Words & Stuff

c: The Elusive Stormy Petrel (Reader Comments)

(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:

legs can be akimbo, too
I've only heard "legs akimbo" as a joke; my dictionary defines "akimbo" as involving having hands on hips, elbows bent, so legs would be difficult. But I suppose if a joke on a petrel becomes common enough usage, the petrel is no longer a petrel. And every time the question comes up, someone mentions "legs akimbo," so I suspect the dictionary definition of "akimbo" is just out of synch with usage...

"Four-in-hand" [can be] used for [...] a four horse carriage.
I believe that's only in noun form, not adjective. But I'm not convinced that the term can be used as an adjective with "tie" either; it's usually a noun there too. So I'm not sure this is a petrel regardless of the carriage meaning.

I sometimes use snaggle with branch.
I suspect idiosyncratic usage. Anyone else use it this way?

Dander -- you can also wash it out, get rid of it, comb it out, etc (usually with cats.)
Very true. I've changed the entry to indicate that the petrel is really MY DANDER (though I suppose one could claim ownership to dander from one's cat).

I sometimes use mete in other ways than punishment -- for things that must be distributed. (I'll grant you, I don't use it thus very often)
The dictionary supports this usage by implication, and I just saw METE used without OUT or PUNISHMENT in a sports article (to "mete suspensions," meaning the same as "to mete out suspensions"), so I'm leaning toward removing it from the list. Anyone else?

He is ensconced in the corner. I use it that way more than the way given.
Hmm. Again, the dictionary definition supports this usage, and Dominus apparently uses it that way too. Any other takers? (If transitive verb and intransitive verb are different parts of speech, one could argue that ENSCONCE as a transitive verb must take the object MYSELF; that is, you can't ensconce someone else. But that may be stretching the definition of a stormy petrel.)

You can also be bestride a horse.
Arthur did some research on the Web and found several examples (including a couple of modern ones) of BESTRIDE without LIKE A COLOSSUS. So I'm afraid it's not long for the list.

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


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>