NEWSLETTER 511: SATURDAY 28 OCTOBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Your contributions Your response has been most kind, and I’m very grateful for subscribers’ contributions to my begging message that went out in last week’s newsletter. So far, 202 subscribers have responded to it—that’s about 0.4% of the readership. Many, especially those based in Europe, pointed out that I’d missed a trick in not posting instructions for sending money electronically, since Euro transfers are free of charges in Europe. That information is given in the repeated request for contributions below.
Ultimo Following up my piece on this last week, many subscribers mentioned the suburb of Sydney, Australia, with this name. Jennifer Booth explains where it comes from: “Dr John Harris was surgeon to the New South Wales Corps (the notorious ‘Rum Corps’) in the early colonial days of New South Wales. He faced a court martial in 1803 on charges relating to his role as prosecutor in a case against a Rum Corps officer. The case was dismissed, however, because the charge contained a clerical error. It alleged the offence had taken place on ‘the 19th ultimo’ instead of ‘the 19th instant’. Dr Harris named his home ‘Ultimo House’ in memory of the occasion and the name ultimately became that of the surrounding suburb.”
Babyccino Ms Booth, as well as many other Australian readers, tells me that this term long predates its supposed creation by Starbucks. They remember it in use in coffee shops in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide 15 or more years ago. It points up once again that over-hasty assertions about the provenance of words are likely to be wrong! David Tiley told me of an alternative, bubbacchino, which he thinks has been around in Melbourne for at least a decade. Ric Stevens reports, as do others from his country, “In New Zealand the same concoction is known as a ‘fluffy’—in other words, fluffy milk, often with chocolate sprinkled on top and a marshmallow on the saucer.”
Dudgeon In one of its senses, the origin of this word isn’t as unknown as I suggested last week. Marc Picard noted that several reference works say it’s Middle English dogeon, from Anglo-French digeon or dogeon. But that applies to the sense of a type of wood used for dagger handles. We’re still left to puzzle how that transferred to our modern meaning. As an aside, Roy Fowler commented, “I once had a friend whose ambition was to build a house called High Dudgeon on Moot Point.”
2. Turns of Phrase: Biosimilar
The drug industry has been using this word for several years, but it is only now beginning to appear more widely, in part as a result of the recent approval of the first drug of its type by the European Commission, as well as through attempts to create a regulatory framework for them in the US Congress.
A class of drugs that has become available in the past two decades is made by biotechnological processes using living materials such as proteins and enzymes, often genetically engineered and grown in cell cultures. The industry variously calls them biopharmaceuticals, biotechnology drugs and biologics.
Biosimilars are generic, non-proprietary, versions of such drugs. Another name for them is generic biologics. They include insulin, interferon and human growth hormone. Interest in them is growing because patents on the first generation of biologics are expiring.
A complication is that because they’re made using living processes, biologics vary somewhat in nature and effectiveness from batch to batch and they need to be tested in a different way to drugs that have been created by non-living “conventional” chemical processes. Biosimilars are closely related to the branded drugs that they’re designed to replace but they’re not necessarily identical—hence the name.
U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.) plans to introduce legislation in the current session of Congress this fall to create a regulatory framework to approve “biosimilar,” or generic biologic drugs.
[Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 Sep. 2006]
Generics companies are also keen to get into this area, and have started to branch out into biosimilars—generic versions of biotech drugs.
[Guardian, 26 Sep. 2006]
3. Your help requested!
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4. Weird Words: Baragouin
Language so altered as to be unintelligible.
The word itself is strange and uncouth, perhaps part of the reason why it has only rarely been used in English. It’s sixteenth-century French and comes from two words in the Breton dialect, bara, bread, and gwin, wine. It is said that Breton pilgrims on their way to holy places demanded bread and wine from their hosts in inns along the route. The innkeepers, not understanding their barbarous—to them—dialect, created baragouin as a word for a language so strange as to be unintelligible.
The story became confused in the famous dictionary of the French language compiled by Émile Littré in the nineteenth century. He said it was probably from bara + gwenn, white, in reference to the exclamation of Breton soldiers at seeing white bread for the first time.
A classic use was in Two Years in the French West Indies of 1890, in which Lafcadio Hearn commented on the strange speech of black slaves: “He had scarcely acquired some idea of the language of his first masters, when other rulers and another tongue were thrust upon him,—and this may have occurred three or four times! The result is a totally incoherent agglomeration of speech-forms—a baragouin fantastic and unintelligible beyond the power of anyone to imagine who has not heard it.”
In the nineteenth century, it turns up in the speech of East End Londoners in the forms barrakin or barrikin with the sense of gibberish, double-Dutch, or a jumble of words. A rare sighting is in Henry Mayhew’s famous work, London Labour and the London Poor, of 1851, quoting a costermonger on the difficulty of understanding Shakespeare: “The high words in a tragedy we call jaw-breakers, and say we can’t tumble to that barrikin.”
Some writers have suggested that the verb barrack, to jeer derisively at somebody, comes from the same source. But the experts prefer to point to the Northern Irish dialect word of the same spelling (which may be linked to the Scots berrick) that means to boast or brag, a word that my references say is still known among schoolchildren in Belfast.
