E-MAGAZINE 708: SATURDAY 16 OCTOBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
First English dictionary of slang Fiona Fisher says, “Your comment in the review that red-haired people were even in 1699 being called carrots inspired me to write about Australian terms for redheads. Blue has been traditional (especially for males), but has now largely been replaced by ranga (which rhymes with banger or clanger), which is derived from orang-utan for obvious reasons. It’s usually a non-offensive term, and may be applied to both males and females with red hair.” [My reference works don’t give a good reason why blue should have been adopted, but it may be from an Australian tradition of giving people nicknames that are the opposite of their real nature. Another theory suggests that nineteenth-century red-haired Irish immigrants used to turn the air blue with their noisy confrontations. Neither explanation is wholly satisfying.]
Fatootsed Mary Ellen Foley, a sharp-eyed reader, spotted that I quoted Leo Rosten’s definition of fartootst as “the state of being bewildered, disorientated, discombobulated”. But surely, she argued, Leo Rosten would have written it in the American style as disoriented? Indeed he did. On retyping it, my fingers changed it into British English without telling me.
An article in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday spotlighted this little difference between English dialects. Steve Kleinedler, the supervising editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, gave what the headline described as “5 quick fixes to help you sound smarter”. One tip was “Pay attention to how a word is spelled before you pronounce it. ‘Specialty’ should never become speci-AL-ity. ‘Disoriented’ should never become disorien-TAT-ed.” Both these deprecated forms are common and unremarkable in British English.
Nelsen Spickard pointed me to an appearance of fatootsed in William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times on 11 July 1993: “Connie Chung, following weeks of interviews about her elevation to co-anchor with Dan Rather on The CBS Evening News, gave her reaction to the ordeal to USA Today: “I’m fartumelt! Fartootst! Farmisht!” (Quick gloss: fartumelt or fertummelt means bewildered; farmisht, utterly confused or flummoxed.) Safire commented that the three Yiddish words are in increasing order of emphasis and explained them, “for those without a copy of Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish at hand”. However, Rosten doesn’t include either of the other words, though he does have another Safire mentions: farblondjet, from a Slavic word meaning to roam, which means you are totally mixed-up, lost and wandering around without any idea where you are.
I came across the word in an article about Bristol Zoo, which has set up an amphibian sanctuary to breed two endangered species. One of them is the golden mantella frog of Madagascar, which is a brilliant golden-orange. The colours are aposematic, referring to the bright markings or hues exhibited by some living creatures to warn predators that they are poisonous. (The frog cheats: it isn’t toxic but the colours fool its enemies into thinking it is. Some writers restrict aposematic to such false warnings.)
Though this is common enough in the biological sciences, it’s not often encountered elsewhere. Here’s a rare example:
A gigantic bird of prey was descending on him, its claws outstretched. Its aposematic wings were spread wide, as wide as the field itself. Looking up in shock, Hungaman saw how fanciful the wings were, fretted at the edges, iridescent, bright as a butterfly’s wings and as gentle.
Aboard the Beatitude, by Brian W Aldiss, 2002.
The word is from classical Greek, based on sema, a sign, which also appears in polysemous, the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase, and semantic, relating to meaning in language or logic. The prefix apo- means “away, off, from”.
Out of Africa Wilf Nussey asked about a news report on 8 October quoting the Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai: “To my utter surprise, and shall I say disgust, Mr Mugabe advised me on Monday that he had nichodemously reappointed the former governors in the same manner in which he appointed the previous governors on a Sunday when most of us were at church.” His efforts to find more on nichodemously were made difficult because most appearances are better spelled nicodemously. Even then, I can find no dictionary that includes it. It’s fairly well known in African English but hardly at all elsewhere. It refers to something done secretly and derives from the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus who appears in the St John’s gospel, the first time when he visits Jesus secretly one night to listen to his teachings. The word is a good example of an African English creation deeply influenced by the teachings of Christian missionaries.
Space hopper The New Scientist last week introduced me to a term Australians mostly learned about in a series of news reports last February: kangatarianism (a blend of kangaroo and vegetarianism). A kangatarian (rarely called a vegeroo) eats no meat apart from that of the kangaroo. Supporters regard it as an ecologically sound choice, as kangaroos cannot be farmed (their meat acquires a taint when they are restrained) and they require no additional land, feed or water — the ultimate, it is argued, in free-range, organic meat.
Wool gathering It has been yarn bombing week in the UK, according to the Guardian last Monday. Knitters tag lampposts with knitted legwarmers, wrap public statues in scarves, hide the harsh outlines of bicycles in cheerful wrappers and cover phone boxes in multicoloured cosies. Other names, I am told, are graffiti knitting and yarn storming, this last term being preferred by those who dislike the violent associations of the word bomb. The idea of decorating the urban landscape in such colourful fabrics is said to have been begun by Magda Sayeg of Texas in 2005. Unlike other forms of graffiti, it’s easy to remove, and it brightens up dull public spaces.
4. Questions and Answers: Sixpenny nails
Q From Richard Bell: Why is the length of a nail indicated by a number of pennies? (I don’t know if this is the usage in the UK, but in the US nails are always measured this way.) A 6d nail is 2 inches long, for example. I have read that this is because, at one time, sixpence was the price of a hundred 6d nails.
A We did once use the same system in the UK — it was invented here and taken to the US by colonists — but it died out early in the twentieth century. Not only have we gone over to measuring nails by length but we’ve adopted the metric system. So an American 6d nail is a 50mm one. As in other matters, the US conservatively holds on to things we’ve abandoned in Britain.
Many enquirers have found the story you quote to be unbelievable and have sought others. One holds that nails were actually sold by weight and that the measure was the pennyweight; the abbreviation for a pennyweight was dwt (the d is from Latin denarius, a penny) and it is argued that this became shortened still further to d, which was the symbol for the British pre-decimalisation penny coin, hence the confusion.
A second suggestion was put forward here and has been quoted since:
The term penny, when used to mark the size of nails, is supposed to be a corruption of pound. Thus, a four-penny nail was such that 1000 of them weighed 4 lbs., a ten-penny such that 1000 weighed 10 lbs.
The American Cyclopaedia, edited by George Ripley and Charles Dana, 1875.
With Ripley, you may believe it or not, but you had best not. Neither the pound nor pennyweight stories are right. Yours is.
In the fifteenth century, nails were sold by number and, for example, fourpenny nails were indeed 4 pence for a hundred. This was proved when in 1904 Henry Littlehales edited and published the accounts of a church in the City of London (St Mary at Hill). This showed that in 1426, 400 sixpenny nails did indeed cost 24 pence and 300 tenpenny nails cost 30 pence. (You may like to compare these prices with a nearby item which recorded that a man named Elymesford and his mate were together paid 10 pence for a day’s work.) Other accounts show that nail prices fell around the end of the 1400s and stayed lower — in the 1570s, you could have bought a hundred fourpenny nails for just 3 pence.
However, the old names for the sizes were kept. Although they lost their direct equivalence to the cost of the nails, they remained a useful way of identifying the various sizes.
• Father Eric Funston was as delighted as you might expect by having recently seen that a cinema in Brunswick, Ohio, was advertising the Julia Roberts movie as Eat, Prey, Love.
• The issue of 6 October of the Post Star of Glens Falls, New York, had its usual Today In History item, in which Paul Brady learned that in 1958, “The nuclear submarine USS Seawolf surfaced after spending 60 days submerged in water.”
• The Chilean miners having been brought out safely, the point is now moot but — Brian Barratt asked — should the BBC website really have described its coverage of their plight as “in-depth”?
6. Copyright and contact details
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