World Wide Words -- 26 Nov 11

Michael Quinion wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Nov 25 14:36:08 UTC 2011

WORLD WIDE WORDS         ISSUE 764         Saturday 26 November 2011
Author/editor: Michael Quinion       US advisory editor: Julane Marx
Website:                ISSN 1470-1448

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1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Gobemouche.
3. Wordface.
4. Book Review: From Elvish to Klingon.
5. Sic!
A. Subscription information.
B. E-mail contact addresses.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
ERRORS  Many keen-eyed readers pointed out that The Sun's nickname 
should better have been written "Currant Bun" rather than "Current", 
since the newspaper has never been that electrifying (In 1999, the 
paper set up an online portal to give free access to its content and 
gave it the name The site is still registered to 
News International, but is no longer in use.)

Others told me that I had misquoted Mrs Thatcher. Anthony Massey of 
BBC News chidingly e-mailed thus: "The playwright Ronald Millar, who 
wrote this speech for Mrs Thatcher, came up with a neater turn of 
phrase. What she actually said was: 'To those waiting with bated 
breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only 
one thing to say: you turn if you want to.' (Pause for the laughter 
and applause that Millar expected and which duly occurred.) 'The 
lady's not for turning'. The relevant clip is, inevitably, on 
YouTube (you tube if you want to ...):"

Two readers queried the pronunciation that I gave two weeks ago for 
"siccity". On going to dictionaries of the nineteenth century, the 
most recent that included a note on how to say it, I found that they 
gave it as /'sIksItI/, roughly "sik-sity". I've corrected the 
website's piece.

BEAT  Many readers were surprised that the ancient parish ceremony 
of beating the bounds wasn't mentioned in the piece. In the days 
before maps, the only good way of keeping boundaries fresh in the 
minds of inhabitants was to make a regular formal circuit, stopping 
at key landmarks. Boys armed with willow or birch rods beat the 
landmarks to help them remember their importance. Sometimes the boys 
were themselves beaten to reinforce their memories. Though the 
ceremony no longer has any useful function it is maintained in a few 
places as a tradition. It is unclear to what extent, if at all, 
beating the bounds contributed to the idea of the regular beat of a 
police officer.

2. Weird Words: Gobemouche /gOb at muS/
English borrowed this potentially useful word from French about two 
centuries ago, though it has long since abandoned it again. A search 
of newspaper archives suggests that it's used nowadays merely as a 
rare word with which to stump contestants in US spelling bees.

The French continue to use it, hyphenated, for the bird that we call 
a flycatcher, appropriately so since it is made up of "gober", to 
swallow, and "mouche", a fly. In French it also means a credulous 
person who accepts everything said to him as the plain truth. 

Only the latter sense came over into English:

    These people are great gobemouches; they always report 
    the most incredible things.
    [Travels in the Great Desert of Sahara, in the Years of 
    1845 and 1846, by James Richardson, 1848.]

The inescapable image is of a naive individual thunderstruck by the 
world around him, perpetually open-mouthed in astonishment and ready 
to swallow whatever comes his way, whether flies or tall tales. This 
sense of the word is said to have been popularised in French through 
a play of 1759 by Charles Favart, La Soirée des Boulevards, which 
featured a character named Gobemouche.

It's tempting to see a connection between "gobemouche" and "gob", 
that infelicitous monosyllable which has been a British dialect and 
slang term for the mouth since the sixteenth century. The similarity 
is an accident of etymology, however, since "gob" is most likely to 
be from the Gaelic and Irish word for a beak or mouth.

3. Wordface
WORDS OF THE YEAR  Christmas has nearly come and dictionary makers 
have begun their annual trawl for the word or phrase that best 
characterises the months we have just lived through. First off is 
the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, whose British shortlist 
includes two terms that are new - ARAB SPRING and SODCASTING, the 
latter sounding ruder than it really is, since it's a play on 
"podcasting" and refers to somebody listening to music through the 
loudspeaker of a mobile phone while in a public place. The other 
three are not new but have taken on new importance or new meanings 
this year - OCCUPY (the international movement protesting against 
economic injustice, taken from "Occupy Wall Street"), HACKTIVISM 
(the action or practice of gaining unauthorized access to computer 
files or networks in order to further social or political ends) and 
PHONE HACKING (gaining unauthorized access to data stored in another 
person's phone). The winner, however, is SQUEEZED MIDDLE, a short 
form of "squeezed middle-classes", which was first used by former PM 
Gordon Brown at the Labour Party conference in 2009. It's that part 
of society that's regarded as particularly affected by inflation, 
wage freezes, and cuts in public spending during a time of economic 
difficulty. It's a mark of the global nature of the current economic 
meltdown that both US and UK editors of the OED selected this as the 
term that has had the greatest resonance in 2011.

