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Newsletter 852
05 Oct 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Agnotology.

3. Snippets.

4. Old-fashioned look.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

On a wild hair I queried this expression last week and many readers from the US readers explained it to me. Let Ryan Kelley stand in for them all: “The young country singer Jake Owen most definitely did not invent the term wild hair. I am from the midwestern United States — Ohio specifically — and the term has been in use for all of my 32 years. It is a country term, no doubt. The most common use I’ve found is in the phrase getting a wild hair up your ass. It does imply an urge to move because of discomfort — even to travel. Sometimes, though, it also implies general annoyance or discomfort, as in ‘he got a wild hair up his ass and trashed the whole bar!’ Not the most proper of American sayings. It’s definitely a common one where I’m from, though, and one that most people would easily understand.”

Others surmised that it should be spelled hare rather than hair, on the model of mad March hares or the British hare off for going away at speed. Several readers noted that they have encountered it in that spelling and others suggested that there are actually two versions, the hare one being much the more polite. The evidence that I’ve now turned up, having been clued in by these comments, is that the original is undoubtedly hair. The confusion seems to be similar to the one between hairbrained and harebrained.

Small person problem Paul Witheridge accidentally started a hare running (sorry) when he retold a story about passwords last week, whose punchline was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. “No, no!” cried some thoughtful students of the vagaries of English spelling, “It’s dwarfs”. That’s the traditional spelling, which Walt Disney used in the title of his film in 1937, though correspondents objected to dwarves on more general grounds. However, dwarves has become quite widely used. My feeling is that if it was good enough for J R R Tolkien, who are the rest of us to argue? (“Hobbits are a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves.” — The Hobbit, 1937.)

Not of the people? Carolanne Reynolds followed up my snippet last week about the use of hoi polloi by noting that many people don’t think it means the common people. She quoted Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University: “it is often misused to mean ‘the upper class’ (does ‘hoi’ make speakers think of ‘high’ or ‘hoity-toity’?).”

Weird species names Jim Delaney wrote, “An unusually-named species of tree got a mention in the Daily Telegraph on the same day as your latest newsletter arrived.” It has the formal name Sorbus admonitor (the second word is from the same source as admonish) but it has the common name no parking whitebeam. It’s a new species, officially identified in 2009. First found in the 1930s near Lynton in North Devon, the original had a No Parking sign nailed to it.

2. Agnotology

Agnotology is the study of culturally induced ignorance.

Agnotology refocuses questions about “how we know” to include questions about what we do not know, and why not.

Londa Schiebinger, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1 Sep. 2005.

Historians of science have tended to focus on the processes by which scientific knowledge gets accepted. In recent decades, some scholars have come to see that processes that impede or prevent acceptance of scientific findings are also important. Such processes include the very human desire to ignore unpleasant facts, media neglect of topics, corporate or government secrecy, and misrepresentation for a commercial or political end. They often generate controversy, much of it ill-informed. Examples include the health implications of tobacco and of genetically modified plants, the safety of nuclear power, the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and the existence or extent of man-made climate change.

The word’s earliest appearance seems to have been in a book of 1995, The Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. This was by Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University in California. He coined it from the classical Greek agnōsis, not knowing, plus the suffix -(o)logy, a subject of study, from Greek logos, word or speech.

3. Snippets

Attack of the vapers The growth of e-cigarettes, in which users breathe in a vapour of water and nicotine, has popularised the slang terms vaper for the person using the device and vaping for the process, as well as the verb vape. These have been known for several years among the users of various drugs and seem to have been created from vaporiser. One reason for their becoming more popular is that e-cigarette smokers are banding together, using vaper as a self-identifying term, to campaign against proposed EU rules that would ban most e-cigarettes currently on the market because their nicotine levels are too high.

Haloodie doody! Last week saw the inaugural Halal Food Festival in London, which showcased varieties of cuisine from around the world, from hot dogs to curries to fish and chips, that had been prepared as prescribed by Muslim law. The festival’s founder, Imran Kausar, has coined haloodie as a descriptive term for foodies who follow a halal diet.

Yucky stuff I’ve a job for somebody with the right qualifications: become a disgustologist. Valerie Curtis, the director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, describes herself by this word because she researches the scientific background to aversion and repugnance. Disgustologist and disgustology have appeared quite widely in the past couple of weeks because her book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion has just been published. This isn’t the first appearance of disgustology — the earliest example I’ve turned up is from The Economics of Hate by Samuel Cameron (2009) in which he lists it alongside other social science topics such as humiliation studies.

