The sun shines constantly on new vistas for those on the lookout, and even heavily-trodden paths. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read or listened to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels without considering the origins of the ubiquitous nautical term, “starboard.” Essentially a 7,000-page sea saga of the Napoleonic era from the perspective of a British naval captain and his physician friend, much of the action in O’Brian’s novels takes place on ships, so references to “port” for “left,” and “starboard” for “right” are manifold.
Perusing the fabulous collection of comic strips at GoComics.com led me to “Frazz,” a strip by Jef Mallett about a hipster school janitor who explains to a student that “The first ships didn’t have rudders. They had a side-mounted tiller called a ‘steerboard,’ and I bet you can guess which side.”
Dicken’s “Pickwick Papers,” another personal, much-read favorite, includes Pickwick noticing “all the female servants in a bran new uniform.” Looking in several different editions showed “bran” wasn’t a typo for “brand.” Availing myself of the public library’s copy of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the mother of them all, revealed “bran” in that sense wasn’t listed. But Green’s Dictionary of Slang, another estimable multi-volume reference source, listed Dickens’ using “bran” in “Oliver Twist” to refer to “a loaf,” and on that page, “brand-fire new” meaning “absolutely new.” This cited Davy Crockett’s autobiography, wherein he wrote “I returned, and set out electioneering, which was a bran-fire new business to me.”
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, one of my all-time favorite browsing books, had “Brand-new or bran new: Absolutely new, as if just branded, like newly forged iron, fresh from the furnace. Shakespeare uses ‘fire-new’ in the same sense.” Since it’s sinful to look in Brewer’s without glancing at some adjoining expressions, I learned that Britain’s Queen Anne “was partial to brandy” and was popularly known as “Brandy Nan.”
This awoke an old itch: if “fangled” is a real word. The OED slam-dunked this by stating fangle “arose from a mistaken analysis of ‘newfangled,’ later form of ‘newfangled, eager for novelty’ … [I]t came to be diversely interpreted to mean either ‘characterized by new fashions’ … or ‘newly fashioned or fabricated’,” with the former being used “always in a contemptuous sense.” It added that Chaucer was the first to use “newfangled” back in 1386 in “The Squire’s Tale.”
631 years later we have Wired.com’s “21 Best New Words of 2016.” A library-related example is “bompeln: stoplights in the pavement introduced in Germany for pedestrians who text while walking. A contraction of boden (ground) and ampeln (traffic lights).” Bompelns help drivers spot pedestrians in times of darkness, and the bompelns crossing Cowles St. near Noel Wien Library have certainly improved safety.
“HTTP 451,” another example, is “a new error code indicating a web page is blocked by censorship of a takedown notice. A reference to Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451.” Along those lines, “social credit” is “a personal trustworthiness rating mandated by the Chinese government for implementation by 2020. A numerical score will be will be assigned to every Chinese citizen based on spending habits, social activities, criminal record, determining employment opportunities and access to housing.”
Which brings us to “The 10 Most Mispronounced Words of 2016 and What They Say About the State of the World” article from QZ.com. Its author interviewed “professional captioners” who write realtime subtitles for television in the U.S. and the U.K. to learn which topical words were hardest for newscasters to pronounce. The list includes “chaos,” “redacted,” and “hyperbole,” which British announcers find difficult, but not the Americans.
Both stumbled over “hygge” (a concept “originating in Denmark of creating cozy and convivial atmospheres that promote well-being”). Hygge is “a unique flavor of contentment” for which “[t]here’s no precise word for this feeling in English.” A psychology professor described hygge as “interpersonally cozy … having a few people with you talking about issues and things you care deeply about. Having some candles lit, maybe a nice warm drink in your hand. Feeling safe and content.”
Leave out the candles and that describes our wonderful library, a truly hygge place.