World Wide Words -- 16 Jan 99

Michael B Quinion Michael at QUINION.DEMON.CO.UK
Sat Jan 16 03:49:48 EST 1999

WORLD WIDE WORDS        ISSUE 127         Saturday 16 January 1999
A weekly mailing from Michael Quinion       Thornbury, Bristol, UK

1. Notes and feedback.
2. Turns of Phrase: Phytoremediation.
3. Topical words: The e- prefix.
4. Weird Words: Furbelow.
5. Q & A.
6. Beyond words.
7. In Brief: Oxytherapy.
8. Housekeeping.

1. Notes and feedback
DEAD AS A DOORNAIL. Following up my piece before Christmas about
this phrase, Donna Tarkowski wrote about a note by John Ciardi in
his _Browser's Dictionary_. He suggests that a medieval door-nail
was not a nail as we know it now, but something more like a rivet:
an iron rod that was fixed between metal plates on each side of
the door and hammered into place. This was said to be dead because
it was immovably fixed in position.

PHONETIC SYMBOLS. Time for one of my regular reminders that the
pronunciation symbols used in these mailings employ a form of
plain text transcription of standard IPA symbols. The key is too
long to include in mailings, but is available online or by e-mail.
See the Housekeeping section at the end for details.

RINGER. My reference to an Australian sense of that word in a Q&A
reply last week prompted several subscribers to write. The sense
of "something supremely good" is actually an older English dialect
meaning which is probably the source of the modern Australian term
for the highest performing shearer in a shed. And the slang term
meaning "to fraudulently substitute something inferior" seems to
have had little or nothing to do with ringing coins to test their
genuineness, as I suggested; it derives from a standard English
verb 'to ring' based on the older 'to ring the changes', meaning
to substitute something inferior. The Australian 'ring-in' with
the same meaning also comes from the same source. And the phrase
'dead ringer', another form, meaning a perfect likeness, is just
'ringer' with the intensifier 'dead' added.

IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME. Before Christmas, I wrote about this phrase
in another Q&A piece, which prompted many subscribers to say how
this translates into other languages. In German, the saying is
"Das ist mir Spanisch" (that's all Spanish to me), though you may
also hear "it's all Bohemian village names to me". The Spanish
equivalent is "It's Chinese to me". It seems that the Poles do not
quite say "It's all Turkish to me", as I suggested, but also
prefer "It's Chinese to me", though Zdzislaw Szczerbinski from
Gliwice in Poland says that they do have an expression "to be
sitting as at a Turkish sermon" for listening to something that is
incomprehensible. The Greeks like "It's Chinese to me", too, which
is also used in Hebrew and in French (Ian Simpson wrote to say
there was an advertising slogan some years ago encouraging people
to learn English: "Pour vous, l'anglais c'est du chinois?", "Is
English all Chinese to you?", though the French can also say that
it's all Hebrew, as do the Finns). Turks also sometimes say that
incomprehensible speech sounds Chinese, though they do on occasion
equate it to Arabic, as do the Italians, though to them it can be
Turkish as well. I haven't heard of a mainland Chinese expression,
but Chris Heinrich tells me the equivalent in Taiwan is the quite
wonderful "I'm a duck listening to thunder". The Danes sometimes
say "It's all Greek (or all Russian) to me" but sometimes instead
say "It's all Volapu"k to me", where Volapu"k is the name of a
nineteenth century constructed language. You will not be surprised
to hear that Esperantists use much the same expression: "io estas
por mi volapukaj^o".

PISCATORIAL POSTURINGS. Having been rude in the past about other
people's typographical mistakes, it's only fair that I should
quote a slightly surreal one of my own, which I managed to catch
before it hit the public gaze: "We can't send a gunboat any more,
but we can practise a form of Palmerstonian moral fish-shaking".

