BEWARE BIGWIGS – and BIGWIGS BEWARE

Image result for blackadder ridiculous wig

 

Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.

Image result for robert maxwell

With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.

While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’

 

Image result for mughal prince

 

In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’

‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.

On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:

https://www.amazon.com/Nabob-Sob-Very-Johnnie-1951-57/dp/B01AXLWSBE …

Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.

I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.

Image result for eminence grise

In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.

Image result for impostor

 

*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’

POOR GUY – a Fawkesian miscellany

Tonight is Bonfire Night, Firework Night, nowadays usurped by Hallowe’en as the most popular celebration of autumn-to-winter transition, but still a folk festival of note. Many people are aware that the fires and fireworks commemorate the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, but few know more than the name of the terrorist whose effigy we burn on Guy Fawkes night.

 

Image result for gunpowder plot

 

The catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, who came from from Yorkshire, spoke French when captured and signed himself  ‘Guido’, using the Italian or Spanish form of the name (his autograph, before and after torture had been applied, is below). He may have begun the practice when fighting in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, although Italian names were considered fashionable and were sometimes adopted by English gallants. Guy is the French form of old Germanic Wido, either meaning ‘dweller at the forest margin’ or a nickname from ‘wide’ as bodily description or location (an open, flat region).

 

Image result for guy fawkes signature

 

The English surname Fawkes, also archaically spelled Fauks, Faukes and Fakes, derives from the German name or nickname Falco which probably originally referred to a person thought to resemble a falcon. Falco became Faulques in Norman French and was adopted after the Conquest, the first attestation coming from 1221.

 

While in London preparing to blow up parliament, Fawkes posed as a servant in the entourage of Thomas Percy, a fellow conspirator who had access to the parliamentary precincts. Fawkes’ less than imaginative choice of alias was ‘John Johnson.’

 

Image result for gunpowder plot

 

Guy’s wide-brimmed headgear, crudely imitated on effigies and now caricatured as a ‘V for Vendetta’ hat, is correctly termed a ‘sugarloaf hat’, since its high, flat-topped crown resembled the sugarloafs imported from the colonies in the Stuart period.

 

Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island is actually two small uninhabited islands and two smaller rocks lying in the Pacific Ocean off the Galápagos Islands which are owned by Ecuador. The name might have been given after a fiery volcanic event had been witnessed, but was more probably bestowed by buccaneers who viewed Guy as a hero and one of their own.

 

Image result for Bonfire night

 

Fireworks did not just take off (pun intended) in England after the Gunpowder Plot. They first became popular in the reign of Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth I loved them and appointed a ‘Firemaster of England’ to arrange displays.

 

Image result for Bonfire night

 

Bonfire (first recorded in 1483) is not, as Dr Johnson and others have claimed, French ‘bon feu’, (French would be ‘feu de joie’, ‘grand feu’) but ‘bone-fire’, a collection of burning bones or an open fireplace or outdoor pyre into which bones were thrown, after feasting for instance. By 1581 the word was also being used to refer to a fire in which heretics were burnt.

 

Guy himself was not executed by burning, a fate reserved for those found guilty of heresy.  He and the other condemned plotters were indeed Catholic dissidents, but the state wanted to avoid civil disturbances so accused them of treason, for which the punishment was hanging, drawing and quartering. Fawkes managed to cheat the hangman by falling or throwing himself from the ladder leading to the scaffold, breaking his neck.

 

Guy Fawkes’s first name lived on, coming to mean by 1806 his effigy, then a grotesquely or poorly dressed person or eccentric. By extension a verb form arose (first attested in 1872) meaning to hold (someone) to ridicule. At the end of the 19th century in American colloquial usage the word had come to mean simply ‘a fellow’, from which we get our modern all-purpose, sometimes gender-neutral ‘guy’.

 

Illustration from 'Mischeefes mysterie London'

GAMMON – UP AGAINST THE WALL

Image result for gammon and pineapple 1970s

 

This week, very late in the day, the mainstream UK media and the wider national conversation finally caught up with a social and political slur that had been trending for more than a year already. The insult in question was ‘gammon’, one of only a couple of pejorative labels (the other, slightly more affectionate, being ‘centrist dad’) directed from the left at the right as opposed to the many (‘libtard’, ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’, etc.) routinely hurled in the other direction.

The word itself is British and denotes an orange-coloured side or slice of cooked ham or bacon often proposed as emblematic of the garish-looking, odd-tasting and nutritionally suspect dishes served (warm, with a pineapple garnish) across British tables in the 1970s (when, ironically, ‘gammon rasher’ was rhyming slang for ‘smasher’ in the sense of something superlative). Gammon was adopted from French gambon, from gambe meaning leg, in the 15th century, while backgammon is unrelated and probably comes from an old form of the verb to game.

