World Wide Words -- 16 Aug 08

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Aug 15 06:04:20 EDT 2008

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 600         Saturday 16 August 2008
Sent each Saturday to at least 50,000 subscribers by e-mail and RSS
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448       US advisory editor: Julane Marx

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1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Fescennine.
3. Recently noted.
4. Q&A: Skinny.
5. Sic!
A. Subscription information.
B. E-mail contact addresses.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
SMALL CRY OF JOY  Another milestone passed, as you may see from a 
look at the header - this newsletter has reached issue 600. On to 
issue 1000: it's only another eight years, after all. (I wonder who 
will be hosting the Olympics that year? The shortlist is Chicago, 
Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.)

CLEFT  A message from L John Martin was typical of many, following 
my piece on "cleft stick" last week: "'Cleft' may not be commonly 
used on weekdays, but we sing it very frequently on Sundays in the 
hymn 'Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.'" The 
link is with Exodus chapter 33, in which God puts Moses in a cleft 
of the rock so that he will not be destroyed by His glory. Though 
the noun and adjective forms of "cleft" are obviously related, the 
noun is from a Germanic word that meant a chink or crevice and was 
often spelled "clift" (as the King James Bible does) or as "cliff" 
(influenced by the word for a vertical rock face) before it changed 
to "cleft" through assimilation with the adjective.

I was wondering how long it would take somebody to point out the 
cleft sticks that feature in Evelyn Waugh's satire on the newspaper 
business, Scoop. Take a bow, Tony Sharp, you were the first, after 
a mere 57 minutes. William Boot, the hapless nature writer who is 
mistakenly engaged to cover an African revolution, is advised by 
his terminally out-of-touch editor Lord Copper to take a supply of 
cleft sticks with him to facilitate the transmission of letters. In 
describing his visit to a shop to get them, Waugh illustrates the 
irregularity of English: "'We can have some [cleft sticks] cloven 
for you," she said brightly. 'If you will make your selection I 
will send them down to our cleaver.'"

Elspeth Kempe pointed out that in South Africa, where she lives, 
the phrase "a cleft stick and runner" is so widespread as to need 
no explanation: "When we complain about the tardiness of the postal 
system, the comments are along the lines of 'The parcel took so 
long to reach to him it would have been faster to have used a cleft 
stick and runner' or 'The letter hasn't arrived yet? They must have 
used a cleft stick and runner.' She wonders if other English-
speaking African countries use it too.

SUFFIXIFICATION  "Apropos 'incentivize' and other such weirdness," 
wrote Mordechai Ben-Menachem from Israel, "I was recently sent a 
document that stated that the computerized system 'totalized' the 
results. When I asked what it meant, I was told 'the cumulative 
amount'." It sounds like an infelicitous modern invention, but the 
Oxford English Dictionary finds examples, in the sense "make total; 
to combine into a total or aggregate" from as far back as 1818, in 
a work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The betting system called the 
Tote is short for the related word "totalisator".

Peter McMenamin commented last week on "incentivise": "I have been 
an economist for 40 years, but I have yet to encounter a felicitous 
single word meaning to motivate through financial incentives." A 
chorus of readers suggested "bribe". It fits, but its associations 
with illegality I'm sure would prevent Mr McMenamin from adopting 
it. Randy Forror said, "Although my wife can usually bribe me to do 
some chore with the promise of her goodies (easy now, I meant her 
chocolate chip cookies and pineapple upside-down cake) I almost 
always hear the term used with a promise of cash."

MOT  Fran McCormack's comments are similar to those of several 
other readers: "In the Feedback section of last week's newsletter 
you mentioned 'mot' as 'an old term for a prostitute, which the 
Oxford English Dictionary says was still in use in 1866'. I won't 
be the only one to point out that this word is still very much in 
use in Ireland, especially in Dublin, where it is used as a mildly 
derogatory term for a woman, especially a girlfriend or even wife. 
Men would refer to 'the mot' as in 'I was out with the mot last 
night'. The derogatory nature of it would be so mild that it would 
be used affectionately in a lot of cases. The change in the usage 
of the word seems to be almost the reverse of that for 'tart'."

2. Weird Words: Fescennine  /'fes@,naIn/
Licentious, obscene, scurrilous.

Investigation of this useful, albeit extremely rare, adjective was 
provoked by a message from Curt Weil, pointing out that it appeared 
in Jim Meddick's Monty comic strip on 8 July 2008. Monty criticises 
a man for seemingly talking to a dolphin, which Monty calls a fish. 
The dolphin responds and his interlocutor translates it: "He said, 
firstly: Dolphins are not fish. They are mammals. Then he said 
something rather unflattering and fescennine about primates."

The word is a toponym, named after the ancient Etruscan town of 
Fescennia, on the River Tiber in modern Tuscany. Like many rural 
communities, it had a tradition of ribald and scurrilous songs that 
were performed at festivals such as harvest-home and weddings. 
These could be in the form of extempore verses that were aimed at 
another member of the company, who was expected to respond in kind. 
The Romans took over the idea, applying it particularly to bawdy 
verses sung to the happy couple at their nuptials, though later the 
fescennine verses were cleaned up and made more urbane and 

3. Recently noted
POP GOES THE LANGUAGE  An article in the Observer newspaper last 
Sunday discussed the tendency for some British cinema chains to 
discontinue the selling of popcorn, on the grounds that it was 
smelly and lower-class. I was delighted to find a new word: "Daniel 
Broch, owner of the Everyman cinema in London's Hampstead, recently 
bought 17 more venues, including London's Screen on the Hill and 
the Screen on the Green. 'I will de-popcorn every new venue I 
acquire,' he said." 

