Happy New Year. Thanks for your patience during my absence in December.
In the last issue, dated 1 December, I wrote about maggot in its sense of a whimsical or eccentric idea. Many readers told me that a musical association also exists — some seventeenth and eighteenth century country dances include it in their titles, usually linked to a person’s name, such as Mr Isaac’s Maggot, Huntington’s Maggot, Hill’s Maggot, Betty’s Maggot, and Mr Beveridge’s Maggot.
Other readers mentioned that figurative senses of maggot are still in active use in Ireland. Roger O’Keeffe noted that it’s a term of abuse for an undesirable person and that many readers may know it in that sense from the British Christmas favourite Fairytale of New York by the Pogues. Others mentioned the Irish idiom acting the maggot, playing the fool.
Following my snippet about torrefy in the issue of 24 November, Peter Rugg mentioned Carwardine’s Tea and Coffee House in Bristol, which once boasted the slogan, “The Liquefaction of our Torrefaction Always Brings Satisfaction”. Chas Blacker wrote from Somerset, “A Bristol University student production of Macbeth once replaced the line ‘the multitudinous seas incarnadine’ with an admiring ‘the multitudinous teas in Carwardine’s’.”
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The selection by Oxford Dictionaries of omnishambles as its Word of the Year was noted in a previous issue. The US branch of Oxford Dictionaries curiously chose the verb gif (said as jif), meaning to create an image using the Graphics Interchange Format, GIF, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012.
The British dictionary publisher Collins waited until 20 December to announce its own words of the year. Rather than one for the whole of 2012, its editors chose one for each month, selected from words submitted to its online dictionary by members of the public. The publishers admit that several don’t have the staying power to be worth adding to the print edition. My own guess is that at least 11 of the 12 will soon become footnotes in lexicographical history.
Among these also-rans were June’s choice of Jubilympics, a word I can’t remember having seen in print, a blend combining references to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and to the Olympics. May’s word was from the US: Zuckered, a play on suckered, an allusion to Mark Zuckerberg’s less than successful offering of shares in Facebook. One that became better known, at least in the UK, was games makers for the 70,000 volunteers who helped make the Olympics run smoothly. Mummy porn (or mommy porn) came into being through the success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, its sequels and its imitators. The term Gangnam Style experienced an explosion in exposure after the video in November by the South Korean Psy, whose weird dance became YouTube’s most popular clip. It was only appropriate that Collins’s choice for December was fiscal cliff, a melodramatic but effective pejorative for the huge reduction in US government spending and increase in taxes that was narrowly, if temporarily, averted at the last minute.
The biggest yearly wordfest is that of the American Dialect Society, on whose heads lie responsibility for the whole fashion for words of the year, since they thought of it first. Their annual conference is in Boston this week and their vote for the words of 2012 was held as usual yesterday evening (Friday) in its usual semi-seriousness and high humour. Also as usual, nominations were put forward for terms (words or phrases) in various categories, followed by selecting the overall Word of the Year.
The first chosen was the Most Useful word of the year, which proved to be neither a word nor a phrase but two suffixes, -(po)calypse and -(ma)geddon, which were described as “hyberbolic combining forms for various catastrophes”, such as snowmageddon (first used for the blizzard of February 2010) and alpacalypse (for the Mayan prophesy that the world would end on 21 December; the first part is from alpaca, a poor choice since alpacas are South American, while the Mayans were a Central American civilisation). The winning Most Creative term was gate lice, airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board. In the Most Likely To Succeed category, I expected fiscal cliff to be a runaway winner, but by 156 votes to 8, the winner was marriage equality, in reference to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
One term, legitimate rape, managed to win in two categories, Most Unnecessary and Most Outrageous, both appropriate descriptions of the extraordinary suggestion by the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin that women can’t get pregnant after legitimate rape, a view that lost him the election. The Most Euphemistic term of the year, self-deportation (the policy of making life so hard for illegal immigrants that they voluntarily leave the country), was highlighted by Mitt Romney’s use of it during the presidential primary campaign. There was a special section for Election Word of the Year, which was won by the nomination from the floor of binders full of women, the unfortunate comment by Mitt Romney during the second presidential debate that while he was governor of Massachusetts he asked for more women suitable for public office and was offered binders full of them.
There was a run-off vote in the Least Likely to Succeed class between phablet (an electronic device halfway between a smartphone and a tablet in size) and the write-in candidate YOLO (short for “you only live once”, a Twitter acronym among young people that is not so much about living life to the full but more about brash decisions and unthinking risks — “driving hands-free at 100mph! YOLO!”). A cry came from the audience at this point, “They’re both stupid!”, to which came the reply “That’s the whole point!” The audience agreed, making them joint winners.
