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Newsletter 785
05 May 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Ludibrious.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: No room to swing a cat.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Boulevardiers My listing last time of the many names Americans have for the grass strip beside a roadway led to numerous messages from Canadian readers. This comment comes from Elena Goodfellow: “I have not heard of any of the terms you listed, neither the British or American. I have always called it a boulevard. We also call a grassy median dividing the two sides of a road a boulevard and in addition, boulevard can be the name of a road. So where I live, our road is named a boulevard. It has a boulevard running down the centre of it and it has a boulevard beside the curb on each side of it. This part of Canadian English I’m sure is very confusing to newcomers to the country!” Lucie Singh mentioned that boulevard is also used in her part of Wisconsin; the term does appear in the Dictionary of American Regional English, with a map showing evidence in that state but more commonly from the western states bordering Canada. Not to be left out, readers in Australia and New Zealand noted that their term is nature strip.

Submariners Several readers queried my sandwich as a general descriptor for the regional American po’boy, hoagie, sub, grinder, hero and torpedo. They argued that, as they were usually long rolls, to call them sandwiches was a misnomer. The Dictionary of American Regional English calls them that, in part I suspect because most of the terms were originally qualifiers to sandwich. Torpedo appears in the Newport Daily News in 1950 as “Torpedo sandwich. A meal in itself.” Sub is an abbreviation of submarine and appears first in 1940; Better Homes and Gardens wrote in 1943, “Submarine sandwich — It’s long, low and goes down easily.” (It seems certain that this colloquial term was directly inspired, or at least popularised, by naval actions in the Second World War.) It may be their inventors couldn’t think of a good alternative term to sandwich for their creations.

Holiday break There will be no issues for the next two weeks, as my wife and I are away. The next issue will be that of 26 May.

Voting World Wide Words was the April finalist in the LSOFT Choice Awards (the Mailys) with an absolute majority of 61% of the votes. Now on to May. Even during my holiday absence, don’t forget about the contest. You can vote every day if you wish.

2. Weird Words: Ludibrious/l(j)uːˈdɪbrɪəs/ Help with IPA

In 1807, the American diplomat, politician and poet Joel Barlow published his epic, Columbiad, which was widely regarded as a pompous and grandiose vision of the New World (even he admitted that he was no genius as a versifier). A lesser criticism concerned the many words he coined.

The Edinburgh Review wrote that some “were as utterly foreign, as if they had been adopted from the Hebrew or Chinese” and that others had been contorted from existing English words. The review recorded multifluvian, vagrate, inhumanise, conglaciate, micidious, luxed, fulminent, utilise (which has since had some success) and many others. “His new words are not necessary,” commented Washington Irving, “and very uncouth, such as cosmogyre, cosmogyral, fiuvial, ludibrious, croupe, brume, gerb, colon [not in the anatomical or punctuation senses but meaning a colonist], coloniarch, numen, emban, contristed, asouth ...”

Irving was wrong about ludibrious, but it’s noteworthy that he believed it to be new. It had actually been in the language since about 1570 but had never been common.

During its history it had done an about-turn. It meant at first that the thing referred to was the subject of mockery, but Barlow used it — in the line, “Leaves to ludibrious winds the priceless page” — in its later sense of something that was itself scornful or mocking. It appeared a few times in later works before finally dying out.

“I wonder where that Paddy of mine has spirited himself away to,” said I, in a tone meant to be ludibrious, but really on the other hand somewhat lugubrious instead.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Aug. 1863.

Both senses are in its Latin source, ludibrium, which could mean playful behaviour or joking but also mockery or derision. It derives from ludere, to play.

At one time we had other words from the same source — and it’s still present in disguise in words such as collude, delude and prelude — but the one that we’re most likely to recognise today is ludicrous, which began with the idea of lightheartedness or playfulness but moved to our sense today of something ridiculous, which gives rise to laughter that’s derisive rather than jolly.

3. Wordface

Hidden word Linnie Worth asked me about apocrypha. Her brother tells her it’s plural but they are puzzled to find its singular. Her brother is correct, but it’s usually treated as a singular, even to the extent that a plural apocryphas appears on rare occasions. The original was an adjective, in the ecclesiastical Latin apocrypha scripta, hidden writings, hence of unknown or spurious authorship. The word derives from Greek apokruptein, to hide away. In the days when knowledge of Greek and Latin were widespread, the singulars apocryphum and apocryphon were known (following respectively the Latin and Greek models) but the former has long gone out of use. The Greek form survives in titles such as the Apocryphon of Mark, a supposedly expanded version of St Mark’s gospel.

