World Wide Words
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Bob’s-a-dying. Adam Sampson pointed out that the Bodleian Library in Oxford has copies of an early nineteenth-century song, Fancy Lad, whose chorus includes the line “Go along Bob’s a dying”. He added, “Thomas Hardy — an enthusiastic country-dance fiddler throughout his life — mentions My Fancy-Lad as a reel in the short story The Fiddler of the Reels and the poem The Dance at the Phoenix. Florence Hardy’s Early Life of Thomas Hardy lists this as one of the tunes he learned from his father, which would put it in the right time period for the broadsides. So I think that’s probably the place to look for a Napoleonic-era tune for Bob’s a dying!”
New Zealand readers were quick to point out that they know of a variant version of the expression: kick up bobsy-die, which is still in use though perhaps a little old-fashioned.
Bill of goods. Henry Clark was one of several who mentioned, “In engineering we often talk about a bill of materials. This is a list of all the parts and components needed to build a machine or a control panel.” Bob Johnson wrote of a usage in the piece: “Your American cousins would have to think hard to understand consignment note or despatch note. We would be more likely to say waybill or bill of lading.”
Swipe. Following my mention of swipe for selecting or rejecting an option on a smartphone or similar device, several readers pointed out that they knew it better in the sense of stealing something. The two are connected, both deriving from an old verb that was probably a variant form of sweep. Originally this meant to make a swinging blow or strike, as in cricket or fist fighting. The link to stealing probably came from a swift but surreptitious reaching out to take something without being noticed, or a more blatant and opportunistic attempt to grab something.
Binge-watching. “Those of us who are fans of science fiction,” emailed Rupert Smith, “have a pre-existing term for this, to marathon. I remember it from the 1990s, but I expect it’s been around longer. Conventions used to hold ‘marathons’ of a television series. The word still persists in the same sense as binge-watching today, but in my experience usually refers to re-watching something you’ve already seen before. I once marathoned 135 episodes of Naruto over one Christmas break (pausing to sleep, of course), but that was an extreme example I won’t be repeating!”
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone from WIF & Molly
If you’re nonplussed, that initial non- means you must be without something, right? That seems to be why many people in North America have interpreted this mildly odd word in recent decades to mean calm, undisturbed, unfazed, unimpressed or indifferent. In standard English and elsewhere it still means surprised, confused, perplexed or bewildered. Add to this a tendency to spell it with one s and a British reader can often be nonplussed in the old sense when encountering American examples.
When Billboard recently wrote, “She was very nonplussed and was happy to wait in the queue”, we may be sure the sense intended was “unbothered”. Similarly a sports magazine’s “MS Dhoni is popularly known in cricketing circles as ‘Captain Cool’ for his nonplussed demeanour in tense situations” is clear enough. But what about “I’m completely nonplused by most contemporary architecture” which was recently in the Wall Street Journal? What emotion was the writer feeling? His later comments make clear to a puzzled reader that he was unimpressed rather than confused.
Nonplussed is rather odd in its origin. Its first form was as a noun phrase borrowed directly from the classical Latin nōn plūs, not more or no further. As two words it appears first in an epistle by the Jesuit scholar Robert Parsons in 1582. He meant by it a state in which no more can be said or done, in which a person was unable to proceed in speech or action, resulting in perplexity or puzzlement.
Around the same time it became a verb, to nonplus, meaning to bring somebody to a standstill as a result of being perplexed or confused. The adjective nonplussed also soon appeared. In the early nineteenth century, somebody invented nonplussation, the state of being nonplussed, which had a brief period of popularity around the middle of the century but is now obsolete.
Goon (everybody needs one)
- From Dick Bentley: World Wide Words has many references to the Goon Show, the 1950s surreal British comedy radio programme, but none to goon itself. It’s a mysterious word in some ways: it seems to have two separate meanings; “idiot” and “hired thug”, which represent separate origins, perhaps? What is its true origin?
- Goon stepped shyly on to the public stage in the issue of Harper’s Magazine for December 1921. A whimsical article by Frederick Allen had the title The Goon and His Style: “A goon is a person with a heavy touch as distinguished from a jigger, who has a light touch. While jiggers look on life with a genial eye, goons take a more stolid and literal view.” He said the word was a family saying, but he might equally have made it up. After this, the word vanishes again for a decade.
The beginning of its popularity dates only from January 1934, when the cartoonist Elzie Segar got around to giving a new character a name: Alice the Goon. She had appeared in his Thimble Theatre comic strip on 10 December 1933, joining Popeye, Olive Oyl and others. Alice was a fearsome character, immensely tall with shaggy arms and legs and a long nose like a proboscis monkey. She was at first a guard employed by Popeye’s antagonist, the pirate and sorcerer called Sea Hag. Alice was powerful but dim-witted and goon came into the language first in the sense of a stupid person. It is said college students used it first.
In the later 1930s, goon began to be used for a ruffian or violent thug, particularly one employed by a labour union to frighten recalcitrant members and anybody who opposed the union. It appeared most often in the phrase goon squad:
Beck uses the mailed-fist and makes no bones about it. His staff includes a gang of imported strongarm men, known locally as the “goon squad.”
