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Newsletter 793
14 Jul 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Magnoperate.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Touch and go.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Going dutch Several readers commented that these expressions are indeed based on a Dutch national characteristic. Arthur Brede wrote: “Dutch attitudes to money, debt, sharing costs and contracts are different from those in England. For the Dutch, keeping track is important, as is any implication that money can influence personal relationships. I’ve been on holiday with Dutch friends who’ve kept quite meticulous records of what was spent, and expected the same of me and a ‘reckoning-up’ at the end. I find it very healthy and open, although anyone English making a contract with a Dutch person would do well to check up on who’s paying for the teabags.”

Richard Bos added, “The English habit of buying rounds has never caught on over here. You will on occasion find someone buying a round individually, perhaps to celebrate something, or to treat his friends, but the regularised round-buying of the English is not common. Possibly the most usual way of dealing with the bill is that of divvying up the tab equally at the end of the evening; but going Dutch is also considered quite normal in the Netherlands.”

Other dutch expressions Several readers mentioned Dutch wife, a rattan open frame or bolster used in the Dutch Indies to support the limbs in bed; Ian Williams told me of Dutchman’s log, an improvised way to measure a ship’s speed using any piece of rubbish that was handy; Rhody Streeter remembers Dutch tilt or Dutch angle from the film business, in which the camera was turned off vertical to create a sense of disorientation or indicate drunkenness. Bruce Brantley and Nicholas Brandes noted that carpenters and masons use Dutchman for a piece of wood or stone inserted as a repair; this is mainly US usage and was listed as long ago as 1859 in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms.

Dead reckoning Numerous readers queried a Sic! item last week in which a report on the marketing of halal products used the phrase “animals that were dead prior to slaughtering”. To me this made no sense, because slaughter means kill. But Aelfwine Mischler e-mailed from Cairo: “I hear things like this all the time from Arabic speakers. They understand slaughter to mean specifically cut the throat (the way Muslims kill animals for meat) rather than the broader meaning kill. It means that Muslims cannot eat meat from animals that were dead before the throat was slit and the blood drained.” In a completely different context, Randall Bart found references in US official documents about BSE that the slaughter of dead animals was prohibited. So the original news report was right and in certain circumstances slaughter can mean butcher rather than kill. Dictionaries haven’t caught up with this specialised usage.

State’s right Professor Gustavus Hinrichs, whom I mentioned in my piece about derecho last week, was based at the University of Iowa, not Ohio. I’m told that this confusion between the two four-letter words isn’t unknown even among natives, especially in speech when local accents may blur the distinction. John Estill wrote, “An old joke has an Ohioan introducing himself at a cocktail party as being from Ohio. His hostess, condescendingly tells him, ‘I hope you won’t mind, but around here we usually pronounce it “Iowa”.’”

2. Weird Words: Magnoperate/maɡˈnɒpəreɪt/ Help with IPA

In July 1915, the local paper in Le Mars, Iowa (which I note claims the title of ice cream capital of the world) reported on the curious events in Remsen, a small community ten miles to the east that even today has a mere 1,600 inhabitants. A man posing as a film-maker from Chicago had persuaded local businessmen to put up money to make a movie promoting the virtues of the town. His speech on the wonders of his camera, as reported, was impressively extravagant, though it ought to have reminded his hearers of the loquacity of a snake-oil salesman:

This instrument’s greatest achievement will be when it portrays to the world the gorgeous glory, the scintillating splendor, the cyclopean characteristics which will not a little magnoperate the massiveness of your wonderful community.

Le Mars Semi-Weekly Sentinel, 20 Jul. 1915.

Had the unidentified man really said magnoperate, or had he been grandiloquised by the newspaper? Either way, I suspect a prior consultation of the M-Mandragon section of the Oxford English Dictionary, which had been published in 1904. That recorded only two occurrences of the word, its first being in 1610, in a dedication in Baculum Geodæticum, an important work on surveying by the almanac maker and mathematician Arthur Hopton. It was in a dedication, an even more grovellingly flattering speech than that of the conning cameraman, but its relevant part may remind you of his spiel: “[It] will not a little magnoperate the splendor of your well knowne honour to these succeeding times”.

Magnoperate here means to enhance or make greater. It has nothing to do with either magnets or magic but comes from classical Latin magnopere. That’s short for magno opere, which literally means “with great labour”, but magnopere was applied figuratively to mean “to a great extent”, “greatly” or “especially”. We still know the Latin root of opere as opus, an artistic work; a close relative is opera, which came into English via Italian. Both elements of magnopere appear in magnum opus, great work, the most important creation of an artist or writer. It’s also, of course, the source of operate and its compounds (and opulent, since for Romans the root of wealth was work).

The word, with compounds magnoperation and magnoperator, popped up a few more times in the twentieth century. It was a favourite of the British theatre critic James Agate, who used it to mean doing something in the grand manner (“I like women to write femininely and cattily. They embarrass me when they magnoperate and magniloquise.”)

