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Newsletter 909
07 Mar 2015


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Volleyballene.

3. Diagram prize.

4. Elsewhere.

5. Trove.

6. Smithereens.

7. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Verbigeration. Gregory Harris commented, “It might have been useful to mention that verbigeration is said with a soft g, like refrigeration, and not a hard g, like invigorate.”

Worry Wart. Several readers pointed out that, before J R Williams had created the term, wart by itself had already some currency as slang for a junior army officer and in the US for an obnoxious or objectionable person (the first recorded user in the Oxford English Dictionary is the American writer George Ade, in 1896).

Punch list. Nobody was able to assist with the early history of this odd term, though several pointed out other circumstances in which holes were punched in sheets as confirmations that an action had been taken.

Jim Tang wrote about a related expression: “When problems are noted that ground an airplane, they are normally memorialized on a squawk sheet. The items, of course, are squawks. There is probably a chicken-and-egg argument as to whether the latter term derived from the sheet, or the sheet derived from pilots who, much like their winged friends, made their displeasure known in forthright tones.”

Many readers reminded me that the legal documents I mentioned in the piece, of which the counterpart copies were cut apart with a jagged edge, were called indentures because the cut edges looked fancifully like teeth. (Indent comes from a related idea.) Michael Grounds emailed to point out that the jagged lines were also called horns and that a legal document such as a will, for which no counterpart copy was needed, was called a deed poll, from the document being polled, lacking horns. Poll ultimately comes from its sense of the head (hence poll in the election and survey senses, literally counting heads) and from a polled person being one whose hair has been cut short or shaved; later a polled deer was one that had cast its antlers and a polled animal was one of a breed naturally lacking horns.

2. Volleyballene

Scientists have a puckish sense of humour.

Last week, I encountered a substance called volleyballene. It’s a hollow sphere of 60 carbon atoms and 20 atoms of scandium. This produces a shape made up of pentagons and octagons that looks a bit like an ultra-miniature volleyball. At the moment, it exists only as a computer design:

Volleyballene is a molecule waiting to be synthesized. So if you’re a chemist with a little time on your hands, let us know when you’ve made one of these things.

MIT Technology Review, 18 Feb. 2015.

It’s one of a large group of hollow carbon molecules, variously shaped like eggs, tubes, rugby balls or spheres. The first one discovered was a sixty-carbon sphere which reminded its discoverers at Rice University in Texas of the geodesic dome, which had been invented by the American engineer and architect R Buckminster Fuller (a notable example was exhibited at Expo ’67 in Montreal). They named the substance buckminsterfullerene.

Its surface shape, a mixture of hexagons and pentagons, reminded people of a football (soccer ball) and so some wits took to calling it soccerballene and footballene. Others, tiring of writing the 20-letter name, shortened it to buckyball. When other shapes and sizes were discovered, they were all at first called buckyballs, though the more formal collective term for them is fullerenes, another shortening.

Fullerenes have become a hot topic in chemistry and so many types have been created that they make up what’s been called a fullerene zoo. Hollow cylindrical ones can be buckytubes, though more often nanotubes. Spheres with fewer atoms than buckminsterfullerene have been called buckybabies, and ones with layers within layers were named bucky onions, Russian eggs or buckskis. Buckyballs bewhiskered with atoms of other elements such as hydrogen are fuzzyballs. Another sort, containing a caged osmium atom (an example of a metallofullerene) is a bunnyball, because it has a couple of add-on bits that fancifully look like rabbit’s ears.

Volleyballene is the most recent addition to the zoo. It’s unlikely to be the last.

3. Diagram prize

At this time of year, we await with high expectations an email from the Bookseller with the list of finalists in its Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year. Its administrator, the Bookseller’s diarist Horace Bent, says it “highlights the crème de la crème of unintentionally nonsensical, absurd and downright head-scratching titles”.

Relationships feature greatly in this year’s selection, including The Ugly Wife is Treasured at Home by Melissa Margaret Schneider, an exposé of love and sex under Maoist rule in China, Divorcing a Real Witch by Diana Rajchel, a practical guide for ending pagan relationships, Nature’s Nether Regions by Menno Schilthuizen, a history of the evolution of genitals, and The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones by Sandra Tsing-Loh, a memoir of the menopause.

