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Newsletter 718
08 Jan 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Tintamarre.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Near miss.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Normal service now resumed Thanks for your patience while I took a couple of weeks off.

Kettling Alan Taylor noted that, “The word Kessel is a German military term for an encirclement of the enemy, literally, a cauldron”. Jonathan Warner commented: “When I read your piece, I wondered why there was no mention of the Stalingrad Kettle. The film, Enemy at the Gates, came out in 2001 and spawned an upsurge of interest in the battle; perhaps a cinema-going constable came up with the term, rather than hearing it from a German colleague in the way you suggest.”

Robin M Crorie, a retired Police Support Unit commander, gave an insider’s view of the term: “In my experience, kettling isn’t a police word at all, at least not here in the UK. It is known to practitioners as containment and I’d never heard colleagues refer to it as kettling. The first and subsequent encounters that I had with it were in the media, who aren’t strangers to a preference for more emotive terminology.”

Mumping Numerous readers asked whether this term had any link to the name of that nasty viral disease, mumps. It would seem to be linked to the other sense of mump that I mentioned, a grimace, presumably because of the look of the face when it is swollen up.

Balloon’s gone up Alan Turner told me that observation balloons were used in the 1860s during the American Civil War, information from spotters being passed to the ground by the newfangled electric telegraph. In combination with the relatively early US examples of the term, it suggests the expression may have grown out of people’s experience with them in that war. The idea would then be similar to that quoted for the First World War, in which observation balloons appearing over the lines often preceded an operation. So those who claim that it was coined during the First World War may have the right idea, but the wrong war. Or we may have a case of independent invention. Etymology is a delightfully uncertain business.

Site updates In New-Year spirit, I’ve updated the piece about Janus-faced. I’ve also updated those about big girl’s blouse and 3D fatigue.

2. Weird Words: Tintamarre/tɪntəˈmɑː®/ Help with IPA

It’s a pleasant word for an unlovely experience, unless you are a lover of loud noises, since a tintamarre is an uproar, hubbub or confused noise.

The tempest had struck. Kenton, climbing, heard thunderings like the clashing of armied shields; clanging of countless cymbals, tintamarre of millions of gongs of brass.

The Ship of Ishtar, by Abraham Merritt, 1926. Armied is a rare word meaning “army-like” or “forming an army”.

While we’re sure that it was borrowed from French in the sixteenth century, nobody has provided a good explanation of where the French got it from. It may remind us of tintinnabulation but the experts are sure that the two words aren’t connected.

The 2010 tintamarre in Fredericton, Canada. Photo: Bernadette Regnier

At one time, it was fairly common in English but it almost died out in the nineteenth century. J Redding Ware recorded in his Passing English of the Victorian Era in 1909 that it was confined to Devon. Since then it has become even rarer in English, though it has been resurrected, hopefully teasingly, for an annual music festival in Lincolnshire.

The French connection survives in the Acadian regions of eastern Canada. A tintamarre is a colourful parade in which participants see how much din they can create using any noisemaker to hand, such as pots, pans, whistles or drums. This event is only about 30 years old (one website calls it a modern tradition) but may reflect the old French custom of charivari.

3. Wordface

Troubles in 3D In its Christmas issue, New Scientist introduced readers to the unpleasant term barfogenic zone. This is the onset of nausea, accompanied by headaches and eyestrain, that can be caused by wearing 3D virtual-reality goggles or watching 3D films or television. It’s classic motion sickness, brought on because one’s eyes are confused by images that are in reality at a fixed distance but which seem to move forwards and backwards. Other terms also sometimes used include cybersickness and 3D fatigue.

Self-referential etymology A reader asked me about the origins of puzzle. Nobody knows.

Words of the year 1 During my Christmas break, more announcements of words of the year were made. Merriam-Webster chose austerity, because it topped the list of searches on the dictionary’s website during the year. Dr Lynne Murphy, an American linguist working in the UK, featured two chosen by readers of her blog, Separated by a Common Language: shellacking as the American-to-British Word of the Year, and ginger — the hair colour — as the British-to-American one, to mark the forthcoming conclusion of the Harry Potter film adaptations. The Flemish word of the year was chosen by another audience survey: tentsletje, literally a tent-slut, a woman who has multiple sexual partners at a music festival. The German Language Society crowned Wutbürger, enraged citizen, as the most important German word of 2010 because of all that country’s demonstrations.

At the other end of the words spectrum, the long-established annual List of Banished Words published by Lake Superior State University came out on 1 January. Every year, the public votes for their most-disliked words and phrases, a great opportunity for grumblers about the declining state of the language to vent some spleen and for the University to obtain much-needed publicity. This year, the overall winner was viral, in the online sense of passing news of something from person to person; this has become a term of art in marketing and is now solidly established in the language. Other words and phrases in the list that voters particularly hated include epic, fail (and epic fail), wow factor, man up, refudiate and your call is important to us.

