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Newsletter 727
12 Mar 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Chronogram.

3. Turns of Phrase: Water poverty.

4. Wordface.

5. Questions and Answers: Beefing.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Limerick Margaret Joachim commented, “The custom of sitting in a group and singing limericks in turn is not lost — or at least it wasn’t when I was at university forty years ago. The group of undergraduate geologists of which I was a part undertook regular week or ten-day fieldwork trips. On several occasions we rounded off the trip by building a big fire on a beach, providing ourselves with a variety of forms of liquid refreshments, and singing what we called ‘the limerick song’ exactly as you describe except that the chorus was ‘That was a jolly good song. Sing us another one, just like the other one, sing us another one, do.’” I remember a similar version being sung by the late Alan Breeze on the Billy Cotton Band Show in about 1955. The chorus was “That was a cute little rhyme. Sing us another one, do”. A book search finds that version quoted as being sung by Canadian and British forces in the Second World War, though the Alan Breeze one was cleaner. There are others.

2. Weird Words: Chronogram

Even a nodding acquaintance with classical Greek will tell us that a chronogram is writing that’s connected with time. Etymology will not take us any further and we have to consult the reference books for additional enlightenment.

A chronogram is a phrase or sentence, often an inscription, in which certain letters, taken to be Roman numerals, express a date. The letters available are I, V, X, L, C, D and M, though we moderns are allowed to cheat with three not in the Latin alphabet: J can be taken to be I, U to be the same as V and W to be a double U or VV. A famous example appeared in an old pamphlet, attributed to George Wither: “LorD haVe MerCIe Vpon Vs”. If we add the Roman numerals up, we get 1666, the date of publication.

Such encoded dates were once popular, especially on medals and on bells to show the date they were cast. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, James Hilton wrote three big books detailing every example of the technique he could find. The arrival of the first of these prompted this verbal assault:

It is impossible to think of any more witless, pointless effort of literary ingenuity. ... We confess to a feeling of dread lest the thing should spread and become common. Nothing can be more likely unless it is nipped in the bud. We have hardly yet got rid of ‘double acrostics’. They linger still in the back pages of some of the ‘society papers’. But chronograms are so much more foolish, so much more senseless, and so much easier to make and to guess, that there is every reason to fear an outbreak of them before long.

Saturday Review, 6 Jan. 1883. Quoted in The Oxford Guide to Word Games, by Tony Augarde.

Isaac D’Israeli (father of Benjamin Disraeli) didn’t think much of chronograms either, describing them as “literary follies”. In 1888, the Birmingham Daily Post greeted the publication of the second of Mr Hilton’s volumes by calling them “vexatious and gratuitous fritterings”. Whether it was the force of these criticisms, or the narrow compass offered by the technique, they fell out of favour.

3. Turns of Phrase: Water poverty

Humans can, at a pinch, make do without a lot of things, but they must have water. Some people in developing countries have access only to water that is unfit to drink. In other countries, even some prosperous ones such as the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, there isn’t enough water for their populations.

The term water poverty for the lack of access to potable water isn’t new: it’s on record as far back as 1950 in reference to the problems of Texas farmers during a prolonged drought. But it has become widely used only in the past decade. In February, a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation used the term to describe the state of four million British low-income households who struggle to pay their bills.

As 22 March is World Water Day — the theme this year is water for cities — the term is likely to appear in news reports.

She concluded that Jamaica was suffering from water poverty, as it is a nation that cannot constantly afford the cost of sustainable clean water to everyone.

Jamaica Observer, 3 Aug. 2010.

Even if the new deal does not cut back on Egypt’s share of the Nile, water poverty is a daunting reality as the population grows by an estimated 1.5 million people annually.

Manila Bulletin, 31 May 2010.

4. Wordface

The long and thin of it A story on the BBC website a few days ago introduced me to the scientific term spaghettification. It has nothing to do with Italian cuisine but refers to what happens to an object that is caught in the gravitational field of a black hole. Some theories hold that it is stretched vertically and compressed horizontally until it looks like a length of spaghetti. The term has been around for at least a decade and is said to derive from a comment by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time that an astronaut passing through the event horizon of a black hole would be “stretched like spaghetti”.

5. Questions and Answers: Beefing

Q From Alec Cawley: In an article about cattle exports, The Economist used beefing in the sense of “whinging, complaining, or moaning”. How did cow-meat, usually regarded as a premium meal, become associated with such a downbeat concept?

A The verb beef, with the meaning you give, has been in the language for a surprisingly long time — it’s on record from the 1860s.

We have to go back further to trace the verb to its beginnings. In the early eighteenth century there was a slang phrase to cry hot beef or give hot beef, which meant to raise the alarm, to start pursuit or to set up a hue and cry. This may have been based on a street hawker’s cry and to have been a pun on stop thief! The New Canting Dictionary records in 1725, “to cry beef upon us: they have discover’d us and are in Pursuit of us”. A few years later, the verb beef by itself also meant to raise a hue and cry and this continued in use well into the nineteenth century.

The next step is a bit disconnected, because the written evidence for it only begins to appear in the 1860s and it doesn’t chart the way that beef had been developing. One change was that beef became a general cry of alarm, unconnected with theft, and then merely a shout or cry, a sense that came out of the theatre and was later taken to Australia by emigrants. At around the same period beef shifted to mean a complaint, thus giving us the slang sense we have today.

You gave your message the punning subject line what’s the beef? That obviously comes from the verb to beef and is still a common idiom meaning “what’s the problem?” or “what’s going on?”, though it typically turns up in the popular prints as a humorous reference to ranching, mad cow disease, the Calgary stampede, McDonalds restaurants and related bovine topics. Here’s a recent example:

The Dallas Observer newspaper even had a story about it more than a year ago, based on a press release issued by the Houston-based chain. So, what’s the beef all of a sudden?

The Fort Worth Star Telegram (Texas), 9 Jan. 2011.

We must, of course, make a careful distinction between what’s the beef? and where’s the beef? The latter, which questions the importance, significance, inner meaning or substance of something, derives from the early-1980s advertising campaign for Wendy’s hamburgers in the US and Canada and briefly became a political slogan.

6. Sic!

• Following my mention of vespasiennes recently, Rachel Wentz wanted to know more. She checked Wikipedia and found a reference on the page entitled Urinal. It included this note: “In other bathrooms, trough urinals are placed, which most of the time can hold large numbers of men and boys.”

• An email advertisement for a seminar on “An Integrative Approach to Health and Wellbeing” came into Jim Hart’s mailbox. After listing the guest lecturer’s qualifications, it said: “His expertise is the cause of disease, cancer and difficult clinical problems.”

• Steve Ryan tells us that the Winter 2011 issue of UCR Magazine (UCR being the University of California, Riverside) reported on a study into personality as a predictor of longevity. The article included this comment: “Children from divorced families died almost five years earlier on average than children from intact families. But many such children recovered and thrived.”

• And three headlines to ponder, courtesy of Karen Rappaport, Pete Jones and Julie Egan: “German Bishops Offer Cash to Abuse Victims” (Huffington Post, 3 March), “Student Athlete Suspended for Sex” (BBC News, 4 March), and “Dead man demanded kinky sex” (The Age, Melbourne, 2 March).

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