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Newsletter 738
28 May 2011

Contents

1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Criticaster.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: As the crow flies.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Soap opera Several readers pointed out that the concept continues to evolve through the creation of space opera, which is applied to SF television series and films such as Star Trek and Star Wars. These are full of incident but are regarded by aficionados of the genre as hopelessly shallow.

Newspaper names The Morrow family supplied two more examples of papers whose titles included the word telephone: the Waco Evening Telephone, published in Waco, Texas, between 1892 and 1903, and the Sylvania Telephone of Sylvania, Georgia, a weekly newspaper which is still in existence. I’ve also since found The People’s Telephone of Red Oak, Iowa (1881–1884). Richard Collins wrote: “One of my favorite newspaper names was the weekly in Viroqua, Wisconsin: the Vernon County Broadcaster-Censor. They have since decided to quit censoring the news, and it is now simply the Broadcaster.” My own favourite odd newspaper name is the Weekly Alibi of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

2. Weird Words: Criticaster/krɪtɪˈkæstə(r)/ Help with IPA

It’s not much met with now, more’s the pity. This is one of its rare appearances in print:

If I were deemed kosher by that classist, racist, misogynistic bunch of criticasters, I would consider it time to retire my pens and legal pads.

A letter by Erica Jong in The New York Times, 1 Feb. 1998, on learning that her book, Of Blessed Memory, had been nominated for The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award.

You may gather it is uncomplimentary. It refers to those who set themselves up as arbiters of taste and literary discernment but whose sensibilities are inadequate to the task. A blast against such petty critics was penned 150 years ago:

What amount of obtuseness will disqualify a criticaster who itches to be tinkering and cobbling the noblest passages of thought that ever issued from mortal brain, while at the same time he stumbles and bungles in sentences of that simplicity and grammatical clearness, as not to tax the powers of a third-form schoolboy to explain?

Notes and Queries, 11 Jun. 1853.

It was coined in the late seventeenth century by adding the ending -aster to critic. The suffix came directly into English from Latin, where it meant an incomplete resemblance. English adapted it to refer to a person of inferior or inadequate qualities. It turns up in a small number of words, of which poetaster, a person who writes bad poetry, and philosophaster, a shallow or pretentious philosopher, are the least rare. Others of similar form — though almost never employed by anybody — are politicaster, a petty or contemptible politician, mathematicaster, a minor or inferior mathematician, and witticaster, an inferior wit or witling.

3. Wordface

In the Richard? A recent randomly chosen Word File item (available Monday to Friday on my Twitter feed) was the idiom up in Annie’s room. That reminded Bruce Napier of another phrase, in Dickie’s meadow, meaning to be in serious difficulties. He had come across it in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman on the March. In a note, Fraser says it was current amongst the North Cumbrians of the Border Regiment in Burma during the Second World War and he speculates that since Richard III was Warden of the West March when younger, based in Carlisle, the meadow might have been Bosworth Field. Nigel Rees records the phrase in two of his collections of domestic catch phrases, Oops, Pardon, Mrs Arden and More Tea, Vicar? and suggests the same origin. He also points out that the 1811 edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined dickie to be a donkey, so that if you were in Dickie’s meadow you might be in the mire. Other suggestions link it with dicky, a British term for a part of the body that isn’t working properly (“he’s got a dicky heart”; “my left knee’s a bit dicky”) and with as tight as Dick’s hatband.

As thick as two planks? Last Wednesday was World Planking Day, an event that may have passed you by. It has nothing to do with timber construction but refers to a curious activity that falls into the same category as the extreme ironing I mentioned the other week. To plank, you lie stiffly horizontal on top of some object. The rules are strict: you must lie face down, your palms flat against your sides and your feet together and pointing at the floor. Having somebody present to take a photograph to post on your social networking page is essential. The crazier the location, the more points you get: the oddest I’ve seen is of a planker lying across the humps of two camels. The activity is most popular in Australia, at least under that name, but two British youngsters, Gary Clarkson and Christian Langdon, claim to have invented it 14 years ago under the less intriguing title of the Lying Down Game. Planking has been in the news because on 22 May a young man named Acton Beale fell seven storeys to his death while planking on the balcony of an apartment block in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.

