NEWSLETTER 634: SATURDAY 11 APRIL 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Mock-classical trade names Following my confession in the piece on purdonium last week that I had been unable to trace athicktobathron, Shayna Kravetz searched using a variation in spelling and found more examples of the early nineteenth-century fashion for exotic trade names:
It is hardly to be expected that we who wear Idrotobolic hats, Eureka shirts, Impilia boots, and Panscutorium coats—who ride in Eumetableeton carriages, fitted with the patent Athiktobathron carriage-steps—who cook our potatoes in the Anhydrohepseterion, and envelope our heads in Korychlamid night-caps when we retire to rest—it is hardly to be expected that we should see anything much stranger than ourselves in our visions by day, or our dreams by night.
People Whom We Have Never Met, by Frank Ives Scudamore, 1861.
Chiptune Several readers pointed out that mainframe computers were programmed to make music back in the 1950s and 1960s, a famous case being that of the IBM 7094 that played and sang Daisy Bell in 1962 (Arthur C Clarke heard it and had the computer HAL sing it in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey). Richard Hallas noted that one computer which I mentioned, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, didn’t have a sound chip and getting music out of it was a special technical challenge, as it had been for the earlier mainframe computers.
Strong and weak verbs This piece generated many comments. Richard Hallas asked whether the two past forms of hang might suggest two separate verbs, as happened with weave. Up to a point. The story behind the two forms is complicated, but essentially two different versions of the same verb came in, from Old English and Old Norse. The Old English form became weak early on but the Old Norse one stayed strong. The strong form ousted the weak one, an exception to the general trend, except in the legal sense regarding execution, which kept the archaic weak form.
Others mentioned characteristically American strong verb forms, in particular dove, snuck and pled as the past tenses of dive, sneak and plead. National usages aren’t quite so clear cut — dived remains common in the US while dove has been recorded in non-standard British English; pled is common only in American law and in Scots. Dive became weak in standard English centuries ago, before America was colonised, but dove reappeared in nineteenth-century American English through analogy with other strong verbs, in particular drive; it remains restricted largely by geography rather than by social class. Snuck came along rather later, in the 1870s, probably also through analogy. Writers early on used it to suggest the speech of ill-educated rural people but it has now become widely accepted and may take over as the standard form in the US.
2. Turns of Phrase: AfPak
AfPak is now the usual shorthand way in Washington and within NATO to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan jointly. The reasons were spelled out by the US diplomat Richard Holbrooke in early 2008:
First of all, we often call the problem AfPak, as in Afghanistan Pakistan. This is not just an effort to save eight syllables. It is an attempt to indicate and imprint in our DNA the fact that there is one theater of war, straddling an ill-defined border, the Durand Line, and that on the western side of that border, NATO and other forces are able to operate. On the eastern side, it’s the sovereign territory of Pakistan. But it is on the eastern side of this ill-defined border that the international terrorist movement is located.
Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, 22 March 2008.
The abbreviation began to appear in newspapers in February 2009, following the appointment of Holbrooke as President Obama’s special envoy for the region and the introduction of policies designed to encourage Pakistan to become more active in countering terrorists within its borders. It quickly became common.
The resulting document offers a four-pronged strategy, including the adoption of the so-called AfPak approach in which Afghanistan and Pakistan will be handled jointly under the leadership of the special US envoy Richard Holbrooke.
[Independent, 27 Mar. 2009]
The Obama administration has stated that it wants a regional solution to what acronym-loving Washington insiders are now referring to as the AFPAK problem, but they are playing catch-up to the militants who have always viewed this struggle in regional terms. [It’s not actually an acronym, of course, but a contraction--Ed.]
[Washington Post, 25 Feb. 2009]
This delightfully weird word is best known in the US, as the type of wordplay that created it was invented in that country and has always been most popular there. It’s Pig Latin, or igpay atinlay, as Pig Latinists would name it, at one time instead called Hog Latin. Originally a children’s word game known since the 1890s at least, it became fashionable among adults in the 1920s and 1930s. The first known appearance of ixnay in print is in the film script for the early talkie Broadway Melody in 1929.
The Pig Latin rules are simple: if a word starts with a vowel, then add ay to the end; otherwise move the first letter (or pair of letters if they represent one sound) to the end and add ay to it. So imay oingay ootay ostonbay is Pig Latin for “I’m going to Boston”. The film The Lion King included the line ixnay on the upidstay — “nix on the stupid” or “don’t be stupid”. Yet another example:
Something glinted and caught his eye. He hissed to the nearest kid, “Ixnay on the ottlebay!” The eight-year-old, squirming in his unaccustomed clothes, flushed and tucked the busted bottle farther out of sight.
Gladiator-at-Law, by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, 1955.
Ixnay is from nix, nothing, a slang term that was imported from German nichts at the end of the eighteenth century.
It’s uncertain to what extent Pig Latin was used as a cant or argot designed to keep criminal discussions private, but ixnay seems to have become part of the vocabulary of the hard-boiled hoodlums of the period:
I would’ve done the job only he wanted to put me on the nut, so I says ixnay, gimme the geetus now.
Los Angeles Times, 8 November 1931, in an article with the title Underworld “Lingo” Brought up to Date. Nut means a debt; geetus is money.
The term was carried abroad in the detective novels of the time, perplexing British readers until greater understanding of American mores in wartime and afterwards clued us all up and allowed ixnay to appear in British English, though as an exoticism.
