World Wide Words
Saturday 13 December 2014
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Get one’s goat. The revised piece in the last brief issue brought some comments. Members of the American Dialect Society mailing list noted that, like one of their number, I had misread the date on the poor-quality image of the Kid McCoy article as 1903. It was actually 1908.
Michael Ormsby wrote “The American military academies long have had animal mascots: the US Army’s West Point had a mule while the US Naval Academy at Annapolis had a goat, and these animals would be paraded before athletic contests. Now, rivalry between the two academies has always been intense and before the annual Army-Navy football game the cadets of each school would and still do attempt to harass the other — one long ago prank was to steal the other school’s mascot before the game and at least once in the nineteenth century the Army cadets managed to ‘get the Navy’s goat’, and disrupt the Navy’s prideful parade.” This has been suggested by others at various times but isn’t supported by evidence.
Jean-Paul Buquet mentioned the common modern French idiom rendre chèvre, literally to make someone a goat, but figuratively to make angry, as by taunting. From Australia, Bob Connell recalled that “Growing up in Sydney in the 50s and 60s, the expression that I knew was getting on my goat. I wonder why the variation?” David Morrish noted the old canard that riding the goat constitutes a part of the ceremonies of initiation in a Masonic Lodge.
Americans often idiosyncratically pronounce foreign words in the names of places, as inhabitants of the Iowa city of Des Moines (duh MOYN) will agree. David Glagovsky pointed out this happens with a town mentioned in the article: “Brazil, Indiana, the town referenced in the last issue, is not said like the country. In Hoosierese, it’s pronounced ‘bray-zill’, with equal stress on each syllable..”
Stepney. My piece about this in the issue of 25 November led several readers to comment on its usage in other countries. Kenan Er wrote that, as stepne, it’s Turkish for a spare tyre. Rainer Brockerhoff emailed, “Your article solved a long-standing mystery to me: in Brazil estepe is a common term for a spare tire, but nobody seems to know the origin. It’s also used to designate substitutes in general, and specifically for a ‘spare’ girlfriend or boyfriend.” This is often mentioned in discussions of the term, but I left it out of my piece because the link is unsubstantiated. Rainer Brockerhoff added, “It’s also used for substitutes in general, and specifically for a ‘spare’ girlfriend or boyfriend.” Vinay Kumar wrote from India to say that his country has a similar usage: “My native language is Kannada. From childhood I have often heard these phrases, ‘How is your stepney?’, ‘Play these tricks with your stepney, not me.’ In my native language, stepney means a ‘second wife’ or a woman with whom one has an extramarital affair.”
Season’s greetings. It’s unlikely that another issue will appear before the end of the year unless some topical matter arises. All good wishes for the holiday and the new year. I’ll write again early in 2015.
In his blog The Oxford Etymologist, Professor Anatoly Liberman recently mentioned coming across phizzog in Slabs of the Sunburnt West, a book of 1922 by the American poet Carl Sandburg. He found that none of his students knew the word. That confirms my own finding that in the US it’s almost totally defunct as a slang term for the face.
As it happens, I encountered it equally serendipitously when researching my piece on fish-face recently:
Why hadn’t the fish-faced Frenchman shown his phizzog?
The television programme was broadcast by CBS in the US at about the time when phizzog was uttering its life’s last gasp; the programme seems to have done nothing to revitalise its popularity.
The term remains widely known in Britain, though you’re likely to come across it in a dizzying variety of spellings guaranteed to dismay any seeker into its history. However, phizzog itself is uncommon. The form most often used is fizzog, but it also appears as phizog, phisog and physog, among others. The shorter form phiz is also still popular:
I remember a moment between the ceremony and the reception when we were queuing up in our gladrags to have our pictures taken for the OK! magazine spread. I felt a sudden, instinctive lurch – the thought of my phiz besmirching every hairdresser’s salon and dentist’s waiting room.
It’s odd that in twenty-first-century Britain we should still be unable to agree on the spelling, since phizzog and its relatives have been in use for at least 200 years. It’s also a little strange that the shorter form phiz appeared in the record much earlier than the longer one. One of its first commitments to print was this:
By the Mackins, now I view his Phiz well, methinks I see the very same Air and Meen, I’ve often seen in a Glass, he’s so damnably like me.
