NEWSLETTER 598: SATURDAY 2 AUGUST 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Errors, schmerrors It was appropriate, following an issue in which I listed laws relating to the perils of correcting others, that the first message I should receive last Saturday consisted of the pithy text, “Blind man’s buff? Muphry’s Law? Just two after a quick scan ... Do you need a copyeditor?” Blind man’s buff is the older and still usual British term for what is often called blind man’s bluff in the US (buff is short for buffet, a blow — the game was once much rougher than it is nowadays). And Muphry was, of course, correct, as a quick Google will show. The misspelling was the deliberate act of the creator of the “law”, not me. Several more messages in similar vein followed. Then Michael Grounds commented from Australia that I’d written “a e-mail”, querying gently whether this might be a typo or else “some subtle modern usage I haven’t caught up with?” Congratulations, Mr Grounds, your correction was the first correct correction.
More laws Chips MacKinolty followed up from Australia: “There is a corollary to Muphry’s Law, and I write with some experience as an advisor to the local education minister: ‘All policy documents or media releases on education or literacy contain spelling and grammatical errors’!” Naomi Bloom contributed a further example: “Evans’s Law is one of my favourites: ‘Nothing, not love, not greed, not passion or hatred, is stronger than a writer’s need to change another writer’s copy.’” Peter Geldart e-mailed, “Your piece on laws reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago of a beggar holding out his hat, with a sign saying ‘Unemployed poofreader’.”
Grawlix Judith Blair pointed me to discussions, a couple of years old now, of cartoonists’ typographical usages over at the Language Log, which includes a fine example of what a contributor calls a meta-commentary on the convention of obscuring obscenities through non-alphabetical characters (they are there called obscenicons). A link takes you to a Mother Goose & Grimm cartoon of like type.
Pharology Neil Paknadel commented, “I’m sure I won’t be the only one to suggest that ‘the late Mr Purdy’ is likely to have known not only of the original Pharos, but also that other European languages use the term generically to mean lighthouse. Examples are French phare (in use since 1546, my Petit Robert dictionary tells me), Italian and Spanish faro, and indeed pharos itself, still in generic use in modern Greek. Incidentally, the first three of those languages now also use the word to mean a vehicle’s headlight.”
Additionalised words Russ Willey has a one-minute rant: “Prompted by Garth Summers’s disgust with the word additionalise, and yours with the concept of evolutionisation, might I voice my own pet hate of the moment? Google’s photo editing software Picasa, which seems to be catching on fast, offers numerous one-click ways to improve the look of a digital image. One of the buttons warms the colours. But is it labelled warm? No, it’s the warmify button. Grrr, as they say.” A reader whom I know only as Columbine writes, “By far the commonest example of this obfuscatory newspeak in the USA is incentivize, used by business-school types who can’t remember motivate. Many are now trying to ameliorate this gratuitous hypersyllabification by shortening it to incent, which I find even more incendiary!”
An honest or trustworthy person.
Though it appeared earlier, this word is best remembered because it features in Hamlet, in the scene in which his father’s ghost tells Hamlet of his murder and asks him to avenge it. When Marcellus and Horatio enter, the ghost cries from the cellar below for them to swear that they will never divulge what Hamlet is about to tell them. Hamlet shouts to his father, “Art thou there, truepenny?”.
It was a term of affection, comparing a man to a genuine coin. This may strike us today as not being important, when pennies are mere tokens made of base metal, but in Shakespeare’s day, pennies were silver and were comparatively valuable. Counterfeiting was rife.
The word has never been common. Sometimes it appears as a direct quote of Hamlet’s words, as a humorous way of asking “who’s there?” (as in Colin Wilson’s Ritual in the Dark of 1976: “He pulled her shoulders back on to the bed, and kissed her. There was a heavy thump from overhead. Sorme looked at the ceiling, saying: Are you there, truepenny?”).
At one time, attempts were made to derive it from Greek trupanon, to bore or perforate; E Cobham Brewer in early editions of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, argued this and commented that it was, “an excellent word to apply to a ghost ‘boring through the cellarage’ to get to the place of purgatory before cock—crow.”
3. Recently noted
Nuked the fridge Several newspapers columns that monitor changes in the language have reported on this phrase in the past month, the first being the Guardian’s media blog, MediaMonkey, on 13 June and the most recent the New York Times last Monday. This piece was under the headline Indiana Jones and the Temple of Absurdly Implausible Excess, which gives those who haven’t seen the latest film in the Indiana Jones franchise — Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — the clue to its origin. I haven’t seen the film either, but I’m told there’s a scene near the start in which the hero avoids being killed by a nuclear explosion by hiding inside a kitchen refrigerator, which is hurled several miles through the air. This is so ridiculously incredible that you can’t suspend your disbelief for the rest of the film. The New York Times says that nuke the fridge means “to introduce a wildly implausible element to a once-respected franchise, or more generally, to signal the abandonment of past standards of quality.” It is the exact filmic equivalent of television’s jump the shark, which is now pretty much mainstream in circles that discuss the media and which derives from a 1980s US television show called Happy Days in which “the Fonz” does jump a shark while water-skiing, signalling the show’s rapid decline.
