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Newsletter 920
6 February 2016


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Satisficer.

3. From my reading.

4. Beside oneself.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

New elements Referencing my piece last time, Peter Jacobs told me there’s a petition to honour the late Ian (Lemmy) Kilmister of Motörhead by naming one of the recently discovered heavy metal elements after him as lemmium. And Barton Bresnik similarly noted another petition to do the same for Sir Terry Pratchett by naming a element octarine.

To fit the standard suffix -ium for chemical elements the latter might need to be recast as octarinium, though copyeditor Peter Morris points out that the name would work for element 117; this is in the same group as fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine, which by the rules of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry have names ending in -ine. A similar exception to the rule would apply to element 118, which belongs with neon, argon, krypton and xenon; it has been suggested that it should be called newton, after Sir Isaac.

Fifteen elements are named for people, including Albert Einstein, Dmitri Mendeleev, Lise Meitner and Nicolaus Copernicus. Most commemorate famous scientists and all but two are for synthesised elements beyond uranium. An exception is samarium, indirectly commemorating a little-known Russian mining engineer named Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets.

The chance of either petition being successful is extremely small.

Ferroeqinologist My snippet on this word for a lover of trains led to an email from Bob Crowley: “The term originated from the writer Lucius Beebe. Beebe was a wealthy bon vivant, ne’er-do-well, hard drinker, newspaper columnist, railfan [railway enthusiast] and railway private car owner. Beebe had a passion for form and formality, and decided his hobby of railroading needed a formal Latin term to describe it, so he invented one meaning ‘one who studies the iron horse’ or ferroequinologist.”

I had assumed that my earliest finding of the word in print wasn’t actually the first, but lack of time prevented me from following the trail further back. Mr Crowley’s mention of Beebe led me to Andrew Dow’s Dictionary of Railway Quotations, which has a substantial entry for the word. Dow cites a letter to Trains Magazine in April 1947 (which I’ve not yet been able to unearth) as its earliest use in print and its adoption as the title of the magazine of the old Central Coast Railway Club in 1952. Dow argues that Beebe picked up the term only later.

An item in the journal American Speech of December 1950 gave some additional background: “The comic spirit which produced such Latinisms as anti-fogmatic (an alcoholic drink that counteracts the effects of fog) and infracaninophile (a lover of the underdog) presided over the birth of ferroequinologist. On February 5, 195o, a group of iron-horse lovers from Richmond, Virginia, who are fond of railroad lore, made a sentimental journey over the fourteen-mile-long Albemarle and Nelson Railway when it ran its last passenger train. These enthusiasts are members of the Old Dominion Railway Club; they enjoy using the nickname ferroequinologists of themselves.”

I can’t find the word in any of Lucius Beebe’s many publications that I’ve been able to access. But then, he was a writer of a generation and style that would have rejected the idea of coining words, especially mock Latinisms. We may never be able to link the word’s origin nearer than to some unsung railway enthusiast knowledgeable in Latin, perhaps sometime in the 1940s.

Sconce Michael Keating and Andrew Shilcock tell me the college sense of a fine was in use during their studies at Cambridge University, respectively at Sidney Sussex and Downing. As I never came across it in my own college, Peterhouse, it would seem to have been restricted in its usage.

James Taylor commented, “At my Oxford college (Worcester), sconcing was a relatively formal and well-established process. At any formal dinner, guests could ask the Provost (or senior fellow present) to sconce a fellow guest for some alleged transgression, but the request had to be made in writing, in Latin (or perhaps Greek; either way it meant the universe of potential sconcers was pretty small). If the request was successful, a tankard full of beer would be brought in from the kitchen, which the transgressor was supposed to down in one. If the request was not successful, the sconcer could technically be sconced — but more usually the Provost would reward them with a bottle of wine.”

David Willbe added, “When I was at Oxford (1998-2001) the various sports teams did operate systems of punitive actions for (real and imagined) infractions but they were referred to as fines, penalties or forfeits. The only sense in which ‘sconce’ was used was for a specific punishment, usually reserved for serious ‘offences’, of having to down a large drink. I’d imagine it’s that practice to which the Cherwell and Telegraph articles refer. The folk etymology of sconce that prevailed at the time was that the word referred to an archaic drinking vessel, something like a stein, which had fallen into disuse other than for this punishment — hence the name had transferred to the punishment.”

Terry Walsh noted that the source Latin term was absconsa lanterna, not laterna, and added that the term has been used in Roman Catholic countries “for the small light which was used to read scripture during nocturnal mass and other religious services.”

Thank your mother for the rabbits Janet Alton followed up my piece of two issues ago and comments last time: “I was thinking how people adopt little catchphrases and trot them out habitually. When I was very small in Rotherham in the 1950s, we used to visit an elderly relative who always gently admonished children who might be tempted to start tearing about: ‘Mind how you step over those mince pies!’ Much later, as an adult, I knew an elderly Sheffield man who, if he called at your house, would always say ‘I’ve come to tell you I’m not coming!’”

Ms Alton’s second one reminds me of a catchphrase of the late British comedian Max Bygraves from the 1950s: “I’ve arrived, and to prove it I’m here!” I’d guess Ms Alton’s pair come from similar, albeit forgotten, sources.

Words of the Year A late entrant to my collection of prize-winning words of 2015 was provided by Ursula Roth, who tells us, “In Germany, the Academy for German Language has chosen Smombie as word of the year 2015. It combines smartphone and zombie for those who stare at their smartphones without perceiving their surroundings.” A smart zombie: how curiously oxymoronic.

2. Satisficer

The idea here is the paradox of choice.

