28 Sep 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Umbrage Following my remark in this piece last week that “Umbrage has almost entirely severed its associations with shadows,” Candida Frith-Macdonald wrote: “One recent revival, of course, being Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, who manages to be miserable, shade-casting, offended and offensive all together. If there were a Dickens prize for naming characters, Rowling would hold it. English may be tricky to spell, but it does allow for some great puns.”
Lookshurry Last week I quoted a comment in The Times about a match that had to be abandoned because the pitch was waterlogged: “Wimps. Waterlogged pitch indeed. Lookshurry!” My mailbox was filled by messages from dozens of readers hastening to point out that it’s intended to convey the word luxury uttered in an exaggerated Yorkshire accent, a disgusted retort by hardened northerners on pampered individuals who are put off by minor deprivations. (My error was reading it as looks + hurry, when it’s said more like looksh + urry.) The connection is to a famous British television sketch by four successful Yorkshiremen who sought to outdo each other in increasingly bizarre descriptions of their deprived childhoods. Many readers suggested that it’s a Monty Python sketch; it has been performed by the Python cast on stage but it’s earlier. It appeared in 1967 in At Last the 1948 Show (whose title disparaged the commissioners of television shows for their dilatoriness) and was performed by John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman. You can watch it here (but don’t believe the accents). I hope that this detailed exegesis makes up for my ignorance of the term’s provenance. Rod Nicholas noted, “The sketch is so well known, even here in Canberra, Australia, nearly 50 years after it was first aired, that any cry of poverty will be met with an enthusiastic cry of Lookshurry!”
Pre-loved and pre-owned My gently deprecating comment about these words provoked some American readers to point out they didn’t use them either. Greg Holmes wrote, “As an American, I must tell you that pre-owned and pre-loved are purely terms of advertising (or possibly self-conscious humor), at least in any circles in which I operate. Auto dealers may sell pre-owned cars, but actual people drive used ones. Those who solicit for charity do ask for gently used items but never pre-loved or pre-owned items, unless they are being deliberately self-conscious and precious.” Of a third word that I mentioned, upcycled, Loren Myer commented, “I have heard it used on more than one occasion, but usually by the ‘artsy-fartsy’ crowd. We have not taken it to our hearts. By far the more common word for this process of creatively recycling items for new owners — decorating and restyling beyond their original state of newness — is repurposed.”
Sic! The item about selecting a password provoked Paul Witheridge to email, “I’m sure you’ve heard of the dumb individual who read ‘Your password must be at least eight characters long and contain at least one number’ and selected ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’.”
A writer in an American scholarly journal in 1914 felt that it was hard on schoolchildren of his time to get a grip on the concepts of rhetoric when they had to describe them in mouthfuls like epitheton, catachresis, hendiadys, aposiopesis, hysteron proteron, hypallage, anacolouthon, hyperbaton, parrhesia and epizeuxis.
Few of us of any age have to struggle these days with such words or the concepts that they represent, though the tricks of effective communication they stand for are still very much with us.
When in 2001 the Labour Party leader Tony Blair told the country that a top priority of his administration was “education, education, education”, he was committing epizeuxis, the repetition of a word for emphasis. Other famous examples are Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break / On thy cold grey stones, O sea” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Boots, boots, boots, boots, movin’ up and down again.”
It’s not necessary to follow the rule of repetition so strictly. Richard the Third’s “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” and Captain Ahab’s “Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen — Moby Dick — Moby Dick!” are other examples of epizeuxis.
Epizeuxis is from Greek epi-, in addition, plus zeuxis (from zeugnunai, to yoke), hence fastening together.
What’s in a name? I’m continually surprised by the names people give to flora and fauna. An article in the Scientific American introduced me to two insects called the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the ultragreen sweat bee. A piece in the Observer described the Amazonian bluntnose knifefish, which sounds as if it could do with sharpening. But the biological sciences don’t have a corner on odd names. A report in New Scientist featured an astronomical phenomenon called an asymptotic giant branch star.
