NEWSLETTER 590: SATURDAY 7 JUNE 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Return of the travellers Drifting down the Danube was fun, though the weather was unseasonably hot. But that’s so usual we’ve grown to expect it. Every time we go on holiday to another country, some local guide always remarks, “it’s not usually this hot here at this time of year”, this holiday being no exception. Unfortunately, we have no power over the weather at home. I can also report that the Danube isn’t blue, but a dirty green-brown colour.
Stunned mullets Many readers pointed out — following my review two weeks ago of the dictionary Stunned Mullets and Two-Pot Screamers — that it would have been worth a note to explain to readers who only associate mullets with a deeply unfashionable hairstyle that the example in the Australian phrase is a fish. David Mackenzie quoted me the explanation from the Australian National Dictionary Centre: “The phrase, first recorded in the 1950s, alludes to the goggle-eyed stare (and sometimes gaping mouth) of a fish that has been recently caught and made unconscious. A person typically looks like a stunned mullet as the result of a sudden shock or surprise.” But, come to think of it, the other sort of stunned mullet would make an even better image.
Local language “I’m not sure if you are looking at dialects at all,” writes Marcia Woolf, “but I think Leicestershire pit villages are, if you’ll excuse the pun, a mine of interesting words and usages. My grandmother upset me terribly when I was a small child by saying she was ‘starved’ when she meant she was freezing cold, and ‘fridge’ is used for itchy or scratchy clothing. The crumpet-versus-muffin debate doesn’t exist in Leicestershire, since they’re called pikelets. In Yorkshire a surprised person might ‘go to the foot of our stairs’ but in Leicestershire you go to Bagworth, a local village, whose name is pronounced ‘Bagguth’. If a person in Leicestershire has an itchy nose they’re told it’s a portent of being ‘kissed, cursed or shoved up somebody’s entry’ — an entry, I make haste to explain, being the passageway between two terraced houses, so presumably meaning to be pushed aside.”
Of or relating to a gallows or hanging.
This turned up in a book of curious and interesting words, whose author took its meaning from Winter’s Tale, a futuristic work of magical realism of 1983 by Mark Helprin. Mr Helprin defined it as meaning “delicate in motion, graceful and muffled as in the quiet sound made by ballet slippers. Only to be used in winter and at night.” The words-book author clearly didn’t check in the Oxford English Dictionary, where he would have found far less pleasant associations.
The word is from Latin patibulum, originally a fork-shaped yoke that was put on the necks of criminals or a fork-shaped gibbet in the shape of a vertical letter Y. It could also mean the horizontal bar of the crucifixion cross, or a forked prop to support vines.
Despite the solemn and religious associations its etymology brings to mind, the Oxford English Dictionary says patibulary has mainly been used humorously in English. That’s based on citations such as this, from the Sporting Magazine in 1801: “A certain Corn-Buyer, which had undergone the discipline of a patibulary suspension on a gallows.” But others were deathly serious: in The French Revolution (1837) Thomas Carlyle wrote of the gibbet as “the grim Patibulary Fork ‘forty feet high’”.
The word is now extremely rare. There’s one appearance in a work by Samuel Beckett (“the patibulary melancholy of the lemon of lemons”) and an occasional historical reference, such as this in a book by Edward Payson Evans about the one-time habit of executing animals: “Hangmen often indulged in capricious and supererogatory cruelty in the exercise of their patibulary functions.”
3. Recently noted
Hic! James Fraser asked about pinocity: “I first heard it from a New Zealand winemaker on a Wine Spectator video I received as part of my e-mail service from that magazine. In your opinion, is this a new word?” It’s certainly new to me, but then I’m no wine expert. It presumably means having the nature or characteristics of a wine made from pinot noir grapes. There is some small amount of evidence for it as winery jargon. The earliest that I can find is in John Winthrop Haeger’s book of 2004, North American Pinot Noir.
Staycation Ken Thomson heard this word on TV in San Francisco and thought it had a nice ring to it. It’s a stay-at-home vacation. It seems to have first appeared in 2005 but has become significantly more visible in the past three months because of financial concerns as the economy weakens and the price of fuel keeps going up. Other reasons were given in an article in the Washington Times on 23 March: “Increasing concerns over the environment as well as the desire for more family time add to the staycation’s popularity.”
Whacky Chris Smith reports from Shetland that a friend of his — married to an American diplomat but with a multifarious career of his own — has just got a book out with the title Last Swill and Testament: The Hilarious, Unexpurgated Memoirs of Paul ‘Sailor’ Vernon, which (possibly unwisely) gives an excellent preview of its contents. Mr Vernon notes that US diplomats sent home on psychiatric leave are sometimes cruelly and sarcastically called whack-evacs, a play on med-evac. I’ve since found the term is also used in the US Peace Corps.
4. Questions & Answers: Back to square one
[Q] From Allan Todd: “Do you have any idea about the origin of the phrase back to square one?”
