World Wide Words -- 24 Apr 04

Michael Quinion TheEditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Apr 23 19:07:35 UTC 2004

WORLD WIDE WORDS           ISSUE 389         Saturday 24 April 2004
Sent each Saturday to 19,000+ subscribers in at least 120 countries
Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK      ISSN 1470-1448
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1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Turns of Phrase: Neuromarketing.
3. Weird Words: Donnybrook.
4. Noted This Week.
5. Q&A: Darby and Joan.
6. Sic!
7. Q&A: For Pete's sake.
A. Subscription commands.
B. Useful URLs.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
SILVER BULLET  Following last week's piece on this term, several
subscribers suggested that the current sense may have come about
through a mental association with the very similar "magic bullet".
This is known from about 1938 to mean some drug, usually as yet
undiscovered, that will be the perfect cure for a specific disease.
This link seems reasonable, as Dr Erlich's Magic Bullet, a film of
1940 (Edward G Robinson in the title role) about the work of German
scientist Paul Ehrlich to find a cure for syphilis, was presumably
responsible for the large rise in the number of examples of "magic
bullet" that appeared in American newspapers that year. This was
not long before "silver bullet" started its shift towards its
current meaning of a magical solution to a complex problem. Thanks
to everyone who commented. A revised version of the piece will be
at at about 9 o'clock on Saturday morning,
my time.

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES  Subscribers in the USA may like to know that
Lynne Truss's book of this title, reviewed in World Wide Words in
December, has now been published there by Gotham Books, an imprint
of Penguin Books USA. See my review at or
order from on .

2. Turns of Phrase: Neuromarketing
The sciences of the brain have made vast advances in the past two
decades. A new generation of scanners has made it possible to see
what's happening inside it while it's working. The most potent of
these new technologies is "functional magnetic resonance imaging",
"fMRI" for short, which takes a series of snapshots of brain
activity; it's capable of showing moment by moment what thoughts
are going on in the brain when a person undertakes some task,
perhaps looking at a picture or listening to an audio soundtrack.
The fMRI technique is a valuable research tool, but it's creating
ethical issues for some neuroscientists, who worry that it may be
possible to use it to unlock private thoughts and emotions. It is
suggested that the technique might provide insights into what
people think about when they are considering buying some product, a
close relative of "neuroeconomics" (see ).
At least one US company is already using the technique to show
companies what people think of their products and television

>>> From Newsweek International, 22 Mar. 2004: Neuromarketing could
be useful in finding out how a consumer experiences a product. For
instance, does the brain respond first to the crunching sound of a
candy bar, or to its flavor? Neuromarketers are still exploring
exactly what kind of information they can tease out of test
subjects with questionnaires and fMRI scans.

>>> From the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1 Feb. 2004: Gary
Ruskin, of Commercial Alert, doesn't buy the pitch that
neuromarketing will help people. "I think they're spinning faster
than a drill bit," he said. "It's plain old market research taken
to a new and potentially more damaging level."

3. Weird Words: Donnybrook
A scene of uproar and disorder; a heated argument.

We are in Ireland, in what was once a village on the high road out
of Dublin but which is now one of that city's suburbs. King John
gave a licence in 1204 to hold an annual fair in Donnybrook.

By the eighteenth century it had become a vast assembly, held on
August 26 and the following 15 days each year, a gathering-place
for horse dealers, fortune-tellers, beggars, wrestlers, dancers,
fiddlers, and the sellers of every kind of food and drink. It was
renowned in Ireland and beyond for its rowdiness and noise, and
particularly for the whiskey-fuelled fighting that went on after
dark. A passing reference in, of all sober works, Walter Bagehot's
The English Constitution of 1867, gives a flavour: "The only
principle recognised ... was akin to that recommended to the
traditionary Irishman on his visit to Donnybrook Fair, 'Wherever
you see a head, hit it'." The usual weapon was a stick of oak or
blackthorn that Irishmen often called a shillelagh (a word which
derives from the town of that name in County Wicklow). The legend
was that visitors to Donnybrook fair would rather fight than eat.

