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Newsletter 721
29 Jan 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Prognosticate.

3. Turns of Phrase: Marketopia.

4. Wordface.

5. Reviews: OK.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Rusticate Following last week’s piece, several puzzled readers asked me why undergraduates expelled from Oxford and Cambridge should be sent down rather than sent away. That form is also employed at the more prestigious British public schools, especially Eton. It might make you think that the authorities at such bodies believe themselves to be on a figurative pinnacle, every move from which has to be in an inferior direction.

It’s a bit more subtle than that. The verb phrase ties in with an ancient convention in which travel to a city or important centre (the capital, the government, wherever the king happened to be in the days of peripatetic monarchs) was up, irrespective of its elevation or location, and journeys away from it were down. As, for example, Miss La Creevey, the London landlady in Nicholas Nickleby: “You don’t mean to say that you are really going all the way down into Yorkshire this cold winter’s weather, Mr Nickleby?” Passenger railways in Britain adopted the system from the outset: in England the up line always takes you towards London, the down line away from it; in Scotland, Edinburgh is the up-line destination. Though up and down lines survive, the convention for the rest of us has been superseded by one based on maps, in which to travel north is to go up and south is down (so Londoners now go up to Yorkshire).

Members of Oxford and Cambridge universities go up at the beginning of term and down at the end, if they haven’t been sent down in the interim. This is an extension of the hierarchical system, because the university is the most important place in their lives. However, if while at university they travel from there to London, they go up to town and back down again like everybody else.

In its entry for send, the OED implies that send down began as undergraduate slang of the mid-nineteenth century (it quotes from a Cuthbert Bede humorous story of university life as its earliest example); even in the 1890s, The Times put the phrase in quotes, indicating that the editors considered it upstart slang.

Ruckus Readers asked if ruck, either in the rugby sense of a loose scrum or the Australian rules football sense of a group of three players who follow the play without fixed positions, might have common origin with ruckus. Though the rugby links may have helped ruck develop the British English sense of a quarrel or fight (though dictionaries prefer to say this is a shortened form of ruckus), the words are etymologically distinct. The rugby ruck is from a Scandinavian word for a pile or stack, usually of fuel, which was its first use in English. By the sixteenth century, it described a crowd of people or a close-packed group of horses, but without any implications of violence. The specialised sporting senses came along early in the twentieth century for British rugby and more recently still in Australian football.

Schooner As a further comment on names for glasses, Rob Buttress pointed out nonic as a more common alternative name for the British “straight” pint or half-pint glass, slightly tapered with a bulge near the top, which others had called a sleever. The term derives, several online sources suggest, from no-nick because the bulge helps to prevent the rim from becoming chipped in use. I’ve not been able to confirm this.

Sic? Numerous subscribers suggested that the Judge Judy quote last time, “If you’d push the hair out of your eyes, you could hear me better” made perfect sense. It belongs with the saying attributed to an elderly lady, “I can’t hear you, I haven’t got my glasses on.” The reason is that many of us unconsciously pick up information from watching the speaker, not always as obviously as lip reading. Martin Gilmore pointed out that it has a name: the McGurk Effect. It’s named after Harry McGurk, a developmental psychologist at the University of Surrey; examples are on record from 1973.

Site updates and additions My item last week about the colour names of modern revolutions is now online in a greatly extended form. The pieces on echo boomer and blow the gaff have also been revised and extended.

2. Weird Words: Prognosticate

Predict, prophesy or foretell are more pithy and serviceable choices in these plainer-speaking days when long words have rather fallen out of fashion. On the infrequent occasions that journalists today select it as the right word in the right place, they often imply by it pretentiousness or gentle humour:

As British financial commentators assume expressions of pious concern to prognosticate on the euro crisis, wickedly self-serving thoughts run through their minds.

Financial Times, 21 May 2010.

Prognostication in progress

It — and its relatives prognosis and prognostic — come from the medieval Latin prognosticare, to make a prediction. All can be traced back to the classical Greek gnosis, knowledge, plus the prefix pro-, earlier in time.

To prognosticate in classical times was to predict the future from signs or portents, to augur. This was the first meaning in English. Later, it shifted slightly to refer to a person who predicts on the basis of such signs:

As whiteness of flesh is considered a great advantage in veal, butchers, in the selection of their calves, are in the habit of examining the inside of its mouth, and noting the colour of the calf’s eyes; alleging that, from the signs they there see, they can prognosticate whether the veal will be white or florid.

The Book of Household Management, by Mrs Isabella Beeton, 1861.

As prediction is so difficult (as the wag said, especially about the future), some writers have mordantly suggested prognosticate really means “guess”.

3. Turns of Phrase: Marketopia

Terence Ball

Marketopia was created by Professor Terence Ball of Arizona State University in an article in the magazine Dissent in 2001. He formed it from marketing and utopia to identify and satirise a world in which social responsibility has been lost, all public services have been privatised and market forces rule absolutely. The quality of life experienced by those living in his imagined world is so poor that a better root would be dystopia.

It has a small continuing circulation among left-leaning liberal commentators on economics, with its adjective marketopian. It’s perhaps best known from Peter Lunn’s book of 2009, Basic Instincts: Human Nature and the New Economics, in which Lunn invents the city of Marketopia, where everybody is as rational and selfish as conventional economic theory holds.

A US provider of warranties for home equipment has adopted the term marketopia as a service mark, presumably in ignorance of its origin and associations.

The main shortcoming of marketopia is its massive and systematic violation of a fundamental sense of fairness. Marketopians who cannot afford health care, education, police protection, and other of life’s necessities are denied a fair (or even minimally sufficient) share of social goods.

