E-MAGAZINE 661: SATURDAY 17 OCTOBER 2009
1. L-Soft Choice Awards
You may recall that voting for the award ended in April with World Wide Words receiving 33,683 votes, ICORS 26,373 votes and IWMF-TALK 4,209 votes. The grand award was to be given to the one of these three finalists that the judges felt was the “most successful and beneficial e-mail list or campaign”.
Thanks go to everybody on this list who voted for World Wide Words during the contest last winter. I greatly value your support and expressions of good feelings about the e-magazine and the Web site. Special thanks are due to the managers and staff of the Linguist List at Eastern Michigan University (a particular tip of the hat to Anthony Aristar and Susan Smith) who run the list server and who have very kindly hosted World Wide Words on their system for more than a decade without asking for payment (though I’m very pleased to make a voluntary contribution each year to their appeal for student support funds).
2. Feedback, notes and comments
Grasp the nettle Lots of people wrote about this item, mostly to comment on the old saw about not being stung if you grasp a nettle firmly. Richard Oliver wrote: “The botanical lore is absolutely right. When I was a child we had lots of stinging nettles and we soon learnt how to deal with them. What I think happens is that you break off the stinging hairs before they penetrate the skin. But you do have to be quick and determined.” Others, including Laura Perry, vehemently denied its truth: “I can tell you from painful experience that regardless of the manner in which one grasps the [expletive deleted] plant, it hurts. A lot. For quite a while afterward. I can only guess that the concept of grasping the plant firmly being less painful grew out of some sort of show-off attempt at bravery, because it's patently untrue.” Jen Kirby and others insisted that grasp here surely means “crush a leaf between your finger and thumb”. She wrote, “I would not grab a nettle in my fist. Part of the plant would be sure to brush against my skin and sting me.”
Among silly British pub contests, there must surely be none dafter than the World Stinging Nettle Eating Challenge, which is run each summer at the Bottle Inn in Marshwood, Dorset. Mike Hoke and Colin Hague told me about it. The latter wrote: “Apparently the secret (I haven’t tested it personally, you understand) is to put the raw nettle stalks in your mouth confidently, taking utmost care that they do not touch your lips. The iron content turns competitors’ tongues black — and causes certain other physiological symptoms.” Let’s not go there.
On a language point, William Lauriston note, “In Dublin, at least up to the 1960s, we called scrumping boxing the fox. All Google turned up was a page that at least verifies that it was used — but perhaps it was a local turn of phrase?” Perhaps not. Among the few printed references is an anecdote in Lord Campbell’s The Lives of the Lord Chancellors (1850) about Lord Eldon, who was born in Newcastle, in which Eldon remembers, “I do not know how it was, but we always considered robbing an orchard — ‘boxing the fox’ as we called it — as an honourable exploit.” The earliest is in an issue of The European Magazine, dated 1799, though that was about the actor and playwright Charles Macklin, who was Irish. It seems to have died out early in the nineteenth century except in Ireland. Even there, a report of 1916 suggests it was known mainly around Dublin. Where the idiom comes from is unknown.
3. Turns of Phrase: Pico-projector
It’s a video projector, but a very small one that will sit in the palm of your hand or fit comfortably in your pocket.
It can be used as a portable business projector, but the small size of the displayed picture — claimed to be a maximum of 60in (150cm) wide in excellent viewing conditions — means it’s really designed as an
A typical pico-projector
The terminology hasn’t settled down yet and other terms for the device exist, including palmtop projector, palm projector and, the oldest one, pocket projector. Pico-projector first appeared around 2003 but products with that name have only recently reached a performance level that makes them attractive.
Its first part, pico-, is an example of the figurative broadening in meaning of a prefix of size with a precise meaning: a millionth millionth (10-12) of some unit. In cases such as this one and picocell, a very small area of coverage in a wireless network, it loosely means something tiny of its type.
Sunday Times, 9 Aug. 2009: What is it? The first digital camera with a built-in pico projector — a tiny, front-mounted system that throws photos or videoclips onto any flat surface at up to 40in wide, depending on how far from the wall you hold the camera.
Guardian, 24 Aug. 2009: Look for pico projectors to make their way into a wide range of other devices. Nikon has just announced a digital camera with one built-in, and mobile phone manufacturers are looking to add the technology to smart phones. In the not-so-distant future, if you want to show a presentation you will be able to leave not only the projector back at the office, but the laptop as well.
If you should find yourself one day in the cloisters of a cathedral or monastery, at least in Britain, you need not be lost for a word to identify the open courtyard it encloses: it’s a garth.
A rather grand cloister-garth
As you will have gathered, garth was once a very broad term. It could mean almost any patch of enclosed ground used for a specific purpose, such as a yard, garden, field or paddock. It appeared in the northern parts of Britain in the fourteenth century and derives from Old Norse garðr, a yard or courtyard. Through Old English it’s related to yard in similar senses, and also to garden.
Garth is now rare except in British place names or historical or poetical writing. The personal name comes from the same source, as it originally referred to somebody who lived near an enclosure, especially a paddock or orchard.
