NEWSLETTER 488: SATURDAY 20 MAY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Omitted letters As I was forced to confront last week, these are easy to leave out and can lead to strange or embarrassing results. Shirley Stevenson tells of a case that was worse than most: “When I was working as a sub-editor at the Blackpool Evening Gazette I encountered an obituary by a young journalist which stated the deceased had been the leader of a male vice choir, who had died while recovering from a short illness, and was created at a local cemetery. The journalist in question left to become a priest.”
Mowhay I discussed this West Country word last week, as a follow-up to the previous week’s Weird Word linhay. Lots of subscribers have since written to mention haymow, a much more common word that’s known in most parts of the English-speaking world. This has a related sense, as the OED describes it: “A rick or stack of hay; in some places applied to the pile of hay stored in a hay-house or barn, or to the compartment of a barn in which hay is stored”.
Spelunker A possible alternative source for the word was suggested by a number of subscribers, possibly Dutch (spelonk, the everyday word for a cave), but almost certainly not from the related German Spelunke.
Andrea Krapf wrote from Austria: “When I read the item, I dissolved in laughter, not because of your writing, but through a linguistic association from my mother tongue, German. In German ‘spelunca’ has survived, you see, in the form ‘Spelunke’. The meaning has shifted somewhat, though. ‘Spelunke’ originally meant a dingy, run-down, potentially dangerous tavern of the kind you might find in the less savoury parts of a seaport; nowadays you can use it to talk about any drinking establishment that is not up to standard. Calling a pub a ‘Spelunke’ is definitely no compliment. The cave element is still there, since a ‘Spelunke’ would be pictured as a dimly lit drinking cavern.” In English, dive pretty much sums it up.
Chester Graham pointed out that Sperlonga, between Rome and Naples, is the site of a villa owned by the Emperor Tiberius. The name is from a natural cave or grotto in which the emperor used to dine. It may be that a well-travelled prototypical spelunker knew the place and the source of the name.
I gave one Latin original in the piece as spelunka; this should have been spelunca, since k was rare in classical Latin.
2. Turns of Phrase: E-thrombosis
This word has gained some publicity in the UK following the launch on 9 May 2006—during National Thrombosis Week—of a campaign by the charity Lifeblood to raise awareness among office staff of the risk of being struck down by it. It’s in effect the same condition as the deep vein thrombosis (also called economy-class syndrome) that’s occasionally suffered by air passengers. The cause is the same: sitting for long periods in the same position, causing a blood clot to form in a vein in the leg.
It may be fascinating,
but take a break!
Two well-publicised cases have highlighted the risks. One was a Bristol freelance computer programmer, who recently collapsed and almost died after spending 12 hours at his screen without a break. A blood clot formed and moved to his lung, where it created a pulmonary embolism. The earlier case, in 2003, was of a young New Zealand man who spent long sessions at his computer. He, too, suffered a pulmonary embolism.
The term is said to have been invented by Dr Richard Beasley of the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, who investigated the latter case.
It is feared millions of people could be at risk of e-thrombosis as the average working week has risen to 45 hours and people are working longer hours than they were three years ago.
[Western Mail, 15 Apr. 2006]
While most of us are aware of the risks of sore eyes or a stiff neck, it appears that lack of movement could make millions vulnerable to a new health risk—e-thrombosis.
[Daily Record, 9 May 2006]
3. Weird Words: Opodeldoc
A type of liniment.
The medieval physician Paracelsus described oppodeltoch, a word he seems to have conjured up from heaven knows where. One suggestion is that he derived it from bits of three other words: opopanax, bdellium, and aristolochia. All three names come from Greek. The first is a foetid gum-resin from the root of a plant resembling the parsnip whose name is from opos, juice, plus panax, all-healing; the second is a fragrant resin related to myrrh; the third means “well-born” and refers to a shrub that in Britain has sometimes been given the name common birthwort because it helped childbirth.
Paracelsus applied the word to a type of medicinal plaster and it appears in English with that sense until the seventeenth century. After that, it shifted dramatically, under the revised spelling of opodeldoc, to refer to various sorts of liniment based on soap dissolved in alcohol, with herbs and aromatic oils added.
A typical use was the one Mrs Beaton recommended in her Book of Household Management of 1861 for the treatment of a sprain: “The joint is to be rubbed twice a day with flannel dipped in opodeldoc, a flannel bandage rolled tightly round the joint, the pressure being greatest at the lowest part, and the patient allowed to walk about with the assistance of a crutch or stick.”
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a number of patent medicines incorporated the word, including Doranstorff’s Opodeldoc, Noakes’s Aethereal Anodyne Opodeldoc, Imperial Anodyne Opodeldoc, and Cajeput Opodeldoc, about the last of which the American Henry Hartshorne wrote in The Household Cyclopedia in 1881: “In several cases of lumbago and deep-seated rheumatic pains, it has been known to succeed in the almost immediate removal of the disease.”
The most famous was Dr Steer’s Opodeldoc, made from Castile soap in alcohol, plus camphor, oils of marjoram and rosemary, and his special ingredient, ammonia. It was advertised in the Times in 1790: “The efficacy of this medicine in the Rheumatism, Lumbago, Bruises, Sprains, Cramps, &c. is universally acknowledged: it is equally serviceable in Numbness, Stiffness, and Weakness of the Joints, and in restoring a proper Circulation to the Limbs when in a Paralytic state. It is also excellent for Burns and Scalds, as well as for the Sting of venomous Insects.”
It goes on to remark that “It is the best embrocation for Horses that are wrung in the Withers.” Truly an all-purpose palliative.
