NEWSLETTER 581: SATURDAY 29 MARCH 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
In sorrow, not in anger Having spent some hours delving into obscure corners of English history and language to discover the truth about words and phrases, it was mildly dispiriting that the first eight messages that arrived after the newsletter went out last Saturday (and several dozen later) focussed on my mistyping of currant as current in the piece on wigg. I brought this on myself, of course, through including a Sic! section, to which many of the responses were addressed. But it’s not so awful when the responses are humorous, so my thanks to Colm Osiris, who commented, “This must have come as a shock when people ate them”; and Malcolm Ross-Macdonald, who noted, “When I bake wigs, the fruit usually sinks to the bottom of the dough. Is this the origin of ‘undercurrents’?”
Cheryl Caesar commented, “It is a strange thing, but I find myself dashing off more and more of these homophonic typos as I get older. Is it the same for you?” Definitely. And other grammatical or text errors, too, as kindly readers are ever ready to point out, such as my omission of the r from “your own instincts” elsewhere in the same issue.
Gerunds One sentence that a number of readers thought contained an error was this: “Apologies to those affected by a minor hiccup last Saturday that led to the online newsletter not being available when the e-mail one arrived.” The writers suggested that the gerund (verbal noun) being requires a possessive before it, so making the text “online newsletter’s not being”. You had enough on grammar from me in last week’s issue, so I’ll not discuss this in any detail. Grammar books and style guides have long sections on the topic, testifying to its complexity. The authorities accept that the possessive is right in most cases, especially with a pronoun (see “my mistyping” above), but that the issue is less clear-cut when the antecedent is a noun, in particular when it refers to an inanimate object. Summary: my usage was acceptable, not to say less fussy.
Wiggs Derrick Hurlin e-mailed from South Africa to ask in effect whether there was any link between the names of the cake and the British political party, the Whigs, which later became the Liberal Party and now the Liberal Democrats. The party’s name is usually said to derive from a shortening of Scots whiggamore, a nickname given to the seventeenth-century Scottish rebels who marched from the west of Scotland to Edinburgh in what was derisively called the whiggamore raid; the word is from whig, to drive, plus mare.
Between versus among The most frequent comment on this piece was a reference to the folk phrase Between you, me and the gatepost (sometimes lamppost), in which among doesn’t work.
Steam radio Not only has this English phrase been taken into Icelandic, as the questioner confirmed last week, but also — as Harald Beck tells me — into German, as Dampfradio. Doug Meyer mentioned that a similar idea exists among aircrew, who refer to conventional mechanical instruments as steam gauges, as opposed to the glass cockpit, where information is presented to them via cathode ray tubes. He says these “will soon be replaced by solid-state devices similar to screens on notebook computers, so I’m still waiting to hear how the glass cockpit will get steamed.”
It refers to young people restricting their food intake so they can drink more without putting on weight, or drinking rather than eating as a slimming method, or saving money on food so they can afford to get drunk. It’s most common with young women and among students seeking a cheap way to relax from studying and exam pressures.
It was first identified in the US. Everyone agrees that the word is silly — it is said to have been coined a couple of years ago as a spiteful joke against those celebrities who lead hectic social lives and drink to excess but stay as thin as rakes. However, the experts are warning that when it refers to a slimming method, it represents a real and serious problem that can be akin to bulimia and anorexia (hence the name). The association between alcohol abuse and eating disorders has been known about for decades and is well understood by doctors. Perhaps it takes a catchy (or silly) new term to arouse the attention of newspapers and their readers.
It’s a rare example of a word that has seemingly come from nowhere within a heartbeat. The first example I can find in a newspaper is in the New York Times on 2 March. It has appeared widely since.
However stupid the word, drunkorexia sums up the various ways in which eating disorders and alcohol abuse are often bedfellows.
[Sunday Times, 23 Mar. 2008]
Drunkorexia — skipping meals to save the calories for booze — is the latest “food” fad to cross the Atlantic... Sondra Kronberg, an eating disorders specialist based in New York, estimates one in three women aged 18 to 23 restrict food calories so they can drink without gaining weight.
[The Sun, 20 Mar. 2008]
A wooden puppet controlled by strings.
A most mysterious term, this appears in the middle of the nineteenth century, apparently originally an English dialect term for which no antecedents are known. The English Dialect Dictionary of the end of the century has quocken, to vomit or choke, and quocker, a man who goes harvesting at some distance from home, neither of which is any help at all.
It is recorded best in John Camden Hotten’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words of 1859:
The term QUOCKERWODGER, although referring to a wooden toy figure which jerks its limbs about when pulled by a string, has been supplemented with a political meaning. A pseudo-politician, one whose strings of action are pulled by somebody else, is now often termed a QUOCKERWODGER.
Though it is widely recorded in dictionaries of slang at the time, with Farmer and Henley even describing it as common, and it continues to be included in works on historical slang to the present day, it was only briefly fashionable and has rarely appeared in print. The only one I’ve been able to find is in a book of satires edited by William Nation published in 1880: “The shameless arts of the sycophant are not monopolised by Mr. Quocker-wodger and his congeners.”
