Woolf decoded

Yes, he [Peter Walsh] remembered Regent’s Park; the long straight walk; the little house where one bought air-balls to the left; an absurd statue with an inscription somewhere or other.

—Virginia Woolf, The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway (2021) (p. 82), notes by Merve Emre

air-ball turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping that it meant a tasty treat. But big Oxford has “a ball inflated with air, a toy so called.” Also it appears to be a Briticism that has fallen out of use. Webster II doesn’t have an entry, nor does my Concise Oxford of 1990.

And, of course, nothing to do with a missed shot, although I suppose you could launch an air ball with an air-ball.

I’m OK with “yinz”

One more nuance in Shakespeare to look out for: pronoun choice. From John McWhorter’s latest column for the Times:

In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Benedick, likely wanting to connote intimacy to Beatrice, tells her, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” But a bit later, when he is addressing a more formal and even menacing matter, he switches to “you”: “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?”

And an opportunity missed:

Old English’s pronoun for “she” was “heo,” which sounded so much like “he” that by the time Middle English was widespread in the 1200s, some dialects were using “he” to address both men and women. Yes, even long before the births of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, English was on its way to developing a new gender-neutral pronoun. But apparently that did not feel quite right to many speakers. Thus, speakers recruited one of several words that meant “the” at the time, “seo,” which became today’s “she.”

Not one of our better moments

Paul Shore’s sharp criticisms of a recent Throughline episode are a bit sniffy, but on target: “Language is not script and script is not language, part 2.” The unfortunate episode constitutes a précis of a recent book by Jing Tsu, and presents her thoughts uncritically, leading to muddy thinking uncharacteristic of NPR.

In fairness, it’d be excessive to expect the Throughline production team to have learned about the science of linguistics and created a respectable linguistics-oriented podcast/broadcast in the relatively short time they presumably had available;… [if] the team wanted to do an episode on this general subject they’d want to devote an unusually large amount of preproduction, production, and postproduction time to it, in order to get things right within what for most people is a pretty obscure field.

When notices about Jing Tsu’s book came out earlier this year, I thought, “Wait — what? Simplifying its writing system had something to do with modernizing the natural language? How does that work? When did that happen?” The episode left me none the more enlightened.

A mystery: 25

All of the burrowing animals, the geofodes, enter a very different world, which exists only a very short spacial distance from the actual desert environment itself.

—Raymond B. Cowles, Desert Journal: Reflections of a Naturalist (1977), p. 105

Geofodes appears to be a coinage by Cowles, deriving from geo and the Latin fodere that gives us fossorial. Or perhaps it’s a slip, because his book went to press posthumously. At any rate, it ain’t in my dictionary.

A mystery: 24

Linda adjusted her position to face the trees…. The powerful drum of a beak against dead bark carried through the woods and she scanned the overstory for a pileated woodpecker. It flew a series of arcing loops and landed in the boughs of an ash tree. Below it grew crinklefoot ferns. A row of Queen Anne’s lace swayed in the ditch.

—Chris Offutt, The Killing Fields (2021), pp. 132-133

Any idea what Offutt means by crinklefoot fern? Anyone? The only thing botanical that turns up for me is Crinkleroot (Cardamine diphylla)—not a fern by any stretch.

Sensibility

Sean Wyer unpacks a word that has always puzzled me: naff.

Nonetheless, not all naff old things are made naff by the passing of time. Clippy, the Microsoft Office paperclip, appears anachronistic now, but was in fact always naff, because to my knowledge he never succeeded in carrying out his one job, which was to help you in any way to write a letter.

Although I’m not sure I agree about snow globes.

A mystery: 22

In my junior year I presented a skit at the Press Club Vod based on the idea of how closely allied jazz dancing was to the jungle.

—Agnes de Mille, Dance to the Piper, chap. 11, “Decision,” pp. 93-94

What the heck is vod in this context? de Mille is writing of a time ca. 1925.

A mystery: 21

Still on the trail of the meaning of Hollanderize: Consider this exchange between MSgts. Pendleton and Bilko from s1e23, “Army Memoirs,” of The Phil Silvers Show (air date 21 February 1956). Pendleton, at the moment (five minutes before he was in a different frame of mind), is buttering up Bilko, offering him alterations on a newly-arrived flight jacket with white mouton (sheepskin) collar. Pendleton asks, “Do you want the collar Hollanderized?” to which Bilko replies (approximately, he’s talking over a laugh and about to do a take from Capt. Barker’s entrance), “No, keep it fluffy.”

So, Pendleton is not offering cleaning of a new garment, and cutting it down doesn’t make sense. Perhaps he is indeed offering a dye job, which Bilko rejects because it will mat the pelt.

Cue the barky laugh

“I’ve been working on a podcast for the last year and trying to learn everything I can learn about that form of storytelling, as a matter of history, so, if I’m out walking, I listen. Though, to be fair, this started a long time ago when someone gave me an iShuffle or whatever that thing was called, that thing you wore around your neck on a lanyard, and I was teaching Tristram Shandy that semester so I ordered the audiobook and then, by mistake, I listened to the whole thing on shuffle play. Without realizing it. Only later did I come to understand this is what Sterne wanted! In 1767!”