E-MAGAZINE 636: SATURDAY 25 APRIL 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Busy, busy, busy Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a piece of mine in their series Five Best Books, in this case on language. And on Thursday I contributed an article about first-contact linguistic problems in SF to the Oxford University Press USA blog site.
The shape of this item of exercise equipment is so familiar that it has become a figurative term for anything of similar form. But it looks nothing like a bell. And why is it dumb?
Early references hint at a much more substantial device:
I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb Bell, that is placed in a corner of my room, and pleases me the more because it does everything I require of it in the most profound Silence. My Landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise that they never come into my room to disturb me while I am ringing.
Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator, 1711.
A play of 1727 likened a man to one who “pulls upon the string of a dumb Bell”, a sermon dated 1749 claimed that “a dumb Believer is like a dumb Bell, all Lumber and no Melody”.
This is confirmed by an illustration of a type of dumb bell in the Gentleman’s Magazine for September 1746 (right), which shows a system of weights in place of the bell. A note accompanying it says:
This contrivance, being framed together, and placed in a garret, or upper room, affords the exercise called RINGING, by means of a rope, which comes thro’ the floor or floors down to a study or chamber, and was practised by an eminent physician who was very fat.
At some point, the name of this immobile device was transferred to the device we have today, one that Joseph Addison also knew and described in the same article in The Spectator, though he called it by the classical Greek skiamachia, shadow fighting or fighting with oneself.
3. Recently noted
Subinfeudation This rather splendid legal term appeared in my newspaper recently in a report of a court case. The defendant had been accused of a scam in which he bought up defunct titles of the lord of the manor, sub-divided them into districts and sold them. He claimed that he was merely taking advantage of the ancient rule of subinfeudation. This allowed the holder of a landed title to grant part of his lands to others on the same terms as he held them. The main purpose, after the Norman Conquest, was to pass on part of the cost of supplying knights for military service. But, unfortunately for the scammer, the practice was outlawed in England in 1290 because the lords were passing on the obligations but not the benefits. The word includes Latin feudum, fee, from which feudal also derives.
English is difficult Anne Umphrey e-mailed me a poem on problems with plurals, which a friend sent her, but whose author she doesn’t know.
We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
If the plural of man is always called men,
If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
If the singular’s this and the plural is these,
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
So the English, I think, you all will agree,
It’s widely known today and appears in many English textbooks, but is always marked as by Anonymous when any attribution is given. A search found that its first appearance was in American newspapers and magazines at the end of the nineteenth century (the earliest I’ve found being in the Cedar Falls Gazette of Iowa in July 1896). Early examples also give no author, but attribute it to a magazine called The Commonwealth. It was widely reproduced in the following years and has remained popular ever since, though somewhat altered (the version above is the original). Whoever created it has become one of the unknown immortals.
Placenames can be difficult, too Here in the UK we have the famous Welsh Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which is usually abbreviated to Llanfair PG. There are many longer, including one in New Zealand with 92 letters. This week it was admitted officially that yet another long place name, of a lake near Worcester, Massachusetts, has been spelled wrongly on signs as Chargoggagoggmanchaoggagoggchaubunaguhgamaugg for some years. It should be Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. The locals call it Lake Webster.
4. Questions and Answers: Cuts no ice
[Q] From Chris Coolbear: I have heard the expression cuts no ice once or twice, but never knew where it came from until just recently. I was reading The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian, and found it was there explained as being “a variant upon the Iroquois katno aiss’ vizmi — I am unmoved, unimpressed”. I am not sure whether this is true, but having read many of Patrick O’Brian’s books and the historical accuracy that he put in them, I think that this may well be the correct derivation of this phrase.
[A] Oh, very droll. You have fallen victim to Mr O’Brian’s sense of humour, as expressed through one of his characters. The supposed Iroquois expression is, of course, just a respelled version of the English (so the joke works better on paper than in speech). As the idiom isn’t known until late in the nineteenth century it could not have been discussed by British sailors of the Napoleonic era in which the book is set. Whether Mr O’Brian knew this can’t now be ascertained, though I’ve caught him out in one or two anachronisms that show that his knowledge of etymology was less complete than his skill in historical seamanship. But then, his novels weren’t intended as historical English dictionaries.
Having knocked this supposed origin out of court with a single blow from a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, I have to confess to being at something of a loss how to proceed. The trouble with idioms is that they’re sleek and squirmy little beasts, hard to get a firm grip on preparatory to dissecting them. Cuts no ice, to have no influence or effect, is a classic of its type.
The only solid information I have is that it’s first recorded in the US. The earliest example I’ve been able to track down is this:
If the village audience maintains a stony silence the lecturer can cut no ice, but once the villager can be drawn into an argument or made to laugh at himself the battle is won.
