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  Issue 166, page 4

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Sez You...

From Ingeborg S. Nordén:

In your latest issue, I saw another reader's query about the use of skoal (the usual English spelling) as a toast; since I speak Swedish and have studied a good deal of historical linguistics, the following comments may interest you as well.

First: the spelling in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish is skĺl. Besides its use as a toast, that word is the ordinary noun for "bowl" - ultimately related to English shell and scale (the kind of scales that fish and reptiles have). Early Scandinavian drinking parties had the guests scooping beer out of a common bowl to fill their horns or cups: one could imagine a host's encouragement "help yourself from the bowl" becoming a cue for a toast, if the guests were expected to drink in someone's honor at the same time!

As for the myth about Norsemen drinking from skulls: you're correct that this has no etymological connection to the word skoal. However, the skull story is itself based on a Dane's mistranslation of Old Norse poetry: What Norsemen *actually* preferred to use as a drink container in ancient times was a cow's horn, because they were naturally hollow and easy to obtain. The mistranslated poem referred to drinking horns metaphorically as "curved branches of skulls" - and our Danish scholar missed the figure of speech entirely. Unfortunately, his error was taken as fact in later authors' descriptions of Norse culture (especially in Romantic Era poetry and fiction).

Fascinating!  Thank you, Ingeborg.

From Hector Bourg, Jr.:

In your long debunking of the internet-circulated medieval word origins... I read the following comment:

Well, the term four-poster bed didn't arise until the early 19th century. However, it is in fact true that canopies did protect the bed, and more importantly, the sleeper from insects and other irritants, but this applied only to the wealthy.

Should that not read... "...the bed, and more important, the sleeper..." ? Why use the adverbial form of "important" instead of the adjectival form?  I know...picky, picky, picky!

Well, our hero H.W. Fowler (and the editors who succeed him) says that more importantly must be considered standard usage.  It first arose in the 1930s.  Fowler calls it a quasi-adjective.

From Alan Quilici:

Michael Cline's comment about his response to "Have a flat?" jogged a memory of an ongoing bit in "Mad" magazine many years ago. The title was, approximately, "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions", and their suggestion for the response to something blatantly obvious like, "Have a flat?" was "No thanks, I've already got one!". It works well for "Have an accident?" too. Keep up the good work.

Great response!

From Peter Little:

Thank you to John Arlidge, who last week sent a link to his newsletter discussing additives to wine. A few years ago I did the musical Oklahoma! and attempted to research just what isinglass was to better understand what kind of curtains the "Surrey With A Fringe on Top" was supposed to have . I was unsuccessful. My dictionary gave no clue ( it is only a pocket OED) and the internet only referenced the Rogers and Hammerstein song. I'm still not sure what curtains made out of sturgeon bladder are suppose to look like but at least part of the mystery has been solved!

Excellent!  Thanks to John Arlidge, indeed!

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From Steve Parkes:

Warm dry greetings from a rather cool damp part of England!

In my native regional accent (and quite a few other British regional accents), a donkey's *years* are the external auditory meati, situated on the donkey's *yead*. They are noted for their length, of course. I don't know whether the chronological years of a donkey's life are noted for their number, but eventually they will run out and the poor moke will be *jead*. 

I was intrigued by the tiny illustration to "folderol", which clearly shows two people wearing skates and wielding hockey sticks! The chap on the right has obviously committed a fowl(!) and the other fellow is showing him a yellow card.

Chortle chortle!

From Roger Whitehead:

Mr Miller's pet annoyance is commercials that use the phrase "not available in all areas", which sounds like American practice. Over here, in Britain, advertisers have latched on to the silly expression, "subject to availability", which they tag on to the description of their offers in print or in broadcasts.

If the good or service weren't subject to availability, nobody would ever get any of it, of course! What they mean is *dependent on* availability (i.e. if it's in stock) but the erroneous version is now immovably stuck in their minds. Gresham's Law applies to words as well as currency, it seems.

Print it out refers to printing something from a printer rather than block lettering it by hand

So that's why the printer charged so much for my last batch of letter-heading!  In my view, the out is otiose in this instance.

Finally, thank you for the haikus. Had me laughing loudly.

Our pleasure!

From Gianfranco Ermidoro:

Please allow me too, like not a few others I suppose, to take issue with your taking issue with the phrase not available in all areas.  It is quite obviously in the same category as the celebrated time flies like an arrow. Now, if you only allow me a couple of parentheses, we will lay the evidence in front of you.

Scanning a), senseless in given context:
(not available) in all areas
i.e. for all areas, the status is "not available"

Scanning b), has meaning desired by advertiser:
not (available in all areas)
i.e. it is not true that [whatchamacallit] is available in all areas. There are areas where it is not "available".

From Stephen Bennett:

I know what your Curmudgeon's Corner is all about, but being a programmer (only beaten in pedantic logic by Vulcans!) I felt I had to chip in here...

William M. Miller was moaning about "not available in all areas". In terms of logic, this could equally well be "not (available in all areas)" as "(not available) in all areas". The very fact that you'd use "unavailable in all areas" to replace the latter variant, surely implies that advertisers mean the former?

If I was Mr Miller, I'd have stopped my Curmudgeon's Corner after the first 5 words: "My pet annoyance is commercials!" [:-)] 

From Mark Lindsay:

I just wanted to respond to the curmudgeon for this week about "not available in all areas". The curmudgeon claimed that this is ambiguous and obviously advertisers should use "not available in some areas".

However, the "some areas" phrase can be considered ambiguous just as easily.

You can either parse the "some" phrase as "(not available) (in some areas)" or "(not) (available in some areas)". In the first situation, it means that in some areas X is not available, as intended. In the second situation, it means X is either available in all areas or no areas, but definitely not some.

The only solution to avoid any ambiguity would be "unavailable in some areas". That way, we don't have the word "not", which is what caused the problem in the first place.

We must remind you all that William Miller did say "admittedly, that's being intentionally dense".  He also included some parsing similar to what you have provided above.  We cut that out in the interest of space, but clearly we should have left it!

From Roger Whitehead:

Roger Whitehead wrote:

This week you say: 'The literal Spanish meaning of aficionado is amateur....' Given the shift in meaning of "amateur", it might be worth pointing out that you were using it in its original sense, not as meaning unprofessional.

Thanks for mentioning this in your current issue. However, by "original sense" I meant that of a lover of something (from the French amateur), not professionalism or its lack. The notion of fondness is the common link with aficionado, of which amateur is a direct French translation.

Thank you for that clarification.


Or read last week's issue to see what all of these people are talking about!

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Last Updated 08/17/02 12:24 PM