NEWSLETTER 628: SATURDAY 28 FEBRUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Glebe Many messages arrived in response to this Weird Words piece last week. Most told me about place names in North America and Australia that include it. Alan Taylor was one of many Australians who noted that the name survived there: “Glebe is a major, rather trendy, inner suburb of Sydney. Its history dates back to a government grant to the Anglican church at the start of white settlement in Australia.” In North America many mentioned Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia, which got its name, Priscilla Jensen says, because in the eighteenth century it connected the glebes at Falls Church and Christ Church, Alexandria. Others mentioned glebe is also in place names in Maryland, New Hampshire and Vermont. The Reverend Richard R Losch pointed out that The Glebe House in Woodbury, Connecticut (now a museum) is generally accepted as the birthplace of the Episcopal Church. A neighbourhood in Ottawa is called The Glebe because it is built on the former glebe of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Three readers drew their breath in sharply and dashed off messages to tell me that my etymology was way off mark. I wrote, from memory and without checking my facts, that tithe derives from the Latin word for a tenth. No, it doesn’t. It’s from Old English teotha, also meaning a tenth. Apologies.
Carrot and stick Following my note last time on the existence of this idiom in Italian, Barbara Gadomska e-mailed from Poland: “It also exists in Polish (kij i marchewka), although, as in Italian, in reverse order: the stick comes first. Don’t you think this order of suggested incentives may be revealing?” Frank Barbato tells me that Spanish is the same: el palo y la zanahoria. French has the same order as English, Jean-Pierre Aoustin explained: de la carotte et du bâton. In German, by the way, the idiom is mit Zuckerbrot und Peitsche, “with sweet bread and whip”, though Zuckerbrot isn’t used in modern German except in this idiom (it’s also a family name as it was once an occupational term for a baker of fancy cakes).
Nighthawking Following my note about this term last time, Michael Lean points out that it appears in some of Jonathan Gash’s books about the antique dealer Lovejoy, published in the early 80s. I was puzzled how it might have got from US to British English. Richard Hallas told me, “People in the UK are very familiar with the word nighthawk thanks to the long-running Resistance sitcom ’Allo ’Allo, as it was the codename café owner Rene Artois used when radioing London. Quite why that bird was chosen as a codename by the writers of the sitcom is another question.”
Altermodernism Monica Sandor e-mailed from Belgium to say that this new art term — discussed last time — almost certainly echoes another French term, altermondialisme, meaning an alternative form of globalisation that isn’t driven by big business at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised (a term without a good English equivalent, since antiglobalisation lacks the nuances of the French word). She notes, “Since the definitions of altermodernism you cite refer to the global, rootless nature of this art, I am sure that the allusion to altermondialisme is deliberate, but probably lost on an English audience.”
Crooked, not straight, askew.
This colloquial expression dates from eighteenth-century Scots and is now mainly to be found in Britain and the Commonwealth.
You’ll think you’ve tumbled into a Vermeer with your first glimpse of a skinny townhouse so skew-whiff that it’s probably only standing by dint of being supported on either side by equally historic homes.
The Scotsman, 20 December 2008.
The off-centredness is often figurative. One writer described a pop song as having “skew-whiff charms”; others variously criticised a skew-whiff shortlist, referred to a poem’s skew-whiff irony, and shuddered at fashion’s “skew-whiff combos like puce and purple”.
The first part of the word will cause no difficulties, since it is almost certainly from askew. The second element, I am assured by those who know (though most dictionaries dodge the issue), is the same word as that meaning a light puff of air, suggesting that the thing in question has been blown off course.
North Americans may know the closely related skewgee. Here, the second part is from the Scots agee (or ajee), created from a call to a horse to move to one side.
3. Questions & Answers: Meld
[Q] From Bob Lee: “I note with a bit of dismay that meld, which had always meant to show or display, and entered the common vocabulary when the game of canasta became popular (when one laid down a set of cards, one was said to meld), is now assumed by most users to mean mix or merge. Would you care to comment in your column?”
[A] The situation’s a bit more complicated than that. There are actually two different verbs here.
