NEWSLETTER 538: SATURDAY 5 MAY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Knowing the ropes Having gently reproved Alex Games in my review last week of his book Balderdash & Piffle by pointing out that a sheet on a sailing ship was not a sail but a rope, I was in turn firmly told by several readers that they’re not ropes but lines. Brian Lentle noted, “Boat-speak almost qualifies as a separate language quite apart from its gifts to English.” And Chet Shaddeau explained: “According to my long-ago instructors in marlinespike seamanship, there are only about seven ‘ropes’ on a ship; they are all specialised dinguses like the bellrope, footrope, ridgerope, etc. Practically everything you pull or heave on is a line.” Peter Underwood took the discussion from sea to land: “If we are going to be pedantic, you might like to know that at the Royal School of Military Engineering in Chatham that comment would have resulted in some arcane form of punishment. Rope is made of metal. Any other form of lashings, including those made of nylon, would be referred to as cordage.”
Eggcorns Too many people responded to the piece on eggcorns for me to be able to give a rounded summary. But you may like the report of the man said to be wearing a cygnet ring. And deafly quiet has a certain logic to it.
A rose by any other name Many people pointed out that a famous example of a name change for marketing purposes was that of rapeseed to canola in North America. It didn’t come to mind when I wrote the item, as that name isn’t well known in the UK, where we prefer to call a spade a spade and a rape plant a rape plant, though its oil is usually sold labelled euphemistically as vegetable oil. As an aside, unlike the ones I quoted, the word is an invention, from Canada + -ola, based on Latin oleum, oil.
Susan McLeary mentioned that in New Zealand honey is made from a close relative of borage, viper’s bugloss. We know the plant by this name in Britain, too. The viper part is from its former use as a treatment for snake bite, the viper being the only venomous snake in the country. The second part is shared by some other British plants and derives, via Latin, from ancient Greek words meaning “ox tongue”, because of the shape and rough texture of the leaves. (It’s said as byu-gloss, by the way, not bug-loss.)
Hircocervus The Winchester College archivist has kindly sent a copy of the picture of the Hircocervus or Trusty Servant, mentioned in my piece about this exotic word two weeks ago. It is now online with the item.
2. Weird Words: Lollapaloosa
Something outstandingly good of its kind.
You can’t easily misunderstand the meaning of this American word once you have heard somebody say it, since it’s so obviously an over-the-top cry of excitement or delight, highly suitable as the name for the annual Lollapalooza pop festival. It has been spelt just about every possible way down the years (the Oxford English Dictionary has it under lallapaloosa). Its extravagant enthusiasm may be judged from an early appearance, in Miss Minerva and William Green Hill by Frances Boyd Calhoun, dated 1909:
“Lordee, Lordee,” he gazed at them admiringly, “you sho’ is genoowine corn-fed, sterlin’ silver, all-wool-an’-a-yard-wide, pure-leaf, Green-River Lollapaloosas.”
Another early example is in a baseball match report in the Fort Wayne Sentinel of May 1903, one we may be glad to have missed (the reporter said disgustedly that one pitcher was all too accurate, since he hit the bat almost every time):
There wasn’t enough ginger in the players nor audience, either, to keep a colicky baby awake, the only excitement being furnished by a loquacious individual in the grand stand who was rooting for Evansville, and he rooted right, too. He proclaimed himself the High-past-potent-grand-mufti-lallapaloosaof the Amalgamated Knockers’ Brotherhood and had a bigger assortment of mallets on hand than a croquet factory.Any hope of a lollapaloosa?
(Image courtesy of the
Illinois State Museum)
Where it comes from is uncertain. Lulu and lolla, both also meaning something good, are recorded earlier, and lollapaloosa may be a super-extravagant enlargement of the latter.
3. Recently noted
Well brought up In the Observer last Sunday, the author Sebastian Faulks commented on what he calls the astonishing recent rate of change in English. “For several hundred years, the past tense, or preterite, of ‘bring’ was ‘brought’. In roughly three years, it has changed to ‘bought’. Everyone I know, except my wife, now says: ‘I was bought up in X’ or: ‘I bought it with me.’ The rapidity of the switch is remarkable. In 2010, will the preterite of ‘think’ no longer be ‘thought’, but ‘taught’ — as in ‘I taught as much’? Such a change would be no quicker than that of ‘brought’ to ‘bought’ and no less odd.” This hasn’t come my way — it may be a metropolitan shift that hasn’t yet reached the semi-rural fastness from which I communicate with the world. A shift from taught to thought is hardly a parallel to one from brought to bought, and of course it’s already well known in those dialects that pronounce th as t, notably in Ireland.