Nobody since him has employed it, not even the most magniloquent of silver-tongued persuaders.

3. Wordface

Paranymphs and shepherds I was reading a linguistics blog the other day and came across a reference to a PhD candidate being assisted by two paranymphs. Two what? Some further enquiries showed that it’s mostly used in connection with European universities. A person who is formally defending their doctoral thesis in public usually has two attendants who provide moral and practical support. These are the paranymphs. Paranymph is from a classical Greek word for a bridesmaid or (surprisingly in view of the exclusively feminine nature of nymph in English) a male friend of the bridegroom, his best man; it arrived in English in the sixteenth century via Latin and French.

4. Questions and Answers: Touch and go

Q From Peter Rugg: How did touch and go come to mean dangerous or unsettled? Is there any connection with touch-and-go practice landings in a plane?

A I know the training method that you mention as circuits and bumps. The pilot lands but instead of stopping he takes off again and makes a circuit of the airport to repeat the action. This sense of touch and go does have a link to the origin of the idiom, though that is centuries earlier.

The first meaning on record is of dealing with some matter merely glancingly or momentarily (in the British sense of something that happens for a very short time): to merely touch on it and at once go on to something else. The earliest recorded user is Hugh Latimer, the Protestant martyr who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555 alongside Nicholas Ridley. He preached a sermon in front of Edward VI in 1549: “As this texte dothe ryse I wyl touche and go, a lytel in euery parte, vntyl I come vnto to muche.” His meaning is roughly that as he develops his argument, he will first briefly mention his main themes before expanding on each. The same idea of brevity appeared in a couplet the following century:

Madam, I’m gone, no wonder, for you know, Lovers encounters are but touch and go.

The English Rogue, by Richard Head, 1665. There’s no possessive apostrophe in lovers because the punctuation mark wasn’t then in use.

Two separate strands of development in meaning began to appear in the written record at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

One seems to have come out of literature and the theatre — at least, the first examples relate to those arenas. This is the earliest:

There is an art in writing for the Theatre, technically called touch and go, which is indispensible when we consider the small quantum of patience, which so motley an assemblage as a London audience can be expected to afford.

Rejected Addresses, by H Smith and J Smith, 1812. Theatre audiences at the time had a notoriously short attention span.

Touch and go here means being so brief as to be utterly superficial, so it’s easy to understand how it could have evolved from the sense that Bishop Latimer knew. It was later used of men who were so casual or careless in their actions that they were thought to be unreliable or untrustworthy. The 1913 edition of John Camden Hotten’s slang dictionary noted that touch and go referred to men “with whom business arrangements should be of the lightest possible character”, presumably at the end of a bargepole. A few modern dictionaries still include the superficiality sense, but I’ve never come across it and presume it is no longer current.

The other sense that appeared is our current one of a precarious, unpredictable or risky situation whose outcome is uncertain. “It was touch and go whether he would survive the operation.” There are two possible sources on record for it.

One was given by Hotten in the first edition of his dictionary in 1859 as a coaching term: “The old jarveys [coachmen, thought to derive from the personal name Jervis], to shew their skill, used to drive against things so close as absolutely to touch, yet without injury. This they called a toucher, or, touch and go, which was hence applied to anything which was within an ace of ruin.”

The other appears in nautical contexts and was summed up by Admiral William Smyth in The Sailor’s Word-book in 1865: “Said of anything within an ace of ruin; as in rounding a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, &c, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much diminution of her velocity.” The latter sense is recorded from the beginning of the nineteenth century. One Admiralty court case in 1817 noted that a temporary touching of the keel on the sea floor “has been vulgarly described” as a touch and go, which suggests that it had even then been in the language for some time as sailors’ jargon.

Which of these is the true origin, if either, is unknowable in the present state of the etymological art. But both are based on the same idea of momentary contact that exists in the aeronautical touch and go.

5. Sic!

• George Flowers forwarded an AP report. It concerned a wallaby that escaped from a private owner in Houten in the Netherlands. The Dutch police tried to sedate the animal but it continued to hop toward the highway. The report ended, “The force said that ‘for the safety of the animal and of traffic, the animal was terminated.’”

• Len Levine wrote, “I’ve often heard it (mis)quoted that, in a future time of peace, the lion shall lie down with the lamb. At my local Gristedes supermarket in New York City I noticed a cut of meat labeled lion lamb chops. Perhaps peace has come earlier than we thought and Gristedes is selling the offspring.”

• Sic Transit. The answer to the Question of the Week in the Money Saving Expert Newsletter of 11 July surprised Nick Johns: “If your spouse is no longer driving (or has passed away), it may be possible for them [to] relinquish the [No Claims Bonus] and transfer it to you by writing a letter to the insurance company.”

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