30 Mar 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Asynartesia My squib about this and other obscure or invented Greek and Latin derivatives, particularly in an extract from R A Lafferty, provoked the detailed responses I was rather expecting.
Candida Frith-Macdonald defended him against my gentle criticism: “Just read him aloud. There will always be enough in there to know roughly what the more obscure words mean, and beyond that it’s done for fun, for the musicality of it, not for crossword puzzling. I think he would have spent a good deal of his life listening to mass in Latin, before the 1960s, and knew the magic of a tumbling stream of beautiful syllables even when you couldn’t make out, much less understand, the individual words. For all his dryness and rigour in some areas, I always think his language is that of a slightly tipsy storyteller in full flight in the back room of the world’s oddest pub, including some words that aren’t quite as they should be.”
Terry Walsh noted about asynartesia, the ostensible object of my comments, “You are quite right about the metrical meaning and your straightforward explanation is laudable. An analogy might be the deliberate dissonance of the music of 20th century composers, such as Stockhausen.” He also provided explanations of several of the words Lafferty used: “I am not sure that he means graffiti, in the sense in which we use the word today. Ektyposis suggests working on pictures in relief; zographia simply means drawing or painting from life. As for oscenite, I suspect Lafferty has made it up; an oscen in Latin is a bird that prophesies by its call, such as a raven or an owl. However, any derivative would start oscin-. On the other hand, the word is supposed (wrongly, I think) to derive from the root obscen-, which I will leave to your imagination. As you do, I give up on motfi, presumably a typo for motifi, but the word should be motivi, Italian for ‘designs’.”
Giles Watson commented on two others, “For Cicero, a schediasma was a literary caprice; the Greeks seem to have used the masculine schediasmos to refer to offhand actions, speech and writing. Chromatisma is the colour equivalent of a schediasma so a chromatisma and schediasma would be a daub and a scribbling.”
Bessy Yannisi added, “Being Greek, I would humbly like to offer the following clarification. Asynartesia is an ancient and modern Greek word, used in everyday contemporary speech, deriving from the privative prefix a- and the word synartisi which means relation, connection, cohesion (and a mathematical function). Therefore asynartesia means incoherence. Its plural form is asynartesies which translates as ‘ramblings’. Also, chromatisma is colouring and schediasma is a drawing, an outline, a design.
I suggested that Lafferty’s Ochsenscheiber might be a misprint for the German Ochsenschreiber. Several readers spotted that in the form Ochsenschreiben, it could be a literal translation of Greek boustrophedon but I didn’t think this was the intended sense. Andrew Wiese noted the word exists in German: “Ochsenschreiber is, like so many compound German words, incredibly literal. It was at one time the title of an official who recorded the sale of oxen, thus rendering transactions legally binding.”
De-extinction Several readers pointed out that, strictly speaking, it’s not possible to de-extinct the California condor, since it is not yet extinct, though despite a captive breeding programme it remains endangered.
We are most likely nowadays to encounter this as a family name. Like Baker, Glover, Carter, Miller, Potter, Smith and many others, it was originally taken from an occupation.
A thousand years ago, a catchpole was a tax gatherer. Unlike modern tax collectors, a medieval tax gatherer worked on a contract system called tax farming. He paid a lump sum to be authorised to collect taxes from a given area or group of people; anything he collected beyond this was profit. There were few constraints on how much he actually collected or the methods he employed.
Later, the catchpole became an officer of the court, a subordinate of the bailiff. He was mainly responsible for collecting debts and his methods were scarcely an improvement on those of the tax gatherer. A person he arrested for debt was commonly stripped of everything that might be of value and imprisoned until he could pay the debt. This continued into the nineteenth century:
In the city of London, in two contiguous thoroughfares — the shabbiest, dingiest, poorest of their class — there are two Houses of Poverty. To the first, entrance is involuntary, and residence in it compulsory. You are brought there by a catchpole, and kept there under lock and key until your creditors are paid, or till you have suffered the purgatory of an Insolvent Court remand. This house is the Debtors’ Prison of Whitecross Street.
Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859.
You will appreciate that catchpoles were unpopular.
The origin of the name was obscure to people in the centuries before etymology became the subject of scholarly study. A story grew up that it was correctly catchpoll, where poll is an old term for the head. It has also been asserted that the catchpole seized people around the neck with a device rather like a shepherd’s crook. This story has become wildly elaborated in some descriptions:
The ‘catchpole’ usually consisted of an eight foot wooden pole with some sort of noose or barbed fork on one end. Law enforcement officers (usually the Sheriff) would place the noose around the neck of the criminal and use it to lead them around and so forth.
Wikipedia article on catchpole (accessed 27 Feb. 2013).
