Monday, 8 October 2018

Joining up

<digression subject="linking">
A recently broadcast and less than memorable TV drama (The City and the City) was set in a divided city. Wordplay was a feature of the writing and the linking building between one side and the other was called "Copula House".  Students of language will have met the term copula; many of the actors though, not having met it, assumed there had been a typo and said "Cupola House".

It  was this sort of ignorant slip that made suspension of disbelief impossible, so I didn't stick with the series. (With the growing trend of wacky cerebral TV dramas, there needs to be some way of getting the actors to understand the reality they're playing with, or the silliness just gets compounded.  Alternatively, of course, one could just get a life and switch off.)
Checking out the Wikipedia entry on copula, I notice that while many languages (like English) have a copular verb (be, in that case), some languages use a suffix to do the same job (linking a subject to its predicate), which ties in quite neatly with today's theme. To see how, read on.
{Thinks: All these digressions and he hasn't even started yet.}
My eye was caught last week by an old article in The Week  – one of those '10 things you didn't know about <thing>'  articles. It makes a number of interesting points and – not unpredictably – misses a few tricks. It starts with a quite telling image:
Think about when you were a kid discovering the wonder of glue. Hey, why not glue Barbie to this teacup? Let's glue Daddy's fancy pen to Mommy's ceramic figurine! But when you try to unglue them, you discover that glue can be strong — sometimes stronger than the things you were gluing. Now Barbie is permanently holding a teacup handle and Daddy's pen has a ceramic arm on it.

Words can be like that.

This is pretty suggestive (in a good way), and I'm afraid I missed it at first, thinking Where's the beef? and starting right in on the list – looking for trouble: what do they mean? The very idea of me not knowing something! (In fact, the slight wasn't "you didn't know", but just saying words were badly broken; I had one foot in the stirrup of my high horse, ready to say "words can't be badly broken, except if you're the sort of nincompoop who complains about words like decimated that come to be used in a way less stringent than that required by Mrs Thistlebottom and her ilk.

But, having read that first paragraph, I now  see that "badly broken" doesn't mean "seriously mangled" (referring to a supposed "lamentable decline in linguistic standards, why in my day kids... etc etc") but to a bad (that is, misplaced) break between a root and a prefix. And as a result the expression "the glueline" struck me at first as a rather arch metaphor.

My fault-finding zeal was not, however, entirely misplaced. In the first word on the list, for example:
Are any of your apps broken? Your app is! You know it's short for application.
Well yes, up to a point. That's where the new word comes from. But you can't therefore take it that "App and application mean the same thing; 'app' is just a shortened form of 'application':  the two are interchangeable".  They're not.

An application, or to give it its full dress name an application program (one that does stuff of interest to a user, unlike a systems program – which just makes the computer behave) does not need to have a Graphical User Interface;  many don't. An app does, and it has to run on a hand-held device. Also, an app almost always interacts with the Internet in some way. The ones that don't tend to be used once and uninstalled at the first opportunity; even obvious counter-examples – like graphics apps – often tie in with the Internet for things like clip-art libraries.

Next on The Week's list  is copter.
Ask someone what helicopter is made from, and they'll probably say heli plus copter. But actually it's helico- ("spiral") plus pter ("wing"), same as in pterodactyl, "wing finger". Obviously nobody says it like "helico-pter" — pronunciation trumps etymology. So this is one whirlybird that flies even when broken off badly.
There's a missed trick here; the (misconstrued) "ending" copter has taken on a life of its own, not only as a free-standing word (meaning helicopter) but also as a suffix used to name new inventions such as the gyrocopter.*

The item dealing with demo was new to me, for which thanks. The last line, though, was a bit of a throwaway (in two senses – both an unpursued possible digression and a gratuitously wasted opportunity): "There's also a bit of a history in English of making short forms that end in o." This tendency is more common in some parts of the world. In Australian English , for example, a relative is a relo. And I suspect the ready adoption into informal British English of the abbreviation arvo (for afternoon) owes something to early scripts of Neighbours and Home and Away.

But the lawn needs attention, not to mention the pyracanthus.
I usually prefer to leave the pyracanthus to get straggly, so that the smaller birds have first dibs on the less accessible berries. After I've done my boring topiary, life's too easy for the fat pigeons gorging themselves on the tabula rasa, leaving the tits to clear up the berries left in the less accessible places. But needs must...
So I'll leave you to read that The Week article; it's definitely worth a visit.


PS: A couple of clues:
  • Mischief-makers interrupting least dark recycled document. (10)
  • Turned up with every other unsisterly character, but fashionably outmoded first. (10)
Update: 2018. – Added PPS

And the same thing (bad break between prefix and word) can happen to names too. Santo Iago (St James) became Santiago, leaving (after an underdone abbreviation) the name Tiago. (And whether/how Tiago and Diego are related is a matter of some debate. Start here if this sort of thing floats your boat.)

Update: 2018. – Added footnote

* Researching other neologisms such as gyrocopter (are there any?) I (having accused them of missing a trick) missed a trick. There are two survivors of a bad break  – what comes before (heli- in this case) and what comes after (-copter). Heli- has had a much more productive career: the Macmillan English Dictionary lists  helipad, heliport, and heli-skiing, but others crop up regularly: heli-boarding, for example.

Update: 2019. – Added PPS

The answers to those clues: PALIMPSEST, RETROUSSÉ (quite pleasing, that one TISIAS)

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