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Newsletter 734
30 April 2011

Contents

1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Mumchance.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: From hero to goat.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Potchky Shayna Kravetz, a fluent Yiddish speaker (her given name means “beautiful”), wrote from Canada: “Potchky is not just about dabbling; it also means to take something that’s finished and keep tinkering with it, adding unnecessary or incongruous bits.” She added: “You missed a chance to address one of my favourite words: ongepatchked (both Es are pronounced as schwas). Its root is the same word. It refers to anything ornate or overdecorated. It is an insult; you would not tell your friend that her bridal gown was ongepatchked — at least, not if you wanted to stay friends.”

Private investigator The assiduous Michael Templeton has again come up with earlier evidence, in this case for private detective and private investigator in the sense of a private detective:

“You’re mistaken,” said his friend. “It’s Windround, the private detective, or Investigator, as he calls himself. He’s just now engaged for my house.” ... “That’s by no means my view of the case, Mr. Pikeham. Please to remember that I’m not one of the detective police; I’m a private investigator.”

The Ringwoods of Ringwood, by Mervyn Merriton, a pseudonym of Henry Coe Coape, 1873.

Coape was an interesting character, by the way. At first sight, he was the very model of a moneyed upper-middle-class English gentleman: the eldest son of a sugar refiner who had amassed an enormous fortune of £300,000, he married into the Irish peerage, became a justice of the peace, served as a captain in the Royal Berkshire Yeomanry Cavalry and as Deputy Lieutenant of Essex. Court records and news reports show he was also what his contemporaries would have described as a cad and a bounder. He was made bankrupt in 1855, spent a year in prison, was accused but acquitted of fraud and was divorced by his wife for adultery, a public and scandalous matter at the time (his wife alleged in the divorce-court hearing that he insisted on bringing his lover on holiday with them to Rome, ostensibly as her maid). He wrote several novels and an opera, The Fairy Oak, performed at Drury Lane in 1845.

Logodaedalus Larry Nordell wrote: “I don’t think I had ever come across this word before I read World Wide Words, and today I have come across a variant. I am reading Oreo by Fran Ross, published in 1974.” The eponymous heroine is challenged by her tutor, Professor Lindau, to work out the supposed etymology of a term. When she succeeds: “The professor was impressed but not struck dumb. ‘I am phonofounded,’ he said logodaedalyly.”

2. Weird Words: Mumchance/ˈmʌmtsɑːns/ Help with IPA

This is a rare recent appearance:

His attendance was perfect. He attended every possible meeting. And he sat mumchance throughout every meeting. I suppose it’s how you define work. You can sit like a lump throughout hundreds of meetings. Or you can engage your brain to question and to challenge.

Selkirk Weekend Advertiser, 11 Mar. 2010.

You may deduce that to remain mumchance is to stay silent, with a hint that to do so may be a sign of inferior intellect. In fact, in some English dialects its main sense has been remaining stupidly or solidly silent.

However, its first meaning was of a game of dice:

But, leaving cardes, lets go to dice a while,
To passage, treitrippe, hazarde, or mumchance.

Machivell’s Dog, an anonymous satire of 1617. The second of these games is frequently spelled trey-trip, because success in playing it depended on the casting of a trey, a three.

Nobody now seems to know the exact rules, though as it was often mentioned in the same breath as the dice game hazard, ancestor of craps, it’s assumed that it was similar.

The form and meaning of mumchance suggest it ought to be a close relative of mum in phrases like keep mum, stay silent. There is indeed a close connection, though the words have different origins. Mum is an imitative term known from the fourteenth century, while mumchance is sixteenth century, from Middle Dutch mommecanse, which has cousins in other Germanic languages and in French.

Paradoxically, the link between the dice game and silence is the notoriously noisy carnival, since it was traditionally played in the Netherlands during such festivities, in particular by mummers, masked actors in dumb-show. Mumchance was always played in silence, hence the sense.

The game of hazard, by the way, is the source of our word meaning a risk or danger. Mumchance seems to have been similarly perilous, as it evolved to mean a high-risk venture and continued in use in that sense after the dice game had been forgotten. The same name was also given to a card game, whose rules are as poorly recorded as those of the dice game, but which was also played in silence.

3. Wordface

What I’ve learned this week If you should ever need the adjective relating to a pumpkin, you could try cucurbitaceous, though it may be applied equally to gourds, cucumbers, melons and other trailing or climbing plants in the family Cucurbitaceae. On the same theme, pumpkinification means being turned into a pumpkin, used especially for the elevation to divine status of the Roman emperor Claudius because it was given that name by Seneca the Younger in a political satire. A species of fish, found in waters off southern Asia and northern Australia, is known as the whitemargin stargazer, in part because it hides in the sand of the seabed, staring upwards. A medieval torture instrument was called a barnacle, an instrument formed from two hinged pieces, which derived from one for clamping the noses of recalcitrant horses to restrain them during shoeing. The closure of the M1 motorway in north London because of a fire had linguistic interest because a mad young man in a dressing gown ironed a shirt in the middle lane of the deserted road. He was described as an extreme ironer.

