Category Archives: Oxford English Dictionary

Hillary and Trump beneath the Upas tree

The prolificly-mischievous George Steevens perpetrated one of his literary hoaxes, allegedly translated from the diary of a Dr Foersch, a (fictitious) Dutch surgeon, in Java. He invented  the upas-tree:

Erasmus Darwin, physician and scholar, a figure of some standing in botanical science and the author of several botanical works including The Loves of the Plants (1789), was another of Steevens’s victims. The London Magazine for December 1783 (pp. 511–17) carried Steevens’s description of the upas tree of Java which could kill all life within a distance of 15 to 18 miles, his source being an entirely fictitious Dutch traveller. Darwin was taken in and admitted the upas tree into his Loves of the Plants, from which Coleridge derived information…

That from the Dictionary of National Biography.

Once invented, the upas-tree had a life of its own, and became a metaphor for deadly power and influence. Southey had it, perhaps as the first, as the punch-line of Thalaba the Destroyer:

Enough the Island crimes had cried to Heaven,
The measure of their guilt was full,
The hour of wrath was come.
The poison burst the bowl,
It fell upon the earth.
The Sorceress shrieked and caught Mohareb’s robe
And called the whirlwind and away!
For lo! from that accursed venom springs,
The Upas Tree of Death.

Byron reckoned that Thalaba the Destroyer was one of Southey’sunsaleables, but that didn’t get in the way of borrowing the Southey reference in Childe Harold, Canto the Fourth (verse CXXVI):

Our life is a false nature — ’tis not in
The harmony of things, — this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew —
Disease, death, bondage, all the woes we see —
And worse, the woes we see not — which throb through
The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new.

Our modern Upas

… is the toxic media.

  • We have it in the tabloid press (the British version might seem uniquely venomous, but — sadly — not).
  • We have in the shrill populist excess that is Fox News.
  • We have it, in excelsis, in the vowel evacuations of the shock-jocks.
  • Above all, it is the proliferation of web-sites and social media even further beyond the pale than Breitbart.

In this dispensation, anything short of vitriol is soft-soap.

How many times in recent weeks have we encountered hand-wringing despair such as this from Paul Waugh:

No one is pretending that either Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are perfect or all-wise, far from it. As the two candidates with the most negative poll ratings in history, the voters seem to be choosing which is their least worst option, via the least worst form of government. Here’s just one example: Trump’s repeated lies are well documented (a Newsweek reporter last night tweeted 100 of his worst ones, from business to politics to even fibbing about his golf score). And yet he polls ahead of Clinton for honesty. For many voters, their loathing of Hillary outweighs their distaste for Trump.

Today’s edition of The Guardian was a fine effort, with several articles of enduring worth. For now, I’ll stick with the First Leader:

… the only alternative to Mrs Clinton is Donald Trump. It needs to be said again, at this fateful moment, that Mr Trump is not a fit and proper person for the presidency. He is an irascible egomaniac. He is uninterested in the world. He has fought a campaign of abuse and nastiness, riddled with racism and misogyny. He offers slogans, not a programme. He propagates lies, ignorance and prejudice. He brings no sensibility to the contest except boundless self-admiration. He panders to everything that is worst in human nature and spurns all that is best.

Fear and Loathing revisited

Beyond the valid charges made by The Guardian, Trump is a prime example of a media creation, a thing spawned by his own monomania. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and a politician.

And therein lies the difference.

Clinton still works within accepted patterns, professional disciplines, of behaviour. When use of a private email is a crime, we are all guilty. Every one — especially a successful, practising political operator — has their “private channels”.

Trump, though, is a fraud, a bully, a liar.

He is poison.

But he survives this far by anti-toxin imbibed from long sojourn under the Breitbart/Fox upas tree.

So I am reminded of the fable Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin generated from the upas tree:

Deep in the desert’s misery,
far in the fury of the sand,
there stands the awesome Upas Tree
lone watchman of a lifeless land.

The wilderness, a world of thirst,
in wrath engendered it and filled
its every root, every accursed
grey leafstalk with a sap that killed.

The king sends a slave to collect the poison:

He brought the deadly gum; with it
he brought some leaves, a withered bough,
while rivulets of icy sweat
ran slowly down his livid brow.

And, mission accomplished, the slave expires.

The king now uses the poison:

The king, he soaked his arrows true
in poison, and beyond the plains
dispatched those messengers and slew
his neighbors in their own domains.

If Trump beats the odds, he too is capable of such savagery.

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Filed under Byron, Comment is Free, Guardian, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, United States, US Elections, US politics

Ooh, You Are Awful … But I Like You!

I’ll defend the Oxford English Dictionary to my last breath as one the highest achievements of British learning and literature.

It would be my Desert Island Discs book. (If that was forbidden, it’d have to be Howard Spring’s Fame Is The Spur.)

