World Wide Words -- 25 Jan 03

Michael Quinion DoNotUse at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Jan 24 09:26:37 EST 2003

WORLD WIDE WORDS         ISSUE 325         Saturday 25 January 2003
Sent each Saturday to 16,000+ subscribers in at least 119 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448
<>      <TheEditor at>

1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Turns of Phrase: Dental Spa.
3. Topical Words: Banana.
4. Weird Words: Sferics.
5. Recently Sighted.
6. Q&A: Sent to Coventry; Rude word.
7. Endnote.
A. Subscription commands.
B. Contact addresses.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
NEWSLETTER DESCRIPTION  Many thanks to all those who responded with
comments and ideas. I did have a tiny hankering after one or two of
the alternatives mooted: "analect", "epistle", and "exegesis". Some
others of note were "egozine", "infogram", "weborandum", "e-tome",
"netletter", "e-tymology", "lexicogram", "logoletter", "webletter",
"etymoletter" and "Michael Quinion's Organ". You're all so very
inventive ... The majority opinion is that "newsletter" is a very
good term for this communication (and one subscriber quoted the
American Heritage Dictionary definition back at me in support of
that view, thus hoisting this writer with his own petard).

MAILING DELAYS  Apologies for the delay in sending out last week's
- er - newsletter. There was a network power failure at the system
that sends the messages out.

KINGSLEY AMIS QUOTE  I inserted the Endnote quote from the late Sir
Kingsley Amis last week to be provocative. I didn't expect that so
many people would actually write in with their beliefs about the
origins of words like "posh" and "OK". All, as it happens, were
wrong. For more information, see:

  POSH: <>
  OK:   <>

ENGLISH AS VERB  Several subscribers messaged me in varying degrees
of horror at my use of "English" as a verb last week (my invaluable
copyeditor, Julane Marx, also queried it, but I overruled her). The
writers considered it to be an unnecessary neologism, since we have
"Anglicise". Whether it's truly necessary or not is debatable, but
it's not a neologism - it was first used in the sense of "adopting
a word into the English language or giving it an English character
or form" in 1824. Those who queried it because it's archaic were on
firmer ground, but do let me have a few Weird Words of my own!

INCORRECT FORMS  So many people were surprised by my references to
"another thing coming" and "card shark" as mistakes that perhaps a
note is in order. These are common versions of older expressions,
"[you have] another think coming" (meaning "think again" and "card
sharp" (using "sharp" in the sense of quick-witted or clever). They
are classic examples of one way in which language evolves, by which
people change terms that make little sense into ones that seem to
fit the context better. The most common one of the set is "chaise
lounge", which has become so widespread in the USA that it is now
in some dictionaries; the original French form was "chaise longue",
a long chair. However, I was wrong to describe them as malapropisms
- they are correctly folk etymologies.

WEB SITE REVISIONS  Having spent half a week checking each of 1250
Web pages for errors (and as a result coming to the conclusion that
I write too much), the redesigned World Wide Words web site should
be available later today (Saturday). I've updated quite a few pages
and removed one or two that don't seem needed. The one substantial
change is that there is now an online form you can use to request
gift subscriptions. You can get to it via the subscriptions page:


CORRESPONDENCE  All that work put me behind with answering incoming
messages, but I think all have now been responded to. If you didn't
get a reply to your e-mail, it may have been because you sent it to
the wrong address. Replying directly to this mailing will post your
message to an electronic waste basket as a spam prevention measure.
You must change the outgoing address to one of those listed at the
end of the newsletter.

2. Turns of Phrase: Dental Spa
Can you imagine that visiting the dentist might one day be regarded
as a treat, a pleasant session in which you're pampered by personal
attention before a little relaxing root canal work? A few American
dental surgeons think this is the future of their speciality, and
have invented the "dental spa". As well as dental treatment, a
range of other treatments, such as massages, manicures and facials
are available, all against a backdrop of relaxing mood music and
images. There's a serious medical purpose behind this, beyond the
need to get more people through the door and more income for the
practice: there's good reason to think that a relaxed patient is
one who suffers less and whose treatment is more effective.

Welcome to the Dental Spa, California's latest pampering
establishment, where the pain of root canal and fillings is
sublimated totally to the pleasure principle.
                                          [Toronto Star, Nov. 2002]

The Atlanta Center for Cosmetic Dentistry in Georgia is one of the
first of these new dental spas. It hired a team of designers to
create "an ambience reminiscent of a fine upscale resort" where
visits start with free tea, coffee, juices and freshly baked
cookies in a luxurious, scented lounge.
                                               [Guardian, Jan 2003]

3. Topical Words: Banana
If it were not such a serious subject, and such a terrible joke, I
might be tempted to say that the press last week went bananas over
alarming reports of the fungal diseases that are threatening to do
to the world's producers of bananas what the potato blight did to
Ireland 150 years ago.

The word itself presents no etymological conundrum. We know that
the fruit was encountered by European explorers investigating the
West coast of Africa around the middle of the sixteenth century.
Spanish and Portuguese sailors came across them in local ports and
borrowed the name from one of a set of related local languages -
we're not quite sure which one, but probably Mandingo or Wolof.
Some say the Arabs imported the fruit to Africa from India, and
that they gave their word for a finger to it.

The poor banana has often been a subject of humour. Its shape is
risible, its colour ludicrous, and its name, with that repeated
syllable, irretrievably childish. A look at any good dictionary of
slang will show the great range of applications of the word.

