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Newsletter 876
05 Apr 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Decussate.

3. Wordface.

4. On the lam.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Parallelquel Several readers noted earlier works that could have been given this name if it had existed at the time. Roland Huebsch suggested Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: “The first three books are parallelquels, telling of the same incidents from totally different perspectives, and the last is a sequel to tie all the various versions up.” An excellent example, as Jon Blanding pointed out, would be Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, featuring two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Francis Abercrombie suggested “Peter Matthiessen’s utterly sublime trilogy of the Watson murder: Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone, three accounts of one event, each from a different viewpoint and able to stand on its own.” “A very good example from 2006, Cliff Larsen wrote, “although parallelquel wasn’t used to describe it, is the pair of films about the Second World War Battle for Iwo Jima as told from the USA side in Flags of Our Fathers and the Japanese side in Letters from Iwo Jima both directed by Clint Eastwood.”

Box of birds Local knowledge is invaluable. Rodney Grindey wrote from New Zealand: “My experience is that box of fluffy ducks is infinitely more common here these days than box of birds — with the identical meaning.” And Kel Richards of Word of the Day on radio in Australia added: “The version I’ve encountered is as bright as a box of budgies. I’ve put its popularity down to the alliteration, which English language users seem to like.”

Cacoethes When giving the classical Greek etymology of the word, the first letter of ethos somehow vanished from my text. Several readers pointed out that it would have been better to say that in cacoethes loquendi the second element is from loqui, to speak.

2. Decussate/dɪˈkʌseɪt/ Help with IPA

You may be reminded of Dr Samuel Johnson’s famously unhelpful try at defining network in his Dictionary of 1755: “Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” The moral for lexicographers is not to define a word using words that are less familiar than the one you’re defining.

The verb decussate means to intersect or cross two things to form the shape of an X. Its source is the Latin verb decussare with the same sense. This can be traced back to the ancient Roman copper coin called an as (whose name, by the way, is the origin of our ace). A coin worth 10 of them had the name decussis, a combination of as with the word for 10, decem. As the Roman symbol for 10 was X, decussis came to mean cross-shaped and the verb followed.

In everyday life we’ve never had much need for decussate, as it’s much simpler to use crosswise. Mostly, it turns up in specialist fields of study. As an adjective, neurologists use it to describe nerve fibres that cross the midline of the spinal cord or brain. For botanists, it refers to the leaves in some plants that are arranged on the stem in alternate pairs at right angles.

Decussate also describes one form of the Christian cross, the one that looks like a figure X. Another name for it is the St Andrew’s Cross, after the saint who is said to have been crucified on one that shape. A white on blue St Andrew’s Cross, popularly called the Saltire, forms the national flag of Scotland and is incorporated in the Union flag of the UK.

3. Wordface

By a neck Sonya Brite, an American, heard pipped at the post, to be narrowly defeated at the last moment, from a Canadian friend. It is known in several countries, but it’s originally British. The verb pip in this sense, to narrowly beat, dates from the 1830s, perhaps from an older sense of a small ball or a pip on a card. The allusion in pipped at the post is to horse racing, the post marking the finishing line. In the Oxford English Dictionary, P G Wodehouse is the first recorded user (“Bad luck his getting pipped on the post like that”; Ukridge, 1924) but I’ve found it much earlier in both Australia (1888) and the UK (1881). In its early days, it was always on the post; the at form began to appear only in the twentieth century and hasn’t entirely superseded the other.

Hello, I’m a little article and I hope you’ll find me interesting. If that opening made you cringe then you are not alone. The current tendency for advertising to address the reader childishly in the first person is becoming nauseating. “Keep me in the fridge,” says the bag of salad; bananas encourage us to “eat me”; a coffee cup warns “I’m hot”; a snack tells you that it’s “your private stash of almonds, cashews, raisins ...”. It has become known as wackaging, a blend from wacky packaging that was invented by the Guardian journalist Rebecca Nicholson in 2011. Everyone blames the smoothies maker Innocent, which adopted a chatty and informal style on its labels from its beginnings in 1999. These days I see the verbal tic on all sides — robot servers email me “I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message”; my local buses display the sign “Sorry, I’m not in service.” Can we go back to grown-up advertising?

4. On the lam

Q From Paul Lawrence: I didn’t see on the lam in your index, and it came up today in a conversation about my neighbors. Don’t ask!

A But you’re asking, right?

On the lam has had a good life. It appeared near the end of the nineteenth century and is still common. To be on the lam is to be on the run from the police or to have escaped from prison.

In its quest to find a suspected domestic terrorist on the lam for a decade, the FBI on Friday began placing his image on billboards across the country.

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois), 1 Mar. 2014.

Another form has been take it on the lam, as in this example from the period of mobsters and hard-boiled detectives:

He heard the shots, saw the kid tear down the steps, jump into a big sedan and take it on the lam.

Trouble is my Business, by Raymond Chandler, 1934.

Lam goes back a lot further than these modern senses. It may be from a Scandinavian source — dictionaries mention the Old Norse lemja, literally to lame but usually meaning to give a beating, and the Danish and Norwegian lamme, to paralyse. When lam came into English in the late 1500s it retained the Old Norse sense of beating soundly or thrashing.

Shortly afterwards it was extended to lambaste, a doublet that added emphasis by including the older baste of similar meaning that’s also from Old Norse (there’s no connection so far as we know with the cookery or sewing senses). Nowadays, lambaste means to criticise harshly with no implication of physical force, but that’s a nineteenth-century shift.

Unlike lambaste, lam and its close relatives have kept the same sense down to modern times:

Three of the guards will come in with belts. They’ll lam into me until they can’t lam into me any more. Every day for a week, they’ll do that.

Come Easy — Go Easy, by James Hadley Chase, 1960.

These are odd origins for a word that has also come to mean moving rapidly away from trouble. Lam in this sense is American, from the 1880s. It’s most probably a joke, a play on beat it from the same period for leaving in haste. That can be traced to seventeenth-century phrases such as beating a path or beating the hoof, the image being of one’s feet or horse’s hooves trampling the ground.

5. Sic!

• Seen by Kate Bunting above one of the stalls in the food court of Derby’s Westfield Shopping Centre: “Kids eat for £1 when bought with a main meal.”

• The banning of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson from flying to the US featured in the Independent, Chris Gray tells us: “The 54-year-old, who is a judge on cookery show The Taste in the US, admitted she had taken cocaine seven times and also to smoking cannabis during a court hearing.”

6. Useful information

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