Friday, 8 November 2019

The Etymological Clock

Last year, in a belated update to this very early post, I recalled how a bit of wartime parlance happened to get adopted into the Knowles family lexicon.
I say "Knowles family lexicon" as I haven't come across this usage anywhere else. But the word "salvage" may have a wider application in this sense.
Recycling waste paper is not as trendy a thing as some of the greenwash we get from politicians might lead one to think. In my childhood, in the 1950s we distinguished between household waste (which went in the bin)  and clean waste paper (which went in 'The Salvage Box'). We had no idea, nor any need to know, what salvage meant; the linguistic 'clock' just happened to stop in WWII, when salvage mattered.
This is what I have called in that  post and elsewhere the etymological clock...
(I may not have used those precise words; but the post did use the Corpus Chronophage [look it up] as a metaphor for linguistic change)
... – the engine that drives the coining of new words and expressions, and just stops at seemingly random moments, leaving us with  a reference to some arbitrarily fleeting expression like "nine days' wonder" or the semantically similar "flash in the pan", whose provenance most present-day English speakers don't know about and neither care nor need to know about.
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  • Flash in the pan
    A reference to a long-gone firearms technology, which I've mentioned before – more than once. Here, for example:
[I]n a flint-lock, the trigger sparked off an explosion in a pan which itself set off the main explosion. Sometimes there was a flash in the pan, but the main charge was unaffected.
  • Nine days' wonder
In 1600, William Kemp, an Elizabethan clown actor, who is thought to have been the original Dogberry in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing,1599, danced a morris dance between London and Norwich. He took up the challenge for a bet and covered the distance of a hundred miles or more in nine days (spread over a few weeks). Some doubted that he had achieved this and, to quell dissent, he wrote 'Kemps nine daies vvonder', published in 1600:
 But that's not the last word on that derivation (or rather it's not the first word) as further reading of that Phrase Finder excerpt explains. In short, the expression had been around for about 300 years when Kemp used it (dubiously). As so often, the etymological clock just happened to stop at a juicy (and quite old) publication date. 
Another example, heard on the radio just now, is "Parts of the Australian outback are a tinderbox". Tinderboxes haven't been in regular use for over two hundred years, but the metaphor lives on.

Where was I? .... Got it: a Radio 4 programme about Bonfire Night food led me to recall another instance of such wartime jargon (words such as salvage, that is) becoming domesticated. (The context – food – was irrelevant to the memory, so I‘m not bothering with a  link; it just triggered the memory of what I used to wear  on 5 November in the  mid ‘50s.)

The garment was in modern parlance a onesie  though Lexico dates this word to the 1980s,  "... from Onesies, a proprietary name for a garment of this type, based on one + -sy."  But this was a good 30 years before that word was coined. We called it a siren-suit...
I say "we", though in this case the words  had a much wider application. For Wikipedia's take, click away.
.... Being the second youngest of six children,  I  have a brother who was alive during the war, and at the time was about the right size to bequeath me this hand-me-down. When the air-raid siren sounded at night, a siren-suit was a one-piece garment to wear over pyjamas.

Enough for now. This post was originally intended for a 5 November publication date. Events, doncherknow.


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