NEWSLETTER 602: SATURDAY 30 AUGUST 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Dandiprat Peter Weinrich remarked, following last week’s Weird Word article, “Do I assume you are not a great listener to twentieth-century classical music? Understandable in light of all your other labours, but surely the most frequent use of the word is in Malcolm Arnold’s comedy overture Beckus the Dandipratt.” Thanks to all the other classical music fans who also mentioned the piece. David Duncan elaborated, “To Arnold a dandipratt meant something like an urchin. He got the idea while on holiday in Cornwall when a small boy made friends with him on the beach. As you might expect, the music is brilliantly orchestrated, tuneful and cheeky.”
2. Weird Words: Gossypiboma
A surgical sponge left within a patient after an operation.
Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover and wrote about it in his book Reading the OED, commented on this word in a piece on the OUPBlog. He had been told about it by a surgeon, who called it “a memento that we surgeons sometimes accidentally leave behind to commemorate our presence in some poor patient’s abdomen.”
It’s rather worrying that the condition happens often enough that surgeons have found it necessary to create a word for it (it’s fairly common in specialist articles and books). It’s even more worrying that two further terms exist to describe cotton or synthetic fibre gauze left in error in a patient: textiloma and cottonoid.
In both subject and appearance, gossypiboma surely fits anybody’s definition of a weird word. Its strange look comes from its being an amalgam of words from two languages: Latin gossypium, cotton, and Swahili boma, a place of concealment. This leads — surely not by accident — to a word that seems to contain the ending -oma that denotes a tumour or other abnormal growth (as in carcinoma or lymphoma), since such growths can develop around alien material left in the body.
Gossypiboma was said in a book on surgery in 2004 to have been coined in an article of 1994 by A M Patel and others. They may well have done so, since I’ve not found an earlier example.
I’ve no idea how surgeons pronounce it [Julane Marx suggests malpractice lawsuit] but with luck one will be able to tell me.
3. Recently noted
Boffinated Reader Jim Delton asked about this word, which he had seen used in a couple of places online but for which he couldn’t find a definition. It was new to me, too, but examples suggest it derives from boffin, in the sense of a person with knowledge or a skill considered to be complex, arcane, and difficult; this is a World War Two British term for a research scientist, of unknown origin. Boffinated seems to be a disparaging reference to matters variously considered swottishly or boringly academic. One reference is to “Harry Potter’s boffinated sidekick Hermione”. In The End of Innocence: Photographs from the Decades That Defined Pop, dated 1997, there’s a reference to musicians who “wore long white coats like boffinated B-movie scientists”. The earliest reference I can find is from way back in 1969, in Kathleen Nott’s book A Soul in the Quad: The Use of Language in Philosophy and Literature.
Pracademic A newspaper report about Huddersfield University used this word to describe its new degrees in enterprise development. That suggested the origin, a blend of practical and academic, and the meaning — somebody experienced in both theory and practice. The degree course combines a theoretical business framework with the practical experience of starting and running a business. The earliest example I can find is in an advertisement for a course at a Bible college in California in 1973, which combines the study of theology with hands-on experience in a local church.
Dark and stormy, again That’s not a weather report, though it’s close enough to the conditions in your editor’s home town this week. It’s a hint that I’m about to write of the results of the 26th annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, staged by the San Jose State University, whose title is taken from the opening words of that author’s Paul Clifford of 1830: “It was a dark and stormy night”. Each year, contestants aim to provide the best parody of various genres. The winner was Garrison Spik:
Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”
But I much prefer the runner-up myself:
”Hmm ...” thought Abigail as she gazed languidly from the veranda past the bright white patio to the cerulean sea beyond, where dolphins played and seagulls sang, where splashing surf sounded like the tintinnabulation of a thousand tiny bells, where great gray whales bellowed and the sunlight sparkled off the myriad of sequins on the flyfish’s bow ties, “time to get my meds checked.”
4. Questions & Answers: Indexes versus indices
[Q] From Bert Forage, Australia; related questions came from Mark Smith and David Parks: “I wish you wouldn’t spell the plural of index as indexes in your side banner! We’re being dragged screaming into the American version of English.”
[A] Index is one of those oddball words with two different plurals in English. Since it’s from Latin, English copied the Latin one at first, making indices. As with a lot of other Latin plurals, the standard English way of marking the plural, using -s or -es has progressively been taking over. Generally speaking, we now prefer crematoriums to the Latin crematoria, miasmas to miasmata, forums to fora, and referendums to referenda, though the Latin plurals are still about and regularly used by some writers.
Since Latin is so little taught these days, it’s getting difficult to remember some of these irregular plurals: apices (of apex), corpora (of corpus), helices (of helix), matrices (of matrix), and many others.
Index is a good example of a small subgroup in which both plurals are alive and well but in which usage has separated their senses. Another is appendix, in which appendices refers to books but appendixes to bodily organs.
Indices has survived in scientific work, especially in mathematics. When index refers to a number or symbol, such as an exponent — the superscript figure 2 to indicate a number is to be squared, for example (as in x2) — it has the Latin plural. Statisticians also talk about indices when they mean figures comparing a value to a standard, so that retail price index turns into retail price indices in the plural. An example appeared in the Guardian on 12 November 2007: “The figures are for property sales actually completed during the month, which means they lag behind other price indices.” Despite Bryan Garner’s comment in his Modern American Usage that indices is pretentious and highfalutin, this technical plural form is well established and unlikely to fall out of use any time soon.
But it’s the only situation in which it’s found. The usual plural is indexes, which first appeared in the seventeenth century. If you’re talking about several of the sort in books, for example, that’s the right one to use. Since my indexes are the book sort — a list of pointers that show where relevant content may be found — that’s the right spelling.
By the way, people sometimes think indices is an English plural and so make a singular noun indice from it (apice and vertice are also very occasionally seen). Examples of indice can be found going back a century or more, not always in uneducated writing. A note by Charles Doyle appeared in the Winter 1979 issue of American Speech: “At a recent academic gathering, a literary savant began his speech with a quotation that spoke of certain indices. Thereafter, at least a dozen times, the speaker referred to this or that indice (ending like jaundice).” It most recently appeared in the Washington Post on 22 August 2008: “Yet as an indice of some of the lines of attack that the McCain camp is employing it is of great interest.” Thus does language change ...
• Following up my piece on lukewarm in the last issue, John Causer sent through a copy of the menu at the Hotel Sirmione, which is at the southern end of Lake Garda, not far from Verona. One dish was “Foie gras terrine with porto wine served on a salad bouquet with pukewarm sweet bread”. He says it was excellent.
• Jim McLoughlin forwarded a wedding announcement from the Houston Chronicle of 24 August 2008: “Amber was escorted by her father wearing a strapless silk wedding gown designed by Marianne Lanting carrying a tropical floral bouquet.” Quick question: which of the three of them was holding the flowers?