Following the Times’ , the Express and the New Statesman’s belated discovery of the word Twitter was a-buzz on May 14, first with protests, many seemingly by gammons themselves, at what were alleged to be its racist and classist implications and then with more coherent attempts to unpack its real denotations and connotations.

Someone with the handle ‘Build a wall, line all the nazis up along it’ explained…

‘Gammon isn’t about class, it describes white ppl who spend a lot of their time being pink because they’re so angry being white doesn’t make them special’

Exasperated by ongoing witless misunderstandings, I added my own two-penn’orth…

‘Nothing to do with class, it denotes florid, loud, usually lardy middle-aged ranting bigots. #simples

By midday someone else had discovered a reference in Victorian literature that seemed to anticipate the modern usage…

My god, he’s right: @Protooptimism has discovered that Dickens used “gammon tendency” as a political insult in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9):

 

 

It’s not quite clear whether Dickens’ use of the word relates to the slang sense then prevalent in the underworld, of ‘gammon’, verb and noun, to mean (‘to use) the secret, deceitful language of thieves and tricksters’, hence applicable perhaps to jingoism and bluster on the part of a ‘fervid’ middle-aged blowhard. An intriguing correlation with Irish was noted by another commentator…

No linguists paid much attention at the time to the mutation of gammon from a collective term of abuse for a constituency or persuasion to a label applied to the individual members thereof. The BBC, though, yesterday carried a good, level-headed history of the expression’s first post- Brexit referendum appearances and its rise to prominence…

http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-44108080

Urban Dictionary‘s original entry, if you can find it,  could be commended, but it seems subsequently to have been cosmeticised by a gammonista…

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gammon

By the end of a long day the furore (by now dubbed ‘gammongate’) had somewhat subsided, leaving a few wry observational tweets…

Presume after today, use of a certain type of roasted ham as an insult will be prohibited. Hope there’s a gamnesty on previous usage.’

‘Since the words ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ both started as insults, I fully expect British politics to soon be contested between the Gammon Party and the Melt Party.’

‘It’s offensive to call people whose reactionary apoplexy makes them go pink-faced “gammons”. The correct term is “people of choler”.’

And, late news, this, perhaps (but unlikely to be) the last word, again from Twitter, this morning…

JamieJones77‏ @JamieJones77

‘I’m a 55 year old white thinning cropped haired old punker. #Gammon isn’t racist, it perfectly describes the bigoted tossers of my own age group who turn pink when they get angry about their privilege being challenged. G’wan bust yer blood vessels you rancid foaming dinosaurs.’

…Five days on I discovered this, from the originator of the expression himself…

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/gammon-brexiteers-angry-white-men-middle-age-immigration-a8352141.html

…and, very belatedly indeed, I was reminded of this excellent summary by A-level teacher and language buff Dan Clayton

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2018/06/telling-porkies-about-gammon.html

 

Image result for gammon insult

 

In November this year Collins Dictionaries listed the g-word among their words of the year. In the Guardian Poppy Noor argued that the left should steer clear of such name-calling…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/gammon-playground-insult-words-of-2018

The Game of the Name – and How Brands Have Played It

More thoughts about the perils, pitfalls and potentials involved in choosing brand and product names, prompted by the news that Corrections Corporation of America, which runs more than 70 prisons and houses 70,000 inmates around the country, is rebranding as CoreCivic. Mentioned in the  following radio programme from long ago are the Škoda company name, from which the initial Czech ‘sh’ sound has subsequently been dropped for UK ads, and their daring product name Superb which has subsequently  been validated by the car’s success.

The radio discussion took place before the days of podcasts, so this, courtesy of the naming agency Igor, is a transcript.

www.igorinternational.com/press/bbc-naming-a-product-business.php

Citroen Cactus – a thorny question of naming?

This week has seen (rather belated) bemusement online at the car manufacturer Citroen naming one flagship model the Cactus*. They say the word alludes to its low consumption and ‘sober’ image and the rows of ‘airbumps’ on its sides, but for Australians cactus is slang for ‘broken (down)’.

