Irritable what syndrome? My friend Michael Quinion points out that Dr Gerald Lincoln, a researcher at the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh, has come to public notice in Britain by coining the phrase irritable male syndrome – presumably on the analogy of “irritable bowel syndrome”. Dr Lincoln claims that men of any age who suffer stress can experience sudden drops in testosterone level, making them bad-tempered, nervous, or easily reduced to tears – and that’s irritable male syndrome. In other words, they become what we used to call “grump old men”. But now everything has a clinical explanation, and irritable male syndrome is now the ready-made medical excuse for good old-fashioned grumpiness. The doctor proposes that testosterone replacement therapy may restore men to their usual state. But how would you tell? (Since having the irrits is pretty normal for a lot of blokes.) And now the blokes can match PMT with their very own IMS – irritable male syndrome.
While we are on phrases formed along these lines – a friend of mine is fond of describing the New Zealand accent as consisting of irritable vowel syndrome (think of “fush and chupps” and you’ll know what he means!)
Your / his / her truth Recently in the letters page of the Daily Telegraph there was a whole column devoted to words the readers would like to see banished (a subject dear to the heart of this website). Readers wanted to give a good long rest to over used and tired expressions such as “these uncertain times”, “empowered” as an excuse for bad behaviour and calling someone playing a sport “heroic” or “brave.” But one letter in particular caught my eye. Here it is in full: “For goodness sake can people stop using the term ‘speak your (his/her) truth’?” Well said. Truth came into English (in the days of what we used to call Anglo Saxon and now call Old English) as a word inherited from even older Germanic languages. It’s a word that was used by King Alfred (he who defeated the Danes and burned the cakes) so it’s very old indeed. Built into the bones of this word truth is the idea of honesty and faithfulness—if a statement is honest and faithful to the facts it is true. So it’s not “your truth” or “my truth” it’s just the truth, the objective truth—that’s what being faithful and honest to the facts means. These false expressions people use these days “your (his/her) truth” come from the notion that “there is no such thing as objective truth.” The problem for that claim is that it is self-defeating. The statement that “there is no such thing as objective truth” is a statement that claims to be objectively true. This is clear if well spell out the unexamined (unstated) assumption being made in this way: “(it is an objective truth that) there is no such thing as objective truth.” In other words, it is self-defeating. Just by making the claim that “there is no such thing as objective truth” the speaking is proving that there is—proving that objective truth exists. Therefore—your (his/her) truth is both untrue and pointless. What matters is what is objectively true… what is faithful and honest to the facts (as the old Anglo Saxons would have said). This mistake about there being some sort of “personal truth” not based on objective truth is not just a bad use of words, it is dangerous and undermines the very foundations of society, of all communication, and all relationships. The sooner such expressions are banished the better!
Singlish A few days ago I wrote about Hinglish—the form of English spoken in India (combining of bits of Hindi mixed into English). I thought I should follow that up with a note on Singlish—the form of English used in Singapore. Singlish is defined as the informal, spoken Asian English indigenous to Singapore. Many Singaporeans are multi-lingual and speak Singlish as a second language to Standard English or Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Standard English grammar rarely applies to Singlish. Grammatical endings, tenses, plurals and the definite article are ignored for the most part, allowing for a more direct, rhythmic discourse. “Oh lah” is a common sentence ending in Singlish in which “lah” adds emphasis and conveys a sense of agreement. The sound of Singlish is somewhat sing-song and the diction is cut-down (an influence from Chinese and Malay). Some familiar English words are used in special ways in Singlish. For example, “arrow” can be used to mean “To be charged with an unwanted task. For example: ‘Today I leave work early, otherwise I get arrowedto write statistics report for my boss.’” In Singlish “auntie” and “uncle” become polite terms for older ladies and gentlemen, who are not necessarily real aunties or uncles. The word “Blur” is used to describe someone who is confused: “Five times I show you the way to my house, and still you cannot find it. Why so blur?” Or: He so blur like sotong. Cannot understand question, cannot give answer.” (“Sotong” is the Malay word for octopus and also means “confused” (since the octupus’s ink is cloudy and blurs the water). Some English words are simplified—so that “serious” is pronounced as “sirrus.” Clearly Singlish is a colourful part of the whole family of English languages.
