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Newsletter 890
09 Aug 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Corybantic.

3. Wordface.

4. Going spare.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Doge. Responding to this Internet verbal fashion I wrote about last week, James Kahn, Pat Spaeth, Mark Hyman and John Lyon all recalled the same dialogue from the 1942 film Casablanca:

Mr. Leuchtag: Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now. Mrs. Leuchtag: So we should feel at home when we get to America. Carl: Very nice idea, mm-hmm. Mr. Leuchtag: [toasting] To America! Mrs. Leuchtag: To America! Carl: To America! Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen — sweetness, what watch? Mrs. Leuchtag: Ten watch. Mr. Leuchtag: Such much? Carl: Hm. You will get along beautiful in America, mm-hmm.

Several readers asked whether doge is connected with doggerel. There are dogs in both, though in doggerel it is an unfavourable reference, as are so many formations in which dog appears. Doggerel was created in the fifteenth century by adding the -(e)rel suffix, which creates diminutives, often with derogatory force.

Update. I’ve significantly revised the piece on mash note and included more information about the origins of masher, a late-nineteenth-century dandy in the US and UK.

2. Corybantic

It’s best not to delve too deeply into the Greek myths behind this word, which feature hermaphroditism, nocturnal emissions and castration. Merely a story of everyday life on Mounts Olympus and Parnassus.

The principal figure is Cybele, goddess of fertility and mistress of wild nature, who had a huge and jealous love for a young man named Attis. The legend was created by the ancient Phrygians, but was taken over by the Greeks (who identified her with Rhea, mother of the gods), and later by the Romans. Cybele was often pictured in a chariot drawn by lions and was worshipped by nine armed and crested men called Korybantes in Greek and Corybantes in Latin. They performed noisy, extravagant, orgiastic dances to the sounds of drums and other instruments.

Why, you have made her [Rhea] quite mad: she harnesses those lions of hers, and drives about all over Ida with the Corybantes, who are as mad as herself, shrieking high and low for Attis; and there they are, slashing their arms with swords, rushing about over the hills, like wild things, with dishevelled hair, blowing horns, beating drums, clashing cymbals; all Ida is one mad tumult.

Nigrinus, by Lucian of Samosata, 1st century AD.

In the seventeenth century, English gained corybantic to describe any unrestrained dancing and music making. It became in time a term for rather more sober merrymaking. In 1890, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote in the Times about “That form of somewhat corybantic Christianity of which the soldiers of the Salvation Army are the militant missionaries.”

A more recent example, from the literature of fantasy:

She taught him the courtly manners of the elf lords, and also the corybantic measures they trod when they were out in the open, barefoot in dew and drunk with moonlight.

The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson, 1954.

3. Wordface

Electric sport. During my investigation of blooper a couple of weeks ago, I came across a curious-sounding game of the early 1920s: radio golf. It took some investigation to pin it down but it turns out to have been a competition among early radio enthusiasts in the US to tune into and identify the most distant broadcasting stations possible. Kudos came to those who could pick up the ones furthest away and success was measured by adding up the distances in miles to every station caught, fancifully like recording the total length of one’s golf shots. Participants had to crank up the sensitivity of their sets to the maximum to get good results; the early regenerative sets of the time meant that they often went into oscillation and generated bloopers in nearby receivers.

Royal permit. Michael Flanders, of Flanders and Swann fame, had a sketch about Greensleeves, which is said to have been composed by Henry VIII. His punchline was “And the royalties went to royalty.” Robert Taxin in San Francisco reminded me of it when he wrote to wonder why the fees to artists for using their work are called royalties. It seems that from the fifteenth century, one meaning of royalty was the rights and privileges belonging to the monarch. The crown often gave permission to subjects to do certain things, such as mine for minerals, in exchange for a fee. The term transferred from the royal perquisite to the payments themselves only in the nineteenth century, when it was accepted that landowners, composers, authors and owners of patents also had rights in their physical and intellectual property.

