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Newsletter 881
10 May 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Kith.

3. Wordface.

4. Busman’s holiday.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Inflammable Peter Watts followed up last week’s remarks in this section about the confusion inflammable causes: “When checking a tenancy agreement, I found reference was made to the property not being available for occupation due to fire. In such circumstances the property was described as inhabitable. I amended the word to uninhabitable.”

Was this somebody making the same mistake as others have done with inflammable? Or is it a survivor of obsolete language used only in legal English? The latter seems very unlikely, but once upon a time inhabitable did mean uninhabitable, the exact opposite of what it means now. It’s in Shakespeare’s Richard II of 1597: “Even to the frozen ridges of the Alps, / Or any other ground inhabitable.” The word is from Latin inhabitabilis, in which the in- prefix has the sense of “not”. This was taken into French inhabitable with the same meaning (it’s a well-known faux ami or false friend for learners of French). It was borrowed into English in the same sense but fell out of use in the 1740s. On the other hand, English inhabit has always meant to live in, from Old French enhabiter, now habiter; this is from Latin inhabitare, to live in or dwell, in which the in- prefix is like the English in. Around 1600, English inhabitable began to be reanalysed as inhabit + -able and within a century this sense had displaced the older one (presumably after a period of confusion for users).

Marthambles Anthea Fleming emailed, “One item in Dr Tufts’ list of afflictions deserves comment. I think moon-pall can be identified as the belief that the full moon shining on your face when you’re asleep leads to lunacy and probably other afflictions. Eric Newby reported that his fellow sailors on board the Moshulu in The Last Grain Race (1956) wrapped their heads when sleeping on deck on hot nights because they thought the moon sent you crazy. (Certainly it can be very difficult to sleep under a full moon, as I know from camping experiences.)”

2. Kith

We meet this most often now in the set phrase kith and kin. What that means isn’t always obvious. Some use it as no more than a wordy way of describing one’s relatives; for others, it refers also to a wider group of friends and acquaintances. It can also have the sense of a group of people with the same ethnic origin, usually one under a threat of some kind.

As a phrase, kith and kin has been in the language for more than 600 years, the first known user being William Langland in his poem Piers Plowman of 1362. Kith is Old English, cýðð, which meant knowledge or information. It’s closely related to couth, which meant something or somebody known to the speaker. (Uncouth then meant an unknown or unfamiliar person or place but in the fourteenth century came to mean something distasteful and short afterwards an odd, awkward, or clumsy individual; our modern sense of someone ill-mannered or lacking in refinement and grace, came along in the eighteenth century.)

Kith has gone through several stages. Starting with knowledge, it took on the idea of country that’s known or familiar, one’s native land or home. A small further step shifted it from the land to its people, one’s countrymen and women, and one more shift limited it to the group a person knows or knows of, his or her friends, neighbours and acquaintances.

This last sense is still in use, which makes kith and kin a wider group than just kinfolk or relatives but includes a penumbral group shading from close friends to distant acquaintances.

3. Wordface

Vaperology British newspapers have belatedly begun to note the specialised vocabulary that has grown up in the US around e-cigs (more formally e-cigarettes or electronic cigarettes). Smokers of e-cigarettes are vapers (from vapour) and the process is vaping. Many vapers are taking them up as an alternative to the traditional sort, for which the retronym tobacco cigarette has been coined. The first generation were disposable items, designed to look like the tobacco sort, and have been nicknamed cig-a-likes. They’re being replaced by second-generation pipes, vape pens, sold in vape shops or vaporiums by specialists called vapologists. These pipes are more expensive to buy but are refillable with a cartridge (a vape tank, clearomizer or cartomizer according to type) which contains a flavoured solution of nicotine called e-juice or e-liquid. That’s turned into vapour by a heating element, the atomiser (shortened to atty). Enthusiasts — called flavour junkies and cloud chasers — like to customise their pipes, all the better to blow killer clouds of pungent vapour while vaping.

4. Busman’s holiday

A recent report in a Bristol newspaper featured a singer who took time out from recording albums to write songs for children. She called this her busman’s holiday.

You are unlikely to have busman in your personal vocabulary, as it’s mostly journalistic headline shorthand. It dates from the 1840s for the driver or conductor of a horse-drawn London omnibus (the conductor was the second man of the crew, who rode inside to collect the fares, a post now almost unknown in Britain).

A busman’s holiday is free time a person spends in an activity that’s much like what he or she does for a living. So a carpenter who spends a weekend repairing a friend’s house or a teacher who works at summer school during the holidays is taking a busman’s holiday.

