World Wide Words
Issue 834: Saturday 1 June 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
3. Possessives with verbal nouns.
4. Barber’s cat.
Adoxography Erik Midelfort commented, “I enjoyed your entry and thought I might tell you that the Renaissance had another word for it: the mock encomium, in which the writer might laud silly things like a flea or a bit of dust. The classic of the genre was Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Praise of Folly (1516). You mentioned Erasmus but erroneously claimed that he had written something in 1556, which was 20 years after he died. [A typing error for 1536. Apologies.] You get into another bit of trouble on the origins of the word because the Greek word (doxa) did not mean primarily ‘glory’. That was the common meaning in the Bible, but the root meant something more like ‘opinion’, or ‘belief’, or ‘what seems to be true’.” Hence, as Allan Paris pointed out, our orthodox (conforming to generally accepted rules or beliefs), which derives from doxa, opinion, preceded by orthos, straight or right.
Short end of the stick “I would have surmised,” Alan Weyman wrote, “that getting the short end of the stick conflated getting the wrong end… with getting the short straw.” This last idiom is from the ancient selection method of drawing straws randomly from a set, which usually committed the person choosing the shortest one to an onerous or undesirable task. However, the expression is relatively modern, with the first example I can find being from the New York Times in 1904. This suggests it couldn’t have contributed to the creation of short end of the stick.
This was the name of a magazine which my eldest brother brought home when I was a child. Its cover featured a line drawing of an ancient vessel in full sail, which linked the word and the craft for me.
The etymological link is with the modern Croatian port of Dubrovnik, which was called Ragusa until after the Second World War. Together with Venice, on the other side of the Adriatic, it was an important Mediterranean trading port in the sixteenth century. A ragusa came to mean a ship from Ragusa and this was twisted by the English into argosy.
By Shakespeare’s time, it had become established as the term for a merchant ship of the very largest size, especially those of Venice and Ragusa, which is why Portia is able to say to Antonio at the end of the Merchant of Venice, “Unseal this letter soon; / There you shall find three of your argosies / Are richly come to harbour suddenly.”
Much later, argosy became a figurative way to speak of a rich supply of a material or something with valuable contents. It was given as a title to a literary digest, notably to the American pulp magazine published by Frank Munsey in 1882, but rather earlier to an English journal created by Alexander Strahan, which was revived in 1926 and was the one that I saw about 1948.
There’s no connection with the story of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed on the ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece.
3. Possessives with verbal nouns
Q From Matthew Brand: I was wondering if you could help me with a grammatical matter that has recently been vexing me. When a pronoun is immediately followed by a verbal noun, should it be an ordinary pronoun or a possessive pronoun? Take this example I found in Alice Montgomery’s biography of Katy Perry: “Now scarcely a day went by without them being mentioned in the press.” Shouldn’t it be “their being mentioned”?
A This is a tricky one, not easy to understand or explain.
The construction has been the subject of scholarly disputation for about the past three centuries. A verbal noun, also called a gerund, is the present participle of a verb (ending in -ing) used as a noun. Examples may help to explain the ways these -ing forms are used. In “Fred is driving home” or “Fred has been driving all day”, driving is a participle, part of a compound verb. In “The driving instructor told Fred to stop the car”, it’s a participle acting as an adjective. In “Driving is hard work” it’s a verbal noun — it’s acting like a noun, but has active implications like a verb. Take another example: “Hunting otters is outlawed”. Hunting here is a verbal noun which has both noun force (the concept of hunting) and verb force (the activity of hunting).
The verbal noun was known in Latin, hence its alternative name of gerund, which is from gerundum, fittingly the gerund form of the verb gerere, to do. But eighteenth-century grammarians who tried to analyse English grammar on Latin models were baffled by this dual nature of the English verbal noun and the way it was commonly preceded by a noun or preposition in the possessive.
To made matters more awkward, many writers used possessive and non-possessive forms, sometimes even in the same text. In a letter in 1867, Lewis Carroll wrote “in hopes of his being able to join us” (the verbal noun being preceded by his, a possessive pronoun) and also “I suppose the music prevented any of it being heard” (being again, but this time with it, a non-possessive pronoun).
There was a notable debate about this in 1926-27 between W H Fowler, who had just published his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and the Danish etymologist and grammarian Otto Jespersen. Fowler argued that the possessive pronoun should be used in every situation but Jesperson refuted him with copious counter-examples, commenting that Fowler was an “instinctive grammatical moraliser”. Grammarians have since then exhaustively researched the verbal noun and have come to an understanding of it that unfortunately hasn’t universally reached student textbooks.
What has become clear is that the distinction between an -ing form as a verb and as a verbal noun is rather artificial and that there’s no easy test for which construction is the right one. Good writers follow unconscious rules in deciding whether to use the possessive before a verbal noun, rules they’ve developed from their experience of using the language.