Word bag A headline on Sky News read “Iron Lady’s bag to go under hammer”, a puzzling reference for anybody unversed in the oddities of English idiom or of British politics of the 1980s. Former prime minister Baroness Thatcher is auctioning for charity her famous Asprey handbag, which she carried to meetings with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev as well as to cabinet. It became so central an image of her notoriously tough approach to political opponents and to recalcitrant ministers (hence the epithet Iron Lady) that it led to a new figurative verb entering the language: to handbag. Some wit quipped that Margaret Thatcher used to keep order among her ministers by hitting them with her handbag. From The Times of 13 June 1988, “The Foreign Office told her she could not get ‘our money’ back from the Common Market. Mrs Thatcher handbagged her way through an EEC summit in Dublin and won us rebates.” It’s still to be found; this is from a Reuters tennis report of 20 January this year: “The highlight came afterwards when the third seed handbagged the courtside interviewer over a text message he had sent to another player.” As both the participants were male, it would seem that the verb has lost its original sexist overtones.

4. Questions and Answers: From hero to goat

Q From Warren Macnab: I was wondering about the origins of the expression from hero to goat.

A Unlike you, Mr Macnab, I’ve never wondered about its origins. That’s because until you wrote I’d never come across it. I have commented previously, writing this e-magazine is educational for its author, whatever its value to its readers.

So I started my answer from a position of total ignorance, not by any means a bad jumping-off point. It became clear straightaway that from hero to goat is fairly well known in north America and means that by his actions a person has in short order shifted from success to failure, with a concomitant move from praise to blame. It’s common in sports:

Before the final twist, Mack, who led all scorers with 30 points, looked as if he’d go from hero to goat in that split second when he fouled Brown, who led Pitt with 24 points. He admitted he was guilty of the infraction.

New York Daily News, 19 Mar. 2011.

though it turns up in other fields, particularly finance:

Thain has gone from hero to goat in a matter of months, first saving Merrill Lynch by selling to Bank of America and then taking the fall when the brokerage reported a staggering $15 billion quarterly loss that forced bank executives to seek more financial help from the government.

Boston Globe, 23 Jan. 2009.

It seems clear from its history that the goat is the proverbial scapegoat, originally the animal sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it. The expression may also be connected with the slightly older to get one’s goat.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve no idea who invented it. The first examples in the modern form turn up in the middle 1920s — the first one I can find was in the Baltimore Sun on 29 November 1927. All early examples are from football or basketball. A football story a year later, though not using the exact form, makes its meaning clear:

But from none of this does one gather that Mr. Wilton is one of those colorful young men whose deeds in a big game always give room for praise due a hero — or raps due the goat — after the game is over.

Logansport Press, 15 Nov. 1928.

That example makes such a play on the words hero and goat that the expression must surely have been widely known by then. This is one precursor:

There is no denying the fact that the accident made Bindley the hero and Alfred the goat.

Watch Yourself Go By, by Al G Field, 1912.

5. Sic!

• Susan Nuernberg described what she read in the online University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Today as a sentence construction mishap: “Both peregrines can be seen coming and going from their nesting site, having meals, overlooking the city of Oshkosh and laying eggs through the University’s live webcam.”

• Homophone alert, from Medical News Today on 21 April, noted by Gerald Etkind: “A new joint team of scientists from both Japan and Europe have determined that there are three bacteria groups in a person, which is teaming with microorganisms and microbes.”

• Mathematics revisited, via Norman C Berns. “SmartPlanet can count fractions (reporting the Canadian winner in Shell’s eco-marathon, ‘This vehicle gets 2,564.8 miles per gallon’) but it comes up short on addition. ‘Prototype entries included 39 vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Of those engines, 32 were gas powered and the remaining 6 entries were split between ethanol and biodiesel.’”

• John Samphier reports that on the ABC24 news in Sydney on 26 April the newsreader said that a “motorcyclist was killed when he hit a car not wearing a helmet.”

• Over-compressed headlines continue to cause confusion. “Man Shot By Off Duty Cop in Coma” appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday, and “US criticizes leak of Guantanamo detainee briefs” was in the Jerusalem Post on Monday. Thanks to Bill McDermott and John Chandler for those.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 30 April 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 30 April 2011.