16 Feb 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Following up First World problem in the Macquarie Dictionary’s words of the year, David Shapiro commented, “When I read that to my wife, she immediately countered with the one she had read online earlier today: ‘I have to write a check to my maid, but I can’t remember her last name.’” Bill Duncan commented on wine flu as a synonym for “hangover”: “I’ve never heard wine flu, but I have many friends who have suffered from severe cases of Napa Valley flu. Somewhat more elegant.”
My rather arcane piece about the origin of the technical term sipe for slits in vehicle tyres produced several replies that argue John F Sipe’s invention was better known than I had thought. Peter Rugg pointed me to a Wikipedia article on the Sperry Top-Sider shoe which says that its inventor, Paul Sperry, used the ideas behind Sipe’s patent to create it in 1935 (This may be the origin of the story about Sipe having been a warehouseman or sailor who cut slits in the soles of his shoes to improve their grip in wet conditions.) Judy Swink pointed me to a number of later patents which cited Sipe’s, the earliest being filed in 1936, though none before 1951 included sipe as a generic term. Peter Morris of the Science Museum in London found a 1937 work, Inventions and their Management, which deals with Sipe’s patent in some detail. All this suggests that the technical term may indeed be an eponym, though direct evidence is still lacking. I’ve substantially rewritten my piece on sipe.
If your offspring are proving recalcitrant or obstreperous you may like to hurl the epithet nidicolous at them. It will be accurate and tantalisingly unclear; it might even provoke them to crack open a dictionary to discover whether you’re insulting them.
It will need to be a big dictionary, because this term is unlikely to be encountered outside a specialist and rather formal book on zoology or ornithology. I found it in the article on birds in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannia.
Latin scholars will recognise the first part: it derives from the classical nidus, a relative of our nest, the source of niche and a component of a number of other specialist words. The second part is from the Latin verb colere to inhabit.
However, it’s more specialist than just “nest-living”. It refers specifically to a bird or other animal that’s hatched or born in an undeveloped state and that requires its parents to feed and care for it until it reaches maturity.
Some young birds are the reverse of nidicolous — they leave the egg at least partially able to fend for themselves. They are said to be nidifugous, nest-fleeing. You may be reminded of newly-hatched ducklings waddling after mum from their nest to reach water.
3. Not on your tintype
Q From Lucie Singh: The other day I was reading a book to a young neighbour and came across Not on your tintype! The book was The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in the 1880s. Do you know anything about the origin of this oddity, which seems to mean “Not on your life!” or in contemporary terms, “No way!”?
A It’s certainly an odd saying. It was common around the end of the nineteenth century but is now almost as rarely encountered as the photographic process to which it refers. The author you quote would have heard it in childhood.
Tintypes were positive photographs taken on a thin light-sensitive collodion layer on a black japanned metal base, which wasn’t tin but iron, thus giving rise to its early alternative name of ferrotype. By the standards of the time they were quick and cheap to produce. Tintype photographers were frequently itinerant, setting up in busy places such as beaches or fairs or travelling from town to town in search of business. They came to be called tintypes in part as a disparaging reference to their ubiquity, cheapness and often indifferent quality, on the model of tinny terms like tinpot and tinhorn. Tintype begins to appear around 1864; the American Civil War created a opportunity for photographers in military camps to take tintypes of soldiers to be sent home to family.
An example from the heyday of the idiom:
“Git into some Overhauls an’ come an’ he’p me this afternoon,” said Lyford. “Oh, rats! Not on your Tintype! I’m too strong to work,” replied Jethro, who had learned oodles of slang up in Chicago, don’t you forget it.
Fables in Slang, by George Ade, 1899.
The standard authorities either don’t mention not on your tintype! or express bafflement. Nobody seems to have the slightest notion of its origin. Lacking evidence, people speculate wildly. Did anyone really swear an oath on a tintype? Not likely on such a cheap and disposable thing. Was it a comedian’s catchphrase which became popular? Possible, except that we know of no such source. Did it refer to the low repute of the tintype, so a speaker valued a suggestion or proposition about as much as he did a cheap photo? That’s a bit more probable.