The Word of the Year, after much voting in a packed auditorium, was none of these, but hashtag, a write-in from the audience, which is a word or phrase prefixed with the # symbol (usually called hash in the US) which identified keywords or topics in Twitter messages. It narrowly beat marriage equality.
The ADS shares its conference with the American Name Society, which since 2004 has chosen its Names of the Year. Two terms we’ve already met were runners-up: Gangnam, which belongs here because the style is named after an affluent district of Seoul in South Korea, and fiscal cliff, which was voted Trade Name of the Year (not because it is one but because the category title is a catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit other categories). Lovers of British period TV soap opera will be pleased to learn that the choice for fictional name of the year was Downton Abbey. The 2012 overall winner in the onomastic stakes was Sandy, a name that was burned into the brains of East Coast Americans through the hurricane (call it a superstorm if you want another trendy word of 2012) which devastated New Jersey and New York in late October.
To pour milk over one’s own head or that of someone else, either as a silly prank or a form of protest. The former follows other bizarre student fashions like planking and owling. Milking became a YouTube “sensation” in late November 2012, where one jaundiced soul called it “the latest pointless internet craze”. It may have been sparked off by a protest by dairy farmers in Brussels on 26 November against the low price of milk and excessive milk quotas, during which the European Parliament building was sprayed with high-pressure jets of milk, as were the massed ranks of the local police. Some prosperous British students are said to have taken the idea further by creating champagning and porting, a shocking waste of good liquor.
A bookish term, it is often found in serious up-market periodicals, mostly next to nouns such as power, ambition and pride. It is not complimentary. A person or group described as overweening may demonstrate presumptuousness, arrogance, conceit, self-importance or an excessively high opinion of themselves.
While I share the general European aversion to the overweening US firearms lobby, gun ownership has two compelling arguments on its side.
The Independent, 18 Dec. 2012.
The word comes from the older noun and verb overween. Both have now almost entirely vanished but were available to the writers of an earlier age, including John Aubrey in the seventeenth century, who produced this concisely damning word portrait:
A better instance of a squeamish, disobligeing, slighting, insolent, proud fellow perhaps can’t be found than in Gwin, the Earle of Oxford’s Secretary. No reason satisfies him but he overweenes, and cutts some sower faces that would turn the milke in a fair ladie’s breast.
From the collection of essays, not published in his lifetime, that are now known as Aubrey’s Brief Lives.
Perhaps one reason why overween became unfashionable is that we lost its second part. Ween is Old English, a Germanic form that survives, for example, in modern German wähnen, to imagine or to believe wrongly. In English, it meant to think or surmise. By the nineteenth century it had ceased to be a common verb and turned up almost exclusively in the fixed phrase I ween:
Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip
HMS Pinafore, by W S Gilbert, 1878.
The New York Times reports on recent research by Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred Shapiro about the origin of that puzzling American phrase, the whole nine yards. It results from what Fred Shapiro calls “numerical phrase inflation”, having found numerous examples from as far back as 1912 of the whole six yards.
The New Yorker tells the story of an amateur linguist, John Quijada, who invented a language, Ithkuil, on the model of Bishop Wilkins’s Philosophical Language of 350 years before, with the aim of being maximally precise but also maximally concise. He lost control of it to a right-wing Russian group.
Anthony Gardner writes a squib in Intelligent Life, a journal from the publishers of The Economist, about the increasing tendency for people to use abstract nouns such as future, geography and fiction in the plural.
• The Main Line Times of Pennsylvania published this verbatim extract from a police report: “On Dec. 20 shortly before 4 p.m. Lower Merion police responded to the 200 block of Gypsy Lane in Wynnewood on the report of a burglary in progress. A description of a white male wearing a black sweatshirt was observed fleeing the scene.” Thanks to Christopher Hart for sending that.
• Barry Nordin found an article on the death of the 1920s child actor Jack Hanlon in The Huffington Post, though the AP source also turned up verbatim in other media outlets. It ended, “He will be buried in Santa Monica, Calif., along with his wife of 37 years, Jean.”
• “An interesting mental image was raised by a letter in today’s Times,” e-mailed Michael Grosvenor Myer on 14 December: “‘If we were ruled two centuries ago by the pressure groups we are today I doubt if the coal mines would ever have got off the ground.’”
• The London Mail online was visited on the same day from New Zealand by John Neave, who found this report: “He told Cardiff Crown Court that he suffers from ‘sexomnia’ and has a history of trying to sleep with partners while asleep.”
• The Guardian of 13 December included this correction: “A review of Scott Walker’s latest album, Bish Bosch, referred to one of its tracks as SDSS14+3B (Zircon, A Flagpole Sitter). That should of course have been SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter).” Of course.
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