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Newsletter 763
19 Nov 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Thrasonical.

3. Topical Words: Reverse ferret.

4. Questions and Answers: Beat.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Siccity Several readers noted the survival in medical terminology of the Latin original of this word, sicca. Eric Hoy wrote, “There is sicca syndrome, in which patients have dry eyes and a dry mouth, due to an autoimmune response that attacks the tear glands and the salivary glands.” Beth Ayers added, “We also occasionally see siccolabile (altered or destroyed by drying) and siccostabile (unaffected by drying). For those of us who speak the esoteric version of English sometimes called Medicalese, sicca still rings a bell.” There’s also rhinitis sicca, in which the mucous membranes of the nose are abnormally dry.

Yea and nay Jean Carpenter and others added to my French connection of si as a contradiction of a negative by mentioning the German doch, used similarly. Remy Rosenbaum noted a formal survival of both English words: “at least in American English, as a response to a vote in Congress, the request for a roll call vote is known as the Yeas and Nays.” (In the British Parliament, it’s ayes and noes.)

2. Weird Words: Thrasonical/θrəˈsɒnɪkəl/ Help with IPA

This should be put in the category of educated insults, since only those who have swallowed the dictionary or know Latin literature understand what it means. A thrasonical person is a braggart. The original was a former soldier named Thraso, a character in the play Eunuchus (The Eunuch), which was written in 161 BC and became the most popular of the six by the writer whom we know as Terence.

Thrasonical started to appear in English in the sixteenth century, in time for Shakespeare to put it into the mouth of Rosalind in As you Like It. She describes Julius Caesar’s famous assertion veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) as a thrasonical brag.

These days, its most frequent appearances are in a widely-reproduced bit of advice to aspiring authors or public speakers. In an idle moment, I set out to trace it to its origin. It turns out to be a hardy perennial, which became popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1880s on, appearing regularly in magazines and newspapers. The earliest unearthed so far is in The Pennsylvania School Journal of 1874. It is surely older still. This version is from early in its life:

Let your conversation possess a clarified conciseness, compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility, without rhodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabical profundity, pompous prolixity, and ventriloquial vapidity. Shun double-entendre and prurient jocosity, whether obscure or apparent. In other words, speak truthfully, naturally, clearly, purely, but do not use large words.

Notes and Queries, 11 Feb. 1893.

3. Topical Words: Reverse ferret

It was good to see this item of British journalists’ slang turn up recently. When the Bishop of London executed a volte face by suspending legal action against the protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral, a couple of the more upmarket British newspapers referred to his decision as a reverse ferret.

Journalists, more even than the populace at large, are sceptical of public figures who have the strength of character to decide they were wrong about something. Politicians run scared of changing policy and so being thought to be indecisive. Margaret Thatcher, at her party conference in Brighton in 1980, gave her view of policy U-turns, “You can turn if you like: the lady’s not for turning”, a witty bit of scriptwriting that, lacking a sense of humour (and possibly knowledge of the play by Christopher Fry), she had to be convinced was worth including. Tony Blair famously told his party conference in 2003 that he had “not got a reverse gear” over his decision to invade Iraq. George Osborne, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, says he has no Plan B.

The term was applied, in the first three months of 2011, by the Telegraph to an insurance company’s decision not to proceed with a takeover; by the radio critic of the Independent to his decision not to listen any more to The Archers (the longest-surviving soap in the world) and by the Financial Times to PM David Cameron’s reversal of foreign policy by acting in support of the rebels in Libya.

It is agreed that the term was created by Kelvin MacKenzie, the notorious former editor of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun (known to journalists by the rhyming slang phrase The Current Bun or The Bun). He’s known for headlines such as “Gotcha!” (jingoistically celebrating the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War), “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster” (later proved untrue), and “If Kinnock Wins Today, Will The Last Person To Leave Britain Please Turn Out The Lights” (on general election day in 1992).

He based the term on the Yorkshire extreme sport of ferret legging. It consists of tying string around the ankles of a contestant’s trousers, popping a couple of ferrets down them and tightening the belt. No underwear is permitted. The little beasts are domesticated versions of the polecat, traditionally used to hunt rabbits by sending them down burrows to flush the animals out (hence to ferret out). They have viciously sharp teeth. The winner is the one who can stand the agony longest; the world record, I am told, is an astonishing five hours and thirty minutes. Kelvin MacKenzie’s view was that his newspaper’s job was to provoke public figures — as he put it, to “stick a ferret down their trousers”. Whenever he felt that public opinion had turned against the policy of The Sun, he would announce a change with the mysterious shout “reverse ferret!”.

4. Questions and Answers: Beat

Q From Horace Krever: I have exhausted my not inconsiderable collection of reference books in a search to find the origin, and explanation for the use, of the noun beat in the expressions police officer’s beat and news reporter’s beat. I would be grateful for any help you can give.

A It seems, from my own searches, that lexicographers are as much in doubt about its source as are you. There are so many senses of beat, both noun and verb (the Oxford English Dictionary lists 33 separate senses for the verb and its compound phrases and 17 more for the noun) that establishing an unequivocal connection isn’t easy.

There’s no doubt that the origin lies in the verb, meaning to strike with repeated blows, which was already in existence in Old English. Two possible origins are suggested in particular and both are plausible. One derives from the idea of the feet hitting the ground, either in walking or running. Compounds such as to beat a path and beaten track come from this. The OED also suggests to beat the streets as an example, a rare phrasing which appears here:

A time of need followed, during which Hall Caine beat the streets of London in search of work.

McClure’s Magazine, Dec. 1895.

You might argue that that is using beat in the other likely sense, that of beating the ground to drive game towards hunters, which is known in several set phrases of various ages — beating the bushes, to beat the town for recruits, beat over old ground, or to beat about the bush. Both reporters and police might reasonably be said to beat the urban landscape in the hope of flushing out stories or criminals.

However, there’s another aspect which I think enables us to choose between these two possibilities. A beat for a constable refers to a regular route which he traverses on foot (walking the beat is the usual way to describe the activity). It appears in the regulations of Sir Robert Peel’s new Metropolitan Police Force of London at the time of their establishment in September 1829:

Each Sergeant’s party, when on duty, will have charge of its respective section of the division, each Police Constable having a beat appropriated to him within the section.

Reproduced in The Morning Post, 25 Sep. 1829.

That surely links his route to the beating a path sense. Though a journalist’s beat usually implies a subject area — politics, courts, labour issues — rather than a physical circuit, I strongly suspect from the dating of the latter usage (the late 1890s in the US) that it derives from the police sense, not least because a reporter at that time would gather stories largely on foot.

5. Sic!

• Marie-Louise Edwards wrote, “Gosh, that’s a bit dressy for giving birth!” having seen a headline on the Daily Mail website: “Miranda Kerr returns to the Victoria’s Secret catwalk after giving birth in a $2.5 million diamond studded bra”.

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