NEWSLETTER 583: SATURDAY 12 APRIL 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Nomophobia Giles Watson commented on this word from last week’s issue: “I hope it doesn’t gain currency in the sense you quoted, as it has a legitimate Greek meaning: a fear of, or reluctance to comply with, the law. ‘Nomophobia’, which admittedly isn’t in any of my Ancient or Modern Greek dictionaries, does appear in the ‘aversion to the law’ sense on a couple of Greek Web sites. As a mobile phone in modern Greek is a ‘kineto’, you could call the anxiety over not having one ‘akinetophobia’, although this could be interpreted as a fear of the loss of the power of voluntary movement (akinesia).”
Red-shelf player Gary Whale contributed a memory that may help to understand this phrase I wrote about in puzzled terms last time. “I distinctly remember as a child (50+ years ago!) throwing three bean bags at coconuts at a fun fair at Luna Park in Sydney, Australia. By the purest chance I knocked down three coconuts and was offered my choice of prizes from the ‘red shelf’ — the topmost shelf. So when the Apprentice contestant refers to himself as a ‘red shelf player’ I take it he is placing himself in the top echelon.”
Shoot oneself in the foot Many interesting comments came in about what Scott Underwood called “the risk of pedal punctuation”. Ed Enstrom responded: “When I first came across this phrase, years ago, it was explained to me as an image of an inept gunslinger in the Old West who pulled the trigger on his six-shooter before he had fully gotten it out of his holster, thereby shooting himself in the foot. This image still comes to mind when I hear the phrase. In my area (New York metro), ‘shoot oneself in the foot’ is used not just to mean self-inflicted damage through incompetence but damage done when in conflict with an opponent or when trying to build a case in an argument. The connotation of incompetence is always present.” John Townley concurred with the Wild West link and added, “Its first references should logically be when pistols were first carried in holsters, in the mid-19th century.”
Anthony Massey recalled: “My job as a BBC news producer has taken me to a lot of rum places, so I have seen someone accidentally do this. It was in Albania in 1997, when I was covering a presidential election campaign. One of the bodyguards escorting the opposition candidate, Fatos Nano, was a huge bear of a man, who wore just jeans, boots and a bandolier of bullets. Walking up some concrete steps he tripped and accidentally fired his Kalashnikov assault rifle into his foot. Fortunately he had the gun set to ‘single shot’ rather than the ‘automatic’ mode that would have delivered a fusillade of bullets, but it was bad enough. He fell backwards into the crowd and was carried to a car to be taken to hospital. As I was very near him at the time, I was lucky that he didn’t shoot me. Earlier I’d been a passenger in the bodyguards’ car, a beaten up old Audi. As we bounced through the Albanian countryside I thought, ‘This seat’s a bit knobbly.’ When we stopped I found that I’d been sitting on a hand grenade for the last twenty miles. I pointed it out and one of the gunmen said, ‘Oh thanks, that’s mine. I wondered where that was,’ and put it in his pocket. You can’t help but love a country like that.”
Although it’s common within the telecommunications industry, this term hasn’t yet made much impact on the wider world. That’s about to change.
A femtocell is a mobile-telephone base station in the home that’s connected to your broadband internet service. The idea is to give subscribers a better signal and faster data access, because buildings, especially in cities, can block the wireless signal or reduce its quality. As the mobile phone is often the first point of contact for friends and family, many people would prefer to maintain it as their main phone but poor indoors reception often makes this difficult. Other benefits being touted are that your phone will only have to operate at very low signal levels, so extending battery life, limiting the risk of adverse health effects and preventing interference with other electrical equipment. The phone companies hope that femtocells will encourage people to use the high-speed data services that have been introduced at huge cost and will help to draw users away from their competitors, the fixed-line telecoms operators. Products are appearing at trade shows but have yet to go on retail sale.
The word is from femto-, the metric prefix that means 10-15 or a quadrillionth (a million billionth) of some unit (it’s from the Danish or Norwegian femten, fifteen), plus cell from cellular radio. The term is already being abbreviated to femto in the telecoms business.
For femtocell technology to achieve the kind of growth in service use and data consumption operators hope, it needs to be more than just niche take-up. But getting the cost per unit low enough to facilitate the firing of femtocells into scores of homes may require carriers to subsidise the hardware — which of course would come at a cost.
[Business Week, 29 Feb. 2008]
Hooked up to a home’s broadband-internet connection, femtocells provide solid indoor coverage and allow residents to make cheap calls using their existing handsets. Leave the house while chatting, and your call is automatically handed over to the wider mobile-phone network.
[Economist, 14 Feb. 2008]
A day's work.
In the UK, darg has mainly been Scots and northern English usage, though it did appear in Life in the London Streets by Richard Rowe, published in 1881: “He must go out bone-grubbing; but even his dull face showed, or seemed to my fancy to show, that, his dreary ‘daily darg’ got through, he wanted to hide in a hole.” However, Mr Rowe spent some years working for the Scotsman in Edinburgh, so probably picked it up there.
It was taken to Australia and New Zealand by emigrants. Though Rowe spent 14 years in Australia from 1853 on, it’s unlikely he heard it there, as it began to appear in print in both countries only in the 1920s. It has now fallen out of favour once again — the Australian Dictionary Centre included darg in a list of words in 2000 for which it would like printed evidence, noting that it had none after 1978. Some has since come in, but it is clearly rare these days.
The darg referred not to how much work you could do in a day, but how much was considered a reasonable day’s work, or one’s allotted or fixed share of work for the day. A New Zealand journalist, Fred Miller, who wrote a column in the old Southland Daily News with the title The Daily Darg, noted in his book Ink on My Fingers in 1967: “Theoretically, when you have finished your darg you go home.”
