E-MAGAZINE 717: SATURDAY 18 DECEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Holiday break I’m taking two weeks off. There will be no issue next week (25 December) or the one after (1 January 2011). Normal service will be resumed on 8 January. Season’s greetings and a happy new year to everyone.
World Wide Words When I started this e-newsletter, back in 1996, the Web was usually called in full the World Wide Web and my title was an original play on words. Now it seems to be everywhere: the Blogger and Clickwriters sites have blogs of that name. A writer in Malaysia uses it, as does one in Germany; worldwidewords.com has moved recently from a religious focus to a language one. P G Wodehouse once had much the same problem. He regretted choosing Summer Lightning as the title of a book when he found that half a dozen others with the same title had either been published or were in prospect. He wryly hoped that his offering might one day be included in the list of the 100 best books named Summer Lightning. I’m starting to feel the same way about World Wide Words.
Tonight, 18 December, my local community centre in Gloucestershire is reviving Mumping Night, a procession and entertainment under the notional supervision of a Lord of Misrule. Mumping is an uncommon word for this seasonal activity, mostly known in the West Country. More commonly it’s mumming, for a performance that was originally in mime or in which participants were in disguise. The name for my local performance seems to be from a confusion between mumming and another old custom of the pre-Christmas period, also called mumping.
Mumping is attached to the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle on 21 December. This used to be known in some parts of England as Mumping Day, when poor people went around their parish begging for alms. It’s from the seventeenth-century Dutch verb mompen, to cheat or deceive, but it became an English dialect word meaning to scrounge or beg.
Mumping is also British police jargon for accepting small favours such as free meals from friendly tradespeople:
Mumping free beer and a doughnut, well, that’s part of being a copper. And who knows, there might even be a few greasy spoons in this town so happy to see a copper that they will spontaneously offer him a free nosh. Stranger things have happened.
Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, 2002.
This mumping, by the way, is not the same as the one, now mainly Scottish, meaning grimacing or grumbling, mumbling or muttering, or moving the jaws as if munching food. That’s linked to another old Dutch verb, also spelled mompen, to mumble, and with the rare German verb mumpfen, to chew with a full mouth.
Mumping Day was also sometimes called Begging Day. In Kent it was Doleing Day, because gifts or doles — such as draughts of beer or loaves of bread — were given by prosperous people to needy locals. In various counties it has been referred to as going a-gooding, to ask for “good things” for Christmas, which usually meant food or small sums of money, and also going a-corning, to ask farmers for gifts of wheat (English corn) to make bread.
This jargon term of the British police first came widely to public notice during the G20 summit in London in April 2009. It has been in the news again as a result of demonstrations in London against steep rises in university tuition fees.
Demonstrators are kettled by herding them into a limited area and stopping them from leaving. As they are often constrained for many hours without food, water or toilet facilities, opponents of the method regard it as unlawful imprisonment.
We may guess that the image behind it is of demonstrators starting to boil out of control, so they’re contained in a figurative kettle. But the term puzzles experts because it seems to have no obvious English precursor. The nearest analogy, which isn’t very close, is the US term kettling for the circling and soaring of a group of migrating hawks or other birds within air currents to gain height, which is said to resemble the swirling motion of water boiling in a kettle.
The most plausible suggestion is that the word is from German, in which Kessel is the everyday word for a kettle or similar vessel, such as a central-heating boiler. The derived verb einkesseln (“to enkettle”) means to encircle or surround, principally in the military. This may come from an older sense of Kessel for a semi-circular ring of hunters driving game before them.
German police employ the same technique as the British, calling it Polizeikessel. The term is older than kettling (it appears in the publications Die Zeit and Der Spiegel in June 1986 and may well be earlier) and we may assume that a sharing of experience between the national police forces has lead to kettling being created by the British police as a loan translation.
The kettling tactic used by police to pen in 5,000 people during the G20 protests carries significant risks, the man leading the review of public order policing said today.
The Times, 21 Apr. 2009.
I started to get anxious when I realised they were kettling the children – blocking off exits to Westminster Bridge, Parliament Square and Liberal headquarters. Kettling children is hardly the mark of a civilised and tolerant society.
The Guardian, 27 Nov. 2010.
[Thanks go to Paul Frank and Dan Goncharoff for their help.]
The thinking person’s drink An article by Adam Brodie-McKenzie in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Melbourne on 1 December introduced Australians to the soy cap intelligentsia, those who espouse left-wing ideals but who are comfortably off. It’s a new term for what Australians have in the past called chardonnay socialists. Americans often use the term limousine liberals, while the British right prefers champagne socialists. Margaret Ruwoldt told me she had heard the term in conversation before it appeared in print. She explained that it comes from the fashionable drink soy cap, a cappuccino made with soy milk.
In brief Some words from the press that I’ve encountered recently, mostly not new, except to me: hevage (male cleavage, as adopted by some pop stars); dork knob (a short ponytail, said in a newspaper of 1990 to be the new hair fad of the 1990s); jerkules (a muscular male with an attitude of superiority, perhaps from the 1997 Disney film in which the nickname was given to young Hercules, though that may echo a 1967 episode of the Batfink cartoon); LULZ (formed from the online acronym LOL, “laugh out loud”, as a sarcastic plural — the spelling has changed but it’s said as “lolz” — which means roughly “cheap laughs” or “something done for a laugh”); facepalm (the act of striking your face with a open palm, to indicate you have heard something you believe to be particularly idiotic).
