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Newsletter 781
7 April 2012

Contents

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Zemblanity.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Rozzer.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

And more on sentences Clark Stevens e-mailed: “Your discussion took me back to my seventh-grade English classes, Mrs Isabelle Stead presiding. Her unwavering opposition to beginning a sentence with and or but was matched only by her admiration for the novels of Sir Walter Scott. One day, as we were plodding through Quentin Durward, a smart aleck in the back of the room spotted a sentence starting with and. Seizing the chance to ally himself with a colossus of literature, he pointed it out and asked, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ All 4ft 10in of Mrs Stead was momentarily nonplussed. Then she said: ‘Young man, you may begin a sentence with and or but when you can write like Sir Walter Scott.’ And that was the end of that.”

Several readers pointed out that the many ands in the quotation from Genesis in the King James Bible are a quirk of Hebrew. Shayna Kravetz commented, “In part, the reason is the grammatical structure known in Hebrew as the vav ha-hipuch or, in English, the conversive vav. The letter vav, when used as a prefix, functions as ‘and’. But in biblical Hebrew a vav prefix also converts the tense of a verb from past to future or vice versa. The phrase translated as ‘and there was light’, is literally the conversive vav plus the future tense. Modern translators usually don’t bother to reproduce the breathless narrative pulse that this string of ands provides in the Hebrew, and simply turn the verbs around and drop the ands.”

“And another thing...”, e-mailed Anthony Massey, who went on to say something I was groping to express. “While using and at the start of every sentence can give a childlike feel, in the work of a great poet the effect can be one of tremendous power. Take the first half of William Blake’s Jerusalem, four sentences of which begin with and. As Blake knew very well, if you take and away it’s not the same at all:

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England’s mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic Mills?”

Sooth In giving its origin, I should have said that the Sanskrit adjective satyas is a relative, not its origin. In the jargon of the etymological trade, it’s a cognate. Both words actually have a common origin.

Speaking of common origins, others remarked on soothe. Though its meaning has substantially diverged, soothe has the same origin as sooth. In Old English soothe meant to verify something, to prove it to be true. From the sixteenth century on, soothe successively came to mean corroborate some statement, then to flatter or humour a person by agreeing with them, then mollify or appease and so to our current sense of rendering a person or animal calm or quiet. When I searched current newspapers — for the most part unavailingly — for examples of sooth, I was intrigued to see how often soothe was now being spelled sooth. Those who make what is still regarded as an error are actually returning to the word’s roots.

Cooking with Poo Gerry Foley wrote, “In Thai, the word for crab is pronounced with an unaspirated p, which is something between a p and a b — hence crab is sometimes written as bpoo.” So the word doesn’t really sound the same as English poo, though often written that way. In the official transliteration of Thai to English, p represents the unaspirated p, while ph represents the aspirated p (p as in English poo). That’s why Phuket is spelt the way it is — and not pronounced as a coarse expletive.” Roger Denny added, “The correct Thai response on being given a copy of the above book as a gift would be kop khun krap, or ‘thank you’. Krap is a male participle used as a polite termination to a sentence or remark.”

Voting time again World Wide Words has once again been nominated in the LSOFT Choice Awards (now the Mailys), in which you may recall we gained an award in 2009. The contest is organised as monthly heats from April to August; the winner of each becomes a finalist. You can vote every day until 31 August if you want and you have the stamina.

2. Weird Words: Zemblanity

In an ideal lexicographical world, every word ought to be provided with its opposite, its antonym. Ever since 1754, when Horace Walpole included it in a letter, serendipity has had to survive without one. It has only been very recently that its opposite has appeared:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.

Armadillo, by William Boyd, 1998.

It hasn’t yet achieved mainstream status, though Mr Justice Michael Peart used it in a recent legal judgment in the UK and it has been borrowed as the title of a bit of madcap physical theatre, which was performed, for example, at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It has also featured in a book of endangered words. I hadn’t realised that it had been used enough to become endangered.

