World Wide Words Issue 931 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 931


Not my pigeon

Q From Helen Mosback: I have just read a serialised version of John Rowland’s Calamity in Kent. It includes this: “In fact, it’s your pigeon, as they say in the civil service.” I was wondering if you could shed any light on the expression it’s your pigeon? I have to admit to being quite taken by the Polish expression not my circus, not my monkeys to indicate that something is not one’s problem, and would be very happy should I have found an equally enchanting English expression!pigeon_png_clipart-671

A Readers may not be familiar with John Rowland, a little-known and neglected British detective-story writer who published Calamity in Kent in 1950. The British Library has republished it this year in its Crime Classics series.

The date of his book is significant, since at that time the expression was more familiar to people in the countries of what is now the Commonwealth than it is now. It had come into the language around the end of the nineteenth century.

The idiom suggests something is the speaker’s interest, concern, area of expertise or responsibility. This is a recent British example:

If posh people aren’t your pigeon, the correspondence on display in this book will be a massive bore and irritation.
The Times, 8 Oct. 2016.

It also turns up in the negative in phrases such as “that’s not my pigeon”, denying involvement or responsibility in some matter.

Despite your analogy with the Polish expression, the pigeon here isn’t the animal. It’s a variant form of pidgin. The name is said to derive from a Chinese attempt to say the word business; the original pidgin, Pidgin English, was a trade jargon that arose from the seventeenth century onwards between British and Chinese merchants in ports such as Canton. The word pidgin is recorded from the 1840s and has become the usual linguistic term for any simplified contact language that allows groups that don’t have a language in common to communicate.

This is an early example of pidgin being used in the figurative sense:

We agreed that if anything went wrong with the pony after, it was not to be my “pidgin.”
The North-China Herald (Shanghai), 1 Aug. 1890.

Most early examples in English writing were spelled that way, though by the 1920s the pigeon form was being used by people who didn’t make the connection with the trade language.


Classical scholars will spot the wintry associations of this word; it derives from Latin nix for snow, which becomes niv- in compounds such as nivālis, snowy or snow-covered. Etymologists point out that the English snow and the Latin nix both ultimately derive from the same ancient Indo-European root. But then humans in Europe have long had plenty of experience of the white stuff.

About four centuries ago, English scholars borrowed nivālis to make the adjective nival to add to our snowy (though French got there first, at least a century earlier). We also have the more recent technical term nivation, not — as you might guess — meaning snowfall but the erosion of ground around and beneath a snow bank that is seasonally melting.

Subnivean is another member of the group, nearly two centuries old. This refers to something that happens underneath snow such as the activities of animals that survive winter beneath it.

Very recently that word has been joined by the linked noun subnivium for the area between soil surface and snowpack. It was coined by a group led by Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They wrote in a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in June 2013: “For many terrestrial organisms in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is a period of resource scarcity and energy deficits, survivable only because a seasonal refugium — the ‘subnivium’ — exists beneath the snow.”

Black as Newgate knocker

Q From Jim Mitchell: As a child in South London, when I came in from playing and was a bit grubby my mother would say I looked as black as nookers nocker. My mother was born in 1917. I wonder if she might have heard this expression from her mother?

A It’s very probable. But not perhaps in that form. Your mother’s version is a mishearing of a Londoners’ expression that dates back in written records to 1881: black as Newgate knocker. It has also turned up in the forms black as Newker’s knocker, black as Nook’s knocker and black as Nugent’s knocker.

Curiously, though it has been in existence for more than a century and is currently not widely known, in writing it is now more often found than it has ever been, perhaps because it’s such an evocative item of historical Cockney slang. These days it almost always has an added apostrophe-s:

Her eyes really are black as Newgate’s knocker.
Sunday Times, 19 Jun. 1994.

Image result for black as Newgate’s knocker

Newgate Exercise yard, 1872 by Gustave Doré

Newgate here refers to the notorious prison, originally created in medieval times in one of the turrets of Newgate, a main entrance through the walls into the City of London. Down the centuries the prison was rebuilt five times; it closed in 1902 and was demolished in 1904. The Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, now stands on the site.

