NEWSLETTER 491: SATURDAY 10 JUNE 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Far from the madding gerund In my review last week, I might have confused some readers with my explanation why some Americans say vowels and vows alike. The book explained, “There are many dialects of English that fully vocalize syllable-final /l/, turning it into a high back off-glide, and for speakers of these dialects, ‘vows’ and ‘vowels’ have merged phonologically.” Mark Lieberman, who wrote that piece, generously says it was his fault and that I’d been led astray by an ambiguity in his usage of vocalize; the everyday sense is to utter a word or a sound, but he used it in the technical sense, to change a consonant to a semivowel or vowel.
Computers: can’t live with them, can’t live without them As many of you discovered, the http://www.languagelog.com URL for reaching the site that I quoted in the review wasn’t working last weekend, though it is now. Mark Lieberman tells me it was a server problem.
My automatic system for updating the World Wide Words site while I sleep the sleep of the just failed last weekend. Subscribers were left without the pretty version of the newsletter until I awoke, cursed a little, and corrected matters. My apologies. This may have been connected with what the support person at my service provider called a glitch the day before, which rendered the site totally unavailable for some time. If you got a “403: Permission Denied” error, blame the glitch, which I visualise as a small spiky rodent with excellent teeth.
Many subscribers didn’t get last week’s newsletter because a four-letter word meaning micturition was present, which triggered those nannying and annoying obscenity filters that are installed on many mail systems. My apologies to those who thereby missed the issue, but I really thought it was too common and inoffensive a word to be likely to cause a problem. You can catch up with it by visiting the back issues page.
Computers are getting so picky. A copy of last week’s newsletter was bounced from one site with the message, “Blocked because the system you are trying to mail cannot spell”.
Cashed-up bogans Alex Piece’s comments on this term suggest that this new Australian colloquialism is much nearer the British chav even than my sources suggested: “Bogans are usually male, but not always blue-collar—white-collar workers can also be bogans if they are loutish or sexist, are—or at least pretend to be—poorly-educated, and enjoy hooning [driving recklessly] in a ute [utility vehicle] on the weekend with their mates. Cashed-up bogans are ridiculed (by those of us who don’t want to be seen as bogans) for being sucked in by slick marketing, and for being ostentatious with their wealth—the ultimate being the Jacuzzi [hot tub] in the backyard!” Pam Peters of the Australian Dictionary Research Centre tells me that an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday discussed the term, its author hoping that it would not catch on. As it had to be explained to Sydneysiders, she suggests that it is still principally a term of the Melbourne area.
2. Turns of Phrase: Patent troll
There are two sorts of companies in the high-tech world today. Some invent things, manufacture them, and bring them to market. Others register or buy patents, not in order to develop them, but in order to collect money from other firms whose products they consider to be covered by the patents. A polite term for the latter is patent troll.
It began to appear in print in early 2005 and has since been used in a number of newspaper reports on lawsuits, such as the one in which a patent holding company sued the makers of the BlackBerry e-mail device for infringement and settled for $612.5m.
Some commentators say that a US Supreme Court judgement in May 2006 may limit the patent-trolling, though others argue that the real problem lies with an understaffed and overburdened US patent system, working by outdated rules, that cannot cope with today’s fast-moving technological landscape.
The term derives from an old sense of troll for a way of fishing in which lines are trailed behind a moving boat. In turn, that may be from an old confusion with trawl or trail. Troll has long been known online as the name for a person who posts provocative messages to a discussion group with the aim of creating a slanging match. Though this came from the trawling sense, it also links into the folktale concept of a troll as an ugly, malevolent cave-dwelling being.
Critics of the U.S. patent system ... have argued the patent system is riddled with abuse, mainly from “patent trolls,” or small businesses that sue established companies to enforce patents for ideas that have never been developed into products.
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 15 May 2006]
RIM’s defense throughout the case was that NTP was merely a “patent troll,” hoarding an innovation it never intended to use.
[InternetNews, 18 April 2006]
3. Weird Words: Linsey-woolsey
A textile material; a strange medley.
Back in Tudor times in England there was a coarse linen material called linsey, whose name was formerly believed to have come from the dialect word line for linen, but is now thought to be from Lindsey, the village in Suffolk where it was first made.
Linen was woven together with wool to make a less costly fabric that became known as linsey-woolsey, with the ending of wool changed to make a rhyming couplet. Henry Smith, a Church of England clergyman and renowned preacher—known as Silver-Tongued Smith—included an odd comment in his sermon, A Preparative to Marriage, that was published in 1591: “God forbad the people to weare linsey wolsey, because it was a signe of inconstancie.”
