NEWSLETTER 616: SATURDAY 6 DECEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bailout I confused everybody by saying in the last issue, in the item on the Word of the Year from Merriam-Webster, that this word was from the aviation verb to bail out or bale out. This contradicted my assertion in the online piece — about bail and bale — that bail out (and by implication, the derived noun bailout) in the financial sense probably came from the legal one of granting an accused person bail.
Ben Zimmer, a former editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, pointed out in e-mail that the noun bailout, in the financial sense, is actually quite old (he found an example in Time magazine for 9 October 1939) and that the financial sense of the verb bail out dates from 1932, only 7 years after the verb is first recorded in the aviation sense. He argues in a piece he wrote in September 2008 that bailout in this sense does indeed almost certainly derive from the aviation meaning. I’m not entirely convinced, having looked at the evidence again, not least because the aviator’s sense was jargon and probably hadn’t had time to reach a threshold of recognition that would allow a figurative sense to grow out of it. The legal meaning still seems more likely. However, Ben Zimmer believes that all three associations — legal, boat and aviation — combine in the modern bailout and concludes, “It’s somehow fitting that the origin of a name for a messy financial fix is itself pretty messy.”
Not to be sneezed at Some fascinating comments came in following my item about this old idiom. The Revd Dr Margaret Joachim wrote, “There is a long tradition (particularly, I think, in Central Europe) of preceding a joke by sneezing, which indicated that what followed was not to be taken seriously. This made its way into music — the ‘sneeze’ at the beginning of Til Eulenspiegel is very well-known, as is that in Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije.”
Douglas Yates commented, “Eighteenth-century French aristocratic etiquette decreed that, if you could think of nothing pleasant to say in reply to a fellow, you should pause, think, and if desperate change the subject. A common tactic was to take a pinch of snuff to disguise the pause. It seems to me it would soon become apparent that the taking of a pinch of snuff was synonymous with a dismissal of whatever had just been said. Since taking a pinch of snuff would inevitably be followed by a sneeze, could this practice be the origin of both phrases?”
2. Turns of Phrase: Ecotarianism
“Ecotarianism,” wrote Tony Turnbull in The Times on 25 September, “is the new buzzword, a kind of greatest hits of all our favourite food movements from the past decade. It’s about sourcing locally, organically, sustainably, in season and leaving Earth’s resources untouched. It’s goodbye to £3 chickens imported from Thailand and hello to bean casseroles; no to winter asparagus and a resounding yes to celeriac mash.”
Tony Turnbull says ecotarianism was “apparently coined two years ago by a small group of Oxford undergraduates with an interest in food politics”. I can’t confirm that, though the term was used in the title of a paper by Jessica Lee at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in September 2007, in which she noted that it “may be found floating about on the internet in limited usage”; it has been said since to be a catch-all term for anybody who is in general against what is sometimes called industrial food, but who varied in their emphasis.
Ecotarians can be meat-eaters, vegetarians or vegans. At its broadest, it’s an umbrella term for everybody who is concerned to eat food with the lowest possible carbon footprint. From this wide usage, it may be that ecotarianism is actually a blend of ecological with sectarianism rather than with the more obvious vegetarianism.
A good ecotarian bases their model diet on Tara Garnett’s study Cooking Up a Storm, a bible for people who care about food and its impact on the environment.
[Evening Standard, 25 Nov 2008]
It might seem unhelpful to fling in yet another dietary definition, but ecotarianism has a winningly common-sense approach. The concept is simple: eat the foods with the lowest environmental burden, those with the lowest global-warming potential (GWP) and the least chance of messing up the planet via their acidification and pollution potential.
[Observer, 23 Nov. 2008]
The rhetorical device of suddenly breaking off in speech.
This rhetorical trick is perhaps best illustrated by examples of the use of the word. One is from Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm: “‘If you are acquainted with Miss Dobson, a direct invitation should be sent to her,’ said the Duke. ‘If you are not ...’ The aposiopesis was icy.” Another is from P G Wodehouse, in The Adventures of Sally: “‘So ...’ said Mr. Carmyle, becoming articulate, and allowed an impressive aposiopesis to take the place of the rest of the speech.”
It’s a way to imply something without spelling it out, while at the same time suggesting unwillingness or inability to continue, as a result of being overcome by a passion such as modesty, fear or anger.
The word is from Latin, one of that vast stock of rhetorical terms that was the backbone of political training in ancient Rome. When speech was the only way to persuade an audience, mastery of the tricks of oratory was vital. Its origins, however, lie further back, in the Greek aposiopan, be silent.
Many terms of rhetoric are hardly known today and leave us as bemused and uncomprehending as a character in Robert Silverberg’s SF novel Born With the Dead: “They spoke in fragments and ellipses, in periphrastics and aposiopesis, in a style abundant in chiasmus, metonymy, meiosis, oxymoron, and zeugma; their dazzling rhetorical techniques left him baffled and uncomfortable, which beyond much doubt was their intention.” The nineteenth-century historian Lord Macaulay dismissed the need to learn such tricks and the names for them, here quoted in Trevelyan’s Life: “Who ever reasoned better for having been taught the difference between a syllogism and an enthymeme? Who ever composed with greater spirit and elegance because he could define an oxymoron or an aposiopesis?”
