Thursday, 28 March 2013

The UK Backlog Authority

Yesterday's FT reports:
Ms May’s decision to bring the organisation – dubbed by some MPs the “UK Backlog Agency” – back under direct control of Home Office ministers is a risky one since she and her team will be in the line of fire if mistakes are made.
See more here
I'm not sure that the MP dubbers are  being entirely original here; but they have reminded me of a strange property that words have, letting them come to mean the opposite of what the original coining implied. They just reverse polarity (from good to bad, or vice versa) in a flip that would be the envy of Von Däniken (was he the one? - mad theory about geomagnetic shenanigans) : crazy, bad, sick, fat, wicked... It's not difficult to add to the list. These meanings just flip to make a code obscure, often intentionally.

Foreign languages can point this up: French terrible doesn't mean 'terrible'; the adjective, in English, doesn't work like that. The adverb, though, does: something that is terrible (Fr) is terribly good. (I first became aware of this in a Johnny Halliday song; when I read the song's name on the sleeve [not having started to study French] I assumed that Elle est terrible had negative connotations. When I heard it, it obviously showed approval; the tune was that of one I'd already heard: She's Somethin' Else [I had no clear idea of what it meant exactly, but it was obviously approving].)

David Crystal crystallizes  [sorry -  ] this tendency in the word 'glamour' in The Story of English in 100 Words
Grammar comes from a Latin word, grammatica [ed: a  derivation beyond the ken of many a student, asking about 'grammer'], which in turn derives from gramma, meaning a written mark or letter... and eventually this sense was extended to mean the knowledge that a person acquires through literacy.... This is where the supernatural comes in.... When the word arrived in English, in the 14th century, it brought in those associations [ed: associations with the occult]. A new word emerged. People would talk about grammarye, meaning 'occult learning', 'necromancy'.
This is the root of the word glamour, which came to refer to charm or attractiveness in the early twentieth century. Crystal doesn't say so, but it seems likely to me that Hollywood had something to do with it. The progression from wizardry to smoke & mirrors to magic lantern shows to movies strikes me as a fairly likely one.

Crystal goes on
The word took an unexpected direction in the 1950s, when it began to be used as a euphemism for nude or topless modelling.
Ironic: the schoolboy marks his place in the hated grammar book [my schoolboy is circa 1960, of course, when they still studied the stuff] with a recent 'swap' – a glamour picture on a cigarette card, thus bringing the two together after six centuries of separate (and diverging) phonetic development. It's the sort of reunion that you expect to find at the end of a Dickens novel!

But what has this to do with backlog? (I'm getting there, after a heroic exercise in self-control – resisting the urge to digress about the 'r' in encre, inchiostro etc: another time*, maybe...)

The words back and log were first fused together (to use an appropriately fiery metaphor) in the late seventeenth century. They referred to a log placed at the back of a fire. Such a log was desirable; it was a Good Thing. It protected the fire from going out. But about two hundred years later it was used metaphorically to mean a Good Thing in the commercial world: a stock of unfulfilled orders.

Here's where the reversal in polarity happened, possibly influenced by another meaning of log. The metaphorical ledger (whoops – there goes another digression that I don't have time for at the moment.... I won't even define it; even that'd take too long. But believe me, it's there. ) could be the record of a Bad Thing work that hasn't been done and gets more and more embarrassing as more is added to the mountain faster than it can be done.

Which is where I came in: UKBA RIP for a certain value of P – Purgatorio?

* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

News from the word face
Release 2 of When Vowels Get Together is coming Real Soon Now just dotting a few ts and crossing a few is. Follow @WVGT_book for the announcement.

Update: 2017.04.22.12:05 removed old footer.

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