WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 866: Saturday 25 January 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
4. Snake oil.
Rhine David Gow wrote about related words that I listed in the piece: “A connected word used in Scotland (and perhaps elsewhere?) is rone, meaning the horizontal metal guttering along the eaves of a house which carries rainwater from the roof to the downpipe. The Concise Scots Dictionary invites us to compare this with Norwegian run or ron, a watercourse. The Dictionary also gives rin meaning a stream, or course of a river, frequently with the lands bordering it. This ties in nicely with your examples. Isn’t it marvellous where words take you?” Stan Firth suggested that the word, at least in the Glasgow area, was applied to “the rainwater downpipes from the roof-gutter. Frequently, the name can be applied to the gutter, but usually only by laymen.” I’ll let Scots argue about its exact meaning.
And William Woodruff pointed out, “In some parts of the States, a creek or small (sometimes not so small) stream is called a run — most commonly in Virginia but also in Pennsylvania and Maryland and, less commonly, states further south; perhaps best known as the eponyms for Civil War battles, e.g. Bull Run.” The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that this usage, from English dialect, is related to rune in the sense of a watercourse or stream.
Ganderflanking Lee Rickard, clearly a movie buff, wrote, “There’s just something about that trochaic dimeter. I bet you could up its popularity by plugging it into inappropriate places. For example, ‘I’m ganderflanking tired of all these ganderflanking snakes on this ganderflanking plane!’” Moray Guise emailed, “Here in New Zealand, a number of my colleagues (Maori or pakeha) use a term of similar sense that I enjoy, tutuing, for fluffing around achieving little — almost like yak shaving. ‘While you’re tutuing about, I’ll just finish the job.’” I might instead speak of faffing about, though tutuing sounds like a distant relative of the Northern English expression big girl’s blouse.
Error Several readers noted that the surname of the famous Texan wheeler-dealer Clinton Williams Murchison was misspelled. This was a typo in the newspaper in which the quotation appeared and which I forgot to correct.
This is a posh word for an introduction, preface or foreword or, to counter ponderous Greek with obscure Latin, an exordium.
It’s the neuter of the present participle passive of the Greek prolegein, to say beforehand, and is much rarer than its relative prologue, which derives from Greek prôlogos, literally “fore-speech”. Both have travelled via Latin to reach us, but prologue has shuffled off its high-flown classical links while prolegomenon is condemned by its length and shape to be reserved for high-flown intellectual occasions and formal scholarship.
As prolegomenon to the systematic account of what I regard as the truth about the history of psychiatry presented in this book, I offer Roy Porter’s restatement of the premises that underlie my writings on this subject.
Coercion as Cure, by Thomas Szasz, 2007.
It may be a prologue to a book but it may also describe a work that introduces the study of a subject. A perusal of the dustier aisles of a large library may find article titles such as A Prolegomenon to the Reconceptualisation of Dialectic, A Prolegomenon to the Material Culture of Garments in the Formative Islamic Period and Prolegomenon for an Excuse-Centered Approach to Transitional Justice.
Should you ever need to discuss more than one prolegomenon, the plural is prolegomena, though this has also at times been used irregularly for the singular.
Snapshots A word that’s been around for some time online but which I only recently spotted in print is gifable. This looks like a misspelling of giftable but it actually derives from the image format GIF (Graphics Interchange Format). Unlike other formats, GIFs can be animated and have long been used to create, for example, repetitive icons that illustrate an emotion. A film or television programme is said to be gifable if it’s possible to snatch a clip a few seconds long that encapsulates a memorable moment and turn it into a GIF. It still appears as GIF-able, though the hyphenless lower-case version is becoming common. People disagree about the pronunciation of GIF, but gifable is always said with a hard initial letter. It’s the source of giffing out, a term invented by Kmart for an annoying advertising campaign in the run-up to last year’s holiday season that included brief looped snatches of people going crazy over their purchases.
