(3 June 1997)
The stormy petrel has proved even more elusive than I originally thought. Many of the reader comments have been roughly of the form "You bozo, [x] isn't a stormy petrel!" for some x. (Only more polite, of course.) Some such comments were right on the mark; others I'm more wary of. More on that in a minute.
But first, I'd better clear up the matter of what exactly constitutes a petrel.
Item one: whether a word is a petrel or not depends on how the word is used (that is, on the syntax, what people say when they say the word), not on the word's meaning (the semantics). Thus, although the term "single-malt" invariably refers to a kind of Scotch whiskey, "single-malt" isn't a petrel because you can say both "single-malt Scotch" and "single-malt whiskey." I apologize for the confusion on this point; I should've explained what a petrel is much more clearly.
Item two: Elliott provided me with a much better set of criteria than I'd had before:
A Stormy Petrel is a phrase P containing a word W such that W cannot occur anywhere but in P. The best Petrels are therefore things like (P = "to and fro", W = "fro"), since "fro" cannot occur outside of "to and fro." "Cannot" means here that native speakers will reject "fro" in any other environment, like "back and fro." Until a better name comes along, let's call these "first-tier" Petrels.
There is also a second tier of Petrels which consist of a P and a W such that P is never observed outside of W. These would include things like (P = "dirndl skirt", W = "dirndl"), since I at least have never seen anything else described as dirndl. If, however, someone were to show me an Austrian peasant bicycling costume and call it "dirndl pants", I could accept that. "Dirndl pants" isn't ungrammatical, it's just unheard-of.
He adds that a third category consists of joke petrels, such as MAGINOT LINE; you could also talk about (as Dominus suggested) "the Maginot family," for instance, but the word "Maginot" is strongly associated with the word "line." Similarly, I like to say that every MANUEL NORIEGA is a PANAMANIAN STRONGMAN, since every news report I encountered around the time of the invasion of Panama took pains to refer to him that way.
In the category of debunking believed-petrels on the list, Amy Schmieder provided a bunch of counterexamples:
Arthur pointed out that my example of how not to use "bestride" was confusing, regardless of whether the word is a petrel; since it means "to stand across," you couldn't "bestride through the clouds" even if the "colossus" part weren't an issue. I bestride corrected.
Arthur also noted that one of the most interesting things about petrels is that most of them are sort of linguistic fossils, words that once were in common usage but now have fallen out of favor except in one particular context. Note that this idea is neither true of all petrels nor true only of petrels, but it is true of most petrels, and I agree that it's interesting.
...Now I know why they're called "stormy"there was a lot of tempestuous email over this one...
And there's plenty more where that came from. J Evans, for instance, provided a bunch of counterexamples that I'm still looking into, including: noble parlance, snub pistol (I've heard "snub-nose pistol," but not just "snub"not that it matters, since we already have snub cube as a counterexample), Stygian pits (but we've already got Stygian gloom), unrequited lust (which I usually hear as a sort of joke phrase), ebb away (but the petrel EBB TIDE uses EBB as an adjective, not a verb), and other uses of "scud."
And Chris Welty writes: "I enjoyed your list. I was unable to come up with any new ones but I will offer the not-so-delphic prophecy that you will descend into Stygian gloom when someone points out that there is a thing called a 'trilateral repo' in the financial markets. Perhaps some orange or lemon zest would cheer you up." I've moved STYGIAN and ZEST off the main list; what do other readers think of "delphic prophecy" and "trilateral repo"?
Back to column c
Back to main Words & Stuff page