Among others, "banana" has been used as an obvious slang term for
the penis (and also for a dollar, for less obvious reasons); it was
once a name for a slapstick comedian in vaudeville, leading to
those evocative terms "top banana" for the starring act and "second
banana" for a supporting performer or straight man. There's "banana
oil" for nonsense, baloney or hypocritical talk, a close relative
of apple-sauce, which was no doubt linked with its blandness and
smoothness; a "banana ball" is one that curves in the air; a
"bananahead" is a fool. All these are American, you will note.
British examples are thinly spread, though I do remember a derisive
use of "bananas" in the 1970s for corrupt London policemen, on the
grounds that they were yellow, bent, and hung around in bunches.

What of "to go bananas"? It burst upon the world in the 1960s and
became a fashionable, not to say faddish, term in the 1970s. Its
heyday is over, perhaps thankfully so. But nobody seems to have any
very clear idea where it came from. Was the idea of something bent
at the root of it, so that a person was being driven mentally out
of shape? Or was there a mental image of an over-excited ape
clamouring for his daily feast? Or was it a more subtle image
connected with the older phrase "to go ape" or even "to go nuts"?
You can go crazy thinking about this stuff.

4. Weird Words: Sferics  /'sferiks/
Atmospheric discharges.

We can't hear it without special equipment, but the planet almost
continually sings with the sound of low-frequency radio signals
that derive from lightning strikes. Because the signals are mostly
trapped below the ionosphere, a reflective layer 55 miles above the
ground, a suitable receiver can pick them up from thousands of
miles away. They sound like twigs snapping or bacon frying. This
weird-looking term for them, "sferics", is just a respelled version
of the last part of "atmospherics". The abbreviation appeared
around 1940 when researchers first started to encounter these
strange noises. There's a complete vocabulary of words to describe
various types: "tweeks" come from lightning that is so far away
that the high radio frequencies arrive before the low, resulting in
a musical set of clicks and tweets; "whistlers" are slowly
descending tones caused by the same mechanism, but which acts on
bursts of radio waves that pass through the ionosphere and are
reflected from another layer 6000 or so miles up.

Visit <> to hear
samples of each type. There's also a real-time receiver.

5. Recently Sighted
PROTATO  An uninspiring term for a genetically modified potato with
a greater proportion of various proteins than usual. It has been
developed at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi as one way to
help reduce protein shortages, which are often acute in poor areas.

T-COMMERCE  We've had "e-commerce" for buying things online; we've
since had "m-commerce" for using one's mobile to obtain goods and
services; now "t-commerce" is beginning to appear for transactions
carried out using interactive television.


6. Q&A
Q. As a native of that city I am often asked for the origin of the
phrase "to be sent to Coventry". [Bill McCord]

A. It is very probable that the Warwickshire city is the source of
this expression for someone who has been ostracised. I say that
with some care because there are at least two theories about where
it came from. All of them do point to your native city, but none of
them can be substantiated. The idiom is first recorded in 1765, but
it is generally taken to refer to events during the English Civil
Wars of the 1640s between forces loyal to the King and those loyal
to Parliament.

The first appearance of the phrase is in 1647, in The History of
the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England by Edward Hyde, First Earl
of Clarendon, though the author is using the phrase in a literal,
not a figurative sense. He says that Royalist troops who were
captured in Birmingham (then a small town, not the great city that
grew up later on the back of the Industrial Revolution) were taken
for security to Coventry, a Parliamentarian stronghold. They were
not welcome. Another story, undated but usually taken to refer to
events of a similar period, is that Coventry was strongly opposed
to having troops billeted on townspeople, and that soldiers sent
there were ostracised by the local population.

Take your pick. My own feeling is that neither is convincing, not
least because of the century-long gap between Civil War events and
the first appearance of the idiom.


Q. Someone sent me an email giving the supposedly true origin of a
certain rude word as a naval term used when transporting manure as
fertilizer deep in the holds of ships. The message claims that when
manure gets wet, it makes methane, which can collect in the hold
and blow up the ship. To avoid this, crates or sacks were marked
S.H.I.T., meaning "Ship High In Transit". It would be good to know
if this is correct, or just somebody's invention. [Bonnie Simpson;
related questions came from Vicky Hambly, David Hay, Ed Sievers,
Bob Lawless, and Henry van Wageningen.]

A. There's no truth in the story whatsoever. It's yet another of
those products of inventive but twisted minds that bring us strange
stories about life in 1500 and try to convince us that people hold
wakes in order to see whether the supposed corpse wakes up. This
one isn't even a good example of the type - it doesn't sound in the
least plausible.

The true origin is the Old English "scitte", diarrhoea, which is
related to Dutch "schijten", and German "scheissen". (My late
father-in-law, visiting Germany as a young man, once tried to
explain to his hosts that some farmers had been shooting pigeons
over the house. Sadly, the German verb "to shoot" is "schiessen"
and he got the vowel wrong. Mutual embarrassment ensued.)

We are a little mealy-mouthed these days about the word, one of
those classic Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, even though it is
among the most common expletives known. When it first appeared,
though, there were no negative or vulgar associations about it.

7. Endnote
"He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It
reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered
washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college
yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so
bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of
the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost
pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle.
It is balder and dash." [H L Mencken, on Warren G. Harding, in the
"Baltimore Evening Sun" (1921); quoted in the "Penguin Dictionary
of Modern Humorous Quotations" (2001)]

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