WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 872: Saturday 8 March 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Blind freddie Several subscribers commented on the piece in much the same terms as Naomi Rankin: “The information about Frederick Solomons is interesting, but doesn’t seem to fit the idiom. To underline the obviousness of something we would say that even an unperceptive person could see it, not one who was renowned for his remarkable acuteness of perception despite his blindness.”
The idiom was surely a development of the much older slur even a blind man could see … (as in the Newcastle Morning Herald of New South Wales in 1881: “even a blind man could see this is a clear case of suicide”). Speakers used Blind Freddie as a well-known case of a blind man to personify and localise the saying while ignoring his special qualities.
Hypnagogic Dr John Brydon emailed from Australia: “The sudden jerk that we may make when falling asleep, commonly in the belief we are tumbling out of bed, gives rise to the most delightful name for a medical syndrome that I know: the hypnagogic startle.”
Clubbing Ted MacKinney found the following headline, which appeared in the Utah People’s Post on 22 February: “Google clubs hands with WRI to check deforestation”. He and I find this an unusual sense of the verb club and I wonder if it’s an unconscious blend of club together and join hands with. But do readers know differently?
A grimoire is a book of magic that may contain spells, conjurations, instructions for divination and the construction of amulets, and other secret knowledge of a supernatural kind. The examples include such famous works as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, The Book of St Cyprian, The Key of Solomon and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage.
The word is French, in the same sense. It began to appear in French-English dictionaries early in the nineteenth century but became more widely known in the 1850s. In French, it was a medieval modification of grammaire, a book of grammar, by which was meant Latin grammar, since at the time there was no other kind. It derives from the Latin grammatica, the study of literature in general, which by the Middle Ages had come to mean knowledge of Latin.
The shift from book of grammar to book of magic isn’t as weird as it might seem. Few among the ordinary people in those times could read or write. For superstitious minds books were troubling objects. Who knew what awful information was locked up in them? For many people grammar meant the same thing as learning, and everybody knew that learning included astrology and other occult arts.
In medieval English, grammarye was likewise the study of Latin grammar and this, too, took on undertones of occult learning, magic and necromancy. It fell out of use but was revived by Sir Walter Scott in his Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805.
Another of Scott’s popularisations was the Scots glamour. This was also from grammar, with a small shift in pronunciation, and shared the idea that grammar was linked with witchcraft and sorcery. To us today glamour is physical allure but for the Scots of earlier times, and for Scott, it was enchantment, magic or a spell cast upon a person.
Fiddle, twiddle and tweak A review in the Guardian last Saturday by Steven Poole of Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime noted the author’s use of the computer jargon verb frobnicate, frequently shortened to frob. Eric S Raymond defined it in The New Hackers’ Dictionary in 1993 as “to manipulate or adjust, to tweak”. Mr Raymond traced it to frobnitz, an ad hoc invention within the Tech Model Railway Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology around 1960. Its users abbreviated it to frob and others later extended it again. Steven Poole says that he knows enough computer code to be able to “hack around in [the computer language] PHP a bit until my websites work the way I want”, which is a good definition of a frobnicator in action.
Difficult extraction Jerry Krempel recently came across the British expression winkle it out and asked whether it has anything to do with shellfish. It does indeed. Boiled winkles were once a favourite seaside fast food in Britain, though consumption has fallen hugely since the Second World War. Winkles were sold in paper bags together with a pin, essential to extract the meat from the shell, though even with its help it often wasn’t easy. To figuratively winkle out, therefore, is to obtain something with difficulty. (“I’m very good at counselling my friends and coming up with solutions to their problems. Even if they don’t want to talk, I’ll winkle it out of them!” — Julian Clary in the Sun, Aug. 2013.) The verb was originally military slang of the Second World War; even earlier a winkle-pin was a bayonet.
A ham or ham actor is one who struts his piece upon the stage to little effect, a fifth-rate artiste of the sort that P G Wodehouse said “couldn’t play the pin in Pinafore”. He may fail because he is an unskilled amateur, though the word is more often applied to a thespian who overacts in a theatrical or ranting way to compensate for his poor grasp of technique or to upstage his fellow actors.
The term is American and dates from the nineteenth century. Where it comes from has been the subject of more inventive etymology than you can shake a stick at. It’s said to be from Hamlet’s advice to the actors (“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings”), though why it had to wait 300 years to appear is not explained. A related idea is that the word comes from the title of the play, which is one that amateurs frequently perform badly. Others argue it’s from a Cockney pronunciation of amateur, hamateur, but that would put the origin on the wrong continent.
In the 1860s, ham began to be used in America for somebody who was stupid, clumsy or worthless, especially an untalented prize fighter. This is most likely to have been borrowed from ham-handed or ham-fisted, meaning a person with large hands that fancifully resembled the prepared ham of a pig, hence clumsy.
In a separate development in the 1870s, ham began to be applied to variety performers, who were looked down on by “legitimate” actors. It was also used for incompetents within the profession generally:
Ham — is the most derisive word in the professional vocabulary, and if you wish to lose the friendship of anyone in the business call him a “ham,” and that settles it. A person who can do nothing at all, can not speak his lines properly or is any way bad in his calling, is denominated a “ham”.
Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Sep. 1879.
In this sense, it’s almost certainly an abbreviation of the slightly older hamfatter:
“When Dellaven proposed this concert business, I told him I was no ham-fatter, and — ” “Ham-fatter?” “Yes. Ham-fatter. That’s the name we give a man in our profession who is a poor performer.”
Nashville Union and American, 6 Nov. 1874.
The consensus is that the source lies with low-paid performers in minstrel troupes, who had to make do with ham fat for cleaning off make-up after a performance rather than a more expensive cream. It seems likely that a mental association grew up with the existing sense of ham for a clumsy or useless person. Another link may have been hambone, slang for a third-rate minstrel performer; this is said — not entirely convincingly — to come from trombonists in such troupes using ham fat to grease the slides of their instruments, slangily known as bones.
Ham later became a term for an amateur radio enthusiast. There has been much controversy about where the term comes from, but it seems certain that it’s connected to ham in the sense of clumsy. With that meaning it was used in the 1890s by US railway telegraphers to describe ill-trained, slow and inaccurate Morse-code operators. It seems to have been adopted early in the next century as an inverted badge of honour by early radio experimenters, who also communicated using Morse code.
• Roy Sinton tells us that on 1 March the Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, reported on the restoration of a historic building that had served as a monastery and as an alcoholics’ rehabilitation centre: “He was puzzled by the number of liquor bottles he found around the place. Could they have been smuggled in by the alcoholics or did the brothers sneak them in hidden down their cossacks?”
• The Independent newspaper had an item on 2 March about Ukip, the UK Independence Party (which wants the UK to leave the European Union). Mark Daley read that its leader, Nigel Farage, was worried about a threat from immigrant gamblers: “Mr Farage said it was ‘nonsense’ to try and impose a cap on migration as a member of the EU, and said that if he was a Romanian worker he would move to Britain for the higher wagers being offered.”