Friday, 20 July 2018

Calling a spade a bloody shovel

Petroc Trelawney caused a stir the other morning on Breakfast (about 5 minutes before the end) by asking:
Why is a boatswain a /bǝʊsǝn/ but a coxswain is still a /kɒksweɪn/?
Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we expose an area of ignorance to the Twittersphere. The Radio 3 twitterfeed was swamped by corrections, some more and some less gentle.

My first thought was that it was a dysphemism (antonym of euphemism, like fall off the perch, pop your clogs, push up the daisies in place of die). Dysphemisms like this are often a sort of "whistling in the dark": I'm not going to pop my clogs for a good few years yet.

But another common use of dysphemisms is as a signal of membership of some specialist group. In some circles, fiddle rather than violin is a term of disparagement. But among violinists it's the norm – except when a violinist makes a principled stand ...
(as, I seem to remember, Biggles did when he told his group not to use the dysphemism kite instead of aeroplane. But the fact that this fictional hero did forbid it shows that real-world pilots used it.
This is reminiscent of a regular tool in the philologist's armoury: lists of mistakes not to make. Entries in such lists prove two things:
  1. The mistake was being made
  2. Somebody thought it mattered
They call attention not only  to what was thought to be a mistake at the time, but also to a turning point in the history of a word. The Reichenau Glossary is the example that most readily springs to mind, and in an earlier post I traced the French chauve-souris to a supposed (and deprecated) Vulgar Latin "owl-mouse".
But I digress...
Anyway, a crash was still a prang, and a pilot who died bought it).

Similarly, players in the finest of symphony orchestras  refer to it with the dysphemism band. Showing such irreverence is a way of ironically suggesting real reverence – while also signalling membership of the in crowd.

Another example which I have no direct experience of (maybe I heard it in a forgotten lecture, maybe I invented it – though it's unusually specific for a flight of fancy) is archæologists' pronunciation of ceramic with a /k/; this is not unlike the original meaning of shibolleth (pronouncing it one way indicated which side you were on).

Which brings us back to Petroc's "error". Presumably he knows and speaks to people who row in Cornish racing gigs. It seems to me not improbable that a coxswain in such a boat calls himself a /kɒksweɪn/,  quite intentionally thumbing his nose at the "correct" pronunciation laid down by they furriners from outside Kernow. In that case it was not a dysphemism, but a pure and simple gesture of defiance against linguistic hegemony.


PS A couple of clues:
  • Queen tucking into a Dubonnet and lemon? How refreshing! (10)
  • Higher octane propellent for this incendiary energy source? (7,4)
Update: 2018.11.26.12:45 – Added PPS


No comments:

Post a Comment