Today’s entry is going to be rather bitty – though with a long ornithological excursus towards the end that non-bird-nerds should feel free to skip – but I do have what I hope are some interesting word- and phrase-related snippets to share. Some are new discoveries, others welcome jogs to the memory I’ve come across over the last few days.
On stereotype and cliché
I knew that the term stereotype came from printing, but professional cornucopia of knowledge Stephen Fry added some further insight into the matter on this week’s QI (a BBC quiz programme, in case you didn’t know). The term was first used by the French printer Firmin Didot in 1798 and it applied to a process whereby once a page of print had been (manually) typeset in its final format, a mould was made and a single metal printing plate cast from this mould. It was easier and quicker to print multiple copies of any page from this plate than from the original made up of all those small pieces of metal lined up in a frame.
Given that manually setting movable type was a laborious and time-consuming business, printers had discovered that if they had phrases that were frequently reused, it made sense to make a cast of the whole phrase so that it could be quickly inserted in one fell swoop. And these mini-stereotypes, metal strips of interconnected print “characters” representing well-worn phrases, were known as clichés. Some say that the etymological origin of the name is the verb cliquer, meaning “to click”, on account of the clicking sound the metal made as it was poured into the mould.
On jacquard and sabotage
Also on QI, there came a discussion of technical developments including prototypes of the computer and other “programming” systems. The broadcast of the episode almost coinciding with the birthday of Ada Lovelace (born 10 December 1815), mention was made of her work with Charles Babbage, and the discussion turned to developments preceding their work on the Analytical Engine. The machine made use of punch cards of a kind developed in 1801 by French merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard for insertion in a special patented loom to add a degree of automation to the weaving process by “pre-programming” a pattern into the cloth. To this day we associate the term jacquard with certain ornate types of woven fabric, damask being one example, and it was thanks to the punch-card system that the process of producing these complicated patterns was made very much quicker and more efficient. I remember becoming fascinated by the idea of the Jacquard loom during a visit to the National Wool Museum in Dre-fach Felindre (South West Wales) some years ago, but at the time I hadn’t completely cottoned on (geddit?!) to the extent to which the reach of this invention went so much further than producing cloth.
Not everyone, though, was as inspired by Jacquard’s invention as the likes of Babbage and Lovelace. Just as the Luddites in England revolted against the introduction of machine looms a few years later, fearing that their status as skilled handloom weavers would become worthless, their French counterparts were similarly aghast at Jacquard’s innovations and set out to destroy these new-fangled machines. Their weapons of choice? Their wooden clogs – sabots – and thus the word sabotage came into being. Or at least, that was Stephen Fry’s line – Wikipedia suggests that the term might actually go back to Dutch weavers in the fifteenth century, though in a similar scenario.
On throwing people curveballs and knocking them for six
This morning on Twitter, Kellie (@belouise) was asking what a “curveball” was, not in the original baseball sense but in the figurative expression “to throw someone a curve[ball]“. I didn’t know what it meant either – we Brits don’t do baseball or baseball idioms, on the whole – but I did a bit of poking about on t’internet and found out that it basically means to confuse someone or throw them off track by doing something surprising or unexpected. It struck me that in British English we tend to use the expression “to knock someone for six” with much the same meaning, though interestingly the expression is based on the (unexpected) behaviour of the batsman in our case, not of the bowler, and – not so surprisingly – it is derived from cricket rather than baseball.
It is also no real surprise that there are many sport-derived idioms that have developed differently in American English and British English (as well as a lot more that share meaning and form). While translating a text with colleagues recently, I found that while I had written “the ball is in the politicians’ court” (= tennis), an American colleague had written “the ball is in the politicians’ corner” (= baseball again). In the wider context, it is certainly the baseball terms that have come to the fore in the international boardroom, though interesting that phrases such as “to touch base” and “a ballpark estimate” frequently make it onto British-based lists of most hated “management speak” or jargon. Is this due to a knee-jerk anti-Americanization drive, because they sound alien or false when used by a non-American, or simply because a few people use them too frequently in an offhand, cliched manner? I really don’t know and am not going to be the judge of that here.
On eagles, hawks and kites
Moving away from contentious issues, it seems to be a fact internationally acknowledged that birds of prey have good eyesight, and this fact has given rise to its fair share of idiomatic expressions, some dating back to ancient lore. An observant or scrutinising person can be described as having eyes like a hawk or keeping an eagle eye on something, and in German you can use either Falkenauge (= hawk, falcon) or Adlerauge (= eagle), or related phrases, to get the same idea across; I’m sure many of you reading this could provide further parallel examples from other languages, too.
My heart did a little skip the other day, though, when I discovered that a Welsh expression for this seems to be llygad barcud, i.e. “eye of the kite”. Now, eagles are extremely rare in Wales – the golden eagle, once a native species, has not been resident for over 400 years and sightings are thus extremely rare, and the white-tailed eagle seems also to be only a rare visitor. It may in fact be that neither was ever really prevalent in the area, so that the absence of these species from everyday expressions would not be that surprising. Kites are a rather different case in point, having been present in Wales for longer than anyone knows, though not without their challenges, as I’ll explain in a moment.
To backtrack a bit first: in English folklore and literature the kite traditionally suffered pretty bad press, being considered nothing more than a trouble-making scavenger: Shakespeare, for example, has King Lear refer to his daughter Goneril as a “detested kite”. In Scotland the situation was no better as they were legally labelled as vermin in the 15th century. Not the stuff of noble idioms, then. Nor any surprise that the red kite was extinct in England and Scotland well before the end of the 19th century (with reintroduction only from 1989: see here).
I really don’t know how the red kite was viewed historically by the people of Wales – maybe someone else can enlighten me on this – but it is certainly the case that various individuals made efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to prevent its extinction. They managed that, though only just – by the 1930s the population had continued to decline to an estimated <20 birds. What did happen, though, was that the local population became fiercely protective of these birds – not least against the efforts of egg thieves – and the red kite took on an almost mythical status that I can still remember from my childhood. Mid Wales was a place of hallowed pilgrimage for those seeking the last habitat of the UK red kite.
The situation has much improved since then and has been mirrored elsewhere in the UK through reintroduction programmes. In Wales, though, the red kite remains a symbol of triumph over adversity and has widely been used as an icon representing wildlife in the region. In a poll run by the RSPB and the BBC in Wales in 2007, the red kite was the clear winner: “an astonishing 36% of voters picked the red kite as their favourite bird, putting it way ahead of the robin – which came second with 15% of votes – and the barn owl in third place with 11%.”
I still feel a sense of exhilaration when I see a red kite – or even a pair of them – circling overhead, and all of this is why I was so pleased to find an expression that ennobled this lovely bird.
Thank you if you’ve taken the time to read this far – that’s all for this week.