I well remember the post-war fashion for canasta, which my older brothers played with great enthusiasm, if inexpertly. This brought the verb meld into much wider circulation than it ever had before, though it had been recorded from the 1880s in connection with other card games, such as pinochle and rummy. This sense, of laying down or declaring a combination of cards, is from German melden, to announce. As it appeared first in the US, one may guess that it derives from German immigrant usage.
Oddly, the verb had made an earlier appearance in the language, in medieval times, when it meant much the same as the modern German verb — to make known or announce, later also to inform against a man or accuse him. It was an Old English term that derived from Germanic sources. It vanished from the language in the fifteenth century, only to be reintroduced from the modern German language in a different sense.
The other verb, meaning to merge or combine, is by comparison an upstart — it’s recorded only from the middle 1930s. In grammar as well as meaning it’s a blend, since it was almost certainly created by combining melt and weld. Early examples suggest it arose in cookery, meaning the blending of flavours. It has become a standard part of the language, more in the US than the UK; meld as a noun meaning a blend or combination dates from the 1970s.
4. Questions & Answers: Screw your courage to a sticking-place
[Q] From Christy Wopperer: “The phrase screw your courage to a sticking-place, is said to be by Shakespeare, but would you know or can you describe what or where a sticking-place might be? Without knowing why, I just love this phrase, but cannot find any mention of sticking places in my searches online.”
[A] The phrase in that form and sense does appear first in Macbeth, spoken to the thane of Glamis by his wife when encouraging him to murder Duncan. Macbeth is having a bad case of cold feet and is thinking of all the things that can go wrong. The RSC Shakespeare gives Lady Macbeth’s line in the slightly modernised form, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place / And we’ll not fail”. Today we’re much more likely to talk simply about screwing up our courage, another form of the same expression.
The idea is of a place where something stops and holds fast. If Macbeth does this, he won’t change his mind but stay with his previous decision to act against King Duncan. However, nobody is quite certain what the sticking-place is — as so often, Shakespeare omitted to tell us what he meant and sticking-place appears in English only in reference to this line.
The Clarendon Shakespeare, published in Oxford in 1869, suggested it refers to “some engine or mechanical contrivance”. In a note in another Shakespeare play in the same series, Troilus and Cressida, the editors argue that it had something to do with “screwing up the chords of string instruments to their proper degree of tension”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, published in 1911, accepts this as the correct answer.
A writer in Notes and Queries in December 1869 instead suggested the image of a contemporary soldier, “with his crossbow planted at an angle against the ground, screwing its cord by means of a kind of windlass to ‘the sticking-place,’ or catch, by which it will be held at furthest stretch.” This has also been put forward by other writers and it’s accepted by most modern editors of the play. It’s supported by a line later on in the scene: “I am settled, and bend up / Each corporeal agent to this terrible feat”, where by “bend up” it’s accepted Macbeth is referring to the stringing of a longbow. A martial image would make sense when discussing a murder.
As things stand, however, we’ve no way of deciding for certain which allusion, if either, is what Shakespeare had in mind.
• Anne O’Brien Lloyd says that a women’s clothing shop in Saskatoon regularly displays an inducement to buy at bargain prices: “All pants half off”. It might be a cunning advertising ploy, of course. Or possibly not.
• The Guardian suffered a classic error on 21 February. Lorena Verdes read: “Vere ‘Papa’ Bird had steered the island to independence from Britain in 1981 and was at that time revered on the island for having shaken off the imperial yolk.” Also with egg on its face, Don Herring reports, was the Associated Press. In a story dated 15 February on the crash near Buffalo, it wrote that the aircraft was “equipped with a ‘stick shaker’ mechanism that rattles the yolk to warn the pilot if the plane is about to lose lift.” You may not be surprised to learn that at least a dozen US newspapers reprinted the story complete with mistake.
• While we’re on unfortunate errors not caught by spelling checkers, the Wall Street Journal suffered one in an article on 19 February, in which it wrote about GE “raising $15 billion in a public sock offering”. John Shore feels this must be a world record.
• Dennis Ginley found another such error in the corrections column of the Oregonian of Portland on 24 February: “The Oregonian strives to be accurate, fair and complete in it’s coverage, and corrects significant errors of fact.” It would seem they’re not so much concerned with errors of punctuation.