Friday, 3 July 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Platt-ee-tyood-in-uhs-nuhs: Noun: the state of being platitudinous.

Related terms: platitudinous, adjective, characterized by or given to platitudes; platitudinal, adjective; and platitudinously, adverb; all of which spring, rather unsurprisingly, from platitude, noun: a flat, dull, or trite remark, especially one uttered as if it were fresh or profound.

Platitude is a late seventeenth century term from the Old French, plat, flat, plus –itude, a suffix appearing in abstract nouns of Latin origin (latitude, altitude, magnitude) and indicating a state or condition which, in the case of platitude, is one of dullness, flatness or vapidity. The sense of a trite remark came in around 1815, possibly just after Wellington had observed, at Waterloo, “Hard pounding this, gentlemen; let's see who will pound longest” and, in dire need of some insouciant put-down of a comeback, the French may have retorted with the rather sneeringly dismissive, “il est simplement une platitude.” And then got pounded off the field. Not that we English ever care to remind them of the fact, mind you. Anyhow, the term spawned a whole host of related ones, many of which are teetering on the very brink of platitude themselves, such as: platitudinarian, a somewhat grandiose noun for what is, after all, a complete dullard who fondly imagines he’s got something worth saying, but hasn’t (we do hope there are no accusatory fingers being pointed in a certain direction at this moment); platitudinarianism, an addiction to spoken or written expression in platitudes or a staleness of both language and ideas, also called platitudinism; and platitudinise, to utter platitudes.
In the end, they all boil down to triteness in the remark-making department, a shortcoming that we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another, though only as mere beginners in comparison to those arch and undisputed, never-knowingly-outdulled stuffed shirts of ours, the politicians, who never seem to tire of spouting the trite, calling it a “soundbite” and then grinning inanely over their assumed cleverness like a Cheshire cheese. Yes, we realise it should be Cheshire cat but we’re talking about the Westminster Brigade here, so our allusion is perhaps a tad more apposite. Take our beloved Prime Minister, David Camembert, for instance: rich, smooth and very, very cheesy. And stinks to high heaven. Only kidding, Dave. Keep up the good work – plenty more poor people to be flogged yet a while.
So, a platitude is a trite comment, but what of trite itself? It’s one of those terms we use easily enough but, if you’re anything like us, without ever really pinning down its actual meaning, which seems to have become somewhat hackneyed or worn away through constant usage. Coincidentally enough, the root of trite is tritus, the past tense of terere, to rub or wear down, the original meaning of trite being something that has worn down through constant usage. Like the word trite, in fact. Detritus, detriment and attrition are all from the same root and even throw is a near neighbour. Meanwhile, hackneyed is another such term and does actually come from the name of the place in London – well, it’s in London now but, way back in the fourteenth century, Hackney was out in the sticks by the side of a dirty great marsh, where our medieval cousins liked nothing better than the raising and keeping of horses, which they would then hire out to all-comers for any kind of work whatsoever, so long as it looked like bringing in a groat or two at the end of the day, from which we get the idea of a hack being something or somebody hired out for common or mundane work, such as a hack writer. As for the poor beasts themselves, never the finest specimens of horsehood to begin with, they were pretty much worked into the ground until they were completely and utterly knackered – alas, quite literally. The actual knackering would ultimately be carried out by a knacker, of course, who was the rather unsavoury character you would summon the services of in order to dispose of your dilapidated steed (also known as a knacker by that stage) and cart it off to a knackery (euphemistically known as a “rendering works,” though in that sense – to treat as mere meat and bones – it does tend to make the ghastly phrase “extraordinary rendition” somewhat less euphemistic than perhaps they intended), the word knacker possibly stemming from an Old Norse word for saddle, hnakkur, related to hnakki, back of the neck, as in nape.
Despite the fact that the Ancient Greeks inhabited a homeland that was – and still is, obviously – made up of eighty percent mountains, making it one of the most peak-ridden nations in Europe, they still found themselves in need of a way to express the concept, “Isn’t it not hilly,” so they came up with platys, which actually means broad as much as flat, but it’s still where most words relating to flat spring from, though the Old English flet referred to a dwelling or a floor and is how it came to mean a storey of a house. Nowadays, especially if you happen to be an estate agent, the word flat is used to indicate any living space slightly larger than a cupboard in which it’s possible to cram in both a bed and a shower at the same time, and the idea of any cat-swinging activities merely a pipe-dream (it seems that that our Elizabethan colleagues went in for stuffing cats into leather pouches and then swinging them from tree branches so that they could take potshots at them – check Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick says that if he does marry, “you can hang me in a Bottle like a cat, and shoot at me”). Which these estate agents then condescendingly describe as “bijou” and think we don’t know that what they mean is “outrageously tiny” – so, next time you hear that “little gem” (quite literally), your response should be, “what, about the size of a small Breton finger ring, you mean?” See if that don’t wipe the supercilious leer off the smug blighter’s face for him.

Also from platys comes plate, of course, by which, these days, we understand as “a shallow dish for food,” though it originally meant a thin piece of metal, then a flat piece of gold or silver and eventually, by about 1250 or so, a round coin. Coin itself comes from the Old French, coing, meaning wedge (from Latin, cuneus), the die for stamping coins being wedge-shaped and, by a curious coincidence, wedge is now a slang term for money, as in “he’s got wedge on the hip” (for our overseas readers, that translates as: he has a large wad of banknotes folded – in a naturally-formed wedge shape – in his trouser pocket). Plate-glass as a term was first recorded in 1727, whilst the geological sense of plates was first attested in 1904, and good old plate tectonics only as recently as 1969. However, plateful, in the posh or celebrity restaurant sense, has never been recorded, thanks to the “bijou” helpings they tend to serve up, where your main problems are, first, finding it and, second, identifying what in the name of tarnation it’s actually supposed to be when it’s not cowering beneath a shred of lettuce.

