Cable captions

While I was recently reading a new book on American politics I came across the use of the word “chyron” to describe the words (and/or graphics) that appear at the bottom of the television screen, typically during news broadcasts. I’d never heard the word before, and since I’m always interested in new words I thought I’d check it out.

I figured it must be a new word, as it describes a relatively new phenomenon. Before the advent of cable news I doubt we had much use for it. And indeed the first known occurrence was apparently in 1990. The etymology isn’t from some Greek source but is rather a genericization of a trademark (like “band-aid). It derives from the Chyron Corporation, an American company that, in the 1970s, made the character-generating device that created these captions.

Another one for the word bank!

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Rustling to and frou

From The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham: “There was a pocket of silence in Midwich, broken only by the frouing of the leaves, the chiming of the church clock, and the gurgle of the Opple as it slid over the weir beside the mill . . .”

Frouing? I thought this was a typo at first. What it appears to be is a derivation — perhaps unique in English (since I can’t find any other examples of it or any dictionary citations, even online) — from frou-frou, which is a rustling sound as of silk. This in turn comes from the French for something decorative or fancy (particularly with regard to clothes). The French verb is froufrouter, to rustle.

I would like what Wyndham’s done, but I don’t think frouing sounds right in English. I guess it’s pronounced froo-ing, but I’d like to say frow-ing. In any event, it didn’t catch on and for all I know this is the only place it appears. Making it a kind of linguistic cuckoo itself.

On not rising to the top

Over at Good Reports I’ve posted my review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land. It’s an excellent work of social reportage that stands alongside Brian Alexander’s Glass House as an attempt to explain and understand what is happening in the United States, and in particular the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump.

What I find interesting is that there was another book on the same general topic that was published at the same time: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. To say that Vance’s book received far more coverage and enjoyed better sales than the other two books combined would, I think, be an understatement. And yet of the three I think it’s by far the worst. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top.

Toxic shock

Near the end of the first volume of the David Hawkes translation of Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone the hero, Bao-yu, is wandering about his family’s private park and runs across his nephew Jia Lan, who is clutching a tiny bow with which he is hunting deer.

“I’ve got no reading to do today,” said Jia Lan, “and I don’t like to hang about doing nothing, so I thought I’d practise my archery and equitation.”

“Goodness! You’d better not waste time jawing, then,” said Bao-yu, and left the young toxophilite to his pursuits.

While the Rong-guo family are a well-educated elite, Hawkes doesn’t spice his translation with a lot of fancy or archaic vocabulary. Nevertheless there were two words in this brief passage that I was unfamiliar with. In both cases the meaning was clear, but I went to the dictionary to see if I was missing anything.

I had a good idea what “equitation” referred to, and to be fair it is a word that, while not commonly known, is frequently used by people involved in equestrian sports. It just refers to the art of horse riding (or, more technically, a rider’s position while mounted) and I think what confused me was the fact that Jia Lan is not riding a horse while out hunting.

“Toxophilite,” on the other hand, really threw me. It’s another word where knowledge of Greek would have helped, as the Greek “toxon” means a bow, while “philia” is love or affection. So Jia Lan, who is carrying a bow, is a student or lover of archery. The actual English word is a relatively modern coinage, invented by Roger Ascham in a 16th-century book on longbow archery (the first printed book in English on archery, as it happens) titled Toxophilus. It was later adopted by an18th-century English archery society but never seems to have caught on. Archery itself wasn’t really mainstream in the modern era.

Anyway, from the context the meaning was clear and I really didn’t need to look it up, but I’m glad I did. One trivia sidebar I found online gave more background:

Today, toxophilite is a rarely used word but often occurs in vocabulary games and puzzles and in spelling bees. A more ubiquitous descendant of toxon is “toxic.” Toxic is an Anglicization of Latin’s word for “poison,” toxicum, which originally meant “poison for arrows” and is a borrowing from Greek toxikon, meaning “arrow.”

I thought this was interesting. It seems the line gets blurry between poison and bows when doling out the prefixes. Toxo- can be used to refer to poisons in some English words, though the preference seems to be for toxico-. An expert in poisons is a toxicologist, so presumably an expert archer would be a toxologist, though that word doesn’t seem to exist. “Toxology” for “archery” is listed by dictionaries as very rare, and is usually assumed by spell-check programs to be a misspelling of “toxicology.”

Leapin’ lethiferous looters!

In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs he describes Napoleon entering a Moscow abandoned and on fire: “Only a few French tutors, actresses and lethiferous bands of looters haunted the streets as Moscow burned for six days.” If you know Latin, or if you’re just good at guessing based on cognates, you’d figure (correctly) that “lethiferous” means “deadly” or “lethal.” Still, it’s an obsolete word I don’t recall seeing used before. Another one for the word bank!