NEWSLETTER 515: SATURDAY 25 NOVEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Bringing errorists to justice It was a bad week in which to note that quip from Ian Mayes. Tintagel, despite my bald assertion, is in Cornwall, not Devon (as I know very well, of course; I wonder on which other planet my mind was wandering while I edited last week’s issue). The catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” is from The Catherine Tate Show, not Little Britain: I was thinking of the wrong mouthy teenager.
Bovvered Jonathan Baldwin disagreed with my put-down last week of this word of the year. “I don’t think it’s a case of dumbing-down. The word is used to mean a protested lack of interest in the face of evidence to the contrary (as, someone sees their boyfriend with another girl and claims not to be ‘bovvered’) so could be seen to be a word in its own right, with a distinct meaning. I’ve certainly heard it a lot recently, and used it myself (jokingly, I hasten to add, though it’s in that context that it has become so popular, I think). It may not last, but rather than being the invention of Catherine Tate it’s an acute observation of a pronunciation that’s been around for a while in the south east of England. It belongs with other ‘words’ such as ‘end of’ which is an abbreviation of ‘end of story’ but has become a wonderful (not) rhetorical device that the ancient Greeks would have loved.” Others have reminded me that the word had an earlier moment of fashion in bovver boys, the skinhead gangs of the 1960s, though, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, bovver then meant “[t]rouble, disturbance, or fighting.”
Hokey-pokey A number of messages from the other side of the globe told me firmly not to describe hokey-pokey as an inferior form of ice cream, since the variety sold under that name in New Zealand, consisting of vanilla ice cream with pieces of honeycomb toffee in it, is the second most popular flavour in the country. Luckily for my bank balance, it’s a generic term, not a trademark, so m’learned friends are unlikely to be in touch. Its name might be an allusion to the hokey-pokey ice cream sold in the UK. How it came to refer to a porous toffee is unclear, but there are New Zealand examples on record with that sense back to 1899, the era of the hokey-pokey men. New Zealanders sometimes refer to the dance as the hokey-tokey, yet another variation on the name.
Bulldozer Several thoughtful writers argued that my interpretation of the events of 1876 that gave rise to the earliest meaning of bulldozer were at odds with the facts, in particular that I’d got the Democrats and Republicans muddled. Kirk Mattoon said “At that time, near the end of Reconstruction, the Republican party was still knownas the party of Lincoln, the party of the victorious Union army and, to the slaves, the party of Liberty. It’s hard to imagine any large number of blacks wanting to join the party of their oppressors.” This sent me to the contemporary newspaper records once more. Much is hard to interpret, as journalists assumed their readers would understand references that are now opaque, but there are several contemporary news items that show that he and other correspondents are correct. The earliest showing of bull-dozer I’ve found was dated the day before the presidential election of 1876, which historians suggest may have been the most hard-fought, corrupt and rigged election in the history of the Union. Several articles refer to bull-dozers brutally intimidating blacks, as in this item from the Janesville Gazette of Wisconsin in November: “‘Bull-dozers’ mounted on the best horses in the state scoured the country in squads by night, threatening colored men, and warning them that if they attempted to vote the republican ticket they would be killed.” Their methods are so similar to what I’ve since read were those of the night-riders of the Ku Klux Klan at that time that it looks as though bull-dozer was an epithet applied to those who followed their example (a newspaper article the following April lists ku-klux and bull-dozer as synonyms). What is not in doubt, however, is the popular view of the time that bull-dozer derived from a former slave being given a dose with a bullwhip.
2. Turns of Phrase: Philanthropreneur
This turned up in an article in the New York Times last week, as a term to describe “young billionaires who have reaped the benefits of capitalism and believe that it can be applied in the service of charity”. It turns out not to be a neologism, but one that has had a few earlier outings.
It is claimed that the difference between old-style philanthropists like Carnegie or Rockefeller and the new philanthropreneurs is that the latter combine active money-making with a willingness to tackle social problems of the kind that have previously been thought to require governmental action. It is in
essence capitalism that aims to do good at the same time, a hybrid activity that is causing some classically trained economists to scratch their heads in disbelief.
Cases quoted in the New York Times article include Jeffrey Skoll, the former president of eBay, who has invested in a firm that makes waterless urinals to save water in arid countries; Stephen Case, the founder of America Online, whose charitable foundation pays to install water pumps in African villages but also operates a for-profit firm that ensures that they continue to be maintained; and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin brand, who is investing in a scheme to combine mine-disposal in Mozambique with opportunities for Africans to grow sugar cane to make ethanol for fuel.
[Thanks to Harold Pinkley for pointing out the NYT article.]
The approach of these philanthropreneurs reflects the culture of the business that brought them their wealth: information technology, with its ethos that everyone should have access to information. By their way of thinking, the marketplace can have the same level-the-playing-field impact, and supply the world’s poor with basic needs like food, sanitation and shelter.
[New York Times, 13 Nov. 2006]
Especially among today’s young business leaders, philanthropy and entrepreneurialism are becoming indistinguishable. Consider the following “philanthropreneurs.” Regardless of taxation status or accounting objectives, they’re all hard-charging business people who revel in the fulfillment that comes from building a better world.
