NEWSLETTER 570: SATURDAY 12 JANUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Shopdropper Gerald Etkind pointed out an earlier use of this word, which I wrote about last time. It was the title of a tale by Alan Nelson that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 1955. It featured a psychiatrist who accidentally puts on some invisible gloves left by a patient that force him to leave his possessions behind in stores and private homes.
Trepan Following my mention last week of this word, many readers — more versed in crosswords than I am — pointed out that it’s an anagram of entrap, one of its senses. They wondered if this was the source, through some form of backslang. It is an interesting thought, though of course unprovable.
Richard Rothenberg and Susan Francis noted that the word appears in Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin: “Some subterraneous prison / Into which they were trepanned / Long time ago in a mighty band”.
2. Topical Words: Decimate
For 33 years, the little-known Lake Superior State University has been getting an annual PR boost from its list of words that ought to be banished from our language, a list generated from suggestions by members of the public. This year’s list contains a classic complaint — the way that people misuse the word decimate — that the university notes has resulted in word-watchers calling for its annihilation for several years. The debate has actually been going on for more like 130 years.
The Romans dealt with mutiny in their armies by what would probably these days be called a short, sharp shock. They executed one man in ten, the victims being drawn by lot. This ferocious disciplinary method was described by the Latin verb decimare, to take a tenth, from decimus, a tenth, from decem, ten (which we retain, for example, in December, the tenth month of the Roman calendar). The English verb decimate, based on the Latin one, turned up only in 1600, at first in the same sense as in Latin. But it also referred early on to a tax amounting to one-tenth of a person’s assets, in particular to one imposed by Oliver Cromwell in 1655. This tax was equivalent to a tithe, a relic of an Old English word that in the modern language has become tenth.
What continues to annoy some people is that decimate later took on a broader meaning of killing or destroying any large proportion. Nobody seems to have been bothered about this until Richard Grant White, an American cellist, essayist, Shakespearean scholar, newspaper editor and former chief clerk in the New York Customs House, wrote Words and Their Uses in 1870. He was mocked for his views at the time, not least for his denial that English has any grammar, for faulty etymologising, and for chapters excoriating misused words and words that are not words. White’s complaint about decimate was directed at a war correspondent in the Civil War who would produce sentences like “The troops, although fighting bravely, were terribly decimated.” White remarked that “To use decimation as a general phrase for slaughter is simply ridiculous.”
Though he’s quoted in some works on English as being the instigator of the continuing campaign against decimate, he had a point. He wasn’t arguing — as its critics do today — that the verb can only be used in the way that the Romans used it, for reduction by one tenth (which some moderns have misunderstood as reduction to one tenth). Nor does he say it can be used only of humans, another criticism that has been made. To argue in this way is to employ the etymological fallacy — the idea that words can only have a meaning that’s implied by their ancient root forms.
Though the usage of decimate has broadened, it hasn’t completely broken free from its roots. In my book, the verb continues to echo its Latin origins by implying a fraction or proportion; it’s just that the proportion has drifted free of its linguistic origins. It feels right to me when it’s used, as H W Fowler wrote in 1926, of “the destruction in any way of a large proportion of anything reckoned by number”.
White’s criticism of “terribly decimated” seems fair, because it’s innumerate, as does “incredibly decimated”, from a recent US newspaper report quoting a librarian complaining about a 15% budget cut. It also seems incorrect to use decimate for indivisibles (“Some have set out to decimate the soul of this great country”), to imply complete destruction (“a totally decimated population”), the killing of an individual (“He protects his brother from the thugs intent on physically decimating him”), the destruction of a named fraction (“A single frosty night decimated the fruit by 80%”), or the part of a whole (“disease decimated most of the population”).
On the other hand, sentences like “There may be no chance of real recovery for Europe’s decimated fish stocks” use the verb in a way that has for two centuries been standard. That’s just the way the language is and critics of such writing are woefully misinformed.
We might, however, take the view that the word has become such a target of vilification and misunderstanding, and is frequently so slackly used in all the cases I’ve cited, that we would all be better off if writers avoided it.
3. Weird Words: Skimble-skamble
Rambling and confused; rubbishy.
Whatever slight popularity this word has ever achieved is due to its first known user, William Shakespeare, who put it into the mouth of Hotspur in King Henry IV, Part I. He complained about Owen Glendower continually bending his ear with “Such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff / As puts me from my faith.” As a result, skimble-skamble stuff turns up from time to time in later centuries as criticism of someone’s writing or opinions.
Before Shakespeare, only the second part existed. The nonsense word skimble was added to the front for added force in a common method that has also given us pitter-patter, tittle-tattle, wishy-washy and many others.
Scamble is an interesting verb in itself, though long obsolete. It’s related to the modern scramble and shamble, both of which turn up only much later. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of it is wonderfully prim: “To struggle with others for money, fruit, sweetmeats, etc. lying on the ground or thrown to a crowd; hence, to struggle in an indecorous and rapacious manner in order to obtain something.”
