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Newsletter 777
10 March 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Froward.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Etiquette.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

New format Your comments were overwhelmingly positive. So I shall continue sending both formats each week. It’s particularly good to learn that older subscribers report that the formatted version is easier to read and that it works well on smartphones and tablets.

Many readers noted exclamation marks in the middle of a couple of words. These weren’t typing errors but were inserted by e-mail software because some paragraphs were too long. I’ve changed the coding method to prevent this happening again.

Some readers complained that lines were too long in some readers or that the fonts were too small. Lines can usually be shortened by reducing the width of the viewing window — the text will reformat to fit it. Font sizes can often be changed through a local setting. However, I’ve amended the code to set a maximum length for lines and also changed the font specification slightly. In response to other requests, I’ve added links to key pages on the website, including the online version of each issue.

Errors Apart from the intrusive exclamation marks, subscribers also noted that I’d referred to the forward of a book when of course I meant its foreword and that I’d misspelled Sebastian Junger’s name in one place. The phrase when it’s at home, in the question about perfect storm, lost its apostrophe in one appearance (more about the expression below). Apologies.

2. Weird Words: Froward

It’s not a mistake for forward, though a typing error in an e-mail brought it to mind.

The first part of this archaic word could at one time stand alone. Fro is based on Old Norse frá, from which we also get from. We now know it only in to and fro, which is a scaled-down form of the Middle English come toward and go froward.

Froward means leading away. Old English also had fromward in the same sense, though they later diverged. Fromward retained its literal sense of direction — until it died out in the eighteenth century — whilst froward moved to the metaphorical.

By the fourteenth century, froward was attached in particular to a person who figuratively moved away from others by doing the opposite of what was asked of them or what other people thought reasonable. A froward person was hard to deal with — obstinate, peevish, perverse or childish. Indeed, a difficult child was often said to be froward:

Human Life is, at the greatest and the best, but like a froward Child, that must be play’d with and humour’d a little to keep it quiet till it falls asleep.

An Essay on Poetry by Sir William Temple, 1690.

That sense remained until froward slipped out of daily use in the latter part of the nineteenth century. If you read it today in a newspaper it’s either in a quotation from an old work or — to return to my starting point — a misprint for forward.

3. Wordface

Starstruck An informal astronomical term swam into my ken the other day: Milkomeda. The experts who know our galactic neighbourhood are predicting that shortly — in about five billion years, give or take the odd billion — the Andromeda Galaxy may collide with our own, the Milky Way. After some churning and stirring, the two may coalesce into a new single galaxy, which has been named Milkomeda. Though we need not lose any sleep about its coming, it’s good to know that we already have a name for it.

Walking wounded Following my piece two weeks ago on somniloquent several readers asked about the Latin verb ambulare, to walk. John Sieger put it this way: “I would be curious to know when ambulare acquired wheels to become ambulance.” It’s an odd story. The original was the late-eighteenth-century French hôpital ambulant, literally “walking hospital”, a horse-drawn vehicle that we would now call a mobile field hospital, taken to a battle to give rapid help to the wounded. This gave rise to chariot d’ambulance and voiture d’ambulance and at the end of the nineteenth century to the French ambulance in its modern sense of a civil emergency vehicle. The English word, initially meaning a vehicle with which to transport wounded away from the battlefield, was borrowed from voiture d’ambulance by the British army fighting alongside the French in the Crimean War.

At home? In last week’s issue, Thomas O’Dwyer wrote in his query about perfect storm, “What, I thought idly, is a perfect storm when it’s at home”. Lots of readers were clearly unfamiliar with this colloquial phrasing. It expresses surprise, incomprehension or scorn on encountering a reference to an unfamiliar person or thing: “Who’s he when he’s at home?”; “What on earth is an Immigration Appeals Tribunal when it’s at home?”; “What are banister finials when they’re at home?”. As so often with such formulations, the origin is lost in history, but it’s been in use in Britain for 150 years. The earliest on record is in St Patrick’s Eve, by Charles Lever, published in 1845: “‘And who is Mr. Lucas when he’s at home?’ said Owen, half-sneeringly.”

In hot water Perhaps, being officially retired, I’m now out of the loop, workplace-wise, but I was surprised when a catalogue of office supplies that I was glancing through offered me “hot and cold water coolers”. The models listed do indeed dispense hot water as well as cold. Though the English language is flexible, using water cooler to mean water heater bends it so far it might snap.

4. Questions and Answers: Etiquette

Q From Sarah Ingram: I have noticed that the word for a label in several languages (French, Dutch, German and Spanish at least) is etiquette, or a variant of it. How did we come to have such different meanings, and what do these other languages use when they want to talk about the prescribed way of behaving?

A Both senses have the same source, as does etiquette in English. Something similar happened in English, too, though in a disguised way.

The extension of sense first happened in French. It derives from the ancient French estiquette that meant to press, pierce, insert or attach and which may be linked to the Latin stilus, a stylus. It meant a post stuck in the ground that served some purpose or other not fully understood in games, perhaps as a goal. Because the posts often had a sign attached to them, it extended its sense to a label, in a later usage one in a lawyer’s book bag or valise that detailed the papers relating to a trial, including a list of witnesses. This moved further over time to refer to any sort of ticket, such as a price tag, which is one of its meanings in modern French.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the word was used in the court of Philippe the Good, the Duke of Bourgogne, for the schedule of the Duke and his court. By the end of the century, it had come to mean the court ceremonial, particularly at Versailles, and hence a code of polite behaviour in formal situations.

Because French was for so long the formal language of courts and diplomacy throughout Europe, etiquette in this sense spread into other languages. Confusingly, several of them adopted the label sense as well, though the two may be spelled slightly differently.

Like other languages, English borrowed etiquette in the behaviour sense in the eighteenth century. But two centuries earlier we had acquired a word close in sense to label by dropping the initial es from estiquette to make ticket.

5. Sic!

• Pete Jones was watching the snooker on Sky Sports recently when a commentator said: “If he can stay ahead, he’s going to win”.

• Several cases of unfortunate headline constructions appeared this week. “Woman hit by triathlon cyclist in coma” was seen by Rosemary Zammarelli on the Fox Sports site on 6 March. MSN News had the sad news, found by Michael Daily, that “Toddler found after twister dies in hospital”. On 7 March the Washington Times site had “Dead inmate killed up to 20”; thanks go to Norman Cooper for the zombie alert.

• Sharyn Turney sent a report from Yahoo News Australia: “Nearly 3500 have been evacuated in NSW as a Sydney dam overflew.” The Canberra Times wrote in similar mode two days earlier: “Floods have overflown other Canberra dams during construction with no ill effect.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 10 March 2012

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: 10 March 2012.