In passing. Some words I’ve come across during my reading in July: pentapedal, used to describe the kangaroo, which uses its tail as well as its other limbs to move around; hyperthymestic memory, a condition in which a person can remember the minutest detail of every day’s activities; agalmatophilia, falling in love with an inanimate object, such as a statue; brogrammer, a deprecatory term invented by women in computing in the US for the frat-house atmosphere within the industry in Silicon Valley; apophallation, the gnawing off of the penis of a snail by its partner after mating; mallification, the conversion of public space into an area in which, as in a shopping mall, many recreational activities are banned; decamentathlete, a person who enters 10 classes in the Mind Sports Olympiad; by-the-wind-sailor, a common name for a sea-beast usually classed as a jellyfish, but actually a communal hydrozoan; and pteridomania, a passion for collecting rare ferns.

4. Going spare

Q From Richard I R Winter in Ontario Canada: An article in the British magazine Country Life tells of villagers complaining about the National Trust opening a property on Sundays. The quote from one of the irate villagers interested me: “You can go out for a walk and find yourself in a traffic jam of cars. Farmers have gone spare as they can’t get their tractors up the busy lanes.” Gone spare is a quaint way of describing road rage. What is its origin?

A You’ve been misled by a specific use of this characteristically British slang phrase. It actually means being in a state of rage or distress over some issue identified by the context:

Mum will be going spare if we don’t arrive in time for her to feed you this morning

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling, 2007.

Sometimes it has implications of going crazy:

I can see constitutionally that there’s an argument that the heir to the throne should not get involved in controversy. The honest truth is I didn’t mind. If you are waiting to be the king, and you’ve waited a very long time, you genuinely have to engage with something or you’d go spare.

The Times, 30 June 2014.

Its early history is sparse but there are enough clues for us to be fairly sure about how it came about. Based on the historic and current standard sense of spare — kept in reserve, not currently wanted, or beyond what one needs for ordinary use — at the end of the nineteenth century people gave it an additional meaning of a person who is forced to be idle and therefore useless or superfluous.

Later appearances suggest it was taken into military slang, since to be spare is noted in 1919 as meaning off-duty and a military dictionary of 1926 records to look spare as meaning idle. This is a slightly earlier example of going spare in the same sense:

This is not to suggest that men in camp are “going spare,” but is simply to state that there are crews available for more cars.

Times, 14 Aug. 1924.

Eric Partridge suggests in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that it was used for going absent without leave during the Second World War, though there’s no known written evidence for it. There are some hints that after the war it came to mean men who had been laid off from work.

Quite how we got from this to rage or distress isn’t obvious. One idea that has been put forward is that it arose from emotions provoked by enforced idleness. (We may discount the idea that it’s rhyming slang: spare tyre -> ire.)

Some writers have suggested that go spare in the sense you’ve met was being used in the spoken language by the early 1950s, if not earlier. But this is the first recorded use in print:

When he saw what I had done he went spare.

Bang to Rights, by Frank Norman, 1958.

It’s worth noting that there’s another sense of going spare, presumably extended from the early twentieth-century military one, for something that’s currently unwanted and available for re-use.

“Your parents said you could move into their hotel,” Rebus said. He turned to face Costello. “They’ve booked two rooms, so one’s probably going spare.”

The Falls, by Ian Rankin, 2001.

5. Sic!

• Bob Kernish tells us that the Martel Electronics website implies that it sells a police body camera intended for mild-mannered cops: “The Vid-Shield is water resistant and withstand rain and humility.”

• On 3 August, Steve Hirsch was watching an NBC TV news report on the return of a patient to the US from Africa: “The American doctor with the Ebola virus walked into the medical center where he will be treated to everyone’s surprise.”

• Tom Dooley sent a caption to a video he had found online: “Congressman David G Valadao discusses the history of California water and the need for a legislative solution to avoid future man-made droughts on the Floor of the House of Representatives.” Debates can be rather dry.

• Peter Howell, film critic of the Toronto Star, wrote a review on 1 August about Woody Allen’s latest film, Magic in the Moonlight. Lydia Hallard sent this sentence from it: “Even the most dextrose prose would be unable to overcome the unhappy pairing of Colin Firth and Emma Stone, who make a dead battery seem sparky in comparison”. Sugary prose?

• The latest edition of the e-newsletter This Week on WNYC, Harvey Wachtel tells us, has an article about Mayor DeBlasio's efforts to reduce traffic deaths in New York City which ends by offering a link labelled “Meet 10 of the people killed by cars this year.”

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