NEWSLETTER 532: SATURDAY 24 MARCH 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
G for Golf While presenting the solution last week to the trivia question about “the only phonetically correct sport”, I referred in error to the A Alfa, B Bravo, C Charlie system as the International Phonetic Alphabet. That, as I knew very well but my typing fingers didn’t, is a system for representing the sounds of languages in unambiguous symbols. I should have called the Alfa Bravo Charlie one the International Spelling Alphabet. Some readers were puzzled by the answer because they knew of other ways to spell out letters of the alphabet in which G is not represented by Golf. There have been many spelling alphabets, but the current standard is the one created by NATO, which is also widely used, for example, in civil aviation. For more information, see a Wikipedia article, which lists the complete alphabet.
Titch Readers from Canada, the USA and Australia mentioned that titch was or still is used to refer to a small quantity of something rather than to a small person. Some suggested it might derive from a local pronunciation of touch, but the few dictionaries I have that mention this sense say that it also comes from Little Tich.
Nigel Lindsey-Renton pointed out that John Hay Beith, the author of the book, All In It, which I quoted in the piece, is better known as the Scots playwright and author Ian Hay. My reference to “an American serving on the Western Front” was an editing error that related to another work about the First World War, Kitchener’s Mob, The Adventures of an American in the British Army, by James Norman Hall (1916); this also includes tich for a small person.
Tich as a nickname might be earlier than the First World War. John Lowe told me that his grandfather, Cyril Nelson Lowe, was given this nickname, probably while he was at Dulwich College between 1905 and 1911.
Sic? Dozens of readers argued that a Sic! piece last week was wrong to claim that the question “Should mandatory drug testing for steroids be required for high school athletes?” contained redundant language. The response by Colin Fine was typical: “Since ‘Sic!’ is a playground for pedants, I make no apology for pointing out that there is nothing either tautologous or contradictory about it. If it is interpreted as ‘Should schools, competitions or clubs be required to introduce mandatory drug testing?’, it is unexceptionable.”
2. Weird Words: Rantipole
Wild, disorderly, rakish; a wild, ill-behaved or reckless person.
Unlike Dr Brewer, we do not believe that the word derives from the Dutch randten, to be in a state of idiocy or insanity, though it is accepted that the second half is poll, meaning the head. It is now thought the first part is from rant (or possibly the English dialect ranty, “riotous” or “wildly excited”) and that the whole is a fanciful creation by some unknown person around 1700.
It was equally well known in North America (Noah Webster had the noun and verb in his dictionary of 1806) and it appears in several works by Washington Irving, including The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: “This rantipole hero had for some time singled out the blooming Katrina for the object of his uncouth gallantries, and though his amorous toyings were something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear, yet it was whispered that she did not altogether discourage his hopes.”
3. Questions & Answers: Turnpike
[Q] From Adi Piltz: “I wish to know the origin of the word turnpike. A friend told me a story about a farmer laying turning spikes in his field to mark his territory. Is it true?”
[A] There’s just a grain of truth in it.
The word itself doesn’t come from turning spikes, but from turn and pike, the latter in the old sense of an infantry weapon with a pointed steel or iron head on a long wooden shaft. It’s the inclusion of turn here that suggests the pikes were the barrier, which could be turned aside about a vertical pivot to allow access.
From the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, many new toll roads were created in various parts of Britain through acts of Parliament. They were run by trusts, the tolls supposedly being put towards the cost of maintenance. Early toll gates were modelled on the old turnpike barriers and so the roads became known as turnpike roads, later shortened to just turnpikes.
4. Recently noted
English as she is spoke? The Oxford English Dictionary team has just added the latest batch of entries to the online dictionary, They include ixnay, the first Pig Latin word to be included, pranam, the Indian term for a respectful greeting or salutation, capoeirista, a person who practices capoeira, the Brazilian martial art and dance form, djembe, the West African drum, and wiki, for an online collaborative project (as in Wikipedia), from Hawaiian wiki, quick.
