30 May 2015
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Long time no hear. I wasn’t expecting to leave so long between issues, but this past month has been quite ridiculously busy. I’m considering abandoning retirement and going back to work for a rest. A brief pause in other activities has allowed me to put together what follows as something that roughly resembles an issue. This is particularly fortunate as I go on holiday in two days’ time, so you won’t be hearing from me again until late June and probably won’t get a reply to anything you email me about this issue (nothing new about that in the past month, alas). But don’t let that stop you.
Rude word. I knew it would happen. My inclusion of the expression tinker’s damn in the piece on ilk last time provoked many comments, including this one: “Did you not know that a tinker’s dam was a bit of clay surrounding the hole in a pot that was being mended by a tinker?” I should have included a link to my piece on the phrase, which explains that tinker’s dam is a classic etymological fallacy. The true origin is supported by earlier phrases such as tinker’s curse. Some writers suspect that the dam version, which first appeared in Edward Knight’s Practical Dictionary of Mechanics in 1877, was an attempt to blunt the crudity of the expression for sensitive Victorian ears. If so, its influence has lasted.
Skint. Several readers were reminded by my piece on this word of one with similar associations: skinflint, which might have influenced the rise of skint. Skinflint is much older, from the end of the seventeenth century, and is based on the earlier expression to skin a flint, meaning to go to extreme lengths to gain something. You may reasonably consider that it’s impossible to skin flint, but anybody who has seen unbroken flint nodules taken from a chalk bed will know that they frequently have a thin white surface (a patina that’s sometimes called the cortex), a layer of the quartz in which minerals have dissolved. It’s possible to chip off this white layer, though it would be a time-consuming and unrewarding task. The expression was modified and elaborated in the US and the UK in the early nineteenth century to make skin a flea for its hide and tallow.
Deep and crispy and even? Jooce Garrett wrote from Switzerland to ask about my use of the phrase crispy bacon and wondered, not being exposed to English much these days, whether crispy was replacing crisp. Not so. Crisp is alive and well: “a crisp five-speed gearbox”; “a crisp, no-nonsense voice”; “a blouse in crisp white cotton”; “the crisp, clean air”. N W Miller felt much more strongly about the matter: “Among the words I would abolish if I had the power, is crispy. I fail to see that crispy conveys anything that crisp does not. The former is childish, an anti-pretentious conceit. Its genesis lies in advertising, like so many regrettable verbal tics.”
Indeed, crispy owes much of its current popularity to the food trade, starting in the US in the 1920s with crispy chips, crispy noodles and Rice Krispies (introduced in 1927 according to Wikipedia), though it has become significantly more widely employed outside the US in the past couple of decades. However, it has been in the language since the seventeenth century; it became more common in the nineteenth century in the US as an alternative to crisp in the sense of something brittle, particularly something that the teeth can easily crunch. Today crispy is almost always used of prepared foodstuffs; crisp can have the same sense (it’s more common than crispy to describe lettuce and celery, for example, at least in Britain and the US) but has a wider set of associations.
Sic? Mike Shefler wrote, apropos of the comments last time about menagerie lions: “It reminds me of the time in high school English class where for some reason we were talking about windmills. I said there was one on my property but it was braked. ‘You mean broken, don't you,’ chided the teacher. ‘No, it was braked so it wouldn’t be broken when the wind blew hard.’ The conversation went downhill from there.”
Update. I’ve amended the piece on the theatrical saying break a leg.
2. Do you schvitz in your quinzhee?
Younger players of Scrabble have been given a boost by the publication of the new edition of Collins Official Scrabble Words. Among the 6,500 new items that have been added are many from social media, slang and pop culture, some of which have been imported from the official North American Scrabble wordlist.
They include tweep, a person who uses Twitter; shoutout, a namecheck or acknowledgement; shizzle (from fo shizzle ma nizzle), black American rap slang that means, very roughly, “I concur with you wholeheartedly”; dench, excellent; bumbaze, to bamboozle or perplex; and pwn (from own), to defeat an opponent in a conclusive and humiliating fashion. Other new terms in the book are abbreviations or modified forms of standard English words, including bezzy (best friend), lotsa (lots of), ridic (short for ridiculous), wuz (a form of was), cazh (casual), obvs (obviously), and lolz (laughs at someone else’s or one’s own expense, from LOL, laugh out loud). Also included are what Collins calls onomatopoeic interjections, words created from sounds, such as augh, blech, eew, grr, waah and yeesh.
Not everybody is happy with the changes. Sue Bowman, membership secretary of the Association of British Scrabble Players, was quoted in the Telegraph as criticising the new words as an “abuse of the English language”.
The answer to my catchpenny query in the heading, by the way, is that you’d be likely to do so only if you were that most rare of cross-cultural phenomena, a Yiddish-speaking member of a Canadian first nation. The Yiddish verb schvitz means to sweat and quinzhee is the Dené Tha term for a snow shelter. Both are now in the new edition.
3. Some recent findings from my reading
• One word that’s surely in Collins Official Scrabble Words is selfie, which seems to be everywhere these days. We’ve since learned selfie stick, a device that lets you hold your smartphone further away. We now have selfie drone. It’s one of those mini-helicopter thingies, specifically one that’s designed to automatically follow its owner and shoot high-definition photos and video of their activities.
• Success by the Conservative Party in the recent UK general election has brought Brexit to the fore. This has been modelled on Grexit, coined as shorthand for the possibility that Greece would either leave the European Union or abandon the Euro. The Scots briefly borrowed the idea to make Scexit at the time of their referendum on independence from the UK. Brexit is, of course, the equivalent suggestion that Britain (by which is meant the UK) might leave the EU as a result of the referendum that the Conservatives have promised by the end of 2017.