The classic story is the one about the donkey which was placed exactly halfway between two bales of hay. Unable to decide which one of the two bales was the more enticing, the poor animal starved to death. The modern equivalent is supermarket shelves laden with two dozen varieties of tomato sauce or twenty sorts of bread or shops with dozens of styles of trainers or jeans. The burden of having to decide among myriad options has been shown to leave people dissatisfied, stressed and miserable about the choice they finally make — perhaps one of the others was better?

A satisficer, on the other hand, is content with the idea that good is good enough. If the pair of jeans fits and wears well or the tomato sauce tastes pretty good then that’s fine. Another choice might have been better but almost certainly not so much better that the hassle of testing all the possibilities was worth the time and trouble.

Though the word is often applied to the consumerist lifestyle in developed countries, the American economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon coined it more than half a century ago in more general terms. His original creation was satisfice, a conflation of satisfy and suffice, which appeared first in an article in 1956. He extended his ideas the following year in his books Administrative Behavior and Models of Man.

His discussion was directed at all forms of decision making, in which he argued that people showed what he called bounded rationality. Contrary to the conventional view of economists, people don’t seek to maximise the benefit they get from some course of action because in most cases they don’t have all the facts or too much information would overwhelm them.

The best situation may not be, as might be thought, to have no choice at all (which brings problems of its own), but to have a relatively limited range of choices that makes it feasible to select the most appropriate.

3. From my reading

• An article on skincare introduced me to non-comedogenic. Ripping this into its constituent pieces suggests that it refers to something which prevents comedos. Next question. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry written a century ago gives a long and rather disgusting-sounding definition for comedo, which turns out to have nothing to do with comedy but refers to what we commonly call a blackhead. The OED helpfully adds that it’s from Latin, derives from the verb comedĕre, to eat up, and was originally a name given to worms which devour the body. Briefly, non-comedogenic refers to a product that doesn’t block the pores and so doesn’t risk the appearance of blackheads. Other works say that the more usual medical term these days is comedone, which the OED hasn’t yet got around to noticing.

• The long-standing children’s television series Pingu, about a family of penguins living in an igloo in Antarctica, is especially notable for using an expressive made-up language. It’s sometimes called penguinese but one of the voiceover artists on its remake, David Sant, called it grammelot. Invented speech has a long history in the theatre, going back to the Commedia dell’Arte 600 years ago. Actors took the sounds and intonations of the languages of their audiences and created expressive nonsense from them. The descriptions of it often call it grammelot and imply that this word is as old as the technique. The American etymologist Mark Liberman showed ten years ago that this certainly isn’t so and is most probably modern. Its first recorded appearances are in connection with Dario Fo’s use of the technique in his 1969 play Mistero Buffo, though it has been asserted that he didn’t invent it but borrowed it from slightly earlier French sources. Whatever its origin, grammelot seems certain to be a nonsense word itself.

• The word utopia is widely recognised and understood — in many other languages than just English — as shorthand for a perfect social, legal and political society in which everyone is happy. Its creator, Sir Thomas More, is less well known, though the 1966 Robert Bolt film, A Man for All Seasons, brought him vividly to life as Henry VIII’s lord chancellor who refused to support the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He also featured in the recent BBC series Wolf Hall about his rival Thomas Cromwell. Commemorative events are being held this year to mark the quincentenary of Utopia, his book that brought the word into being. Though More wrote his work in Latin, he took his title from classical Greek ou, not, and topos, place. By derivation, therefore, utopia doesn’t exist. At times the word has been written Eutopia, using the Greek prefix eu-, meaning good, to emphasise the positive aspects of such an imagined society.

4. Beside oneself

Q From Marcus Wisbech: “Why is it that when a person is angry about something, we might say ‘He’s beside himself with rage?’ How can one be beside oneself?”

A It puzzles us today because language has changed but the idiom hasn’t.

The phrase appears first in the language a long time ago. In 1490, William Caxton, who established the first English printing press in Westminster, published a book with the title Eneydos. We know it better as The Aeneid by Virgil.

Caxton records its linguistic travels in its title: “translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton”. This is the relevant passage, describing the grief of Dido at the departure of Aeneas. I’ll leave its rendering into modern English as an exercise for the reader:

She sawe the saylles, wyth the flote of the shippes that made good waye. Thenne byganne she, for grete distresse, to bete & smyte thre or four tymes wyth her fyste strongly ayenst her brest & to pulle her fayr heres from her hed, as mad & beside herself.”

Caxton was translating the French phrase hors de soi, outside oneself. He used beside because for him the word could mean outside of or away from. The idea was that powerful emotion had led Dido’s mind to escape her control. Her mind had got away from her and she wasn’t herself.

We use the phrase rather less now than we used to. When it appears, it is most often related to rage but it can also refer to delight, grief, amazement, excitement, horror, or any other powerful emotion.

5. Sic!

• A reviewer on Amazon wrote of author John Grisham’s lawyer hero Sebastian Rudd that he has an “ongoing custardy battle for his son”.

• Marc Picard and John Pearson saw that on 28 January the BBC site reported, briefly, that a man arrested in Paris “co-manages a brassiere”.

• Larry Israel and Howard Sinberg spotted a headline error that turns up on US newspaper sites so often that it has become a perennial joke, Let’s give it one last moment in the sun because this time it appeared (on 26 January) on the website of the prestigious New York Times: “Police Officer Shoots Man With Knife in Lower Manhattan”. The NYT rapidly changed it.

• Robert Waterhouse came across a comment in The Guardian’s sports pages of 5 February about prospects for the Six Nations rugby tournament: “If England’s new captain can solidify their scums ...”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 6 February 2016

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