NEWSLETTER 574: SATURDAY 9 FEBRUARY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sledging A further follow-up came from Geoffrey Ogden-Browne. He tells us that the Australian spin bowler and commentator Kerry O’Keefe recalled the circumstances of its creation in his book According to Skull in 2004. In brief, he says it came about at a barbecue in an Adelaide backyard in the early 1970s during which a member of a team “made inappropriate comments to a lady” and was ruled out of order by John Benaud, Ritchie Benaud’s cricket-coach brother. “Benaud added that the transgressor’s outburst was as ‘subtle as a sledgehammer’ and he momentarily became known as ‘Percy Sledgehammer’ (a reference to the artist who belted out the tune When A Man Loves A Woman). The ‘Percy’ soon disappeared and for the remainder of the season anyone who used over the top language was known as a ‘sledge’.” This neatly combines the two main stories about the origin. As they say in the printed papers, this correspondence is now closed!
Phonetic guide A number of fonts are now widely available for the major operating systems that include symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the standard method for representing the pronunciation of words. I’ve finally found time to change all the IPA pronunciations on the Web site, about 600 of them, to use such fonts. When I started the site (many years ago), I had to create IPA pronunciations as images. Frankly, they were a nuisance and I included pronunciations as little as possible. Now I just type in the appropriate characters. The results look better, too. The page that gives all the details has also been updated.
French containing many loans from English.
Though his is the name most closely associated with Franglais in the UK, he didn’t invent it. It was created in French in 1959 as a blend of Français and Anglais. It referred to the dilution of the purity of the French language through the uncontrolled introduction of such Americanisms (or what were considered to be Americanisms — we British were excused) as le weekend, le melting-pot, le snack-bar and le striptease. It first appeared in Parlez-vous Franglais, by Professor René Étiemble, then professor of comparative languages at the Sorbonne. “The French language is a treasure,” he wrote. “To violate it is a crime.”
In English, under the influence of writers such as Miles Kington, Franglais came instead to mean the macaronic mangling of both languages for humorous purposes. However, the genre, if we can dignify it by that name, goes back a lot further. Surtees had fun with it in Jorrock’s Jaunts and Jollities (1838): “‘Oui, Monsieur, cinq fois,’ repeated the Countess, telling the number off on her fingers — ‘Café at nine of the matin, déjeuner à la fourchette at onze o’clock, diner at cinq heure, café at six hour, and souper at neuf hour.’”
3. Recently noted
Macquarie Dictionary words of 2007 Forget the Oscars, it’s now time to open the envelopes in this final round of voting for the best words of 2007. The Macquarie Dictionary asked visitors to its Web site to vote for their favourite words of the year in no less than seventeen categories (now you can see why I thought of the Oscars). If you’re interested in the details, you will find them on the Dictionary’s site. The term receiving the most votes out of the 75 on offer and which wins the People’s Choice Award is password fatigue, frustration caused by having too many different passwords to remember, which results in an inability to remember even those most commonly used. The choice of the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year Committee was pod slurping, which is defined as “the downloading of large quantities of data to an MP3 player or memory stick from a computer”. The press release said, “The committee felt that the most important criterion for word of the year should be linguistic creativity and evocativeness, rather than simple worthiness or usefulness.” The earliest example of pod slurping I have in my database was in the New Scientist on 25 June 2005 in an article that was widely picked up by other media. The article quotes the US American security expert Abe Usher, who seems to have invented it. The Macquarie definition doesn’t give the full context — the term refers specifically to using MP3 players such as iPods and other USB storage devices to steal sensitive corporate data. There is also the closely related but rarer data slurping.
Churnalism This word has gained what will almost certainly prove to be temporary public notice through the publication in the UK on Thursday of a book, Flat Earth News, by the journalist Nick Davies. He forcefully argues that journalism in the UK is in a terrible state, with reporters often being merely “passive processors of second-hand material generated by the booming PR industry and a handful of wire agencies, most of which flows into our stories without being properly checked.” Part of the problem is the greatly increased workload on journalists in the past decade as proprietors slash costs through reducing staff. Davies says “The relentless impact of commercialisation has seen our journalism reduced to mere churnalism.”
