NEWSLETTER 539: SATURDAY 12 MAY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Lollapaloosa Several readers wondered whether the creation of this word had been influenced by the name of the appaloosa horse, while others had been told this as fact. The appaloosa, which has dark spots on a light background, is the traditional breed associated with native Americans. Its name comes either from an Indian tribal name or the Louisiana place name Opelousa, or possibly from the Palouse River in Idaho. Opelousa was recorded in 1849 in a German book about Texas but the word appears for the first time in a form near to its current spelling only in 1924 (and soon thereafter in many variant spellings that strongly suggest a recent oral origin) so it is probably too recent to have influenced lollapaloosa.
Say uncle Following the discovery by Dan Norder of this American idiom in late nineteenth-century newspaper jokes, George H Goebel, Assistant Editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, has pointed out that the joke was British in origin and that the idiom therefore almost certainly derives from it, not the other way around. My piece about the term has been updated with the details.
Bought and brought The item about this shift in last week’s issue brought forth several comments. Michael Shannon wrote, “As I’ve mentioned before, here in Australia the reverse is true. All too often you’ll hear someone say they have ‘brought’ something at the shops instead of ‘bought’. I’ve been hearing this ever since I arrived in Australia back in 1989 so I can only assume that it was prevalent before then. It’s the most irritating mispronunciation I’ve ever heard.” James Brunskill confirmed its popularity in that part of the world: “In New Zealand, we almost exclusively use ‘brought’ — ‘I brought a new car today’.” Perhaps the author Sebastian Faulks, the writer of the item, has a lot of antipodean friends? And many of you pointed out that thought changing to taught is exemplified by Tweetie Pie in the Warner Bros cartoons (“I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat”). I should have thought of that.
Brave New Words Andrew Pearce commented, following my review last time of this dictionary of science fiction, that “Your example of a Big Dumb Object (the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey) isn’t big enough. While I don’t think there’s a formal lower limit, they tend to be much bigger — astronomical in size. Examples are Dyson spheres and Niven’s Ringworld, both of which have millions or more times Earth’s surface and occupy whole ‘planetary’ orbits. Lindig Harris objected to my description of the book as pioneering, as she has a copy of Futurespeak: A Fan’s Guide to the Language of Science Fiction, published in 1991. This was new to me, but a copy is even now on its way from a US bookseller.
2. Topical Words: Larval therapy
This is not a subject for the squeamish, but the term is currently appearing on news pages as well as in research publications. With larval therapy larvae or maggots of the bluebottle or greenbottle are introduced to wounds to clean them and encourage healing.
There’s nothing new about either the idea or the name. Experience on battlefields in the American Civil War and the First World War showed that wounds healed quicker among casualties who had been left untreated long enough to be infected by maggots hatched from fly eggs. The maggots of these flies remove dead tissue and secrete chemicals that inhibit bacteria, but don’t eat living flesh, so giving healthy tissue the chance to regrow. The technique was used during the 1930s and 1940s to treat burns, abscesses, leg ulcers and gangrene. It went out of fashion when antibiotics came in after World War Two, though I’ve read it is still taught to army surgeons in some countries.
It’s coming back into use, not least because it can successfully treat wounds infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It has been reported this month that a team at Manchester University has found maggots can heal foot ulcers infected with the superbug MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). The team has been awarded a grant to carry out a controlled trial.
Early doctors called it maggot therapy, employing a medieval word that might be a variation on the old Germanic maddock or mathe, now known only in dialect, or which the Oxford English Dictionary thinks might have been influenced by Magot or Maggot, pet-names of Margery or Margaret. But there’s nothing in the least affectionate about maggot itself and doctors came to realise that calling it maggot therapy was a public-relations no-no. In the early 1930s larval therapy began to appear instead, based on a rather more recent and specific scientific term that had been borrowed from Latin larva, a ghost, spectre, or hobgoblin, which figuratively took a grub to be a ghost of the final adult form of an insect. However, larval therapy was not so much better that it entirely extinguished shudders from fastidious potential patients or their physicians.
Around a decade ago, biosurgery became popular as a euphemistic alternative. But this has become much more common in surgery to mean a wide variety of techniques based on biologically active or biologically compatible materials (biomaterials or biotherapeutics). So the unambiguous term larval therapy continues in use, as does maggot therapy. It’s also sometimes called maggot debridement therapy, in which debridement is the cleansing of a wound, a nineteenth-century borrowing from French, literally meaning unbridling, though the link with saddlery is obscure.
3. Weird Words: Pillaloo
A cry of lamentation or distress.
This is an Irish word and one not known outside Ireland, or even much within it these days, the word having dropped out of ordinary speech. You may find it spelled pililiú, or pililoo or in other ways. It’s a close relative of whillaloo” and ululu, two other Irish words with similar senses.
An’ the wust was, that what wi’ the rumpus an’ her singin’ out “Pillaloo!” an’ how the devil was amongst mun, havin’ great wrath, the Lawyer’s sarmon about a “wecked an’ ’dulterous generation seekin’ arter a sign” was clean sp’iled.
Henry Murray’s usage in Lands of the Slave and the Free of 1857 is very much easier on the modern eye and ear:
The dialogue was brought to a sudden stop by the frantic yell of the juvenile pledge of their affections, whose years had not yet reached two figures; a compact little iron-bound box had fallen on his toe, and the poor little urchin’s pilliloo, pilliloo, was pitiful.
