NEWSLETTER 549: SATURDAY 18 AUGUST 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Urographist Lots of people had fun with this word I mentioned in passing last week. Some suggested it would be better applied to a person who wrote graffiti on lavatory walls. To others it brought to mind an image that may best be described in the words of a folk song from the Norfolk duo of Sid and Henry Kipper: “See, amid the winter’s snow someone have writ his name, And since I’ve had a lot to drink, I think I’ll do the same.” Thanks to J Holan for the lyric, and for suggesting that a better title for a person who designs logos for toilet doors (he calls them gender-contrasted glyphs) would be sexual-segregational symbologist. To be serious for a moment, David Bowsher points out that urography is the medical term for radiography of the urinary tract, which is also known as pyelography. So a doctor who specialises in doing it ought to be a urographist (or just possibly a urographer). Why then, I wonder, not really expecting an answer, is urographist unknown?
Jericho As an important addendum to comments over the past couple of weeks, Alan Royal e-mailed from New Zealand to point out that the famous slang dictionary by J S Farmer and W E Henley in seven volumes, published a century ago under the superb title Slang and its Analogues Past and Present. A Dictionary Historical and Comparative of the Heterodon Speech of All Classes of Society for More Than Three Hundred Years. With Synonyms In English, French, German, Italian, etc, includes Jericho as a slang term for an outdoor privy. So it really was used in real life and wasn’t solely a private joke of James Woodforde. I’ve updated the Web version of the item.
2. Turns of Phrase: Fat tax
A fat tax is a surcharge applied to certain kinds of high-fat and high-energy foods whose consumption is most likely to contribute to excessive weight gain. The hope is to reduce the increasing levels of obesity — known to cause or exacerbate health problems like heart disease, cancer and diabetes — and encourage people instead to eat healthy foods that are low in salt, sugar, and saturated fats.
Some US cities and states levy taxes on soft drinks and junk food but the idea hasn’t yet spread to Europe. The term was in the news in the UK in July 2007 following publication in the Journal of Epidemiology of a report by Dr Mike Rayner and fellow researchers at Oxford University. At the moment, all food is untaxed in the UK; the researchers suggest that applying sales tax at the usual rate of 17.5% to non-essential foods like cakes, biscuits and puddings would potentially save up to 3,200 lives a year. A similar proposal was put forward by Dr Tom Marshall in the British Medical Journal in 2000; a fat tax was rejected by the British government in 2004 as being a product of a nanny state.
The term fat tax has been independently invented several times. The earliest I know of was at the World Food Conference in 1973, during which delegates were encouraged to weigh themselves and pay a graduated fat tax to charity if they were overweight. The first example I can find in the sense of a tax on foodstuffs appeared in a letter by a reader in the Valley Independent of Monessen, Pennsylvania, in July 1987.
Dr Rayner said: “Given the high incidence of cardiovascular disease and the acknowledged contributory role of dietary salt and fat a well-designed and carefully targeted fat tax could be a useful tool for reducing the burden of food-related disease.”
[Evening Standard, 12 Jul 2007]
Critics say a “fat tax” would hit the poor hardest because they spend 30 per cent of their income on food, twice the proportion spent by richer households.
[New Scientist, 21 Jul 2007]
3. Weird Words: Lippitude
Soreness of the eyes.
Various old dictionaries seek to explain this medical term through a variety of others that are at least as obscure. To equate it with blearedness, glama, or epiphora would seem, at least to us today, to be ill-judged attempts to clarify the matter.
Blearedness, although an uncommon word, may be converted without great effort to the more common bleary-eyed. But glama doesn’t even appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, so it’s lucky that my 1913 edition of Webster does include it, defining it as “a copious gummy secretion of the humor of the eyelids, in consequence of some disorder”, adding helpfully that it is from Latin gramiae. The Oxford Latin Dictionary glosses this as “rheum in the eye”, rheum in its turn being a watery fluid that collects in or drips from the nose or eyes, borrowed from Greek rhein, to flow. Epiphora is still in the medical vocabulary, though hardly known outside the profession, and means “an excessive watering of the eye”. One big medical dictionary that I consulted cross-referenced epiphora to tearing, which disconcerted me until I realised the latter word should be rhymed with fearing, not bearing.
Lippitude arrived in English in the early seventeenth century, probably from a French word that had been created from the Latin lippus, blear-eyed. It seems to have gone out of use in the 1850s.
