E-MAGAZINE 692: SATURDAY 26 JUNE 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Up the creek Numerous readers wondered why the extended version of the expression, up the creek without a paddle, should reinforce the idea of being in a potentially disastrous situation. It was argued that if you’re without a paddle while you are up the stream, the current (or tide: British creeks are inlets of the sea, while American ones are small streams) will take you downstream and it would be worse to be down the creek without a paddle, for then you would have no way of travelling upstream. This is a misunderstanding of the idea behind it, since to be without a paddle means that you’re at the mercy of any figurative current (events, in other words), powerless to influence your situation.
Update The set expression, to put the kibosh on, to put an end to or dispose of decisively, has long been a puzzle. I’ve updated the article about it online with some new information and a fresh theory about its origins.
An admittedly extremely old entry in the Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “the action of divagating”. Thanks very much. That sends one to the preceding entry, the verb divagate: “to wander about”.
Divagation isn’t particularly rare and may be readily found in writings of the more literate sort:
While the film’s plot progresses, with a few divagations, in a straight line through the decades of Benjamin Button’s life, the backward vector of that biography turns this “Curious Case” into a genuine mystery.
International Herald Tribune, 3 Jan. 2009. This is in a review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the eponymous character lives his life backwards.
The meaning becomes clear when we recall that it derives from the Latin verb divagari, in turn from vagari, to wander. In English the wandering has always been figurative — deviation, digression or straying from the point.
Dinner at nine o’clock, before the big open hearth, with a friendly fire. Much chaffing and pleasant talk about the arrangements for to-morrow. A man to be sent off at daybreak to have two buckboards ready at the landing at seven for the drive to Tadousac. Then a reprehensible quantity of tobacco smoked in the book-room, and the tale of the season’s angling told from the beginning with many embellishments and divagations.
Days off and Other Digressions, by Henry Van Dyke, 1907.
Alphabetical nouns Daniel James e-mailed from Japan about an odd assertion by some of his students of English. He was discussing bad manners concerning chopsticks and had written that a person should not hold “chopsticks and a bowl” in the same hand. One student was adamant that it should be “a bowl and chopsticks”. She and other students said that children at school in Japan — since the group are all adult learners in their 50s and 60s, this would be shortly after World War Two — were taught that nouns in English should be put in alphabetical order. Even after showing them collocations such as ladies and gentlemen, salt and pepper and fish and chips, they wouldn’t budge. Mr James would very much like more information about how this curious preconception arose.
4. Reviews: Globish
Robert McCrum, the Literary Editor of the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, is best known in linguistic circles as co-author of the 1986 book The Story of English, based on the television series of the same name.
Mr McCrum features Globish in the introduction and in the final sections. In between, he recapitulates much of the material from The Story of English to explain how the language travelled from its earliest beginnings as the native tongue of a Germanic tribe to its current international status. It is a fascinating cultural, social and political story, as well told as you would expect, but for many readers it will be going over well-trodden ground. There is little in it that’s directly concerned with the linguistic evolution of English, though the Great Vowel Shift makes a brief appearance. He treats the story as one of continuing and inevitable progress, when the truth is that — as so often in human affairs — the language has succeeded through a series of accidents. The crucial development in modern times has been the decline of the British Empire, coinciding with the rise of American domination, the only case in history, so far as we know, in which a transfer of power and influence involved nations which spoke the same language.
It was confusing to discover that, despite comments in interviews and a description of Jean-Paul Nerrière’s work in the introduction, Robert McCrum doesn’t mean by Globish in this book what Nerrière does — a limited auxiliary language with no native speakers. For McCrum, Globish is international English, a rich fully-featured language in which books, plays and films can be written, in which G8 leaders can hold press conferences and call centre workers in Bangalore can resolve the technical problems of American computer users. For him, Globish is a “global means of communication that is irrepressibly contagious, adaptable, populist and subversive.” It is, he says, “a contemporary phenomenon of extraordinary range and complexity”, in which for “the first time in the history of the planet the whole world can transmit and receive the same language”.
There are several errors in etymology that are worrying in a work about language: honkie, a disparaging way for black Americans to refer to whites, isn’t from a Wolof word for pink but comes from hunky, a term for Polish immigrants in the Chicago stockyards; jazz was never used in the sense of “speed up” and hadn’t become part of the mainstream of American culture as early as the start of the First World War; the origin of kangaroo is no longer “obscure and disputed” but, following the work of John Haviland in 1972, is known to be from the Australian aborigine language Guugu Yimithirr; jamboree wasn’t a new word in 1897 that had been “imported from some imperial outpost, no one knows quite where” but had been US slang for a noisy revel from the 1860s; Warren Harding didn’t put normalcy into the American lexicon, as it had been there from the 1850s; CD, for “Compact Disc”, wasn’t coined in Japan but by Philips in the Netherlands.
It’s a wide-ranging — if etymologically flawed — work, which will be of interest to readers coming fresh to the history of the way the English language has developed.
[Robert McCrum; Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language; Published in the UK by Viking (ISBN 978-0-670-91640-5), in the US by W W Norton & Company (ISBN 978-0-393-06255-7), and in Canada by Doubleday Canada (ISBN 978-0-385-66375-5); hardback, pp310, including index; publisher’s UK price £20.00. Also available as an audiobook.]
• On the website of the Boston Globe, Eric Funston found a blurb for an article on Emily Dickinson: “A book reveals the poet began to romance her father’s best friend following his death.” We knew that Emily Dickinson had her quirks, but post-mortem romance?
• “Train platform moves forward” was the headline Paul Brady found in last Saturday’s issue of the Post-Star newspaper of Glens Falls, New York. It transpired that it was actually the plans for building the platform that were advancing.
• Darryl Francis noted that The Times reported on June 18: “Sebastian Horsley, an artist and writer whose dandyish lifestyle made him an institution in Soho, has died of a suspected heroin overdose at the age of 47 days after the opening of a show based on his memoirs.” Yet another precocious artistic life cut tragically short.
7. Copyright and contact details
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