NEWSLETTER 544: SATURDAY 16 JUNE 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Vacation break My wife and I will soon be leaving on our summer holiday, so this is the last issue for four weeks. The next is due to appear on 21 July. Many thanks to everybody who has already sent bon voyage messages.
Chuck-farthing Several US subscribers noted that a similar game exists in their country under the name of “pitching pennies”.
I mentioned the word dump for a rough-cast leaden counter sometimes used in the game. Jim McCrudden and Peter Rose both noted that coins were in short supply in the early days of the New South Wales colony in Australia; the centre portions of some were cut out and used as coins in their own right. Dump, the same word, was used for one cut from the centre of a Spanish dollar, used in the colony from 1813 to 1828, and was given the value of a quarter of a dollar. The rest of the coin was called a holey dollar, and was worth, as you would expect, three-quarters of a dollar.
Count the legs, dummy! Many readers found time to exercise their pedantry muscles by pointing out that in this section last week it was wrong for me to call a student of spiders an entomologist (from Greek entomon, an insect). Spiders aren’t insects; somebody who studies them is an arachnologist (from Greek arakhne, a spider).
Biter bit Jim Lattie notes, “Your comments regarding improvements in street scenes, ‘by removing abandoned motor vehicles, reducing dog fouling and graffiti, and enforcing remedial work by private property owners,’ leaves me somewhat puzzled. Although I have seen many examples of dog fouling, I have never knowingly spotted any dog graffiti. Perhaps its true origins tend to be hidden?”
2. Weird Words: Nostoc
A gelatinous mass.
Neither the name nor the definition sound at all romantic, but if I mention that nostoc’s other names include star jelly, star-shot and the Welsh pwdre sêr (“rot of the stars”), you will appreciate that there’s more to the matter.
Whatever you decide to call it, nostoc appears on the ground as a foul-smelling jelly-like mass. The geologist Bill Baird encountered some in Scotland in 2004. He said the lumps were about the size of a half-brick, had “the consistency of a firm blancmange” and looked like bits of a “settled fragmented snow bank”.
The real cause is very much more mundane than the stories. Several types of slime moulds can produce jelly-like masses when millions of individual cells clump together preparatory to producing spores. A cyanobacterium, Nostoc commune, sometimes forms filamentous colonies at the roots of grass when it is very wet.
In the eighteenth century the cyanobacterium was given the genus name of Nostoc because of this behaviour. The term nostoc had by then been around for at least two centuries in the sense of this mysterious star jelly. Despite its mundane nature, there remains one mystery about nostoc — we’ve no idea where the word comes from, not even whether it was coined in Latin or English.
3. Readers write
Jetso Malcolm I’Anson reports: “This word is so common and has been in popular use in Hong Kong for so many years that I wonder if it’s gone into any dictionary yet. It’s used to describe what we’d call ‘freebies’, benefits or sweeteners that are thrown in to attract custom — e.g. sign up for our credit card and you’ll receive 3,568 restaurant discount vouchers, that sort of thing.” He notes that it has been borrowed from Cantonese da jit tau, grant a discount, or jeuk so, meaning an advantage or benefit. So far as I know it has yet to reach any English-language dictionary.
4. Questions & Answers: Trimmer
[Q] From Barry Rein, California: “Could you help to define an obscure term? In its online edition, The Economist called the Belgian prime minister a “serial trimmer”. Surprisingly, Google was of little help in defining this term. Can you explain what is a trimmer?”
[A] No problem.
The problem with looking up trimmer online is that the political sense is swamped by references to tools that cut and neaten, such as hedge-trimmers and hair-trimmers. The political sense of the word isn’t now so common as it once was, though you can still find it — as you have discovered — in the more heavyweight type of journalism.
The reference was originally to the trim of a yacht or sailing ship and to the action of keeping the vessel balanced against the forces of wave and wind. Sails continually need trimming and a person who does it can be called a trimmer.
