WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 871: Saturday 1 March 2014
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1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
4. Blind Freddie.
Sporting words J Hogan followed up a recent item: “Regarding verbs learned from Olympic winter sports (aside from the curious usage, to medal), one new to me is to ragdoll, referring to what a slopestyle skier or snowboarder does when an edge goes just a bit wrong and the contestant suddenly flops sprawled onto the hillside. If he or she stays loose when this occurs, the athlete may escape injury; but it’s alarming to witness it.”
Haymaker From Anthony Holt: “I believe that haymaker was alive and well in the 1950s when I was at school in Brighton. It was used exclusively on the cricket field and was applied to a batsman who made wildly reckless and risky strokes in his innings, trying to knock every ball into the next county. The end result was usually his dismissal, but it could also result in an exciting and match-winning time.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1954 and I remember it from the same period. My impression is that it has now fallen out of use.
Paddy Crean wrote, “Here in Ireland the term ‘haymaker’ has had only one meaning to me, a very heavy thundery shower of rain in spring or early summer, which would be guaranteed to produce plenty of green grass in due course.”
Fain Jan Matthews commented: “Your example of fain brought my childhood flooding back. My father taught me to lisp the following at a tender age as a party piece. ‘Recite Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ would produce:
Scintillate, scintillate globule vivific,
Fain would I fathom thy nature specific,
Loftily poised in the ether capacious,
Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous
Memory-imprinted forever — and uselessly — of course!”
A memory of fawn came from D A Brown: “As a schoolboy many years ago I overheard two women discussing parents’ day interviews with their daughters’ teachers: ‘Now, I like Miss ——. She doesn’t fornicate all over you.’ ”
Neknominate Margaret Neville countered my view of the origin of this: “I disagree that the name is an abbreviation of neck and nominate. I am confident the nek part was taken from another recent social-media term, nek minnit (next minute), used when referring to an immediate consequence and made popular by New Zealand street skater, Levi Hawken. Hence, neknomination definitely means ‘next nomination’, as the purpose of the game is to film oneself consuming a beverage and then issuing a challenge by nominating the next person to do so.”
River run The biggest response by far in this week’s postbag was to a throw-away comment I inserted at the end of a Sic! item that featured the sentence “As a native of drought-ridden Southern California, the Colorado River has always loomed large to me.” It’s a classic misplaced modifier, of course (the writer meant to say that she is the native, not the river), and I tried to point this up by saying that the Colorado River wasn’t a native of California, but of Colorado, in which state its source conventionally lies. Lots of people sent me detailed descriptions of the route of the river to show that it had connections with five states and Mexico. I meant native in the sense in which I always use it, a person associated with a place by birth (which I equated with source for the river), not merely somebody who is a local inhabitant. Perhaps I was being too literal, or too obscure.
One of the curses of life today was outlined by the Times in 2013: “Modern alarm clocks destroy dreams because they rip you through your hypnopompic sleep state so fast.”
The hypnopompic state is that drowsy, half-alert, comfortable state you’re in as you awaken slowly and naturally. It’s the opposite of the one you drift into as you gradually fall asleep, which is the hypnagogic state.
Both words derive from Greek hupnos, sleep. Hypnopompic combines it with pompē, sending away, while hypnagogic adds agōgos, leading. The former was coined by Frederic Myers, a philologist and one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, while the latter was the creation of Alfred Maury, a French researcher into dreams. Hypnagogic came into English from French hypnagogique. Though it’s conventional to lose the final o from prefixes like hypno- when they’re put before a vowel, many users spell the word hypnogogic. That may be because hypna- is very rare in English (the only other in the Oxford English Dictionary is hypnaesthesia, which in any case is now often spelled hypnesthesia) and they’re swayed by all the others beginning hypno-. And few people now know the Greek root begins with a vowel.
The terms are most often applied to hallucinations during these states that seem completely real to their subjects. They may hear music or their name being called or see images of people. Repeated or particularly vivid episodes may lead some to fear that they’re mentally ill. Such hypnagogic or hypnopompic experiences turn out to be common, though the former occur more often. It’s thought that some reports of ghosts come from such experiences.
Impulsive An article in last week’s New Scientist included the mildly alarming word electroceutical. It’s a device implanted in the body that sends electrical signals along nerves for medical purposes. Early research is beginning to show that nerve impulses can control the body’s immune system and that such generated signals can tell organs to suppress infection or abnormal activity. The article reports some success with arthritis and asthma and that one pharmaceutical firm, GlaxoSmithKline, is hoping to find treatments for other chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension. The term, known in research circles since about 2007, belongs to a wider field of study more generally called bioelectronics, which also covers the use of nerve signals to control prosthetics such as artificial limbs.
Smith, surround them! The Press Association reported on Tuesday that two anti-fracking protesters had been convicted of besetting a drilling site. The writer put the word in quotes, twice, to mark a word he or she thought odd or unfamiliar. I had to stop and think about it myself. Beset is common but almost always appears either in the grammatical passive or referring to some agency that acts on a person: “he was beset with worries”; “doubts and confusions that often beset us”; “the hazards that beset early travellers”. These all come from the original sense in Old English of surrounding or encircling, or of assailing on all sides, such as an army besetting a fortress. What we don’t often encounter is a single person, or even two, described as actively besetting somewhere. It turns out to be a legal term and — despite its etymological origins — it’s indeed legally possible for one person to beset a place.
