World Wide Words Issue 926 – WIF Style

Leave a comment


WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 926

from U.K.’s Michael Quinion

Feedback, Notes and Comments


By hook or by crook. Following the piece last time on this idiom, several readers updated me on the geography of the tale about the invasion of Ireland through Waterford. They pointed out that a village called Crook does exist, on the west bank of the estuary of the River Barrow, while Hook is on the east side.

Hilary Maidstone, among others, suggested that hook and crook aren’t so closely connected in meaning as I had implied. “One thing I thought of as is that a hook in East Anglia — and possibly elsewhere for all I know — is a sharp tool, either for grass (a curved blade similar to a sickle on a short handle) or for hedging (a billhook or billock in Norfolk dialect), a hooked blade on a short handle.” A tool very similar in shape to the modern billhook appears several times in medieval illustrations of pruning grapevines and fruit trees.


Pronounced /ˈjɛːli/

Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, preferred words of native English origin over those from French and Latin. He’s credited with bringing many old words back into the language. However, his son Hallam wrote a memoir in which he recalled his father regretting that he had never employed yarely.

If he had, his readers would have been as baffled by it as they were with some of his other reintroductions, because by the nineteenth century yarely had fallen out of the standard language, though surviving in some dialects. A rare notable earlier usage that century was in a work by another resurrector of antique words:


Sir Walter Scott by Sir william Allan

“Yarely! yarely! pull away, my hearts,” said the latter, and the boat bearing the unlucky young man soon carried him on board the frigate.
Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott, 1814.

From this, we may guess, correctly, that it means briskly, promptly or quickly. Its source is the Old English gearolíce, related to gearu, ready or prepared.

The Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist and songwriter Charles Mackay (best known for his three-volume work of 1841, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and the Madness of Crowds) included yarely in his Lost Beauties of the English Language, quoting examples from three Shakespeare plays, including this one:

Speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run
ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, 1611.

Despite the nautical nature of these two examples, it wasn’t specifically a sailors’ word. However, the Old English gearu became yare, which is still in the seafaring language of North America, meaning a ship that is quick to the helm and is easily handled or manoeuvred.

Upset the applecart

Q From John Hathaway: I know that somebody who says the apple cart has been upset means that somebody’s plans have been ruined, but why an apple cart rather than anything else?

A A figurative sense of apple cart has been around since the eighteenth century. For an unknown but probably trivial reason it’s actually slightly older than the literal use of the phrase.

In the earlier part of its life, the most common sense of apple cart in Britain was the human body. Francis Grose recorded down with his apple-cart in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as meaning to knock a man down; that was in 1788, although the same idea is on record from about 1750. It later became known in Australia:

He slapped her face, she seized a broomstick, and he capsized her “apple cart,” and broke two pannels [sic] of the door.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 Apr. 1833.

The etymologist Walter Skeat wrote in 1879, “I think the expression is purely jocular, as in the case of ‘bread-basket,’ similarly used to express the body.”

The form you’re referring to also appears early on. There’s an isolated example on record from Massachusetts in 1788 but it only starts to appear on both sides of the Atlantic in any significant way in the late 1830s:

They won’t encourage trade, or commerce, or manufacturing — because they know that trade, and commerce, and manufacturing would create a power right off that would upset their apple-cart.
Logansport Canal Telegraph (Indiana), 23 Sep. 1837.

The Whigs, Gentlemen, cannot object to the soundness of our old authorities in law, because, you know, they themselves are very fond of referring to the same source, when it suits their purposes; and to deny those authorities, therefore, would be at once to upset their own apple cart.
The Champion and Weekly Herald (London), 16 Apr. 1837.

We may assume it was around in the spoken language in Britain, lurking out of sight, for longer than the written record shows. It continued in parallel with the human-body sense for most of the 1800s but took until the early twentieth century to become widely popular and to shift from slang to colloquial usage. An early stimulus may have been the widely reported comment by Cecil Rhodes, then prime minister of the Cape colony, that the Jameson Raid of 1895 had “upset the apple cart”. The evidence suggests a peak in the 1930s, possibly helped along by George Bernard Shaw’s play The Apple Cart, first produced in 1929.

The shift in sense from a slang term for the body to ruining a person’s plans seems to have been via an intermediate sense of suffering a personal accident, either involving some external object or simply falling over:

The bed groaned for a moment under the load, and the next moment the strings snapt like tow, and down came the bed, bedding, Dutchman and all, plump into the middle of the cabin floor. … “You’ve upset your apple-cart now,” says I as soon as I’de [sic] done laughing.
Huron Reflector (Ohio), 3 Apr. 1832.

If a child falls down you first inquire if he is much hurt. If he is merely a little frightened you say, “Well, never mind, then; you’ve only upset your apple-cart and spilt all the gooseberries.” The child perhaps laughs at the very venerable joke, and all is well again.
Notes and Queries, 13 Dec. 1879.

We’re quite unable to say why some unknown person 250 years ago selected an apple cart as a metaphor for the body because there’s no written evidence on which we can base any reasoned explanation. But we can understand why the idea remains popular in the sense of ruining some undertaking: the visual image of a cart laden with apples overturning — with all its implications for mess, inconvenience and financial loss — is too striking to lose.

It might be worth ending by mentioning an arcane suggestion for the origin of one sense. About 200 BCE, the comic playwright Plautus wrote a line in his play Epidicus that implied Romans had a proverb, perii, plaustrum perculi, which may be loosely translated as “I’m done for! I’ve upset my wagon!” Could this have been the stimulus for the English idiom, with some jesting Latin scholar turning the Roman wagon into a very English apple cart? It’s a nice story, but I suspect that native English wit was capable of creating the image without resorting to second-hand humour.


Q From Ali Nobari: Wodehouse uses the word snooter, presumably schoolboy slang, but what does it mean?

A It’s possible to get an impression of the meaning of this very unusual word from the contexts in which P G Wodehouse uses it. A couple of examples:

Those who know Bertram Wooster best are aware that in his journey through life he is impeded and generally snootered by about as scaly a platoon of aunts as was ever assembled.
Very Good, Jeeves!, by P G Wodehouse, 1930.

Snootered to bursting point by Pop Bassetts and Madeline Bassetts and Stiffy Byngs and what not, and hounded like the dickens by a remorseless Fate, I found solace in the thought that I could still slip it across Roderick Spode.
The Code of the Woosters, by P G Wodehouse, 1938.

To be snootered is to be harassed, vexed or tormented.

We might indeed reasonably assume that the word is slang from Wodehouse’s schooldays at Dulwich College in south London. But we would be wrong. We would be equally wrong to connect it with the similar snooker, whether the game or the derived verb meaning to put somebody in an impossible position or to trap or entice them. Wodehouse actually borrowed snooter from US slang during his early years in that country.

Snoot as a noun has been recorded there since the 1860s. It’s a local pronunciation variation of standard English snout, a word of Germanic origin that has been in the language since about 1200. The American version was looked down on:

Snoot, of the human face or nose, apparently the same word as snout. A vulgar word in New England. ‘I’ll bu’st your snoot’; ‘hit him on the snoot’. As a verb in ‘to snoot round’, i.e. to nose around, it is reported from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Dialect Notes, 1890.

The verb evolved to mean treating a person scornfully or with disdain, leading to the adjective snooty — snobbish, supercilious or stuck-up, figuratively with one’s nose in the air in a superior way.

Wodehouse created snooter from snoot, presumably developing it from the sense of snubbing someone; he used it often enough — in at least eight of his books as well as in correspondence — that he became identified with it, so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word has examples only from him. A couple of writers have since employed it, but it’s very rare.


I was consulting an old book when the Empress Poppaea’s name came up. You surely remember her: second wife of the Emperor Nero in ancient Rome, notorious for her intrigues, and commemorated in the clerihew:

The Empress Poppaea
Was really rather a dear;
Only no one could stop her
From being improper.

The context was her skincare routine, which was like nothing seen in Rome before. It wasn’t just the daily baths in asses’ milk, but also the then newfangled overnight face packs of damp barley meal, followed by the daytime application of chalk and white lead.

The book introduced me to fard, to paint the face, and to the noun fard, a cosmetic.

Another example:

Painted Lady by Shelley Catlin

I think, that your sex make use of fard and vermillion for very different purposes; namely, to help a bad or faded complexion, to heighten the graces, or conceal the defects of nature, as well as the ravages of time.
Travels Through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett, 1766.

English borrowed fard from French in the sixteenth century but abandoned it again in the nineteenth. Though fard would be a usefully brief alternative to “put on one’s makeup”, the chances of hearing comments like “I farded in the train on the way to work” are rather small.

If you know French, you may have guessed what this word means, since it’s still in that language in the sense of cosmetics or makeup (and it does have a verb meaning to put on makeup: farder). Nobody knows for sure where the French word came from: one suggestion is the Old High German farwjan, to colour, ancestor of the modern German verb färben. In its early years in French fard could figuratively suggest a misleading appearance or language, which survives in the idioms parler sans fard, to speak candidly or openly, and vérité sans fard, the plain or unvarnished truth.

Fard in English often specifically meant a white face paint (hence Smollett’s “fard and vermillion”, contrasting white and red). It was either the ancient unguent of lard mixed with white lead or a similar concoction based on a brilliant white compound of bismuth, sometimes called blanc de fard. Both were poisonous and long-term use damaged the skin.

The word occasionally appears as a deliberate archaism:

A trio of women holding hands, gaunt and thin as the inmates of a spitalhouse and attired the three alike in the same cheap finery, their faces daubed in fard and pale as death.
Cities of The Plain, by Cormac McCarthy, 1998. A spitalhouse, where spital is a shortening of hospital, is a place set aside for the diseased or destitute, usually of a lower class than a hospital.



• A mysterious headline from the Western Mail of 4 June the following headline left Kate Lloyd Jones’s son puzzled about the size of the capsules mentioned: “Parents in laundry capsules ‘mistaken for sweets’ alert.”

• A widely reproduced item from the news agency AP, which Brian McMahon saw on 4 June, implied remarkable medical self-help at a car rally accident: “One spectator at the event … broke an arm, while a woman received multiple injuries and a third person was forced to amputate a leg.”

• A geologically improbable opening to a report of 8 June in the Hamilton Spectator of Ontario, Canada, understandably intrigued Ari Blenkhorn: “It had been a long drive. … By 2:50 a.m. Monday morning, though they couldn’t see them in the darkness, the rolling hills of Alabama gently rocked the car.”

• Ian Harrison received a spam email from a South African cheap-deals site on 15 June, promoting a manual meat grinder which it claimed, “Can Be Used To Grind An Assortment Of Meats And Ingredients Made Of Cast Iron.”

• A headline on 9 June in the Dominion-Post of Wellington, New Zealand, attracted Michel Norrish’s attention: “Grapes grown in graveyard produce a full-bodied wine”.

by Tim Lee

• On 14 June, Alec Cawley found that the BBC news website had this about a banned Malaysian Airline: “It has two Boeing 737-400 planes in its fleet, each able to carry about 180 passengers, eight pilots and 50 crew.” Overstaffed, perhaps?

World Wide Words Issue 926



– WIF Style

Bad Trendy Terms – WIF Grammar

Leave a comment

Trendy Words

We Need to Stop Using

Right Now

The evolution of language can be a beautiful thing to behold. After all, it’s not so long ago that gay meant ‘happy’, a dashboard was something you stood on, and the F-word was a simple synonym for “hit”. English changes all the time, and that’s awesome.

What’s significantly less-awesome, on the other hand, is people’s lame attempts to coin new words online. Usually created in reference to politics, usually insulting, and always awful, hearing the following words is like watching someone defecate on a copy of Shakespeare. Here are the top 10 awful, trendy words we need to stop using immediately, for the sake of every generation that follows us.

10. Mansplaining


As in… “Geez that guy on the internet totally just mansplained the meaning of mansplain to me.”

The history of mansplain is practically venerable where trendy words are concerned. Coined in 2008, it was the result of an article by Rebecca Solnit called “Men Explain Things To Me.” In her article, Solnit took issue with men assuming they knew more about her on any topic, including ones she was a qualified expert on. Feminists seized on this as a day-to-day example of men acting like jerks.Mansplaining was born.

Why it’s awful: Mansplain really took off in 2011, and it’s now so widely-used thatOxford Dictionaries include it in their online database. And that’s a real shame, because mansplain is just about the ugliest word on the planet.

As Alexandra Petri once wrote, it doesn’t even make sense. It should be ‘manxplain’ (man + explain), but that would sound even uglier. It’s the sort of word literally nobody uses in real life, and trust us, that’s not a misuse of literally. Without Twitter, it would simply cease to be. Even noted feminists have come out against mansplain for being divisive and kinda sexist (but mainly it’s just a really poor effort at making a portmanteau).

9. Feminazi


As in… “Hey, bro! Get a load of those chicks campaigning for women’s rights! Bunch of feminazis.”

Unlike many ugly words, which kinda just appear from random sources, feminazi can be traced to a single creator. Overweight, ultra-conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh coined it in 1992 – originally to refer to feminists who were very pro-abortion. Over time, he dropped the abortion part, and simply used it to refer to feminists and female activists in general. When the internet sprang into being, it migrated into general online usage.

Why it’s awful: It’s a self-Godwin.

Godwin’s Law is one of the truest laws of the internet. It states that the longer an online discussion goes on for, the higher the likelihood of someone referring toHitler or the Nazis. At that point the conversation becomes worthless (unless you’re in a history forum discussing WWII or 1930s Germany). The term feminazi leapfrogs the discussion part and Godwins your entire point within a single word.

8. Brexit


As in… “With the coming EU referendum, investors are worried that a possible Brexit could spark a Grexit, followed by a Czexit, followed by… (continue until every country name in Europe has been combined with ‘exit’.)”

Brexit has been around since 2012 to refer to the possibility of Britain ‘exiting’ the European Union. It’s actually an updating of the word ‘Grexit’, which was coined earlier the same year when it seemed likely Greece would crash out the Union. Since then, variations like Czexit have followed, leading to an overload of portmanteaus crashing together country names with “exit”.

Why it’s awful: There’s nothing inherently wrong with Brexit. Whoever first coined it probably thought it was a mildly-amusing way of describing a dry EU debate. But, like the suffix ‘gate’ being added to the end of every word involving a post-Watergate scandal (“horsegate”, “plebgate”, etc) it’s now been overused by lazyjournalists to the point where it’s almost suffocating.

Currently, Brexit is one of the most-used words in English newspapers. It’s also spawned other nightmare words such as ‘Bremain’ (the possibility of Britain remaining in the EU), and ‘Brexiters’ (to describe those who want to see a Brexit). The moment these two trends combine to create ‘Brexitgate’, the English language will officially be dead – killed by lazy headline writers.

7. Sheeple


As in… “wake up sheeple! Can’t you see corporations/the media/the government/etc are manipulating you!”

Sheeple is a surprisingly old word. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it dates fromat least the 1940s (Google claims the earliest known usage was in 1945). It basically implies that a large majority of the public are unthinking sheep (sheep + people) who will follow the herd, even when that herd is leading them to a Commie takeover/consumerist dystopia/Libertarian nightmare.

Why it’s awful: If words could be hipsters, sheeple would be the bearded guy in the flannel shirt, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon while ironically pretending to like Nic Cage movies to amuse his annoying buddies. Why? Because sheeple is a word thatnobody uses seriously anymore.

Sheeple today is only ever used sarcastically. Like a hipster posing in a stupid retro outfit, people drop it into discussions assuming everyone will know they’re being ironic. Just as irony doesn’t negate the fact the hipster is still dressed like a doofus, the people saying sheeple are still the idiots saying this stupid word.

6. Twitterati

As in… “Wow, my blog just got picked up and retweeted by one of the Twitterati! That’ll get some extra page views!”

