“Going viral” in Murphy’s pub

April 16, 2014

You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmer’s Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.

Read the rest of this entry »


Curmudgeonly metonymy

December 21, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog I have a couple of new posts to share. First up, The grumbling heart of ‘curmudgeon’ looks at a much-loved and quite mysterious word:

It’s a fine word, curmudgeon, a pleasing way to say we are not pleased. It’s often associated with middle-aged or older men – Waldorf and Statler are classic examples – but this is not a prerequisite. For editorial and pedantic types of all ages, curmudgeonry can be a badge of pride – a righteous grumpiness marking the pursuit of perfection, or as close to it as possible in the circumstances.

The word is also something of a mystery. Despite its colourful past, we don’t know where it came from, and an array of early spellings – including curmudgin, cormogeon, cormoggian, and curre-megient – merely invites further speculation.

Curmudgeon also plays a memorable part in lexicographical lore, owing to certain consequences of Samuel Johnson’s dubious etymology.

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What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know offers a short account of the figure of speech known as metonymy, with lots of examples (some of them debatable):

In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. . .

Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.

The post continues along those lines, and the comments provide further examples and some constructive criticism.

Sometime Christmas week I’ll have a new post at Macmillan on words and phrases of the year, so take a look if you’re online then. Archived posts are here, if you want to browse older discussions.


Like a ha-ha

December 19, 2013

Robert Harris’s 1995 thriller Enigma, which fictionalises a group of code breakers in World War II, contains a playful nouning of ha-ha:

Jericho drew back the curtains to unveil another cold, clear morning. It was only his third day in the Commercial Guesthouse but already the view had acquired a weary familiarity. First came the long and narrow garden (concrete yard with washing line, vegetable patch, bomb shelter) which petered out after seventy yards into a wilderness of weeds and a tumbledown, rotted fence. Then there was a drop he couldn’t see, like a ha-ha, and then a broad expanse of railway lines, a dozen or more…

Is this the influence of Nelson Muntz, or are we to ‘hear’ the laugh some other way?


Bulling “ar buile” in Irish English

July 16, 2013

In Ireland, to be bulling means to be angry – typically in a visible and maybe voluble way, and sometimes with comical connotations.1 I used to hear it now and then in my childhood and teens, but haven’t come across it much in recent years. Maybe raging has eaten into its niche.

So I enjoyed this reminder in Declan Hughes’s crime novel All the Dead Voices (see my old bookmash):

‘And he was like, we need a new way to operate, we can’t keep taking our rivals out, we can’t keep doing things the old way. The Lamp Comerford way. Charlie said Lamp was bulling when he heard this, he felt he was being sidelined.’

You might assume the word comes from the noun bull and the animal’s reputation for bad-tempered stampedes. This may have reinforced the usage, but I think its origin is the Irish word buile “madness, frenzy”. To be ar buile /ər ’bwɪlʲə/ (roughly “er bwill-ih”) is to be in a rage or fury, a deargbuile /’dʒærəg,bwɪlʲə/ is literally a red rage (cf. red mist), and a fear buile /’fʲær ’bwɪlʲə/ is a madman.2

In Hiberno-English the expression bulling to do something is similar to the English mad to do something, i.e., very eager. If someone is bulling to go to the match, it implies an overwhelming desire to go to the match, without necessarily any anger or desperation.

My Irish-English dictionary has ar buile chun rud a dhéanamh, translated as “crazy to do something”, but I didn’t know this idiom and found the gloss ambiguous: does it mean extremely eager (= “mad keen”) or something more unhinged? Enquiries on Twitter were inconclusive, though @ExposieRosie said it suggests frantic rather than keen.

Another open question is how old bullingangry is. Jonathon Green’s Chambers Slang Dictionary dates the sense to the 2000s, but I know it was used in the 1980s and 1990s, and my father says he remembers it from his (1950s) childhood. It may well be much older than that.

Edit:

John Cowan, in a comment, has reminded me of the traditional Irish song An Poc ar Buile (“The Mad Puck Goat”). Some background here, and a performance from the Chieftains and friends below:

[archive of Hiberno-English posts]

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1 I know bulling has other meanings, but I’m ignoring most of them here.

