E-MAGAZINE 662: SATURDAY 24 OCTOBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Monkey wrenches “I was going along with your suggestions,” Peter Allen e-mailed from the USA, “until you printed the reference to railroad locomotives. The amazing and confusing collection of pistons, links, cranks, rods and levers found on the drive wheels of a locomotive are often collectively referred to as the monkey motion. I wonder if the wrenches kept in locomotives might have gained the name of monkey wrenches because they were used to maintain the monkey motion in the drive train.” It’s an intriguing suggestion. The earliest mentions of monkey motion that I can find in a locomotive context are from the Morning Oregonian for 1 February 1895 and from a 1899 issue of the Journal of Railway Appliances, published in New York. The expression itself is much older (1845), in the sense of a monkey-like gesture or facial expression. As the first known US appearance of monkey wrench is older still (1838) and is at the dawn of the railway age, my considered guess (if one may be allowed such a thing) is that monkey wrench and monkey motion are unconnected.
Carl Bowers gave another view: “Growing up in Southern California, I learned the term monkey wrench applied to an adjustable wrench, either what is known as a crescent wrench (often referred to as a knuckle-buster) or a square-headed, less-elegant-looking tool. The implication in either case was that this was a general-purpose tool, not perfectly fitted to any one application but adaptable in case of need to a variety of uses — not exactly right but good enough in a pinch — just the sort of general-purpose item that a locomotive engineer might find useful in an emergency. The underlying suggestion was that lacking the precise tool for a job, you could ‘monkey around’ with this one. The term also carried a suggestion of the disdain a properly-equipped mechanic felt for those who would use such an inexact and slip-prone tool, risking damage both to the part being worked on and to their knuckles.”
2. Turns of Phrase: Epigenome
This term of the biological sciences has been around for decades but it has been specialist, unknown to the general public. That changed to some extent last week when newspapers reported a paper that had appeared in the science magazine Nature.
We’re familiar these days with the idea that the nature of living things is controlled by the DNA in their genes, the genetic code of an individual being its genome. Since there are many sorts of cell, but only one genome in an individual, there must be a way to switch genes on and off inside the cell so that it develops into a specific type — fat, muscle, brain or other sort. This process is controlled by chemical switches collectively called the epigenome. The report in Nature was that researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, had for the first time mapped it.
Environmental factors can disrupt the epigenome, which can lead to a variety of medical conditions, including cancers. Armed with the new roadmap of the way the epigenome works, specialists can now study the differences between healthy and diseased cells and begin to understand how this can happen.
Epigenome includes the prefix epi-, upon or in addition to, from Greek epi, upon, near to, or in addition to. Its study is epigenomics and the adjective is epigenomic. The field is new and the terminology is still evolving; it is common for researchers to use epigenetics instead of epigenomics for the study of all the changes to a cell that result from external rather than genetic influences.
The closely related term epigenesis refers to our current understanding that an embryo progressively develops from an undifferentiated egg cell, rather than the older belief that it is created completely formed (an homunculus) and merely grows bigger. The adjective epigenetic can refer to epigenesis, but is used in the scientific literature in connection with epigenomics.
Scientists believe the epigenome can be altered by environmental factors, ranging from diet to pollution, and disrupt this finely tuned regulatory process, setting the stage for various illnesses including cancer and heart disease.
The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 16 Oct. 2009.
The epigenome can be disrupted by smoking, ageing, stress, atmospheric pollution, what we eat and drink, and a host of other environmental factors. There is some evidence that the environment causes epigenetic changes that make people more susceptible to asthma.
Guardian, 14 Oct. 2008.
If we wanted to invent a classical replacement for the idiom from head to toe, we might choose from petasus to talaria. The latter is one of those words — like aglet for the little tube at the end of a shoelace or philtrum for the ridges in the middle of the upper lip — that identify something we know well but usually can’t name.
Hermes was given his talaria by his father Zeus, who also gave him a low-crowned, broad-rimmed traveller’s cap of a type well-known in classical times and which Greeks called a petasus. In later times, the hat changed to a brimless one with wings on, but it kept the name.
The third traditional item of equipment of Hermes and Mercury, the caduceus, was the wand of office of a Greek or Roman herald (it’s from Greek kerux, a herald), which usually had two snakes wound around a wooden staff. Long ago, this became confused with another rod, the staff of Asclepius, the god of healing, which only had the one snake; the twin-snake version of Hermes and Mercury replaced it and remains common as a symbol of medicine.
4. What I've learned this week
Break cakes John Harland introduced me to a well-known term among British and Australian seafarers: tabnabs. They are snacks such as cakes or fancy biscuits that are served during morning or afternoon tea breaks among seafarers and crews of North Sea oil rigs. Nobody seems to know where the term comes from. All I have learned is that the Oxford English Dictionary records it from the 1930s and that it may at first have been Royal Navy slang. An early reference is in Malcolm Lowry’s book Under the Volcano, dated 1947: “The tabnabs were delicate and delicious little cakes made by the second cook.” Wilfred Granville defined them in his Sea Slang of the Twentieth Century (1950) as a steward’s term in the merchant navy for “Buns, pastry and confectionery which are reserved for the passengers in a liner and are not for the crew.”