Way back in the 17th century, a word was needed to define a new breed of scholar. Learned men who owned books and often wrote prodigiously, they became known as the literati, a name derived from Latin.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and people were looking for a term to define those who hung around the wealthy and influential in Hollywood and similar places. The world christened them the glitterati. Jump forward to the 21st century, and journalists decided to coin a term for people with a lot of followers on Twitter. Guess what they came up with.

Why it’s awful: Elevating people who can tweet a selection of 140 characters in a vaguely-provocative way to the level of writers like Sterne, Johnson and Swift is so egotistical it reads like a satire of vapid, 21st century culture. Twitterati already sounds like a bad pun, like it was coined specifically to mock Twitter users with an inflated sense of self-importance. Only those same people are now using it to describe themselves, like we’re trapped in a never-ending spiral of oblivious self-mocking.

5. Rethuglican

As in… “Screw those Rethuglicans with their rightwing fascist policies!”

Rethuglican – a blending of Republican and thug – is a slightly-odd one, as it’s in common enough usage to crop up on most political comments threads, but no-one really knows when it originated, or who coined it. It seems to have just emerged out the ether, but we’d put good money on it being a 90s or 2000s invention.

Why it’s awful: If you need an illustration of how pointlessly polarized politics has become, look no further than Rethuglican. While leftwing people calling conservatives ‘fascists’ is definitely off-putting, at least the insult focuses on an external thing: fascists are bad, so therefore acting like a fascist is bad, too. It implies the person being called a fascist is an outlier from the rest of the right wing. Rethuglican, on the other hand, implies that its target is bad because allRepublicans are inherently thuggish.

This is both damaging and moronic, and is exactly why politics today feels like a bunch of angry toddlers screaming at each other. Demonizing an entire segment of the population simply for being who they are is always a dumb idea.

4. Libtard

As in… “Screw those Libtards with their Commie-pinko policies!”

Like Rethuglican, Libtard (Liberal + retard) is now just about everywhere. Seriously,bung it into Yahoo Answers and you’ll find about a billion threads all starting with, “so why do libtards…?” Just like Rethuglican, no-one knows where it really originates from. While other anti-Liberal words like Moonbat have beendefinitively traced to a single source, Libtard has no widely agreed upon origin.

Why it’s awful: It makes you sound like you’re still in Kindergarten, losing an argument to a 4 year old.

Libtard has all the same faults as Rethuglican, with the added bonus that it sounds even more like something a spoiled child should be saying; probably with tears rolling down their cheeks as they wonder why the other kids won’t play with them. Once again, it makes it seem like the politically-active in America are a bunch of whiny babies who’ve forgotten how to play nice.

Then there’s the fact that combining any word with one as offensive as retard should be a no-no. But hey, that’s probably something only a Libtard would say, right?

3. Gaystapo

As in… “The Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage. I guess the gaystapo got their wish…”

A close cousin of feminazi, gaystapo first turned up on the rightwing talk circuit, likely inspired by The Pink Swastika – a 1995 book that argued gay people were responsible for the Holocaust, rather than being victims of it. It’s usually used today by people wanting to tar all gay rights activists with the Nazi brush. Some of them are even kinda mainstream. In the UK, a politician from the Ukip party was recently caught calling gay people the gaystapo.

Why it’s awful: The moment anyone starts comparing groups that historically suffered under Hitler to Nazis is the moment they officially fail at being a rational creature.

This isn’t just a problem on the rightwing. A far-left version might involve calling Jewish Israelis “fascist Nazi scum.” But it all amounts to the same thing. These groups by definition cannot be just like the Nazis, for the very simple reason that the Nazis would’ve murdered them in death camps without a second thought. To try and claim otherwise is simply the height of stupidity. And nothing sums up thestupidest side of humanity quite like the dimbulb word gaystapo.

2. Rino / Dino

As in… “Man, Hillary is just a Dino! You can’t trust her.” or “Man, Trump is just a Rino! You can’t trust him.”

In 1994, resurgent rightwing Republicans were looking for a way to denigrate colleagues they thought were too willing to compromise on certain liberal issues. They came up with Rino, an acronym for Republican In Name Only. After Rino caught on, leftwing Democrats decided to come up with their own version: Dino. Since the mid-90s, the two terms have appeared more-or-less constantly online, although Rino is now being edged out by cuckservative in some nationalist circles.

Why it’s awful: If there’s one theme that keeps resurfacing in this article, it’s that words that deliberately divide us and demonize whole groups of people are probably a bad idea. Both Rino and Dino do this in spades. They’re ways of delegitimizing your opponent’s views, simply because you disagree with them, which is never a good thing.

More to the point, they’re also words that sound exactly like other, more-popular words. By using them, pundits are only ensuring that people who’ve never heard the terms before are left confused, wondering why the heck the two main parties have elected lumbering beasts to run the country.

1. Hilbot/Obamabot/Putinbot/Berniebot

As in… “You’re just another Hilbot/Berniebot/Obamabot/Putinbot who doesn’t understand what’s really going on in this country!!!”

The term Obamabot first rose to prominence in 2011, around the time that it seemed like the Republicans might take back the White House in 2012. Originally, it was used to identify a very specific type of Twitter user: someone who unfailingly supported the president on every single decision, and verbally attacked anyone else on Twitter who criticized him.

Over time, though, the meaning began to evolve. Today, it’s essentially an insult tossed at people who take Obama’s side in any online debate. This same usage has carried over to newer variations like Hilbot (for Hillary Clinton supporters) and Berniebot (for Bernie Sanders supporters). Same goes for Putinbot, although the Russian leader is interesting in that he’s the only one who genuinely does have anarmy of paid bloggers who trawl the internet, defending him on random message boards.

Why it’s awful: This last one violates all the golden rules. Not only is it divisive, and involves dismissing and demonizing your opponent, it’s also an example of people sticking one suffix on the end of other words, over and over again until it feels like you’re drowning.

Here’s the thing. Adding ‘bot’ or ‘gate’ or anything else to the end of a random name or object does not a good word make. All it does is create an annoying new buzzword for people to clap themselves on the back over, all while stifling genuine debate. If we keep going at this rate, all online discussion will simply wind up being a bunch of people shouting ‘Obamabot!’ or ‘Putinbot!’ at each other until there’snothing left on the internet worth reading.

Bad Trendy Terms

WIF Grammar 101-001

– WIF Grammar

World Wide Words Issue 925 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF World Wide Wors

World Wide Words

Issue 925



Feedback, notes and comments


But and ben. “The term is not one I am familiar with,” John Jefferies emailed, “but it does bring to mind a well-established Irish (Gaelic) word bothán which is a small hut, shed or cabin and would neatly match your description of a small two-roomed house.”

Barbara Roden wrote, “Your explanation of the phrase was especially interesting, as I’m familiar with it from a children’s skipping rhyme that was in circulation after the crimes of anatomists Burke and Hare in early 19th century Edinburgh were exposed:

Up the close and doun the stair,
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

Dutch speakers noted the close associations between the Scots words and ones in their language. Alexander Bocast commented, “The expressions binnen en buiten and buiten en binnen are not uncommon in Dutch, although they generally contrast the interior of a building to its exterior. For example, a restaurant might advertise buiten and binnen to inform customers that they can eat either inside or outside on, say, a terrace or patio.”

Several British readers complained at my seeming to have adopted the US spelling story instead of storey in this piece for one level of a building. It was, of course, a typing error.

Logomaniac. Medical practitioners pointed out that a person who exhibits what I described as “pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking”, is usually said to be suffering from logorrhoea rather than logomania.

Type lice. Rob Graham wrote, “I would like to think that by the end of the first paragraph I was suspicious of this lovely bit of writing. My father sent me to the local shop for elbow grease when I joined the school army cadets and had brass buttons to polish.” David Pearson recalls, “I, too, was the object of many such a prank when in the 1960s I was a fairly gullible teenager working in a factory and later on a building site. Among other things, I was told to fetch a skyhook (before the term became more common, notably in sci-fi) and was sent once for a long stand, at which point the storeman disappeared for 10 minutes and was presumably sitting out of sight reading a newspaper while I stood waiting at the counter.”

By hook or by crook

From Alice Winsome: I know that by hook or by crook means to do something by any means possible, but why those two words? What’s the story behind it?

This curious phrase has bothered many people down the years, the result being a succession of well-meant stories, often fervently argued, that don’t stand up for a moment on careful examination.

As good a place to start as any is the lighthouse at the tip of the Hook peninsula in south-eastern Ireland, said to be the world’s oldest working lighthouse. It is at the east side of the entrance to Waterford harbour, on the other side of which is a little place called Crook (or so it is said: no map I’ve consulted shows it). One tale claims that Oliver Cromwell proposed to invade Ireland during the English Civil War by way of Waterford and that he asserted he would land there “by Hook or by Crook”. In another version the invasion of Ireland was the one of 1172 by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow.

Two other stories associate the phrase with gentlemen called Hook and Crook. Both appeared in early issues of the scholarly research publication Notes and Queries. One linked it with the difficulties of establishing the exact locations of plots of land after the great fire of London in 1666. The anonymous writer explained:

The surveyors appointed to determine the rights of the various claimants were Mr. Hook and Mr. Crook, who by the justice of their decisions gave general satisfaction to the interested parties, and by their speedy determination of the different claims, permitted the rebuilding of the city to proceed without the least delay. Hence arose the saying above quoted, usually applied to the extrication of persons or things from a difficulty. The above anecdote was told the other evening by an old citizen upwards of eighty, by no means of an imaginative temperament.

Notes and Queries, 15 Feb. 1851.

The other supposed derivation was equally poorly substantiated:

I have met with it somewhere, but have lost my note, that Hooke and Crooke were two judges, who in their day decided most unconscientiously whenever the interests of the crown were affected, and it used to be said that the king could get anything by Hooke or by Crooke.

Notes and Queries, 26 Jan. 1850.

Most of these stories can be readily dismissed by looking at the linguistic evidence, which tells us that the expression is on record from the end of the fourteenth century, by which time it was already a set phrase with the current meaning.

During this period, local people sometimes had rights by charter or custom known as fire-bote to gather firewood from local woodlands. It was acceptable to take dead wood from the ground or to pull down dead branches. The latter action was carried out either with a hook or a crook, the latter implement being a tool like a shepherd’s crook or perhaps just a crooked branch.

Little contemporary evidence exists for this practice. Written claims for it dating from the seventeenth century are said to exist for the New Forest in southern England, one of which argued for an immemorial right to go into the king’s wood to take the dead branches off the trees “with a cart, a horse, a hook and a crook, and a sail cloth”. Another version was once claimed to be in the records of Bodmin in Cornwall, whereby locals were permitted by a local prior “to bear and carry away on their backs, and in no other way, the lop, crop, hook, crook, and bagwood in the prior’s wood of Dunmeer.” Richard Polwhele’s Civil and Military History of Cornwall of 1806 argued in support of this claim that images of the hook and the crook were carved on the medieval Prior’s Cross in nearby Washaway, though modern writings describe them as fleurs-de-lys.

The examples suggest that this origin for the expression is the correct one, though some doubt must remain. If so, as hook and crook were effectively synonyms, it was almost inevitable that they were put together to make a reduplicated rhyming phrase.


This word appeared in the caption to a photo I saw recently in a whaling museum in the Azores. (I spare no effort to bring you interesting words.)

The caption mentioned the groove that had been worn by ropes in the loggerhead on a whaling boat. A loggerhead, I have learned, was a round timber block set upright in the stern of the boat. Once a harpooner had struck the whale, he passed the rope attached to the harpoon round the loggerhead a couple of times to hold it fast.

The loggerhead in the photo had been carefully fashioned, so there was nothing log-like about it other than it having been made of timber; however, you might fancifully say that it looked like a wooden head. So it wasn’t an altogether unlikely name for the contrivance. But when I came to look into the history of the word it turns out that the whaling sense was a latecomer.

Loggerhead starts to appear in the historical record near the end of the sixteenth century. An early example:

Ah you whoreson loggerhead! You were born to do me shame.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, by William Shakespeare, c1596.

At that time it meant a stupid person, the closely similar blockhead suggesting the idea behind it. Though presumably derived from log, what a logger was at the time is unclear, because it doesn’t appear in print until much later. The usual view among dictionary makers is that it was a heavy block of wood fastened to the leg of a horse to hobble it, to prevent it straying, an assertion that dates back no further than a dialect dictionary of 1777.

What went through the minds of whalers who applied it to the useful device on their boats is impossible to discover but but we might guess that it was similarly considered to be a dumb block of wood for restraining an animal, although a whale rather than a horse.

We know loggerhead these days most commonly in the idiom to be at loggerheads, meaning to be in stubborn or irresolvable disagreement or dispute over some issue:

The school security guards are now at loggerheads with the city’s police department, who they accuse of attempting to hide the true scale of the problem, to improve their crime statistics.

The Independent, 16 May 2016.

As loggerhead has no clear meaning in current English (its whaling sense being a long obsolete term of art in a specialised and localised activity) the idiom is meaningless in itself, but its form is expressive and it has lasted surprisingly well in the language. It can be traced to 1671 in the related go to loggerheads, to start a fight, though its modern form came into being in the early nineteenth century.

How loggerhead began to be used for a fight is similarly lost to history. One image it calls up is of two thick-headed idiots face-to-face in an argument that is likely to end in fisticuffs. That may be enough to explain the origin. However, some writers point to various implements with bulbous ends, of which one was used on board ship:

They had been sparring, in a spirit of fun, with loggerheads, those massy iron balls with long handles to be carried red-hot from the fire and plunged into buckets of tar or pitch so that the substance might be melted with no risk of flame.

The Commodore, by Patrick O’Brian, 1994.

There are records of the devices being used as weapons during close engagements of ships, perhaps contributing to the genesis of the expression.

Another maritime association is with the loggerhead turtle; in this case the idea is that of an animal with a big, heavy head. A couple of birds, a Falkland Islands duck and several fish have also had the word applied to them at various times for related reasons. In English dialects a large moth, tadpoles and a species of knapweed have also been called loggerheads.

There are three small places in England and Wales with the name. The one in Staffordshire is said to take its name from the local pub, The Three Loggerheads. This almost certainly derives from an old visual joke — the inn sign would have pictured only two stupid men, the third being taken to be the onlooker.

Polish off

From Evan Parry, New Zealand: In conversation about a culinary celebration, my friend used the expression polish off, thus: “I polished off the leftover food next morning”. While its meaning in context is generally understood, where and how did the expression originate?

It does indeed often appear in connection with food, the key idea being that of consuming it completely and probably quickly:

I could easily polish off a packet of biscuits throughout the afternoon, before my dinner of cheesy pasta with buttered bread.

The Sun (London), 15 May 2016.

though it can be used in a variety of other situations, implying the rapid completion of some activity or the subjugation of some adversary:

Freshman Matt McFadden returned the opening kickoff 36 yards and senior Kyle Wigley polished off the drive with a two-yard run into the end zone.

Gettysburg Times (Pennsylvania), 14 Nov. 2015.

He’ll limp to the election; cross the line sadly weakened; and then, in due course, be polished off by another thrusting contender who better understands the political process and can command a majority of the party.

The Age (Melbourne), 24 May 2016.

The idiom has been around since at least the early nineteenth century. Its initial examples were all in the more general sense, extending to getting rid of something, or even to destroy or kill. The application to food seems to have come along a little later in the century, sometimes being simplified to polish without the off. But in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785 Francis Grose mentions to polish a bone, meaning to eat a meal, so perhaps the food sense really did come first.

The idea here is presumably that of clearing the dish by eating everything on it so thoroughly that it ends up appearing polished. This modern work makes it explicit:

He knew that it was polite to leave a little something on your plate when you finished, but this evening he decided to throw etiquette aside and polished his plate to a shine.