Rather later, linsey-woolsey became an inferior coarse cloth of wool woven on cotton. You can tell its humble status from Elizabeth Gaskell’s mention of it in Sylvia’s Lovers of 1863: “How well it was, thought the young girl, that she had doffed her bed-gown and linsey-woolsey petticoat, her working-dress, and made herself smart in her stuff gown, when she sat down to work with her mother.” The Ohio Democrat commented in 1869 on local small farmers who had come into Charlotte, North Carolina, to sell their cotton crop: “They were uniformly dressed in the roughest sort of homemade linsey-wolsey.”
Punch had fun with its name in its issue of 14 February 1917:
When I grow up to be a man and wear whate’er I please,
Because linsey-woolsey combines two fabrics, the word came, as early as the end of the sixteenth century, to refer to a strange mixture and so to confusion or nonsense. Shakespeare was an early user in All’s Well That Ends Well (1601): “But what linsey-woolsey has thou to speak to us again?” It’s long defunct in that sense; one of the last users was an anonymous critic in The Examiner in 1823: “A perking, prurient, linsey-wolsey species of composition.” [Perking: upstart, insolent or impudent.]
4. Recently noted
Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia Much has been made in some quarters of last Tuesday’s date, 6-6-06, which is close enough to the Number of the Beast in the New Testament Book of Revelation to have caused some anxiety among those who fear the consequences of numerological coincidences. This term for morbid anxiety about the number 666 is not, so far as I know, to be found in any dictionary. The -phobia ending is easy and the rest is an English transliteration of the Greek words for 666: hexakosioi—600, hexekonta—60, hex—6.
Ringxiety You know the problem: a mobile phone (cellphone) rings and everybody frantically starts checking their pockets or bags, only to become distressed when they realise the call isn’t for them. Sometimes people also hear their phone ringing when it isn’t, perhaps at a concert, while watching television or driving the car. Ringxiety (ring + anxiety) was coined by David Laramie of California’s School of Professional Psychology, himself a sufferer. It seems to have appeared first in an article in the New York Times on 4 May, which also introduced us to its synonyms fauxcellarm and the much more prosaic phantom ring. Psychologists say ringxiety comes about through a continual state of heightened vigilance that is induced by a fear of missing calls and so being out of touch. It’s triggered by sounds that happen to be in the same frequency range as a phone ring. It isn’t, as yet, a recognised medical condition.
Online resource extended Back in April, I reported that libraries in England had been given free access to several resources of the Oxford University Press through their library membership. The Press has now announced that this has been extended to Northern Ireland. The best part is that you don’t need to visit your library: you can log on from any computer. To get access, visit Northern Ireland Libraries, click on Online Library, and enter your library ticket number and PIN. All NI libraries have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Reference Online, the Dictionary of National Biography, Grove Art Online and Grove Music Online. The agreement lasts until 31 March 2008.
5. Questions & Answers: One-off
[Q] From Jim Brewster: “Whence the term one-off which obviously means ‘one of a kind’?”
[A] This is mainly a British and Commonwealth usage, not so much known in the US, I believe.
It comes out of manufacturing, in which off has long been used to mark a number of items to be produced of one kind: 20-off, 500-off. This seems to have begun in foundry work, or a similar trade, in which items were cast off a mould or from a pattern (“We’ll have 20 off that pattern and 500 off that other one”.) An example is in a book of 1947 by James Crowther and Richard Whiddington, Science at War: “Manufacturers found it very difficult to give up mass production, in order to make the 200 or so sets ‘off’.”
A one-off was just a single item, used in particular to refer to a prototype. The first known example appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen in 1934: “A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.” (The reference is to a casting mould formed in sand.)
Out of this came our current figurative sense of something that is done, made, or happens only once—as you say, one of a kind. An example appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph in February 2006: “Anyone who would like to donate in Mo’s memory is welcome to make a one-off donation or more long-term contributions.”
It can also be used of a special person, someone for whom it might be said “After they made him, they broke the mould”. Here’s an example from the Daily Telegraph of 13 April 2006, about Michael Eavis, who runs the Glastonbury Festival: “I have great respect for him. He’s a fantastic eccentric, really, a one-off.”
• I tried to close my savings account last week. It wouldn’t let me. The error message that appeared said “Your account must be at least zero before you can close it.” It turned out to mean that all funds had to be withdrawn first. But “at least zero”?
• John Gray notes the doubly tragic sentence in a UK local newspaper report (Gloucester Citizen, 1 June): “A little girl is devastated after her pony was viscously attacked”.
• A caption to a photograph on the BBC Web site from the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival was spotted by Con Mansell: “Alan Rusbridger—Editor of the Guardian newspaper—walking through Hay on his mobile phone”.
• “A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reports Stu Lang, “was headlined ‘Turkey forms committee on saving poultry industry’. Real concern or enlightened self-interest?”
• John Parr’s local paper, the Fresno Bee, included an advertisement in its issue for 26 May: “Stop annoying birds”. He snorts, “I don’t deliberately annoy birds. What it means is, ‘Repel birds that annoy you’. Quite a difference!”