E-MAGAZINE 647: SATURDAY 11 JULY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Ducks in a row Dan Norder found a slightly earlier example of the expression in its figurative sense than my 1912 one:
It quite frequently happens that when political parties and even nations think they have “their ducks in a row” the unexpected happens which knocks their well-laid plans awry.
The Daily Progress (Petersburg, Virginia), 16 Jun. 1910.
Chris Bitten pointed out that ducks often sleep in a row and that this might have had something to do with the expression’s origin. Kristin O’Keefe turned up an article in the Free Thought Magazine dated 1896 which criticised President Grover Cleveland for unsporting behaviour. He lured ducks with bait to get them all in a row on the water so he could pot them with one shot from his ten-gauge shotgun. Ms O’Keefe wonders if this might have influenced the creation of the expression. It’s impossible to say, though — as I wrote in the piece last week — shooting at ducks is often given as one possible source of the expression.
There’s nothing in frontispiece to suggest a piece of anything, other than what confused English speakers have put there.
The original sense in English was of the façade of a building, the decorated front that was designed to be imposing. It came from the French frontispice or the late Latin word frontispicium, both meaning a façade. The Latin word was made up of frons, forehead, plus specere, to look at, and so originally meant a view of the forehead.
The title page of The History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh, dated 1614, showing the ornate architectural styling of the time.
The word was borrowed into English around the end of the sixteenth century in the French form frontispice but no later than 1607 was also being used for the title page of a book. This may seem a large shift in sense, but the link lies in the practice of engraving a highly illustrated page with all sorts of architectural detailing, such as columns and pediments. And it was at the front of the book, which helped the idea.
By 1682, the word had taken on its modern sense of an illustration facing the title page of a book. And by then the folk etymologists had had their evil way with it, making a totally unwarranted association between front and piece and turning frontispice into our modern frontispiece.
3. Recently noted
Bankslaughter It’s bank + slaughter, certainly no laughing matter. It was used by Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University in an article in the Guardian on 1 July. He suggested that a crime of this name, by analogy with manslaughter, would be an effective deterrent to irresponsible managers of financial institutions who take decisions that lead to their collapse. Like manslaughter, prosecutors wouldn’t have to prove malice. It was used in the same paper by Timothy Garton Ash on 6 May, quoting a friend — in retrospect clearly enough Professor Collier — but it was the latter’s piece, under the name of an acknowledged economic expert, that gained the word some attention, with comments appearing that wistfully supported the concept. However, the term will almost certainly die again, like most neologisms.
Cybergeddon Though this scare term for wrecking online communications through electronic warfare isn’t new (it goes back to 1999 at least) it has popped up again recently. There are two main reasons: the British government has published its strategy for keeping the Internet secure and the US Department of Defense has set up a cyber defence command in the Pentagon. These actions were provoked by threats of enemy action knocking out the computers that run a country’s critical infrastructure, such as electricity, oil, gas, and water supplies. Fortunately for our peace of mind, cybergeddon is regarded as very unlikely. The term is an obvious-enough modification of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil before the Day of Judgement, with cyber-, which I wrote about in 1996.
4. Questions and Answers: White lie
[Q] From Tom Michael: What is the origin of the phrase white lie?
[A] It’s based on the ancient Western idea of polar opposites, represented in popular culture through white meaning good and black its evil antithesis. We have white magic, for example, beneficent magic that’s opposed to the malign black variety. The term white paternoster meant a prayer or charm recited to protect against evil at night (of which one version that survives is the old children’s rhyme “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed that I lie on”). The opposite was a black paternoster, a spell recited to conjure up evil spirits or devils.
Along the same lines, a white lie is one that lacks evil intent, as opposed to a black lie, which is most certainly malevolent, though normally we don’t bother to specify that lies are evil. A white lie is harmless or trivial, frequently one said in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. The term is first found in the eighteenth century, when it suggested something slightly different:
A certain Lady of the highest Quality ... makes a judicious Distinction between a white Lie and a black Lie. A white Lie is That which is not intended to injure any Body in his Fortune, Interest, or Reputation but only to gratify a garrulous Disposition and the Itch of amusing People by telling Them wonderful Stories.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1741.
5. Reviews: Why is Q Always Followed by U?
By Michael Quinion
Reviewed by Erin McKean, CEO and co-founder of the online dictionary project Wordnik and editor of Verbatim: the Language Quarterly; she was before that editor-in-chief of Oxford’s American Dictionaries.