Words of the year 2 As every year, the granddaddy of these annual votefests, the one from the American Dialect Society, took place yesterday evening (Friday 7 January) at its annual conference. Winners were elected in various categories. Most Useful Word of the Year: nom (a popular online term for yummy food, borrowed from the noise that the Cookie Monster character on Sesame Street makes as he devours another cookie); Most Creative: prehab (the pre-emptive enrolment in a rehab facility to prevent relapse of an abuse problem, invented in February after Charlie Sheen checked into a clinic); Most Unnecessary: refudiate (an easy winner, the notorious blend of refute and repudiate used by Sarah Palin on Twitter); Most Outrageous: gate rape (a pejorative term for an invasive new US airport security pat-down procedure); Most Euphemistic: kinetic event (the Pentagon term for violent attacks on troops in Afghanistan); Most Likely to Succeed: trend (a term particularly of Twitter, meaning to exhibit a burst of online buzz); Least Likely to Succeed: culturomics (a statistical approach to word research using a set of about five million books digitised by Google, the value of which many linguists are deeply sceptical about); Fan Word of the Year: gleek (a fan of the television show Glee). And finally — drumroll, please, maestro — as the overall Word of the Year for 2010 the American Dialect Society voted for app (an abbreviated form of application, a software program for a computer or phone operating system, which has been around for ages but which burst into renewed vigour in 2010 because of the vast number of little applications that have become available for smartphones).

4. Questions and Answers: Near miss

Q From Zefanja Potgieter, New Zealand: I am curious about the expression near miss, often used when two aircraft avoid a mid-air collision. To me this is patently illogical, because a near miss is surely a hit, and therefore a near hit is a miss and should be used instead. Regrettably, the online Oxford English Dictionary gives a definition aligning with the common usage. My view remains that common acceptance does not change a wrong into a right. Grudgingly I have to accept this status quo but it would be interesting to find out how this term became so widely accepted.

A Your view has often been shared by others of a severely logical turn of mind:

The overuse of near ... became controversial with near miss, a nonsensical version of near thing; some of us patiently but uselessly pointed out that the writer meant near hit. Near miss has since entrenched itself as an idiom.

On Language By William Safire, The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2005.

Near miss has indeed become an idiom and idioms by definition don’t make literal sense, however infuriating that may seem. In this case, your opponents may argue that near means “close”, so near miss can be interpreted to mean an accident that has only narrowly been avoided or in which catastrophe has been barely averted. Our thoughts may at once jump to aircraft incidents when we hear it, but near miss is also used in the same sense in healthcare, firefighting and other areas where risk of accident exists.

It did appear occasionally in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, but the records show a massive upsurge from the start of the Second World War in 1939. That’s because near miss was a technical term of the military to identify a bomb or shell that missed the target but which exploded close enough to it to cause significant damage. This is a very early case:

The Admiralty stated this evening that “as a result of a near miss during an enemy bombing some days ago H.M.S. Eclipse was damaged but is now safely at her base.”

Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), 20 Apr. 1940.

After the war, the term continued in widespread use but lost the implication that damage had been caused. Its popularity may have been helped by its being shorter than near collision, a much less used but acceptable alternative that has been known since the middle of the nineteenth century:

Allusion had been made to a near collision with a vessel at Spithead, but this was the first time it had been insinuated that the captain was intoxicated at the time.

Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle (Portsmouth), 30 Oct. 1852. The captain in question was in charge of an Isle of Wight ferry.

If anyone would like an historical justification for near miss, this may suffice:

Lord Wellington happening to be with us, a shot ... carried his cocked hat completely off. Our colonel remarked to him, “That was a near miss, my Lord;” to which he replied, “Yes, and I wish you would try to stop them, for they seem determined to annoy us.”

The Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence, published posthumously in a version edited by George Nugent Bankes, 1886. The incident happened during the Peninsular War in 1813, though I suspect the colonel’s phrase was the invention of the editor.

5. Sic!

• Arnold Zwicky’s blog of 28 December has a link Chris Bogart sent him to a sentence in the Wikipedia article on cuneiform script: “After the Semites conquered Southern Mesopotamia, most likely to make things clearer in writing, some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms.” Chris Bogart commented that, though the article is editable, he can’t bear to fix it.

• A backup program on my computer stopped with the error message, “An invalid argument was encountered.” It was copying parliamentary reports at the time.

• Thanks to Bart Bresnik, we learn of the horrendous traffic accident that hit Rhode Island, according to the Boston Globe’s website on 30 December: “The father of a motorcyclist struck and killed in a traffic accident in May has filed a lawsuit against the driver of the car that struck his son, the vehicle’s owner, and the state.”

• Bill Parsons concluded there must be a market niche for collision-prone sailors, having noted an eye-catching line on this month’s issue of The Boat International: “Designed for Impact”.

• A story dated 20 December on the Mirror’s website was spotted by reader Michael Hocken, who admits to having been taken aback before common sense and maths kicked in: “There must be something in the beer at The Swan pub, as seven of its barmaids became pregnant in 2010. Boss Kim Newstead, 41, who had her third baby this year, has dubbed the boozer, in Weymouth, Dorset, ‘the fertility pub’.”

• “A pilot’s spilled coffee accidentally triggered a hijacking alert,” began a report on the South African News 24 website on 5 January (found by Thomas Snyman). No ordinary coffee, as the report went on: “The coffee sent out distress signals including code 7500, which means hijacking or unlawful interference.”

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