E-MAGAZINE 716: SATURDAY 11 DECEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Shebang Several readers, well versed in the colloquialisms of the computer business, mentioned its use for the characters #! that appear at the top of Unix shell scripts. It is clearly based on the existing shebang but is also a transformation of hash-bang or sharp-bang, names for the individual characters, or just possibly from shell-bang. Other names for it include hash pling, pound bang and crunch bang.
Collywobbles Garry Davies wrote: “I expect you’ll get lots of emails from Australia about the word ‘collywobbles’ [I did — Ed]. It’s been in regular use over here for many years in reference to the Collingwood Football Club, which has played in many losing grand finals. The term has become synonymous with stage fright, as Collingwood tends to wobble at the final hurdle. We’ll keep using the term, even though they are the current reigning champions.”
It’s been a while since I’ve seen one: do examination papers still sternly instruct you to “write on one side of the paper only”? Or as Sellar and Yeatman parodied it, “do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.”
We’re used to bound books, in which a blank page is unusual enough that the reader may on occasion encounter the reassuring — albeit paradoxical — legend, “this page intentionally left blank”. It was very different when texts were hand-written scrolls on papyrus or parchment. To write on both sides would result in handling rapidly wearing away the writing on the outer side. To read the back side of such a scroll, the reader would have to unroll it and roll it up the other way, a time-consuming process made more difficult because scrolls, once rolled, took on a permanent bend.
As a result, scrolls written on both sides are rare enough that a special term has been created to describe them: opisthograph. It comes via French and Latin from Greek opistho, behind, plus graphos, written. Rather rarely, the word also refers to a memorial slab that has been reversed so that a new inscription can be made on the blank side.
Books, of course, are for the most part opisthographic, a useful property that was a key reason why they superseded scrolls. But hand-written documents are still commonly anopisthographic, written on one side only.
Word hunt Two embarrassing errors on BBC radio programmes last Monday and a misspeaking in the House of Commons the same day have led to the — possibly temporary — creation of two new slang terms.
It started at 8am, when James Naughtie, a regular presenter of the BBC Radio Four flagship breakfast magazine Today, was trailing what was to follow after the news. Through a slip of the tongue, he changed the surname of the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, into the C-word. He was so embarrassed that he could only splutter his way through the remainder of his script. (I’m glad to learn that in BBC circles the inane giggling sound that erupts in such cases, caused by mortification, horror and stress, is still called corpsing, a term that has been borrowed from the theatre.) A colleague, Andrew Marr, while mentioning the gaffe 90 minutes later on his own live programme, Start The Week, promised listeners he wouldn’t use it, then accidentally did. Nick Herbert, Labour police spokesman, made it a hat trick by saying it in Parliament later in the day when he intended to mention cuts. For a moment, it felt like an epidemic.
The Today story went around the world and clips appeared on YouTube and elsewhere. A rhyming slang term appeared: Jeremy, short for Jeremy Hunt. The error began to be referred to as a naughtie (one joker wrote, “Naughtie by name and naughty by nature”, a try at nominative determinism, in which people take on roles suggested by their names). Some newspapers played on his name with headlines such as “Radio 4 slips up with Naughtie word”, “Naughtie language” and “Oh, who’s been a Naughtie boy?” These strain at wit: their writers surely know James Naughtie (a Scot) says his surname as /lɒxtI/ (the first bit rhyming with loch) and not as “naughty”.
The main response to James Naughtie’s fluff was sympathy, not least among broadcasters, for whom verbal catastrophe is never more than a breath away. One infamous train wreck of an announcement was perpetrated by the late Jack de Manio. In 1956 a big feature about Nigeria was aired on the BBC Home Service to mark a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip. Its title was Land of the Niger, but he misread his script and added an extra g to the last word. That one resulted in questions being asked in Parliament.
4. Questions and Answers: From soup to nuts
Q From Dave Reeder: On reading your comments on from cellar to dome, I was struck by the resemblance to the phrase (used in the computing industry that I write about) of from soup to nuts, as in a supplier who covers the whole range of a customer’s needs. I’m guessing this originates in the US but am curious as to its origins. It clearly refers to an ornate meal or banquet, but why the assumption that the common listener would have had such a meal? I would welcome your insight, as always.
A The idea that everything, or the beginning to end of a matter, can be expressed by the first and last dishes conventionally served at a meal goes back a long way. The Romans had a similar idiom, ab ovo usque ad mala, from the egg to the apple, which described the typical meal.
You’re right to suggest that from soup to nuts is American. The current entry in the Oxford English Dictionary dates it from 1920 but with the aid of digital resources that can be taken back some way:
American Dinners. — The rapidity with which dinner and dessert are eaten by our go-a-head friends is illustrated by the boast of a veteran in the art of speedy mastication, who “could get from soup to nuts in ten minutes.”
The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor, London, 18 Dec. 1852.
It may not have been an everyday occurrence, but formal or public set meals in the USA did commonly start with soup and ended with a dessert course in which nuts frequently featured. This is a sample dinner menu from a grander establishment than most:
Oysters on Half Shell, Mock Turtle Soup, Boiled Halibut, Roast Haunch of Venison, Chicken Patties, Baked Lemon Pudding, Jelly Kisses, Raisins, Nuts, Fruit, Coffee.
The Whitehouse Cookbook, by Mrs F L Gillette, 1887.
The tradition of such big meals lasted well into the twentieth century:
It was still the heyday of the big summer-resort hotel [in the US] ... with a vast dining room in which were served huge meals on the American plan, with a menu which took one from celery and olives through soup and fish and a roast to ice cream, cake, and nuts and almonds, with sherbet as a cooling encouragement in mid-meal.
The Big Change, by Frederick Lewis Allen, 1952.
• Jonathan Warner found a news item dated 29 November on the gambling site rgtonline.com about a proposal to outlaw online gambling in Cyprus. It was headlined “End neigh for online gambling.”
• The San Francisco Chronicle online, Peter Armstrong reports, had a caption to a photograph: “After 70-plus years of service, Joy Daniels sweeps up debris as construction crews work to demolish the Transbay Terminal on Wednesday Dec. 1, 2010.” Unsurprisingly, it has been changed. However, the main article suggests the job was slow starting: “After 71 years, construction crews work to demolish the Transbay Transit Terminal in San Francisco this week.”
• The New York Times sports section on 3 December featured a photo of Brian Cashman, the general manager of the New York Yankees baseball team. He was taking part in a “Heights and Lights” holiday event in Stamford, Connecticut, in which people climb the outside of office buildings. The caption, Judith D Baron tells us, reported that he was practicing for “his holiday repelling stunt”.
• The UK has had some inclement weather recently. John Pearson tells us that at one point on Friday 3 December, BBC News online quoted a motoring organisation spokesman: “It’s busy all over the country due to the freezing conditions but the Glasgow area, Leeds and north-east England are particular hotspots.” Is that good?
• On 4 December, the Yahoo! Movie News and Gossip section reported, as Eric E noted, that “Winter’s Bone, a thriller set in the Ozark mountains about a woman trying to protect her family from U.S. director Debra Granik, won the main prize at the 28th Torino Film Festival.” Neat plot twist!
6. Copyright and contact details
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