WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 853: Saturday 12 October 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
4. Softly, softly, catchee monkey.
Dwarves Several readers responded to my mildly facetious comment, “if dwarves was good enough for J R R Tolkien”. Jason Brown noted a letter from Tolkien to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, in 1937, following the publication of The Hobbit:
Although all [reviewers] have carefully used the correct “dwarfs” themselves, [none] has commented on the fact … that I use throughout the “incorrect” plural “dwarves”. I am afraid it is just a piece of private bad grammar, rather shocking in a philologist; but I shall have to go on with it. Perhaps my “dwarf” — since he and the Gnome are only translations into approximate equivalents of creatures with different names and rather different functions in their own world — may be allowed a peculiar plural. The real “historical” plural of “dwarf” (like “teeth” of “tooth”) is “dwarrows”, anyway: rather a nice word, but a bit too archaic. Still I rather wish I had used the word “dwarrow”.
Notwithstanding Tolkien’s comments, dwarves has a significant history as an English plural. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is dated 1818 and many others appear in British newspapers and books in the nineteenth century, no doubt creating them on the model of words such as scarf and wharf, which can have plurals in -ves. But Tolkien certainly widened its popularity and rendered it acceptable, to the extent that it is common today.
Vaper Amy Livingston emailed, “The introduction of vapers for smokers of electronic cigarettes brought to mind viper, used in Harlem during the 1920s to refer to a marijuana smoker. It’s fallen out of general use now, but it survives in the song You’se A Viper by Stuff Smith, most famously recorded as If You’re A Viper by Fats Waller. The alliance among vapers fighting a proposed ban on e-cigarettes seems to reflect the spirit in which Waller recorded the song as a nose-thumb to the drug czar of his day. Maybe it’s time for a new anthem:
Dreamed about a cig without the smoke
Hit of juice won’t make you choke
No-smoking sign, but you’re still fine
If you’se a vaper.”
This train of prefixes surely needs uncoupling. Something that is ultimate is the last in a series (from Latin ultimare, come to an end); the penultimate is next to last (pen-, a prefix from Latin paene, almost); the antepenultimate is the one before that (ante-, previous, from Latin “ante”). Preantepenultimate (Latin prae-, before) is one step further back still, making it the fourth from the end of the series, the last but three.
It was invented in all seriousness by a famous lexicographer, John Walker, in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, dated 1791 (“These words have the antepenultimate and preantepenultimate accent, which has generally a shortening power, as in privilege, primitive, prevalency, &c.”) Linguists have continued to be almost its sole users, though other specialists, for some reason mainly zoologists, have borrowed it from time to time. Outside these areas, it is almost invisible, but not quite:
While it was gratifying to see the return of the John H. Rice column to the pages of the Eagle, it was disappointing to have a typographical error mangle the sense of his pre-antepenultimate paragraph.
Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), 24 Feb. 1977.
Does the sequence stop with preantepenultimate? There must be so little need for a word meaning fifth from last that we can hardly imagine anybody has taken the trouble to invent it. But it does exist: suprapreantepenultimate (Latin supra, above, beyond). The only place I’ve so far found it, however, is in a humorous column in the web-based journal The Beechwood Reporter of Chicago dated January this year, in which the writer asked if there’s a word for the item that comes before it in the sequence. That’s taking matters much too far. Even suprapreantepenultimate is too monstrous a term: it’s far easier just to say “fifth from last”.
Super? or not? While we’re on the subject of prefixes, super- was in the news in London this week following publication of a study by the Cripplegate Foundation (named after an ancient gate of the City of London; its name may be from Anglo-Saxon crepel, a covered way or underground passage). Many parts of London have been changed by gentrification, improvements that made them attractive to middle-class professionals such as doctors, lecturers and civil servants but have pushed out poorer residents. Some areas, such as Islington, the report asserts, are now suffering supergentrification, which isn’t just more of the same, but a shift towards colonisation by the super-rich, who are often very mobile and have scant interest in the local community. Supergentrification was applied first in 2000 by the British geographer Professor Loretta Lees to a similar shift in the Brooklyn Heights area of New York City.
Turkey tov! A curious calendrical coincidence means that Thanksgiving on 28 November coincides this year with the second candle night of Hanukkah (or Chanukkah if you prefer), which one of my Oxford dictionaries describes rather loftily as “a lesser Jewish festival”. It’s the first time since 1888 that this has happened, which has led to much mildly facetious cross-cultural commentary. An Associated Press article on Wednesday noted that one linguistically inventive commercial enterprise has trademarked the term Thanksgivukkah for it, which Julane Marx tells me has been used casually amongst Jewish friends and family for a few weeks. A nine-year-old from Manhattan has invented, trademarked and marketed the Menurkey, a menorah in the shape of a turkey. If you really want to give somebody a once-in-a-lifetime gift, this surely must be it — competing calculations suggest that the next coincidental holiday will be either in about 77,000 years from now or never. Though the young man’s opportunity for getting rich is regrettably short-lived, it does mean — let us give thanks — that we shall never encounter Thanksgivukkah again.
