NEWSLETTER 490: SATURDAY 3 JUNE 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Couldn’t organise a two-car funeral Following my piece on this US expression last week, Michael Grounds noted that “In Australia they say ‘He couldn’t organise a chook raffle’. Raw chooks (which you call chickens) are often raffled in pubs and clubs to raise money for some, usually very local, charity.” Still in Australia, Robert Fry suggests “the measure of one’s competence is often gauged by one’s ability to ‘organise a two-door dunny’” [a dunny being an outside toilet].
R M Bragg suggests an even more forceful condemnation is “couldn’t organize a game of solitaire.” And several subscribers recalled an earthy Americanism, one often attributed to Lyndon B Johnson: “He couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel”.
“Here in the Glasgow area,” John Coyne responded, “one often hears that somebody ‘couldnae run a m’noj’. It puzzled me, too, until I discovered that m’noj is spelled ‘ménage’, and refers to the kind of business run by housewives selling goods on commission from a mail-order catalogue to their circle of acquaintances”.
Several US subscribers pointed out that the expression was in fact a less serious accusation of incompetence than couldn’t organise a one-car funeral. The earliest example of that version I’ve found is from 1968: “Alas, the world is full of bunglers. Some of them are so good they can even mess up a one-car funeral.” That’s older than the first recorded example of two-car funeral and so may be the original form.
2. Reviews: Far From the Madding Gerund
This book is a collection of articles written by two professional linguists, Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K Pullum, all of which were first posted on their Web site, the Language Log. The theme of the site is grammar and correctness in English.
To take some pieces pretty much at random, the authors express hate for that supposed arbiter of correctness, Strunk & White, a “horrid little book”, which they castigate—among other awful sins—for prohibiting sentence-initial however. They bewail the abandonment of grammar teaching in American schools (a view often echoed in the UK), in particular being alarmed at errors of grammar in the official answers to recent SAT practice questions. They patiently explain that Inuit languages really don’t have 80, or 150, or however many words for types of snow, and why. There’s a wonderful deconstruction of the first few paragraphs of that dreadfully written book, The Da Vinci Code. They discuss why wedding vowels often appears when wedding vows is meant (many North Americans don’t fully vocalise final l, so that they say vows and vowels alike). In the section Learn your grammar, Becky, with the subtitle “some disastrously unhelpful guidance on usage”, an article on misplaced modifiers includes this example quoted in the Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage: “Although widely used by the men, Bashilange women were rarely allowed to smoke cannabis”.
This is a book to dip into, not to be read straight through. Nobody will find every item interesting—a discussion of how to pronounce the name of the Iraqi city Samarra, which introduces subtleties of Arabic pronunciation, may be passed over without loss, though you might like to know it means “happy is he who sees it”; the article on analysis of discourse structures will glaze the eyes of anybody not in the field. If you’re flummoxed by such grammatical terms as hierarchical ontology, predicate, nominalisation, count noun, or prepositional phrase, you perhaps ought to give the book a miss. If you’re not sure, the miracle of the Web means you can test-read articles by popping over to the Language Log site.
The book is an example of what looks like a trend: the conversion of blogs into books, or blooks. Every article in the book is still available on the Language Log. So why pay money for what you can read for free? That’s a good question that only the publisher’s sales figures may ultimately answer, but it does suggest that the old-fashioned ink-on-dead-trees, no-batteries-required, go-anywhere book still has some life in it.
[Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K Pullum, Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from the Language Log; published by William, James & Co, Oregon, on 1 May 2006; ISBN 1590280555; paperback, pp360; publisher’s price US$22.00.]
3. Weird Words: Eagre
A river bore.
A bore is a type of tidal wave, a single wave that flows up a river estuary as a result of an especially high tide. It’s an example of what scientists call a soliton, a solitary wave that travels with little loss of energy, retaining its shape and speed but increasing in height as the river narrows and shallows. Among the most famous bores is that on the River Severn, a few miles from me.
A small bore on the Severn
Eagre is said just like eager and is an older dialect name for the phenomenon on the rivers Ouse and Trent as well as the Severn. It’s been written in many ways, among them hygre, higre, agar and aigre. It’s now rarely seen in any spelling.
Though we understand how eagres happen, we’re no nearer discovering the origin of that name. One theory was described by Eliza Chase in her novel Acadia of 1884: “In some northern countries the Bore is called the Eagre. Octavia says this must be because it screws its way so eagerly into the land, but is immediately suppressed, and informed that the name is a corruption of Oegir, the Scandinavian god of the sea.” Dictionary makers are now sure that’s incorrect, but they have nothing to put in its place.
