E-MAGAZINE 696: SATURDAY 24 JULY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Taxi Following my discussion of the origin of the noun last week, numerous readers queried the origin of the verb, which is applied to aircraft moving on the ground. This appeared in the early days of aviation, no later than 1911. It seems certain that it was taken from the hire-vehicle sense, though it isn’t immediately obvious why. The best suggestion I’ve come across is that it compared the slow movement of the plane to a taxi driver cruising for fares.
I wondered why the French should have adopted taximètre, when the German was Taxameter and the root in French would seem to have been taxe, a tariff. Marc Picard pointed me to the answer. It was as the result of a scholarly intervention by the famous Hellenist Théodore Reinach in a letter to Le Temps newspaper in 1906; in it he advocated instead going back to the classical Greek taxis, an arrangement or ordering (which appears in English words such as taxonomy, taxidermy); it could also mean the imposition of an obligation, which might be financial. The word was borrowed as Latin taxa, which became the French taxe (our tax comes from it). If it were not for Reinach, we might be spelling taxi in another way, or perhaps using a different word.
Pea-wet My tongue-in-cheek comment in this item provoked a strong response from several Australian readers, including Greg Balding: “I was both amused and bemused (not to mention horrified) at your description of a pie floater as part of ‘Australian cuisine’. Pie floaters are very much a regional ‘dish’: South Australian to be specific. I am quite sure that nearly all (non-South) Australians would share my horror at the thought of actually eating one.”
Swan-upping As a side-note to last week’s piece, readers pointed out that there are several pubs in England that have the name Swan With Two Nicks, for example in Worcester, at Little Bollington in Cheshire, and at Sharnbrook in Bedfordshire. Two nicks put on a swan’s bill at the time of swan-upping signify that it’s owned by the Worshipful Company of Vintners, hence the connection with pubs. The link has often puzzled people. Down the centuries several pubs have changed their names to Swan With Two Necks, in the toponymic equivalent of popular etymology. The oldest that I know of was in London, mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary for 4 April 1664. Robert Waterhouse tells me that there’s a pub called the Swann with Two Knecks in Chorley, Lancashire, a double distancing from the original, though what the heck a kneck is, I’ve no idea.
2. Weird Words: Curtain lecture
Curtain lecture may be simply defined as a censorious lecture by a wife to her husband, often while in bed. It has almost, but not quite totally, vanished from the language; anyone coming across it now might wrongly associate it with a talk preceding a performance in a theatre. The direct mental link between beds and curtains has disappeared because the four-poster, with its canopy and curtain creating an intimate enclosure, is no longer a standard item of domestic furniture.
The most famous giver of a curtain lecture was fictitious, by the name of Mrs Margaret Caudle. She was “interminably loquacious and militantly gloomy under fancied marital oppression”, as a writer later described her. Mrs Caudle was created by Douglas Jerrold, a nineteenth-century humorist, once famous but now almost forgotten, who was a contributor to Punch magazine from its second issue in 1841 until his death in 1857.
Mrs Caudle’s monologues were first published in Punch; they became a book in 1846, with the title Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, which went through dozens of editions in the decades that followed. They expatiated at length on her supposed sufferings and denounced the failings of her spouse. They were delivered when he found it least easy to escape, just after they had gone to bed:
Well, Mr. Caudle, I hope you’re in a little better temper than you were this morning. There, you needn’t begin to whistle: people don’t come to bed to whistle. But it’s like you; I can’t speak that you don’t try to insult me. Once, I used to say you were the best creature living: now, you get quite a fiend. Do let you rest? No, I won’t let you rest. It’s the only time I have to talk to you, and you shall hear me. I’m put upon all day long: it’s very hard if I can’t speak a word at night; besides, it isn’t often I open my mouth, goodness knows!
Lecture 10: On Mr Caudle’s Shirt-buttons, in Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, by Douglas Jerrold, 1846.
The first examples of curtain lecture are from the early part of the seventeenth century. When Dryden used it in his translation of Juvenal’s Satires in 1693 (“Besides what endless brawls by wives are bred, / The curtain lecture makes a mournful bed.”), he implied that its associations go back at least two millennia.
