E-MAGAZINE 698: SATURDAY 7 AUGUST 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Teacup cattle Lara Treard pointed out that, though this specific term may have begun in the Guardian, teacup for a small animal of its type is much older. She wrote, “I have a teacup poodle which is over 9 years old and a friend has an even older teacup Yorkshire. It has been an accepted term for very small animals (mostly dogs under three kilos) for at least 10 years in Canada and the United States. My poodle weighed 400 grams at the age of three months and did fit in a teacup!” I stand corrected. However, while they’re smaller than average, teacup cattle is still a bit of a stretch. Oxymoronic, in fact.
Telegraphese Stephen Browne wondered if I was refraining through delicacy from completing the story about the news editor who had an acerbic exchange of cables with a foreign correspondent. Avoidance of the indelicate has no place in discussions about language, which I shall proceed to demonstrate. The canonical version, I have since learned, was told by Anthony Burgess in his book 1985, which was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984: “Orwell must have relished the exchange between Evelyn Waugh and the Daily Mail, when that great popular organ sent him to cover the conflict in Abyssinia: WHY UNNEWS — UNNEWS GOODNEWS — UNNEWS UNJOB — UPSTICK JOB ASSWISE.” I can’t easily accept the attribution of the story — Evelyn Waugh, being British, would surely have written the first part as arse. I am confirmed in this opinion by the former Daily Mirror reporter Revel Barker, who has the variant version UPSTICK JOB ARSEWARDS in an article on gentlemenranters.com, though he attributes it to an exchange between the Daily Telegraph’s foreign desk and its man in the Congo (thanks to David Pearson for pointing me to the piece).
2. Topical Words: Nurdle
A pending court case between Colgate and Glaxo has reminded me of this invaluable word, whose wide circulation and range of senses is a wonder, even more so because it rarely features in dictionaries.
Some know it best as a term in cricket, for a tap by the batsman that pushes the ball into a space among the fielders in order to take a quick single (“One of our habitual opponents was captained by a man who could, and often did, nurdle the ball down to fine leg”, noted The Times in January this year). It’s also a term in tiddlywinks for playing a wink so close to the pot that it’s almost impossible for your opponent to pot it. (“To escape from a nurdle you need a university degree, an agile wrist and a zany sense of humor”, the Toronto Star wrote in 1985). A couple of English pubs play a game called nurdling, which has been described as “getting old pennies down a hole in a bench”. Generally speaking, if you’re nurdling you’re faffing about doing nothing very constructive.
A nurdle in the plastics business, on the other hand, is properly a pre-production pellet, the basic feedstuff that plastic products are made from. When such plastics biodegrade in the oceans they turn back into particles that have been given the same name.
In the court case sense, nurdle is the term in the US for the “correct” amount of toothpaste one should put on one’s toothbrush, a squeeze of the tube that exactly covers the whole length of the bristles. The news report in which I found it said, “The complaint seeks a declaration that Colgate’s ‘Triple Action’ phrase and three stripe nurdle are not confusingly similar to Glaxo’s ‘Triple Protection’ phrase and nurdle design in other colours.” Let us hope that this dispute is cleared up soon, for the sake of our communal peace of mind. I’m told that we must give credit, or blame, to the American Dental Association for its work in the 1990s to popularise “nurdle” in this sense.
It has been claimed that nurdle was coined by the writers of the US TV show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, with farkel, bippy and others. The true origin, as any Brit of mature years can tell you, was in the crazy mind of Michael Bentine, one of the original Goons and the chief perpetrator of a BBC television show between 1960-64 called It’s a Square World. He invented a spoof pub game, drats, supposedly played by Somerset yokels. It was dangerous, with the main risk being that of nurdling, an unspecified but catastrophic error (“Drat me! — He’s Nurdled!!”). The word entered the American lexicon in 1967 when reports appeared in various US media about a mad pub group in Totten, near Southampton, that actually played the game, under the title of the Nurdling Championships.
Truly, it’s a word for all seasons and occasions.
What’s in a name? This week, after ten years’ work, the Census of Marine Life has finally been published; it estimates there are more than 230,000 species in the world’s oceans, although some experts believe that they’re going extinct faster than they can be named. Language-wise, what struck me were the common names that had been given already: green bomber, pram bug, manylight viperfish, one-grooved diving beetle, twisted nudibranch, bearded fireworm, green-banded snapping shrimp, cylindrical sandperch, Dumbo octopus, zombie worm, bluestriped snapper, red-lined paper bubble ...
