NEWSLETTER 537: SATURDAY 28 APRIL 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Eggcorns Michael Boddy e-mailed from Australia to point out that chaise lounge is not solely an American eggcorn, but one also extremely common in his country. Julia Cresswell remarked that “The damp squid is well established in the UK as well. I heard it in a BBC Radio 4 interview about six weeks ago for the first time, but asking round, found a number of people who were familiar with it, to the extent that it was even an office standing joke.”
2. Weird Words: Nincompoop
A foolish or stupid person.
It’s a silly-sounding word for a silly sort of person.
John Ciardi, in A Browser’s Dictionary, dismissively calls Johnson’s idea “a clerk’s guess” and asserts that it comes instead from the Dutch words nicht om poep, meaning “the female relative of a fool” (poep, a fool, said like the English poop). He commented, “And if that does not work out ... I will be a monkey’s uncle”. Conceivably not, but such a stretched derivation from a foreign language is typical of a type of folk etymology that turns up a lot.
A more intriguing idea, one with a fair level of acceptance, links it with the given name Nicodemus, especially the Pharisee of that name who questioned Christ so naively in the Gospel of St John. This word still exists in French as nicodème, a simpleton, and it may have been modified by the Dutch poep that Ciardi referred to.
3. Turns of Phrase: Two-factor authentication
Why, you may reasonably ask, is this arcane bit of computer jargon popping up here? Agreed, it’s never going to trip lightly off the lips of your neighbourhood bank teller, but it refers to a trend in banking that’s likely to affect all of us, even if we never come to know it by that name.
So the quest has been on to find an alternative acceptable to the public, which works, and which won’t be too much trouble to use. The basic idea is to add a second level of protection to the password — so two factors of authentication. Practicality rules out methods like retinal or fingerprint scans so the current focus is on little electronic devices that do the job for you. You plug in your card and enter your PIN. The device issues you with a time-sensitive code (in the jargon, a one-time password) that you must type in to gain access.
The term two-factor authentication has been around since the early 1990s and appears widely in technical documents, though it’s still rare in general media. The devices are common in businesses, especially to give employees access to secure office systems while on the road. They are now beginning to be made available to bank customers. Security experts warn, however, they won’t stop every kind of attack and may indeed be most useful by building awareness among customers of the need for security.
Scams such as identity theft, “phishing” attempts to trick customers into revealing account details and advanced spyware that can capture a computer user’s passwords have led several banks, including HSBC and Lloyds TSB, to experiment with a technique known as two-factor digital authentication.
[Guardian, 11 Apr. 2007]
Barclays said last year that it would offer two-factor authentication via card readers to all of its two million banking customers.
[Computer Weekly, 24 Apr. 2007]
4. Recently noted
5. Reviews: Balderdash & Piffle
The success of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary rested very substantially on the shoulders of a small army of what were essentially amateurs: readers who scoured books for examples of words for the OED’s editors to use as evidence in creating the entries. It might be thought that such days are over, since there are now so many electronic resources for lexicographers to call on that non-professionals without access are at a fatal disadvantage.
But a BBC television series in 2006, which shares its name with this linked book, proved otherwise. It was arranged in conjunction with a word hunt, looking for prior evidence of a number of terms that had puzzled the OED. Viewers with access to material that hasn’t been digitised and may never be — obscure journals, long-forgotten minor novels, advertisements, letters, even autograph albums — were able to produce some gems of antedating.
You’ll find the results of the Wordhunt written up in the final chapter of this book. We can only hope that the new series, due to begin on BBC2 in May, will produce more of this valuable data (see the OED’s Web site for details).
The main part of this book consists of eight chapters whose themes are those of the programmes in the forthcoming TV series: madness, fashion, obscure eponyms, idioms that refer to dogs, underhand dealings, put-downs and insults, words for bodily functions, and X-rated words. It is entertaining and popularly written, though you may feel the dark side of life and language is overly represented, with no shortage of rude words and words for rude things.
Do not expect great depths of research — it’s not that sort of book — since the author has relied on the OED, Partridge, and a small number of other works for his information. In several cases, this means that his dating is a bit out-of-date (those digital sources again). But the only actual error I’ve so far caught him in is his assertion that in “three sheets to the wind”, a sheet is a sail. No, Mr Games, it’s a rope.
[Alex Games, Balderdash & Piffle, published by BBC Books on 5 April 2007; ISBN13 9781846072352, ISBN10 1846072352; hardback, pp239; publisher's price £9.99.]
• Mícheál Ó Doibhilín (and there’s a good Irish name) came across a startling item in the Dublin Evening Herald last week, reporting police concern at the increased use in criminal feuds in Ireland of pipe-bombs and similar weapons manufactured by ex-paramilitary bomb makers. The police, the report said, were particularly worried by the “increased use of Pope-bombs”.
• Paul in Pennsylvania spotted a news item on the Web site of WSAZ3 in West Virginia, which contained a good example of a malapropism: “Family members of the missing men reported to Kanawha County Sheriff’s Deputies during the afternoon yesterday that they believed the men were lost in the mine. The proper mine authorities were notified and immediately began immobilizing resources including specialized search and rescue teams.”