E-MAGAZINE 637: SATURDAY 2 MAY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Dumbbell Christopher Joubert and Joseph Lomax pointed out that one of these early devices is still in place at Knowle House in Kent. This installation may predate our first known use of the term by a century. There are in addition various literal dumbbells as aids to teach the mechanics of bellringing.
Terry Walsh corrected me on one point. When Joseph Addison used the Greek skiamachia, he meant the exercise, not the dumbbells with which he did it. Addison actually wrote: “I used to employ myself in a more laborious diversion, which I learned from a Latin treatise of exercises that is written with great erudition; it is there called the ‘skiamachia’, or the fighting with a man’s own shadow, and consists in the brandishing of two short sticks grasped in each hand and laden with plugs of lead at either end.”
Mark Sinden wondered if there was any link between early dumbbells and the dumb waiter, which is similar in name and construction. Dumb waiter certainly uses the same idea of an inanimate and silent object, but otherwise there seems to be no connection and waiter here has its usual sense of a serving man. In the sense of a device for a dining table that consists of revolving trays for condiments (the US name for which is lazy Susan) it dates from the 1740s. The lift or elevator version of dumb waiter, more familiar to us now, is from a century later.
As an illustration of differing word usage, several British readers said that for them dumbbells were bottle-shaped clubs for twirling in the hands (another name for them is Indian clubs). The Oxford English Dictionary does not admit this sense. These readers instead called the short bars with weights at the ends barbells. For me, a barbell is a long rod, usually with weights that can be varied, for lifting using both arms. No doubt readers will correct this terminology!
English is difficult Patrick O’Callaghan e-mailed from Venezuela about another poem, this one on the difficulties learners have in pronouncing English words they come across in books. It begins:
Dearest creature in creation,
The poem was created by the Dutch writer and schoolteacher Gerard Nolst Trenité and first appeared, under the title of The Chaos, in his English textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent in 1920. He revised and enlarged it many times during his life and as a result there are many versions in existence.
An extended version of this poem, plus last week’s, is now online.
The modern concern with the problems of youth and especially the problems caused by young people has perhaps made it inevitable that this word would be created. It refers to a fear and loathing of adolescents by adults.
Tanya Byron, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, has recently made ephebiphobia better known by using it in a lecture. Despite a comment by Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail on 29 March that she had invented it, she certainly hadn’t. The earliest example I’ve so far found is in the title of Kirk Astroth’s article Beyond Ephebiphobia: Problem Adults or Problem Youths? in Phi Delta Kappan for January 1993. He pointed out then that the attitude behind the word was hardly new: “Nearly every generation of young people has been chastised for being ‘out of control’ or aberrant in some way. Adult claims of degeneration among the young can be found in nearly every previous decade.” Here’s another early use:
Many, if not most, adults dislike junior high kids. They simply don’t like being around them. Others suffer from what has been called ephebiphobia, a fear of adolescents.
Junior High Ministry, by Wayne Rice, 1997.
The word derives from ephebe, the classical Greek word that meant a young man aged between 18 and 20 who undertook military service.
You may not know the word, but you’ve probably had the feeling. “Ephebiphobia”, or “fear of youth”, is one of the most enduring phenomena in our society — and it’s more prevalent than ever.
Daily Telegraph, 17 Mar. 2009.
Prof Byron, clinical psychologist, broadcaster and Government advisor, will address the growing issue of ephebiphobia, the fear of young people. She will argue that society demonises children, rather than the teenagers being the problem themselves.
Liverpool Daily Post, 3 Mar. 2009.
This name for the character & is surprisingly recent, not being known before the nineteenth century, though the character itself was in use long before printing was invented. It started life as a Roman scribe’s abbreviation of the Latin et, meaning “and” and became common in the early medieval period. It was later taken over as an abbreviation for the English word and.
In some modern italic fonts (this is ITC Baskerville) the form of the ampersand is deliberately reminiscent of the medieval scribe’s style. You can see flourished versions of the e and the t.
In the one, that is for lands and possessions, you have companions many; but in the other, my good lord, you are A per se A with us, to our comfort and joy unspeakable.
In a letter to Lord Russell from John Bradford, 1554.
It was common enough that at this period it was contracted to apersey, meaning the first, unique, or most distinguished person or thing.
It was usual in the eighteenth century to have children end their recital of the letters of the alphabet with &, because it was so common. It was read out as and per se, and, which meant that the symbol &, whose name was and, stood by itself and actually meant “and”.
In time, the character became known by this phrase, which became slurred through rote recital and oral transmission into all sorts of dialectal and variant forms, including anparse, empus-and, emperzan and amperzed. It was only in the 1830s that one form, ampersand, became dominant and conventional. By then, the old rote way of learning the alphabet seems to have been on the way out:
The expression and per se, and, to signify the contraction &, substituted for that conjunction, is not yet forgotten in the nursery.
A Glossary, or Collection, of Words, by Robert Nares, 1822.
4. Questions and Answers: Fiasco
[Q] From Neal Evenhuis: The word fiasco apparently comes from the Italian word “a wine glass” or “making a wine glass”. How and when did it take on the negative connotation of a complete breakdown or failure?
