NEWSLETTER 554: SATURDAY 22 SEPTEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Another milestone It was only when I was checking through the database last weekend that I found I’d recently posted the 2000th piece to the Web site — the article about the word Crib. The pieces total some 108,000 words — equivalent to a couple of novels.
Zymurgy Stanton McCandlish tells me that in this piece last week I should not have equated zymurgist with zymologist: “Zymurgy is the craft or activity of brewing, while zymology is the scientific study of yeast action in products for human consumption.” He also tells me, despite my dogmatic assertion, that zymurgy is indeed often said as “ZIM-ur-gee”.
2. Weird Words: Pusillanimous
It first appeared in the sixteenth century and is still very much with us, though it’s a writer’s word, hardly one you’re likely to hear in your local bar unless the patrons are literary types. Back in the 1970s US Vice President Spiro Agnew famously accused his opponents of “pusillanimous pussyfooting.” In 1936, the humorist A P Herbert wrote in What a Word that “Modern dictionaries are pusillanimous works, preferring feebly to record what has been done than to say what ought to be done.” (He wrote in the same book, “American slang is one part natural growth and nine parts a nervous disorder.” But then he wasn’t much in favour of American English of any kind.)
Pusillanimous is a fine word to disparage your enemies with, one that rolls extravagantly off the tongue. Its unusualness makes it all the more effective.
3. Recently noted
In a manner of speaking You may have heard of the extraordinary case, reported this week, of a 10-year-old boy in York, England. He made a good recovery from a rare form of viral meningitis followed by surgery but in the process lost his Yorkshire accent, replacing it with one more like standard English. His mother said “He went in with a York accent and came out all posh. He no longer had short ‘a’ and ‘u’ vowel sounds, they were all long.” This is a rare but not unknown situation and even has a name: foreign accent syndrome. A few cases have been reported, including one last year in which a woman in Newcastle awoke from a stroke to find that she now spoke in what the reports say was a mixture of Jamaican, Canadian and Slovakian (I sound like that when trying to imitate a Welsh accent). It seems that damage to parts of the brain causes difficulties in controlling the way such sufferers speak, subtly altering the way they articulate and pitch syllables.
Tonsil hockey and barm cakes The quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary was posted online on 14 September. Most of the new and revised entries lie at the end of the letter P, but others in the list of additions constitute an eclectic range of material from across the alphabet.
The list confirms how broad and diverse the concerns of dictionary makers have to be and what a struggle the OED’s compilers have in keeping up with changes and with repairing ancient omissions (some of these words have been traced back to the nineteenth century). New entries in P include Prozac (the antidepressant); prozine (“Chiefly science fiction, a professional magazine, as opposed to an amateur fanzine”); psammology (“Scientific study of sand”); psychobilly (“A style of popular music blending characteristics of rockabilly with the raw, aggressive performance style of punk rock”); psychogeneticist (“A specialist in psychogenetics, the branch of science which deals with the effects of genetic inheritance on mental processes or behaviour”); ptui (“The sound of a person spitting; (hence) expressing disgust or contempt”); and punditocracy (“The elite members of the news media, typically seen as having political power in their own right”).
As well as those in my headline (tonsil hockey — passionate, deep or French kissing; barm cake — a northern English dialect term for a bread roll), other terms from the rest of the alphabet include terrible twos, which most parents know and which the OED defines as “the period in a child’s social development (typically around the age of two years) associated with defiant or challenging behaviour”; ice cream headache (“a momentary but intense pain in the head caused by exposure to cold temperatures, typically when consuming very cold food or drink”) and its synonym brain freeze (which can also mean “a sudden mental paralysis; a lapse of memory or concentration, a mental block”); and goody-bag, which goes back to 1929.
Smile, please Wednesday 19 September was the 25th anniversary of the invention of the smiley character in online communications, also known as the emoticon. The :-) symbol, necessarily created from standard ASCII keyboard characters, was invented on 19 September 1982 by Scott E Fahlman in a post on a bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University. It formed part of a thread on the way humorous remarks could be tagged to avoid misunderstandings. His message was brief, though a trifle ungrammatical: “I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: :-) Read it sideways.” Scott Fahlman is these days Research Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
4. Questions & Answers: Whelmed
[Q] From Steve Simoneaux, Atlanta, GA: “I’ve been overwhelmed and I’ve been underwhelmed. Is it possible to ever just be whelmed?”
[A] You could once. But remember that underwhelmed started life as a joke based on overwhelmed and in language terms is relatively recent — it was first recorded in 1956, but became popular only a decade or so later. It’s common these days, because it fills a need for a single word to communicate the concept of failing to impress.