But it turns out that, as so often, there's nothing new under the 
English-language sun. Julane Marx, who weekly applies her common-
sense yardstick to these writings to prevent me going even further 
off the rails than I do, tells me of textured ceilings that were 
popular in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, which were often called 
"cottage cheese" or "popcorn" ceilings. Removing these is often a 
non-trivial challenge, since they can contain asbestos. So "de-
popcorn" is sometimes used to describe the process, which can 
either be accomplished by scraping and retexturing the ceiling or 
by simply covering the whole thing with very thin wallboard.

MUSCLING IN  "I was bemused to hear this morning's NPR commentator 
speak about the US meddling in the Chinese Olympics," wrote Barbara 
Millikan, "but after hearing it several times I realized from 
context that I was just witnessing the transmogrification of yet 
another noun: 'medal'. Did you know that we no longer win a medal; 
instead we just 'medal'? And good luck to anyone who tries to use 
their ears to distinguish between 'meddle' and 'medal'." That's a 
good point but, though many of us still find it extremely strange, 
the verb "medal" in this context is first recorded in 1966 and 
became more widespread during the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 

MIXING BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE  The Sun began a report on Thursday, 
"Mixing work colleagues with real-life friends on internet networks 
could cause a social life meltdown, experts have warned." LinkedIn, 
the British business networking Web site, recommends that people 
shouldn't accept social networking invitations from colleagues but 
keep them separate to avoid conflicts. The report introduced me to 
"frolleagues" for colleagues who are also friends. 

4. Q&A: Skinny
Q. Where, how and why did "the skinny" come to mean the inside 
information, particularly unsavoury gossip? [Lilajane Frascarelli]

A. To recycle an old etymologist's joke (more precisely, a joke 
made by this old etymologist), you want the skinny on "skinny"? I 
wish I could help. Many people have asked the experts about this 
strange word for the inside dope, the lowdown, or the inside 
knowledge, but none of them has been able to say for sure where it 
comes from.

What we do know is that as a popular word it's surprisingly recent. 
The first example given in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 
article in the journal American Speech by Lalia Phipps Boone dated 
May 1959, discussing University of Florida slang; another article 
in the same journal in 1980 cites a short story that appeared in 
the Kansas Magazine in 1956: "The skinny was always: You married 
specifically against death". It must have been regarded by writers 
and editors either as unusual or as low slang, because it doesn't 
start to appear much in newspapers and books for another decade and 
the set phrases "what's the skinny?" and "here's the skinny" don't 
turn up much before the 1980s.

The author of the 1956 story, R V Cassill, was quoted in the 1980 
American Speech article as remembering that he first heard the word 
"persistently and widely used by nearly everyone in the Army and 
Navy in World War II." That is partially contradicted by a column 
filler in The Charleroi Mail, Pennsylvania, on 19 February 1945:

  The "straight skinny" isn't an elongated person, but is the 
  "correct dope," in marine jargon. The expression cropped up 
  for the first time during the heat of battle on Bougainville. 
  Some unidentified marine (gyrene in "slanguage") asked a mate 
  in a foxhole, "Is that the straight skinny?" and it sounded 
  so natural that it took on. It is now part of the marine 
  ["Gyrene" is "GI" plus marine.]

The snippet was right to connect its popularity with the services 
but wrong to assume that it was created by a serviceman, or indeed 
recently. That's because it's known from slightly pre-war. In 1938 
Richard Hallet wrote in his autobiography, The Rolling World, "Had 
she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the 
archives of her race?"

As to what the unsung inventor, whenever or whoever he was, had in 
mind, there's little consensus. The most plausible suggestion was 
by Robert Chapman in his Dictionary of American Slang in 1997: that 
it comes from the normal meaning of "skin" but implying "the naked 

As matters stand, that's the best explanation we have.

5. Sic!
David Coe forwarded an alarming headline from his local newspaper, 
the Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, Florida: "Simms to get shot tonight". 
It referred to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterback Chris Simms, 
set to play for the first time in a year following an injury.

Following up the item last week on the advertisement offering an 
unused and "delusted" wedding gown, Paul Witheridge remarked, "This 
brings to mind the advert: 'Parachute for sale. Never opened. Used 
once. Small stain.'" A not dissimilar advertisement was spotted by 
Padmavyuha on the North Devon Freecycle site: "Bag of cat litter. 
Used once." They're frugal in North Devon.

Laurie Camion saw this in the Lancashire Evening Post of 12 August: 
"The man, who wore a Keffiyah type Arab headdress concealing his 
identity, pulled a 12 inch Samurai from his tracksuit bottoms and 
pointed it at the shopkeeper's face." They're making Japanese 
warriors small this year.

The ABC TV news in Perth last Sunday reported the closing of the 
historic Astor Cinema: "Less than 30 people filled the grand 700-
seat venue." Ted Witham comments that even in the current obesity 
epidemic that was a remarkable feat.

On a Belgian skydiving site, Elsi Dodge found another example of 
why one shouldn't use automated translation programs: "Our mission 
is to promote actively this sensational sport at ... companies 
which want incinerate their customers and employees in an original 

Laurence Horn reported on Wednesday: "Just now on NBC's Nightly 
News, a report on the Olympics-based ad campaigns mentioned both 
commercial products and the two presidential campaigns all seeking 
to appeal to the 30 million or so nightly viewers, then concluded: 
'That's a lot of eyeballs they won't have another bite at.'"

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