23 Mar 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Thanks, as always, to everybody who wrote following the last issue. Many more messages than usual came in and I’ve been able to reply only to a few of them.
Taffy My note in this section last time about a possible origin for the Welshman sense of Taffy brought a cascade of comments from readers who were certain the nickname derives from the River Taff, which flows through Cardiff. The explanation I gave, that it was a modified form of the Welsh personal name Dafydd, is the one that appears in all the reference books that I’ve consulted. They presumably know something the rest of us don’t.
Swanning Anne Umphrey wrote, “Your comment on swanning led me to think about the phrase, now out of common usage, but popular I think in the rural eastern US in the 1800s or early 1900s. I swan was used to mean I know or I believe. Is that correct, and if so what is the origin of the word swan?” The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has a detailed entry on it, which also appears in other forms, including I swain and which continued to be used beyond the early 1900s. DARE says that it derives from the Scots and northern English dialect I’se wan, a much-modified form of I’ll warrant or I’ll be bound. It could mean to swear to the truth of something or more weakly to declare but it was also an exclamation of surprise:
“There’s a dead woman in the lake.”
Trouble is my Business, by Raymond Chandler, 1934.
Landing Several readers pointed out that landing places in tidal waters were usually built on several levels like steps to cope with changing water levels. Landings would often also have steps up to the quayside or ground level. These associations would have helped give the name to a level area at the top of a staircase.
Do not fear that we have strayed into French. This is a good English language word, though mainly of the British variety. To us Brits, our nous is our common sense or practical intelligence. Though these days it is principally a stalwart of the sports pages, it is also found elsewhere:
A lengthy period of profound inaction by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a seeming lack of political nous in Obama’s White House is resulting in robotic government.
Daily Mail, 2 Mar. 2013.
Perhaps because of its wide popularity and the way that it’s said (as “nowse”), it feels like a native word, one that evokes hard-headed practical north-country people. But it’s actually classical Greek, meaning mind, intelligence, or intuitive apprehension. One ancient philosopher, Anaxagoras, held that nous was the universe’s controlling principle that brought all material things into being. The English philosopher and theologian Ralph Cudworth argued in his True Intellectual System of the Universe in 1678 that there was a nous or intellect that was the architectural framer of the whole world.
English adopted it in the general Greek sense, though it was taken up by academic wits of Cudworth’s time and the following decades as a grandiose way to refer to the mind, pointing the joke by spelling it in Greek letters. From there it expanded into general usage and by the nineteenth century it had become an established and useful part of everyday British vocabulary.
This word has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, in the past couple of weeks, led by the cover story in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine. Most of its appearances have been in news items connected to a conference in Washington DC on 15 March on the practical and ethical issues of reviving extinct species — to de-extinct them.
A new organisation, Revive and Restore, formed by the Long Now Foundation with the help of the National Geographic Society and advised by a group of respected scientists, has been created to examine the potential for a new branch of zoology: de-extinction.
The Times, 8 Mar. 2013.
Genetic science is rapidly getting to the stage of being able to regenerate animals and plants from preserved specimens. The conference heard that a team led by Professor Mike Archer at the University of New South Wales has created embryos of the extinct Australian gastric brooding frog, which incubated offspring in its stomach and gave birth through its mouth, though the embryos survived only a short time. The extinct Pyrenean ibex was cloned in 2003 but the baby died shortly after birth. There are proposals to bring back the Tasmanian tiger, the California condor, the American passenger pigeon and the mammoth. The subject divides the scientific community. Some opponents consider de-extinction to be valueless, while others feel it will divert attention and resources from preserving living but endangered species.
The earliest scientific usage I’ve found is in a quite different context, in a paper on cosmology published in 2008. As so often, a SF/fantasy author got there first, in a story about a magician:
Again he hesitated — and was brought up short by the coalescing vapor. Suddenly thirteen black cats faced him, spitting viciously. Bink had never seen a pure cat before, in the flesh. He regarded the cat as an extinct species. He just stood there and stared at this abrupt de-extinction, unable to formulate a durable opinion. If he killed these animals, would he be re-extincting the species?
The Source of Magic, by Piers Anthony, 1979.
