E-MAGAZINE 666: SATURDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bull in a china shop The correspondence about last week’s piece, which was copious, divided neatly into two classes. One told me about a 2007 edition of the US television program Mythbusters that put bulls in a mocked-up china shop. The animals proved to be quite nimble at avoiding bumping into shelves or breaking anything. The other group told me that equivalent expressions exist in many other languages — Russian, Latvian, Polish, Dutch, German, French, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish — all of which feature the elephant instead of the bull. The last two prefer to place him in a glassware store rather than a china shop. In Dutch you can also say “like a horse in a china cabinet”. English is the odd one out in using the homely bull. There’s probably a story in there, if one could only tease it out. Daniel Szoke suggested that the idea may have come from an Aesop fable, which is probably associated with a Roman version of the simile, like a donkey on a roof.
Emotional animals Last week, Christopher Joubert wrote that he had added the fish we had been discussing, the sarcastic fringehead, to his “list of animals with names suggestive of emotion”, mentioning the depressed mussel and the blushing snail. Mike Turniansky wrote, “Mr Joubert can add the melancholy woodpecker of western Africa and the greedy olalla rat of Colombia and Venezuela.” Several readers noted the Pacific black duck, mentioned in the same issue, might be added if we look beyond the immediate geographical reference. Linda Doggett wrote, “I am not sure if bugs count on the list of animals but I have always been fond of the confused flour beetle.”
In the beginning, around the middle of the sixteenth century, there was the word slip-shoe, about which there is nothing mysterious. It was simply a shoe that one could easily slip on or off, one that English speakers even then also called a slipper.
A little later in the same century, a person who wore a slip-shoe began to be described — naturally enough — as slip-shod. Within a few decades, however, it began to take on the negative associations that have remained with it down the generations. A person who was described as slip-shod was wearing shoes that weren’t suitable for polite company because they were literally down at heel, shabby, over-loose or untidy.
Our modern meaning of some activity that was lacking in care, badly organised or slovenly came about in the nineteenth century. Writers were the first to suffer its disopprobrium, with critics describing what they felt was “slipshod English”; the wider sense grew out of this.
We have forgotten the connection between slip-shod and those comfortable sixteenth-century slip-on shoes, whose shabbiness and unfashionableness has bequeathed the language a useful term.
3. What I've learned this week
More verbing nouns Courtesy of Neill Hicks: “I placed a telephone order and told the clerk that if I was not at home the delivery driver could just leave the item. ’Okay, we can porch it for you, then?’ the clerk asked. I agreed that the purchase could be porched and that any future orders could also be porchable.” It’s yet another good example of the flexibility of English, whose lack of inflections means that a word can readily switch between serving several different roles in a sentence. Many people object to such creations and decry them as a fault, but I think it’s a feature, a splendidly useful one.
Not all readers agree. Peter Duce reported, “It made me splutter into my coffee when I heard an American parent refer to her child as having been consequenced for bad behavior.” Bob Scala also dislikes such forms: “Here in Tucson, Arizona, I regularly see a sign outside an office building which reads, ‘If you officed here, you’d be home now.’ It almost causes me to drive off the road whenever I see this language abomination.”
WOTY time Language purists might feel similarly about a term that has just been chosen as Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. It’s unfriend, a verb meaning to remove a person as a “friend” on a social networking site such as Facebook. Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary
You will also find forceful complaints about teabagger, which the editors define as “a person, who protests President Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as ‘Tea Party’ protests (in allusion to the Boston Tea Party of 1773).” Complainants point to a sexual slang meaning of the term and suggest Oxford’s inclusion is “insulting and demeaning to members of the Tea Party movement”, as one person wrote. It’s very silly, but good fun to observe from the sidelines. The term more often used for members of the group is tea partiers.
Twitter has a similar form to unfriend, which I have also encountered this week: unfollow. This is from the Twitter concept of members who “follow” others by regularly reading their postings. If you cease to do so, you unfollow them.