NON-U  A term they might have included, though it hasn't gained the 
level of recognition of the others, is GENERATION U. This has been 
used for the "unretired generation", those who are staying in work 
when they might have retired. This year, it has shifted its meaning 
so that the "U" stands for "unemployed", in reference to what some 
are calling a lost generation of young people who are going from 
school into long-term unemployment without ever knowing work.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?  Did you see the story this week about the newly 
discovered orchid that flowers only at night? The piece about it in 
my newspaper listed other plants that flower similarly, including 
the night-blooming jasmine, the queen of the night cactus, and the 
MIDNIGHT HORROR TREE. This last one sounded like one to avoid, even 
more so after a search unearthed other names for it: the broken 
bones tree and the tree of Damocles. The last of these came about 
because of the metre-long curved seed pods high in the tree that 
resemble scimitars hanging over one's head. When they fall to the 
ground, they look like a pile of broken bones. Why midnight horror 
is less easy to work out, though perhaps coming across a pile of 
bones in the deep dark would be sufficiently frightening. Curiously, 
the tree - incidentally, pollinated by a bat - has long been known 
as an important medicinal source in Asia.

COUNTRY CLASSES  We've got used to PIGS, an acronym for the four EU 
countries with the most severe economic problems (Portugal, Greece, 
Spain and either Ireland or Italy, or sometimes both, making PIIGS). 
Then there's BRIC (the developing countries Brazil, Russia, India 
and China, though India hates being called "developing"), which is 
now often extended to BRICS to include South Africa. That country 
also appears in another acronym - CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, 
Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa, six countries with diverse 
economies and a young, growing population) - that the British press 
has popularised this week because of an official visit by Juan 
Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia. CIVETS was coined by 
Robert Ward of the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2009.

4. Book Review: From Elvish to Klingon
The history of invented languages ranges from the philosophical 
languages of the seventeenth century to modern creations linked to 
books, films and games.

The story of the international auxiliary languages such as Volapük 
and Esperanto - created with high moral purpose to aid communication 
between peoples lacking a common tongue - take up only one chapter 
of this book. The emphasis is rather on languages of various levels 
of completeness that have been created in the past century to add a 
sense of place and culture to creative works.

Some are long-established, such as J R R Tolkien's Elvish languages 
Sindarin and Quenya, well-developed tongues created by a linguistic 
scholar that are woven into The Lord of the Rings. George Orwell 
created Newspeak in his 1984, a regularised and pared-down English 
designed to make it impossible to even think anything that didn't 
conform to the beliefs of his dystopian state. In A Clockwork 
Orange, Anthony Burgess used Nadsat, an argot based on Russian, to 
characterise the worldview of the book's violent gangs. Followers of 
the Star Trek SF franchise will have encountered the Klingon tongue, 
originally a few phrases introduced to give colour but later worked 
up by Klingonists into a tongue in which it's possible to perform 
Shakespeare. A more recent case is Na'vi, the speech of the natives 
in Avatar. The development of computer games has led to several 
languages - mostly only partially developed - that include Gargish, 
D'Ni, Simlish, Al-Bhed and Logos, to help provide a flavour of the 
culture of groups being portrayed. 

Michael Adams's academic contributors offer a very mixed bag of 
eight chapters in which these and other languages are discussed in 
detail. The last, by Suzanne Romaine, takes a different line; she 
investigates natural languages that have been revitalised in recent 
times, including Hawaiian, Irish, Breton Cornish and Hebrew. She 
points out that to bring a dead or dying tongue back to daily use 
requires many decisions to be made, not least how it should be said 
and spelled and how words for aspects of modern life - aircraft, 
telephones, antibiotics - should be created. The potential for 
splittist factions who compete to gain ownership of a language is 
always present; Cornish has several, which led in 2004 to the county 
offices in Camborne trying to accommodate all parties by using four 
different spellings of the Cornish word for welcome in different 
places within the building. Trying to build the consensus essential 
for widespread take-up of a language in such circumstances is very 

This work will give readers with a serious interest in invented and 
revitalised languages a good grounding in the issues involved. If 
you would prefer a more popular approach, Arika Okrent's In the Land 
of Invented Languages ( may be more to your 

[Michael Adams [ed], From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented 
Languages; Oxford University Press; published 24 Nov. 2011; pp294, 
including index; ISBN 978-0-19-280709-0; publisher's UK price 

Amazon UK:      GBP7.14 
Amazon US:      US$12.14 
Amazon Canada:  CDN$16.68 
Amazon Germany: EUR15,99 
[Please use these links to buy. They get World Wide Words a small 
commission at no extra cost to you.] 

5. Sic!
A widely syndicated Associated Press story dated 16 November (Gerry 
Zanzalari saw it on the Drudge Report) had the headline: "Blast at 
South Lebanon Hotel popular with UN Staff."

I didn't know the University of Colorado was that old," commented 
Jeff Brandt about a story of 14 November from the Alaska Dispatch: 
"The buckle ... was found inside an excavation of a 1,000-year-old 
Inupiat house that had been dug into a beach ridge at Cape Espenberg 
by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder."

On 21 November, a story in the New York Times (noted by Jim Conroy) 
stated that "Cities like Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and San Juan, P.R., 
have started to fly to Havana in recent months." 

Gordon S Jackson was reading a syndicated column on the environment 
in The Spokesman-Review of Spokane on 14 November. It reported "A 
novel scheme to repel mosquitoes and combat the diseases they spread 
with lasers is being funded by the world's second-richest man (Bill 

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