NEWSLETTER 600: SATURDAY 16 AUGUST 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Small cry of joy Another milestone passed, as you may see from a look at the header — this newsletter has reached issue 600. On to issue 1000: it’s only another eight years, after all. (I wonder who will be hosting the Olympics that year? The shortlist is Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.)
Cleft A message from L John Martin was typical of many, following my piece on cleft stick last week: “‘Cleft’ may not be commonly used on weekdays, but we sing it very frequently on Sundays in the hymn ‘Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.’” The link is with Exodus chapter 33, in which God puts Moses in a cleft of the rock so that he will not be destroyed by His glory. Though the noun and adjective forms of cleft are obviously related, the noun is from a Germanic word that meant a chink or crevice and was often spelled clift (as the King James Bible does) or as cliff (influenced by the word for a vertical rock face) before it changed to cleft through assimilation with the adjective.
I was wondering how long it would take somebody to point out the cleft sticks that feature in Evelyn Waugh’s satire on the newspaper business, Scoop. Take a bow, Tony Sharp, you were the first, after a mere 57 minutes. William Boot, the hapless nature writer who is mistakenly engaged to cover an African revolution, is advised by his terminally out-of-touch editor Lord Copper to take a supply of cleft sticks with him to facilitate the transmission of letters. In describing his visit to a shop to get them, Waugh illustrates the irregularity of English: “‘We can have some [cleft sticks] cloven for you,” she said brightly. ‘If you will make your selection I will send them down to our cleaver.’”
Elspeth Kempe pointed out that in South Africa, where she lives, the phrase a cleft stick and runner is so widespread as to need no explanation: “When we complain about the tardiness of the postal system, the comments are along the lines of ‘The parcel took so long to reach to him it would have been faster to have used a cleft stick and runner’ or ‘The letter hasn’t arrived yet? They must have used a cleft stick and runner.’ She wonders if other English-speaking African countries use it too.
Suffixification “Apropos ‘incentivize’ and other such weirdness,” wrote Mordechai Ben-Menachem from Israel, “I was recently sent a document that stated that the computerized system ‘totalized’ the results. When I asked what it meant, I was told ‘the cumulative amount’.” It sounds like an infelicitous modern invention, but the Oxford English Dictionary finds examples, in the sense “make total; to combine into a total or aggregate” from as far back as 1818, in a work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The betting system called the Tote is short for the related word totalisator.
Peter McMenamin commented last week on incentivise: “I have been an economist for 40 years, but I have yet to encounter a felicitous single word meaning to motivate through financial incentives.” A chorus of readers suggested bribe. It fits, but its associations with illegality I’m sure would prevent Mr McMenamin from adopting it. Randy Forror said, “Although my wife can usually bribe me to do some chore with the promise of her goodies (easy now, I meant her chocolate chip cookies and pineapple upside-down cake) I almost always hear the term used with a promise of cash.”
Mot Fran McCormack’s comments are similar to those of several other readers: “In the Feedback section of last week’s newsletter you mentioned ‘mot’ as ‘an old term for a prostitute, which the Oxford English Dictionary says was still in use in 1866’. I won’t be the only one to point out that this word is still very much in use in Ireland, especially in Dublin, where it is used as a mildly derogatory term for a woman, especially a girlfriend or even wife. Men would refer to ‘the mot’ as in ‘I was out with the mot last night’. The derogatory nature of it would be so mild that it would be used affectionately in a lot of cases. The change in the usage of the word seems to be almost the reverse of that for ‘tart’.”
Licentious, obscene, scurrilous.
Investigation of this useful, albeit extremely rare, adjective was provoked by a message from Curt Weil, pointing out that it appeared in Jim Meddick’s Monty comic strip on 8 July 2008. Monty criticises a man for seemingly talking to a dolphin, which Monty calls a fish. The dolphin responds and his interlocutor translates it: “He said, firstly: Dolphins are not fish. They are mammals. Then he said something rather unflattering and fescennine about primates.”
The word is a toponym, named after the ancient Etruscan town of Fescennia, on the River Tiber in modern Tuscany. Like many rural communities, it had a tradition of ribald and scurrilous songs that were performed at festivals such as harvest-home and weddings. These could be in the form of extempore verses that were aimed at another member of the company, who was expected to respond in kind. The Romans took over the idea, applying it particularly to bawdy verses sung to the happy couple at their nuptials, though later the fescennine verses were cleaned up and made more urbane and sophisticated.
3. Recently noted
Pop goes the language An article in the Observer newspaper last Sunday discussed the tendency for some British cinema chains to discontinue the selling of popcorn, on the grounds that it was smelly and lower-class. I was delighted to find a new word: “Daniel Broch, owner of the Everyman cinema in London’s Hampstead, recently bought 17 more venues, including London’s Screen on the Hill and the Screen on the Green. ‘I will de-popcorn every new venue I acquire,’ he said.”
