E-MAGAZINE 704: SATURDAY 18 SEPTEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Singular troop Like many other readers, John Benz Fentner recalls that singular troop was already common usage in the military in the 1960s: “In one’s own service there was always a generic term like ‘soldier’ or ‘sailor’ or ‘airman’ but the generic term across the services was ‘troop’ — ‘Yo troop! Take ten troops and police up that latrine!’”
For an early example of the singular form, albeit in a compound, Sheenagh Pugh pointed me to John Betjeman’s poem Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm, which was published in New Bats in Old Belfries in 1945, but from context written in 1944: “She will teach that Judy girl to trifle with the heart / And go and kiss a paratroop like any common tart.” The recently revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary has an instance of singular paratroop from 1943.
Katharine Holden does editing work for the US Department of Defense and noted, “The term I’m obligated to use to denote someone serving in the US military is warfighter, plural warfighters. This is used throughout this particular government sector and applies to any member of the US military, regardless of gender, theater, and assigned category of combatancy.” Others similarly mentioned that warfighter has superseded servicemember.
Anthony Massey, a BBC news producer, commented on the BBC’s views of the word: “Iím not convinced that ‘troop’ for a single member of the armed forces has yet crossed the Atlantic. Rather, it’s trying to do so and, at least at the BBC, we are trying to beat it back. We refer to ‘members of the armed forces’ or ‘service personnel’, cumbersome as it may be.”
Bedizened Carolyn Dane commented, “You didn’t mention the word ‘diz’ in your discussion, but it seems probable that it’s related to ‘dis’ and ‘bedizened’. It’s a device used by spinners: a small disc (about 2–3 inches in diameter) with one or more holes in it through which one pulls small strands of wool (or flax, etc.) to align the fibers. The small strands are combined to make a combed top, the usual form in which wool is prepared for spinning.”
2. Weird Words: Gong farmer
John Stow published his Survey of London in 1562. Under the heading Statutes of the Streets of this City is this: “No Goungfermour shall carry any Ordure till after nine of the Clocke in the night.” That identifies the goungfermour as one of the lowest orders of men, a dung carrier, nightman or cleaner-out of privies, who dealt with the product that a squeamish later generation would refer to euphemistically as night soil.
As goungfermour, the word is known almost exclusively from the statute. It’s a variation on a term that appears much more often as gong farmer or gang farmour. Farmer was a slangy sense of the usual word; the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it meant someone who cleanses or purifies a place, though I suspect it’s more likely a sarcastic reference to harvesting. The first part, gong, is an Old English word we might replace with privy, jakes, latrine, loo or related term. Gong is from gang, one’s walk or gait (a sense that survives in German), so a gong was a place where one “went” to do what was necessary.
Gong farmer does still turn up from time to time, for example in discussions of the sanitary arrangements of castles. It also appears as an exoticism in historical or fantasy writing:
It seemed to me that nearly everyone in Hesperu, from the lowliest gong farmer to the King, was a slave of some sort.
Black Jade, by David Zindall, 2005.
Mars and Venus A recently published book by Dr Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, has brought neurosexism to the review pages. This refers to the widespread belief, which she denies, that the brains of men and women are wired differently, so that perceived differences between the sexes are innate and unalterable. Though male brains are indeed physically slightly different to female ones, she argues that all brains are sufficiently plastic in their abilities that the traits commonly associated with the sexes are a result of cultural conditioning that children absorb unconsciously. She argues that neurosexism holds back the education of children because preconceived views by teachers and parents about the differing abilities of boys and girls put obstacles in their way. The earliest example of the word I can find is from 2008, which also mentions Dr Fine.
OED changes An update to the online Oxford English Dictionary came out on Thursday, the last before the site is relaunched in December to include — among other improvements — the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (I’ve had a sneak preview and it’s going to be excellent). Chief Editor John Simpson discusses some of the new and revised entries, in particular the immense entry for the verb roll, which now has 187 distinct senses. Graeme Diamond comments on some of the interesting new entries in the batch, such as eggcorn and the World War Two US term Rosie the Riveter.
4. Books in brief
Short Cuts The subtitle of this book by Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn is “a guide to oaths, ring tones, ransom notes, famous last words, & other forms of minimalist communication”. I was tempted to make my review suit the subject by reducing it to “mildly interesting”. It’s a melange that popularly discusses and illustrates the semiotics of communication methods such as bank robbery notes, postcards, wanted posters, billboards, obituaries, police language, suicide notes, Mountweazels, ghost-words, weasel words, Sniglets, pre-nups, computer error messages, car vanity plates, bumper stickers, clothing brand names, telephone answering machines, and neckties. Some of the discussion strays into areas that have little connection with brevity, such as the nature of dictionaries and newspapers.
