NEWSLETTER 569: SATURDAY 5 JANUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Mistakes, I’ve made a few ... Apologies once more for the mix-up last Monday. Getting 29,000+ automated e-mails from the list server into my mailbox was a bit of a shock to the system, both the computer’s and mine. The situation brought to mind a tag my physics professor at Cambridge, who was also a Shakespeare scholar, used to put on a guide to his practical classes: “Bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague the inventor.” Bob Parks reminded me, “To err is human but to really screw things up requires a computer.”
To compound my error, as dozens of you pointed out, I wrote in my follow-up apology about getting my just desserts, instead of my just deserts. (I’d just consumed the last of my wife’s splendid Christmas cake at lunchtime; perhaps that was in my mind?) As James Harbeck noted, “Sometimes you can’t win for losing.” Not wishing to waste an opportunity to elucidate, I went for details to the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for desert (“An action or quality that deserves its appropriate recompense”; a word from Old French that’s a close relative of deserve). Surprisingly, the OED’s entry does not have an example of just deserts, even though the set phrase goes back to the eighteenth century if not before. However, I did find an example in the New York Times of 29 July 1862 spelled as just desserts. So I have historical precedent, if not accuracy, on my side.
Michael Mollohan notes that where he comes from (he describes it as a rather isolated part of West Virginia) the expression is just deserves, not just deserts, as in “he got his just deserves”. Though it looks like a folk etymological error, it makes sense in view of the close link between desert and deserve, though the OED doesn’t admit to knowledge of deserve as a noun. I would guess that this version is moderately well known in the US, in view of the number of results from a Google search, but it doesn’t appear in any of my reference works. Most examples I’ve found are from recent decades, but it turns up in a 1920 report of a US Congress hearing on soldiers’ compensation, “Give the boys their just deserves.” Edwin Casady’s biography, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, quotes a letter from the earl dated 14 July 1546 (spelling modernised): “May it please you, at my hearty request, to grant him your letters for the obtaining his wages and the rest of his just deserves.” These older examples makes me wonder if just deserves has been lurking in the language for centuries as a dialectal or non-standard version.
On the American Dialect Society list, Douglas G Wilson pointed out a further version, just deservings, which he notes was not uncommon in the nineteenth century and which is still around to some extent. Deserving is recorded in the OED in the same sense as desert, with the first example coming from Wyclif’s translation of the Psalms, dated 1388. I’ve found an example of just deservings in a letter of James II to the Scottish parliament dated 23 April 1685.
2. Turns of Phrase: Shopdropping
This word featured in an article by Ian Urbina in the New York Times on 24 December 2007. It’s a curious process that the writer succinctly described as reverse shoplifting.
To judge by the New York Times article, the term has since spread beyond its artistic origins to refer to any unauthorised placing of materials in stores. Some is still political or consumer activism, but the technique is now used, among others, for religious proselytising, advertising and promotion. Independent bands, for instance, put copies of their albums in stores to promote them.
Early appearances of the term were linked to the California artist Packard Jennings. The first example I’ve so far found was as the title of an exhibition in San Francisco in March 2005 that included some of Jennings’ work.
Another term, which specifically refers to putting copies of CDs in record shops, is droplifting, which was coined in 2000 by Richard Holland of Turntable Trainwreck and The Institute for Sonic Ponderance.
Similar to the way street art stakes a claim to public space for self expression, my shopdropping project subverts commercial space for artistic use in an attempt to disrupt the mundane commercial process with a purely artistic moment.
[Ryan Watkins-Hughes, on shopdropping.net, 26 Dec. 2007]
At Mac’s Backs Paperbacks, a used bookstore in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, employees are dealing with the influx of shopdropped works by local poets and playwrights by putting a price tag on them and leaving them on the shelves.
[New York Times, 24 Dec. 2007]
3. Weird Words: Crimping
Impressing men into the army, navy or merchant marine.
We all think we know what crimping means, but the usual idea of compressing something into small folds has nothing to do with this process — or at least so far as we know, since it is of uncertain origin. Crimping was like press-ganging, but done on a freelance basis by men acting as agents or go-betweens.
The impressed men were often temporarily imprisoned in a crimping house before being handed over. In 1794, a man attempted to escape via a skylight from one near Charing Cross in London that was run on behalf of the East India Company but fell to his death. This led to riots in which several such houses were destroyed by the mob.
Another word for the process was trepanning, which probably has no linguistic link with the medical technique of cutting a hole in the skull. We know little about where it’s from; the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is “a word of obscure and low origin, probably originally a term of thieves’ or rogues’ slang.” To trepan someone (stress on the second syllable) was to entrap, inveigle, ensnare or lure them into some situation not to their benefit. It was of wider application than just press-ganging and some contemporary writers made a distinction between the two methods.
4. Recently noted
Last words of 2007 As is now traditional, the annual conference of the American Dialect Society, this year in Chicago, featured the slightly skittish and not over-serious process of selecting words of the year for 2007, together with a variety of lesser terms in specialist sub-categories.
The 2007 winner, announced on Friday 4 January, was subprime, a term that has been thrust this year from financial jargonhood into the mainstream. It refers to mortgages offered to applicants who do not have a good credit history or who are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of the loan; the packaging of these loans into investments sold on to other financial institutions has led to destabilisation of the global financial markets.
