point: Ralph reads it aloud with the wrong punctuation, so that it comes out as a string of insults instead of flatteries.
Udall coined the epithet roister doister for him, based on the existing roister with the nonsensical rhyming doister added. Roister is an older form of the word that we would write today as roisterer, an extended version that entered the language when Sir Walter Scott wrote it that way in Abbotsford in 1820.
Yet another ology A couple of newspaper reports this week quoted British government ministers uttering the word processology. They used it in derisive terms for journalists who, in the opinion of the speakers, devote more time to studying the way decisions are arrived at than in reporting the decisions themselves. Tony Blair's former official spokesman, Godric Smith, has been credited with introducing it into British political jargon soon after he was appointed in June 2001, though it has also been linked to his predecessor, Alastair Campbell.
Fast food term On Monday, the Guardian featured a short item on miniature cattle. The report said that animals shorter than 92cm tall are known as teacup cattle. They may be to the breeder who was interviewed, but all of the 90 examples from various publications in several languages I found with a Google search were less than 24 hours old and all obviously derived from the Guardian report. If it becomes a standard term, we will know where it started.
4. Questions and Answers: Bread-and-butter letter
Q From Carolyn Clarke: I was recently writing a short thank-you note to my hostess for a lovely weekend at her house, and thought of it as my bread-and-butter letter, as that’s what my mother had called it when I grew up in Canada in the 1950s. I have the impression that it was the recognised phrase for such a letter that is one’s plain duty as a guest to write. But why bread and butter? Because it’s always done, as putting bread and butter on the dinner table would have or may have been? I detest folk etymology and don’t want to be guilty of it myself. Was this phrase used in England?
A It has indeed been used in the UK; it still is to some extent. It turns up from time to time in print, as here in a humorous quiz about etiquette:
After a weekend in the country, should you: a) Write your hostess a charming “bread and butter” letter. b) Send a large basket of Fortnum & Mason cheese and hams. c) Dash off a quick text before you’ve got to the end of their drive, saying: “Thx 4 a gr8 w/e xxx”.
Daily Telegraph, 16 Sep. 2008.
However, it’s most definitely North American in its genesis and continues to be used there more than anywhere else. My earliest example is this:
Outside of one’s own room there is seldom more for a visitor to do than to arrange the flowers for the hostess, to send her a “bread and butter” letter when one has left her house, and a present on Christmas proportionate to the length of the visit.
The Art of Visiting, an article by Kate Gannett Wells in The Chautauquan, Jan. 1892.
Bread and butter letter figuratively extends the literal meaning of bread and butter to refer to hospitality in general. I suspect that it was originally a flippant reference by some young person, bored with the chore of having to write such a letter to his or her hostess and equating it with work. It echoes the older figurative use of bread and butter to refer to what one does to earn the money to buy the necessities of life: “it’s my bread and butter”, one might say.
We do know from occasional references that the term was “society” slang in the US early on. It moved across the Atlantic with some speed and became established in the UK. In 1910 an enquiry in the British journal Notes and Queries states it is by then the common term for a thank-you letter.
The writer of that enquiry was puzzled about an unfamiliar term for the missive, one that has long since died out, but which I might mention as an intriguing linguistic aside: a Collins. It appeared in Chambers’s Journal in 1904 but vanished again some time after 1940. It’s a literary joke based on William Collins, an elaborately polite character in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813: “The promised letter of thanks from Mr. Collins arrived on Tuesday, addressed to their father, and written with all the solemnity of gratitude which a twelvemonth’s abode in the family might have prompted.”
The item in Chambers’s Journal that introduces Collins mentions yet a fourth term for the missive, a board-and-lodging letter. This seems never to have become quite as popular, though references to it may be found in print, including one in Lady Troubridge’s Book of Etiquette, published in London in 1926.
• The July issue of the British magazine Juke Blues had an article about the soul record producer Willie Mitchell. Its first sentence read, “Born on 1 March 1928, in Ashland, Mississippi, the Mitchell family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when Willie was just two years old.” “What an odd family,” commented Reinhard Fey. “Parents and children born on the same day.”
• The website of the Courier-Mail of Brisbane on 26 July headlined a story thus: “Motorbike rider killed after hitting 170km/h before slamming into car and crashing through sound barrier.” Thanks to Colin Burt for spotting that. Sound must travel slowly in Brisbane.
• Chuck Crawford, in Louisville, Kentucky, could hardly believe his ears when a weight-loss-regimen company ran an advert on TV for its meals. A supposedly happy woman gushed: “The first meal I tried was delicious, and I found that each one was better than the next!”
• The international edition of the New York Times on 25 July reported on a combined South Korea and US naval war game, quoting Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst: “North Korea will try to fend off the mounting joint pressure from the United States and South Korea by retching up tensions in stages.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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