NEWSLETTER 493: SATURDAY 24 JUNE 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
C3 In my piece on this abbreviation last week, I quoted a line from P G Wodehouse, “as C3 a performer as ever wielded a skillet”. This brought a comment from Valerie Grosvenor-Myer: “This is an example of Wodehouse’s Americanisation. He lived in the States most of his life, and his stories of English life mostly appeared first in the Saturday Evening Post. So he makes his narrators use a sort of Americanese. C3 is, of course, English, as the question you were replying to shows; but skillet is American for what we call a frying pan.” Skillet does exist in British English, but it is now an outmoded term for a small metal cooking pot with legs and a long handle.
Gelatology The Weird Words piece last week was less than adequate because I hadn’t realised that this spelling, the one I had come across—its source shall remain nameless to protect the guilty—was not standard. The more usual form is gelotology, which Nick Lingris pointed out better reflects the original Greek. See a partial rewrite of the piece. (Use the back button on your browser to return to this page afterwards.)
A special welcome to everybody who has joined the mailing list as a result of reading about World Wide Words (and my most recent book) in William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times and elsewhere, or through Kate Russell’s feature in the television programme Click on BBC World and BBC News 24.
2. Topical Words: Corpus
Oxford Dictionaries have been making proud announcements recently about their research resource, the Oxford English Corpus (OEC).
A corpus is a collection of written material in machine-readable form that has been put together for linguistic research. The word is the Latin for body and is the source of several other English words, such as corpse, corporeal, corpulent, corpuscle, corps, and corporal. Corporate, of a business or firm, has the same origin, so body corporate is etymologically speaking a tautology. Crime writers are fond of corpus delicti, for the facts and circumstances surrounding a crime (literally, it means “body of offence”). And there are many medical terms for bits of the body that include it, such as corpus calosum and corpus luteum. English writers have been using corpus for a body of writing since the early eighteenth century (the first known usage was in Chambers Cyclopaedia in 1727); linguists only started to use it in this specialised sense in the 1950s.
The OEC began in 2000 and by April this year had grown to contain more than a billion (thousand million) words—not all different, of course: the humble word the alone appears about 50 million times. It represents every type of English, from literary novels, specialist journals, newspapers and magazines to the text of Hansard and the contents of chatrooms, e-mails, and weblogs. All the material has been trawled from the World Wide Web using a custom-built web crawler (similar to those that search engines like Google use to index the Web), so there are probably some World Wide Words pages in it somewhere. The OEC also includes every regional variety of the language, not only the major ones of the UK and US that make up about 80% of the total, but also material from the Caribbean, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Africa.
One of its more valuable features is that researchers can discover which words most often appear together, for which the dictionary makers’ term is collocation. When, for example, the corpus is examined for verbs which are most often used with man or boy but not woman or girl, they discover that men assault, hijack, crouch, kidnap, rob, grin, shoot, dig, stagger, leap, invent, or brandish. But they don’t consent, faint, sob, cohabit, undress, clutch, scorn, or gossip because, according to the corpus, that’s what women do. Eccentric usually appears with words like endearingly, old, and millionaire, suggesting that only elderly, wealthy people can be eccentric, the rest of us just being plain crazy. The word vivacious most often appears with beautiful, young, blonde, outgoing, and intelligent and the corpus evidence makes clear that women may be vivacious but men may not. Evidence like this helps to tie down what we really mean by words; for example, vivacious is now defined in the Oxford Dictionary of English as “(especially of a woman) attractively lively and animated”.
To mark the publication of the revised 11th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a list of the 25 most common nouns in the corpus has appeared this week. It is a mark of our hurrying lifestyle that the word at the top of the list is time. The complete list, in decreasing order of frequency, is: time, person, year, way, day, thing, man, world, life, hand, part, child, eye, woman, place, work, week, case, point, government, company, number, group, problem, and fact. You could erect a novel on that scaffolding.
3. Weird Words: Umquhile
Formerly, previously; former, late.
Last November this section featured the word whilom, one of three words, I said then, with closely related meanings, the others being erstwhile and quondam. There is a fourth, as correspondent Mark Harvey instantly pointed out: umquhile. As you can tell from its alternative spelling of umwhile, the q isn’t pronounced. It’s a nice Scrabble word, but not one to be found in everyday prose.
It’s from the Old English ymb hwíle, which progressively changed to umbewhitle and hence to umwhile or umquhile. The last of these is the Scots spelling, which is why it so often turns up in the works of Sir Walter Scott. One appearance was in The Heart of Midlothian of 1818: “Above the inner entrance hung, and had hung, for many years, the mouldering hatchment, which announced that umquhile Laurence Dumbie of Dumbiedikes had been gathered to his fathers in Newbattle kirkyard”. Another was in The Fair Maid of Perth (1828): “The Lady of the umquhile Walter de Avenel was in very weak health in the Tower of Glendearg”.
As early as 1832, Frances Trollope was noting it as obsolete, in her Domestic Manners of the Americans (she didn’t like them). It has been recorded a few times in the twentieth century, but always in a self-consciously archaic context.
4. Questions & Answers: Put the mockers on
[Q] From Tim Falkiner: “Could you please tell me where the phrase put the moccas on comes from? It is also spelled mockas and mokkas. It is a rather rare phrase here in Australia.”
[A] These are relatively recent respellings of the canonical form, to put the mockers on, these days mainly British. It means to jinx or bring bad luck on an activity or to hinder it, perhaps through an adverse circumstance that may be regarded as bad luck.
Some examples from newspapers may help. This was in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle dated 11 November 2005: “Radio presenter Tony Horne’s training for the Great Ethiopian Run could all have been in vain due to political unrest [which] may have put the mockers on it.” The Racing Post of 23 January 2006 had: “The only thing I don’t like about it is he’s favourite already and that usually puts the mockers on them!” Another report said that continuing rain “put the mockers on” any chance of resuming play in a cricket match. A piece on a football match quoted a supporter who jokingly argued that complimentary comments made in a previous report “put the mockers on” their chance of winning.
I would have said that the expression was old-fashioned and dated but my search through the newspaper archives suggests that it’s enjoying an active retirement on the sports pages.
The first example recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an Australian novel of 1922. The editors are sure the expression was indeed originally Australian—it seems to have been brought to the UK rather later than that date, perhaps during the Second World War, but it certainly became popular here. An earlier form, known only in Australia, is put a mock on, which is known there from at least 1911.
It has been suggested that it is from the Romany words mokardi or mokodo for something tainted, or possibly from Yiddish make, a sore or scourge. It doesn’t seem to be connected with the outdated Australian term mocker or mokker, meaning clothing or attire, whose origin is unknown (though Jonathon Green suggests it might be linked with Yiddish macha, a big man, or a big shot). The Oxford dictionaries are sure it straightforwardly comes either from mock in the sense of deride, or mocker, meaning somebody who mocks.
• In Blue Death by Michael Collins, Michael Hennessey noted, “In my car I found a telephone booth, called Dr. Foley’s secretary.”
• This section only features mere misprints when they are especially egregious. Tony Rocca found one: “I thought you might like to know that the 2006 Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is its ‘Ninety-nineth Edition’ — at least, according to publishers A&C Black (London) who trumpet the feat on the frontispiece. Roll on, the Hundredeth.”
Clifford Milner saw this embarrassing error on a
hotel sign in Lee, Massachusetts.
• This one isn’t an error but headlinese. Mick Loosemore saw it on the CBC Web site last Tuesday, 21 June: “DODGE MUM ON INTEREST RATE HIKE”. It transpires that the governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, had avoided commenting on a possible rise in interest rates.