4. Recently noted
I’m entitled World Wide Words was namechecked last Sunday in Jan Freeman’s language column in the Boston Globe. A reader complained about the use of entitled in reference to the name of a book, when titled would work as well. Ms Freeman noted that it may be more common in the UK than the US, since I employ it. A search shows I’ve used it 236 times in various pieces, which indicates that I’m rather fond of it, a personal preference that overweighs any likely marker of geographical distribution. Clearly, I prefer it to titled, though the latter is equally correct. The usage has been criticised, most surprisingly by Emily Post in her Etiquette, published in 1922, but also by John Bremner in his Words on Words of 1980. The dislike may arise because the other sense of entitled, having a legal right or a just claim to something, is more common. But the book sense is older, being first used by Chaucer around 1380. It is not until the next century that we first encounter it to mean bestowing a designation or title on a person that expresses his rank, office, or character, which almost immediately extended to the idea of his having a rightful claim to something.
Acronym alert It’s always fun to spy on someone else’s jargon, this time via a BBC Radio 4 programme about private equity. As a cousin to terms such as Oink, One Income, No Kids, Dink, Dual Income, No Kids, Sitcom, Single Income, Two Kids, Outrageous Mortgage, and many others, we now have Ninja mortgage from the infamous US sub-prime house-loan market. The first word stands — approximately — either for “no income, no job” or “no income, no job, no assets”.
Neologism of the week? This one turned up in a press release from a wine company based in Napa Valley, California. It announced that it would in future be packaging some of its vintages in plastic bottles. (Oenophiles may pause for a moment to allow horror-induced dizziness to pass.) The argument was that it would let the drinking of wine be more occasionistic. This presumably means that you can take bottles on picnics without fear of getting glass fragments in the sandwiches.
5. Questions & Answers: Cheese it!
[Q] From Dave Olander: “Do you have any notion of the meaning and origin of Cheese it? It is from my childhood reading of comic books, and was always used in expressions like “Cheese it! The cops!” I can only guess it is intended to be a PC adaptation of Jesus, used as an expletive, but feel that is unlikely.”
[A] The exclamation cheese!, often written jeez!, is definitely a euphemism for Jesus! But the word in the sense you give isn’t from that source.
Cheese it! means either to be silent (“Will you cheese it! I don’t want to hear!”) or to stop what you are doing, presumably something illegal or inappropriate. The expression is now virtually defunct, but it turns up often enough in older writing, as you say, that it’s not entirely unknown even now.
It was originally British slang of the early nineteenth century, but was later taken to the US — it turns up, for example, in a story in O Henry’s The Voice of the City, published in 1908: “The defence of Mr Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’” It’s also in The Inimitable Jeeves by P G Wodehouse, published in 1923: “He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master’s voice cheesed it courteously.” The first example occurs in James Hardy Vaux’s A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language of 1812. Flash at the time referred to men associated with disreputable sports such as boxing and generally to thieves, tramps, and prostitutes, so flash language was the cant or slang of criminals.
Vaux said that cheese it meant to keep quiet or to stop, desist or leave off doing something. What he actually wrote was that it meant the same as stow it, which Vaux explained as “an intimation from a thief to his pall, to desist from what he is about, on the occasion of some alarm.” This is a much older expression that comes from the idea of putting cargo in ship’s storage and shutting the hatches.
Unfortunately, we don’t have such a simple explanation for cheese it. It might have been a version of cease. Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, also points to an old proverb, after cheese comes nothing, which refers to cheese being the last item in a meal. This sounds more than a little literary and stretched, but perhaps the proverb was well enough known then that it made sense just to say “cheese!”
• A placard caught David Sands’s eye at a Tim Horton’s coffee shop in the Winnipeg international airport (Tim Horton’s being the largest fast food franchise in Canada): “Our homestyle recipes are freshly prepared daily.” Unfortunately, they wouldn’t sell him any.
• Thanks to Elspeth Pope for passing on this gardening query from the Home Section of the 11 August issue of The Olympian, the newspaper for Olympia, WA: “We are growing pumpkins and I remember from my childhood that my grandparents poured milk on the skin of the young pumpkins. Do you know why they did this? Should I do this with my grandchildren?” Only if they are pumpkins.
• Brian Hooper read the following in a job vacancy advertisement for an interior designer posted by the Design Institute of Australia: “A competitive rumination package will be negotiated with the successful applicant.” Don’t have a cow, man!
• The Web site of Revo Uninstaller says that “AutoRun Manager allows you to manage auto ruining programs on Windows startup.” Bruce Robb commented, “I’m so tired of having to ruin all those programs myself; I’m delirious that it can now be done automatically.”
• The Sharon Herald of Pennsylvania recently included a note that “The Survivors of Suicide Support Group meets at 7 p.m. Thursday at Grace Chapel Church. Heeling comes when we can work with and for others.” Norman Berns suggests, “A bit of heeling might distract mourners from their sorrows.” And it’s also good for the sole.
• On Monday, Peter Ronai tells us, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “Kevin Federline’s lawyer is aiming for the jugular in his new custody battle for the two sons he fathered with Britney Spears.” That complicates the court case more than somewhat.