5. Recently noted
Unparliamentary language The British slang term effing featured in an exchange in the House of Commons on Friday 27 October. George Osborne, the opposition treasury spokesman, employed it during a session of questions with the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. George Osborne claimed to be quoting a Labour minister when he said that Brown would make “an effing awful prime minister”. The Speaker, Michael Martin, firmly told Mr Osborne to apologise. Of course, this had been a bit of grandstanding—the word was clearly intended to be insulting and embarrassing. Effing is odd. For a start, it’s from eff, the only verb to have been created from a letter of the alphabet. It started out as a euphemism but seems to have become almost as offensive to some people as the F-word it was intended to replace—it’s too obvious to be a good euphemism. But the only dictionary I’ve found that explicitly claims it is obscene is the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary. Most works date it from about 1950, but Jonathon Green, editor of the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, says that he has found it in Robert Graves’s First World War memoir Goodbye To All That, in which Graves is writing of an event in about 1916. The term also appears in the extended form effing and blinding, to swear continuously, the second word representing blimey, a shortened version of may God blind me.
Eh? Commentators were queuing up last weekend to savage the new tourist slogan created for Seattle by its Convention and Visitors Bureau as the result of an expensive 16-month project. Locals were sceptical, two suggesting it made them think of an airport where you can buy organic bananas and an urban nudist camp. The Bureau says it evokes Seattle’s two greatest assets: the city and nature. No existing word did, so they invented a new one: Metronatural. Onlookers felt it was too much of a play on metrosexual and were predicting it would last about as long as SayWA, which Washington state created last spring but has had to drop because it didn’t catch on.
Adieu Someone identifying herself only as Olivia found an article on the Safehaven Web site whose opening sentence reads: “Much adieu was made this week about the U.S. population crossing the 300 million mark on Tuesday, Oct. 17.” It’s an error, of course, but also yet another good example of what several US linguists now call eggcorns, words and phrases whose spelling changes through a type of folk etymology in which they are are mistaken for similar-sounding ones or in which a person uses a well-known expression but a wrong word (the name comes from an error in which an American woman wrote eggcorn for acorn). Last week’s flying collars in this section is another.
Plashy Yet another eggcorn was discussed in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, a word in the famous line from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, “Feather footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole”. A reader pointed out that his edition has splashy, presumably the result of an editor or typesetter replacing a strange word with one he knew, a classic case of eggcornery. Plashy is correct: it’s a quote from John Milton (and also from Shelley: “[I]n that green glen, / Like stifled torrents, made a plashy fen / Under the feet”). Plashy means “abounding in or characterized by shallow pools or puddles; marshy, swampy, boggy”. It’s probably imitative, the OED says.
Benidorm leave In a speech to the charity Age Concern on Tuesday 24 October, David Cameron, the Conservative Party Leader, used this phrase in reference to the employment policies of the supermarket chain Asda (owned by the giant US company WalMart). It is a period of up to three months unpaid leave between January and March that doesn’t affect an individual’s employment history. The term is also used by the retailer B&Q and some other large organisations and is named for the Spanish resort on the Mediterranean—popular among the British—to which it seems it is assumed older staff may wish to decamp during the coldest months of the British winter.
6. Questions & Answers: Swan song
[Q] From Hilary Hicklin: “I wonder if you can tell me the origin of the word swan song? I noticed it was used in a reference to Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference recently, and it made me wonder what swans have to do with farewell speeches! Perhaps you could enlighten me.”
[A] No problem. An ancient legend—it goes back to classical Greece—holds that swans are silent throughout their lives but sing once, beautifully, just before they die. Figuratively, the swan song is the final performance or activity of a person’s life or career. It isn’t quite accurate in the case of Tony Blair, since he has told us he’s about to step down as prime minister, but hasn’t left yet and irritatingly hasn’t got around to telling anybody exactly when he does plan to go. But it was his final speech to the Labour Party Conference and the speech was by all accounts a cracker, so in that sense it’s fair.
The legend is all nonsense, of course. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed it, however, and it’s mentioned in the works of Euripides, Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and Cicero. Plato said that Socrates had explained it as a song of gladness because the swan, sacred to the god Apollo, was shortly to join the god it served.
In AD77 Pliny said it was untrue (“olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis”, “observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false”). He had no effect on the popularity of the fable; the idea was eventually taken into English in the medieval period, being alluded to by Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s in the latter’s The Merchant of Venice: “Let music sound while he doth make his choice; / Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, / Fading in music.”
But the term itself was created as recently as 1831, in a book by Thomas Carlyle: “The Phoenix soars aloft ... or, as now, she sinks, and with spheral [sphere-like] swan-song immolates herself in flame.” He took it from German Schwanenlied or Schwanengesang with the same sense, which derives of course from the same legend. As the final collection of songs by Franz Schubert was published in the year he died (1828), it is known as his Schwanengesang. That was probably what put the idea for the English word in Carlyle’s mind.
Three years later, in 1834, Coleridge made a joke of it in his poem entitled On a Volunteer Singer:
Swans sing before they die; ’twere no bad thing
• From Thursday’s Telegraph: “Peter Foster, the Australian conman, has been arrested by police wearing nothing more than swimming trunks after a manhunt across the Fijian archipelago.” It was seen on the newspaper’s Web site by Sean Groarke, who asks where the police kept their truncheons?