Adam, by Richard Allen Stotts, 2001.

The earliest usages of polish off, however, focus on defeating somebody. Some slang dictionaries expressly say that the first context for the idiom was “pugilistic”, that is, linked to bare-knuckle fist fighting:

Bob had his coat off at once — he stood up to the Banbury man for three minutes, and polished him off in four rounds easy.

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847.

It may be that a slightly different idea is behind this meaning. Since polishing is the last job to be done to complete a piece of work such as making a item of furniture, to polish off an opponent is to finish him, to defeat him utterly.

(This ends the Lucy van Pelt feature)



Spectral examination? The lead sentence on a Guardian article of 26 May confused Emery Fletcher: “Shortly after receiving the news of his death, Steve Hodel found himself sorting through his father’s belongings.”

Mathematics as it isn’t taught, from the Observer newspaper of 29 May: “Mandate Now claims that more than four-fifths of five developed nations have some form of mandatory reporting.”

Robert Musgrave wrote, apropos of something completely different: “You may be amused that my first introduction to Schadenfreude was via a howling misprint in a cheap paperback dictionary, in which it was defined as the derivation of joy from the misfortune of otters.”

John C Waugh tells us that the New Zealand Herald online on 31 May reported that “A person has been struck by a train in Auckland for the second time today.” Not a particularly unfortunate passenger, but two separate incidents.

An online report by the Australian national public television network SBS had the headline, “Americans are being warned of possible terror attacks in Europe over summer by the US State Department.” Thanks to Judith Lowe for spotting that.

Bill Waggoner found this in a report dated 2 June on the website BoigBoing about a man who “has settled a case with people who live near him in DC, who caught him repeatedly stealing the license plates off their nanny’s car using a hidden camera.”

World Wide Words Issue 925

WIF Style-001

– WIF Style

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 1996-2016

World Wide Words Issue 924 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF World Wide Wors

World Wide Words

Issue 924

from the U.K.’s Michael Quinion


Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Feedback, notes and comments


Fewmet. Many readers pointed out that I might more appropriately have quoted from T H White’s The Once and Future King of 1939; this would seem to be the source from which everybody has copied:

“I know what fewmets are,” said the boy with interest. “They are the droppings of the beast pursued. The harbourer keeps them in his horn, to show to his master, and can tell by them whether it is a warrantable beast or otherwise, and what state it is in.”

“Intelligent child,” remarked the King. “Very. Now I carry fewmets about with me practically all the time.”

“Insanitary habit,” he added, beginning to look dejected, “and quite pointless. Only one Questing Beast, you know, so there can’t be any question whether she is warrantable or not.”


Lie doggo. David Means emailed from Kansas City: “Although I am familiar with lying doggo as a term for hiding temporarily, the term I’ve heard used most often in this region is lie in the weeds, which conveys the same sense. The implication is that weeds are unkempt and tend to grow tall, so it’s easy for someone to lie down in the midst and remain relatively hidden. It’s used most often about someone who has made some gaffe, or has done something that is socially outside the pale, and needs to retire from public life for a time until it blows over.”


Dingbat. “Allow me to add further detail to your interesting discussion,” emailed P W Bridgman. “I would venture that many Canadians of my vintage (born 1952) will remember the Charles E Frosst calendars that hung in many doctors’ offices in the 1950s and 1960s. The Frosst company was a manufacturer of pharmaceuticals and, undoubtedly, provided its calendars to physicians as part of its marketing program. The calendars are memorable for their whimsical, cartoon-like images of many stylised creatures, called dingbats, all busy at work rendering some kind of medical care or other. The images were clever, highly detailed and perfectly fascinating to children otherwise burdened with feelings of trepidation about being subjected to medical assessment. The calendars provided, I suppose, a welcome and comforting distraction from whatever indignities might be in store when, eventually, the shirt came off or (heaven forbid) the pants had to come down.”

Over to you. I haven’t been able to help Rachel Clark with a query and wonder if anybody can help. She wrote: “I recently came across a wonderful word in my grandmother’s letters and things from the 1930s or so. It is umphidilious (though I’m not positive on the spelling) and apparently means wonderful or awesome or amazing. She lived in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and her heritage is mainly Dutch I believe. My dad remembers her and others using this word (and its short form umfy) quite frequently. I did a web search for this word but could find nothing.”

Lame duck

Q – From James Macdonald: During Barack Obama’s recent visit to London, some British newspapers referred to him as a lame duck president. That expression is familiar to me, of course, but I did wonder why somebody who was ineffectual or unsuccessful should be described in that strange way. Lame I can understand, but why duck?

A – Lame ducks, of course, can be incompetent or ineffectual firms or governments as well as individuals — British political life has seen many examples of both described as lame ducks down the decades. However, the specific reference here is to American politics, an association that began back in the 1860s.

Despite that, for its origin we have to look to Britain and to the stock market of the middle of the eighteenth century. The disabled bird belongs with the other members of the market’s menagerie, the bulls, bears and stags (more on the first two here). London stockbrokers and jobbers operated from coffee houses such as Jonathan’s and Garraway’s in a little street called Exchange Alley, close to the main commodity trading centre, the Royal Exchange.

The street name was often abbreviated to Change Alley or just the Alley. It still exists, now officially called Change Alley, as a network of five back streets of no particular distinction in the City of London. The coffee houses are long gone; the jobbers and brokers left even earlier, decamping to a specially constructed building in Sweeting’s Alley in 1773, which later became the Stock Exchange.

About 1760, some wit created the term for stock market traders who failed to pay up when bills became due, effectively bankrupting themselves and leading to their being barred from trading. Among the first people to use the term was the antiquarian and MP Horace Walpole, the son of Sir Robert Walpole, the man usually regarded as the first British prime minister. He was puzzled by the language of the trade:

Apropos, do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are? Nay, nor I either: I am only certain that they are neither animals or fowl.

A letter to Sir Horace Mann by Horace Walpole, 28 Dec. 1761.

Walpole clearly kept a close ear on evolving language because the currently earliest known example appeared in the Newcastle Courant on 5 September that year, in a brief report of moneys being paid by subscription into the Bank of England, with a note that there were “No lame ducks this time”. Within a couple of months the term began to appear in London newspapers and quickly became common. This is the earliest metropolitan example that I’ve so far unearthed:

Thursday a Lame Duck disappeared from J———’s, to the no small Mortification of his Brother Bulls and Bears, whom he has touched very considerably. … Yesterday four more Lame Ducks took their Flight.

London Evening Post, 21 Jan. 1762.

London Evening Post

It’s easy enough to see how the lame part came about, a figurative reference to a person injured through inability to maintain his financial position. But no reference of the time that I can find makes clear why they were visualised as ducks. It might, at a stretch, be a rhyme with luck, I suppose.

Almost every one of the many later references to these failed traders refers to them as waddling away, an early example being in the Leeds Intelligencer on 29 June 1762 (emphases in the original): “Yesterday a lame duck or two made shift to waddle out of ’Change Alley”. Perhaps they were low-slung portly gentlemen, the eighteenth-century equivalent of today’s fat cats, and the way they walked suggested a duck with a bad foot? More probably, having established that failures were to be called lame ducks, the derisive image of them struggling away limping was too good not to use.

Incidentally, I can find no examples of lame duck being used literally before it took on this sense. This casts doubt on the commonly stated view that failed financiers were called lame ducks because they resembled an injured bird that was unable to keep up with the flock and so was more vulnerable to being attacked by a predator. And the failures of lame ducks in any case were usually due to their over-stretching themselves in speculative ventures, not being brought down by others.

The term was taken to North America and came to mean there a financially unstable or insolvent undertaking. Its association with Washington politics is said to have begun in 1863. It refers to an elected politician who is coming to the end of his or her period in office and so has little or no time left to do anything effective. More strictly, it means one at the very end of that period, after a successor has been elected but before his or her term actually ends. At one time, this period was several months, which tempted representatives to use their final time in office to act in a way that benefitted only themselves. Scandals led to the 20th amendment to the constitution in 1933, sometimes called the Lame Duck Amendment, which shortened the period between elections and new members taking office.


You, dear reader, would almost certainly happily admit to being a logophile, a lover of words — why else are you here? But what if somebody called you a logomaniac? I suspect you might reject the assertion of uncontrolled passion that maniac implies.

Logomaniac was coined in the nineteenth century:

We have outgrown the customs of those logo-maniacs, or word-worshippers, whom old Ralph Cudworth in his True Intellectual System of the Universe, p. 67, seems to have had in view.

Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers, by Henry Green, 1870.

It had a brief spurt of usage in Australia at the end of the century, such as here:

What a farce must the criminal law in New South Wales be when any rantipole logomaniac can, by appealing to the passions of the “great unwashed,” suspend its machinery and render its punitive provisions and its administrators alike contemptible.

Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 30. Sep. 1895. More on rantipole.

Otherwise, it has only had significant exposure in the past 50 years. Perhaps because its circulation has been so limited, it comes to people fresh and unworn, like a new penny. Without much in the way of usage examples, it’s not always easy for the tyro user, or even the dictionaries, to be sure exactly what people mean by it.

Some reference works define it — certainly incorrectly — as “a person who loves words”, a simple synonym of logophile. Others generate deeper mental associations by asserting that it refers to an obsessive user of words:

[Bertrand] Russell was one of those people who wrote almost continuously; he lived his life on paper. … The only comparable logomaniac over such a lifespan is Shaw.

The Independent, 20 Apr. 1996.

The Century Dictionary of 1899 went further still, suggesting that the obsession was unhealthy by defining logomaniac as “One who is insanely devoted to words.” A recent work implies that it may be a mental malaise, “pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking”, perhaps applicable to people who talk to themselves in public all the time without benefit of mobile phone. Other authors imply it may be the lesser condition of mere talkativeness:

I tried more conversational gambits than a lonely logomaniac at a singles’ bar.

Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz, 2006.

“This is just me, talking.”
“You are crazy.”
“Actually, I believe the technical term is logomaniac. It’s from the Greek: logos meaning word, mania meaning two bits short of a byte. I just love to chat is all.”

Think Like a Dinosaur, by James Patrick Kelly, 1995.

Lego Logo

Confusingly, a more recent affliction given the same name is an obsession with brands and brand images; a logomaniac of this character might be fixated on the fashionable display of trademarked designs on articles of clothing.

While searching online for examples of the word’s usage, I came across an article — it must be hoped that it had been automatically generated as the result of my search — entitled What Is The Meaning Of Baby Name Logomaniac? We trust no loving but word-ignorant parent will foist this abomination onto their offspring.

But and ben

Q – From Jim Black: In Scotland, one may find a style of house known as a but and ben. That’s a curious term and I’m thinking it has an interesting history. Can you help?

A – I can. It’s a phrase steeped in Scottish history and culture, traditionally crofting but also rural life generally. It can evoke a poverty-stricken hardscrabble life that has at times been romanticised, as in this song by Sir Harry Lauder:

Just a wee deoch an’ doris, afore ye gang awa’;
There’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but an’ ben.

Deoch an doris, a custom of a parting drink, is from Scottish Gaelic deoch an doruis, a drink at the door.

The survival of the term in Scotland has been placed squarely on the cartoon strip The Broons, which has appeared in The Sunday Post for the past 80 years. They live in the fictional Auchenshoogle, probably a district of Glasgow, but have a but an’ ben in the hills as a holiday home.

A but and ben is a two-roomed house of one story. There was usually only one door to the outside; this gave access to the kitchen, the public room in which everyday life took place and in which members of the family often slept. This led into a private inner room, where guests could be entertained and which — like many a front room or best room in poor but decent homes everywhere — was often furnished to a higher standard but less often used. If the family was large, however, the inner room could double up as a bedroom.

The outer room was the but and the inner one the ben. Putting them together the but and ben was the whole house.

The cottage had originally consisted of the usual “but-and-ben”, that is to say, in well regulated houses (which this one was not) of a kitchen — and a room that was not the kitchen. The family beds occupied one corner of the kitchen, that of Bridget and her husband in the middle (including accommodation for the latest baby), while on either side and at the foot, shakedowns were laid out “for the childer,” slightly raised from the earthen floor on rude trestles, with a board laid across to receive the bedding.

The Dew of Their Youth, by S R Crockett, 1910.

Some people have guessed that ben is Gaelic or from some Norse word. But there’s no evidence for either and the experts are now sure it’s a dialect variant of the Middle English binne, within. (If you know Dutch or German, you will be familiar with its relative binnen with the same meaning.) But is a special instance of our everyday conjunction, which stems from the Old English be-utan and which variously meant without, except or outside.

So the but was the “outside” room and the ben the room “within”.

This led to various phrases. Both words were used in the extended phrases but the hoose and ben the hoose for the two rooms. To be far ben with one meant to be a close friend, who was regularly admitted to the ben. To go but and ben was to move from the inner to the outer room and back again, hence repeatedly going backwards and forwards, to and fro. Since the but and the ben constituted the whole house, but and ben could also mean everywhere.

Blithe, blithe and merry was she,
Blithe was she but and ben:
Blithe by the banks of Ern,
And blithe in Glenturit glen.

Blithe Was She, by Robert Burns, in The Works of Robert Burns, 1800.

Families occupying two-roomed apartments in tenements, which led off a common passage as close neighbours, were said to be living but and ben.


Type louse

Q – From Martin Schell: I enjoyed your recent piece on dingbat and noticed that one quotation mentioned type-lice. What does this term refer to?

A – The species has not been well studied scientifically but has been identified on occasion as Pediculous typus or Pyroglyphidae typographicus; at one time it was called the typographical beetle. British printing shops seem thankfully free of the pest but a search among writings by American printers and newspapermen produced many descriptions of the damage that these little beasts could do. The Cedar Rapids Tribune of January 1947, for example, described them as “the traditional fly in the printer’s ointment”.

They were reported to feed on type, the resulting gnaw marks requiring the affected type to be thrown away. They liked to secrete themselves among type, sometimes, it was said, in the fl and fi ligature compartments of type cases where they would be least disturbed, They were often held responsible for errors in setting type and even of rearranging the type to make nonsense words.

This is how one Canadian publication explained them:

Hot-metal Typsetting

In the old days, when this newspaper was printed by means of what is called the hot-lead system, many so-called simple errors were caused by type lice. Type lice laid their eggs in the bottoms of galley trays. There they hatched. There they spent their lives. And there they created their havoc. If printers carelessly left the lead type in these galley trays for extended periods of time, the type lice would actually consume amazingly large quantities of lead, often making a’s look like o’s, turning 2’s into 3’s and worse.


The Brandon Sun (Manitoba), 6 Mar. 1975.

The same article reported that in recent years type lice had built up such a strong natural immunity to insecticides that serious infestations of the creatures had made hot-lead composition all but impossible. The downside of consequent advances in technology, such as computer typesetting, has been a serious loss of habitat, leading to a severe decline in the numbers of type lice; if not actually extinct they are now restricted to small print shops still using hot or cold metal type.

The first reported appearance of the type louse was in The Hancock Jeffersonian of Findlay, Ohio, in May 1869 (“the poor printer is often compelled to explain and show everything about the office, even down to the type lice”), though it’s hard to be sure this is the same species as others mentioned from time to time; as this description explained, type lice were difficult to conclusively identify:

The type louse is like the common Pediculus capilus, in that it is a wingless, hemipterous insect, but it is unlike in the fact that it is continually undergoing metamorphosis and no two persons ever saw the insect the same, nor no one person ever saw it twice in the same place or same condition.

The Evening Times (Monroe, Wisconsin), 5 Jun, 1895.

