A piddling bit of language

The New York Times is never caught short.

Here’s today’s intro:

Everyone knows violent crime goes up in the summer.

Temperatures rise, tempers flare.

But it’s also high season for several seemingly innocuous activities that could earn you a summons:

• Drinking alcohol in public – in parks, on stoops, on the street. Including in your car.

• Public urination. The law prohibits spilling “blood, swill, brine, offensive animal matter, noxious liquid, dead animals, offal, putrid or stinking vegetable or animal matter or other filthy matter” in public areas.

Such euphemistic terms go back to the earliest English Common Law, with prohibitions on any form of “public nuisance” that the prevailing morality didn’t like.

The New York City rules, specifically Article 153 on Littering and Disposal of Refuse (which is the origin of that Times quotation above), continue and come heavy on any

person [who] shall allow any such matter to run or fall into any street, public place, sewer, receiving basin or river, any standing or running water or into any other waters of the City as defined in §145.01.

Which must make flushing the toilet a potential offence.

This all-purpose prohibition seems to date from before AD1240 and to have been formulated in the time of Edward II in the form of “purprestures”.

What? You don’t immediately grasp that term from Norman French? Allow the OED to assist:

an illegal enclosure of or encroachment upon land or property belonging to another or (now only) to the public; an appropriation of land or property for private purposes. Purpresture often affects roads, public waterways, etc., or, esp. in the earlier period, royal, manorial, or common lands. In that period the offence was often not prosecuted but instead a rent was levied …

The OED reckons that post-classical Latin porprestura , proprestura , purprestura [meaning] encroachment is frequently found 1086–1539 in British sources.

So, if the bladder’s under pressure, bear in mind the purpresture.

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1 Comment

Filed under Law, New York City, New York Times, Oxford English Dictionary, reading

One response to “A piddling bit of language

  1. In extremis: find a ginnel, jennel, gennel, gynell, twychell, twichell, twitten, jigger, snicket, jitty, gitty, gulley, entry, chares, ghauts, opes, shuts, wynd, pend, vennel, cuttings, 8-foot, 10-foot, passage, alleyway, lane, close or steps.

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