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Newsletter 735
7 May 2011

Contents

1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Filemot.

3. Turns of Phrase: Arab Spring.

4. Wordface.

5. Questions and Answers: Piker.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Heroes and goats Lots of people mentioned the Peanuts cartoon, in which the term has appeared numerous times. This example, which was in the strip in June 1958, came courtesy of Mike DiCola:

Lucy: The ball is coming down!
Charlie Brown: If I catch it, we’ll win the championship, and I’ll be the hero! If I miss it, I’ll be the goat! I can hear it now ... “Charlie the goat Brown!”

Jack Shakely wrote: “I believe you are mistaken that goat in the phrase hero to goat refers to scapegoat. I believe it comes from, of all places, the United States Military Academy at West Point. And it refers to intellectual prowess, not blame. Since the earliest years of the nineteenth century, the graduating cadets of West Point were assigned class rankings. The lowest-ranking member of the class was called the goat. Some famous goats through history include George Armstrong Custer and George Pickett, who led the disastrous charge at Gettysburg. To this day the Army cadets play an intramural football game between the Goats (the bottom half of the class) and the Engineers (top half). So whereas scapegoats are occasionally innocent victims, goats in sports (and West Point) earn their bone-headed reputation.” In the eternal regress of etymological investigation, of course, it just takes the problem back one stage, since we don’t know why the goats got their name.

Handbagging Henry M Willis gently handbagged me (or perhaps made me the goat), pointing out that one of the two persons mentioned in the Reuters report — the one doing the handbagging — was female, so my conclusion that the term no longer had sexist implications was incorrect. Victoria Leam concurs: “I think the sexist overtones do remain. It is now commonly used in the UK with the connotation that there is a disagreement over something silly and that the people involved, male or female, have reacted in a camp, histrionic or effeminate way. Two common examples are footballers starting to push each other around over some perceived slight or women getting ‘bitchy’ with each other. The usual remark in both cases would be oh dear, it’s handbags or it’s handbags at dawn as an amused, derisory comment.”

2. Weird Words: Filemot/ˈfɪlɪmɒt/ Help with IPA

This word is now so rare that people who write about it tend to quote from one of its last unforced appearances, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur of as long ago as 1880 (“each compartment crowded with labelled folios all filemot with age and use”). Here’s another, from a little earlier still:

October now. All the world swings at the top of its beauty; and those hills where we shall live, what robes of color fold them! Tawny filemot gilding the valleys, each seam and rut a scroll or arabesque, and all the year pouring out her heart’s blood to flush the maples, the great impurpled granites warm with the sunshine they have drunk all summer!

The Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1860. We may perhaps forgive the writer’s strained and impassioned, even impurpled, prose, since she goes on to say that she is to be married at noon.

You may by now have guessed that filemot (said, if you please, as three syllables, and not as file-mot) is a colour, the russet or brown colour of dead autumn leaves.

It began as the French feuillemorte, literally “dead leaf”. It has occasionally appeared in that spelling in English, either as one word or two. However, the extraordinary ability of my English forebears to transmogrify any word coming from across the Channel has changed it into phyliamort, philimot, foliomort, fillemot and other forms.

You may instead, if you prefer good plain words, resort to pure-bred English and refer to it as dead-leaf brown.

3. Turns of Phrase: Arab Spring

Demonstrations and protests in countries in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 have led to this term being widely used. As a metaphor for change through popular uprisings, it has also been applied to countries not part of the Arab world.

It was used first for the uprisings that led to changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt, as a term of hope that a domino process might lead to similar changes elsewhere. Armed retaliation by the governments of Libya, Bahrain and Syria against their own populations has since taken some of the lustre off the phrase.

The term was coined early in 2005 in reference to unrest in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, probably as a play on Prague spring, the 1968 democratic uprising in Communist Czechoslovakia.

The Arab Spring, the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989, is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East like water pouring from a broken dam.

The Times, 19 Feb. 2011.

The frightening spiral of violence in Syria and the determination of its ruler, Bashar Assad, to crush peaceful opposition are a bleak reminder of how far the Arab spring still has to go before summer arrives — and how easily the region’s hopeful mood could turn wintry again.

The Economist, 30 Apr. 2011.

4. Wordface

Conspiratorial Language The US has Birthers, who still don’t believe President Obama is an American citizen, even though his full birth certificate has now been published, and Truthers, who reject the accepted explanation of the events of 9/11. A new weed has sprouted this week in the hotbed of conspiracies: some people are arguing that the decision not to release photographs of the dead Osama bin Laden proves that he wasn’t killed in the attack, despite Al-Qaeda having confirmed it. We already have two words for this group, Proofers and Deathers (the latter having existed since 2009 in reference to the proposed reforms to health care), and they’ve spawned the linked nouns Prooferism and Deatherism.

