NEWSLETTER 492: SATURDAY 17 JUNE 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Linsey-woolsey In my piece on this word last week, I quoted the Elizabethan preacher Silver-Tongued Smith, who noted that people were forbidden to wear the cloth. Many subscribers have told me that his comment refers to a Biblical prohibition against wearing clothes made from a mixture of linen and wool. It is in Leviticus 19:19 and also in Deuteronomy 22:11, “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen together”. Among orthodox Jews the name for this principle is shatnez; it forbids any cloth in which linen and wool are attached in any way, for example a wool garment sewn together with linen thread. The word refers both to the principle and to the fabrics themselves.
Slanging match Some subscribers were puzzled by this phrase, which I included in last week’s issue. It’s principally British, for an exchange of abuse or a vituperative argument. It derives from the verb to slang (which the Oxford English Dictionary neatly notes as being itself a slang term).
2. Turns of Phrase: Citizen journalism
Though the term is relatively new, with few examples before 2005, it is now common, in part because it appeared in Dan Gillmor’s book We the Media of 2004. It refers to individuals who report on the news from outside traditional journalism channels. This might be as simple as photographing or videoing a news event as it unfolds and passing the images on to a newspaper or newscast, or writing a blog on current events from a position of specialist knowledge. Its rise has been entirely due to the Internet, which has provided a vast forum in which anybody can, in theory, talk to anybody and in which it is infinitely easier both to research facts and to communicate them.
The term citizen journalism has been in the news recently because of a recent ruling against Apple Computer by an appeals court in the USA. Apple tried to get bloggers who had revealed trade secrets to hand over their sources, but the court said that bloggers were covered by the same shield law as journalists and by the First Amendment protections of the press. “We can think of no workable test or principle that would distinguish ‘legitimate’ from ‘illegitimate’ news,” the opinion said.
Citizen journalism is often seen as two-edged. It provides a large pool of informed and concerned members of the public who can, and often do, expose inaccuracy or mendacity in announcements by public figures or the mainstream press. The downside is that such journalism is usually by people who lack many of the key skills of finding and interpreting information and who often have trouble avoiding bias or selective reporting.
With the rise in citizen journalism, the internet and video phones, big world events unfold before our eyes in a very different way to a few years ago.
[The Independent, 8 May 2006]
“Citizen journalism allows the true voice of the people to emerge free of the inaccurate spinning often found in traditional media reports,” says Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor of HuffingtonPost.com.
[PR Newswire, 14 Mar. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Gelatologist
A researcher into humour.
You might think that this is a maker of Italian ice creams, sold in gelaterias, or possibly some arcane culinary specialist in the use of gelatine. It’s nothing to do with either (though confusingly, I did find one example of the latter sense in a book on cocktails).
The word actually comes from Greek gelos, laughter. It’s a close relative of the adjective gelastic, either something funny or a remedy that works by making us laugh, no doubt on the principle of laughter being the best medicine. On the reverse of that coin, a gelastic seizure is a form of epilepsy that causes the sufferer to laugh. Geloscopy, an excessively rare word, is divination by means of laughter.
Gelatology is the study of humour, laughter and the exercising of the gelastic muscles, a deeply serious exploration of what happens to our physical systems, such as respiration and circulation, when we’re exposed to humour. The topic is as yet fairly obscure, though the name for it can be traced back at least as far as the issue of the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio, dated 3 June 1986.
4. Recently noted
Tree jibbing This appeared recently in a caption to a photo of a skier apparently perched about eight metres up a pine tree in the Sierra Nevada of the USA. He got up speed by being towed behind a snowmobile, then made a huge leap off a ramp. Having planted his skis flat against the trunk of the tree, he pushed off backwards, made a reverse turn and landed back on the ground. It seems not to be an especially well known extreme sport, to judge from the few references online.
Palaeotempestologist This superb job title for a researcher turned up in last week’s issue of New Scientist. A palaeotempestologist (in the US usually paleotempestologist) studies the frequency and intensity of ancient storms. Methods include taking core samples to find evidence of sand washed into lakes by storm surges, studying microfossils in coastal sediments, or investigating oxygen isotope ratios in tree rings. One important result of this work is that it is becoming possible to predict how often and how violently such storms will occur in the future.
