NEWSLETTER 566: SATURDAY 15 DECEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Moof Technically aware readers were quick to point out, following my little note about this word last time, that Microsoft was using a term that had been linked with Apple Computers since 1988 and which at one point the firm had trademarked. Clarus the Dogcow is the name given to a creature whose image at times appeared on an Apple Mac. She was said to make a noise Mac people spell moof!, as a vocal blend of moo and woof. (I can’t believe that at my time of life I’m actually writing this stuff.) James Rose commented, “I suspect that the genius of the PR person you mention is the well-documented genius of Microsoft for appropriation.” Said like a true Apple aficionado. The story behind Clarus here may tell you more than you want to know.
More book titles The reference last week to the unfortunate title Cooking With Pooh brought in more references to works that should have been run past somebody with a sense of humour before being published. Karl Clarke said that his favourite so far is a medical textbook, Psoriasis At Your Fingertips. Art Scott mentioned Scouts in Bondage, a compendium of similar titles, published by Michael Bell. Among his selections is How to Recognise Leprosy: A Popular Guide. As I commented in a recent radio interview, I sometimes feel that my Gallimaufry fits into this category, since my publisher’s dictionaries define the word as “a confused jumble”. But my personal favourite is one I saw in Hove library 50 years ago: How to Grow Cut Flowers.
No peace for the wicked World Wide Words will appear as usual on 22 and 29 December.
2. Weird Words: Teleplasmic
Relating to teleplasm.
Teleplasm is another word for ectoplasm, the supernatural substance that’s said to exude from the body of a medium during a trance. This appearance of the word is in Dumbstruck: a Cultural History of Ventriloquism by Steven Connor, published in 2000:
In one remarkable image, the teleplasmic larynx sits on her head like a caul, while a thin but perfectly visible thread runs into her ear; in others the miniature teleplasmic mass rests on her shoulder, connected to her by a thick cable that runs into her nose.
Teleplasm is rather younger than ectoplasm, appearing only in the middle 1920s. It was obviously modelled on the latter, which starts to appear a couple of decades earlier. Both are based on Latin and Greek plasma, something formed, moulded, or simulated. This is the source of the ending -plasm that refers to living tissue in words such as cytoplasm and protoplasm. Ecto- means outside, so ectoplasm is a living tissue formed by the medium outside her body; tele- here means much the same, though its root sense is something happening at a distance.
A recent appearance in fiction is in the 1998 Hugo Award-winning SF novel by Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found The Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last, described in one review as “a time travel story, a mystery, a romance, and a screwball comedy: think Bringing Up Baby meets Three Men in a Boat”, in which a fake seance occurs:
“How wonderful!” Mrs. Mering said. “Do come sit down. Baine, pull up a chair for Madame Iritosky.” “No, no,” Madame Iritosky said, indicating Professor Peddick’s chair. “It is here that the teleplasmic vibrations converge.” Professor Peddick obligingly changed chairs.
3. Recently noted
Geek treat Another Word of the Year, this time from the dictionary maker Merriam-Webster. It presented a list of 20 words on its Web site that had been the subject of a particularly large number of searches during the past year and asked visitors to vote. The winner is wOOt, an unlikely choice that makes one wonder if electronic ballot-stuffing has been going on. WOOt is indeed spelled with a couple of zeroes in the middle but it’s pronounced woot. It’s a small cry of joy, perhaps after completing some task, after besting an opponent, or for no reason at all. Merriam-Webster says, “It became popular in online gaming as part of what is known as l33t (‘leet’, or ‘elite’) speak, an esoteric computer language in which numbers and symbols are put together to look like letters.”
Its origins are disputed. Some say it’s a blend of “Wow! Loot!”, a cry that might go up when a Dungeons & Dragons player finds treasure; Merriam-Webster notes it might be an acronym for “we owned the other team”; others argue that it derives from Scots hoot!, which really is a bit of a hoot, since the Scots word expresses annoyance, disgust, incredulity or remonstrance with not a scintilla of pleasure in it at all.
Grant Barrett, who runs the Double-Tongued Dictionary site, is sure these are all folk etymologies. He says that woot was most likely derived from and popularised by the dance catchphrase of 1993 in the US, whoot, there it is! He notes, “In clubs and on dance floors across the country, in half-time shows and in baseball stadiums, ‘whoot, there it is’ and plain ‘woot!’ were shouted long and loud by millions. It was used by hype men at hip-hop shows, dancers and cheerleaders at ball games, DJs at discos, and probably by ball-callers at bingos.”
But what of its future? Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, was quoted by the Associated Press as being rather less than wOOtish about it. “It’s amusing, but it’s limited to a small community and unlikely to spread and unlikely to last”.
Wörter des Jahres In case you feel that it’s only English speakers who give annual locutionary accolades, let me quote you two in the German language. Klimakatastrophe (climate disaster) is the pick of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the Society of the German Language), which it says concisely points up the direction in which climate change is heading. The term is much more powerful than our weaselling climate change or global warming. Last week, a jury of Swiss journalists made a climate-change term their linguistic unword of the year (one they consider to be crassly inappropriate) by selecting the word Klimakompensation (climate compensation; the English equivalent is carbon offset). This refers to the way that some people salve their consciences — for example — by paying into a tree-planting scheme to offset the environmental effect of their taking a long-haul flight somewhere. The same jury chose as their Word of the Year Sterbetourismus (death tourism, which has been used as the English equivalent) which refers to the practice of terminally ill people travelling to Switzerland to take advantage of the country’s liberal laws that permit assisted suicide.
