NEWSLETTER 596: SATURDAY 19 JULY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Doryphore The scientific name of the Colorado beetle is Leptinotarsa decemlineata, not decimlineata, as I had it.
Eric Marsh said, “This item was timely for me as I’ve just become acquainted with the Law of Prescriptive Retaliation (perhaps it should be The Nit-picker’s Curse): corrections of linguistic errors are themselves inevitably prone to error.” Erin McKean, who edits Verbatim Magazine in her spare time from being editor of the Oxford American Dictionary, has coined a close relative, which is known as McKean’s Law: “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.”
Noggin My piece on this slangy term for the head brought many comments about its use in the building trades in various countries for a horizontal timber brace or support. This is an ancient word, originally spelled nogging, meaning a timber frame filled with brickwork; its origin is unknown. As an aside, several readers pointed out that such noggins are called dwangs in New Zealand, a word from Scots that Harry Orsman, in the Dictionary of New Zealand English, noted is likely to be from Old Norse.
Ponglish My brief note on Polish-English brought a comment from Anna Bankowska in Poland: “I can assure you that Ponglish — as a phenomenon, not a word — is much older than the last few years. It was born half a century ago, when after World War Two the first big wave of Polish displaced persons got to Great Britain. I visited my relatives in 1958 and I still remember this funny language, which was even a subject of satirical sketches by our well-known poet Marian Hemar.”
Jimmy O’Regan, writing from Ireland, concurs: “Most of the words you cite existed in Polish long before Poland joined the EU, mostly due to the influence of American movies, the internet, and contact with Poles who had lived in Chicago. For example, drink, as a noun, means specifically an alcoholic drink with a mixer, such as vodka and orange; the verb drinkować and the adjective drinkowy naturally follow. Highstreet (‘hajstrit’) is the only word likely to have been introduced to Polish via England. (Perhaps drawjwnić too, but it seems unlike the usual forms of loanwords in Polish, and the only references I can find to it are in English, following the publication of the article you mentioned). Among Poles living here in Ireland, there’s also a tendency to adopt Hiberno-English expressions such as slagować (to slag; to mock someone) or even jak się kipingujesz? (‘how’re you keeping?’)”
An inhabitant of the extreme north.
Since today we have a pretty firm hold on geography and climate, we find it a little strange to learn that the ancient Greeks believed a race of people lived at the northern limits of the world, beyond the place from which the god Boreas sent his icy blasts. According to the poet Pindar, they occupied an earthly paradise, a land of sunshine and plenty. They were untouched by old age or conflict or disease, spending their days in song and dance and in worshipping their god Apollo, who came every winter to visit them.
Hence hyperborean, from the Greek words huper, beyond, plus boreas, the north wind. It has been used in English for pretty much the same idea — of a people who live in the extreme north — though without the merrymaking, frolicking or warmth. We know too well that the far north contains no earthly paradise but only ice, snow, gales and bone-freezing temperatures. Hence appearances of the word like this, from D P Thompson (better known for The Green Mountain Boys, about Vermont’s struggle for independence), in Gaut Gurley, 1857:
It was the second week in May; and spring, delightful spring, sweet herald of happiness to all the living creatures that have undergone the almost literal imprisonment of one of the long and dreary winters of our hyperborean clime, was beginning to sprinkle the green glories of approaching summer over the reanimated wilderness.”
3. Recently noted
Hypermiling This US term for finding ways to reduce your vehicle’s fuel consumption has been sighted in the UK, having taken a couple of years to cross the Atlantic. It has become much more popular in recent months as a result of the sudden hike in oil prices, but it can be traced back in print to an article in the magazine Mother Jones dated January/February 2006 featuring Wayne Gerdes, who is said to have invented the term. Hypermilers encourage drivers to stick to speed limits, avoid accelerating or braking hard and plan ahead to take advantage of traffic conditions to maintain momentum. Some hypermilers’ tricks are dangerous, like tailgating big vehicles to stay in their slipstream.
4. Questions & Answers: Chequered past
[Q] From Virginia N Beach: “I have heard the expression checkered past used for many years. What is the origin of it?”
[A] Somebody with a chequered past, which is the British spelling I naturally use as opposed to your American one, has had periods of fluctuating fortune, though the focus is often on some past spell of reprehensible conduct. For example, The Times wrote on 6 June 2008: “He joined the church as a fully ordained Baptist minister in 1996 after a chequered past as a gambler.”
If the game of chess comes to mind, that’s a good guess, although it’s not the twists of fate experienced by the players that are meant, but the board that it’s played on. If American, you may also (or instead) be thinking of the game of checkers, played on the same board, which British players know as draughts (whose name, by the way, is from the obsolete draught in the sense of a move in a game).
Something chequered is marked like a chess board, with a geometric pattern of squares in alternating colours. It’s pretty much the same word as checked, both of which appeared in English in the fifteenth century. The latter was frequently spelled chequed in Britain until about a century ago but has now settled down to the ck spelling everywhere. Chequered in the literal sense is less common than it once was, although the chequered flag that’s waved when a racing car passes the winning post is well known.
That usage links us directly with its origin. Chequered came out of heraldry: the first known example is in the Book of St Albans in 1486. That said — in modern language — that heraldic arms are said to be chequered when they are made in two colours in the manner of a chess board. The word came from French escheker, derived from late Latin scaccarium, a chess board. Our exchequer is from the same source and originally also meant a chess board, though it came to be connected with finance through a table covered with a cloth divided into squares on which the accounts of the revenue were kept by means of counters.
The figurative idea behind chequered is of alternations of good and bad, like the colours of the squares on the board. As well as a chequered past, you can talk about a chequered history or a chequered career.
• A couple of readers joined me in puzzling over a sentence in an article by the British prime minister Gordon Brown that appeared in a supplement on climate change in the Guardian on Wednesday. The paper’s subeditors pulled it out to head the front page: “No one can underestimate the scale of the challenge that climate change represents.” I’d have thought it was all too easy, myself. Did he, or more likely his scriptwriter, mean “overestimate”?
• Moira C Egan e-mailed from Toronto to tell us of a recent meeting. “I was introduced to a public relations consultant. Soon into our conversation, she said, ‘You’re not from Toronto, are you? I mean, you speak so legibly!’ ‘Aha!’ said I, ‘You ought to hear my handwriting.’”