Supply chain The hot bit of language at the moment as got to be “supply chain.” This is a 20thcentury expression, recorded from 1903. The Oxford English Dictionary’s official definition of “supply chain” says: “the chain of processes involved in the production and distribution of a commodity.” The earliest use of “supply chain” was military and referred to the routes or means by which the supplies for a military force are received. That makes “supply chain” an expression of the idiom that “an army marches on its stomach.” (Often attributed to Napoleon—for which there is no evidence: it is more likely to come from Frederick the Great who is quoted by Thomas Carlyle as saying that “an Army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly.”) This whole issue of being dependent on a “supply chain” is a characteristic of the modern world. In ancient times a village might be self-sufficient—growing all its own food, making all its own clothes, and producing everything it needed for everyday life. There may well be parts of the Third World where this is still the case. But we live in a world of total interdependence—a tendency that I have seen pushed during my lifetime. For example, there were once productive and profitable citrus orchards on the central coast of New South Wales. I have seen these closed (and the land bought up for new, highly profitable, housing developments) while at the same time discovering Californian grown oranges in my local supermarket. And given the mass-spread of the Omicron variant of Covid the lunacy of government health orders along the lines of “lockdown / isolate / stay-at-home” start to become apparent. One journalist claimed recently that absenteeism in the Australian workforce is running at around 10%; and he quoted a Treasury official as saying that if it reached 15% the whole economy would grind to a halt. You cannot build a world based on “supply chains” (as the western world has done since the industrial revolution) and then insist that every truck driver and shelf-stacker who tests positive stay at home for a week. The so-called “supply chain” issue is just governments not being able to think through the consequences of their actions. As James Morrow wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “This will continue until someone in government tests positive for leadership!”
Signs of the times “Semiopathy” is the reading of odd, or humorous or inappropriate meanings into signs. In the book Weird and Wonderful Words Erin McKean tells the story of the man who saw a sign next to an escalator saying “Dogs Must Be Carried” – and since he wanted to go upstairs he hurried off to find a dog to carry. Another fine example is the sign “Slow Children Crossing”. It makes you wonder where all the quick children go to cross the road. Or the one I’ve seen on emergency exits: “This Door Is Alarmed”. It makes you want to pat the door gently and say “Calm down, everything will be all right.” The name for this sort of bizarre misreading is “semiopathy” (although perhaps the really bizarre behaviour is in the people who write signs like that in the first place). According to the book, “semiopathy” was first reported (and the word coined) in the “Feedback” section of New Scientist magazine.
Hinglish David Crystal is a University of Wales professor who’s written over 40 books on linguistics – and David Crystal is now predicting that Hinglish could become the most widely spoken and dominant language on the planet. Hinglishis Indian English and comes from the collision of English and Hindi. Already 350 million Indians speak Hinglish – and the population is growing by 3% a year (against 1% in the US and UK). David Crystal said: “with Indians at the forefront of the IT revolution, Hinglish will soon become the most common spoken form globally.” Hinglish has a quaint, almost old-fashioned, formality in which people offer “do the needful”, police “nab” their man, “miscreants abscond”, youths engage in “tomfoolery” and politicians say their opponents speak “balderdash”. Hinglish is spiced with Hindi words, like “pukka” for real, “jungli” for uncouth, “chappals” for sandals and “chuddis” for underwear. If David Crystal is right, then a world dominated by Hinglish will certainly be colourful.
How many words? A reader of this website emails to ask how many words there are in the English language. The short answer is that nobody knows for sure. A standard concise desk dictionary will have around 50,000 headwords – the big ones much more. Webster’s Third New International has around 450,000 headwords and the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 615,000 – and the third edition (available online) is expanding all the time. But these two lists don’t entirely overlap – in fact they have less than two thirds of their headwords in common. That means that together, their combined list would exceed three-quarters of a million. And they are not exhaustive. The Global Language Monitor, an Austin, Texas based linguistic consultancy, claimed there are exactly 999,060 words in the language at the moment – and the one million mark should be past this year. This website won’t run out of words to watch for a while yet!