4. Reviews: Brave New Words
British scientists were recently reported to be working on a force field to protect astronauts from radiation on the space station and space shuttle, on interplanetary journeys or while working in the projected NASA moonbase. We take such language in our stride these days, when science-fiction concepts seem to become reality almost month by month. But if you go back more than a couple of generations, words like these were mainly the preserve of people who wrote and read science fiction.
Cross-fertilisation between SF and the real world of technology and science has been so great that it is often difficult to know where the stimulus for a term has come from. Was it created within the SF field and subsequently widened its appeal, or did SF writers take over and build upon an existing term? It would be good to have this made clearer in the text at times, at least where we know for sure.
Hyperspace, for example, is correctly glossed to point out that it was a term in mathematics long before SF writers got their hands on it. On the other hand, completist is dated to an SF source of 1944, eleven years before the OED’s first example, so seems to be a term of SF origin; likewise gas giant (a very large planet made largely from gaseous material) appears in an SF context 13 years before the first citation in the OED’s entry, which was drafted as recently as 2006 (respect to editor Jeff Prucher and his team for that one). Insectoid looks like a word that has been around for centuries, but turns out to have been first used in an SF work by Olaf Stapledon as recently as 1937. Casual readers, however, might be confused by the inclusion of an entry on gadget and assume it’s a term of SF origin, first noted from 1942, whereas it was popularised by Rudyard Kipling in 1904 and is actually a sailors’ term going back at least as far as 1886.
The choice of entries seems somewhat eclectic. Some words that you might think are SF-oriented enough to be here are absent, such as astronaut, no doubt because it was created in the mainstream astronautics field rather than SF (also omitted are related terms such as astroengineering, though others like astrogation are in). But space station isn’t here either, although it was first recorded, in the genre, in the 1930s; nor is space habitat (often just habitat), an artificial world; this might be a spinning hollowed-out asteroid or an artefact of similar type constructed from scratch, such as Babylon Five (they’re called O’Neill cylinders after their inventor, Gerard K O’Neill, another unglossed term). Kryptonite is absent, alas, as is H G Wells’s gravity-blocking material cavorite. And why does COA (Change Of Address) merit an entry? Clarke’s laws, are included, each separately glossed and listed under the name of their creator, the British SF and science writer Arthur C Clarke, the most famous being his Third Law (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”). But where are Isaac Asimov’s much more famous three laws of robotics? They appear in no entry, neither under his name nor under robot or its derivatives (ah, there they are, briefly mentioned in passing on page 125).
It’s easy to nitpick. This is a pioneering attempt to record the vocabulary of the field; it’s one which is notoriously difficult to cover because of the number of neologisms for imaginative concepts that writers are forced to invent, or take joy in inventing. Jeff Prucher and his readers have scoured the literature for the early history of the genre’s language. If you’re interested in the back-story of SF’s vocabulary, this is a reference work you will want to own.
[Jeff Prucher, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction; ISBN-13 978-0-19530567-8, ISBN-10 0-19-530567-1; hardback, pp342; published by Oxford University Press, USA on 1 May 2007; publisher’s price US$29.95.]
• Derek Stevens noted a headline in the Guardian of 27 April: “Passengers face worse overcrowding as rail operators run out of carriages”. He suggests that their rapid departure might be disquieting but that it would make more room for the passengers.
• Daphne Sams came across an egregious example of bad translation on a tag attached to a pair of jeans: “This Card Department Guarantees The Over Merchandise Quality Without Blemish Toward You Whole Responsibility, And From Purchase The Day Since In Seven Days If Discover The Quantity Problem. Please Go To With This Card To Purchase At First The Store Is Gratis To Replace The New Article, If Because Of Artificial Damage, Then Not At Guarantee The Row Of The Scope.” She promises that she hasn’t artificially damaged this message, and she hopes that someone may understand the row of its scope. Her best guess at the meaning is, “We would like very much to offer you a guarantee, and we hope you think we have, but we haven’t and we won’t.”