The Genesis and Ethics of Conjugal Love, by Andrew Jackson Davis, 1874. Davis, known as the Poughkeepsie Seer, was a spiritualist who dictated his works while in a trance.
A frequent explanation of cuts no ice holds that it has something to do with real ice. This was before refrigeration, of course, when blocks of ice were sold for cooling food and drinks. One suggestion I’ve come across is that something that has no effect or makes no impression is like a knife too blunt to shave ice off a block, or that it refers to cutting blocks of ice from a pond or river, so that something or somebody that cuts no ice is useless. Blunt ice skates have also been put forward as the source of the expression.
These all seem unnecessarily complicated. There were other phrases around at the time of its creation that refer to the qualities of ice, such as putting something on ice, keeping it in reserve until needed. And we speak of cutting the ice or breaking the ice at parties or other social events, meaning to break down barriers of reserve and get people to enjoy themselves.
My feeling is that cuts no ice was a figurative expression right from the start, based on the very common presence of ice in the home and playing on its hardness and coldness as a metaphor for unresponsiveness or lack of empathy.
5. Review: Slang: The People's Poetry, by Michael Adams
Reviewed by Jonathon Green, editor of Chambers Slang Dictionary.
Next year will see Sarah Adams’s translation of the French writer Daniel Pennac’s Chagrin d’Ecole, a book of musings on life first as a dunce and, subsequently, a teacher of the intractably but not irremediably stupid.
Adams has already made one foray into slang, a study of that manifested in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Slayer Slang, OUP 2003). And although Buffy appears in these pages, this takes his analyses to another and, I would suggest, a superior level.
The last attempt to offer an accessible analysis of slang came in 1933: Eric Partridge’s Slang To-Day and Yesterday. And in it, suggests Adams, Partridge got “nearly everything wrong”, from his suggested etymology onwards. But as he adds, it was a different world, with different standards, and Partridge could only work with what he had. And to give Partridge credit, his was the only such study, outside the necessarily brief overviews offered in slang dictionaries.
Michael Adams is a teacher, a lexicographer and a linguist and all these inform his book. He looks successively at slang’s essential qualities, its social dynamics, its aesthetic dimensions and finally, and for me most fascinatingly (although as a lexicographer bereft of any linguistic skills, least penetrably) its cognitive aspects.
The slang in question is primarily American and modern cum contemporary, although there are sidesteps into history, and across the Atlantic (and indeed Pacific). The range of material is impressive, and if the scholarship is worn lightly it is always there. The aim is to deal with large topics and he does so with élan.
The big picture, as ever, is open to minute dissection, and I would suggest, knowing the nuts and bolts as I do, that he is perhaps too trusting of slang dictionaries as the potential source of theory. I would also argue against his prioritising of infixes to illustrate slang’s poetics and his respect for rhyming slang, and regret that by concentrating on contemporary material, he has no time for what to me has always been one of slang’s fundamentals: the persistence, if not of every word, then of its basic and recurring themes.
All this said, I have nothing but admiration for his efforts. This is a study that should please anyone who professes an intelligent interest in slang. It should perhaps be offered not merely to M Pennac, but to anyone, including slang’s publishers, who seem to believe that this complex and sophisticated area of our speech is composed only of rhyming slang and dirty words and as such is either risible or valueless.
[Michael Adams, Slang: The People’s Poetry; published by Oxford University Press USA on 1 Apr. 2009; hardback, 253pp. ISBN 978-0195314632; list price US$23.95.]
• Chris Church comments: “We know journalists need to get close to the story but you have to pity the poor chap John Humphrys told us about on the Today programme (BBC Radio 4) on Wednesday morning: ‘We’re getting reports that a train has been hijacked in India and our correspondent Sanjoy Majumdar is on the line.’”
• An organ recital program in Fullerton, California, suggested to Keith Underwood that it might be the ultimate in encores: “Be sure to check out the new George Wright CD that was recorded on this organ ten years after he passed away.”
• We’ve heard of liquid gold, but never expected to have it sold that way until Brian Hollingshead encountered this report in The World Daily Markets Bulletin on Monday: “Gold futures are rising $7.90 to $875.80 a barrel.”
• British MPs are going through a bad period, not least with all the fuss over their expenses claims. Allan Price received a press release from his local MP, Mark Pritchard, which suggests steps are being taken to restore confidence: “The MP has already called upon the National Audit Office ‘to undertake a full investigation into the government’s financing of the Deference Training Review.’”
• Mike Beiderbecke reports that they recently revamped his local baseball stadium to provide a better experience. It has turned full service, as this sign indicates: “Patrons requiring special assistance will be provided by the management.” He’s glad that he doesn’t have to bring his own.