Wotta lotta WOTYs What will almost certainly not be the last word on Words of the Year (WOTYs) appeared in an article in the New York Times on Tuesday. “Jan Freeman, a language columnist for The Boston Globe, has grown weary of it all. ‘The WOTY season now rivals our endless holiday shopfest, stretching from Halloween into January,’ she wrote. ‘I can’t help thinking that 10 weeks of WOTY fever is about eight weeks more than anyone wants.’”
4. Questions & Answers: Cut and dried
[Q] From Murray Berkowitz: “I would appreciate help with the origin of the expression cut and dried if you would.”
[A] Something that is cut and dried (sometimes cut and dry) is prearranged or inflexible, completely decided in advance, so it lacks freshness, originality or spontaneity. So much is known, but the expression itself often exercises the ingenuity of people who try to find a rationale for it.
A common American story, harking back to frontier days, is that it comes from meat that has been turned into jerky by cutting it into strips and drying it in the sun so that it will keep on long journeys. An alternative story is that it refers to timber cut and left to season by drying. In either case, the resulting product is standard and unremarkable.
The problem with the second story is that timber was traditionally seasoned in the round and cut afterwards, so that if the expression came from that source, it would be more likely to be dried and cut. The problem with the first is simply that of date and place, since the expression is known from the early eighteenth century in Britain and has no known connection with situations in which dried meat might be encountered.
The true story is likely to be as prosaic as the expression itself. Though we can’t prove it, the saying is almost certainly from the cutting and drying of herbs for sale in herbalists’ shops. Such dried herbs would be pre-prepared and lack freshness.
The first known use of the expression is in a letter to a clergyman in 1710 in which the writer commented that a sermon was “ready cut and dried”, meaning it had been prepared in advance, so lacking freshness and spontaneity. The next recorded use is in a poem by Jonathan Swift in 1730 which speaks of “Sets of Phrases, cut and dry, / Evermore thy Tongue supply” — clichés, in other words.
5. Questions & Answers: Gibus
[Q] From Neill Bassford: “What the heck does gibus mean? I saw it in a Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mystery. From context it might be an article of clothing, a type of hat perhaps, but I find no mention of it in any of my dictionaries.”
[A] It’s one of those words that have almost entirely gone out of the language because the things they refer to are now rarely used. Was the book Murder Must Advertise of 1933? Lord Peter Wimsey is in disguise as Mr Breedon; at one point he’s going down in a lift with a woman: “Mr Bredon the ever-polite, expanded and assumed his gibus during the descent, apparently for the express purpose of taking it off to her when he emerged.” The unknowing reader will be puzzled what the object was and how it might be expanded while in a lift.
You’re spot on with your guess. It’s a type of hat. More precisely, it’s a species of top hat, whose crown can be folded flat to make it easier to carry when visiting the theatre. The general name for them is opera hats or crush hats.
The gibus (the g is soft), often with an initial capital letter, was named after the Frenchman Antoine Gibus, who invented it in the early part of the nineteenth century. Reference books usually say 1823; my Petit Robert dictionary gives 1834 for the first use of the hat’s name in French. Such hats became popular and the word frequently turns up in English works of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the time that Dorothy L Sayers was writing, it was going out of style, as H G Wells noted in a minor work of 1929, The Autocracy of Mr Parham (“His Gibus hat, a trifle old-fashioned in these slovenly times”). If you ever saw the film Top Hat, you may remember that Fred Astaire popped open a collapsible top hat as part of a routine. That was of the Gibus type.
So far as I know, the first appearance in English was in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Book of Snobs of 1848: “Ask little Tom Prig, who is there in all his glory, knows everybody, has a story about every one; and, as he trips home to his lodgings in Jermyn Street, with his gibus-hat and his little glazed pumps, thinks he is the fashionablest young fellow in town, and that he really has passed a night of exquisite enjoyment.”
• “According to the current issue of the Cambridge alumni magazine CAM,” e-mailed Peter Smith, “‘The Great Auk laid a single egg at breeding sites on both sides of the North Atlantic.’ Even assuming that that means one egg at each site, it seems distinctly possible that the poor bird may have become extinct through exhaustion.”
• Jonathan McColl reports that The Press and Journal of Aberdeen had a little filler under a picture of a woman’s face: “Velour tracksuits worn by famous faces such as Coleen McLoughlin, above, were today named the number one fashion disaster, a survey for UKTV Style found.” Mr McColl confesses that he never wears tracksuits on his face, but then he admits his isn’t famous.
• On 7 December, this report appeared in The Geelong Advertiser of Victoria, Australia: “A man hit by a train in Bell Park last night miraculously walked away with serious leg injuries.” Rob Young says it certainly sounded like a miracle to him. However, the report goes on to say he had a broken arm but that his leg was merely gashed.
• The BBC’s Web site reported on new flights to Germany from the UK and ended its brief piece, “Cologne, perhaps best known for its flagrant history, is one of Germany’s most historic cities and is also a major cultural and media hub.” Andreas Schaefer, who lives in the city, suggests it may be the marketing of cologne that is flagrant rather than the history of Cologne.
• Peter Rose tells us that the Sydney Morning Herald Web site for 9 December had a report about potentially lethal legislation: “As you can imagine, we may have unexploded ordinances in there so we need to ensure that it’s safe before anyone goes into the premises.”