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Newsletter 810
17 Nov 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Understrapper.

3. Miscellany.

4. Questions and Answers: Gigantic.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Ruthless rhymes Many readers responded to my comments in the last issue about the difficulties poets have with rhyming words such as orange and month. George Steinberg commented, “Don’t forget songwriter Stephen Sondheim’s advice: ‘To rhyme a word like silver, / or any “rhymeless” rhyme, / requires only will, ver- / bosity and time.’” Other readers, including William Logan, pointed to this:

As long as he can grind em out, a dozen-or-so a month, We’ll praise him to the nth degree, and to the n-plus-1th.

On Reading John Hollander’s Poem “Breadth. Circle. Desert. Monarch. Month. Wisdom. (for which there are no rhymes)”, by George Starbuck, 2003.

Mulct Pat Jakobi was among several readers who suggested another source: “My grandfather (born 1878 in Wisconsin) always complained about his boss milking the staff by working them hard and paying them little. The idea of someone taking fluids from a cow without permission and potentially with force certainly fits.” It does, but the Oxford English Dictionary’s recently revised entry for milk says otherwise, recording examples in the senses of deprive, defraud or exploit from the sixteenth century, three centuries before these senses were attached to mulct. The obvious connections with extracting milk from a cow, which has also led to phrases such as cash cow, were enough to suggest the idea in people’s minds.

Jonathan McColl e-mailed from Dingwall in Rossshire: “The Dingwall Burgh Council meeting minutes from 1708 record a landowner beating up the multurer at the main mill. I feel he was probably incensed at the fellow taking more than the normal bit off the top of any grain he was grinding in his mill, his multure. I assume this comes from the same root, and might dare say that’s one reason to mulct has rather a pejorative feel nowadays.” Yes, I’m sure the taking of excessive tolls or fees is part of the cause of the shift of mulct to its modern meaning of extortion. (Multure is a Scots word, based on the older spelling of mulct, which can be traced back to the early thirteenth century for a charge or toll made by a miller for grinding corn.)

2. Weird Words: Understrapper

The British author and newspaper columnist Simon Hoggart is fond of this word, applying it particularly to a governmental minion sent to make a statement before the House of Commons, thereby taking abuse that should have been directed at his boss. Few people now would grasp the full import of the word, though its first element gives enough of a clue that it’s an alternative to underling.

It was a popular term of the eighteenth century, its first user on record being Thomas Brown, a satirist now only remembered, if at all, for a verse translation of a Latin epigram he composed when under threat of being sent down by his Oxford tutor, Dr John Fell: “I do not love thee, Dr Fell, / The reason why I cannot tell; / But this I know, and know full well, / I do not love thee, Dr Fell.” In 1702, he wrote a book of mock letters from the recently deceased, including three supposedly from the late comic actor and satirical writer Joseph Haines to his friends at Will’s Coffee House:

I intend to build me a Stage in one of the largest Piazza’s of this city, take me a fine House, and set up my old Trade of Fortune-telling; and as I shall have upon occasion now and then for some Understrapper to draw teeth for me, or to be my Toad-eater upon the stage, if you will accept of so mean an Employment, beside my old Cloaths, which will be something, Ill give you Meat, Drink, Washing, and Lodging, and Four Marks per annum.

Letters from the Dead to the Living, by Thomas Brown, 1702. The wayward apostrophes are as printed.

It was still common during the nineteenth century:

“Dear me — very awkward!” said Stephen, rather en l’air, and confused with the kind of confusion that assails an understrapper when he has been enlarged by accident to the dimensions of a superior, and is somewhat rudely pared down to his original size.

A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy, 1873.

My Collins Dictionary explains the second part as being from one sense of the verb strap, to work hard, which is also the source of the adjective strapping for someone big and strong (originally applied only to young women, by the way). A strapper could be a labourer or a man who groomed horses, hence a menial employee. His subordinate would be the ultimate underling.

If you would like an archaic alternative, try under-spur-leather, which is from the same area of life. A spur-leather was the strap that secured a spur to the rider’s foot, so somebody under the spur leather is figuratively beneath the heel of the rider.

