E-MAGAZINE 680: SATURDAY 6 MARCH 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Snip? Several people asked me about my comment in one of the Sic! items last week: “With that outlook it’s a snip at £84,995.” Margie Van Handel commented, “Did you really mean snip? If so, would you explain the reference?” Gladly. Snip here is British slang recorded from the 1920s meaning a bargain or something surprisingly cheap. Snip has had other — conflicting — figurative senses down the centuries, including a swindle or deception, a sure thing, an insignificant person, and an easy task.
It’s not a nottle Several ingenious suggestions were submitted for a derivation of nottle, the variation on the bottle I mentioned last time. The most common, and plausible, was nozzle + bottle. However, I finally managed this week to contact the firm mentioned in the article, only to be told that it was a misprint, for the rather better known tottle.
Arnold Zwicky told me of another variation, hottle (a hot bottle). Jocelyn Dodd introduced me to the fottle, a folding bottle. Hottles are still around but fottle never caught on. These sounded intriguing, so I’ve looked into their history and written a piece about them — adding quotations, pictures, a couple of humorous poems and a joke — which is on the Web site. Its tone may be deduced from the title: Notta Lotta Nottle, which is a reference to an old advertisement from the UK’s Milk Marketing Board, Milk’s Gotta Lotta Bottle.
Several readers were sufficiently persuaded by my comment that my searches for nottle were bedevilled by references to Gussie Fink-Nottle that they kindly told me about ways to eliminate such false results. Many thanks to you all, but perhaps I should have made it plainer that my comment was a facetious reference to the continuing popularity of one of Wodehouse’s characters, not a serious complaint. There are more formidable obstacles to finding examples of such words, especially all the misprints for bottle. These are so common, or are so often manufactured through indistinct text being read by optical-character-recognition software, that searches for words like hottle and fottle are difficult in digital archives. But at least I now know why I couldn’t find examples of nottle.
Going to the dogs Readers with good knowledge of the Bible pointed out a number of references, especially Exodus 22:31: “And ye shall be holy men unto me: neither shall ye eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs.” The idea of something that is fit only for dogs is clearly an ancient one.
2. Turns of Phrase: Chillwave
Unless one is immersed in the pop-music scene, genres can come and go before you’ve noticed them. This one appeared in the summer of 2009 and within three months was being described as past its peak, though references to its demise have proved premature.
It has also been derided as one of the dafter genre coinages, and that’s in a scene that has grunge, goat metal, psychobilly, gabba, shoegazing, grebo and grindcore. Other names that have been applied to it are lo-fi (although that’s a generic term dating from the 1980s and didn’t catch on), glo-fi and hypnagogic pop.
As so often with derivative musical forms, it’s difficult to define chillwave. One writer has called it “mellow, cooled-out, laid-back beach music”. Another tried “lo-fi but pop; dance-influenced but bedroom-based; summery but melancholic.” Tracks considered to be definitive include Feel It All Around, by Washed Out, Bicycle by Memory Tapes and Psychic Chasms by Neon Indian.
There is now a name for the latest game in indie rock. “Chillwave” describes those low-fi electropop newbies who deal in hazy, stoned, warped retro grooves.
The Irish Times, 4 Dec. 2009.
It’s a highly anticipated album from a one-man lo-fi band that defines the term “chillwave.” These washed-out electronic beats and smooth melodies will make even the most Minnesota of winters feel like a lazy summer day.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), 31 Jan. 2010.
It refers to something that’s beneath one’s dignity. We hear and read this originally British term much less than we once did; it’s used now more often outside Britain than within it. That’s largely because in the UK it has become a cliché, linked to historical class attitudes that are commonly derided. The result is that it’s difficult to employ it other than facetiously. Sometimes, an attempt at humour leads to its appearing in a weaker sense of a thing that’s merely unfashionable:
Where rosé used to be infra dig, it’s now de rigueur.
Daily Telegraph, 13 May 2009.
It belongs to an earlier age, in which some actions or activities were beneath one’s dignity or demeaning to one’s station in life, a view taken seriously by the middle classes in particular. Commerce was the classic example; to be thought “in trade” would once have been mortifying. To undertake anything artisanal other than as a hobby was also inconceivable.
[Charles Darwin] was taught to see the oppressed black as a “brother”. This explains why, when he went to Edinburgh University at 16, he could apprentice himself to a freed Guyanese slave to learn the art of bird preservation without thinking it infra dig.
