08 Feb 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Give the mitten A large correspondence suggested many possible ways in which this expression could have grown up.
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green commented: “Given that mittens, meaning hands, can be found in James Hardy Vaux’s Vocabulary of the Flash Language of 1812, which suggests that it must be at least a little older yet, could the imagery underpinning give (someone) the mitten(s) simply suggest a farewell handshake, or alternatively a dismissive wave goodbye?”
“I’ve known that phrase since I was in my early teens,” Padmavyuha Green commented, “as Robertson Davies used it in his Cornish Trilogy — except he phrased it as ‘she quite rightly handed me the mitt’. I’d always assumed it came from baseball!” That’s reasonable, since baseball mitt does derive from mitten. However, the abbreviation is eighteenth century in origin and hand someone the mitt might have arisen any time since. It most probably did so in the early twentieth century around the time that it came to mean hands.
Other readers pointed out frozen mitt and icy mitt as variations on the theme. This refers to a broader sense of rejection than in love, as in Shandygaff, by Christopher Morley of 1918: “Paunchy Connor has been my best — indeed my only — friend in this city, when every editor, publisher, and critic has given me the frozen mitt.”
Chloephobia Dan Perlman wrote, “Purely speculative and mayhaps completely off-base, but as a pop-culture reference that would fit with the timeline, Chloe Sullivan is the newspaper editor in the Smallville series (young Superman), which has generated storylines in related comic books and a spin-off show dedicated to her ‘adventures’ in the newspaper world.”
Karen Murdarasi wondered if the word was actually a corruption. She pointed out that one sense of the classical Greek kleos was rumour or report, a fair description of the function of newspapers. That would make the word cleophobia, which turns up online a few times as a name (and several more as an error for oleophobia, a tendency for a material to reject oils or oily substances), but nowhere in a relevant context.
Andy Behrens pointed out that chloephobia is the answer to the question “what is the fear of newspapers called?” on the answers.com website, which was first posted on 14 April 2008. This is long before the word otherwise appears and is very probably the source of the two known subsequent usages, especially the one in the Daily Mail that has been widely reproduced online and was the stimulus for my piece last week. Unfortunately, the answer was a bald assertion without supporting evidence and so we know nothing about its source; it may even have been a joke. Whatever it was, it has established chloephobia as the term for a fear of newspapers, a disquieting (you might say horrifying) instance of the power of the unedited internet to propagate error.
Romantically, the next full moon is due on St Valentine’s Day, so it seems a good time to discuss gibbous.
Though other planetary bodies can appear gibbous in our skies, the word is for excellent reasons most closely attached to the moon. It’s said to be gibbous when it’s more than halfway towards full, when the initial crescent has filled out to make a convex shape.
The link is so close that it comes as a surprise to find that it has other meanings and that, indeed, its application to the moon is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately among its senses. The origin is Latin gibbus, a hump, and its first meaning in English was of something rounded or protuberant. The medieval Italian surgeon Lanfranc of Milan wrote, in modern English translation, “On one side he is gibbous but on the other side he is flatter.” Many of us are that shape, especially we older ones.
Gibbous has been used in medicine to describe tumours and other deformities and in biology for bones, fruits, leaves, shells or fungi. Wider still it could be anything convex, including rocks or jars or even habitations — Walter Pater wrote of “the range of old gibbous towns ... expanding their gay quays upon the water-side.”
However, it’s now largely restricted to astronomical bodies. This is a pity, as it’s a fine word that deserves to be more used. So I was delighted to come across a description of the well-muscled popstress Madonna in the Daily Telegraph some years ago: “She was photographed last week with veins popping on her gibbous biceps as she strode out of a restaurant.”
Incidentally, it’s an exception to the usual rule that g followed by i is soft, as in giant. The g in gibbous has always been hard.
All at sea Fans of the Harry Potter series of books and films were either aghast or agog at the admission last week by J K Rowling that she had got the romantic relationships wrong. Hermione should not have married Ron. This brought the slang term shipper into the news. Fervid fans of popular media, in particular TV, have for decades imagined romantic relationships between characters and have written stories about them. In the days of Star Trek, this was called slash fiction, because the relationships were abbreviated with a slash mark, such as Kirk/Spock. (Nobody said anything about the relationships having to be heterosexual, though this pair was at times conceived as a bromance.) Shippers is an abbreviation of relationshippers, first used by fans of the TV series The X-Files, who thought that Mulder and Scully ought to be a couple.
Hang about We’re all familiar with the idea of being on a waiting list, which around the 1960s in the US was abbreviated to waitlist and which later turned into a verb. An email arrived to tell me that an email I had sent to a potential subscriber had been waitlisted. From context this meant that it was being held back from delivery until I had confirmed that it had been sent by a human being and wasn’t spam. So it’s an intermediate stage between the extremes of blacklisting and whitelisting. This sense is new to me but a quick look round online shows it has some currency.
