NEWSLETTER 481: SATURDAY 1 APRIL 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Error one “Those who live by the sword, perish by the sword,” says the old proverb. What brought this to mind last Saturday morning was a rush of e-mails from subscribers delighted to be able to exhibit their sense of humour over an error in the section in which I expose the mistakes of others. The first I read was this gnomic comment from Peter Ronai: “Did you miss him terribly?” He and the others were commenting on a line in the Sic! column: “An e-mail came while I was away from Peter Weinrich in Canada.” You’re all quite right, of course, a comma was needed after “away” ...
Error two More seriously, lots of alert readers spotted that I’d mixed up the words lupine and vulpine. The former refers to the wolf, the latter to the fox. Pat Corbett e-mailed, “I’m certain you plugged the lupine/fox item into the newsletter just to make sure all your readers were paying attention.” I didn’t and I wasn’t (paying attention). Would you settle for the old “Even Homer nods” defence? Or possibly delayed jetlag?
BLOODY Following up the piece, the most frequent comment was that the writer had believed or been told that the origin was from the oath by our lady, in reference to the Virgin Mary. From the evidence it seems as unlikely as being from either of the other oaths I quoted.
2. Turns of Phrase: Eugeroic
It’s a comparatively recent invention, of the 1990s, supposedly from classical Greek words meaning “good arousal” (eu- is from Greek eus, good, but I can’t work out where the second half comes from). Eugeroics are drugs that reduce the need for sleep. They’re claimed to deliver an alert and wakeful state that feels natural without the side effects of earlier types of stimulant. The best known is modafinil, though the earlier drug adrafinil and the newer armodafinil also belong in the same group. They’re officially intended to treat sleeping disorders, but they’ve become lifestyle drugs which allow people to cope with the stress of excessively busy working and domestic lives. The military sees huge potential in them because they enable soldiers to remain active and alert for up to 48 hours at a time. They’ve been reported to ease flight crew fatigue on long trips and to help with the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in children.
New drugs are being developed that allow people to go without sleep. Modafinil was launched in the late 1990s. It has made possible 48 hours of continuous wakefulness with few ill effects. It is an eugeroic, and gives a natural feeling of alertness and wakefulness.
[Australasian Business Intelligence, 22 Feb 2006]
Modafinil belongs to a new class of awakening drugs known as eugeroics, which are unravelling the mechanisms of sleepiness. Once you’ve done that you will end up in a world where the need to sleep is optional.
[Sunday Telegraph, 6 Jan 2004]
3. Weird Words: Smellfeast
A parasite, a greedy sponger, a freeloader.
You can see where this one is coming from. Such a person has a good nose for the scent, literal or figurative, of a good meal in the offing. The word has vanished from the active language but was very common in the seventeenth century and didn’t die out altogether for another couple of hundred years.
An even ruder term was the much less well recorded lickdish. If you would like to obscure that insult through a classical allusion, you could call such a person a catillo, from Latin catillare, to lick a plate.
The prolific writer and translator Sir Roger L’Estrange published an English edition of Aesop’s Fables in the 1690s. Some fifty years later, a sentence from it was borrowed by Dr Johnson to illustrate the word in his Dictionary: “The ant lives upon her own, honestly gotten; whereas the fly is an intruder, and a common smellfeast that spunges [sponges] upon other people’s trenchers.”
4. Recently noted
Single/Double Summer Time A bill was debated in the House of Lords on 24 March whose intent is to bring in this curiously named system as a three-year experiment in Britain. Non-Brits may require a footnote. Summer time is the same as the American daylight saving time—the moving of clocks forward an hour in spring and back in autumn to make better use of daylight in the evening. Single/double summer time (SDST) would in effect move Britain to Central European Time, one hour ahead of GMT in winter and two hours in summer. The name seems to have been invented to allay ingrained suspicions of many in the UK about adopting a bizarre continental practice. The shift has been advocated for many years by campaigners as an easy way to make roads safer in the evenings—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents argues that 100 lives a year would be saved by it. An all-year summer time experiment was tried in 1968, but failed because of objections by the Scots, whose children had to go to school in the dark throughout the winter months. The current proposal allows for Scotland to opt out, which would make time-keeping complicated at places on the border, such as Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Unsiloing On 27 March, the Wall Street Journal wrote in an item on business language, “Another current buzzword, ‘unsiloing,’ mangles the noun silo to make an important but simple point: Managers must cooperate across departments and functions, share resources and cross-sell products to boost the bottom line.” The word is ugly and opaque management-speak to those not in the know. I learned, thanks to Benjamin Zimmer, who unravelled the word on the Language Log, that around the 1980s silo took on the sense of a hierarchical business, figuratively like a tall silo, in which communication is mainly “vertical”, up and down the hierarchy, rather than between departments. This makes cooperation between them difficult and prevents the organisation presenting itself as an single entity to the outside world. (Similarly, an information silo is a computer system that cannot easily communicate with other computer systems.) The verb to silo means to communicate only up and down the organisation, so it means the same as to stovepipe, which the Oxford American Dictionary defines as “[to] transmit (information) directly through levels of a hierarchy”. To unsilo is to improve communications and cooperation between departments. It’s a long way from storing wheat ...
5. Questions & Answers: Purse-lipped
[Q] From Rish: “In your piece last week on the Tourism Australia bloody usage fiasco, you use the term purse-lipped. I’m not familiar with the true meaning of the term, and a brief online search didn’t reveal much either. I was hoping that you could perhaps explain the term and how it originated.”
[A] It was actually an Australian writing in the Guardian who used it; since I knew what it meant, I didn’t comment on it. But it’s surprising how rarely it turns up in dictionaries: I’ve checked through more than 20 current ones in my collection and it isn’t in any of them. It has either been missed or their editors have felt its not worth including. And yet, the expression is common enough, and it isn’t immediately clear what it means, so it would be worth explaining it.
To be purse-lipped is to be censorious, or silently disapproving. The image was of a person pressing their lips together firmly in disgust or prudishness, which reminded bystanders of the shape of the tightly clasped metal lips of a small purse.
The term is actually quite old—the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t feature the exact expression but it has two related examples from the seventeenth century. A clergyman named John Gaule used one in his Pusmantia the mag-astro-mancer; or the magicall-astrologicall-diviner posed and puzzled (don’t ask) in 1652: “A purse lip [forespeaks] a scraping sneak; and a blabber lip, a nasty slut.” Not quite the modern sense, but close.
A better example appeared in the Oakland Tribune in August 1949: “Snyder arrived—purse-lipped, prepared to scold. He scolded, and left, more purse-lipped than before.”
• “In the Editorial in the March edition of Total Gambler,” e-mailed Mark Robinson (who explains this is a freebie inserted into various titles of Dennis Publishing), “Stephen McDowell writes, ‘So it is understandable that when Caesar’s Palace reopened its poker room after a 16 year absence due to popular demand ...’ I wonder if the reopening was as popular as the absence?”
• Having just returned from Tasmania, I was intrigued to hear about last Monday’s weather report for Hobart, given on the Classic FM station of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and relayed by Bert Forage. “The maximum temperature for today is 15 degrees. The current temperature is 16 degrees”.
• A whimsical note has come from Gordon Black in Australia. One of his sons is about to marry and sought out a place at which to hold the reception. The hotel’s Web site suggests holding the reception “in a stunning silk-lined Marquis”. It asserts that this “will be serene, stunning and certainly unique”. Gordon Black notes, “I’m not sure whether celebrating my son’s marriage inside a silk-lined nobleman will be serene, but stunning and unique it will certainly be.”