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Newsletter 768
07 Jan 2012


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Paraprosdokian.

3. Wordface.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Competition time World Wide Words has been nominated in the category Best Website About the English Language in the Macmillan Dictionary’s Love English Awards 2011. Voting is open until midnight GMT on 31 January. Your support is requested. Vote here. (Currently World Wide Words is on page two of the list.)

Yedsirag Australians and New Zealanders wrote following this piece, with its mention of the old British colloquial expression head sir-rag, to ask about a local expression that looks hauntingly similar: head serang, or head sherang, for a person in charge or a boss. It is known mostly among older people. Beth Shaw commented that “The Head Serang was anyone in charge of anything, not necessarily something terribly important; if you were setting up tables for the Sunday school picnic and didn’t know where to put yours you might be told to go and find the Head Serang. It was used in a slightly mocking or ironic way — an important-sounding title for a less important position.”

It has a very different origin, from the Anglo-Indian serang (the form that appears in the Macquarie Dictionary), originally from the Persian sarhang, commander. Yule and Burnell defined it in Hobson-Jobson, their huge compilation of Anglo-Indian expressions, as “a native boatswain or chief of a lascar crew; the skipper of a small native vessel.” However, the similarity to the older British expression, which would certainly have been known to nineteenth-century migrants, is so striking that it must surely be linked and presumably accounts for the addition of head to the Anglo-Indian word.

Mark Whitehead remembers its use in England: “My first career after leaving school, in the early 1970s, was in textile dyeing. The first company I worked for was in Basford, Nottingham, and the word was often used there. Sometimes it would refer to the Dyehouse Foreman for the shift — not a technical man (that was the Dyer — me, after a while), but a very experienced operator with extra training. It was pronounced without the ‘y’ and often with the ‘i’ silent; ‘eds’rag’. It was also used sarcastically. ‘Look at ’im — thinks he’s the ’eds’rag.’ With some of the younger operators who had obviously not heard this term before, it soon became the ‘’Ed Scrag’ — which showed how they felt about their foreman!”

Several readers commented on Mont Abbott’s use of what looked like the plural form of the past tense of to be (“Chisel were the only true ringer among us”) when the singular would be used in standard English. This verb is notoriously complicated and irregular, as the result of the historical fusion of elements from four distinct older verbs. It’s unique in that the past tense has different singular and plural forms (was, were). All other verbs make do with just the one (“he taught”, “we taught”, “they taught”). As a result, there has long been a tendency for speakers of non-standard Englishes to settle on one form or the other. Some dialects use was all the time (“we was”, “they was”), but others employ were (“I were”, “he were”).

2. Weird Words: Paraprosdokian/parəprɒsˈdoʊkiən/ Help with IPA

Dorothy Parker once quipped about a Yale Prom, “If all the girls attending it were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” Some decades earlier Oscar Wilde wrote, “It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.” (He liked this enough to use it twice, in A Woman of No Importance and The Picture of Dorian Gray.) Herman Mankiewicz said of Orson Welles: “There, but for the grace of God, goes God”. (It’s also been claimed for Sir Winston Churchill, as a put-down of Sir Stafford Cripps, but Herman Mankiewicz got there first.)

What connects the witticisms is that their endings are unexpected, a violation of expectations whose surprise provokes laughter. It’s a favourite trick of comedy writers. Paraprosdokian is the learned term for this trick. It has turned up in recent years in lots of places, mainly online, probably because mentioning it is a good excuse for repeating choice quotes from witty writers.

The word hasn’t yet reached any dictionary that I know of and that includes the recent revision of the letter P in the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s led some, including the Canadian broadcaster and writer Bill Casselman, to argue it’s not a proper term in rhetoric but a recent invention: “The word paraprosdokian was made up by some semiliterate doofus late in the 20th century”. He challenged those who thought otherwise “to show me one single citation for the word paraprosdokian earlier than 1950 CE”. No problem:

The humourous incongruity and unconscious cynicism of their utterance, and the paraprosdokian of their dialogue, with their perilous approach to caricature, all seem to show that Mrs. Craigie is developing a talent all her own for rendering bucolic character.

The Echo (Middx.), 10 Nov. 1896. This is in a long review (on the front page: different times) of the novel The Herb Moon, by John Oliver Hobbes, pen name of Pearl Mary-Teresa Craigie.

