E-MAGAZINE 665: SATURDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Acersecomic “Not to forget sphragidonukhargokometes,” e-mailed Michael Keating, “as coined by Aristophanes to mean a rich lazy long-haired youth”. A word ending in -comic that's not in the Oxford English Dictionary is gerocomic, which Peter Weinrich told me about. It refers to a "practice of rejuvenating an old body by the proximity of the breath of a fresh, blossoming youth", as it was described in a book that he found, Die Kunst das Menschliche Leben zu Verlängern (The Art of Extending Human Life) of 1798. But this is misleadingly similar, since the -comic ending is from a different Greek word, komia, a tendency.
Muggins Several readers pointed out — I’d forgotten it — that the term has a special meaning in the card game cribbage. If a player fails to claim his full score on any turn, his opponent may call out Muggins and take the overlooked points for himself. It is, as I have now discovered, the only optional rule in American cribbage tournaments. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from as recently as 1946, but it seems to be somewhat older: it turns up in an American edition of Hoyle dated 1922. It is clearly from the same source; a person who omits to record his full score allows himself to be exploited by his opponent. An old card game — from the mid-nineteenth century — is also called Muggins; in this the person left with cards at the end, and hence has lost, or who puts cards down in the wrong order, is given that name.
Sarcastic fringehead My puzzled enquiry last week about why this fish should be sarcastic has exposed my limited grounding in the classical languages, as many better-informed readers explained. The word is from Greek sarkazein, to tear flesh or to gnash teeth. (It has ameliorated its meaning somewhat in moving between languages.) As the fish is an ambush predator that’s aggressive in attacking its prey and defending its territory, the common name is appropriate, but is probably an academic joke.
Christopher Joubert responded: “I have added it to my short list of animals with names suggestive of emotion. The other two I have come across so far are the blushing snail, endemic to St Helena; and the depressed mussel, found in Wicken Fen near Cambridge.” A fourth he might add is the Pacific Black Duck, whose scientific name is Anas superciliosa, as Ronald Besdansky notes from Australia. He queried how a duck could possibly be described as supercilious, until the Oxford English Dictionary told him that an old sense of that word was “pertaining to the eyebrows” (it’s from Latin supercilium, literally an eyebrow, though its adjective could mean “haughty” even in Roman times). The duck has white stripes above and below the eye.
Nothing new under the sun Several readers pointed out that last week’s UK press reports about the average colour of the universe being beige were old news. The story dates from 2002 and there have been no developments since. Dr Ivan Baldry, one of the astrophysicists who carried out the original research, tells me NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day chose to feature the story on 1 November for reasons unknown (a quiet day on the astronomy front?), and the UK press pack ran with it, believing it to be topical.
This obscure word — meaning a coward, or cowardly — is the result of an error, but one which has been rubbed true by time. It’s very rare, but it can carry a special punch when it appears:
Stripped of its outer integuments of salacity and fraud, the inner man is revealed as timid and niddering, lying to the last firm handshake and as sickly yellow as a poisonous toadstool.
Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator, 22 May 1999.
The historically correct form, which is now even rarer still, is nithing. The fault was that of the printer in the 1590s who had the job of setting William of Malmesbury’s historical works in type. He misread the eth character in the old spelling niðing as a d followed by a mark, which he assumed meant an e had been omitted. The result was nidering, which later writers made to conform with the usual rules of English spelling by adding a second d.
Its original, nithing, derives from an ancient Scandinavian legal term, the Oxford English Dictionary explains, that meant a person “who has committed a crime so heinous that no possible compensation may be made for it.” It was taken over into the legal system of England before the Norman Conquest in the sense of a coward or outlaw. Later, it came to mean a miser or a treacherous person. Conversely an unnithing was an honest or generous man.
Niddering owes much of what little circulation it has had in the past two centuries to the once-popular Sir Walter Scott, who used it in Ivanhoe in 1819.
3. What I've learned this week
Verbing nouns “I heard it and thought of you,” Paul Hoffman wrote recently. “The word was diligencing. It was in a conversation by two people in the airport queue behind me, who sounded like venture capitalists or accountants, or both. It clearly was shorthand for ‘performing a due diligence examination’. It takes a lot to make me gag, but this one did.” Generations ago, one could speak of diligencing in a very different transport setting — taking a vehicle called a diligence through continental Europe (it was a stage-coach, a shortening of carrosse de diligence, a coach of speed). It appeared, for example, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1857 in an article about Americans taking the waters in Europe: “steaming to Trieste; diligencing and railroading to Vienna”.) The modern sense appears a few times in print, as in Business Wire in January 2009: “[He] is involved in working on business strategies with the firm’s partner companies, in addition to originating and diligencing new investment opportunities.” Most definitely jargon of the trade.
