World Wide Words -- 25 Mar 00

Michael Quinion words at QUINION.COM
Sat Mar 25 05:08:12 EST 2000

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 183          Saturday 25 March 2000
Sent weekly to more than 8,000 subscribers in at least 97 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion    ISSN 1470-1448    Thornbury, Bristol, UK
Web: <>    E-mail: <words at>

1. Feedback.
2. Turns of Phrase: M-commerce.
3. Weird Words: Jactitation.
4. Topical Words: Vegelate.
5. Q & A: Saved by the bell, Sea change, Lizzie Tish.
6. Administration: LISTSERV commands, Copyright.

1. Feedback
HYDROGEN ECONOMY  I have coined Quinion's Law: "Any unsubstantiated
assertion about the provenance of a word or phrase will be refuted
instantly by a subscriber with special knowledge". This was a good
example. Dave Fox pointed out that Arthur C Clarke uses the phrase
in his novel _Imperial Earth_ (published in 1975) and Brian Hayes
found an even earlier example in _Scientific American_ for January

PERCH  Patricia Norton wrote to mention the survival until fairly
recent times of the word as a unit of area for housing plots in New
Zealand: 160 perches make an acre. And while I'm on the subject,
completists might like to note that a perch is also an old volume
measure for masonry: 24.75 cubic feet.

2. Turns of Phrase: M-commerce
We've only just got used to lots of new forms beginning in 'e-' but
now 'm-' is starting to turn up - for 'mobile'. The advent of WAP
(Wireless Application Protocol) (see <
turnsofphrase/tp-wap1.htm>) and new systems for sending data to and
from mobile telephones at high speeds means Web-style electronic
commerce seems set to become available soon at a mobile phone near
your ear. It may look a very new term - and references to it in the
press have only really begun to accumulate since the middle of 1999
- but it has been recorded as far back as the mid nineties.

For all its hype, however, m-commerce remains in its infancy.
                        [_International Herald Tribune_, Feb. 2000]

Business is moving quickly on m-commerce for a number of reasons.
                                        [_Toronto Star_, Mar. 2000]

3. Weird Words: Jactitation  /dZaktI'teIS at n/
A restless tossing of the body in illness; a boastful or false

Of the two senses, you're more likely to encounter the first, as it
can still be found in medical writings; it can also refer to the
nervous twitching of a limb or muscle. It comes from an older word
'jactation' with the same meaning, which derives from the Latin
'jactare', to throw.

The other sense comes from the related Latin 'jactitare', to throw
out publicly or to say in public. This became the English term
'jactitation' for a public declaration or public or open
discussion. In _Tristram Shandy_, Laurence Sterne referred to "much
dispassionate enquiry and jactitation of the arguments on all
sides". The sense of boasting or bragging was often attached to the
word, and the even rarer 'jactator' means a boaster or braggart.

This sense is now pretty much dead in English, with its rare users
employing it only for humorous effect. However, 'jactitation' does
still sometimes occur in legal contexts to refer to a false
statement, picking up on the idea of boastfulness; in particular,
it survives in the term 'jactitation of marriage', a false
declaration that one is married to someone.

4. Topical Words: Vegelate
It's not often that lexicographers can say of a recently created
word that it's already defunct (they mark it 'historical', but
that's what they mean). This rare situation has arisen with one
that has had a good run in the corridors and debating chambers of
the European Union, but has finally been laid to rest.

Some European countries greatly dislike British milk chocolate, in
their view a bastard concoction that ought not to stand alongside
the glories of the product from Belgium and France (the Swiss make
chocolate, of course, but they're not in the EU). British chocolate
makers not only put more milk in it, but add up to 5% vegetable fat
to the cocoa butter.

When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, it secured an opt-
out from the Cocoa and Chocolate Products Directive that prohibited
such practices. But ever since, it has been very difficult to sell
British chocolate in Europe.

As part of their fight against accepting it, European chocolatiers
argued that British chocolate didn't deserve even to be called by
that name. Various alternatives were put forward, such as
'industrial chocolate', 'vegetable fat milk chocolate' or a German
word that roughly translates as 'fat glazed'. But a suggestion from
France in the mid 1980s, the word 'vegelate', became the term
preferred by the continental campaigners (it had nothing to do with
that Australian delicacy 'vegemite', nor with 'veg out', nor a verb
describing an unnatural act with a vegetable; it was the mirror in
language of the British chocolate-makers' supposed sins: a blend of
'vegetable' with 'chocolate').

To cut a long story short, the debate went on for more than two
decades, until the European Commission eventually ruled on the
matter of chocolate harmonisation as part of its review of the
Directive. (Despite what the British press has often said, it has
never been EU policy to use the word 'vegelate'; it's Euromyth No
18 in the list maintained by the Commission in London.)

