NEWSLETTER 497: SATURDAY 22 JULY 2006
1. Weird Words: POTUS
President of the United States.
The acronym has been common among Washington insiders for several decades. It has spread far wider in recent years, even outside the US, as a result in part of TV programmes like The West Wing. It has to be said it’s a pretty obvious abbreviation, one that must have occurred to many people down the years. But we’re sure its genesis lies with Mr Walter P Phillips, at the time a telegrapher for the United Press Association but who later became the president of the Columbia Gramophone Company.
POTUS One, though nobody
could have called him that.
Mr Phillips created his code in 1879 to streamline the reporting of court proceedings. It was used for many decades by news agencies and newspaper offices and would have been known to everyone dealing with copy coming in on the wire. It was a shorthand, in which expressions most likely to appear in news reports were abbreviated: fapib meant “filed a petition in bankruptcy”; ckx, “committed suicide”; utaf, “under the auspices of the”. The names of people in the news were frequently reduced to initials, as in this example that appeared in the Kansas City Star in 1910: “T trl o HKT ft mu o SW on Mu roof garden, nw in pg ...”, which the transcriber would at once have rendered as “The trial of Harry K Thaw for the murder of Stanford White on the Madison Square Roof Garden, now in progress ...” The numerical code 73 was short for “best regards”; 30 meant “end of message” and is still used by some reporters to mark the end of stories.
A writer in the Daily Northwestern of Wisconsin said this about the code in 1921:
One or more letters may mean one word, or may mean a group of words. For instance, a dot, dash and a dot, or the letter f, means “of the;” potus, “president of the United States”, xn, “constitution”, and hundreds of others, which, when sent at a high rate of speed, keep an operator’s attention constantly riveted on every dot and dash in order that he may transcribe the conglomeration, on a typewriter, into reading matter such as appears in the daily newspapers.
POTUS appeared in every edition and is first recorded in print in the Fort Wayne News of Indiana on 25 February 1903: “This is the way a message is sent on the wire: T potus, ixs, wi km to Kevy ... This jargon of letters conveys the following information: The president of the United States, it is said, will communicate to King Edward VII ...”
SCOTUS, Supreme Court of the United States, was also in the code. (FLOTUS, for First Lady of the United States, is much more recent and less common.) As a result of the Phillips code, both acronyms can lay claim to being the earliest known, beating AWOL, Absent Without Leave, which newspaper reports show was being said as a pronounceable word around 1918.
2. Recently noted
Non-evolved grandmother This splendid bit of sociological jargon turned up in the Jamaica Gleaner last week. It doesn’t meant that your elderly maternal relative is still swinging from the trees. It refers to a situation in which she is still actively involved in caring for children in her later years. The theory is this stops her moving on to her traditional role as grandmother, so leading to a confusion of roles in the household. The term was created by a sociologist named F Colon in 1980.
Vishing More Internet-related slang. This jargon term is a variation on phishing—itself a respelling of fishing—which refers to the obtaining of passwords and other personal information by a ruse. Vishers target individuals by telephoning them, taking advantage of the low costs of calls made via the Net using a technique called Voice-over-IP or VoIP (hence vishing: VoIP + phishing). A recorded message asks the victim to ring their credit-card provider to verify account information. When he or she does so and enters a credit-card number to authenticate themselves, the visher captures the number and uses it to make fraudulent purchases.
OCPO The British government does love acronyms. I’ve mentioned previously the controversial ASBOs, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. Now the proposal has appeared for a sort of super-ASBO to target those involved in organised crime, especially drug and people trafficking and money-laundering. Because hard evidence is hard to come by, the idea is to create a court-imposed civil order that requires a lower standard of proof than the “beyond reasonable doubt” of the criminal law. The acronym is short for Organised Crime Prevention Order.