Play it with feeling Reports claim that the next generation of video games will include sensors to record the emotional states of the players by monitoring their heart rate, sweat and breathing. The results will be fed back into the game, perhaps to make it less difficult if a player becomes too stressed or make it harder if the player seems not to be emotionally involved with it. The technique is called affective gaming.

DOMP dumped? A search accidentally took me to a work of 1973, Need Your Doctor be so Useless? by Andrew Malleson. He mentioned DOMP, supposedly medical jargon for Diseases of Medical Practice, or what the more scholarly among us would describe as iatrogenic conditions, caused by those charged with curing us. Online sources suggest that DOMP may be expanded into “Days on the Market Property”, whatever that may be, or “Delivery Order Management Plan”, but never Dr Malleson’s version. Was his ever part of the vocabulary of doctors, even if it were only whispered between colleagues in the privacy of the operating theatre? Or did he invent it?

5. Questions and Answers: Piker

Q From Rosemarie Wilson: The other morning I told my husband that when it came to snoring, compared to him I was a piker. Then, as we often do, we had a rousing discussion of the possible etymology of the term piker. Consulting the dictionary, we found more meanings than a bird has feathers, including a relationship to pikey, which I personally don’t agree with. In the States, it means “cheap,” but I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation.

A How good to learn that your household starts the day with an etymological investigation. Others please copy.

As you’ve already discovered, there are many meanings of piker, including the variation you’ve rightly disregarded, the derogatory English regional slang term pikey. That comes from piker for a tramp or vagabond who was always on the road, who travelled the turnpikes, the one-time toll roads of England. Turnpike derives from the long, swivelling pole (one sense of pike) that barred the road at every tollhouse.

The consensus among dictionaries is that your sense of piker does come from pike, but from the verb, not the noun. If somebody piked himself in late medieval times he had furnished himself with a pilgrim’s staff — yet another sort of pike. Figuratively to pike oneself meant to travel on foot, go away or run away.

It may be, though the evidence is sparse, that through the idea of running away the verb came to suggest withdrawing from a situation through excessive caution. In the US in the 1850s it began to be attached to small-time gambling and a piker was a man who made very small bets, often hedging them. This is the first example on record:

Piker is a man who plays very small amounts. Plays a quarter, wins, pockets the winnings, and keeps at quarters; and never, if he can help it, bets on his winnings.

Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, by George W Matsell, 1859.

Some reference books suggest a completely different source. A piker in the US was also a poor white migrant from the southern states. The first pikers were migrants to California, around the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, from Pike County, Missouri. (The county was named after Zebulon Pike, the soldier and explorer who also gave his name to Pikes Peak in Colorado.) This version of the term came to mean a worthless, lazy, good-for-nothing person.

The later history of piker in the US interwove these two strands so that they are now hard to separate. Piker became a disparaging term with several senses, describing a person as a shirker, stingy, cowardly, a cheat or just insignificant. Your phrase a piker compared to ..., for a person who pales by comparison with another, came from this last sense but isn’t often included in dictionaries. All these may be on the way out: they don’t seem to be known to younger people.

Thanks to Douglas Wilson for his help with this expression.

6. Sic!

• A comment in the Daily Telegraph for 30 April was sent in by Al Segall: “Princess Beatrice ... was photographed running in the surf on the island of St Barts with her American boyfriend Dave Clark dressed in a blue bikini.”

• David Hatchuel was surprised at the multi-use weapon employed by the New Zealand police, as headlined in the New Zealand Herald of 3 May: “Officers shoot man with knife”. Lynn Whinery found another misreadable headline in the same issue: “Man shot dead neighbours at close range.”

• Michael Hocken tells us that the London Evening Standard of 3 May, reporting on the bin Laden killing, referred homophonously to the computer files, CD-ROMs and other electronic information gathered by the US as a “motherload of intelligence”. Heavy, one presumes? Lawrence Krakauer spotted that the Boston Globe’s story about the death included another homophone: “according to Islamic tradition, his body was washed, wrapped in a white shroud, and given burial rights.” Joel May noted that the Daily Telegraph may have confused readers about the objectives of the attack: “Mr Panetta also told the network that the US Navy Seals made the final decision to kill bin Laden rather than the president.” Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, the Seals muddled Osama with Obama, as many newspapers did.

• Rebecca Eschliman saw this headline in the Columbus Dispatch for 1 May: “Taliban declare spring offensive”. With all the tornados, floods and wildfires this past month, many Americans must feel the same way.

• Martha Kearney, introducing Friday's World At One on BBC Radio 4, reported that in local elections the day before, “Across England the Liberal Democrats have lost control of four councils and over 300 councillors.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 7 May 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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