NEWSLETTER 579: SATURDAY 15 MARCH 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Air loom The Sic! item that mentioned this phrase appearing on the cover of a magazine devoted to Volkswagen campers was disputed by any number of readers, who told me that it wasn’t an error but a pun. Ian Dalziel e-mailed, “I have the magazine here. The featured van is a 1961 camper with an air-cooled engine, like the Beetle it was based on. It was given to the current owner by his grandfather, which is where the pun comes in, unfortunately.” News producer Anthony Massey also thought that it was a poor example of the type, “A pun as ghastly as that must be, as we sometimes put it in the newsroom, ‘someone perpetrating an act of journalism’.” Tim Osburn strongly disagrees with that view (“It’s pretty clever, I think!”), though as he is a mechanic who works on old Volkswagens, that’s understandable.
The item provoked several readers to ask what heirlooms had to do with looms anyway. The ancient sense of loom, in Old English more than a thousand years ago, was that of a tool or implement of any kind, perhaps from an even older root that meant something in frequent use. An heirloom was any such item that was handed down to descendants.
Ivy League Morgiana Halley pointed out that the association of ivy with the walls of ancient seats of learning is much older than the first appearance of ivy college in 1933. You may remember that it was satirised by Tom Lehrer in his song Bright College Days of 1959:
Bright college days, oh, carefree days that fly,
To thee we sing with our glasses raised on high.
Let’s drink a toast as each of us recalls
Ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls.
That phrase ivy-covered halls in particular is substantially older than either ivy college or ivy league. The first example I can find is in Red and Black by Grace Smith Richmond, published in 1919: “He had his ticket and a sleeper reservation — it was fifteen hours’ journey back to the old ivy-covered halls which had grown dear in his memory.”
The process of becoming fat; fatness, obesity.
My lesson this week is taken from a book of 1847, Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Physic by Thomas Watson: “Shut a healthy pig up in a small sty, and give him as much food as he is willing to eat, and you ensure his rapid pinguescence.” How true, even today.
The chance of pinguescence turning up in any book you’re reading is small. The Oxford English Dictionary comments that it is “literary or humorous in later use”, though the archives suggest that any such later use is rare. And yet, with the panic about the obesity epidemic currently sweeping the developed nations, it might be a good time to bring it back into circulation.
The word is from Latin pinguis, fat, which — directly or through its relatives in Latin — has given English a number of words, such as pinguedinise, to make fat, pinguedinous, fatty or greasy, pinguefy, to make greasy or saturate with oil, and pinguefying, fattening or greasy. All are rare.
3. Recently noted
Computer The Oxford English Dictionary announced this week that it is changing the way it revises and publishes entries. Until now, this is been largely alphabetical (from its beginning with M, the revision has now reached Q). In future, every other quarterly revision is to be of important words across the whole alphabet whose meanings or application have developed most over the past century. The Chief Editor of the OED, John Simpson, has written about this shift of approach in an article accessible online.
Updated entries in this week’s revision include aircraft, American, climate, culture, economy, electricity, evolution, the F-word, gay, genetic, heaven and hell. Another is computer. Its definition in the revised entry shows just how complex a term it is for lexicographers to grapple with. A brief definition has no chance of getting across the range of meanings, but the result is a mini-essay:
An electronic device (or system of devices) which is used to store, manipulate, and communicate information, perform complex calculations, or control or regulate other devices or machines, and is capable of receiving information (data) and of processing it in accordance with variable procedural instructions (programs or software); specially a small, self-contained one for individual use in the home or workplace, used especially for handling text, images, music, and video, accessing and using the Internet, communicating with other people (e.g. by means of email), and playing games.
A further 264 words of explanation and notes are attached to the definition before we get to the first citation. The editors must be blessing the latitude provided them by electronic publication. In the days of James Murray a century ago, such prolixity would have risked inducing apoplexy in the high panjandrums of the Oxford University Press.