4. Questions & Answers: Tom
[Q] From Mike Kennedy: “Very often, while watching British TV crime series on TV, one hears the word tom used to refer to a (female) prostitute. Why should this be. A tom-cat, after all, is male. Is it rhyming slang?”
[A] It seems not to be.
Tom, the usual short form for the given name Thomas, has since late Middle English been a generic name for a male, as in tomfool, tomboy (a girl who behaves more like a boy), peeping tom, and Tom, Dick, and Harry. The clue to how it became connected with a woman may lie in an old bit of Australian slang, tom-tart, recorded since 1882. This had no implication of vice at the time, being merely one of the many mildly dismissive male terms that have been around at various times for a girl friend or sweetheart, like donah, sheila or dinah. It looks as though it was formed from Tom’s tart, a generic name for a female companion.
Though tart is now an insulting term for a promiscuous woman, it was to start with a short form of sweetheart and was a compliment. John Camden Hotten defined it in his 1864 slang dictionary as “a term of approval applied by the London lower orders to a young woman for whom some affection is felt. The expression is not generally employed by the young men, unless the female is in ‘her best’.” Hence the subsidiary meaning today of tart as being an overdressed woman; it also accounts for the British verb to tart up, to dress or make oneself up in order to look attractive or eye-catching, or more generally to decorate or improve the look of something.
Though the only recorded examples of tom-tart are Australian, our best guess is that it was taken there by emigrants who had learned it in England. In time, tom-tart was abbreviated to just tom, both in Australia and in Britain, and went seriously downhill to become a deeply derogatory description.
Incidentally, Louis E Jackson and C R Hellyer, in A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang of 1914, said that a tommy was a prostitute; this is often cited in support of a derivation from the male name. This may have been a temporary form, based on tom or tom-tart. But it is much more likely that it has no bearing at all on the evolution of the English slang term, since the book was complied in the US (Hellyer was a detective in Portland, Oregon).
5. Questions & Answers: Waddle
[Q] From Phil Young: “What is the origin of the word waddle? I’ve recently read about the famous Confederate captain, James Waddell, who commanded the CSS Shenandoah and apparently had only one leg and weighed around 200lbs. This made me wonder if it was a corruption of his name referring to his gait, although I doubt it.”
[A] It’s a neat guess but you’re right to doubt this as the origin. There’s no connection at all and the verb waddle is known from about three centuries before Captain Wadddell’s time.
The first known user is our old friend William Shakespeare, in his play Romeo and Juliet of 1592, in a speech which Juliet’s nurse is trying to explain in an outpouring of muddled exposition that her charge is not yet fourteen, along the way pretty much detailing Juliet’s entire early history. A brief extract from the waterfall of words: “And since that time it is eleven years, for then she could stand alone. nay, by th’rood, she could have run and waddled all about”.
Waddle is most often used of ducks and geese and other wading birds, which is appropriate, since it is an extension of wade by adding the -le ending that indicates an action continually or regularly taken, what grammarians call a frequentive. In that, it joins a long list that includes crackle, crumple, dazzle, hobble, niggle, paddle, sparkle, topple and wriggle.
• Richard Glasson quotes from an article that appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 25 July about the run-down state of the commuter railway system: “Despite being earmarked for replacement years ago, early morning commuters are forced to ride on old L-set, K-set and S-set carriages.” Obsolete commuters, the curse of any rail system.
• Phil Young found a headline on the Web site of Australia’s Channel 9 News that suggests technology has already outsmarted us: “Solar panel to hear means test objection”. It also appeared on the site of the Brisbane Times, but both have since changed to the anodyne “Union slams solar panel means test”.
• “The building in which my physiotherapists have their premises,” e-mailed Richard Levy last Saturday, “is being refurbished. They have therefore put up a notice outside: ‘The Hampstead Physiotherapy Practice is open as usual. Apologies for any inconvenience’.”
• On 22 July David Hay found an article on the BBC news site about network security problems, which is still there: “These two cases highlight a major problem facing the computing industry, one that goes back many years and is still far from being unresolved.” Is that good news, then?
• Mike James saw a sign on the door of a supermarket in the suburbs of Washington, DC: Perishable Manager. He hopes that the office is thoroughly chilled.