Format change As forewarned last week, the e-mail version of this week’s issue has been sent with two different styles in one message — the plain text that I have been using up to now and another formatted like a web page. Most online mailers (Google Mail, Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL) will display only the formatted version. Most offline mailers will permit you to choose which version you read; a few won’t display the formatted one at all. No two mailers reproduce the formatted version in quite the same way — the current styling is a compromise. I’d appreciate your comments and experiences. Do you like this method of presentation? Do you want me to continue with it?
“Dost thou know me bladder, / Thou insolent impostume?” snarled a character in John Fletcher’s The Island Princess. That was in 1621, when people had a more imaginative way with insults. Impostume is now rare, its infrequent escapes from the less-thumbed pages of our dictionaries being mostly in quotations from old herbals.
That’s because an imposthume or impostume is an abscess. It’s from Greek via the Latin apostēma. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that it’s “a word which has undergone unusual corruption”. On its way to us through French it was successively modified to empostume and then impostume. Meanwhile, Middle English had apostume, taken directly from Latin. This lost its initial vowel by a process called aphesis to become postume. By confusion with humus, an h was inserted to make posthume (the same thing happened with posthumous, from Latin postumus). By analogy, people came to believe impostume should similarly be spelled imposthume, the most common form from about 1700.
By the seventeenth century, impost(h)ume had become figurative, meaning a state of moral corruption, a festering sore on the body politic, or somebody metaphorically swollen with pride. This last sense was the way John Fletcher meant it. Much later, another writer applied it to our language:
Studied obscurity of thought and language, verbal finicalities and conceits, and mere ingenuities of any kind, rhythmic, mental or sentimental, will not meet the occasion: that sort of thing is overdone already. It is the “swollen imposthume” of refinement, an excrescence on culture, a penalty of which we have suffered enough.
Lippincott’s Magazine (Philadelphia), August 1878. A finicality is something finicky or fussy.
Q From Thomas O’Dwyer: You know how it is when you hear a phrase for the first time, and thereafter the damn thing seems to be everywhere. During the Michael Jackson doctor trial a couple of months ago I heard the curious comment that “a perfect storm of drugs” had overwhelmed the singer and killed him. What, I thought idly, is a perfect storm when its at home. (Don’t get me started on when it’s at home.) Anyhow, ever since, every day, I seem to be assailed by a perfect storm of impeccable climatic disturbances. Help! Please explain what is this and where it’s blowing from.
A You’re clearly not a follower of the cinema, Mr O’Dwyer. Some readers may be wondering where you’ve been this past decade. The term was popularised by Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction book of 1997, The Perfect Storm, recording the events that led up to the loss of the fishing boat Andrea Gail and its crew of six off the Grand Banks in late October 1991. The term was further popularised by the film of the book, with the same title, that appeared in 2000.
Since then, the phrase has been taken up by writers clutching for an evocative term with which to enliven their prose. In the immortal words of the late Sam Goldwyn, it’s a new cliché, one that in its influence and ubiquity recalls the earlier feeding frenzy. As you’ve become all too aware, it has moved from its strict weather sense to become a figurative way of saying that some situation is as bad as it could be, or has reached a critical or extreme state. As early as 2003, it was receiving adverse comment:
“SARS is a ‘perfect storm’ of a disease,” according to the Los Angeles Times. 50 Cent is the perfect storm of the rap world, proclaims Billboard magazine. Newsweek has designated Jayson Blair, the plagiarizing New York Times reporter, as “journalism’s perfect storm.” The war on terrorism is the perfect storm of the airline industry, American recession is the perfect storm of European tourism, conservative politics is the perfect storm of public school orchestras everywhere. And somewhere, beneath the thunder, you can hear an English professor crying.
Los Angeles Times, 27 Jul. 2003.
Here’s a recent example taken from some 25,000 uses of the phrase since 1997 in one newspaper archive:
RMI petrol chairman Brian Madderson claimed a ‘perfect storm’ of rising oil prices and worries about supply could push diesel and petrol prices even higher by Easter.