There is a notorious Idiot, one hight Whachum, who from an under-spur-leather to the Law, is become an understrapper to the Play house, who has lately burlesqu’d the Metamorphoses of Ovid by a vile translation.

Remarks upon Mr Pope’s Translation of Homer, by John Dennis, 1717. Hight: named.

I offer it to Mr Hoggart for his consideration.

3. Miscellany

There’s money in them there woods A buzzword of conservationists suddenly appeared in British newspapers this month: treeconomics. It’s a blend of tree and economics and refers to the growing practice of establishing a monetary value for natural resources. The immediate reason for the word’s appearance was a report that the Torbay district council in Devon employed a software application to value its 818,000 trees, based on variables such as carbon lockdown, energy conservation, storm-water control, air-quality improvement and increase in property values. The figure it came up with was £360 (US$570) a tree. I got the wrong end of the stick when I first saw the word, reading it as treaconomics, but then realised, silly me, that there are no treacle mines in Torbay. (If baffled, see Wikipedia.)

End of the year show No sooner had the smoke and din of Guy Fawkes Day subsided than Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year 2012. I swear such annual publicity exercises are, like Christmas advertising, shifting earlier in the calendar. Oxford’s choice is omnishambles (a word previously featured here). It is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations”. One reason for the choice is its linguistic productivity: not only have we had the adjective omnishambolic but also derived forms, including Romneyshambles for the tactless comments on London’s ability to host a successful Olympic Games by the US presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Another is Scomnishambles, a Scottish omnishambles, coined in October when the Scottish government had to admit it hadn’t sought legal advice on whether an independent Scotland could join the European Union. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, the word may prove to be temporary and never join other coinages in dictionaries.

4. Questions and Answers: Gigantic

Q From Jim True: Is there any connection between the two adjectives, giant and gigantic? It seems to me there must be, and if so, where did the extra g in the latter come from?

A A connection does exist: they both derive from the same word of the classical Greek period. The difference in spelling came about because their journeys into English took separate paths.

The Greek word was gigas, in compounds as gigant-. (The modern number prefix giga- for a thousand million was based on the Greek root.) The Romans borrowed both to make the Latin noun gigas and its adjective gigantem. Old English took its word for giant from the Latin adjective, making gigant. This survived in the language for several centuries, though it is long since defunct.

That’s because of the Norman Conquest, following which English was influenced heavily by Norman French. By the 1290s, English people had taken over the Old French word for a giant. This did similarly derive from Latin, but had been greatly modified along the way and was said and spelled differently, as géant, jéant or gaiant. English adopted the geant version.

Around 1600, writers created two new adjectives, gigantean and gigantic. The source is unclear (Robert Barnhart commented rather sadly in the gigantic entry in his Dictionary of Etymology that “a long literary history of reference ... makes determination of the word’s immediate source difficult to establish”). It could have been from the Latin adjective gigantem, or perhaps from the Greek gigant-, or even possibly with a nod to the Old English gigant, which was still around, though overshadowed by the geant version.

However it happened, the adjective settled down to be gigantic. In turn, its influence shifted geant to giant.

5. Sic!

• A curious statement was found by Michel Norrish in a brochure from New Zealand Post which advertised a forthcoming issue of stamps for the Ross Dependency: “Unless stocks are exhausted earlier, these stamps will remain on sale until further notice.”

• Nothing changes. An article in Time magazine dated 9 November about the causes of the decline of the Mayan civilisation contained this sentence, sent in by Deane Rothenmaier and Beate Czogalla: “There was also a lot of warfare in that period, which makes sense for a culture fighting over swindling resources.”

• Jeremy Bangs e-mails from Leiden in the Netherlands to tell us that a local restaurant “offers customers an English-language menu as an alternative to the ordinary menu in Dutch. Attempting to avoid being rude through using the word breast, the chef allows customers to order roast duck udders. Kind patrons have refrained from telling the management that their English sucks.”

• Another restaurant, the Rubicon in Griffith, Australia, posts menus for its lunchtime and evening “banquets” on its website. Therese Osborne spotted that the restaurant insists that “Banquettes must be pre booked — minimum 8 parsons.” And if you bring your own wine, the restaurant wants “cakeage”.

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