NEWSLETTER 568: SATURDAY 29 DECEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Musicophilia The name of the author of this word was spelled two different ways in one paragraph in an item last week. Correctly it is Oliver Sacks.
Church fabric Several puzzled comments came in from readers who didn’t get the joke in the Sic! item last week about the concert in aid of the church curtains. I had been in two minds whether to include it because I’d been warned that it might well not be understood. To architects, the fabric of a building is its underlying structure, in particular its floor, walls and roof. This goes back to its original sense in English of a product of skilled workmanship, something that had been ingeniously fabricated, a sense which derives from Latin faber, a worker in wood, metal, stone or similar durable materials. (Forge is from a closely related Latin word.) Although fabric appears in the fifteenth century, the idea of woven cloth only came along in the eighteenth century, early in the Industrial Revolution, when it began to be used for goods manufactured in factories; it started life meaning “textile fabric”. In Britain, and I presume elsewhere, fund-raising to maintain a church or historic building is often called a fabric appeal or to be in aid of its fabric. In the case I mentioned it was for money to repair the roof.
Only god can make a storm Lots of people had seasonally charged fun with an item in the Sic! section last week in which I wrote, “The BBC News site featured a number of photographs of the ice storm contributed by its visitors.” I didn’t think it was that strange a sentence myself. Exits stage right, grumbling ...
2. Weird Words: Paroemiological
Relating to the study of proverbs.
The word is from Latin, in which language it appeared in the third century AD as a borrowing from Greek paroemia, a proverb. In 1639 John Clarke, the headmaster of Lincoln grammar school, published an early work on proverbs, from the works of Erasmus. He gave it the title Paroemiologia anglolatina, Proverbs English and Latin. Many paroemiological collections have been created since.
As it’s comparatively easy to find examples, it’s surprising that the recent revision of the letter P in the online Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t feature paroemiological. However, it does have a number of close relatives, such as paroemiologist, a student of or an expert in proverbs and proverb lore, and paroemiology, the study itself, as well as paroemiographer, a collector of or writer on proverbs, and paroemia itself, an adage or proverb. Apart from this last one, all were coined in the early nineteenth century.
If you prefer, as most scholarly users do these days, you can spell all these without the first o.
3. Questions & Answers: News
[Q] From Jim Butterworth: “I wonder if you could tell me where the word news comes from? Could be more than one new piece of information or could it be made up from North, East, West, South or maybe derived from some early English word? I really don’t know but I feel I should!”
[A] People mention the points-of-the-compass story so often as the source of news that it’s not surprising it makes you wonder if it’s correct. For the record, it isn’t.
New is definitely early English — it can be traced to the Old English of the ninth century. It was mainly an adjective, as it still is, but it could also be a noun in the sense of a new thing. The first example of the noun in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a translation by King Alfred of a book by the fourth-century Roman statesman Boethius. By the twelfth century news was being used in the plural to mean new things or novelties.
The word is much more ancient still. It came from Germanic sources that can be traced back to an ancient Indo-European root. This also led to Latin novus, and through it words like novel, novice, renovate, innovate (and novelty). Its Latin feminine form nova is now used by astronomers to describe a star that shows a sudden large increase in brightness (so called originally because it was thought to be a new star).
Where did this idea of its being an acronym come from? George A Thompson recently found the story falsely asserted in the Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer, dated 23 April 1842: “News is not, as many imagine, derived from the adjective New. In former times, it was a prevalent practice to put over the periodical publications of the day the initial letters of the cardinal points of the compass ... importing that these papers contained intelligence from the four quarters of the globe; and from this practice is derived the term of newspaper.”
So far as anybody knows, no such emblem existed. And it certainly isn’t the origin of the word. But the story has long legs and — to judge by this quotation — clearly a long history, too.
4. Questions & Answers: Horse latitudes
[Q] From Paul Wiele, Syracuse University: “Where does horse latitudes come from, meaning areas that have little or no wind? One of my professors recounted a story that the term came from sailors being stranded there for so long that they’d throw their horses overboard to conserve the remaining supplies and lighten the ship. He doubted this explanation, and I’m inclined to agree. What do you say?”
[A] Horse latitudes is a mariner’s term for a band of irregular and unreliable winds that lie about 30 degrees north and south of the equator. They can suffer periods of calm, a persistent nuisance in the days of sail, though less well known to landlubbers than the infamous doldrums around the equator.
The story about casting horses overboard is old and, for example, appears in George Forster’s memoir about one of Captain Cook’s expeditions, A Voyage Round the World in his Britannic Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, dated 1777. You might feel it would have been more practical to kill and eat the horses, fresh meat being at a premium on board ship.
Another explanation appears in Seafaring Lore and Legend by Peter D Jeans, published in 2004, “In the earlier days of sail, ships out of the Eng-lish Channel took about two months to get clear of these particular latitudes, by which time the crew had worked off their advance pay, known as the dead horse. The crew celebrated this event by parading a straw horse around the deck, flogging it with a rope’s end, and then throwing it overboard.” Let us not flog this dead horse for more than it’s worth, which isn’t a lot.
A third explanation is in Robert Scott’s Elementary Meteorology of 1883: “The Horse Latitudes, a title which Mr. Laughton derives from the Spanish El Golfo de las Yeguas, the Mares’ Sea, from its unruly and boisterous nature.” This has a lot going for it. Golfo de las Yeguas is a term of some antiquity in Spanish. Lopez de Gómara wrote in El Camino Para las Indias (The Road to the Indies) in 1552: “The worst part of the passage is the Golfo de las Yeguas between the Canaries and Spain.” But why mares? A little earlier, 1535, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés noted in his Historia General y Natural de las Indias that mariners gave it this name because many brood mares being shipped from Spain to the Canaries died on board.
This explanation, though much nearer the date of creation of the expression, may be just as incorrect as other stories. But it would surely be too much of a coincidence for this not to be the source of the English term.
• We were at the end of Christmas lunch. The turkey and the pudding were settling nicely and the wine had rendered us conversational in that idling way in which nothing said is of any great significance. My son Brian mentioned that he ought to find a new hobby; I replied that he might try steel engraving. He and my wife stared at me in utter confusion and amazement. “Why would anybody want to do that?” she demanded. “Well,” I said, “It came to mind because I’ve just been reading about a nineteenth-century artist who did it.” Brian shook his head in puzzled exasperation. “Stealing gravy?”