NEWSLETTER 502: SATURDAY 26 AUGUST 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Hold the front page OK, so it’s moderately arcane. The controversy over how many planets there are and what to call the various bits of solar system real estate is probably not the stuff of headlines, though the topic has been getting lots of press attention. You may feel that I devoted too much of last week’s newsletter to the topic for there to be yet more in this issue. But it’s the only occasion during World Wide Words’ ten-year life in which we’ve been able to watch a tiny corner of our language evolve almost day by day.
The debates this past week at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague have, for example, rejected not only the proposed word pluton for trans-Neptunian planetary objects but also all the alternatives thought up by ingenious astronomers: plutonian object, planetino, plutian, plutoid, plutonoid, plutonid, and plutid are all out. Also dismissed have been Tombaugh object and Tombaugh planet, which were put forward in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto.
Alas, poor Pluto ...
This mini-saga began a couple of weeks ago with the publication of the draft resolution that would for the first time define what was meant by planet. Then there were nine of them. The resolution would have added Ceres, Charon, and the body unofficially known as Xena, making twelve. A resolution passed at the IAU meeting on Thursday afternoon instead reduced the number to eight. Pluto is no longer officially a planet.
The key new rule is that to be a planet a body must have orbital dominance in its own neighbourhood, meaning that it has become big enough to sweep up all the junk nearby. Pluto can't meet that requirement, because its elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune.
Pluto is now officially a dwarf planet, a celestial object big enough to have become spherical through the effect of gravity but not big enough to have cleared its neighbourhood of all potential rivals. This term covers outer-system objects like Varuna, Quaoar, Sedna, and Xena (officially and temporarily 2003 UB313) plus at least one of the asteroids, Ceres. More dwarf planets are expected to be announced: currently a dozen candidates are listed but that keeps changing as new objects are found and existing candidates become better known.
One other term invented and defined at the meeting: small solar system body. This is everything orbiting the Sun that isn’t a planet or a dwarf planet.
As a result of events in Prague, I’ve had to rewrite last week’s Turns of Phrase item on the (now non-word) pluton and the Topical Words piece on planet. I’ve also added another piece on dwarf planet.
Truncate your mnemonics The resolution means that mnemonics for remembering the order of the planets, such as “My Very Early Model Jeep Sits Unused Needing Petrol”, “Men Very Easily Make Jugs Serve Useful Nocturnal Purposes”, “Mary’s Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights Proposing”, and the self-referential “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets”, have become less useful. Temporarily we can mentally erase the last word but no doubt new versions will appear soon. At least we now won’t have the job of creating new ones for the horrendous MVEMCJSUNPCX that would have resulted from adding Ceres, Charon and Xena to the list.
2. Weird Words: Impignorate
To place in pawn; to pledge or mortgage.
This was chiefly a Scots term, the Oxford English Dictionary says, taken from Latin pignerare, to pledge. So it isn’t surprising to find it in Daniel Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia of 1830: “In the year 1468, Orkney and Zetland were impignorated to James III of Scotland, as a portion of the dowry of his Danish queen”.
Known to have been impignorate ...
Another Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, used it several times in letters, as here to a friend from Honolulu in 1889: “I have got the yacht paid off in triumph, I think; and though we stay here impignorate, it should not be for long, even if you bring us no extra help from home.”
But you will search in vain for a more recent serious use, except in the occasional crossword puzzle clue. A supposed letter from a poet to an editor who had displeased him appeared in some American newspapers during 1905: “I tell you, without supervacaneous words, nothing will render ignoscible your conduct to me. I warn you that I would vellicate your nose if I thought that any moral diarthrosis thereby could be performed—if I thought I should not impignorate my reputation.”
[Supervacaneous: superfluous, redundant; Ignoscible: pardonable; Vellicate: to irritate; Diarthrosis: articulation (usually of bones).]
3. Recently noted
Hobbit This term, closely associated with Tolkien, was seized upon by the press in October 2004 to describe a supposedly new species of tiny humans found in a cave on Flores, an island to the east of Bali. Its discovery was described at the time as one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology in half a century (or even the last century, depending on which newspaper you read). Any publishers who rushed to add this new sense of hobbit to their reference books are now going to have to check they were cautious enough in defining it. An international team of scientists reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the skeleton was probably of an ancestor of the modern pygmies who now inhabit a nearby island and not a previously undiscovered member of the human family at all.
Chav This British term for an underclass marked out by ignorance, fecklessness, mindless violence and bad taste is always derogatory. So it was surprising to read in the Leeds Evening Post that the supermarket chain Asda (owned by Wal-Mart) is to trademark the term for items such as clothing and gold jewellery. Now that’s really going downmarket ...