Skin of your teeth Why, a reader wants to know, do we talk about someone escaping by the skin of their teeth since teeth don’t have skin? Good question. This is one of the countless expressions the Bible has contributed to the English language. The Geneva Bible, published in 1560, was a literal translation of the original Greek and Hebrew text, and was the Bible that Shakespeare knew and quoted. It refers to poor old Job escaping with (not ‘by’) the skin of his teeth. But that still doesn’t explain what this ‘skin of teeth’ is. Looking further back into the history English it appears that the lips were sometimes referred to as ‘the skin of one’s teeth.’ So, in a close shave, in which the blade very nearly sliced off the lips, one could be said to have escaped ‘with the skin of one’s teeth’. That is, with the lips still where they were supposed to be: in the middle of the face.
Recombobulation area Discombobulated means being confused or disturbed or upset or disconcerted. And one process that’s quite likely to discombobulate you in this way is the elaborate process of getting through the security screen process at an airport. In fact, it can be so discombobulating that it would be nice if there was, on the far side of the security screening place, an area where you could get your shoes back on and all the metal things you own back into your pockets and so on… before you rush off to your departure lounge. Well at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee there is just such an area – and they call it the recombobulation area. The source word (discombobulate) is first recorded in the US in 1834 – apparently cobbled together as a fun word to describe an upset or disturbance. This new word – recombobulate – is so new it appears not to exist anywhere outside of… well, Mitchell International Airportin Milwaukee.
Single whammy My colleague Luke Grant has drawn my attention to the word “whammy” – his point being that when something hits us in a two or three ways it gets called a “double whammy” or (even worse) a “triple whammy.” But, asks Luke, is there any such thing as a “single whammy”? Good question. The answer is: originally there was! The word “whammy” is of American origin and originally meant “an evil influence or hex.” It’s first recorded with that meaning in 1940. But from the 1950s inwards the word was put into wider circulation by Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip, which featured a character called “Evil Eye Fleegle” and his speciality was putting the “whammy” on people. And when “Evil Eye” went at really hard his intense, powerful stare didn’t just hit ‘em with a “whammy” but with a “double whammy” or even a “triple whammy”. And that appears to be the origin of the expression we have today.
Americanisms I receive a steady trickle of emails complaining about “Americanisms” creeping into Australian speech. So let’s warn you against a few of them. In Australia the military rank lieutenant is LEFT-tenant. Only in America is it LEW-tenant. And lieutenants order strikes with missiles not missuls. The path to travel in Australia is a route (ROOT) not a ROWT. We fill our cars with petrol, not gas. And we follow a schedule (SHED-ule) not a SKED-dule. And if you have pre-schoolers who watch Sesame Street you have to carefully correct their pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet from ZEE to ZED. (You’ll find other observations in the Q and A page of this website. That said, I don’t think Aussie English is being “swamped” by Americanisms. In fact, I think, on the whole, Australians are selective about which bits of American speech they choose to use – and Aussie English remains vigorous and healthy. Furthermore, Aussie sayings are creeping into American speech, so it’s a two-way street.
Al desko There is a new name that has been given to those colleagues who insist on each lunch at their desk. You know the people I mean – the ones who leave biscuit crumbs, dollops of marmalade, and a smell of stale sandwiches around their desk. Sometimes they re-heat last night’s lasagne in the office microwave and make everyone else feel hungry. Anyway, there is a new title that has been given to this desk dining – it is now called: eating Al desko. It is (obviously) a playful pun on the word alfresco – the Italian word for open air dining. Al fresco literally means “on the fresh” – in other words, out in the fresh open air. The term al fresco first migrated into English from Italian back in 1764. And now there is this other option. When asked, “What you are doing for lunch today?” you can now reply, “I’m very busy, so I’ll be eating al desko.”
Banished Words 2022 Since 1976 Lake Superior State University has released an annual list of “ Banished Words”—words that in recent days have been so over used they are worn out and tired and should be put out to rest and not heard for a while.This year’s list has just been released—and here it is:
1. Wait, what? This is used to express disbelief, or to say that the user has failed to understand your message. Apparently this is being massively over used in texts and on social media.
2. No worries. This is used instead of saying “your welcome” or something of that sort. Americans are being bothered by it because they don’t want to be told not to worry. What amuses me is that this is an Australian expression that we exported to the US, and it seems to bother them in a way that it doesn’t bother us! It’s recorded here from 1967. The earliest citation is from Jack Hibberd’s play White with Wire Wheels.
