NEWSLETTER 593: SATURDAY 28 JUNE 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Soapbox My mistake of the week was to put the famous location of public oratory in London at Hyde Park Corner. Speakers’ Corner is indeed at one corner of Hyde Park, but at the north-eastern one by Marble Arch, not the south-eastern one.
Ahoy! It seemed otiose to flesh out my incredulity at the story of Czech sailors transmitting this word to English by an exposition of the geography of central Europe. But a surprisingly large number of subscribers felt it necessary to point out that the Czech republic is landlocked. I suppose I could have illustrated that by shifting the locale of the traditional joke about the Swiss Navy.
That piece included a sentence that opened, “This story has been finally scotched this week ...” Judith Lowe wrote from Australia about an old edition of My Word that she heard on ABC radio only two days earlier in which the phrase finally scotched was said to be incorrect. She commented, “They were using the rules of Fowler and they all reckoned he needed up-dating!”
I won’t quarrel with that because the reference is to the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is rather rude about journalists who borrowed scotch as an uncommon substitute for “destroy” or “kill”. The third edition points out gently that there are actually two verbs. One means to incise or cut that was used in Macbeth, “I have scotched the snake, not killed it”, which implies making something harmless only for the time being. The other, from rather later, refers to wedging a wheel, which suggests rendering something inoperative or crippling its action.
If scotch is being used in the first sense, then you can no more write about finally scotching something than you can say that it’s somewhat unique. If the word is in the second sense, then it’s only a small further figurative step to get the modern standard meaning of “decisively putting an end to” something.
2. Turns of Phrase: Transition Town
The recent huge hike in oil prices has made people in developed countries think more deeply about ways to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. One scheme for doing so that has been getting more attention in recent months is the transition-town initiative.
The principle is that people in developed nations are going to have to learn to live with less energy and that it’s better to plan for that in advance rather than suffer the pains of sudden deprivation. The idea is to create community-based schemes that will search out ways to reduce energy consumption. Suggestions include limiting car travel by cycling, walking and using public transport as well as growing your own food and shopping locally to reduce the transport costs that are incurred by supermarkets (an initiative known in the US by the term locavore).
Its instigator is Rob Hopkins, who in 2005 helped create the first two transition towns, in Kinsale in Ireland and Totnes in Devon.
Rob Hopkins, of the Transition Town movement, says it currently has up to 700 communities registering an interest in joining, most from the UK but some as far afield as Australia.
[Observer, 15 Jun. 2008]
At the heart of it, Transition Towns are about whole communities getting together to support one another, shopping, working and relaxing locally. When the fuels finally do run out there will be no choice, and this way we can all be prepared.
[Western Morning News, Plymouth, 10 Jun. 2008]
Crying or sobbing.
When next you see some thespianic practitioner accepting an Oscar with protestations of love and admiration for everyone she has ever worked with while flooding the lectern with tears of pleasure, you may describe her as singultient, among other possible adjectives.
It would indeed be the mot juste, since its Latin origin lies in singultus, which can mean a speech broken by sobs. It could also refer to somebody having a fit of the hiccups, a state that can sound somewhat similar, and the Latin word sometimes appears in medical works as an alternative name for the condition. Other rare words from the same source include singult, a sob, and singultous, having the hiccups.
One of the few appearances of singultient is in The Ode of Life by Lewis Morris, of 1891: “Through the wastes of silence and sleep, There is no more stillness nor Death, The great Universe wakes with a deep-drawn singultient breath.”
It’s also in Vindiciae Academiarum, by Seth Ward and John Wilkins, dated 1654, a satirical work that mocks those who undertook a mystical search for the original “natural language” of Adam, which would be a universal language that would be understandable by everyone. That would be utterly unlike the tongue-in-cheek prose of the reverends Ward and Wilkins, which I won’t even attempt to interpret:
The lynges of the faetiferous elecution, being disposed only to introversion, was destitute at that time of all Peristalticall effusion, which silenced the Otoacoustical tone of the outflowing word, and suppressed its singultient irructations.
4. Recently noted
Funt It sounds like a swear word and in a way it is. It’s a shortened version of Financially UNTouchable, meaning people whose credit histories are so poor that they’re unable to get access to credit. It’s a rare example of a neologism that has achieved parliamentary notice, since the British MP Stephen Ladyman raised the plight of funts in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 18 June. He said afterwards, “Funts who do their best to repay what they owe and are responsible in addressing their debts should be treated differently to people who are feckless or reckless,”. The word is the coinage of Richard Rubin, who has created a Web site for funts.
