Monday, February 28, 2011

News to me: "The verbatim"

Last Friday a guest on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show," commenting on the faux-Koch-brother phone call to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, said he couldn't quote "the verbatim of the call."

The noun verbatim was new to me, but it was all over the Web, not to mention attested in the OED back to 1898 -- "A full or word-for-word report of a speech" -- with a quote from the Daily News (of London): "Crisp writer wanted, who can also do a verbatim."

But 1898 is peanuts, datewise. Google Books effortlessly antedates the noun verbatim to a 1728 edition of John Dunton's "The Athenian Oracle," itself a collection of pieces from Dunton's periodical The Athenian Mercury, published (so says Wikipedia) from 1691 to 1697. "If  we take no notice" of a letter-writer's threat, says the Mercury author, "the Verbatim of the Letter is to be Printed (take their own pretty Phrase)."

Those italics are in the original, and I couldn't begin to guess whether verbatim is the part of the "pretty Phrase" the writer is mocking. But mocked or not, the usage is more than 300 years old (and there are plenty of examples from the intervening centuries, too). The Recency Illusion, spoiled again.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"On Language" R.I.P.

So the New York Times Magazine has decided, a year and a half after William Safire's death (and 32 years after "On Language" began), that it doesn't want the language column anymore. Well, you never know what an editor will think is a good idea (I speak as a former member of that tribe), but Ben Zimmer's farewell column, here, is a cogent and graceful demonstration of why the sort of thing he does will still need doing for the next three decades and more. Luckily we can still read Ben's work at Visual Thesaurus and elsewhere, and the NYT Mag's loss is sure to be some other publication's gain.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Whence the Whoopie?

Language mythbusters should be pleased by Monday's story in the Wall Street Journal on the fight between Maine and Pennsylvania over credit for inventing the "Whoopie Pie."

Traditionally, this kind of piece just retells the competing origin myths -- the more absurd the better -- and leaves it at that. Was it Amish moms who invented the dessert, inspiring kids to yell "Whoopie" when they opened their school lunchboxes? Or the owners of a bakery founded in 1925 in Lewiston, Maine -- whose records were unfortunately lost in a fire? Who knows?

But reporter Sumathi Reddy went the extra mile, interviewing Nancy Griffin, author of a 2010 book on the Whoopie Pie. She, in turn, had tracked down the earliest known Whoopies at the website of etymologist Barry Popik, who cites a 1931 ad for "Berwick whoopee pie" made in Roxbury, Mass., along with pretty much all that we know (so far) about the term "whoopie pie" (aka "whoopee pie").

And the name itself? "Because whoopie is a catchy name, food historians believe it must have been coined commercially," says the Journal.  Author Griffin, however, thinks the name came from a familiar 1928 show tune:
"It is believed they really got their name from the Gus Kahn song" and a popular term used at the time to get around Hollywood censors, says Ms. Griffin. It was called: "Makin' Whoopee."