Even so, the OED has its irritations. Here’s what I found when I looked up tenterhooks:

the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held

Wasn’t that helpful?

As for the rest:

tenter, noun:

A wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking. Also †a pair of tenters (Obs. rare) and in pl. form tentersFormerly tenters of the length of a web of cloth stood in rows in the open air in  tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts; but the process of drying and stretching is now generally done much more rapidly in  tenter-houses by tenter- or tentering-machines.

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Tiffy

Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:

My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.

I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):

61iw6i0bbyl-_sx425_I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.

Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.

The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:

And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.

But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:

Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.

The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:

The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.

The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.

The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.

But what about “engineer”?

The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:

A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.

Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.

The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.

Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:

51utcgazigl-_sx425_Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.

Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):

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Filed under folk music, History, Johnny Cash, Literature, Music, Oxford English Dictionary, railways, reading, United States

“Theresa May’s honeymoon is masking her many vulnerabilities” — Andrew Rawnsley

Now the silly season is over (except in Labour Party elections), Rawnsley is back, bright and bushy-tailed. However he starts with a journo’s dissimulating mock-stutter:

I have been trying – so far, I confess, without success – to discover who minted the phrase “political honeymoon”. It is a strange expression: marriage is rarely an appropriate metaphor for a country’s relationship with its leader. It describes an odd quirk of electorates. The public tell pollsters that they are most enthusiastically in favour of a leader in his or her opening period in office, precisely the time when voters know least about the person who has just taken charge.

If we must look only at the two-word cliché, I’d suggest referring to the numerous histories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He could, of course, have simply looked up the expression, though that might have bust his word-limit. On which, may I selflessly advocate the local borough library. Get a library card (today it’s just another of those debit/credit card shapes that fill our wallets) and use its number to log on to the on-line resources. My standbys are the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of National Biography. Now, if only I could equally access, for free, the untold wealth of JSTOR

With the OED we find a healthy history of how the “honeymoon” metaphor evolved:

1.a. The period immediately following marriage, as characterized by love and happiness. Later also: a period of love and happiness at the beginning of a similar relationship. Now chiefly with reference to the ending of such a period. In early use also without article.

Let’s pass over that swiftly, except to note the cynical Now chiefly with reference to the ending of such a period.

We move on to:

b. An initial period of friendly relations, goodwill, or enthusiasm. Freq. in political contexts. Now chiefly with reference to the ending of such a period.In early use also without article.

Hello! Something of interest there already! The earliest citing for 1.a. is 1546, in John Heywood’s collection of English proverbs, or rather (since the 16th century never did anything concisely — though this being the 1562 “second edition”):

A dialogue conteyning the number of the effectuall prouerbes in the Englishe tounge, compact in a matter concernynge two maner of maryages. With one hundred of Epigrammes, and three hundred of Epigrammes vpon three hundred prouerbes; and a fifth hundred of Epigrams. Wherevnto are now newly added a syxt hundred of Epigrams, by the sayde John Heywood.

“Honey moon”, then was current before the mid-sixteenth century — which may say something about the English conceit of “romantic love”

Then we see, again from that OED entry, that it had pretty soon become a metaphor Freq. in political contexts. The third citation under 1.b is explicitly political:

1655    T. Fuller Church-hist. Brit.  iv. 158   Kingdoms have their honey-moon, when new Princes are married unto them.

Which we can acquire on-line.

Just that citation was used by  for The Washington Times, reflecting (18 November 2008) on the election of Barrack Obama:

… my attitude towards the president-elect is utterly dissimilar to what I experienced on my real honeymoon. I didn’t chose him, I don’t trust him (if he knows of me he doubtlessly reciprocates such sentiments), and I don’t look forward to a long relationship with him.

The only part of the metaphor I can relate to is the bit about “comparing the mutual affection of newly-married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane.” By my calculation, that means that the honeymoon will be over by December 4th. In fact, already, my positive passions are feeling rather “wane.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary the early references to the political honeymoon metaphor start in 1655 (Fuller): “Kingdoms have their honeymoon, when new Princes are married unto them”; 1795 (Burke) “Spain, in the honey-moon of her new servitude”; and 1867 (Goldwin, Smith) “The brief honeymoon of the new king and his parliament.” In each of those early examples, the circumstances of the honeymoon are mandatory, begrudging and short. I think Burke’s best catches the moment (“the honey-moon of her servitude”).

Since that is the Washington Times (i.e. the voice of Sun Ayung Moon‘s Unification Church), rather than the other daily newspaper, one of record and respect, from DC, we can pay as little regard as we can.

Except, then, Blankly’s reputation has not enhanced as Obama’s has. Yet Blankly (deceased, mainly to be recalled as Speaker Newt Gingrich‘s public organ) does come up with a decent point:

It is curious how the sexual metaphor – with all its ambiguities – is often used in politics.