They’re joined by Where do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson, a study of native and invasive species, and by the self-published Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte. The final entrant is a specialist work entitled Advanced Pavement Research: Selected, Peer Reviewed Papers from the 3rd International Conference on Concrete Pavements Design, Construction, and Rehabilitation.

4. Elsewhere

Robert Macfarlane, a writer and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, wrote movingly in last Saturday’s Guardian under the title From Aquabob to Zawn about his long search for the language of landscape and natural phenomena. His resulting book, Landmarks, is out this week under the Hamish Hamilton imprint. In her series on modern tribes in the same issue, Catherine Bennett wrote a sharply observed piece about the grammar pedant.

5. Trove

The Guardian was a minor treasure-trove in early March 2015 for enquirers into matters of English language. An item in the Corrections and Clarifications column on Monday 2 March reported that grammar pedants (tactfully described there as “linguistic purists”) had been upset at the use of the phrase Snowden trove for the thousands of documents leaked by Edward Snowden. They asserted, and the Guardian’s style guide agrees, that trove may not be used on its own, but must always form part of the compound noun treasure-trove.

The idea that valuables that had been abandoned or hidden by persons unknown could be claimed by the state goes back at least to Roman times. The Latin was thesaurus inventus, which strikes modern non-Latinists as peculiar, since for us a thesaurus is a special form of dictionary, while to invent is to create something new. But thesaurus in Latin could mean a treasury and the concept of a book being a storehouse of knowledge has led to the word being used in English at least since the sixteenth century. And Latin inventus could as much mean discovered as invented.

The Latin thesaurus inventus continued to be used until the end of the medieval period. After the Norman Conquest it existed alongside the Anglo-Norman tresor trové. This was gradually Anglicised into treasure found. Legal English, with its liking for old French terms, preferred to turn it into English in a different way; a legal textbook of 1567 explained that valuable abandoned property belonged to the queen and was called treasure-trove. Since the concept was a legal one, this form ousted the other one.

Treasure-trove follows a pattern of compound terms derived from French in which the adjective follows the noun; others are governor-general, poet laureate, court-martial, God Almighty, heir apparent, letter patent and knight errant. Careful users of English, and the Guardian style guide, seem to be correct when they say that trove has no independent existence.

At least, until we start to look at the evidence.

People started to use trove by itself to mean a hoard or a valuable find at least as far back as the 1880s:

The value of her trove struck her, and she cast about for the best method of using it.

Plain Tales from the Hills, by Rudyard Kipling, 1888.

His breath came hot and fast as he gazed upon the trove; a queen’s ransom, a fortune incalculable even to its owner.

The Brass Bowl, by Louis Joseph Vance, 1907.

By the 1920s it was moderately common, though still not recognised by the linguistic authorities. When in 1950 Leonard Gribble published an anthology of tales for children under the title Story Trove, it clearly wasn’t regarded as hopelessly bad English. Shortly afterwards, this well-known example appeared:

The Wise may have good reason to believe that the halfling’s trove is indeed the Great Ring of long debate, unlikely though that may seem to those who know less.

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J R R Tolkien, 1954.

Nowadays it is unremarkable, though often expressing a broader sense of a hoard of intangible valuables (an Australian newspaper database, for example, is called simply Trove):

But that would have to assume that Sony executives are incredibly smart. The trove of their emails would strongly suggest that’s not the case.

Garden City Telegram (Kansas), 2 Jan. 2015.

It has to recognise that consumer services are generating a trove of data that’s valuable to us.

New Scientist, 24 Jan. 2015.

Language has moved on. Trove is now too widely used to be dismissed as bad English. Dictionaries include it (the Oxford English Dictionary has had an entry for it since 1989), though some refer the enquirer to treasure-trove. American ones are readier than British to accept that trove is now a noun and a valid abbreviated form of treasure-trove. The Guardian itself acknowledges this in its Corrections and Clarifications item: “Perhaps we should now accept that it’s a useful word on its own.” Indeed.

6. Smithereens

Q From Stephen Offenbacker, Germany: Any thoughts on the origin of smithereens, as in smash to smithereens? I sometimes wonder if it could have anything to do with blacksmiths, since a blacksmith’s hammer is certainly well capable of reducing objects to small pieces.