New word If you’re unable to make a decision, you are indecisive, and you suffer from indecision. But until now, there has been no good word to describe you as a person. There is now: indecider. It appeared in a study by Professor Harriet Bradley, of the sociology department of the University of Bristol, published last Monday. It has been widely reported in the British press, since it concluded that the UK is a nation which is overwhelmed by too much choice and information and that modern life has created a generation of people incapable of making quick, confident decisions. I’d like to suggest what the future holds for the word, but can’t make up my mind ...
Whose vault is that? The Daily Telegraph’s headline screamed off the webpage on Wednesday: “Secret vault of words rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered”. The piece, quite the daftest dictionary-related story I've ever read, quoted a graphic design student at Kingston University, Luke Ngakane: “I was fascinated when I read that the Oxford University Press has a vault where all their failed words, which didn’t make the dictionary, are kept. This store room contains millions of words and some of them date back hundreds of years. It’s a very hush-hush vault and I really struggled to find out information about it because it is so secretive. But when I spoke to them they were happy to confirm its existence and although I didn’t actually get to see the room they did send me some examples.” So the supposedly secret vault is so secret that the OED’s editors were willing to tell him all about it and what was in it? Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been in this “vault”, which is actually a rather boring office filled with filing cabinets housing citation slips (though almost everything's on computer these days). The piece listed some of the “failed” words. Think like an OED editor for a moment and decide whether you’d add any of them: accordionated, being able to drive and refold a road map at the same time; pregreening, to creep forwards while waiting for a red light to change; scrax, the waxy coating that is scratched off an instant lottery ticket; precuperate, to prepare for the possibility of being ill; optotoxical, a look that could kill, normally from a parent or spouse; headset jockey, a telephone call centre worker. You may now have just a smidgen of xenolexica, a grave confusion when faced with unusual words, but it doesn’t take a lot of lexpionage, the sleuthing of words and phrases, to work out that they haven’t failed, but that the evidence to date suggests they aren’t used enough to meet the criteria for inclusion.
4. Questions and Answers: First, Second and Third
Q From Neal Mohlmann: I can't find where first, second and third originated, as opposed to oneth, twoth, and threeth, which is the way all other numbers are formed that end in any number other than one, two or three. Do you know how these forms came about and why all other numbers simply end in th? Though eleventh is regularly formed from eleven, why is it so unlike one?
A These differences might be cause for a sad reflection on the inconsistencies and irregularity of the English language, except that there’s nothing at all surprising about them. Most languages are irregular in the way they create the small ordinal numbers, the adjectives that express position in a series. This illustrates the seemingly universal rule that the commonest words are the ones that least conform to the rules.
Old English was no exception. It had a standard ending -(o)tha or -(o)the to create the ordinals (in modern English this has turned into -(e)th, as in fifth or twentieth) and it used them for the numbers from three onwards. However, it had no regularly formed ordinals for the numbers one and two (why that should be so is lost in prehistory) and it had to make do with whatever circumlocutions could be made to serve.
To fill the blank for the number one, for example, Old English used various superlatives, including old versions of words that we now write as earliest and foremost. Our first, to start with in the forms fyrst or fyrest, appeared about the year 1000 but took over from the older terms a couple of hundred years later; it’s from Germanic predecessors that meant the foremost person in a society, a term we would now translate as prince. In Dutch and German it has evolved into vorst and Fürst in that sense.
Expressing the idea of second posed similar problems but there wasn’t a word that could easily be adapted. Old English fell back on other, which you will appreciate was horribly ambiguous. The situation was saved by the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought the French word second into the language. This was from Latin secundus, the following or next in a series; it was based on sequi, to follow, from which we get sequel.
Third wasn’t a problem, as the Germanic languages did have a word for it, thridda, which is closely related to three and also to modern Dutch derde and German dritte. By one of those oddities of usage, around the sixteenth century the middle letters became inverted, a process called metathesis, to create third, thereby obscuring its close connection to three.
Eleven does contain a reference to one, though much disguised. In Old English the word was endleofon. This is made up from an old form of one plus a ancient German word that appeared in Old English as laefan, to leave. In essence, eleven was “one left”, or ten plus one left over. Twelve is formed in the same way.
• Numerous readers pointed me to an Associated Press report, widely reproduced, about a sad event in Romania, headlined “528-pound mom dies 5 months after birth”. That’s an amazing growth rate for a mother so young.
• Department of ambulatory illumination: “Streets were empty of all but the occasional hand lantern, hurrying through the dismal murk.” (Oceans of Eternity, by S M Stirling, 2000.)
• The issue of the Raleigh News and Observer of North Carolina last Saturday, Paul Keene tells us, ran this headline above the fold: “Caterpillar to build new plant.” He suggests, “after years of depredations, the little critters want to make it up to us.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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