NEWSLETTER 535: SATURDAY 14 APRIL 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sharpshooter Following last week’s piece about this word, Harald Beck tells me that its German equivalent, Scharfschütze, is recorded in Jacobsson’s Technologisches Wörterbuch, dated 1781. The English word must therefore be a calque or loan translation of the German, in which each part of the word has been translated literally. Other correspondents have mentioned the use of sharpshooters during the American War of Independence. However, I cannot find a use of the term itself in a contemporary document. Lots of subscribers were surprised that I didn’t mention Bernard Cornwell’s books about Richard Sharpe, a fictional sharpshooter of the period; put it down to ignorance — as it happens, I’ve never read any of the books.
2. Turns of Phrase: Voluntourism
The term combines volunteering with tourism, far from a new concept, but one its proponents claim is rapidly becoming the next big thing in travel. It began to appear in the press early in 2005, joining responsible tourism, ecotourism and similar terms that also imply giving something back to the communities one visits. It might be something as easy-going as giving time to local libraries and schools, as straightforward as taking a day out to clear paths in a national park, or as hard work as constructing new homes or digging latrines. It differs from much organised volunteer activity by taking place within a conventional one- or two-week holiday, usually combined with more conventional vacation activity. It is also increasingly being tailored to suit the abilities of participants over a wide age range, including those in their 50s and 60s. US commentators have noted the rise in popularity of the idea since Hurricane Katrina, which has persuaded large numbers of people to spend vacation time helping to rebuild New Orleans.
Voluntourism is catching on in college campuses, where many students would rather spend spring break doing something altruistic than carousing.
[Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 29 Mar. 2007]
He describes voluntourism as the practice of devoting some vacation time to building housing and schools or other community service.
[Chicago Tribune, 7 Mar. 2007]
3. Weird Words: Tolley
The shooter in the game of marbles.
In this form of the game, play is confined to a six-foot-diameter circle in which 49 marbles are placed. Players, in teams of six, compete to knock the marbles out of the ring by flicking their tolleys at them with the middle joints of their thumbs. Each success gains one point and the first team to reach 25 points wins.
Some marbles terms are ancient, especially knuckle down, meaning to place one’s knuckles on the ground preparatory to flicking the tolley, which is recorded from 1740 and may be the same phrase as knuckling down or knuckling under for submitting or giving in. Less well recorded is cabbaging: shooting your tolley from a spot closer to the target marbles than the rules allow; this seems to be Tinsley Green jargon, as is nose drop, their version of the coin toss, in which players drop their tolleys from their nose to a line in the sand. The player whose tolley lands nearest the line goes first.
This word tolley for the shooting marble is surprisingly recent, at least in the written word. It suddenly appears in news reports in Britain and America in 1970 concerning a controversy resulting from the decision that year to ban women from taking part in the Tinsley Green championship.
The Oxford English Dictionary is sure tolley isn’t a local term but a corruption of taw-alley. Both halves of that refer to a marble. A taw (origin unknown) is a large or choice marble that’s usually made of glass these days, though once, of course, it would have been carved from marble. Alley is said to be a corruption of alabaster, meaning a “real” marble as opposed to cheaper ones moulded from clay or terracotta.
4. Recently noted
Wilf It’s not short for Wilfred, it’s the newest acronym around, short for “What (Was) I Looking For?” It refers to an aimless and time-consuming browsing through Web sites. It was invented to catch the attention of news editors by the writers of a research report published by the YouGov polling group this week. In this it was successful, as the word has turned up not only in papers in the UK, but also in the USA, Canada, India, Australia and South Africa. The survey claims that wilfing has become almost a national pastime in the UK, with a quarter of those polled admitting they spent a third of their online time just surfing the Web with no real purpose in mind. The survey says this adds up to two working days a month. Men were more likely to be wilfers than women and younger people more than older ones. The problem seems to be that the Web contains such an unlimited pool of information that it is all too easy to become distracted.
5. Questions & Answers: Home in on
[Q] From T J Wentzel: “For most of my life, the common usage here in the USA was to home in on something. Recently however, I increasingly notice the usage of hone in on instead. I know that English usage changes over time, but it seems that the latter phrase has almost completely replaced the former in a short while. I would appreciate your views on the subject.”
[A] It’s an interesting shift, one we’re actually able to watch as it happens.
The home version is from early aeronautics. Pilots were guided to their destinations and back to their home bases by radio beacons. In the jargon of the time — the early 1920s — they were said to home on the beacons. This is obviously an echo of the older sense that we use when we speak of homing pigeons and of animals finding their way home by instinct. In later years, beacons were fitted to aircraft so that one could home on another. By this time — around 1940 — home had lost much of its literal association with going home and had taken on the figurative idea of “guiding an aircraft to its target or destination by means of a radio signal”.
The exact expression to home in on began to appear during World War Two. American researcher Ben Zimmer has discovered the earliest known example in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1944: “The Oahu radio was coming in strong. They had left the station on all night so we could ‘home in’ on its frequency.” After the war, people began to use it in the current figurative sense of focusing one’s attention on a single matter.
That’s now the only situation in which most people encounter it. It’s hardly obvious to somebody who hasn’t come across it before or who doesn’t know the background. Why home? This lack of context makes it easy for speakers to change the word into something that seems to be more appropriate or make more sense. Hone in on is a classic example of the type of word shift that has become known in recent years among linguists as an eggcorn: a change in word form due to error or misunderstanding.
In this case, it seems to be the figurative sense of the verb to hone, meaning to sharpen a tool, that has led to the change, since it’s widely used to mean making something work better, for example when we say somebody is “honing her skills”. If you are honing in on a topic, you can imagine people thinking, then you’re improving your understanding of it.
It came to public attention and gained some notoriety when George Bush used it in his presidential campaign in 1980 — he spoke of “honing in on the issues”. He wasn’t the earliest user: George Plimpton wrote about his time with the Detroit Lions football team in Paper Lion, published in 1965; in that book he described a player “looking back for the ball honing in to intercept his line of sight”.
You’re correct in your comment that the shift from home to hone has now gone so far that the latter is becoming the usual form. Some people even assume that the home form is a misprint. There seems little doubt that hone will eventually take over completely.
• “In an article in today’s Bangkok Post,” e-mailed Gordon Robinson on Monday, “about the local real estate market, particularly for condominiums, the author constructed, or should it be erected, this splendid sentence: ‘Also, not all live in condoms, with single-owner apartment buildings and serviced apartments putting up stiff competition.’”