NEWSLETTER 560: SATURDAY 3 NOVEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Biter bit A query came in about this expression, which I used in a Sic! item last time. It indicates that someone is being treated in the same bad way they have treated others. The first word is an old slang term that’s known from the seventeenth century but obsolete since the early nineteenth; a biter set out to deceive or swindle, so the term could refer to a card sharp or to a confidence trickster. (It isn’t linked to the modern American slang term for a contemptible or despicable person.) The second word is the past tense of bite. Biter bit is a set phrase that lies somewhere between a proverb and an idiom.
From whence A stanza of verse by Sir Walter Scott featured in this section last week. I tried to ward off adverse comment on his use of from whence by pointing readers to my article about that form. This provoked correspondents to propose that if from whence were acceptable then English ought to have the analogous formation to whither. It’s not common, but it wasn’t hard to find examples in my literature database. One is in Letters From High Latitudes, by Lord Dufferin: “Swift are we, and light of foot, and soon we shall have come to whither we are speeding.” If you would prefer verse, how about The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn by Andrew Marvell: “Now my sweet fawn is vanished to / Whither the swans and turtles go.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “How he got through to whither he intended.” Most, as you will note, are rather old, although this appears in a more recent work, The People of the River by Edgar Wallace: “It was peculiar to his office that no man knew to whither the Commissioner was bound.”
2. Turns of Phrase: Synthetic biology
Biotechnologists are beginning to move on from modifying organisms through changing their DNA (by genetic engineering) to building them from scratch. Synthetic biology refers to such creation of artificial life from raw materials. This new field is regarded by many experts as the next big thing in science, but one which may also have disastrous consequences if mishandled.
It was in the news in the UK last week as the result of a visit by the maverick US scientist, Craig Venter, who ran one of the two projects that mapped the human genome. He has hinted that his team has already created a minimal bacterial genome from its chemical building blocks and may shortly succeed in making an artificial organism. He attempted to allay the fears of critics, who worry that artificial life such as bacteria might escape into the environment and cause unpredictable consequences, or be used to make military bioweapons. The former eventuality has been called bioerror by the astronomer Sir Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society. Other critics object on religious grounds, arguing that scientists ought not to “play God” by such experiments.
The term synthetic biology was first applied to this field of research in 2003 but is only slowly becoming known to the general public. A researcher is a synthetic biologist, a term that may make the humorists among us smile. Much more recent is synbio, its abbreviation, which is showing signs of becoming fashionable.
Synthetic biology can help in the fight against emerging infections, rather than aid the design of bio-weapons, controversial scientist Craig Venter has told reporters ... Synthetic biology could provide the most effective way of stopping infections in developing countries, such as malaria, and emerging drug-resistant superbugs.
[BBC News, 24 Oct. 2007]
Synthetic biology now occupies roughly the same space on the public’s radar that computing might have done in the 1960s or genetic modification in the 1970s — it’s largely unheard of by anyone except the scientific community and its geeky observers. But as the pace of breakthrough in this area quickens, the sense of being on the edge of an extraordinary technological revolution is giving even the scientists involved vertigo.
[Guardian, 21 Oct. 2007]
3. Weird Words: Doohickey
An unspecified object or small device, especially a mechanical one.
Yes, yet another of these hand-waving terms for a thing that’s too unimportant to have a name of its own, or whose name you have for the moment forgotten. An example is in The Tommyknockers by Stephen King (1987): “You’re almost done with this part. Just solder that red wire to that point to the left of the long doohickey.”
The best guess we can make is that it began life as US Navy slang in the early twentieth century. The first recorded example appeared in the magazine Our Navy in November 1914: “We were compelled to christen articles beyond our ken with such names as ‘do-hickeys’, ‘gadgets’ and ‘gilguys’.”
There is some doubt where doohickey comes from, though the authorities mostly point to its being a blend of doodad (at first a trivial or superfluous ornament, known from slightly earlier) and hickey, which now is more usually a pimple or a love bite but which at the beginning of the twentieth century could be an odd person or something of little consequence.
