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Newsletter 794
21 July 2012

Contents

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Abecedarian.

3. Turns of Phrase: Self-quantifying.

4. Questions and Answers: Tit for tat.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Aces low Krister Rollins and Jim Hart asked about the expression within an ace of ruin which turned up twice within quotations in the piece last week on touch and go. Ruin doesn’t seem to fit with ace because we often think of the latter as meaning highly skilled or exceptional (tennis players scoring aces, fighter pilot aces and so on). However, the word derives from the Latin as for a single thing or unit, hence the playing card, which nominally has a value of one (the shift in most games to its being the most valuable card led to ace taking on its mantle of excellence). In a separate development, the low value of ace led for a while to associations with the smallest possible amount or a tiny portion, and hence to worthlessness or misfortune; there may perhaps have been a nod to as also being a Roman copper coin of small value. Within an ace of meant “within a hair’s breadth” with connotations of disaster only just averted.

Doubled dutch Following the notes here last week about expressions that include the word Dutch, Bart Wijnberg told me about Total Dutch, a book by Ton Spruijt subtitled “Meer dan duizend woorden en uitdrukkingen met Dutch vertaald, verklaard en toegelicht”, which he translated as “More than a thousand words and expressions containing the word Dutch translated, explained and elucidated”. We’re a long way from that total, but readers have provided more examples. Jary Stavely wrote, “When I was a child in the US, one way to physically torment a smaller person was to give him a Dutch rub. To do this, you wrapped one arm around his neck and then forcefully rubbed your knuckles over the top of his head.” Several readers told me that Dutch wife is now slang for a sex doll. Dutch door was mentioned by Mary Louise Lyman (I’d call it a stable door). And Dutchman has other repair senses than in wood or stone: one reader mentioned that it can be a partial repair of the sole of a shoe while Carl Bowers and Megan Zurawicz explained that the canvas strips used to cover the joins between scenery flats in theatres have the same name and that to put them on is dutchmanning. Gilda Blackmore e-mailed, “It just occurred to me that no one has mentioned double Dutch skipping. I’ve no idea why it’s called that. It was very popular when I was a child many years ago. I understand it has made a comeback.”

Richard Bos commented that one of the set last week, the Dutch angle in film, isn’t actually Dutch: “I was surprised by this when I first came across it (there aren’t many good Dutch contributions to the world of cinema), so I looked it up, and found that it’s nothing to do with us. It’s another Deutsch misappellation, and was called so because it was first developed in German Expressionist films.” I’ve since learned that it’s also sometimes known as canted camera.

And finally, I am told that in Dutch, an American party (Amerikaans feestje) is one in which everyone is expected to bring their own food and drink. While Americans go Dutch, the Dutch go American.

[I’m grateful to Harry Lake and Richard Bos for helping me with the various Dutch terms. Enough Dutch for now, thanks.]

Their their Numerous readers criticised my use of their last week in “a person who is formally defending their doctoral thesis in public”. As a unisex possessive determiner, their is now widely accepted in all but the most formal circumstances and avoids clunky formulations such as “his or her”.

2. Weird Words: Abecedarian/ˌeɪbiːsiːˈdɛːrɪən/ Help with IPA

The strangest aspect of this unusual word is the way it’s said. It looks as though it ought to be /@,bes@ˈdɛːrɪən/ (roughly “a-bes-a-DAIR-ee-un”) but it’s actually pronounced as though the first part is an abbreviation: “ay-bee-see-DAIR-ee-un”. That explains why it has at times been written abcedarian. The source is the post-classical Latin of the fifth century AD — it appears first in the works of St Augustine. English imported the word from French in the 1500s.

An early sense was of a person who taught or learned the alphabet. From the latter sense, it also came to mean more generally a novice or beginner. Paradoxically, it was also a member of a sixteenth-century German sect which opposed all forms of learning, including knowledge of the alphabet. It can be a primer for teaching reading and spelling and more loosely any listing in alphabetical order.

Naming your firm Acme was once an easy way to get placed at the top of the telephone listings, though more adept abecedarians — like AAA Cesspool & Rooter Service — have trumped that positioning.

Long Island Business News, 21 Dec 2007.

We may also come across it in reference to a poem in which the first letters of each verse or line are in alphabetical order, a special class of acrostic. Some early instances were hymns or psalms: the Hebrew original of Psalm 119 is abecedarian; around 1375 Chaucer translated a French prayer so that verses began with the letters of the alphabet in order (missing J, U and W, not then used).

