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Newsletter 817
02 Feb 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Penny for your thoughts.

3. Sneap.

4. MOOC.

5. Elsewhere.

6. Sic!

7. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Bill Heritage gently chided me for a comment in my piece on the word pavonine: “You used the expression, ‘the blue of the peacock’s tail’. I know you are a stickler for accuracy yourself so I hope you will not mind my observation that the tail is predominantly green. It is the peacock’s head and neck that are iridescent blue.” Others noted that in Spanish pavo, from the Latin for a peacock, means a turkey, a curious shift of sense (peacock is pavo real where the second word means royal).

Ian Roberts noted that Saki (HH Monroe) uses pavonicide in a story in which a country house guest shoots a peacock (“Some hostesses, of course, will forgive anything, even unto pavonicide”). Saki’s character adds “is there such a word?” There may be, but nobody seems to have ever used it except Saki.

Several readers asked whether there’s a link between “pavonine” and the stately old dance called the pavane. J Hogan wrote, “Dance history has it that the pavane, which swept the Continent in the Middle Ages and beyond, was named after the peacock, whose strut had already inspired the Italian verb pavoneggiare for the kind of dainty striding best suited to display both dignity and fine voluminous robes at formal social events.” In this case, dance history and lexicography are at odds, since the view of the latter is that peacocks aren’t involved. The Oxford English Dictionary says, “this has previously been taken by many to be the etymology of the word, but is now generally rejected.” Instead, it suggests that pavane is from the Italian pavana, a rustic dance from the region of Padua.

Last week, I used paywall without any thought that it might be an unusual word for readers. Enough queries came in to show it wasn’t as widely known as I had assumed. A paywall prevents visitors who don’t have a subscription from accessing content on a website. It’s an obvious play on firewall, in the computing sense of security software that likewise prevents unauthorised access; in turn this derives from a wall or partition designed to inhibit or prevent the spread of fire. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of paywall is from 2004.

2. Penny for your thoughts

Q From Brendan Hale: A colleague here in Taiwan has just asked, “What does a penny for your thoughts mean?” I would generally use it to ask someone to tell me what they’re thinking, and my online search tells me that’s the common use. But, so far, I’ve failed to find out the origin of the phrase.

A It’s an odd little idiom, a colloquial way to speak to somebody who’s lost in thought or daydreaming. It is used to ask what they’re thinking about, but as often a gentle way to point out that they’re preoccupied.

This was a long thought to think, and George looked very serious while she was thinking it. Julian looked up and caught her blue eyes fixed on him. He smiled. “Penny for your thoughts!” he said. “They’re not worth a penny,” said George, going red.

Five On A Treasure Island, by Enid Blyton, 1942.

Some people wonder if it might be insulting, since a penny is such a small amount of money, and might produce the sharp response “Is that all you think my thoughts are worth?” That certainly wasn’t the idea behind it, since a penny was worth rather a lot when the phrase was first written down about 1535. It was then a silver coin and experts estimate on the basis of average earnings that it was worth in the region of 1600 modern pence (if the value is estimated on the basis of purchasing power, the figure drops to between 65 and 120 pence). Alas, the idiom hasn’t kept pace with inflation.

We have no idea who invented it. We know it from the works of Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor, humanist, and martyr, which were published posthumously in 1557. He wrote around 1535 that it was used with a note of reproach about a vagrant mind. A little later, it appears in a famous collection:

Wherewith in a great musing he was brought, Friend (quoth the good man) a penny for your thought.

A Dialogue Containing the Number in Effect of all the Proverbs in the English Tongue, by John Heywood, 1546.

3. Sneap

This ancient word has a fine pedigree — Shakespeare used it a couple of times — with many relatives and variant forms in the older English dialects.

However, it went out of the mainstream language in the nineteenth century, to the extent that an article in the Spectator in June 1888 held it up as a specimen of the wonderful English of foreigners who compiled English dictionaries. (The writer might have had in mind that extraordinary New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English by Pedro Carolino that had appeared five years before, whose preface asserted that its “translation what only will be for to accustom the Portuguese pupils, or foreign, to speak very bad any of the mentioned idioms”, an ambition triumphantly achieved.) The renowned philologist of the period, Walter Skeat, criticised the Spectator article for its insufficiencies.

He might have said that he sneaped it, since the word’s principal meaning was to reprove or chide. It’s linked to Old Norse sneypa, to outrage, dishonour or disgrace. In Henry IV, Part 2, Sir John Falstaff responds to criticism from the Lord Chief Justice that he had been imposing on the innkeeper Mistress Quickly: “My lord, I will not undergo this sneap without reply.”