Young apprentices, traditionally called printer’s devils, were often told about the lice by seasoned journeymen on first arriving in the shop, who would promise to show the boys an example. When one was spotted, the nuisance potential of the type louse was such that attempts to point it out invariably led to unfortunate consequences:

The foreman of the office where I began promised to show me a type-louse — and he kept his promise. One day while he was making up a form on the imposing-stone — that is, placing the set type between the column rules and sopping it down with a wet sponge, as printers do in country offices, he exclaimed, “Come quick, Newt — here’s a type-louse!” I rushed to his side. “Right there it is,” he whispered: “bend close to that type and look sharp!” I followed instructions and while I was rubbering diligently he socked together, under my nose, two sections of water-soaked type with great violence, whereupon the water squirted up into my expectant face and eyes.

The Boston Post, 6 Apr. 1922.

As the Morgantown Dominion News wrote in March 1969, the type louse “played an important role in the training of the novice printer”, equivalent to the left-handed monkey wrench, ready-made posthole, tartan paint, spare bubbles for spirit levels and buckets of steam known in other trades.


Q – From Chester Graham: I came across the word corium in a strange online article about nuclear reactor disasters. I looked it up in my favourite dictionaries, where it means one of the layers of skin. Has the writer made a serious mistake?

A – We must forgive your favourite dictionaries for not including corium. Though it’s a real word with a distinct meaning, it’s part of the specialist jargon of nuclear safety experts and almost totally unknown to the wider world.

It seems to have been invented by the team investigating the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. They used it to describe the mass of lava-like molten fuel, fission products, control rods, structural materials and concrete that flowed into the base of the reactor after it had overheated.

I’ve not been able to track down the origin in more detail but it was almost certainly created as a compound of core with the suffix -ium that usually marks a chemical element. I’d guess it was a black joke, created to relieve the awfulness of the situation confronting the investigators, who needed a term to describe the material generated by the disaster, which hadn’t been seen before. However, it had been a worry for years that a disaster of the sort might happen, and a decade earlier China syndrome had appeared for a nuclear accident so bad that the core fancifully melted its way right through the earth.

The nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have also produced corium and the term has been used in the technical reports of both.

Incidentally, your dictionaries’ sense of corium, though not so rare as the nuclear one, is also unfamiliar to most people. These days, it’s more usually called the dermis, the “true skin” which lies beneath the surface layer that, logically enough, is the epidermis (Greek epi, upon or near). Corium is Latin for skin, hide or leather. It appears, somewhat disguised, in excoriate, literally to remove the skin but usually figuratively to criticise somebody so harshly that it feels like being skinned. Even more obscurely, it’s the source of cuirass, a piece of armour originally made from leather, and yet more so of malicorium, an old word for the rind of the pomegranate, which strictly speaking ought to mean an apple skin, as it’s from Latin malus, apple, though in antiquity any globular fruit could be called an apple.



James Pearce concluded from a link he saw on the Channel 7 website on 17 April that Australia must have a better class of miscreant: “Cars attacked by vandals wielding gold clubs.”

Christine Shuttleworth was struck by this image in Mary Portas’s 2015 memoir Shop Girl: “Sprawling across two connected buildings and two floors, Jim founded Godfrey’s nearly 20 years ago.”

A similar grammatical error appeared in a caption to a photograph of the Nazca lines, which Erik Kowal found on the Lifehack Lane site: “Only visible by air, generations of scientists and historians continue to be baffled by just how such etchings were made.”

This headline on an American News article on 15 April was spotted by Paul White: “Defense Secretary Goes Rouge, Leaks Precious Information About Obama.” Red faces all round.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 1996-2016. All rights reserved.

World Wide Words



Issue 924

World Wide Words Issue 923 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 923


Feedback, Notes and Comments


Brexit. Martin Cleaver emailed from The Netherlands to add yet another derived form of Brexit to the set I gave last time: “I have recently discovered that I am a Brexpat. We are uniting under the Twitter umbrella @brexpats — Brits who live in Europe.” And another new compound met my eye recently: Brexitism, the concept or philosophy behind Brexit.

Caucus. Vance Koven pointed out, apropos of the early history of this term, that in the traditional Boston accent, the words corcas, caulkers and caucus would be pronounced virtually identically. This explains why caulkers in particular could be put forward seriously as a possible origin.

Oryzivorous. Terry Walsh emailed to explain that the genus name of the bobolink, Dolichonyx, means “with long nails or claws”. Jim Devlin added that my picture of the bird shows why the naturalist W J Swainson chose that genus name — it does indeed have long claws.

Kick the bucket. Carl Bowers asked about my use of guyed in this piece. It comes from the given name of the unsuccessful assassin Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605. He is marked in Britain by bonfires and fireworks every year. Originally theatrical slang, to guy means to make fun of or ridicule, originally in reference to his lack of success.

Bookseller Diagram Prize. Following up my note of this year’s contest, the winner of the oddest book title of the year was announced on 18 March: Too Naked for the Nazis, the biography of the musical hall act Wilson, Keppel and Betty.

Article update. The piece about the curious British word kibosh (as in putting the kibosh on something, to finish something off or put an end to it) now includes recent research on its history, including the plausible theory that it derives from a Turkish word for a whip.

Lie doggo

Lots of letters

Q> From Matthew Cutter: I recently came across this expression as the answer to a crossword puzzle, and then only by solving all the words running through it. While a quick web search tells me that it’s a British idiom — meaning to hide quietly or lie low — I couldn’t find any history on it. Can you turn up any further insight?

A> Though we assume that it’s British in origin, Australians and New Zealanders know it, too, and it has turned up from time to time in the USA, though I don’t think it’s at all well-known there. Some of my reference works suggest it’s old-fashioned — it may well be, though it’s familiar to me from my childhood and is still part of my active vocabulary.

The usual supposition is that it’s dog with an -o stuck on the end. It’s often said that it refers to a dog pretending to be asleep, but I’m not so sure. The reference is surely just as likely to be to a dog that’s lying still but alert, as dogs are able to do for long periods — my mental image is of a sheepdog in a field, ears pricked, quietly watching his charges.

The transfer to humans added the idea of seeking to avoid detection:

The house won’t be safe once the ammunition has given out — and I know the country all round there like the palm of my hand. There are plenty of places we can lie doggo in until help comes.

Wild Honey, by Cynthia Stockley, 1914.

Some examples in the early days were spelled doggoh, as in one quoted by Dr James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in a puzzled enquiry to the scholarly journal Notes and Queries:

“DOGGO.” — What is it to lie doggo; and what is the history of doggo? Is it a mock Latin ablative of manner? … An earlier instance differently spelt I have from Society of 7 October, 1882, p. 23, col. 1: “To-day’s meet of the London Athletic Club will be remarkable for the resurrection of E. L. Lockton after lying ‘doggoh’ some time.”

Notes and Queries, 4 Apr. 1896.

No response came to his enquiry and the term didn’t appear in the first edition of the OED, most probably because it wasn’t then very widely known. Dr Murray’s finding seems to have been mislaid and the citation wasn’t included in the entry for the idiom that appeared in the Supplement in 1933; it’s not in the current online edition either, though it’s two years older than the first example in the entry. (I’ve told the OED’s editors about it and it will be added when the entry is next updated.)

Joseph Rudyard Kipling

The term was given a small boost in the 1890s through its use by Rudyard Kipling in Soldiers Three and other writings. It became more common during the First World War and in post-war writings about the war, such as in the children’s books of Percy Westerman. It has also had peaks of usage during and immediately after the Second World War and again in the 1980s. The reason for its popularity in the armed forces during periods of conflict is too obvious to need elaboration.

This -o ending is curious. It’s much more characteristic of Australian word formation (arvo, servo, ambo and the like) than British. However, doggo’s first appearance in print in that country is dated 1895 (“ ‘Lie doggo,’ as the sailors say”) so transmission seems certain to be from Britain to Australia rather than the other way round.

Altogether, an odd little term.


“The fewmets have hit the windmill,” cried a character in Harvard Lampoon’s parody Bored of the Rings. Readers not familiar with archaic English hunting terms will have missed the joke.

Fewmets — also called fewmishings — are the excrement or droppings of an animal hunted for game, especially the hart, an adult male deer. For medieval hunters they were evidence that an animal was somewhere around; their condition gave a clue as to how near the quarry might be. Huntsmen would bring fewmets to their masters to demonstrate that game was there to be chased and that the hunt wasn’t likely to be a waste of time. To make a proper assessment, the huntsman needed to know a lot about the ways of the animal:

You muste vnderstand that there is difference betweene the fewmet of the morning and that of the euenyng, bicause the fewmishings which an Harte maketh when he goeth to relief at night, are better disgested and moyster, than those which he maketh in the morning, bycause the Harte hath taken his rest all the day, and hath had time and ease to make perfect disgestion and fewmet, whereas contrarily it is seene in the fewmishyng whiche is made in the morning, bycause of the exercise without rest whiche he made in the night to go seeke his feede.

The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting, by George Gascoigne, 1575.

The word came into English during the fourteenth century and is from an Anglo-Norman French variant of Old French fumées, droppings.

With the decline in great landed estates and the hunting they offered, the word went into a decline, to become fashionable again in recent decades with the rise in fantasy fiction and role-playing games. These days, the animal producing the fewmets is more usually a dragon:

He’s going to where my dragons were! Come on, Meg, maybe he’s found fewmets!” She hurried after boy and dog. “How would you know a dragon dropping? Fewmets probably look like bigger and better cow pies.”

A Wind in the Door, by Madeline L’Engle, 1973.

It has become a useful substitute in such literature for a couple of coarser words: “‘Oh, fewmets,’ Schmendrick cursed” (James A Owen, The Dragons of Winter); “Speaking between friends and meaning no offense, you’re full of fewmets.” (Poul Anderson, Satan’s World); “Caryo intends to be caught, so she can kick the fewmets out of him” (Mercedes Lackey, Exile’s Valour).

The word has also been spelled fumet, which might lead to an unfortunate confusion with a concentrated fish stock used for seasoning, a relative of the ancient Roman garum. The source of this sense of fumet is a related French word, originally applied to the smell of game after it had hung for a while.

From my reading

Read with me

Read with me

Vertical-001The dead speak. Two scientists in Denmark propose the creation of the world’s first national necrogenomic database. This would record the genomic sequences of all Danish citizens and residents at the time of their death, some 50,000 a year. By matching these to information about illnesses and ailments in life, helpful evidence could be gathered about the genetic origins of diseases, about potential drug targets, and informing treatment methods.

Work out what to wear. The trend toward informal leisurewear intensifies. My newspaper tells me that the highlight of this summer’s fashion will be the tracksuit, suitably embellished in expensive fabrics and a price to match. This is an example of the trend towards athleisure (athletics + leisure), dressing as though you can’t wait to leap up from the restaurant table to work out. The most recent linguistic creation based on this is athevening wear. Yes, Dorothy, now you can go to the pub wearing your tarted-up jogging bottoms.

Vertical-001Do what? Here’s a term guaranteed to stop a reader in their tracks: heteropaternal superfecundation. It refers to the situation in which twins have different fathers because two men have had sex with the mother in close succession. It’s assumed to be rare in humans, though nobody knows for sure and one can imagine a certain reluctance on the part of some mothers to have the matter investigated, but it’s well recorded in farm animals.

Who are you looking at? One of the more daft temporary fashions online — and there’s a lot of competition — is that of taking a photo of two people and switching their faces. Until you’ve seen a wedding-day picture of Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall reprocessed in this way you really haven’t plumbed the full meaning of bizarre. The trick is, rather boringly, called faceswapping.



Here to advise you. A report this month said that the Royal Bank of Scotland is to shed 550 jobs as part of a plan to replace staff who offer investment tips. They are to be superseded by what are called automated investment portfolio services, though the newspaper preferred the colloquial robo-advisers. The term has been common within the financial services business for a couple of years.


Blasted breeding. A term in my Sunday paper sent me to the reference books: atomic gardening. It turns out to have been a scattershot space-age marriage of nuclear technology and plant breeding. Basically, you put a lot of seeds in a nuclear reactor or in your local hospital’s x-ray machine in the hope that the radiation would induce genetic mutations instead of killing them. Then you planted them and waited for something interestingly new to appear. Surprisingly for such a random process, something often did, including new varieties of grapefruit and peanuts. Other names for the technique are mutation breeding and variation breeding. A related process involved placing a powerful radioactive source in the middle of a field, sometimes called a radiation garden, and growing plants around it.

Lots of letters

Q> From Kelly Hogan: Thank you for the newsletter. I’d love to know the origin of dingbat, as in the ornamental characters used in typesetting

A> It’s a rather splendid word, not least because it seems to have been considered useful for all seasons and situations. It is definitely American in origin and has been recorded as variously meaning a type of drink, a sum of money, a tramp or hobo, a bullet or cannonball (or generally any sort of missile), balls of dung on the buttocks of sheep or cattle. a foolish or insane person, student slang for a sort of muffin, an affectionate embrace, a term of admiration, or a vague and unspecified term for something or other whose real name the person speaking cannot bring to mind. The printing sense is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately within that jumble.

A note of warning should be uttered here. Several of these supposed meanings come from one source, a Mr Philip Hale of the Boston Journal in 1895. He had been collecting information on various senses, which was collated in an issue of Dialect Notes the same year. Several cannot be found in printed works. You may suspect Mr Hale of having been credulous or perhaps failing to check whether a speaker was using a real term or a temporary substitute for one he couldn’t for the moment recall.

Most examples in the nineteenth century were references to money:

“Rich widders are about yet,” said Nicky Nollekins to his friend Bunkers, “though they appear snapped up so fast.” … “Well I’m not partic’lar, not I, (replied Billy.) nor never was. I’d take a widder for my part, if she’s got the ding-bats, and never ask no question, I’m not proud.”

Spirit of Jefferson (Charlestown, Virginia), 25 July 1848.

A later appearance not only illustrates another sense, but also gives us an indirect clue to the genesis of the term:

At the Methodist school at Wilbraham, Mass, the name “dingbat” has already been applied to a large raised biscuit that is brought to the table and eaten with butter or molasses in the morning. It’s palatable to the hungry, but is about as indigestible as a brickbat.

Placerville Mountain Democrat (California), 31 Aug 1878, in an item reprinted from the New York Graphic.

Brickbat? Could dingbat be a relative? It’s usually accepted that the ding part is from the verb to beat, knock or strike a heavy blow. A brickbat was an offensive weapon (though nowadays the assault is more often verbal) consisting rather obviously of a lump of brick. The bat in both cases was originally a stick or a stout piece of wood, the same word as in the modern baseball or cricket bat; it might be used for support or to defend oneself by battering an assailant (which may remind you of the legal offence of battery, the infliction of unlawful personal violence on another person). (Bat is from an Old French word meaning to beat.) The missile sense of dingbat is rarely recorded and that mostly during the Civil War, though there are references to its having been used in New England for something to chastise a child with.

Adopting dingbat for a thing whose proper name eludes one, a thingummy or doodad, appears late in the century:

He had gone to the symphony concert expecting to hear “After the Ball” with variations and “Daisy Bell” without them, but when they turned a whole raft of con motos and scherzos and op. 27’s and appoggiaturas and other chromatic dingbats loose on him he began to wonder what he was there for.

The Daily Independent (Helena, Montana), 31 Mar 1894.

Matron Brennan had occasion to use her sewing machine and found the shuttle and other dingbats belonging to the machine missing.

Dubuque Daily Herald, 21 Sep. 1898.

We may guess that printers took over the term as a convenient way of describing the miscellaneous set of non-alphabetic type symbols that are more formally called printer’s ornaments (though borders and flowery ornamentals are often separated out under the name of fleurons). Here Joe Toye, writer of a humorous column called What You May, overhears his text being proofread with the printer:

Head in a box. On the top line “the” in caps. Next line. What You May Column upper and lower. Third line in the box upper and lower. By Joe Toye with an “e” on the end of it. End of the box. … Then come three dingbat stars and the next paragraph.

Boston Sunday Post, 24 Jun, 1917.

