NEWSLETTER 591: SATURDAY 14 JUNE 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Patibulary James Caplan and Jean-Pierre Aoustin both pointed out that patibulaire, the French equivalent of last week’s Weird Word, is common and refers to a person of sinister appearance, perhaps one who looks as though he deserves hanging.
Back to square one Randall Bart commented on the source of this phrase in the snakes and ladders board (called chutes and ladders in the US), “The cliché refers to an impossibility on most boards. Looking through the images at BoardGameGeek, about 10% of the boards have a snake that takes you back to square one. In the current Hasbro edition, square one is a ladder, and the lowest you can fall on a chute is square six. This may be the exact same board (except for art) that Milton Bradley introduced 50+ years ago. Of the ones with chutes or slides (whether Milton Bradley/Hasbro or a knock off), I don’t see a single one where you can go back to square one. I wonder if the original author of the cliché had seen a board with a snake leading to square one, or assumed there must be.” Since the expression is originally British, it may be that the British board at one time did have a snake to square one. Perhaps a historian of British board games might comment?
John Simpson is sure, despite my dismissal of the idea, that the BBC’s one-time football diagram is the source. He commented that “I was, for a time during World War II, on the staff of the Admiral responsible for the administrative backup of the Fleet Air Arm, including the operational training of young pilots who had completed their basic flying training on the other side of the Atlantic. Occasionally, one had to be sent back for further basic training: this was known among the trainees as being sent to square six. No one had any doubt what the reference was or that it came from the football diagram.”
Alain Gottcheiner contributes a French connection from Brussels: “Perhaps I can offer a bit of help. The French locution retour à la case départ is older than the English one, which could well be its translation. This French expression comes from the Jeu de l’Oie [the game of the goose], a variant of Snakes and Ladders, dating back to the 16th century, popular enough to have its own museum in Rambouillet, near Paris. In that game, some effects (like being caught by another player’s piece) will send you back to the square marked départ in French, but usually 1 in English variants.”
Preventive versus preventative “Growing up in the Midwest US,” Dan Perlman e-mailed, “we actually used preventive and preventative differently — preventive was an adjective, as in a preventive action; preventative was a noun, specifically an herbal, medicinal or vitamin ‘cure’ — misnomered since it was taken in advance of a cold or flu in order to ward it off. We often took preventive steps in early winter by downing a preventative before going out to play in the snow.” Kerry Walsh said, “I was taught that a preventative was a condom and that mainframe computers had to have preventive maintenance. We always laughed at the newbie operators who said the computer was down for preventative maintenance.”
John Britton noted that the controversy over such pairs reminded him of his long-standing dislike of orientate versus orient, meaning to locate yourself on a map. The longer form has been the subject of much complaint, though only in the last half century, whereas the word has been known at least since 1849. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage dismisses such complaints out of hand, “The criticism comes down to this: orientate is three letters and one syllable longer than orient. That would seem like rather a trivial concern, but the word seems to draw criticism for no better reason than that.”
Wacky spelling In the Recently Noted piece about whack-evac last week, I changed the spelling of the first word to fit British orthography, though over here the word means “funny or amusing in a slightly odd or peculiar way”, not crazy. Several US subscribers pointed out that it is usually spelled without the h in that country, whose natives invented it. I stand corrected.
In season Bob Johnson wrote, “I note your use of unseasonably last week. Of course, there’s no such word, even though it’s used nearly exclusively when unseasonally is meant. I’m wondering if you have a comment.” I do. The word unseasonably dates to the sixteenth century, while unseasonally is known only from 1941. Precedent alone makes my version the right one. The style books I’ve consulted agree that unseasonably is correct the way I used it, based on their opinion that seasonable means “appropriate for the time of year” (“hot weather is seasonable for summer”), while seasonal means a thing occurring at or associated with a particular season (“the seasonal migration of geese”). But we are both in good company, since that elegant writer Alistair Cooke criticised the columnist William Safire in 2002 for using unseasonably in one of the latter’s On Language columns in the New York Times. Cooke was roundly rebutted in a later column.
We haven’t heard much in the mainstream press in the UK about the European Union’s Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, though it was passed in 2005 and became British law on 26 May. It aims to prevent traders from treating consumers unfairly, which may seriously cramp the style of a couple of firms that I have the misfortune to deal with. It also strengthens the laws against misleading advertising, which is likely to outlaw contextomy.
One group that’s in the front row facing the firing line — the group that has attracted most press comment — includes publishers and theatre managers. Their ability to creatively extract key words and phrases from reviews and use them as blurbs on book covers and placards is notorious. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times in 1998 that all critics “learn the hard way that a flattering phrase tossed off casually can become an advertisement nightmare somewhere down the line.”
The drama critic may be apocryphal who wrote that he “liked all of the play, except the lines, the acting and the scenery”, only to find he was quoted as saying that he “liked all of the play”, but such tricks are meat and drink to the unscrupulous. Sinatra At The London Palladium in 2006, which presented recordings of the late singer on video screens, was promoted with the phrase “Energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry”, although the Observer’s critic had actually written “For all the energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry, the audience had been short-changed.” In another notorious case, Linda Winer, theatre critic of Newsday, reviewed Walmartopia, a satire on Wal-Mart, in September 2007, saying it was terrible: “Though the heart is in the right place, the style is as simple-minded as the huge smiley buttons that define the level of the collegiate soft-target spoofing”. She also said that the director “uses every cliché known to recent parody to neutralize the preachiness — and betray the point — of this little-guy-fights-back inspirational story”. In an advert in the New York Times her comments became “This deft, fun, little-guy-fights-back inspirational story has its heart in the right place.”
