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Newsletter 751
27 August 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Limitrophe.

3. Questions and Answers: Drug on the market.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

The malady lingers on My thanks to all of you who sent your good wishes for my recovery; I’m still not fully fit but am getting better.

Marmalade Several readers told me I had misinterpreted European Union regulations. These are based on an EEC directive of 24 July 1979 entitled “the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to fruit jams, jellies and marmalades and chestnut purée”. This states that for a preserve to be called marmalade it must be made from a citrus fruit, not solely oranges as I stated. The regulation seems to be widely ignored — Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals brand, for example, includes onion marmalade.

Eric Marsh recalled a different folk tale about its origin. “In this one, a Scottish lady made a preserve using oranges, and her guests liked it so much they asked for, mair, milady (more, my lady).” Morgiana Halley noted that on a maritime history discussion list some time ago a correspondent had believed marmalade had been used as a seasick remedy because its name clearly derived from mer malade.

Nelsen Spickard wrote, “I am sure you have been inundated with emails on summer apple being a tautology. It is not. Perhaps with the importation of fruits from the southern hemisphere, folks have lost track of the seasonal nature of apples. Summer apple refers to fruit picked in summer or early fall; winter apples are picked in late autumn.”

2. Weird Words: Limitrophe

A young guest in the ancient and renowned Lexicophilia Club, who ought to know better, buttonholes the oldest member in the seclusion of the James Murray Memorial Library.

“Limitrophe. That looks foreign.”

“Your perspicacity astounds me. It was introduced from French by English members of the diplomatic corps in the eighteenth century, when — as you may know — French was the language of diplomacy.”

“So what did French diplomats mean by it?”

“Situated on the frontier; bordering another country. As a noun, border-land.”

“And where did the French get it?”

“From Latin ‘līmitrophus’, lands set apart for the support of troops on the frontier.”

“I don’t have any Latin. It’s all Greek to me.”

“Astonishing. You’re actually half right. The second part is indeed Greek (‘trophos’, supporting) but the first is from Latin ‘limes’, a limit or boundary.”

“That’s enough etymology, thanks.”

“Within these walls, young man, we can never have too much etymology.”

“I’ve never seen it before.”

“Why am I not surprised? But your observation is accidentally perspicacious. Unlike French, where it’s often to be encountered, it has always been rare in English.”

“Examples please.”

“Pass me Sir James Rennell Rodd’s Social and Diplomatic Memories, if you’d be so kind. Thank you. Grand man. First-class diplomat. Got his KCMG for sorting out that nasty Fashoda business in Africa in 1899. Here we are: “Countries limitrophe with Germany, such as Belgium, Holland, and perhaps Denmark”. And I can quote from a work by another diplomatist, Sir Charles Eliot. In his Hinduism and Buddhism — it appeared in 1921 in three volumes, absolutely splendid stuff, his life’s work, you know — he wrote: “In the reign of Mithridates the Parthian Empire was limitrophe with India and possibly his authority extended beyond the Indus”.”

“These are very old.”

“Not as old as all that, young man. But I take your point. It has always been rather a scarce word and it seems to have fallen even further out of favour during the past century.”

“So nobody uses it these days?”

“It’s still to be found if you would take the trouble to look. For example, ‘This belt of sovereign states is the Great Limitrophe: a kind of buffer zone separating Russia from the true centers of both European and Asian civilization’. That’s from Russia in Search of Itself, by James H Billington, published in 2004. And here’s another, from 2008: ‘This stretch of international boundary, which the Colorado River forms, is known as the limitrophe’. That’s in Ecosystem-based Management in the Colorado River Delta, whatever that means, by Karen Hae-Myung Hyun..”

“Why don’t we just say ‘border-land’ or ‘bordering’?”

“We would then lose an elegant word with which we can illuminate our discussions of political and economic geography.”

“Show off your obscure learning, you mean?”

“Impertinent whippersnapper! Enough! Away with you!”

3. Questions and Answers: Drug on the market

Q From Ross Higson: I wonder if you could explain the origins of the expression like a drug on the market. A quick internet search fails to turn up an explanation of the origin of the phrase. It usually appears as a somewhat pejorative expression, but it’s not clear whether it originally meant something that sold in large numbers, something that suppressed the sales of competitive products, or something that wouldn’t sell at any price.

A The usual meaning of the idiom a drug on the market (also often as a drug in the market) is that it’s a commodity no longer in demand and so is commercially valueless or unsaleable.