I’d guess Blankly is referring precisely to “political honeymoon”, but were we to consider just how often sexual expressions get used in political contexts, wow! there is can of worms.

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Filed under Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, Oxford English Dictionary, politics, Tories.

Persistent mondegreen

I had to check on the term’s origin. Sylvia Wright in Harper’s, November 1954, gets the credit (this by courtesy of the OED):

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

If you can’t get past the pay-wall for that, you’ll find it’s also related — very wittily — by  in a back-copy of the New Yorker. She notes that “mondegreen” is itself a recursive mondegreen.

Her definition continues:

Hearing is a two-step process. First, there is the auditory perception itself: the physics of sound waves making their way through your ear and into the auditory cortex of your brain. And then there is the meaning-making: the part where your brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance. That was a car alarm. That’s a bird. Mondegreens occur when, somewhere between the sound and the meaning, communication breaks down. You hear the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain doesn’t interpret it the same way. What’s less immediately clear is why, precisely, that happens.

The simplest cases occur when we just mishear something: it’s noisy, and we lack the visual cues to help us out (this can happen on the phone, on the radio, across cubicles—basically anytime we can’t see the mouth of the speaker). One of the reasons we often mishear song lyrics is that there’s a lot of noise to get through, and we usually can’t see the musicians’ faces. Other times, the misperceptions come from the nature of the speech itself, for example when someone speaks in an unfamiliar accent or when the usual structure of stresses and inflections changes, as it does in a poem or a song. What should be clear becomes ambiguous, and our brain must do its best to resolve the ambiguity.

I find that good stuff. My attempt would be a mondegreen is the acoustic equivalent of the way we bewilder ourselves with optical illusions:

image

The difference, of course, is that such images are deliberate, whereas the true, the blushful mondegreen is self-inflicted and unwitting embarrassment.

What prompted this today was — as so often — iTunes in the background. And I found myself grunting along and, five years later, doing it again.

My Irish Leaving Certificate French, barest Pass, and already a couple of years ossified, only ever parsed that lyric from AM radio or off the Dansette. So, back in days of starry-eyed romanticism, I sang along with Françoise Madeleine Hardy:

 Tous les garcons et les filles d’ Montmartre …

Only later (as a previous blog-post confessed), aided by modern technology and now a decent pair of AKGs, does the full truth re-emerge:

Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age
Se promenent dans la rue deux par deux.
Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age
Savent bien ce que c’est d’etre heureux,
Et les yeux dans les yeux,
Et la main dans la main —
Ils s’en vont amoureux.

What has got me —

(in a way that Salvador Dalí would understand, as a persistence of mistaken memory)

dali

— is I’m still mumbling along with the mondegreen.

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Filed under Music, New Yorker, Oxford English Dictionary

A farrago revisited

I think this is the third occasion I’ve had to point this out.

Today BBC2’s Daily Politics featured the unspeakable Nigel Farage. I was musing that Andrew “Brillo” Neil was giving the unspeakable an easy ride, when he concluded with that business between Ben Bradshaw and David Cameron over the unspeakable’s poncey pronunciation:

Neil then invoked the Oxford Dictionary’s expert, who got herself off the hook by saying the Dictionary didn’t include proper names per se. Since the unspeakable isn’t a vacuum cleaner or a move in ice-skating or an Irish land-agent involved in evictions he isn’t yet an eponym.

Yet far(r)age is in the OED. And here it comes:

Farrage

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Filed under Andrew Neil, BBC, David Cameron, Oxford English Dictionary, politics, reading, UKIP

Spurtle

This about sums up my morning:

Spurtle

The Lady in my Life was affronted and offended I didn’t recognise a spurtle, when one was waved in my face.

Oddly enough, nor does the spell-check here, which keeps “correcting” to spurt.

The OED shyly admits being at a bit of an etymological loss. It speculates a connection from spartle, which connects to spatula, which is an anglicising of spatule, which is a vamp on spatula. Which all looks like very hard work.

Whereas a spirtle is a little spurt.

And a thieval? Which the spell-check renders serially and unhelpfully as thieves. Ah, yes: here  we enter another OED morass:

In form, thῑvel seems to correspond to Old English þyfel ‘bush, leafy plant’, but no links of connection between this and the modern sense have been found. In its various current forms the word is in use from N. of Scotl. to S. Lancashire, W. and E. Yorkshire; this localization suggests a Norse origin, and it has been referred to Old Icelandic þefja /ˈθɛvja/ ; but this is a very rare word of doubtful standing, and in any case meant ‘to thicken by beating or stamping’ rather than ‘to stir’. The actual Old Norse name for a stirring-stick was þvara, between which and thivel there is of course no connection.

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