A smaller postbag than usual came in after last week’s issue. Thanks to everybody who said it was good to have World Wide Words back and a fond farewell to the few who welcomed us back by unsubscribing.
Several pointed out that I’d spelled the noun prophecy as though it were the verb prophesy: blame late-night composition following the ADS vote in Boston. Others — mostly from the Silicon Valley area — commented that for them the graphics format called GIF was always said with a hard g. I’d not heard it said much (it doesn’t come up in conversation very often around my way), but always as “jif”, so the report I read of Oxford's announcement that it was pronounced like that raised no doubt in my mind. Oxford’s press release is more nuanced and informative:
GIF may be pronounced with either a soft g (as in giant) or a hard g (as in graphic). The programmers who developed the format preferred a pronunciation with a soft g (in homage to the commercial tagline of the peanut butter brand Jiff, they supposedly quipped “choosy developers choose GIF”). However, the pronunciation with a hard g is now very widespread and readily understood. Whichever pronunciation you use, it should of course be the same for both the noun and the verb.
More significantly, several Americans argued that the name of the # character isn’t hash but either number sign or pound. (I have heard that some older Americans prefer crosshatch.) Bryon Moyer wrote, “I frankly thought that hash was a Briticism. I’d heard it, but not often. On a phone, for example, you’d never hear ‘Hit the hash key’; you’d hear ‘Hit the pound key’.” It may be that hashtag is, indirectly, a British contribution to the language.
Several readers said they had difficulty in voting in the Macmillan Dictionary’s Love English Awards 2012. The design of the page isn’t optimum, especially for users with small screens or older browsers. World Wide Words is there, if you scroll to the end of the long list of nominations.
A particularly erudite thesaurus may offer you in its place rebuke, scold, tell-off, lambast, censure, give a piece of one’s mind, read the Riot Act, criticise, take to task, haul over the coals, or some dozens more — such is the size of our vocabulary when it comes to giving somebody an earful.
Jobation may have been an academic joke. At least, it turns up in A Collection of College Words and Customs, an obscure American work of 1856 by Benjamin Homer Hall. He defined the word thus: “At the University of Cambridge, England, a sharp reprimand from the Dean for some offence, not eminently heinous.” The Oxbridge connection may be supported by its appearance five years later in Tom Brown at Oxford, Thomas Hughes’s sequel to Tom Brown’s Schooldays: “Don’t be angry at my jobation; but write me a long answer of your own free will.” The recently revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary online counters that it is more likely to be an English colloquial or regional term. Since it is recorded in Admiral Smyth’s Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867, in which he says it is like a cabin-lecture, a private but severe reprimand, we must accept the colloquial part. In the speech of some English regions it has appeared as jawbation, a neat version that evokes extended exertion of the mouth muscles in castigation.
The origin is biblical, from the Old Testament book of Job. You may recall that the poor man was much troubled by sanctimonious friends who reproved him at length. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, to Jobe was to harangue somebody about their personal failings.
“Change and decay in all around I see”, hymned Henry Francis Lyte in Abide With Me. Nobody is more conscious of that than a taphonomist. I found the word over Christmas in a dystopian SF book, Zero Point by Neal Asher, in which a future dictator used computer technology to simultaneously kill off eight billion human beings and then had to work out what to do with the bodies.
Asher defined the word as a specialist who studies the decomposition of dead organisms. That’s pretty much correct, though there’s more to it and the timescales can vary hugely. A sub-discipline, forensic taphonomy, takes a relatively short-term view, looking into ways in which human remains decay through natural processes as a way to guide police investigations — you may have heard of macabre studies in which corpses are left out in the open so their decomposition can be studied. The main focus of taphonomy, however, is on processes that take much longer — ones by which dead organisms transform into fossils.
Taphonomy was coined in 1940 by a Russian palaeontologist (and SF author), Ivan Efremov. He took it from the classical Greek taphos, a grave, plus the -nomy ending for a specified area of knowledge that originated in nomos, law. German scientists had been working in the field since the 1920s but the specialism gained much greater prominence in the 1970s.
Q From Joe Fordham: Do you know where swizz is from? I used it as an exclamation of disappointment when I was a boy growing up in England, “Bloody swizz!” My British dictionary says it comes from swindle but I was trying to explain it to an American who was dumbfounded by the term.
