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Newsletter 832
18 May 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Palpebrous.

3. Rotate versus revolve.

4. Spill the beans.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Banausic Numerous readers pointed out that this word is much better known in German in the form Banause. Heidi Beck commented that it is “regularly used by German speakers to describe someone who is uncultured, a philistine.”

Earl Grey tea To judge from correspondence, some confusion exists about bergamot. There are two species of that name. The Earl Grey one is a citrus tree, the Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), which produces fruit the size of oranges but coloured like a lemon. The other is an unconnected North American plant of the mint family, the wild bergamot or bee balm.

I was watching a marvellous programme on BBC television last Friday that recreated the dances and food of the Netherfield ball in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The narrator mentioned bergamot as a flavouring but said it as though it were French. The final t is sounded, as it didn’t come to us from that language but was taken from Italian bergamotta (modern Italian bergamotto); some dictionaries say that this refers to the city of Bergamo while others argue it’s from Turkish bey armudu, the prince’s pear.

2. Palpebrous

My secret is out. I admit it. I am palpebrous.

However, my confession will mean nothing unless I explain the word, because it won’t be understood even by that minuscule proportion of the population who know the Latin from which it was taken.

It’s so rare I have been able to find only one modern example:

Don’s deep voice, his palpebrous, leonine features, his evident learning, his almost BBC-like diction, his entire bearing, might seem so grand as to be intimidating to a young student.

Geographical Review, July 2009.

A member of the medical profession will assume it has something to do with my eyes, since a palpebra is an eyelid, a term taken from classical Latin and so having palpebrae as its plural. Zoologists may recognise it as a relative of the second half of the scientific name Paleosuchus palpebrosus for Cuvier’s dwarf caiman (it means to have prominent eyelids). It also appears in Zosterops palpebrosus, the formal term for the oriental white-eye, a little bird so named because it has a prominent white ring around its eye. A scientific relative, now wholly defunct, is palpebrate, having eyelids.

We’re in the right area, but palpebrous came about through a misapprehension by Benjamin Smart, a nineteenth-century elocutionist and grammarian. In the second edition of A New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, he defined palpebrous to mean a person with prominent eyebrows.

So now you know.

3. Rotate versus revolve

Q From Brian Miller, Australia: A loosely organised group of eccentric friends and wine lovers meets each week. The question arose, does a lazy Susan revolve or rotate? What about the plates on it?

A That’s an interesting question, which lacks a simple answer. If anybody’s not sure about a lazy Susan, by the way, it’s a device on a table which turns to give easy access to plates and condiments.

Most people’s response to this would probably be on the lines of “who cares?” The two words are used so interchangeably in the sense of spinning round that for most purposes they’re synonyms and they’re treated as such in thesauruses. To take an example, does a wheel rotate or revolve? Most people would say it can do either.

If you’re arguing from etymology (always risky), it can only rotate, since that term is from the Latin verb rotare, to turn in a circle, whose root is rota, a wheel. But you might argue that it revolves, because that verb is from the Latin volvere, to roll (in this case, the re- prefix implies repetition of the action) and a wheeled vehicle certainly does roll along.

Strictly speaking, there is a difference, which is most noticeable in the terminology of astronomers. For them, the earth rotates every 24 hours but takes a year to revolve around the sun. The rule about which verb to use is based on the position of the axis of rotation. If the body turns on an axis within itself it rotates but if the axis is outside it revolves. Following this definition, a wheel can only rotate (hooray for etymology).

The strict answer to the question, therefore, is that the lazy Susan rotates. However, because the plates on it orbit or circle around an axis outside themselves, they revolve. Do not insist on this careful distinction during the later stages of a dinner party or the lazy Susan may become a spinning projectile aimed at you.

As I say, the rule is rarely observed outside science and the two words have been hopelessly muddled for centuries. A revolving door actually rotates; a rotating shaft makes revolutions. You might argue that a revolver ought to be a rotator but it depends whether you are thinking of the cartridges or the cylinder that holds them.

4. Spill the beans

Q From Martin Schell: An Indonesian friend fluent in English asked me what spill the beans means and how it originated. It’s easy to understand spill as revealing a secret, but why beans?

A The key word is indeed spill, which has always had a negative aura about it. In Old English it meant to kill and in the twelfth century to shed blood (which is why we still have the fixed phrase to spill blood). By the fourteenth century it had softened to mean causing damage or waste, from which evolved the specific idea of letting a liquid accidentally escape from a container. Much later it took on a figurative sense of being thrown out of a moving vehicle.

Spill the beans starts to appear in the US early in the twentieth century. In its first decade it varied in its meaning and settled on our current one only in the 1920s.

Early examples are in reports of horse racing. This is the first example that I’ve so far come across:

KINGSTELLE SPILLED THE BEANS Everyone fancied that the fifth race was a two-horse one between Nearest and Audiphone, who were held at 4 to 5 and 8 to 5 respectively. Kingstelle, a 10-to-1 shot, broke it up. She laid away from the pace and came along in the stretch, and won, handily, a real nice race.

St Louis Republic (St Louis, Missouri), 6 May 1903.

Since the horse did better than expected, this might seem to challenge the idea of a spill being a bad thing, but the headline writer is saying that expectations have been upset, a figurative extension of spill. In the following years the idiom spread beyond racetracks, by 1908 being used of boxing and by 1910 of baseball. In that game it came to mean a blunder that leads to defeat:

In the eighth it looked like Vernon surely would overcome the Seals’ lead and win the game, but some boneheaded base running and poor judgment on the coaching lines spilled the beans.

Los Angeles Herald, 3 Jun. 1910.

An article in the Tacoma Times in March 1913 defines it like this: “If we descend to the vulgar language of the street ... ‘Spilling the beans’ has much the same meaning as ‘upsetting the apple cart.’” Being considered slang may explain why it took some time to become mainstream. Most appearances were confined to the sports pages, which had a licence to adopt language that was considered unsuitable for other parts of the paper.

Our modern sense starts to appear around 1910 as an extension of the sports sense into upsetting a situation by speaking out. An early case on record concerns a ticket scalping scandal at a New York baseball club:

The entire affair is again bottled up just at a time when the American League president said he would spill the beans and expose the rascality of the whole business.

Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona), 24 Dec. 1911.

Politics being a rough old game, it’s in news reports of events in that domain that we start to see a broader public use of the idiom. It was widely publicised in a comment from a witness during a famous court case of January 1914 about corruption and this seems to have broken the implicit ban on its use outside sport.

To answer the original question — if you can still remember what it was — there doesn’t seem to be anything special about beans and no good reason why it should have been adopted. That is, apart from the obvious consideration that spilling useful beans is a bad move. The idiom has appeared in various other forms since, including spill the dirt, spill the dice, spill the dope and spill the works. There’s also spill it by itself, with the sense “tell me your sensational gossip immediately”. These confirm that the key word is spill and that the other noun is a mere embellishment. We may guess that some bean-spilling accident led to stable boys using it, but, as with most idioms, history is silent on what that might have been.

5. Sic!

• Many readers sent a link to a photo that has appeared widely online of the RSPCA shop in Bury, Lancashire. The slogan on the fascia is “Helping Bury Animals”. Surely not a joking matter?

• Tony McCoy O’Grady says he feels deficient in the leg department. He had read this in the Irish Times on 13 May: “Pricewatch conducted an unscientific Twitter poll, asking if people would shell out an extra 50 cents on a pair of five socks, if they knew they were ethically produced.”

6. Copyright and contact details

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