The Abandoned Generation, by Henry A Giroux, 2003.

Mistrust ... is evident in marketopian reforms which treat public servants as knaves to be slapped into line by the self-interested whack of the invisible hand.

The Guardian, 1 Jan. 2011.

4. Wordface

Lost senses The Feedback column in New Scientist has introduced me to a newly coined word: uragnosia. It was created by Andrew Ross, who was responding to a query by another reader, Alastair Beaven. The latter wanted a term for a person who knows a word only in a novel sense and not its original. The example he gave was of an interpreter in Afghanistan who knew about viruses in computers, but not about biological viruses. Andrew Ross generated his word from ur-, origin, plus Greek agnosia, ignorance (from gnosis, as I noted in connection with prognosticate, above). So uragnosia means ignorance of origin.

Devil rock The word maloik turned up in a newspaper piece this week about the purported decline in rock music. It’s the term in the metal music scene for that gesture you make with the index and little fingers while holding down the other two with the thumb. There are many other names for it, including cornuto and devil’s horns. Historically, it has been widely used as a sign to ward off the devil or evil eye. In rock it indicates that the gesturer is rocking with enthusiasm and is encouraging others to join in. It’s associated particularly with the late Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath and other bands, who borrowed gesture and name from his Italian-born parents. It comes from Italian malocchio, which is the evil eye itself, not the gesture warding it off. Dio seems to have both abbreviated it and shifted its sense.

Doh! How the language changes and how I struggle sometimes to keep up. I began to read an extract from O: A Presidential Novel. A sense of foggy incomprehension overcame me, like watching Inception with a headache: “O watched the cable anchor laugh again ...”. Had the narrative become a surreal dream sequence? Then I read on: “... as the video clip ran for the third time that morning.” Ah, the anchor’s a person. A generation ago an anchor, with or without its cable, was solely a tined metal device, useful but mute.

5. Reviews: OK

In OK, Allan Metcalf tells the story of the most famous and widely used abbreviation in the English language. The cover calls it an “improbable story” and there are enough improbables in the tale to satisfy any reader.

As Allan Metcalf has written elsewhere, “It’s improbable that a casual attempt at humor with a deliberately misspelled abbreviation in 1839 should have been drafted for the presidential election of 1840 (“Old Kinderhook”, Martin Van Buren) and then be the subject of a hoax (that Andrew Jackson couldn’t spell so he marked “OK” for “all correct” on documents) that led to people actually marking OK on documents and in telegraphy.” And, even more improbably, to its now being understood all over the world, even where English isn’t spoken, and that is can lay claim to its having been the first word spoken on the Moon.

Many writers on etymology have summarised the story of this curious term. My own is here and so obviates the need to repeat its history in more detail. Its origin has been known since the 1960s, when the American lexicographer Allen Walker Read found clues through a careful reading of Boston newspapers of the late 1830s. Despite this, many folk-etymological tales are told about its origin — that it’s from Greek, or Choctaw, or French, or Scots, or that’s it’s short for the German Oberst Kommandant, or from the initials of Orrin Kendall biscuits or of the freight agent Obadiah Kelly. These result from its true history having been lost for more than a century.

Metcalf’s book is the most complete of the various explanations that have appeared, the first ever in book form, more detailed in some respects even than Read’s original papers. Within its pages you will find, for example, the highly improbable ABRS, the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society of Boston; a news story about it in the Boston Morning Post on 23 March 1839 included the first-ever use of OK as a joking abbreviation of “all correct”.

Metcalf takes the story on, chapter by chapter, through the 1840 election, the calumnies about Andrew Jackson’s supposedly being unable to spell, the various untruths about its provenance and its acceptance by railway telegraphers who leapt on it as a usefully brief way to signal the safe arrival of trains. He charts its move into the literary world (improbably, the first author to use it was Henry David Thoreau in Walden in 1854), its extension into slangy humorous forms such as okey-dokey, and its modern adoption in computers, in which OK is a ubiquitous caption for any button requesting acceptance.

OK is indeed the most improbable of expressions, created as a lame joke and surviving by a series of unlikely coincidences to become a worldwide symbol of American English.

[Allan Metcalf, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word; published by Oxford University Press; hardback, pp210 including index; ISBN 978-0-1953-7793-4; publishers” price $18.85 (US), £12.99 (UK).]

6. Sic!

• Carl Bowers found this in a Daily Galaxy story of 21 January about a prehistoric whale: “Scientists [who] discovered the ancient whale named it after the author of ‘Moby Dick’, whose bite ripped huge chunks of flesh out of other whales about 12 million years ago.”

• Jolyon Kay reports that The latest Cambridge University Alumni Newsletter promises its readers a selection of fantastic productions from the ADC, the Amateur Dramatic Club. “Michael Frayn’s classic farce Noises Off, billed the funniest farce ever written by the New York Post, will have you in stitches.”

On the Wrexham Council website, Naomi Squire came across this sign from the archive of the defunct Brymbo Steelworks.

• The Lobster House of Tequesta, Florida, advertised a special offer recently on Facebook, which was spotted by Sandra Curtis: “Starting this Friday, New Prepared meals to go!! Get two three coarse meals for $20.” After she remonstrated with the business, it was changed, to “Get a three course meals for $10”.

• Several readers noted a video item on Yahoo! News about a flying display in New Zealand: “Historic planes hit Masterton sky”.

• Terry Karney encountered this sentence in a travel piece about London on the website of the Toronto Star, dated 11 January: “It’s easy to let your imagination wander to picture the kings and queens who walked here and the historic figures who died on Tower Green, including two of King Henry VIII’s wives, Sir Thomas More and Lady Jane Grey.”

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