Current style books (such as Robert Burchfield’s third edition of Fowler) attempt to codify practice by providing a detailed list of these rules. One is to use the possessive with proper and personal nouns and with personal pronouns but not with impersonal ones. In your case that would lead to the correct version being “their being mentioned” and explains why Lewis Carroll used both forms, his first being personal and the second impersonal. Another rule often put forward is that personal nouns aren’t put into the possessive if they’re plural (“Girls chasing boys is nothing new” versus “Annie’s chasing boys is nothing new”, though the only way that you can tell in the first example that girls isn’t in the possessive is that there’s no apostrophe after the s).
However, the rules are much less well observed now than they were a few decades ago, so that a sentence like “I have unhappy memories of him screaming at me” doesn’t strike most of us as wrong in the way that it would have done for Fowler. This is part of a move towards informal modes of expression in which possessives are less common.
As an illustration, the late William Safire wrote about verbal nouns in his On Language column in the New York Times in February 1994. He gave the examples “It’s a matter of women being exploited by men for centuries”, “the cliché about love being blind” and “Liberals did not appreciate the President lecturing them”. He asserted that they were all incorrect. I’d argue the opposite for the first two, as would Dr Burchfield, on the basis that the first contains a plural noun (women) and the other an impersonal one (love). The third should be possessive by the rules but both forms feel right to me, perhaps because president is an insufficiently personal noun.
4. Barber’s cat
Q From Mike Lean, Australia: I’ve come across the phrase wet and windy like the barber’s cat. Can you tell me anything about it? Why would a barber’s cat be so? Does it relate to a particular cat of fable or legend? Initial researches have yielded nothing.
A That’s a very old-fashioned expression, once known throughout the Anglophone countries, though not I think in the USA. It was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but we rarely come across it now. Deputy Willie O’Dea alluded to it in the Dáil, the Irish parliament, on 26 September 2009: “There is no point coming into the House acting as the parliamentary version of the barber’s cat. We know what components made up that creature.”
I’ll bet few readers could tell Mr O’Dea what those components were. Looking into its history is complicated because one part of it was considered to be “an expression too coarse to print”, as John Camden Hotten commented in his Slang Dictionary in 1864. The form that he refused to print was “full of wind and piss, like the barber’s cat”. One meaning, surely the one Mr O’Dea had in mind, was of a uselessly and unnecessarily loquacious person. That sense was made explicit in this early appearance, though in a carefully euphemised version:
He should be the very last man in Dundee to call any one a windbag, for it is a well-known fact that, among his own class as well as among those who he says are “sometimes called the working classes,” he is generally considered the very Prince of Windbags. Indeed, it is often remarked about him that he is all wind and water, like the barber’s cat.
The Dundee Courier and Argus, 8 Sep. 1877.
Another version was as poor as a barber’s cat, which was expanded to refer to somebody who was half-starved, sickly or weak, though some later slang researchers said that it meant no more than that he was thin. Curiously, all dolled up like a barber’s cat is also on record, as is as conceited as a barber’s cat. Give a cat a bad name, it seems, and you can insult him as much as you like.
It was low slang of the working classes, so its early history and origin are unclear. J Redding Ware argued in his Passing English of the Victorian Era in 1909 that it might be a corruption of the term bare brisket, which he said was “also used for a thin fellow, the brisket being the thinnest part of beef”. This is imaginative but too much so to be acceptable. More plausible was the hypothesis that a cat in a barber’s shop would find little to eat and so be poor or ill-served, an idea expanded much later to explain your version of the phrase:
As he walked back he said to Mathews: “Do you know the expression — wet and windy, like the barber’s cat?”
”I know it well,” Mathews confessed. “Why the barber’s cat, I wonder?”
”A consequence of frugality,” the poet explained. “Its staple diet is hair and soapsuds.”
Strumpet City, by James Plunkett, 1969.
• Terry McManus found an article on The Independent’s website on 26 May about an exhibition at the British Library which mentioned “David Cameron and Tony Blair in calculated open-necked shorts and casual wear visiting the troops in the field.”
• A feature piece on the local DeLorean Automobile Club in the York Sunday News of Pennsylvania was sent in by Bill Schmeer: “The car was manufactured by the DeLorean Motor Company in Northern Ireland, which went bankrupt in 1982.”
• David Luther Woodward forwarded an extract from a front-page story in the Madison News-Record, North Carolina, for 30 May: “25 percent of net profits will be allocated to the superintendent of the county administration unit to be exasperated solely for the use of Hot Spring Elementary School.”
• Elena Cicinskaite recently visited the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. In the section about the work of the Women’s Land Army in the Second World War she found an object captioned thus: “Bicycle Lamp with a ‘black out hood’ to stop light being invisible to German bomber pilots above.”