03 Nov 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Sobriquet A frequent comment about last week’s Weird Word was that readers pronounced the final t. This seems much more common in the US — in Britain, we have largely retained the French pronunciation. Somebody coming across it for the first time will most likely say it as an English word; it’s rare enough that a spelling pronunciation isn’t likely to be corrected through hearing the word said.
Marc Picard told me about the entry in Guiraud’s Dictionnaire des étymologies obscures for the word. According to this, “it’s actually from briquet which today means a ‘(cigarette) lighter’ but which used to be the name of the piece of metal on which a stone was rubbed to create a spark and start a fire. The movements to do this, called battre le briquet, ‘to strike a light’, were thought to resemble the derisive gesture which consisted of rubbing beneath a person’s chin repeatedly with one’s index finger. This was probably often done when calling somebody names such as Fatso, Shorty, Baldy and the like, and so came to mean ‘derisive nickname’.”
Hebdomadal A response last week from Canada to the previous week’s Weird Word mentioned les journaux hebdomadaires. Claude Baudoin e-mailed: “What an interesting combination of words: journal comes from jour, meaning day, so it literally means a daily newspaper. It would seem that my Quebec cousins have thus invented the weekly daily!”
Lump Following up notes here last time about lumpers, several readers noted that the term was known in Australia and the UK as well as in North America. Irish and British readers mentioned the native phrase on the lump, a form of self-employment, especially in the building trades. Workers were paid a lump sum for a job, without deduction of tax, rather than a weekly wage. The practice was made illegal in the early 1970s.
Conglomerating Last week’s issue contained a query from Jae Kamel about the meaning and origin of the rare word hetegonic. He and I are indebted to Doug Wilson, who found the noun form hetegony:
The study of the sequence of processes by which the solar system originated has often been called cosmogony, a term which, however, is used in many other connections. As the origin of the solar system is essentially a question of the repeated formation of secondary bodies around a primary body, the term hetegony (from Greek hetairos or hetes = companion) has been suggested.
Plasma physics, Space Research and the Origin of the Solar System, by Hannes Alfvén, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1970. Professor Alfvén shared the 1970 Nobel Prize for physics with Professor Louis Néel. It is probable that the former invented the word.
Correction The writer of the classical Greek period, mentioned last time in my piece about hair of the dog, was Lucian of Samosata, not Lucien.
A recent obituary of Sir Rhodes Boyson, an eccentric and thoroughly conservative former headmaster who was a junior education minister under Margaret Thatcher, described him as an early fugleman for her cause. That’s a rare word indeed.
It tends these days to be used in the sense intended in the obituary, for a person who is a staunch advocate, a cheerleader or publicist, or — as Chambers Dictionary puts it in an odd intrusion of American slang into a Scots work — a mouthpiece. An older sense is that of a person who leads by example or an exemplar. Two decades ago, Philip Howard, a fine wordsmith and intrepid explorer of the byways of language, wrote of the famous editor of the Oxford English Dictionary:
The importance of Sir James Murray’s pioneering work was recognized disgracefully late by his university, but it is now rightly recognized as fugleman for the rest of the world in lexicographical studies.
The Times, 17 May 1990.
That meaning derives directly from the original German, Flügelmann, literally “wing man”. He was a soldier of long experience, expert in the intensive drill of the old Prussian Army, who stood at the front and side of a company of soldiers to show how it should be done. The same technique was once used in the British Army, though an article in 1867 remarked that it had by then long since been done away with, only retained by a few old-fashioned yeomanry regiments such as the Gloucestershire Hussars.
That article spelled it flugelman, but for half a century it had been appearing as fugleman, which has triumphed. Why the initial fl should have proved unattractive to British ears can’t be explained: we seem happy enough with flügelhorns and flogging.
Flowery language My knowledge of the language of flowers is sparse but I do know that the choice of flower always has special meaning: white lilac for purity, freesias for everlasting friendship, red rose for true love, and so on. Looking into it, I was amused to find that the language has dialects: lavender could mean either devotion or distrust, for example. I’d not before encountered the term floriography for this branch of folklore and antique mystery until I came across it in a newspaper last week. It comes from Latin floralis, pertaining to Flora, the goddess of flowering plants (a word which has bequeathed us flower, floral and other words), plus Greek graphein, writing. In August 2000, The Times wrote, “Fifty sites on the Internet specialise in the newly rechristened ‘Floriography’ and florists are once again preparing to say it with flowers.” Its appearances in print and online suggest it might be modern but I have unearthed an Our Notebook column in the London Illustrated News, dated 15 May 1965. The British historian Sir Arthur Bryant quoted from a book once owned by his grandmother, Flora Symbolica: or, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers, dated 1869, which I was able to track down. The author, John Ingram, told his readers that in the Middle Ages, “No gallant knight or gentle dame could then aspire to good breeding, unless perfectly conversant with florigraphy, as then taught.” (Sir Arthur misspelled Ingram by inserting an extra o.) It seems the word fell out of use, to be rediscovered or reinvented in the past couple of decades in the modified spelling that Sir Arthur pioneered. The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet noticed flori(o)graphy, but I commend it to its editors.