The most essential skill for any etymologist — more useful than a knowledge of Old English or Grimm’s Law — is the ability to say, clearly, “we don’t know” without coming across as a spoilsport
His new book contains “revised, corrected, expanded and updated” versions of a couple of hundred of the cogent and absorbing etymological explanations that delight this publication’s readers, in a pleasantly chunky and attractive volume from Penguin UK’s new Particular Books imprint. (As handy as the Internet is for quick searches and aimless surfing, it’s hard to beat a well-made book for dipping into — or for wrapping up as a gift.)
The book’s nice size allows for a great cross-section of words to discover. For every one whose history was familiar to me (for which the pleasure was not so much in discovering new facts as in enjoying seeing them related in Michael’s easy style) there were two or three novelties, including Heath Robinson (as an American my allegiance has always been to Rube Goldberg), tracklements, and on one’s tod. The entries also include information about variants: I was happy to learn that, in addition to making a whim-whim for a goose’s bridle (to express, more or less, “don’t bother me, kid”) I can also use making layovers to catch meddlers and making a whipple for a dooses poke.
The best part of Why is Q Always Followed by U?, however, is the example sentences. Nothing brings a word to life like seeing it in context, and nothing punctures a folk etymology or tall tale like sentences dating years (or decades, or centuries) before the word’s supposed origin. As an extreme example, waddle can’t be from the name of the one-legged, 200-pound Confederate captain named James Waddell, since it’s found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The sentences Michael has found are not just illuminating, they’re often interesting in their own right, and I marked a couple so that I could track down their sources myself, for pleasure reading. Many of them are from the usual suspects (Dickens, Twain, Wodehouse) but plenty are from more obscure sources, and thankfully, those are given excellent notes (for example, in the one about James Grant, at trip the light fantastic, we find out that he was the editor of the newspaper of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, and the author of 40 books “virtually all of them ... now forgotten.”).
A warning: if you carry this book out in public, be prepared to be stopped by passers-by who are struck by the title and have to know, right that minute, just why it is that Q is always followed by U, anyway? (I had one woman hold up the boarding of an airplane to ask me about it.) If you’re on the shy side, you might want to invest in a book cover, or at least remove the dust jacket.
I do wish the book had included an index but even without it, Why is Q Always Followed by U? is an excellent book for browsing, and would make a wonderful gift to spark someone’s interest in etymology and word history. Highly recommended.
[Michael Quinion, Why is Q Always Followed by U?, published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, on 2 July 2009; hardback, 352pp; publisher’s UK list price £12.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-846-14184-3; ISBN-10: 1-846-14184-2.]
• The old ones are still the best. John Sweney was reading a Robert B Parker novel, Bad Business. The narrator refers to “a slightly overweight currently blond woman in a dark blue suit named Edith.” He wondered what she named her other suits.
• In its coverage of music in concert, Walter Sheppard tells us, the current issue of the American Record Guide says that the Sarasota (Florida) Opera’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlos was “in a four-act 1884 revision first performed in Paris on March 11, 1867.” Mr Sheppard hopes no arpeggios were lost in the time warp.
• Thomas Thornton and Neil Williams noted that the New York Times for 3 July carried an obituary for Mollie Sugden, familiar to viewers of the 1970s comedy TV series Are You Being Served?. It described her as “lavishly upholstered and quaffed, with hair that changed color each episode.” Mr Thornton reckons she must have carried her liquor well, since she always seemed sober on the show.
• The Ottawa Citizen reported on 7 July on a court case in which a teenager was convicted of manslaughter. Doug Niblock sent me an electronic clipping. It noted that “In delivering the sentence, Judge Bruce Duncan said that there was no premedication in the act, though it was violent.” If there had been premedication, perhaps the outcome might have been different?
• “In June,” e-mailed Paige Gabhart, “my wife and I attended a band festival in Danville, Kentucky. We saw a professionally produced sign at a concessionaire’s stall: Funnel Cakes $5.00. Sweat and Delicious. We opted for a $4.00 funnel cake from another vendor. Apparently, the sweat adds a dollar to the cost.”
• Don Monson came across a plot synopsis for the film The Pianist at The Internet Movie Database: “He then stays in another place, where there is a piano, in which he grows ill.” That’s unfortunate, says Mr Monson, but perhaps he shouldn’t have been in that piano in the first place.