NEWSLETTER 484: SATURDAY 22 APRIL 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Square meal Lots of people suggested that the various expressions that used square to mean honest or fair came from Masonic ritual. And others pointed out that my reference to the Comstock lode was incorrect, in that it was primarily a silver mine, not gold.
2. Topical Words: Jafaikan
It’s not a word you’ll find in any dictionary, but it can be heard on the streets of London. A number of newspaper articles last week used it to describe a new multicultural dialect that is appearing among young Londoners, whether their parents are of Bengali, West Indian, Arab, Brazilian, or English stock. There’s no doubt that such a dialect has appeared or that the word exists; the fault lies in linking the two.
Jafaikan or Jafaican is a blend of Jamaican and African, created because the parents of most black Londoners came to the UK in the 1940s and 1950s from the West Indies, the majority from Jamaica. The blend also includes fake as its middle element—as a slang term it often appears online as a mildly insulting reference to black Londoners. It has also been used for a black equivalent of a Trustafarian—a well-off, middle-class young black Londoner of West Indian ethnicity. It looks like a black-on-black derogatory formation that has echoes of wigga, originally US but now also British, for a white person who imitates black culture. It seems that journalists have misunderstood the street usage and have applied it wrongly to the dialect.
A team of linguists are investigating this emerging speech form, as a three-year project led by Professor Paul Kerswill at Lancaster University. They prefer the neutral term Multicultural London English (MLE). That’s because its vocabulary is not wholly West Indian, though it’s based on Jamaican patois and contains few words of direct African origin. However, the popular neng, meaning excellent, is ultimately from the Mende language of West Africa, albeit filtered through generations of Jamaicans (it’s certainly not an Australian expression, as an inventive etymologist claimed in the Guardian).
Professor Kerswill commented in an article in New Scientist in December 2005: “A clear new vernacular is emerging in inner London, linking ethnicities, and forging shared identities—often around music like rap, hip-hop, grime or bangra.” One important shift is in pronunciation—older long London vowels are becoming shorter, so that face sounds like fehs; the traditional glottal stop in which t is swallowed in words like butter is now less obvious.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of MLE is that it seems to be displacing Estuary English, the slightly older dialectal pattern formed in London as a mixture of traditional East End speech and standard English. This became almost standard in the 1990s among radio and television personalities who wanted to sound classless and in touch with ordinary people.
3. Weird Words: Vril
A fictional energy source.
We owe this word to the nineteenth-century novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In 1871, he published anonymously a prototypical science-fiction novel, The Coming Race. A utopia in an underground lost world is inhabited by a higher form of man whose strengths derive from an intangible source of power called vril. The narrator, a wealthy young American who stumbles upon the community while exploring a mine, discovers vril is capable of almost anything:
These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of vril, which Faraday would perhaps call ‘atmospheric magnetism’, they can influence the variations of temperature—in plain words, the weather; that by operations, akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, &c., but applied scientifically, through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics.
[Odic here refers to an imaginary force, od, which the famous German chemist Baron von Reichenbach had claimed in an article in 1846 pervaded all nature and which was said to explain mesmerism and animal magnetism.]
Today we find Bulwer-Lytton difficult to read, too florid and long-winded for our tastes (we love making fun of the notorious opening words of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, “It was a dark and stormy night ...”), though The Coming Race is still in print. But during his lifetime he was widely read, only being outsold by Dickens. In 1834, the American Quarterly Review had called him “without doubt, the most popular writer now living”. The Coming Race was extremely successful, going through eight editions in eighteen months, and influenced many later SF writers, including H G Wells. A secret group called the Vril Society was said to have reverse-engineered a flying saucer from a crashed interstellar craft in Germany in the 1930s.
Vril briefly entered the language to mean a strength-giving elixir. Its enduring legacy came with the decision in 1889 to name a concentrated beef tea Bovril, a blend of bovine with the name of Bulwer-Lytton’s energising force.
4. Recently noted
Spear-phishing The ability of computer professionals to come up with fresh jargon never ceases to intrigue observers. We have just about got used to the idea of phishing (a respelled fishing) for an attempt by e-mail to persuade you to visit what seems to be your bank’s Web site—which is actually fake—and hand over your password. Now the idea has been extended. A spear-phisher targets you as an individual with an e-mail message that appears to come from your employer or from your firm’s help desk or a colleague—anybody who might legitimately ask you for your password. If you make the mistake of giving it, your company’s entire computer system is open to fraud.
New online resource World Wide Words subscribers in England (but not the other parts of the UK) are now likely to have free access to several of the major archive resources of the Oxford University Press through their local library membership. All participating libraries have access to the Oxford Reference Online, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Dictionary of National Biography. Most also give access to Grove Art Online and Grove Music Online. The best part is that you don’t need to visit your library: you can log on to the reference sites from any computer at any time using your library card number.
5. Questions & Answers: Hangover
[Q] From Dennis J Hudson, London: “A Sunday newspaper article recently claimed that hangover has nothing to do with alcohol but refers to Victorian workhouses, in which inmates slept by draping their arms over a stretched-out rope which they ‘hung over’ as it supported them. Is there any truth in this?”
[A] None whatsoever, but it’s yet another good example of people jumping to completely the wrong conclusion on the basis of knowing a bit of esoteric information.
There really was once a sleeping system like that. The principal reference I have for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London of 1933: “At the Twopenny Hangover, the lodgers sit in a row on a bench; there is a rope in front of them, and they lean on this as though leaning over a fence. A man, humorously called the valet, cuts the rope at five in the morning. I have never been there myself, but Bozo had been there often. I asked him whether anyone could possibly sleep in such an attitude, and he said that it was more comfortable than it sounded—at any rate, better than bare floor.” It’s mentioned in a work of a century earlier, The Magic Skin by Honoré de Balzac, which was translated into English by Ellen Marriage in 1895: “We ... made it a point of honour to find out whether you were roosting in a tree in the Champs-Elysées, or in one of those philanthropic abodes where the beggars sleep on a twopenny rope.”
The connection sounds pretty convincing, with Orwell actually using hangover to describe the method. But the historical evidence for the word in the alcoholic sense shows that it’s from the idea of something that remains or is left over—a remainder or survival or after-effect—not of a person literally being hung over anything.
Another folk etymology vanquished!
• “I lament the lack of proofreading nowadays,” e-mailed Annmaree Dwyer from Australia, “and cringed when I chanced upon an error as obvious as this from the Lincraft Essentials Catalogue 2006: ‘Make this neckless and earing set with Ribtex Beads.’”
• “On the Enchilosa brand cup of noodles that I bought for lunch,” James Armstrong thoughtfully communicates, “it says ‘Be Careful When Serving Children’. I’ve never served children, but I am a fan of Swift.”
• Jody MacEachern e-mailed on Tuesday, having seen a job advert on the Web site of the Public Service Commission of Canada offering a post with Environment Canada as an “Ocean Disposal Technician”. “Where do you think they put all that water?” she asked.
• A report in the New York Times of 18 April explored the history of a purported feud between two Republican politicians in which—as Dodi Schultz noted with some amusement—this sentence appeared: “Through clenched teeth, he handed me a check for $750,000.”
• And Arnold Zwicky found a splendid mixed metaphor in an article in the 17 April issue of Business Weekly: “Douglas fills a niche that has fallen to the wayside.”