Much along the same lines comes platter, which is pretty much still a plate, though, in this case, the expectation is for it to be a whopping great big one shaped in an oval, generally used for bearing a variety of foodstuffs. As often as not, the word “Platter” will be preceded by the more menacing one of “Seafood” and, in a very short space of time indeed, the both of them will find themselves in the same sentence with the term “violent food-poisoning.” We’ve all heard the ditty about, “Cockles and mussels alive, alive-o,” but it’s what they’re alive with is what you should be most concerned about. Still on the subject of seafood, we now head back to old Hellas many centuries ago, where a couple of Ancient Greeks are perched on a ridge, gazing down in contemplation of the pure cerulean waters of the Aegean – it’d be Plato and Pliny, as likely as not – when, all at once, one of them leaps to his feet and cries, “By Jupiter, Aristocles! Did you see that? It looked like some kind of massive great fish, only broad and flat and not like a fish at all.” (Plato was really a nickname meaning “broad,” remember, so Pliny wouldn’t’ve called him that, unless he wanted to end up in a half-nelson – Plato was a wrestler too, you recall). Calm as you like, Plato reminds Pliny that Jupiter is actually a Roman god and did he mean Zeus, by any chance, before replying that, “Yes, Gaius, I did see it” (meaning it must’ve been Pliny the Elder) “what d’you reckon we should call it then?” So Pliny has a ponder and a cogitate on this weighty matter, thinking that this sounds like something good to bung into his Naturalis Historia, and then says, “Well, it was both broad and flat, so how about Platys?” Plato smiles in a condescending beardy sort of way, berates Pliny for being nothing but a big girl’s chiton and then says, “No, my lad, we need something a bit more subtle than just “flatfish” for this job. Let’s tweak that idea a smidgen and turn it into Plaice – that way, in many years to come, the whole of England will marvel at just how incredibly amusing it is to call half a nation’s fish-and-chip shops “Dave’s Plaice.” Sadly, he was only half right.

Then there’s plane, of course – your flat surface – and plain, as in Salisbury Plain – again your flat surface – though these might just possibly derive from the Greek, pelanos, a sort of sacrificial cake of meal, honey and oil that was poured out or spread. Granted, a poured cake is a difficult idea to get your head around (never mind your teeth), having never actually been to a celebrity restaurant, that is. The Romans might use the Latin, planus, for a plain but, more commonly, they would refer to it as “campus.” Generally, with campus, what they would be talking about was a field, though with the implication of its being surrounded by woods or higher ground and the like, the prize for first usage in a college sense going to Princeton in 1774. From campus we get campaign, via the Old French, champagne, meaning open countryside as well as (eventually) the sparkling wine, which they’d been brewing up since medieval times, ostensibly for use in church masses, though actually they just wanted to outdo the hated Burgundians, only they didn’t have the right soil for the job. Champagne was invented by Benedictine monks, though not by Dom Pérignon (he was one too), and was originally known as the devil’s wine because the bottles kept exploding under the pressure, right up until when we English came to the rescue and engineered a way of making glass that could withstand it all, so you could say we invented champagne, especially seeing that the French liked theirs hideously sweet so, in order to break into the English markets (we’ve always guzzled it like true dypsos), they had to come up with a Brut version in 1876.

Ever since we mentioned the word Platys, some of you will have been waiting for the obvious one to finally float into view, by which we mean, of course, platypus. It translates as “flatfoot,” which is a bit mean really, seeing only two of its feet are actually flat and it does have other more noticeable features. Like its hooter, for a start off. This is like your natural world medieval scribe, seeing it’s having a right old laugh by evolving into something that no scientist is going to believe in when they first clap eyes on it and, in fact, George Shaw, who produced the first description in the Naturalist's Miscellany in 1799, took a pair of scissors to the specimen he received to cut the stitches where he thought someone had cobbled it together from leftover carcases. The name Platypus had already gone by the time they came across this animal (to another flatfoot, the wood-boring ambrosia beetle), so they added on secondary bit, ornithorhynkhos, which means "bird snout" in Greek and "duck-like" in Latin. Don’t be fooled by the cuddly appearance, mind: those back feet, on the blokes at least, come fully armed with venom-injecting spurs used for fighting off other males during the mating season (whereas the human male relies on lager), which can cause excruciating pain if used on a person. Thousands of years of completely separate evolution and yet, in the end, it boils down to the same thing: fighting over women. Finally then, anyone care to hazard a guess as to the correct pluralisation of platypus? Ticklish one, because nobody can agree on it. The boffin brigade tends to settle for platypuses or simply platypus (as in fish and sheep, both for singular and plural), while platypi has been known, though scoff if you hear it, seeing it’s pseudo-Latin and the word is from Greek, so the correct plural should be platypodes.

Now, is there a plural of Platitudinousness … ?


Richard Ansdell — The Fight For The Standard: Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user Sting [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
David Cameron: See page for author [OGL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Knacker: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Benedick: By Max Cowper [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Coins: By Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil (Contando Dinheiro) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Plato’s Academy Mosaic: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dom Pérignon: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Venerable Bede: By The original uploader was Timsj at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Platypus Drawing: John Gould [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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