E-MAGAZINE 655: SATURDAY 5 SEPTEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Staycation-moon G H Gordon Paterson responded to my little item about this word last time: “I agree that staycation-moon is just too awful. How about homeymoon instead? It’s just as execrable, but at least it requires only a single-letter transformation.” Stefanie Shuman similarly suggested this form.
Rude words The F-Word may not be the ultimate obscenity that it was once considered, but business e-mail filters still routinely block messages containing it. As next week’s issue will contain a review of Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word, which will include the word and its compounds a number of times, there is a greater than usual chance that you may not receive it by e-mail. In that case, look for it here.
Short-break My wife and I are away for a few days. E-mail is very welcome as usual but won’t be replied to until the middle of next week at the earliest.
The word is weird not only because it looks strange and is rather rare but because it can refer to something weird (or to a strange, bizarre or generally unusual happening). To increase its oddity, it can also mean something mildly risqué, indecent or pornographic.
“Ostrobogulous” was Vickybird’s favourite word. It stood for anything from the bawdy to the slightly off-colour. Any double entendre that might otherwise have escaped his audience was prefaced by, “if you will pardon the ostrobogulosity”.
Magic my Youth, by Arthur Calder-Marshall, 1951.
It was coined by Victor Neuburg (Vickybird in the quotation), a gay British Jewish poet and writer and a close friend of the occultist Aleister Crowley, whose sexual magic practices he helped develop.
Neuburg said that the word was formed, highly irregularly as you might expect, from Greek ostro, rich, plus English bog in the schoolboy slang sense of the toilet, hence dirt, and ending in Latin ulus, full of. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t agree, suggesting that the first part is from oestrous. But we ought to let Victor Neuburg have the last word on its etymology, as it was his creation.
The word is a favourite of people like me who collect interestingly weird words. A notable recent appearance was in the Mail on Sunday, a British family newspaper which might have looked askance at it had its editors known of its indecorous antecedents. It was quoted as the favourite word of Professor Christian Kay, who has worked for 42 years on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, due to be published next month.
3. Questions and Answers: Bitter end
[Q] From Richard Levy: I have heard that the expression bitter end originated in nautical references to the end of mooring ropes that are attached to bitts, that is the posts on jetties and quaysides. Is this correct?
[A] Up to a point. By which I mean that it is universally given as the origin, so to try to deny it may seem wilfully contrarian. But there’s enough evidence to cast some doubt on the matter. And the Oxford English Dictionary notes that its history is uncertain.
The idiom has had two senses. To go on until the bitter end today means that someone will persevere with something until it is quite finished, no matter how unpleasant or difficult that is. However, some dictionaries add a second sense: to continue to the last and direst extremity, such as total defeat or even death. The two are obviously linked, the former being a weaker version of the latter.
As you say, in nautical terminology the bitts are posts for fixing ropes to. The word is usually plural because bitts normally turn up in pairs, so that
The word bitt may be Scandinavian, though nobody knows for sure. Bitter goes back to the early seventeenth century. It appears first in Captain John Smith’s Seaman’s Grammar of 1627. It meant the end of a cable or rope that remained fixed on board ship when it was being paid out through the bitts. The word would seem to be bitt plus -er, as in header, rounder and cropper. It has no etymological connection with the adjective bitter for a sharp unpleasant taste, which is Old English.
Admiral William Smyth explained in The Sailor’s Word-book in 1867 that “When a chain or rope is paid out to the bitter-end, no more remains to be let go.” Hence, so the argument goes, the meaning of the idiom. But there’s nothing that’s necessarily unpleasant or difficult in that definition. And it’s hard to imagine its giving rise to the second sense — the ultimate and direst end. Modern works usually say that the idiomatic meaning arose when a ship was trying to anchor but the water turned out to be deeper than expected; the whole cable would then be run out without the anchor touching ground. This was clearly potentially disastrous. But it may be just an attempt to explain the idiom, since glossaries in the sailing era — such as Smyth’s — give the definition neutrally and generally, with no mention of anchor cables or emergencies.
There is another possibility. Some larger dictionaries note this:
For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil: But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.
Proverbs 5:3-5, from the King James Bible, 1611.
That quotation seems to be the source of usages such as the two that follow, which refer to the second sense — final and complete defeat or death:
With hunger parch’d, and consumed with heat,
The Second Song of Moses, in Juvenilia, by George Withers, 1622.
Tho’, by her own curs’d arts the woman fell,
An anonymous song, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Feb. 1744. Latest here means last.
Other examples of bitter end occur in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, well before the first example cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is from the USA in 1849. Many of these are in religious tracts or sermons, which suggests it was indeed Biblical in origin. As an intriguing aside, bitter end appears several times in Dutch and German works of the eighteenth century as a English expression that seemed well known.