4. Old-fashioned look

Q From Colleen Sullivan: Can you tell me any more about the origin and usage of the phrase an old-fashioned look? From what little I can find online, people seem to define it as merely disapproving. But I first encountered it in Terry Pratchett’s work; he seems to mean something more subtle than that, less “I don’t like what you’re doing” but more scepticism of someone else’s naiveté or foolishness. Is Pratchett using the phrase in a weird way?

A I don’t think so. I agree there’s more to this originally British expression than just disapproval. This is one of several examples by Terry Pratchett, in which it is certainly being used in the way you describe:

He looked Carrot up and down. “Joining the watch, are you?” “I hope to prove worthy, yes,” said Carrot. The guard gave him what could loosely be called an old-fashioned look. It was practically neolithic. “What was it you done?” he said. “I’m sorry?” said Carrot. “You must of done something,” said the guard. “My father wrote a letter,” said Carrot proudly. “I’ve been volunteered.” “Bloody hellfire,” said the guard.

Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett, 1989.

The problem with subtle idioms is that their meaning is often hard to tease out. I can remember being puzzled by it long ago, since so few appearances are in contexts that make the sense obvious. My sympathies are with a character in Celia Brayfield’s recent novel Mister Fabulous and Friends who complained, “I wasn’t giving you an old-fashioned look. I wouldn’t know how to give an old-fashioned look.”

The idiom appears early in the twentieth century. This is the first I’ve so far found:

“Would you have me give pain to our good Queen Osburga by breaking the King’s commands?” “No,” said Alfred, with a quick, old-fashioned look. “We cannot do that, boys.”

The King’s Sons, by George Manville Fenn, 1901.

Old-fashioned, as a way to describe a style from an earlier era, hence antiquated, begins to appear in the written record in the late sixteenth century. Almost immediately, it also begins to refer to values, attitudes or tastes that belong to an earlier time.

Somehow, our current idiom grew out of this. It may derive from the stereotypical attitudes of older people disapproving of modern ways: “They didn’t do that in my day.” Early users, in a time of changing attitudes at the end of the Victorian period, may have been looking back at the supposedly prissy and moralistic views of the previous century, so an old-fashioned look may have communicated similarly old-fashioned views.

The giver of the look may indeed be gently exasperated about foolishness or naiveté, as in this exchange about prison:

“It’s not unusual, you know, stabbings and that. Happens all the time. There’s some pretty bad people in there.” “Dealing drugs?” She gave him an old-fashioned look. “No, dancing round their handbags.”

Disturbia, by Christopher Fowler, 1997.

But other emotions may lie behind it. In her story The Tiger’s Bride, Angela Carter wrote, “He offered me what my old nurse would have called an ‘old-fashioned look’, ironic, sly, a smidgen of disdain in it.” In Where Did It All Go Right? of 2002, Al Alvarez comments: “She gave me what she used to call an ‘old-fashioned look’ — amused, sceptical, out of the corners of her eyes.”

My impression is that old-fashioned look is itself becoming rather old fashioned. Many recent examples are prefixed by “as my granny used to say” or similar comments that put its popularity back a generation or two.

5. Sic!

• Dead serious? “My local daily newspaper, the Borneo Post,” Bernard Long emailed, “is a never-ending source of unintended amusement. But a headline on 27 September had me sputtering my breakfast tea across the dining room table: “Decomposed Corpse Found in Cemetery”.

• Kevin Horne noted the opening sentence to an article on the New Orleans Menu site dated 1 October: “Wolf Kohler’s Crescent City Brewhouse is not a German restaurant, but Wolf himself is.”

• A couple of malapropisms arrived at almost the same moment. One was submitted by Leo Boivin from an obituary in the Washington Post on 27 September: “After retirement he researched, wrote and published a family history which included interesting antidotes about various ancestors.” The other came via Neil Hesketh from the website of his local TV station WAVY in Virginia: “That’s the problem with rampant use of heresy in these proceedings — there is no way to test the evidence.”

• The Barbican in London sent Andrew Haynes an email on 30 September which announced the Bicycle Film Festival 2013: “Highlights include the ever-popular Urban Bike Shorts, featuring stories about amputee brothers chasing their BMX dreams, three female couriers in London and a postman in Afghanistan.”

6. Useful information

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