A It’s an excellent word to describe the action of pummelling something forcibly, with that sm sound at the start that also appears in words such as smack, smite and smash. When an object has become smithereens, it has been thoroughly reduced to little bits. There’s nothing half-hearted about the activity, which most often appears in phrases such as blown to smithereens, split in smithereens and your smashed to smithereens. Another:

The party is in danger of being blasted to smithereens at next year’s General Election.

The Sun, 26 Feb. 2015.

That huge tribe variously called Smith, Smyth, or Smythe, whose family name has been taken from a worker in iron, need not worry that they are being accused of mayhem by proxy. Though there has been some small doubt about the origin of smithereens, and Ivor Brown speculated in Words in Our Time in 1958 that smithers might be from the detritus of blacksmithing, the experts are now sure that there’s no link to blacksmiths.

The -een ending at once makes us think of Ireland and of colleen, poteen, shebeen and other words that derive from the Irish diminutive ending -ín. (A colleen is a young woman, poteen for illicit alcohol is literally a little pot and a shebeen, in which such liquor was sold, takes its name from the Irish word for a small mugful; but note that tureen, canteen, velveteen, sateen and some other words aren’t from Irish, but from French.) Most dictionaries assert that smithereens is indeed Irish, from smidirín, a diminutive of smiodar, a fragment.

Early examples are certainly associated with Ireland. In August 1810, the Dublin Evening Post published a notice that had been posted on a local magistrate’s door in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in 1795. This was the act of Orangemen, Protestant adherents of William of Orange (William III), who invaded Ireland in 1690 and defeated his Catholic predecessor James II at the Battle of the Boyne:

Mr Pounden, — Sir, we gave you notice some time ago to quit this country, for you are making a rebellion here — we tell you now again, that if you do not be of directly, by the gost of William, our deliverer, and by the Orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hoch your cattle, and burn your house — so mind yourself — you will soon hear again from your friend, TRUE BLUE.

Reprinted in the Irish Magazine, or Monthly Asylum for Neglected Biography, Sep. 1810. Hoch is sometimes respelled as hough; both are versions of hock, to disable an animal by cutting its tendons.

This notice was also reproduced in Francis Plowden’s The History of Ireland from its Union With Great Britain in January 1801 to October 1810 and in newspapers in Britain and North America. The publicity must have helped popularise the word. By one of those quirks of recording, the word had appeared earlier in print in the US in an article in the Goshan Weekly News of Indiana in January 1805. Smithereens — always plural, by the way — became widely known in later decades wherever English was spoken and is still common. It’s too good to lose.

One remaining minor puzzle is its resemblance to the Scots and English dialect word smither or smithers meaning fragments, a word of doubtful ancestry, though it’s been suggested it might be from smite, or perhaps associated in some way with smidgen.

An’ once I said to the Missis, “My lass, when I cooms to die,
Smash the bottle to smithers, the Divil’s in ’im,” said I.

The Northern Cobbler, in Ballads and Other Poems, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1880. This dialect poem recounts the cobbler’s struggle against alcoholism.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an old entry, wondered if smither could have been taken to Ireland by incomers and been extended by the een ending, with the Irish form smidirín coming along later. As smithers was first recorded decades after smithereens, it’s just as likely matters are the other way around, with its being an abbreviation of smithereens. Nobody believes either situation now: the two words were probably of independent formation, though they may well have influenced each other.

7. Sic!

• A headline on MSN on 23 February struck Martin Gilmore as being tough duty for the cops involved: “Beloved K9 receives final salute, police escort to be euthanized at clinic.”

• “Dolly’s unexpected job” was the eyebrow-raised subject of John Peck’s email, about this sentence on the Daily Mail site on 2o February: “Roger Stone, pictured with Dolly Parton, who was Rotherham Council leader at the time, is a lifelong fan of the country singer.”

• In Paul McAuley’s SF book Something Coming Through, out last month: “Daniel sat back, steepling his long fingers across his waistcoat. He bought them from a little shop in Brixton Market.”

• Peter Blackmore submitted a misleadingly written — though accurate — headline about a serious accident that was in the Massachusetts Eagle-Tribune of 12 February. “Kingston man not seriously hurt in fatal crash.”

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