Image result for citroen cactus raison de nom

I mentioned Citroen’s – and arch-rivals Peugeot’s – puzzling naming tactics in an article back in 2002:

BABY YOU CAN DRIVE MY… MAZDA BONGO FRIENDEE

Car names and linguistic confusion

Tony Thorne

Others checked out last month’s Geneva motor show for the cutting-edge automotive technology, but not me. I’m a car buff of a different sort; a connoisseur of exotic model names. The star of this year’s show was the new luxury model from Renault. They are aiming this radical monospace at the so-called e-segment, the executive saloon class which in their words is ‘a world governed by codes which are emblematic of established social norms and of conformism’ …h-m-m.
The name of this code-breaker? The ‘Vel Satis’. H-m-m-m-m…I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce rival Citroen’s Xsara or Xantia – or what they mean. Is Vel Satis another example of Gallic perversity?

When you talk to auto-marketers about product names they alternate between the arrogant we-know-exactly-what-we’re doing and the coy we’re-not-going-to-tell-you-how-we-chose-it. I’m convinced nevertheless that the psychological effect of foreign-sounding words can make or break a product in a particular market. Lancia’s ‘Dedra’ may sound beautiful to Italians but to anglo-saxons it suggests that something has died. The VW Bora has never taken off in the UK, where some ignorant punters also said that the excellent Sharan conjured up an Essex girl in white stilettos. As for the tiny Renault Twingo, it has never even been marketed in English-speaking markets, perhaps because it sounds like a chocolate bar.

Pronunciation problems can’t help. What did foreigners make of Cadillac’s unpronounceable Phaeton or Brougham? Come to that, how did English-speakers cope? Not many people can afford the Lamborghini Murcielago – it means ‘bat’ in Spanish – but if even one potential buyer is put off because he or she can’t say it, that’s more than £100K lost. And I’ve never seen a Lancia Ipsilon Elefantino, but with that name I have my doubts that it’s going to restore the marque’s reputation in the UK

Of course name buffs won’t be satisfied by Geneva, they are looking forward impatiently to October’s Tokyo show. Last year’s was particularly memorable with the unveiling of the Mazda Secret Hydeout, the Suzuki Afternoon Tea, the Mitsubishi Mini Active Urban Sandal, the Suzuki Van Van (which isn’t a van), and who can forget previous landmarks such as the Mitsubishi Mum, the Daihatsu D-Bag, the Toyota Synus.

Japanese manufacturers are reluctant to explain the names, but there are rumours: for instance that when Nissan’s boss asked for the name of a heroic mediaeval knight the Cedric was born. The Colt Starion was said to be a Japanese attempt to pronounce ‘Stallion’, which might also explain this year’s Comprex. And the Toyota Ist (rhymes with ‘list’), could that just possibly be a mis-pronunciation of 1st as in first? No comment.

We can mock but the simple fact is we don’t count. For Japanese and East Asian consumers it’s the shape of the word that pleases, and English sounds cool per se, but the meaning is utterly unimportant. Even when it’s a double meaning: Mitsubishi’s Pajero pronounced in Spanish sounds like the slang for ‘masturbator’, Fiat’s Marea comes out in Spanish as ‘seasickness’. We English speakers can’t be smug: how could we sell the Chevy Nova into Latin America, where no va means ‘won’t go’, or the Pinto, which means ‘small penis’ in Mexico? Or the Rolls Royce Silver Mist in Northern Europe where ‘mist’ translates as ‘crap’.

We’ve come a long way from the innocent early days of models with reassuringly trustworthy names; in the anglophone markets ‘Fidelity’, ‘Safeway’, ‘Utility’ were typical. The fifties and sixties promoted status with the aspirational ‘Ambassador’, or ‘Marquis’, yielding in the seventies to macho-but-naff ‘Marauders’, ‘Valiants’, ‘Cougars’.

It must be significant that today’s successful models mostly have invented ‘international’ names like Mondeo or Premacy, or initials and numbers like XS5 or V70, but some car-makers just don’t learn. Vel Satis? I was stumped; vel is latin for ‘or’ and satis means ‘enough’. Still stumped. A lady from Renault France told me the phrase was a pure invention, ‘it can mean whatever you want it to’, but is intended in French ears to evoke ‘luxury, perfume’, a tantalisingly upmarket je ne sais quoi. I’m worried that the average UK driver will think ‘well-satisfied’, more the aftermath of a good dinner than a mysterious perfume, but one Irish auto-journalist claims the roomy car is aimed at ‘lardy executives’ anyway.

We’ll have to wait for a few more months to see if Renault’s challenge pays off. In the meantime, I’m hoping that Tokyo can come up with something to top the Mitsubishi Lettuce.