3. At the end of the day. This is complained about as being vague and meaningless. Lots of issues don’t end when the day ends. And what is meant by the expression “day” here anyway? Is the end of the day when the pandemic goes away? Or when the election results come in? An empty expression.
4. That being said. A familiar English idiom that is now being used as verbal Spackle—as a filler, a bunch of words to fill a space, but adding nothing.
5. Asking for a friend This is used by someone who has a problem but wants to pretend that it’s not their problem. They ask what can be done about teeth that go black (or whatever) and then tell you they are “asking for a friend.”
6. Circle back. They say this is one of the most over-used phrases in debates and discussions business or government (with the idea of going back over familiar ground). Nearly as bad, they said, as “synergy” which is just smarty pants puffery.
7. Deep dive. This should only apply to plunging into water—not into a discussion or a subject or a book. And we don’t need “deep” since no one dives in at the shallow end!
8. New normal. A Covid word. If it’s new it’s not normal, and if it’s normal it’s not new. It’s been around since 1922, although only common in the 21stcentury. And what it really means is something that is NOT normal—that is atypical or unfamiliar.
9. You’re on mute. Meetings have switched to Zoom—and when they including a deafening silence even though someone’s mouth is moving, that person has to be told “You’re on mute.”
10. Supply chain. Whenever we run out of anything these days we’re told that its because of a “supply chain” problem. That is the excuse for anything. It’s a buzzword and a useful scapegoat.
Well, there they are—the “Banished Words” of 2022.I think it’s a great list. But what is missing? If anything else should be there send me a note through the contact page of this website and I’ll publish your suggestion.
AmnicolistHere’s our “Weird Word of the Week”: amnicolist. It means “one who dwells by a river”. It appears in Dr Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language (published in 1755). One of the reasons this quaint old word appeals to me is that among my favourite books is Kenneth Graham’s classic The Wind in the Willows. In that book Water Rat, and, indeed, most of the characters, are amnicolists. Ratty, of course, lives right on the river bank, which is why he makes his famous statement that there’s half so pleasant as just “messing about in boats”. But Mole’s home can’t be very far from the river, and Toad Hall seems to abut the river as well. Only Badger’s home in the Wild Wood is well away from the water. But on the whole, The Wind in the Willows contains more characters who are amnicolists than otherwise. A delightful bunch of characters – and a delightful word.
Swamped? Shortly before Christmas demographer Bernard Salt wrote a column for the magazine section of The Weekend Australian in which he lamented that the Australian language is being swamped by Americanisms. So this is a follow-up to yesterday’s article about the Australian language, and asks: is it under threat? Salt claimed that he noticed changes to the Australian accent: “To my ear, the pronunciation of Melbourne has changed, and quite recently too. When I was a kid it was pronounced Mel-bun, whereas today to Mal-bun. Sydney has collapsed to Sinny, a shift that is being led, I think by the locals.” Both his observations are correct, but neither is new. They have both been around for a very long time. For twenty years (at least) people have been pointing out to me that Melburnians reverse “EL” and “AL” sounds. Clive Robertson complained to me many years ago that Melburnians collect CD el-bums not al-bums and that if “Ellen” married “Allan” in Melbourne everyone would be confused as to how to pronounce the couple’s names. As for Sinny—that was coined by Alistair Morrison (under his pen name of “Professor Afferbeck Lauder) back in 1965 for his book on Strine. These things are not new, and are well established parts of the Australian language. He also complained about the Americanised pronunciation of his own name from Bern-udd to Bern-ARD. Well, he may be right about that, and he has my sympathy. But Australians still spell “colour” with a “U” and (in general) our language is not being swamped by Americanisms. The truth is that American English is having an impact on every dialect of English around the world. As long ago as 1922 the great Henry Fowler complained about the American influence on English. But we not being swamped. Australians pick and choose which American expressions will be useful to them, and discard the rest. Despite the influence of American media we still have chemist shops not drug stores, and we still fill our cars with petrol not gas. Salt goes on to worry that “with the birth of AUKUS and the rotation of more American troops in the Top End, we will see a fuller integration of American and Australian culture.” He’s fears are unnecessary. In the 1960s huge numbers of American troops spent time in Sydney during the Vietnam war (on “R and R”—“rest and recreation”) and the result was the export of Australian expressions to American instead of the other way around. Bernard Salt simply does understand either the history or the strength of the Australian language. He writes: “For the better part of 200 years Australia projected British language, pronunciation and culture.” This is simply untrue. As Bruce Moore has shown in his book Speaking Our Language, and as I explain at length in my book The Story of Australian English our distinctive language came into existence surprisingly early. There is evidence that by the 18320s (only 50 years after the founding of the colony) the Australian language had its own distinctive accent and vocabulary. So, stop worrying Bernard—Aussie English is doing well, and is not being swamped by anyone!
