01 Sep 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Wardour Street English Many readers responded to this piece in the previous issue. To a person, they dismissed Fowler’s list of pseudo-archaic words to be avoided and commented that they regularly used several of them, including withal. Kim Braithwaite said: “It is the perfect word in the right context — which, to be sure, doesn’t come around often, and won’t in this e-mail. I use it gratefully, joyfully, whenever the discourse warrants, in casual e-mails and (though rarely) in conversation with friends. Albeit is a good word too, in the right place.” It was good to learn that I’m not alone in liking it.
Anton Sherwood and Rob Kerr told me about a famous piece by the SF writer Poul Anderson, Uncleftish Beholding, which explains atomic theory using only Old English roots: “The next greatest firststuff is sunstuff, which has two firstbits and two bernstonebits. The everyday sort also has two neitherbits in the kernel. If there are more or less, the uncleft will soon break asunder.” The full text is online here.
Trumpet-blowing time With issue 800 imminent, it was a pleasure to learn from new subscriber Sandra Boedecker that a piece written by Mark Peters in the current issue of Copyediting newsletter contains these comments: “As one of the most reliable, well-researched, and intriguing resources in the lexical world, World Wide Words is a treasure. ... I’ve written hundreds of language articles, and I would sooner write in pig Latin than neglect to consult this vast archive.” That online archive currently contains 2601 items. See the full index. Enjoy!
If you were to be uncivil enough to describe somebody as a dog’s tail, that person would almost certainly be offended. Changing the epithet to cynosure would evoke the opposite reaction, since the latter means a person at the centre of attention. And yet in origin they’re the same.
The connection is astronomy. Like other ancient civilisations, the Greeks were thoroughly familiar with Polaris, the North Star, until very recent times a vital aid to navigation. It lies at the end of a constellation that we sometimes call Ursa Minor (the little bear) or more colloquially the Little Dipper, with the handle of the dipper having the pole star at its end. Greek mariners called the handle kunosoura, dog’s tail, from kuon, dog, plus oura, tail. They also attached the same name to the pole star itself.
(The dog’s tail should not be confused with the dog star, Sirius, which was given that name because its constellation of Canis Major (the Great Dog) seems to follow at the heels of Orion the hunter, as does his other dog, the constellation of Canis Minor, which contains the lesser dog star, Procyon.)
The name was taken into Latin as cynosura. From there it moved into French and eventually into English — as cynosure — at the end of the sixteenth century. The meaning at first remained that of the pole star. In 1596, Charles Fitzgeoffrey wrote in a book about Sir Francis Drake: “Cynosure, whose praise the sea-man sings.” He also used it figuratively for a guiding light. Within a few years people transferred it to something that was the centre of attention, as the Pole Star was to seafarers. It was only a minor step to using it for any focus of attraction, interest, or admiration.
We still use it that way, though it has so often fallen into cliché as the cynosure of all eyes that wise writers have to be careful of it.
Galactic dog hunt While we’re on the subject, another celestial dog turned up in a BBC report on Thursday. NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has found examples of a previously unknown type of galaxy. They are very hot, extremely bright and shrouded in dust that has until now hidden them. The astronomers have given the name hot dog to objects of this class, where the second word is short for “dust-obscured galaxy”.
A dash of punctuation The rules for hyphenating words are notoriously very complicated. I encountered an arcane example this week. Both my copyeditors argued that phrases I’d written as “Wardour-Street English” and “Old-English roots” shouldn’t contain hyphens. A search in the Chicago Manual of Style, Hart’s Rules from Oxford University Press and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language proved them right. Such forms are indeed frequently (but by no means always) hyphenated: affirmative-action policy, city-council elections. However, all three references assert that modifying phrases that are proper nouns should not be hyphenated: North Central region, British Museum staff, New Testament Greek. Hence this issue has “Wardour Street English” and “Old English roots” without hyphens. Well, I did say it was arcane.
Number sense At one hotel during my recent trip, the dinner menu offered a “selection of cheese and biscuits”. Disappointingly, the plate that came contained merely two types of cheese. I felt that a selection in this sense implies at least three items, a view that was supported by the dictionaries, which define it along the lines of “a range of things from which a choice may be made”. It would have been entertainingly pedantic, though I suspect ultimately futile, to have tried to convince the hotel of this significant linguistic fact. Perhaps it considered the biscuits to be part of the mix?
4. Questions and Answers: Left in the lurch
Q From Graham C Reed, South Africa: While reading to my two nieces, we came across the phrase left in the lurch. The older girl questioned this, saying that lurch was what someone did, not a place to be left in. I wondered if there was more to this odd expression.
A Your niece could hardly be expected to know that there were two quite different senses of lurch with no connection between them. Both can or could be both verbs and nouns.
The sort of lurch that she was thinking of, a sudden uncontrolled movement, comes from a naval expression, variously lee-larch, lee-latch or lee-lurch. It described a ship that suddenly heeled over or shifted abruptly sideways to leeward. Landsmen borrowed it around the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The lurch one may be left in is actually from a sixteenth-century French gambling game. It was played with dice and was supposedly a bit like backgammon, though nobody now knows the details. It was called lourche or l’ourche, which the Oxford English Dictionary suggests may be from a regional German word recorded as lortsch, lurtsch, lorz and lurz. A phrase, lurz werden, meant to fail to achieve some objective in a game. The term was taken over into French, not only as the name of the game but also in the phrase demeurer lourche, to lose embarrassingly badly.
We’re fairly sure about this last part because lurch was borrowed into English around the end of the sixteenth century to refer to a situation at the end of a game in which one player is beaten by a very large margin, perhaps even a maiden game in which a player scores nothing at all. You said that you had found a reference to cribbage: this was a similar situation, in which a lurch meant that one player had pegged out with 61 before the other had reached 31, halfway around the scoring board.
To be in the lurch was to be severely discomfited. Various phrases built on the idea, including to give someone the lurch and to have someone at the lurch, respectively to get the better of a man or to have the advantage of him. By the final years of the sixteenth century, within a short time of the word arriving in the language, to be in the lurch had appeared, meaning to be in difficulty and without assistance. After all, it wasn’t the job of the other player to give any help to the loser.
The game has long since gone completely out of memory, as have most of the usages of lurch for a bad playing position, but the idiom survives, nearly always as to leave in the lurch.
• Bill Swanger found this in the police reports in the Zion-Benton News of Illinois, dated 23 August: “Octaveous M. Gordon, 22, of the 500 block of McAlister Ave. Beach Park was stopped for having only one head and was also charged with driving while license suspended.”
• Tim Hurley pointed out that a caption to a video dated 28 August on the New York Times website read, “The former governor of New Jersey John Sununu is a fierce supporter of Mitt Romney, and prone to going rouge, often saying the things the Romney campaign can’t.” Going red in the face, presumably?
• The Reverend Dr Margaret Joachim noted that in her day ordination training didn’t include creationism. Her remark was prompted by this headline on the BBC News site on 28th August: “A service celebrating cows created by a priest for a farmer is officially published by the Church of England.”
• Another story on the BBC website, this time of 20 August, surprised Martin Turner: “Previously, Paralympians have performed in front of half-empty crowds.”
• “A car-washing gang! Things are looking up!” Chris Little e-mailed. He had found a Daily Mail report of 17 August: “Nathan McDonald, who was jailed yesterday for almost ten years for his role in the raid, had even visited millionaire Richard Barnfather’s home the day before the gang struck to wash his £190,000 Aston Martin.”