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Students' Corner




Editor: Michael Quinion, Thornbury, Bristol, UK ISSN 1470-1448
US advisory editor: Julane Marx


  1. Feedback, notes and comments.
  2. Turns of Phrase: Ecotown.
  3. Weird Words: Mooreeffoc.
  4. Recently noted.
  5. Q&A: Bless your cotton socks.
  6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

A message came back from Pat Walton in Cumbria concerning the meaning of the word. A ruling by the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in June was a rare case of formalising linguistic change by fiat. It concerned the use of "bespoke" by a tailoring firm for suits that they admitted weren't hand-made but were cut and sewn by machine. The Financial Times reported the story like this on 17 June: "The ASA said that the historic term of art had moved on. While customers would still expect a bespoke suit to be tailored to their measurements, the majority would not expect that garment to be entirely handcrafted, the regulator said."

Other readers suggest that "bespoke" is not quite as rare in the US as the questioner thought, though it is restricted in scope to areas like high-end clothing and computer software, sometimes with a hint of pretentiousness.

Neil Paknadel wrote after my piece last time, "A large proportion of the population of a certain age in the UK will recall the use of 'esurient' in the cheese shop sketch from the BBC TV comedy programme MontyPython's Flying Circus. A significant number can even recite it, and unfortunately some of them do." To judge from correspondence this week, most of the last group has written to me, quoting the opening lines verbatim:

Mousebender (John Cleese): Good morning.

Wensleydale (Michael Palin): Good morning, sir. Welcome to the National Cheese Emporium!

Mousebender: Ah, thank you, my good man.

Wensleydale: What can I do for you, sir?

Mousebender: I was sitting in the public library in Thurmond Street just now, skimming through Rogue Herries by Horace Walpole, when I suddenly came over all peckish.

Wensleydale: Peckish, sir?

Mousebender: Esurient.

Wensleydale: Eh?

Mousebender (broad Yorkshire): Eee, I were all 'ungry like!

2. Turns of Phrase: Geo-engineering

This term was in the news earlier this month after the publication by the Royal Society of a special edition of its academic journal Philosophical Transactions on the subject.

Geo-engineering is engineering on a planetary scale to mitigate or reverse the effects of global warming and climate change. It's far from new - it is recorded from the late 1980s, but until recently it has been the province of specialists. Schemes include seeding the oceans with iron to help plankton grow in greater abundance, so that when the organisms died they would take carbon to the sea bottom with their corpses. Another idea is to pump aerosols of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to block some of the sun's light falling on Earth. Yet another is to reduce the sun's radiation by a giant sunshade in space.

For a long while, such geo-engineering proposals were thought to be the stuff of science fiction; indeed, several SF writers have noted in their works that we are in such a mess that we're going to have to terraform the Earth. Most scientists regard them as dangerous ideas that are likely to do at least as much harm as good; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dismissed geo-engineering in 2007 as "largely speculative andunproven and with the risk of unknown side-effects".

Though nobody is going to put sunshades in space any decade soon, in recent years the other geo-scale ideashave begun to get serious attention, almost in desperation as experts realise that political inaction is letting catastrophe overtake us by default.

Confusingly, "geo-engineering" has for several decades been used as an abbreviation of "geological engineering", a discipline that puts the skills and techniques of the geological sciences together with those of engineering to design facilities such as roads, tunnels, and mines.

* The Hindustan Times, 25 Apr. 2008:
Climate scientists, concerned that society is not taking sufficient action to prevent significant changes in climate, have studied various "geo-engineering" proposals to cool the planet and mitigate the most severe impacts of global warming.

* The Journal (Newcastle), 1 Sep. 2008:
Humans may have to attempt planet-scale engineering of the climate because global warming is happening faster than experts have been predicting, leading scientist James Lovelock said yesterday. Safe forms of "geo-engineering" should be used if they can buy us a little time to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

3. Weird Words: Mooreeffoc

Relating to things suddenly seen in a new and different way.