Blobby Blob is in the news, not the slimy alien creature from the 1958 Steve McQueen film but the “bloated educational bureaucracy”. The phrase was used by William Bennett, the Republican US Secretary of Education during the Reagan years, for groups opposed to change. His catchphrase, and many of his ideas, have been taken up by Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Education here in the UK, who abbreviates the phrase to blob. It’s in the news this week because of a speech Gove gave on Monday, in which he argued that teachers’ trade unions were complicit in falling standards in schools. The speech has provoked the creation of non-blobberati, people who disagree with his policies but do not oppose innovation as such, and the adjective un-blobby — two interesting examples of negatives whose corresponding positives aren’t in use. In blobby there may also be a deliberate echo of Mr Blobby, a bulbous pink comic figure covered with yellow spots, who appeared in the 1990s BBC television show Noel’s House Party.
4. Whet one’s appetite
Q From Claire in France: I recently wrote to someone that I would whet his appetite with an extract from a report. I double-checked with an English colleague that it should be whet but I find your website only deals with wet your whistle. Now I’m left wondering — have I (and my British colleague) got it wrong in terms of appetite?
A No need to worry: you’re using it correctly.
Native English speakers have been confusing whet and wet in whet one’s appetite and wet one’s whistle for three centuries. As I said in my item about the latter, its first word has often been spelled as whet, with the earliest known example being from a book of 1674 by Thomas Flatman with the title Belly God. Similarly, whet one’s appetite often turns up with wet instead:
Attention spans are short enough on the internet, at least give us something to wet the appetite.
PC Pro, Dec. 2013.
Could users of the wet form have been thinking of their mouths filling with saliva in happy expectation of a good meal? Or of their appetites being stimulated by an aperitif? The second idea, and the consequent misspelling of whet, seems much the more probable and goes back at least a couple of centuries:
When a Sijarmatian of this description is visited by a stranger, the first thing offered him is a glass of brandy; another dram is taken to wet the appetite immediately before dinner, and after it the dose is repeated to help digestion.
Travels in Poland, Austria, Saxony, Bavaria, and the Tyrol, by Baron d’Uklanski, 1808.
You can see how easily confusion with wet one’s whistle grew up. However, where appetites are concerned it’s definitely whet, from the verb meaning to sharpen. It’s from old English hwettan and turns up also in whetstone, a device for sharpening knives and other edged tools.
Quite early on, whet added a figurative sense. A potential enemy was said to be whetting its swords if it was becoming aggressive. People spoke of whetting their teeth, meaning that they were ready or eager for battle; they might even have whetted their tongues, figuratively sharpening them for verbal warfare.
The verb extended its figurative meaning still further from the fifteenth century to suggest exciting, stimulating or sharpening somebody’s interest, curiosity, desire (or appetite). Such usages may still be found: “They have whetted a lust for sensationalism that has turned us into a nation of accident watchers” (A Coward’s Chronicles by Marti Caine, 1990); “Brains are being whetted for the onslaught of work” (Rolling Stone, 2007); “A sheepish fascination seems to have whetted the public’s curiosity” (New York Times, 2007); “The narrow glimpses she managed to catch between buildings whetted her impatience to behold it unobstructed” (The Deception at Lyme, by Carrie Bebris, 2011).
The noun has gone through similar stages but long ago settled on the particular sense of something that stimulates the appetite. This might be a snack but has been much more often an appetiser in the form of a small glass of strong liquor:
Father Michael, a pleasant, fresh-faced, smiling man, perhaps of thirty-five, took me to the pantry, and gave me a glass of liqueur to stay me until dinner. ... The whet administered, I was left alone for a little in the monastery garden.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1879.
This is now rare outside historical contexts (“The gunroom welcomed their guest, pressed him to take a whet” — Clarissa Oakes, by Patrick O’Brian, 1992) and must have added to the confusion between whet and wet.
Whet is uncommon today. In literal contexts it has been replaced almost entirely by sharpen; in figurative ones the phrase whet one’s appetite accounts for almost all its appearances. But it is misspelled so often that it seem likely sometime soon to be replaced by wet, which would be a sad loss.
• A headline that evokes a curious image of therapy was found by L Sewell in i, the cut-down version of the Independent: “Compulsory Mental Health Treatment Balloons.”
• Denis Healy found this in the Living supplement of the print edition of Dublin’s Sunday Independent of 26 January: “A family of four can travel on Brittany Ferries with their car in a four-berth cabin from €66 per person each way, a total of €528.” But would there be room for the family as well as the car?
• The Daily Telegraph had a news brief online on 29 January that Mark Smith felt needed its logic adjusting: “The amendment would make it a legal obligation for drivers of private vehicles to fail to prevent smoking when a child is present.”
• “During the holidays,” Charles Crawford told us, “the Louisville Courier-Journal of Kentucky ran a series of articles about overeating. One of them was called ‘Sliming down your portions’. I suppose if food is repulsive enough, one will eat less.”
• Brian Barratt tells us that the Independent reported on 4 February: “Another Atlantic depression set to better Britain, bringing gale-force winds, rain and travel disruption.” You might argue that Britain needs bettering, but not with yet another depression.
6. Useful information
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