I wonder if this might be a pointer to its origin:
“By the way, Brown, did I ever show you this?” said Jinks, as he fumbled in the inner breast-pocket of his coat for something or other. “I don’t know,” replied Brown, turning a shade paler; “but if it’s your tintype, taken at Bar Harbor, with a tennis racquet in your hand, please don’t! Nine fellows have shown me theirs already this morning, and I can’t stand seeing another!”
Daily Los Angeles Herald, 9 Nov. 1883. Disliking other people’s holiday snaps goes back a long way.
But perhaps we seek meaning where none exists. William and Mary Morris wrote in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, “Just remember that every generation has its widely popular but utterly nonsensical catch phrases. The 1920s had ‘So’s your old man’; the 1930s, ‘Wanna buy a duck?’ and so on.”
4. Internet of things
It’s curious how a term can sometimes slide into the language with little notice. Though I’ve traced it back a decade to the title of an article by Chana R Schoenberger in Forbes Magazine on 18 March 2002, internet of things only struck me as a fixed term worth commenting on after it turned up in my reading three times in the past month.
The second theme is personalisation, linked to what technologists call the “internet of things”. This refers to the way in which increasing numbers of ordinarily mundane objects are becoming wi-fi enabled. Already, for instance, there exist lightbulbs whose colour can be controlled by smartphone.
The Times, 2 Feb. 2013.
The reference is to the way that equipment of many kinds is now fitted with embedded computing technology, not only the obvious items like telephones and video recorders but also your car, your washing machine and your refrigerator as well as your lightbulbs. It is no longer futuristic fiction to suggest your refrigerator might be able to report you’re low on bacon or eggs and order up fresh supplies. Or that a bathroom cabinet might monitor your pill consumption to remind you to take the next dose, organise refills and allow your doctor to supervise your case.
An associated idea is called M2M, machine-to-machine communication:
Often, it means fixing sensors on devices, such as an electricity meter that can relay information on power consumption to a utility. Or attaching sensors in electrical equipment at home which can help you remotely switch on the lights and even lock doors. Sometimes, M2M is also interchangeably used with the ‘Internet of Things’ or the ‘Internet of Everything’ — the next phase of the Internet where everything, including people and objects, will be connected to the web.
Business Today, 20 Jan. 2013.
The concept started with RFID (radio-frequency identity) tags, now widely used to track items during delivery and in stock control, a passive system in which the tags respond to an external wireless command by returning their identity numbers.
• The Fox News website has an article dated 7 February which surprised Leah Hertz: “An easy way to identify symptoms of a heart attack in women is by remembering the pneumonic, PULSE.”
• Joe Pallas found a story in the San Jose Mercury News on 10 February about a man arrested in an FBI terrorism sting who had an unusual set of symptoms: “[He] likely suffered from mental illness that included bouts of paranoia, suicidal tendencies, hallucinations and voices in his head in addition to a vast working knowledge of weaponry.”
• Lin Jenkins reports that her local grocery chain sent her an email that referred to her husband, Fred. She says, “Presumably the blackmail angle was unintentional”. It began “Join the Kroger community and save Fred.”
• The Denver Post’s website has an article about an arrest for driving while drunk on 7 February, which Jim Crozier sent in because of this sentence: “The officer first made contact with Helton, 39, when he walked out of the gas station holding his wallet, chewing tobacco and lottery tickets.”
• Sharon Busch found an article on Alternet which appeared widely, including in Salon magazine. It was based on a study in the December 2012 issue of Urology about emergency-room visits due to pubic hair grooming mishaps. “The study also revealed that below-the-belt grooming isn’t just for adult ladies anymore — men accounted for 43.3 percent of the injuries, and almost 30 percent of them were girls under the age of 18.”
• A Guardian article on 9 February about plans to re-enact the famous football match during the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches of the First World War included a quote from a government minister, Andrew Murrison, who said that the event “is going to reach part of the community that perhaps might not get terribly entrenched into this.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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