Fresh mint I’ve reported previously on abbreviations created by economists for groups of countries thought to have something in common. We’ve had PIGS for the four EU countries with the most severe economic problems (Portugal, Greece, Spain and either Ireland or Italy) and BRIC for what are now called newly advanced economic countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), coined by the economist Jim O’Neill in 2001. A try in 2009 by Robert Ward of the Economist Intelligence Unit to popularise CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa, countries with diverse economies and a young, growing population) never caught on. Nor did EAGLES, “Emerging And Growth-Leading Economies” (Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Taiwan, and Turkey). This year, Jim O’Neill is arguing for MINT, a name created by the fund managers Fidelity, for what he thinks will be the second generation of emerging market pace-setters: Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. He views them as geographically well situated with a youthful population so that over the next 20 years they will all see rises in the number of people eligible to work relative to those not working. Some of the MINT countries, he says, could match China’s recent double-digit growth rates.
4. Snake oil
Q From Sam Foreman, Pittsburgh: I think just about everyone knows that a snake oil salesman is a huckster trying to sell some product of dubious quality. I wonder where snake oil came from, given that it seems there could be many other descriptive metaphors applied, and if this witty term has an identifiable creator. I also wonder and whether it preceded the age of films or might have been a result of depictions in it.
A It’s worth recounting the history of the term snake oil in some detail since accounts available online and in many books don’t match the evidence in historical sources.
We may dismiss out of hand the assertion in several places that the name snake oil is a corruption of seneca oil. This was the name given to crude petroleum that seeped from the ground in Pennsylvania and New York State; it was sold for medicinal purposes under that name and as Indian spring oil.
Snake oil actually derives from the folk belief in North America, recorded from the start of the nineteenth century but presumably older, that rattlesnake oil was a remedy for problems such as rheumatism and croup. This is an early mention:
There is one article more, which, as some people deem it a specific in the croup, it may not be improper to mention, which is … rattle-snake’s oil, as it is called.
A Dissertation on Cynanche Trachealis, or Croup, by Abraham Haskell, read before the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society, 1812. Dr Haskell goes on to mention its extremely fishy and nauseous taste.
Similar beliefs have been widespread, but especially in traditional Chinese medicine, in which oil from the Chinese sea snake (Laticauda semifasciata) is used to treat arthritis and other joint pains. Some writers say that snake oil and beliefs about its value were brought to the US from the late 1840s by the Chinese immigrants who helped build its railways, though the evidence is clear that Americans had much earlier been using rattlesnake oil for similar purposes. Others hold that the beliefs derive from the practices of native Americans that were borrowed by immigrant settlers. They may be also be linked to an earlier belief in Britain that preparations based on our only venomous snake, such as viper oil, viper wine and viper jelly, would cure various ills.
Chinese sea snake oil has recently been found to contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation, among other benefits. However, rattlesnake oil doesn’t contain them and its value would never have been much better than a placebo.
Advertisements in US newspapers from the 1840s offer rattlesnake oil for sale but editorial references are rare before the 1880s. Some from that decade lament the decline in production of snake oil as a rural craft, a small-scale seasonal occupation among countrymen, in the north Pennsylvania mountains and the Ozarks in particular. Hunters would go out in the early autumn to catch snakes and “try” them — boil them to extract the oil, as whalers did with blubber — or behead them and hang them in the sun to drain. Later reports imply the craft was being industrialised, at least to some small extent, with snake farms being set up to breed them and sell them on to businesses that extracted and sold the oil. Though the snake oil remedy was useless, these reports suggest that it was a legitimate trade that provided the genuine article to customers who retained their belief in it.
Some people still hold to curious old superstitions concerning the curative properties of the oils of certain animals; and to hear the druggists tell of the strange articles called for by some of their customers is to be reminded of the vagaries indulged in by the aboriginal medicine man in his native wigwam. For instance, there are persons who pin great faith still to the virtues of rattlesnake oil, and who believe it is a specific for rheumatic afflictions.
Daily Globe (St Paul, Minnesota), 7 Jun. 1882.
This belief provided an opening to hucksters selling products that had never been near a snake. Some replaced rattlesnake oil with oil from creatures such as raccoon, woodchuck, skunk or bear. Others concocted a product from whatever was serviceable and cheap with no concern for any medical effects, good or bad.
