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Newsletter 750
20 August 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Did you know?

3. Questions and Answers: Marmalade.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Thanks to everyone who wrote with comments on last week’s issue. It was briefer than usual, and this one is different to usual, because I am unwell. I’m not sure what will happen next week. I’ll let you know.

2. Did you know?

... that the chances are very high that you’re cisgendered? It’s a newish term for the default state of the world’s population, those whose sense of gender identity matches their sex at birth. It was created to avoid the clunky non-transgendered and the pejorative normal. Cis- is from Latin cis, on this side of something, as opposed to trans-, on the opposite side, which is from Latin trans, across.

... that a person born without fingerprints has adermatoglyphia? The term is all Greek: dermato- is from derma/dermat-, skin or hide; glyphia from gluphē, carving; a- means without and, in this case, the -ia ending marks a medical state or disorder.

... that the fashionable term for the police among young people in the UK and Ireland is the Feds? This was much noted in the media during the recent riots, though it’s far from new — Jonathon Green includes an example in his Slang Dictionary from 1997. Watching too much American television — and misunderstanding the term in its US context — is clearly the source of this linguistic inexactitude. Will it totally supersede traditional nicknames such as rozzers, the old Bill, pigs and filth?

3. Questions and Answers: Marmalade

Q From Joan Leary, Alabama; a related question came from Dick Stacy: I was reading an old cookery book the other day and learned that the origin of the word marmalade had some connection with Mary, the Queen of Scotland. This is fascinating! Do tell me more!

A It is fascinating but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Most writers on food and cookery would probably be very willing to admit that they’re not as expert in etymology as they are in the culinary arts. This story proves the point. To be fair, it has been known for many years and was far from new when this appeared:

Spanish oranges had been stored there, and she [Mary] made a new sort of preserve — called after herself as she told them proudly, for the cook at her grandmother’s chateau of Joinville had made it to tempt her appetite when she was ill; “Marie est malade,” he had muttered again and again as he racked his brain to invent something new for her, and “Mariemalade” they had called it ever since.

The Gay Galliard: the Love Story of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Margaret Irwin, 1942.

Mary’s French connections (she was at one time married to Francis, the Dauphin, the eldest son of the then king of France, Henri II) were enough to peg this extraordinary invention to her. This is yet another case of the way that a good story can triumph over historical veracity.

As it happens, the truth is more interesting. The original food wasn’t made from oranges, but from quinces. These were cooked with honey and in the process the unpromising bitter green fruit was transformed into a sweet pink paste, which was stiff enough to be cut with a knife and be served in slices as a kind of dessert. The first of these preserves were made in Portugal and were called marmelada, from the word for quince in Portuguese, marmelo. This is from the Latin melimelum, a sweet variety of apple, in turn from the Greek, usually translated as summer-apple (surely a tautology?), which seems to have been the name for a type of apple grafted on to a quince rootstock.

The product kept well and was exported to Britain in wooden cases. It was at first a luxury item (customs duty was slapped on it in the fifteenth century, so it must have been worth taxing) but English cooks later learned to make their own.

The first name for it was chardecoynes or char de quince, the Old French term for a pulp made from quinces, but the Portuguese alternative began to appear in the latter part of the fifteenth century; in 1524, the papers of King Henry VIII recorded a gift, which in modern English would read, “Presented by Hull of Exeter one box of marmalade”.

An early English recipe called for quinces to be beaten to a pulp with warden apples, boiled with honey until the mixture was thick and then spiced with a mixture of ginger, galingale and cinnamon. The shift to oranges happened rather slowly. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, plums, dates, cherries and other fruits were all made into preserves called marmalades. This has continued to the present day, though in the UK, as a result of EU legislation, it’s now illegal to use marmalade for preserves made from any fruit other than oranges.

In time, the link with quinces was lost and the historical link with them is preserved only in the name, leaving its origin open to ingenious storytelling.

4. Sic!

• Many sources repeated a report about the London riots on 9 August (Margaret Chandler saw it in a Sky News report on the UK/Ireland edition of Yahoo!): “At one point in the evening, various people broke into the back of a stationary lorry. They pulled its contents out onto the road, and some hurled it at police, while others used it to smash windows of a parked bus.”

• A piece by Philip Sherwell on the Telegraph site, dated 31 July, could have been better headlined: “New York Post staff told to keep ‘hacking’ documents”. What had actually happened was that lawyers had instructed the paper’s staff to retain the documents.

• Gerhard Burger found this in a story on News24 in South Africa on 7 August: “A hitchhiker has been arrested after he was found with a blag bag containing 7290kg of dagga.” That’s about 8 tons of dagga (cannabis). The report made clear that the 7,290 referred to its street value in rand, not its weight.

• Cause and effect? A wire-story report from AP that Carola Dunn saw on 6 August in the Register Guard of Eugene, Oregon, also appeared in many other papers: “The oppressive heat already has been blamed on nine deaths in Oklahoma.”

• Peter Taylor was amused but also bemused by an e-mailed newsletter sent by his telephone company: “All new installs and line faults are carried out by Openreach engineers.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 20 August 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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