No. A device rather like this and called a catch pole can be used to restrain animals, but that wasn’t the source of the name. Nor is the origin the similar long hooked pole with which vaudeville and music-hall managers dragged unsuccessful performers off the stage. That was called getting the hook.
But there’s no puzzle about the origin. A catchpole is figuratively a chicken-chaser. It’s a mixture of Old English (cace-, catch) and medieval Latin (pullus, a chick). The idea behind it was that people who owed tax were as difficult to catch as farmyard fowls.
3. Predictive policing
In the Steven Spielberg SF film Minority Report police use psychics to predict when a crime is going to happen. Real police prefer digital databases.
By entering detailed information about where, when and what types of crimes have occurred, it is possible to forecast future crimes and deploy officers accordingly. Predictive policing is now in use in a number of US cities, including Los Angeles and — most recently — Seattle, where a scheme went live in February. It is being applied in other countries — West Midlands Police in the UK are trying out the method; in South Africa, game wardens use the same tools to identify likely poaching hotspots.
The technique behind it is well established. It’s called predictive analytics or predictive modelling; it uses mathematical algorithms to mine data and spot links. The technique is already being widely used by retailers. When Amazon, for example, suggests you might like some book or film, the suggestion is based on an analysis of the buying habits of customers who have bought similar items.
If computerised predictive policing catches on, Ferguson expects a test case eventually to work its way up to the US Supreme Court. In the meantime, he expects noisy kickback from civil rights groups. “That a computer can effectively curtail the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals in certain areas would be particularly troubling to the civil liberties lobby,” he says.
The Independent, 11 Jan. 2012.
Predictive policing, on the other hand, might replace such intuitive knowledge with a naive belief in the comprehensive power of statistics. If only data about reported crimes are used to predict future crimes and guide police work, some types of crime might be left unstudied — and thus unpursued.
The Observer, 10 Mar. 2013.
Q From Laurelyn Collins: I’ve just read Josephine Tey’s book The Expensive Halo, published in 1931. She referred to a character being able to wear her diamond fender to an evening affair. I can’t find this term anywhere else — a tiara? A necklace? What would it be?
A The word is poorly recorded in print and there are too many other sorts of fender to make searching for examples easy, even though few incorporate diamonds, apart from the occasional “blinged-out” Fender Stratocaster. However, I’ve found my way to the origin.
The full quotation you mention is this:
Mother goes because the opera is the only place in London nowadays where you can wear a diamond fender without looking a fool.
We may deduce from this that a fender is jewellery of a rather old-fashioned sort, albeit elegant or upper class. This next appearance shows that you are right to suppose it is a kind of tiara, one of a particularly grand and expansive nature:
“Eleanor always says that when she puts on the Mershire diamonds she feels the respected shades of her ancestors-in-law closing around her,” said Esther, still smiling; “and that with a diamond fender on her head and a diamond poultice on her chest a woman can face anything.”
Her Ladyship’s Conscience, by Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler, 1913.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for fender, which fails us utterly by not mentioning the jewellery sort, does include a citation from the Temple Bar magazine of 1893. Some delving shows that this came from the serialisation of a novel:
Presently she moved away with Lord Frederick in the direction of Madeleine, who had installed herself at the further end of the room among the fenders, as our latter-day youth gracefully designates the tiaras of the chaperones.
Diana Tempest, by Mary Cholmondeley, 1893.
We may presume that the youth of late Victorian times referred to the tiaras as fenders because their wearers’ function was to defend their charges from unwanted male attention. We may guess that the tiaras were substantial enough to be figurative battlements.
Since we are in an urban environment in the days before motor cars, the most likely fender for the allusion would be the sort placed around open fires to protect the room from cinders and to prevent children from getting too close. This next extract confirms both the allusion and the monumental nature of the tiaras:
“I will wear what Jack calls the family fender,” said Dodo. “Tiara, you know, so tall that you couldn’t fall into the fire if you put it on the hearthrug.”
Dodo Wonders, by E. F. Benson, 1921.
What is odd about it is that no editor of any dictionary of slang of the period has thought to include this sense of fender, though it was well enough known that authors expected readers of the period to understand it.
• Pete Sinclair found this on the BBC Scotland website on 25 March: “A poisonous spider from India has been found inside a couple’s fridge in Fife. The exotic species, which is from the wolf spider family, is not deadly but, if bitten, it would leave a bad sting.”
• The Wikipedia article about James Naismith, who invented basketball, currently reads, “Naismith died in 1939 after he suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and was buried in Lawrence, Kansas.” The Reverend Carl Bowers wondered whether the cause was being buried alive, or being buried in Lawrence?
• A Daily Mail online article dated 25 March reported the sale of an engagement ring that had been given by Napoleon to Josephine. Peter Watts found this sentence in it: “Her first husband, Alexandre, had been beheaded following the French Revolution and within a few years had become Napoleon’s mistress.”
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