NEWSLETTER 556: SATURDAY 6 OCTOBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Fletcherise The item on this word last week brought back a memory for F Jack Shasha in Israel: “I still remember that when I was in boarding school in New Barnet, England, in 1938, we were ordered to chew porridge 15 times. The principal insisted, and had teachers sitting with us at the breakfast table; they watched and counted.” I can’t imagine chewing porridge even once — it must have been incredibly lumpy!
On a mildly contentious point, William Marshall, wrote: “A passing thought — should it not be ‘Fletcherize’?” I had a friendly dispute about this with my American copyeditor, Julane Marx, since she felt the same, pointing out that Mr Fletcher was American and that, in the draft she saw, every example was from a US source and so was spelled with -ize. My counter argument, which prevailed because it’s my finger on the despatch button, was that this is a British publication and so the word should be spelled with -ise, at least in the title. I softened the issue by adding a British example.
Hyphens From Jon Voskuil: “I suspect you’ll get a lot of questions about this after today’s piece on hyphens. Why no hyphen in ‘World Wide [Words]’”? Good point, though it’s common to spell worldwide as one word (as do the new Shorter Oxford and the current Concise Oxford dictionaries). But the title of this newsletter is a play on the name of the World Wide Web. When I started it ten years ago, the full name of what’s now just called the Web (often writen in lower-case) was more widely known than now, and the punning nature of the title was obvious. It’s getting to the stage when it may need explaining if it is not to appear illiterate. The times they are a-changing. The person really at fault is Tim Berners-Lee (with a hyphen), who invented and named the World Wide Web. He’s British, but that’s no excuse.
Cathy Rowlands pointed out that “Misplaced or missing hyphens have produced that mysterious object, the fine toothcomb!”
Interweb et al Following up my squib about this word last time, Louise Dore wrote in: “I wanted to add my perspective, that ‘interweb’ is used widely by me and my peers (call us late-twenties professional types) as a ‘cute’, or even affectionate, alternative to ‘internet’. I suspect this is simply because it gets boring saying ‘internet’ all the time, and you do end up saying it rather a lot these days! Another alternative used unironically here in Sheffield, and I suspect elsewhere in Yorkshire, is ‘t’internet’. I’m not surprised that one hasn’t made it to the London media though.” Seth Elgart told me about intertube, a more recent term that’s used sarcastically to suggest ignorance about the Net and the Web, sometimes in the form tubular interwebs. This came from the phrase series of tubes, which was used in Congress by US Senator Ted Stevens in June 2006 when he spoke about Internet matters. He was ridiculed for failing to understand the nature of the online system, though as he was arguing that the Net wasn’t a truck (lorry) but a series of tubes, he wasn’t creating a totally ridiculous analogy. Margaret Louise Ruwoldt e-mailed from Australia, to mention that intertube was known there, and to say, “Once you add ‘teh’ as the definite article, as in ‘teh intertubes’ or ‘teh interweb’, you’re speaking pure nerd ;-)”.
Whatchamacallit My running title to the interweb item provoked a complaint from an anonymous AOL user: “I wish people would use the term ‘thingie’ only during foreplay, intercourse, or afterglow.” I feel that I’ve been told more than I want to know.
Site updates As well as the pieces from last week’s newsletter as usual, I’ve added interweb and its relatives, and unconference, mentioned here recently. I’ve also updated the Kilroy was here! page with new material, though unfortunately no new conclusions about where it comes from.
Thanks! An analysis of the logs of the Web site this week revealed that visitors came from 160 countries and territories, truly making it World Wide Words. Google says that there are now 79,026 links from other sites to various of its 2,000+ pages. Page views by visitors total around 400,000 a week. This is a solid success story, for which I thank readers.
2. Topical Words: Sputnik
Thursday saw the 50th anniversary of the successful launch by the USSR of Earth’s first artificial satellite on 4 October 1957. It was a sensation — many people who were around at the time will remember the astonishment with which it was greeted.
What Sputnik also did was introduce a lot of people to the -nik ending, which was reinforced later by the Russian and English term lunik for the rockets the USSR sent to the moon, which came from the Latin and Russian luna. One early result was a lot of short-lived and humorous formations. When the USSR sent up a second satellite on 3 November with the dog Laika on board, some American writers referred to it as Muttnik. The very public failure of the US Navy to launch a satellite on 6 December resulted in sarcastic terms like Kaputnik and Flopnik.
It also led to many figurative creations, mostly intended jokingly but a few of which have permanently entered the language. In 1958, the rise of the beat generation led to beatnik (folk enthusiasts briefly becoming folkniks) and to neatnik, a person excessively neat in his personal habits, the opposite of a scruffy beatnik. A robotnik was a person who blindly obeyed authority, the opposite of a refusenik, one sense of which in the 1980s was a person who refused to obey orders as a form of protest, although its main sense, from the 1970s onwards, was of a Jew in the Soviet Union who was refused permission to emigrate to Israel. A member of a pacifist movement was from the 1960s called a peacenik. In the late 1980s in the UK, noisenik came on the scene for a loud musician, especially one who played a form of rock music.
The -nik ending became so widely used that it is assumed by many people that Sputnik started it. But it’s a long-standing Slavic ending that implies an agent or a member of a class or group. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, a few Russian words ending in -nik became rather rare unnaturalised immigrants into English, such as chinovnik, a minor government functionary or a civil servant, and Narodnik, literally a member of the common people (Russian narod, people) but which in the late nineteenth century meant a member of a socialist political group among the Russian intelligentsia.