Out of the blender Talking of combining things, you may have heard of the cronut, this summer’s artery-hardening comestible, a cross between a croissant and a doughnut, which was invented by the French-born New York chef Dominique Ansel. A second such blend was created a couple of years ago in her London tearooms by an American, Bea Vo. This is a doughnut-muffin hybrid called the duffin, which was in the news this week because the name has allegedly been trademarked by Starbucks without consulting Ms Vo. The Guardian covered this story and went on to celebrate other cross-bred delicacies that it rather neatly called “portmanteau patisseries”. The story mentioned the fauxnut, a false doughnut which is low-fat and baked rather than fried, and the crookie, a commingling of croissant and cookie. I suspect most of these will survive about as long as the Menurkey.
4. Softly, softly, catchee monkey
Q From John Lewis: According to an online search, Lord Baden-Powell imported the saying softly, softly, catchee monkey from the Ashanti in Ghana. The saying has a Kiplingesque ring. Can you shed any further light?
A Quite a bit, as it happens. The expression is indeed frequently attributed to Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, largely because he uses it three times in his diary about his activities in what is now Ghana in 1895-6:
If it were not for the depressing heat and the urgency of the work, one could sit down and laugh to tears at the absurdity of the thing, but under the circumstances it is a little “wearing.” But our motto is the old West Coast proverb, “Softly, softly, catchee monkey”; in other words, “Don’t flurry; patience gains the day.”
The Downfall of Prempeh, by Major R S S Baden-Powell, 1896. Prempeh was then King of Ashanti.
Though the book never achieved wide popularity, it’s curious that this instance doesn’t appear in the entry for the idiom in the Oxford English Dictionary; its first citation is of a listing in Cassell’s Book of Quotations in 1907, which is also the first in the Oxford Book of Proverbs. Even more oddly, it’s easy to take it back many years.
It appears in a book of 1832, Scottish Proverbs, Collected and Arranged by Andrew Henderson, in the form safly, safly, catch monkey. Henderson quotes it as an example of proverb creation in “rude and infant communities” and says it is “common among the negroes in the colony of Demerara”. Even earlier, the idiom is in the rambling autobiography of a well-known English actress, Mary Wells (later Mrs Mary Sumbel), active in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. She records that she went one day, it would seem from context in London, to hear an itinerant black preacher:
Though there was no long-sounding chapter or high-numbered verse from which it was taken, I was convinced notwithstanding, by the arguments of the sooty Ethiopian, that patience and perseverance will overcome many obstacles. The words were as follow:– “Softly, softly, brethren, and you’ll catch a monkey!”
Memoirs of the Life of Mrs Sumbel, Vol. 3, 1811. Her Ethiopian isn’t to be taken literally; it was then a common term for any black person.
This is another example:
“Prudens qui patiens” was, if we mistake not, the motto of the great Lord Coke. A sort of paraphrase of it is current among the sable objects of Exeter Hall sympathy — “Softly, softly, catch monkey.”
The Morning Post, 23 Apr. 1846. At the time, Exeter Hall in the Strand was the headquarters of the anti-slavery movement in London, so sable object is an oblique reference to black Africans.
These examples give the lie to another suggestion made online, and in an 1989 book with the title Scottish Proverbs, that it’s a traditional saying of Scotland. This assertion seems to be due to searchers finding Andrew Henderson’s book but failing to read his introductory comments.
The rest of the few nineteenth-century examples that I’ve found likewise imply or state that it originated in a native West African expression that was brought back in translation to Britain (we may reasonably conclude that its appearance in Demerara, in present-day Guyana, was the result of West African slaves being taken to South America to work the sugar plantations). However, the evidence shows that it wasn’t widely known in the nineteenth century but that it suddenly starts to appear quite frequently in British newspapers from January 1900 in reports of the Boer War.
What is intriguing about these reports is that they all use the catchee form instead of catch (which has led a few writers into falsely attributing a Chinese origin to the proverb). This form isn’t on record before Baden-Powell’s book of 1896. He was garrison commander during the siege of Mafeking, which was lifted on 16 May 1900. During the siege reporters from four London papers were in the town, and it’s hardly a stretch of the evidence to argue that they obtained that version directly from him. So he certainly wasn’t the inventor, but he popularised the version we now know.
As an aside, the phrase was much later adopted as the motto of the Lancashire Constabulary’s Training School. It was advice to aspiring police officers that a bull-headed approach wasn’t the best way to nab criminals. This inspired the title of the British television police series, Softly Softly, from 1966 onwards.
• “In this part of Canada, we like to keep our wildlife happy,” John Holland emailed from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. He was writing in reference to a headline over a story dated 4 October on the website castanet.net: “Man attacked by bear in good spirits”.
• Peter Geldart emailed from Hong Kong, having seen an article in the Financial Times of 4 October (“Help to get a good night’s sleep” by Emma Jacobs): “Louise Moxon set up Cocoon, an agency in London that provides parents desperate for their infants to sleep through the night with consultants.”
• Dennis Kiernan sent this from a report on Fox News dated 4 October: “Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News that investigators believed [Miriam] Carey suffered ‘serious’ mental issues and that President Obama was trying to communicate with her through radio waves.”
• “Impressive!” Gila Blits commented, having seen a headline on the Mail website on 6 October: “Wife praises surgeon husband who treated children in Afghanistan after he collapsed and died during D-Day run.”
• Harold Pinkley emailed, “In The New York Times of 7 October, the chaplain of the United States Senate was described as ‘a Seventh-day Adventist, former Navy rear admiral and collector of brightly colored bow ties named Barry C. Black.’ I never thought to name my own ties.”