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Last Words - Flashes and Fizzles
by Alec McEwen

ECOTAGE, SABOTAGE. The Financial Post reported that the Canadian founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society threatened to send "trained ecotage agents to spike trees" in British Columbia. Ecotage, which came into use about 20 years ago, is a shortened combination of ecology and sabotage, both of which made their first appearance in the 19th century. But whereas ecology, the relationship between living things and their environment, is essentially a variant of economy, the origin of sabotage, in its modem sense of destroying machinery or disrupting projects, remains unclear. A common explanation is that sabotage described the action of French railway strikers in cutting the sabots or shoes that held the rails. Another suggestion is that the word referred to the trampling down of a landowner's crops by sabot-shod peasants who demanded better wages and working conditions. It is also claimed that sabotage originated when factory workers threw their wooden shoes into machines to damage the plant.

GENUINE ARTICLE. A recent British book, No Day Too Long, is subtitled An Hydrographer's Tale. Even the conservative, some would say outdated, Fowler in his Modern English Usage regarded as "meaningless & undesirable" the placing of an before a word beginning with an h that is clearly aspirated. Whereas an correctly precedes words with an initial silent h, such as heir and honest, its retention for other words that start with that letter depends on the user's pronunciation. The h in herb, for example, may be pronounced or not in accepted North American usage, and it is sometimes left unstressed in hotel and historic. But an hydrographer suggests an affectation that seems inappropriate for a professional maker of nautical charts.

PODIUM, LECTERN. A Calgary Herald report that the chairman of American Airlines protested the threatened loss of his company's reservation system by "pounding the podium for emphasis" might suggest that the executive expressed his frustration white kneeling or lying on the floor. Podium, a raised platform on which a speaker or performer stands, derives from the diminutive of the Greek word for foot. Lectern, from a Latin source, means a desk that carries material from which a speaker reads, as in a lecture. Although the pod- and lect- prefixes ought to make the distinction clear, there is a tendency to replace lectern by podium when it is the desk, not the platform, that is referred to. Some authorities, such as Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, accept podium as synonymous with lectern, thereby opening the door to possible ambiguity.

ALL THAT GLISTERS. "This is not a flash in the pan," commented a Financial Post analyst, with respect to the rising gold market. At first sight, the expression might appear to refer to the illusory flecks of shiny material that are found during gold panning in placer mining. Yet the true source is the ancient flintlock firearm, in which a shallow pan containing a small quantity of gunpowder receives a spark that primes the main charge in the barrel of the weapon. Sometimes when the trigger is pulled, perhaps because of dampness or a blocked touch-hole, the striking of the flint-bearing cock against the pan cover produces nothing more than a harmless flash or fizzle.

BABY AND BATHWATER. A Calgary Herald columnist, writing about the difficulty of reconciling opposition to censorship with abhorrence for violent expression, attempted to improve a popular metaphor by resolving to "be on guard lest the baby of truth and genuine debate not be thrown out with the tidal wave of sewage." Unfortunately, his inclusion of the word not produced the reverse effect of what he evidently intended. To throw out the baby with the bathwater means to discard the essential together with the inessential. Although the phrase seems to have become common in English usage around the beginning of the century, it had been long predated by a German equivalent.

LAUDATORY, LAUDABLE. As quoted by the Financial Post, the executive director of the Association of Alberta Taxpayers undoubtedly intended to support the province's budget when he described it as "very laudatory." It is not at all uncommon for finance ministers to brag about their government's good fiscal management, but it remains for others to assess their performance. Laudatory means expressive of praise, laudable means deserving of it.


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