5. What I’ve learned this week
Twinkle, twinkle, little twink It’s amazing what you can learn from e-mail error messages. The issue last week was blocked by one site in the UK because it had a rude word in the message body. Do you recall reading any rude words? I don’t remember writing any. It transpired that the offending “word” was in the title of a nursery rhyme I listed: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The filtering system spotted the first five letters of the first word and pounced. I had to look it up: twink is gay slang (I quote Wikipedia) for “a young or young-looking gay man (usually white and in his late teens or early twenties) with a slender build, little or no body hair, and no facial hair.”
Super? A tremendous fuss has erupted in Britain this week as the result of an injunction obtained by a famous firm of libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck. It sought to ban the Guardian from publishing details of a report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast by a firm named Trafigura. It also persuaded the judge to make the injunction secret, so the newspaper couldn’t even report it existed. Such measures have become known as super-injunctions; they are becoming more common as a way of stifling the reporting of issues, as part of what is known as reputation management for big companies. The injunction became controversial when Carter-Ruck claimed it prevented press coverage of a question in the House of Commons that mentioned it. As parliamentary business enjoys what’s called absolute privilege, meaning that nothing said in the Chamber and reported outside it carries any risk of legal challenge — a prerogative that goes back to the Bill of Rights of 1689 — this gagging attempt provoked a storm of protest, mainly online, which forced the firm to withdraw its objections.
Poor imitation For some reason, I haven’t previously come across the term fauxteur. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “A filmmaker, usually a director, who makes cheesy, derivative, or unoriginal movies.” So it’s clearly a combination of faux and auteur. It has been around at least since 2005. The New York Times suggested in 2006 that it was a coinage of the Web site defamer.com. Best I not name any of the people it’s been attached to, or Carter-Ruck may be after me.
6. Questions and Answers: Monkey wrench
[Q] From Dennis Glanzman: I queried World Wide Words for the origin of the term monkey wrench. You make a passing reference to this tool under lead-pipe cinch, but you have nothing on monkey wrench itself. Wikipedia has a brief description of the origin of the name, from inventor Charles Moncky, but it seems all too pat, like Thomas Crapper and the flush toilet. What does the learned Dr Quinion have to say on the matter?
[A] The occasionally well-informed Mr Quinion has some interesting facts to impart but comes, as so often, to no clear conclusion.
The source has long been a puzzle and has given rise to many tries at explaining it. A contributor to American Speech in 1930 pointed out that a precursor to the device a century earlier was called a key wrench and suggested that its successor was at first called the non-key wrench. In 1931, another writer in the same journal noted that he had “years ago”, read an account “to the effect that this useful tool was invented by an English man named Mon(c)k.” Around 1932-33 a report appeared in the Transcript of Boston asserting that an American by the name of Monk employed by Bernis & Call of Springfield, Massachusetts, invented the device, which became known by his name. This is an earlier assertion of a similar origin:
Charles Monckey, inventor of the Monckey wrench (wrongfully called monkey wrench), is living in poverty in Brooklyn. He sold the patent for $2000, and now millions are made annually out of the invention.
Galveston Daily News (Texas), 23 Oct. 1886. Similarly worded snippets appeared around the same time in the Chicago Evening Journal, the Weekly Detroit Free Press and the Atchison Daily Globe, among others.
One of the editors at the OED tells me that they have in their files a letter dated as early as 1893 expressing scepticism about such theories; he also points out that the tool is referred to as a monkey wrench years before suggestions of an origin in a proper name appeared. As all such suggestions come without evidence to support them, and nobody has since found any, we have to assume they are hearsay or folk etymology.
In 1973, E Surrey Dane published a book with the snappy title Peter Stubs and the Lancashire Hand Tool Industry, which includes a reference dated 1807 to a firm supplying “Screw plates, lathes, clock engines ... monkey wrenches, taps.” The entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary includes this but with a question mark before the date, which means that their editors have yet to verify it beyond doubt. There’s then a gap until it turns up in Francis Whishaw’s The
This dating evidence says nothing about the true origin. As matters stand we can’t even be sure which country invented it. It seems most likely that the explanation is very simple: that the jaws of the wrench reminded some early user of the face of a monkey.
• Power of life and death: David Grossman was adding a subscriber to an online group he manages when he received the message “Pending members require your approval. If you take no action, they will automatically expire after 14 days.”
• Kate Archdeacon wrote from Melbourne: “We have been hunting for a new rental property for several weeks now, and it has become quite difficult to choose from the fairly generic descriptions. Obviously this one, from the Domain real estate section of our local paper, The Age, is therefore very tempting: ‘Space Galore and Freshly Painted-Gardener Incuded’.” [Incuded is also an error.]
• An article on the Web site of The Red and Black, a University of Georgia student newspaper, caused Lisa Robinton to cry “eek!”. She had encountered the sentence, “For fall semester last year, the dining hall menu contained 12 items that were reformulated to incorporate vegan students.”