[A] Ah, a difficult one. Writings about the origins of fiasco are full of subtle conjecture, misunderstandings and downright ignorant assertions, but everyone who tackles the subject ends by saying sadly that the problem is insoluble. This includes me: be warned that I shall come to no very definite conclusion.
The basic facts are simple enough. Fiasco is the Italian word for a bottle (related to English flask) and the idiom far fiasco, literally “make a bottle”, developed among Italian theatre and opera people in the eighteenth century to mean perpetrating a bad performance, from which it moved into English through reports of Italian productions:
But if we may believe the common town talk, it is impossible for a piece not to make a fiasco on St. Stephen’s Day.
The Harmonicon, July 1825. The 1825 annual volume of this London journal, and the volumes following, are so peppered with references to fiascos we must assume that either its critics were difficult to satisfy or the standard of Italian theatre was shockingly low. Early examples, like this one, all translated the Italian into English as make a fiasco.
The first known use of the term is in the same magazine a little earlier:
In the letters which he [Rossini] wrote to his mother at Bologna, he was accustomed to draw a smaller or larger figure of a flask, (fiasco) at the side of the account of any new opera he had brought out, to indicate the degree of failure which his work had met with. The reader should be apprised that fare fiasco is the Italian cant phrase for a failure.
The Harmonicon, May 1824.
This is one version of a common story about its origin:
A German, one day, seeing a glassblower at his occupation, thought nothing could be easier than glassblowing, and that he could soon learn to blow as well as the workman. He accordingly commenced operations by blowing vigorously, but could only produce a sort of pear-shaped balloon or little flask (fiasco). The second attempt had a similar result, and so on until fiasco after fiasco had been made. Hence arose the expression which we not unfrequently have occasion to use when describing the result of our private and public undertakings.
Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature, by Charles Bombaugh, 1874. Mr Bombaugh’s story falls to the ground because he thought a fiasco was a little bottle, rather than any bottle. Other versions link it particularly with Venetian glassblowers, who were alleged to set aside imperfect glass to make a common bottle or flask. Why they didn’t just put the glass back into the furnace isn’t explained. To pre-empt questions, this is not the source of the idiom pear-shaped.
Italians are just as puzzled by the idiom as we are. Etymologists in that country have put forward various incidents in theatrical history to account for it, such as the dropping of a real bottle, vital to the plot, during a performance. This is the canonical story:
But, touching “fiasco,” D. J. obligingly tells me that there was once at Florence a celebrated harlequin by the name of Biancolelli, whose forte was the improvisation of comic harangues on any object which he might chance to hold in his hand. One evening he appeared on the stage with a flask (“fiasco”) in his hand. But, as ill-luck would have it, he failed in extracting any “funniments” out of the bottle. At last, exasperated, he thus apostrophised the flask: “It is thy fault that I am so stupid to-night. Fuori! Get out of this!” So saying, he threw the flask behind him, and shattered it into atoms. Since then, whenever an actor or singer failed to please an audience, they used to say that it was like Biancolelli’s “fiasco.”
Illustrated London News, 22 September 1883. I’m indebted to Stephen Goranson for finding this.
I’ve also found a tale that connects it with those Chianti bottles with rounded bottoms that must be encased in a wicker sheath because they won’t stand up by themselves, so perhaps implying something that has been poorly constructed or which, like trying to stand the bottle up, will surely fail. This story gains in ingenuity what it loses in credibility.
Others have connected it with the long-dead French idiom faire une bouteille, to make a mistake (literally, again, to make a bottle). It has been suggested that Italian actors picked it up from French ones in the eighteenth century and translated it into Italian. If so, this merely takes the problem from one language to another, but it’s hard to explain the loss of the article. Notably, the Italian expression moved back into French around 1822 (as faire fiasco), at roughly the same time as it was beginning to appear in English, so contradicting the standard theory that the expression got into English via French.
Don’t believe anybody who claims to have the complete answer; at least not without incontrovertible written historical evidence.
• Jim Blue and Brenda Clough were separately surprised to read the headline over a story in the Washington Post on 24 April: “Murphy Eeks Out Win in NY-20 Special Election.” Did he just squeak home?
• The UK Pension Service presumably knows what it means when it says on its Web site that the increase in the pensionable age of women to 65 reflects “the fact that people are living longer than average.” Mark Swingler, who spotted that, isn’t so sure. Perhaps the service is thinking of Lake Wobegon where, as Garrison Keillor tells us, “all the children are above average.”
• Thanks to Frank Packard, we can ponder the implications of the headline in the Financial Times on 21 April: “Minnows left to ‘wither on the vine’”.
• Paul Thielen noted a sentence that appeared in the Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California, on 23 March, regarding the “morning after” birth-control pill: “If taken with 72 hours of unprotected sex, it can reduce pregnancy chances by 89 percent”. Or you could try 72 hours with no sex at all: that’s 100% reliable.
• On Monday, Robert Nathan discovered, FindLaw Legal News had a story about the European tour of the US Attorney General, Eric Holder: “Holder meets with British intelligent officials”. Insert your own punchline.