The source of all the slang forms is physiognomy. This came into English in the fourteenth century from Greek via French. The Greek derives from phusis, nature, and gnōmōn, a judge or interpreter. The first sense in English was that of judging a person’s character from his features. A little later, it added the idea of predicting a person’s future from his face; this seems a perilous method of divination, though not a surprising one, since prognosticators have tried everything from inspecting chicken entrails to studying the shape of clouds. However, the main sense of physiognomy has long been that of the facial features themselves.
The word has always been too long and scholarly-sounding to be welcome in the ears of English speakers. Even before they chopped it back to phiz they were slurring it. Shakespeare has the Clown in All’s Well That Ends Well assert that the Black Prince’s fisnomy was better known in France than England.
Q. From Christina Gibbs: Genealogists searching old newspaper and court records in America often find references to “seven head of horse creatures”, with the number variable, of course. I’ve seen this in works from the 1800s. Why did they use this circumlocution?
A. This is an intriguing usage, hardly recorded in dictionaries, even the biggest, and which hasn’t been noticed or discussed by any writer on language I’ve been able to identify. I’ve found some intriguing leads but can’t claim to provide you with a satisfyingly complete answer.
My check of old newspapers similarly found many examples, the earliest being an advertisement in the Hagers Town Torch Light And Public Advertiser of Maryland, dated February 1829: “1 Horse Creature, 5 Cows, 6 Sheep and Hogs, Wheat, Rye, Corn & Buckwheat by the bushel”. The Dictionary of American Regional English records horse beast and horse critter, but not horse creature. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago likewise recorded horse beast; the printed record shows this is an ancient and once-common British English form, use from at least the 1580s. Horse beast also appears in a charter in Pennsylvania in 1742, showing that it was, unsurprisingly, taken to the American colonies by early English settlers.
I’m at a loss to explain why people felt it necessary to expand horse in this way. So I asked academic members of the American Dialect Society list. Joel Berson recalled an American advertisement he had found dated 1715 for a horse race that distinguished “Horse, Mare or Gelding”. This led me back to the Oxford English Dictionary, which points out that horse was once widely used to specifically mean an adult male horse.
It could be that horse creature and horse beast were generic or formal terms that included any horse, of whatever breed, age or sex. That would explain why it’s often found in legal records and sale advertisements.
Following a hint from Jonathon Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I’ve found similar forms relating to cattle. There are ancient references in England to a rother beast, rother being a defunct word for a type of horned cattle, an ox or bullock. Old American sources have bull creature, bull critter and bull beast, but here the term refers specifically to the male animal and isn’t a generic term for cattle. There are examples to the present day in the US of cow creature for any domestic bovine; cow was long ago adopted by people who know little about livestock farming for an animal of any age or sex because English doesn’t have a unisex singular for cattle.
This suggests that some other reason must exist for adding creature or beast to an animal’s name. It might have been no more than a verbal tic that became established as an idiom.
Or it might have been a parallel to formations such as creature of the horse kind, which Joel Berson points out was once common. He found that form used of hog, goat, panther, opossum, weasel, cat and serpent, as well as horse. I’ve come across many examples with creature replaced by animal or beast , as in this from Cervantes’s Don Quixote: “He fell in with a couple of either priests or students, and a couple of peasants, mounted on four beasts of the ass kind.”
Meredith tells us that a caption to a photograph in a Boston Globe article dated 30 November reads: “A statue of Laozi, often spelled Lao Tzu, is credited with writing ‘The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue’.”
And Andrew wrote about a piece on the BBC website on 5 December with the headline “Prince William to meet Obama in US”: “He is expected to give a speech on combating illegal wildlife trafficking at the World Bank.” It has since been reworded.
Chris Robinson was amused by the condition he had to agree to when booking a reduced price coach ticket from National Express online: “I have read the terms and conditions of this offer and can confirm that all travellers on this booking carry a Southampton Bus.”
A perturbing environmental story was given unconscious humour in the headline to an undated story that Betty Haniotakis found on the Organic Health website: “37 Million Bees Found Dead In Ontario, Canada After Planting Large GMO Corn Field.”
Another entry for the “it could have been better worded” prize comes via Erskine Fleck from the Denver Post on 23 November: “It is unclear how many people were hurt, but except for the one death, all the injuries were non-fatal, McIver said.”