My month People often write and ask about my day job. Insofar as I have one, it is as a freelance field worker for the Oxford English Dictionary, always on the watch for new or interesting words. The list of those I’ve marked in the past month are as eclectic a bunch as one might want. They include liturgist, in the original Greek sense of a rich citizen in a community who took on a public office or duty which was discharged at his own expense; unijohn, an all-in-one male undergarment, described in the article as “a kind of man-sized babygro”; fishmaster, the person in charge of fisheries work on a trawler; umbilicoplasty, plastic surgery to turn your navel from an innie to an outie (plus undo-plasty, an operation to reverse incompetent or unwanted plastic surgery); Boyzilian, presumably modelled on Brazilian, waxing to remove most or all of the hair from a man’s most intimate areas; zythologist, a person who studies beer (from the Latin zythum for a type of malted beer brewed in Egypt, I presume, which has had some notoriety as the last word in a few dictionaries); limbo-skating, skateboarding in which a boarder slides under obstacles; apart-hotel, an apartment or flat that provides hotel services, which sounds like a snazzy new name for serviced accommodation; and strategic incompetence, a sudden inability to do a job as a way of avoiding undesirable tasks.
4. Questions & Answers: Hard graft
[Q] From Raymond Hogg, Edinburgh: “I was wondering if anyone knew where the term hard graft came from, as in the British sense of hard work. I believe in the US the term has a different pejorative meaning.”
[A] There are several senses of graft in the language, such as the gardening, medical and the bribery and corruption one from the US that you mention, all from different sources.
Yours started life as another word for spit, the depth of earth that can be thrown up at one time with a spade. This comes from the Old Norse groftr, digging, and is also linked with the verb grave, an ancient Germanic one also meaning to dig (from which we get the noun grave in the body-burial sense).
The implication is that grafting is hard work. The English Dialect Dictionary noted, however, that in some counties, graft had taken on a broader sense of work of any kind, but not particularly hard work.
The evidence strongly suggests that it was in Australia and New Zealand that it came to mean heavy labour and where the phrase hard graft first appeared. John Rochfort, writing in 1853 in Adventures of a Surveyor in New Zealand, said, “I could make more money by ‘hard graft’, as they call labour in the colonies.” An Australian work of 1873, Christmas on Carringa, includes, “My name is Jim the Cadger. I’m a downy cove, you see. ‘Hard graft’, it ain’t my fancy.”
It appears in the United States at the end of the century, where — for example — the Fresno Weekly Republican uses it on 10 August 1899: “Two years of strict military discipline, hard ‘graft’ and sobriety will make a man out of him, if anything will.” But it never seems to have caught on in that country.
5. Questions & Answers: Twaddle
[Q] From Alison Saville, West Sussex: “On Radio 5 today (15 January 2008) Janet Street-Porter and Simon Mayo agreed that twaddle was (or had been) an indecent word. I've never heard this before, and have always used the word freely. Can you enlighten me on its meaning and origin?”
[A] So far as I can find out, twaddle has always been an insult but it has never been indecent. But I can guess why they should think that.
Facts first, inference later.
Aha. But it turns out that Mrs Delany just meant that the word was impolite, not obscene. It’s a variant of an older word, twattle, which has mainly been dialectal and hasn’t been recorded much in print. That meant to talk foolishly or idly or to chatter inanely. A twattle-basket was a chatterbox. It seems to have been itself a variation on tattle, as in tittle-tattle, another of those many reduplicated terms that English is so fond of, which has also been written as twittle-twattle. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that these, and other forms, are probably echoic in origin and are primarily colloquial, not often having been written down. So it’s difficult to work out which came first.
My guess is that Janet Street-Porter and Simon Mayo knew about the link with twattle and made the unreasonable assumption that it had a direct link with twat for a woman’s genitals, a low slang term dating from the seventeenth century, whose origin is unknown. Of such wild guesses are folk etymologies born.
• My wife and I were puzzled by an advertisement in last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine for a UK short-break holiday: “Scenic Scottish Railways by air.” We visualised low-flying helicopters.
• Walter Sheppard e-mailed from Virginia: “An advert for a TV broadcast by the singer Chantal Chamandy proclaims, ‘The first time in 5000 years that a concert has been filmed at The Pyramids!’ Who do you suppose sang at the last filming? Tut and the Tooters?”
• The old errors are the best. From the Corrections and Clarifications column of the Guardian on Wednesday, referring to an article published two days earlier: “Whether the romance of the French president and Carla Bruni was very pubic, only they can say. We meant to say it was very public.”
• Trevor Cowell of Perth in Tasmania noticed a caption under a photo in the issue of The Mercury for 6 February: ‘Josephine Brownhill, of Pontville, waters her garden with her dog, Cooper. Coming from Adelaide she is used to being sparing with water’. It would seem the dog is more generous.