4. Recently noted
Othercott Being the only person in the English-speaking world who has not read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, at least to judge by its sales, I have to rely on others to explain how it could have achieved such success. Many Christians and Jews are deeply offended by its premise that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children by her. This weekend sees the opening of the film of the book and one Christian group has organised a creative boycott. Rather than just persuade people not to see it, they are suggesting that they watch another film instead, DreamWorks’ cuddly kiddy cartoon Over the Hedge, so denying The Da Vinci Code top spot in the box-office rankings on its key first weekend. Othercott as a name for the protest is a neat formation, but I doubt that it will catch on.
Nonflood John Nunnikhoven noted a splendid item of bureaucratese perpetrated by NOAA, the wonderfully named US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The Flood Warning continues for the Connecticut River at West Lebanon... Nonflood flooding is occurring and minor flooding is forecast.” Mr Nunnikhoven comments, “My wife and I had a chuckle last night as we watched a field, visible from our home, slowly become covered with water. We were not successful in determining when the nonflood flooding became flood flooding. However, all is well this morning and the flooded nonflood flooded field is now merely nonsoggy soggy.” I assume it’s a technical term (read: jargon) of NOAA, but that organisation hasn’t responded to my urgent calls for clarification.
Crossbred words redux This department has previously had cause to remark on names given to cross-bred animals, such as tigon for a tiger-lion cross, almost always imitatively formed by blending the names of its parents. The shooting in the Northwest Territories of Canada of a cross between a polar bear and a grizzly—which took place in April but which has only now been reported—has unleashed a minor flood of creative nomenclature. Obvious ones like grolar and pizzly have been joined by pozzly, polizzly, grizolor, and grizzapole. (Since the bear was the offspring of a male grizzly and a female polar bear, grolar is the name that best matches the usual formation rule.) Alternatively, Nunaluk has been proposed, from the Inuit names for the polar bear (Nanuk) and the grizzly bear (Aklak). But whatever you call it, the animal is still dead.
Nevaeh It’s just been announced, based on US social security data, that the girl’s name that’s growing fastest in popularity is this head-scratchingly hard-to-pronounce moniker. Nevaeh is now the 70th most popular US girl’s name, sandwiched between Evelyn and Madeline. Word buffs will immediately realise it is heaven written backwards, surely among the oddest creations in the history of naming. There have been occasional examples around for many decades (I’ve found it recorded as far back as 1921 and it’s presumably older) but the start of its rise to fame more or less coincided with the announcement in May 2000 by Christian rock star Sonny Sandoval that his daughter had been given that name. Nevaeh first appeared on the list of most popular girl’s names at number 268 in 2001 and has been rising ever since. It’s popular in particular with African Americans and evangelical Christians. The headline on the front page of the New York Times on Thursday summed up many people’s attitude to it: “And if It’ s a Boy, Will It Be Lleh?” It’s this whole backwards bit that bothers me. In witchcraft, isn’t saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards a recipe for calling up the Devil? If so, what are you supposed to get when you say “nevaeh”? A little imp with attitude?
5. Questions & Answers: Lord love a duck
[Q] From James Rose: “‘Lord love a duck’: is it a long winded rhyme for an expletive that has to remain unuttered in this polite company, or is there a story behind it? Beyond the Roddy McDowall movie from 1966, Google is failing me. Can you help to shed some light?”
[A] Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a mild expression of surprise, once well known in Britain and dating from the early twentieth century. It has been used a lot in inoffensive situations, so I doubt it is a euphemism for the F-word.
The Oxford English Dictionary has just one example, from—of all sources—James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Paddy Leonard eyed his alemates. Lord love a duck, he said. Look at what I’m standing drinks to!” But T S Eliot also used it, in The Rock of 1934: “Lor-love-a-duck, it’s the missus!”. It also turns up a number of times in the works of P G Wodehouse, the earliest being The Coming of Bill, two years before Ulysses was published: “‘Well, Lord love a duck!’ replied the butler, who in his moments of relaxation was addicted to homely expletives of the lower London type.”
I would unhesitatingly argue that it was originally British, though it has since emigrated to other Commonwealth countries. And that origin is supported by the earliest example I’ve found, in a long-forgotten tale of 1907, The Wheel O’ Fortune, by Louis Tracy, a British journalist and prolific author: “‘Lord love a duck!’ he guffawed. ‘If only I’d ha’ knowed, I could have told my missus. It would have cheered her up for a week.’”
But why should aristocrats amorously dally with anatine animals? And why should their proclivities be turned into an exclamation? Nigel Rees suggests it was a fake Cockney version of “Lord love us!” never uttered in real life. Or it might be a line from some music-hall sketch long gone from memory. Perhaps the whole point about it is that it doesn’t make sense?
• A quote in a story on CNN.com about the film of The Da Vinci Code was forwarded by Steve Bruss and also by Robin Dawes: “‘If we have offended any Christians I would ask them to forgive us, which seems to be one of the main tenements in the New Testament,’ actor Paul Bettany, who plays Silas in the film, said with a smile during an interview with CNN’s Brooke Anderson at the Cannes Film Festival Tuesday.” Tenements in the New Testament? The film’s more off beam than we thought.
• An e-mail that Priceline.com sent to Margaret Chase advertised a “Private Renal Car Pre-Sale Event”. She wonders if they might be kidney-shaped. Or perhaps they run on waste products?
• Gerald Ford comments: “Recently seen on a restaurant menu in Austin, Texas, was a dish containing ‘melted Swill and Cheddar Cheese’. We ordered something else.” Similarly, Laurie Malone notes, “I was in a pub bistro in Manly, a beachside suburb of Sydney NSW, and found the menu included ‘small ladies rump’. I passed it by.”
• From a Telstra Australia brochure, spotted by Bernard Ryan: “Get your BigPond Movie Downloads even faster with Cable Extreme, our new blistering fast cable broadband service. It’s so fast you can even view a full-length feature film in minutes!”