4. Blind Freddie
Q From Matthew Brand: A relatively common expression in Australia describes something obvious as one that even Blind Freddy could see (“even Blind Freddy could tell that their marriage wouldn’t last”). I was wondering, has anyone ever traced an actual visually impaired man by that name, or is it simply unknowable?
A My feeling, from half a world away, is that the idiom is slowly falling out of use and is now mainly found in the speech of older people. But it’s still easy to find examples in newspapers:
The proverbial Blind Freddie could have anticipated these consequences as a result of callow policies designed to appease public opinion.
The Australian, 19 Feb. 2012.
The first known use of the idiom I’ve found is this:
The present system has to go. There’s no other way. It MUST go. Even Blind Freddie can see that.
The International Socialist (Sydney, NSW), 8 Mar. 1917.
One candidate often put forward is the India-born Eton-educated Sir Frederick Pottinger. He joined the Grenadier Guards but went through a fortune gambling on horses and had to emigrate to Australia, where he became a trooper in the New South Wales police force. Once his title became known locally, he was promoted to inspector, seemingly beyond his competence, though he was a dogged man who wanted to do well in his job. He made several unsuccessful tries at catching the bushrangers “Wild” Ben Hall, John Gilbert and Frank Gardiner, which unfairly made him a comic incompetent in the press and among local people. He featured in a satirical ballad, The Bloody Field Of Wheogo, about the failed attempt to capture Gardiner, which contains the lines:
But the Ranger proud, he laughed aloud,
and bounding rode away,
While Sir Frederick Pott, shut his eyes for a shot,
and miss’d — his usual way.
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Aug. 1862.
Pottinger died in 1865, having accidentally shot himself with his own pistol while trying to board a moving coach. Many of the stories told about him are later elaborations, as is the belief that he was the original Blind Freddie. If he was, it’s strange that the first written reference should have appeared half a century later.
A more plausible origin was put forward by the famous Australian lexicographer Sidney Baker:
According to Sydney legend, a blind hawker named Freddy operated in the area bordered by Market, King, Castlereagh and George Streets in the 1920s, selling ties, razor blades, hair oil and other items. Although blind, he is reputed to have been able to find his way around with great ease and to have recognised scores of customers by their voices.
Australia Speaks, by Sidney Baker, 1953.
The creation of a huge collection of searchable historic newspapers by the National Library of Australia, appropriately called Trove, has led to my being able to find out much more about this man. He must surely must be the one described in this newspaper article, which contains the first recorded use of the nickname:
One of the best known identities of the Sydney boxing game during the past quarter of a century is ‘Blind Freddie,’ who never misses a fight of even minor importance, and whose ears assist his mind’s eye to such an extent that exciting situations work him up and he can laugh as heartily as anyone else at amusing occurrences. ‘Blind Freddie’ is not an old man; he lost his sight 28 years ago, when 11 years old. The sightless sport enjoys life as much as most men, and feels many a hearty hand grip and hears many a cordial greeting as he roams round the city alone, for ‘Freddie,’ who follows the calling of a general dealer, is popular with everybody.
The Referee (Sydney), 12 Apr. 1911.
Although the evidence is circumstantial, there can be little doubt the idiom originated with this man, partly because early appearances of the term Blind Freddie are in and around Sydney and partly because later reports reinforce that he was a well-known character.
The next reference in print to a person called Blind Freddie came in 1933, when newspapers reported him as being seriously ill and said that his real name was Frederick Solomons. The funeral notice posted by Solomon’s family in the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 December that year identified him as Blind Freddie.
An article reporting his illness described him as “one of Sydney’s most remarkable characters”, in part because his acute senses allowed him to undertake seemingly impossible feats:
Mick Dunn, champion fighter of bare fist days, told today how about 35 years ago this blind man drove a hansom cab from Bathurst street along Pitt street to the railway station without mishap. He has been known to tell whose horse was approaching by its trot. His senses of touch and smell are two of his greatest assets. He can identify people by the touch of their hands or their clothing.
The News (Adelaide), 21 Aug. 1933.
Another article reported his death with the comment,
He could walk to any business house in the city, unaccompanied and without hesitation, and it is said that one day finding another blind man waiting at a corner he led him across an intersection.
The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate (Parramatta), 14 Dec. 1933.
Though few people remember him as a real person, his nickname lives on. I am delighted to have rediscovered the individual behind it.
• Pattie Tancred found this sentence alongside a copy of the Rosetta Stone in the Egyptian Museum, Turin: “Written in three different scripts, (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek), the French scholar J-F Champollion used the Greek text to decipher hieroglyphics.”
• The Brunswick News of 25 February, Joel T Keys tells us, had a story about the local submarine base headlined, “Kings Bay prepares for possible terrorist attacks with drills.”
• A photo caption in a story in CTV News online could have been better worded: “In this Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 photo taken with a cellphone camera, an Indian policeman tries to charge a leopard with a stick that was spotted at a hospital in Meerut, India.” Thanks to Silas DeRoma for that.
• Tony McCoy O’Grady found this in the Sky TV programme guide for 21 February: “Fred Dineage examines the murders of Peter Manuel who was hanged for killing seven people in Scotland in the 1950s. He later confessed to killing many more.”
• Department of unnecessarily redundant superfluity, via Bob Lee from the Calgary Herald of 19 February. In reporting the investigation on a homicide, it said that “The couple’s children are not suspected suspects at this time.”