It is a common narcissistic fantasy to believe that the world as we know it started with our own birth, and that prior to our appearance all was darkness and antiquity. My particular generation – located at the heart of the baby-boomers, roughly midway between President Clinton and Madonna – has taken this tendency to an extreme. We would be likely to believe that no one before us had argued for school desegregation, worried about the apolitical masses, lived in split-level houses, used automated tools, got sick because of mislabelling, got well because of tetracycline, slept on Posturepedic beds, favoured clitorial sex, laughed at Scientologists, mocked Interpol, complained about wolf-whistles, turned from the vomitous rubberiness of US cooking to the splendeurs et misères of tapenade, consumed hallucinogenic drugs, taken over multi-use college buildings to protest unjust wars, or elsewhere indulged in a widespread habit of loud public gabbiness.
Vol. 18 No. 20 · 17 October 1996
One of the miracles of our age is that Wendy Lesser can type ‘1952’ into her computer and come up with an entertaining article by surfing the OED on CD-ROM (LRB, 3 October). The chip, however, cannot do away with toilers in the field. There was some excitement a few years ago when a Supplement to the OED awarded a formal place in the language to Virginia Woolf’s invention of ‘scrolloping’. She first used it in a diary entry for 1923, to mean something more than florid, and it recurs in her fiction. Nobody has noticed, however, its use by the translator of Omar Kháyyám, Edward FitzGerald. In 1893, towards the end of his life, he remarked in a letter that ‘I somehow detest my own scrolloping surname.’ Virginia Woolf cannot have read this, but it is easy enough to trace a path or two by which the word reached her on the lips of friends and acquaintances.
Wendy Lesser does the OED less than justice in suggesting that it regards its date for the first recorded use of a word as that of the word’s entry into the language. Lexicographers know better than most people that words are in verbal use long before they can be found in print.
Ms Lesser affects to believe that off-limits was a new phrase in 1952, and that it ‘marked an era of regimentation’. I do not know when the phrase entered American usage, but it must surely have been shortly after the first American military base was established in or near a town. The British Army, in my brief but intensive experience, did not label areas or establishments ‘out of bounds’, but imposed curfews and used local orders enforced by military police patrols to produce much the same effect. When I was in Cairo in 1944 there was a story that MPs raiding a brothel found a stark naked squaddie in a room whence all but he had fled. Asked the typically stupid question ‘What are you doing here?’ he was said to have replied: ‘Waiting for my dhobi, corporal.’ (Dhobi: the Hindi word for ‘laundry’, current army slang, given in OED.) He deserved to get away with it for wit and presence of mind, even if the establishment had been declared ‘off-limits’ in published orders. The American phrase was in current use among all those in contact with the US Army in the Second World War, as I can certify from my experience as a liaison officer with that army in 1944-5.
As for rubberiness and gabbiness, they are hardly coinages, since adding ‘-ness’ can turn any adjective into a noun, even nouns that have never been heard, nor seen in print, and probably never will be, as crossword-puzzle addicts know to their cost.
Plung only avoids being a hapax because Betjeman used it twice, and the OED definition of hapax legomenon is: ‘A word or form of which only one instance is recorded in literature or an author.’ Using it twice gets in under the wire, since there appears to be (subject to correction) no word to describe a usage that is confined to one author. I would have thought that plung could have been classed a nonce-word, since one of the definitions of that term in an OED quotation is: ‘nonce-words, i.e. spontaneous creations by a speaker or writer, coined for the occasion’.
Vol. 18 No. 22 · 14 November 1996
No sooner had I written about a curious echo of Edward FitzGerald in Virginia Woolf (Letters, 17 October) than along comes evidence of a collaboration which has gone unremarked in such books as Hermione Lee’s. Although Nigel Nicolson included, in his 1975 volume of Letters, a 1902 letter from Virginia Stephen to Henry Newbolt, he did not point out that it had been first published 43 years earlier, in Newbolt’s memoirs, My World as in My Time. This explains why she should have expressed ‘great pleasure – and pride’ when thanking him for sending her a poem. Newbolt recalls walking with her and Sir Leslie Stephen in Kensington Gardens during the Boer War: ‘I remember too that when the time came for making peace, one of his daughters made a comment which stirred me with a sympathetic emotion. I made haste to write it down in verse, and sent it back to her.’ Here it is,‘Peace’:
No more to watch by Night’s eternal shore,
With England’s chivalry at dawn to ride;
No more defeat, faith, victory – O! no more
A cause on earth for which we might have died.
No masterpiece, but fodder for the continuing discussion of her views on empire, war, masculinity and suchlike.
Vol. 18 No. 23 · 28 November 1996
Gerald Long (Letters, 17 October) is quite right in asserting that the expression off limits pre-dates 1952. H.H. Jenkins’s Diction of ‘Yank’ cites references from 1942 (‘It’s even off-limits for the MPs’) and from 1943 (‘We were bush-whacking in the off-limits weeds’). However, off limits can in fact be traced sixty years earlier than this. The draft revision of the OED’s entry includes this reference from West Point Tic Tacs of 1878 (uncovered by the crack word-watcher David Shulman): ‘Off limits – to go outside of cadet limits – to run it.’
Chief Editor, OED