NEWSLETTER 576: SATURDAY 23 FEBRUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Downman Following my item on this jargon term of the oil business, Tony Glaser e-mailed from South Carolina: “Today I saw a patient who had just been evacuated from an oil rig. He didn’t use downman, but without comment or explanation he used another word that’s new to me. He kept referring to the oil platform as an oplat.” This is relatively common, I discover, though always written in capital letters as an abbreviation of Oil PLATform. So it’s not said as op-lat, as one might assume, but as o-plat.
I say twaddle, you say twaddell ... My research skills escaped me last week in trying to learn about degrees Twaddle. Crawford MacKeand and Joe Cunningham tell me that the inventor of the scale was William Twaddell, an instrument maker of Glasgow in the early nineteenth century. The National Museum of Scotland’s Web site has a picture of a set of six of his graded hydrometers. He made them to estimate the specific gravity of various liquids (the NMS caption specifically mentions spirit proofing, which presumably means the famous Glasgow whisky), though his scale was later used in many other industries. The Dictionary of National Biography doesn’t mention him, though the scale named after him is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. He is so little known that at least one maker currently sells hydrometers engraved with the Twaddle scale. The many people who spell the name wrong may be forgiven, however, since all three citations for the OED’s entry, dated between 1853 and 1873, spell it Twaddle, as do most of the earlier ones that I’ve now found. In 1825, The Repertory of Patent Inventions said of the device, “It was first constructed by a poor tippling glass-blower in Glasgow, whose name was Twaddle. Hence it is called Twaddle’s hydrometer.” Might it be that William Twaddell's obscurity lies in part in his imbibing too much of the product he was testing?
Mute inglorious Milton? The number of words that were recorded first in the works of Shakespeare was grossly understated in the piece on Milton last week. The count is being revised downwards as research finds examples that predate Shakespeare but it is still much larger than the 229 given by the author of the article I quoted. Several readers suggested that he searched the online Oxford English Dictionary without realising Shakespeare’s name is abbreviated to Shakes in older entries (or even Shak in one place). A search for the short form as the first cited author produces 1663 results; searching on the full name does indeed find only 229.
Butterscotch In this piece last week, the firm in Dundee famous for its marmalade should have been given as Keiller, not Keillor. I may have been thinking of Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame.
This word is only now beginning to appear in general publications, though it has been around in its specialist area for some years.
It refers to a type of manga or anime, so originally Japanese, that focuses on male-to-male sexual relationships. Though it is therefore popular among gays, it has proved to be still more popular among women. So it has that in common with the — originally SF — genre of slash fiction, in which male stars of popular TV shows and films are portrayed as engaging in gay relationships, a genre also popular with and mostly written by women. (Slash because the original pair were Spock/Kirk from Star Trek, so written.)
Yaoi is said to be a Japanese acronym formed from the phrase yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi, which has been translated into English as “no climax, no resolution, no meaning” and “no peak, no point, no problem”, though a recent article suggests it actually means “no story, just the good bits”, that is, mostly descriptions of the sex with the minimum of storyline. The pronunciation often confuses people. In Japanese, I’m told, it ought to be three syllables (roughly as “yah-oh-ee”), though it’s frequently heard as two, as often happens in rapid speech. In English it seems to be said mainly as “YOW-ee” (roughly the noise you make when your home team scores, or you do) but also as “YAY-oi”, the former being nearer the Japanese pronunciation.
From a linguistic point of view it’s interesting that, though the term and the genre are classically Japanese, the term itself isn’t so much used there. The preferred local name for it is BL, short for “boy love”.
If Jack London and A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice’s erotic avatar) had been commissioned to write a novel that would appeal simultaneously to lovers of yaoi (X-rated manga featuring gay men and favored by female readers) and to furries (fans in fur suits who enjoy pretending to be anthropomorphic animals), the result might very well have resembled A Companion to Wolves.
[Washington Post, 27 Jan. 2008]
One of the earliest examples of “yaoi” Shakespeare is Yasuko Aoike’s manga for girls, titled Ibu no musuko tachi (Sons of Eve, Tokyo, 1978), in which Shakespeare, Lear, Hamlet and Romeo appear as male gay characters.
[Peter Holland, Shakespeare Survey 60, 2007]
Omission of the extra day of a leap year.
Though this word is extremely rare, the situation it refers to is still very much with us, as it refers to one of the corrections that form part of the Gregorian calendar we all use. The correction will not affect the leap day at the end of this month, however: the next metemptosis will occur in 2100.
The problem for calendar creators is that the number of days in a year doesn’t exactly fit the length of the year — there’s about a quarter of a day over. The older Julian calendar from Roman times had a simple way to deal with this: it just added an extra leap day every four years to make up the numbers and get the calendar back into sync with the year.