4. Recently noted
Steamed-up A slang term of the British police came to wide public attention as the result of the G20 summit in London last week. Kettling is a system by which police contain demonstrators within an area, often for many hours, as a method of control. The tactic has been used for some years, following the passing of laws designed to counter terrorism, and has been ruled as legal by the Law Lords despite strong criticism of it as false imprisonment, in particular of passers-by accidentally caught within the cordon. The term for it, however, is new. Some puzzlement over its origin has followed, with one academic finding a linguistic parallel in German tactics in the Warsaw ghetto in the early 1940s. But it is reasonably certain it arose because someone in the police watches television nature programmes. Kettling is used in the US for the circling and soaring of a group of migrating hawks within rising air currents to gain height. It has also been employed for a hunting technique of dolphins, which circle a shoal of fish while emitting a curtain of bubbles of air to trap the fish inside. Though the origin of the hawk sense is obscure, the other sense is presumably related to the term for the noise that’s caused by bubbles of steam forming and condensing within the boiler of a heating system.
What’s the French for codpiece? Now that cod is hard to come by because of over-fishing around the British Isles, retailers and the public are turning to a more plentiful, if less tasty, alternative. Its name is pollack, which rhymes with bollock, as in the British low slang term for a testicle (usually as the dismissive expletive bollocks!). The Sainsbury supermarket chain fears embarrassment may cause the more sensitive among its shoppers to avoid it. So they’ve rebranded pollack as colin. This is said not as in Firth or Powell but as in French: say it as /kɔlɛ̃/ (co-lan with a nasal ending). Of course, people will Anglicise it, so making it sound alarmingly cannibalistic (“we’ve serving up colin for dinner”). But the linguistic issue is that in French colin isn’t pollack, but another fish, hake. The French for pollack is lieu jaune.
5. Questions and Answers: Well, blow me!
[Q] From Elisabeth Lauffer: “For many years during my childhood, I took violin lessons from an elderly Englishman in Quebec. On occasion, when expressing great astonishment, he would heartily slap his knees and exclaim, “Well, blow me!” Another English acquaintance of my parents, who was of the same generation (born in the 30s, I would surmise), also used the expression, which baffled and amused us collectively time and time again. Do you know the less bawdy origins of this phrase?”
[A] Despite the giggles if an elderly Englishman should without thinking use this dated exclamation in public these days, there’s nothing particularly indelicate in its origins.
It can be traced back to Britain near the end of the eighteenth century. The verb is in the sense of the wind blowing. The earliest form was blow me tight! which may suggest inflating a balloon to the point of explosion, but which is related to an older sense of blow for speaking loudly or angrily or uttering boastful language that — as you might say — figuratively inflates the speaker’s self-esteem (the American blowhard contains the same idea). It was a mild general curse, sometimes humorous, which an anonymous London writer in 1848 described as “a burlesque oath”. The speaker might be vexed, or perhaps surprised:
“Wallingford lock!” they answered. “Lor’ love you, sir, that’s been done away with for over a year. There ain’t no Wallingford lock now, sir. You’re close to Cleeve now. Blow me tight if ’ere ain’t a gentleman been looking for Wallingford lock, Bill!”
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome, 1888.
The expression was soon shortened to the blow me! form that you learned from your music teacher. Lots of variations appeared, such as blow me pink, blow me over!, blow my buttons!, blow me down!, and blow me backwards!
One uncommonly splendid version of World War Two vintage forcefully conveyed the speaker’s disgust at the prospect of some unpleasant activity that he had no wish to engage in: blow that for a game of soldiers!, which one may guess was first said by some army private fed up with his lot and in which blow was commonly replaced by a more forceful verb.
Vermine are ancestors of the lemming. Over the millennia more and more vermine were descendants of those vermine who, when faced with a cliff edge, squeaked the rodent equivalent of Blow that for a Game of Soldiers. Vermine now abseil down cliffs, and build small boats to cross lakes.
Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett, 1991.
• A recent US television advertisement for Celebrex, John O’Creagh says, cautions against side effects that might be experienced by “patients taking aspirin or the elderly.”
• Peter Millington-Wallace reports: “Here in Denmark, I recently saw a weird example of globalisation, much as an Italian might view tinned spaghetti — German canned shish-kebab. As if to emphasise the strangeness of the product, it said on the label, in Danish: ‘Warning. Wooden skewers are not edible’. Damned food fads. Next they’ll be telling me I can’t eat pencils, or drink paint.”
• A story dated 5 April about a kids’ fundraiser in the Greensboro News & Record, North Carolina, was sent in by Peggy Clapper: “They sold homemade cookies and brownies and lemonade they squeezed from tables parked at the end of their driveway.”
• “The question of how IBM intends to finance their intended purchase of Sun Microsystems,” John Kennard notes, “was answered by the IT PRO Newsletter on Tuesday: ‘IBM specifically still appears keen to open up its coiffeurs and make a play for Sun Microsystems.’”
• Jenny Drayden was browsing the entertainment section of the BBC Web site on Tuesday and was intrigued to come across a heading, “Planet of the Dead Trailer Revealed!” She wondered if this might be the place where old trailers go to die. Prosaically, it was announcing the release of a trailer for the Easter special of Dr Who, Planet of the Dead — so it was a trailer for a trailer.