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Newsletter 807
27 October 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Sobriquet.

3. Miscellany.

4. Questions and Answers: Hair of the dog.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Lump it The most common query following last week’s piece concerned the word lumpen, as in lumpenproletariat. The term was coined by Karl Marx in 1850. In German, Lumpen is a rag, Lumpensammler is a rag-and-bone man, Lumpengesindel is the rabble or riff-raff, and Lump is an outdated term for a rogue. Marx meant by lumpenproletariat the lowest and most degraded section of working-class people. The word is related to the English lump, though the two languages diverged many centuries ago. Our lumpen was created in the 1940s from the German word to mean boorish and stupid, though in British English it can also mean lumpy and misshapen, ugly or ponderous, which came about by association with lumpish.

Others mentioned lumper, in the US a labourer hired to load trucks or a dockworker or longshoreman. Tom Halsted noted that lumpers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, unload the catch from fishing vessels. It is from lump, an undifferentiated mass, plus the agent suffix -er — the agent in this case being the worker who carries the lumps of cargo.

Red cent Richard Moloney commented: “An Irish phrase pingin rua (red or copper penny) has similar literal and figurative meanings. I have often wondered whether it was a translation of, or source for, the English phrase. Here is an example from the Irish Times, 18 August 2012 (béal bocht, by the way, means ‘poor mouth’ — to play up or overstate one’s poverty): ‘Broadly, the farmers’ organisations are doing the béal bocht; the poor farmers barely have the pingin rua — why shouldn’t their kids get the college grant?’”

Hebdomadal Many readers made the same point as David Pearson of Dow Jones Newswires in Paris: “Just outpointing, as we say in cablese, that French weekly publications are called la presse hebdomadaire and a magazine like Paris Match is referred to colloquially as un hebdo.” Jacquelyne Lord wrote, “Though hebdomadal seems to be fading out in English, its French counterpart, hebdomadaire is alive here in Québec, where we have les journaux hebdomadaires, in many regions. Our local paper, Le journal hebdomadaire de la côte sud, Le Placoteux, is on the table next to me as I write this. The word is used in other contexts as well, for meetings and the like. I had not realised there was an English version of the word or what its origins were, so thank you for the information.”

Others mentioned that the ancient post of hebdomadar still exists at St Andrews University in Scotland. The Dictionary of the Scottish Language explains, “A name formerly applied in Scottish Universities and Grammar Schools to the member of the staff whose weekly turn it was to supervise the behaviour of the students or pupils.” The CV (résumé) of one Scottish academic notes he had been the hebdomadar at St Andrews for seven years, responsible for student welfare and discipline, so we must presume that the role has expanded somewhat and that a link with a period of seven days has disappeared.

The term also survives in other forms, as Alan Harrison explained: “Hebdomadary is most likely to be found on the notice boards of Anglican cathedrals, indicating the name or title of the canon or minor canon on duty during the current week as the hebdomadary priest.” Michael Marett-Crosby added, “The shortened form hebdom, usually capitalised, is used in Benedictine monasteries for the monk who leads the prayers in rotation for a week and has duties in the choir and refectory. It’s a contraction of hebdomadalis, the word used by St Benedict, and features not only in speech but on printed lists of officials. It’s not in the dictionary, but is familiar to monks and those who visit them.”

2. Weird Words: Sobriquet/ˈsəʊbrɪkeɪ/ Help with IPA

If some individual should adopt an undue familiarity and derisively chuck you under the chin, you might think of several unkind words for the action and your assailant. Sobriquet would not be among them, though a direct connection exists.

It’s a mildly weird word in form and spelling as well as sense. In the 400 years it has been in English it has never lost its French pronunciation, perhaps because it undoubtedly looks French. It has never quite settled on a single spelling, the soubriquet version that reflects an older French form still being fairly common.

In English, as in modern French, it means a nickname.

A 90-minute drive away is the beautiful Spanish cathedral city of Salamanca, the warm glow of its sandstone buildings giving rise to the sobriquet the Golden City.

The Times, 13 Oct. 2012.

Nicknames can be familiar in a good sense — in some situations, to have one bestowed is a mark of acceptance. But they may be derisive (and divisive), picking on a negative characteristic of a person to push them away from membership of a group. The former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher may have been given the sobriquet of the Iron Lady in admiration of her steadfastness, but it wasn’t always meant as a compliment.

We can’t be sure of the origin of the term in French. It grew out of the fifteenth-century soubricquet for a pat or tap under the chin. But there’s doubt about the second part of the word: it might be from Old French bequet, the nose, or from brechet, the breast or chest, the Old French equivalent of English brisket. Whichever part of the body was being tapped, it was certainly insulting. It later shifted to mean a nickname, presumably at first meant to be derogatory and only later a term of affection or friendship.

3. Miscellany

Voting by gene The term genopolitics turned up in Scientific American this month. It’s a newish field of study that investigates whether there is a genetic reason why a person should decide to vote for one party rather than another or indeed to vote at all. There have been dozens of studies on this theme in the past decade, whose results — despite claims to the contrary — have been inconclusive. This isn’t unexpected, as separating the influence of environment from that of heredity is extremely difficult. It is said that the word was coined by Emily Biuso in an article in the New York Times magazine in December 2008.