The Australian Language A few weeks ago I had an amiable disagreement with one of the regular correspondents on this website. Jim tried to persuade me that there is no such thing as “the Australian Language.” He wrote: “People talk about ‘the Australian language’ as if there was such a thing. Pressed, they'll point to the use of Aboriginal words to describe Australian subjects. Perhaps they’ll point to convict slang, or words like ‘strollout’ to account for some matter of current interest. But a language is an ecology, not a geography.” Jim’s mistake is to imagine that unless a language is a totally foreign language then it’s not another language at all. However, that is not how language works. A language as rich, as global, as complex as English is (in fact) a collection of different linguistic strands called “dialects.” David Crystal, the great lexicographer, wrote a history called The Story of Englishes—because that’s what exists… a collection of related languages, with shared components, and a common history, but each its own distinctive linguistic identity. For example, the form of English spoken in Singapore is called “Singlish” (I have a very good little Singlish dictionary on my shelves). In India there is a variety of English called “Hinglish.” And in the United States they have their own distinctive linguistic identity called “the American language”—a title bestowed by the great H. L. Mencken in his definitive 1919 book called The American Language. The great Sidney J. Baker did something similar for our own distinctive dialect with his book The Australian Language (1966). When British novelist Philip Hensher was reviewing Tim Winton’s novel Breath in the British weekly The Spectator he wrote: ‘Australian English must be the most consistently inventive and creative arm of the language.’ And then he added: ‘I would rather be shipwrecked with a good dictionary of Australian slang than with any other reference work.’ Linguist Michael Quinion, in his review of Gerry Wilkes’s A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms, describes Aussie English as ‘a colloquial language unlike any other’. This is because, he writes, Aussie English is influenced by ‘the cant and slang of criminal transportees … the dialect of immigrants’ home areas … contact with many Aboriginal languages … a characteristically sardonic sense of humour and an enviable ability to turn a phrase in a moment’. So, we can conclude that the Australian language is as bright as a box of budgies and as strong as a Mallee bull.
Offence archaeology This is the practice of going through the social media history of a public figure to find offensive or embarrassing things they have said in the past. This expression “offence archaeology” was drawn to my attention by 2GB’s Luke Grant. Many millions of social media users at one time or another have posted something that someone, somewhere will be offended by. And, since the Internet is forever, you can bet an offense archaeologist is digging into it, particularly if you are a public figure. According to the Urban Dictionary this involves: “Examining the digital past of a contemporary public figure in order to unearth any statements that might be offensive to the ruling class. These offenses are best presented devoid of context or intent, which maximizes the potential for self-righteous virtue signalling among the people who are pretending to be outraged.” But offense archaeology isn’t reserved solely for celebrities. Anyone who has ever posted on social media is a potential target. The late Sir Roger Scruton was a distinguished English philosopher who specialized in traditionalist conservative views. He became a victim of offense archaeology after he was appointed to advise the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as the unpaid chairman of a new public body to champion beautiful buildings. The offense archaeologists—who are notably left-wing—began digging. Politically incorrect phrases were unearthed, torn from their original context, and passed around like a shame file. Sir Roger was also one of the most brilliant, articulate, and wide-ranging intellectual figures in the English speaking world—a man of intelligence, sensitivity, and political courage. In the 1980s, he worked tirelessly and at great personal peril behind the Iron Curtain to help those fighting against the totalitarian jackboot of Communist tyranny. Which made his attackers appear ridiculous to everyone but themselves, but not, alas, any less virulent.” But where so many other victims of offense archaeology eventually apologize for past statements, Scruton did not, but he did resign from the body to which he was appointed. Offence archelogy wins again. That is the ugliness of the world we live in.