Though this word is rare to the point of never being used in its ostensible sense, but only as a keyword to initiate discussion, it has been keeping illustrious company, since its few appearances in print have been in works by G K Chesterton, J R R Tolkien and Charles Dickens.

Dickens invented it, if that's the right word. He mentions it in his autobiography, when he describes his poverty-stricken youth:

In the door there was an oval glass plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie,) a shock goes through my blood.

In his biography of Dickens, Chesterton said that it denoted the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. Tolkien read more into it still in his work On Fairy-stories:

The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.

4. Recently noted

Sometimes I think the most important word-coining force in English at the moment is the survey industry, though few of its creations stand the test of public acceptance. Last week the pollsters YouGov produced a report on addiction to broadband - the feeling many users have that they cannot survive without access to the online world. Its writers spiced it up to get press attention by inventing "discomgoogolation" for the stress and anxiety that a heavy user feels when they're unable to get online. It's a blend of "discombobulation", a faded and rather jokey US term for confusion or frustration (see my piece, via, with "Google", a word that, in the week in which the organisation has celebrated its tenth anniversary, needs no explanation.

Several readers have asked about the provenance of Barack Obama's quip this week that "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." A couple of good explanations are those by Benjamin Zimmer on the Slate site, and Dennis Baron's blog on the Web of Language.

5. Q&A: Bless your cotton socks

Q. Do you know the origin of "bless your cotton socks"?
[Stacey Newman, Australia; a related question came from Adrian Harris]

A. Short question, followed by inadequate answer. We don't have much of an idea at all. But it may be worth putting down what is known.

Most writers turn, as I'm forced to do, to Eric Partridge. In his Dictionary of Catchphrases he records this expression in its older and longer form, "bless your little cotton socks" (which is the one I know and instinctively hunted for). He dates it from around 1905, presumably from personal knowledge since he quotes no examples. By implication he regards it as British. He says it was a middle-class way of elaborately thanking someone, which he said was extended a little later into "bless your little heart and cotton socks".

My feeling is that it may actually be the other way round, "Bless your little heart" is recorded from the start of the nineteenth century. Though most of my sources for it are North American, the earliest ones are British - the first one I can find is in a slim volume of 1801, Farther Excursions of the Observant Pedestrian. It seems more likely that the "cotton socks" bit was tacked on as a fanciful or skittish elaboration, which then took on a life of its own.

It is hinted, or assumed, by other writers that the little cotton socks are those of an infant, so that "bless his little cotton socks" was once a pleasant-enough but meaningless - not to say slightly idiotic - term of approbation for a small child.

6. Sic!

Caroline Woodward, who's in the accountancy business in London, e-mailed following last week's Sic! item about the Underage Drinking Enforcement Conference item: "I was amused this week to receive a flyer for a conference in central London - A Practical Introduction to Financial Crime. Presumably delegates register anonymously!"

Jeremy Ardley found this in the Washington Post on 8 September: "'We are the ones who saved our country,' Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, whose slain younger brother first allied himself with U.S. forces and who now serves as president of the Iraqi Awakening Council, said in an interview." Call him Lazarus.

"I don't know if oral announcements qualify for the Sic! section," says Jim Helbig from St John's, Newfoundland, "but I overheard the following recently on an Air Canada flight from London to Halifax: 'Passengers are remindedto remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened when the seat belt sign is illuminated. The captain is expecting some unexpected turbulence.'"

Oral items do qualify. Here's another: "Although I have nothing in print," reports Chris Edge , "I heard a newsreader here in Perth, Western Australia, quote a maintenance union official as saying: 'Qantas didn't get its reputation as the world's safest airline by accident.' Er, no ..."

It would seem the wrong people were in the dock this week. A BBC Breaking News Alert on 8 September included the sentence, "Three men are found guilty of a terrorism conspiracy to murder involving home-madeliquid bombs by jurors at Woolwich Crown Court." Thanks to Chambers Taylor and Denis Barter for sending that in.