11 May 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Piggy bank Many readers wondered why I hadn’t mentioned pug, a mixture of clay and water, thoroughly mixed to exclude air, which is used to make bricks and pottery. Pug and pig are close enough in sound that a connection might seem to exist. But it’s unlikely, as pig for items of earthenware is 400 years older than pug, which is first recorded as Sussex dialect in 1853.
“Any possible connection to pig iron?” Elena Bashir asked. There’s no direct link but it’s another figurative use of pig. In the old days, when a furnace was tapped, the molten iron was directed down a main channel into a number of moulds set at an angle. These reminded furnace men of piglets suckling from a sow.
Hoyden Several readers noted that John Vanbrugh’s comedy of 1696, The Relapse or Virtue in Danger, includes a female character named Hoyden, the daughter of Sir Tunbelly Clumsey. Edward Pixley is sure that this was a key step in the transition of hoyden from male to female: “The word was given added attention by Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), in which he singled out The Relapse as one of the principal offenders of morality and the character of Hoyden, especially, as dangerous to the proper moral training of the nation’s youth.” The transition began a little earlier: William Wycherley’s play Plain-Dealer, 20 years earlier, had already included a character named Mrs Hoyden.
Umpty My notes on umpty and its derivatives led to a several comments. James Bovard noted, “I first encountered umpteen in the USAF in 1955 or so, as umpteen-skiddy-eight, with the implication of ‘too much’. ‘Airman, I’ve told you umpteen-skiddy-eight times not to do that!’” Joe Lomax wrote, “The phrase I most recall from my youth was that of umpty-squat used by my father. I suspect that he picked it up from the Army in WWII. He used it in ‘I do not give umpty-squat about that’ for a decided lack of interest, or ‘That is not worth umpty-squat’ for something that is perhaps not completely worthless, but not enough to pay for.” Chips Mackinolty wrote, “My mother (in Australia in the 1950s) would use it to my recalcitrant self, in the manner of an indefinite number, along the lines of ‘I’ve told you umpty umpth times’. It was in a tone of complete exasperation, and my maternal grandparents used the same phrase, so it was alive and well then.”
I have expanded my notes and posted them online.
Keith McCartney wrote about the illness sense: “I was born in 1937. As long as I can remember, my father (born 1898), when asked how he was, often replied ‘I’m feeling a bit umpty’. He may have been too old to adopt ‘modern’ slang expressions; could it have an earlier origin?” It’s very probable: it may have been around for years, or even decades, before it began to appear in print just after the end of the Second World War.
Theranostics Two readers told me that I should not have included “translational medicine” as a synonym of theranostics. Correctly, it refers to transferring the results of research or clinical trials into clinical practice.
It’s not a word that you’re likely to overhear in your local pub or read in your daily newspaper. The source is classical Greek banausikos, relating to artisans (from baunos, a forge), though in English its meaning has been influenced by classical Greek attitudes as much as its etymology. Something banausic is mundane or functional. It might seem to be a relative of banal, but that’s from an Old French word of Germanic origin relating to compulsory feudal service.
Greeks of the ancient world lived in a stratified society, with a relatively small population of male citizens being supported by the labour of women, slaves and foreigners. For citizens, intellectual pursuits — including logic, rhetoric and philosophy — were key to an active part in public life as well as being satisfying in their own right. Activities that involved physical labour, such as making things to earn a living, were looked on as degrading banausic necessities. Even learning to play a musical instrument was thought by Aristotle to be a banausic occupation.
The English word was coined by George Smythe in an article about the second Earl Grey (see below), who had just died:
After 1812, and when the worse portion of the Tories got enthroned in the supremacy, when the Banausic principle (we must coin a word from the most expressive of languages to express all its intense vulgarity) began to obtain.
Oxford and Cambridge Review, Aug. 1845.
Mr Smythe’s snobbish comment on the banausic principle (basically non-intellectual pursuits such as manufacturing and earning money) would have delighted the citizenry of ancient Greece. His view was shared by others: in 1901, John Churton Collins described teaching as a banausic occupation, “the one instinct in [teachers] which is not quite banausic being the conscientious thoroughness with which they impart what they have been taught.”
It has never quite lost its snobbish undertones, but it has shifted sense slightly to refer to the utilitarian or materialistic aspects of everyday life.
Aristocratic disdain for “trade” is a commonplace of literature, the latter regarded as tainted by the low and banausic nature of what it involves.
Ideas That Matter, by A C Grayling, 2009.
The austerians — those economists and politicians who believe the only way out of the financial crisis is through painful spending cuts — are in the news at the moment. In Britain it’s because of the visit this week by the International Monetary Fund, which declared in April that the austerian policies of the coalition are damaging recovery. More widely it’s because numerical errors have been found in research by the noted economists Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart on the relationship between high ratios of debt and GDP, research that is the basis of much of the policies of austerity worldwide.
An isolated example is on record from 1996 but it seems to have been reinvented around June 2010. Its popularity has risen sharply in recent months — in the UK, it has appeared in print more often so far this year than in the previous three years combined. The word has been given greater visibility through the writings of the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who opposes austerian policies, calling them “delusional”.
It has been claimed austerian was coined as an insiders’ joke, a pun on Austrian, a reference to the school of economic thought typified by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.
Recent examples from newspapers:
At this point, the austerian position has imploded; not only have its predictions about the real world failed completely, but the academic research invoked to support that position has turned out to be riddled with errors, omissions and dubious statistics.
Paul Krugman, in the New York Times, 25 Apr. 2013.
Although Mr Osborne’s team argue that his fiscal plan was never as rigid as critics claimed, the chancellor has plainly decided that the time has come to argue that he is not the hard-nosed austerian of popular image.
