Stuck on Macs

Recently I was stuck on the tarmac at JFK in New York for about forty minutes waiting for my plane to take off and began musing on the word “tarmac.”

It’s an abbreviation of “tarmacadam”: a mixture of tar and crushed stones originally used for paving roads. It was invented by Scottish surveyor John Loudon McAdam (1756–1836), but very early on the spelling mutated to “tar macadam” and other variants using the spelling “macadam” rather than the original “McAdam.”

The French adopted the word with the same spelling of the inventor’s name: "Mac Adam" and “Mac-Adam.” It looks as if non-Scots were reluctant to use the original “Mc” form and resorted to the more phonetic spelling (though both spellings are common in Scotland).

When you are “immortalized” by having your name misspelled it’s a mixed blessing.

Newscasters love to use the word “tarmac” when discussing flight delays, though the airlines themselves are more prone to say “runway”; but the press did not invent this usage. By the second decade of the 20th century airport runways were commonly referred to as “tarmacs.”

Even when runways began to be made principally of concrete, they continued to be called “tarmacs” in both the US and UK. However, in Britain “tarmac” is commonly used to denote ordinary road surfaces as well, whereas in the US the word has become restricted to airports and used almost entirely in the context of flight delays.

Feeling stuck on my plane with the minutes ticking by, I felt a bit like Br’er Rabbit stuck to the tar baby in the 1880 Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus story. Harris may well have collected the tale from authentic African-American sources. Wikipedia notes that variants of this story occur in many cultures, including West African, Native American, South American, and even Indian tales.

Further musing on UK uses of “mac” I remembered that  raincoats are commonly called “mackintoshes”—abbreviated “mac” or “mack” in Britain. The process by which such waterproof coats were originally made was invented by Charles Macintosh (1766–1843), according to the Oxford English Dictionary “consisting of two or more layers of cloth cemented together with India rubber dissolved in naphtha.”

”Mac” became an informal name for any random Scot in England and was adopted in the US in the early 20th century as a generic term for any man whose name was unknown by the speaker, usually in an insulting or threatening context, often with the spelling slightly altered: “What’s it to you, Mack?” (Compare with “Bud,” used similarly.)

I’m typing this on a Macintosh computer, commonly referred to as a “Mac.” You can always tell non-Mac users when they spell the word in all caps: “MAC.” (See my entry on MAC/Mac for more details.)

Steve Jobs originally wanted to name the successor to the Apple II computer “McIntosh” after the apple thus named, but that spelling was already being used by the McIntosh Laboratory which built high-end audio equipment. The company refused to give him  a release to use the name, so the spelling was changed before the computer was marketed.

Well, I've been stuck on my Mac for long enough and I need to think about lunch—maybe a tasty bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese?


A Bunch of Baloney

Huffington Post writer Caroline Bologna reached out to me recently for a piece she was doing relating to her last name. She wound up quoting an excerpt from my entry on Baloney/Bologna: Common Errors in English Usage. It appeared today.

Here’s the relevant paragraph:
When it comes to the bullshit or nonsense definition, both Liberman and Zimmer agree that people should use the standard spelling “baloney” rather than “bologna.” Paul Brians, the author of Common Errors in English Usage, echoed that sentiment, writing on his website, “People who write ‘bunch of bologna’ are making a pun or are just being pretentious.”
And here’s the entire entry.


Getting Down with “Uppers”

Recently I was reading a Latin American novel in a British translation and ran across the expression “on his uppers.” I’ve seen variations of this phrase before, always in negative contexts. It makes little intuitive sense to an American for whom “uppers” are usually stimulants or otherwise elevating experiences. The common contexts for this expression suggest something more like what we call “downers.”

This time I decided to check it out.

It does turn out that “uppers” is British public school slang for students of “upper schools,” sort of like our “secondary schools.” But that can’t be the meaning here.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms provides a clear explanation:
Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in . . . The Smiths try to hide the fact that they're on their uppers. First recorded in 1886, this metaphoric term alludes to having worn out the soles of one’s shoes so badly that only the top portions remain.
So it means roughly the same thing as British “skint” (US “broke”}.

Other sources provide the fuller but seemingly paradoxical form of the expression “down on one’s uppers.”

Having recently discovered a hole in the sole of my expensive Ecco shoes, I can understand continuing to use worn footwear; but one wouldn’t continue to wear uppers if the soles were completely gone, so this has to be a joking exaggeration enhanced by the addition of “down to.”

The expression is so widespread in UK English that I wonder whether all speakers realize the allusion to worn shoes embodied in it.

I also found that in my copy of the 1997 American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the  proofreaders had missed a slip-up in their definition. The reason I inserted the ellipsis in my quotation is that the actual sentence begins: “Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in as in. . . ” Repetitions like this are notoriously hard to spot, but still—what a downer.


Taking Care

Last night at the Emmy awards, the director of Game of Thrones told author George R. R. Martin, “Thank you for letting us take care of your people.”

Given the low survival rate of characters in the series, I take it this is the same form of the expression as when a Mafia hitman says, “Don’t worry about those guys any more, boss. I took care of them.”


Rails and Walls

In a story about newly registered young voters in the New York Times (8/26/18) a young man is quoted as saying “The country has just gone off the walls since Trump got elected.”

This didn’t sound quite right to me. The usual expression is “off the wall”—singular—not “walls.”

In addition “off the wall” is normally used as adjectival phrase modifying some noun: “He made some off-the-wall remarks.”

(Unless, of course, you’re discussing handball.)

It refers to erratic, eccentric, unexpected actions. Occurring first in the 1950’s, it may have referred to the erratic, unpredictable behavior of balls bouncing off walls, such as baseball outfield fences.

Then I realized that the young man perhaps had this phrase confused with the much older one, “off the rails.” It originated a century earlier when everyone was aware that a railroad engine running off the rails could cause a true disaster.  It is used to describe things going not just unpredictably, but catastrophically.

Its close relation is “trainwreck.” So a political campaign that goes off the rails will probably end in a trainwreck.

Young people born in the 21st century probably don’t have railroads much in mind. Having heard the expression “off the rails” and confusing it with “off the wall,” the young man probably carried the plural S over onto the "wall” and came up with the expression “gone off the walls.”

But there's also the expression “bouncing off the walls,” usually describing childish hyperactivity. That could also be the source of the plural form.

Whatever he meant, congratulations to him for getting registered. We need a lot more young people to follow his example.

Subsaharan Suffixes

I recently noticed in a story in the New York Times about efforts to prevent migrants from crossing the Sahara to reach Europe that the adjective used in connection with the country involved was “Nigerien.” For a moment I thought shouldn’t that be “Nigerian”?

But then I realized the story was about Niger, where the official national language is French, so the French suffix -ien makes perfect sense; whereas the official national language of Nigeria is English, so the -ian suffix is correct.

Plus—that way you can tell them apart, right?

Good to know.