The same week, a report from the British think tank Demos, As You Like It: Catching Up in an Age of Global English, argued that British complacency about the global influence of the language may lead to us being marginalised. In part, the authors argue, that will be because we’re neglecting to learn other languages, in particular those whose influence is increasing, such as Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi and Urdu: “The bonus of ordering a burger in English while on holiday will increasingly seem fairly paltry in comparison with the economic and cultural penalties of monolingualism.” They also say that the way English is taught means we’re not keeping up with the way it is evolving worldwide, especially into regional Englishes (Hinglish, Spanglish, etc), each with their individual cultures. The teaching of English as a foreign language should focus on transmitting a practical ability to communicate based on learners’ personal and particular interests and situations rather than on the preconception that there is only one correct way to speak English.
The authors suggest that a Web site, Democtionary.org, should be set up on democratic lines to supplement the OED, to which people from around the world could contribute new words and senses as they are actually used.
5. Questions & Answers: Sick abed on two chairs
[Q] From Natalie Teichman: “I caught your interview with Bob Edwards on XM Satellite Radio. I wonder if you could tell me about an expression that my great-grandfather used to say: Sick abed on two chairs. My mother often repeated this as a favorite phrase of his, but none of us really knew what it meant. He emigrated from Somerset in 1874 and made his home in central New York State. He had been raised a Quaker in England and continued to use plain speech (thee and thou) throughout his life. I would love to know more about this curious phrase.”
[A] Many thanks for your interesting question.
It defeats most of my standard references but the saying has been recorded several times. A couple of online sites mention it and I’ve found a newspaper advert containing it, which was published in December 1944 in the Bismarck Tribune of North Dakota. It also appears in a couple of recent books, including a story by Sylvia Thompson with that title, published in 1997 in a collection called The Quiet Center: “When I was little and what my grandmother called ‘sick abed on two chairs’ she would comfort me with pudding.”
The one source that gives details is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which quotes examples going back to 1939 and mentions that an older variation, recorded from 1914, was sick abed in the wood-box. At times the two forms were combined. DARE suggests that it was a regional expression, mostly from the northeast of the US (which would put the Dakota advert way out on a geographical and linguistic limb).
DARE says the expression was “used as a facetious response to queries about one’s health or to imply that someone is pretending to be ill or is slightly unwell”. Sylvia Thompson’s usage would fit the “slightly unwell” meaning, as does the 1944 advertisement: “Sick-abed on two chairs with your feet in the wood-box, or just lazy?” The idea would seem to be that you were slightly out of sorts, not enough to make you take to your bed but enough to make you want to sit in a chair with your feet up on another, or to sit close enough to the fire that your feet could, figuratively, rest on the box of logs.
Nothing beyond that suggests a source. It might have been Somerset dialect, though both forms feel more North American than English; the English Dialect Dictionary, compiled at the end of the 19th century, doesn’t mention it and there is no example I can find in British literature. It seems most likely, since DARE’s location information fits with your great-grandfather having settled in New York State, that he learned it after he arrived.
No doubt subscribers will be able to fill in some of the blanks.
• Like so many people, Jo Sidebottom is the involuntary recipient at work of a lot of office-related circular e-mails. A couple on one day recently were more fun than most (names have been suppressed to protect the guilty): “The local Labour MP is visiting to conduct an official opening ceremony. The ceremony will take place at 1.30pm and champagne and canopies will be provided afterwards.” Perhaps in case of rain? The other said: “As you know we have reached the half way point of the project. To mark the occasion, we have been given some momentums. For those who have not received their gift, when you are in HQ next please give X a shout.” She says, “the momentums will give us the push we need to complete the project!”
• Our friends at BBC News are at it again. Richard Hallas found this in a story dated 12 March: “Her face was so badly swollen doctors could not operate on her immediately and had to use a wheelchair for three months.” Mr Hallas’ wonders how more than one doctor was able to share that wheelchair. The caption to a photograph of the Castle of May accompanying a story on 15 March read: “Bought as a wreck, the Queen Mother restored the castle”. That was good of Her Majesty’s mum, considering her condition. Nicholas Farhi wonders if the editors of the site are doing it deliberately to get into this column, having seen the headline on a story of 18 March about the impending closure of a pork and bacon processing plant in Norfolk: “Meat firm axe ‘may hit hundreds’”.
• David Bracey encountered a news release put out by the University Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio: “Each hat is unique, and no two are the same.” How true.