E-MAGAZINE 754: SATURDAY 17 SEPTEMBER 2011
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Platform Following my musings on current British train terminology, several readers told me the verb platform has long been common in the US, particularly around New York. Some British readers commented that their particular linguistic railway horror was the term station stop, presumably introduced by lawyers fearful that passengers would attempt to leave a train that was merely waiting at signals. Others pointed out that, for obvious enough reasons, Scillonians much prefer their archipelago to be described as the Isles of Scilly rather than the Scilly Isles.
Lord Copper Loren Myer wrote, “In your most recent newsletter you wrote, Up to a point, Lord Copper. This expression is unfamiliar to my American ears, although I understand its meaning from context. It would appear to be a set phrase — a Britishism probably requiring no explanation to the British. I would appreciate your providing me with some explanation of its origin.” No problem. It is from every journalist’s favourite book about their profession, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, published in 1938, which satirises the press barons of the time, particularly the owner of the Daily Mail, for whom Waugh had worked. Early in the novel, the foreign editor of The Beast is having dinner with his proprietor: “Mr Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point’”.
If you wish to confuse your hearers, you might describe the cup or mug from which you drink your breakfast cuppa as ansated. But it would merely be an irritatingly superior way of asserting that the drinking vessel in question has a handle. Ansated is from Latin ansa, a handle.
When Galileo turned his primitive telescope on Saturn, its famous rings looked like two blobs either side of the planet (he thought they were moons). A little later, astronomers with slightly better instruments saw what seemed to be handles and referred, in a euphonious phrase, to ansated Saturn (or, as Hevelius described the planet in 1655, a spherico-ansated figure).
The word now most often turns up in descriptions of ancient sacred signs. An ansated cross is a T shape with a circle at the top, a symbol that’s more commonly called a ankh (from the Egyptian word for life or soul).
Also known as the Key to the Nile and, to the early Christians, as an “ansated cross,” the ankh was believed to ensure the immortality of every god and goddess.
Exploring Spellcraft, by Gerina Dunwich, 2001.
Thanks go to Victor Charlton for suggesting this word.
A necessary term? It’s not every day, or even every decade, that a new term for a part of speech turns up. One appeared the other week in an article in the Observer newspaper: nounjective. It’s obviously enough a blend of noun and adjective and a couple of dictionary sites say that it does indeed refer to a noun used as an adjective (as in television programme, in which television, definitely a noun, is used adjectivally to modify the following noun). It isn’t used by linguists or grammarians and the earliest I’ve found is from 2000. So where did it come from? My guess is some online forum in which an inventive individual wanted a word for the grammatical construction but didn’t know attributive noun (you might instead know of noun adjunct or noun premodifier; mine is the term that Oxford’s dictionaries prefer).
Gone forth When somebody says that a job is like painting the Forth Bridge they mean that it’s never-ending. Although the famous railway bridge across the Firth of Forth north of Edinburgh was opened in 1890, research by the Oxford English Dictionary has shown that the simile first appeared in print only in 1955. But the symbolism of the endless task was around long before then. As early as 1894, it was reported in the Glasgow Herald: “The Forth bridge receives a new coat of paint every three years, and one-third is done each year, so that the painters are continually at work.” In 1901, US papers noted “The Forth bridge is constantly being repainted” and that minor fact was repeated down the years until it was embedded in the public mind on both sides of the Atlantic. An expensive refit using epoxy resin and polyurethane coatings in place of traditional paint, though in the same rust-red colour, is about to be finished. News reports last week noted that the completion date is set for 9 December, that the bridge will then be clear of scaffolding after 10 years work and that it won’t now need repainting for at least two decades. But how long will it take for the cliché to die?
4. Questions and Answers: Blue murder
Q From Evan Parry, New Zealand: I’ve checked your World Wide Words dictionary, but the expression blue murder doesn’t appear. A friend remarked about his child when she was restrained in a supermarket, she screamed blue murder. I know its meaning, but why blue, and why murder?
