NEWSLETTER 521: SATURDAY 6 JANUARY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Web site You will have already noticed that this newsletter has been given a makeover, as will the whole of the Web site at some point this weekend, most probably Saturday morning. Some changes will be made to the format of pages, such as the indexes and search function, but the major update will be in their appearance. Comments and criticism will be very welcome. I’d like to hear in particular from anybody with a disability who has problems navigating the site.
2. Turns of Phrase: Archaeogenetics
The newish field of Archaeogenetics studies DNA that has been recovered from archaeological sites, cultivated plants, domesticated animals, or living humans. Through such analysis it has become possible to say useful things about the way we have migrated about our planet and altered our environment.
The archaeologist Colin Renfrew coined it in 2000 in a book that he edited with Katie Boyle: Archaeogenetics: DNA and the population prehistory of Europe. The word itself is still largely the preserve of academic specialists, but the ideas behind it have had masses of attention in the press.
Work with human DNA is sometimes instead called genetic genealogy or historical genetics. Some of our DNA can remain unchanged for generations and can give clues about our origins. Men in Orkney have a Y chromosome similar to modern Scandinavians, which suggests that the Vikings who colonised the island may have wiped out all the male members of its previous Pictish population. One gene often gives its owners red hair and was common among ancient Britons; invasions by non-redheads later pushed them to the margins, which is why that colouring is especially common among Scots and Irish.
The idea that through analysis of one’s DNA it may be possible to deduce something interesting about one’s ancient family history is intriguing to anyone who has ever had an urge to find out who they are by investigating their forebears.
There is one area of human research which benefits from their continued existence: archaeogenetics. It refers to the application of molecular genetics to the study of the human past.
[Western Mail, Cardiff, 25 Feb. 2006]
Such a revelation demonstrates the power of archaeogenetics ... in which modern Britons explore their Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Saxon origins.
[Observer, 31 Dec. 2006]
3. Weird Words: Lexiphanic
Of people who use bombastic or pretentious language.
“The tinsel of Lexiphanic language in many places involves his argument in almost inextricable mystery, and pains whom it was intended to please, by making them toil for instruction, when an easy, natural communication was practicable.” Modern writers might take this as a motto or an awful warning to be posted above their desks. It was written by the US statesman William Pinkney in the early 1800s.
Lexiphanic (said as or “lek-si-FAN-ik”) comes from Lexiphanes (pronounced or “lek-SIF-un-eez”), the title of a dialogue that was composed by the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata in the first century AD. It is also the name of the character who was the subject of the satire in the dialogue, coined from lexis, word, and phainein, to show. So Lexiphanes was a phrase-monger, of whom another character, Lycinus (supposed to be Lucian himself) says in the dialogue, “There is not a doubt I shall go raving mad under the intoxication of your exuberant verbosity”. This may remind you of Benjamin Disraeli’s quip about William Gladstone: “A sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”.
Few people read Lucian today and even fewer would recognise the name of one of his characters. Two centuries ago, men and women of education were more familiar with the classics. In Dr Johnson and Fanny Burney, the latter wrote in surprise about the former: “How little did I expect from this Lexiphanes, this great and dreaded lord of English literature, a turn for burlesque humour!”
4. Questions & Answers: Road
[Q] From Joe Price: “I live in an area named Hampton Roads, Virginia. When people ask me why the area is named after its roads, I have to explain that its an old nautical term, or something. Do you have a quick and easy explanation that I can use in the future?”
[A] “Quick and easy”? That’s not what I do ...
The history of road is closely linked to that of both ride and raid. It’s actually from the past tense of the Old English verb to ride, which we retain in a different spelling. In Old English road meant a journey on horseback. A little later it came to mean riding with hostile intent, hence the raid sense, raid being an old Scots form of road. The much later creation inroad preserves this meaning.
By about 1300 road could also refer to a ship riding on the waves. Out of this came the harbour sense of road, a partly sheltered stretch of water near the shore in which ships could ride at anchor, as in roadstead, in which the second part is the obsolete stead for a place.
Our sense of a road as being a fixed route or line on land for getting from one place to another came along much later, at the very end of the sixteenth century (Shakespeare is the first known user). This explains the old joke that there are no roads in the City of London (the medieval core of the metropolis), as indeed there aren’t: all the ways there had been named before the word came into the language.
5. Recently noted
DFY This abbreviation can be expanded in several different ways (such as Design For Yield or Division for Youth), but the one that has gained most exposure in British newspapers in the past year or so is Done For You. It’s the opposite of DIY. The trend is for busy people with disposable income to get someone in to do those little annoying jobs around the house rather than try to do them themselves. In our cities, this has been helped along by the influx of large numbers of skilled workers from the new central European members of the EU, especially Poland, and is said to be the reason why DIY suppliers’ profits are falling. The abbreviation itself is recorded from at least as far back as 2000, but even now articles that use it always explain it, so it hasn’t yet become established in everyday vocabulary.
Balderdash and Piffle A new series of the word programme is being produced for broadcast next Spring on BBC television. The BBC and the OED have launched a new Wordhunt for information about some puzzling or badly documented words. (The last series brought in fascinating and previously unknown material about some of the featured words.) More information is on the BBC site, including a link to the OED’s page that lists the appeal words in detail.
6. Questions & Answers: Mangel-wurzel
[Q] From Chris Sheldon: “Any idea where the phrase mangle worzel for a large white turnip comes from?”
[A] Root vegetables aren’t the most sexy things either to eat or write about but I hope to show that this one’s an exception. Let’s get a couple of important things right before we go any further — its name is usually written mangel-wurzel and it isn’t a relative of the turnip but a large variety of beet, closely related to the sugar beet and the beetroot or red beet.
“I can see you in the country,” she answered with good-humoured scorn. “Why, the first rainy day we had in the winter you’d be crying for London.” She turned to Philip. “Athelny’s always like this when we come down here. Country, I like that! Why, he don’t know a swede from a mangel-wurzel.”
Mangel-wurzel is mainly a British term, which is often shortened to mangel, or sometimes to mangold. To many townies, it evokes a stereotyped traditional yokel rurality in which every peasant wears a smock, wields a pitchfork, and talks in a Mummerset accent. Think of the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge, whose head was made from a mangel-wurzel.
Perhaps surprisingly, in view of that, it’s originally German. The first part is the old word Mangold, meaning beet or chard (the latter being the green leaves from a variety of beet). The second part is Wurzel, a root. Germans became confused about the first part several centuries ago and thought it was instead Mangel, a shortage or lack. From this has grown up the popular belief that mangel-wurzel refers to a famine food, a root you eat only when you’re starving. This is a gross calumny, since when young it’s as tasty and sweet as other sorts of beet, though it’s mainly used as animal fodder.
• “My son,” e-mailed George Thomas, “received a Chinese toy darts set for Christmas. Among the writing on the packaging is the following: ‘all in keeping with Adult the game that child is’ and ‘Then the score of the position game that in the clout The high speed ins the clout the target accurately’. So that explains that!”
• A headline on the Brisbane Sunday Mail Web site last weekend reported: “Teen charged over ecstasy in underpants”. “Ah yes,” e-mailed Colin Burt, who sent it in, “I remember it well!”
• “The State Library of Queensland,” says John Wainwright. “restrict the size of bags and briefcases that can be taken into the library, and a sign says of those that exceed the stated size ‘Please cloak them’.” But will cloaking them make them any smaller?