Squaring things Jessica Thurtell asked me about the typographical term justify, to arrange text so that the margins are straight on both sides. It’s a derived sense from the Latin one of acting justly towards a person, which has led to all our English meanings. Two early senses were to make something right, proper, or reasonable or to render something lawful or legitimate. The idea came from this of making a thing exact or arranging it exactly, or adjusting something to an exact shape or position. It appears first in the middle of the sixteenth century but quickly became a technical term in printing. Metal type was then composed one line at a time in a handheld wooden frame called a stick. If the line was completely filled with type (and equally spaced to fit), it was justified, made right or proper.

Blowing in the wind In 2009, a paediatrician in New York, Dr Nina Pierpont, who campaigns against wind energy in North America, identified what she called wind turbine syndrome. A cocktail of symptoms was said to include nervousness, fear, a compulsion to flee, chest tightness, tinnitus and increased heart rate together with nightmares and other disorders in children. The existence of the syndrome was roundly denied by the World Health Organisation later the same year, arguing that her study was unscientific, based on a small sample of self-selected people and lacking controls. Concerns over the health implications of wind farms have not gone away and the term continues to appear, especially in reports that cite Dr Pierpont’s book. A report by Professor Simon Chapman in the New Scientist last week argued the syndrome is psychogenic, an imagined condition communicated by anti-wind interest groups that causes people to become sick from worry.

Hetegonic Jae Kamel encountered this word online but he has been unsuccessful in finding a definition for it anywhere, as have I. This word is encountered in studies of cosmogony, in particular the formation of the solar system and nebulae. My guess is that it’s a shortened form of heterogonic, another specialist word which refers to a process of differential formation or growth. Can a cosmologist confirm or deny this?

4. Questions and Answers: Hair of the dog

Q From Nicholas Brandes: I’ve heard that hair of the dog originates in an ancient cure for rabies, where the hair of the rabid dog is put into the wound as a supposed cure. Is this right? If so how did it morph into a remedy for a hangover?

A You have heard correctly.

The origin lies in ancient medical practice, which was based in part on sympathetic magic. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, often called the father of medicine, expressed it as “Like cures like”. If you had an ailment, it was argued, the cure would be found in some stuff that mimicked the symptoms. The same idea was expressed in the Latin similia similibus curantur and is the basis of homeopathy, developed by Samuel Hahnemann in the eighteenth century. If you were bitten by a snake, a medication incorporating snake venom was thought to cure the sickness. If bitten by a mad dog, applying a hair of the dog to the bite (sometimes roasted and made into a poultice with honey and herbs) would spare you the risk of rabies, because it was believed that every dog carried about with it an antidote to its own poison.

Hence the oldest and fullest expression of the idea, “the hair of the dog that bit me”. Its specific application to a morning-after dose of alcohol to relieve the effects of the previous night’s over-indulgence goes back at least to classical Greece. The aphoristic phrase “to drive out wine with wine” appears in a play by Antiphanes in the third century BC and in a work by Lucien of Samosata in the first century AD. It’s not quite so old in English:

What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have A haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we both to the braine aright.

A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue, John Heywood, 1546.

As a young man, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys recorded being introduced to the remedy:

Up among my workmen, my head akeing all day from last night’s debauch. To the office all the morning, and at noon dined with Sir W. Batten and Pen, who would needs have me drink two drafts of sack to-day to cure me of last night’s disease, which I thought strange but I think find it true.

Diary, by Samuel Pepys, 3 Apr. 1661. Sack was a dry white wine imported from Spain and the Canaries.

It’s still as popular a saying as it was in the time of the ancient Greeks, though it isn’t always applied to alcohol:

Dunbar thinks laughter may have been favoured by evolution because it helped bring human groups together, which I hope many readers managed to do over the holiday weekend. But this morning there may be a need for a humorous “hair of the dog”. So today’s column offers you some medical humour with which to ease back into your particular salt mine.

Irish Times, 20 Mar. 2012.

5. Sic!

• On the day that Frankel cruised to his record 14th straight win, Michael Hocken found that Britain’s Channel 4 news got themselves in a muddle about how horses are made: “Frankel is the son of 2001 Epsom Derby winner Galileo — a leading stallion in her own right, who won six races during her career.”

• Still in the UK, John Cragg reports that an advertisement in the 11 October issue of the Hampshire Chronicle promoted a Hallowe’en event at his local countryside park. It exhorted visitors to “Drop in anytime to have fun carving nocturnal animals into pumpkins.”

• The subject of Edwin Sundt’s e-mail was “helping the voter”. He was referring to Question B on the annual ballot recently sent to every voter in Montgomery County, Maryland: “Shall the Act to modify the scope of collective bargaining with police employees to permit the exercise of certain management rights without first bargaining the effects of those rights on police employees become law?”

• Kate Kelly found a sentence in the MetroHerald (a daily freesheet in Dublin) on 23 October: “Thanks to the taxi driver who returned my mobile phone to my house which I left in his cab at the weekend.”

• An Australian public-service e-mail about health and safety at work arrived in the mailbox of Millicent Weber: “If in doubt, seek advice before you sustain a debilitating injury.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 27 October 2012

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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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Last modified: 27 October 2012.