NEWSLETTER 624: SATURDAY 31 JANUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bombilation To judge from the many messages that came in following last’s week’s piece on this word, it is best known as a verb in one work in particular, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, in which he tells of a fire and of a gong bombilating in warning.
Baby father It is always pleasant to be able to antedate the Oxford English Dictionary, as I did last week with this expression, taking it back three years to 1975. But several readers told me that The Phrase Finder, in the person of Gary Martin, had found an example from 1932. Indeed he has: “I heard he was dead. I saw a policeman on my way from Union Street to Comerton Village. I was returning from my baby father’s house.” Edith Sinclair was giving evidence in a murder trial that was reported in The Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica, on 27 June 1932. Oddly, I’d searched The Gleaner’s archives before writing the item, but it didn’t turn up, though it did when I knew what I was looking for. So, alas, my little personal tribute to Sir John Mortimer will not now happen, as his usage in 1975 will not stand first in the OED’s entry when it is revised.
Greenish or becoming green.
When it first appeared in the language, virescent was a poetic way of describing a greenish hue (it was taken directly from the Latin verb virescere, to become green, itself from virere, to be green).
Past the creamy reef the purple ocean glittered in the nooning sun, while the motionless waters of the lagoon were turquoise and bice near by and virescent in the distance.
Mystic Isles of the South Seas, by Fredrick O’Brien, 1921. Bice is a dated term for a medium blue or blue-green copper-based pigment. Like so many colour words its hue has changed over time — when it came into English seven centuries ago, it meant a dark or brownish grey, from Old French bis, dark grey.
The adjective has been used for a deathly hue:
Between them stood a table covered with green baize, which, reflecting upwards a band of sunlight shining across the chamber, flung upon his already white features the virescent hues of death.
The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy, 1876.
Virescent has since changed its sense, in particular among plant scientists. It refers to the normal green of chlorophyll that has been shifted towards yellow for some reason, often because of disease. Virescent mutants lack chlorophyll in their young leaves, which look yellowish in consequence. Conversely and confusingly, the related noun virescence can mean an abnormal development of a green colour in parts of a plant that normally aren’t green.
A few writers have used virescent where others would prefer verdant, meaning the rich green of flourishing plant life, which derives from a related Latin word:
County Kilkenny is a beautiful grassy wonderland of virescent pastures, purling waterways, winding roads and mossy stone walls.
Ireland, by Fionn Davenport et al, 2006.
3. Recently noted
Pedants revolt? On Friday, the more literate British newspapers featured the news that Birmingham City Council has officially abolished the apostrophe, at least in road and street signs. Councillor Martin Mullaney, chairman of the Transportation Scrutiny Committee, has decreed that notices referring to such local places as Kings Heath, Acocks Green (named after the Acock family) and Kings Norton should in future be free of those annoying little flyspecks, about which another councillor said, “I donít see the point of them.” Cllr Mullaney said the Council had been removing apostrophes since the 1950s and that the latest ruling formalised existing practice. The Council was just following the example of the US, which he claims removed the apostrophe from almost all official placenames as long ago as 1890 (except for rare exceptions such as Martha’s Vineyard). Grammarians and teachers are reportedly as aghast as you might expect and the Daily Telegraph (which has pictures showing two signs in St Paul’s Square, Birmingham, one with and one without an apostrophe), has started a petition to restore the mark to its rightful place on the city’s signs.
Agricultural writings Readers often contact me, in a spirit of enthusiastic discovery, with a new word they’ve just come across. Often I have to gently point out that it has been in the language for years, sometimes decades. No one person can keep up with the flood of linguistic invention, especially as the fate of most of it is at best a temporary popularity followed by oblivion. Though I do my best to stay abreast of the tide, words often escape me, too. A prime example appeared in the Guardian last Saturday: agriglyph. Since it was in an item about crop circles, its sense was obvious, though I’d never seen it before. Searching around online, however, found examples dating back as far as one in the Rocky Mountain News in January 1992, though most date from the early 2000s. Isn’t it a grand uplifting classical-sounding name, though? It almost makes the things sound important.
Over to you! On the other hand, sometimes objects are well-known but have no good name. Gwyn Headley sent me this query last Sunday: “I work for a picture library, so naming things correctly in image keywords is crucial for us. But how do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called? We had a request for a photograph of one of those end-of-the-pier painted boards into which you stick your head to get photographed. But what are they called? No one seems to know.” A Flickr group featuring pictures of them has the title Things You Stick Your Head In, which may be a bit verbose. My search online unearthed face cut-outs, which was probably made up to identify something hard to describe, as an alternative to whatdoyoucallits or thingamajigs. Mary O’Neill, editor-in-chief of Chambers Dictionaries, helped me out by finding comic foreground, a name (and a genre) which Wikipedia claims was invented by the American painter and cartoonist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, who early in the twentieth century produced those famous paintings of dogs playing poker. Vivian Marr of Chambers tells me that the French call them passe-têtes, essentially places to put one’s head through (le mot juste, indeed). If any reader knows for certain what the people in the business call the things, I’ll pass the information back to Gwyn Headley.