The darg was often a matter of dispute between workers and bosses, as Dan Stalker explained by e-mail: “The challenge for Australian managers in the 60s and 70s was ‘lifting the darg’. New technology meant more could be done in less time, while staff were resistant to ‘upping the darg’.”
The OED says that it’s a half-swallowed version of daywork, a day’s work, especially the amount of land that could be ploughed in one day (hence a close equivalent of acre).
4. Recently noted
Comma, dash It’s not every day, even every year, that one learns the new name of a punctuation mark. Nothing seems as inflexible or unalterable in this world, not even the laws of the Medes and the Persians, as the names of these little dots. And yet, one new to me appeared in the Guardian last Friday in a piece about the semicolon, provoked by French reports that it is under threat in part through a perfidious Anglo-Saxon preference for short sentences. The article includes this from the novelist Will Self: “Prose has its own musicality, and the more notation the better. I like dashes, double dashes, comashes and double comashes just as much.” Comashes? A search in books found only a historical reference to an export from the Levant, which may have been a type of stocking or stocking material; a Web search was almost as unrewarding but did find a note that a comash is a comma followed by a dash: “,—”. Its name is so rare we may presume Will Self invented it. The stop was once common in English prose, going back at least to the First Quarto of Shakespeare’s Othello, printed in 1622 (“I’le tell you what you should do,— our General’s wife is now the General”). It could appear in pairs to mark a parenthesis (hence double comashes) where we would now use just a pair of dashes. Its usual name is comma dash. In 1949, Eric Partridge wrote that “The comma-dash, whether single or double, is gradually being discarded.” That process has continued to extinction, except it seems in the writings of one author.
5. Questions & Answers: Lieutenant
[Q] From Rocky Hitchcock: “Members of my wife’s online quilt workshop were discussing the different pronunciations of lieutenant. Can you add to or clear up the confusion?”
[A] I’d rather not add to it, if you don’t mind. There’s been more than enough head-scratching down the years about why Americans say it as /ljuːˈtɛnənt/ (roughly lju'tenant) or luːˈtɛnənt (loo'tenant) while British and Commonwealth people prefer /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ (lef'tenant). The Royal Navy and Commonwealth navies have had a third way of saying it, a half-swallowed /lˈtɛnənt/ (l'tenant); I’m told this was mainly a lower-deck form and has now largely gone out of use.
Like other military words (army, captain, corporal, sergeant and soldier), lieutenant came into English from Old French after the Norman Conquest. It’s from lieu, meaning “place” (ultimately from Latin locus), plus tenant, holding. A lieutenant is a place-holder, a person who at need fulfils the role of a more senior one or who functions as his deputy. He acts — one might say — in lieu of another, where in lieu now means “instead” but could equally be construed as “in the place of”. (As an example, the Lieutenant Governor of New York, David Paterson, replaced Governor Eliot Spitzer, albeit very briefly, when Spitzer resigned in March 2008.)
On etymological grounds, therefore, the pronunciation ought to be like lieu, which suggests that Americans are nearer saying it “correctly”. But historical evidence shows that we English early on adopted the way of saying the word which is still our standard one, that this was taken by colonists to the US and that it was only in the nineteenth century in that country that it slowly changed to its modern pronunciation.
Some writers have suggested early readers misread u as v. This is plausible, since in fourteenth-century English, when lieutenant first appeared in the written language, a distinction between the two letters didn’t yet exist and they were interchangeable. However, the Oxford English Dictionary says the theory doesn’t fit the facts. Examples are known of a medieval form lueftenant (for example in a letter of 29 May 1447 in the records of the canton of Fribourg in Switzerland, which was signed by Ly Leuftenant douz Chastellent Davenche; Fribourg is one area which the French-related language survives that’s called variously Franco-Provençal, Romand, Burgundian or Arpitan; other examples are recorded from the same canton). This matches a Scots spelling of the fifteenth century and it may be that English speakers picked up this variant way of saying the word. Or they may have heard the glided sound at the end of lieu when it appeared in compounds as a v or an f.
Early spellings like leef-, lyff- and leif- show that writers were trying to record a pronunciation rather like the now-standard British one; others like lyeu- and lew- suggest that the other form was also around, most probably modelled on the common French pronunciation. The spelling settled on lieutenant only in the seventeenth century.
The change to the American /lju/ or /luː/ versions might as the result of a speak-as-you-spell movement but, if that were the case, why did it happen in the US and not in the UK? Step forward Noah Webster. He advocated spelling and pronunciation reform and was highly influential through the enormous popularity of his American Spelling Book of 1788, which sold more than 60 million copies down the years. In that book, and in his famous dictionary of 1828, he said the word should be said as “lutenant”.
Others also felt that the usual pronunciation of the word should be deplored as a corruption and ought to be corrected. In the 1797 edition of his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (it’s probably also in the first edition of 1791, but I can’t lay my electronic hands on a copy), John Walker wrote that “the regular sound, as if written Lewtenant, seems not so remote from the corruption as to make us lose all hope that it will in time be the actual pronunciation”. But it was only slowly adopted in the US. In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper argued in The American Democrat, “there is not sufficient authority” for the version that had been advocated by Walker and Webster and “the true pronunciation” was the British one. But then, he said that cucumber should be said as /ˈkaʊkʌmbə(r)/ (cowcumber) and gold as /ˈɡuːld/ (goold), old-fashioned British and American pronunciations. By 1893 Funk’s Standard Dictionary in the US was able to note that the British pronunciation was “almost confined to the retired list of the navy”, indicating that Walker and Webster had triumphed.
[Many thanks to Douglas G Wilson for his help in research.]
• Fear of fire? Reporting on demonstrations during the progress of the Olympic flame through London, the Guardian noted on Monday, “One woman says she is told to place her banners in plastic bags after police judged them to be inflammatory.”