NEWSLETTER 573: SATURDAY 2 FEBRUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Man of straw Following last week’s piece, Bill Rouner e-mailed: “When I worked in the aerospace industry during the 1970s, the term strawman often referred to the initial draft of a proposal that was sent around for review with the expectation it would receive many arrows of criticism, as would happen with a straw-stuffed archery target. Subsequent drafts would be woodman (not often used), ironman, and steelman, indicating the increasing difficulty of finding a weakness. Although I no longer work in the aerospace industry, I occasionally see this term, and it’s still being used in the sense of soliciting criticisms to better define or refine a nebulous or incomplete concept or product idea.”
Karl Brehmer e-mailed from Rostock in Germany to note that the source of the English term may be the German Strohmann, recorded from the sixteenth century; the Kluge Etymological Dictionary says this may be a loan translation from the French homme de paille.
Sledging A comment from a reader in this section last week said that Percy Sledge was a reggae singer. A chorus of fans responded that he’s actually a soul singer and that to use the past tense is premature, since he’s still alive and touring, aged 62.
Dr Mudd Numerous readers felt I had understated Mudd’s sufferings following his supposed involvement in Lincoln’s assassination. I wrote that he was pardoned soon after, but in fact he was in prison for three years and, though released, was never pardoned. His descendants have been trying without success to get him one.
CAD A gently remonstrative message arrived from Prof E M Freeman, the Emeritus Professor of Electromagnetics and Computer Aided Design at Imperial College, London. “Dear Sir! May I protest at the bad press we CADs are getting.” Sorry about that. Perhaps I should have instead tried writing about bounder, though I might now be getting some stick from gymnasts. By the way, lots of people have asked me what the difference is between a cad and a bounder. I’m working on the definitive answer to that one. But don’t hold your breath.
Updates Some recent etymological discoveries have provoked me into revisiting existing pieces. Among the updates are a fuller account of the story of Kangaroo court, some new information about Mad as a hatter and Face the music, a rewritten article about Mind your Ps and Qs that for the first time comes to a firm conclusion, an update to Beyond the pale, and the news about Big Apple (see below).
2. Weird Words: Stammel
A coarse woollen clothing fabric usually dyed red.
The origins of this word lie in the underclothes of self-flagellant or ascetic monks of medieval times. It evolved from stamin, for a coarse cloth made of worsted, at first used to make undergarments that seem to have been halfway to hair shirts in their purpose.
Stamin is the same word as stamen, which immediately makes us think of the male fertilising parts of flowers. In Latin a stamen was a warp thread in a loom. It was also the name for the thread that was spun by the Fates Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos at a person’s birth, on whose length depended his vital strength and so how long he would live (it is also the source of stamina, which is just the Latin plural of stamen).
Later on, stamin became the usual name for a kind of woollen or worsted cloth, used for outer garments as well as curtains and the like. It was particularly associated with Norfolk and the word was modified to tamin or tammy.
Stammel went its own way, though it remained a coarse woollen cloth, a type of linsey-woolsey. Stammel was usually dyed red with madder. For this reason, it was also used for the colour, which was considered inferior to scarlet. Red was thought to be a healthful colour, hence the belief almost to the present day that to wrap a weak chest in red flannel was an excellent preventative.
It was a lower-class cloth, an indication of poverty or inferior status. Thomas Middleton’s The World Tost At Tennis of 1620 has a character disparagingly note, “Yonder’s a knot of fine, sharp-needle-bearded gallants, but that they wear stammel cloaks methinks, instead of scarlet”. The Little French Lawyer, a play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, published a year earlier, includes the lines, “I’ll not quarrel with the gentleman / For wearing stammel breeches.”
The material was most often used for women’s petticoats; the connection with low-class female attire was so strong by the late eighteenth century that Francis Grose noted in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785 that it was slang for “A coarse brawny wench”.
3. Recently noted
Language death You may have seen the reports last week that yet another language has become extinct. Marie Smith Jones, the last native speaker of Eyak, has just died at the age of 89, at the end of a linguistically lonely period of 15 years in which she was the sole remaining fluent speaker. Eyak, a member of the Na-Dené group of languages, was spoken on the Copper River in south Alaska, east of Anchorage. Ms Jones cooperated in her last years with Michael Krauss, a linguist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, to create an Eyak dictionary and a guide to its grammar. As a result, we do at least have a record, something not true of many other vanished languages.
Shock, horror Big Apple has long been a nickname of New York, one that was heavily publicised by the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau back in the 1970s. Until recently, the consensus was that the term came from horse racing and was popularised by the New York racing writer John J Fitz Gerald in the New York Morning Telegraph from 1921 on (the full story is online.) Now Fred Shapiro and Ben Zimmer of the American Dialect Society have reported independently discovering an earlier example, from the Chicago Defender of 15 May 1920. “No, Ragtime Billy Tucker hasn’t dropped completely out of existence, but is still in the ‘Big Apple’, Los Angeles.” So the Big Apple was Los Angeles before it became New York? What a turn-up for the books that would be. Etymologists are sceptical about it, however, not least because one citation doesn’t constitute proof. And in 1920, Los Angeles was a small city, nothing like the sprawling metropolis it has since become. But it does make one wonder anew where the term came from. I feel we haven’t heard the last of this.
