[lit-ideas] Words

  • From: Julie C <juliereneb@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 13 Nov 2010 11:18:54 -0600

Apologies for forwarding -- my c & p was not cooperating appropriately.
 This one is worth it.

Julie Krueger

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Michael Quinion <wordseditor@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 11:23 AM
Subject: World Wide Words -- 13 Nov 10
To: WORLDWIDEWORDS@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

WORLD WIDE WORDS        ISSUE 712         Saturday 13 November 2010
Editor: Michael Quinion             US advisory editor: Julane Marx
Website: http://www.worldwidewords.org               ISSN 1470-1448

     A formatted version of this e-magazine is available
     online at http://www.worldwidewords.org/nl/gfqv.htm

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  For a key to phonetic symbols, see http://wwwords.org?PRON

1. Feedback, notes and comments.
2. Weird Words: Backronym.
3. Wordface.
4. Q and A: From cellar to dome.
5. Review: Virtual Words.
6. Sic!
A. Subscription information.
B. E-mail contact addresses.
C. Ways to support World Wide Words.

1. Feedback, notes and comments
SHELLACKED  Marshall Earl suggested how the word might have moved
from hair lacquer to being drunk: "I would think it more likely
that this usage is related to the fact that shellac dissolves in
alcohol. Note also that under Prohibition (1920-1933), one of the
few legal usages of alcohol was as a solvent." I was dubious about
this to start with, but mentioned it on the mailing list of the
American Dialect Society. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported that he
had unearthed references to shellac being used in Prohibition-era
alcoholic concoctions. He even found a reference to a "shellac
drunk" in The Advertiser of Montgomery, Alabama, of 14 July 1922.
The article noted: "It is said that the habitual drunkard, when he
cannot get whiskey, must have alcohol of some kind. To obtain this
they have been known to purchase pure shellac in large quantities,
and give it the blotter treatment. This consists of dipping the
blotter in the shellac, withdrawing it and squeezing the blotter
into another receptacle. The blotter will absorb the alcohol. From
observation of the case mentioned above, the shellac drunk is
anything but a pleasant experience." It would seem that the origin
of the "drunk" sense of "shellacked" is now as well established as
any slang term can be.

Giles Watson found via Google Books a reference in Wood Coating:
Theory and Practice by Franco Bulian and Jon Graystone that "lac"
came from "lakh" - strictly a hundred thousand but used less
precisely for an indeterminate but large number - in reference to
the many insects that were needed to produce any quantity of the
resin. However, Marc Picard found that the French have a different
view of the link: "According to the Dictionnaire Historique de la
Langue Française, it was due to the pullulation [the fast-breeding
nature] of the cochineal insect."

2. Weird Words: Backronym
A backronym (sometimes "bacronym") is a reverse acronym. To create
one, you take a word that isn't an acronym and turn it into one.

Some backronyms are designed as mnemonics. A classic example is the
Apgar score for testing the health of newborns. It was named after
the American physician Virginia Apgar but to help student doctors
and nurses remember the system, it has been changed to the acronym
"Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration". Similarly,
the US Amber Alert programme is said to mean "America's Missing:
Broadcast Emergency Response", though it was actually named after a
missing child, Amber Hagerman.

Backronyms are frequently humorous - Microsoft's Bing, some quip,
is actually an acronym for "Because It's Not Google"; world-weary
sailors say "navy" really means "Never Again Volunteer Yourself".
Many of this type are actually reinterpreted acronyms, included by
courtesy in the backronym collection because nobody has yet come up
with a different "-nym" for them. For example, NTSC, the American
television standard, became "Never Twice the Same Colour".

Others are folk etymology: "posh" doesn't stand for "Port Out,
Starboard Home" (see my piece: http://wwwords.org?PSHA). "Wiki",
the Hawaiian word that turns up in such sites as Wikipedia, doesn't
mean "What I Know Is". "Golf" wasn't created from "Gentlemen Only
Ladies Forbidden". SOS doesn't stand for "Save Our Souls" or "Save
Our Ship", or indeed anything at all, since it was chosen as a
particularly memorable and easily recognised Morse code sequence.

Meredith Williams, in an entry to a competition in The Washington
Post on 8 November 1983, seems to have coined "bacronym", as a
portmanteau of "back" and "acronym". Previously, lexicographer Ben
Zimmer tells me, the form was called, somewhat cumbersomely, a
"prefabricated acronym" or a "reverse acronym". "Backronym" was
popularised in July 1994 by another contest, in New Scientist,
though "backronym" was then said to be a reinterpreted acronym,
neither the original nor the current principal sense.

3. Wordface
CYBERSPEAK A curious English neologism, GELIVABLE, has been in the
news this week. It originated in two Chinese characters which mean
"giving power", which has become an Internet buzzword that means
something cool, fantastic, awesome or exciting. It's written as
"geili" in Pinyin, but to match the way it is said in Chinese it
has been transcribed in English as "geli". Then it was turned into
an adjective by adding the suffix "-able". It has also reached
French, as "très guélile", so cool. Its opposite, "bugeili", for
something dull or boring, actually came first, because it appeared
earlier this year in an episode of a Chinese-dubbed Japanese comic

SCIENTIFIC WORD INVENTION  As a further illustration of a new word
invented by scientists (see the book review below), there's HOGEL.
A blend of "holographic pixel", it's one element of a hologram and
can be thought of as the 3D equivalent of a pixel. It is newsworthy
because researchers at the University of Arizona have reported in
Nature that they have succeeded in creating holographic video that
may one day form the basis of telepresence systems. The word is
first recorded at least as long ago as 1995, as it appeared that
year in a report of a conference held in Japan.

