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Newsletter 757
08 Oct 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Idioticon.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Punt.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Colour me prefixed Following up last week’s comments about words starting in en- and nl- for imbuing something with colour, Andrew Palmer and Dave Cook supplied the first sentence of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.”

Ian Paterson included embrown in his Dictionary of Colour (2003) and wrote, “Compare empurple and embronze. These appear to be the only three colours bearing the transitive nl- prefix. But see also encrimson, engolden, envermeil and envermil.” Claire Nolan mentioned both engolden and embronze; the main meaning of the latter is to embody something in bronze, for example a statue, but can also mean to colour something bronze. She also listed the rare verb emblanch, to make white. The OED has both encrimson and envermeil, which means to tinge with vermillion. I can find few examples of its relative envermil, to make red; this is from a poem about fish in the Gentleman’s Magazine of May 1740: “The tench, and here the speary perch delight, / Envermill’d all with finns of rosy red”. Edward Fisher mentioned that the OED also has engreen.

Russ Willey echoed the comments of many subscribers: “You and Andrew Haynes are only right about the sparsity of verbs for instilling a colour if you’re seeking discrete words created with an affix. But plenty of names for colours also act as ‘instilling’ verbs, without the need any extra letters. Paper yellows with age, campaigners advocate the greening of the environment, inapplicable options on forms are greyed out, fried potatoes are lightly browned, my hair is silvered in a distinguished fashion, and so on. And Shakespeare used ‘azured’ a couple of times. In fact, the vast majority of colour names are also used as verbs in an instilling sense, although ‘to orange’ is rare and ‘to pink’ and ‘to maroon’ are generally eschewed because those verbs have other meanings.”

Enough on this subject, I think!

Correction Professor Robert A Rothstein is based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, not at MIT.

2. Weird Words: Idioticon/ˌɪdɪˈəʊtᵻk(ə)n/ Help with IPA

If you came across this word in these internet times without knowing what it means, you might guess it refers to an image whose purpose is to flag something online as stupid or witless. No such marker exists, though if it did it would surely not lack application.

It does come from the same ancient source as idiot. In Latin, an idiota was an ignorant or uneducated person, but not necessarily a fool or mentally inadequate. In classical Greek, idios referred to something private, hence idiotikos for a private person (the sense is still around in modern Greek; for example, idiotiko scholeio is a private school). Idios could also refer to somebody with his own ideas and ways of living, which survives in our idiosyncrasy and idiosyncratic.

In Greek, idiotikos could also mean ignorant or uneducated; its neuter singular idiotikon was taken into Latin after the classical period in this sense. In the eighteenth century German scholars used it for a dictionary of a dialect or a minority language — the view that they were barbarous tongues spoken only by the unschooled was still very powerful. Early examples included the Idioticon Frisicum, the Idioticon Hambergense and the Idioticon Prussicum. Later it became a standard German word, spelled Idiotikon.

Idioticon appeared in English in the early nineteenth century in the same sense but has always been extremely rare.

I often wished for a Bronx idioticon and a Yiddish dictionary to clarify some of the words.

Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jul. 1996.

3. Wordface

Mad about nuts Reports have been appearing in the English press to the effect that this year is a mast year, with especially big crops of nuts such as acorns or chestnuts. This might seem to be good news for the World Conker Championships, being held tomorrow in Ashton, Northamptonshire, since it relies on horse chestnuts to play the ancient game. However, the Campaign For Real Conkers, a group that opposes bans on conker playing, has suggested that it has actually led to a shortage because conkers have been ripening early; by mid-September — the normal time for collecting championship conkers — it claimed that most had already fallen and been trampled or removed. Mast has nothing to do with the pole that holds up a ship’s sails, but is an Old English word related to meat in its sense of solid food (as in meat and drink), and was a collective term for the fruit of woodland trees used as food for pigs and other animals.

We have personal experience of this year’s mast, since we have two hazelnut trees in our garden (something that the local squirrels have learned to appreciate: we spend much of the summer uprooting hazel seedlings where the pestiferous beasties have buried nuts the previous autumn). It was only last week that, by virtue of having two trees, I learned that we might stretch language a little and call that part of the garden a hazel plat, though my wife joked that two trees do not a plat make and that we needed to have three (she was thinking of plait). Plat is Middle English for a small patch of cultivated ground — you might have had a corn-plat for example; a grass-plat was a lawn. It’s probably a variant of plot. The spelling shift may have come about through a mental link to the adjective of the same spelling (from the French plat) that meant a flat area. In a derived sense, plat could be a plan of an area of land. The idea of a plot of cultivated ground has fallen out of use in British English except very rarely in the phrase hazel plat but plat remains current in the US for a map or diagram showing the boundaries of plots on a site.

