NEWSLETTER 623: SATURDAY 24 JANUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Round the bend As several frustrated readers pointed out, I left the story of this idiom in an unsatisfactory state — literally at sea, having established its naval origins. Many pointed out that a bend in maritime contexts is a class of knots, specifically those that either join two ropes or link a rope to something else (or is the latter a hitch? nautical terminology always trips me up).
To Scott Perry it suggests the image of wrapping “someone gone mad at sea in the confines of a canvas sail until reaching the next port”, while John Benz Fentner argues that a mad sailor might be “bent round” with a rope to keep him under control. Jane Harris noted that some bends are fiendishly complicated and that it might refer to something or someone “quite thoroughly kinked”; James Falk wonders if the complexity of the knots might drive some sailors crazy trying to learn how to do them. Jeremy Kirk mentioned loopy as a related term for eccentricity or craziness. Jonathon Green, in the Chambers Slang Dictionary, says that it’s likewise nautical slang, dating from slightly later than round the bend; he points to a connection with the Scots loopy, meaning cunning (possibly, as Eric Partridge noted many years ago, an ironic reference).
The conceptual links between round the bend and loopy (and with the more recent round the twist, which seems to have been a humorous reformulation of round the bend) are obvious enough, with the idea being of a person who is twisted or out of true. To what extent round the bend or loopy are linked to knots is unclear, and quite certainly no longer possible to discover.
Panking pole After my little item about this regional usage, a couple of subscribers wondered if there might be an s missing off the front of pank. Barney Deibert pointed me to the Dictionary of American Regional English, which has an entry for pank; I’ve also now consulted some more nineteenth-century dialect dictionaries and other sources and added the piece, considerably enlarged, to the Web site as a Weird Word.
Paparazzo John Marciano helpfully shared the results of research in Italy into the origins of this word, which confirms a link with George Gissing. I’ve incorporated it into the Topical Words piece dating from 1998, provoked by the death of the man who inspired Fellini’s original street photographer. Since writing the piece, the Oxford English Dictionary has revised its entry for the word and information from that has been added.
Rumbledethumps Following recent discussion about this dialect term, Cara De Silva posted a question to the discussion list of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, a wonderfully eclectic-sounding group. As a result, she was able to tell me about a special sense of rumble, to stir or agitate violently, to mash potatoes or scramble eggs (the Oxford English Dictionary entry has a nineteenth-century citation that refers to rumbled eggs, what we would now call scrambled eggs). So rumbledethumps need not refer to especially heavy treatment of the raw materials. The item online has now been updated.
Voting Thanks to your efforts, we are again doing well in the L-Soft contest. If you keep up the pressure, we should win January’s competition with an absolute majority, as we have in previous months.
2. Turns of Phrase: Carrotmobbing
It’s a form of social activism. It was coined last year by Brent Schulkin, a US environmentalist based in San Francisco. When people carrotmob, they shop at a small business, specially chosen for its good environmental practices, in large numbers on the same day. But Mr Schulkin has introduced a twist: he asks the business to invest a proportion of that day’s takings in energy-efficient improvements at its stores.
The second part of the name is based on flash mob. The first part borrows the idea of using a carrot rather than a stick to encourage behaviour. It’s a form of what’s been called a buycott or a procott, the opposite of a boycott, a form of collective action in which people choose to buy from firms whose values — in areas such as social justice and environmental protection — reflect and support their own.
You might call Carrotmob “Flash Mob 2.0,” since it combines the whimsy of those events with the Sierra Club’s seriousness of purpose, hitting the sweet spot between the Bay Area’s two dominant poses: pointless irony and earnest do-gooderism.
[San Francisco Magazine, Jun. 2008]
CarrotMobbing emerged in the US earlier this year. It uses the “carrot” of consumer buying rather than the “stick” of boycotting or bad publicity to encourage ethical business. Alone, our consumer choices make a minimal impact, but together and organised we unlock a bigger bargaining power.
[Guardian, 18 Sep. 2008]
A loud sound.
This word turned up the other day in Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y: “She was playing an organ; an old battered thing from which emanated the most harrowing bombilations.”
Writers and reference books can’t agree on what they mean by the word. The entry in the Oxford English Dictionary suggests only a buzzing or droning, which fits Nathan Bailey’s definition in his 1721 Universal Etymological English Dictionary that bombilation refers to the humming of bees. This matches its provenance, via an Old French word that derives from Latin bombizatio, a buzzing. Hissing is another possibility, since writers from the nineteenth century mention bombilation by angry swans.
Most of the relatively few appearances of the word that I’ve found, however, emphasise loudness as its prime quality, perhaps through mental associations with bomb. A couple of examples:
The sound was the movement, and the movement was the sound. It was too great to be real or sensible. It was holocaust, din, bombilation, charivari, blare, blast. It was hell come there and having its moment.