Having been at the heart of Obama’s two successful bids for the US presidency, Axelrod is probably the most accomplished American political operator enticed to take a busman’s holiday in Britain, but he is by no means the first.

Sunday Times, 20 Apr. 2014. David Axelrod had taken up a post as the Labour Party’s senor political strategist.

Busman’s holiday is originally British, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. It initially spread to other countries through reports of London affairs and then caught on locally. It appeared in the Sunday Times of Sydney, Australia, in May 1896 and the Auckland Star of New Zealand in October 1902. It reached North America in 1909. It’s now known throughout the English-speaking world.

Some writers on etymology have got into a mess trying to explain it.

A typical story appeared in John Ciardi’s A Browser’s Dictionary in 1981: “British drivers of horse-drawn omnibuses, becoming attached to their teams, were uneasy about turning them over to relief drivers who might abuse them. On their days off, therefore, the drivers regularly went to the stables to see that the horses were properly harnessed, and returned at night to see that they had not been abused”. A similar tale is told by William and Mary Morris in The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, except that they assert that the most caring drivers, should they have any reason to fear abuse would occur, would sit among the passengers to observe the relief driver’s behaviour. A related explanation was given in the Brownsville Daily Herald of Texas on 2 September 1909: “When a London omnibus driver takes a day off it is supposed that he spends it riding around on the top of a friend’s ‘bus, seeing how he does things.”

Other writers are justly scornful of such sentimental explanations. Anyone who has looked into the history of nineteenth-century London buses will know that their horses were no better cared for than any other working nags and that they were often sweated to death.

The most plausible explanation given by writers who seek to explain matters is that a popular day out among working-class Londoners in the late nineteenth century was to make an excursion by bus. A bus driver or conductor who went on such a trip was said to be taking a busman’s holiday.

However, the earliest examples point to its instead being humorous urban folklore, retold here in all seriousness by an actor:

I shall indeed take a holiday on the Continent off the stage, soon, probably but it will be a “Busman’s Holiday.” The bus-driver spends his “day off” in driving on a pal’s bus, on the box-seat by his pal’s side; and I know that night after night, all through my holiday, I shall be in and out of this hall and that theatre, never happy except when I am watching some theatrical piece or variety entertainment.

English Illustrated Magazine, 1893.

That story is paralleled by one from nearly three decades later:

Few stories of London origin are more familiar than that of the cabby who, regarding his day off as one of his indisputable rights, spent it each week in riding about the City with a fellow cabby in order to keep him company.

Punch, or the London Charivari, 14 July 1920. Punch, a humorous and satirical weekly that became a British institution, claimed to be quoting an unspecified Sunday newspaper and connected the story with busman’s holiday.

This surely confirms that a tale about pally cabbies was as common as the one about friendly busmen and equally likely to be a joke.

Americans of the period seem to have been mildly intrigued by the leisure activities of London busmen. An article from the London Chronicle was reprinted in a Kentucky newspaper:

Recently I came across a really happy omnibus conductor, who knew me by sight, and remarked that it had been a splendid day. He had almost a whole day off, and looked jolly. What had he done? Why, what he always does when on a day off! I had never really believed in the phrase “The busman’s holiday.” It’s true. For that man always gets on the top of another man’s bus and has a good long ride into the country and back. It cured him of insomnia, he said.

The Richmond Climax (Kentucky), 19 Nov. 1913.

We may conclude from all this that busman’s holiday was based on a Londoner’s joke, along the lines of “What does a busman do on his day off? He takes a bus ride with a pal, of course.” Over time, the joke was forgotten but the phrase survived, to become the target of much speculation about its genesis from etymologists separated in time and space from the environment in which it was created.

5. Sic!

• Charlie Cockey found this sentence in a report dated 22 April on the website of KTVB, a TV station in Boise, Idaho. “Quijano admitted to police she’d stabbed her former boyfriend, Santiago Pineda, the day after she did killed him.”

• The following appeared in the online issue of Sporting Life of 1 May, John Lynch tells us. “Fast bowling all-rounder Ben Stokes is also recovering from the broken wrist sustained when he punched a locker in the Caribbean, opening the door for Chris Woakes’ return.”

• This headline over a report of 30 April on Yahoo! News was spotted by Ed Floden: “Maggots found in Whole Foods meat case, health officials say they’re not moving fast enough to fix the problem.” Who isn’t?

• Carolynne Robertson-Dunn found this in a Sydney Morning Herald piece of 7 April: “Other celebrities to have been prevented from entering the US for bad behaviour include Lily Allen, in 2007 after she was arrested earlier that same year for allegedly punching a photographer, Pete Doherty, Amy Winehouse, footballer Jermaine Pennant and Boy George.”

6. Useful information

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