4. Recently noted
Spelt versus spelled A puzzled American reader queried my use of spelt last week, wondering if perhaps I had misspelled spelled. I must confess to uninhibited inconsistency. In the 539 newsletters to date, spelled has appeared 126 times and spelt just 35 (but misspelled — used 12 times — has never been spelt as misspelt). Spelt is the traditional British participle and past tense but is unknown in American English. The style is still the standard over here, though it is shifting towards the other form, in part under US influence. There has never been any doubt in Britain, however, that when we have spelled out the facts of a matter, we do so in that spelling. We might also these days borrow a US meaning of the verb and say that we have spelled a person in a task, never spelt them. But then, the whole matter of strong versus weak verbs is a minor hazard for cross-Atlantic writers and editors. I’m currently reading a book by an American author in which one character shined a light. On infrequent occasions I might have shined my shoes, but never a light, as I would always prefer to have shone one. The tendency has been for strong verbs to change into weak ones over time, only the most common ones surviving. But in an interesting reversal, about a century ago North Americans created (strictly re-created) a strong past tense dove (“he dove into the water”) to replace dived. It is common in some places, though it is very regional in acceptance.
5. Questions & Answers: Shyster
[Q] From Annie Grieshop; a related question came from Morandir Armson: “In a recent online discussion about singing masters and hymn-book salesmen of the 19th century, the word shyster was used to describe certain members of that fraternity. Someone objected to the term as anti-Semitic. And now, of course, all sorts of opinions and etymologies are popping up. Would you be so kind as to clarify the term’s history for us?”
[A] The supposed anti-Semitic origin links the word to the name of the vengeful money lender Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, with the occupational ending -ster added. This is completely false. It is also often claimed to come from the name of a New York lawyer named Scheuster; in the 1840s, his unscrupulous ways are said to have so annoyed Barnabas Osborn, the judge who presided over the Essex Market police court in that city, that he supposedly began to refer to Sheuster practices. No such lawyer has been traced and it’s clearly just a folk tale. Unsuccessful attempts have also been made to link it to a Scots Gaelic word and to bits of English slang.
Whatever its origin, we use shyster to mean a person who uses unscrupulous, fraudulent, or deceptive methods in business. Historically, it has mainly been applied to lawyers. There’s good reason for that, as Gerald Cohen discovered when he traced its true origin some 25 ago. Professor Cohen found that shyster appeared first in the New York newspaper The Subterranean in July 1843, at first in spellings such as shyseter and shiseter but almost immediately settling down to the form we use now.
Ignorant blackguards, illiterate blockheads, besotted drunkards, drivelling simpletons, ci-devant mountebanks, vagabonds, swindlers and thieves make up, with but few exceptions, the disgraceful gang of pettifoggers who swarm about its halls.
Mike Walsh described shyster as both obscene and libellous. The circumstances surrounding its first appearance suggest that in New York underworld slang it was a term for somebody incompetent, so a potentially libellous description, and that only later — largely through the publicity that Walsh gave it in his newspaper in the years 1843-1846 — did it come to refer specifically to a crooked lawyer.
Professor Cohen concluded the word derives from German Scheisser for an incompetent person, a term known in New York through the many German immigrants there. Mike Walsh considered it obscene because it derives from Scheisse, shit, through the image of an incontinent old man. This is plausible, because British slang at the same period included the same word, meaning a worthless person; the usual spelling was shicer, though it appeared also as sheisser, shiser and shycer. It’s recorded first in print in Britain in 1846, but must be significantly older in the spoken language. (It was taken to Australia and from the 1850s was used there for an unproductive gold mine.) It may have been exported to New York by London low-lifers.
• As a coda to comments last week that mentioned canola, do you feel there’s perhaps something slightly inappropriate about a report in last Saturday’s Guardian which referred in all seriousness to some British farmers producing “extra-virgin rapeseed oil”?
• A nice eggcorn appeared in Parade Magazine last week, Laurie Graham notes from San Francisco, in an article about how to sell your home more quickly. In a section suggesting pot plants would help entice people to enter, it says “I’d rather see one really good-sized plant in a beefy pot than three wishy-washy plantings in mishmashed pots.”
• Following the quite splendid example of bad translation last week, James Pendlay sent a copy of the safety instructions for a radio-controlled toy car. Item 6 is almost poetic: “Don’t let the wet water of car, and not want under the rainy day is open-air usage”. That’s not difficult to work out, though the advice to avoid the “mightiness of sunlight bottom” is puzzling, as is item 9, which advised that “if the car dash to piecesed, and should pass by the per son check or profession personnel maintain the rear can continue to use.” What I take to be the native-language text is reproduced below. Can somebody tell me what the devil it was intended to say?
• “This is an old classic of a mistake,” e-mailed David McKeegan, “which makes it all the more surprising that I saw it just this morning in my local leisure club. A poster advertising their ‘St Tropez’ tanning system announced, in large white letters on a black background ‘NOTHING LOOKS BETTER’. Nothing to boast about, I’d have thought.”
• Elizabeth Cowan reports that last Saturday’s Ottawa Citizen ran a story on a traffic accident that involved a local sports celebrity, who “got out of the car donning sunglasses and a fresh white suit.” Ms Cowan hopes that that was the newspaper’s error.