The European Parliament last week ratified the revised Directive,
which says our home-grown product may be sold throughout Europe,
provided that the presence of vegetable fat is shown on the label
and it's tagged as 'family milk chocolate' (or its equivalent in
other European languages: 'Hauschaltsmilchshokolade' in German, or
in French 'chocolat de menage au lait', household milk chocolate,
which somehow suggests you can consume it only among consenting
adults in private).

Problem finally solved, after 27 years and a lot of bureaucratic
wrangling. And 'vegelate' is no more. It is an ex-word.

5. Q&A
[Send queries to <qa at>. Messages will be acknowledged,
but I can't guarantee to reply, as time is limited. If I can do so,
a response will appear both here and on the WWWords Web site.]


Q. A lot of people - including Mike Whitling and Lisa Smith from
the USA and Barrie J Wright from Australia - have asked me about
the truth of the statements in the following piece, part of a
longer one that's been making the e-mail rounds in recent months:

'England is old and small and they started running out of places to
bury people. So, they would dig up coffins and would take their
bones to a house and re-use the grave. In reopening these coffins,
one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the
inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So
they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it
through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell.
Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen
for the bell. Hence on the "graveyard shift" they would know that
someone was "saved by the bell", or he was a "dead ringer".'

A. You may not be pleased to hear that all this is complete and
utter hogwash, just like the rest of the article it appears in.
It's an example of a fascinating process (from a sociolinguistic
perspective, that is) in which people actively seek out stories to
explain phrases, not really caring whether they are true, merely
that they are psychologically satisfying. As a result, they are
powerful memes, strongly resisting refutation. But World Wide Words
is renowned as the home of lost causes, so I'll give it a go.

'Saved by the bell' is actually boxing slang, dating from the
1930s. A contestant being counted out might be saved by the ringing
of the bell for the end of the round, giving him three minutes to
recover. 'Graveyard shift' is an evocative term for the night shift
between about midnight and eight in the morning, when - no matter
how often you've worked it - your skin is clammy, there's sand
behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the
graveyard (sailors similarly know the 'graveyard watch', the
midnight to four a.m. stint). The phrase dates only from the early
years of the twentieth century. The third phrase - 'dead ringer' -
dates from roughly the same period or perhaps a decade or two
earlier. I've written about it previously, so won't explain it
again. See <> if you
want details.

So none of these expressions has anything to do with the burying of


Q. The phrase 'sea change' appears frequently in both books and
newspapers, and the only definition I've been able to find for it
is that it is a transformation. How did the phrase come about and
why? [Dave Donnelly, Hawaii]

A. The phrase is a quotation from Shakespeare. It comes from
Ariel's wonderfully evocative song in _The Tempest_:

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Shakespeare obviously meant that the transformation of the body of
Ferdinand's father was made by the sea, but we have come to refer
to a 'sea change' as being a profound transformation caused by any
agency. So pundits and commentators who think it has something to
do with the ebb and flow of the tide, and use it for a minor or
recurrent shift in policy or opinion, are doing a grave injustice
to one of the most evocative phrases in the language. I wish a
figurative full fathom five to such people.

The point at which it stopped being a direct quotation and turned
into an idiom is hard to pin down, though it seems to have happened
only in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The _Oxford
English Dictionary_ finds the first allusive use in one of Ezra
Pound's poems from 1917. But examples can be found a little earlier
than that, as in _The Great White Wall_ by Julian Hawthorne, dated
1877: "Three centuries ago, according to my porter, a sea-change
happened here which really deserves to be called strange". And it's
odd that it seems to be a rare example of a hyphenated phrase
that's losing its hyphen: all the modern dictionaries I've
consulted have it as two words with not a hyphen in sight.


Q. We (three senior citizens) are trying to find the origin of the
phrase 'lizzie tish'. We all remember our mothers calling us that,
but haven't a clue where it came from. We are all from different
ethnic backgrounds, two from New York and one from Connecticut, and
are sure we heard it sometime in the 1940s. Can you find any
reference to this so we can stop thinking about it? It is driving
us nuts, like an itch that you can't reach. [Lucille Zolty]

A. I can relieve your itch. You can't find the original because
your version is a spoonerism. Why or when it became inverted, I've
no way of knowing, but most of the references I can find also have
it as Lizzie Tish. But the original was certainly Tizzie Lish, a
character played by Bill Comstock on the radio show _Al Pearce and
His Gang_. The show began on KFRC in San Francisco in 1929 but
moved to NBC in 1933, where it continued until 1947. Tizzie was
usually all of a dither and she would proceed to dictate very bad
recipes, insisting that listeners find a pencil and paper to write
them down.

I don't usually answer questions about old radio shows, but Tizzy
Lish seems to be linguistically significant. Our word 'tizzy' for
being in a state of nervous excitement, agitation or worry is
recorded first in the US in 1935 and almost certainly comes from -
or at least was popularised by - the radio character. (It was also
once a nickname for a coin, the old British sixpence, but nobody
thinks that had anything to do with the matter.)

6. Administration
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