3. Wordface

Luck of the draw Some words culled at random from recent reading: netwalking is similar to everyday networking with other people, but it’s done in an organised country walk with selected participants, free from interruptions; bathtubbing is an eccentric water sport, so far recorded only in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells (famous for its annual bog snorkelling championships), in which you propel old bathtubs with a kayak paddle (do remember not to pull the bathplug out); pink slime is slang for a form of reconstituted beef, known formally as lean finely textured beef, or by its critics as ammonia-treated beef trimmings, a controversial foodstuff in the US and now also in the UK; mysophobic refers to an irrationally intense fear of dirt or disease (ancient Greek musos, uncleanness); if your skin is erythemal, it’s going pink through irritation or illness (that is, you have erythema). And fortunocracy has been appearing in book reviews to mean a successful group of people who have gained that state not as a result of their abilities but from blind chance; it was coined by Ed Smith in his book Luck: What it Means and Why it Matters (I suspect that fortunocracy may be a temporary formation, unless it gets lucky).

Bradree in bradford In Britain, the surprising victory by George Galloway in a parliamentary by-election in Bradford West a week ago introduced a new word to the political lexicon: bradreeism. It seems to be from a bit of bilingual wordplay. The constituency has many second- or third-generation British Muslim voters, mainly of Pakistani stock. The word is from Urdu biradiri, roughly meaning brotherhood, family or kinship, but which also refers to social stratification based on clan affiliations. It has been blended with the name of the city to create bradree and then confirmed as an English word by adding the -ism suffix. It refers to the way in which political leaders from this community have in the past been chosen from a very small number of families through their connections rather than their talent.

4. Questions and Answers: Rozzer

Q From Andrew: Too much Top Gear [a BBC television series on motoring] makes my mind wander. I was wondering about the origin of the word rozzers for the police, which is the one the presenters always use and which I’ve not heard elsewhere. Any thoughts?

A Off the top of my head, I would have said that rozzer is rather out of fashion as a British slang term for the police and that the Top Gear use of it was affected. However, I find that rozzer does still have quite a wide currency, at least in newspapers, mostly in a mildly deprecatory way:

The rozzers will lose money if they fail their fitness tests — a drop in salary of £3,000 a year has been suggested.

Sunday Times, 18 Mar. 2012.

As I noted in August last year, the current youth favourite is The Feds, though the filth, the pigs and others are still current. Older ones include coppers, the Bill, Woodentops (from a 1950s children’s television programme) and The Plods. Slang terms for police go back a long way, at least to Shakespeare’s bluebottles, from the colour of watchmen’s uniforms. Peeler derives from the name of the founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1828, Sir Robert Peel (as does bobby). From the middle of the nineteenth century, esclop was in fashion, this being back slang for police, though it was usually pronounced (and often spelled) as slop.

Rozzer is easily the most mysterious of the set and one of the oldest still in use — it began to be recorded in the late 1880s. This is the earliest that the Oxford English Dictionary knows of:

Up walks a rozzer and buckles me tight.

Sporting Times, 26 May 1888.

An early suggestion held it was a variation on Robert, again from Sir Robert Peel. Others have unsatisfactorily found a connection to the early nineteenth century French criminal slang for a policeman, roussin or rousse, literally a redhead (from roux), considered to be a despised or marginalised individual. A common supposition is that it comes from Hebrew khazeer or Yiddish chazer, a pig, but this is almost certainly a guess derived from the 1960s slang term. Yet another candidate is the Romany ruzalō, strong. Some point to roosher, contemporary with rozzer, which is listed in Farmer and Henley’s Slang and its Analogues of 1903, but that merely transfers the problem to another word of which we know nothing.

None of these have any direct evidence to support them. Once again, it’s “origin unknown”, I’m afraid.

5. Sic!

• An all-day visitor parking voucher issued by Islington Council to Alan Clayton contained this warning: “You are liable to a penalty charge if you ... do not use the voucher other than as described above.” He commented, “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!”

• Paul Farrington-Douglas saw the headline over a report in the Prague Daily Monitor of 31 March: “Thieves steal car disguised as towing service”.

• An item in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on 29 March reported that soil erosion enforcement was being transferred from the office of the County Drain Commissioner to the office of County Construction. The omission of an f from the headline led to its appearing as “Drain enforcement duties shit away from McElyea”. Michael Sheehan saw it and sent a picture to prove it.

• In the Daily Mirror of 3 April, submitted by Liz: “Sarah claimed to have had an on-off affair with Gordon for seven years in 2008”. That year must have seemed awfully long.

• Wayne Norton found an article from Postmedia News in the Victoria Times Colonist on 2 April informing readers that an increase of 6.5 percent in local electricity rates will mean “an extra $5 a month for the atypical customer.” He wonders how much more the typical customer can expect to pay.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 7 April 2012

Advice on copyright

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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Last modified: 7 April 2012.