Such extracts from reviews are called pull quotes in the jargon; massaging them into more favourable versions is quote doctoring. Another word, with apologies to Stephen Potter, is quotemanship (or quotesmanship). Yet another term is contextomy, one used principally by academics in reference to literary misquotation. The ending -tomy means cutting up and has here been neatly reversed into context. It was created by the historian Milton Mayer in 1966 in reference to a much more significant issue, the misquoting of the Torah for propaganda purposes by Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi paper Der Stürmer in Weimar-era Germany.
Blurbs are hardly such a weighty matter. And there’s doubt whether the new EU directive will do much to temper the eternal enthusiasm of puffers for mangling quotes to commercial benefit. We must wait and see.
Having a protuberant belly; corpulent.
It seems probable that it derives from Old English gor or gore, meaning at first dung or dirt; in the sixteenth century it shifted sense to our modern one of blood that has been shed as a result of violence.
Gorbelly came along early in the sixteenth century, in a poem by John Skelton. The adjective followed soon after — Shakespeare used it in his Henry IV, Part One: “Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone?” It dropped out of use in the nineteenth century, with one of the last users in a direct line from the ancients being Douglas Jerrold, who wrote “The gorbellied varlets, with mouths greasy with the goods of cheated worth.”
These days it appears only rarely, being a word resurrected to give a sense of another age in historical fiction or fantasy, as in Harry Turtledove’s alternate history, Ruled Britannia, in which the English failed to defeat the Armada in 1588 and in which the delightful scene-setting opening line is “Two Spanish soldiers swaggered up Tower Street toward William Shakespeare.” Turtledove writes later, “‘Consumption catch thee, thou gorbellied knave!’ a boatman yelled.”
To save anyone pointing it out, it’s also in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
4. Recently noted
Buildering The Los Angeles Times introduced me to this word in a story last Saturday about the much-publicised climb of the New York Times building by two mountaineers. The art of climbing man-made structures can be called urban climbing, but buildering is more common, a term formed as a blend of bouldering, for climbing on large boulders, with building. It goes back at least as far as the book Bouldering, Buildering and Climbing in the San Francisco Bay Region, by Marc Jensen, published in 1984. However, people have been climbing buildings for fun for well over a century, the first among them being the night-climbers of the Cambridge colleges in the UK. A rare term for the sport is stegophily, which may be translated from the ancient Greek as “love of roofs”.
5. Questions & Answers: Chin wag
[Q] From Lila Nelson, Minneapolis: “A friend of partially Irish ancestry, who is a most delightful conversationalist, enjoys a visit, which he refers to as having a chin wag. I had never heard this apt term before. What can you tell me about it?”
[A] On this side of the big pond, it’s regarded as unremarkable, though it feels a touch old-fashioned. Stabbing my electronic pin at a collection of newspaper articles I speared this one from the Racing Post of 16 March 2008: “He seems to understand that yes, we all enjoy watching football and having a good chin-wag about it, but, at the same time, we’ve all seen thousands of matches before so let’s not get too carried away.”
To have a chin wag in current usage is to have a gossip or a wide-ranging conversation on some mutually interesting subject. It goes back a long way. As an example of the byways searches can take one down, the earliest example I’ve found is from the North Lincoln Sphinx, a regimental journal prepared by and for the officers and men of the second battalion of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot. The issue for 28 February 1861, prepared while the battalion was based in Grahamstown, South Africa, included some jokey revised “rules” of whist, whose first item was “Chinwag is considered rather as an addition to the game, than otherwise, and is allowed.” A footnote said that it was an “American slang term for excessive talking.”
I wonder if the footnoter is right. All the early examples are British, including this one from Punch in 1879: “I’d just like to have a bit of chin-wag with you on the quiet.” The English slang recorder, John Camden Hotten, included it in the second edition of his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words in 1873, but intriguingly defined it as “officious impertinence”. It was more often used in the sense of those whist rules to mean idle chatter or inconsequential talk or to suggest unkindly that some person couldn’t stop talking. Wagging one’s chin, indeed.
• Some people remain with us for centuries, or so World Magazine of 17 May seems to be implying: “Theological and fiscal conservative J. Howard Pew supported Billy Graham and funded a biography of John Calvin when he was alive.” Thanks to Ralph Cabrera for that.
• “This is perhaps more on the lines of extraneous additions,” Jim Tang comments from Hawaii, “but if you’re including ‘statements of the bleeding obvious’, as you did last week, this headline from the Associated Press, dated 7 June, which I read on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site, would fit the type: ‘Man jumps from plane with no parachute, dies’.”
• The curse of the over-abbreviated headline struck Eric Tilbrook the same day. The Calgary Sun of Alberta confused him momentarily on 7 June with “Fresh biker questions dog government”. On reading the story below, he found that it didn’t concern a cheeky motorcyclist and a canine administration, but alleged links between an MP and a biker gang.