Like The Economist ran an article about the over use of the irritating word “like”, except that—strangely—the magazine didn’t seem all that irritated. The article made the point that “like” is used by the younger generation as what is called a “discourse particle.” That means it just a small bit of language used to hold a sentence together. Which is fair enough. But it is the way it’s used that can become annoying. The so-called “Valley Girls” from the San Fernando Valley in California are supposed to have started the craze by saying such things as “It’s like five miles away…” or “He’s like a consultant…” These are vague and pointless uses of the discourse particle. Sometimes “like” is used to introduce a quote. That gives us such deathless prose as “She was like ‘You can’t do that, and I’m like “Yes, I can.’” This is not normal English construction. (That use of “like”, by the way, was popularised in Australia by the character of Kylie Mole played by Mary-Anne Fahey on the Comedy Company show.) This use of “like” is sometimes thought to go back to the Beatnik era of the late 1950s and early 60s—the days when Maynard G. Krebbs, played by Bob Denver on The Doby Gillies Show, was saying things along the line of “Like, wow, man.” We all of us use some discourse particles from time to time such as “so”, “but”, “then” and others. The problem with like is that it appears to be like the only discourse particle this younger generation knows and so it is like used over and over and over again. I suspect they’ll grow out of it as they grow older
Part and parcel 6PR’s Tod Johnston asked me for the origin of the expression part and parcel. Well, this is an odd sort of tautology, not uncommon in English—a double expression where both words mean much the same thing. “Parcel” means the sort of thing the post office delivers (called a “package” in the US)—and it just means a quantity of something. So you could have a “parcel” of land, for example. “Part” serves a very similar purpose, it helps us to talk about a quantity of something—e.g. the quantity of something that we have is not the whole of the toilet roll, it’s just what’s left, a “part” of the toilet roll. The Oxford defines part and parcel as meaning: “An integral part of a larger whole”—and with this meaning it’s been around since 1463. So there’s nothing new about this. Michael Quinion, on his World Wide Words website explains the expression like this: “part and parcel is a tautology, since both words in effect mean the same thing. English loves this kind of doublet: nooks and crannies, hale and hearty, safe and sound, rack and ruin, dribs and drabs. Many derive from the ancient legal practice of including words of closely similar meaning to make sure that the sense covers all eventualities: aid and abet, fit and proper, all and sundry. Part and parcel is a member of this second group — it appeared in legal records during the sixteenth century. We use it to emphasise that the thing being spoken about is an essential and integral feature or element of a whole.” To which I would add that the reason it has survived for so long is because the English language seems to like these groups of words that have either alliteration (starting with the same letter) or rhyme. The sounds and the rhythms must just appeal to the ears of English speakers, because so many phrases built on that sort of construction have survived as part of our language for so long. So, there you are Tod, and old expression, and a good one.
“Mis” / “Dis”—information In the confusing world we live it can be helpful to spell out the difference between “misinformation” and “disinformation.” Basically, the difference is this—“disinformation” is a lie, it is straight-out falsehood invented and spread in order to deceive people; “misinformation”, on the other hand is a falsehood repeated by someone who believes it, it is someone passing on information they have heard, not knowing it to be a lie. Here is a simple example. The bushfires of 2019-2020 were called “unprecedented.” They were not. There were many earlier bushfires that were far worse. To take just one example, the “Black Saturday” bushfires in Victoria in 2009 were far worse: they killed 173 people (in 2019-20 bushfires 34 people died). Now 2009 was only ten years before 2019—you would expect journalists to either remember or at least check the newspaper files. This appears not to have happened. Instead, news report after news report kept repeating this false, untrue word of “unprecedented.” How can that happen? It happened mainly because people kept on repeating a falsehood on the mistaken assumption that it was true. That is “misinformation”—passing on something false which the person who repeats it mistakenly believes to be true. But is started somewhere. Someone, somewhere, invented this falsehood—invented this lie. That is “disinformation.” That is deliberately trying to mislead, and deceive. For what it’s worth, here’s my theory: “misinformation” is far more common than “disinformation.” Most people unthinkingly, and uncritically, just repeat what they’ve heard. They don’t check the facts, they just repeat the fiction. So, when false, or distorted, or misleading or deceptive information is flying around the world it’s source is likely to be 1% malice and 99% stupidity.
