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Newsletter 880
03 May 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Opusculum.

3. Wordface.

4. Marthambles.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Inflammable Graham Thomas commented: “Surely it is necessary only to know the verb to inflame in order to be in no doubt as to the meaning of inflammable?” That might seem so, but as inflame is used figuratively, the connection isn’t especially obvious. That’s true of inflammation, too. Therefore, to answer Pádraig McCarthy, there’s no risk of us being urged to use flammatory language or anti-flammatory medication.

Jennifer Atkinson wrote from Tasmania: “During my working life as a pharmacist, Australia’s legally required labelling of inflammable goods changed from inflammable to flammable. How interesting that the change had such good reasons and was not the ‘modern silliness’ that I objected to.” Ronald Davis noted, “In Canada, most labels have to be in both official languages. Thus, one often sees the seemingly contradictory label containing both flammable (in English) and inflammable (in French).”

Kathy Phillips remarked, “While reading your comments I started wondering about debone versus bone in relation to cooking. Which term is correct, to bone a chicken or debone it? Or are these interchangeable also?” My impression is that, in Britain, bone is easily the more often encountered of the two. Debone is a comparatively recent introduction in North America, dating from the 1880s, and is much more common there. It’s an odd formation because it implies the opposite is also possible.

2. Opusculum/əˈpʌskjᵿləm/ Help with IPA

In 2009, J C McKeown of the University of Wisconsin described his book Cabinet of Roman Curiosities as an opusculum, an assessment both appropriate and modest. An opusculum is a little work, usually a book.

For most of us, opusculum means nothing, which disgusted the late Anthony Burgess. In one of his diatribes in old age lamenting the decline of education he challenged guests at his dinner table with idiolect, palinlogue, desquamation, lesbic, autophagous, monophthongal, autocephalous, inesculent, allomorph, strabismus ... and opusculum.

I may return to some of these another time, but for the moment must restrict myself to explaining that opusculum is the diminutive of Latin opus. For the Romans, opus was any sort of labour, but it has come to mean an artistic work, in particular one on a large scale. We meet it most frequently in music but it can be used of books, paintings and other media. It appears also in magnum opus, literally “great work”, the most important creation of an artist. Burgess would undoubtedly have known that if one were in the unlikely situation of wanting to discuss the most significant output of several artists, one should describe them as their magna opera.

Though opera is the plural of opus it’s rarely used that way, since opera has taken on a life of its own as a singular noun for the musical genre. This came about in Italian, in which it meant a composition in which poetry, dance, and music were combined, thus including several types of opus.

The plural of opusculum is opuscula, which widely appears in scholarly contexts but is otherwise rare.

It is many years since Sir Sacheverell Sitwell’s Collected Poems appeared: more than 40, indeed. Since then, a few privately printed opuscula have been distributed among friends.

Financial Times, 7 Aug. 1982.

3. Wordface

Passing on The term hand-me-up appeared in several UK newspapers this past week as the result of some research by the online retailer Pixmania. It’s an obvious play on hand-me-down, which is known from the early nineteenth century, but I’d no previous memory of it and was surprised to find that it’s been around for decades. In the current sense, an early example appeared in BusinessWeek of July 1998: “And more and more older users are joining the throng as PC prices fall and adult children give ‘hand-me-up’ computers to mom and dad.” The recent usages relate to mobile phones which young people consider outdated but which parents and older relatives, less concerned with fashion, find useful. The term can be traced back still further, to 1986, in the related sense of people passing on items of clothing to older relatives.

River low, mountain high There are about 7000 languages in the world. It has long been realised that their diversity, area for area, is much greater in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region than in Europe and the Americas. Jacob Bock Axelsen and Susanna Manrubia wondered to what extent environmental factors influence the distribution of languages. They made a detailed statistical analysis covering a large number of possible factors, including vegetation, temperature, rainfall, altitude and population density. They reported last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society that — as common sense might suggest — the most important factors are rivers and mountains, which act as barriers and lead to isolation and the fragmentation of languages in the same way that they cause biological populations to create new species. Rivers can paradoxically also make communication easier, bringing languages together and promoting the creation of new ones.

4. Marthambles

Q From : I remember discussions we once had on a Patrick O’Brian list about his use of the word marthambles for a disease. We spent much time looking for its origin and meaning but couldn’t uncover it. Did he make it up?

A The author Patrick O’Brian rarely invented words, as he was a careful and accurate researcher of all matters maritime and medical, though he did have an impish sense of humour. He seems to have been rather fond of marthambles, using it in six of his naval stories about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin.

He asked ‘How is our fourth man?’ meaning Abse, a member of the afterguard, whose complaint was known as the marthambles at sea and griping of the guts by land, a disease whose cause Stephen did not know and whose symptoms he could only render more nearly bearable by opiates: he could not cure it.

The Nutmeg of Consolation, by Patrick O’Brian, 1991.