Joplin Globe (Missouri), 9 Oct. 1937. Beck was Dave Beck, union organiser for the Teamsters in Oregon and Washington states.
Goon in this sense was at first local slang; in early 1938 it achieved national notice through the jailing of union organisers from the region. It was most likely taken from Alice the Goon, who — at least in the early days before Segar softened her — was a subhuman brute. It might have come from the same source as Segar got it, whatever that was, but that seems less likely.
We may reasonably assume that the slang term for German guards in prisoner-of-war camps followed from this sense of an unintelligent thug. However, Spike Milligan says that he took the name of the Goon Show from the cartoon character and not from prison guards; he was using it in army training camp at Bexhill in Sussex in 1941 before that sense had become known or perhaps even coined.
This leaves us with the final part of your question: where did goon come from? We can’t be absolutely certain, but gooney has a long history in English, also as gony, gonnie, gawney and other forms, meaning a simpleton or fool. It may be from gone , implying that the person so described has lost their wits. Gooney is recorded in New England from the 1830s, though it’s probably older in North America. Sailors of the nineteenth century called various albatross species gooney birds (which was adopted during the Second World War for the Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft, which Brits know as the Dakota). It seems most plausible that Segar took goon from gooney.
Dictionaries are hard to promote. They’re utilitarian and unexciting works, to the extent that their users find it hard to differentiate between publishers and often lump them all together as “the dictionary”. The relatively recent wheeze of announcing Words of the Year has been a godsend to despairing publicity departments and an annual opportunity for lexicographers to slide modestly into the public eye for a seasonal rundown on what’s been happening with our vocabulary.
This year, however, Oxford Dictionaries has done something really odd. Its choice isn’t a word but a picture, an emoji, the one often known as face with tears of joy.
The news was greeted with all the publicity Oxford Dictionaries might have wanted, but much comment was puzzled or sarcastic. Didn’t a dictionary know what a word was? Did this render the idea of Words of the Year ridiculous? Was this the death knell of the language of Shakespeare? Was Oxford cosying up to the internet generation to the exclusion of more significant shifts in language? Had Oxford jumped the shark?
Though the choice looks seriously misguided, this wasn’t some mad whim. Oxford’s monitoring found that the word emoji increased its usage three-fold in 2015 over the previous year, which would have made it a candidate for Word of the Year. The little icons have become a widespread shorthand way of expressing emotion and ideas in texts and social media; they’ve moved way beyond the teenage texters who embraced them initially. Oxford Dictionaries argue that emoji and emoji culture have gone mainstream in 2015, “embodying a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.”
Emoji have without doubt come far since they were invented in Japan in the 1990s, as a development of smileys or emoticons (“emotional icons”), symbols created from keyboard characters that date from the earliest days of the internet.
Emoji in Japanese (e plus moji) literally means “picture character”. It predates the digital world by at least eight decades, and may have been based on the English word pictograph. The first use of emoji in English was in the Japanese publication Nikkei Weekly in October 1997, referring to a set of characters that had been created in connection with P-kies, a Japanese children’s show roughly equivalent to Sesame Street.
The popularity of emoji outside Japan was hastened by their inclusion in various mobile devices and led to their adoption as an international standard symbol set in Unicode in 2010 under names such as grinning face and winking face. Faces are the most popular — the set included persevering face, face screaming in fear (very Edvard Munch, this one) and extraterrestrial alien face. Face with tears of joy was chosen as the Word of the Year because it made up 20% of all the emoji used in the United Kingdom in 2015, and 17% of those in the United States, a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.
You can select from 1282 emoji in the Unicode set, including cats, hearts, hand signals, clothing, animals, plants, vehicles, the flags of all nations and lots more, including man in a business suit levitating and pile of poo. Their name might have helped them be accepted, though the similarity between emoji and emoticon is accidental.
In an electronic world in which brevity and speed are key, an image is potent, not perhaps worth a thousand words, but certainly removing the need for a description that the writer might not be willing or well-equipped to provide or have space for. But some commentators have gone further, arguing that emoji are no longer just a convenient shorthand but a nuanced form of communication in their own right.
Although Random House has published emoji-speak versions of Shakespeare and Herman Melville’s classic novel has been translated as Emoji Dick, neither can be called nuanced: 1282 pictures conveying a restricted and unsophisticated range of concepts is hardly a replacement for the subtlety and richness of a natural language.
Caspar Grathwohl of Oxford Dictionaries commented, “The fact that English alone is proving insufficient to meet the needs of 21st-century digital communications is a huge shift”. But it’s a shift restricted to one part of the online world. The suspicion must be that emoji are a passing fashion and that to try to read into them a seismic shift in the nature of communication is seriously misplaced.
Will the “Word” of the Year take its place in Oxford’s dictionaries? There are no plans to include emoji, the publishers say. A wise decision, you may feel.
