E-MAGAZINE 668: SATURDAY 5 DECEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Deliquescent Several chemists suggested I might like to add to my piece the information that the reason why crystals deliquesce is that they are hygroscopic, tending to absorb moisture from the air. If that effect is strong enough, the crystals dissolve into a liquid. But the deliquescence is a consequence of hygroscopicity, which is the important process at work. As it happens, I did think of including hygroscopic and its opposite, efflorescent. This refers to a process in which some crystals lose water by evaporation and turn to a powder (the usual example that teachers used to point to, in the days when it could be found in most households, was washing soda, hydrated sodium carbonate). But the piece was getting long and discursiveness is fine only up to a point!
2. Turns of Phrase: Smartbook
In the past two decades, manufacturers have delivered us laptops, notebooks, mini-notebooks, subnotebooks and netbooks in successive attempts to achieve lightweight computing on the move. Smartbook may be the jazzy new term for 2010.
They are small portable computers that look like netbooks but have different processors, which means that they won’t be able to run Windows. Instead they will operate using one of the many varieties of Linux. They are being touted as giving better battery life than netbooks (though with 11 hours life currently being advertised for one type of netbook, perhaps that isn’t so important an issue). So far as their functions are concerned, they fit somewhere between netbooks and smartphones.
One obstacle to the term becoming a generic description is that Smartbook™ is a trademark of a German company, Smartbook AG, which is suing the US company Qualcomm, one of the promoters of the new term, in a German district court for infringement.
In a quest to promote a new type of mobile computing device called the smartbook, Qualcomm unveiled a new Lenovo gadget Thursday. The wireless technology company is betting that consumers will gravitate to smartbooks, which are designed to combine the most appealing features of smart phones and laptops.
Forbes, 12 Nov. 2009.
I’d shed no tears if the chip companies and others behind the new gadgets were forced to find a new name for their platform. Unless you want to argue that smartbooks are, indeed, the smartest computing device to date, the term isn’t descriptive. Unlike “desktop” or “notebook” it’s just marketing-speak.
PC World, 25 Nov. 2009.
A useful word, albeit specialist, being principally of interest to arboriculturists. Many have no doubt undertaken the task this word identifies, though it is certain that almost none among them have thought to apply the term to the chore. This is an exception:
The most infallible art of emuscation, is taking away the cause, (which is superfluous moisture in clayey and spewing grounds) by dressing with lime.
Sylva: A Discourse of Forest Trees & the Propagation of Timber, by John Evelyn, 1664.
Mr Evelyn precedes these sage remarks by a description of various methods of emuscation, which will serve to explain it:
Moss, (which is an adnascent plant) is to be rubb’d and scrap’d off with some fit instrument of wood, which may not excorticate the tree, or with a piece of hair-cloth after a sobbing rain; or by setting it on fire with a wisp of straw, about the end of December, if the season be dry, as they practise it in Staffordshire.
Sylva, ibid. Sobbing here is not from our usual sob but from another of unknown origin that means “soaking, saturated”.
So, emuscation means to remove moss from the bark of a tree. Its source is Latin muscus, moss, preceded by e, meaning “out”.
A plain English equivalent would be de-moss, but Evelyn was never one for the brief and homely term when a Latinate extravagancy was possible. In the second quotation above he has adnascent, meaning something that grows upon something else, and excorticate, remove the bark from a tree. Elsewhere in the same work — among many other examples — are ablaqueation, removal or loosening of soil around the roots of a tree or vine; decubation, the act of lying down; introsume, to take internally or absorb nourishment; perflatile, exposed to the wind or well ventilated; and stercoration, the action of manuring with dung.
4. What I've learned this week
The pyrites of Penzance Following the Cumbrian dialect word that turned up in the national press recently, one from the language of Cornwall attracted similar attention last weekend. A four-bedroom property in Perranporth with Atlantic views was advertised for sale last week at £425,000. The snag is that it’s affected by mundic. It’s a Cornish term recorded from the seventeenth century. Mundic is a form of pyrites, a waste product of the tin and copper mines of Cornwall and west Devon, often sparkling and colourful because it contains arsenic, copper, iron and other elements. Up to the 1950s, it was widely mixed with cement to make concrete and mortar. Unfortunately, pyrites generates sulphuric acid on exposure to air and water, rotting the material. Many older houses can be hard to sell as a result. The origin of mundic is unknown, although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it might conceivably be linked with the Cornish and Breton men, meaning stone, as in menhir, the second part of which is hir, long.
Renew fuels Colin Fine has introduced me to defossilise. He heard the former British Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir David King use it in a programme on Radio 4 about climate change this week. To defossilise an economy is to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The word turns up a few times online and in printed sources (as in a WWF publication, EU Consumption, Global Pollution: “Although biofuels may contribute to reducing the carbon emissions of transport, the EU biofuels target of 10% also demonstrates that biofuels will not by themselves result in the ‘defossilisation’ of transport.”) It’s more often found in reference to the teaching of a second language, where it refers to techniques by which learners are taught to avoid automatically carrying over aspects of their first language into the new one.