Incidentally, the Sailors’ Word-Book of 1867 says a gilguy is “A guy for tracing up, or bearing a boom or derrick. Often applied to inefficient guys.” Most of us know at least one inefficient guy, so perhaps we could employ it as a subtle insult. However, gilguy is still in use in sailing circles for a gadget, or to refer to a line used as a temporary guy. In Australia, gilguys are depressions or hollows in the ground. Altogether, it’s a useful little word.
4. Recently noted
Boat-race politics This splendid term, fully comprehensible only to British voters, began to be widely used after an opinion poll last weekend showed the Labour and Conservative parties to be neck and neck, but that support for the Liberal Democrats had slipped badly. The term is said to have been coined by a Conservative aide and seems to be a genuine neologism. The Boat Race is the annual sporting contest between Oxford and Cambridge on the River Thames in London and boat-race politics suggests that only two teams (parties) are in contention.
Grass station We know when the end of the year is nigh because we begin to get announcements of the Word of the Year or the Phrase of the Year. But it was still October when the premature announcement came from Webster’s New World Dictionary that its choice for 2007 was grass station. What’s that, then? It can be traced to an article by Constance Casey in the New York Times on 11 February 2006. This noted a reference by President Bush in his State of the Union message the week before about the potential of switch grass as a source of ethanol-based fuel. The term grass station was a pun on gas station that appeared only in the story’s headline. Having read the Dictionary’s press release I searched around but have found only two examples of the phrase that aren’t references to it. One appeared in the New York Times in February this year, and the other on a Web site commenting on it. The press release noted that mostly a term designated as Word of the Year is not yet in the dictionary. “The choice does not reflect an opinion that the term will eventually be found in the dictionary,” said Michael Agnes, the Editor-in-Chief of the Dictionary. “It’s merely one that made us chuckle, think, reflect, or just shake our heads.” I concur. Head duly shaken.
Whataboutism Barry Rein found this in The Economist of 29 October. It means to change the focus of an argument or deflect criticism by raising a different issue — “never mind this injustice, what about ... ”. It’s not quite a neologism, since there are various examples to be found in discussion forums online, though it is vanishingly rare in print. One online posting said that it was used in Northern Ireland during the Troubles by Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who called it “the curse of Northern Irish politics”.
5. Reviews: Two books on euphemisms
John Ayto’s book Wobbly Bits and Other Euphemisms: Over 3,000 Ways to Avoid Speaking Your Mind and Robert Holder’s How Not To Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms are both revised editions. The former came out in 1993 under the title A Dictionary of Euphemisms; the latter has achieved its fourth edition after 30 years of being published under three imprints.
What the authors mean by euphemisms is clear enough from the titles of their books. They’re expressions that soften blunt truths by replacing them with indirect alternatives. You might think of them as oil in the wheels of society, allowing us to discuss, using circumlocutions, matters that are too hurtful or shaming to be spoken of directly and which often replace a negative concept with a positive one. Others regard them as genteelisms that cloak our thoughts as well as our speech. Hugh Rawson wrote in his Dictionary of Euphemisms (1981) that euphemisms are “outward and visible signs of our inward anxieties, conflicts, fears, and shames”. By our euphemisms you shall know us. He went on, “They cover up the facts of life — of sex and reproduction and excretion — which inevitably remind even the most refined people that they are made of clay, or worse.” Mr Holder is blunter with his comment that euphemism is “the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery, and deceit.”
Style writers rather disparage the users of euphemisms, even though they are so widespread that the issue should perhaps more properly concern social scientists rather than grammarians. Critics often point out that euphemisms are a form of code that is known to both hearers and listeners, and that such obfuscation is therefore unnecessary and silly. Why not, they ask, speak plainly and call a spade a spade? The problem is that almost every word has a fuzzy cloud of associations ringing it, sometimes unpalatable. To say that somebody has died is often too unsettling; much better to say he has passed on, been laid to rest, gone to meet his maker, or departed this life, a set of phrases that will cause readers of a certain age to think of, perhaps even begin to recite, Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch that mocked such evasive language.