However, O’Brian is seriously inconsistent. In The Surgeon’s Mate, he says Maturin “had cured Mrs Broad, the landlady and an excellent plain cook, of the marthambles” and in Desolation Island the crew says he similarly cured Prince Billy of it (this is presumably Prince William Frederick, great-nephew of George III, widely known as Silly Billy). Another surgeon claims in The Wine-Dark Sea that the disease is “as deadly as measles or the smallpox to islanders”. We are left ignorant of the nature of the ailment and how serious it really is. There’s a good reason for that — it’s not a real disease.

Other examples of the word are on record. Dorothy Dunnett included it in her historical novel The Ringed Castle of 1971. It also turns up in an article on quackery in the issue of the American Medical Gazette for May 1859. It quotes a seventeenth-century medical faker named Tom Jones, whose words were reproduced in The Harangues or Speeches of Several Famous Mountebanks in Town and Country of 1690:

These quacks may fitly be called soliniates, because they prescribe only one kind of physic, for all distempers: that is, a vomit. If a man has bruised his elbow, take a vomit, says the doctor. If you have any corns, take a vomit. If he has torn his coat, take a vomit. For the jaundice, fever, flux, gripes, gout, — nay, even the distempers that only my friend the famous Dr. Tuff, whom you all know, knows as the hocognicles, marthambles, the moonpauls, and the strongfives, — a vomit; tantum.

I can find no other example of soliniate; tantum is medical Latin from tantus, meaning “so much”.

The famous Dr Tuff must be the same mountebank that O’Brian refers to in an interview printed in the Patrick O’Brian Newsletter in March 1994:

Marthambles is a very fine word that I found in a quack’s pamphlet of the late 17th or early 18th century advising a nostrum that would cure not only ‘the strong fires’ and a whole variety of more obvious diseases but the marthambles too. I have never seen it anywhere else and it has escaped the OED.

It turns out, with the help of C J S Tompson’s The Quacks of Old London of 1928, that Dr Tuff was really Dr Tufts. Tufts produced a pamphlet in 1675 that has several times been reproduced:

There is newly arrived from his travels, a gentleman, who, after above forty years’ study, hath, by a wonderful blessing on his endeavours, discovered, as well the nature as the infallible cure of several strange diseases, which (though as yet not known to the world) he will plainly demonstrate to any ingenious artist, to be the greatest causes of the most common distempers incident to the body of man. The names of which take as follow: The strong fives, The marthambles, The moon-pall, The hockogrocle. Now, though the names, natures, symptoms, and several cures of these diseases, are altogether unknown to our greatest physicians, and the particular knowledge of them would (if concealed) be a vast advantage to the aforesaid person; yet, he well knowing that his country’s good is to be preferred to his private interest, doth hereby promise all sorts of people, a faithful cure of all or any of the diseases aforesaid, at as reasonable rates as our modern doctors have for that of any common distemper.

As quoted in Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, by Edmund Fillingham King, 1860. King slightly modified the spelling and orthography of the original.

Marthambles — later also spelled markambles — was an invention by Dr Tufts to frighten patients into paying for his useless nostrums. He wasn’t alone in his trickery — others in the same period created the bonny scrubs, the glimmering of the gizzard, the quavering of the kidneys, and the wambling trot as ailments worthy of their well-paid attention.

Patrick O’Brian slyly bamboozled his readers with his various statements about its nature. Fair enough, it was mythical, after all. But I wonder at his failure to borrow hockogrocle.

5. Sic!

• Lyn Mehl records that at the end of an article in the May-June issue of Dogs Naturally a brief biography of the author stated: “She lives in York, Maine with her husband, two dogs and two cats; they are all rescues.”

• The Daily Mail’s website could keep this section in material by itself. Stewart Hartley found this sentence in a report of 24 April about the owner of the South Korean ferry that recently sank: “Last night, police were seen leaving Byung-eun’s home with cardboard boxes and a church which Byung-eun is said to have an interest in.”

• Sometime last week there was a discussion on BFBS Forces Radio in Cyprus about a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery. Pattie Tancred heard the announcer inform his listeners that there is a “section reserved for personnel who died in both the First and Second World Wars.”

• Max Jackson sent a link to an article on Business Insider dated 24 April about the Google co-founder Larry Page: “Google’s human resources boss, a serious woman with bangs named Stacey Sullivan, thought Page’s plan was nuts.”

• An unfortunately worded item on the Market Research Reports website startled Bernard Robertson-Dunn: “Healthcare is clearly becoming an area where key killer applications emerge.” And Steve Colby noted this headline on the Daily Caller website: “Feds Might Slash Funding As Exploding Medicaid Applicants Struggle To Enroll.”

• A Sky News website item on 29 April surprised Stephen Brown: “Almost one in 10 heads and senior staff who responded said in the past year a child aged between five and seven had worn a nappy to school. The figure was 5% for classroom teachers.”

6. Useful information

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