It features in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860): “Above all, the great Floss, along which they wandered with a sense of travel, to see the rushing spring-tide, the awful Eagre, come up like a hungry monster”, and in A Protégée of Jack Hamlin’s by Bret Harte (1894): “The steamer Silveropolis was sharply and steadily cleaving the broad, placid shallows of the Sacramento River. A large wave like an eagre, diverging from its bow, was extending to either bank, swamping the tules and threatening to submerge the lower levees.” [The tule is a clubrush common in California.]
4. Recently noted
European monsoon It has been raining hard here. Until the weather cleared up this week we had suffered a month of bands of heavy rain sweeping north-east and hadn’t seen the sun other than in brief glimpses. Rainfall has been about one and a half times the monthly average. Yes, typical Brits, always talking about the weather. But it was only this week that I learned that we’ve been experiencing what some meteorologists call the European monsoon, except we got it a bit early and rather badly this year. High temperatures over continental Europe interact with cold air over Greenland ice sheets to intensify the Westerlies coming off the Atlantic. Compared with the Indian monsoon, it’s a drop in the ocean, so to speak, but in normal years it washes out the Glastonbury festival and interrupts play at Wimbledon. The experts predict that it will strengthen in the future as a result of global warming.
Cub This abbreviation has become known in Australia. It stands for “cashed-up bogan” and refers to a type of young white working-class male. Bogan by itself has been used both in Australian and in New Zealand in recent decades, either for someone stupidly conventional and old-fashioned or a person who is uncouth or uncultured. It’s said to have started in Melbourne and to have been popularised by The Comedy Company, a television programme that aired in Australia for a couple of years in the late 1980s. Where it comes from is uncertain. Several places in New South Wales have it in their names (and there’s also Bogan shower, a dust storm). Pam Peters of the Australian Dictionary Research Centre suggests that these may have been borrowed in the nineteenth century from the name of a local tribe of aborigines. The other half of the name, cashed-up, is an Australian colloquial term meaning well-supplied with money, which was originally applied to seasonal workers who had just been paid. From my position half a world away, there seems to be disagreement about the true nature of cubs. An article in the Age of Melbourne describes them as “extremely well-heeled, skilled, blue-collar workers” and says they are being wooed by advertisers because they are both moneyed and aspirational. But other sources describe them in derogatory terms as violent, anti-social and unintelligent, so sounding like the much-derided British chavs.
5. Questions & Answers: Circular
[Q] From Moshe Haven: “I work for the Federal Government. At the end of a presentation the other day, on a regulation from the Office of Management and Budget, the speaker asked if anyone knew why such regulations were called circulars. She explained that in the early days of the Republic such regulations went out on paper that was scrolled up to look like a tube. Do you have any idea if this was actually the derivation of the term for government regulations for Federal agencies being called circulars?”
[A] Assuming the speaker wasn’t having a bit of quiet fun, that’s a splendid example of popular etymology, one to add to my collection. You might as well argue that circulars are called that because they were originally printed on round pieces of paper.
The origin of their name is as straightforward as you could want. Circular was originally an adjective in phrases like circular letter. Certain types of missives came to be called that because they were circulated among a group of people. Presumably it began because each in turn read it and passed it to the next recipient, eventually returning it to the original sender (think of office documents with a distribution list attached). But by the time of the first known example, in Bishop Brian Walton’s The Considerator Considered of 1659, the idea of individual copies being despatched to a list of recipients is presumably meant: “Their chief Priest ... sends circular letters to the rest about their solemn feasts.”
In time, the phrase circular letter came to be abbreviated. When Henry Todd produced an updated version of Dr Johnson’s dictionary in 1818, he added what we would now call a usage note to the entry on circular letter: “Modern affectation has changed this expression into the substantive; and we now hear of nothing but circulars from publick offices, and circulars from superintendants of a feast or club.”
• Paul Birch reports that the Vancouver Bach Choir recently performed Mozart’s Requiem, conducted by Bernard Labadie. Concert goers were told about the event by e-mail, but the message must have been put through a spellchecker before being delivered: “Maestro Libido will conduct this outstanding choir, which has previously sung in London at St. Martini’s-in-the-Field.”
• Leonard Blomstrand was startled by a headline on the BBC News Web site, “Tailoring lessons for every pupil”. He commented that “The prospect of all children being taught how to make their own clothes made me sit up.”
• Molly Cutpurse (a nom-de-net, I presume) tells me that she saw this in the Purfleet Heritage Centre in Essex: “The three ballads all relate to the same event—the murder in 1874 of Alice Boughen, a child of five, by Richard Coates, aged twenty one, her schoolmaster and a gunner in the Royal Artillery at Purfleet. They are now in the Thurrock Museum.” And there were we thinking that they’d been decently buried long ago.
• George Thompson confided, “I saw a sign yesterday in front of a nail salon on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, offering ‘manicures and penicures’. Please tell me this is an error.”