As Donnybrook progressively became a residential suburb of Dublin,
the fair became more and more a nuisance until a campaign was got
up to have it closed; in 1855 the rights to the fair were bought up
by Dublin Corporation and it was suppressed. It was around that
time that its name started to be used to describe a brawl, at first
in the form "like Donnybook fair" but then elliptically.

4. Noted This Week
BLUESNARFING  This term refers to a technique by which an intruder
can bypass the security on some Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones to
download the contents of address books and other personal data. The
major manufacturers have claimed this is a "far-fetched" scenario,
but are reported now to acknowledge that some models are at risk.
The term was coined by Adam Laurie of the security firm AL Digital,
who wrote a paper about the problem back in February.

HOMOPARENTISM  Words are awkward things, as New Scientist has
discovered. It reported this week on an announcement in Nature that
a mouse has been born by genetic manipulation that involved only
eggs - no male cells were involved. The question is, what do you
call this process? (That's not a trivial question in a rapidly
evolving field in which you need precise terms so you know what's
being described.) "Cloning" isn't right, as that refers to the
creation of an offspring genetically identical to its single
parent, but the mouse is a combination of the DNA of its two female
parents. The Japanese researchers who created it called the process
"parthenogenesis", but that word is already used to mean the
creation of an individual from a single unfertilised egg (many
species are capable of breeding in this way, though not mammals),
not a conjoined pair of eggs. New Scientist came up with
"homoparentism", which sounds like a good term, if you take "homo-"
to mean "same". The trouble is that its adjective "homoparental"
already exists in English. It was coined in French and is defined
in Le Petit Larousse as relating to "the exercise of parental
rights by two persons of the same sex living as a couple".

DISGUSTINGNESS  Jay Rayner, a restaurant reviewer, remarked in the
Observer last Sunday that one day a chef "will create a menu of
such unutterable awfulness, such unspeakable disgustingness, that
it will justify the use of a word like 'disgustingness' that does
not actually exist." The OED records "disgustingness" from 1851,
though I've since found an example from 1829. Don't give up the day
job just yet, Jay ...

5. Q&A
Q. Who were Darby and Joan? My dictionary tells me that they were
"a devoted old couple, characters in a poem", but did they actually
exist or were they fictional? I'm assuming their devotion was to
each other (as opposed to a religion or building model aeroplanes),
but does this mean that a Darby and Joan club is about old couples,
or merely, as I have always assumed, about old people? [Peter G.
Millington-Wallace, Denmark]

A. In the UK, "Darby and Joan" is still a way to describe an
elderly and mutually devoted married couple who live a placid and
uneventful life, often in humble circumstances. There are many
Darby and Joan Clubs, so named, in various parts of the country,
social clubs for pensioners, which hold dances and other events.
The name is indeed strictly a misnomer, since the clubs are for all
pensioners, not only married couples. The term has long been used
to evoke an image of companionship in old age, as Henry James did
in The Golden Bowl, "Their very silence might have been the mark of
something grave - their silence eked out for her by his giving her
his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and
unitedly together, like some old Darby and Joan who have had a

Many modern references are linked to a once-popular song of 1890,
words by Frederic Weatherly and music by James Molloy, whose title
was Darby and Joan, a song supposedly sung by Joan:

  Darby dear we are old and grey,
    Fifty years since our wedding day.
  Shadow and sun for every one,
    as the years roll by.

(Incidentally, it was once quite usual for wives to refer to their
husbands by their surnames, even in private.)

But the expression is certainly older than that - it turns up in
the middle of the nineteenth century in works by Thackeray,
Melville and Trollope. A "comic divertisement" entitled Darby and
Joan; or The Dwarf was performed at the Royalty Theatre, London,
according to an advertisement in the Times on 1 February 1802;
there was a new dance of the same title, which was "received with
loud and general plaudits", according to the issue of the same
newspaper dated 26 May the previous year; in June 1801 the
newspaper reports that a ballet of that title was being performed.
So by 1800, the phrase was already widespread.

