NEWSLETTER 518: SATURDAY 16 DECEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Tinny Australian subscribers suggested that one possible reason why this word is losing its meaning of “lucky” is that other senses have grown up in recent decades, notably those of a tin or can of beer and of a lightweight aluminium boat. Bruce Thorpe noted that in New Zealand the word these days refers almost exclusively to small amounts of marijuana sold from suburban addresses known as tinny houses. The name is from the wrapping of tinfoil around the drug.
2. Weird Words: Oaf
A stupid, boorish, or clumsy man.
There’s an intimate connection between oafs and elves. In ancient legend, elves weren’t the noble creatures portrayed in Tolkien’s stories but powerful and dangerous supernatural beings who were more likely to harm humans than to help them. Their name says so: it comes from an ancient Germanic term for a nightmare, a close relative of the first element of the modern German Albdruck with the same sense. Among other nasty habits, elves were thought to bring humans bad dreams and to steal their children, leaving changelings in their place.
It’s from that belief that oaf first appeared in English, in the seventeenth century. Originally an oaf was an elf’s child, one that had been left in a poor exchange for a stolen human one. In popular superstition, such children were assumed to be ugly or stupid. The first forms to appear were ouphe and auf, the former turning up several times in Shakespeare’s plays, though he used it to mean an elf or goblin. Auf appears in 1621 in the Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton: “A very monster, an aufe imperfect”. By the end of the seventeenth century it had settled to the modern spelling and oaf had moved to mean “idiot child” or “halfwit”, then later took on the senses of a large, clumsy man or boy and a rude and boorish man.
3. Questions & Answers: Trig and trim
[Q] From Peter Wells, New Zealand: “While reading a shipping report dated 1877, I came across the phrase trig and trim that referred to a ship that had arrived at Dunedin from the Old Country in superb condition. Are you able to provide, please, a dissertation on its origins?”
[A] I was nearly stopped dead in my research when I found that the Oxford English Dictionary online doesn’t contain a single example of the phrase; a call to the lexicographers confirms they have few examples of it. But then I found it in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood of 1954: “In her iceberg-white, holily laundered crinoline nightgown, under virtuous polar sheets, in her spruced and scoured dust-defying bedroom in trig and trim Bay View, a house for paying guests ...” and in a very different work, Bill Tilden’s The Art of Law Tennis (1920): “Miss Browne is a trig and trim little figure on the court as she glides over its surface. It is no wonder that her public love her.” Marie Corelli included a naval reference in her book of 1886, Vendetta: “And she has been newly rigged and painted, and she is as trig and trim a craft as you can meet with in all the wide blue waters of the Mediterranean.”
All these examples confirm that it means exactly what you suggest: that something is neat and tidy, in good order, immaculate.
It’s hard to be sure how old it is. It was a bit of a struggle, as it happens, to find an example even as old as yours. But I’ve now turned up an earlier one in the first volume of Robert Chambers’ Cyclopaedia of English Literature, dated 1843: “The same reason I find true in two bows I have, whereof one is quick of cast, trig and trim, both for pleasure and profit.”
The OED does give a good account of trig, which it says is from an old Scandinavian word tryggr, meaning faithful or secure. (Nothing to do with trigger, which is from a Dutch word meaning to pull.) Trig today is mainly found in northern England and Scotland and can mean someone who is nimble, brisk and alert, or a person who is neatly or smartly dressed, or someone or something that is in good physical condition, strong or sound.
It would seem it was put together with trim, in its sense of neat, sometime in the nineteenth century to make one of those reduplicated phrases that English speakers so like, perhaps after the model of the much older spick and span.
4. Recently noted
Word of the year Merriam-Webster has been running a competition, asking visitors to its Web site to nominate the Word of the Year for 2006. The runners-up were, in decreasing order of popularity, google, decider, war, insurgent, terrorism, vendetta, sectarian, quagmire, and corruption. Astonishingly, the winner — announced on 8 December — is truthiness. It triumphed by such a large margin, 5 to 1, that an unbiased observer must wonder about the possibility of ballot-stuffing. That would be fitting for a word that means the quality of stating concepts or facts that one wishes or believes to be true rather than those known to be true. The word was invented by Stephen Colbert in his first-ever show on the Comedy Channel in October 2005. Truthiness was given a push last January when it was chosen as its 2005 Word of the Year by members of the American Dialect Society. But even after this double whammy of accolades, the experts are very uncertain whether it will survive. Newspaper searches throw up only a small number of cases in which it has been used without reference to Colbert or to its winning awards. Because of this, Merriam-Webster are reported as having no plans to add the word to their dictionaries.
Engleutsch? Though the influx of English words into German has been great enough to result in a mixed language sometimes called Denglish, the flow the other way has not been so sizeable, though we do have Schadenfreude, Kindergarten and Zeitgeist, plus a good number of technical terms. The Goethe Institute in London has been running a competition to find the German word whose acceptance into English would most improve our language. Some good suggestions were put forward, including Backpfeifengesicht, a face that makes you want to hit it, Torschlusspanik, a door-closing panic, a fear of being left on the shelf, and Kummerspeck, “grief bacon”, for an excessive gain in weight caused by overeating as a result of emotional problems. The most frequent suggestion was Ohrwurm, literally an ear worm, a tune so catchy that you can’t get it out of your head. However, the winner, announced on 8 December, was Fachidiot. Literally “subject idiot”, it refers to a person who has become such an academic specialist, so deeply immersed in his subject, that he has lost all interest in or understanding of what is going on in the world around him. We do have nerd, of course, though that hardly plumbs the same depths of unworldliness.