• My newest favourite weird word is ergasiophygophyte. It’s a scholarly term for a garden plant that has escaped into the wild. It’s from Classical Greek ergasia, work or production, phyge, flight or escape, and phyton, a plant.
• The teen slang term dad bod has achieved hundreds of column inches of press discussion following a mention of it on the college-focused website Odyssey at the end of March by Mackenzie Pearson of Clemson University. It refers to the physique of a type of slightly out-of-condition young man, who almost certainly isn’t really a father. She wrote, “The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ It’s not an overweight guy, but it isn't one with washboard abs, either.”
• Have you noticed how the suffix -shamed (and the associated -shaming) is spreading its influence? It’s mostly a social-media term for stigmatising somebody, almost always a woman, for a supposedly unacceptable feature. It began some five years ago with slut-shamed, deriding a woman for being sexually promiscuous or provocatively dressed. It was soon followed by fat-shamed, disparaged as being overweight or obese. More recently single-shamed has appeared, to criticise a woman for not having a partner (but as Prince Harry has recently been single-shamed, this one shows signs of being unisexed). I’ve also come across clothes-shamed, blonde-shamed, thin-shamed and even gluten-shamed. I haven't yet found word-shamed, but give it time.
• A fascinating piece in the Guardian on 22 May argues that paragraphs in online writing are getting so short that they may vanish into a succession of single sentences.
• Just when you think Words of the Year must be long over, Oxford Children’s Dictionaries announces the Children’s Word of the Year. This is decided by analysing the language children use in the entries for the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Breakfast Show short story competition called 500 Words, open to under-13s. This year there were 120,421 entries, permitting a close look at the ways language among young people is changing. The Children’s Word of the Year for 2015 is hashtag (#). Vineeta Gupta, who is Head of Children’s Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, commented that the symbol is entering children’s vocabulary in a new way, as they have extended its use from a simple prefix or a search term on Twitter to a device for dramatic effect in their stories, sometimes at the end of sentences to add emphasis. More details of the changing language of children demonstrated by the entries can be found on the BBC web site.
Ralph Maus sent me on an intriguing search, courtesy of Jan Karon, who wrote in her most recent book, Somewhere Safe With Someone Nice, published in 2014: “She smiled a little; he saw the light in her eyes. ‘You adimpleate my spirit,’ she said.”
A number of sites online claim to know it but only a couple suggest that it means to fill up or make complete. It derives from Latin adimplēre, to fill up. My best guess is that it’s pronounced as spelled, roughly as AD-im-plete.
It’s in the online Oxford English Dictionary, but spelled adimplete. In the 1989 Second Edition it was adimpleate, which is no doubt where Ms Karon found it. The entry was revised in 2011 and the headword changed to adimplete because the two examples which its compilers unearthed, from 1657 and 1778, both spell it without the second a; this matches the Latin past participle adimplēt- that is considered to be its direct origin.
The word is justly described as obsolete and rare. Ms Karon seems to be the first person for more than two centuries to use it in print. Her example is so rare that it stands a good chance of being included in the next edition of the OED.
In 1336, a drunken sailor climbed the mast of his ship at anchor in the Thames by means of a rope, presumably part of the rigging. When he tried to descend the same way he fell and killed himself. A coroner’s jury decided that the rope was the cause of death and that it should be forfeited to the Crown. The rope was the inanimate casualty of an already ancient principle called deodand.
A deodand was an item of property that, however coincidentally, had caused the death of a human being. Horses, cattle, carts, haystacks, beer vats, boats, stones and trees have at various times been judged to be deodands. Unlettered local juries often made the law up on the spot, for example deciding in the case of a person fatally scalded by boiling water from a pot that the pot was the deodand, not the water.
Strictly speaking, a deodand is something that has been forfeited to God, from Latin deō dandum. In practice in medieval England it meant being given up to the Crown to be put to some pious use such as alms. As a stone or haystack was an inconvenient item to deal with in this way, in practice the coroner’s jury decided the value of the item and its owner was required to pay that instead. (In the case of the rope, the jury appraised it as worth 10 shillings, a considerable sum at the time, roughly the price of a good horse.)
The law of deodand survived into the nineteenth century. What ended it was the industrial revolution. Expensive pieces of machinery involved in accidental deaths were judged as deodands with consequent substantial fines. The rise of the railways meant that coroner’s juries in the 1830s and 1840s awarded large deodands against companies whose trains were involved in fatal accidents. As a result, the government of the day passed a law in 1846 abolishing the concept.
• On 6 May, the New York Times commented, “In 2014, there were 24,400 injuries associated with treadmills in emergency departments across the country.” Bill Blinn suggested that banning treadmills from emergency rooms would help.
• Pattie Tancred heard on the BBC midday news on 20 May: “Desperate, starving and dehydrated, we bring you the story of these migrants.”
• John Harbour was amused by a notice on the website of Norwegian Airlines: “The price for seat reservation is per passenger per leg.” So Long John Silver goes half price.
• “I know what they meant, but ... ,” was G P Hrusovsky’s response to a headline in the Youngstown Ohio Vindicator of 26 April: “Ohio must make sexual abuse of children a priority."
• It was cart-before-the-horse time in the Sydney Morning News on 18 May, as Anthony Douglas discovered in a quote from a senior police officer: “The male has sustained serious, very brutal head injuries as a result of his death.”
• “Tough gig,” was Jeff Rankin-Lowe’s comment on a Cannes preview on the CBC/Radio Canada site on 13 May: “The film, based on the 1952 novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, was in development for 15 years, with several directors dropping out before finally being shot.”