A problem for the users of euphemisms is that when the code becomes well known, it starts to accrete the unpleasant associations of the term that it replaces; it must then be replaced by a fresh one. The classic example is the name that we give to the place in which one defecates. Down the centuries it has been known as a privy, water closet, lavatory, toilet, loo, restroom or washroom, among several other terms; it has the distinction of being the only concept in the whole language without a standard non-euphemistic alternative (there are many expressive slang terms, but they don’t count).
Attempts at creating new ones are sometimes far from successful: wardrobe malfunction for the breast-baring of Janet Jackson in 2004 was ridiculed for the inadequate attempt at spinning the situation that it was; the group of teachers in the UK in 2005 who suggested that children should not suffer failure but deferred success suffered similar opprobrium.
Like slang, euphemism is most often encountered in association with death, sex, alcohol and crime. The examples given by both authors suggest there’s a fine line between slang and euphemism, which they cross and recross. If you say somebody is rat-arsed or stoned, are you employing slang or euphemism? Robert Holder includes both, John Ayto only the latter. Both appear in the authoritative dictionaries of slang. Is the term Dutch auction, the method of selling by which the price is reduced until a buyer is found, truly a euphemism, as Robert Holder implies by including it? I’d argue it lies somewhere between jargon and standard English (historically, terms beginning Dutch have been insulting references rather than euphemisms). If a newspaper reports that a person has been gunned down, is it using a euphemism, as John Ayto asserts? Surely not. It evokes a powerful and potentially disturbing image that may be even more unsettling than the straightforward murder or shoot. If anything, it’s a dysphemism rather than a euphemism. This isn’t nit-picking pedantry but a pointer to understanding that euphemisms are hard to define. The corollary is that it’s all too easy to use one without realising it.
The arrangement of the two books is different, reflecting the two fashionable ways to organise such data for easy reading. Robert Holder goes for a standard A-Z alphabetical arrangement linked with a set of themed lists. John Ayto’s method is the inverse: terms are introduced in themed chapters as part of a narrative, which is made accessible by an index. Holder’s work is the more comprehensive, though his net has been cast very wide.
[John Ayto, Wobbly Bits and Other Euphemisms, Second Edition; A & C Black, Sep. 2007; paperback, pp352; ISBN13: 978-0-7136-7840-6; ISBN10: 0-7136-7840-2; list price £9.99.]
[R W Holder, How Not To Say What You Mean, Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, Oct. 2007; hardback, pp412; ISBN13: 978-0-19-920838-5; ISBN10: 0-19-920839-5; list price £9.99.]
• Jack Lilley says that last week’s issue of the Bendigo Weekly (of Victoria, Australia), had this property news: “In a quiet street in Kennington sits this immaculately presented split-level home, currently occupied by a charming couple who are the original and only owners, just waiting to be snapped up by an astute buyer looking for a great investment opportunity.” And he reports that they’re less than AUS$320,000 the pair, too.
• Still on such matters, David Milsted e-mailed from Dorset to say that the property section of the Western Gazette of 25th October had an item about an “idealistic three-bedroom bungalow” for sale.
• There’s nothing grammatically wrong with the headline over a story from the BBC Web site dated 26 October, but the juxtaposition of ideas may well raise a smile: “Wave power firm in plans to float.” Thanks to John Gray for sending that in. The story explains that a company harnessing wave power to produce electricity has unveiled plans to float (offer its shares on the stock market for the first time) on the AIM market. As AIM is short for Alternative Investment Market, the form is parallel to ATM machine and PIN number, often derided for their unnecessary repetition.
• Another incongruous image was generated by a sentence on a BBC item of 29 October: “Police said the bomber arrived at the scene of the Baquba attack on a bicycle dressed in civilian clothes concealing a suicide belt.”
• While we’re on the subject of bicycles, lots of people sent me this headline, from the Daily Telegraph of 26 October: “Man who had sex with bike in court.” I won’t repeat the salacious details. You can read them here.
• The Guardian put this headline on its front page on Monday above a story about problems that a Scandinavian airline has been having: “SAS drops aircraft after crash landings.” Making sure it’s really, really broken?