This is the earliest I’ve so far found, though I suspect that a bit of whimsy a decade earlier by C H Lincoln in his All Sorts column in another newspaper in the same city may derive from the same idea of a printing character (as indeed does his column’s title, as a sort is one character in a font of type):

Neither is the precious Dingbat the most hated of animals. We knew a printer who loved a trained Dingbat better even than he did his dog, and who spent many hours daily catching type-lice for it to eat.

Boston Post, 7 Jun. 1907.

“You dingbat!”

The sense of a stupid or crazy person starts to appear at about the same time, laying the foundation for Archie Bunker’s affectionate nickname for his wife Edith in the American TV show All In the Family.



There’s no tragic situation that clunky prose can’t make sound ridiculous. A piece Neil Hesketh saw on MSN News online on 11 March reported that “Keith Emerson shot himself in the head in what’s likely now a suicide investigation.”

Russell Ball discovered an unfortunate typo on the Sydney Morning Herald’s site on 7 March, in a story about the battle between Madonna and Guy Ritchie for custody of their son: “According to reports, the mum-of-four has conceded defeat, finally admitting that her son does not want to love with her.”

More modern slavery. Alan Tunnicliffe submitted an advert he found in The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, on 11 March: “The owner of GLN135 Audi S4 will be sold at auction under the Workers Lien Act if payment is not made within 30 days.”

Copyright: World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 1996-2016. All rights reserved

World Wide Words Issue 923



– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 922 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 922

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.




Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Feedback, Notes and Comments

More on catchphrases

Patricia Norton emailed from New Zealand to solve the mystery of the catchphrase “Mind how you step over those mince pies!” It’s a misremembered phrase from by Sara Cone Bryant’s Epaminondas and His Auntie, a 1907 American children’s story now often regarded as racist or patronising. In the tale, about a black mother and her child Epaminondas, his mother tells him, “You see these here six mince pies I done make? You see how I done set ’em on the doorstep to cool? Well now, you hear me, Epaminondas, you be careful how you step on those pies.” At the end of the story, as he had been told to do, Epaminondas carefully stepped on every one.

“I had to chuckle,” Judy Swink wrote from California, “when I read the catchphrase ‘I’ve arrived, and to prove it, I’m here!’ Many years ago, our aunt was expected to arrive by train in Norfolk, Virginia, from Boston. When my parents went to meet her, she didn’t descend from the train. My parents then went home and called her home in Massachusetts, where she answered the phone. When my mother asked why she hadn’t called them if she wasn’t coming, her reply was that she assumed that when she didn’t get off the train, they’d know she wasn’t coming. This has been a favorite family story since I was a child in the 1940s or 1950s.”

Ian Pike wrote, “Hearing about the old gent who would say, ‘I’ve come to tell you I’m not coming’ reminded me of my next-door neighbor from my childhood in small-town New Hampshire. He was a backwoods character with no education, no teeth, and a Yankee dialect so thick he was actually hard to understand. Whenever anyone knocked on his door he would holler, ‘You’re in or you’re out!’ as an invitation to come in. However, because of his toothless and accented speech, it sounded like ‘Y’in ya’out’.”

Beside oneself

“I liked your entry on being beside oneself,” H C Erik Midelfort emailed, “but I wanted to note the parallel usage of the term ecstasy, which derives from the Latin ecstasis. It meant literally being beside oneself or outside oneself, as in trance, ecstasy, or rapture.”

“You’ll probably hear from many others on this one,” wrote Don Neuendorf (as it happens incorrectly). “But a very common use of the Greek idiom for insanity is found in the gospel of Mark 3:21. Jesus is thought by his family to be exeste — from ex histemi — standing outside himself.”


Current political events in the USA have again brought this word to the forefront of newspaper reporting. Its accidental similarity to Caucasus and Caucasian, the only other words in English that look anything like it, has sometimes led people up a false trail. The true origin of caucus has puzzled people almost from the moment it first appeared in the middle of the eighteenth century and attempts to solve the mystery have been notable for confusion, disagreement and misinterpretation.

The only fact that everybody agrees on is that its birthplace is the New England city of Boston. Its first appearance, so far as anybody knows at the moment, is under a different spelling in the Boston Herald of 5 May 1760:

[C]ertain Persons, of the modern Air and Complexion, to the Number of Twelve at least, have divers Times of late been known to combine together, and are called by the Name of the New and Grand Corcas, tho’ of declared Principles directly opposite to all that have been heretofore known.

Its earliest known use in its usual spelling was in a diary entry of February 1763 by John Adams, later to be the second president of the USA:

This day learned that the Caucus Club meets at certain times in the garret of Tom Dawes, the adjutant of the Boston (militia) regiment. He has a large house, and he has a movable partition in his garret, which he takes down, and the whole club meets in one room. There they smoke tobacco until you cannot see from one end of the room to the other. There they drink flip, I suppose, and there they choose a moderator, who puts questions to the vote regularly; and selectmen, assessors, collectors, wardens, fire-wards, and representatives, are regularly chosen before they are chosen in the town.

Flip is now better known as eggnog.

Even as early as 1788, Dr William Gordon, in his four-volume work The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, had to say that “All my repeated applications to different gentlemen have not furnished me with a satisfactory account of the origin of caucus”. He wasn’t even quite sure what it meant: “It seems to mean, a number of persons, whether more or less, met together to consult upon adopting and prosecuting some scheme of policy.” He went on:

More than fifty years ago [that is, in the 1730s], Mr. Samuel Adams’s father, and twenty others, one or two from the north end of town, where all the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus, and lay their plan for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power.

This link to ships led the lawyer, philologist and scholar John Pickering to suggest in 1816 that it was a corruption of caulkers’ meeting, on the presumption that they were attended by caulkers and ropemakers, the former being responsible for sealing the seams between a ship’s planks with tar. (Incidentally, Pickering was no fan of new words from his native USA: he adds of caucus, “It need hardly be remarked, that this cant word and its derivatives are never used in good writing.”)

Gordon’s reference to the north end of town prompted a wild guess that it was from an obscure Latin word for the north wind, caucus. Some 150 years later, the Century Dictionary of 1889 sought another classical origin in the Greek kaukos, a cup, “in allusion to the convivial or symposiac feature of the club”. Other suggestions make it a corruption of circus or concourse or of Cooke’s House, the Boston mansion once owned by Elisha Cooke where meetings were held before they moved to Tom Dawes’ capacious attic.

Algonquin Territory

Quite the most intriguing suggestion was put forward in 1872 by Dr James Trumbull, a lifelong member of the Connecticut Historical Society, who had made a study of the native languages of New England. He put forward the idea that it derived from an Algonquin word, cau’-cau-as’u, a councillor or “one who advises, urges, encourages”. This had turned up in a slightly different form in Captain John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles of 1624:

In all these places is a severall commander, which they call Werowance, except the Chickahamanians, who are governed by the Priests and their Assistants, or their Elders called Caw-cawwassoughes.

Trumbull argued that Native American terms were often adopted by clubs and secret associations in New England. It seems plausible but there’s no direct evidence.

Several other descriptions in addition to Gordon’s imply that meetings of the kind described, held behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms for selecting candidates and controlling the political process, had been in existence for decades before the word caucus first appears.

As so often with etymology, we have arrived at no very clear conclusion, but I hope you will agree that the journey to nowhere has been moderately entertaining. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible that some earlier variant will eventually turn up, perhaps from as far back as the 1730s. With extraordinary luck, this might even give us a better idea of its provenance.

From my reading

Image result for european union

News of the US presidential campaign has to share space in British newspapers with the forthcoming referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union. This is rapidly becoming a lexicographical hotspot. I’ve commented before on Brexit, short for British exit, but February saw several appearances in more upmarket papers of the rather strained neologism Bremain for the opposing idea. Journalists have created Brexiter for a supporter of withdrawal (and Brexiteer, also; you will note the subtle negative associations of that extra e), but not so far its equivalent Bremainer. But I’ve started to see Bremaineer and Bremainster as well as the more conventional remainer. Suggestions of a partial return after a Brexit has been termed Bre-entry. There’s plenty of time for more inventions, as the referendum isn’t until June 23.

The word averagarianism is a bit of a mouthful and not one, I suspect, that will ever appeal to the public at large. Its related adjective and noun, averagarian, stands a better chance of acceptance. Both have popped up recently in reviews of Todd Rose’s book The End of Average. He attacks the culture of making decisions about people in education and the workplace on the basis of what an idealised average person would do. “Nobody is average,” he asserts. Most readers would assume, as I did, that Rose invented both words, but it turns out otherwise, with averagarian appearing first 152 years ago in The Cornhill Magazine, a famous British literary journal whose first editor was the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. The word is in an article from the issue of August 1864, Morality of the Doctrine of Averages, which contains a critique of statistics not so far from that of Rose and comments, “a planet in which goodness was cast up in the total from columns of averages, and wickedness reckoned simply as so much in the hundred, would be a world unhumanised altogethe

Drought many of us are all too familiar with, but I was slightly startled to see an article in New Scientist that referred to a wind drought. It seems that parts of the USA are experiencing a prolonged period of lighter than usual winds which have caused electricity generation from wind farms to fall by 6% last year. It’s not the only figurative application of drought I’ve seen; energy drought and gas drought have previously appeared, though uncommon, and petrol drought turned up in a British local newspaper report last month (the one filling station in Hexham in Northumberland was without fuel for a week). Let’s hope these compounds don’t become common enough that we shall have to start referring to water drought to make clear what sort of drought we mean.

’Tis March, and so time for the annual wordfest of titlology that is the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. The shortlisted titles, selected by Horace Bent of The Bookseller are, as listed in the press release: Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers; Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus; Paper Folding with Children; Soviet Bus Stops; Reading the Liver: Papyrological Texts on Ancient Greek Extispicy; Too Naked for the Nazis; and Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space: A Consideration of Cult Film. A check of the titles shows the selectors have abbreviated a couple, thereby making them seem slightly odder than they really are: Paper Folding with Children has the joke-ruining subtitle Fun and Easy Origami Projects, while Too Naked for the Nazis actually has the full title Wilson, Keppel and Betty: Too Naked for the Nazis (it’s about a fondly remembered British music-hall trio’s bizarre speciality act). Cast your votes on The Bookseller’s website; the winner is to be announced on 18 March. Extispicy, by the way, is an ancient Latinism meaning the inspection of the entrails of sacrificial victims for divination.

We’ve long had predictions of peak oil, the point at which the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it’s expected to enter terminal decline. The term has spawned many imitators, including peak coal, peak gas, peak grain, peak copper, peak lead, and even peak car, a hint that the private motor vehicle is drifting down a long slope towards dissolution, and peak startup, meaning that the rate of new company formation is faltering. You may recall my mentioning peak beard a couple of years ago, the suggestion that hirsuteness is going out of fashion. The peak that has been featured in my daily paper this week is peak stuff, the idea that people — at least in Britain — are falling out of love with material objects and are ceasing to consume so much. That’s such a wide-ranging concept that we may hope we’ve at last seen peak peak.

Kick the bucket

  1. From Fred: Could you tell me where the phrase kick the bucket originated?
  2. This is one of many idioms created down the years to avoid making too blunt a mention of the unpleasant subject of death by cloaking the idea in euphemistic, elevated or humorous terms. They range from Shakespeare’s shuffle off this mortal coil, through the eighteenth-century’s hop the twig, to George Eliot’s join the choir invisible, many of which were guyed in Monty Python’s famous dead parrot sketch.

The earliest unequivocal appearance of kick the bucket, at least so far as we know at the moment, was in a serial story in a British magazine. At this point the hero, a sailor, has recovered from a severe illness:

My old mess-mate, Tom Bowline, met me at the gangway, and with a salute as hearty as honest, damn’d his eyes, but he was glad I had not kicked the bucket; while another swore roundly, that I had turned well to windward, and left death and the devil to leeward; and a third more vociferously exclaimed, I was born to dance upon nothing.

The History of Edward and Maria, in The London Magazine, Aug. 1775. To dance upon nothing meant to die by hanging.

In the same magazine five years later, a writer confirmed the meaning of the idiom while commenting how opaque it was. It had turned up in a gossipy letter which a friend had received and passed on to him, which included the sentence “as to your enquiries about old Wentworth, poor man! he died extremely rich; his disease stuck so close to him that it has obliged him to kick the bucket”. The article writer noted:


I should have been at a loss also to have known the significance of kicking the bucket, but am told it is an expression used to inform us of a person’s death, although I should no sooner apprehend it to be so than if I were told he had let fall his watch, or rapped at my door.

Observations on the Errors and Corruptions that Have Crept into the English Language, in The London Magazine, May 1780.

So much for the early history of the idiom, which does little or nothing to illuminate its origins. These may never be known for certain, though theories abound.

One story, hard to credit, is that the bucket is one on which a suicide might stand when hanging himself — kick away the bucket and the job is done. This theory only appeared long after a report in a Bath newspaper on 25 September 1788 of the suicide of a man called John Marshfield, who killed himself in just this way; in 1896 John Farmer and William Henley noted in Slang and Its Analogues that it had been claimed as the sad end of an ostler at an inn on the Great North Road.

Farmer and Henley place greater credence on a very different story, which was given rather more support than it deserved by being tentatively suggested as the origin in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1888. An extended version of the attribution appeared 15 years later in a letter from the splendidly named Holcombe Ingleby of Norfolk, which he said was “one familiar to me from my youth up”:


When a butcher slings up a sheep or pig, after killing, he fastens to the hocks of the animal what is technically known in the trade as a gambal, a piece of wood curved somewhat like a horse’s leg. This is also known in Norfolk as a bucket. Bucket, I may add, is not only well known in Norfolk in this sense, and commonly used, but with some of our folk is the only word known for the article in question. To “kick the bucket,” then, is the sign of the animal’s being dead, and the origin of the phrase may probably, if not indisputably, be referred to this source.

Notes and Queries, 21 May 1904. His gambal is usually rendered as gambrel or gambril, which is presumably why he stated that he couldn’t find the word in the New English Dictionary (the name then for what is now called the Oxford English Dictionary).Editor Henry Bradley had actually included gambrel in the F-G volume published in 1901.

The OED’s editors suggested that the word might not refer to our modern bucket, but to the Old French buquet for a balance or a trebuchet, the medieval siege weapon for hurling missiles at the enemy.

It may reasonably be objected that the animal couldn’t possibly kick the bucket, as it was already dead by the time that its rear legs were fastened to it. Advocates of this origin must also explain how a specialist dialect expression from rural Norfolk came to be so widely taken up at the end of the eighteenth century and why there are only indirect references to this sense of bucket and never any examples of its actually having being uttered.


A third theory also appeared in Notes and Queries, in 1947. It was in reference to a supposedly old custom of the Catholic church:

After death, when the body had been laid out, a cross and two lighted candles were placed near it, and in addition to these the holy-water bucket was brought from the church and put at the feet of the corpse. When friends came to pray for the deceased, before leaving the room they would sprinkle the body with holy water. So intimately therefore was the bucket associated with the feet of deceased persons that it is easy to see how the saying came about.

Or perhaps not.

[This piece is an updated and enlarged version of one that first appeared in this newsletter in February 1999. My thanks to the various members of the American Dialect Society who discovered the early examples, and to etymologist Professor Anatoly Liberman, who wrote about the expression in two issues of his blog The Oxford Etymologist in February 2016.]


Pronounced /ɒrɪˈzɪvərəs/.

Though oryzivorous appears in a scientific glossary in 1857, there is no example of its appearing in print before modern times and even then almost exclusively in works that specialise in strange and exotic words. This suggested that finding out why anyone bothered to invent it might be worth enquiring into.

