September 23, 2007

Bagatelling around

In the September 6 issue of Nature, a verb caught me up short (Phileppe Claeys and Steven Goderis, "Solar System: Lethal billiards"):

A huge collision in the asteroid belt 160 million years ago sent fragments bagatelling around the inner Solar System. One piece might have caused the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The only use I ever see for bagatelle is "a mere bagatelle", with the occasional reference to Beethoven's bagatelles. But the fragments of this cosmic collision seem to have been anything but trifles or fun bits of light music. No self-respected copy editor would pass "sent fragments baubling around the inner Solar System", full as this may be of poetic possibilities. I suppose that "fragments gavotting around" might make it, but a musical bagatelle is not really a dance, as far as I know. Was an editor at Nature asleep at the switch? Unlikely. So I looked it up.

The OED gives the first sense of bagatelle as "A trifle, a thing of no value or importance", and sense 1.b. as "A piece of verse or music in a light style". But then comes

2. A game played on a table having a semi-circular end at which are nine holes. The balls used are struck from the opposite end of the board with a cue. The name is sometimes applied to a modified form of billiards known also as semi-billiards.

So apparently for some people, bagatelling is roughly the same as caroming.

By the way, it looks like the game derived from the trifle rather than the other way around -- the earliest citation for bagatelle-the-game is 1819, while bagatelle-the-trifle goes back to 1645. The OED gives the etymology as

[a. F. bagatelle, ad. It. bagatella, a dim. form which Diez attaches to Parmesan bagata a little property, prob. from baga: see BAGGAGE. With bagatello, cf. -ADO suffix 2. Formerly quite naturalized in sense 1, now scarcely so; sense 2 is purely Eng. in origin and use.]

This would help explain why, as an American, I couldn't make any sense of asteroid fragments bagatelling around the solar system.

In looking at patterns of usage in news writing, I didn't find any other examples of things (great or small) bagatelling around. However, I did come across another unexpected development. Some writers -- apparently mostly British Commonwealth, though the sample is small -- use the collocation "mere bagatelle" as if it were a mass noun, with no article:

Australia: At the same time, another was hanging on as if life itself depended on it, saying four election victories and 11 years in office was mere bagatelle.
U.K.: On an executive car, this premium would be mere bagatelle.
U.K.: Ken Bates was looking towards a person for whom a couple of hundred million is mere bagatelle and in Mr Abramovich he appears to have found such a guy.
U.K. However, this is mere bagatelle compared with what the pension funds hold in equities.

Perhaps this is due to thinking of the billiards-game ("this is child's play") rather than the bauble ("this is only a trifle") ? Or maybe it's a generalization from the commonly-anarthrous use in headlines? Anyhow, I'm used to seeing this cliché with "a" in front of it, like this:

U.S. If you think there is a gas crunch now, marked by the largest oil price spike in a generation, it will be a bagatelle when China and India bring a couple of billion more people on to their highways...
U.K. As we report today, this is likely to make his current £400,000 a year stipend - enough in itself to buy 134,000 Wetherspoon breakfasts - seem a mere bagatelle.
N.Z. We are not going to let a mere bagatelle like that sour our relationship going into the future.

Wow, two "new" uses of the same word in one day.

[Update -- Rick Sprague writes to report another (though) related sense:

Growing up in central New York in the 1950s, I remember having one of those little novelties you use to keep kids busy on car trips. It was named "Bagatelle" and consisted of a cardboard disc with eight or so dimples in it, and an equal number of tiny metal balls, with a clear plastic cover sealing them in. The goal, of course, was to coax one ball into each dimple without dislodging the others.

I don't think I ever encountered the word bagatelle anywhere else, and until your LL post didn't realize it had a meaning at all, but now it's obvious that the name came from the "trifle" meaning. And yet, if you've ever tried to work such a puzzle while bouncing down country roads, the "carom" meaning is also very relevant. So to me, the two meanings just naturally blend, and "fragments bagatelling around the inner Solar System" evokes a nice space-themed pinball machine image in my mind.

I would have guessed that the balls-in-dimples game was named as a sort of palm-top billiards analogue. Either way, Lindsay Marshall sent in a link to high-class British wooden version -- well, really more of a primitive pinball machine, as far as I can tell -- "true to Jaques original design, as supplied to Queen Victoria". Lindsay's comment:

Let me point you to this other version of bagatelle (which is the one most familiar to me, indeed I have a board like this in my front room) and in this game the marbles really do bagatelle around because of all the pins.

If such a game was really supplied to Queen Victoria, under the name of "bagatelle", it's uncharacteristic for the OED to have missed this sense for so long. But Thomas Thurman sent a note suggesting that these quasi-pinball versions are to be considered merely automated versions of the game played with a cue stick:

I should possibly note (as a British English speaker) that although the game "bagatelle" is the primary meaning of the word in my head and I'd be unlikely to produce it in the other sense (though I'd recognise it), I've never heard the word used as a verb, so the Nature usage still seems odd to me.

(Incidentally, most modern bagatelle sets have the striker/cue spring-loaded, so you just have to draw it back for it to hit the balls. This reduces the skill required somewhat. Often they are also made of plastic and use ball bearings instead of wood with little wooden balls.)


[Douglas Sundseth writes

he machine you and your correspondents are describing as a "Bagatelle" sounds very much like the popular Japanese gambling diversion known as "Pachinko". The latter term is quite familiar to me, but I've not heard the former usage previously. A cursory search turned up this page, which seems to imply that Pachinko is a derivative of Bagatelle.

Finally, a search on "pachinkoing around" returned this fragment:

"Granted, I didn't go on the month-long herd'em along pachinkoing-around tour of China."

which seems to be closely related to the usage of bagatelle that you report.

Well {" pinballing around"} gets 1,200 Google hits -- the metaphor works, once you know what the word means. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 23, 2007 08:13 AM