NEWSLETTER 633: SATURDAY 4 APRIL 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Infandous Several readers who know their Latin told me I missed one very common word derived from the Latin verb fari, to speak: infant, a child too young to be able to talk. Infantry is also from this source, using infant in the broader sense of a youth.
Curious book titles Miriam Miller followed up the book that I mentioned last week as having been unfairly excluded from the short list in the Diagram/ Bookseller Competition. She learned that its full title would have made it even more of a contender: Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics. The last word was an invention of its American author, Susan Signe Morrison, presumably as a play on ecopoetics, the literary term for finding poetry in natural things. She uses much other specialist vocabulary, such as stercoranist, a person who believed that the body of Christ in the form of the Eucharistic host was digested and excreted.
I commented that the title Techniques for Corrosion Monitoring was mundane and sensible. Neill Hicks made a similar point about an earlier winner: “While Bombproof Your Horse may seem like an odd book title to Mr Horace Bent, the subject is not at all peculiar to anyone familiar with horses. Horses are prey animals. They survive by running away at the slightest signal of danger. For thousands of years, humans have patiently and skilfully worked to train their mounts to override equine instincts and remain under the control of the rider, a desensitisation that is referred to as bombproofing.”
Copper-fastened Lots of people pointed out that a typing error had the name of the shipworm as toredo, leading some to assume it was a misprint for torpedo (which, not entirely irrelevantly, was a fish, also called an electric ray, before it was a device to blow up ships). It should have been teredo. A toredo is a Spanish bullfighter. No, I’m wrong again, that’s a torero.
2. Turns of Phrase: Chiptune
A chiptune is a piece of music made using vintage home computers.
To create one, composers use only the sounds that can be generated by sound-generating chips inside old personal computers such as the Commodore 64, the Atari or the ZX Spectrum. The fascination of this sub-genre of electro music is partly the technical challenge of pummelling these old chips into producing something worth listening to, but also that their low-fi tonal quality is unlike any sound made by the current range of electronic gear.
The genre, and the term, have been around in the underground music scene for a couple of decades — my first sighting of chiptune is from 1992 and it clearly wasn’t new then. In recent years it has been moving towards the mainstream and references to it now appear in the popular media, though mainly in Europe, Australia and Japan rather than North America. Chiptune artists have been presenting sessions on British radio and two concerts using antique computing machinery took place last month at the British National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.
The concept has also been an influence on the newish alternative musical genre called wonky or aquacrunk, a blend of hip-hop, crunk and electro, and it’s related to what has been disparagingly called videogame music, early examples of which perforce used the same sound chips.
Music plays a huge role in the experience, and every beat that you deflect contributes a note to the level’s chiptune song; each segment transition that you make adds another layer of complexity onto its ever-evolving soundtrack.
[CNET Reviews, 21 Mar. 2009]
What the article didn’t mention was the huge debt this sound owes to the chiptune scene, an international underclass of musicians who create incredible tracks by electronically torturing the sound chips found in vintage videogame hardware.
[Guardian, 26 Mar. 2009]
At first glance, purdonium sounds like an exotic chemical element as yet unknown to science, a plot element in an SF story that might be a cousin of Wells’s cavorite.
When it came on to the market, in 1847, its name was greeted with derisive howls at what was thought to be yet another example of the extraordinary fashion of the time for mock classicisms (its critics assumed that the name derived from Greek pur, fire):
In consequence of the absurd mania for making use of Graeco-Latin compounds to describe inventions, it requires some knowledge of the ancient languages to understand even their names. But, perhaps, the difficulty increases in proportion to the correctness of one’s scholarship. ... The term “idrotobolic”, applied to hats, may boast of a more correct etymology, but what shall we say of “athicktobathron” for a carriage-step and “purdonium” for a coal-scuttle?
Hortensius: Or, The Advocate: An Historical Essay, by William Forsyth, 1849. The idrotobolic hat, from Greek words that meant throwing off perspiration, was patented by the Queen’s hatters in 1847; it had ventilation valves to control the flow of air over the head. I can find nothing about the carriage-step, however. The writer also noted antigropolos, a trade name for a type of leather boot. A rare survivor of this fashion for mock-classical trade names is Aquascutum.
However, it is now understood that the true and only source of the name purdonium was a man named Purdon. Few details survive, but he was in some way associated with the London firm of Bell, Massey and Co who put the purdonium on the market.
The term survives in the technical vocabulary of antique dealers and auctioneers. This is a rare excursion into literature:
On the hearth, behind the brass fender, stood a cheap Japanese screen in black and gold, the centre piece between a mock-mahogany coal purdonium on the one hand, and an occasional table on the other.