It’s all in the prefix The promotional insistence by McDonald’s on its Mc prefix has down the years resulted in lots of denigratory creations, of which the most famous is McJob. When on Monday the British government announced that McDonald’s, with other firms in the UK, would be permitted to formalise employee training by awarding skills qualifications equivalent to A-Levels (the pre-university qualification) or National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), I wondered how long it would take for the word McQualification to appear. About 10 minutes, as it turned out, with the word turning up as the headline on a Guardian blog. By Tuesday morning, it was in the printed editions of the Times, Telegraph, and Daily Post as well as the Guardian. The Financial Times and the Belfast Telegraph went for McA-level, while other papers preferred McEducation. Education Guardian, as befits a specialist supplement, chose McNVQ but then used much the same joke as everybody else: “That will be two McNVQs with fries, please.” No doubt, where they lead, others will follow. You can almost hear all the knees jerking.
4. Julia Miller asks for your help in researching idioms
Favourite stories from my English childhood revolved around idioms and school jargon which entered my vocabulary to be recognised, if not used. One of the commonest expressions was up a gum tree. I had assumed this idiom had an Australian origin, but having been in Australia ten years I now know better. Many Australians have not heard of it, and generally refer to being in a sticky situation as being up various kinds of creeks, usually without a paddle.
I had also assumed that people of different generations within the same country would use the same expressions, so that there would be a difference between Australian and UK usage. I’m finding, however, that the difference is more generational than geographical. Younger people in the UK and Australia are more likely to use the same expressions than, say, younger and older people within one country.
This apparent gap has prompted my PhD research in the area, and I have devised a questionnaire to examine the differences between Australian and UK idiom use. (Sorry, American readers, but I don’t have enough knowledge or time to include US expressions too, though I’m guessing that many of the idioms used by younger people are American in origin, due to the increasing influence of TV and the Internet.)
The survey will be in an online format, though paper copies will also be available. If you are interested, don’t hide your light under a bushel. Your participation would be bonzer, and I’ll really be up a gum tree without enough participants. Please contact me at Julia.Miller@flinders.edu.au.
5. Questions & Answers: Try and versus Try to
[Q] From Peter Norton in Alaska: “A recent newsletter included a quotation from Jerome K Jerome, containing “to try and hide it from the world.” Why, for crying out loud, isn’t it try to hide? The most erudite speakers and writers seem to use try and. I sense it is predominantly a British thing, but by no means exclusively, though I have no scientific basis for that conclusion. Is it simply so ingrained in the language that I might as well just anaesthetise whatever part of me responds to it?”
[A] Peace, Mr Norton. You’re going to have to learn to love it.
You’re right to say that this has strong British connections. Bryan Garner says in his Modern American Usage that it’s regarded as a colloquialism in the US but is a standard idiom in the UK. That’s a fair statement of the position.
It hasn’t stopped people arguing. Writers have criticised the construction for ages — the first, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of American Usage, appeared in Routledge’s Magazine in 1864. Critics argue that try must be followed by an infinitive, that infinitives must be preceded by to, and that the expression must therefore be try to, not try and. Grammarians point out that the idea that the infinitive must be preceded by to is a mistaken belief based on a false analogy with Latin. It’s also the basis of all the erroneous and useless debate concerning the split infinitive.
The problem for the critics is that try and is an ancient form, recorded from the thirteenth century. The early evidence is sparse, but there’s even some suggestion that try and may be older than try to. This refutes all the writers who believe it has only recently become widespread. The written evidence over the past two centuries, however, does show that most earlier usage was in informal situations such as speech or letters, not formal writing. Since so much current writing is deliberately informal in style, its usage appears to have widened.
Part of its continuing success may be the parallels that exist with other verb constructions with and followed by an infinitive, such as come and see us, “go and thank him, do stop and think, be sure and wear gloves. Again, most such forms are informal.
Some writers have tried to find a difference between the usage or meaning of the two forms but none has been successful. There seems no reason why one or the other is preferred. But Robert Burchfield notes in the third edition of Fowler that it can only be used in the present tense (so he tried and hide is impossible and you have to say he tried to hide). The Merriam-Webster book adds that you can’t insert an adverb (as in try hard and hide; it has to be try hard to hide) or insert a negative after try (forms like try not and hide don’t work). Heaven help people trying to learn English. Merriam-Webster cites a sentence written by Herbert Reed in 1952: “To try and keep it alive by State patronage is like trying to keep the dodo alive in a zoo.” You will see Reed has had to convert the second appearance of the expression to to because he has inflected the verb.
Such inflexibility is a clear sign that try and is an idiom. The short answer to your question, Mr Norton, is that it is entirely legitimate, it is ingrained in the language and you will just have to accept it.
• In the New York Times of 26 January, John T Scott read about the allegedly rogue trader at Société Générale: “Mr Kerviel’s former judo teacher, Philippe Orhant, said he taught him judo for more than six years and that Mr Kerviel later taught marital arts to children.” Mr Scott suggests that in most countries those last five words would describe illegal behaviour.
• Bram Amsel was listening to the BBC from Antwerp. “An MP from an area in South Wales that has suffered a group of recent suicides said she and others were working on a solution to the problem. She probably meant well when she said that ‘Suicide is the last thing you should do when you’re feeling depressed.’ But isn’t that the problem?”