2. Turns of Phrase: Phytoremediation  /'fVIt at UrImi:dIeIS(@)n/
Though this is a cumbersome word that hasn't yet reached any of my
dictionaries, it has become a moderately common technical term in
recent years because of its environmental implications.
'Phytoremediation' is just beginning practical application after
years of research, and the word is now starting to turn up in non-
specialist areas such as newspaper articles. It refers to a
variety of techniques using plants and trees to clean up sites
that are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead or cadmium,
or with organic compounds like pesticides or solvents. In the case
of the metals, species are grown which are known to concentrate
the contaminants in their tissues; plants can then be harvested
and burnt to release the pollutant, which can often be recycled.
Organic pollutants are often treated with plants that take them up
and destroy them as part of their normal metabolic processes.
'Phytoremediation' can be a lot cheaper than conventional methods,
which usually involve removing the topsoil layer completely and
replacing it with uncontaminated soil, but it is usually much
slower. The word is a combination of the prefix 'phyto-', "plant"
(from the Greek 'phutos') with 'remediation', the action of
remedying something, especially environmental damage.

With international conferences, coverage in scientific and trade
journals, and industry and government-sponsored implementation,
phytoremediation is a significant and growing niche in the
environmental marketplace.
                           [_Environmental Technology_, Sep. 1998]

Because they also absorb and concentrate toxic metals, such as
lead, these natural collectors could help to decontaminate
industrial waste sites, a process known as phytoremediation.
                                           [_Economist_, Oct 1998]

3. Topical words: The e- prefix  /i:/
It seems that 'e-' is the new 'cyber-': a convenient combining
form, tackable at will on to almost any other word to imply the
white heat of the technological revolution. This came home to me
during the holiday break, when I discovered that a current
buzzword for online business is 'e-tail'. It's a less than elegant
coinage, even though in Britain it lacks the special resonance of
the American slang meaning of 'tail'.

More evidence came from Liz Lavallee in the COPYEDITING list; she
reported that her local newspaper, the _Potomac News_ in
Woodbridge, Virginia, had the headline "1998: A year of truly e-
mazing events". Another punning headline of a similar kind was one
I found in a British computer magazine, which referred to the 'e-
conomy'. And a look through my files reveals 63 other examples of
new words formed by tacking 'e-' on the front of an existing word,
including 'e-trade', 'e-asset', 'e-envoy', 'e-postmarked', 'e-
junkmailer', and 'e-scoop'. Most of these are nonce formations,
invented to satisfy a momentary need and not likely to be seen
again, but some, such as 'e-cash', 'e-democracy', and 'e-text',
have established what looks like a firm foothold in current usage.

The daddy of these compounds is the comparatively venerable 'e-
mail', first recorded as a noun in 1982 and as a verb in 1987. The
'e-' was at first just a convenient abbreviation for 'electronic'.
As the word gained wider currency from the early nineties onwards,
many newer users were uncertain whether the initial letter was an
abbreviation or a prefix, and whether the word should be written
with a hyphen or not. Hence the alternative forms 'E-mail',
'Email', and 'email'. It's an understandable confusion, and
especially so as writing the word without a hyphen leads to
something that looks foreign (specifically, the French word for

The debate, or possibly the confusion, has not yet wholly worked
itself through. But the growth in other words with the same prefix
has gone a long way towards settling matters, as the form has
become more common and it is more obvious that it can be stuck on
the front of a whole range of words. It is also settling down to
include the hyphen, perhaps because most of the words that would
be formed without it look very odd.

You can tell it's a live and fashionable prefix by the range of
creations using it, few of them either clever or necessary. We
don't need 'e-tail', for example, because we already have 'e-
business' and 'e-commerce'. In October a health specialist was
quoted in the _Los Angeles Times_ as saying "Everybody in this
country knows the phrase 'e-commerce', but nobody knows the phrase
'e-health'". The first half of that is questionable: despite
several years of circulation, I would imagine that a quite a large
proportion of Americans neither knows the word 'e-commerce' nor
cares what it means. But the second half seems true enough: it's
another word for the application of telecommunications to
medicine, rather more frequently called 'telemedicine' or

So it's another unneeded coinage. We shall see many more before
we're through with this fashion.

4. Weird Words: Furbelow /'f@:bIl at U/
A gathered strip or pleated border; showy ornaments or trimmings.

'Furbelows' have nothing to do with 'fur'. The word came into
English in the early eighteenth century from the French word
'falbala' for a flounce, decoration or trimming on a woman's
petticoat or dress. Though similar words occur in other European
languages - such as the German 'falbel' or Spanish 'farfala' -
nobody seems to know where it comes from, though I have seen it
suggested that it might originate in the Latin 'faluppa' for a
valueless thing. Almost from its first appearance in English, its
plural has had the sense of something ostentatious or showy. These
days it hardly ever turns up at all, but when it does it usually
forms part of the set phrase 'frills and furbelows'.

