World Wide Words
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.<!–
3. Smelling of the lamp.<!–
“Oh dear!” commented Richard Feaver, “Inflation strikes. By the time I graduated from Radio Fun and similar comics in 1937 your penny dreadfuls were already tuppenny bloods.” This name came about because a set of weekly boys’ magazines published between the two World Wars by D C Thomson of Dundee had a cover price of twopence (tuppenny being a common contraction for two penny). They included Rover, Wizard, and Hotspur and I can remember them from my childhood in the early 1950s.
Taradiddle Lyn Lloyd-Smith provided a variant: “While I have never heard of taradiddle, faradiddle is a word I know well. Not quite a fib but more of a fanciful silly story, I might consider using it in certain contexts.” It’s not so common as taradiddle, but this is one example:
He smiled, obviously about to spin her some faradiddle, and Sarah’s frayed patience snapped.
The Shadow of Albion, by Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill, 1999.
Among my many unaccomplishments is that of drumming. I picked up an incorrect definition for paradiddle. It does consist of four drum strokes, but either left-right-left-left or right-left-right-right (LRLL or RLRR). I have since learned that the vocabulary of drumming is full of such exotic terms. There’s the flamdiddle, for example, a paradiddle with added flam (a flam being a quick double stroke, one heavier than the other) and the paradiddlediddle, which is LRLLRR or RLRRLL.
When this went out of fashion, the English language lost one of its more flamboyant words. Its early days, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, are marked by association with two distinguished American men of letters, Washington Irving and John Pickering.
Irving started a satirical magazine in New York in 1807 with the whimsical title of Salmagundi; or The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. & Others. Salmagundi was a popular salad of the time whose many constituents led to its name being borrowed for a miscellaneous collection.
A slangwhanger was what we would now call a newspaper columnist, a writer who was free to express his personal opinions, which he often did with great energy and notorious political partisanship. Irving wrote with heavy irony of them in one issue:
In this country every man adopts some particular slang-whanger as the standard of his judgment, and reads everything he writes, if he reads nothing else; which is doubtless the reason why the people of this logocracy are so marvellously enlightened.
John Pickering was a lawyer, philologist and scholar, an authority on North American Indian languages and compiler of one of the earliest lexicons of classical Greek. In 1816, he compiled the first collection of Americanisms, under the ponderous title, typical of the age: Vocabulary, or a Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America. He wrote of slangwhanger:
This word, which is of very recent origin in America, does not denote merely a “writer;” It means also a noisy talker, who makes use of that sort of political or other cant, which amuses the rabble, and is called by the vulgar name of slang. It is hardly necessary to add, that this term (as well as slang-whanging) is never admitted into the higher kinds of writing; but, like other cant words, is confined to that familiar style, which is allowed only in works of humour.
Pickering wasn’t a fan of slang or the evolving American dialect but sought to preserve the purity of the English language in America. He wrote Vocabulary to warn his countrymen against using the words he listed in it because they would be thought provincial barbarians by British scholars. He would have been saddened to learn that slangwhanger retained a place in the language throughout the century, though he might have been comforted by this:
A “slang-whanger” is a noisy, turbulent fellow, whose language is not of the best, and slang itself is generally considered disreputable.
Bucks County Gazette (Pennsylvania) 24 Sep. 1891.
By then, the word could mean a political orator, bar-room pundit, hell-fire preacher or bullying court lawyer. It could at times also mean something written by a newspaper slangwhanger or a violent political harangue.
3. Smelling of the lamp
Q From Ed Shaw: Anthony Cave Brown writes in his Bodyguard of Lies of a deception plan being considered by the Allies at the beginning of the Second World War: “Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s plan was not only thought to smell of the lamp …” I wonder if you might tell me what he meant by that strange phrase, and what its origin might be.
A The smell of the lamp is what remains when you have burnt the midnight oil.
You have — say — toiled over a work with immense effort, working late into the night to revise and polish and perfect your creation. The end of all your efforts is likely to be a work with the vitality and freshness of a three-day-dead rat. Your overwrought effort has lost the spontaneity and ease of good writing. James Thurber once described a much-reworked piece in the New Yorker as exhibiting the “strains of rewrite”, another way of expressing the same idea. In the book that you mention, it’s probably suggesting that the plan is over-designed — too complex and theoretical to be useful.
The expression is first recorded in English in 1579, in Sir Thomas North’s translation of a work of two millennia ago by the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch. Its figurative force remained obvious until gas and electric lighting allowed writers to slave into the night without the aid of oil lamps.
The editor of a short-lived theatrical review in Dublin two centuries ago put it like this in his inaugural issue:
Such a man may produce a good paper, but then it will smell of the lamp. … The strife and struggle of his style will render his sentiments cramp and pedantic.
The Stage, 9 Apr. 1821. Cramp is in an old sense of being difficult to make out or comprehend; a cramp-word was difficult to say or understand.
The phrase has often had a flavour of academic hackwork. It had a brief flurry of popularity in the early 1800s but has otherwise never been common. This is a rare modern appearance:
Rose [Wilder Lane] wrote adult novels of pioneering life, stealing her mother’s material but substituting the sourness of maturity for the warm-heartedness of Wilder’s children’s fiction. They smell of the lamp.
The Guardian, 29 Dec. 2012.
• The vocabulary of TV and radio weather forecasters everywhere seems to be full of extraordinary phrases. Gareth Wynn-Williams heard one on BBC Radio on 20 July speak of “a sea-change in the landscape”, a remarkable geographic occurrence.
• Dr Frankenstein lives, at least according to this BBC news item of 17 July found by Jago Tremain: “A team led by Dr Jeanne Lawrence inserted a gene called XIST into the stem cells of a person with Down’s syndrome grown in the lab.”
• Brian Barratt found this on the website of an Australian wholesaler of microwave meals: “By ooming straight to you we can afford to give your customers a better price point and intern increase your GP.”
• “That’s a relief!” emailed Gary Puckering about a flash report on the BBC’s website on 23 July: “The Duchess of Cambridge has given birth to a child, Buckingham Palace announces.” Coincidentally, Dr Ray Brindle made exactly the same comment about a headline on the Guardian’s site: “Royal baby: Duchess of Cambridge leaves hospital with new prince — live.”