Gay right and wrongs Right-wing Christian groups have aroused a controversy in London by attempting to place adverts on buses that contain the message “Not gay! Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”, a riposte to earlier ads by the LGBT charity Stonewall, “Some people are gay. Get over it!” The controversy was enflamed when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, banned them. Many readers of the ads would have been confused by post-gay and ex-gay, which are much better known in the US than the UK. They are used in some Christian circles to refer to homosexual men and women who have undergone pastoral therapy or spiritual therapy in an attempt to change their sexual preferences.

Bring it on The abbreviation BYO for Bring Your Own has had many expansions, such as BYOB (Bring Your Own Beer or Bring Your Own Bottle: there are many variations), BYOG (Grog, Girl ...), BYOH (Herb, as in drug) or BYOJ (Joint), and BYOM (Music). Recently, I’ve spotted one new to me: BYOD. It’s short for bring your own device. It refers to a trend for employees to bring their personal mobile devices to work to access business information and resources instead of going through company computers. There are security issues with this, which has led to a new discipline of mobile device management (MDM) and to other jargon terms, such as containerisation, which has nothing to do with shipping goods but refers to the setting up of a partition on the mobile device that keeps business data securely away from the employee’s stuff, hence contained. The abbreviation BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) is sometimes used instead.

Word of the week? Marina Hyde invented a word in her article in the Guardian on 28 April for what she describes, in sarcastic inverted commas, as “our ‘political elite’”. Cackiavellian, she calls them, attempting to be Machiavellian but making a hash of it. Together with last week’s omnishambles, the language of political invective seems to be having a good year.

4. Questions and Answers: No room to swing a cat

Q From Mindy: I was discussing with my husband the other day the phrases no room to swing a cat and you can’t swing a dead cat without ... He related the usual origin of the phrases as referring to a cat o’ nine tails, but this sounds suspiciously like a folk etymology to me. Are the phrases really related, and do they refer to felines, whips, or some other cat-like object?

A The second of your phrases, which is variously completed, as “You can’t swing a dead cat without toppling a corrupt politician” or “You can’t swing a dead cat in the shipping industry without hitting somebody with phoney papers” or “you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Starbucks”, is a modern creation — I can’t find an example of it before the late 1980s.

It’s almost certainly derived from your other idiom, which is some centuries older. It is indeed frequently said to be from that awful naval punishment. Most reference books say something similar to this entry from the Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms of 2001: “The original phrase was probably ‘not room to swing a cat-o’nine-tails’, and dates from the time when sailors were flogged on board ship. The floggings took place on the deck because the cabins were too small to swing a cat in.”

A nicely summarised explanation, it falls down on two counts. Ship’s cabins were for sleeping in and ship life took place elsewhere; nobody would have even considered a flogging in a cabin because the ship’s company would have been mustered to witness punishment. The only place to do that would have been on deck. (The cat-o’nine-tails was also a prison punishment in some countries but similar comments apply; the person to be flogged was tied to a post in the prison yard for other prisoners to observe.) Secondly, I can’t find a case in the English literature databases that I’ve searched that mentions swinging cats in the context of flogging, or even ships. Your view that the story is a folk etymology is well-based.

The earliest example of the phrase is this:

Moreton is return’d to his old occupation, and Preaches in a little Conventicle you can hardly swing a Cat round in.

Letters from the Dead to the Living, by Thomas Brown, 1702.

Brown was a well-known author and his work was popular in its time, being reprinted on several occasions in the following decades. It may even have been the source, though I suspect not. It doesn’t by itself refute the cat-o’nine-tails story, since the instrument was known by that name somewhat earlier (it appears in Congreve’s Love for Love of 1695 and in an English translation of Rabelais that’s said to be of 1665, though I can’t confirm the date).

Why anybody should want to swing a cat at all is unclear. If they did, then the idiom would have naturally followed. It’s this puzzle that leads so many reputable works to suggest the punishment story. Could it have been from some child’s cruel game? My guess is that it was just an ingeniously inventive way to say that an enclosed space was especially small.

5. Sic!

• Justin Beam was puzzled by a headline in an online Chicago Tribune article of 27 April which read: “UPDATE 3-Armed police arrest man at London siege.” He would have liked to learn more about these tribrachial cops.

• Peter Ronai reports: “In commenting on the finding of a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the USA, the CBS Evening News on April 24 reassured viewers that ‘No dead cow is slaughtered for human consumption’.”

• A Telegraph headline on 26 April, since changed, provoked David Bagwell and Peter Millington-Wallace to submit it: “Sadomasochism interest no barrier to dead spy joining MI6”.

• Ted Brooks saw a New York Times report of 25 April about the parents of Madeleine McCann: “Since their daughter’s disappearance they have traveled to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who blessed a photograph of Madeleine, published a book and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

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