Hairbrained? Sarah Weidinger asked me about the phrase on a wild hair, which left me in a minor tizzy since I’d never come across it. An online search found it in the lyrics to the Jake Owen song Anywhere With You (Mexico on a Wild Hair) which obviously puzzles other people, too. There are examples such as “I would do Mexico or Hawaii for a beach vacation on a ‘wild hair’ but not Europe” and “She is leaving on a wild-hair jaunt.” This suggests a spontaneous or unpremeditated excursion through the image of rushing off with one’s hair flying in the wind. An earlier line supports this: “If you wanna just ride the breeze. I’ll go anywhere”. But I can find nothing more, not even whether Jake Owen invented it.
Greek as it ain’t spoke Bernard Long tells me that he heard a BBC news item in which someone was described as “hoi polloing with the Putins of this world.” He is aghast at the thought that this Greek term for the masses, ordinary people, should have been turned into a verb. I had to tell him that I’d found a couple of other examples, though it’s rare, thank goodness, not least because it doesn’t make any sense. I suspect it may be an error for hobnobbing.
Q From Bill Brown: Today I came across the phrase grass them up which I gathered from the context means to turn in to the authorities. Searching the web confirms this, but I didn’t come across any explanation of its origins. I have faith you can explain this phrase. [Bill Brown
A It’s good that you have such faith in my etymological detective work, Mr Brown, but I doubt whether in this case I’ve tracked this well-established slang term to its origin.
To grass in British slang is indeed to inform on a person to the authorities; a grass is an informer. The noun starts to appear in print in the 1920s and the verb a few years later. We’ve since had grasser in the same sense; in the 1970s supergrass appeared for a police informer who implicated a large number of people at one go.
It has been proposed that grass is from snake in the grass, a treacherous person or a secret enemy. This echoes the ancient idea that snakes are perfidious creatures, a view that famously appears in the Book of Genesis. I’ve also come across a curious argument that it derives from grass in the park, rhymingly a copper’s nark. (Nark is known from the last third of the nineteenth century and comes from Romany nak, a nose, that is, somebody who sticks his nose into others’ affairs or sniffs out information; it’s no relation to the US narc, short for narcotics officer). We’re quite sure that neither of these ideas is correct.
Instead, the experts point to grass as being a short form of grasshopper. We may pass over the latter’s earliest slang sense of a waiter in a tea-garden — which brings to mind an overworked server bounding from customer to customer — and concentrate instead on the meaning first recorded by John Farmer and W E Henley in volume three of Slang and its Analogues in 1893: a policeman, by rhyming slang a copper.
Earlier writers on slang assumed that grasshopper was extended to refer to informers because of their police connections. More recent writers are less sure.
The experts are instead favourably disposed towards another slang term, to shop. This dates from the sixteenth century, when it meant to imprison (it comes from the noun shop, which in low slang then referred to a prison). By the early nineteenth century it had taken on the sense of providing the evidence by which a person was sent to prison, hence inform. A grasshopper might therefore have more obviously been a shopper, not a copper. Shopper begins to be recorded in the sense of an informer around the time grass starts to appear.
So far as I’ve been able to find out, there’s no direct evidence for either copper or shopper. The current predisposition among slang lexicographers to prefer the latter is basically that it has a more direct semantic association with grass via grasshopper.
• Foreign Policy Magazine’s summary of news headlines on 19 September contained this sentence, Daniel Piotrowski notes: “Eduardo Campos’s Brazilian Socialist Party withdrew from President Dilma Rousseff’s coalition government on Wednesday, paving the popular state governor to run for president.”
• Jim Getz found this in an item on the ARS Technica website dated 18 September: “The research was in part prompted by ... the foiling of a plot to use explosives-packed, radio-controlled model airplanes to attack the Capitol and the Pentagon by the FBI.”
• Paul Thompson received this realtor listing in the mail in Calgary, Alberta: “This home will not disappoint and will not last long!”.
• An excerpt from the issue of Energy North for Summer 2013, sent in by James Fleming: “The Scottish Conservative Party has ... also called for subsidies for renewables to be reduced and for wind farms to be built a minimum of 2,000km away from homes.”
• This appeared in an article about Johnny Vegas in the Guardian on 24 September (David Mackinder and Tim Riley both saw it): “He had gone from a close and loving family in St Helens, Merseyside, to this large institution with cold showers and mice that forbade any questioning of one’s faith.”
6. Useful information
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