 © Copyright Tony Thorne 2002

Versions of this article previously appeared in the Guardian and British Airways’ Business Life magazine

 

 * Here’s Nancy Friedman’s blog on the Cactus story

http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2016/10/new-name-beat-citron-cactus.html

Name Analysis and Ethnic Profiling

 

Image result for profiling

 

I talked to Zoë Henry of Inc. magazine about reports that profilers in the USA can now pinpoint ethnic identities from individuals’ names. Zoë’s article is here:

http://www.inc.com/zoe-henry/companies-using-software-to-predict-customers-ethnicities.html

I’m sure these experts are scrupulous in not doing anything illegal but I think, in the case of hyperindividualised and hyperlocalised profiling, the subjects (who presumably don’t know they have been identified) will probably feel comfortable about it if their names have been retrieved from lists they have subscribed to, possibly less so if they have been traced from other sources like electoral rolls, phone directories, library memberships.

In marketing there’s the assumption that a member of a group will conform to a stereotype of that group’s consumer behaviour – an assumption that is potentially patronising if not controversial. And when we look in close-up at actual instances, what precisely can we predict about, say, LeKeysha LLoyd Muhammad’s buying patterns and preferences? Especially if they are trans and have an address in rural Idaho?

Ethnic name profiling of course has a potentially bad reputation when used by government or law enforcement or by employers* in covertly vetting prospective hirings. As US human rights lawyer Bill Quigley commented:

‘One of the draconian consequences of 9/11 is racial profiling. Bollywood Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan became the latest victim of what some call “flying while a Muslim” after he was singled out by US airport authorities allegedly because of his Muslim surname “Khan”. “I was really hassled at the American airport because my name is Khan,” he said. The other recent Indian victim was former president of India. On April 24, 2009 in a clear violation of protocol, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, was frisked by the staff of American airliner Continental Airlines.’

 

*an article on that subject:

Stereotyped ethnic names as a barrier to workplace entry

 

 

 

 

SOUNDS, SYMBOLISM AND SENSE

 

A small fragment from my jottings on the fascinating and under-examined subject of language sounds…more extracts will follow

Image result for speech

The traditional view of words and names is that, apart from those words that directly imitate natural noises, there is only an arbitrary link between sound and meaning. But a few psychologists and neuroscientists have claimed to find evidence that phonemes (the human speech sounds that constitute words) have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional quality. Their data suggests that the effect on feelings of certain phoneme combinations (nonsense examples they worked with included bupaba, which was received positively and dugada which was negatively perceived) depends on a specific acoustic feature which can be measured, namely, the dynamic shifts within the phonemes’ frequency.

Socrates, too, according to Plato in the Cratylus Dialogue of 360 BCE, ascribed the origins and the correctness of names and words to a measurable relationship between their sounds and the things they represented, observing, for instance, that the tongue is most agitated and least at rest in the rolling of the letter ‘r’ (ρ or ϱ ‘rho’ in his native Greek) thus fitting it for evocations of violent movement or percussion. We can consider to what extent this rule might be applied to English, bearing in mind examples like ‘battered’, ‘beaten’, ‘bruised’, ‘banged’, but Hermogenes in any case then intervened and with a host of counterexamples demolished Socrates’ proposition, forcing the sage to admit that ‘my first notions [were] truly wild and ridiculous’. In 1690, the English philosopher Locke argued in An Essay on Human Understanding that if there were any connection between sounds and ideas, we would all be speaking the same language. Leibniz in New Essays on Human Understanding, published in 1765, responded with a point-by-point critique of Locke’s essay, admitting that there is clearly no perfect correspondence between words and things, but neither is the relationship completely arbitrary…

…In 2013 scientists carrying out an analysis of popular names given to 15 million babies found that male names were much more likely to contain broad and ‘larger’ sounding vowels that were emphasised and sounded more masculine when spoken. On the other hand, the majority of female names sound ‘smaller’, allegedly projecting a more feminine, dainty impression of the person. The study’s co-author, Dr Benjamin Pitcher of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, said: ‘The origins of names may vary but this study suggests that there is an association between the size of the sounds in first names and the sex they are associated with.’ According to Dr Pitcher and his team, the names which sound larger and prove popular with parents who have boys, or sound smaller and are given to girls are linked to the calls of wild animals. They claim that mammals, including humans, associate deeper, booming vocal sounds with larger individuals, but higher-pitched sounds are usually from smaller individuals. It has to be said that reports of this study were not universally applauded when they appeared in the UK tabloids online. Comments ranged from ‘…being paid to state the bleeding obvious’ to ‘utter nonsense – and the male names they quote all sound girly to me.’

Image result for speech