Word of the Year Switzerland is up to the minute with its choice of its word of the year for 2009, as you might expect from a jury of journalists. They are all from German-speaking Switzerland and Liechtenstein; their choice was Minarettverbot, minaret ban. It was only last Sunday that a Swiss referendum banned the erection of minarets on mosques, a deeply controversial decision. Jury members argued the term had the potential to become as notable a Swiss export as Müesli. We must assume tongues were firmly in cheeks when drafting this statement. The Unwort, the taboo word of the year, was Ventilklausel, which literally translates as “valve clause”. It describes the way that the migration of people from the European Union into Switzerland and back is regulated.
5. Questions and Answers: Amn't
[Q] From Fred A Roth, Idaho; a related question came from Shailesh Ramanuj, India: Why don’t we say I amn’t? All the other personal pronouns have two contracted forms that can be used in present-tense negative constructions, such as we’re not or we aren’t. The first person singular, however, has only one — I’m not. What happened to I amn’t?
[A] This is a surprisingly complicated question. First off, amn’t (which is short for am not) may be unfamiliar to most of us, but it isn’t entirely unknown, though it's almost exclusively found in the inverted form amn’t I. It’s used in Scotland and Ireland, for example. Why the rest of us don’t is a result of shifts in pronunciation that were associated with a loss of favour generations ago.
Amn’t has a long recorded history — the Oxford English Dictionary has an example from a magazine called The Athenian Gazette in 1691, but it was almost certainly known earlier, as many other shortened forms, such as can’t, don’t and shan’t, seem to have arrived in the language around 1600. But it was never as popular as another contraction, an’t. This was probably preferred because speakers disliked putting an m and an n together in one syllable. One of the two was elided away (as happened with the n in column, for example). In this case I’d guess that the n was kept because it matched the other short forms and also signalled negative intent.
An’t used to be widely acceptable:
You need not sit so near one, if you have anything to say. I can hear you farther off, I an’t deaf.
Love for Love, by William Congreve, 1695.]
An’t was also used in place of are not and is not around the same time. Jonathan Swift, later a severe critic of abbreviated forms, included it in his Journal to Stella of 1710: “An’t you an impudent slut?” Four years earlier, Edward Ward wrote in Hudibras Redivivus, “But if your Eyes a’n’t quick of Motion”, adding an extra apostrophe to show how he thought the contraction was formed. It stayed in the language until the nineteenth century:
“An’t he beautiful, John? Don’t he look precious in his sleep?” “Very precious,” said John. “Very much so. He generally IS asleep, an’t he?”
The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens, 1845.
The way that a was pronounced in these forms wasn’t always as we might say it today. Sometimes it was more like “ay”. The result was that an’t began to be spelled ain’t.
Early on, ain’t was as respectable as an’t, as it still is in some language communities, such as Black American English, and humorously in some fixed phrases (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). But the prescriptive grammar chaps got at it in the eighteenth century, objecting to it as a vulgar corruption, and writers of the next century and after were even more vociferous in their condemnation. Much of it was directed at the use of ain’t he and ain’t they rather than ain’t I (Eric Partridge wrote that using ain’t for isn’t was for him “an error so illiterate that I blush to record it”). However, all its uses became equally tainted. The dislike of ain’t rubbed off on an’t, too, which eventually led to its replacement.
There was another pronunciation of an’t, in which the vowel was drawn out and somewhat drawled. Eventually this led to the spelling pronunciation aren’t, with the r silent, a form for which we have little evidence before the twentieth century. It explains why aren’t I exists, which is otherwise a puzzle, since there’s no obvious way that it could have been formed from am I not. Despite dislike of it by some stylists, aren’t I has become accepted in standard English as the successor to an’t and as a respectable alternative to ain’t. But I aren’t was a step too far for people to accept, which is why we have no parallel in the language today to the old I amn’t or I an’t and have to make do just with I’m not.
In 1926, H W Fowler wrote an even-handed comment on these contractions that showed that, for him, an’t wasn’t yet extinct while aren’t I didn’t yet exist:
A(i)n’t is merely colloquial, & as used for isn’t is an uneducated blunder & serves no useful purpose. But it is a pity that a(i)n’t for am not, being a natural contraction & supplying a real want, should shock us as though tarred with the same brush. Though I’m not serves well enough in statements, there is no abbreviation but a(i)n’t I? for am I not? or am not I?; & the shamefaced reluctance with which these full forms are often brought out betrays the speaker’s sneaking affection for the ain’t I that he (or still more she) fears will convict him of low breeding.
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H W Fowler, 1926.
• The Dumbledore lookalike Leland Sklar was the subject of a comment Rick Palley found on a Toto fan Web site: “His very recognizable bass playing style, along with his beard, have been heard on hits by Phil Collins, Billy Cobham, Rod Stewart ... .”
• In an article on page 24 of the Daily Express of 26 November, David Balfour read, “I think people trust us because we’ve lived life and been through various aspects like divorce and death.”
• Bob Lee thinks a spell checker had something to do with the weird hyphenation he saw in a quote from the Lakewood police chief, Bret Farrar, in the Calgary Herald on Thursday, which had been reprinted from the Los Angles Times: “I just want to thank all my brothers and sisters-in-law enforcement for the hours and hours of tireless work.”