[A] By saying that we are back to square one or back in square one we mean that some problem or error has lost us all the ground we have gained in some enterprise, so that we are now back at the beginning and must start again. It appeared, for example, in a Reuters report dated 13 May 2008 in a quote from the Airbus chief executive: “We have to make some progress but we are not back to square one.”
As you noted in your e-mail to me, there’s a persistent story that it’s linked to the early days of broadcasting in Britain. The first radio commentary on a football match was broadcast by the BBC on 22nd January 1927. To help listeners visualise the pitch [playing field] and where the players and ball were, the producer, Lance Sieveking, worked out a scheme of dividing the pitch into eight numbered squares and had a diagram published in the BBC’s listings guide, Radio Times. The commentator could then say the ball was currently in square five, or square three, or whatever. Square one was to one side of one of the goals.
Ingenious though this suggestion is, it hardly seems plausible, not least because it’s hard to equate being at square one on the pitch with having made no progress (though the teams change ends at half time, commentators didn’t invert the diagram). The numbering scheme was abandoned in the middle 1930s, and the twenty-year gap between then and the first appearance of the expression in print is further indication that it isn’t the source.
The real origin is suggested by the first example we currently know about, which Fred Shapiro of Yale Law School recently found in the Economic Journal in 1952: “He has the problem of maintaining the interest of the reader who is always being sent back to square one in a sort of intellectual game of snakes and ladders.”
5. Questions & Answers: Preventative or preventive
[Q] From Chuck Galle, New Hampshire; a similar question came from Robert A Arey in New Jersey: “I was astonished recently to find you using preventative. My dear late mother decried the word, claiming, as people are wont to do, that it didn’t exist, but was a corruption of preventive. Being a dutiful son I accepted her position unquestioningly, and have abjured its use, thus enjoying a smug superiority hearing it used in American TV commercials and popular programs. Perhaps you will set me right?”
[A] Your mother was in good company, since preventative has been widely disliked down the years. The first known written objection was penned in 1869 by Richard Bache in a book entitled Vulgarisms and Others Errors of Speech (that’s put me in my place). Extreme dislike continues in some style guides: Bryan Garner says in his Modern American Usage, “The strictly correct form is ‘preventive’ (as both noun and adjective) though the corrupt form with the extra internal syllable is unfortunately common.”
It may not be immediately clear why Mr Garner considers my longer form to be corrupt. Preventative includes the ending -ative, which nobody objects to in talkative or exploitative, and it has been in the language since the seventeenth century, about as long as his preferred preventive, though it is today much less common. His reason is that adjectives that end in -ive that are based on Latin roots are traditionally formed from the Latin past participle stem, in this case praevent-, from praevenire, to come before, so making preventive.
Another similarly controversial pair is interpretative and interpretive. This one makes me twitch a little, since I was for many years a heritage interpreter and often needed the adjective in articles and reports. I preferred interpretive, as did most of my colleagues. A reader bitterly complained to me once that it was ill-formed and that interpretative was the correct form. Henry Fowler, in the first edition of Modern English Usage in 1926, agreed with him, the Latin past participle stem in this case being interpretat-, so making interpretative.
The third edition of Fowler, edited by Robert Burchfield in 1996, noted that interpretative is under pressure from interpretive, as quantitative is threatened by quantitive (the Latin past participle here is quantitat-, so quantitative is correct by the usual rule). One reason for the shorter forms being preferred may be the difficulty of correctly articulating those stuttering syllables in the middle of the words.
So why do I like interpretive and preventative? It can’t be that I prefer short forms over longer, since there’s one of each. My chosen pair sound better to me than their alternatives; perhaps I just like words of four syllables. Paint me idiosyncratic.
• Vivian Pryles wondered mightily at a caption in The Age, Melbourne, of 3 June. It was under a photograph of a zoo handler facing a very happy animal. “Dokkoon the Asian elephant trumpets her approval at being two months pregnant to Melbourne Zoo handler Dave McKelson”. Good work there, Dave. The Age, a bunch of spoilsports, changed the caption for the Web version.
• As statements of the bleeding obvious go, Linn Barringer notes, the caption under a video report on the online news site CBS4Denver on 22 May was a beauty: “Police shoot woman with gun.”
• In an op-ed piece by Ethan Gilsdorf in the Boston Globe on 31 May: “When someone nearby fires up a grill, I can smell the unmistakable blend of lighter fluid and charcoal. Then meat. Hmmmm. Chicken? Beef? Next the dog two doors down begins to whelp. Stuck on the back porch again. She only wants to be heard. Who can blame her.” “Perhaps,” John Emery suggests, “we could start a fund to support a neutering program for Mr Gilsdorf’s neighborhood.”
• Elizabeth Rothman found this sentence in Tudor Parfitt’s The Lost Ark of the Covenant: “His own luck was mixed. On the one hand, he inadvertently made one of the greatest discoveries in recent times; on the other, he died six years later without knowing it.” Seems like the best way to go ...