Incoming! A usage by the letters editor of the Guardian on Monday struck me as strange: “Generally around 5%-10% of the letters, faxes and emails we receive are for onpassing to someone else in the organisation.” Several readers on the website queried it, along the lines of “is this a real word?” I uplooked it online and found that Mark Liberman had discussed it in Language Log in 2005. He had found it odd, too, though he noted it was well-established for some people, especially in the financial world, with the earliest examples appearing in print in the 1980s. He commented that, in itself, the construction — in which the preposition of a phrasal verb is turned into a prefix to the verb — is not so unusual. He cited uplift, bypass and some others as parallel formations.
4. Questions and Answers: Dilemma
Q From Andrew Lewis, UK; a similar question came from Jim Black in the US.: My daughter, who lives in the Cayman Islands and works in the media, asked me the other day whether dilemma is ever spelt dilemna. Apparently her boss insisted that it was and my daughter said that she had a residual memory of having been taught that at school. Good grief, what schools did I send her to? Do you have any views or comments on this?
A This is very strange. A search in mailing lists showed that many other people also report they had been taught that spelling, though always told that it was pronounced as though with a double M. The error has been reported both in the US and in the UK.
There is no doubt about the correct spelling: the word is Greek, from di-, twice, plus lemma, a premise. It has always been spelled that way, at least according to the dictionaries that I’ve consulted, ancient and modern (it dates from the sixteenth century as a term in rhetoric). Though the Oxford English Dictionary is usually punctilious in recording variant forms, it doesn’t note any alternative spellings other than the French dilemme, which was sometimes used early in its English history.
The spelling is certainly rife today. It’s easy to find thousands of examples by searching newspaper and book archives. Of these, a large number, certainly a significant majority, are misprints or simple errors. The reason for it seems to be a mental confusion with other words in English that are spelled with mn but said as mm, including autumn, hymn, condemn, solemn and column. It’s all too easy to miss as a typographical error because mm and mn look so similar on the printed page. This visual confusion could be part of the reason why so many people, having learned the wrong spelling, fail to correct themselves when they notice the properly-spelled form.
A search of historical literature shows that in earlier times it was quite common and turned up in works by well-known authors. These are a few eighteenth-century examples:
In this Dilemna, as I was very pensive, I stept into the Cabin, and sat me down.
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, 1719.
The nation saw themselves reduced to a ridiculous dilemna upon their testimony.
The History of England, by Oliver Goldsmith, Vol 3, 1771.
There was a famous ancient Instance of this Case, wherein a Dilemna was retorted.
Logick, by Isaac Watts, 1772.
It even appears in a list of difficult three-syllable words in The Civil Service Spelling Book, by R Johnson, published in London in 1868. If this is a mistake left uncorrected at the proofing stage, it’s a particularly unfortunate one.
Modern reprints of old works usually “correct” the spelling, their proofreaders presumably taking it to be a printer’s error. However, there are so many old examples that it is difficult to write them off as a mass word blindness among printers and proofreaders.
It’s not just in English that the problem is known. In French it sometimes appears as dilemne instead of dilemme. Native French speakers have reported that they, too, were taught the wrong form. It is frequent enough that it appears in lists of common spelling mistakes. In French, it’s said to be the consequence of a false comparison with indemne.
I’ve not found any example of a spelling book or primer that has the dilemna version. Anyone who taught that form must have been perpetuating what they had learned without reference to any book. In view of the very large number of historical examples, it makes me wonder if the variant spelling has persisted in the language for many generations, unnoticed by dictionary makers or repeatedly dismissed as a simple error.
• Helen Thursh spotted a headline on 15 July in the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Inspections had turned up problems at same-day surgery clinics: “Reused devices, tainted sanity areas among lapses seen at 22 of 29 facilities inspected.”
• A sign, says Ray Neinstein, that’s posted conspicuously in three places at Ralph’s Ice Cream in Glen Head, New York, announces that “coupons will only be accepted a week after their expiration date.”
• Monday’s Yahoo! News, Gary Christian notes, had an article headed “WWI troops found in mass grave reburied in France”. It reported, “The ceremony was attended by Prince Charles, wearing a grey suit hung with military decorations and top Australian officials.”
• Stephanie Stapleton, who lives in Florida, found this AP headline on Thursday: “Georgia man sentenced to life in Maine.” She wrote, “The weather’s bad there, but is it that bad?”
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