Daily Mail, 21 Feb. 2012.
Perfect storm is said by the Oxford English Dictionary to be an especially powerful one that’s caused by a rare combination of weather conditions, though in the forward to his book, Junger put it slightly differently, “I had some misgivings about calling it The Perfect Storm, but in the end I decided that the intent was sufficiently clear. I use perfect in the meteorological sense: a storm that could not possibly have been worse.”
He is said to have got the term from a conversation at the time of the storm with Bob Case, a deputy meteorologist with the National Weather Service, though each claims the other said it. Case noted later that Junker had the meaning wrong: the storm of October 1991 “wasn’t the biggest, wasn’t the worst, wasn’t the most deadly. It’s not even in the top ten. It was a unique situation and took an atmosphere that had the perfect elements in space and time to occur.”
Though it struck many people with hurricane force, it was far from a new phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of the use of perfect storm by weather forecasters from as early as 1936 and points out that the phrase is much older. It’s even older than the OED believes:
All this Night the Wind so encreas’d, that in the Morning it was grown to a perfect Storm, and the Sea into a Breach; the Sky was so Black and Thick, and the Sun so Red and Lowring, that signified the continuance of it; and the Spray of the Sea, was so forcibly carry’d by the Wind over the Ship, that Masts, Yards, and Decks, were cover’d with a White Salt.
The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles, Vol 2, 1701.
But the OED argues that these, and the many other examples in the record, aren’t of an idiom but one example among many of perfect in the long-standing and still current sense of something absolute, unmitigated or utter, either in criticism or praise (“he blushed for perfect shame”, “he reduced himself to a perfect skeleton”, “he was a perfect child in the world’s ways”).
I have some slight doubts about this. Perfect storm had begun to look like a fixed phrase by the early nineteenth century, its having transferred from the sea and ships to the clamour of crowds: “the overflowing audience burst into a perfect storm of rapture” (The Morning Post, 11 Oct. 1827); “One of his supporters rose to second the resolution, but was met by a perfect storm of uproar” (London Dispatch, 26 May 1839); “No sooner was he recognised than he was met with a perfect storm of groans and hisses (Bristol Mercury, 2 Jun 1855). The British Library newspaper archive has some 200 instances from the 1840s alone, with that phrase being far more common than any other that contained perfect in the particular sense that the OED cites. The phrase’s peak in popularity occurred in the 1860s, in some part because of its use in reporting the Civil War in the US (“amid a perfect storm of bullets”; “a perfect storm of grape and shell tore through their ranks”; “under a perfect storm of canister and musketry”).
The phrase slowly lost its popularity in the subsequent 140 years, only to be revitalised by a chance conversation between a reporter and a weather forecaster. It confirms yet again that there’s nothing deterministic in the way our language evolves but that — like a ship in a storm — its future is dictated by uncontrollable and often unpredictable circumstances.
• Michael Hocken submitted a casting call (an advert for an acting audition) spotted by an actor friend on the website CastingCallPro: “We are making a short 3 minute comedy/drama about God coming down to earth to enter into competitions and film festivals throughout the UK.”
• “Was this the longest day of the year?” asks Leo Boivin. The lead sentence of an editorial in the Washington Post on 26 February read, “One day this month four murders occurred in the space of 72 hours in Prince George’s County.”
• A report on the CBC News site startled James Helbig. “A woman has been found frozen to death at Apex Mountain Resort, confirm RCMP. ... Police do not suspect foul play and believe cold weather was a factor in Marye’s death.” No, really?
• On Oscar night, Grant Cribb tells us, the red-carpet correspondent for BBC TV news was speculating about Meryl Streep’s chances. He concluded: “You might think that she’s won a whole brace of Oscars over the years. In fact, she’s only won two.”
• Michael Robertson e-mailed, “I have a copy of the New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, containing short biographies of noteworthy people. The entry for Clark Gable concludes: ‘In The Misfits — his last film, made shortly after his death — he played a tough, aging cowboy.”