E-MAGAZINE 642: SATURDAY 6 JUNE 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Holidays I’m still away. By all means send questions and Sic! items together with your comments on the items in this issue, but don’t expect an answer before the middle of June at the earliest.
There are shadowy associations to this word. It comes from a Latin verb that itself derives from umbra, a shadow, which has also given us umbrella, sombre (US somber), and umbrage.
All the English senses have figurative associations with dimness or shade. The principal one today is “report or represent in outline”, to sketch dimly in words, one might say, which is very close to the sense of the Latin. If it’s not a word in your working vocabulary, that’s hardly a surprise, since it has always tended to turn up in academic or formal prose:
Feeble is human speech to deal with such high matters, serving, at the best, but dimly to adumbrate ineffable truths.
The Contemporary Review, January 1883.
It can also mean to indicate something faintly or merely hint at it, to foreshadow or prefigure a future event, or to overshadow or obscure something. Here’s an example of the hinting sense:
Perhaps Lessing’s point, merely adumbrated, is that the long Edwardian afternoon would have entailed a continuation of the great Edwardian philanthropy, otherwise brutally curtailed.
The Spectator, 24 May 2008.
3. Recently noted
Holiday at home! Perhaps it’s because my mind has been on holidays but it’s very noticeable how in recent weeks the US staycation (a stay-at-home vacation, taking day trips to local attractions from home) is being used by the British press in reports, for example, about traffic congestion on public holidays or the prospects for the UK domestic holiday market this summer. Compounds such as staycationer and staycationing mark its increasing acceptance. Its appearance in the UK is a little odd, since in British English vacation has traditionally been a formal term, used for universities, Parliament and the courts. People take holidays. Clearly, the US vacation has become sufficiently familiar through the media to allow the term to catch on. On the other hand, we haven’t, as yet, taken up the less popular US naycation — not just holidaying in your own area, but staying at home and not going anywhere.
Aggro British speakers rarely come across the verb aggress, a back-formation from aggression, meaning to commit aggression or act aggressively. But then, so far as I can find out, it’s not that common anywhere. If I were to read the sentence, “Two journalists were aggressed by police”, I would pause for a moment to let a slight dizzy feeling pass. I looked up the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary: surprisingly, the first use in the modern sense is given as 1714 and Herbert Spencer is quoted from 1851: “The moral law says — Do not aggress.” What appears to be fairly new is a sense of being a victim of aggression: “They were the aggressors, and we were getting aggressed” (Columbia Daily Tribune, Dec. 2008) and “Being British is actually about feeling aggressed, mistrustful, overlooked [and] powerless” (Guardian, 18 May). I am gently aggressed by the usage.
4. Questions and Answers: Cagmag
[Q] From Alex Wade: My dad has a word I’ve often wondered about: cag-mag for cheap sugary foods (he also uses it for my mum’s baking!).
[A] Cheeky devil. If I were your mum, I’d give him a belt round the ear.
Cagmag is an intriguing item of British regional dialect that starts to be recorded in the eighteenth century. It has had several senses, all of them disparaging, though never referring specifically to cheap sugary foods. The oldest references are to geese:
Vast numbers are driven annually to London, to supply the markets; among them all the superannuated geese and ganders (called here Cagmags) which serve to fatigue the jaws of the good Citizens, who are so unfortunate as to meet with them.
A Tour in Scotland, by Thomas Pennant, 1772. Despite the title, Pennant is referring to Lincolnshire.
A century later, the English Dialect Dictionary lists a number of meanings, starting with this one and moving on to tough, inferior meat or carrion; unwholesome or bad food; worthless items; inferior or spurious things; an animal that is coarse or mongrel bred; and “a term of opprobrium applied to persons”, typically an old woman.
It was widely used in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and other counties, but nobody has the slightest idea where it is from. In his Slang Dictionary in 1864, John Camden Hotten notes a suggestion from a correspondent at Trinity College, Dublin, that the word was a corruption of the Greek kakos mageiros, a bad cook, a learned slang term once known in university circles. Nobody now believes this, but there’s nothing to put in its place.
It’s still around in Lincolnshire and also in Nottinghamshire, the Birmingham area and the Black Country (where in 2003 it was said to mean a gossipy old woman). I’ve also found references in Australian English.
Although she was poor, my mother wouldn’t buy the cheap meat she called “cag mag”.
Birmingham Evening Mail, 7 Dec. 2002.
The late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn escaped rebuke, but not disdain, by describing women MPs as “mostly hideous — they have no fragrance and I dislike women who deny their femininity. They are just cagmags, scrub heaps, old tattles”.
BBC News, 8 Dec. 2005.
• We left home in the midst of the British MPs’ expenses scandal. It has led some commentators to suggest adopting US-style primaries to involve voters in selecting candidates. So we were charmed to read in our tour manager’s briefing notes that she could provide “plugs that will convert your electoral equipment to the US system.” We plan to take one home.
• Paul Fletcher queried the headline over a story on the BBC Web site on 27 May: “Firefighters warn over crew cuts.” Is the hairstyle really a matter of concern?
• The Microsoft site has an article about new features in the next version of its operating system, Windows 7. Mark Sinden, who read the same text on another site, learned that two new functions focus on “aggregating data from desperate locations”.
• Pat Walton read about a child prodigy in an article dated 21 May on the Web site of STV, Scottish Television: “Julian, 39, was adopted by step-father David aged three, who taught him how to play the saxophone to the standard which won him a standing ovation at his audition for the talent show”.
• A recent notice in The Adirondack Pennysaver, a small free weekly newspaper based in Plattsburgh, NY, advertised for “Someone to cut trees for Senior Citizen. Must be reasonable, tall but not big around.” Paul Brady wonders how many rational and well-proportioned woodsmen responded to the query.