4. Recently noted
Seismonastic Nothing to do with monasteries; the noun that goes with it, seismonasty, isn’t a variation on a video nasty, either. It turns out to be a term in botany, which appeared in last week’s issue of New Scientist. The first part is from the same source as our word seismic, relating to earthquakes, though the shock here is much less severe and is close to the meaning of the Greek source of the word, the verb to shake. Seismonastic plants are sensitive to vibrations and touch. The example in the article is a species of mimosa, whose leaves close up and appear to wilt if you touch them. It seems to be an adaptation to prevent damage to the plant by the heavy raindrops of tropical storms. The second part, nastic, is another technical term in botany that means a plant’s reaction to a stimulus, such as temperature or light, in a way that’s independent of its source (from Greek nastos, squeezed together). A flower exhibits nastic movement if its flowers open or close as a result of temperature changes.
Punk The recent death of the SF and science writer Sir Arthur C Clarke provoked an article in the Guardian about the various sub-genres of the field. Among the most famous is cyberpunk, stories set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology, in which the second element comes from the US sense of a hoodlum or ruffian. This has spawned a number of offshoots whose names end in -punk, also suggesting a low-life environment, though it is often only marginally present. The best known of these is steampunk, stories set in a period in which electricity has not been developed and life depends on steam power; there’s also the lesser-known biopunk, featuring future periods in which genetic manipulation has become commonplace. Less frequent — existing for the most part only in one SF role-playing game — are clockpunk, stories that consider what life would have been like, say in Renaissance times, if some technology had been perfected long before it was; and stonepunk, bronzepunk and sandalpunk, steampunk stories set in the Stone, Bronze and classical periods respectively. There are still others, such as dieselpunk and spacepunk, but I grow suddenly fatigued.
Mineral patience A question came in from Jim Helbig in Newfoundland that baffled me. He was reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez in English translation and came across this phrase. He suggests that it refers to an extraordinary degree of patience, like that of a mineral that has been waiting for aeons to be mined. I’d not come across it before, but a search finds a few examples. One is in Beach Music by Pat Conroy of 1995: “I had the arm and the mineral patience of the daydreamer and I roamed the outfield green, lamb happy and nervous when southpaws came to the plate.” Perhaps a well-informed reader can help in tracking down the first user of the image for Mr Helbig?
5. Questions & Answers: Mosey
[Q] From Ted Preston, Winnipeg: “I have attempted to find the origin of the word mozy as in ‘Well, I guess I’ll mozy along home.’ A Google search shows an overwhelming number of results for a computer program of the same name, but nothing else. I’ve lived in Canada most of my life, and have heard this word used regularly ever since I was a kid. Any clues on this one?”
[A] It’s more commonly spelled as mosey, which wouldn’t, however, have done a lot to aid your Google search. To many British people, it’s a classic word of old-time Westerns — “Well, I’ll just mosey down to the corral”, meaning to walk or move in a leisurely manner. It’s folksy and informal nowadays in North America. A typical usage appears in Peter Jenkins’s A Walk Across America in 1979: “I made plans to walk down to see Governor Wallace, especially since he told anybody who wanted to talk to him to just mosey on down to the capital.”
The experts scratch their heads over the source of this word. It’s possible to trace it back to the 1820s in the eastern states of the USA. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests tentatively that it may be linked to British dialect terms. One is mosy, a variation on mossy, which might be applied to hair or overripe or decayed vegetables or fruit, presumably from their mouldy appearance; it can also be used of a person befuddled through drink or who looks foolish or stupid for any reason. The word survives in Newfoundland English, where it’s used of the sort of weather that one British radio and TV weather forecaster describes as misty and murky. The other candidate is muzz, of obscure origin, which has meant to study hard or intently, to loiter or hang about aimlessly, or to make someone muzzy or confused. The OED is puzzled by yet another possibility, to mose about, from South Worcestershire dialect, recorded only in the English Dialect Dictionary at the end of the nineteenth century, which is glossed as meaning to go about in a dull, stupid manner.
Out of that glorious muddle of meaning, we might guess that there was once a British dialect word, variously spelled and pronounced, one of whose senses is much like that of “mose about”. As so often, there’s a problem. The earliest appearances of mosey suggest to the OED’s editors that it might have meant “to go away quickly or promptly; to make haste”, though the first examples don’t read like that to my eye. If it’s true, then a link with the British dialect words is less likely.
The OED’s entry doesn’t mention another possible source, given in several works, though equally tentatively — that it might be a shortening and alteration of Spanish vamos, let’s go. If true, this would make it a relative of vamoose and would fit with the earliest sense of moving fast. I am told, though, that there are good phonetic reasons why a shift from vamos to mosey is unlikely.
Short answer: we can’t be sure where it comes from.
• Jim Woodfield reports that his nearby community centre’s recreation guide includes a ballroom dance program. It is described as: “an excellent way to improve your balance, keep you motivated, enhance your memory and meet new friends. Wear proper footwear and lose clothing.” Sounds fun ...
• Continuing the theme, Michael Turniansky has found that, according to the Maryland Transit Authority, one action that can earn you a fine of up to $525 while riding the subway is “lack of shoes, shirt, and/or other inappropriate attire”. He isn’t amused. “Great! Now I have to buy some inappropriate attire just to ride the train.”
• The issue of Guardian Weekly for 21 March, Laurie Malone tells us, contains an article about water-management courses at Cranfield University: “Cranfield is one of the biggest and most popular postgraduate water management providers; it runs two streams within its water management MSc and attracts 60 students a year.”
• Department of anatomical unlikelihood: Jan Loh e-mailed to say that on Thursday the Australian site Real Footy reported on the injury problems of footballer Sean Rusling. His club’s head of football, Geoff Walsh, wouldn’t say when he expected Rusling to return. “It’s his third shoulder, we don’t need to rub his nose in it today.”