Dead clever You have to admire the creative ability of scientists to find pithy names for chemical substances. The other day I learnt that when bodies decompose as a result of bacterial action, two of the chemicals that are produced have been given the common names of putrescine and cadaverine. If you would prefer to avoid the mental associations, you could refer to them instead as 1,4-diaminobutane and 1,5-diaminopentane respectively. These names are not, by the way, the unfeeling inventions of some modern worker in the field—both date from 1887.
5. Questions & Answers: C3
[Q] From Art Scott: “In my traversals through Wodehouse I have three or four times encountered the Bertie Woosterism C3, as in Comrade Bingo, in which Bertie describes Bingo’s comrades: “They were a very C3 collection”. From context it obviously means substandard, low-grade, bottom-of-the-barrel, but I haven’t found a reference explaining the origin and precise meaning of the term. My guess is that it comes from some sort of government grading or rating system, C3 being the antithesis of A1, analogous to the old US Draft Board designation of 4F.”
[A] You have it exactly right. In the First World War, as a result of conscription under the Military Service Act of January 1916, British recruits were graded from A1 to C3. The latter was the lowest grade, for men who were totally unsuitable for combat training, fit only for clerical and other sedentary jobs (it was discovered that a scandalously and horrifyingly large proportion of men—about 40%—fell into this category). The C3 classification became a figurative term for somebody of the lowest grade or of grossly inferior status or quality. The system was simplified not much more than a year later, but C3 caught on as a dismissive epithet and took a long time to vanish again.
It turns up in the literal sense in D H Lawrence’s Novel Kangaroo of 1923: “He was only two hours in the barracks. He was examined. He could tell they knew about him and disliked him. He was put in class C3—unfit for military service, but conscripted for light non-military duties.” And it was used figuratively by Sir Albert Howard in An Agricultural Testament (1943): “The population, fed on improperly grown food, has to be bolstered up by an expensive system of patent medicines, panel doctors, dispensaries, hospitals, and convalescent homes. A C3 population is being created.”
As you say, it was a favourite of P G Wodehouse in the Bertie Wooster stories. Another example is from Right Ho, Jeeves of 1934: “Anatole, I learned, had retired to his bed with a fit of the vapours, and the meal now before us had been cooked by the kitchen maid—as C3 a performer as ever wielded a skillet.”
Today C3 is better known as the military abbreviation for “command, control and communication”.
• Bob Shepard e-mailed from Oregon. “I found this headline in The World of Coos Bay, Oregon, on June 5: ‘Senate to take up same-sex marriage’.”
• Daniel Hill found an oddly hyphenated headline on the BBC Web site over a story datelined 13 June: “Ex-Irish Taoiseach Haughey dies”. Whatever you may say about the late Charles Haughey, he was never ex-Irish. (“Taoiseach”, by the way, which is said roughly as “tee-shoch”, is the title given to the Irish prime minister.)
• David Mearns was struck by the intelligence of a vehicle mentioned in a USA Today online news item on Thursday 8 June. “Inman’s DNA matched samples taken from the crime scene, said Robert Stewart, head of South Carolina’s Law Enforcement Division. He said a car of the same model and year of one owned by Inman was spotted trying to get money from an ATM near the apartment.”
• Stephen Trower tells me that the e-mail edition of the New York Times of 12 June contained this: “Two Los Angeles women took out life insurance policies on homeless men and collected over $2.2 million after they died in hit-and-run traffic cases, authorities said.” So you can take it with you.
• Kathy Jolowicz encountered an intriguing comment in the Internet Scout Report dated 9 June: “Upon hearing about a site dedicated to State of the Union speeches, the eyes (and mousse) of some gentle readers may gravitate elsewhere.” Self-gravitating mousse: messy.
• Barry Clegg forwarded a line he found in the Guardian of 27 May, which I must confess I read at the time without spotting its Sic! potential: “Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ben-Shahar notes, planned to write his life’s greatest work by the time he died.”