Unfortunately, over the next 1500 years it slowly became clear this wasn’t good enough. In fact, the number of days in the year is very slightly less than 365¼, so the calendar was slowly gaining on the seasons. In the sixteenth century, advisors to Pope Gregory XIII told him that it was necessary to leave out some days to get things back in step and to change the calendar to omit three leap years in every 400 years. To do this, they suggested that century years should only be leap years if they were divisible by 400.
Astronomers created metemptosis in the early eighteenth century for this second step, when the need to reform the British calendar was becoming very urgent (Catholic countries had implemented it in 1582; Britain only did so in 1752, though we weren’t the last by any means). It’s from Greek meta-, after, em-, in, and ptosis, a falling.
To be complete, there is proemptosis for the opposite process, adding a day to the calendar, in this case to keep it in step with the moon. For reasons I have no intention of trying to explain, one of these will not be needed until 4200.
4. Recently noted
Semicolon This retiring and rarely encountered punctuation mark gained some surprising exposure in the New York Times on Monday. Neil Neches, who works for New York City Transit, wrote a sentence in a sign asking subway passengers not to leave their newspapers behind when they get off the train: “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.” This was so rare — and even more rarely accurate — a usage by a public servant that it made the news.
Sleevefacing This curious fashion has reached the point at which it has been noticed in the UK media. On Facebook, people have taken to posting photographs of themselves with their faces obscured by an LP record sleeve to create an arresting visual illusion. The Observer recently commented, “The main motivation behind such ‘Sleevefacers’ is to create larfs (in some cases ‘awesome larfs’), while letting it be known they are groovingly cool enough to collect vinyl.” The WOW Report is plangently enthusiastic: “Sleevefacing’s the sensation that’s sweeping the nation. Or it should be.”
Speedriding It’s hard to keep up with all the exotic pastimes now being created, especially by someone like myself whose idea of an extreme sport is climbing the stairs. Speedriding began to be more widely known after it was publicised in a series of videos in the winter of 2005 – 06. Skiers wear small parachute wings to give them enough lift to get off the ground in order to avoid obstacles and act as brakes, so making it an amalgam of skiing and hangliding. The sport is being taught in various schools in Europe (the Swiss and French have taken it up in particular) and the first contest in the sport, the Speedriding Big Mountain competition, took place at the end of January. It is also known as speedflying, though I’m told aficionados make a distinction between the two.
5. Questions & Answers: Fall guy
[Q] From Brandon Gale: “In a review by Tom Lutz in the Los Angeles Times for 10 February 2008 of Laton McCartney’s book, The Teapot Dome Scandal, he refers to Senator Albert B Fall of New Mexico: “His 1929 conviction for accepting a bribe resulted in the first prison sentence handed to a U.S. Cabinet member — and the coming of the term ‘fall guy,’ since it was clear to most everyone that a wide conspiracy was afoot and that very few were paying the price.” This immediately set off my finely honed Quinion folk-etymology radar. Could he be right?”
[A] Presumably this is from the book rather than Mr Lutz’s own view of the origin of the phrase. If so, Laton McCartney is the one who has got it wrong, as a glance at a good dictionary would have told him. He may have been misled by the reference works that give Senator Albert Bacon Fall as the source, such as Prison Slang by William K Bentley and James M Corbett of 1992.
The instant and clinching objection to the story is that the term was around before either Fall’s conviction or the scandal itself, which broke in 1922. A book, The Fall Guy by Brand Whitlock, was published in 1912. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from 1906 and Professor Jonathan’s Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang has one from 1904. It’s possible now to take it back further. For example, it’s in Life by John Ames Mitchell (1883): “The president is the country’s fall guy. He cannot call his soul his own. He has to swallow his personal views and remember he is a party man.” My searches in historic newspaper files show, however, that the term starts to appear in them only around 1904-05.
There are two senses given in dictionaries for fall guy. It means either a person who is easily duped, a victim, or one who takes the blame and punishment for actions or crimes that have been committed by someone else, a scapegoat. The latter sense was clearly present right from the start.
The source is a US underworld slang sense of fall, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century — to be arrested for some crime or to be convicted and imprisoned for it. (It’s equivalent to the roughly contemporary British slang to go down, which originally referred to the steps from the dock at the Old Bailey down to the cells below.) It’s also the origin of taking the fall, but that came along rather later — in the 1920s.
• Department of post-mortem indecision: A cemetery manager was quoted in the Guardian Weekend last Saturday. He explained that they sometimes had to exhume bodies: “Some people have an aversion to burial and decide they would rather have a cremation after all.”
• While we’re on such matters, Peter G Neumann reported in the Risks Digest newsletter that the Web site of WSMV, Nashville, Tennessee, had a story on 15 February under the headline “Woman Says Being Declared Dead Ruins Life”.
• Department of clerical fecundity: Spotted by Noel Donaghey on the Web site of the Adelaide Advertiser for 15 February: “An effort to lift South Australia’s population to two million well before its target of 2050 will be led by Monsignor David Cappo.”