NEWSLETTER 575: SATURDAY 16 FEBRUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Franglais Colin Thornton was one reader of a number who commented on the special case of French-speaking Canada: “Mon ami. I live dans la capitale mondial de Franglais. Shediac, New Brunswick, is a small town on the east coast of Canada. Half of this province is French and half English. So too is the day-to-day language. People ask questions in French and answer in English, switch languages halfway through sentences and add French endings to English verbs. Purists are upset about this because it’s a sign of assimilation. To my ear, however, it’s delightful. Examples: ‘Worry pas ta brain, bébé’ (chill, baby); ‘Pile on le bois sec’ (let’s move!); ‘Quelle belle shortcut’ (an unexpected dead end) and ‘Quel drag’ (uncool);. I could go on and on, but it’s been snowing all day and l’homme’s just arrived to plower mon driveway.”
Twaddle As an aside on this word, Andy Ibbotson pointed out that degrees Twaddle is an arbitrary scale that measures the specific gravity of liquids denser than water. I presume that this is named for a man with the surname Twaddle rather than asserting the scale is nonsense, though I’ve not been able to confirm this or find out anything about him. (He appears sometimes spelled Twaddell, but this would seem to be an error.)
Updates Recent comments in these columns about the cricket term sledging and the Australian word of the year 2007 from Macquarie Dictionary, pod slurping, have led me to create permanent Web-site items about them. I’ve also written a summary of all the selections for Words of the Year 2007 and have updated the pieces that refer to them. All these are linked from the home page.
Modest, bashful, shy.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this word, published back in 1916, doesn’t suggest it’s obsolete or even rare. It isn’t quite obsolete yet, although it has never been common. You need to have learned Latin in your youth, once standard for educated writers of earlier generations, of course, to have been likely to include this word in your prose.
Its heyday, insofar as it ever had one, was roughly in the half century after 1850. It turns up in an article penned by an erudite columnist in the issue of The Marion Weekly Star of Ohio dated 17 February 1912, in a comment that can only make us marvel at how times have changed:
What this country needs is men who are not afraid to proclaim to the public their virtues of mind and character. There is too little of the projection of self into the arena. Our politics is speckled with men who are so diffident and verecund they never say a word about themselves or their achievements.
The only example I can find from modern times is in Translations by the Irish playwright Brian Friel, first performed in 1980, though set in 1833. In the play, characters speak in Irish, Greek, Latin and English. So an obscure Latinate word fits perfectly: “He speaks — on his own admission — only English; and to his credit he seemed suitably verecund.”
The word is from Latin verecundus, which derives from the verb vereri, to revere or fear.
3. Recently noted
Downman Michael Hocken wrote in to query this term, which turned up in a BBC Scotland news report last Sunday in connection with a security alert on a North Sea oil rig. It was new to me. Anthony Massey, a BBC news producer, also e-mailed me to point it out: “One of the curiosities of working in the BBC newsroom is that every now and again a completely new word swims into your ken.” It seems to be a jargon term of the oil industry and means “evacuation”. It appeared in a press release from the oil rig’s operator: “Britannia Operator Ltd can confirm that the precautionary downman initiated today from the Britannia field has been halted.” It transpired that the partial evacuation was the result of a bomb scare provoked by an over-realistic dream by a person on board. I’ve found a very few examples of the term, the earliest from 2003 in connection with an incident on a Nigerian oil rig. It appears in The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology in 1998, in which it refers to laying off workers, a sense related to downsizing. This didn’t seem to fit. Matters became clearer when Michael Hocken found an example of the associated verb in a CBC report from 1999: “As a precautionary measure, we’re going to down man the rig today and tomorrow.” Down here is indeed in the sense of “reduce the size or number of something”, hence the verb downman means to take men off a rig, either temporarily or permanently. The noun then followed.
Genius wordmaker John Milton’s 400th birthday is being celebrated by an exhibition at his alma mater, Cambridge, for the next six months. Gavin Alexander, a fellow of Milton’s old college, Christ’s, argues his contribution to the language as a creator of new words and new word forms is greater than any other writer in the language, including Shakespeare. He points out in an article available online that the Oxford English Dictionary credits Milton with adding 630 words. Shakespeare has only 229. Without Milton’s multilingual background and substantial powers of invention, we might not now have such words as love-lorn, liturgical, exhilarating, debauchery, besottedly, cherubic, far-sighted, depravity, dismissive, unhealthily, embellishing, fragrance, terrific, padlock, didactic, irresponsible, or unprincipled.
4. Questions & Answers: Butterscotch
[Q] From Peter Zilahy Ingerman: “If I’e managed to get it straight (a dubious proposition at best, of course), caramel is the result of pyrolising sugar syrup. I was under the impression that butterscotch was similar, but made from honey (though the definitions I can find seem to suggest it’s actually butter and brown sugar). This leads to two questions: a) what is butterscotch, and b) why is it called that?”
[A] Don’t look to me for culinary advice — I can burn boiled eggs. My books say that butterscotch is indeed a form of caramel, but made with butter and brown sugar, as you describe, plus a touch of vanilla. That’s the limit of my expertise.
