14 Jan 2012
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Paraprosdokian Numerous readers better acquainted with rhetorical devices pointed out that para prosdokian does occur in classical Greek literature as a phrase meaning “contrary to expectations”. The final n on the noun marks the accusative case that followed the preposition para; it doesn’t indicate an adjective, as a writer that I quoted in the piece suggested. What has changed in modern times is that the two Greek words have rather barbarously been run together to make one word. It would be better as paraprosdokia, using the root form of the noun. That word does occasionally appear in scholarly literature, though it’s not in any of my dictionaries either. A revised version of the piece is on the website.
Words of the year We haven’t quite reached the end of this season’s lists, as the Macquarie Dictionary of Australia has yet to announce its findings (it has a strange idea that we should wait until the year is over before summarising its lexicographical highlights). Nevertheless, I’ve written a summary of the Words of 2011.
Competition update Your votes last week instantly put World Wide Words into the lead in the Macmillan Dictionary contest for the 2011 Best Website About the English Language. We have almost twice as many votes as the nearest contender. Many thanks to you all. But the situation can change quickly, so if you haven’t yet voted, please do so. (Currently World Wide Words is on page two of the list.)
2. Weird Words: Toploftical
This may look and sound like one of those grandiloquent words that arose on the American frontier, alongside sockdolager, hornswoggle, dumfungled, absquatulate, goshbustified and their kin.
No, it’s British, dammit! To be more accurate, it’s Scots, as it started life in 1823 in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in one of a series of imaginary conversations entitled Noctes Ambrosianae that were set in a tavern in Edinburgh. One member, Odoherty, whom you may conclude was Irish, commented sarcastically on a snatch of a poem by Lord Byron: “Very toploftical, to be sure.”
It was a slang term — roughly translatable as high-flown, highfalutin, high and mighty or stuck-up — that was rarely to be found in printed texts of the nineteenth century. It seems to have caught on soon after (Thomas Carlyle used it in a letter in 1824) and we know it had reached Ireland no later than the early 1840s:
Thomas Wilson, who spoke in a strain so ambitious and toploftical as to be scarcely intelligible to the magistrates, succeeded after much ado in making their worships comprehend that on the night previous he had had a jollification with a friend in Merrion-street.
Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin), 21 Mar. 1842.
It was taken to the US around this time and had greater success there, no doubt because it fitted the extravagant lexicality of that rambunctious nation. In the 1850s toplofty was formed from it. Though the heyday of both words is long over and toploftical has vanished, on rare occasions the shorter word still graces our private conversations and the public press.
Its origin is disputed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it comes from top loft, though it has no entry for the term. Examples in books indicate that it was literally the topmost storey of a high building, usually a storage area. Presumably its height above the ground was the stimulus for the figurative expression.
Cruel sport The sudden disappearance of domestic cats has often been blamed on thieves. Years ago, it was commonly said that the animals were sold for their fur to make fake mink coats. In the last couple of months claims of a darker nature have been made, mainly in the north of England, that the cats were being stolen to be pitted against fighting dogs, an urban equivalent of badger baiting. The practice has become known as cat coursing, through a strained analogy with the equally illegal hare coursing.
Get physical Have you noticed how physical has begun to be more popular as one element in retronyms relating to the online world? If you actually go into a store to buy something, instead of ordering online, that’s physical shopping. Similarly, a physical book is one made with ink on dead trees, in contrast to a digital e-book. Both terms have been around for more than a decade but my impression is that they’ve only recently gone mainstream.
Take a break At the very beginning of the year, Janopause (also Janupause) appeared from nowhere in several British newspapers, the Daily Mail in particular. It is a month-long period of abstinence from alcohol designed to detoxify the body after the excesses of the holiday season. Its arrival was prompted by a New Year message from the British Liver Trust arguing that it was useless — that a short period of complete abstinence doesn’t improve your liver and that it was better to stay off alcohol for a few days every week throughout the whole year. The initial Daily Mail article was copied around the world, including New Zealand and India. Why it should mostly be written as Janopause than the more obvious and better Janupause is curious, as is its sudden arrival. There is one previous use on record, also in the Daily Mail, from 31 January 2002. Did somebody on the paper trawl the archives and decide it was worth using again?