Rather oddly, the winner of the Most Likely To Succeed category was the prefix green- that indicates environmental concern; this form has been around for decades and one might think it had succeeded already. As a free-standing adjective in this sense, it dates back to Germany in the 1970s and the Grüne Aktion Zukunft, the Green Campaign for the Future, and the Grüne Listen, the green lists (of ecological election candidates), both of which emerged mainly from campaigns against nuclear power stations. As a prefix, green- is still unusual, best known in greenwashing, a 1990 coinage for cynical attempts by an organisation to give itself an unwarranted environmentally friendly image.
The winner of the Most Creative category was Googlegänger, based on doppelgänger, a ghostly likeness or double of a living person; a Googlegänger is a person with the same name as you who shows up instead when you egosurf using Google. Most Unnecessary was the seasonal Happy Kwanhanamas!, a ponderous portmanteau term formed by stuffing Kwanza, Hanukka and Christmas into an all-purpose, hopefully inoffensive greeting. The winner of the Most Outrageous category, toe-tapper, came out of the scandal of the arrest of US senator Larry Craig last June for importuning in a public toilet. It means a homosexual and it derives from the claim by a police officer that Craig advertised his availability by tapping his toes on the floor.
Some runners-up were more interesting than the winners, though few stand much chance of catching on. Wrap rage is anger brought on by the frustration of trying to open a factory-sealed purchase; a vegansexual eats no meat and prefers not to have sex with non-vegans; an earmarxist is a US congressman or senator who adds earmarks — money designated for a particular person or group — to legislation, a term that was coined by the blog Redstate to refer to Democrats; quadriboobage is the appearance of having four breasts, caused by wearing a bra that is too small.
5. Questions & Answers: Strait and narrow
[Q] From Nancy Shepherdson: “I hope that you can help me remain on the strait and narrow. I’m a journalist who was about to write a headline containing the words strait and narrow, which I believe is the proper usage, from the Bible. However, I am fairly sure that my US readers would be more familiar with straight and narrow. Faced with the choice between being correct and being thought incorrect — or vice versa, I chose to phrase the headline an entirely different way. Am I being too much of a stickler? Or are there convincing precedents for the correctness of both?”
[A] Both have been widely used down the centuries. However, the evidence is that you would have been safe, and indeed better advised, to use straight and narrow for both your British and your US readers.
We often use straight and narrow, meaning law-abiding and morally correct behaviour, as a clipped version of the full saying, variously the straight and narrow way or the straight and narrow path. As you say, it’s from the Bible, specifically the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 7, Verse 14) in the King James Version: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
The Gospel writer was using narrow and strait in similar senses to reinforce each other in successive phrases, but the writers who borrowed the image and the reference conflated them into a single phrase. So strait and narrow is a tautology, which may by itself be enough reason to avoid using it.
The first example of it that I can find is from the North American Review, a long defunct publication of Cedar Falls, Iowa, dated January 1834. In a review of Thomas Taylor’s The Life of William Cowper appears: “His zeal ... Could have no other effect than to attract them onward in the strait and narrow path of duty.” There is a convincing precedent for the other form, however, since it appears almost contemporaneously. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first recorded use of straight and narrow is in J E Leeson’s Hymns and Scenes of Childhood of 1842: “Loving Shepherd, ever near, / Teach Thy lamb Thy voice to hear; / Suffer not my steps to stray / From the straight and narrow way.”
The folk-etymological confusion between straight and strait is widespread. Not only do we see references to straightjackets, to the extent that this spelling is frequently offered as an alternative in dictionaries, but it also appears in straight-laced to refer to someone with strict and unbending moral attitudes, a form which dictionaries also now allow. In the latter case, the original was certainly strait-laced, referring to stays or corsets that were tightly laced and confining, but which by the sixteenth century had already taken on the modern moralistic sense.
There is a common sense image behind straight and narrow that has helped it to be accepted, since it can be said to contain the idea of a road which is direct and undeviating, the true path of virtue that leads us unswervingly to our destination without straying into byways of temptation.
Straight and narrow is now by far the more common spelling, both in the UK and the US, one which is given as standard in dictionaries. Anyone who insists on strait and narrow may well be regarded as pedantic.
• The Web site Married Or Not, Nick Dunlavey discovered, has some useful information about the value of writing life insurance in trust for beneficiaries: “Doing this is particularly helpful for unmarried or uncivil partnered people.” Punctuation does matter ...
• Following my report last time of a mishearing over the lunch table, Deborah Lake wrote with another example. “As an addition to the transition from ‘steel engraving’ to ‘stealing gravy’, our local rural Northumberland newspaper has a young reporter who has spent his whole life in London. Telephoned with the information that the Grace Darling Museum at Bamburgh was about to re-open on 18 December after refurbishment, he spent some time wondering why the local population should have a museum devoted to the grey starling.”
• Kevin A. Wescott tells us of a CBS News report dated 31 December 2007: “A head-on collision between a drunk pickup truck going the wrong way on an interstate and a minivan killed five people in the minivan.” Was there too much ethanol in the fuel?