03 Dec 2011
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Gobemouche I’d denied the seeming relationship between this word and the British gob for mouth. Andy Behrens argued otherwise: “Gober and gob are cognates. Both derive from the same Celtic root word for beak or mouth: the English gob by way of Irish, the French gober by way of Gaulish (the Celtic language spoken in France before the arrival of the Romans).”
This rather rare and specialist word has turned up twice in recent years in newspapers in the UK, in both cases in obituaries of Church of England bishops.
One had the phrase “gremial college”, the other referred to a bishop being “attired in mitre, ceremonial gloves and gremial”. Though they are obviously different senses, it may be surprising to learn that they are closely connected. Both derive from late Latin gremiālis, which in turn comes from the anatomically imprecise gremium, the lap or bosom.
When you are scholastically gremial, you have figuratively laid your head in the welcoming lap or bosom of a university or college: you are not only a member, you’re living there. Older documents would at times refer to non-gremial students who were enrolled but who lived elsewhere. The word was confined to locations in which knowledge of the classical languages was common; though you might also describe servants who lived in as gremial, nobody ever did. Gremial in the clerical context is a silk apron worn during confirmations or when conferring holy orders, to prevent vestments being stained by drips of the chrism oil.
There is a third sense, carrying the idea of a bosom friend, which is actually the oldest. This is now very rare and I can find only one modern use:
“You are very fond of him, I believe?” “Am I? Yes; perhaps I am. I would not call him a gremial friend — I have not known him long enough — but I am very much attached to him. I am sorry that you are not.”
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian, 1970.
New words, French style The tenth XYZ Festival of new words took place in the French port of Le Havre last weekend. It gave prizes to a couple of neologisms for which we might usefully find equivalents in English. The first prize went to attachiant, a blend of attachant (captivating, endearing) and the slang chiant (a bloody nuisance or a pain in the arse/ass). It refers to somebody whom you can’t live with but can’t live without. It outvoted another, which blends agriculteur, a formal word for a farmer, with aigri (embittered), to make aigriculteur, a farmer discouraged by the difficulties of his occupation. The French years ago borrowed our term best seller, so you might also like bête seller (borrowed from bête noire, something one particularly dislikes), a book that’s a total turkey (in French navet littéraire, literally a literary turnip) but nevertheless becomes a best seller.
4. Questions and Answers: Weight of public opinion
Q From Scott W Langill: I work for a Committee in the US Senate. To mark National Archives Month our Archivist has been e-mailing various documents and in a recent one commented: “In cases of large petitions, signatures were not counted, but weighed. This is where the terms weight of public opinion and voters weighing in come from.” My initial search for references to this online yielded nothing. Is this apocryphal? If not, was it in use prior to the 19th century?
A That is a most interesting statement. Like you, I’ve searched my available sources but can’t find anybody who puts this forward as the origin of these expressions, not even humorously. I’d be most interested to learn the Archivist’s evidence for it.
The linguistic evidence says it’s untrue. People have for a long time used weight as a way to figuratively describe the mental burden of assessing information and making decisions. The idea is at least two millennia old — when we ponder some matter, for example, we’re etymologically weighing it, since that verb comes from the Latin verb ponderare, which meant not only literally to weigh something but also to reflect on an issue. In modern English we may argue that the views of people of all ages should be given equal weight, we may consider the weight of the evidence (in law linked to the image of the scales of justice), or we may calculate a weighted average (in which each element is multiplied by a factor that reflects its importance). Such metaphors are everywhere.
The specific phrase weight of public opinion is a member of this set. Thomas Jefferson employed it in his second inaugural address in March 1805: “our citizens at large, who, by the weight of public opinion, influence and strengthen the public measures.” It is to be found before the nineteenth century, though only just:
From the nature of the British Government, the continual superintendence of Parliament, the weight of public opinion, and the influence which all these circumstances have on the character and conduct of persons in official situations, there is a greater probability than in other countries that the Administration will ordinarily be at least right in its intentions, and will adapt its measures from a belief that they are such as will tend to the benefit of the nation.
A Review of the Principal Proceedings of the Parliament of 1784, quoted in the Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1792.
The other expression, to weigh in, meaning to bring a forceful view to bear on some discussion, is rather more recent, being recorded, the Oxford English Dictionary says, from the early twentieth century. Its origin is obscure; it might derive from boxers weighing in before a fight.
None of this establishes without doubt that nobody ever weighed a petition to judge its worth, since petitions had been around for centuries before the earlier of the two phrases appeared. But the long existence of the figurative uses of weight overwhelmingly supports that origin for the phrases.
• Could this be a unique case of time-traveller’s amnesia? Ed Floden found a report on the website of WKRN-TV Nashville: “A Nashville woman was surprised to find that she had purchased a turkey from a local grocery store that had expired four years ago.”
• “How else?” was the response of Pat O’Halloran to a BBC News Devon report on 23 November: “‘Bow has a shop 300 yards (274m) outside the village perimeter which a lot of pedestrians walk to,’ Mr Backhouse said.”
• John Eliot Spofford reports that the online Newswire edition of Trains magazine for 28 November had this headline for an article about the Metro-North commuter train service for New York City: “Metro-North unveils plan to improve winter interruptions”.