Marist poll The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion of Poughkeepsie, NY, this week published the results of its annual telephone poll to find the word or phrase in conversation today that most annoys Americans. The survey, of 1,020 adults, was conducted between 15 and 18 November. For the second year running, whatever was nominated as the word that vexed them most. The runners-up in reducing order of unpopularity were like, you know what I mean and to tell you the truth. The dislike of whatever had little to do with educational level or income but was significantly associated with age: over-60s were much more annoyed by it than 16-29 year-olds. The pattern was reversed with like, disfavour decreasing rapidly in older people.
Cultural words Reports appeared yesterday (17 December) based on an article in Science about a big word-crunching research enterprise that has collated every word appearing in about five million books digitised by Google, 361 billion of them in English. This is a collection far larger than any dictionary corpus so far created and the researchers — a group from Harvard University, Encyclopaedia Britannica and Google — hope that it will be used to investigate cultural trends as well as lexicographical ones. The researchers have coined culturomics as a jazzy term for this statistical approach to word research, basing the analogy on genomics, the study of the evolution of the human genome. Results are freely available in graphical form on a new Google search site, which shows the relative rates of appearance of words annually from 1920 to 2000. The researchers cite God as an example of the trends thrown up by the data: they say that references to the deity in books fell from 17 mentions per 10,000 words in 1830 to two per 10,000 words in 1998. One report quoted them as saying “We estimated that 52% of the English lexicon — the majority of words used in English books — consist of lexical ‘dark matter’ undocumented in standard references”, an astonishing figure that’s raising eyebrows among the makers of those standard references.
5. Questions and Answers: The balloon’s gone up
Q From Roger Kapp: I’ve read the phrase the balloon’s gone up (or variations) in several British-authored books, especially in those having to do with war. What is the derivation of this?
A The usual sense of the idiom is that some action, excitement, or trouble has started, often but by no means always military. It’s closely associated in memory with the Second World War, as here:
“The balloon’s gone up,” he said. “You mean Rommel has attacked?” “Yes, there’s a tank battle going on now this side of the Gazala Line.”
The Conquest of North Africa, by Alexander G Clifford, 1943. Mr Clifford was a British war correspondent for the Daily Mail.
Today, it’s possible only to use it humorously:
Take a seat, Double-Oh Nine. Look, I won’t beat about the bush. Balloon’s gone up in Patagonia. Our old friend Blofeld is threatening to launch a nuclear warhead at the polar icecap.
The Independent, 15 May 2007. In John Walsh’s irreverent riff on an advertisement by MI6 for new staff.
In this next instance, the meaning is that a deception has been exposed and that difficulties have ensued:
“I still want to know who this other young woman is.” Patrick turned with relief as Julia, cool and aloof, came into the room. “The balloon’s gone up,” he said. Julia raised her eyebrows. Then, still cool, she came forward and sat down. “O.K.,” she said. “That’s that. I suppose you’re very angry?”
A Murder is Announced, by Agatha Christie, 1950.
It would be reasonable to assume that it dates from the period of the Second World War. It brings to mind — at least it does for those of us replete in years — the raising of defensive barrage balloons over cities at the start of an air-raid to force enemy bombers to fly high. But the idiom turns out to predate not only that conflict but even the First World War. This, currently the first known example, comes from a very recently revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary:
Being also a close-fisted chap, he hates to have the audience get more than it pays for. In brief, Alfonso, cut out the musical extras or your balloon goes up.
Putnam’s Monthly, 1909.
It’s intriguing that Putnam’s Monthly was an American publication, not a British one. It can’t be an allusion to a barrage balloon, since they hadn’t been invented yet. It might be from a military observation balloon, as these were frequently hoisted for artillery spotting purposes during a battle. In fact, this is sometimes given as the origin. But in the nineteenth century there are references in British and American periodicals to literal balloons going up. These were manned hot-air balloons and the launch of one was a rare event that was excitedly anticipated and well attended. By the last quarter of the century the idea of one going up being a marker of something significant happening was beginning to appear:
The first huge pioneer balloon has gone up in the shape of the following strange, long, and may we not say windy document in the New York Evening Post.
Dwight’s Journal of Music (Boston), 1873.
As matters stand, it’s not possible to decide for sure whether it is originally British or American. I suspect independent creation.
• Elspeth Pope’s eye was caught by a potentially misleading headline in The Olympian of Washington State: “Man who killed wife during dive out of jail”. Every other newspaper has the slightly clearer, “Man who killed wife during dive released from jail.”
• The text on the Coffee Addict website, which Bob Gray recently came across, is presumably automatically translated. It contains some delightfully fractured English, referring to “uninformed brewed coffee” and to filters that “freshen your daub water”. Throughout, yerba maté is called “yerba partner”, an “erotically delectable full of illness plant”, which “offers a engorgement of pick illness benefits”. Bob Grey’s favourite is the reference to “belligerent coffee”, which must reflect the experience of many of us.
• Bob McGill took a picture of a poster in a Church’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Texas. It advertised “New! Southern Sweet Tea”. At the bottom it said “Available in sweet or unsweetened”.
• On 9 December, Paul Kimberley noted that the Sydney Morning Herald reported on its front page the arrival of Oprah Winfrey to record two shows: “Wearing a white shirt, black trousers and an Akubra hat, Winfrey was quickly whisked away in two black vans.”
• The final sentence in an Associated Press report appeared unchanged in several US media outlets on 14 December: “The gunfire damaged several vehicles in the parking lot, including a Chinese restaurant across the street about 200 yards away.” Thanks to everybody who sent that in.
• The Open University Israel Centre brochure, Benny Tiefenbrunner tells us, has the sentence “Aharon Romm is a certified life coach who teaches classes on how to have a fantastically good life on Sunday mornings.” The rest of the week, however ...
7. Copyright and contact details
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