Oxford wasn’t the first to announce its annual choice. First out of the trap was the Webster New World College Dictionary, which has chosen distracted driving for its Word of the Year. It refers to a consequence of using digital devices such as mobile phones while on the move. The publisher’s site noted, “CrackBerry users beware, lest a charge of DWD (driving while distracted) or DWT (driving while texting) stain your record, not to mention endanger yourself and others.” It noted an interesting grammatical point: “As with drunk driving, it is not the driving that is drunk or distracted, but rather the driver. The target of the modifier distracted has been changed. Called hypallage, this twist is frequently seen in poetry, but as terms like restless night, juvenile detention center, and careless remark attest, such semantic inversion is not limited to the heights of language use.”
4. Reviews: Macquarie Dictionary
Rooted in the colloquial English of transported convicts, modified by contact with native languages and more recently by the creations of other regional Englishes, Australian English has always been in a class of its own.
Historically it wasn’t well served by lexicographers, some of whom seem to have shared the common nineteenth-century prejudice that such uncouth colonial variations on the English language were corrupting its purity. That began to change when James Murray worked hard to include Australianisms in early fascicles of what was then known as the New English Dictionary. The first local work, Austral English, was compiled by Edward Morris and published in 1898.
Australians had to wait until the 1970s before works such as the Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary and the Heinemann Australian Dictionary were addressed to them, though they were no more than modified editions of British dictionaries. Even the Macquarie Dictionary, first published in 1981, was a local version of Hamlyn’s Encyclopedic World Dictionary of 1971, itself based on a Random House dictionary dated 1947. In the decades since, the Macquarie Dictionary has evolved into a genuinely local dictionary of Australian English and is now the standard authority.
Like other regional Englishes, Australian English has been heavily influenced by developments in American English and the creation of terms that reflect issues of international importance. The current editor, Susan Butler (who, by the way, is another example of a lexicographer who has been with a project for decades: she started with the precursor of the dictionary in 1970) has been quoted as saying that in the 1980s you might expect US expressions to take 10 or 15 years to reach Australia, but now with universal communications, they take only a few months.
Such trends explain several classes among the 5,000 new words and phrases added to this fifth edition. One records matters involving the environment and climate change (carbon capture, cap-and-trade, ecological footprint, global commons). A second set are terms relating to the global financial crisis (ninja loan, toxic debt, moral hazard). A third group is of vocabulary from fashion and popular culture and includes junk sleep (sleep which is too short or too disturbed to be restorative), pimp cup (a decorated glass goblet, which often has the owner’s name picked out in rhinestones, also called a crunk cup), scene kid (a young person who likes offbeat musical styles and adopts unconventional dress styles), shwopping (combined shopping and swapping through the Internet), and treggings (tight-fitting women’s jeans but made from a fabric other than denim).
This edition has gone electronic, with a free Web-based version accessible by a password presented in print copies, and an app for the iPhone (an app is a computer application, and yes, it’s in the new edition).
[Susan Butler [ed], Macquarie Dictionary, Fifth Edition, published by Macquarie Dictionary Publishers on 27 October 2009; hardback, pp1940; ISBN-13: 978-1-8764-2966-9, ISBN-10: 1-8764-2966-6; publisher’s list price A$129.95.]
• Isthmus Magazine of 30 October discussed a public Halloween bash, Marjorie Van Handel tells us. It wrote, “The desire to strut your Sexy Noun outfit can be powerful stuff.” She wrote, “Most people prefer a Sexy Nun, except perhaps those wild and crazy English majors.”
• We’ve been here before, I think, but Charles Patrick felt that the London Free Press of Canada put it so pithily on 5 November: “All pregnant women urged to get shot”.
• Shirley Thayer feels that, on the evidence of this line from the Daily Beast of 15 November, the US Food and Drug Administration is taking a short-term view: “The FDA is asking nearly 30 similar manufacturers to offer scientific proof that their products are safe within the next 30 days.”
• Child control, as practiced in Medford, Oregon: Seymour Collins came across this reference in the Mail Tribune of 11 November: “If you own guns and have children, it is important you store them in a locked cabinet.”
• She must have been a busy seamstress, says Michael Grounds. The Advertiser (Bendigo, Victoria) wrote on 13 November: “A Malaysian woman concealed half a kilogram of heroin in hundreds of buttons on dresses during a flight to Perth, the Australian Federal Police claim. It is alleged about 500 grams of heroin was sewed into 574 buttons on 28 dresses.”