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Newsletter 746
23 July 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Borametz.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Seven-year itch.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Meteoric rise Readers pointed out that I might have added that a meteor trail starting low in the sky seems to rise as it travels towards the zenith. I might also have mentioned, though it isn’t strictly relevant to the question, that meteor derives from a Greek word meaning raised or lofty and that its first sense in English was of any atmospheric phenomenon, hence meteorology. Meteors were divided into several classes: an aerial meteor might be a cloud; watery meteors were rain, snow, hail and the like; a 1576 translation of a work by Erasmus mentioned “hoar frosts and such like cold meteors”. A fiery meteor might be a shooting star but could equally be lightning. But from quite early on, meteor by itself could refer specifically to the bright streak caused by an extra-terrestrial object heated to incandescence in the upper atmosphere

Sic transit gloria Friday One Sic! item last time reproduced a claim that this month, which has five Fridays, five Saturdays and five Sundays, hasn’t happened for 823 years. Lots of readers wrote in to tell me this was nonsense, which they somehow concluded I didn’t already know. It happens, of course, in any month of 31 days that begins on a Friday: the next will be March 2013; the previous July of this kind was in 2005 and the next will be in 2016. My reason for adding the item wasn’t so much the calendrically ignorant assertion (one that has been circulating for some months as a chain letter online) but that, having said it was the first such month for 823 years, it flatly contradicted itself by saying, correctly, that it also happened last October.

2. Weird Words: Borametz

This word appears in no standard dictionary, I suspect because it belongs in works about fables rather than lexicons. Borametz is another name for the vegetable lamb of Tartary.

Therein lies a tale. Long ago and far away, in a mysterious place called Scythia that lay on the northern shores of the Black Sea in the territory of the Tartars, there was said to grow a tree of miraculous form. It was first described in a French book of about 1357 which purported to be the recollections of an English knight, Sir John Mandeville. It was really a compilation of travel stories from classical and medieval times put together by a Benedictine monk who probably never travelled further than his monastery’s library. (So many works continue to claim that he was a real person that the Dictionary of National Biography has included an entry to make clear he’s fictional. He joins a select company of myth figures in the DNB that includes Britannia, Merlin, Robin Hood, John Bull, Ned Ludd, the Unknown Warrior and Piltdown Man.) His travel work became popular and was translated into at least ten languages. This is the description of the plant from a much later English translation:

There groweth a sort of Fruit as it were Gourds, and when it is ripe, Men cut it asunder, and they find therein a Beast as it were of flesh, bone and blood, as it were a little Lamb without Wool, and Men eat the Beast and Fruit also, and sure it seemeth very strange.

The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandevile, Knight; Wherein is set down the Way to the Holy Land, and to Hierusalem: as also to the Lands of the Great Caan, and of Prestor John; to India, and divers other Countries: Together with many and strange Marvels therein, London, 1727.

The story was later embroidered to suggest that the beast was a real lamb, which was linked to the plant by an umbilical stem so that it could browse on nearby vegetation. When all was consumed, the lamb died. The story is often supported by the assertion that borametz was a Tartar word meaning “lamb”, difficult to check because Tartary was a vast and poorly-defined region of central Asia with many languages.

Travellers’ tales were often so much embroidered that only a wide-eyed innocent could believe them. But a kernel of truth frequently lay buried within them. In this case, the source was works by the classical authors Herodotus (“Certain trees bear for their fruit fleeces surpassing those of sheep in beauty and excellence”) and Pliny (“These trees bear gourds the size of a quince which burst when ripe and display balls of wool out of which the inhabitants make cloths like valuable linen”). The borametz was almost certainly cotton, native to India.

3. Wordface

Owls of derision Last month, I mentioned the activity called planking, in which individuals lie stiffly horizontal on top of some object, the odder the better. On 16 July The Times of India reported a follow-up craze: “Owling, believed to have started in Australia, consists of nothing more taxing than crouching on one’s haunches and staring into the middle distance like the nocturnal birds.” As with planking, a photograph to prove you’ve done it is mandatory. Several of them were reproduced in an article in the London Metro free newspaper on 15 July. Howard Sinberg sent me the link, mainly because of the caption to a picture: “Owling — the ancient art of perching on something then putting the pictures on the internet.” There is indeed a moderately ancient art called owling but it refers to smuggling sheep or wool from Britain to France. In 1674 an Act of Charles II made it illegal to transport wool at night and it seems that’s where the term comes from, since it was first recorded in 1690.