3. It was a dark and stormy night
I’ve always been ambivalent about the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for Bad Writing. He wasn’t so awful a writer and doesn’t deserve the level of mockery that’s thrown at him. Admittedly, he wrote floridly, as did many authors of the nineteenth century, but we don’t point the scorning finger at Dickens, whose pages are often as enpurpled. To mock decidedly bad writing, it should be renamed the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code Bad Fiction Contest. Trying to outdo him really would be a challenge.
But the San Jose State University’s annual event throws up intriguing attempts to deliberately write badly. This year’s winner—announced last week—was Jim Guigli of California, who submitted this: “Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.” Roll over, Raymond Chandler.
The runner-up, it may be argued, doesn’t conform to the rules of the contest, since it is a parody, not an attempt to write badly, but it may be particularly appreciated in this forum. It was penned by Stuart Vasepuru of Edinburgh: “‘I know what you’re thinking, punk,’ hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, ‘you’re thinking, “Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?”—and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel loquacious?”—well do you, punk?’”
4. Questions & Answers: Hooker
[Q] From Vince Baughan, UK: “In a biography of General U S Grant, there was mention of a charismatic American Civil War general called ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker, and his female camp followers, known as Hooker’s women, or Hookers, for short. Do you know, is this the origin of the word Hooker for a lady of negotiable affections, or is it folk etymology?”
[A] This is a persistent story in the USA, but it’s untrue.
However, there’s a fatal flaw: the word is recorded several times before the Civil War. It’s listed in the second edition of John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1859 and another example is known from North Carolina in 1845. An even earlier instance was turned up by George Thompson of New York University in The New York Transcript of 25 September 1835, which contains a whimsical report of a police court hearing in which a woman of no reputation at all is called a hooker because she “hangs around the hook”.
This obscure reference is to Corlear’s Hook, an area of New York. Bartlett suggests the same origin for the term, based on “the number of houses of ill-fame frequented by sailors” in the area. Though this origin sounds plausible, it may well be that John Bartlett and others who made this connection were falling victim to an earlier version of folk etymology.
There is some evidence to suggest that it really comes from a much older British low slang term for a specialist thief who snatches items using a hook. In 1592, in a book on low-life called The Art of Conny Catching (conny or cony, the old word for a rabbit, was then a cant term for a mark or sucker), Robert Greene says that such thieves, “pull out of a window any loose linen cloth, apparel, or else any other household stuff”. The implication is that the hooker catches her clients by similar, albeit less tangible, methods.
[A version of this piece appears in my book, Port Out, Starboard Home (Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds in the US), which is available in good bookshops everywhere.]
A sign outside a DIY store
in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts,
caught Kenneth Peterson’s eye
last weekend. Punctuation
• “An item in this evening’s BBC local news South Today”, e-mailed Peter Zivanovic, “reported the visit by their Colonel in Chief, the Duke of Gloucester, to the Hampshire base of the RAMC. Members of the regiment were interviewed and the caption showing their names also showed their unit as the “Royal Army Medical Core”. Perhaps they felt that Corps(e) would be far too defeatist as a name for a medical unit?”
• Not entirely incidentally, the article I mentioned here two weeks ago about a seven-member drum quartet resulted in several messages pointing out that it also referred to a bugle core. This turns out to be extremely common online but also appears from time to time in newspapers. It may one day even become the usual spelling.
• Yet another recipe for eternal life was found on MSNBC by Jennifer Painter: “The study of 302 people aged 70 to 82 found those who engaged in more physical activity—not necessarily formal exercise—were much less likely to die than those who did not move as much.”
• Riva Berleant reports that in the summer of 2004 she came across a notice posted on a commercial fishing dock in Stonington, Maine: “TWO HOUR BIRTHING LIMIT Violators may be towed at owners expense! All birthing shall be at your own risk.” She wonders if it’s still there.
• “You may be amused,” says Louis McMeeken, “by this item from The Independent on 15th July: “A postman was jailed for nine months yesterday after police found more than 34,000 items of unopened mail at his home. Sheffield Crown Court heard that when police turned up at 49-year-old Roger Parkinson’s home, near Barnsley, he said: ‘I’m glad in a way. It needs sorting.’”