12 Jul 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Lewis Carroll’s pronunciations In the last issue I quoted Carroll on his preferred pronunciation of coined words in Jabberwocky, including the instruction to “pronounce ‘rath’ to rhyme with ‘bath’.” Many readers pointed out that the instruction is unhelpful to a modern international audience that pronounces English a in several different ways. Being an educated Englishman of the nineteenth century, Carroll would have used what linguists call received pronunciation, and presumably assumed that his readers did too. His vowel would have been the one variously called a broad a or long a whose phonetic symbol is ɑ:, which isn’t itself much help for most people. The British Library has a page with audio on it (search for “bath” and click on the audio in the third column). See also a helpful Wikipedia article.
Closets and cupboards Readers added more to my comments last week, many of which I’ve incorporated into the piece based on it which should now be on the World Wide Words website. Americans introduced me to armoire, once an upmarket name for a wardrobe, often an ornate or antique one, but which is now often applied to a cabinet enclosing a television or entertainment centre. Other words from French that were mentioned by American readers are chiffonier, a tall chest with drawers behind doors, and chifferobe, a piece of furniture incorporating both a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.
Taking a line through suicidal, genocidal and dozens of words of similar form, we know this must mean the killing of something. The Greek logos can mean a word, as in logophile, a lover of words, but logocidal instead borrows its associated abstract senses of discourse and reason.
Logocidal refers to the destruction or perversion of meaning, something deadly to reason and communication. Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was a logocidal creation since it was designed to limit what it was possible to think about or discuss.
Logocidal is an extremely rare word, whose appearances can be counted on both hands with fingers to spare. However, it has been wielded twice in recent years by the journalist Marina Hyde in the Guardian. She uses it for language that’s obfuscatory to the point of meaninglessness, the kind employed by politicians and public figures to avoid committing themselves, a travesty of communication that Orwell parodied in his essay Politics and the English Language.
David Cameron is far less of a logocidal maniac than Miliband, it must be said, but to listen to the message from any side these days is to wonder if they focus-grouped it in a head trauma unit. If so, my double sympathies to the poor patients.
Guardian, 9 May 2014.
Slangmeister I’ve recently read two books by Jonathon Green, the extraordinarily energetic British recorder of slang, whose three-volume slang equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary came out in 2010. Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer is a personal memoir; in part a biography, at times a linguistic manifesto, but mainly a description, sometimes with a hint of existential sadness, of what it’s like to spend one’s life as a solitary lexicographer recording slang. It’s a fascinating insight into the life and work of a man who must be among the last of the independent scholars. The other is Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue, a magisterial, wide-ranging and absorbing overview of English slang throughout its recorded history, which places it in its cultural and historical context. I learned a lot from it and if you’re at all interested in the topic, I heartily recommend it.
Food for thought On 7 June, New Scientist introduced me to a intriguing new way of making food: note-by-note cooking. It’s a lineal descendant of the well-established molecular gastronomy, in which chefs use a wide variety of specialist techniques to produce exotic and weird transformations in ingredients. The new method does away with traditional sources of food altogether by using chemical reactions to produce dishes from their constituent chemical sources, garnished with flavouring substances such as furanthiol, borneol, verbenone, and methional. In part, the idea is to make dishes that can’t be created from traditional ingredients. It may one day be possible to create products from plants that are indistinguishable from meat; this will help to resolve ecological and ethical problems associated with current agricultural methods. At the moment, note-by-note cooking is an experiment, though its originators, including the pioneer of molecular gastronomy, French chemist Hervé This, are entirely serious. If followed through, it might make that staple of Star Trek, the food replicator, into a practical device.
Rising star Richard Goodwin was surprised to find an article in a Sydney newspaper about the Brazilian footballer Neymar which called him a starlet, a word which Mr Goodwin applied only to film actresses. This would have startled me, too, but I find that both Mr Goodwin and I are out of touch. Ten years ago John Leigh and David Woodhouse explained in their Football Lexicon that a starlet was “typically a young, up-and-coming player who is good, but not good enough yet to be called a star”. But as Neymar’s injury during the World Cup has widely been seen as contributing to Brazil’s humiliating exit from the competition, the Australian reporter who called him that must also be behind the times.
Elsewhere An article in the New York Times on 2 July reported that the official transcript of the Declaration of Independence may contain an errant period that contributes to what one scholar calls a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the document.
Q From Kevin Stumpf: If you can please help me understand how the single, tiny word file came into the English language with such divergent meanings — a grinding tool and a storage space.
A They are words with different origins and forms that just happen to be said and spelled the same. English has many such, called homonyms, because its words derive from many different sources.
The file that smoothes and shapes is the more straightforward of the two. It had two names in the dialects of Old English, both of them Germanic in origin. The southern dialects had féol but the Anglian dialects of central and northern England had fil, which eventually prevailed.
The other file, the office one, has a stranger history. Its source is the Latin filum, a thread. It came into English via the French verb filer, to string things together. File was used from about 1500 for a then-common way of organising documents by linking them on a thread or sting. File later became a noun for the results of such filing and in time it was transferred to other methods of storage such as folders. When digital documents began to be stored on computers, it was a natural-enough figurative extension to call them files, too, though it’s a long way from physical threads. A sequence of comments in an online discussion is also called a thread.
The idea of threading documents hasn’t completely died out. Papers may be kept together with treasury tags, small formalised threads. Offices may still contain spike files, pointed metal rods in a base, on which documents are skewered. Journalists still talk of spiking a story when it is rejected, a memory of days when copy was prepared on paper and stuck on a spike file if it was spurned by the editor.
A group of people standing or walking one behind the other is said to be in single file. That comes from the same Latin source as the storage one. The idea is that they’re connected by an invisible thread.
• A headline in the online public service message board of Hinesburg in Vermont made Kate Robinson Schubart reflect on the value of the rule about hyphenating compound adjectives: “Loving Child and Dog Friendly Cat Needs Home”.
• Gernot Abend saw this headline about what he feels is a paradoxical and morbid proposition in the edition of the Telegram, a newspaper in St Johns, Newfoundland, for 28 June: “Mount Moriah man wants to put new life into abandoned cemetery.”
• David Shapiro sent this notice from the local chief of police which was published in his town’s newsletter: “It shall be unlawful to make repairs to any motor vehicle parked in and upon the streets of Colmar Manor, except here from those items which do not require the removal of units by the vehicle propels itself and which do not require interior and exterior body parts.” He hopes that’s clear to everybody.
• In the otherwise highly commendable mystery The Book of Souls by James Oswald, Gloria Varley suggests that the main character seems to be having an unnerving experience: “McLean was just walking out the back door of the station when a familiar face trotted up behind him.”
• Martin Wynne heard this in a discussion about food on local radio: “The manufacturers could easily make healthier ready-meals. All it needs is a little carrot from the government.”