Happy Holidays There has been a push on for some time now to replace the normal Christmas greetings of this season with the rather limp and pallid expression “happy holidays.” This vapid and meaningless expression was born in America (first recorded in the Philadelphia Enquireron December 5, 1863). It is odd that it should come from the United States which has been a culturally Christian nation for so long. In the 20thcentury it was enthusiastically adopted by those who wanted to pretend that Christmas did not have Christian roots. And nothing makes this clearer than this day—Boxing Day. This odd name for 26 December comes from an old English tradition in which a box containing a gift was handed out to servants or the needy. The tradition required that the village squire and his family would, on the day after Christmas, box up the left over Christmas food and goodies, and distribute these among the village poor. In other words, This is, and always has been, about Christian charity. For some reason there is an aggressive secularist/atheist movement in the world today who want to deny the origins of our culture, and of such significant parts of our culture.
Christmas Day The Bible doesn’t actually tell us the date on which Jesus was born. So Christians who want to celebrate his birth had to pick a date, and what they picked was 25 December. In other words, Christmas Day is a bit like the Queen’s Official Birthday. The Queen was born in April but her ‘official birthday’ is celebrated in June (in Australia). In much the same way, the early Christians didn’t know Jesus’ actual birthday, so they picked a day to be his ‘official birthday.’ It was back in the year AD 440 that this day was picked. And it was chosen because it was close to the date of the winter solstice, 22 December. That’s about the time when the sun reaches its most southern point and starts swinging back to the north. So in the northern hemisphere it was the mid-point of winter. From the solstice onwards the days started slowly getting warmer and longer. Now that’s not a bad thing to celebrate: which the ancient pagans did with a big party. When those pagans became Christians they said: ‘Hey, let’s keep out mid-winter party, and use it to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.’ Maybe not in exactly those words, but that was the idea. And that’s how the date for Christmas Day was chosen.
Christmas gifts Just as you are trying make sense of the odd Krissy Kringle gift you got his year at a social event, (or as you’re rushing out to buy that last minute gift for someone near and dear to you) let me explain that the habit of exchanging gifts at Christmas can be traced back to the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus and the gifts they bought of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This happened some months after the birth of Jesus (they didn’t turn up on the same night as the shepherds, despite the pictures on Christmas cards). This expression “wise men” translates the word “magi”, meaning mathematicians, astronomers and/or astrologers—roughly the ancient equivalent of scientists. They sought out the infant Jesus because they were (to use a popular phrase) “following the science.” They were non-Jews, or Gentiles, and their visit symbolizes the fact that the arrival of Jesus was good news for all people, everywhere—not just the people of Israel. The exact number of these visitors is not given in the Bible, but it’s often assumed there were three of them because they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is familiar enough and probably symbolizes Jesus status as a king and the descendant of kings. But the other two are more unusual. Frankincense was a whiteish-yellow aromatic resin that used in anointing priests. So its inclusion in this list of gifts probably symbolizes Jesus’ priestly role. Myrrh is a resin from a tree native to the Arabian deserts and part of Africa. It was valued for aromatic and medical properties. Myrrh was offered to Jesus as a mild pain-reliever when he was being crucified. So its inclusion in this list of gifts probably symbolizes the fact that this child was born to die a special death and significant death. Jesus understood this and described himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John’s gospel, chapter 10, verses 14-15). Jesus’ rescue mission consists of him dying our death, suffering our punishment and purchasing our forgiveness.
Hygge Following up from yesterday’s weird word, here’s another—hygge. It is Danish in origin, and it became hugely popular in Britain during the Covid lockdowns. But I suspect it is still not well known here. I guess you first question (even before you ask the meaning) is: how do we pronounce this odd looking word? Well, you should say: “h-you-gar”. Or if that is a bit difficult just “hoo-gar” will do. So, now that we can say it, what does it mean? Basically it means “comfort”—which is why it was such a popular concept during lockdown. Here is the official Oxford English Dictionary definition: “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being; contentment from simple pleasures, such as warmth, food, friends, etc.” I am drawing this word to your attention now because it seems to me to be a good quality to pursue during the Christmas season. Meik Wiking, the author of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, says that hygge has been called everything from “the art of creating intimacy,” to “coziness of the soul,” and even, “cocoa by candlelight.” In his book, Wiking explains that you know hygge when you feel it, but that some of the key ingredients are togetherness, relaxation, indulgence, presence, and comfort. “The true essence of hygge is the pursuit of everyday happiness and it’s basically like a hug, just without the physical touch,” he says. There’s a sense in which this idea of hygge works in family (Christmas) situation when we do the best we can to be relaxed and kind and thoughtful, but at the same time don’t try to hard to make everything work perfectly. Accepting imperfection and just getting on with people and getting on with life is probably part of what makes hygge work. So, what do you think of this Danish word?