5. Q & A
[The section in which I (attempt to) answer your questions. Send
your queries to <qa at>. I can't guarantee to answer
them, but if I can, I will reply privately first; a response will
later appear here and on our Web site.]
Q. Can you please tell me anything about the origin of the phrase
"going to hell in a handbasket"? [Brian Walker]

A. This is a weird one. It's a fairly common American expression,
known for much of the twentieth century. But it's one about which
almost no information exists, at least in the two dozen or so
reference books I've consulted. William and Mary Morris, in their
_Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins_, confess to the
same difficulty. A 'handbasket' is just a basket to be carried in
the hand (my thanks to the _Oxford English Dictionary_ for that
gem of definition). The _Dictionary of American Regional English_
records 'to go to heaven in a handbasket' rather earlier than the
alternative, which doesn't appear in print until the late 1940s.
But _DARE_ quotes a related expression from 1714: "A committee
brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his
head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it", which suggests
that it, or phrases like it, have been around in the spoken
language for a long time. We can only assume that the alliteration
of the 'h's has had a lot to do with the success of the various
phrases, and that perhaps 'handbasket' suggests something easily
and speedily done.
Q. Have you any idea where 'to wit' came from? [Kirstin

A. 'To wit' is now just a fixed expression. It's a shortened form
of 'that is to wit' meaning "that is to know; that is to say;
namely", from the English verb 'wit' "to know". This was a strong
verb with past tense 'wot', as in "A garden is a lovesome thing,
Got wot". In Old English it was spelt 'witan', and even further
back it was linked with a Germanic verb meaning "to see". In the
first of these senses, it's closely connected with the modern
German verb 'wissen'; in the second it's the origin of our
'witness'. It developed further to refer to a person's
understanding or judgement or mind (hence "keep your wits about
Q. In Issue 123 you explained the origin of 'chow' for military
food. A related word puzzles me: 'mess'. [Robert L McBrayer]

A. When it first appeared in English, 'mess' meant a portion of
food. This came from the Old French 'mes', "a dish", which in
modern French is spelt 'mets'. This comes ultimately from the
Latin 'missus', strictly "to put, send" but which could also mean
"a course at a meal" (that is, something put on the table).
  In the fifteenth century, 'mess' came to refer to a group of
people, usually four in number, who sat together at a meal and
were served from the same dishes. This soon evolved into a name of
any group that ate together. For example, in warships, a group of
a dozen or so men would usually sit together at one table and were
served from the same dishes; this was one 'mess', and those who
habitually sat together were 'messmates'; the room was often
called a 'mess-room', a space that contained a set of 'messes'. By
an obvious process, 'mess-room' was itself later contracted to
'mess', so confusing the place where one ate with the groups of
people one ate with.
  At one time 'mess' could also refer to any cooked dish,
especially one which was liquid or pulpy; this is best remembered
in the 'mess of pottage' for which Esau sold his birthright in the
Bible (though the phrase doesn't appear in the Authorised Version
of 1611). The sense of a confused jumble or a dirty or untidy
state, which is the first association we have for 'mess' nowadays,
evolved from this meaning and seems to have been a disparaging
reference to such sloppy food. It is actually a very recent usage,
dating only from the nineteenth century (it's first recorded in
_Webster's Dictionary_ in 1828).

6. Beyond words
In a report in last Monday's _Guardian_ about a proposal by the
Tesco supermarket chain to open their Hastings store for a special
nude shopping evening: "Naturists would undress inside the store
and *redress* before they left". Good heavens, what would they
have been doing that they needed to offer redress?

7. In Brief: Oxytherapy
A weird-sounding technique in which sufferers from cancer, AIDS or
multiple sclerosis are treated with ozone in the belief that it
provides relief. A common method is 'autohaemotology', also called
'autohaemotherapy', in which blood is removed from the body,
ozonated and put back.

8. Housekeeping
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WORLD WIDE WORDS is a weekly newsletter on language, copyright (c)
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