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Newsletter 722
5 February 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Metagrobolise.

3. Turns of Phrase: Blood minerals.

4. Wordface.

5. Questions and Answers: Dashboard.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Sent down A copious and instructive stream of messages followed my notes about the source of the undergraduate sense of this phrase. (I’ve written it up as a separate piece online.) Most discussed the railway usage of up and down directions. Several readers pointed out that a train leaving either Oxford or Cambridge towards London does so in the down direction (down must change to up at some point in the journey), matching the figurative direction taken by the disgraced undergraduate. This must be so to fit the famous spoonerism: “You have tasted your worm and you must leave Oxford by the town drain.” Dick White pointed out that, matching the utterance of Miss La Creevey in Nicholas Nickleby, a passenger on a train from London to Yorkshire still travels on the down line even though today’s map-based verbal convention says he’s going up.

Ruck The other principal topic of interest to readers in the last issue was the origin of the sporting sense of ruck in rugby and Australian Rules Football. So many subscribers wrote to me about the latter that I now almost comprehend its rules. The consensus is that the Oxford English Dictionary’s first sighting of ruck from the Australian game, dated 1967, is much, much too late. Supporting evidence comes by some sightings in an Australian newspaper archive that puts this use of ruck, and ruckman for the player, back to 1900 if not earlier.

Maloik Laura Bagnell’s memories of this word counter my comment in the last issue that the late heavy metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio might have created it: “I remember my best friend’s elderly Italian grandmother using the term in the early 1970s in Cleveland, Ohio. She would tell her children and grandchildren to behave or she’d put the ‘maloich’ on them. My friend’s immigrant grandmother spoke very little English and it was heavily accented, but I learned to understand the gesture and the word quick enough. Grandmother wouldn’t know heavy metal from heavy cream but the word might have come from a mishearing between the Italian accent and the American ear. But she never said ‘maloicchio’, it was always ‘maloich’ with the hard ‘k’ sound on the end accompanied by a stabbing gesture of the bent-fingered hand.”

2. Weird Words: Metagrobolise

If this word puzzles you, your response is appropriate. That’s what the word means — to puzzle, mystify, baffle or confound. It and its relatives are notable by their extreme rarity. A diligent search is required to find any instances of it.

Your broker is a real dipstick and slick as one too. You don’t need to have your brains metagrobolized by his inscrutable statements to know that something’s amiss.

Sunday Star-News (Wilmington, North Carolina), 20 Jan. 1991.

A previous generation might well have found metagrobolise in this once-famous school story:

“It’s the olive branch,” was Stalky’s comment. “It’s the giddy white flag, by gum! Come to think of it, we have metagrobolized ’em.”

Stalky & Co, by Rudyard Kipling, 1899.

Are you metagrobolised?

Some students of puzzles have adopted metagrobology to describe their pursuit, which makes them metagrobologists. Wikipedia says that the word was first applied to puzzlers in the early 1970s by Rick Irby, a well-known designer and constructor of wire puzzles. I haven’t been able to confirm this.

It’s originally French, invented in the form matagraboliser in 1534 by the humorist and satirist François Rabelais in one of his tales about the giant Gargantua. To create it, Rabelais turned to ancient Latin and Greek, finding the first part in a Greek word that meant vain or frivolous and the rest in cribulum, the Latin for a sieve, which arrived much changed in French via Arabic and Italian as grabeler, to sift (and later into English as garble, to sift the rubbish from spices, which later became our verb meaning to confuse or distort). By Rabelais’s time, grabeler had taken on a broader sense of examining something closely.

Peter Motteux introduced the English to the word metagrobolise in 1693 when he published his revised version of Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of the works of Rabelais: “I have been these eighteen days in metagrabolising this brave speech”. A footnote says that it was “a word forged at pleasure, which signifies the studying and writing of vain things”. However, one French edition suggested it was a burlesque word meaning “to give a lot of trouble for nothing, to bore and annoy others”.

How appropriate that it should confuse writers as to what it means.

3. Turns of Phrase: Blood minerals

Sales of gemstones such as diamonds from mines in Africa have been used to fund groups fighting civil wars in Sierra Leone, the Congo and Angola. In the late 1990s, this trade gave rise to the term conflict diamonds, which was soon joined by the more emotive blood diamonds. Considerable efforts have been made to stop such sales to cut off an important source of funding.

More recently, emphasis has moved to minerals in great demand as sources of the elements needed to make essential components for electronic devices — computers, mobile phones, DVD players. They include cassiterite (an ore of tin), wolframite (of tungsten) and coltan (an important source of niobium and tantalum). All of these are illicitly mined in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the income from them funds the civil war in that country.

By analogy with the older terms, since about 2008 these ores (with the addition of gold) have begun to be called conflict minerals or blood minerals. Efforts are being made, such as through the Frank-Dodd Act in the US (due to come into effect this year), to force electronics firms to get these key elements only from legitimate sources.

Signs are surfacing that manufacturers are taking steps ahead of the U.S. Frank-Dodd act to ensure so-called blood minerals no longer make it into cellphones and other electronic devices.

