World Wide Words -- 2 Aug 09

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Aug 21 13:59:42 EDT 2009

WORLD WIDE WORDS          ISSUE 653         Saturday 22 August 2009
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: Ripsnorter.
3. What I've learned this week.
4. Q and A: Freelance.
5. Sic!
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B. E-mail contact addresses.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
BULLY PULPIT  Following this piece last time, Ron Hann asked about 
the use of "bully" to mean corned beef. The experts say that it is 
most probably from the French "bouilli", stewed or boiled meat.

CACTUS  In my snippet about the Australian expression last time, I 
noted that there were no native cacti in that country. John Weiss 
pointed out that the prickly pear had been imported from the US in 
the early 1800s as stock fodder but had become a serious invasive 
pest in New South Wales and Queensland by the latter part of the 
nineteenth century. It was so well known he feels the expression 
was most certainly native. Many Australians wrote to make the same 
point Rob Coates did: "Sometimes the single word 'cactus' is used 
but it's generally recognised to be a shortening of 'cactus 
fuctus'. This is said as a pseudo-Latin phrase to bring a touch of 
wry humour to an otherwise unfortunate situation. For example, a 
mechanic, after inspecting the starter motor in your car might 
announce 'No wonder it won't start, mate - this is cactus fuctus!'" 
(An alternative spelling with the "k" in place is also common, I 

MEATSPACE  I mentioned this geekish jargon word in another snippet 
last time. A number of readers asked whether it should have been 
"meetspace". To quote the invaluable Jargon File: "Meatspace: The 
physical world, where the meat lives - as opposed to cyberspace."

2. Weird Words: Ripsnorter  /'rIp,snO:t@(r)/
This delightful word from rural America, meaning something violent, 
extravagant, vigorous or a striking example of its kind, has become 
known everywhere that English is spoken:

    Just when you thought that every imaginable etiquette 
    question had been posed and answered, suddenly, from 
    nowhere, just when you're on holiday in the South of 
    France and at least 1,000 miles from the nearest 
    Debrett's or glossy-mag advice page, a real rip-snorter 
    leaps up and leaves you foundering, to wit: is it rude to 
    stare at a disabled dog? 
    [Giles Coren, writing in The Times, 1 Aug. 2009.]

Its first appearance, in 1840, was attributed to Davy Crockett ("Of 
all the ripsnorters I ever tutched upon, thar never war one that 
could pull her boat alongside of Grace Peabody"). But as it 
appeared in one of the series of almanacs bearing his name four 
years after he died at the Alamo, we must take the link with a 
large pinch of salt - as we must such other supposed coinages of 
his as "circumflustercated" and "scentoriferous", part of the 
largely fictitious mouth-filling, tall-talking vocabulary of 
mountain men that the almanacs almost single-handedly invented.

"Snorter" has had various senses that imply something is an extreme 
or remarkable example of its kind. To take one example, around the 
same time that "ripsnorter" appeared, "snorter" was applied to a 
particularly ferocious storm, a sense alluded to in the slightly 
opaque Crockett example that I've quoted. "Rip" is a pretty much 
meaningless intensifier, as it is also in words like "rip-roaring".

3. What I've learned this week
I've learned a new word: RUPESTRIAN from an item about a hotel in 
caves at Matera in southern Italy: "As you ascend, the environment 
becomes progressively less rupestrian until, at the very top, 
guests find themselves staying in something that's akin to a normal 
room." RUPESTRIAN is from the Latin word for a rock by way of its 
adjective "rupestris", meaning "found on rocks". There's some 
disagreement about its meaning. Oxford dictionaries firmly say that 
it refers to art done on rocks or cave walls but other dictionaries 
hold that it can also mean "composed of rock", as the writer meant. 
There are enough examples of this rather rare word to be able to 
say Oxford is wrong. The related "rupestral" is principally a term 
in botany for a plant that grows on rocks, though it can also refer 
to rock art.

An unlovely medical acronym greeted me on reading an article about 
eating disorders: EDNOS. It means "Eating Disorders Not Otherwise 
Recognised". The article concerned orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy 
fixation on healthy eating (see http:/

Martin Crim encountered PALEOTEMPESTOLOGY in an article in the New 
York Times on 13 August. It looks like a facetious formation, and 
indeed an article in the Orlando Sentinel of Florida back in 1998 
said that it had been generated "as something of a joke". But it's 
a serious, if recent, academic discipline, which studies past storm 
activity through the evidence of historical and geological records.