Newgate was a place of fear and loathing to many Londoners, not only criminals but also debtors, who were imprisoned there until they found a way to repay what they owed. After 1783, it was also the place where executions took place, initially on a public platform in front of the building, later inside. For most of its existence it was a noisome, dank, dark and unhealthy place to be incarcerated.

It’s not surprising that it should have been commemorated in expressions. But why not just black as Newgate? Why should its door knocker be selected as the source of the simile?

The phrase Newgate knocker itself is older. It was applied to a hairstyle fashionable among lower-class male Londoners such as costermongers. Though it became widely known from the 1840s, I’ve found a reference to it in the Kentish Gazette in 1781. It referred to a lock of hair twisted from the temple on each side of the head back towards the ear in the shape of a figure 6.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote in his London Labour and the London Poor that a lad of about fourteen had told him that to be “flash” (stylish) hair “ought to be long in front, and done in ‘figure-six’ curls, or twisted back to the ear ‘Newgate knocker style’.” Eight years later, John Camden Hotten explained in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words that “The shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate — a resemblance that carries a rather unpleasant suggestion to the wearer.” Another description came a couple of years later from another investigative social journalist, James Greenwood:

knockerAll, or nearly all, [were] bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the “Newgate knocker” style — that is, parted in masses on each side of the head and turned under unnaturally.
Illustrated Times (London), 16 Feb. 1861.

There’s no obvious connection with the colour black. We may guess, however, that Londoners would have imagined the prison’s knocker to be large and made of black iron as well as figuratively black because of its evil associations. We may also guess from the dates at which the two expressions were first current that Londoners took over the hairstyle phrase as a new way to describe the colour, as people have done for centuries with similes such as black as your hat, black as death, black as the ace of spades, black as thunder, and black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.

As a postscript, I also found this, in a story from 60-odd years ago about the search by a journalist named Bernard O’Donnell for the original Newgate knocker:

His spasmodic search came to an end recently when he was in the office of the Keeper of the Old Bailey, Mr A W Burt. “Where is Newgate’s knocker?” he asked Mr Burt. Promptly it was shown to him. It was on the keeper’s desk. After years spent as a symbol which came to inspire dread among the poor of London, it had found a more useful rôle. It now makes an ideal paper weight.
The Scotsman, 24 April 1950.

Make of that what you will. I wonder if it still exists?

In the news


Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year 2016 on 16 November: post-truth. Its editors defined this as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” One example came in a report in The Times on 31 October of comments by the president of the European Council on the signing of a trade deal with Canada:


“Mr Tusk also denounced the ‘post-truth politics … on both sides of the Atlantic’ which nearly scuppered the deal because ‘facts and figures won’t stand up for themselves’ against an emotional opposition campaign.” Though it has been very much a word of this year, connected both with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries noted that “post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine.”

Last time I mentioned the Danish word hygge, a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. This has become widely popular in Britain this year, and was one of Oxford Dictionaries’ runners-up as Word of the Year. For the background and the story of its rise in British English, I can’t do better than point you to an article by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian on 22 November.Image result for post-truth

The newest British buzzword is jam. Not as in the “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today” meaning of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass — though the quip has been made several times by pundits — but as an acronym for “Just About Managing”. This refers to the estimated six million working-age British households on low to middle incomes who are struggling to stave off poverty from day to day. The term derives from a speech given by the new prime minister, Theresa May, just after she was chosen by MPs in July. She said of the members of this group, “You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.” Her words became a catchphrase among commentators which has now been shortened.


Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Boxing Day

Q From Burt Rubin; a related question came from Keith Denham: As an American, I’ve always wondered about the origin of the term Boxing Day.

A Boxing Day is a public holiday in Britain and most Commonwealth countries. There’s some minor confusion these days, in Britain at least, over which day it actually is. The reference books a century ago were adamant that it was the first working day after Christmas Day. However, the name is now frequently attached specifically to 26 December, even if it falls at the weekend, which makes it equivalent to the Christian saint’s day of St Stephen.

Image result for boxing dayWe have to go back to the early seventeenth century to find the basis for the name. The term Christmas box appeared about then for an earthenware box, something like a piggy bank, which apprentices and other workers took around immediately after Christmas to collect money. When the round was complete, the box was broken and the money distributed among the company. The first known example:

Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in Related imageFrance by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc.
A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, by Randle Cotgrave, 1611.