The Deutsche Sprachrat, the German Language Council, part of the Goethe Institute, has also been running a contest, called Word Migrations, for the German word that has most interestingly moved into another language. Many people submitted vasistas (Was ist das?, what is that?), French for a skylight or fanlight. There’s also the famous Japanese arubaito for a student or part-time job (from Arbeit, work). But the winner was Kaffepaussi, Finnish for a coffee break or temporary break in service, which the winner discovered on the automated destination board of a public-transit bus that was on a break.
Bestshoring A poster to the comments column of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday remarked that his firm had laid off workers this year through bestshoring. The earliest example I’ve found is in an article by Senator Hillary Clinton in the Wall Street Journal in 2004. We’ve long had offshoring, sending certain kinds of work to overseas countries where it can be done more cheaply. That has led to nearshoring, in which the work goes to companies with the economic benefits of an offshore location, but a closer cultural, linguistic and geographic fit with the user firm, and onshoring or homeshoring, which is outsourcing to a cheaper company within your own country. We’ve even seen the creation of onshore offshoring, which instead involves bringing the skilled workers from foreign countries to your own. This plethora has led to bestshoring, which is a combination of onshoring, nearshoring and offshoring, depending on the requirements of the moment. We are cast up on the shores of a sea of neologisms.
5. Questions & Answers: Disgruntled and gruntled
[Q] From John Carlson: “I have, for some time, been fascinated by the word disgruntled. How may you be disgruntled if you are not already gruntled? I do not know what gruntled is and I have not been able to find that word in the dictionaries that I have examined. Any thoughts about gruntled and disgruntled?”
[A] Years ago I wrote a piece about such unpaired opposites, whose first example was this word. It quoted P G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” So, if you were the opposite of disgruntled you would be pleased, satisfied, and contented.
Wodehouse invented this sense and has been quoted or flatteringly imitated many times since (as in Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett: “‘No, that man,’ said Angua, ‘[with a] face like someone very disgruntled.’ ‘Oh, that was Captain Vimes. But he’s never been gruntled, I think.’”)
The assumption behind it is that putting dis- on the front of a word makes it negative in meaning in some way, as in disappear, discontent, disconnect, dishonest, and dozens of others. That’s still an active way of making new words — it has been used in recent decades to create disinformation, disambiguate and many others. Sometimes, however — very rarely and only in old words — dis- is what the grammarians call an intensifier: it makes an existing sense stronger. For example, the unusual word disannul was used in the sense “to make null and void, bring to nothing, abolish” and dissever means “to divide, separate, disjoin”. A third example is disgruntle, which at root suggests somebody is more than merely gruntled. But gruntled here doesn’t have its Wodehousian sense, quite the reverse.
Now a second grammatical term, frequentative (or frequentive if you prefer). This is a trick of word formation, now obsolete, in which an ending created a verb to suggest that some action is often repeated. The one used for this most often is -le. So curdle is the frequentative of curd, gamble that of game and sparkle of spark. The verb gruntle is the frequentative of grunt.
The first sense of gruntle was of a repeated grunt, especially the noise that pigs make in company. An example is in The Life and Death of Mr Badman, by John Bunyan, of 1680: “After this his speech went quite away, and he could speak no more than a Swine or a Bear. Therefore, like one of them, he would gruntle and make an ugly noise, according as he was offended, or pleased, or would have any thing done.” It is rarely used of humans, but an example occurs in a 1922 book, The Covered Wagon, by Emerson Hough, “They dismounted. The two Indians, short, deep-chested, bow-legged men, went to the packs. They gruntled as they unloaded the two larger mules.” Gruntle appeared in the fifteenth century; by the end of the next century it had begun to be used to mean grumbling or complaining. I imagine it as old-retainer mumble, the noise that someone fed up with their condition will make under their breath all the time.
If we put the intensifier and the frequentative together in one word, disgruntled has its current meaning, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a state of “moody discontent, sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour”.
• The December issue of Which? magazine has an article entitled All you don’t want for Christmas that contains a list of unwanted or useless presents. It quotes someone who complains “I had asked all my friends and relatives to either buy me nothing at all or to buy an animal for a family abroad. Quite a lot of people ignored this or did both.” Mike Cottrell suggests there’s something seriously wrong with the logic in that statement.
• A scandal in the UK in recent weeks concerns the collapse of a firm named Farepak, which ran a kind of savings scheme that allowed low-income families to save up over the year to get hampers of goods at Christmas. Michael Hocken read an article in the Daily Mail of 8th December about a rescue package for Farepak customers. The headline read “Farepak victims’ hamper rescue”. He had to read the article to be sure what was meant.