3. Turns of Phrase: Self-quantifying

The wired world of electronics and the net is beginning to affect us in ways that would have been regarded as SF only a few years ago. A rapidly developing area is variously called self-quantifying, self-tracking, body-hacking or life-logging.

The idea behind it is to record data from your everyday activities and use it to improve your life by changing your behaviour. Athletes have long been familiar with tracking variables such as the foods they eat, how much they sleep, the content of training sessions and other matters to help them achieve peak fitness. The difference today is that the widespread availability of smartphones with features such as GPS and accelerometers plus a big variety of apps means that everybody can join in.

People are monitoring their sleep rhythms to learn what combination of food and exercise gives them a really good night’s sleep. Others are continually checking life signs to control medical conditions, including asthma and Parkinson’s disease. Some are going further, sharing their data with groups of users to provide mutual support; these databases are becoming useful for researchers who are looking to identify behavioural factors that affect people’s health.

Self-quantifying is being taken seriously by start-ups, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, which are launching new devices and software aimed at self-trackers. It may even provide a glimpse of the future of health care, in which a greater emphasis is placed on monitoring, using a variety of gizmos, to prevent disease, prolong lives and reduce medical costs.

The Economist, 3 Mar. 2012.

With “life-loggers” and “quantified-selfers” now tracking all aspects of their own lives online, Little expects that freely available data of potential use to healthcare will become increasingly available.

New Scientist, 7 Jul. 2012.

4. Questions and Answers: Tit for tat

Q From Peter Rugg: Where did tit for tat come from?

A It’s the littlest words that often give us the most trouble in sorting out their origins. They’re likely to be the ones that have proved to be the most mutable in the spoken language. This curious phrase is a classic example.

In the sixteenth century, it was tip for tat. Another form, used by Shakespeare and almost certainly from fencing, was tap for tap, which makes plain the underlying idea of a reprisal or retaliation that’s roughly proportionate to its cause.

Tat in tit for tat isn’t a distinct word at all but an instance of a type of reduplication in which the internal vowel changes from i to a, as in chit-chat, flimflam and knick-knack. Tip here is the same as tap, a light blow. Tit is not in the mammary sense but comes from an old verb that likewise could mean to strike a light blow.

All these words have an idea of smallness about them: a tit can also be a small bird (originally titmouse but it was the tit part that communicated small size, since mouse isn’t the rodent but a version of mose, an Old English name for the same bird); at one time tit could be a small or part-grown horse or a girl or young woman. Tip can also be an extremity or small point. The ultimate origins of most of these are uncertain but some may be imitative.

I am suspicious of two common statements about the origin of the phrase which appear in some reference works. It has been suggested that it’s related to the French tant pour tant, which chefs will know as a mixture of equal parts of fine sugar and ground almonds. It seems to have once meant “like for like” and is ancient enough that a bashed-about version is in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “So pertaunt-like would I o’ersway his state”. But if it was ever common it is improbable as the source of tit for tat, as the links to the other short English words I’ve listed are too strong. Most works that mention that source also suggest that it could be from a Dutch phrase, dit vor dat, in the same sense, though my Dutch contacts say it doesn’t exist in the language today nor in old texts. I suspect uncritical borrowing of erroneous material from earlier sources, the curse of third-rate reference books.

5. Sic!

Jenn winced on reading a Scientific American blog dated 13 July: “Previous work at the Paisley Caves had turned up preserved human feces (coprolites) containing DNA and some stone projectile points.”

Jenny Brown read this review on the Trip Advisor website on 18 June: “It was the first time away for my boyfriend and me and we picked the right place! The only complaint that I have is that the mistress in our room was old & uncomfortable.” And wearing a Freudian slip.

A health report of 18 July on the BBC site about the risks of not taking physical exercise was spotted by Martin Wynne: “The public needed to be warned about the dangers of inactivity rather than just reminded of the benefits of it.”

Len Levine found this unfortunate sentence in the Personal Tech blog of The New York Times of 12 July: “Crossword puzzle apps allow you download a puzzles from all over the world, correct mistakes without using an eraser and check your answers.”

I was browsing the Dell site on Wednesday and found this: “With a Core™ i3 processor, discreet graphics and large hard drive this PC is a talented all rounder”. Designed for porn watchers?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 21 July 2012

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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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