4. Recently noted
Pieces of ice An article in the New Scientist last week was provoked by the recent sinking of a Antarctic cruise ship after hitting ice. It commented that the problem lies not so much with big icebergs but with growlers and bergy bits. These are not recent slang inventions but long-standing parts of the technical vocabulary of Antarctic explorers. Bernadette Hince has entries for both in her Antarctic Dictionary of 2000. She notes that bergy bit is first recorded in 1906 and defines it as “a large fragment of (usually glacier) ice, often described as house-sized.” Growlers are recorded from both the Arctic and the Antarctic in 1912. They are usually smaller than bergy bits (one report says that they are about the size of a grand piano, another that they are car-sized), but they are if anything more dangerous because they’re difficult to spot, being almost totally submerged. They get their name, Gell Rob explains in a book of 1989, because of the noise they make as they slide along a ship’s hull.
Quack tantrums If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, call it an anatine species. Just before the Christmas break, the UK Institute of Directors published a report predicting slow growth combined with higher inflation for the British economy in 2008. In November, this section noted slowflation as a transient term for the same phenomenon, which appeared in North America in April 2007 but which has been traced back to the Financial Times in June 1998. The Institute of Directors came up with a new one: stickyflation, which seems to be a true neologism. These creations seem to be in part a desperate attempt to avoid the dreaded stagflation for combined economic stagnation and inflation. But they also suggest that the economy will not actually stagnate but stagger along for a bit before recovering. If only.
5. Questions & Answers: Safe harbour / Safe haven
[Q] From Claudia Clark: “Please comment on the over-used redundant safe harbor.”
[A] It’s an interesting example of the way language evolves, as is the closely similar and even more popular safe haven.
Your dislike of it, I presume, is based on the etymological history of harbour, which comes from the Old English herebeorg for a shelter or refuge. It’s not unreasonable to argue that harbours and havens are intrinsically safe, which would make the expression tautologous. However, as so often, matters aren’t that simple.
The earliest sense of harbour in English — in the twelfth century — was of shelter from the elements, which might be an inn or other lodgings. (A cold harbour was a wayside refuge for travellers overtaken by bad weather.) It took another century before it began to be applied to a place where ships might shelter. The verb went through much the same developments. (The sense of sheltering or concealing a fugitive came along only in the fifteenth century.) Haven is slightly older and comes from a different Old English source. Its development is the opposite of harbour — the ship sense came first and the land-based place of shelter evolved from it.
Later on, the concept of safety originally explicit in both haven and harbour became to a significant extent separated from that of the physical place in which ships could dock or lie at anchor. And, of course, you could have good harbours or poor ones. As a result, English speakers began to attach adjectives to both words to show their judgement of the value of a particular anchorage or port. By the seventeenth century safe harbour was being used to describe one with the needful security. The Oxford English Dictionary has an example from 1699 in A Dissertation Upon the Epistles of Phalaris by the classicist Richard Bentley: “She must not make to the next safe Harbour; but ... bear away for the remotest.”
Both expressions soon began to be used figuratively. It’s hard to be sure quite when, because some early examples aren’t sufficiently clear in their meaning. But, for example, this appears in Tobias Smollett’s History of England in 1758: “At length, however, it [a parliamentary bill] was floated through both houses on the tide of a great majority, and steered into the safe harbour of royal approbation.”
We retain the idea of a harbour or a haven being a place of safety and security. But the compounds safe harbour and safe haven have been used for so long that they have achieved the status of fixed phrases. Phrases, in fact, so firmly fixed in our minds that to rail against them is pointless.
• A newsletter advertising e-books, Bob Taxin reports, explained that there was a choice between purchasing the e-book or the hard copy, which comes with free gifts. “Anyone purchasing the e-book version will be able to purchase the free gifts at a significantly reduced rate.”
• A news story about a storm in Eastern Oregon on 4 January on the Web site of Northwest Cable News surprised Cindy Pendarvis: “Heavy winds and poor visibility blew semi trucks onto their sides in Eastern Oregon.” Strong stuff, this poor visibility. It belongs to the same class of meteorological phenomena as the one Marie Martinek read about in the Chicago Tribune on 7 January: “Cars began breaking when they hit a wall of fog.”
• From an ABC New online blog: “Mitt Romney made a tongue-in-cheek plea Thursday for Ed Rollins, the Huckabee campaign chairman who recently said that he wanted to knock Romney’s teeth out, to keep his hands off his well-quaffed hair.” Thanks to R M Bragg for that.
• “I purchased a packet of unsalted peanuts,” began a message from Peter Weinrich. “It bore the inscription ‘Ingredients: peanuts; vegetable oil’ and underneath, ‘May contain traces of peanuts.’ I am comforted to know that in this age of synthetic foods my package of peanuts may actually contain a trace of them.”