• A spokesman for the British government’s Department for Communities and Local Government issued a statement last Saturday: “Ministers’ view is that England’s apostrophes should be cherished.” Note the careful placement of these endangered little marks. The statement was provoked by reports that a Devon council is about to formally decide not to include apostrophes on road signs.
• Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop is the winner of the Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of 2012, it was announced yesterday, 22 March. The custodian of the prize at The Bookseller, Horace Bent, commented “The public have chosen a hugely important work regarding the best way to protect one’s fowl from the fairy realm’s most bothersome creatures.” More here.
Q From Elizabeth Sears: Do you know what asynartesia means, or if it is actually a word? I ran across it in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux, in which he described Gorey’s “shadowy ... world of attrition and asynartesia”.
A It took merely a moment’s search to determine that asynartesia is a very rare word, though it is clear that it’s of Greek origin. One critic responded badly to Theroux’s use of it:
If I sound cruel, it’s because ultimately I can’t forgive any writer who can use the word asynartesia with a straight face, as Theroux did in those doomful first ten pages of his book. That’s not taking joy in obscure words, as Gorey often did. That’s telling the reader that you’ve got a bigger dictionary than he has.
The Spook, Feb. 2002.
Having a big dictionary doesn’t help, alas. None that I consulted included it, not even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. But a very few do have asynartete and its adjective asynartetic, of which asynartesia looks like a derivative. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines asynartete as “containing disparate or unconnected rhythmic units” in two senses: “with unhomogeneous rhythms in the two members distinguished by the caesura” and “with diaeresis, hiatus, or syllaba anceps at the caesura so that a quasi independence of the two members is effected.” That deeply technical definition isn’t helpful unless you already know a bit about Latin and Greek classical verse. The Collins Dictionary is usefully more succinct: “having or containing two different types of metre”. To try to explain this more simply, I think asynartetic refers to a line of verse in which a break occurs (the caesura), with the rhythm of the verse on either side being different.
As one of the only two other appearances of asynartesia I have found is in a work of AE Housman in which he is discussing the verse of Bacchylides, a Greek poet of the fifth century BC, this seems to be in the right area.
The third appearance is open to similar criticism of taking pleasure from obscurity. It’s in Thou Whited Wall, a story by R A Lafferty in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1976:
No good name had ever been found to describe the excellence and many-leveled meaning of this testimony on the walls. It had been called kakographia and syngramma and scribble-schnibble. It had been called zographia and ektyposis and ochsenscheiber. It had been called chromatisma and schediasma and oscenite. It had been called scherzi and motfi and asynartesia. The Italians have called it graffita, and the name may have stuck.
I’m way outside my comfort zone with this fragment of sub-Joycean exposition. It’s obvious from the story that we are concerned with the writing of gnomic and riddling messages on walls, confirmed by the reference to graffiti. Kakographia is an old Greek precursor of English cacographia, bad writing or spelling; syngramma is writing or prose; zographia might be related to zoography, the art of depicting animals (perhaps writing by animals); ektyposis could be rendered as ectopoesis, poetry of the street (one way of describing writing on walls); scherzi is the plural of scherzo, the musical term, from the Italian for a jest; ochsenscheiber looks as though it might be German, something done like an ox, so crudely executed (spelled Ochsenschreiber, it might be writing done by an ox, though I can find the word in no German dictionary). The rest I gave up trying to decipher.
The effort of deducing Mr Lafferty’s meaning will attract those who have superb vocabularies and the instincts of crossword-puzzle solvers. The rest of us, I suspect, will be tempted to pass over writing of this playful but self-consciously erudite complexity.
• David Brown found a headline on ABC online in Australia on 16 March: “Duck Hunting Protesters Urged To Respect Laws”. The protesters were not hunting ducks, quite the reverse, as they were members of the Coalition Against Duck Shooting. Nor was a duck hunting them.
• Robert Wake found a headline on CNN whose oddity seems to have been missed by all the other news outlets that featured it on 14 March: “Ship will fly passengers to Florida after troubled cruise”.
• An unfortunate juxtaposition in an article in The Independent on 15 March about keeping chickens amused Chas Blacker: “They do make a bit of noise but I find the clucking quite soothing. The neighbours have certainly never complained. Sometimes when I’m digging they follow me around the garden and they will come and peck me on my feet.”
• A headline over a story of on 19 March on the ABC website was sent in by Brian Barratt: “Concussion treatment to bring football heads together”.
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