Sniffing place There are many odd names for parts of the human anatomy but one that I came across recently tops my personal list: the anatomical snuff box. It’s a small depression on the inside of the wrist immediately behind the thumb joint, formally called the radial fossa. It got its common name because it was a convenient place to put a pinch of snuff before snorting it up one’s nose.

4. Questions and Answers: Seven-year itch

Q From Loren Crispell: In the final chapter of Walden, almost at the final paragraph, Thoreau refers to mankind as human insects and uses the phrase the seven year itch. My wife and I were trying to locate the original use as the author was not in any way referring to relationships or sexual boredom. Perhaps you can shed some light.

A Well spotted. This example of the phrase is one of the earliest known. But the sense of Henry Thoreau’s text isn’t what you might call limpidly clear to most people today:

There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life. These may be but the spring months in the life of the race. If we have had the seven-years’ itch, we have not seen the seventeen-year locust yet in Concord.

Walden, or Life in the Woods, by Henry Thoreau, 1854.

The seven-year itch that he had in mind was an infection by a mite which lays its eggs in burrows under the skin. Its medical name is scabies, whose name comes appropriately from Latin scabere, to scratch. It was once extremely common in all kinds of situations and historical American sources are full of names for it, among them Indiana itch, Illinois itch, Jackson itch, Cuban itch, prairie itch, camp itch, army itch, ship itch, jail itch, mattress itch, swamp itch, winter itch, barley itch and grain itch. It was very hard to treat before effective insecticides came along.

Many remedies were advertised that claimed to cure the condition. The earliest example on record is this, which is also the first appearance of seven-year itch in print:

To the Afflicted. Dr. Mason’s Indian Vegetable Panacea, which may be taken with perfect safety, by all ages, for the cure of the following diseases:-- Dyspepsia, Scrofula, afflictions of the Chest and Lungs, Cods, Coughs, Liver complaints, Mercurial disease, Ulcers, Sores ... also, that corruption so commonly known to the western country as the scab or seven year Itch, &c.

An advertisement by Dr John Mason in the Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 26 Mar. 1839. Thanks to Stephen Goranson for finding this.

Because it was so hard to get rid of, a story grew up in North America that those who got the itch were stuck with it for the next seven years. The phrase was sometimes later reinterpreted to mean that it would recur after seven years, or would reappear every year for seven years. More recently, seven-year itch has occasionally been used for the itch caused by poison ivy and for a while became a figurative term for something or someone that was persistently irritating or a continual nuisance.

Your sense, which one work on idioms calls “a real or imagined longing for other women in a man’s seventh year of marriage”, appeared a century after Walden. There’s no known example before George Axelrod borrowed it for the title of his stage comedy of 1952. It was popularised worldwide by the 1955 Billy Wilder film version starring Marilyn Monroe.

In 1992, William Safire recorded a conversation he had had with Mr Axelrod about why he chose the title. The latter was sure that it had never been used in a “marital wanderlust connotation” before he borrowed it:

How did he come across this Americanism? “I was writing jokes for a hillbilly comedian called Rod Brassfield,” recalls Mr. Axelrod, “who starred with Minnie Pearl on the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ radio show. ... One of his favorite lines was: ‘I know she’s over 21 because she’s had the seven-year itch four times!’ That hideous line,” says Mr. Axelrod, now 69, “was running through my head when I was desperately seeking a title for the play I had just finished ... In the first draft, the guy had been married 10 years (as had I) but the title, when it came, had a natural ring to it and I changed the number of years the hero had been married accordingly.”

On Language, New York Times, 29 Mar. 1992.

Modern medicine cures scabies quickly. Together with Axelrod’s inspired play title and the success of the film, seven-year itch now refers almost exclusively to a married man’s wandering eye, even in the US where the term originated.

5. Sic!

• William Duncan read this on, the website of the magazine Sports Illustrated: “After losing to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final, takes a look at the last twelve years of the U.S. Women’s National Team.” He confesses that he didn’t know even had a women’s soccer team.

• Sometimes a missing letter is enough to generate an incongruous image. Stan Firth came across this on the Mail Online site on 17 July: “The woman known as ‘America’s most hated mother’ was jeered and taunted with shouts of ‘killer’ by a huge crow as she walked out in a pink tshirt and jeans.” Is this what’s meant by getting the bird?

• Peter Kay wrote: “In a seafront souvenir shop in St Ives, Cornwall, this month I found a basket of plastic chains with the handwritten notice NECKLESS’S. Apart from struggling to identify just how many mistakes there are in the word, I wondered where on the body you would wear them.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 23 July 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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