23 Apr 2011
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Goose step Several readers mentioned that German, as well as the military term Stechschritt for what we call the goose step in English, also has Gänsemarsch, which is literally “goose march”. This is centuries older than the other term but has always referred to people, especially children, walking in single file, as goslings do behind mum. I’ve written the piece up in more detail and put it on the website.
RSS feeds and Twitter The Word File RSS feed is now permanent. I have also restarted my Twitter account (though Google has grabbed my old nickname of worldwidewords, so I’m now wwwordseditor) and linked various RSS feeds to it. There are now four feeds:
To those of you who have written in some concern to ask whether I’m making work for myself by introducing The Word File, be reassured that all these are generated automatically from my database, so the extra effort is minimal.
Since the current Oxford English Dictionary entry for this word has no examples later than 1664, you might assume it is deader than the proverbial dodo. It lives on, however, among a select group who are fascinated by archaic words. It has even appeared in these columns, as the pseudonym of a British setter of fiendishly hard crossword puzzles.
Logodaedalus, in real life Donald Putnam, chose his name with care. A logodaedalus manipulates words with great cunning. It commemorates Daedalus, the legendary ancient Greek craftsman who created the labyrinth on Crete to house the Minotaur. Daidalos in classical Greek meant “the cunning one”. The prefix is from Greek logos, word.
A more recent variation is logodaedalist, which Nathanial Bailey defined in his 1727 dictionary as “an Inventer or Forger of new Words, and strange Terms” (forger is in a figurative sense that comes from a person who casts metal — no criminal intent implied). A logodaedalist may be said to be a weaver of words into a rich and varied verbal tapestry. The Greek artificer has also lent his name to daedal, which can refer to an inventive or skilful person but which was created by the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser to mean the diverse or fruitful earth.
There’s also logodaedaly, the skill of putting across a speech or a fluent employment of verbal legerdemain. Bailey said that it was “a goodly shew and flourish of Words, without much matter” — that is, without much substance or content. It might be worth resurrecting to throw at your favourite politician when he gives a loquacious but evasive answer to an awkward question.
Do it with light News of the new field of optogenetics has begun to emerge from the research laboratories because of its astonishing results. By inserting genes into an animal which code for proteins that are light-sensitive, neuroscientists have been able to employ light of the right colour to turn brain cells on and off at will, like clicking a light switch. The process involves firing laser light deep into the animals’ brains via fibre-optic cables. It has proved possible to stop the electrical activity of various kinds of neurons, such as those that control movement or the establishment of memories. The technique can also be used as a research tool to monitor when neurons fire. Though there is some hope that one day a method like this could be used, for example, to control epilepsy in humans, the need for genetic modification via gene therapy to set up the conditions for the laser light to work makes the idea very unattractive for now. A newer technique, magnetogenetics, uses a magnetic field rather than light to influence the modified neurons, so avoiding having to implant optical fibres.
Potterer A Yiddish expression new to me (but well known to many Americans) appeared in an interview with the film director Peter Bogdanovich, in which he commented on the usefulness of director’s cuts of movies: “I’m not in favour of potchkying with it but if something’s bothering you, or you just feel that it really is a better picture for the audience? Well then ...”. potchky means to tinker idly, or do something in an amateur fashion, from Yiddish patshken, to daub or smear, a verb that comes from a Slavic root. I might use faffing about myself.
Quote of the week Eminent British slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, in an article in the Guardian on Thursday: “My response to people saying slang destroys the language is: bollocks.”
4. Questions and Answers: Private Eye
Q From Bernd Herrmann: I was just reading about the history of private eye and came across conflicting explanations concerning the term’s origin. Can you help?
A One story you mention links it with the Pinkerton detective agency, the first anywhere, which was founded by Allan Pinkerton in Chicago in the 1850s. His firm’s motto was “We Never Sleep” and his business insignia was an unblinking eye. Pinkerton was an early expert proponent of what we now call public relations — among other tricks publishing dime novels based on his experiences — and used to tell the story that criminals so feared him they called him “The Eye”. It’s easy to see how that might have become associated with all private detectives.
It may well have contributed but the connection is indirect, since private eye came into use several decades after the Pinkerton Agency was in its heyday. The evidence is that the eye part of private eye is a pun derived from private investigator, via the abbreviations PI and private I. It first appears in a story by Raymond Chandler in Dime Detective magazine in June 1938: “We don’t use any private eyes in here. So sorry.”
Private investigator began as a general term for a specialist who was in private practice, as opposed to working for an employer. In the 1880s it was used — as examples — for a veterinary surgeon who had been brought in by a state government to look into an outbreak of cattle disease and for a research botanist working outside the academic system.
Although both private investigator and private eye are closely linked with the US because of stories about hard-boiled gumshoes by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the first example I’ve found of private investigator being applied to a detective is actually from a British author:
I think I have already said in another place that Hewitt’s professional start as a private investigator dated from his connection with the famous will case of Hartley vs. Hartley and others.
The Holford Will Case, in The Chronicles of Martin Hewitt, by Arthur Morrison, 1895.
Martin Hewitt was one of the imitators of Sherlock Holmes, who ran a detective agency rather than being a lone wolf. He appeared shortly after Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in The Final Problem, published in December 1893. Morrison had some success with tales about him in the next decade. As was usual at the time, they were published first in monthly magazines (and syndicated in newspapers in America — initially I encountered The Holford Will Case in the Galveston Daily News of 10 March 1895) and collected into book form later.
The term private investigator began to be used in the US for a detective from the early 1900s. It was popularised by E Phillips Oppenheim in his tales about the private detective Peter Ruff, who was billed as such. Might he have got it from Martin Hewitt?
• The Memphis Flyer of Tennessee featured an e-mail in its Verbatim column on 14 April, copied to us by Pat Foust: “Lt. Barham of the Union Station Task Force is asking for our help in locating an orange Chevrolet Tahoe that has recently been breaking into cars and taking purses. If you see such a car in Midtown, get the license plate and contact Lt. Barham immediately.”
• An item in the Globe and Mail of Toronto dated 17 April was sent in by Mildred Gutkin. A story about a shortage of beds in Toronto’s mental hospitals was headed: “Decision preventing offenders waiting for beds at Toronto’s CAMH from being incarcerated overturned.” She commented, “It’s a topsy-turvy world.”
• A report on smartplanet.com dated 18 April confirmed the suspicions of Norman Berns: “Toxic fracking fluids revealed in Congressional report”. The second word isn’t the favourite euphemistic obscenity of TV’s Battlestar Galactica but the gas extraction industry jargon for “hydraulic fracturing”.