NEWSLETTER 472: SATURDAY 17 DECEMBER 2005
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Another small step towards world domination The number of e-mail subscribers to World Wide Words has reached 25,000. There’s no way to know how many people read the newsletter via RSS, but I’ve been assuming 1,000 (it might be a lot more). The popularity of the site has also reached a new high, with 1.5 million page hits every month (from about 710,000 visits) and a weekly peak figure of 400,000 page hits.
Onshore offshoring Following the piece last week on this term, with its references to offshoring, onshoring, and homeshoring, Barry Rein mentioned that an item in the 1 December issue of the Economist featured nearshoring. “This is a form of offshoring,” he explains, “except that the external workers are closer to home. The example given is western European companies outsourcing to eastern Europe.”
From pillar to post Pepijn Hendriks e-mailed with these thoughts on the expression I discussed last time: “Dutch has a very similar metaphor, van het kastje naar de muur (‘from cupboard to wall’), mainly used in the expression van het kastje naar de muur gestuurd worden (‘to be sent from cupboard to wall’). Because cupboards can mainly be found against the wall, the expression evokes the image of not getting any further towards the resolution of a problem. A person says you’re to go to another place which turns out to be merely synonymous to where you already were, and as such doesn’t get you any further. The same could be said for the words ‘post’ and ‘pillar’, also largely synonymous.” Dominik Weber commented: “Although I have never heard of from pillar to post its meaning is identical to a German expression, to be sent or to run von Pontius zu Pilatus.” Pepijn Hendriks tells me this is also known in Dutch. Pontius and Pilatus were of course the same person: in English Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea. These Dutch and German idioms certainly suggest a model for the English phrase.
2. Turns of Phrase: Long tail
This retailing concept has become widely known and discussed in the past year. It was popularised in Wired Magazine in October 2004 by that journal’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson.
The long tail is that of the demand curve of products versus sales. The best-sellers are all at one end, but as we move to the other sales drop off in a long slow curve that never quite hits zero. Traditional retailers draw a line only part-way along this curve, because slow-moving items return less profit than the cost of stocking them. But online retailers backed by huge warehouses and fast stock deliveries can easily afford to keep them permanently available. Helped by clever search engines that can suggest possibilities for customers with special interests, these niche items suddenly become profitable. Amazon, for example, gets half its sales from outside its 130,000 top titles.
Chris Anderson is expanding his thesis into a book, The Long Tail: The Radical New Shape of Culture and Commerce, to be published in 2006.
The counterintuitive reality of the long tail is that its potential is based on aggregating supply and demand, but its realization is based on helping individuals find just the right thing, one scenario at a time.
[KMWorld, 1 Nov. 2005]
Westergren hopes to exploit what Wired magazine calls the ‘long tail effect’. The idea is that, while a small number of products make up a large quantity of sales, there are many products in relatively low demand that don’t sell well on their own, but which together can outsell the more popular products.
[Independent, 14 Sep. 2005]
3. Weird Words: Saturnalia
An occasion of wild revelry or indulgence.
The original Saturnalia was a Roman mid-winter festival held in the middle of December, starting on the 17th in the modern calendar (or the 25th in the Roman one). It lasted for seven days and was a period when excess was encouraged: the shops were closed, gambling was permitted, presents were exchanged, slaves were given licence to speak their minds and join in the fun, and generally joy was unconfined. The holiday began with a sacrifice to the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn (Latin satus means sown), whose day it was.
From the eighteenth century on, the word became a more general one in English for a period of unrestrained licence at any time of year, often with a lower-case initial letter. An example of modern use is in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 of 1961: “Other men picked up steam as the hours passed, and the aimless, riotous celebration continued. It was a raw, violent, guzzling saturnalia that spilled obstreperously through the woods to the officers’ club and spread up into the hills toward the hospital and the antiaircraft-gun emplacements.”
The name of Saturn has also given us Saturday (Saturni dies in Latin, the day of Saturn) and saturnine, gloomy, dark featured, dull, and moody—a description that sits oddly with the revelry of his annual festival. But the medieval alchemists identified Saturn with the element lead and astrologers with slowness and gloom.
4. Noted this week
Infosnacking After last week’s selection of podcast as the Word of the Year from the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary, the editors of Webster’s New World College Dictionary have chosen infosnacking to be theirs. It’s a strange choice. It has turned up in a few places and there’s even a Web site by that name. But few of us have come across it and it certainly hasn’t gained the public visibility that makes it a defining word of 2005. The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, this week reported Mike Agnes, the editor in chief of Webster’s, as saying that there aren’t any plans to add it to the dictionary, but that the editors each year try to choose a word that tickles their linguistic funny bones or is significant in the way that language reflects culture. It fails on both counts for me. It means to browse or “snack” online in odd moments to get quick snippets of information.