The idiom didn’t arrive until the 1830s but in that sense drug by itself is known from the seventeenth century. Its first appearance is this, worth quoting at some length to give a feeling for the context:

Another Commodity Mineral, namely Copperas, which was sold heretofore (when there was Letters Patents for the sole making thereof) for 10 and 12 the Tun, whereof a great Trade might have been made for other Countries; hath been so ill governed by Workmen underselling one another, and for want of orderly carriage, that the same is sold under 3 the Tun, and is become a mere Drug out of request, by the abundance made, and indiscreetly vented, bartered or exchanged,

Consuetudo, vel Lex Mercatoria; or, The Ancient Law-Merchant, by Gerard de Malynes, London, 1622. Spelling lightly modernised. De Malynes was a Dutch merchant settled in London, a writer on economics and a spy for the English government. Vented is from the verb vent, common at the time, meaning to sell (it’s an old form of vend).

That’s where the firm facts end. There’s long been some doubt where drug comes from in this sense. The problem, of course, is trying to fit the usual sense of the word to the meaning of the idiom. And there’s no other noun of closely similar spelling in the language that might be its source.

It is known from a verb, of course, as drug is the old strong past tense of drag, now dialectal or regional. Before I looked into the matter, I guessed the idiom might have come from that verb in the sense of an impediment. In possible support of that theory, many examples of drag in/on the market exist:

The oil and gas sector acted as a drag on the market after crude oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange for July delivery dropped to around $98 a barrel.

The Herald (Glasgow); 8 Jun. 2011

However, this form didn’t start to appear in the written record until the 1840s, after the drug in/on the market form had become established, and more than two centuries after drug by itself. A connection may exist the other way around, with drug having being taken to be the past tense of drug and being replaced by drag through a hypercorrection. Helping the change would have been the use of drag for a nuisance, bore, or hindrance, though that’s slightly later still, from the 1850s; that comes from drag in the sense of the slow and impeded movement of a heavy object.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the idiomatic phrase in the entry for the medicinal compound and considers it to be the same word. As the OED lays it out, the story behind it is intriguing.

Drug first appeared in English in a much wider sense than we use it now. It meant any substance — animal, vegetable or mineral — that was employed in various types of manufacturing, not solely pharmacy. It took several centuries to narrow its sense to the medical one — as late as 1728, the Chambers Cyclopedia defined the word thus: “a general Name for all Spices, and other Commodities, brought from distant Countries, and used in the Business of Medicine, Dying, and the Mechanic Arts”.

The OED suggests that the source of the sense in the idiom may lie not in English but in French. In that language, from the fifteenth century on, drogue meant an ingredient used in chemistry or pharmacy — today it means a drug in the restricted sense of an addictive substance — and is the source of our drug. But it also had the sense of something of poor quality or worthless, a person whom one doesn’t value, or poor merchandise; as an adjective it could mean poorly dressed. The deprecatory uses may have come about through the perception of medicinal substances as being unpleasant to take. It seems that this secondary sense later resurfaced in English as the forebear of the idiom.

4. Sic!

• When visiting Burnby Hall Gardens near York last week Daniel Cutter noticed a sign attached to a low fence: “ducks keep off”.

• Andrea Loft was referring to a headline in the Daily Gazette of Schenectady on 15 August when she e-mailed: “I was sorry to read about this veteran’s war wounds and his untimely death, but glad that he was not to be buried alive: ‘Veteran killed on ride to be buried’.”

• “Perhaps not quite what he meant to say?”, wrote Ian McIver. He had seen a sentence in the Brisbane Times of 16 August: “One advocate of technology’s march declared last year to Smithsonian magazine. ‘People have been predicting the demise of movie theatres since I started in the business.’”

• “I received an e-mail with the subject line ‘Stay accident prone with the technology of Jupiter Jack’,” communicated Gary Sanders. “It turns out it was an advertisement for a safety device.”

• A headline from the Expatica Netherlands RSS feed on 20 August, Alan Buck reports, was “Pope reaches out to abuse victims amid protests”.

• One report on this week’s earthquake on the US east coast, widely reproduced, was spotted by Brenda Clough and Roger Bullard: “In downtown Baltimore, the quake sent office workers into the streets, where lamp posts swayed slightly as they called family and friends to check in.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 27 August 2011

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 August 2011.