Waves of Death, a Doc Savage adventure by Kenneth Robeson, 1943. This was a house pseudonym of various authors employed by the US publishers Street and Smith. The author’s real name was Lester Dent.
The pound of the horse’s feet was lost in the titanic bombilation of the elements — the incessant crash and rumble of thunder and the ever increasing roar of rushing waters.
The Texan, by James B Hendryx, 1918. He was a prolific author of works about the old West.
The word is so rare these days, however, that nobody is going to dispute your meaning, whether you use it for droning or din.
4. Recently noted
Absence of beverage Fun has been had by some members of the British press with an obscure item of current British Army slang. This follows the revelations that Prince Harry used a racist term in a video to describe a fellow officer. Army sources said he would be called before his Household Cavalry commanding officer for what — we’re told — is politely known as an interview without coffee, or in more demotic language a bollocking or — formally — a severe reprimand.
Television is useful The recent death of the British wit, lawyer and writer Sir John Mortimer was commemorated on BBC television on Monday with an evening of programmes. One was a re-run of his 1975 television play, Rumpole of the Bailey, which introduced the “Old Bailey hack” Horace Rumpole to the world. The story centred on a supposed knifing by a young man of Jamaican origin. At one point in the story he refers to his baby father, a term Rumpole clearly doesn’t understand. The boy was using it in the standard sense of a man who is the father of a woman’s child without being her current or exclusive partner. My antennae twitched so that afterwards I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, to find that the first example is from three years after the play and from Jamaica, not London. Sir John was clearly on the linguistic ball. And if we can lay our hands on the original script (the OED doesn’t cite radio, film or television programmes directly, objecting to any medium of record that can’t be traced back to Gutenberg), his use will stand first in the entry when it is next revised. A minor memorial to a great writer, but mine own.
5. Questions & Answers: Shovel-ready
[Q] From Joe Whalen: “I don’t find shovel-ready on your site. I’ve heard it quoted as a buzzword of our new president for a property that’s ready for construction and development. I’ve known the word for years and was surprised that so many didn’t. It also doesn’t appear in any dictionaries that I’ve consulted.”
[A] It has caused much comment among the lexicographical classes — as reported here, it was voted Word Most Likely to Succeed in the annual contest of the American Dialect Society in early January.
It’s easy to make the case that it already has succeeded. It’s to be found all over the press at the moment. One newspaper archive online has over a hundred examples of it from December 2008 and a further 150 from the first two weeks of January 2009 alone. It was noted as Washington’s newest buzzword in a journal piece in early December. Its popularity, as you say, is largely due to the transition team of the president-elect from November 2008 on. One major aim has been to build a stimulus package to create new jobs, but it has to be for projects that are primed to go — ready for the first shovel to be wielded on site.
Though the Obama team have made shovel-ready their own, as you say, they didn’t invent it. It was already becoming widely used in the preceding months, as state governments battled against the growing recession by authorising stimulus packages involving public works. Some of these aimed to get sites ready for development, including obtaining planning permissions, cleaning up contamination and laying roads and services. But the term goes back much further. Benjamin Zimmer, of Visual Thesaurus, found this:
Brewer noted that projects seeking approval from the state Board of Education have to be “shovel ready.”
Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 22 Feb. 1995.
It becomes steadily more widely recorded during the remainder of the decade and on into the first years of the current century, picking up in popularity even more from about 2003.
Where it comes from is, as so often, far from clear. A piece in the Washington Post on 8 January 2009 tried to trace it to its roots. The writer found a Web site, shovelready.com, maintained by an electrical utility, National Grid. Art Hamlin, its upstate New York economic development director, said that his company started using the term — by implication inventing it — in the late 1990s; they registered the domain in 1998.
It would be nice to be able to say that that’s where it came from, but the writer of the article acknowledged that somebody else may have got to it first and — as Ben Zimmer has shown — the term is at least three years older. Its unsung inventor probably doesn’t even realise he created the term that has become so closely associated with the new US administration.
• “In tough economic times, merchants must get creative.” Randall Bart e-mailed. “A few days ago I was down in Los Angeles and saw a sign which said in full ‘Shoes 3 for $20’.” Might it be a special offer for Jake the Peg?
• Colin Hague noted that a signpost outside the Citroen car showrooms in Slough, west London, instructs “used customers” to turn left.
• The Top News in Yahoo! Philippines last weekend, John Orford tells us, suffered from a bad case of the floating hyphens: “Filipino receives first US anti-child labor award.”
• “My wife, Lisa,” says Steve Engelhardt, “discovered a conversation piece in the Uncommon Goods mail-order catalog: ‘Eco-friendly and innovative, these lovely paper products are made out of elephant poop! Odorless, 100% recycled and sanitary. A percentage of the proceeds from these products goes to support elephant welfare and conversation.’” He says that if he could talk to the animals, he’d support their conversation, too.