Another word that sounds like a witticism was pointed out by Janusz 
Lukasiak. It appeared in an online BBC story discussing the reasons 
for UNIPEDAL resting in flamingoes. Yes, it means standing on one 
foot. It isn't in any of the dictionaries I've consulted but it's 
clear from the evidence that it is a serious, if jargonistic, term 
of scientists, and is relatively common. My earliest example, which 
really was a joke, appeared in the 1829 book Constantinople in 1828 
by Charles MacFarlane. He wrote about the way in which women sat in 
Smyrna: "The 'received position,' even in company, is to sit with 
one leg on the sofa bent under them, and the other hanging over the 
edge." A visiting Frenchman, "who saw, for the first time in his 
life, this unipedal exhibition" of a seated row of women, asked if 
all the women in the city had but the one leg. Another example is 
in Principles of Abnormal Psychology by Edmund Conklin of 1928, in 
which he refers not only to unipedal and bipedal foot actions but 
also wrote, "The last two actions involved the use of the hands in 
both unimanual and bimanual activities." He could have written that 
the individuals sometimes used one hand and sometimes both, but 
this presumably wouldn't have been scholarly enough.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain performed at the Albert Hall 
in London at a late evening concert last Tuesday as part of the BBC 
Proms season (you should hear them play Beethoven). The orchestra's 
founder, George Hinchliffe, used the splendid UKULELEATOR for one 
of the many amateur players of the instrument who joined them for 
the concert. A nonce word, but fun:

    A feisty young lady named Baytor,
    At about ten pm, not much later,
      Had a bit of a ball,
      With her uke at the Hall,
    As an invited ukuleleator.

4. Q and A: Freelance
Q. A Web site says: "Freelancers can trace their job title back to 
Sir Walter Scott, who introduced the term in his 1819 novel, 
Ivanhoe. His 'free-lance' characters were medieval mercenaries who 
pledged their loyalty (and weapons) to lords and kings, for a fee." 
As a freelance translator my curiosity is aroused. Is this 
etymological story correct? Perhaps it could provide an entry point 
for one of your excellent articles. [Steve Dyson, Lisbon]

A. We are so used to being told that "freelance" did derive from 
medieval mercenaries in just this way that the story brings one up 
short disbelievingly. But it's correct. The word is not recorded 
before Sir Walter Scott introduced it in that book. 

This is its first appearance:

    I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and 
    he refused them - I will lead them to Hull, seize on 
    shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling 
    times, a man of action will always find employment.
    [Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819. "Free", of 
    course, means "unbound", not "without cost".]

It's one mark of the huge influence that Scott had in his lifetime. 
He has quite gone out of fashion these days but in his time he was 
a famous and widely read writer (Henry James later remarked that 
Scott had made the nineteenth-century English novel possible). He 
also invented the historical novel, of which Ivanhoe is a classic 

He's credited with either popularising or inventing many words and 
phrases, to the extent that he is marked as the first user of more 
than 700 in the Oxford English Dictionary and he lies third behind 
the Bible and Shakespeare in innovation in that work. He's recorded 
as the first user of, to take a few terms at random, Calvinistic, 
blood is thicker than water, clansmen, cold shoulder, deferential, 
flat (meaning an apartment), Glaswegian, jeroboam, lady-love, lock, 
stock and barrel, Norseman, otter hunt, roisterer, Scotswoman (in 
place of the older Scotchwoman), sick-nurse, sporran, weather-stain 
and wolf-hound. He also introduced his readers to many obscure old 
terms, especially from the Scots language and from chivalry.

There was a slightly earlier term, "free companion", which appeared 
in 1804 in a translation of the fourteenth-century chronicles of 
the French historian Jean Froissart about the Hundred Years War. 
Scott uses this, too, in the same book:

    A knight who rode near him, the leader of a band of 
    free companions, or Condottieri, that is, of mercenaries 
    belonging to no particular nation, but attached for the 
    time to any prince by whom they were paid.
    [Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.]

5. Sic!
Nigel Ross wrote: "I recently enjoyed a good cup of coffee here in 
Monterey, California, watching the sunset over the harbour. But I 
didn't enjoy the coffee shop's sign advertising 'Pastry's Do-nuts 
and Sweet Roles'!" Of course not. Surely the sweet roles are down 
the coast in Hollywood? [He took a photo, which is in the online 
version of this issue.]

The subheading over a story in last Sunday's Herald-Sun of Durham, 
North Carolina, got to Dick Gebhardt: "Many Outraged Guns Allowed 
in National Parks." He felt that guns with emotions are a step too 
far. The headlinese obscured the fact that it was people who were 
outraged because a bill signed by the president allows owners to 
take their guns into national parks.

In a case of "I know what you mean but it could have been better 
expressed", a report in the Midland Daily News of Michigan last 
Saturday noted that "Dr. Kamu Vigani, medical examiner in Oakland 
who does autopsies in Bay and other counties, determined the man 
died from accidental drowning following an autopsy at Bay Regional 
Medical Center." Thanks to someone I know only as Penny Nickle for 
sending that in.

On Monday, the New York Times had a story with the headline "DNA 
Evidence Can Be Fabricated, Scientists Show". Professor Chad Orzel 
pointed out on ScienceBlogs that the report said "Dr Frumkin is a 
founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed 
a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones that it hopes 
to sell to forensics laboratories." The plot thickens ...

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