2 Phonetic renderings are approximate, and suggestions are welcome.


“Fortune is bald behind”

April 28, 2013

The Chicago Tribune had a brief article in January on baby naming trends, specifically the practice of naming children after places. It mentions the importance of timing:

“Fashionable names risk a kairos problem,” says speech consultant Jay Heinrichs . . . . “Kairos is the rhetorical art of timing. The Romans called it Occasio and made it a god with a beautiful youthful body who was bald on the back of his head,” Heinrichs says. “The occasion, such as a moment of fashion, ages quickly – hence the wonderful expression, ‘Fortune is bald behind.’”

That’s twice lately I’ve seen the same striking phrase. For a fuller exposition of its meaning I defer to Dr Stephen Maturin, in colourful conversation with Captain Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s historical novel The Mauritius Command:

‘Far be it from me to decry patient laborious staff-work,’ said the Governor. ‘We have seen its gratifying results on this island: but, gentlemen, time and tide wait for no man; and I must remind you that Fortune is bald behind.’

Walking away from the Residence through streets placarded with the Governor’s proclamation, Jack said to Stephen, ‘What is this that Farquhar tells us about Fortune? Is she supposed to have the mange?’

‘I conceive he was referring to the old tag – his meaning was, that she must be seized by the forelock, since once she is passed there is no clapping on to her hair, at all. In the figure she ships none abaft the ears, if you follow me.’

‘Oh, I see. Rather well put: though I doubt those heavy-sided lobsters will smoke the simile.’ He paused, considering, and said, ‘It doesn’t sound very eligible, bald behind; but, however, it is all figurative, all figurative . . .’

Does Jack say it “doesn’t sound very eligible” because bald behind could be interpreted as a reference to a bottom instead of the back of a head? Or is it on account of its obscurity?

In any case, it’s a memorable expression, and a search online shows a popular variation: “Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.”


Words changing colour like crabs

February 25, 2013

From the Eumaeus episode of Ulysses by James Joyce:

Over his untasteable apology for a cup of coffee, listening to this synopsis of things in general, Stephen stared at nothing in particular. He could hear, of course, all kinds of words changing colour like those crabs about Ringsend in the morning, burrowing quickly into all colours of different sorts of the same sand where they had a home somewhere beneath or seemed to.

After the noncommittal vagueness of “things in general” and “nothing in particular”, I love how the image of local crabs, so suddenly specific, transports us (and Stephen) briefly out of the human domain across to the Dublin coast and the wordless creatures alive in the sand. It’s a strange and surprising analogy and one with a hint of synaesthesia.


Peppercorn rent

February 19, 2013

I saw a curious phrase used in John Clay’s fine biography R. D. Laing: A Divided Self (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996). Laing and colleagues were looking for new premises for their experimental psychotherapy, and Kingsley Hall in London’s East End was a possibility. (It would become “a hallowed shrine of the counter-culture movement”.) Clay writes:

Sid Briskin visited and reported back favourably. Then he and Laing, both dressed soberly, went to visit the trustee of the building, Sidney Russell, Laing mentioning his working-class Glasgow background to provide credibility. Russell was convinced and offered them a five-year lease at a peppercorn rent.

Peppercorn refers to the dried berry of the pepper plant, and the word later became generalised, or semantically broadened, to also mean “a small or insignificant thing” (AHD4), “something trifling” (Collins), “anything very small or insignificant” (Random House), etc.

Dried black and white PeppercornsPeppercorn rent is a phrase in its own right, dating back several centuries, meaning a very low, nominal or token rent given as “a simple acknowledgement that the tenement virtually belongs to the person to whom the peppercorn is given”, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has it. But this negligible financial exchange was once quite literally pepper-based.

Oxford Dictionaries labels the phrase British and say it originates in a once-common practice of “stipulating the payment of a peppercorn as a nominal rent”. Merriam-Webster has similar information: (1) “a rent formerly often stipulated in deeds and consisting in supplying a certain amount (as a pound) of black peppercorns at stated intervals”; (2) “a merely nominal rent in kind operating to keep alive a title.”

There’s a little more history on peppercorn rent (and rose rent!) in Curious English Words and Phrases, and some legal notes at Wikipedia. Before reading the book on Laing, I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before. Are you familiar with the phrase, or have you ever paid a peppercorn rent?

[image source]

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