E-MAGAZINE 699: SATURDAY 14 AUGUST 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Indecider Lots of people felt that there are already a number of words in the language that obviate the need to create this new one: vacillator, equivocator, ditherer, falterer. True, of course, but I suspect the sociologist who invented indecider was seeking a new word shorn of the existing associations surrounding all these. I also suspect that she, and her sponsors, were hoping her creation would improve the chances of her study being reported in the press. But then, I’m just an old cynic.
A mournival beats a gleek. If we were playing poker, you might well comment equivalently that four of a kind beats three.
We are, indeed, in the realm of card games, though gleek, which takes its name from the threesome group in it, is one you have probably never heard of. People are first recorded playing it in England under that name early in the 1530s, though Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was reportedly fond of it in her youth, which would take it back to the beginning of the century or perhaps a little earlier. In fact, it’s almost certainly the same game as the earlier French glic.
It was a gambling game for three players, often called halfpenny gleek, penny gleek or twopenny gleek, whose names refer to the monetary value of each point scored, not the total bet. An English penny was worth a lot at the time, so losing could be expensive — in 1646, the poet and writer John Hall warned that “gleeke requires a vigilant memory and a long purse”. Samuel Pepys recorded in his Diary in February 1662, “We played at gleeke, and I won 9s. 6d. clear, the most that ever I won in my life. I pray God it may not tempt me to play again.”
One phase of the game involved declaring any gleeks or mournivals of aces or court cards that you had in your hand, which gained money from each opponent. In penny gleek, for example, a mournival of aces got you eight pence from each of the other two players.
Mournival comes most probably from old French mornifle for a group of four cards, which may be the same word as that for a slap in the face (which might be the figurative effect of finding an opponent has one). Gleek is also French, perhaps from an older Dutch word that means “like”. It’s unconnected with the obsolete English word of the same spelling, contemporary with the card game sense, that refers to a joke or playing a trick on somebody.
Food for thought It’s a mark of the northern-hemisphere’s holiday season that items of minor interest or wild invention are picked up by the press and circulated widely. The nonsensical story last week about the supposed vault of rejected words at the Oxford English Dictionary is a classic of this silly season. In a busier period, less attention would have been paid this week to a supposedly new reputation builder, gastro-diplomacy. It contains the idea that an excellent way to enhance your country’s renown abroad is to promote your national cuisine. Reports this week say Taiwan has launched a gastro-diplomatic campaign as a way to tell people about itself, differentiate it in people’s minds from China and demonstrate that the country is more than just a big electronics factory. Neither the idea nor the term is so very new: gastro-diplomacy was quite widely used around 2002-03 in reference to a similar initiative by Thailand and examples can be found a few years earlier. Campaigns by North Korea, India, Malaysia and other countries have employed the same technique. A South Korean push of this kind in the US has led to the term kimchi diplomacy in reference to the country’s famous spicy pickled cabbage.
Frivolous times Mentioning silly season provoked me to look up where it comes from. As you may guess from its current circulation — the term is better known in Commonwealth countries than the US — it was a British invention. The Oxford English Dictionary cites it appearing first in the Saturday Review of London on 13 July 1861. I can find no earlier example. The Morning Chronicle referred to the term four days later, specifically mentioning the Saturday Review; six months later an article in The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent likewise gave it as the source. Others followed. It would seem that it had indeed been created by a writer on that journal. It referred to the months of August and September, when Parliament and the law courts were on vacation and anybody of substance was away. (Today, the dates are variously specified to suit local conditions.) News was sparse and to fill their columns journalists were forced to feature less significant stories that they wouldn’t bother with during the rest of the year. National papers suffered, but local ones starved, as was illustrated three years later:
The “silly season,” as the Saturday Review calls it, is at its height. Enormous gooseberries and marvellous aerolites are in full force in local newspapers, and happy are the sub-editors who can “congratulate their worthy fellow-townsman, Mr. Such-a-One, on the beautiful effect produced in his back yard by the painting of his pump and water-butt.”
The Illustrated Times, Middlesex, 27 Aug. 1864. An aerolite is a stony meteorite.
4. Questions and Answers: Nine days wonder
Q From Leslie Tomlinson: Tell me about nine days wonder for something whose popularity is short-lived? I’ve always thought that it’s related to Lady Jane Grey, queen for 9 days in 1553. Is that likely, since most people don’t even remember that she existed?
A It’s a nice idea, but the expression doesn’t date from the sad and all-too-brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, since in essence it’s about two centuries older.
It’s odd that the number nine should be so often associated with extremes — we have dressed to the nines, cloud nine and the whole nine yards. The same number turns up in lots of places: the nine Muses, the nine orders of angels, the Nine Worthies, the nine lives of a cat (and a cat o’nine tails), the nine tailors of bell-ringing fame, and so on. There are also the proverbs: “possession is nine points of the law”, “a stitch in time saves nine” and the old gardening saw that “parsley seed goes nine times to the devil” before it germinates.
The most common suggestion is that the expression derives from the Roman Catholic novena, a form of worship that consists of special prayers or services on nine successive days. But there are so many other expressions that include the same number that the source of the phrase may lie elsewhere.
Whatever the thought behind it, as far back as the early fourteenth century scoffers were saying that nine days, or nine nights, was the period of time some novelty was likely to attract attention before our minds turned to something else. By the time of Shakespeare, the idiom was firmly established, though he was the first to add wonder to it:
I was seven of the nine days out of the wonder, before you came.
As You Like It, by William Shakespeare, 1616.
The first example in the modern form is thought to be in a play by Philip Massinger, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, of 1633. There has been nothing short-lived about nine days wonder.
• The news ticker on the BBC site on Tuesday read “Police chase man killed by train”. This was not a report of post-mortem athleticism: the first three words make up a noun phrase — the police chased a man, who was then killed by a train. Thanks to everyone who sent that in.
• A similar confusion surrounds a headline that Don Wilkes found on the website of the Vancouver Province on 5 August: “Archeologist shoots dead rampaging polar bear”.
• The story in the Sydney Morning Herald last Monday, on the other hand, which John Greenland told us about, is merely badly phrased: “Turks are notorious for breaking out into gunshots to celebrate weddings and sports victories.” Is that like hives?
• The headline on the website of The Daily Caller of Miami — noted by Susie Elins on Monday — seems to imply a multifunction weapon: “Boy chases away man who shot his dad with kitchen knife.”
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