The root is classical Latin oryza, rice. Add to that the ending -vorous, devouring or eating, and you get an adjective meaning “rice-eating”. This is common enough, both among people and animals, but nobody seems to have felt the need for a pompous Latinate formulation to describe it.

When I searched for it, I kept turning up the supposed scientific name for a small bird, Dolichonyx oryzivorous, which I was pleased to discover was a migratory blackbird which may be seen in North America in the spring and summer. This is commonly called the bobolink, an odd name that’s said to be from Bob o’ Lincoln, the way that English-speaking American colonists in the eighteenth century rendered the bird’s call. It does indeed eat rice, voraciously when it can get it, though it’s happy to eat seeds of many other kinds.

This happy encounter with a species I’d never heard of turned out to be the result of a repeated error, because its correct name is Dolichonyx oryzivorus, without the final o. The scientific name was given to the bird by the famous Swedish naturalist Karl Linnaeus in 1766. However, he called it Emberiza oryzivorus, putting it in the same genus as 40 or so species of buntings. However, it was soon realised the bobolink wasn’t really a bunting and since 1827 it has been the lonely sole member of the genus Dolichonyx, a word that derives for no very clear reason from Greek dolichos, meaning “long”.

We may guess that oryzivorous, with that extra o, came into being in that glossary solely because Linnaeus had created the closely similar oryzivorus.


Hilary Powers found this in an Associated Press story dated 23 February: “Kelly said he’s not sure how long the next phase of the investigation will take. Scientists need to replicate the behavior of air bags over a period of several years, which will take time, he said.”

A Sunday Telegraph article on the late Harper Lee which Michel Norrish was reading quoted a friend: “She had this wonderful childish twinkle in her eye and she defied conventional morays.” Don’t eel out of the error, subeditors, try mores, as in the customs and conventions of society.

Spell check

An even worse misspelling was committed by political activists in Alberta, whom Clyde McConnell pointed out had written on Facebook that they wanted a kudatah. It took a moment to connect it with coup d’état.

“Curtains for Swaziland?” emailed Nigel Johnson, reporting that the headline over a story on the website of the Anglican News Service dated 2 March read: “Swaziland declares national emergency as draught intensifies.”

Another misspelled headline, on the Daily Telegraph’s site on the same day, led Bob Hughes to comment that the action seemed a little harsh: “Judge scalds Madonna and Guy Ritchie for public custody battle over 15-year-old son Rocco.”

One of the weirder science-related headlines of recent times was found by Emery Fletcher on the arstechnica website on 12 February: “Potentially deadly drug interactions found mining FDA complaint bin”.

Slavery is still with us, Beverley Rowe suspects, having seen the headline “Owner of Pinewood Studios, home to James Bond and Star Wars, could be sold.” Rowe saw it in The Guardian, but it remains visible only on the ITV news website.

A report in the Daily Mail on 4 March read: “The Los Angeles Police Department confirmed the discovery of the knife to Daily Mail Online. ‘A knife was recovered on the property. We are currently meeting on it.’ ”


World Wide Words Issue 922


– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 921 – WIF Style

Leave a comment


WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.

Contents WWW

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Satisficer.

3. From my reading.

4. Beside oneself.

5. Sic!

6. Archives (click on)

1. letter-to-editor

New elements Referencing my piece last time, Peter Jacobs told me there’s a petition to honour the late Ian (Lemmy) Kilmister of Motörhead by naming one of the recently discovered heavy metal elements after him as lemmium. And Barton Bresnik similarly noted another petition to do the same for Sir Terry Pratchett by naming a element octarine.

To fit the standard suffix -ium for chemical elements the latter might need to be recast as octarinium, though copyeditor Peter Morris points out that the name would work for element 117; this is in the same group as fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine, which by the rules of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry have names ending in-ine. A similar exception to the rule would apply to element 118, which belongs with neon, argon, krypton and xenon; it has been suggested that it should be called newton, after Sir Isaac.

Fifteen elements are named for people, including Albert Einstein, Dmitri Mendeleev, Lise Meitner and Nicolaus Copernicus. Most commemorate famous scientists and all but two are for synthesised elements beyond uranium. An exception is samarium, indirectly commemorating a little-known Russian mining engineer named Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets.

The chance of either petition being successful is extremely small.

Lucius Beebe & Charles Clegg


My snippet on this word for a lover of trains led to an email from Bob Crowley: “The term originated from the writer Lucius Beebe. Beebe was a wealthy bon vivant, ne’er-do-well, hard drinker, newspaper columnist, railfan [railway enthusiast] and railway private car owner. Beebe had a passion for form and formality, and decided his hobby of railroading needed a formal Latin term to describe it, so he invented one meaning ‘one who studies the iron horse’ orferroequinologist.”

I had assumed that my earliest finding of the word in print wasn’t actually the first, but lack of time prevented me from following the trail further back. Mr Crowley’s mention of Beebe led me to Andrew Dow’s Dictionary of Railway Quotations, which has a substantial entry for the word. Dow cites a letter to Trains Magazine in April 1947 (which I’ve not yet been able to unearth) as its earliest use in print and its adoption as the title of the magazine of the old Central Coast Railway Club in 1952. Dow argues that Beebe picked up the term only later.

An item in the journal American Speech of December 1950 gave some additional background: “The comic spirit which produced such Latinisms as anti-fogmatic (an alcoholic drink that counteracts the effects of fog) and infracaninophile (a lover of the underdog) presided over the birth offerroequinologist. On February 5, 1950, a group of iron-horse lovers from Richmond, Virginia, who are fond of railroad lore, made a sentimental journey over the fourteen-mile-long Albemarle and Nelson Railway when it ran its last passenger train. These enthusiasts are members of the Old Dominion Railway Club; they enjoy using the nicknameferroequinologists of themselves.”

I can’t find the word in any of Lucius Beebe’s many publications that I’ve been able to access. But then, he was a writer of a generation and style that would have rejected the idea of coining words, especially mock Latinisms. We may never be able to link the word’s origin nearer than to some unsung railway enthusiast knowledgeable in Latin, perhaps sometime in the 1940s.



Sconce Michael Keating and Andrew Shilcock tell me the college sense of a fine was in use during their studies at Cambridge University, respectively at Sidney Sussex and Downing. As I never came across it in my own college, Peterhouse, it would seem to have been restricted in its usage.

James Taylor commented, “At my Oxford college (Worcester), sconcing was a relatively formal and well-established process. At any formal dinner, guests could ask the Provost (or senior fellow present) to sconce a fellow guest for some alleged transgression, but the request had to be made in writing, in Latin (or perhaps Greek; either way it meant the universe of potential sconcers was pretty small). If the request was successful, a tankard full of beer would be brought in from the kitchen, which the transgressor was supposed to down in one. If the request was not successful, the sconcer could technically be sconced — but more usually the Provost would reward them with a bottle of wine.”

David Willbe added, “When I was at Oxford (1998-2001) the various sports teams did operate systems of punitive actions for (real and imagined) infractions but they were referred to as fines, penalties or forfeits. The only sense in which ‘sconce’ was used was for a specific punishment, usually reserved for serious ‘offences’, of having to down a large drink. I’d imagine it’s that practice to which the Cherwell andTelegraph articles refer. The folk etymology of sconce that prevailed at the time was that the word referred to an archaic drinking vessel, something like a stein, which had fallen into disuse other than for this punishment — hence the name had transferred to the punishment.”

Terry Walsh noted that the source Latin term was absconsa lanterna, notlaterna, and added that the term has been used in Roman Catholic countries “for the small light which was used to read scripture during nocturnal mass and other religious services.”

Thank your mother for the rabbits Janet Alton followed up my piece of two issues ago and comments last time: “I was thinking how people adopt little catchphrases and trot them out habitually. When I was very small in Rotherham in the 1950s, we used to visit an elderly relative who always gently admonished children who might be tempted to start tearing about: ‘Mind how you step over those mince pies!’ Much later, as an adult, I knew an elderly Sheffield man who, if he called at your house, would always say ‘I’ve come to tell you I’m not coming!’”

Ms Alton’s second one reminds me of a catchphrase of the late British comedian Max Bygraves from the 1950s: “I’ve arrived, and to prove it I’m here!” I’d guess Ms Alton’s pair come from similar, albeit forgotten, sources.

Words of the Year A late entrant to my collection of prize-winning words of 2015 was provided by Ursula Roth, who tells us, “In Germany, the Academy for German Language has chosen Smombie as word of the year 2015. It combines smartphone and zombie for those who stare at their smartphones without perceiving their surroundings.” A smart zombie: how curiously oxymoronic.

2. Satisficer

Image result for paradox

The idea here is the paradox of choice.

The classic story is the one about the donkey which was placed exactly halfway between two bales of hay. Unable to decide which one of the two bales was the more enticing, the poor animal starved to death. The modern equivalent is supermarket shelves laden with two dozen varieties of tomato sauce or twenty sorts of bread or shops with dozens of styles of trainers or jeans. The burden of having to decide among myriad options has been shown to leave people dissatisfied, stressed and miserable about the choice they finally make — perhaps one of the others was better?

A satisficer, on the other hand, is content with the idea that good is good enough. If the pair of jeans fits and wears well or the tomato sauce tastes pretty good then that’s fine. Another choice might have been better but almost certainly not so much better that the hassle of testing all the possibilities was worth the time and trouble.

Though the word is often applied to the consumerist lifestyle in developed countries, the American economist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon coined it more than half a century ago in more general terms. His original creation was satisfice, a conflation of satisfy and suffice, which appeared first in an article in 1956. He extended his ideas the following year in his books Administrative Behavior and Models of Man.

His discussion was directed at all forms of decision making, in which he argued that people showed what he called bounded rationality. Contrary to the conventional view of economists, people don’t seek to maximise the benefit they get from some course of action because in most cases they don’t have all the facts or too much information would overwhelm them.

The best situation may not be, as might be thought, to have no choice at all (which brings problems of its own), but to have a relatively limited range of choices that makes it feasible to select the most appropriate.


Read with me

Read with me

• An article on skincare introduced me to non-comedogenic. Ripping this into its constituent pieces suggests that it refers to something which prevents comedos. Next question. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry written a century ago gives a long and rather disgusting-sounding definition for comedo, which turns out to have nothing to do with comedy but refers to what we commonly call a blackhead. The OED helpfully adds that it’s from Latin, derives from the verb comedĕre, to eat up, and was originally a name given to worms which devour the body. Briefly, non-comedogenic refers to a product that doesn’t block the pores and so doesn’t risk the appearance of blackheads. Other works say that the more usual medical term these days is comedone, which the OED hasn’t yet got around to noticing.

• The long-standing children’s television series Pingu, about a family of penguins living in an igloo in Antarctica, is especially notable for using an expressive made-up language. It’s sometimes called penguinese but one of the voiceover artists on its remake, David Sant, called it grammelot. Invented speech has a long history in the theatre, going back to the Commedia dell’Arte 600 years ago. Actors took the sounds and intonations of the languages of their audiences and created expressive nonsense from them. The descriptions of it often call it grammelot and imply that this word is as old as the technique. The American etymologist Mark Liberman showed ten years ago that this certainly isn’t so and is most probably modern. Its first recorded appearances are in connection with Dario Fo’s use of the technique in his 1969 play Mistero Buffo, though it has been asserted that he didn’t invent it but borrowed it from slightly earlier French sources. Whatever its origin, grammelot seems certain to be a nonsense word itself.

• The word utopia is widely recognised and understood — in many other languages than just English — as shorthand for a perfect social, legal and political society in which everyone is happy. Its creator, Sir Thomas More, is less well known, though the 1966 Robert Bolt film, A Man for All Seasons, brought him vividly to life as Henry VIII’s lord chancellor who refused to support the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He also featured in the recent BBC series Wolf Hall about his rival Thomas Cromwell. Commemorative events are being held this year to mark the quincentenary of Utopia, his book that brought the word into being. Though More wrote his work in Latin, he took his title from classical Greek ou, not, and topos, place. By derivation, therefore, utopia doesn’t exist. At times the word has been written Eutopia, using the Greek prefix eu-, meaning good, to emphasise the positive aspects of such an imagined society.

4. Beside oneself

Q From Marcus Wisbech: “Why is it that when a person is angry about something, we might say ‘He’s beside himself with rage?’ How can one be beside oneself?”

A It puzzles us today because language has changed but the idiom hasn’t.

The phrase appears first in the language a long time ago. In 1490, William Caxton, who established the first English printing press in Westminster, published a book with the title Eneydos. We know it better as The Aeneidby Virgil.

Caxton records its linguistic travels in its title: “translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton”. This is the relevant passage, describing the grief of Dido at the departure of Aeneas. I’ll leave its rendering into modern English as an exercise for the reader:

She sawe the saylles, wyth the flote of the shippes that made good waye. Thenne byganne she, for grete distresse, to bete & smyte thre or four tymes wyth her fyste strongly ayenst her brest & to pulle her fayr heres from her hed, as mad & beside herself.”

Caxton was translating the French phrase hors de soi, outside oneself. He used beside because for him the word could mean outside of or away from. The idea was that powerful emotion had led Dido’s mind to escape her control. Her mind had got away from her and she wasn’t herself.

We use the phrase rather less now than we used to. When it appears, it is most often related to rage but it can also refer to delight, grief, amazement, excitement, horror, or any other powerful emotion.

5. SIC

• A reviewer on Amazon wrote of author John Grisham’s lawyer hero Sebastian Rudd that he has an “ongoing custardy battle for his son”.

• Marc Picard and John Pearson saw that on 28 January the BBC site reported, briefly, that a man arrested in Paris “co-manages a brassiere”.

• Larry Israel and Howard Sinberg spotted a headline error that turns up on US newspaper sites so often that it has become a perennial joke, Let’s give it one last moment in the sun because this time it appeared (on 26 January) on the website of the prestigious New York Times: “Police Officer Shoots Man With Knife in Lower Manhattan”. The NYT rapidly changed it.

• Robert Waterhouse came across a comment in The Guardian’s sports pages of 5 February about prospects for the Six Nations rugby tournament: “If England’s new captain can solidify their scums …”.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Created: 6 Feb 2016


World Wide Words Issue 921




– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 920 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 920

from the UK’s Michael Quinions


Feedback, Notes and Comments
Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Thank your mother for the rabbits. Bruce Warne provided a personal memory of the expression: “When I was a little boy in Middlesbrough, in the very early 1950s, my older sisters often visited an elderly neighbour. When they returned home, or when he noticed them over the common garden fence, he always said ‘Thank your mother for the rabbit’. I was only about four or five years old at the time, but the expression is fixed in my memory as my sisters were perplexed by it, and constantly referred to it.”

Edna Heard, formerly of Liverpool, commented that the expression “reminded me of my father’s greeting when he met someone: ‘How’s your belly where the pig bit you?’ I often wondered if it was from an old music hall song. He was born in 1902.” That sounds like a variation on the equally weird and mysterious one that my father used to say: “How’s your belly off for spots?”

Thank your mother for the rabbits put many readers in mind of a phrase in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Book four of the “trilogy” has it as its title: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. This was said by the dolphins as they left Earth just before it was destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, so it was intended literally, not as a nonsense phrase, though fans have adopted it as humorous way to say goodbye. I would have included it in the original piece had I thought of a neat way to work it in.

Goon. Many American readers told me about Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid, a labour song written in 1940, which includes the line “goons and ginks and company finks”. Someday I must write about gink and fink

Australians introduced me to the goon bag or goon sack , a bulk dispenser of cheap wine of variable quality. I know the device as a wine box, but Australian producers seem to prefer wine cask, which is a truly pretentious term for a plastic bag in a cardboard container. Its construction led to the contents sometimes being identified as château de cardboard. Goon was used in Australia from the 1970s for cheap wine in large glass bottles called flagons and was later transferred to wine in boxes. How the wine got known as goon is uncertain. Some argue that it’s from an Aboriginal word for a pillow but the general feeling is that it’s a short form of flagon , perhaps with a nod to the other senses of goon.