By the eighteenth century, Christmas box had become a figurative term for any seasonal gratuity. By the nineteenth century their collection seems to have become a scourge in our big cities. When James Murray compiled an entry for Christmas box in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1889, his splendidly acerbic description suggests that the practice had become a personal bugbear:

A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.

Though the term Boxing Day for the day on which such Christmas boxes were requested didn’t become widespread until early in the nineteenth century, a few examples are recorded from the previous century. The earliest I know of is this:

Related imageTuesday in Christmas Week, about Eight in the Evening, I was coming over this broad Place, and saw a Man come up to this lame Man, and knock him down — It was the Day after Boxing Day.
Transcript of a trial at the Old Bailey (London), 14 Jan. 1743.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the term seems to have become as closely associated with importuning individuals as Christmas Box itself:

“Boxing Day,” — the day consecrated to baksheesh, when nobody, it would almost seem, is too proud to beg, and when everybody who does not beg is expected to play the almoner. “Tie up the knocker — say you’re sick, you are dead,” is the best advice perhaps that could be given in such cases to any man who has a street-door and a knocker upon it.
Curiosities of London Life, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853.

The custom has died out, seasonal visitors to Britain may be assured, though small gifts are still sometimes given to tradesmen and suppliers of services. The favourite occupation of the day is attending football matches or rushing to the post-Christmas sales.

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

World Wide Words Issue 931



– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 930 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 930


It was a pleasure to learn on Tuesday that Randy Cassingham, who writes the This Is True newsletter, had included World Wide Words in his Top 11 Hidden Gems of the Internet suggested by his subscribers. He described the site as “a treasure trove of past articles: the kind of site where you pop in … and don’t look up again for hours.” Check out the others here: A special welcome to the new subscribers who joined through consulting the list.


Today — 5 November — is one of those periodic celebrations of failure we Brits so much enjoy, in this case the inability of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament on this day in 1605. For the four centuries since, the day has been celebrated with fireworks and bonfires.

Image result for fizgigOne such firework was the fizgig, an unspectacular device that hissed rather than banged, for which reason it has also been called a serpent; a conical form has the name volcano. A English poet once compared a man to one:

Northmore himself is an honest, vehement sort of a fellow who splutters out all his opinions like a fiz-gig, made of gunpowder not thoroughly dry, sudden and explosive, yet ever with a certain adhesive blubberliness of elocution.
Letter from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Thomas Poole, 16 Sep. 1799.

Fizgig in the sense of the firework is now quite dead, as are most of the other senses that this weirdly Image result for ficklecatholic word has had. The original was a frivolous woman, fond of gadding about in search of pleasure — an alliterative-minded seventeenth-century man wrote of “Fis-gig, a flirt, a fickle …. foolish Female”. The word was built upon gig, another word that has had many meanings; Chaucer knew it as a fickle woman but Shakespeare considered it to be a child’s top. The first part of fizgig is obscure. It can’t be fizz, effervescence, because that came along much later, probably as an imitative sound. It may be the same word as the obsolete fise for a smelly fart.

Another defunct meaning of fizgig is that of a harpoon, a fish-spear:

Two dolphins followed us this afternoon; we hooked one, and struck the other with the fizgig; but they both escaped us, and we saw them no more.
Journal of a Voyage from London to Philadelphia, by Benjamin Franklin, 1726.

This was sometimes perverted into fish-gig by popular etymology. It has no link with the other senses but derives from the Spanish word fisga for a harpoon.

Image result for stool pigeonFizgig principally survives in Australian slang, where it means a police informer. It turns up first in the 1870s, perhaps as an extension of the female sense, considered stereotypically as dashing about madly and gossiping indiscreetly:

Without their allies — “the fizgigs,” the police seem powerless to trace the authors of the robberies which are now of such frequent occurrence.
Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA), 15 Nov. 1882.

Lots of letters

Spin a yarn

Q From From Ada Robinson: I came across the phrase spinning a yarn (in the sense of telling a story) recently, and for the first time wondered about its origin. Can you shed light on how the word yarn acquired the second meaning of a tale?