It may well be that two distinct strands developed in parallel — a literal one from the maritime world and a figurative one based on the Biblical quotation. They may well have influenced each other. We have no way of knowing. But enough evidence exists for us to be able to say that it wasn’t just a sailor’s expression, conceivably even that the figurative meaning isn’t nautical at all.
4. Articles: How to Promote your Dictionary
When so many people merely refer to looking something up in “the dictionary”, publishers find it hard to market their dictionaries as distinctive products. The similarities of competing products that lead naive users to conflate them into one universal work is a high barrier to individual promotion and brand recognition. All dictionaries record the same language, using evidence gleaned from closely similar sources; they have identical problems of fitting an inchoate mass of facts into a work that’s both easy on the buyer’s arms and not too hard on his pocket. Once you’ve added mini-encyclopaedia entries and guidance on style and grammar and you’ve worked and reworked the design of the pages to make them as attractive as possible, what more can you do to persuade people that yours is better than the competition’s?
The publicity drive started more than a year ago. In a stroke of near-genius, Collins publicised a decision by its editors that 24 antique words should be removed to make room for new stuff. It persuaded newspapers to run a campaign to ask the public whether they were loved enough to be kept. Enough support was gained for embrangle, to be confused, apodeictic, beyond dispute, fubsy, short and stout, compossible, able to coexist, and skirr, the noise of birds’ wings in flight, for a another burst of publicity in Spring 2009 to say they had been reprieved.
Another campaign was launched in late 2008 to get the public to nominate words for inclusion in the anniversary edition. Erin Whyte, from Nottingham, suggested meh, which she said was “an expression of utter boredom or an indication of how little you care for an idea”. That started out in the US and Canada (“the Canadian election was so meh”), but became popular, especially online, in part through an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer is trying to prise the kids away from the TV with a suggestion for a day trip, to which they reply dismissively “meh!” More recently, the news that Twitter was to be added, as noun and verb, made a useful press teaser back in July.
This week the publicity machine has gone into high gear with the publication of the work itself and the full list of some 270 new words and phrases that have been included.
Yes, meh is there. The new edition is strong on interjections, because they turn up a lot on social networking sites, where they have displaced emoticons. Joining meh are hmm, a sound made when considering or puzzling over something; heh and heh-heh, indicating sly amusement; mwah, the sound of a kiss; woohoo, a cry of joy or approval; and woot (often written wOOt)
Alongside these are other abbreviated forms: defo, definitely, a British way to indicate agreement or consent; ish, reservation or qualified assent; and soz, another British interjection meaning sorry.
Despite the tenor of the press coverage, many sensible words are included among the 270 new terms. An unrepresentative short list is anatexis (the partial melting of rocks), bad bank (a financial institution set up control underperforming assets owned by other banks), cloud computing (a computer term for services stored on the internet), embryo vitrification (a method of in vitro fertilisation), quantitative easing (increasing the supply of money to stimulate economic activity), social intelligence (the ability to form rewarding relationships with other people), and synthetic biology (the application of computer science techniques to create artificial biological systems).
• Brian Barratt e-mailed sadly from Melbourne: “A local supermarket has labelled its shelves of pens, pencils and paper as stationary since it opened a few years ago. I pointed this out several times and am now delighted to see that, during current renovations, it has been corrected. However, there is now a neat little sign in another aisle, apologising for the inconvenience because that aisle is temporally one way. What hope is there for sinners?” Perhaps the signwriter is a philosopher? All our paths are temporally one-way.
• The Autosport site had an item on 27 August about the racing driver Fernando Alonso and who he might be driving for next year. When Greg Webb visited, the report ended, “The Spaniard ... said he is ‘very active’ in his discussions with other teams, but insisted there will be no liniment announcements.” The page has since been changed, to “no inminent announcements”. Third time lucky?
• Already thinking about next year’s holiday, we visited the Web site of a widely known American travel business. My wife wondered how they expected certain clients to hold their breath for the whole of a vacation. The last sentence on many pages says the firm “can only offer air to guests traveling from the U.S. or Canada.” Breathing: an optional extra.
• Brief Encounter. Julie Egan spotted this in The Age newspaper of Melbourne on 1 September: “Revelations he had an affair with a 26-year-old woman last night sank any hopes John Della Bosca had of becoming NSW premier.”
• Charles Weishar found a good example of a misleading headline over an AP story on 1 September: “91 Countries agree to illegal fishing treaty”. Intrigued, he read on, to learn that, in Rome, a group of 91 countries reached agreement on a UN-backed treaty that aims to outlaw those engaged in illegal fishing.