A This idiom is largely restricted to Commonwealth countries. North Americans prefer to cry bloody murder, which is more expressive and easier to understand. Either way, it means to make a noisy and extravagant protest.
As long as the bite does not come in the form of double-digit inflation, it’s all sweetness. Cross that mark, and they’re all screaming blue murder. The middle-class loves a free lunch, subsidised healthcare and education.
The Hindustan Times, 6 Aug. 2011.
Using colours as metaphors for emotion is probably as old as human language, though they’re deeply determined by culture. In English we have phrases such as white with rage, green with jealousy, see red, yellow streak and tickled pink. The emotional associations of blue are more varied than those of most colours. It has among others indicated constancy (true blue), strained with effort or emotion (blue in the face), indecent or obscene (blue movie) and fear or depression (as in blue funk, which in the UK means to be in a state of fear but in the US to be depressed).
In an old entry, the Oxford English Dictionary puts blue murder in a section that links it with hurtful things, particularly plagues or pestilences, which may come from an old superstition about candles burning blue as an omen of death. But it seems just as likely that it derives from the same sense as that in the English version of blue funk, which dates from much the same period — the early part of the nineteenth century.
Bloody murder in its semi-literal sense is much older: it goes back at least to the sixteenth century:
There’s not a hollow cave or lurking-place,
Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, c1591.
This sense was still the usual one in Britain in the period in which blue murder appeared and remained so afterwards. The figurative meaning of bloody murder is peculiarly American and began to appear in the 1860s, usually in the form yell bloody murder. There seems to be no direct link between the two phrases. In particular, blue murder doesn’t appear to be a euphemism for bloody murder.
This feline couplet is the earliest example I’ve so far found:
Till in the trap caught, by their tails both so taught,
The Cats, An Original Comic Song, by Michael Hall, in The Melodist, and Mirthful Olio: an Elegant Collection of the Most Popular Songs &c., London, 1829. Taught is an old spelling of taut; molrow may be from miaow but is nearer in sense to caterwauling; one sense of the close relative molrowing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice of socializing with a disreputable woman”.
The expression must have been fairly common by then, because it turns up in another song in the same collection.
The association with murder came about because our instinct on being faced with violent assault is to shout loudly in fear. Here’s a case where the link is made explicit:
He was quite naked at the time, and screamed out “Murder,” when the prisoner said, “I’ll give you blue murder,” at the same time striking him repeatedly over the back, shoulders, and arms, until the handle of the whip broke in two.
Morning Chronicle (London), 9 Jan. 1855.
However, most shouts of blue murder have been about more trivial matters and the expression has become a disapproving comment that points up the disparity between the amount of noise and the petty nature of the protest: “anyone would think you were being murdered, the noise you were making”.
• David Ashton spotted an unconventional big-cat attack story in the Herald Sun newspaper of Melbourne: “Tiger hit me, says woman”. It turned out that the Tiger in question is a player for the Richmond Football Club, whose nickname is The Tigers.
• On 1 September, as Robert A Wake tells us, the Lakes Region Weekly of Maine reported the tragic death of a couple during Hurricane Irene. The article explained that they: “died sometime Monday night or Tuesday morning after leaks in the generator exhaust system malfunctioned.”
• “I just received an e-mail,” wrote Laurie Camion, “titled Free fall creative writing workshops. Assuming I even had the presence of mind to write in free fall, I fear it would be a very short note.”
• Tim Conway in Australia was browsing the BBC News and came across an article dated 6 September about a Lincolnshire firm: “At just 1.5m (5ft) long and costing £7,500, a Lincolnshire company claims it is the UK’s smallest legal road car.” Mr Conway suggests that it’s “a truly versatile, if tiny, company.”
• Graeme Hirst recently received an advertisement informing him that his home was “not protected against interior plumbing and drainage repairs”.
6. Copyright and contact details
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