Ouch! On the third hand (to quote Larry Niven) sometimes names exist for things that don’t exist and never did. The BBC published an article on its Web site on Wednesday (a nod of appreciation to Neill Hicks for submitting it) about the nasty-sounding complaint cello scrotum. A letter about it appeared in the British Medical Journal on 11 May 1974. It has since been mentioned in several works as an occupational disease, including Advanced Dermatologic Diagnosis, The Oxford Companion to Medicine, The Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine and the Textbook of Performing Arts Medicine. However, it doesn’t exist and — as was pointed out by one doctor at the time — couldn’t possibly exist. It turns out that it was a spoof by Elaine Murphy, now the highly respected and respectable Baroness Murphy, formerly a professor at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital in London. She created it after reading reports about guitar nipple, which she thought was a hoax. She has come clean because the term resurfaced in the 2008 Christmas edition of the Journal.
4. Questions & Answers: Restaurateur
[Q] From Peter Hill, Canada: “One eats in a restaurant run by a restaurateur. Where did the n disappear to, and when?”
[A] It didn’t disappear. It was never there in the first place.
Both words were created in French and later borrowed into English in their French spelling. They derive from the verb restaurer, to restore, which has been recorded in French since the twelfth century. That developed out of the Latin verb restaurare, to restore, which is also the source of English restore. In French, restaurant is just the present participle of restaurer, which down the centuries has had various senses, such as reconstituting, repairing, restoring, or fortifying the spirit.
In late medieval times, restaurant turned into an adjective and began to refer in particular to a restorative foodstuff, especially soup. By the 1660s it had become a noun meaning a particular type of soup, a bouillon, made from concentrated meat juices and considered to be quasi-medicinal. A related invalid food in Britain was called beef tea, although in France a restaurant could be made from any meat, indeed usually a mixture of meats. A dictionary of 1708 broadened it to mean a “food or remedy that has the property of restoring lost strength to a sickly or tired individual”; fifty years later Diderot’s Encyclopédie confirmed restaurant was a medical term and gave examples that included brandy and chocolate.
Restaurateur is the noun created from the verb restaurer by replacing the -er ending of the verb with the -ateur ending for for a man (its female equivalent, restauratrice, only appeared in 1767) who carries out the action. Hence, no n. At first, he was an artisan who restored or repaired objects. In the seventeenth century, he was an assistant who set broken bones for a surgeon. In the 1770s he became a man skilled in creating this special soup called a restaurant.
The shift to our modern sense began in Paris, around 1765, when fashionable establishments began to open in which you could buy and consume this food. These were at first given the name of restaurateur’s rooms, but restaurant was soon adopted as the name for the place where you consumed the soup as well as the soup itself. Such establishments also sold other foodstuffs that were considered healthful.
The change to our modern sense accelerated because of the Revolution. Chefs and servants thrown out of work because their aristocratic employers had fled or lost their heads turned to running public eating places as a way to make a living. They introduced a style and quality of cooking to the public that had been inaccessible or unknown previously (by all accounts, food in French inns in the eighteenth century had been dire). It’s no coincidence that gastronomie (gastronomy, the art and science of delicate eating) is first recorded in French in 1801. Unlike the inns, restaurants had fixed prices, individual tables and personal service, and provided alternatives instead of the Hobson’s choice of the table d’hôte of the inns (menu, meaning a detailed list, is from French for this reason, first noted in English in our modern sense in 1830). They also served meals when you wanted them, not just at set times. No wonder foreigners came to marvel, and to copy.
Restaurant came into English after the Napoleonic Wars ended, to start with in direct reference to its Parisian origins:
Grand Hotel de Paris. No 52, Rue de Rivoli, opposite the Tuileries Gardens, Paris. Mme. Damchin has the honour to inform the Public, that she has just furnished this Hotel in the most modern and elegant style; it consists of large and small suits of rooms, with coachhouses, stables, and every convenience. There is an excellent Restaurant in the Hotel.
An advertisement in The Times, 15 Oct. 1822. Suit here is correct: it was the usual spelling of suite in this sense at the time. Suit and suite are just variations on the same word.
It’s all too easy to slip an intrusive n into restaurateur. As a result, and under the influence of restaurant, it’s often spelled restauranteur. Examples can be found as far back as the early 1900s but current informed opinion agrees with the Oxford English Dictionary that it’s “an erroneous form” that’s best avoided. However, it’s becoming more common and may even eventually take over.
• Deborah Meldahl e-mailed: “I found this in a daily bulletin sent to homeroom teachers [homeroom in the US is the room in which students assemble and the register is taken; British teachers might refer to a tutor room] to read to their classes. ‘Students are reminded that the speed limit in the parking lot is 10mph. Be warned that wreckless driving will not be tolerated.’”
• Kate Archdeacon found a puzzling heading in Thursday’s edition of The Age of Melbourne: “El Salvador police probe remains in well”. The story concerned a police investigation. Five detectives were lowered about 30 metres into a well just outside the capital of El Salvador, in which they found the bodies of 8 to 10 gang victims. We hope they don’t need to remain down there long.
• “Today,” reported Martin Wynne last Sunday, from somewhere in Britain, “I noticed a board outside a local pub: ‘Buy two adults and get a child’s meal free.’”
• Doug Chinn, also from somewhere in Britain, had a classy printed brochure stuffed through his letter box, advertising the services of a firm of registered gas fitters. It offered a big discount on central-heating boilers (furnaces for Americans) if fitted to the over-60s.