Desuetude From time to time I like to tell you about (or perhaps remind you about) rare words in our language. These are words that have been around for a long time, are very rarely used, but have a delightful, almost magical air, about they are words that I like to challenge to work into conversation occasionally. And this is one of them. Desuetude means “passing into a state of disuse” and takes us into the higher realms of the English language. Research shows that most people have a “reading vocabulary” which is anything from four to ten times the size of their “spoken vocabulary”. Desuetude is likely to be one of those – recognised, but not spoken. Perhaps we should make an effort to speak such words more often. As in: “The notion that shop assistants are employed to provide us, the customers, with assistance has fallen into complete desuetude.” The idea behind the word is that of vanishing. In fact, we could all probably draw up our own sad little list of things that have fallen into desuetude. It came into English from Latin via French. The oldest citation is from 1623, so it’s not all that old a word, it’s just that it’s never been all that common either. We should, of course, not allow the word desuetude to fall into complete desuetude. So, there you are—that’s the challenge. Can you work the word desuetude into your conversation sometime this week? Good luck!
Mickey Finn Following yesterday’s explanation of “taking the mickey” I’ve been asked about the expression “Mickey Finn” that turns up in American private eye stories as a slang term for knock-out drops, a drug that will send you unconscious. So, who was Mickey Finn? Michael Quinion, on his World Wide Words website says there’s some doubt over the matter but Mickey Finn may have been the man of that name who ran the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden in Chicago from 1896 to December 1903. Most of what we know, or think we know, about Mr Finn’s activities comes from a 1940 book by Herbert Asbury called Gem of the Prairie (Mr Asbury also wrote The Gangs of New York, from which the Martin Scorsese film of 2002 was adapted). The establishment seems to have been a dive of the lowest kind, in which Finn fenced stolen goods, supervised pickpockets and ran prostitutes. He had a sideline, as Mr Asbury tells it, by which he drugged patrons with chloral hydrate, robbed them, and dumped them in an alley. But the earliest use of the expression “mickey finn” to mean a strong sedative is from 1915—which puts a gap between this man Mickey Finn and the sedative named after him. However, Mr Finn certainly existed and his activities were recorded in the local press at the time. The Daily News wrote on 16 December 1903 about “‘Mickey’ Finn, proprietor of the Lone Star saloon”, which it reported as “the scene of blood-curdling crimes through the agency of drugged liquor” and the following day the Inter-Ocean headed a report: “Lone Star Saloon loses its license. ‘Mickey’ Finn’s alleged ‘knock-out drops’ ... put him out of business.” The Chicago locale for the 1918 scandal suggests that the term may have been circulating in the city underworld in the intervening years.
Take the mickey I’ve been asked to explain the origin of “take the mickey”—meaning to make fun or someone or speak mockingly of them. This is of British origin and the earliest citation is from 1948. But who was the Mickey being referred to? The answer seems to be: no one is sure. One suggestion is that the full name was Mickey Bliss. If that is correct then the expression “taking the Mickey” is short for “taking the Mickey Bliss” which is rhyming slang. I won’t tell you want it’s rhyming slang for—since I think you can work this out for yourself. However, there is also the possibility that “Mickey Bliss” was a real person—either factual or fictional. Recently there was a BBC radio drama called Tommies set in World War One, and featuring a character called “Sergeant Mickey Bliss of the signals section. So whether such a character might have existed in the British imagination and gave rise to the saying, or whether the character has been named after this “taking the mickey” expression we could possibly debate. Although it seems almost certain that the expression came first. After all, there was once an Australian tennis player named Adrian Quist (1913—1991). He was an international tennis champion in the 1930s winning Wimbledon, and the French and Australian Open Championships. And his name gave rise to similar rhyming slang. And “taking the mickey” seems to come from a similar rhyming slang origin.