Financial Times, 27 Apr. 2013.
Austerian, often with an initial capital letter, dates from the 1990s as an independent creation which refers to the style of the American novelist Paul Auster.
4. Earl Grey tea
For the most part, etymology isn’t a flashy subject. It needs care and patience rather than academic brilliance and is rarely rewarded by moments of breathtaking insight. But at times a search for the provenance of a term turns into an intriguing detective story with an unexpected dénouement.
In October 2012, the Oxford English Dictionary issued an appeal for information about the term Earl Grey tea.
This is a blend of black China teas flavoured with bergamot, an oil derived from a citrus fruit native to the Far East but widely grown in Italy. Various stories link it to the second Earl Grey, who was British prime minister between 1830 and 1834 and largely responsible for the Great Reform Act of 1832 as well as removing the monopoly of the East India Company on importing tea from China. One legend says that the tea was a reward for his (or an envoy of his) rescuing the son of a Chinese mandarin; another, that a Chinese diplomat gave him a gift of it while he was prime minister. The website of the family home, Howick Hall, says that it was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin to offset the lime taste of the water from the local well and that Lady Grey used it when she was entertaining in London. (A version of Earl Grey tea called Lady Grey tea with a less pungent flavour, created in the early 1990s by the tea merchants Twinings, is named after her.)
The etymological problem for the OED was that the first example of the term Earl Grey tea it had on record was dated 1929, though they knew of Earl Grey’s mixture from 1891.
Various contributors progressively took the story back. An advert from about 1928 by Jacksons of Piccadilly claimed to have introduced it at the request of Earl Grey in 1836. A tale appeared in several versions in the decade after 1891 claiming that Earl Grey’s mixture was so named because the earl had introduced it to Her Majesty. But he had retired to Howick after leaving office, aged 70, and may not even have met Queen Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837. A further advertisement for Earl Grey’s mixture, in the Morning Post in 1884, announced that “this choice Tea can only be obtained of the Introducers and Sole Proprietors, Charlton and Co” of Piccadilly.
The story took a surprising twist when researchers on the Foods of England site found that Charlton and Co had advertised a tea in 1867 as the rather expensive “celebrated Grey mixture”, with no reference to any aristocratic connection, though it did boast of its “most distinguished patronage”. Might the business have added a noble association later on as a marketing ploy, one that was to be copied by others? It could well have done. Victorian advertisers weren’t renowned for their strict adherence to truth.
The search for the name runs into the sand at this point. But it’s not the end of the story. The use of bergamot as a flavouring and scent long predates any connection with Earl Grey — for example, it was added to snuff early in the eighteenth century. But its early associations with tea are disreputable. A newspaper report in 1824 was ominously headed, “To render Tea at 5s a Pound equal to Tea at 12s”. It explained:
If we can discover any fine-flavoured substance, and add it to the tea in a proper manner, so as to make it agree and harmonize with the original flavour, we shall be able to improve low-priced and flavourless teas, into a high-priced article of fine flavour. The flavouring substance found to agree best with the original flavour of tea, is the oil of bergamot, by the proper management of which you may produce from the cheapest teas the finest flavoured Bloom, Hyson, Gunpowder, and Cowslip.
Lancaster Gazette, 22 May 1824.
While this would better be described as adulteration, it has to be viewed against the background of the shocking “improvements” that were made to many foodstuffs at the time, such as adding alum to bread to make it more fashionably white and colouring sweets with poisonous compounds of copper and arsenic. Tea, being expensive, was subject more than most to adulteration, including adding Prussian blue to green tea or graphite to black to make them look better (facing them was the trade term) or variously adding black lead, copper carbonate, lead chromate and turmeric to used tea leaves to tart them up and sell them as fresh. In this context, flavouring cheap tea with bergamot was a trivial offence, though in 1837 an injunction was awarded against a London grocer to prevent it selling its tea:
Brocksopp and Co.’s Mowqua’s small-leaf gunpowder was so inferior a tea, that deponents could not set any price upon it ... it was artificially scented, and appeared to have been drugged with bergamot in this country.
The Bristol Mercury, 13 May 1837.
It’s hardly likely that an aristocrat such as Earl Grey would have lent his name to a mixture that had such unsavoury undertones. The absence of any contemporary evidence of a link means that we have to look elsewhere for the origin of the name. Perhaps the Grey mixture sold by Charlton and Co later in the century was named after some other Grey? The Foods of England site identified a candidate in William Grey & Co of Morpeth, which advertised in 1852 (it may be merely a coincidence that its shop was only about 25 miles from Howick Hall).
As always, there are loose ends. But the stories that connect Earl Grey tea to a nineteenth-century aristocrat have been debunked. Earl Grey never drank Earl Grey.
• Ben Burenstein contributed a headline from the Philadelphia Metro on 1 May: “Man Shot in Society Hill over phone”. It’s amazing what one can do with apps these days.
• A story dated 27 April on the BBC News site mentioned a job Margaret Joachim felt we could well do without: “The borough’s dangerous structural engineer was called in to assess the roof.”
• Some are born great ... Joan Butler sent this extract from a profile on iTunes: “With a multi-octave voice similar to Betty Carter’s, incredible scatting ability, and ease of transition from a throaty whisper to high-pitched trills, Cleo Laine was born in 1927 in the Southall section of London.”
• Joe Jordan reports that the Australian tabloid Sunday Telegraph is running an online petition: “Support our campaign to stop the spread of disease by vaccination.”
• Tom Peck submitted this from an AP Today in History column he came across in the Indianapolis Star on 9 May: “1951: The U.S. conducts its first thermonuclear experiment as part of Operation Greenhouse by detonating a 225-kiloton device on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific nicknamed ‘George’.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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