And, in a piece written by Sir Compton Mackenzie three decades later:

It is long since I have sat at the feet of this minstrel; and I quote from memory; but I think another verse of the same poem thus illustrated the same paraprosdokian or concluding jerk of disappointment.

Illustrated London News (London), 18 Jul. 1931.

I haven’t been able to uncover who coined it, though as it appears in Die Sprache als Kunst by Gustav Gerber, dated 1884, I suspect this German philosopher of language to be responsible. Whatever its genesis, it’s generally agreed that it was borrowed from the Greek prosdokia, expectation (whether for good or ill, hence Sir Compton Mackenzie’s comment), prefixed by para-, beside, in the sense of something outside the normal that’s found in words such as paranoia and parapsychology.

Mr Casselman criticised it because, though a noun, it includes the adjectival form of the Greek root. Indeed, in English the -ian ending does usually makes adjectives. It also forms nouns — though never abstract ones — for a individual who uses or works with the thing in the stem. Such as a comedian.

3. Wordface

Words of the year The American Dialect Society, meeting this year in Portland, Oregon, voted last evening for its 22nd annual Words of the Year. This is always a light-hearted event, though underlying it is a serious message , that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining. To preclude any snarky comments, the ADS broadly interprets word here to mean “vocabulary item”, which covers phrases as well as single words.

As usual, words were first chosen in five individual categories. The Most Useful Word winner was humblebrag, a term coined in April by comedy writer Harris Wittels on Twitter for deceptively self-effacing boasting by celebrities. Most Creative was the dreadfully stretched Mellencamp, after the American American rock singer John Mellencamp (also known as Johnny Cougar), meaning a woman too old to be a cougar, one who dates much younger men. The actor Charlie Sheen created the term that was voted Most Unnecessarybi-winning — which he used to describe himself in dismissing accusations of his being bipolar. By a substantial majority, the word assholocracy (government by obnoxious multi-millionaires) was voted the Most Outrageous Word of the Year. Most Euphemistic was job creator, much used by candidates aiming for the Republican nomination in the 2012 US presidential election, who argue that it’s the top 1% of rich people who generate jobs. The most fashionable computer term of our times, cloud, online space for the storage and manipulation of data, was voted the Word Most Likely to Succeed (though many of us would argue it has already succeeded). Contrarywise, the Word Least Likely to Succeed was the curious brony, an adult male fan of the My Little Pony cartoon franchise.

The Occupy movement has been so significant in the last months of 2011 that a special category was created for terms linked to it, including human microphone or people’s mic (the low-tech method of amplifying a person’s speech at an Occupy gathering by having surrounding people repeat it line by line) and twinkling, the silent way to register approval or disapproval by wiggly hand gestures. The winner in this category was 99 percenters or the 99%, the vast majority of ordinary people held to be at a financial or political disadvantage to the top moneymakers, the 1%.

With that special category, there was little doubt in the minds of most observers that Occupy would be the Word of the Year and so it proved. The lexicographer and columnist Ben Zimmer, Ben Zimmer, co-chair of the meeting, commented that occupy was “a very old word, but over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement, a movement that itself was powered by the word.”

At the same meeting, members of the American Name Society voted for their names of the year. For the Trade Name of the Year they chose Siri, the almost-human robot personal assistant of Apple’s iPhone; the Place Name was Fukushima, the Personal Name Qadaffi (however you spell it), the Fictional Name Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and the overall Name of the Year was Arab Spring.

4. Sic!

• Journalists in a rush often pick the best word they can think of at the moment. At times it’s the wrong one. On 28 December, Bob Hughes noted the Daily Telegraph had this: “Though [Kim Jong-il] secured his regime with nuclear weapons, that process earned international approbation at a time when as many as two million people died from famines.”

• There must be something in the water at the Telegraph. Terence Riley was looking through the picture gallery of “Worst dressed 2011: the 25 worst outfits of the year” and encountered one of Penelope Cruz, whose caption commented she “made her first public appearance since giving birth to her first child at the Oscars back in February.”

• A news report by Vanguard Media of Nigeria about the arrest of a fake Catholic nun detected by a priest in Owerri caught the eye of Fr Eric Funston: “The Catholic priest said that ‘a thorough search of the luggage she was carrying was most revealing, adding that several bank tellers and varying documents were recovered’.”

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