NEWSLETTER 512: SATURDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Effing Last week, I wrote “For a start, it’s from eff, the only verb to have been created from a letter of the alphabet.” Before I wrote that, I went through the alphabet, checking. Gee up comes from the interjection gee as encouragement to a horse; queue is from an Old French word derived from Latin couda, a tail; a golf tee is an abbreviated form of the old word teaz; x out has a history going back to an 1849 story by Edgar Allen Poe, but as it’s an abbreviation for cross it doesn’t count. The one I missed was pee as in urinate (an abbreviation for piss), and didn’t you all tell me so!
Baragouin I really did know, honest, that Breton is a language in its own right and not a dialect of anything. It’s a relative of the other Celtic languages Welsh and Cornish (the Brythonic languages), so much so that bara and gwyn, bread and wine, mean the same in Welsh and Cornish as they do in Breton. You must put it down to old age, stupidity, and typing fingers that occasionally take on a life of their own.
Costermonger This word turned up in the same piece and led to lots of people sending messages along the lines of “Eh? What?” This is a dated British term for a person—usually but not always male—who sells fruit and vegetables from a handcart in the street. The name is from an ancient type of cooking apple with a ribbed appearance, the costard, whose name comes from the Anglo-Norman French coste, a rib, which in turn is from Latin costa. The first costermongers were apple sellers in the sixteenth century.
Woof! Mark Hyman replied to my standard query about how he had come to learn of the World Wide Words newsletter mailing list: “My vet told me about it while we were in conversation about my dog’s liver problems. Perhaps that’s a first.”
2. Weird Words: Digladiation
Strife or bickering.
That’s the more recent sense, though not one you’re likely to have come across, digladiation being as archaic as any word that has ever featured in this section. Dr Johnson included it in his Dictionary, together with many another strange creation; Thomas McCrie wrote disparagingly about “scholastic wrangling and digladiation” in his work The Life of Andrew Melville of 1819.
It appeared a few times after that, as a ponderous and obscurely humorous literary term, in reference especially to courtroom advocatory sparring, but it seems to have died out completely by the end of the nineteenth century.
The link with strife may suggest a connection with gladiator, and indeed physical aggression was the first meaning—in particular hand-to-hand combat with swords. The word is from Latin gladius, the short sword wielded by the gladiators of classical times. To digladiate, you might say, is to cross swords.
3. Recently noted
Twadult Really, the words these marketing people invent. This one appeared in last Sunday’s Observer. It ostensibly refers to young people who are just entering adulthood, those aged between 18 and 25. It sounds like twaddle to me and looks as though it comes from the same mould as tweenager, though somebody must have broken the mould first. The Urban Dictionary gives another sense—one that’s unconvincing in view of the changed middle consonant—a blend of adult with the vulgar slang twat for a stupid or obnoxious person (borrowed from the equally vulgar slang term for a part of the female anatomy), hence a highly disagreeable 18-plus person.
Beat that Did you hear about the new world record score in Scrabble? Michael Cresta scored 830 points during a game at the Lexington Scrabble Club in Massachusetts on 12 October 2006. His words included quixotry, which itself claims a record as the highest recorded single turn, scoring 365 points. Quixotry: the state or condition of being extremely idealistic, unrealistic and impractical.
Acronymphomania Rod Blackburn noted that the Canberra Times last Saturday used this term to describe an excessive love and use of acronyms. He wonders if the writer invented it. To judge from the number of examples to be found online, he didn’t (it’s a favourite of the alt.fan.pratchett discussion group in particular). But the earliest I’ve found so far is from the New Republic back in April 1985. The word is a blend of acronym and nymphomania. As Mr Blackburn says, it’s a more attractive term than the sober and mundane acronymania.