But when it was first recorded in English it meant to pinch or nip. The link is with another Scandinavian relative, the Swedish snöpa, to castrate. Rebukes were presumably seen as the unkindest cut, an unmanning of one’s power or reputation. Might sneap be linked to snip, or even snipe? It would be good to uncover a connection, but the experts say there isn’t one.

Despite the Spectator, the word was far from dead. In the sense of biting criticism it was still to be found two decades later:

“Now, Master Charles,” Hilda could remember her saying, “will you ask me for the next polka all over again, and try not to look as if you were doing me a favour and were rather ashamed of yourself?” She had a tongue for the sneaping of too casual boys, and girls also.

Hilda Lessways, by Arnold Bennett, 1911.

And, as Walter Skeat pointed out, it was in active use in English dialects ranging from Staffordshire to Cumberland, with meanings such as blight or wither, deprive, pinch or starve, or disappoint. Half a century after the Spectator article, a book of north-country childhood memories recalls some of these dialect uses:

Anyone who had been snubbed or repressed into silence before other people was said to have been “sneaped”. A haughty woman would sneap another, an overbearing man would sneap his wife, the wintry-wind sneaped us to silence.

The Country Child, by Alison Uttley, 1931.

Memories of it have not entirely vanished. In 1998, a reviewer in the Birmingham Post of a fresh recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons said of it, “Summer storms bring some exhilaratingly fierce bowing in a consistently dramatic account, and Winter opens with almost physically sneaping sounds”, calling it “a good old Shakespearean Midlands word”.


Several decades ago, I read a science-fiction story which predicted that at some unspecified future date all college tuition would be by a form of networked television, with the best teachers becoming the well-paid equivalent of film stars. I’ve long forgotten the author and title of the story but I was reminded of its prescience by coming across MOOC.

It’s an acronym, for Massive Open Online Course (or Massive Open Online Class), a course of study indeed taught online using video. But a MOOC is more than that, as a recent article explains:

MOOCs are more than good university lectures available online. The real innovation comes from integrating academics talking with interactive coursework, such as automated tests, quizzes and even games. Real-life lectures have no pause, rewind (or fast-forward) buttons; MOOCs let students learn at their own pace, typically with short, engaging videos, modelled on the hugely successful online lecturettes pioneered by TED, a non-profit organiser of upmarket mindfests.

The Economist, 22 Dec. 2012.

In the 1960s the Open University in the UK was a pioneer of such distance teaching, in part using BBC radio and television. It has recently joined with other British universities to provide course content, lectures and assignments that follow the MOOC model. US institutions such as MIT and Harvard are providing MOOCs, as are several independent start-ups. They are proving popular, but for many students a downside is that few courses lead to a qualification and it is uncertain whether they can be economically viable in the long term.

MOOC borrows from online gaming acronyms such as MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) and MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). It was coined by George Siemens, a prominent Canadian educator at the Center for Distance Education, who with Stephen Downes created the first MOOC in 2008.

5. Elsewhere

If you have been put off contemporary art by the difficult language used to write about it, you are not alone. Many people just call it artspeak but the American writers Alix Rule and David Levine named it International Art English in an article in the magazine Triple Canopy last June, arguing that it functions as a dialect with its own rules. That article isn’t available online but Andy Beckett has written about IAE in the Guardian.

Details of the 2011 census that came out on Thursday shows that the second most spoken language in England is Polish. This is the result of substantial immigration in the past decade. It has overtaken the more established Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, which are spoken by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. The Independent is one of many reporting the details. The Guardian has a excellent map that allows census language data to be checked down to blocks of 1500 residents.

6. Sic!

• David Weston came across a headline in the Leader-Post of Regina, Saskatchewan, dated 26 January: “Denise batters appointed senator”. Initially startled, he was comforted by the lead sentence: “The contingent of Saskatchewan women in the Red Chamber has grown with the appointment of Denise Batters.”

• Jocelyn Dodd wondered at the strange names some parents give their children when she read this on the Optus Zoo online entertainment news on 25 January: “[Nicole] Kidman’s hubby Keith Urban kicks off his latest Aussie tour in Brisbane tonight and the Paperboy actress is expected to bring their daughters Sunday and Faith Down Under at some point soon.”

• Thanks to Chris, we learn of an item in the January issue of the Hove Civic Society Newsletter, reflecting on a visit to the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton. It says: “In 1831 Paganani — who is now regarded as the master of modern violin playing — performed in the ballroom from a balcony above the audience, which is still in situ.”

7. Copyright and contact details

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