E-MAGAZINE 653: SATURDAY 22 AUGUST 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bully pulpit Following this piece last time, Ron Hann asked about the use of bully to mean corned beef. The experts say that it is most probably from the French bouilli, stewed or boiled meat.
Cactus In my snippet about the Australian expression last time, I noted that there were no native cacti in that country. John Weiss pointed out that the prickly pear had been imported from the US in the early 1800s as stock fodder but had become a serious invasive pest in New South Wales and Queensland by the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was so well known that he feels the expression was most certainly native. Many Australians wrote to make the same point Rob Coates did: “Sometimes the single word cactus is used but it’s generally recognised to be a shortening of cactus fuctus. This is said as a pseudo-Latin phrase to bring a touch of wry humour to an otherwise unfortunate situation. For example, a mechanic, after inspecting the starter motor in your car might announce ‘No wonder it won’t start, mate — this is cactus fuctus!’” (An alternative spelling with the k in place is also common, I gather.)
Meatspace I mentioned this geekish jargon word in another snippet last time. A number of readers asked whether it should have been meetspace. To quote the invaluable Jargon File: “Meatspace: The physical world, where the meat lives - as opposed to cyberspace.”
This delightful word from rural America, meaning something violent, extravagant, vigorous or a striking example of its kind, has become known everywhere that English is spoken:
Just when you thought that every imaginable etiquette question had been posed and answered, suddenly, from nowhere, just when you’re on holiday in the South of France and at least 1,000 miles from the nearest Debrett’s or glossy-mag advice page, a real rip-snorter leaps up and leaves you foundering, to wit: is it rude to stare at a disabled dog?
Giles Coren, writing in The Times, 1 Aug. 2009.
Its first appearance, in 1840, was attributed at the time to Davy Crockett (“Of all the ripsnorters I ever tutched upon, thar never war one that could pull her boat
Snorter has had various senses that imply that a thing is an extreme or remarkable example of its kind. To take one example, around the same time that ripsnorter appeared, snorter was applied to a particularly ferocious storm, a sense alluded to in the slightly opaque Crockett example that I’ve quoted. Rip is a pretty much meaningless intensifier, as it is also in words like rip-roaring.
3. What I've learned this week
• I’ve learned a new word: rupestrian from an item about a hotel in caves at Matera in southern Italy: “As you ascend, the environment becomes progressively less rupestrian until, at the very top, guests find themselves staying in something that’s akin to a normal room.” Rupestrian is from the Latin word for a rock by way of its adjective rupestris, meaning “found on rocks”. There’s some disagreement about its meaning. Oxford dictionaries firmly say that it refers to art done on rocks or cave walls but other dictionaries hold that it can also mean “composed of rock”, as the writer meant. There are enough examples of this rather rare word to be able to say Oxford is wrong. The related rupestral is principally a term in botany for a plant that grows on rocks, though it can also refer to rock art.
• An unlovely medical acronym greeted me on reading an article about eating disorders: EDNOS. It means “Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified”. The article concerned orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy fixation on healthy eating.
• Martin Crim encountered paleotempestology in an article in the New York Times on 13 August. It looks like a facetious formation, and indeed an article in the Orlando Sentinel of Florida in 1998 said that it had been generated “as something of a joke”. But it’s a serious, if recent, academic discipline, which studies past storm activity through the evidence of historical and geological records.
• The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performed at the Albert Hall in London at a late evening concert last Tuesday as part of the BBC Proms season (you should hear them play Beethoven). The orchestra’s founder, George Hinchliffe, used the splendid ukuleleator for one of the many amateur players of the instrument who joined them for the concert. A nonce word, but fun:
A feisty young lady named Baytor,
4. Questions and Answers: Freelance
[Q] From Steve Dyson, Lisbon: A Web site says: “Freelancers can trace their job title back to Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the term in his 1819 novel, Ivanhoe. His free-lance characters were medieval mercenaries who pledged their loyalty (and weapons) to lords and kings, for a fee.” As a freelance translator my curiosity is aroused. Is this etymological story correct? Perhaps it could provide an entry point for one of your excellent articles.
[A] We are so used to being told that freelance did indeed derive from medieval mercenaries in just this way that the story brings one up short disbelievingly. But it’s correct. The word is not recorded before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in that book.
This is its first appearance:
I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them — I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819. Free, of course, means “unbound”, not “without cost”.
It’s one mark of the huge influence that Scott had in his lifetime. He has quite gone out of fashion these days but in his time he was a famous and widely read writer (Henry James later remarked that Scott had made the nineteenth-century English novel possible). He also invented the historical novel, of which Ivanhoe is a classic example.
He’s credited with either popularising or inventing many words and phrases, to the extent that he’s marked as the first user of more than 700 in the Oxford English Dictionary and he lies third behind the Bible and Shakespeare in innovation in that work. He’s recorded as the first user of, to take a few terms at random, blood is thicker than water, Calvinistic, clansmen, cold shoulder, deferential, flat (meaning an apartment), Glaswegian, jeroboam, lady-love, lock, stock and barrel, otter hunt, Norseman, roisterer, Scotswoman (in place of the older Scotchwoman), sick-nurse, sporran, weather-stain and wolf-hound. He also introduced his readers to many obscure old terms, especially from the Scots language and from chivalry.
There was a slightly earlier term, free companion, which appeared in 1804 in a translation of the fourteenth-century chronicles of the French historian Jean Froissart about the Hundred Years War. Scott uses this, too, in the same book:
A knight who rode near him, the leader of a band of free companions, or Condottieri, that is, of mercenaries belonging to no particular nation, but attached for the time to any prince by whom they were paid.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.
• The subheading over a story in last Sunday’s Herald-Sun of Durham, North Carolina, got to Dick Gebhardt: “Many Outraged Guns Allowed in National Parks.” He felt that guns with emotions are a step too far. The headlinese obscured the fact that it was people who were outraged because a bill signed by the president allows owners to take their guns into national parks.
• In a case of “I know what you mean but it could have been better expressed”, a report in the Midland Daily News of Michigan last Saturday noted that “Dr. Kamu Vigani, medical examiner in Oakland who does autopsies in Bay and other counties, determined the man died from accidental drowning following an autopsy at Bay Regional Medical Center.” Thanks to someone I know only as Penny Nickle for sending that in.
• On Monday, the New York Times had a story with the headline “DNA Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show”. On ScienceBlogs, Professor Chad Orzel pointed out that the report said “Dr Frumkin is a founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones that it hopes to sell to forensics laboratories.” The plot thickens ...