Sinistrosphere This has started to appear online as a disparaging collective term for bloggers with left-wing political affiliations. Its opposite is the dextrosphere, a sweeter-sounding and less sinister term. Both words are based on blogosphere, a collective term for the whole blogging environment and community. [My thanks to Barry Popik and Ben Zimmer for these references.]
Zugzwang My personal word of the week, which is familiar to every serious chess player. It’s from two German words: zug, to move, and Zwang, a compulsion or force. It’s a chess position in which a player must move but in which any move he makes will only make his position worse. Much like real life, really ...
5. Questions & Answers: Cash on the nail
[Q] From Ian Swan: “You mentioned in the newsletter last week that the author of The Dictionary of Bullshit got the origin of cash on the nail wrong. Curious as to the correct origin, I searched your Web site, but could not find it. Could you please provide the correct origin in your next newsletter?”
[A] I’ll do my best, Mr Swan, but the evidence is a little obscure, so bear with me while I trace the most direct route through the linguistic thickets.
The story is retold in almost every popular book on word history I have on my shelves, as well as in Bristol’s tourist literature and on its Web sites. Nevertheless, it is untrue.
Some history first. The nails were erected The Limerick Nail (photo courtesy of Limerick Museum) in Bristol from about 1550 to 1631. They were originally elsewhere but were moved to their present site after the Corn Exchange was built in the 1740s. Although the story seems to have been captured by Bristol, nails have also been recorded in the Stock Exchanges in Liverpool and Limerick. The latter dates from 1685 and was described by the blind Irish playwright John O’Keeffe in his Recollections of 1826: “In the centre of Limerick Exchange is a pillar with a circular plate of copper about three feet in diameter, called The Nail, on which the earnest of all stock-exchange bargains has to be paid.” At one time, merchants did transact their business on them as a public way of demonstrating that they were making a deal. The Tome Stone in Barnstaple once served a similar purpose.
All this might seem to confirm the truth of the story. However, the popular link of the various nails with the expression seems to have begun only with an entry by Dr E Cobham Brewer in the first edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, in 1870.
The expression on the nail, on the spot, at once, without delay, is first recorded in print in 1596. This predates most of the known nails. This isn’t definitive, because they might have replaced others of earlier date. But the reference by John O’Keeffe is the first record of the name, a surprisingly late one if they were known by that name before 1596.
Similar expressions have been recorded in other languages from even earlier, including German and Dutch, and in particular the Anglo-Norman payer sur le ungle, to pay immediately and in full, known from about 1320. Ungle here is from Latin unguis, a finger or toe nail, a relative of ungula, a hoof or claw, from which we get ungulate for a hoofed animal (the modern French word is ongle). The phrase ad ungulum, “on the nail”—to a nicety, to perfection or to the utmost—is in the Satires of the Roman poet Horace 2000 years ago and is based on an even older Greek expression. This may be from the idea of a sculptor giving a finishing touch to his work with a fingernail or a joiner testing the accuracy of a joint. This is likely to have been the inspiration for the Anglo-Norman phrase, albeit with a shift in sense.
So the evidence suggests strongly that on the nail is the English version of an old phrase that came into the language via Latin and Anglo-Norman, one that actually refers to a different sort of nail. The presumption must be that the nails in the exchanges borrowed their names from the expression, and not the other way round.
• “I was in town the other day,” writes Sarah Balfour, “and happened to glance at the newsagent’s window. There was a poster advertising a forthcoming class at the community centre: ‘Beginning Cruel Embroidery’. I wonder if they’ve had many takers?”
• Tommy Reynolds and Rick Snyder independently found a story in the Electric New Paper online about a couple on a flight to Jamaica who tried to join the mile-high club in a toilet. On being interrupted, the couple attacked the cabin staff. The item reports: “And despite being restrained with plastic handcuffs, the pilot decided he had no choice but to divert the 777 jet to Bermuda.”
• An online advertisement for a book about cooking for astronauts was spotted by Marty Ryerson: “Included are the baking directions for Dotti’s world famous chocolate chip cookies and the only cake that can travel into space; why? because it has no crumbs. (It also makes for a perfect recipe for kids birthday parties and carpets.)” Crumbless carpets! Yummy!