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Newsletter 723
12 February 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Materteral.

3. Turns of Phrase: Religitigation.

4. Wordface.

5. Questions and Answers: Saucered and blowed.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Down trains Several readers well versed in the minutiae of British railways systems contest the opinion of others, quoted in the last issue, that trains to London from Oxford or Cambridge do so in the down direction. Tim Bourne tells me that he has timetables for the Oxford line covering various dates, including one from 1865, all of which show the London direction to be the up line.

Dashboard Steve Lawson asked how I could possibly have forgotten a famous appearance of the word in song, as a characteristic of the surrey with the fringe on top in Oklahoma: “The wheels are yellow, the upholstery’s brown / The dashboard’s genuine leather.”

2. Weird Words: Materteral/məˈtəːtərl/ Help with IPA

Down the years, numerous readers have asked me for a word that was the female equivalent to avuncular, characteristic or typical of an uncle. At the time, I had to reply that I knew of no equivalent term meaning aunt-like. I am now better informed.

Materteral is first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary from a journal of 1823. The OED’s citation is so brief it doesn’t give much of a flavour of the original but you can see why the editors truncated it:

A venerable matron and her virgin sister, who had passed the grand climacteric, happening to cast their eyes over the plates of these volumes as they were lying on our table, and seeing the Herculean attitudes of some wrestling, others balancing, some climbing the column of pegs, the rope or the mast, others taking the long leap with the pole, and vaulting over the bar, exclaimed with maternal and materteral anxiety, that the legislature ought to prohibit such dangerous sports; since the unavoidable accidents, to which human life and limb are exposed, are quite sufficient without increasing the number of them by wantonness and temerity.

The Monthly Review, Dec. 1823. A review by W Taylor of two books on teaching gymnastic exercises.

The cover of the first edition of P G Wodehouse's book 'Aunts Aren't Gentlemen
But they are materteral

They don’t write stuff like that any more, thank heavens. It was in a spirit of pedantic humour that materteral was conceived (if I may be permitted to use that word in the company of ladies who have “passed the grand climacteric”) and it continued in that vein in a book of 1867, Spindrift, in Munsey’s Magazine in 1901 and in The Aunt’s Cook Book of 1922. A couple of modern works have used it seriously but it is otherwise unknown.

The late William Safire, who wrote the On Language column in the New York Times, didn’t know materteral either. He was struck by the lack of a potentially useful adjective for matters auntish and asked his readers for suggestions to correct the omission. Replies included auntique, tantular and tantative. One reader noted that Latin amita, one’s father’s sister, wasn’t the root of any English word and so Safire settled on amital, though he noted “it sounds to me like a barbiturate”. It has been used, though almost as rarely as materteral.

There’s an argument for having both. Scholars know that the Latin root of avuncular refers specifically to one’s mother’s brother and materteral to one’s mother’s sister. So we could use amital for the paternal aunt and create patruitic (from the Latin patruus, father’s brother) to fill the final niche. If they catch on, do remember you read it here first.

3. Turns of Phrase: Religitigation

It takes a moment to work this one out. Religitigation is a blend of religion and litigation. It is a specifically British term that refers to legal action that sets the faith-based views of religious groups against human-rights and other legislation that prohibits discrimination. Someone engaged in such a case is a religitigant.

Recent cases include that of a Christian registrar who failed to exempt herself from conducting civil partnerships ceremonies for gay couples. A Jewish school in London took a case to the supreme court over its decision to refuse admission to a pupil but lost on the grounds that its decision amounted to race discrimination. An airline employee lost her claim to the right to wear a crucifix at work. A Muslim child in Wales failed to claim the right to wear the jilbab at school when school rules specified the shalwar kameeze. Two Christian hoteliers lost a discrimination case against a gay couple whom they refused to allow to occupy a double-bedded room.

The term has been around for at least the past couple of years. It is currently restricted to legal and human-rights circles and it is rare to see it in the press.

4. Wordface

Changing ways of saying The Telegraph reported on 5 February on what were described as interim findings of a study by the British Library of the way that British speakers pronounce certain words. The results are actually some early indications from data being collected in conjunction with the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library, in which visitors are encouraged to record their reading of a set text.

The logo of the Evolving English exhibition

Regional libraries are taking part, too, and online it’s open to English speakers worldwide: click on “map your voice”. (Go here to listen to the recordings others have made.)