In the late seventeenth century, this idea was applied to English politics during the administrations of George Savile, Lord Halifax. These were especially partisan times, with differing social and religious views fighting for supremacy in the decades following the English Civil War. He was an advocate of what is now fashionably called the third way, seeking a middle ground between these extremes. His opponents began calling him and his supporters trimmers, supposedly members of a third party of neutrals and traitors, who figuratively trimmed their sails to accommodate prevailing political winds. In his defence, Halifax wrote a pamphlet with the title The Character of a Trimmer to set out his views. He even accepted the title, but in the sense of “one who keeps even the ship of state”.
His attempts to soften the term were unsuccessful, though they did help to ensure that the word entered the language. Trimmers today adapt their views to prevailing political trends not for the good of the country but for personal or political advancement. The Economist’s comment you quote describes the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, as “a populist and serial trimmer who will say or do anything to get elected”.
The serial part is a resurgence of a usage, fashionable in the 1990s and based on serial killer, for a person who repeatedly follows the same behaviour pattern, as a serial adulterer or serial truant.
5. Questions & Answers: Spoonerism
[Q] From James MacNaughton: “I’ve been told that the man who gave rise to the term Spoonerism never said one. Can this possibly be true?”
[A] The legends, mischievous inventions and simple errors that have accreted around the term obscure the truth. But there is evidence to suggest that the Reverend William Archibald Spooner rarely if ever uttered a Spoonerism.
Spooner spent all his adult life at New College, Oxford, joining it as a scholar in 1862 and retiring as Warden (head of college) in 1924. The term Spoonerism began to appear in print around 1900, though the Oxford English Dictionary records that it had been known in Oxford colloquially since about 1885.
A classic Spoonerism is the swapping of the initial sounds of two words: “young man, you have hissed my mystery lectures and tasted your worm and you must leave Oxford by the town drain”; “let us raise our glasses to the queer old Dean”; and “which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?”. When Teddy Roosevelt came to Britain in 1910, the heads of four Oxford colleges — Spooner among them — gave receptions in his honour. A US newspaper took the opportunity to retell some further examples:
He is said to have asked his neighbor [at lunch] to have “some of this stink puff”, pointing to an ornamental dish of pink jelly. In chapel it is recorded that he has read out the first line of the well-known hymn which starts “From Greenland’s icy mountains” as “From Iceland’s greasy mountains”, and has spoken of the wicked man whose words were “as ears and sparrows”.
Virtually every example on record, including all the famous ones, is an invention by ingenious members of the university who, as one undergraduate remembers, used to spend hours making them up.
Wordplay of the type we now call Spoonerisms was rife among undergraduates in Oxford from about the middle of the nineteenth century. It appears in The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green (1854-7) by Cuthbert Bede, the pseudonym of another Oxford don, the Reverend Edward Bradley (“‘Will you poke a smipe, Pet?’ asked Mr. Bouncer, rather enigmatically.”)
Spooner was well known in the small community of Oxford. He was instantly recognisable, since he was an albino, with the pale face, pink eyes, poor eyesight, white hair and small stature that is characteristic of his type. (Some writers have suggested his verbal and physical quirks may have been linked with his albinism, perhaps a form of what is now called dyspraxia.) Spooner later became famous for his verbal and conceptual inversions, so it’s easy to see how his name could have become linked to products of undergraduate wordplay. This seems to have been from affection rather than malice, since Spooner (known as the Spoo) was kindly and well-liked.
Spooner was an excellent lecturer, speaker and administrator who did much to transform New College into a modern institution. But he was no great scholar, and it’s a cruel twist of fate that he is now only remembered for a concept he largely had foisted upon him.
• Mary McMillan noted a sign in a women’s restroom in what she calls a “barbecue joint” in Texas: “Employees must wash your hands”. She guesses that staff wouldn’t get too much else done running into the restroom to assist every customer.
• Ed Pixley e-mailed to report that on NewsMax.com, a right-wing US blog, a mass mailing to congressional representatives was offered for readers’ signatures to try to stop new mileage standards for cars. In the letter, signers told the congressional recipients that “Engineers should design cars and trucks, not politicians.” Raise your hand if you think a politician designed by an engineer would be an improvement.