The online Oxford English Dictionary has added a note to each entry showing how often it appears in current use. Peradventure appears in band 2, which the dictionary says contains “terms which are not part of normal discourse and would be unknown to most people.” The Times mocked Labour MP Harriet Harman in April 2015 for using it on a BBC television discussion programme (“if I make it absolutely clear, beyond peradventure …”). The Times writer admitted he had to look it up.

Peradventure means “uncertainty” or “chance”. Beyond peradventure (sometimes as beyond a peradventure) is a fixed phrase that can pop up from the subconscious of a well-read but stressed person without allowing its owner time to think about whether it would be understood. It may be rendered in everyday English as “beyond question” or “without doubt”.

It may be adventurous to use it but where’s the adventure in it?

Historically, there is none. It comes to us from Old French per aventure, by chance. Aventure has had a mildly exotic history. We can trace it back to Latin adventūra, a future form of the verb advenīre, to happen — so something that may occur. By the time it reached Old French it could variously mean destiny or fate, a chance event, an accident, fortune or luck. The sense of aventure that was first taken into English was that of a chance event or accident.

The French word also came to be used in English as adventure, also at first for some chance event, but then for a risk of danger or loss. (Marine insurers still sometimes use adventure to mean the time during which insured goods are at risk.) Its sense shifted to a hazardous undertaking or audacious exploit — especially the sort carried out by medieval knights — but much more recently softened to sometimes mean merely a novel or exciting experience.

Read with me

Read with me

  • An article about Chinese railways introduced me to ferroequinology, literally the study of the iron horse. This mock Latinism turns out to have been around for yonks . An early example is from the Walla Walla Union Bulletin of 19 August 1951. It noted that it was “among those easily drummed up latinizations designed to lend a certain amount of prestige to any profession from medical specialist to garbage collector” and described ferroequinologists as “avid fans, who really get a kick out of the romance of the railroads, who thrill to the shotgun cough of the engine on a long drag up a heavy grade or the raucous kaleidoscope of color that is a hundred-mile-an-hour streamliner on the high iron.” Those were the days.

  • On 30 December, four new chemical elements were added to the periodic table, bringing the total to 118 and instantly making all science textbooks out of date. Like other elements created in accelerators and not present in nature, they have existed only for small fractions of a second. The research institutes that made them have yet to name them and they’re currently known by placeholder names derived from Latin numerals: ununtrium, ununpentium, ununseptium, and ununoctium, for elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The first of these was created in the Nishina Center in Japan by a team from the Riken Institute, so the names japonium, rikenium and nishinarium are being considered.
  • Watching dramatisations of historical events on television often makes me wince internally at anachronistic word usage. An example appeared in the current BBC adaptation  by Andrew Davies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Prince Vassily Kuragin tells Pierre Bezukhov that one doesn’t own possessions but curates them for one’s heirs and generations to come. Curate has been fashionable in the past decade in the broad sense of editing, selecting or presenting anything at all, from blogs to playlists to trendy menus to corporate mission statements. (The Times on 29 December defined curated sarcastically as “Assembled, cobbled together with no care or talent or purpose”.) The verb was previously limited to the function of museum curators — preserving and studying objects. Though Kuragin’s meaning is close to this, the verb isn’t recorded before 1935, so definitely not right for 1805.


Q. From Bill Waggoner: We are doing some home renovations and were looking at lighting options. Sconces were one of the items we considered. I was curious what the origin of the word is but when I looked it up the meanings were a weird collection: a wall bracket, a skull, or a punishment. Strange dictionary-fellows indeed. Can you help clear it up?

A. It’s even more weird than those suggest, because the word originates in the Latin verb abscondere, to hide, from which we also get the verb abscond, originally and specifically to flee into hiding.

In Latin the term absconsa laterna literally meant “hidden lantern”. We used to call this in English a dark lantern, a portable device with a door that could be closed to obscure the light when needed. The Latin name was shortened to absconsa and after many centuries became the Old French esconse. When it turns up in English at the end of the fourteenth century, as sconce, it referred to a portable lantern with a handle. Not long after, the name was transferred to a wall bracket for holding a candle, often with a mirror behind it to reflect the light. The light source is nowadays often electricity but the name stuck.

In the sixteenth century, sconce became a slang term for a head:

A curled Sconce he hath, with angrie frowning browe.

Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonets, by George Turberville, 1567.

Most dictionaries avoid explaining how this came about. However, there was another meaning of sconce, one you don’t mention, for an earthwork or fortification. This has a different and unconnected origin, the old Dutch schans, brushwood. It could be a bundle of sticks, a screen of brushwood for soldiers or a protective earthwork made from gabions, cylindrical baskets filled with earth. (It’s also the source of ensconce , to settle somebody in a safe or comfortable place.) In this context, sconce seems to have shifted to refer slangily to a type of helmet as protection for the head and was then transferred to the head itself. This association was made specific in the 1823 edition of the slang dictionary Lexicon Balatronicum: “ Sconce. The head, probably, as being the fort and citadel of a man: from sconce, an old name for a fort.” Despite some dictionaries, it doesn’t seem often to have been used for a skull, if ever. The other linked figurative meaning was of a function of the head, one’s intelligence, brain or native wit. A pig-sconce was once a foolish or pigheaded person.

So far, so good. Now to the punishment sense, which is associated specifically with the University of Oxford. This is the way it was described by John Camden Hotten in the 1874 edition of his Slang Dictionary:

Sconce, to fine. Used by Dons as well as undergrads. The Dons fined or sconced for small offences; e.g., five shillings for wearing a coloured coat in hall at dinner-time. Among undergrads a pun, or an oath, or an indecent remark, was sconced by the head of the table.

Sconcing still exists in some colleges in Oxford in a minor way; a piece in the student newspaper Cherwell in 2007 noted it was most common among rowers (that is, sporting persons in boats, not those of a quarrelsome disposition) and one in The Telegraph in 2013 associated it especially with crewdates , social events for Oxford sports teams.


This sense puzzles etymologists. A clue may be in a work by a contemporary of Shakespeare named John Minsheu; in 1617 he published a monumental dictionary in eleven languages, which was, incidentally, the first book ever sold by subscription. He defined sconce to mean “to set up so much in the buttery book upon his head to pay for his punishment”. The buttery book was the ledger that itemised purchases of food and drink by undergraduates from the college buttery (which has nothing to do with butter but was historically the place where the butts, large barrels, of ale were kept). The book would seem from this to have also recorded fines. “Upon his head” we may presume refers to the entry in the book which was headed with his name. So this usage may be linked to the head sense of sconce.

The same sense appears in another long-obsolete phrase, build up a sconce, to run up a big bill at an inn or tavern, especially with the intention of never paying it, and in the related verb sconce, to defraud somebody.


This word turned up in a review I read over the holiday break of Richard Mabey’s new book, The Cabaret of Plants. Checking my files, I found that I’d seen it in two earlier articles in British newspapers in the past decade. Both say, as Mabey does, that it was a word invented in the nineteenth century as a derogatory reference to the obsessive collection of rare orchids.

A search found other examples in British and American books and newspapers, most of which likewise suggested that it was well over a century old. The earliest was in the Daily Herald of Chicago in April 1999: “the Victorians coined a word, ‘orchidelirium,’ for their peculiar obsession.” However, searches in databases of nineteenth-century books and newspapers in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand failed to find a single example. Nor was there any usage on record of the full phrase orchid delirium, though orchid mania was used.

What struck me also was how uncommon a coinage of the period it would have been. Though blended words — what Lewis Carroll called portmanteau terms — were invented and used to some extent, they weren’t usually devised by joining the final letter of one word to the first letter of the second.

So if it wasn’t Victorian, where did it come from?

The clue came in the journal Biology Digest of 1986. A reference there led me to an article in the July-August 1986 issue of Garden magazine, published for the New York Botanical Garden. It was about the avid orchid collectors of the nineteenth century and was written by Peter Bernhardt, now Professor of Biology at St Louis University, Missouri.

His article was entitled Orchidelirium. However, he tells me he didn’t invent the word: it was most probably coined by the editor of the magazine, the late Ann Botshon.

It’s yet another example of people copying from one another. Somebody must have mistakenly thought Prof Bernhardt had encountered the word during his research. Others reproduced the assumption. As time passed, the link with the original article was lost and the factoid about when orchidelirium was invented took on the status of received truth.

[ My thanks to Professor Bernhardt and to Esther Jackson of the New York Botanical Garden’s library for their assistance with this article. The image is reproduced by kind permission of The LuEsther T Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.]

Words of the Year-001
After Oxford’s choice of a non-word — an emoji — for their word of the year, the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary followed suit. They noted that internet users have been searching its site in their masses this year for words such as fascism , racism, terrorism , feminism and socialism. So they chose the suffix -ism as their Word of the Year 2015.

This ending has an wide range of associations, such as a distinctive practice, belief, system, or philosophy, often a political ideology or artistic movement. Socialism was the form most often searched for, mainly because of the assertion by the Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that he’s an adherent of democratic socialism.

Merriam-Webster’s editors commented that there are 2733 English words ending in ‑ism in their unabridged dictionary, surely enough for everybody to find something to suit them. Incidentally, the word ism as a mildly disparaging term is recorded from as long ago as 1680.

The Word of the Year 2015 from the Australian National Dictionary Centre strictly speaking also isn’t a word: it’s the phrase sharing economy. The Centre defined it as “an economic system based on sharing of access to goods, resources, and services, typically by means of the Internet” and commented that “it had a special prominence in Australia in 2015 partly due to the impact of debates around the introduction of ridesharing service Uber into Australia, which has been seen as threatening the taxi industry.”

The American Dialect Society gently mocked Oxford’s choice by adding the category of Most Notable Emoji to its nominations for Words of the Year. These were voted on by participants at its annual meeting in Washington DC on 8 January.

The Word of the Year 2015 went by a landslide to they, the gender-neutral singular pronoun, often used when the speaker doesn’t know the gender of the person being referred to, but also more recently as a conscious choice by a person who rejects the traditional gender binary of he and she. After years of controversy the usage is at last becoming widely accepted— late last year Oxford Dictionaries had it as one of their runner-up words of the year and Bill Walsh, the style editor of the Washington Post , officially adopted it for his newspaper.

In other voting, the Most Creative word went to ammosexual, a firearms enthusiast;

Most Unnecessary was manbun, a man’s hairstyle in a bun; the Most Outrageous award went to fuckboy, a derogatory term for a man who behaves objectionably or promiscuously; the Most Euphemistic award went to the phrase netflix and chill, a sexual come-on masked as a suggestion to watch Netflix and relax; the word Most Likely to Succeed was the verb ghost, to abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially electronically; the Least Likely to Succeed category was won by sitbit, a device that rewards a sedentary lifestyle, a play on fitbit. The winner of the new category Most Notable Emoji was the image of an eggplant or aubergine, mainly because in social media it’s often sexual innuendo for the penis. The other new category this year was Most Notable Hashtag, building on the success last year of #blacklivesmatter as Word of the Year. The winner was #SayHerName, the Twitter call to bring attention to police violence against black women.

At the same meeting, the American Name Society chose its Names of the Year. The brand name of the year was Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that lost many staff members in a shooting a year ago; the place name or toponym award went to the new name of the tallest mountain in the US: Denali, formerly Mt McKinley; the personal name (or anthroponym if you’re feeling highfalutin) was that of the transgender person Caitlyn Jenner; and the fictional name category was won by three individuals from the new Star Wars film, Rey, Finn and Poe. The Grand Name of the Year award went to Caitlyn Jenner.



  • Crows are renowned for being clever, but this headline in the Los Angeles Times on 24 December startled Dean Riley: “Wild crows use tiny cameras to film themselves using tools.”
  • According to the menu of the Sun restaurant in Dedham, England, as seen by Alan M Stanier: “Our coffee comes direct from two growers in El Salvador who are paid 50% more than Fairtrade and roasted by Tate Gallery’s Phil Gevaux and Hamish Anderson.”
  • The law moves at a gentle pace in Gloucester, where on 28 December John Gray spotted a headline in the local newspaper: “Speeding drivers caught in Seymour Road as police launch 20mph crackdown.”


  • Irene Johnson submitted an email from the UK firm Cotton Traders she received on 9 December: “We have some unclaimed £5 off vouchers down here. We thought it would be great to offer these to our wonderful customers before they expire as part of the 12 deals of Christmas campaign.”
  • In South Africa, Gerhard Burger found this on a Port Elizabeth-based community website just before Christmas: “Nearly 10 000 vehicles were screened for alcohol use while 194 were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.”
  • The wonders of spellchecking: David Overton found this on the front page of The Telegraph on 7 December: “Britain’s response to terror attacks was called into question last night after uninformed officers were left to deal with a suspected Islamist fanatic.”

World Wide Words



– WIF Style

About this newsletter: World Wide Words is researched, written and published by Michael Quinion in the UK. ISSN 1470-1448.

World Wide Words Issue 919 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 919


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.

Lots of letters

Lots of letters

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!”

Season’s greetings

Chhristmas card-001

 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone from WIF & Molly


She gets holidays mixed up



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)

  1. 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?
  1. 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.

Read with me

Read with me

  • 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

World Wide Words Issue 919



– WIF Style

This post has been altered by Gwendolyn Hoff of Writing is Fun-damental

World Wide Words is researched, written and published by Michael Quinion in the UK. ISSN 1470-1448.

World Wide Words Issue 918 – WIF Style

Leave a comment

WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 918

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.



Feedback, Notes and Comments

Snow. One dialect term in my list brought this comment from Hilary Maidstone: “The word hogamadog you mention as being obsolete Northumbrian is sufficiently similar to the still current Norfolk dialect word for a snail, hodmandod, to describe rather nicely the act of rolling a ball of snow, I would have thought.”

The Great Eskimo Naming Problem. Many readers living nearer the peoples in question were quick to criticise me for using the word Inuits. John Nightingalb was among the first: “A Canadian would urge on you that Inuit is, itself, the plural form. Inuk is the singular.” Adam Thompson sent me a link to the Canadian government advice on usage, which points out that in French, Inuit is both singular and plural and Inuk isn’t used. He notes that the same is often true in English.

Martin S Taylor wrote “What do you call it when falling snow, rather than melting as it touches the ground, remains in its frozen, snowy state? I’m from Bristol, where this is pitching. But other parts of the country have it as laying or settling or landing, or a whole variety of dialect terms.”

Chi-ike. Lesley Shaw recalled this as very common in Australia when she was growing up: “Chi-acking was light-hearted and essentially good-humoured back-and-forth banter involving a bit of verbal horseplay between two people, a bit of ‘chucking off’ at each other. There was equality between the banterers and neither was trying to win. You might do it during ‘smoko’ to ‘get a rise out of the other fellow’ but you would expect to get back as good as you gave. ‘Chi-acking’ was a public activity as much to amuse onlookers or listeners. Someone might chime in and ask ‘What are you two chi-acking about?’ It’s a great word.”

“For what it’s worth,” Vanessa Westwood wrote, “my nan, who was born in London but married into a Cannock family, used to say ‘Stop chi-iking about!’ to mean ‘stop messing about’ when I was a kid.” Ross Drewe recalls that a similar sense has been known in Australia: “In my youth (1960s–70s) this word was still in use, in the Australianised form of chyacking. It had suffered a minor shift of meaning from ‘mocking exchanges between men’ to ‘generally boisterous and noisy behaviour by young men’, usually in the phrase ‘they were chyacking around.’ However the older meaning was still recognised in the form ‘he couldn’t stand all the chyacking and left the site’.”