Oh! fuchsia! A Guardian article about the Labour Party conference misspelled the name of the plant as fuschia; the following day, a correction appeared: “Not always is the Guardian faithful to the memory of Bavarian-born botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), for whom the fuchsia is named”. The next day, a letter was published from a retired Scottish professor: “In my family, we have a mnemonic for remembering how to spell fuchsia: it’s the only other word in the dictionary that begins with fuc.”

Neat. But if I may exercise my pedantry for a moment, a number of other words appear in several of my dictionaries to separate shrub from salacity, though if the prof had included the word “common” he would have been unassailable. They include fucivorous, feeding on seaweed, and fuchsite, a brilliant green mica mineral, named after another Fuchs, of the early nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary has several other less common words, including fucal, specious or fair-seeming.

4. Questions and Answers: Punt

Q From Peter Ingerman: I have tried, vainly, to discover the relationships among punt (a flat-bottomed boat), punt (a tactic in American football), and punt (the dimple in the bottom of a wine bottle). Can you help with this mystery?

A To respond with another question, I’d be interested to know why you might think a connection exists between them? Some background may help to explain what I’m getting at.

English is rife with words that are confusingly similar. Some are spelled differently but have the same sound (homophones): break/brake, heal/heel, cereal/serial; others are spelled the same but pronounced differently (homographs), such as entrance, invalid, moped, or wound. A third set (homonyms) — to which your group belongs — combine the similarities: they are said and spelled the same, but have different meanings: bear, distemper, founder, plain, saw, tender.

Native speakers are so used to them that we aren’t in the least bothered that rest can mean both repose and remainder, that a bank may be both a financial institution and a place where the wild thyme blows, or that — lacking context — spring might refer to a jump, a rivulet or a season. Whole dictionaries have been dedicated to resolving confusions between such words for learners of English as a second language.

One reason why we have so many homonyms is that English is a mongrel language that has imported words from many sources, sometimes more than once, and has frequently modified them to generate new senses. Its utter lack of purity has been well expressed:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

James Nicoll, in rec.arts.sf-lovers, 1990. Mr Nicoll is a Canadian freelance games and science-fiction reviewer.

The result is that sets of homonyms rarely have a common source. An exception is the common senses of rap — a quick blow, a knocking sound, a type of popular music, talk or gossip, a commendation, a rebuke, a criminal charge — which all do seem to derive from the idea of a tap or blow.

Your word punt demonstrates this hybrid nature. The sense of the flat-bottomed boat comes from Latin ponto (which, at the risk of sending us on another homonym chase, is also where pontoon comes from); the sense of the hollow in the bottom of a bottle may be from pontil, originally a French word for the iron rod that’s used to hold or shape soft glass; the OED says it means a little point, but my French etymological dictionaries argue that it’s a little bridge (pont, from the Latin pons); the sense in Rugby or American Football for releasing the ball from the hands and giving it a kick before it reaches the ground may be from punt, to push forcibly, perhaps from the idea of pushing with a punt pole; it may also be linked with bunt — of unknown origin — to strike, knock or push, which is the source of the baseball term for gently tapping a pitched ball without swinging the bat.

There are other senses of punt beyond the three you’ve given. It might be a bet or gamble (hence the British English punter for a person who gambles or makes a risky investment), which dictionaries cautiously suggest may be from French ponter, to bet against the bank in games of cards; before the Irish joined the Euro they had a monetary unit called the punt, which seems to be a variant form of pound; the mainly Commonwealth punt around, to move around in an aimless or easy-going manner, is said to be from one-time British police slang for patrolling, which in turn probably comes from the idea of leisure punting.

5. Sic!

• David Elwen encountered a Daily Mail headline on 7 October: “Sharon Osbourne reveals she had her breast implants removed on chat show.” He commented that, thankfully, he missed the programme.

• A sign at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre that I came across earlier this week read: “Please ensure this gate is closed at all times.” I had to abandon logic to pass through it.

• The Guardian’s page one headline on 29 September was submitted by Maurice Raraty: “Universities still failing poor students”. His comment: “I should hope so!”

• Roger Beale communicated: “In a guide to Montacute House, a National Trust property, I read the astonishing assertion that ‘Death was commonplace in the 1700s’. It went on to tell of a mistress of the house who died in her 20s, so I suppose they had meant to say ‘premature death...’.”

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