Sunday, June 7, 2009

Idol words

Nice piece by Simon Winchester in yesterday's Daily Telegraph News Review & Comment section (and on-line here). It is hung on the notion that the advent of the millionth word in the English language is about to be celebrated.

Hmm: there's a slight iffishness about that premise, somehow.

Eminently readable (naturally from the biographer of William Smith, the original geologist, and the historian of the 1906 San Franciso Earthquake), but particularly delightful for two word-based anecdotes. These will stay in the recesses of Malcolm's memory:

Fitte ye first:

Winchester had been researching for his book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne:
the strange and tortured Victorian life of an American doctor who had murdered a Londoner in a fit of schizophrenic fury.
Locked up in Broadmoor, Dr William Minor had contributed to the assembly-line of the Oxford English Dictionary. However,
his madness, which ebbed and flowed during his 40-year incarceration, became exceptionally florid one day in 1902, and in a sudden spasm of self-loathing he sliced off his penis with a knife, and flung it into the prison fire.
Having delightedly recounted this gem to the present OED staff, thus explaining why they had misplaced an earlier contributor, Winchester:
... walked over to Oxford station.

At the ticket window were two elderly women lexicographers, off to London for the theatre. As we boarded the train, I warned them: have I ever got a story to tell you.
And so, in every gruesome detail, and in an open-plan Thameslink carriage, I related the saga: the sharpening of the blade, the tying of the ligature, the gritted teeth, the fatal slice – and, as I said this, so every whey-faced businessman in the carriage crossed his legs reflexively. There was a sudden corporate gasp.

But not from the two old ladies. They remained quite impassive, thinking. I could see the lexicographical gears grinding in their minds. Then suddenly, and in unison I swear, they spoke: "Autopeotomy!" they cried. Then one to the other: "Yes, Mildred – peotomy is the amputation of the penis. But doing it yourself – that must be autopeotomy. A neologism, I am sure. And Mr Winchester, if you can include this new word in an illustrative sentence in the book you are writing, then we will include it in the next edition of the OED, and you'll be a small part of history."
Thus a new word entered the vocabulary. Except, despite the claim that the on-line OED adds "around 1800 new words" each quarter, autopeotomy has not yet been one of them. On the other hand, the three citations for peotomy conclude with:
1998 S. WINCHESTER Surgeon of Crowthorne x. 168 An attack by the renowned bloodsucking Brazilian fishlet known as one of the very rare circumstances in which doctors will perform the operation, known as a peotomy.
Fitte ye seconde:
... there seems to be a word for every concept, imaginable and many unimaginable. My favourite for years was "mallemaroking", which an early edition defined as "the carousing of drunken seamen aboard ice-bound Greenland whaling ships", which struck me as a masterly example of hairline linguistic precision. But a later edition of the dictionary slightly amended the definition, dropping the location, trimming it to "the carousing of drunken seamen aboard icebound whaling ships".

This prompted a friend to write a tongue-in-cheek polemic: the foul practice of mallemaroking, he declared, appears to have become unleashed from its native Greenland, and now threatens to extend its tentacles across the entire world. Before it is too late, it must be stopped!
A useful word, indeed. Though its etymology in the OED seems to be from Dutch (and sexist) rather than Greenlander. It is sandwiched alphabetically between two other terms, of utility only to veterinaries:
mallein: Any of various preparations containing antigens of the glanders bacterium;
mallender: a sore located behind a horse's knee (obs.); a kind of chronic dermatitis of horses.
The OED has now provided Winchester with two books: the parallel stories of Minor and James Murray in The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Meaning of Everything. As the bill-boards claimed for a far lesser publication,
All Human Life is Here.
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