A It’s puzzling because we’ve lost the context.

We know that sailors were the first to use spinning a yarn — often in the extended form spinning out a long yarn — to refer to telling a story that described a speaker’s adventures and exploits.

We start to see the expressions in print in the early nineteenth century, though its ultimate origin is unclear. However, we do know that one task of sailors was to make running repairs to the various ropes of the ship — the cables, hawsers and rigging. As with people on shore, yarn was their word for the individualImage result for spinning gif strands of such ropes, often very long. Their term for binding the strands into fresh rope was spinning or to spin out. The next part is a jump of imagination, for which you may substitute the word guess, though I would prefer to call it informed speculation. The task of repair was necessarily long and tedious. We may easily imagine members of the repair crew telling one another stories to make the time pass more easily and that this practice became associated with the phrases.

By the second decade of the century, the term was being used ashore and became a popular slangy idiom. One appearance was in a jocular report of a police court action in Edinburgh which centred on a sailor who had stolen a milk cart:

When the first witness was put in the box, and had his mouth most oracularly opened, preparing to speak, Jack, twitching him by the collar with his forefinger, caused him at once to descend, and exclaimed — “Avast there; none of your jaw; who wants you to spin out a long yarn?”
The Edinburgh Advertiser, 17 Nov. 1826.

Image result for a yarn

In time, yarn came to refer to the stories. Many must have been exaggerated or bombastic and that sense of something not readily believable still attaches itself to the word. In Australia and New Zealand the word has softened in sense to mean no more than chatting.


Peter Gilliver, the eminent lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary whose book I mentioned last time, quoted this word in an interview a couple of weeks ago. He said he had found it when a youngster in a children’s dictionary that was full of such unusual words.

I made the mistake of looking for it in Google Books, where I found several works which explained it in Image result for styeterms such as “a common lipogranulomatous inflammation of the sebaceous glands of the eyelids, most often the meibomian glands.” Some works also noted that it’s sometimes known as a hordeolum. In confusion, I visited Dr Gilliver’s wonderful online repository of knowledge, in which chalazion is defined as “a small pimple or tubercule; especially one on the eyelid, a stye.”

Chalazion is the diminutive of Greek chalaza for almost any lump, including a small hailstone and a pimple. The OED helpfully pointed me to its entry for chalaza, which stated that in English it’s a zoological term for “Each of the two membranous twisted strings by which the yolk-bag of an egg is bound to the lining membrane at the ends of the shell.”

The meibomian glands make a lubricant for the eye. Their name isn’t from a classical language but derives from a seventeenth-century German anatomist named Heinrich Meibom. And hordeolum derives from the Latin word for barley grains

The plural of chalazion, should you ever suffer from more than one, is chalazia.

In the news

Words of 2016. The annual lexicographical wordfest began on Thursday with a list of topical terms from Collins Dictionary. Its choice for Word of the Year was Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union. The words-of-the-year-001term went from nowhere to established part of the language in an extraordinarily brief time. The earliest recorded use may have been the one in The Guardian on 1 January 2012 but it became widely used by the general public only in the early months of this year. The publisher suggests it “is arguably politics’ most important contribution to the English language in over 40 years”. It has spawned many spin-offs, including Bremorse for the regret by people who voted to leave but realise they made a mistake and would like to Bremain or Breturn. Other words in the Collins topical list are hygge, a suddenly fashionable and much written about Danish concept of creating cosy and convivial atmospheres that promote wellbeing, and uberization, derived from the name of the taxi firm Uber, for the adoption of a business model in which services are offered on demand through direct contact between a customer and supplier, usually via mobile technology.

Fount of fonts. Subscriber Bart Cannistra came across a news item about a new pan-language collection of fonts from Google and Monotype that supports more than 100 scripts and 800 languages in a common visual style. Its name is Noto, which its website says is short for “no more tofu”. It explains that tofu is digital typographer’s jargon for one of those little rectangular boxes that appear when your browser doesn’t have the appropriate font to display a character. The boxes sometimes have a question mark or cross inside them but it’s their rectangular shape that has given them the name, since they reminded some unheralded type designer of the cuboid blocks of tofu.