But we must go even further back: Samuel Johnson mentions a ballad
about Darby and Joan in the Literary Magazine in 1756. This is
almost certainly the one that appeared in the issue of the
Gentleman's Magazine for March 1735. It was written by Henry
Woodfall and had the title The Joys of Love never forgot. A Song;
one verse reads "Old Darby, with Joan by his side, You've often
regarded with wonder: He's dropsical, she is sore-eyed, Yet they're
never happy asunder." The Oxford English Dictionary describes these
verses as "mediocre" and comments, "This has usually been
considered the source of the names, and various conjectures have
been made, both as to the author, and as to the identity of 'Darby
and Joan', but with no valid results."

However, the Dictionary of National Biography disagrees and is
quite specific about the origin. It says that Henry Woodfall had
been apprenticed to John Darby, a printer who lived in Bartholomew
Close in the City of London (Woodfall was later a well-known person
in London - he became the printer of the Public Advertiser in
Paternoster Row and he was appointed as master of the Stationers'
Company in 1766). John Darby had died in 1730 and the DNB says
Woodfall wrote the ballad to commemorate his late employer and his
wife Joan.

6. Sic!
Jane Edwards encountered this intriguing item on the Web site of an
Australian school: "Garments worn under shirts or dresses must not
be visible. Students wearing visible undergarments (eg. T-shirts,
skivvies, shorts under dresses) will be asked to render them

A realtor's advertisement in the April issue of the Ewing Observer,
a monthly newspaper for Ewing Township, New Jersey: "This home is
in top condition and won't last long!" As the ad also appeared in
the March issue, it seems to be holding up quite well. (Thanks to
Elizabeth Carter Grissom for passing this on.)

A job ad appeared recently in Kirsty Powell's local pub: "Required:
person to come in twice a week to wash dishes, and two waitresses."

This alarming account of confused amorousness appeared on the CNN
Web site on Thursday, where Geoff Natham spotted it: "Sharka, a
two-ton white rhino, got amorous with Dave Alsop's car when he
stopped with three friends to take pictures of the animal mating
with his partner Trixie at the West Midland Safari Park." (For the
full story, see .)

7. Q&A
Q. I was wondering if you can shed any light on "for Pete's sake".
A very interesting explanation was given on a TV show, which
attributed it to Michelangelo requesting funds for St Peter's.
[Wayne R Zeides, USA]

A. Alas, that's a classic example of folk etymology. Not only has
the speaker invented a story to explain a puzzling expression but
he hasn't any feeling for history, or indeed geography. There is,
for example, the annoying small fact that Michelangelo spoke a
dialect of Italian and that we have to account not only for the
phrase getting from Italy to (presumably) England, but for its
swapping languages at least once along the way. There's also the
problem that the expression isn't recorded before the 1920s, so
where has it been in all the centuries in between? About the only
thing he got right was that Michelangelo did work on St Peter's.

Pardon my irritation! It's easy to show such stories are nonsense,
albeit usually well-meaning attempts to explain the inexplicable,
but it's often hard to put anything sensible in their place. After
all, these tall tales very often grow up because conventional
scholarship has failed to find out the facts.

In this case, we're not totally without ideas. The clue is that
another version of the exclamation is "for the love of Pete", which
seems to be slightly older (it's recorded in print from 1918). In
turn that reminds us of "for the love of Mike", which is older
still, from the 1880s. This last expression seems to have been a
euphemistic cry to replace "for the love of God", which is known
from the early eighteenth century as an irritated exclamation. It
looks very much as though at some point around 1918, for no clearly
discernable reason, Pete joined Mike as the person to invoke when
you were impatient, annoyed, frustrated or disappointed in someone
or something, both men being stand-ins for the God that it would be
blasphemous to mention.

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