Agnotology Over on another list, Joel Berson noted that this word appeared in an article about corporate responsibility in the New York Times last Tuesday. Agnotology is the study of culturally-induced ignorance. It was created by Robert Proctor, Professor of the History of Science at Stanford University and first used in another article in the same newspaper in 2003. Ignorance, he says, is often not just the absence of knowledge but the result of cultural forces, such as media neglect or corporate or governmental secrecy, suppression and manipulation, as well as a result of our selective memories, inattention, and forgetfulness. The word is from Greek agnosia, ignorance. He need not have bothered to create it, since the Oxford English Dictionary has agnoiology, first recorded in 1856, for which its second definition is “that department of philosophy which inquires into the character and conditions of ignorance”.
Non-paper This popped up in an article on an Indian news Web site this week. It’s diplomatic jargon: a non-paper is an unofficial message or discussion document used to convey one government’s view to another while keeping nothing on record. Grant Barrett, at the Double-Tongued Word Wrester site, has found it going back to 1980.
Low tricks This is the daft story of the week. Members of a group called the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers claimed that their cows have developed a distinctive regional accent derived from that of their Somerset owners (because of the devoted personal attention they get, natch). The Somerset dialect is so easy to imitate, with its drawn-out vowels and long “r” sound—an “oo-ahhh” accent, you might shorthand it as—that actors refer to an all-purpose generic West Country impression as a Mummerset accent. Phonetics expert Professor John Wells was quoted in the Guardian as saying that some birds have been recorded chirping differently depending on where they live, so that variations in moo were not impossible. He commented: “In small populations such as herds you would encounter identifiable dialectical variations which are most affected by the immediate peer group.” The consensus, though, is that the whole story was a cheesy silly-season PR stunt.
4. Questions & Answers: Geronimo
[Q] From Jim Byrne: “I have long been puzzled why paratroopers (in the US anyway) yell Geronimo (St Jerome in Spanish) as they jump from their planes. Any ideas on the origin?”
[A] I have to put a linguistic health warning on this one, because the story is anecdotal, though widely told. But it was mentioned for the first time so soon after it was said to have been created that it seems highly plausible. According to the story, it isn’t St Jerome but the Native American chief who is being invoked.
The cry is first reported in the New York Herald Tribune for 9 May 1941 in a report worth repeating in full:
When a parachutist steps to the open door of a plane 1,500 feet above the landing field, braces himself, and then catapults his body out into the air, he invariably shouts “Geronimo!” If there are twelve men making a mass jump they all yell “Geronimo!” They shout it with such vehemence that those watching from the ground can hear it distinctly. It means that they are not afraid.
The use of “Geronimo” dates back to the early days of the 501st Parachute Battalion, ’way back in last October. Two sergeants got into an argument about being afraid. One said that to prove he was not scared stiff he would yell something as he jumped. When he left the plane the only thing that came to mind was the name of the famous Indian chief. So he hollered out “Geronimo!” It has since become the watchword of the battalion. There is a note of mixed defiance and assurance in it.
But did he shout ‘Geronimo’?
More recent versions of the tale change some of the details and fill it out a good deal. The first person ever to shout Geronimo is said to have been Private Aubrey Eberhardt of the US Army’s parachute test corps at Fort Benning, Georgia, in July 1940. They were due to make their first group jump the following morning and to calm their nerves, members of the platoon went to see the 1939 film Geronimo and to have some beers. Eberhardt was teased about whether he would be too scared to do the jump. According to the story that Gerard M Devlin told in his book Paratrooper! in 1979, he said, “All right, dammit! I tell you jokers what I’m gonna do! To prove to you that I’m not scared out of my wits when I jump, I’m gonna yell ‘Geronimo’ loud as hell when I go out that door tomorrow!”
He reputedly did, and a tradition was born ...
• “I’m a technical writer,” e-mailed Jon Voskuil. “This instruction in one of my user guides managed to make it through five reviews before one of the engineers caught it: ‘Be sure to place the document back on the platform promptly when the screen asks you to do so. If the Placement Timeout (default 5 seconds) expires before you do, the system will not be able to read the chip successfully.’ The engineer thought I was underestimating the life expectancy of our customers.”
• Someone I know only as Christina saw a prediction on a newspaper billboard in Thatcham in Berkshire: NEWBURY BRIDE TO BE FOUND DEAD. Following up the story, she found that correct punctuation would have utterly transformed the sense. It should have been NEWBURY BRIDE-TO-BE FOUND DEAD.