The ending is shared in particular with Yiddish and also appears in modern Hebrew, hence kibbutznik, a member of a kibbutz, a term that wasn’t much known in English at the time of Sputnik, though it had been recorded 10 years earlier. In American English, -nik has been an active word-forming agent from the early years of the twentieth century as a result of Yiddish influence. One result was alrightnik, an immigrant Jew who has raised himself from poverty to prosperity (though the main sense of the Yiddish olraytnik, borrowed from US English, was of an upstart, offensive boaster or parvenu who is philistine or smug). His opposite was the nogoodnik, recorded from 1936. Another still with us is nudnik, a nagging, pestering or irritating person, from Yiddish nudyen, to bore. The ending was kept in the public consciousness in the US through Al Capp’s frequent use of -nik words in his L’il Abner cartoons.
So the entry of Sputnik into the language only reinforced a trend in American English, but one whose linguistic echoes are still with us and which we may celebrate along with the achievements of Soviet rocketry.
3. Weird Words: Cheapskate
A miserly or stingy person.
It’s never nice to be called a cheapskate, especially if it’s true. The second part has nothing whatever to do with any of the more common senses of skate. A writer in the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2007 was way wide of the mark when he wondered if a cheapskate was avoiding paying his share by adroitly sliding past the transaction, as though on skates or a skateboard. And there’s nothing in the least fishy about the word.
The best suggestion we have is that skate was originally a Scots contemptuous word, still known in Australia and New Zealand, where it’s usually written as skite. We have it in blatherskite for a person who talks at great length without making much sense. It appeared first in a slightly different form in a Scots song, Maggie Lauder, written by Francis Semphill about 1643 (“Jog on your gait, ye bletherskate / My name is Maggie Lauder!”). This was a camp song among American soldiers during the War of Independence and remained popular in the decades that followed. We guess that this may have helped skate or skite to be preserved among emigrant Scots and others in the US during the nineteenth century.
By the way, the fish sense of skate is from Old Norse skata; the word for ice skates and similar devices come to us from Dutch schaats, although its origin is the Old French escache, meaning a stilt; there’s also the South African sense of a disreputable or irresponsible young white man, which may be from Afrikaans skuit, excreta.
4. Recently noted
Ignoble? The annual razzmatazz of the IgNobel Prizes, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research and timed for the week before the real Nobel Prizes are announced, is always good for some knockabout fun. On Thursday, awards went to two British researchers who found sword-swallowing causes sore throats and to a US Air Force team who proposed creating a chemical weapon that would make soldiers sexually irresistible to each other. Glenda Brown won the award for literature for her study of the indexing problems of the. Three researchers at Barcelona University collected the linguistics prize for proving that rats cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards.
5. Reviews: The Language Report 2007
Language, of course, is driven by events, exemplified by the rapid shift of tsunami from a technical term of seismologists and geographers into mainstream public use as a result of the disastrous events of the last days of 2004. So it’s no surprise that certain vocabularies have been augmented this century, including those of war (extraordinary rendition, enemy combatant, axis of evil), the online world (podcasting, folksonomy, Web 2.0, wiki, mashup, phishing) and politics (big conversation, progressive consensus). Climate change has been a potent force popularising terms and creating new ones (eco-savvy, carbon credit, offsetting, global dimming, green urbanism). Footprint has been reinterpreted in this context to refer to the extent of one’s ecological imprint on the planet and has been used so widely that Susie Dent nominates it as her Word of the Year.
A more subtle marker for the way our language is changing comes not so much from the words we use but from those we use them with. The Oxford English Corpus, a vast repository of 1.5 billion words from every conceivable source, has been in preparation since 2000 but only became available to researchers in 2006. Among other functions, it allows searches for collocations, words that frequently occur together. Susie Dent points out that in the Corpus, seven out of 10 instances of feed in this century’s writing are in phrases like RSS feed, so linked to information, not food; attachment in 2000 was most likely to be preceded by emotional, but by 2005 this had been overtaken by e-mail; in the past five years, surveillance has not only become much more common, but is most often linked to warrantless, covert and constant.
Indeed, we have become the most surveilled generation in history. One pointer is that verb — surveil was coined at the end of the nineteenth century as a back formation from surveillance. In the hundred years that followed, it remained a jargon term of the law-enforcement agencies, but this century it has already appeared three times more often than it did in the 1990s.
Through language you shall know your culture.
[Susie Dent, The Language Report 2007, published on 4 October 2007 by Oxford University Press; hardback, pp166; publisher’s price in the UK, £10.99; ISBN13: 978-0-19-923388-5, ISBN10: 0-19-923388-8.]
• Faith Jones’s new employer recently sent her a set of forms to fill in; her favourite was one headed Voluntary Accidental Death and Dismemberment Application.
• Norman Simons found that the Web site of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia provided helpful general information for visitors. It explained, “The national language of the United States of America is English. English is widely spoken in Philadelphia.” Mr Simons commented, “Many of us who live in the area are unsure of the accuracy of either statement.”
• An Associated Press news item dated 3 October surprised Norman C Berns: “Sampson said fossils of duck-billed dinosaurs once lived throughout the northwestern part of North America.” Mr Berns now feels there’s more to evolution than he ever imagined.
• “The mention in last week’s issue of the canary in the coal mine singing loudly,” wrote Elaine Blackman, “reminded me of a report in the Hereford Times for 27 September. It quoted Cllr Olwyn Barnett, Herefordshire council cabinet member for social care and health, on the subject of the county’s proposed Public Service Trust. She said, ‘With the demands on both bodies and their budgets getting greater, we risk a headless chicken coming home to roost.’”