This is an early description of an itinerant mountebank of this type, one who later became a cliché in westerns:
The scoff and jeer of the multitude turn from him as water from the shining back of a duck. He always comes up on top, beaming his perpetual smile, and asks who will have the next bottle of ready-relief, pain-killer or rattle-snake oil. The facility and rapidity of his speech is phenomenal, and his fund of Billingsgate inexhaustible. … [T]he traveling quack … may be of some use in the world, but like that of the fly and mosquito it is not easy to say just in what it consists. Apparently his success is based upon his enormous development of cheek, in connection with that fixed element in human nature, gullibility.
Hagerstown Herald and Torch Light (Maryland), 14 Jul. 1880. Billingsgate refers to the London fish market, whose porters were renowned for their invective and bad language.
A development was the travelling medicine show, in which a variety of entertainments sugared the hard sell of the proprietor’s nostrums for curing every kind of ailment. They became common enough to be unremarkable by the late nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth despite attempts to outlaw them. From the 1890s, their rise was matched by the growth of print advertisements for what were mistakenly called patent medicines: none were ever really patented, because their makers would have had to list their ingredients. There was a huge variety, those touted as snake oil being a significant minority, but ones with seemingly miraculous powers.
An advertisement of 1891 urged readers to “Try one of Dr. Miles Rattle’s Snake Oil Pain Cure Plasters, the most powerful remedy for external application”. Another in Portland in 1903 stated that the Great Yaquis Snake Oil Liniment “relieves instantaneously and cures headaches, neuralgia, toothache, earache, backache, swellings, sprains, sore chest, swelling of the throat, contracted cords and muscles, stiff joints, wrenches, dislocations, cuts and bruises.” The proprietor of Dr Reese’s Snake Oil Liniment in later years was much more succinct, claiming simply that it would “cure any pain, external or internal”. Another for Miller’s Antiseptic Oil in 1918, also known as Snake Oil, argued that “Snake Oil is a mighty fine thing to have sitting around the house. For colds and pains in the chest, neuralgia, sore throat, cuts, burns, bruises, corns and bunions and pains of all kinds, Snake Oil is a Godsend.”
We can’t say now whether any these products actually contained any rattlesnake oil. Most surely didn’t. One denunciator wrote of
the damnable curse of street fakirs, charlatans, and patent-medicine venders [who] reap dollars from the sale of snake oil, made of rot-gut whisky, a little ammonia and tincture of iron.
The Western Druggist, Jul. 1895. Vender is an old spelling of vendor. It may be relevant that snake oil at about this time came to have a slang sense of low-grade whisky.
One notable example — Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil — was analysed in 1915 and in the analyst’s words was found to consist “principally of a light mineral oil (petroleum product) mixed with about 1 per cent of fatty oil (probably beef fat), capsicum, and possibly a trace of camphor and turpentine.”
It was findings like this following the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that led to the term snake oil appearing in print in the 1920s as a symbol of fraud, although it had been understood for decades by informed people that any hawker of something so called was almost certainly a quack and his product a swindle.
The now-common term snake oil salesman was a little slower to appear: the first recorded use I can find is dated 1933.
• Rob Crompton found a sentence on the BBC website on 18 January about Bristolian Lewis Clarke’s attempt to become the youngest person to reach the South Pole: “The challenge began on 2 December, two weeks after his 16th birthday, and he is expected to reach the finish line later.” He commented that extreme cold slows a lot of things but time just carries on.
• An AP report of 17 January about Vatican actions against paedophile priests was seen by Judith Reich and Stephen Brown. It read “Bishops routinely moved problem priests from parish to parish rather than subject them to canonical trials or turn them into police.” Stephen Brown commented, “I imagine the police were relieved.”
• Patrick Martin reports from Winchester: “The locals have been making much sport with the sign in the window of a restaurant and take-away that is shortly to open: ‘kebabs, burgers, vegetarians, barbeque’. Notices have been added that include ‘only uses ethically sourced vegetarians’.”
World Wide Words – WIF Style