An e-word too far? Trendy words beginning in e- for electronic (frequently meaning electronic communications) have been created in increasing numbers over the past 15 years. Recent examples include e-pharmacy (an online retailer of medication), e-forensics (the study of electronic communications to defeat crime), e-petition (an online petition, in particular one posted to the Web site of Number 10 Downing Street), e-tailer (an online retailer) and even e-fridge (an Internet-linked device that will re-order items when they run out). One that seems odder than most is the adjective e-bandoned that I came across a few days ago, which describes those members of a community who have no computer and no online access — either because they can’t afford them or because they are older and feel unable to learn how to use them. The term first appeared in the UK in October 2007.
Possibly painful With cattle it’s irreversible, but it’s different with trains, I’ve learned. The British government has taken the London-to-Edinburgh rail route back from its private operator and will run it for the next couple of years as a public service. One result, according to a letter recently sent to all staff, is that station signage will be de-branded.
4. Questions and Answers: Bull in a china shop
[Q] From Gautam Y Utekar, India: Your site makes the study of English more fascinating! I always wondered as to what might be the origin of the phrase a bull in the china shop. We studied English composition in school and this phrase cropped up many times.
[A] It’s still common, though rarely meaning reckless destruction of a physical kind. More usually, it’s a way to express a metaphorical clumsiness. The damage is caused by want of diplomacy or tact or through mindless aggression that falls short of actual violence.
One minute he’s a bull in a china shop; the next an impervious super negotiator.
Boston Globe, 24 Oct. 2009.
It’s on record from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It’s one of those idioms that seems to have arrived fully formed without anybody having to go to the trouble of creating it. Was there ever a real bull that rampaged through a real china shop, leaving chaos and destruction behind him, so giving rise to the simile? Perhaps not, though an open-fronted shop in a market town might easily have had such an encounter with an escaped animal. But if you wanted to form a phrase that suggested uncontrolled and uncaring actions with disastrous results, to set a bovine rampaging though a porcelain emporium would be as good as you could wish for.
By 1834, the idiom was well enough known that a music-hall song full of bad puns was written about it:
Whate’er with his feet he couldn’t assail,
A Bull in A China Shop, an anonymous contribution to The Universal Songster or Museum of Mirth, 1834. Mag’s diversion, or Meg’s diversion, was then a common term for boisterous behaviour or unruly antics.
The following extract suggests that it might have had its origin in a minor theatrical production, though we shouldn’t read too much into this review from two centuries ago. It is, on the other hand, the first recorded use of the phrase I’ve been able to find:
The business is whimsical and amusing; the changes are numerous, and the tricks, though highly ludicrous, are for the most part original; — at least, we do not remember to have met with any thing like them before. The extraordinary spectacle of a Bull in a China Shop afforded great entertainment; and an artificial elephant introduced, was welcomed with loud plaudits.
The London Review and Literary Journal, Jan. 1812, reporting a performance of a pantomime called The White Cat, or Harlequin in Fairy Land.
By the way, the only recorded incident I know of in which a bull was deliberately introduced into a china shop was by the famous American publicist and press agent Jim Moran, who in January 1940 led a bull through a New York City china shop as a publicity stunt. The bull didn’t damage anything, but some china was broken when a bystander backed into a table while getting out of the way.
• Unfortunate inversion of sense department: Susan Bradley found a news story in The Times about a young man up in court for having urinated on a war memorial during a pub crawl. His solicitor was quoted: “He has suffered considerable public approbation.”
• “Unreal, man!” was the comment of Mícheál Ó Doibhilín from Dublin. He was referring to the blurb on the packet of Walkers sensations crisps [potato chips] he recently bought. It boasted that they’re “Infused with real ingredients ensuring each and every one of our crisps delivers a real taste sensation.”
• Department of post-mortem struggle: the Sydney Morning Herald, David Killeen tells us, reported on 7 November about the release of three young green sea turtles. It told of the enormous trials and risks facing baby turtles in crossing beaches from their nests to get to the sea. “By the time the baby turtles reach the open ocean, at least one-third are dead”.