A I know it well. As with you, it was a word of my youth. All the reference works I’ve consulted agree that it’s from swindle. But, as so often, there’s more to it.
Swizz (or swiz as modern dictionaries prefer to spell it) is a shortened form of swizzle. This is a late-eighteenth-century word for what a slang dictionary of the following century defined as “a compounded intoxicant”. It was usually rum or gin with bitters, made frothy by stirring. Hence swizzle-stick, which survives as a term for a stirrer of liquids, usually alcoholic. The origin of swizzle is unknown; it’s first recorded in Captain Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1788. This is from a few years later:
The landlord I soon found to be a knowing little chatty fellow, and one who knew how to please his guests. Never was I more entertained in my life than by his company. He was not one of your common dry brained swizzle venders [sic]; no, sir; he had read several characters carefully in the book of nature, and knew how to render a reason.
The Freemasons’ Magazine (London), 1 Aug. 1795.
There are some signs that a century later the word had become shortened to swiz, a development that was hardly surprising. The slang lexicographer Jonathon Green found it in the London humorous magazine Punch of 11 October 1884: “Political picnics with fireworks and plenty of swiz ain’t ’arf bad.”
What happened next is obscure, but we know that by the first years of the twentieth century the word had shifted into schoolboy slang for a cheat, scam or disappointing outcome. The first example in the slang dictionaries is from a letter from the poet Wilfred Owen dated March 1915 but a syndicated anecdote turns up in a number of transatlantic newspapers a few years earlier. It hadn’t become an Americanism — it had been borrowed from the British magazine Tit-Bits, a little tale in a careful transcription of contemporary London pronunciation:
“Now, there’s Jimmy Simpk’ns. ’E tell me only the other day that every time ’e takes a dose o’ cod liver oil ’is ol’ woman puts a penny in ’is money box. ’E must be gettin’ rich.” “No, I ain’t!” bawled Jimmy. “W’y, I’ve found out it’s all a swiz! When it gets ter ’arf a crown, she takes it out and buys anuvver bottle.”
La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin), 26 Feb. 1909. Cod liver oil was a medicament with an unpleasant taste often given to children by the spoonful at the period to help prevent rickets; half a crown in old British money was two shillings and sixpence or thirty pence; old woman here must be the boy’s mother.
The missing link is how swiz changed its meaning from alcohol to swindle, if it did and wasn’t a reinvention. Swizzle and swindle are similar but not sufficiently so for the one to easily transform into the other, even though the former was a fixed and frequent element of English vocabulary at the time. There has to be more to it.
Eric Partridge suggested in his Origins in 1958 that the original swizzle, like other mixed drinks, was pleasant to drink but very treacherous. I wonder whether the reputation of licensed victuallers in the nineteenth century for cheating their customers might have had something to do with the shift of meaning.
It transpires that we’re not quite done with the words of 2012. The Macquarie Dictionary of Australia is running its sixth annual poll to find words in various categories. Among them are alive call, a telephone call allowed to an asylum seeker to ring relatives to let them know they’re alive, and fibro majestic, a disparaging term for a house built from asbestos (fibro locally), which Sue Butler, editor of the dictionary, said in a report in the Australian Financial Review was her favourite: “I think it’s very funny in an Australian way.”
• John Neave learned of a previously unknown royal occupation from the New Zealand Herald of 28 December: “Jiroemon Kimura, who was born on April 19, 1897, when Queen Victoria was on the throne and worked as a postal employee, is particularly fond of red bean cake and rice, his family says.”
• Tony Morris encountered this headline in the online issue of the Irish Independent of 3 January: “High street bubble set to burst asshoppers embrace e-tail therapy.”
• Another textual confusion confronted Dennis Ginley in a piece on the DailyTech site on 4 January. It reported on proposals to counter the loss of fuel taxes from electric or hybrid vehicles: “Oregon isn’t the only state considering charging drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles attacks on the miles they drive.”
• Vivian Pryles thought we might enjoy this from The Sunday Age of Melbourne of 6 January about re-opening a pub: “Having lain dormant and empty for nine months, a group of 10 locals bought the three-acre site”.
• The recent floods in the UK provoked a comment which David Parlett found in the New Statesman’s issue of 4 January: “The Swilgate, the tributary of the Avon that runs round the southern edge of the town, had overflown its banks four days earlier.”
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