Widescale Does that word strike you as strange? Probably not. It appeared in an article in a computer magazine this week—perhaps the specialist context made me notice it. The intriguing thing is that it appears in none of the dozen single-volume dictionaries I have consulted, whether British or American, neither as one word nor as wide-scale. And yet it is easy to find tens of thousands of examples from the 1930s onwards. The only reference works that include it are the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and the OED; the latter cites a hyphenated example from 1958 and an unhyphenated one from 1980. It is clearly a blend of widespread and large-scale. Do dictionary editors perhaps consider it too obvious to notice? Surely not, since large-scale is to be found in every work I’ve consulted.
4. Questions & Answers: Across the board
[Q] From Claire Williams, UK: “What’s the origin of across the board? A friend told me it had something to do with gambling. Is he right?”
[A] Your friend is right. US readers will probably already know this, since the term has a specialised gambling sense there. In the UK, we only know it in the sense of something that applies to all, as in “the cutbacks will be across the board”.
It’s definitely of American origin and comes from horse racing, in which it refers to a bet in which equal amounts are staked on a horse to win, place, or show in a race—that is, come in first, second, or third. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1950, but it’s actually much older—there are examples in US newspapers going back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The earliest I’ve found so far is from The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York, in 1902, about a scam perpetrated on a local bookmaker: “This affected the bookmaker to the extent of allowing him to make another bet of $30 across the board, this bet to net $160”.
The one remaining problem is what board refers to. It seems reasonable to assume that it’s the blackboard on which bookmakers chalked up the odds for each horse in each race. But the exact image here escapes me. Perhaps US horserace bettors can say?
5. The penultimate push
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6. Questions & Answers: All-singing, all-dancing
[Q] From James Hobart: “Where does the expression all-singing, all-dancing come from? I see it most often applied to some computer wizardry that seems to do everything. Is it from the theatre?”
[A] These days you do usually find that it means something that’s all-encompassing, or which does everything (“Swedish maker Volvo is launching an all-singing, all-dancing, ultra sporty version”, Birmingham Post, 2006; “You have an all-singing, all-dancing website, but no one is hitting on it”, The Mirror, 2005; “The Holy Grail of a multi-asset, all-singing, all-dancing trading system is a myth”, The Banker, 2004). Of course, you can also use it of theatre shows, though a flashing cliché warning ought to pop up if you do.
Part of one of the first press ads for the film Close Harmony in March 1929.
It sounds as though it’s from a blurb for some Broadway musical, but we can date it quite precisely to the early days of the talkies in the US in 1929. Several films that year were promoted as being state-of-the-art aural experiences. The most significant was Broadway Melody, famously the first film musical, for which a version of this tagline was used. But it was beaten in the etymological stakes by the slightly earlier Close Harmony, advertised in March and April 1929 under several versions of the catchline as All talking-singing-dancing and 100% all-talking all-singing.
The canonical form all-singing, all-dancing came along a little later. It became famous enough that it has entered the language. Oddly perhaps, in view of its country of origin, the expression appears much more often in British newspapers than American ones these days. Perhaps we haven’t yet tired of it.
• “On a trip to China last week,” Bernard Long communicates, “I had to fill in a health form. It asked if I was suffering from fever, headache, coughing or the snivels. I only snivel when my flight is delayed.”
• Diana Platts found a sentence in the Shropshire Star of 27 October, part of a report on the supposed inefficacy of the flu vaccine: “There is little clinical evidence that the vaccines have an effect on things such as hospital stay and time off work. There is also little evidence that they effect death in healthy adults.” We’re surely all relieved to hear that.
• Brian Pearl recently saw a poster that invited him to the “100th Centenary Celebration” of the Wellington YWCA, in New Zealand. He knew they’d been around for a while but a hundred centuries is a lot more than he’d imagined.
• “Want to really kick back at the office?” read a caption on the PC World Web site, spotted by Lew Hundley. “Keep your toes toasty with Thanko’s USB Heating Slippers ($29). These fuzzy slippers feature a warming pad that generates heat that measures 13 inches long and 13 inches wide.” How much heat is that in therms, or joules? [You may be astonished to learn that it is a genuine product, though a poll among readers of Computer Weekly in the UK—published this week—preferred to cite the USB-powered coffee warmer as the most useless hardware product of the past 40 years.]