Chicago Manual of Style This doorstep of a reference for writers and editors has just appeared in its sixteenth edition. In the US, the work has long been the arbiter of book style, though newspapers tend to have their own styles or follow AP style. As befits a work of the electronic age, the Manual has now been published online as well as in print and includes guidance on publishing in a digital world. It has information on such matters as electronic mark-up of documents, the international Unicode character system, and how to cite blogs, podcasts and electronic sources. Having just changed my own house style to lower-case internet, I note with interest that the Manual conservatively argues that it should continue to begin with a capital letter. However, website (as one word) and other web words are now lower-cased. And e-mail still has its hyphen. Other changes include arcane revisions to the rules about apostrophes and a relaxation of the rule that the first line of a new paragraph should not appear alone at the bottom of the page.
German: Biography of a Language Ruth H Sanders comprehensively covers the development of the German language from prehistory to today, using a blend of anthropology, archaeology, genetics and linguistics. Much of the story is outside the ambit of World Wide Words, but the early chapters throw interesting light on the background to a group of dialects that were the ancestors of English. She shows that their survival was a geographical and military accident because of the failure of the Romans to conquer the German tribes east of the Rhine. If the Roman legions had subjugated that region, as they did the rest of western Europe, Latin would probably have supplanted the German tongues and English might well never have evolved.
5. Questions and Answers: Shrinking violet
Q From Nigel Clark: I find shrinking violet to be a curious phrase. Violets are certainly small but can’t shrink. I can’t find on the Internet where this comes from.
A I’m not surprised. It takes more than a little teasing out, to the extent that few reference books say much about where it comes from. Most stick to verbal variations on shrugged shoulders.
The violet is definitely the flowering plant, specifically the wild European sweet violet (Viola odorata), which is also naturalised in North America, having been taken there by colonists. This plant has had a special place in people’s affections at least since classical times because of its medicinal value and its scent. A curiosity of the active chemical constituent of the latter is that after a few seconds it briefly inhibits the sense of smell, a valuable property when households and towns were whiffy. Violets were added to the rushes on the floors of medieval houses to sweeten rooms and posies were carried by ladies to block out the stink of the streets.
The violet has long had figurative associations with qualities such as faithfulness and chastity, but especially with modesty. There’s a good reason for this. Wild violets are dainty plants whose small flowers are often hidden among its leaves and they are frequently inconspicuous among larger and more aggressive plants. It’s hardly surprising that this self-effacing species should have become linked to the idea of modesty, even though it colonises vigorously by seeds and underground runners and is sometimes regarded as an invasive pest by gardeners.
The term shrinking violet appears quite suddenly on both sides of the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century. In Britain, the poet and journalist Leigh Hunt, born in London to one-time American colonists, is first known to have used it, in a magazine called The Indicator in February 1820. In the US, James Gates Percival included it in a poem, The Perpetual Youth of Nature, published in the United States Literary Gazette on 1 November 1825 and later widely anthologised. I suspect that the closeness of the dates is accidental, and that both writers were separately drawing on an existing idea whose source I haven’t been able to identify.
The sense of shrinking in both cases is not that of becoming smaller, or of recoiling from something distasteful, but of being retiring, shy or self-effacing.
For decades after these two appearances, shrinking violet was a poetical term and uncommon at that. It didn’t begin to appear more widely in either country until near the end of the century. Part of its growing appeal may be linked to the fervour for violets in Europe and North America, especially Parma violets; by the 1890s the violet had become the third most important commercially-grown flower, after carnations and roses, often sold on street corners with the cry “lovely sweet violets”.
Since then the phrase has emulated the expansive qualities of its wild begetter by becoming an ineradicable cliché.
• Hazel McDonald told me of the most recent Bush Fire Survival Plan, issued to residents of New South Wales, Australia. She comments that one piece of advice requires psychic ability: “The safest option is for you and your family to leave early, hours or the day before a fire occurs.”
• David Read and Anthony Chadwick were startled by a report on the CBC News website on 15 September: “Police in the Bahamas believe they have found the remains of a boater who disappeared off a beach where one of the Jaws movies was filmed in the belly of a shark.”
• Diana Platts encountered an accident report in the Shropshire Star of 8 September: “In the collision, two cyclists were injured. One appears to be a 12 year-old-boy and a woman.”
• Andrew Haynes e-mails, “Since the BBC2 series Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys shows Malone trying to improve the boys’ literacy, it’s particularly unfortunate that the TV review in the Times on Friday 10 September included the sentence, ‘So Malone ... coached the boys in how to martial an argument.’”
• Suzanne McCarthy read a news item on AOL news on 15 September. about a traffic incident in Orange County, Florida, during which a driver crashed a car and vanished into a wooded area. It was headlined “One-Legged Man Escapes on Foot”.
7. Copyright and contact details
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2010. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this e-magazine in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this e-magazine and would like to contribute to its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.