Banished words Not to be taken too seriously, the Banished Words of 2011 — the Anti-words of the Year — have been selected by visitors to the website of Lake Superior State University. They include the buzzword of the moment, occupy, which its advocates considered to be both overused and abused. Others nominated were pet parent, man cave and win the future (which has generated a new meaning for WTF). But the winner was amazing, widely regarded as a tag word of every American TV host who was short of a pithier epithet. One contributor complained, “I saw Martha Stewart use the word amazing six times in the first five minutes of her television show.”
4. Questions and Answers: Have no truck with
QFrom Louis Cohen: I used to think that the expression to have no truck with — to disagree with or refuse to be involved with — was strictly rural American dialect, until I read it recently in The Economist. Where does this come from? Was there once the opposite usage in the sense that sharing a truck meant to go along with someone?
A The evidence suggests that the expression is actually British. The first example I’ve so far turned up is this:
“I think,” said Corney, “we’d better get him up to bed at once?” “Do what yow like,” replied aunt Ann. “It makes no odds to me: I’ll ha’ nothing to do with him! — I’ll have no truck with a tocksicated man.”
The Steward, by Henry Cockton, 1850. Cockton was a minor English writer of the period, best known in his lifetime for his novel The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox, the Ventriloquist. Tocksicated = “intoxicated”.
For the genesis of the term we must go back to medieval England. Truck had been borrowed from Old French troquer, which meant to obtain goods by barter or to give in exchange. It still does in expressions such as truck farm for a market garden, because its produce was often bartered rather than sold. Truck here has nothing to do with vehicles; that sense comes from a different source, a Latin word meaning the sheaf of a pulley, later a small wooden wheel.
In order to barter you had to negotiate with the person you were dealing with and truck later extended to refer to dealing or trading in all sorts of commodities. By the seventeenth century it had broadened and weakened into the idea of communication in general or of being on familiar terms with another person.
It was then only a short step, though it seems to have taken quite a while, to generate have no truck with, meaning not only that you didn’t want any commercial dealings with a person but that you didn’t want to know them at all.
It’s sometimes suggested that the expression developed during the mid-nineteenth-century railway age in Britain. The gangs of navvies who were employed to drive the rails through Britain were often exploited. One method was, in effect, to pay them in goods rather than money. Railway contractors gave workmen vouchers that were redeemable for poor-quality food and other necessities at inflated prices only at company stores called truck shops — a further extension of the idea of truck meaning barter. This abuse was widely deplored, although it took until late in the century for it to be finally stamped out. It might seem that the exploitation generated the idiom among its opponents, but the etymological evidence argues otherwise.
• This one belongs in the I-know-what-you-mean-but-it-could-have-been-better-expressed department. Michael Tremberth saw it in the blog at findmypast.co.uk about public access to the 1911 British census: “On the census transcriptions, you’ll also be able to see any recorded details of children born to women in prison who were aged three or under at the time of the census.”
• Don Wilkins tells us that on 6 January the Sydney Morning Herald began a story, “They approached the four-wheel drive parked outside the Sans Souci apartment block allegedly armed with a loaded gun, knuckle dusters and a knife”.
• A caption to a video on the Weather Channel, dated 6 January, was submitted by Randall Bart: “Ishin Ueyama was driving on an icy I-77 in West Virginia when he lost control of his vehicle and nearly missed crashing into several cars.”
• Victor Steinbok found a report in the Lake Wylie Pilot that quoted Kevin Shwedo, director of the Department of Motor Vehicles in South Carolina. The piece revealed that 900 people listed as deceased have recently voted. Mr Shwedo said: “If you have voted after you are dead, there is a good, strong possibility that you did something illegal.” Not to say miraculous.