Friday, 26 August 2016
It's Friday again (kind of barely), meaning it's time for another batch o' words. I must note that I have been enjoying these later days of summer—not just because of the weather (that too, of course), but because we're seeing the last days before school buses and student-bearing minivans again clog the streets. However: words!
The first new-to-me word this week is sickboating. This term refers to an attempt among certain politicians or partisan media commentators to suggest that Hillary Clinton is ill in some way—epilepsy, dementia, something. I got this term from an article in Esquire. Almost all of the references I can find point back to this article, although the article itself uses the term without quotation marks. The whole story started only a few weeks ago, so perhaps this really is a brand-new term.
Politics aside, the term is linguistically interesting in a couple of ways. It alludes to swiftboating, a term invented during the 2004 American presidential-election season to refer to the smear campaign mounted against John Kerry, who had served in the US Navy on a so-called Swift Boat, a fact he touted as part of his campaign. During the election season, Kerry was attacked via an orchestrated effort (supposedly by other Swift Boat veterans) that sought to discredit Kerry's service. This type of political smearing quickly became known as swiftboating.
In sickboating, we see boating breaking further away from its original sense of the actual boat and taking on more clearly the semantics of "smear campaign." This is reminiscent of the way that gate become unmoored from Watergate (the name of a hotel) to become a generic suffix meaning "scandal." With boating serving as a particle for "smear campaign," we're now free to add words to the front of it to suggest the nature of that campaign. In this case, it's Clinton's supposed illness, hence sick. It would be not surprising at all to see other compounds along these lines.
Full disclosure: There might already be such compounds. I was mostly interested in sickboating this week as a term new to me.
For etymological fun this week I have the word code. Recently I was reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. He writes about DNA as a code, and at one point he says "The word code comes from caudex—the pith of the tree that was used to scratch out early manuscripts." So a code—something encoded—derives from a word for tree pith?
The sequence of code < codex < caudex is solid. What's not entirely clear is Mukherjee's reference to pith and "scratching out" manuscripts. Caudex does refer to a tree trunk (per the OED). In my reading, pith is the soft part of a plant's core, whereas it sounds like early books were wooden tablets covered with wax upon which people scratched writing. So I'm a bit mystified by the pith part, but am otherwise happy to learn that code refers to a tree trunk. Whodathunk.
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Friday words, language