04 March 2009

Recalling interesting children

I've been puzzled by two terms recently -- "recall" and "interesting children".

Recall, in the sense of calling to mind, or remembering, is well known. So is the idea of recalling someone to duty.

But a couple of years ago the news media began referring to a "recall referendum" for President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

That suggested that he had ceased to be president some time ago, and now was being recalled to duty as president, something similar to what happened to Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, until she was assassinated, so she didn't return to office.

But no, President Chavez wasn't returning to duty, since he was already there. The "recall" referendum actually meant just the opposite from what one would expect. It was not to recall him to duty as president, but actually to kick him out. In the event, he wasn't kicked out, but stayed there.

But since then the talking heads on South African TV and radio have begun talking about the "recall" of the late President Thabo Mbeki. I haven't heard anyone saying that Tony Blair was "recalled" as British prime minister, but perhaps that is not far off.

This came up for discussion in the alt.usage.english newsgroup, where people began discussing words that mean opposite things in American English and other varieties of English.

Two well-known examples are "table" and "moot point". In most English speaking countries if you table a report, you present it to a committee or other deliberative body to consider and discuss. In American English, however, if you table a report, you do the opposite -- you decide not to discuss or consider it.

Similarly, a "moot point" is usually a debatable one, one that one disagrees with, but in American English it means a point that is not worth debating.

So "recall" seems to be another word like "table" -- meaning one thing in one place, and the opposite in other places.

Well, not quite, as it emerged from the discussion in alt.usage.english.

In the US, many elective offices, such as that of the president, are for a fixed term. There is no provision for presidents or governors or mayors to resign, as Tony Blair and Thabo Mbeki did. So in some cases they can have a kind of "unelection", where they can unelect certain officials -- not the president, apparently, but the governors of certain states and mayors of certain cities. And, paradoxical as it may seem, this "unelection" is called a "recall"; only instead of recalling someone to office, if there are enough votes, the person is removed from office.

So the talking heads better wise up. Thabo Mbeki was not "recalled", not even in the American sense. He felt obliged to resign, which is something different. We did not have a general election to unelect him, which is what "recall" means in the American sense.

The other term, "interesting children", is much older, and the problem with it is that nobody seems to remember what it meant.

It was found in death announcements in newspapers, especially in Ireland, about 150 years ago, where one would find things like "two interesting children died last week". Or "Emma Jane Smith, daughter of Mr John Smith, an interesting child, died last Tuesday".

It was obviously so familiar that no one saw fit to explain it, and now I can't find anyone who knows what it actually means. I've written more fully about it in my genealogy blog.

If anyone has some definite information about it, please let me know.


Fr. Andrew said...

I looked in my OED about the interesting child question. I have one of the "compact" editions that came out in the early 1970s, and I found this usage for interesting in the supplement at the back. They have quotes for this usage ranging from 1748 to 1930.

It refers to being pregnant (being in "an interesting condition") or birth itself (an "interesting event"). Based on this, I would say that an "interesting child" is one who is either in the womb or in the process of being born. These obituaries are, I would guess, for stillbirths.

Fr. Andrew said...

I just looked at the post on your genealogy weblog and saw that the term is also being used to refer to children who are quite young. Perhaps interesting is being used by extension to refer to a little child.

Fr. Andrew said...

Just as a further note (if so many comments may be tolerated), I think recall in American political use refers (originally, perhaps) not so much to the person but to the election, i.e., that the election is being recalled to the ballot to be considered again.

Steve Hayes said...

Fr Andrew,

Does the OED have any entries for the term "interesting child"?

It seems that some children who died were described as interesting, while others were not.

Fr. Andrew said...

There isn't an entry for the phrase in the edition I have.

Perhaps the term only applied to children under a certain age.


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