The verb whelm does exist, though you might search for some time before you find examples in modern prose. That’s excluding fantasy and historical fiction, of course — when S M Stirling wrote in On the Oceans of Eternity, “Whelm not our ships with Your anger, but give us swift voyaging and good winds, full nets and victory”, his choice of whelm was deliberately archaic, to help convey to his readers the sense of being in another time and place. On the other hand, to come across “It was a late-arriving crowd that saw the Hurricanes whelm the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday night”, which appeared in The News & Record of North Carolina back in 1998, is to be brought up short, wondering if the word’s a misprint.
But a writer can’t use any of these senses any more, unless he’s deliberately using an archaism for effect, or is showing off his knowledge of language, or is perhaps archly trying to invent a new word, not knowing that whelm exists.
5. Questions & Answers: Ash
[Q] From Colin de’Ath: “Why are the letters ae joined together in Old English?”
[A] The answer involves Germanic runemasters, Irish missionaries and attempts to fit English pronunciation to the Latin alphabet.
The first writing in English, in the fifth century AD, was brought over by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons from the continent of Europe. When they wrote, which they didn’t much, these Germanic peoples did so in runes, using an alphabet that they’d borrowed from Etruscan, shaping the letters so that they could be cut into hard materials like wood, bone or stone. The runic script was called futhorc, from its first six letters (th, called thorn, was one letter).
The problem for the early English scribes was that English included sounds that didn’t fit the letters of the Latin alphabet. So they added three new ones, to which they gave the names ash, thorn and wynn, taken from the names of the letters that represented the same sounds in the runic alphabet. They also added eth (a crossed d) and (later) yogh. The one you’re referring to is ash, æ, which was created by combining a and e, technically a ligature or a digraph. The runic name meant the ash tree as well as the letter. The sound was that of the a in cat or apple, if you say them with a standard British English accent, though it varied in length.
When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought scribes with them who had been taught in a different tradition. (As just one example, they changed Old English cw in words like cwen to qu, in this case making the word we now spell queen.) Most of the Old English special forms vanished soon after, although ash survived until the thirteenth century.
It did continue in use elsewhere, notably in words in medieval Latin. These had been taken from Greek progenitors that included the letter combination alpha followed by iota (αι). The æ character came back into English in the sixteenth century when writers started to borrow these Latin words for concepts not in the language, as well as Greek ones containing the same letter combination. Some examples are æther, anæsthetic, archæology, anæmia, encyclopædia, gynæcology, hyæna, and mediæval, although there were at one time hundreds of others, most of them technical or scientific terms. The æ character was also used when words of Latin origin that ended in -a made their plurals by adding e, so generating forms such as algæ, antennæ, larvæ and nebulæ. Many of these now have their plurals in -s instead.
As such words became established, a few changed their spelling, replacing æ by e, so that æther changed to ether, phænomenon to phenomenon and musæum to museum. In British English, others kept the æ symbol and continued to be spelled with it into the twentieth century.
But ash is almost completely obsolete (the name itself is used only by linguists studying Old English; its modern official title is Latin ligature ae). It has been replaced in British English in all but the most scholarly or old-fashioned writing by ae (hence aegis, aeon and leukaemia, where older works had ægis, æon and leukæmia). Americans sidestepped the problem by extending the change to e to most such words, creating spellings such as archeology, eon and leukemia. Brits are increasingly doing the same, so — as a notable example — medieval is now standard, with mediaeval hardly seen, let alone the even older mediæval.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the character during the last millennium and a bit, but it’s now certain it won’t be around in English typography much longer.
• BBC News reported on 16 September: “Ex-American football star OJ Simpson has been arrested by Las Vegas police investigating an alleged armed robbery at a casino hotel room.” Judith Haemmerle snorted. “Ex-American? If you Brits want him, I’m sure we’d be glad to let him go.” As they say, thanks but no thanks.
• Chris Hayward obtained this confusing piece of travel advice from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, a British government department: “Drug taking and smuggling is an offence.” He wonders if it is an offence only if you do the two together. “Does it mean it’s OK to do the one without the other?”
• “Unfortunately,” Alan Hattle begins ominously, “I was a passenger in someone else’s car travelling to Kano from Abuja in Nigeria some time ago, so I didn’t get the chance to stop and find out exactly what product was on sale when we passed a roadside sign advertising ‘Live Frozen Chickens’. I’ve been haunted by the image it conjures up ever since!”
• Pete Swindells noted this sign at the Lion Hotel in Barmouth, Gwynedd:
He tells me he didn’t see anybody taking advantage of the exception made for eating babies bought off the premises.
• Roger Beale urges us to look at the official Web site of the Prague bid for the 2016 Olympics. “There is page after page of hilarious mistranslation, presumably by software, of which this is a taster: ‘At which time Prague begun peep at peas in years 1932 and 1936. “but while before for action inspire with politicians and people, in thirtieth years nobody after peas doesnt want. Whole it go out taperingly,” says Francis wheelwright.’” I rather like the opening sentence myself: “Three times will Prague examine courting with international Olympic collection. Previous two advances arrange games are over always inglorious.”