Sorrell and Son, by Warwick Deeping, 1925.
4. Recently noted
Uneasy money The vogue phrase quantitative easing, for a method of combating the current financial turmoil by doing the electronic equivalent of printing money, is ungainly jargon. Several British papers, starting I think with the Financial Times, have begun to use queasing as a neat abbreviation. Robert McCrum noted in the Observer on 22 March that the word “contains nice suggestions of queasy, sleaze and queer street, with a background hint of bank treachery (quisling). OED editors please note.”
Caught napping Seventeenth-century criminals abducted children to become servants or labourers in the American plantations. These were the original kidnappings, in which the second element meant stealing (nap being a relative of nab, to thieve). Their linguistic legacy lives on in dozens of frivolous inventions that preserve the idea of the second element. Dognapping is the most common, though a decade ago there was a brief flurry of gnomenapping from British gardens. In the past week a new form has appeared as a result of the enforced incarceration of the foreign bosses of French firms by desperate workers protesting against mass layoffs. In one case, Luc Rousellet, the director of the French operations of 3M, was held for two days and nights; in another the chief executive of Sony France was detained overnight. This week four bosses of the US firm Caterpillar were seized in Grenoble. The technique has a long history in France as a method of negotiation. In French it’s called sequestration, but the English term for it is new: bossnapping.
5. Questions and Answers: Weaved or wove?
[Q] From Anne Umphrey: “In a recent issue you included a quote from a newspaper: “Shelby weaved through traffic.” Am I old-fashioned to want to use the word wove? Perhaps you have written about how certain past tenses have gone to the -ed form from an older format for making a verb past tense? Or is this the proper word because it isn’t particular to creating cloth?”
[A] Your second guess is the correct one. The reason why there are two different past tenses is that there are actually two different verbs here, though at times — such as in this case — their senses are sufficiently close to cause confusion.
The older one — to form cloth by interlacing strands — refers to such an ancient technique that the word for it can be traced back through Old English to a prehistoric Indo-European root that was later taken into Greek and Sanskrit. It has retained the way of forming the past tense that was once often found in Old English verbs. The method was to change the internal vowel in a standard way, a process called ablaut or gradation, in this case weave changing to wove. Some 70 such verbs survive in English today, including drive, sing, come, and grow. Grammarians call these strong verbs, a term invented by the German grammarian and folklorist Jacob Grimm; it remains the standard way to describe them, although it’s unsatisfactory and obscure.
A big shift happened in Middle English between about 1100 and 1500. Many strong verbs became weak, forming their past tenses in -ed or -t, depending on the ending of the stem. To take just two examples: glide, which had had the Old English strong form glode as the past tense, came to use glided instead; help changed its past tense from halp to helped. Only the commonest retained their strong forms. Verbs that form their past tenses by adding one of these endings are said to be weak, another term invented by Jacob Grimm.
The verb in the quotation — to twist and turn from side to side to avoid obstructions while moving in some direction or other — is from a different source to the other weave. It derives from the Old Norse word veifa, to wave or brandish. In Middle English it was spelled weve and may be a relative of our modern wave. Weve vanished from the written language but survived in dialect; it reappeared in books in the late sixteenth century with the spelling changed to weave, almost certainly through the influence of the other verb. By the time it started to be used in writing again, the weak form had become dominant and this version of weave followed the trend, making weaved.
A very few verbs retain both forms, causing some confusion; the classic case is hang, in which pictures are hung but people are hanged. Weave is sometimes said to be another example of this multiple tense disorder but it’s actually a confusion between two words of the same spelling from different sources.
• A sign at a golf show in Ottawa on 22 March advertised a contest for which a small entrance fee was required. Ian Cottrell was very surprised to learn that proceeds would be used to fund “infantile projects”. Not infandous ones?
• A sentence in a Yahoo! article about medical conditions associated with Alzheimer’s disease intrigued Paul Nichols because it implied such a sudden reduction in levels of affliction: “For example, 60 percent have hypertension, 26 percent have coronary heart disease, 23 percent have diabetes, and 18 percent have diabetes.”
• Another triumph for the spellchecker, seen in Graham Rogers’ works canteen recently: “For reasons beyond our control, the canteen will close at 2pm today. The management apologises for any connivance.”
• Andrew Wyss heard on the BBC Radio Gloucestershire travel news on 18 March that “there is an accident travelling towards Stow on the A436 from Andoversford”. Not just waiting to happen, then?
• A New York Times article about President Obama’s meeting on March 27 with the heads of financial institutions had him, to the mild surprise of Paul Ayars, “sitting at the center of a round table in the state dining room.” In the lotus position, perhaps?