The data so far is unsurprising. The pronunciation of controversy with the stress on the second syllable is said to be used by 75% of respondents. That continues a trend that has been noted for decades: in a survey of pronunciation in 1988, Professor John Wells of University College London found that it and the older form with the stress on the first syllable were even then roughly equal in number of users; by 1998 60% of speakers used the conTROversy stress. Although the shift has been blamed on American influence, Americans will know this isn’t so, because they put the stress on the first syllable as British speakers used to do. However, Brits are increasingly saying schedule in the American way, with an initial sk, rather than sh. Again, that’s hardly new — Prof Wells noted a decade ago that it was being heard quite widely, with 65% of under-35s preferring the US pronunciation. (James Thurber wrote in the 1930s about British opposition to this pronunciation that it was all a matter of schooling.)

Jonnie Robinson, a curator of the exhibition, tells me that — in spite of the tone of the piece — the evidence collected so far for six key words shows very little evidence of American influence: garage continues to be said as garridge and not in the American way, attitude shows no sign of moving towards the US attitood, and scone is still widely rhymed with gone, though social and regional differences in the UK mean that the US-preferred form with the vowel of bone is also common.

5. Questions and Answers: Saucered and blowed

Q From Dave Hester: Any thoughts on the phrase, saucered and blowed? This referred to coffee, too hot to drink until it was poured into the saucer for a moment, blown on, and then drunk from the saucer. I’ve heard this phrase all the time in West Texas and New Mexico.

A The expression is certainly American, turning up at various times in the south and west of the country. I can’t find the exact form you mention earlier than this syndicated page-filler joke:

Don Herold tells of the woman bus passenger hurrying into a restaurant stop for a quick cup of coffee. It was too hot to handle. So an observing and gallant longhorn next to her shoved his cup over with: “Take mine, mam. It’s been saucered and blowed.”

Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Indiana), 28 June 1935.

An extract from a George Cruickshank engraving showing a man saucering his tea
An extract from a George Cruikshank engraving showing a man saucering his tea.

The joke was widely repeated in various forms around this date and in the following decades. The implication, of course, was that only hicks from the sticks did such an ill-bred thing. William Morris, writing in one of his Words, Wit and Wisdom columns in September 1966, repeats a similar story and comments that he had heard it long before in Tennessee.

By this date, the phrase — also as saucered and blown — had become well-enough known that it had turned into an idiom, implying that a project had been completed or that everything had been taken care of and so there was nothing left to do. In the negative it meant something hadn’t yet been made fully ready — a football coach commented on one of his young players in the Charleston Gazette in 1972 that “He has a long way to go. He hasn’t been saucered and blown yet.” Here’s a more recent example:

Besides, I couldn’t have won the governor’s election anyway, since it was, in the Arkansas vernacular, “saucered and blowed” — over before it started.

My Life, by Bill Clinton, 2004.

The idea goes back a long way, of course, much further than the expression itself. A squib appeared in a British newspaper two centuries ago, in which a Frenchman asked a friend to advise on the correctness of his manners at dinner:

“And the coffee?” “There I am certain I was right; it was boiling hot, and I poured it in small portions into my saucer.” “Which was what no one else did; every body takes his coffee in his cup, and never in his saucer.”

The Courier (Middlesex), 21 Mar. 1826.

A similar action was common in the working-classes in Britain in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth — it was thought acceptable to pour small quantities of hot tea into your saucer to cool it and then to sip from the saucer. However, the American joke implied that saucers in that country were then big enough that the whole cupful could be saucered at one go; British saucers were too small for this.

6. Sic!

• Jenny Drayden reports. “Last Friday, this message appeared on our intranet: “This weekend will see the replacement of our reception doors. The doors will remain lock at all times, and you will need your access card to enter our demise.”

• On 2 February, The Gloucestershire Echo startled Tim Nott with its headline, which included a quote from the principal of Cheltenham Ladies College: “Girls’ schools still offering ‘something special’ — head”.

• Padmavyuha received an e-mail from Tate Modern, which announced that “We’ve our latest show Watercolour opening at Tate Britain on 16 February. See works spanning 800 years, from Turner to Tracy Emin!” Might they be J M W Turner (1775–1851) and Tracy Emin (1963–) or two other artists altogether?

• Destined for the folder marked “could have been better expressed” is this sentence from the Daily Mail of 3 February, sent in by Julie Wetherell: “Written in 1959 and reprinted this year by celebrated U.S. fashion designer Anne Fogarty — who died in 1980, aged 61 — the iconic book, harks back to an era of hats, gloves and girdles.”

• Martin Kuskis found an intriguing sentence on the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority website: “Final pavement works for the southern section of the project will commence in unrest from the start of 2011.” Mr Kuskis was under the impression that the project was proceeding peacefully.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 12 February 2011

Advice on copyright

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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