Unfortunately, I can’t do that much better with your second query. Nobody seems to know. Some argue that the second part is actually scorch, from the manner of its making. The Collins Dictionary says that it may have been called that because it was first made in Scotland. Neither suggestion is supported by evidence, though the Scottish link seems plausible because Keillors of Dundee was one firm that made butterscotch commercially.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation (indeed, its only citation) is from 1865. It’s not hard to take that back a while: the first example I can find is from The Boy’s Autumn Book of 1847. Although that was published in New York it quotes a British itinerant seller of sweets. It’s worth quoting at some length for the period flavour (to coin a phrase):
Well, you know, next morning I put my things in my cart, ready for Nottingham goose-fair: the brandy-balls here, by themselves—the butter-scotch there—the tuffey in this place—the black-jack in that; then I filled in with cure-all, and hard-bake, and peppermint pincushions: really it was beautiful to look at, I’d done it so nicely.
Wikipedia states that the first maker of butterscotch was Samuel Parkinson of Doncaster, in 1817. The firm certainly did make it during the nineteenth century and Doncaster became famous for it. However, I’m suspicious of the Wikipedia article, since it cites no sources and claims that Queen Victoria used Thomas Crapper’s famous water closet on a visit to Doncaster in 1851; this would have been hard, as Crapper started his business, in London, ten years later. The Parkinson papers are deposited at the Doncaster Archives, from where Dr Charles Kelham tells me they begin only in 1848, although an article published in The Doncaster Review in September 1896 asserts that “It was on the 11th of May 1817, that the late Mr. Samuel Parkinson commenced the manufacture of butter-scotch.” If he did so, it seems unlikely, from the lack of written evidence before 1847, that he called it by that name.
Other writers argue that the sweetmeat has no link with Scotland. Charles Earl Funk noted in Horsefeathers in 1958: “All directions for the preparation of this candy after it is properly cooked close with some such statement as: Pour upon oiled paper or well-buttered pan and when slightly cool score with a knife into squares.” He points out that one sense of scotch was to score or cut a shallow groove in something.
This seems more reasonable than to assume it was originally Scots, especially in view of the known early history of its manufacture in England. But, as often with word histories, it can’t be proved.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Rowan Williams, plunged into enormous controversy by saying last week in a radio interview and a lecture that it is inevitable that some aspects of sharia law will have to be incorporated into UK law to accommodate our Muslim population. The lecture, at the Royal Courts of Justice before an audience of members of the legal profession, was a detailed and subtle academic argument, hard for a layperson to understand. Leaving aside the issues he raised and the reasons for the immense criticism he has since been subjected to, his half-apology to the meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England this week raised a linguistic issue.
He said, “I must take responsibility for any unclarity and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public.” Unclarity? Every journalist, broadcaster and cartoonist who quoted that sentence has focused on the word through some sort of emphasis. This may have been because it is rare. But why didn’t he use confusion or obscurity? Was it a scholar’s diffidence or was he trying to euphemise his error by means of a terribly British type of negative? I’m sure that it was the former and that he undoubtedly meant unclarity literally, an utterance that lacked clarity. But its history suggests its users often prefer it to retain a penumbra of imprecision.
It was employed in the sense of a deliberate attempt to confuse by hoaxer Alan Sokal, who wrote the famous spurious article Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in Social Text in 1996. He was quoted in Scientific American in March 1998: “‘It took me a lot of writing and rewriting and rewriting before the article reached the desired level of unclarity,’ he chuckles.”
Unclarity has a longer history. It’s recorded in Webster’s Dictionary in 1934 and would therefore seem to be even older still in the US. Though it is most frequently encountered in the academic environment in which Dr Williams is most comfortable, it turns up surprisingly often in popular fiction. John Le Carré used it in Smiley’s People in 1980: “‘Vladimir telephoned the Circus at lunch-time today, sir,’ Mostyn began, leaving some unclarity as to which ‘sir’ he was addressing.”
Another example is in Ghost Ship by Diane Carey, a work from the Star Trek fiction franchise, dated 1988: “To offer unclarity in place of another unclarity — to replace ignorance with ambiguity — is this my only service?” That might be a message for Dr Williams.
• In the 11 February edition of The Oregonian, a description of the movie Kings appears: “A tale of disenfranchisement and the search for identity in which six friends from the west of Ireland reunite after thirty years at a wake.” Scott Jamieson suggests that, after thirty years, you might as well declare the wake perpetual.
• Peter Zilahy Ingerman found a headline on an AP wire story, which has been widely reproduced in newspapers whose sub-editors don’t have time to think about such things: “Water Drops From Air Used on Sugar Fire”. Dr Ingerman commented, “I’m not entirely sure how many different ways I can read this, but it’s certainly at least three!”
• Department of non-sentient hairdressing. In Murder at the Opera by the late Margaret Truman, Miriam Raphael records, she describes a gala opera ball in Washington: “Later, as whiskey and wine and heat and humidity loosened lips and lacquered hair”.
• The Guardian Travel section last Saturday (9 February) included an item on the new winter sport of air-dating, which is speed-dating on ski lifts. The author wrote, “The après-ski cocktail party is outside a bar called Fantastique. As I walk there, past people on crutches and small dogs, I can hear the pounding Euro music.”
• Menachem Vinegrad was sent an advertising e-mail with the subject line, “Celebate Valentine’s Eve”. He feels that that is the last thing anyone would want to do on St Valentine’s Eve.