Tony Thurling commented in similar vein: “Your latest newsletter reminded me of my early life [in Australia] where shiacking was a common term for anyone playing the fool or larking or having a joke. I only ever encountered it in spoken form so don’t know how it should be written, although I do recall Sydney newspapers at the time (1970s) using shiack and shyack. It was usually spoken as shyacking about , with shyacking by itself, both verbal and written, being rare.”

Australian and New Zealander readers confirmed that this term, in its various spellings, has now almost vanished from daily life.

British slang expert Jonathon Green tells me he has found earlier appearances of chi-ike than those he included in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. One, in the oldest sense of a hearty greeting, appeared in an 1835 ballad entitled Cock-Eyed Sukey: “If chance his mot male chyhoik hear, / And sneaks at once into her nest”, where mot means girlfriend. This was reproduced in the 2011 four-volume collection Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period by Patrick Spedding and Paul Watt, a snip at £350. Jonathon commented: “The 1835 citation, with the usual double entendre of ballads, might be interpreted as linking to a bird-call and thus suggesting a new line of etymology.”

Cardiac Celt. Several readers pointed out that this term, mentioned last time, is most probably based on the older Cardiac Jew, someone who feels Jewish “in their heart” but not in their actions. Rick Turkel recalled, “I was in high school and college during the 1950s and 1960s in New York City and Long Island and recall a similar usage dating back at least another three decades. A self-referenced Cardiac Jew was someone who was born Jewish but knew little or nothing of Jewish law, customs or behavior (and observed less), and was often proud of that. In my crowd it was not considered a favorable description.” Several other readers recalled that they knew this term from the same period or a little later, so it seems to have achieved fairly wide circulation by that time, at least within Jewish communities. Robert Kernish has traced it back to an article of 1942 by I. Steinbaum, A Study of Jewishness of Twenty New York Families. As Mr Turkel suggests, it may indeed be even older.


Q. From Les Kirkham: I know this phrase is used in the navy to mean “drunk”, even “raucously drunk”, often as “kicking up Bob’s a-dying”, but what are its origins? Is it anything to do with Bob’s your uncle?

A. The usual dictionary sense of Bob’s-a-dying is of a disturbance or uproar, perhaps with physical violence involved. It requires no stretch of imagination to connect this with sailors on shore leave getting well tanked up, but drunkenness as such doesn’t seem to be the idea behind it.

It’s rare these days and most people will probably have come across it only in such works as the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. He uses it five times in various books, as here about his crew:

Once ashore they kicked up Bob’s a-dying to a most shocking extent and then set about the soldiery.

Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O’Brian, 1999.

The dating of the expression fits the Napoleonic period in which the books are set. We begin to see it in print in 1828 but may reasonably assume it’s at least a decade or two older. It’s much too old and too different in sense to be linkable to Bob’s your uncle , though it may be added to the list of sayings involving somebody or something named bob that may just possibly have been an influence.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had largely dropped out of public writings but was being recorded in dialect, from Cornwall to Northumberland, sometimes in modified forms such as bobs-a-dial or bobs-a-dilo. It was said to mean “boisterous merriment”, though it could also mean causing a row or making a huge fuss. Thomas Hardy has a character in Under the Greenwood Tree say, “You see her first husband was a young man, who let her go too far; in fact, she used to kick up Bob’s-a-dying at the least thing in the world.”

When it first appeared, people seemed clear enough what it was referring to. A story in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1835 has “I could dance a hornpipe and kick up Bob’s a-dying.” Two years earlier a short story appeared that described setting sail on a warship:

Man the haulyards — let go reef-tackles, cluelines, buntlines — light up in the top — hoist away! Up they went to the tune of “Bob’s a dying”.

The Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1833.

If any doubt should remain, let me dispel it with this later example:

The bridal party marched in regular order next, and over them a parasol, attached to a long rod of iron, was carried by another man, and by his side was an accordeon player, striking up some lively strains, such as “Pop goes the Weasel,” “Bob’s a dying,” &c.

Nottinghamshire Guardian, 29 June 1854. Accordeon was a contemporary spelling of accordion, derived from its original German name.

Patrick O’Brian was also sure of its musical origin:

He too had danced to the fiddle and fife, his upper half grave and still, his lower flying — heel and toe, the double harman, the cut-and-come-again, the Kentish knock, the Bob’s a-dying and its variations in quick succession and (if the weather was reasonably calm) in perfect time.

The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian, 1981.

The many references to kicking up Bob’s a dying suggests a high-kicking dance. This presumably wasn’t a sea shanty but a tune particularly popular with seafarers. It’s a pity that this doesn’t now seem to be known. It must have been particularly lively to have become linked to uproar ashore, though sailors putting the boot in during an affray would at once have seen the connection.

Who or what was bob is likewise not known. One theory has it that it referred to a shilling in old British currency, known as a bob since the latter part of the eighteenth century; bob might have been dying because the sailor’s money was almost spent. On drink, we may reasonably suspect.


Image result for binge-watching

Binge-watching, consuming several or all the episodes of a television programme in quick succession, was announced by the British dictionary publishers Collins on 5 November as its 2015 Word of the Year.

Once upon a time, we had to wait for the next episode of our favourite television show and had to be sure to catch it when it was broadcast or it was probably gone for ever. Technology has changed all that, of course, not only providing box sets for easy access to programmes we want to watch again but more recently giving online access to the whole of a new series at once.

My face is unshaven, my eyes are bloodshot and I haven’t showered in days. Such are the ravages of binge-watching. Welcome to the latest addiction affecting America. … Other than hiding the remote or changing the victim’s Netflix password, there is no known cure.

Clearfield Progress (Pennsylvania), 13 Jan. 2014.

The term derives from binge-eating and binge-drinking , terms first found in the US in the 1950s (though binge drinker is a couple of decades older and the noun phrase eating binge is of 1930s vintage). An immediate precursor was binge-reading from the 1990s.

Though binge-watching is recorded in the US as far back as 2003, it widened its popularity in that country greatly from 2012 on. In December 2013 the American Dialect Society selected it as its word “most likely to succeed”, a prediction that has proved accurate. It is now widely known wherever English is spoken:

Forget binge-drinking, the celebrated vice in Tellyland is “binge-watching” and the BBC is the latest to jump on the bandwagon. Director-General Tony Hall is to release whole drama series on iPlayer. I know it’s what people want but I want to stand up for the slow burn.

The Independent, 11 Sep. 2015.

Binge is itself an intriguing word, though its ultimate origin is obscure. It derives from the dialects of the midlands counties of England, such as Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. The English Dialect Dictionary of the end of the nineteenth century notes that to soak a wooden vessel such as a cask or a tub to swell the wood and render it watertight was said to binge it. By extension a man who “soaked” himself in alcoholic drink was said to binge or be on a binge, a usage recorded from Northamptonshire in 1854.

Two slang dictionaries, in 1889 and 1890, note it in the sense of a drinking bout but it seems to have become socially acceptable in Britain only during the First World War — early examples are in letters from airmen. Noun and verb were carried to the USA a little later.

We might guess that P G Wodehouse had a hand in its adoption in the US because he was rather fond of it. However, he uses it loosely for a party, outing or situation, with no implications of drinking:

I had had experience of one or two of these binges, and didn’t want to run any risk of coming early and finding myself shoved into a seat in one of the front rows.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse, 1923.

Binge can also be used in the sense of any extended immersion in an activity or situation, such as a guilt binge or a workout binge, though this is less common.

Collins’ words of the year 2015

As well as binge-watching, Collins’ editors have listed nine other words of 2015. The most obviously new member of the collection, dating only from July, is Corbynomics , the economic policies of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Transgender (of a person whose gender identity does not fully correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth) and associated words have been used much more this year, stimulated by the media attention paid to Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox among others. The editors note that shaming (to embarrass a person on social media by drawing attention to some supposed failing) has had a large rise in popularity this year in compounds such as fat-shaming, slut-shaming and single-shaming.

Others in the list are dadbod (the untoned and slightly plump physique of a man who is nevertheless attractive to women), manspreading (of a male passenger in a bus or train splaying his legs in a way that denies space to the passenger sitting next to him), ghosting (to break up with someone by refusing to respond to phone calls, emails and texts), and clean eating (following a diet that avoids processed foods, consuming only those in their natural state).

Some words in the list, including binge-watching, have been around rather longer and it seems slightly odd to attach them specifically to 2015: contactless (of smart cards that use radio-frequency links to make payments) could have been included in any year from about 2011, though its use has been steadily increasing since; similarly swipe (to move a finger across a touch screen on a mobile phone to approve or dismiss some item) is far from new.


The Australian-born humorist, broadcaster and poet Clive James wrote in the Guardian on 24 October “I save time on the web by reading nobody’s opinion that contains the word ‘methinks’.”

His dislike is understandable. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as archaic, poetical and regional. It might have added “pretentious” because that’s surely the quality of online writing that James finds unattractive and likely to waste what little time he has left in this world. He would presumably have passed over an appearance in the Guardian the week before: “So, where will the steel be purchased? Methinks from George Osborne’s new friends in China.” Luckily for the reputation of the paper in James’s eyes, that was in a reader’s letter.

Methinks has long ago fallen out of spoken usage, except in expressions such as “Methinks the witness doth protest too much”, a misquotation from Hamlet . Style guides mostly don’t bother to include it, not even to tell readers to avoid it, which would be good advice. Brian Garner does provide an entry in his guide, without castigation but calling it “an ever-popular archaism”. I would have contested that, had I not found more than a thousand examples in a database of British newspapers from the past 20 years.

Many appearances of methinks suggest that the OED should have added “humorous” to its list of likely contexts, though the jocularity can be so ponderous that the eyelids droop in sympathy. Some journalists do seem to believe it marks prose as elevated or serious, as in the down-market Sun in July 2015: “Time, methinks, for author John O’Farrell to republish his excellent memoirs”, and in May in the mid-market Daily Telegraph: “Methinks that a bit more modesty about how ‘rich’ we are, and accordingly about our ability to dish out largesse, might not go amiss.”

Methinks isn’t only archaic but also ancient. It’s in one of the oldest works in English, King Alfred’s translation before 899 of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiæ , the Consolations of Philosophy. It was then two words, me thyncth (but then written me þincð, using the old characters thorn and eth).

The word looks like a thrusting together of me and think , meaning “it seems to me”, and as though it comes directly from the Old English equivalent of think. But at that time there were two closely similar verbs, in modern spelling thencan, to think, and thyncan, to seem or appear. The source of methinks is actually the second one. In Middle English the two became confused and coalesced into one form that evolved into our modern verb to think. Methinks followed.

If you’re ever tempted to use the past tense, it’s methought. But please don’t.

From my reading
Read with me

Read with me

  • I had thought that dadager, a father who manages a show-business son or (more usually) daughter, had gone the way of other temporary formations — the first examples on record are from 2006 in reference to Joe Simpson, father-manager of Jessica. But I came across it last week in reference to Matthew Knowles, described as former dadager of Beyoncé, and a hunt around found a number of other recent usages. There are, of course, also momagers, and I’ve also turned up one reference to a sistager. Of the three, momager is by far the commonest and also the oldest: a newspaper search revealed an isolated early use from 1977.
  • A recent BBC television programme, The World’s Weirdest Events, featured a firenado. I come late to this one, as it started to appear in 2013 and became more widely used in the US in 2014. A firenado is a tornado caused by a big fire, which carries burning embers and flame across the land. Firenados have been recorded much earlier under names like fire whirl, fire devil, fire tornado and fire twister.
  • After the discussion of words for snow in the last issue, it was intriguing to come across another Antarctic cold-weather term: brinicle, from brine and icicle . This was filmed for the first time in 2011 for the BBC television programme, Frozen Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. A brinicle is an underwater icicle. Brine at a temperature well below 0C is extruded from the under-surface of sea ice and, as it falls, seawater freezes around it to make a column which grows down to the seabed.
  • A recent article in the Observer introduced me to the term social freezing, which has been written about several times this year in the UK. This is the freezing of eggs by women for social or personal reasons rather than medical necessity. In theory it permits them to postpone having children until later in life without problems associated with declining fertility, though experts warn it isn’t an insurance policy as reimplantation can fail. Reasons for social freezing include wanting to have a career first or not having yet found the right partner.

Bill of goods

Q. From BJ Wise: I’ve just come across the phrase bill of goods. I might or might not have read it before, but I had to look it up. Why would selling someone a bill of goods mean to swindle them? I’m not even sure what a bill of goods in the plain sense means.

A. Let’s start with your last comment. Other than in the swindling sense, bill of goods is now hardly known, but unless you understand its more literal associations, the idiom doesn’t make sense. A century ago bill of goods was a US expression meaning a consignment of goods of any sort:

He purchased a bill of goods from Brackton, and, with Creech helping, carried it up to the cabin under the bluff. Three trips were needed to pack up all the supplies.

Wildfire, by Zane Grey, 1917.

This is confusing for us today because we would think of this sort of bill as being a piece of paper, most commonly the sort giving notice of money to be paid. This comes from bill having once meant any formal written document, a sense which survives in a number of special cases, such as parliamentary bill, dollar bill and handbill . It can also be a list, as in bill of rights or the old-fashioned bill of fare for a menu.

Based on this idea, bill of goods originally really did mean a list of goods to be provided, what we might today call a consignment note or despatch note:

The merchant, who receives a bill of goods from his correspondent in London or Liverpool, is particular not only to file that bill for future reference, but to copy it entire into an invoice book, that he may at pleasure look to the quantity, quality, and price of the various articles.

Gould’s Universal Index, And Everybody’s Own Book, 1842.

At some point in the nineteenth century, it changed from being a list to the goods that were listed.

Incidentally, bill comes from the classical Latin bulla for various globular objects such as a bubble, boss or stud. In medieval Latin it shifted to being the seal on a document; in time it came to mean the document instead. In English bulla became bill. It also became bull, as in a Papal bull and similar edicts.

Sometime around the 1920s bill of goods took on the meaning that you’re asking about — to cheat, swindle or get something over on somebody. We don’t know exactly when or why. However, the two ideas are intimately connected, since there’s nothing new in the idea of somebody cheating another by selling them inferior items or taking money for goods that never arrive. The link is expressed pithily in the first example of the phrase’s use we know about:

What has become of the old fashioned salesman who got his customer drunk and then sold him a bill of goods?

Atchison Daily Globe (Kansas), 5 Jan. 1933.

More recently, as the literal sense of bill of goods has fallen out of memory, the expression has contracted again:

He’s already indicated plans to draw sharp contrasts between his ideas on the economy and the Republican approach, which the president recently dismissed as a “bill of goods” that amounts to little more than slashing spending on vital programs like education and Medicare.

Carroll Daily Times Herald (Carroll, Iowa), 15 Aug. 2011.

In the reverse of the coin, people may sometimes buy a bill of goods.



  • Diane Ellerton emails to say that the Care2 site reported on 29 October: “Dog owners and breeders in British Columbia will no longer be able to have their ears cropped.”
  • Still in Canada, Jon Ackroyd came across an advert by a chain of clinics in the Times Colonist of Victoria BC: “Do You Have a Brain Injury? FREE Demonstrations.
  • From Massachusetts, Jessie Brown tells us of a man featured in a story in her local paper for whom selling sand to Arabs would be easy-peasy: “An Arlington man who prosecutors said sold heroin laced with fentanyl to two victims of fatal overdoses has been convicted on drugs charges.”
  • The Guardian could use Greg Payne as a subeditor, since he spotted an item in the New York Times on 10 October about Paul Ryan being pressed to stand as Speaker of the House of Representatives: “His close associates warned that he had no intention of fighting for the job and would most likely accept it only by acclimation.” After he’d got used to the idea.
  • Thanks to Robert Ferrando we learn that a headline on the San Francisco Chronicle’s site on 31 October read: “Man saves dog from mountain lion in his underwear.”

World Wide Words Issue 918



– WIF Style