4. Recently noted
Girney This turned up in an article in the New Scientist on 22 November. I thought immediately of girning, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “showing one’s teeth in rage, pain or disappointment”, but which is often used for a comic grimace, such as in humorous competitions at fairs (girn comes from grin, by what’s called metathesis, the transposition of sounds or letters in a word; it’s also spelled gurn). But girney is different and seems to be specific to research into primates. Girneys are a type of vocalisation, a bit like human baby talk, by which adult female monkeys establish friendly contact with infant monkeys who are not their own offspring. I haven’t been able to find the origin of the term, which appears for the first time that I can trace in the book Primate Behavior in 1975.
Numerati They’re all out to get you, including mathematicians. It isn’t just paranoia, journalist Stephen Baker asserts in his new book The Numerati: How They’ll Get My Number and Yours. They’re the data miners, who take the vast accumulation of digital data that we involuntarily create in our daily lives and distil information from it that marketers can use to target us individually, based on our known habits and desires. Baker appears to have invented his term, based on the plural ending in literati and glitterati, though Brian Bolt created Dr Numerati in his books on mathematics in the 1980s.
Truman syndrome Thanks to Dave Langford and Ansible, I’m now aware of this novel psychiatric classification. News of it came via an AP report on 24 November which has now appeared in dozens of newspapers, though not the one that graces the Quinion breakfast table. The report says it’s “a delusion afflicting people who are convinced that their lives are secretly playing out on a reality TV show.” Two psychiatrists in the US, Joel and Ian Gold, claim to have heard of more than 50 people with the delusion. They have taken its name from the film The Truman Show, in which Truman Burbank lives out his life unaware that his every moment is broadcast as a TV show.
WOTY updates The editors of Webster’s New World College Dictionary announced the winner of its 2008 Word of the Year competition, as previewed here last week. The winner is overshare, meaning to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, thereby prompting reactions that range from alarmed discomfort to approval. As commentators have noted, it’s a strange choice because it has no particular associations with 2008 and it has been known for a long time: parents were reporting it in mild bemusement as teen slang back in 2000 and it wasn’t new then. Examples on newsgroups date from 1996 and it reached the New York Times in November 1998: “In fact, in an elevator once, making what he considered neighborly conversation, someone told him that he ‘overshares.’” The word gained wider recognition by being used in the cheerleader film Bring it On in 2000. An equivalent of even greater age is TMI, too much information.
5. Questions & Answers: Wax poetic
[Q] From Erol Bozok, Turkey; a related question came from John Russo: “I am wondering if you could explain what wax poetic means and its origin. There is a US-based music band called Wax Poetic and I have heard the phrase or idiom on a couple of other occasions but have never been able to figure out what the speaker meant.”
[A] These days, the verb to wax — if we leave aside such associations as polishing cars and removing hair from legs — mostly turns up in connection with the phases of the moon. The moon waxes when its illuminated face grows larger from new moon to full moon, then wanes until the cycle starts again.
At one time wax was the usual verb meaning to become bigger, but from the fifteenth century onwards it was progressively replaced by grow, so that it survives now only in discussions of the moon or in set phrases such as your wax poetic and similar formations — wax eloquent, wax lyrical, even wax sententious.
I agree this is an idiomatic form that’s not easy to understand. In everyday usage, in which such set forms are bordering on cliché, it means merely to communicate in the way described. So wax poetic means only “speak or write poetically”. Sometimes there’s a hint that the person is doing so increasingly — becoming expansive in his language, figuratively increasing or enlarging the specified quality — but that’s present rarely enough that a connection with the “grow” sense of wax can’t be assumed. However, a link exists, since the usage perpetuates one old sense of the verb, “become or turn”, with a nod to another, in which wax before an adjective meant to gradually increase that quality or become it.
It may be significant that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry for wax was published in 1926, didn’t include this idiomatic sense of the verb and it had to wait until 2006 before it was added to the online entry. The first example in this sense is dated 1842, but there’s no instance included of wax poetic. The earliest I can find is in Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s book of 1872, How I Found Livingstone: “One could almost wax poetic, but we will keep such ambitious ideas for a future day.”
It certainly seems that this construction became common only after the literal usage of the verb had declined to almost nothing.
You may recall that in the issue of 22 November the Sic! section included an item about a Turkish menu that listed Ground veal patties with aborigine, when aubergine was meant. This turns out to be a more widespread and subtle error than it seemed. Arnold Zwicky, Visiting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, has written about it on Language Log.
• Matthew Francis writes. “I saw the following on the Guardian’s site about a new species of ant that’s threatening the UK: ‘Boomsma and his team think it is moved around by the horticultural trade because it hides inside plant pots. “That is the most reasonable hypothesis for how these ants get transported because the ants themselves have lost the ability to fly so they are very poor disbursers,” he said.’ Yes, ants are known for being miserly. Give me grasshoppers any day.”
• Sometimes we can’t be sure whether a bored subeditor is having a joke or not. On Wednesday, the BBC Web site, Henry Drury discovered, had a story about an original Whisky Galore bottle recovered from the wreck of the SS Politician off the Outer Hebrides, which was about to be auctioned. The headline read “Whisky Galore bottle goes under the hammer.”
• “In the online version of the Salina Journal, Kansas,” writes Kevin Dettmer, “I was reading an article about a wind farm, and I ran across this sentence: ‘It represented a positive result to Rep Elaine Bowers, R-Concordia, who recalled the perils of Kansas gales while riding her bicycle and throwing the discus at track meets.’ That event sounds almost as dangerous as hurling the javelin while on roller skates, especially in a strong wind.”