The Times, 22 Jan. 2009. The former slave was named John Edmonstone.
Infra dig is a colloquial Latin abbreviation of the phrase infra dignitatem, beneath (one’s) dignity. One example shows that a snobbish antipathy has not always been solely the preserve of the British:
It would be regarded as infra dig., I am told, for an American professor of English to concern himself too actively with the English spoken by nearly a hundred millions of his countrymen. He may, if he will, devote a lifetime to the English dialect of Norfolk or Dorset, but he may not waste his time and his dignity upon the dialect of his janitor, his barber and his trousers-presser.
The American Language, by H.L. Mencken, 1921.
4. What I’ve learned this week
Steaming On A once-favourite expression in Britain, coined at the dawn of the television age, was steam radio for the older medium, implying that it was a technological fossil. It’s becoming very apparent that the rise of new media is leading to scheduled channel-based television being adversely compared with the new-style online, digital, non-linear, watch-it-when-you-want type. In the UK this has led by analogy to steam television being created as a pejorative epithet. But the comparative rarity of its appearances suggests that writers are independently reinventing it at need. The earliest I’ve found was in the Glasgow Sunday Herald in June 1999: “[He] expressed his lack of enthusiasm for digital, based on concern about quality of reception, and advocates that viewers should stick with ‘steam television’ for the time being.” It also appeared in the Guardian last Saturday: “It was said that ‘steam television’ would die, but most people still watch their TV live and the ‘mixed diet’ of channels still works.”
5. Questions and Answers: See-saw
[Q] From Alistair Archibald: At the age of 37 I can’t believe that I have never queried or pondered the origin of the word see-saw, the child’s playground toy, known to the Americans as a teeter-totter, until the other night when reading a book to my daughter in which two bears were playing on one. I had assumed it to be a nonsensical reduplicated compound (I learned that phrase from you!) but the picture in the book made me think of the visual sense of see and saw. The bear at the “up end” of the see-saw had a good view whilst the one at the “down end” didn’t, thus “up bear” could see but “down bear” saw, past tense. Is it as simple as that?
[A] You’re right that see-saw is a reduplicated compound. And I like the author’s reinterpretation of the saying. But the evidence says it’s the see part of the expression that’s the nonsensically reduplicated bit and that saw refers to the wood-cutting tool, not to having seen something.
Brome’s version of the chant goes “see saw, sacke a downe”, while another from about 1685 records “see saw, sack a day”. A third is in another play the following century, Gammer Gurton’s Garland, as “See Saw, sacaradown, / Which is the way to London town?” With this example it had turned into a children’s rhyme, with a version of another rhyme, “See-saw, Margery Daw”, turning up in the same play.
Nobody knows when the playground see-saw was invented. The evidence from language is very late, with the first explicit references not found before the early nineteenth century. But so basic a play toy must surely be very much older. Iona and Peter Opie conjecture in The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes that it may have arisen through children watching sawyers at work and borrowing a plank and a log to play out their up-and-down motion. But this must surely be no more than a guess based on its links with saw.
The device certainly predates the word see-saw, which is the successor to another reduplicated term, the one you mentioned that Americans have retained, the splendid teeter-totter. Various spellings are recorded, one being the East Anglian teeter-cum-tauter and another titter-totter. The latter is the oldest known version, which is first recorded in John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Françoyse of 1530. In that, it’s given as the English equivalent of the old French balenchoeres (now balançoire), from balancer, to balance.
• A leaflet arrived in the post on Monday about events at my local garden centre. For March it says Grow your own potatoes. For April Grow your own month. A nice bunch of Junes would suit me.
• Ross Mackenzie tells us that a National Statistics Publication for Scotland dated 24 February had the title Children Looked After Statistics 2008–09. Was the Scots government perhaps reintroducing child labour? The publication, it transpired, was reporting statistics for children in care, those being “looked after”.
• On Friday, the Guardian included this correction: “On the page of news briefs, a small photo purported to show ‘Lady Gaga, wearing a jewel-encrusted lobster on her head’. A reader notes: ‘She is wearing a crayfish.’ Of course.”
• The Associated Press reported on Friday about claims in a new book that Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il spent millions on “everything from luxury cars, carpets and exotic foods, to monitors that can detect heartbeats of people hiding behind walls and gold-plated handguns.” Peter Weinrich wondered if North Koreans were really that small.
7. Copyright and contact details
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