Spyhopping This neat term, which turns out to be well known among those who study marine mammals, appeared in the New Scientist two weeks ago (I’m behind with my reading, again). Whales, sea lions and seals spyhop — they stick the upper parts of their bodies out of the water vertically in a way that looks a bit like a human treading water. Why they do this isn’t clear. An experiment in Denmark has suggested that, at least for harbour seals, they may spyhop at night to navigate by the stars. While looking into the word, I also came across lobtailing, which refers to whales and dolphins slapping their flukes on the surface of the water to make a loud noise. Lob here probably comes from an old German word for something heavy or clumsy (lob in some English dialects may be a clown, country bumpkin or lout). It can also mean a thick mixture and may be the source of the first element of lobscouse, the sailor’s dish. The word lobtailing is first recorded in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Without substance? The philosopher A C Grayling invented the words anousia and anousic in a Comment is Free piece on the Guardian Web site on Wednesday: “The British government is handing over large tracts of the school education system, along with tens of millions of our tax money, to groups of Anousics.” I won’t trouble you with the following 140-word highly polemical paragraph in which he explains what he means by anousia (read him for yourself). His objection is to religious groups who are running what have become known as academy schools in the UK, privatised educational bodies set up through a government initiative. Anousia is based on the philosophical and theological idea of ousia, from the Greek term for substance or essence, which Aristotle used to mean a specific individual thing or being. Professor Grayling wrote, “I use the word ‘Anousic’ as a generic term for ‘religious’. It is a neologism suggested by ancient Greek to connote ‘mindless’, ‘unreasoning’, ‘illogical’.
5. Questions & Answers: Flat
[Q] From M D Dunderdale: “Can you tell me why in British English we call an apartment a flat?”
[A] The smart answer might be that a flat, like an apartment, is a set of rooms that’s usually on one floor of a building, so it’s all on a level and so flat. A link does exist between the two senses of the word, though it’s far from the whole story (or even storey).
The original was flet, an ancient Germanic word traceable to the same source as flat, in the sense of something that’s smooth, even and level. Flet began life in Old English meaning the ground under one’s feet. It could also mean a place where one lives, one’s house or dwelling. Both senses are in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. In the sixteenth century wills often included the word in the phrase fire and flet — fire and house-room, or warmth and shelter — typically a bequest to the widow.
It was sometimes written as fire and fleet. It appears in that form in an ancient northern English ballad, The Lyke Wake Dirge, that was sung by women during a wake, the period of watching over a dead body before the funeral:
This ean night, this ean night;
every night and awl:
Fire and Fleet and Candle-light
And Christ receive your soul.
[The fire, fleet and candlelight were the comforts given by the living to the dead during the wake; lyke means a corpse; ean, one; awl, all.]
The modern sense is already there in part in the idea of “house-room”. It was in Scotland that flet shifted to mean the inner part of a house and from there to a single storey of a dwelling. By the beginning of the nineteenth century it had changed its spelling to flat under the influence of that word. The first known example meaning an apartment is in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet in 1824, though it only became widely known later in the century.
• Andrew Palmer wonders if the proposed British rail lines mentioned in a BBC News report on 21 June will run east to east or west to west. He asks because its opening is: “Five new high-speed main lines crossing the width and breadth of the UK may be built as part of a review of the rail network, Network Rail says.” A graphic alongside the story shows that most will actually go north to south (or possibly south to north).
• Hunter Bowen told me about a report in The Galveston County Daily News of Texas on 20 June, about a man who robbed a woman: “He is described as a 30- to 40-year-old white man, 6 feet, 1 inch tall with a large nose wearing a plaid shirt.” Hunter Bowen guesses that the nose was too big to be covered by the bandanna that most Texas desperadoes prefer.
• The Web site of the Irish Times on Tuesday featured an article with the heading “New Garda powers outlined in liquor Bill”. (The Garda is the Irish police force and its officers are gardaí.) The story underneath stated, “Under the Bill, gardaí can seize containers from anyone they believe to be under 18 and in possession of alcohol that has been consumed or may be consumed by someone under age outside a private dwelling.” Tony McCoy O’Grady wonders if this means gardaí will be legally required to take the piss.
• The media, print and online, have widely quoted Karl Rove talking this week about Barack Obama (Peter Weinrich saw it in the New York Times): “Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.” Contemptuous cigarettes — what will they think of next?