But it turns out that, as often happens, there’s nothing new under the English-language sun. Julane Marx, who weekly applies her common-sense yardstick to these writings to prevent me going even further off the rails than I do, tells me of textured ceilings that were popular in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, which were often called cottage cheese or popcorn ceilings. Removing these is often a non-trivial challenge, since they can contain asbestos. De-popcorn is at times used to describe the process, which can either be accomplished by scraping and retexturing the ceiling or by simply covering the whole thing with very thin wallboard.
Muscling in “I was bemused to hear this morning’s NPR commentator talk about the US meddling in the Chinese Olympics,” wrote Barbara Millikan, “but after hearing it several times I realized from context that I was just witnessing the transmogrification of yet another noun: ‘medal’. Did you know that we no longer win a medal; instead we just ‘medal’? And good luck to anyone who tries to use their ears to distinguish between ‘meddle’ and ‘medal’.” That’s a good point but, though many of us still find it extremely strange, the verb medal in this context is first recorded in 1966 and became more widespread during the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.
Mixing business with pleasure The Sun began a report on Thursday, “Mixing work colleagues with real-life friends on internet networks could cause a social life meltdown, experts have warned.” LinkedIn, the British business networking Web site, recommends people shouldn’t accept social networking invitations from colleagues but keep them separate to avoid conflicts. The report introduced me to frolleagues for colleagues who are also friends.
4. Questions & Answers: Skinny
[Q] From Lilajane Frascarelli: “Where, how and why did the skinny come to mean the inside information, particularly unsavoury gossip?”
[A] To recycle an old etymologist’s joke (more precisely, a joke made by this old etymologist), you want the skinny on skinny? I wish I could help. Many people have asked the experts about this strange word for the inside dope, the lowdown, or the inside knowledge, but none of them has been able to say for sure where it comes from.
What we do know is that as a popular word it’s surprisingly recent. The first example given in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an article in the journal American Speech by Lalia Phipps Boone dated May 1959, discussing slang of the University of Florida; another article in the same journal in 1980 cites a short story that appeared in the Kansas Magazine in 1956: “The skinny was always: You married specifically against death”. It must have been regarded by writers and editors either as unusual or as low slang, because it doesn’t start to appear much in newspapers and books for another decade and the set phrases what’s the skinny? and here’s the skinny don’t turn up much before the 1980s.
The author of the 1956 story, R V Cassill, was quoted in the 1980 American Speech article as remembering that he first heard the word “persistently and widely used by nearly everyone in the Army and Navy in World War II.” That is partially contradicted by this column filler printed in The Charleroi Mail, Pennsylvania, on 19 February 1945:
The “straight skinny” isn’t an elongated person, but is the “correct dope,” in marine jargon. The expression cropped up for the first time during the heat of battle on Bougainville. Some unidentified marine (gyrene in “slanguage”) asked a mate in a foxhole, “Is that the straight skinny?” and it sounded so natural that it took on. It is now part of the marine vocabulary.
[Gyrene is GI plus marine.]
This snippet was right to connect its popularity with the services but wrong to assume that it was created by a serviceman, or indeed recently. That’s because it’s known slightly pre-war. In 1938 Richard Hallet wrote in his autobiography, The Rolling World, “Had she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the archives of her race?”
As to what the unsung inventor, whenever or whoever he was, had in mind, there’s little consensus. The most plausible suggestion was by Robert Chapman in his Dictionary of American Slang in 1997: that it comes from the normal meaning of skin but implying “the naked truth”.
As matters stand, that’s the best explanation we have.
• David Coe forwarded an alarming headline from his local newspaper, the Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, Florida: “Simms to get shot tonight”. It referred to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback Chris Simms, set to play for the first time in a year following an injury.
• Following up the item last week on the advertisement offering an unused and delusted wedding gown, Paul Witheridge remarked, “This brings to mind the advert: ‘Parachute for sale. Never opened. Used once. Small stain.’” A not dissimilar advertisement was spotted by Padmavyuha on the North Devon Freecycle site: “Bag of cat litter. Used once.” They’re frugal in North Devon.
• Laurie Camion saw this in the Lancashire Evening Post of 12 August: “The man, who wore a Keffiyah type Arab headdress concealing his identity, pulled a 12 inch Samurai from his tracksuit bottoms and pointed it at the shopkeeper’s face.” They’re making Japanese warriors small this year.
• The ABC TV news in Perth last Sunday reported the closing of the historic Astor Cinema: “Less than 30 people filled the grand 700-seat venue.” Ted Witham comments that even in the current obesity epidemic that was a remarkable feat.
• On a Belgian skydiving site, Elsi Dodge found another example of why one shouldn’t use automated translation programs: “Our mission is to promote actively this sensational sport at ... companies which want incinerate their customers and employees in an original manner.”
• Laurence Horn reported on Wednesday: “Just now on NBC’s Nightly News, a report on the Olympics-based ad campaigns mentioned both commercial products and the two presidential campaigns all seeking to appeal to the 30 million or so nightly viewers, then concluded: ‘That’s a lot of eyeballs they won’t have another bite at.’”