[Wall Street Journal, 2 Apr. 1999]
3. Recently noted
Murphy’s law Though a popular tale is widely believed about the origin of the famous maxim, “if something can go wrong, it will”, the experts have always been cautious about it. That is now justified, since researcher Bill Mullins has found several examples of it in conjurors’ magazines long before Mr Murphy had even been thought of, in one case attributed to the famous magician David Devant. The earliest case is from The Magic Wand, published in London in May 1913: “There is an old saying among conjurers that it is impossible for a performer to know a trick thoroughly well until everything that can possibly go wrong with it has gone wrong—in front of an audience.” Not only has it nothing to do with Murphy, it’s not even American, but British! Fred Shapiro (whose Yale Book of Quotations, just out, finds that many popular sayings are older than we think) had previously found a variant in George Orwell’s War-time Diary for 18 May 1941: “If there is a wrong thing to do, it will be done, infallibly. One has come to believe in that as if it were a law of nature.” Another law of nature, to quote a yet more famous source, is that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Viewser This term turned up this week on the tvtechnology.com Web site, where it was described as a neologism. It’s certainly new to me, though an archive search turned up several dozen appearances that date back to 1991. The evidence suggests it has been lurking as a jargon term of the digital communications business and has rarely reached general audiences. A viewser is a consumer of online programming or interactive media, especially a person who watches television via the Web rather than their TV set. The term is said to be a blend of viewer and user (though it might equally be from viewer and browser). Either way, it’s a ugly creation, though preferable to the alternatives that have been mentioned in recent years, SIMMs (simultaneous media users) and telewebbers.
Interpersonal terrorism A review in the Guardian last weekend of Bran Nicol’s book Stalking featured this heavy-footed term. It isn’t new—it is recorded as far back as John Mordechai Gottman’s work What Predicts Divorce? of 1994, albeit in a slightly different sense. It is used these days as a broad collective term for various types of stalking behaviour, especially its online versions that are known as cyberstalking and cyberbullying.
Autograt The Daily Record in New Jersey mentioned this odd-looking creation this week. It’s a short form of autogratuity. Another term for it is service charge—the automatic adding of a fixed tip to the bill in a restaurant, usually 15% or 20%. It’s often applied specifically to tables of six or more patrons. The Double-Tongued Word Wrester site has found examples going back to 2004.
4. Weird Words: Inwit
Conscience; inward knowledge; wisdom.
We must thank (or perhaps blame) James Joyce for this word ever appearing in modern writing, since he helped to revive it by using it several times in Ulysses in 1922: “You spent most of it in Georgina Johnson’s bed, clergyman’s daughter. Agenbite of inwit.” It had gone out of the language around the middle of the fifteenth century and would have remained a historical curiosity had not he and a very few other writers of his time found something in it that was worth the risk of puzzling his readers.
It was formed in Middle English from in plus wit, the latter meaning the mind as the seat of consciousness and intelligence (we continue the same idea when wetalk about native wit or we describe somebody as having a quick wit). To have inwit meant that you had an inward sense of what was right and wrong.
Modern examples—they’re rare enough for the word to be extremely unlikely to be in anybody’s active vocabulary—almost always echo Joyce’s full phrase agenbite of inwit, which dates from 1340. In that year, Dan Michel of Canterbury translated a devotional manual from French into English and gave it the title Ayenbite of Inwit. Ayenbite, or agenbite, is literally “again-bite”, a literal translation of the Latin word meaning “remorse”, This has as its root the verb mordere, to bite (the Romans felt that remorse was the emotion that came back to bite you after the event). The title meant “the remorse of conscience”.
One appearance was in Samuel L Delany’s SF work Nova of 1968: “His fate suggests the agenbite of inwit came too late; flaunting the gods even once reaped a classical reward.” (That’s as he wrote it; Delaney has made the classic mistake of confusing flaunt with flout.) Mike Madison’s 2006 book, Blithe Tomato, features it, too: “‘Not at all,’ I said, ‘I’m very happily married,’ but even as I said it I felt the agenbite of inwit, as if I were telling a lie.”
Inwit presents no pronunciation difficulty, but agenbite is another matter—none of the few dictionaries that include it say how it should be said, perhaps because they don’t know. It’s not, after all, a word very likely to be heard over the dinner table.
• Jeff Kinn noted a headline on the BBC news Web site on 14 November: “Armed robbers strike outside bank”. He would like to know how many people crossed the picket line. On Friday morning of this week, Neil Greenwood reports, another headline on the site said “Dead Russian ex-spy accuses Putin”. They must have had the Ouija board out again.
• Sybil Ehrlich found this on the Sunday Telegraph Web site on 19 November: “Greeting his adopted family each morning with a bird-like chirp, Rupert was a ‘playful and docile’ pet who liked to lounge on the living room rug. But during a burst of energy he could reek havoc on the house. Unlike most family pets, Rupert was a 500lb rhinoceros.” He would seem to have been doing more on the living room rug than just lounging.
• It’s nice to know one’s expertise is so wide-ranging. The WCVB TV site, TheBostonChannel, had an item this week on the mild weather bringing out winter moths. “Briggs said a predatory fly native to Europe can kill the moth. ‘The etymologists believe it will take tens of thousands of the predatory flies to even make a difference on the outbreak,’ Briggs said.”
• From The Mercury of Hobart in Tasmania for 22 November, noted by Jo McRae: “Shark finning involves removing the fins from sharks at sea and discarding the carcasses overboard where they are sold for between $160 and $170 a kilogram.” Who to? Perhaps through seaBay?
• Talking of matters maritime, Rory Gordon was looking at the travel site Travelmole.com, where he noted this item: “Qantas owned budget airline Jetstar has cleared the final hurdle on the home strait of commencing its international services on Thursday”. As he says, to have hurdles in a strait would hardly be practicable. But it might make for an innovative Olympic sport.
• From this week’s issue of Computer Weekly, “They need to simplify their elevator pitches and communicate in layman’s terms.” Let him who is without sin ...