Speaking of dictionaries, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has compiled a new historical dictionary of science-fiction, and it’s out of this world. Read about it in Wired (Adam Rogers calls Sheidlower “a lexicographical mad scientist”) and in theNew York Times (Jennifer Schuessler calls Sheidlower’s 1995 book, The F-Word, “a cheekily learned history of the notorious obscenity”).
This post was going to be a short riff on a line in that Inauguration poem by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman—the line about the vine and the fig tree, which got me thinking about figs. Mmmm, figs. But one fig led to another, and next thing you know I was way down a figgy rabbit hole from which there was no escape. Go figure.
People have been cheerful since the 15th century and have cheered one another on for just about as long. But you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that we’ve been saying “Cheers!” as “a toast or salutation before drinking,” as the OED puts it, only since the 20th century, and relatively late in the century at that—the OED’s earliest citation is from the Sunday Times of Perth, Australia, September 14, 1930: “The brief toast of ‘Cheers, dears!’” We can also credit the Aussies with Cheers! as a parting salutation (“goodbye”), which they’ve been saying since 1937. The Brits, for their part, took to saying Cheers! to mean thanks by the mid-1970s, if not earlier, according to the OED blog. You can read more about British cheers on Lynne Murphy’s linguistics blog, Separated by a Common Language.
But drinking-salutation cheers as a verb? That was new to me until very recently.
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.
Lynne Murphy, a UK-based American linguist, blogged recently about “British words (most) Americans don’t know”—such as pelmet, quango, and bolshy. Many of the words were unfamiliar to me, an American who tries to keep with such things but doesn’t always succeed. (See, for example, my post about tannoy.) But one of them, plaice, not only registered but brought back some amusing memories from my freelance-journalism past.
Lynne writes that plaice “is a kind of flatfish that's common at British fish-and-chip shops. The OED says ‘European flatfish of shallow seas, Pleuronectes platessa (family Pleuronectidae)’, but some other fish (esp. outside the UK) are sometimes called plaice. The name came from French long ago. It shows up in *many* punny shop names”—Our Plaice, The Happy Plaice, Park Plaice, and so on.
My own introduction to plaice came from a different punny restaurant name—possibly the original one. In 1985, a magazine I wrote for, Tables, sent me to London to interview Bob Payton, an American ad-guy-turned restaurateur who was making waves over there with his Chicago-style pizza places, a Chicago Rib Shack, and a seafood restaurant called, yes, Payton Plaice. It was a double pun.
Peyton Place was a bestselling 1956 novel, a 1957 movie starring Lana Turner, a 1961 sequel, and a TV soap opera that aired from 1964 to 1969 and introduced 19-year-old Mia Farrow to viewing audiences (and set off a trend for “Allison”—the name of her character—as a girl’s name). “Peyton Place” became a synonym, or metonym, for “small town with a lot of hanky-panky.”
This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.
How bad is it out here? On Wednesday, smoke from wildfires throughout the American West turned Bay Area skies an otherworldly shade of dark orange. The COVID pandemic is still very much with us, and most businesses and schools are at least partially closed. Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump presidency, Rage, is predictably enraging. (Read Jennifer Szalai’s sharply written review in the New York Times.)
I’ve been reading some excellent books—more about them soon—but right now I want to tell you about a couple of interesting podcasts for language lovers.
Word Matters is “a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class”; it’s hosted by four Merriam-Webster lexicographers: Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski. Episodes have tackled singular kudo, the pronunciation of antennae, and everyone’s favorite bugaboo, irregardless (which is definitely “a word” even though my editing software red-squigglies it. Yes, “red-squigglies” is also a word. Because I said so, that’s why.)
Science Diction is “a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them,” brought to you by the folks at NPR’s “Science Friday” and hosted by Johanna Meyer. Did you know that restaurant originally meant “a medicinal soup”? Do you know “the linguistic reason why ‘Rocky Road’ sounds so dang delicious”? How about the connection between cobalt and German folklore? Lots more like that, too.
I’m finally getting around to reading The Coddling of the American Mind, the 2018 book by Gregory Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt that details how, as the subtitle puts it, “good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” The book, which expands on a 2015 essay in The Atlantic, got some snarky reviews when it was released (Pacific Standard, now defunct, called it “sort of brainless”; The Guardiancriticized the authors’ “narrow perception of history.” I’m sticking with it, though, because Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, is high on my list of “books that changed how I think.”
But what I’m interested in today is that word coddle, which sounds like it’s ancient or onomatopoetic or related to cuddle. It’s none of them.