4. Questions and Answers: As the crow flies

Q From Lynne Spear: I’ve come across an interesting suggestion for the origins of the expression as the crow flies. It’s said that the phrase has its roots in something called raven flocking, a method medieval sailors used to find land. They supposedly kept a raven or a crow on board ship and when the sailors thought they might be near land, they would let the raven or crow loose and would assume land was in the direction that the bird flew. Is this true?

A It’s amazing how people can make a simple topic complicated in the search for a good story.

I’ve not come across raven flocking and can’t find a reference to it anywhere. So far as I know, adult ravens don’t flock: they mate for life and defend a territory. Crows don’t flock either, though the closely similar European rooks do, being gregarious birds that nest in colonies. (As a bit of British ornithological trivia, an old adage has it that you can always tell a crow from a rook, even at a distance: if there’s one bird, it’s a crow, if more than one, they’re rooks.)

You sent me a link that your husband found to a website of sailing trivia. It explains the expression in a related way:

The term As The Crow Flies came from British coastal vessels that customarily carried a cage of crows. Crows detest large expanses of water and head, as straight as a crow flies, towards the nearest land if released at sea — very useful if you were unsure of the nearest land when sailing in foggy waters before the days of radar. The lookout perch on sailing vessels thus became known as the crow’s nest.

I’d hate to see a cage of crows: the birds would probably peck each other to death. And the birds must have had supernatural powers, to be able unerringly to see land through fog. You can tell this is folk etymology through its linking of the story to the crow’s nest, which has no etymological connection with as the crow flies. The crow’s nest was given that name because, like the nest of a crow in a tree, it was perched high on the mast.

The expression can’t be from medieval times, because it’s recorded only from the eighteenth century. And all early instances refer to directions on land with no mention of the sea.

The true explanation lies in British country lore that’s based on observation of the birds. Anyone who has watched a crow flying any distance knows it tends to do so in a steady, unwavering line — not always, but then this is a generalisation of a tendency, not invariable fact. Since the flight of the crow is unaffected by obstacles on the ground, its route came to represent the shortest distance between two points.

This is the earliest example I’ve so far found:

Now the country that those Indians inhabit is upwards of 400 miles broad, and above 600 long, each as the crow flies.

The Gentleman’s and London Magazine, Dec. 1761.

And this slightly later one makes the link explicit:

The Spaniard, if on foot, always travels as the crow flies, which the openness and dryness of the country permits; neither rivers nor the steepest mountains stop his course, he swims over the one, and scales the other, and by this means shortens his journey so considerably, that he can carry an express with greater expedition than any horseman.

The Political Magazine, Nov. 1782.

Another expression from the natural world has a related sense: to make a bee-line for something means to take the shortest and quickest route towards some objective. This comes from another old country belief, that bees returning to the hive after gathering nectar always do so in a straight line. This has been disproved.

5. Sic!

• Michael Daily communicated this sentence from the online New York Times of 21 May: “Messi is an agile, darting virtuoso tethered to a soccer ball with an almost preternatural sense of the field.” With balls like that, who needs players?

• News reports frequently juxtapose ideas incongruously as a result of hurried writing to meet deadlines. For example, the BBC News website of 18 May, seen by Stephen Turner: “She arrived with the Duke of Edinburgh by her side in a dress adorned with 2,091 hand sewn embroidered shamrocks.” A news headline on 20 May, widely syndicated, was spotted by Janet Walker: “Texas woman accused of killing son in court”. Chuck Wuest tells us that CBS News reported on 24 May: “A helicopter flying near Longdale, Oklahoma caught a tornado forming and touching down on tape.”

• “The world turned upside down?” queried John Orford, who encountered an inappropriate idiom in an item in Yahoo UK on 23 May: “Deadly earthquakes could strike out of the blue and kill millions of people, scientists warn.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 28 May 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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