4. Q and A: From cellar to dome
Q. I came across this in an American article: "Buyers must exercise
their right to carry out a total inspection of the property, from
the cellar to the dome." I've never heard this phrase used except
for quoting the lyric of Let A Woman in Your Life from My Fair Lady
- "She'll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome." Does
it have any other origin or wider usage? After all, how many homes
have domes? [Thomas O'Dwyer]

A. I've looked into this as thoroughly as I can, but have to admit
failure. I can tell you a little more about the expression, but not
where it comes from. Nevertheless, it's worth discussing because it
was once moderately common and yet has escaped the notice of the
compilers of reference works.

Some information is easy to obtain. It is almost exclusively an
American expression (one example appeared in a New Zealand paper in
February 1926, but as it was about a Lon Chaney movie, He Who Gets
Slapped, it may have been a syndicated piece from an American
source). It has turned up most often in contracted form, either as
"from cellar to dome" or less commonly as "from dome to cellar".
Its heyday was between 1900 and 1920, though known earlier, and it
still appears from time to time, showing that it hasn't yet quite
vanished from popular memory. This is the most recent that I've

   The staggering opulence of the show ... could easily
   be conveyed to the reader by simply estimating the number
   of gold karats that encrust every gallery, wall to wall,
   floor to ceiling, cellar to dome.
   [Santa Fe Reporter, 14 Jan. 2003.]

And this is the earliest I've so far found:

   The governor opened the gates to the infuriated
   rabble, whom it were madness to resist. In ten minutes,
   the huge castle swarmed from cellar to dome; the armory
   was ransacked, and the park of artillery seized.
   [The Court of Napoleon, by Frank Boott Goodrich,

It's clear that even then it had become a fixed phrase. As you say,
it implies a grand building, not domestic architecture. Its origin,
whatever it is, surely lies further back in time. Clearly enough,
it borrows from the existing idea of "from head to foot". But what
its origin might be baffles me.

5. Review: Virtual Words by Jonathon Keats
From gene foundry to crowdsourcing, from memristor to copyleft, new
words pour out of science and technology: because they continually
generate concepts that need descriptors. Jonathon Keats writes the
Jargon Watch column for Wired Magazine and so is better placed than
most to discuss our evolving technical language. In Virtual Words,
he supplies 28 essays about a selection of these terms.

He begins with "cell", one that is so fundamental to the study of
the living world that few people stop to think about the image
behind it. But its creator, or rather the person who first applied
it to the concept - for the word was already in existence - was the
eighteenth-century scientist Robert Hooke; examining a slice of
cork under the microscope he saw a structure of tiny compartments
that reminded him of the rooms of monks.

Modern scientists, to the surprise of non-specialists who shallowly
stereotype them as dour seekers after truth, exhibit a delightful
playfulness in coining new terminology. Nowhere is this more clear
than in the quantum world. Take, for example, the six quarks (a
term borrowed from Finnigan's Wake): up, down, top, bottom, charm
and strange. Other members of this exotic particle zoo include such
postulated particles as the gluon, which glues the quarks together,
and the axion (named after a US brand of toilet cleaner, Mr Keats
tells us, in the hope it would clean up some of the mysteries of
quantum, though the authorities say boringly that it's really from

Other essays focus on terms such as "Anthropocene", "steampunk",
"lifehacker", "exopolitics" and "tweet". In each case the word is a
springboard for describing the background and diving into linked
concepts. The oddest essay title is "(-///-)" (catalogue that,
librarians), which leads to a discussion of emoticons, of which his
title is an example said to refer to blushing, as well as related
typographic fun.

In a complicated chiasmus, he remarks, "The language of technology
and science illuminates the science and technology of language."
That interconnectedness is well brought out in this book.

[Jonathon Keats, Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and
Technology; Oxford USA; ISBN 978-0-19-539854-0; hardback, pp175;
published 14 October 2010; publisher's list price $19.95.]

Amazon UK       GBP8.44    http://wwwords.org?VWLST4
Amazon US       US$13.57   http://wwwords.org?VWLST7
Amazon Canada   CDN$15.85  http://wwwords.org?VWLST2
Amazon Germany  EUR14,99   http://wwwords.org?VWLST5

6. Sic!
Jack Lilley e-mailed from Australia last Saturday that he had found
an advertisement for "Ultra Violate Water Sterilisation", in the
Bendigo Weekly of Victoria.

"It's remarkable how versatile they are in making machines these
days," e-mailed John Chapman. He had found an ad on the Dorset
"Waste-not-want-not" recycling website: "OFFERED: Dell All-in-one
printer and trouser press."

Is a "sofaliser" like a couch potato? I wondered this on receiving
a report from Scott Langill of its use in the Daily Telegraph on 8
November: "There is even an army of 'extreme sofalisers' - the
three per cent who spend a staggering 25 hours or more each week
talking to friends via electronic devices." Ah! "Socialisers"!

"What stamina these aged Devonians have!" e-mailed Irene Johnson in
response to an item in the Daily Telegraph of 6 November: "Tar
barrels race under threat. Participants have enjoyed the custom of
running through the streets of Ottery St Mary, in Devon, carrying
flaming tar barrels on their backs for more than 400 years."

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