The Globe and Mail (Boston), 7 Dec. 2010.

Conflict minerals are an increasing cause for concern in eastern Congo, with metals used to make electronics mined in exploitative conditions and the profits used to fund the ongoing war.

PC Pro, Mar. 2011.

4. Wordface

Australian words of the year The Macquarie Dictionary waits until a year has ended before it posts its selection of the words that have come to prominence during it and so its choices mark the end of the words-of-the-year season. The editorial committee has chosen as its Word of the Year 2010 googleganger, “a person with the same name as oneself, whose online references are mixed with one’s own among search results for one’s name”. Runner-up is vuvuzela, the noisy plastic horn that enlivened the football World Cup in South Africa. The People’s Choice award, voted for by the public, is shockumentary.

English in German As with other languages, the vocabulary of German is being strongly influenced by English. A jury chaired by Anatol Stefanowitsch, a professor of linguistics at Hamburg University, has this week given its inaugural selection of English terms that have recently entered German. Before Wikileaks, Germans used to speak of durchgesickerte Unterlagen, leaked documents; they have now learned to say geleakte Dokumente. The new verb leaken, to leak, was voted as the English import of the Year. The jury argued that it’s an enrichment of the German language, fitting perfectly into its sound system, morphology and grammar. That’s not so of the word that came third, whistleblower, a concept for which there hasn’t before been a simple German equivalent; that has to be pummelled somewhat to fit German pronunciation. Further showing the significance of the online world, second place went to entfreunden, a literal translation of the English verb unfriend that’s used on social networking sites.

5. Questions and Answers: Dashboard

Q From Peter McMenamin: What was the dash in dashboard?

A A simple one for a change, with a straightforward answer.

This key component of vehicles, with its gauges and controls, has been called a dashboard since early in the history of motoring. Despite the obvious associations, however, it has nothing to do with speed.

An early railway carriage
An early railway carriage

It’s an example of technological and linguistic conservatism. When railways began, passenger accommodation was built by artisans who were skilled in constructing their road equivalents. They used the same techniques and employed the same vocabulary. They literally put stage coach bodies on bogies and, in Britain and some other countries, continued to call them carriages. The builders of the early motor vehicles likewise borrowed their methods and their language from the horse-drawn vehicles they had long been familiar with. More than a century ago, the unknown writer of a syndicated column in a US newspaper discussed this conservatism under the headline Evolution in Carriages:

The motor carriage is already in evidence, and it, too, bears the earmarks of its horsy, though horseless, origin. One of the latest forms of these carriages bears all over indications of the existence of the horse that isn’t there. In front there is a high leather dashboard to protect the riders against the splashing from the hooves of the absent animal.

Tyrone Daily Herald (Pennsylvania), 28 Oct. 1897.

The sense of dash is the one that refers to the “violent throwing and breaking of water or other liquids upon or against anything”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. The dashboard was a wooden board, or a leather apron like the one that the article mentions. It was placed at the front of a carriage, sleigh or other vehicle to catch the mud or water thrown up by the horses’ hooves and stop it from soaking the driver and his passengers. We would now call it a kind of mudguard.

The very earliest examples of the original sense of dashboard are from the second decade of the nineteenth century. This is a slightly later appearance:

On Monday evening, Lord Lyndhurst was driving a gig near Guildford, when the horse began to kick and plunge, and at length breaking the dash-board, his Lordship and his friend jumped out, and sustained no injuries.

The Morning Post (London), 24 July 1832.

Since horse-drawn vehicles were hardly new, it had presumably had other names before this, although the only other one I can turn up is splash-board, which is contemporary with it.

An early motor mail card

Early motor vehicles left the driver totally exposed to the weather, so the dashboard wasn’t as useless as suggested by the anonymous writer I’ve quoted. It did protect the legs of the driver against wind and rain. A similar design appeared on trolley cars, trams and other vehicles (such as the one at right) and had the same name.

As vehicle designs evolved, a windscreen (windshield) was put in place above the dashboard and the latter became a handy place to put the instruments. But it kept its name.

It has recently stepped even further away from its origins by being borrowed for a computer display that shows useful data such as the time, weather, news headlines, stock prices and phone numbers. It’s a long way from horse-drawn carriages on muddy roads.

6. Sic!

• A conference venue attended by Ernest Freeman posted a sign that might have been better worded: “This way to the Crippling Diseases Lunch”.

• Lesley Browne came across a death notice in the Irish Times of 29 January: “Funeral on Monday following 11.00 am Requiem Mass. Family flowers only. Damnations if desired to Blanchardstown Hospice.”

• Alan Clayton informs us that the cover of the Kindle edition of War and Peace proclaims “War & Peace Formatted for the Kindle by Leo Tolstoy”. A man ahead of his time.

• “In going through safety training at work,” says Randall Bart, “I was amused by the instruction ‘Evacuate to a location that is not alarming.’” Where else?

• I found an intriguing sentence in a letter to the Guardian on 29 January about the reliability of a brand of vacuum cleaner, but then learned John Allen had beaten me to it: “My old Dyson worked for 10 years despite two kids and a dog shedding fur all over the place.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 5 February 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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