Grand word Lord Myners, who is usually referred to in newspapers as the City minister, though his official title is Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury, gave a speech on Wednesday at the dinner of a City of London guild, one that has the currently inappropriate title of the Worshipful Company of International Bankers. He ended his speech: “The next few months will set the blueprint for public perceptions of the banking industry for decades to come. The taxpayer will not be taken for a goostrumnoodle a second time — nor should they be allowed to.” What a wonderful word! I had to search a while before finding a dictionary that contains it. Eventually, I tracked it down in the English Dialect Dictionary of a century ago. It turns out to be a Cornish word, meaning a fool. It’s not surprising that Paul Myners should know it — his childhood was spent in Cornwall.
5. Reviews: Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary
Lexicographers know from historical example and the nature of the job that they’re in for a long haul. Samuel Johnson thought his dictionary project would take three years, but even with the help of his amanuenses it needed nine. James Murray worked on what was then called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles for 36 years, his labours being terminated only by death. Work on the Historical Thesaurus began in 1967. Its current director, Christian Kay, and another editor, Irené Wotherspoon, both joined as research assistants two years later and so each has completed 40 years of unending slog.
Take money for example (a word that has been much in the news in the UK recently, what with the MPs expenses scandal and the banking crisis). The entry fills a column and tells us that the earliest word for the concept — in Old English — was mynet, with money itself turning up around 1290; a glance down the chronological list flashes up gelt (first recorded around 1529), lour (in use from 1567 on), mint-sauce (from 1812), and a host of others from the past two centuries that we may recognise from our reading even if we don’t use them ourselves: oof, lettuce, ackers, spondulicks, bread, moolah, lolly, loot, and dosh. All these are dated with their first known appearance and — if it has — the date when it went out of use again.
This is treasure-trove, which careful writers can mine for nuggets of vocabulary. There’s no excuse any more for sloppy authors. If you’re creating an historical novel or film or adapting a classic for television, you can check in this monumental agglomeration if — for example — your character might have called money dough in 1800 (no, because it’s first recorded in 1851) or what might have been a suitable slang term for it in 1700 (spankers, cole and rhino are all possibilities).
The source of this knowledge is the Oxford English Dictionary. The compilers of the Historical Thesaurus took every word in the OED and placed it within a framework of meaning that they constructed, a monumental task that makes one’s mind reel, as does the thought of creating the framework itself.
Most thesauruses today use the classification scheme invented by Peter Roget in 1852, but the compilers of the Historical Thesaurus realised that this wasn’t comprehensive enough and had to generate their own. All knowledge is divided into three broad families: the external world, the mental world, and the social world, numbered from 01 to 03. These families are progressively subdivided into more and more detailed classes. The class 03.10 is work, 03.10.13 is trade and commerce and 03.10.13.15 is money. The classification doesn’t end there — 03.10.13.15.05 is currency, 03.10.13.15.05.01 is coins and 03.10.13.15.05.01.05 is foreign coins. This last entry has hundreds of historical terms organised by country, such as the Dutch stiver and the American sharpshin. To look up the index (the second, larger, volume of the two-volume work), is to experience a mass of numbers dancing before the eyes like every lottery draw of all time rolled into one.
It’s an extraordinary work. The pity is that it’s so expensive that only libraries, big institutions and a few well-heeled individuals can afford it.
[Christian Kay, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels and Irené Wotherspoon [eds], The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 22 Oct. 2009; hardback, two volumes in slipcase; ISBN-13:978-0-19-920899-9; ISBN-10:0-19-920899-9; the UK publisher’s price is £250 until Jan. 2010, thereafter £275.]
• Charlotte Bulmer’s local church’s noticeboard advertised a lecture titled “Your Church: it’s history”. Attendees who were expecting an account of the demise of Christianity would have been surprised by a description of the 13th-century building and its development over the years.
• It makes sense when you think about it, but the opening sentence of a piece on the Philadelphia Daily News site on 17 October startled John Politis: “My daughter, Eve, will be 8 tomorrow, and it seems like just yesterday that my wife told me she was pregnant.”
• Department of long-distance birthing: Ian Somers read an account on Teletext last Sunday of a premature birth on a ferry in the English Channel: “The ship was around 30 miles south east of Start Point. A coastguard helicopter winched the 38-year-old mother from Bognor Regis and child from the vessel.”
• In the US, Randall Bart heard a radio commercial for a jewellery store, which talked about the advantages of taking your old stuff into their store, where they will give you cash at once, rather than posting it to a competitor. They urged, “Don’t get scammed or ripped of by anyone else.” Mr Bart appreciates their concern.
• The Eastern Province Herald of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, Gerhard Burger tells us, reported on 12 October that the list of China’s super-rich was headed by a “rechargeable battery tycoon”. But how long will he keep going when you’ve recharged him?