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Newsletter 779
24 March 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Roscid.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Jack.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Festucine Nick Humez pointed out that the poem I quoted from wasn’t the epic of Gilgamesh as we know it today but a romantic Victorian attempt by Leonidas Le Cenci Hamilton in 1884 to reconstruct part of the story from a fragment of a later poem, Ishtar and Izdubar (the latter name is a nineteenth-century misreading of Gilgamesh, due to confusion between Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform).

Insurance Last week, I wondered about the term before-the-event insurance. Numerous readers pointed out that, like the majority of people in the UK, I was unaware that it is in fact possible to get after-the-event insurance, particularly for legal expenses. If you suffer some accident and don’t have before-the-event cover, you can take out after-the-event insurance, at a price, to reimburse your costs if you lose the case.

Nerd Joyce Melton responded to last week’s article. “Cartoonists, illustrators and other artists have used nerds to mean eraser crumbs for more than sixty years. When I worked at newspapers in the sixties, we had a special brush (called a broom) for getting rid of nerds before inking a drawing because the tiny pieces of rubber would cause blots and blobs on the art. When the movie Revenge of the Nerds came out, I imagined eraser crumbs with giant art brooms pursuing people. That wasn’t what the movie was about but it still makes me laugh to think of it.”

2. Weird Words: Roscid/ˈrɒsɪd/ Help with IPA

Though Latin rōs, meaning dew or light rain, has formed a number of English words, almost all of them have become either obsolete or so rare that you will seek them in vain in dictionaries.

Roscid, for example, means “dewy”:

The incense of thy stuffing fills the air, And holds the senses in its fragrant snare; Rich ichor from thy roscid body flows, That e’en would tempt one in dyspepsia’s throes.

From The Chant Royal of the Turkey, in the New York Times, 22 Nov. 1903.

Rorid also means dewy, deriving from rōr-, the inflected form of rōs. So does rore (with its adjective roral). Rore is even rarer than the others, now known solely because Shakespeare used it in Timon of Athens (“My words neither aspersed or inspersed with the flore or rore of eloquence.”) Others from the same source include roriferous, bringing or bearing dew, and rorigenous, produced by dew. This last word seems to have appeared nowhere else but Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730. The final exhibit in this dusty museum case of unloved lexicography is irrorate, to bedew or sprinkle with dew.

Another descendant of rōs that’s still in use is rosolio, a sweet cordial of Italy which is sold commercially under brand names such as Cinzano and Martini. That name is an alteration of rōs sōlis, the dew of the sun, not as a highfalutin romantic name but because in its early days one ingredient was the juice of the sundew plant. Later it became rosa solis, rose of the sun, because rose petals were substituted for sundew.

Confusion between rōs and rosa has been endemic: rosa solis was also at one time the name of some species of sundew. And, though few know it, the plant called rosemary derives its name not from the rose but from the dew; its Latin name was rōs marinus, sea dew, because its natural habitat is sea cliffs.

3. Wordface

More ambulances Dave McCombs followed up earlier comments by asking about the provenance of ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, a term that he mentioned is much used in his native New Zealand. The evidence shows that it’s used to some extent in North America and the UK, though I’ve no memory of having encountered it. This is the earliest example that I’ve found anywhere: “The politician is like the person who would build an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, instead of constructing a good fence at the top.” (Maoriland Worker, 25 February 1920.) The phrase suggests that somebody is expensively providing the wrong solution to a problem. Note the phrase build an ambulance; it seems that for this writer an ambulance was a fixed structure, which wasn’t even then the standard sense in New Zealand.

Don’t just talk: do something! In SF, an over-extensive explanation of the background to a story is derisively called a data dump. Even more crucially, actors hate having to stop the action to explain some vital bit of the plot. Writers have come up with all sorts of ways to keep the action going while a vital bit of back story is communicated. Last May, the US critic Miles McNutt commented on the way that sex was being used in the Game of Thrones TV series to keep the attention of the audience while the characters deliver chunks of exposition. He coined sexposition for it, a term that has gained a minor niche in the glossary of American criticism. In a letter to the Guardian last week, Charles Harris of Euroscript produced — tongue in cheek I presume — walksposition for the trick of speaking plot lines while walking very fast, a technique best known from Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing.

4. Questions and Answers: Jack

Q From Andrew Haynes: When I filled in every last jack in a crossword puzzle today, I started wondering about the origin of the term. A Wikipedia entry for last man Jack claims the term originates from a cricketing pun. The poorest batsman, who goes in to bat last at No 11, is supposedly known as Jack because the jack is the 11th card in a playing card suit. This etymology seems ridiculously contrived. But do you have a better explanation? My guess would be a nautical derivation.

A I agree there’s little merit in the Wikipedia suggestion, though there is a very slight connection between the playing card and the expression. But to explain that requires us to look more deeply into the background of Jack.

Its first sense was as a pet form of John. Its early history is complicated. It began as Jehan, a form of John, and successively became Jan and then Jankin (Jan + the pet or diminutive ending -kin). This shifted to Jackin and then lost the ending again to make Jack.

This all happened in the 1200s. Not long after, it became a general way to refer to any ordinary man or a man of the people. There’s a parallel here with French Jacques, which was a familiar name for a peasant or a man of low social status, though the two names aren’t directly connected.

Later, Jack became a slightly dismissive term for a labourer or working man, which is why we have compounds like steeplejack and lumberjack, the one-time Jack tar for a common sailor (which I guess is why you thought of a naval origin), as well as phrases like Jack of all trades and Jack’s as good as his master. Jack was also applied to numerous machines that took the place of a man or lad doing some menial job — the device that helps you change a car tyre is a specific example that we still often use, but there are many, many others, whose specific origins are often hard to establish.

By the 1500s, Jack had gone further down in the world to mean not only a low-bred or ill-mannered person but an unscrupulous or dishonest man, a knave. This explains why knave and jack are used interchangeably for the playing card.

The phrases every man jack, every last man jack, last man jack (and less directly your every last jack) are all based on man jack, an early nineteenth-century elaboration of the idea of Jack as the average or common man. Some examples:

They begged hard a bunch of hot-house grapes; but he said that Sir Pitt had numbered every “Man Jack” of them, and it would be as much as his place was worth to give any away.

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848.

“Gather up every one in camp,” directed Stimbol. “Have them up here in five minutes for a palaver — every last man-jack of them.”

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1928.

It seemed rather visionary to expect that a crowd of store workers would enjoy getting out earlier than usual of a morning to sing a song. But they did, every last jack of them, and they sang right at the start.

Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey), 12 Oct. 1920.

5. Sic!

• An Associated Press article of 17 March on the Falkland Islands was widely reproduced. Paul Brady came across it in the Herald Tribune of Sarasota. It said, “Many still heat their homes with peat stoves, grow their own vegetables, repair their Land Rovers themselves and raise chickens for their soft-boiled eggs.”

• A Press Association piece of 14 March, which also appeared widely, reported on a newly discovered fossil species of human beings and said of the researchers: “They remain cautious about how to classify the ‘red deer people’ — so called because they hunted extinct red deer.” Lucy Banks said she wasn’t surprised they died out.

• Someone I know only as Gemma submitted this muddled first sentence from an item in the Stirling Observer dated 16 March: “Thanks to electronic diaries, a group of patients in the Falkirk area who have a chronic lung condition are managing to avoid being admitted to hospital less often.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 24 March 2012

Advice on copyright

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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Last modified: 24 March 2012.