4. Questions & Answers: Grog
[Q] From Michael Hocken: “My twin brother recently brought back from an arduous medical congress on Grenada a splendid bottle of rum, which bore an equally splendid story that the origin of the name of the daily ration of grog served to British seamen was to be found in that island, and was derived from the brand with which the casks were marked, namely GROG, or Georgius Rex Old Grenada. The George in question is said to be George III. Does this story hold any water?”
[A] No. Nor rum either. However, the real story sounds even less likely, though the experts are pretty much convinced it is true.
Parts of the bottle’s tale are correct, though. The ration of rum mixed with water that was once served to sailors on board British warships was indeed called grog. And the rum did come from the West Indies — the custom of serving it instead of other strong spirits such as brandy began in 1687, following the British capture of Jamaica.
In 1740, Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon was commanding officer of the British naval forces in the West Indies during the conflict with Spain that was weirdly named the War of Jenkins’ Ear, after a captain who in 1731 had had an ear cut off in a skirmish with the Spanish. Vernon was so concerned about the bad effects of the rum ration on his sailors that in August that year he issued an order that in future the rum ration was to be served diluted:
To Captains of the Squadron! Whereas the Pernicious Custom of the Seamen drinking their Allowance of Rum in Drams, and often at once, is attended by many fatal Effects to their Morals as well as their Health, the daily allowance of half a pint a man is to be mixed with a quart of water, to be mixed in one Scuttled Butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon Deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to see that the men are not defrauded of their allowance of Rum.
This might be dismissed as no more than another folk tale about the origin of words, especially as no contemporary record of grog has been found. But within the Royal Navy it was believed to be the origin, to judge from the first example we have. It is from a poem written by Dr Thomas Trotter, the surgeon of HMS Berwick. He wrote these lines on board ship on 4 August 1781:
A mighty bowl on deck he drew,
And filled it to the brink;
Such drank the Burford’s gallant crew,
And such the gods shall drink.
The sacred robe which Vernon wore
Was drenched within the same;
And hence his virtues guard our shore,
And Grog derives its name.
The term was broadened by landlubbers who were ill-conversant with naval customs to mean any strong drink, though in Australia and New Zealand it can also mean beer. Groggy, a word first used in the West Indies, came from grog to mean a person overcome by liquor; later its meaning expanded to include anybody who was unsteady and dazed for any reason.
5. Questions & Answers: Denigrate
[Q] From Charles Hendrickson: “A recent film, The Great Debaters, suggests that denigrate is an offensive term for African-Americans because it means “to make black”. The Denzel Washington character says that the word has racist undertones because of this. What do you think?”
[A] The story sounds extremely unlikely. Whether it’s just a simple mistake or an underdog’s attempt to find an insult where none was intended, I’ve no way of knowing (I’ve not seen the film, though I understand that it is set in the American South during the Great Depression and conveys the day-to-day insults and slights African-Americans had to endure). The argument would carry more conviction if we could find examples of denigrate being used as a racial insult or with racist implications. So far, I haven’t found any.
There’s enough truth in the etymology to give the story legs. It does come from the Latin niger, meaning “black”, via the verb denigrare, to blacken. At one time it could be used in English with that literal sense, but from when it first appeared, in the sixteenth century, it also had a figurative sense of blackening somebody’s character or staining their reputation. This goes back to ancient ideas in western culture that black is the colour of despair, misery, wickedness or infamy.
So it is easy to see how denigrate could be thought to be a bad word for black Americans. It reminds me of the fuss some years ago over niggardly. In that case, there was evidence that the word was indeed thought to be disparaging and complaints were made about an instance of its use. However, so far as I know, no such belief or perceived insult is present in the African-American community. The way it’s said, with the stress on the first syllable, obscures the supposed origin.
But if popular films argue powerfully enough that it is insulting, then no doubt it will become so and another useful word in our language will become possible to use only with great care.
• Who guessed that World Wide Words would be joining the rest of the media in chronicling the doings of Britney Spears? The Los Angeles Times calendar section reported on Wednesday that Ms Spears will guest star in a March 24 episode of the CBS series How I Met Your Mother. Apparently, “the pop star will portray a receptionist in a dermatologist’s office named Abby”.