- There is truth in the adage “Thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just, but four times he who gets his blow in first”, which the military has pithily summarised as pre-emptive strike. On 9 November a British MP used pretaliation in a Twitter post, marking it as a “new word”. Not so. It appeared in September in guidance by the US Securities and Exchange Commission about whistleblower protection and I came across it in 2012 in Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds. It’s older still. By 2007 it had reached the online Urban Dictionary; around that time it was borrowed for the name of a US heavy metal band. It turns up in various Google Groups back to 1998 (“They believe in proactive security measures and pretaliation”). And an isolated example featured in The Listener as long ago as 1971. All of which forces us to conclude that if you’re inventing words, it’s best to get your pretaliation in first.
- Quingel, flingam, blablesoc and probble. Do these sound funny? As in funny-ha-ha, not funny-peculiar, since you’re unlikely to have encountered them. They’re nonsense words created by a computer program for a project on humour by four researchers from the universities of Alberta and Tübingen and published in the current issue of the Journal of Memory and Language. Alberta students were asked to rate words for how funny they found them. The study proved that non-words are funnier the more they look like real words but aren’t, because they’re incongruous and contradict our expectation that what we read is meaningful. The researchers actually discovered that words are funniest when they sound “dirty” — the highest rated words were whong, dongl, shart , focky and clunt, though this may have been a function of the age and nature of the participants (also, shart and clunt are recorded as real slang words, while dongl is close to the computer term dongle). The study also demonstrated that judgments were consistent from one person to another, at least within the restricted group surveyed.
Thank your mother for the rabbits
- From Helen Jeffery in the UK: My late granddad had a quaint way of bidding people goodbye. He would say “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits”. Do you think that was just him being himself, or was it an expression in general use? He lived a bit further north than I do at the moment, in north-west Durham.
- You may be disappointed to hear that he didn’t invent it, though he was following in some famous footsteps.
A detailed discussion of this nonsense phrase appeared in the Australian language journal OzWords a decade ago, which made it clear that it has long been known in that country and is still to be heard. The stereotypical association of Australia with rabbits might suggest that the expression began its life there. Some Australians argue that it arose during the depression of the 1930s when money for food was scarce and rabbits were free to anybody who could catch them. It is said that rabbits became known during that period as underground mutton.
But the evidence says it isn’t native to Australia. One important pointer is this:
Bloom starts forward involuntarily and, half closing the door as he passes, takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it nervously to Zoe. ZOE: (Sniffs his hair briskly) Hmmm! Thank your mother for the rabbits. I’m very fond of what I like.
Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922.
More evidence comes from an oddly inconsequential snippet in an Australian newspaper, which happens to be the earliest occurrence of the phrase in print anywhere:
Lady Tree insists on trying to make her comrades laugh during the progress of the piece whilst she acts. One night, when she was playing the part of an elderly lady in “Diplomacy” she quite suddenly invented a new line in the play by saying “Thank your mother for the rabbits” to a parting guest. The audience enjoyed it so much that the actress has kept in the line ever since.
Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW), 8 Nov. 1913. Lady Tree was better known professionally as Mrs Beerbohm Tree, she being the wife of and collaborator with the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
We may guess the editors included this because they thought Australians would appreciate a reference to a phrase they knew. We may also be pretty sure Lady Tree didn’t make it up. The event, however humorous to the audience, wasn’t sufficiently important to spread public knowledge of it, since the number of appearances didn’t subsequently rise.
So is it Irish, as the Ulysses appearance implies? Almost certainly not, since Zoe makes clear in the book that she was born in Yorkshire. Your own experience also suggests an English source. Eric Partridge noted the phrase in his Dictionary of Catchphrases as having been “brought to my notice by the late Frank Shaw in 1969”. Frank Shaw was a Liverpudlian writer who did much to publicise the local dialect, Scouse. So the expression is quite strongly linked with northern England.
Beyond that, the trail runs into the sand. It’s probably late nineteenth century in date, perhaps from a catchphrase in some long-forgotten music-hall comedian’s act.
Sometimes mysteries are more fun than facts, though frustrating to enquirers.
- The text below a photograph in the print edition of the Guardian of 7 November read: “Caption goes here and don’t forget to twiddle your triang.”
- Grant Agnew sent me to the opening sentence of a story on ABC News on 11 November: “Queensland beef producer Mick Hewitt has been elected to the new grass-fed position on the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) board selection committee.”
- From the Department of Unfortunate Phrasing: Margaret Joachim found this sentence in the Acton W3 Gazette of West London: “Thames Water apologises for over-running sewer works”.
- The website of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Daniel reports, had an article dated 9 November under the ambiguous headline “How Can the Justice Department Help CIA Torture Victims?”
- A BBC news item of 19 November seen by Timothy Conway featured the finding of a large hoard of Roman coins by a small Swiss farmer: “Weighing around 15kg (33lb), he discovered the coins after spotting something shimmering in a molehill.”
- The Age of Melbourne surprised Jack Harvey with news of a novel process for decontaminating asbestos found in a school. The school president was quoted as saying, “The ground is contaminated and needs to be fixed. … We have been raising money for it to be fixed with cake stalls and art shows.”