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Newsletter 752
3 September 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Supererogation.

3. Questions and Answers: Ahead of the curve.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Drug on the market Lots of people looked at the French drogue, the antecedent of drug, and thought of the English drogue, a device that’s towed behind a boat, aircraft, or other moving object to reduce speed or improve stability. It’s certainly consistent with drug in the idiom. Drogue was originally whaling jargon from the eighteenth-century for a marker that was attached to the end of a harpoon line so whalers could keep an eye on the direction in which the whale was swimming. There may be a link — drogue is probably from drug, an old form of drag — but it has no other connection with the idiom, not least because drug is much older.

Marmalade Several readers provided a joke about the origin of the word. Cathy Varney told it thus: “Do you know about the young chick who found an orange in the nest? He said, ‘Oh, look at the orange mama laid!’”

2. Weird Words: Supererogation/ˌs(j)uːpərɛrəˈgeɪʃən/ Help with IPA

Last week, the publicists at Collins Dictionaries produced a list of words which the dictionary’s editors consider to be obsolete and which are to be removed from the next edition of its dictionary. One of them is supererogate, to do more than is required of one, to go beyond the call of duty. The related noun, supererogation, is still used enough to be retained, however.

It comes from Latin superērogāre, from super-, beyond or above, plus ērogāre. The latter originally meant to pay out public money after asking the consent of the Roman people (it’s from rogāre, to ask). Superērogāre literally meant to pay more than was necessary. In its figurative sense it appeared first in the parable of the Good Samaritan in a Latin translation of the New Testament.

Supererogation has long had a special meaning within the Roman Catholic church for acts that are morally good but not required for salvation by God. Church doctrine holds that such good works make up a reserve fund of merit that can be drawn on by prayer in favour of sinners. In recent decades, supererogation has taken on another sense in philosophy, for a much-debated topic that refers to the nature of duty and to what extent moral actions can be optional.

More loosely, supererogation can refer to something that’s unnecessary or perhaps even undesirable:

For the rest, the staging is an act of supererogation, a distraction from the grandeur of Gluck’s opera.

The Times, 30 Oct. 2010.

3. Questions and Answers: Ahead of the curve

Q From James Harbeck: I see that you don’t have an entry for ahead of the curve. I haven’t so far found a definite etymology for this one; I’d always assumed it had to do with bell curves in statistics — a curve that charts the time of adoption of new technology, for instance — but others have suggested biking and baseball. (And there are people out there who think it’s ahead of the curb, which makes no sense.) So I’ll be interested to know what you find.

A The evidence does indeed suggest there’s a mathematical curve at the root of the expression. The idiom usually means that those being referred to are in a position to anticipate or initiate the latest developments in some field — to be ahead of the game, you might say, which is an older equivalent of the same idiomatic idea.

Some history first. With one exception I’ll get to in a moment, the phrase starts to appear in print in the early 1970s. The evidence suggests that it became popular as the result of its having been a jargon term within the Washington Beltway during the Nixon period:

Repeatedly Nixon and his top aides spoke of “keeping ahead of the curve” -- giving information to the public just before it otherwise became generally known, and thus being able to take some credit.

Anchorage Daily News, 22 May 1974.

However, it wasn’t the origin. A fuller version, ahead of the power curve, is recorded earlier and existed in parallel with the shorter form well into the 1980s. An early example is in a speech by Admiral Thomas H Moorer, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was discussing streamlining the systems for controlling American nuclear and conventional forces worldwide:

Moorer told newsmen that without a doubt, the system “is very responsive” in dealing with current problems and possible crises. “Our concern is not for today,” Moorer said, “but to make certain we stay ahead of the power curve.”

The Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California), 25 Mar. 1972.

The power that’s being referred to might be electrical (a couple of examples from the early 1980s occur in descriptions of electricity generation by nuclear energy). However, several appearances show it has a different genesis:

“Just remember,” Davis told her, “you have to stay ahead of the power curve.” “I don’t understand,” Joyce replied. “It’s a saying they have on aircraft carriers. If a pilot comes in ahead of the power curve, he can pull up and out safely if something goes wrong. If he falls behind the curve and something happens, he’ll crash into the ship. You always have to look out for yourself and stay ahead of the power curve.”

The Execution of Charles Horman, by Thomas Hauser, 1978.

Other literal usages likewise refer to flying. This is the earliest I’ve so far found:

Inherent stability of the plane — if it is being flown ahead of the power curve with level wings — will control the pitch attitude with less chance of structural damage than a pilot applying large elevator control inputs.

Flying, Jul. 1964.

The power curve shows how an aircraft’s speed changes in response to changes in engine power. It has a pronounced minimum at the airspeed at which the aircraft is most efficient (least drag for the power applied). Below this airspeed, against common sense, it takes more thrust to reduce speed while continuing to fly level. A plane in this situation is said by pilots to be behind the curve and it’s a risky place to be, close to stalling speed and with limited options in case of trouble. If you’re above the curve, on the other hand, you have much more freedom of manoeuvre.

Taking the examples as a group, it seems virtually certain that the idiom derives rather loosely from the mathematics of flight (and so is a relative of pushing the envelope). Its source is most probably the US military.

4. Sic!

• Beware of armed Arctic mammals. Murray Ball spotted the following headline on a story in the Calgary Herald on 27 August: “Polar bear dies after shooting at oil workers’ compound.”

• This grisly story may remind you of an ancient horror film. Part of a long-dead body had been found in Peckham, south London, the Daily Mail reported on 25 August: “The hand, thought to be Mr Benit’s, was discovered by council workers at the run-down third-floor flat on the Tustin estate and immediately alerted police.”

• Louis Cohen wrote, “An email announcement of the opening of the student restaurant at the local community college culinary program included a sample lunch menu item: Grilled Chicken Noodle Soup. When I took classes there, they never taught us how to grill soup.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 3 September 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: 3 September 2011.