4. Questions and Answers: Mrs
Q From Shyane Siriwardena: A quick question on something that’s bothered me since grade school: where on earth does the r in Mrs come from? And why do we pronounce Mrs as missis or missus? Thanks so much! Love your site!
A I can give you a correspondingly quick answer to the first part of your question: the r comes from mistress. But that needs explanation.
The word mistress is a shadow of what it once was. It came into English from Old French in the fourteenth century as the female equivalent of master, a woman who has authority or who exerts control of some sort over other people. It usually referred to the female head of a household. It was common in later centuries to call a husband and wife “the master and mistress”. And mistress was also a title of respect conferred on the wives of farmers, the lower clergy, small tradesmen and the like — recall Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, an innkeeper in four of his plays.
In writing, mistress was conventionally shortened to forms such as Mres or Mris. The churchwarden’s accounts of St Mary at Hill in London recorded in 1485 a gift of a pyx cloth from “Mres. Sucklyng”. From the seventeenth century, the abbreviation was limited to the title mistress when it was attached to a proper name. The Mrs spelling had already begun to appear, in the later sixteenth century, initially in accounts, church records and the like. This is an early appearance in print, in an official publication of the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil War:
Another part of his Letter was to desire safe conduct from Oxford to London, for Mrs. Elizabeth Crofte with a Coach and six.
A Perfect Diurnall of Some Passages and Proceedings of Parliament and in Relation to the Armies in England and Ireland, Middlesex, 13 May 1644.
The Mrs spelling had long become standard by the time this famous novel appeared:
Upon these apprehensions, the first thing I did was to go quite out of my knowledge, and go by another name. This I did effectually, for I ... took lodgings in a very private place, dressed up in the habit of a widow, and called myself Mrs. Flanders.
Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe, 1722.
Nobody knows for sure how Defoe would have pronounced the Mrs. He might have given it the older full form of mistress, but he would probably have adopted an elided form, missis, which was in common use later in the century:
The same haste and necessity of dispatch, which has corrupted Master into Mister, has, when it is a title of civility only, contracted Mistress into Missis. -- Thus, Mrs. Montague, Mrs. Carter, &c. are pronounced Missis Montague, Missis Carter, &c. To pronounce the word as it is written would, in these cases, appear quaint and pedantick.
A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language, by John Walker, 1791.
That comment was published before the first appearance of the spelling missus in the historical record. By the 1790s, it was being used in the West Indies for the way servants addressed their mistresses. That spelling is also found in American writing of the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s it’s recorded as a dialectal form in parts of England — Edward Moor commented in Suffolk Words and Phrases in 1823 that Misses was “the usual way of addressing a woman, especially a matron.”
Charles Dickens, who had an extraordinarily keen ear for the way people spoke, often recorded the missus form for the way that tradesmen and similar men addressed women, here in the fictitious northern English industrial city of Coketown:
On his telling her where he worked, the old woman became a more singular old woman than before. ‘An’t you happy?’ she asked him. ‘Why — there’s awmost nobbody but has their troubles, missus.’
Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, 1854.
The exact pronunciation has varied, as has the way in which those variant speech forms were transcribed.
• An offer in an advertisement for the furniture store Hammonds in Tunbridge Wells struck Peter Ellefsen as odd: “I am giving away a free Whittard Hot Chocolate and Mug set to every customer worth £12.” How do they know you’re worth it?
• A BBC news report on the conviction of the Pope’s butler included this splendid sentence, submitted by Anne Chippindale: “Vatican City has a railway station — with only one train a week bringing in bonded duty-free goods, a Post Office, a radio station, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a fire brigade, a five-star hotel, and one of the world’s most visited museums ...”
• Jack Harvey saw this in a promotional flyer from a Ballarat real estate agent: “Every home we sell, we donate to Breast Cancer Research”.
• Spelling mistakes can open up new realms of wonder. The Raw Story site headlined a report on 25 October: “Scientists discover new spices of snake in museum” (this has now been corrected, but not in the page address). Discovery News reported on 26 October that the hominid Australopithecus afarensis “occupied wooden environments”. WKRN, a Nashville TV station, noted that at a local attraction, “we can pan for gym stones”. A picture caption on the Telegraph site on 29 October, accompanying a story about Chinese attacks on the New York Times, noted that “People’s Daily turned its canons on the 161-year-old newspaper on Monday”. And in the New York Times on the same day, in a story about post-tropical storm Sandy: “With the storm growing in ferocity, it was not safe to send workers to dissemble the crane.” (Thanks to Lindsay Knapp, J E Bruce, Jessie Peacock, Terence McManus and Roger Crombie for these.)
• Angela Smith tells us that Atlantic magazine reported in an article on 11 October: “They ultimately ended up with 46 permanent vendors, representing a wide mix of products: cupcakes with unique toppings like fried chicken, Aussie-style meat pies, bicycle accessories, and vintage-style swimwear, just to name a few.”