Not that kind of girl. Readers outside the UK are most likely unfamiliar with the term Essex Girl, Image result for essex girlwhich Collins Dictionary defines as “a young working-class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous.” It’s in the news because two Essex women have begun a petition to have the term stricken from dictionaries because they’ve had enough of derogatory references. They have been criticised for starting the petition because it only leads to more public mention of the term. The term came to public attention in 1991 with the publication of The Essex Girl Joke Book (typical example: “How does an Essex Girl turn on the light after sex? She opens the car door”), but the stereotype is best known through the long-running ITV programme The Only Way is Essex. The OED has already refused to remove the term, on the excellent grounds that it’s part of our living language.

Lots of letters

What am I? Chopped liver?

Q From Mary Clarke: Your piece on Joe Soap made me think of the phrase What am I? Chopped liver? Is this a New York expression or a Jewish expression? I ask this because we seem to eat more chopped liver here than anywhere else and because one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from a friend who said my chopped liver was better than her Jewish grandmother’s.

A This takes me back. In November 1999, when this newsletter had already reached issue 167, I mentioned that a reader had asked about this but as it was unfamiliar to me, I asked for elucidation. The resulting flood of emails was overwhelming. Though I summarised the results the following week, I realise now that I never went into detail, nor posted anything on my website.

Image result for chopped liverA dish of chopped liver — fried chicken livers with eggs, spices and, if you’re being really traditional, schmaltz and gribenes (respectively rendered chicken fat and fried chicken skin as a form of crackling) — is common at Jewish celebratory meals. It’s also a standard dish in New York Jewish delicatessens. But it’s inexpensive and never a main dish, wherein lies the core of the idiom. Sol Steinmetz, the American linguist and Yiddish expert, explained that “Chopped liver is merely an appetizer or side dish, not as important as chicken soup or gefilte fish. Hence it was used among Jewish comedians as a humorous metaphor for something or someone insignificant.” Robert Chapman argued in his Dictionary of American Slang that the idiom originated in the 1930s in this sense.

Early in its development a negative reference to chopped liver developed, which instead suggested something excellent or impressive. It parallels another American idiom, that ain’t hay. The idiom appeared in various forms, such as it ain’t chopped liver, that’s not chopped liver, and it’s not exactly chopped liver. The first of these forms is noted by Jonathan Lighter in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang from a Jimmy Durante television show in 1954. It must surely be older. This is another version, from a little later:

Some of the critics put it right up there with “My Fair Lady.” Even before it lifts the curtain there is a Image result for chopped livermillion dollars in advance orders and this as the boys say is not chopped liver …
The Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), 8 Mar 1959.

The form that you mention appears in the historical record a few years later still. Somebody exclaiming What am I? Chopped liver? is expressing annoyance at being thought unworthy of attention: “What about me? Why am I being ignored? Don’t I matter?”

It could be New York Jewish. It has the right cadence for a Yiddish exclamation and chopped liver, as we’ve seen, is an archetypal Jewish dish. And the experts suggest it grew out of a catchphrase of comedians in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains patronised by Jewish people from New York City. But there’s no certain connection. What is clear that it filled a need and that even by its earliest written appearances it had already reached places well away from centres of Jewish life.

Happy as a sandboy

Image result for sandboy

Q From Niki Wessels, South Africa; a related question came from Robert Metcalf in Singapore: Our family recently discussed the expression happy as a sandboy, and wondered where and how it originated. My dictionary informs me that a sandboy is a kind of flea — but why a boy, and why is it happy?

A Let me add an explanatory note to your question, as many readers will never have heard this saying. It’s a proverbial expression that suggests blissful contentment:

Made me think it might be a good idea to mark the occasion. Nothing too big, you understand. Not looking for fireworks and flags or anything. I’m a modest man with modest needs. Give me a bit of cake, maybe some tarts, throw in a couple of balloons and I’m happy as a sandboy.
Bristol Evening Post, 11 Aug. 2015.

It’s mostly known in Britain and Commonwealth countries. An older form is as jolly as a sandboy, which is now rarely encountered. The first examples we know about are from London around the start of the nineteenth century.

A sandboy in some countries can indeed be a sort of sand flea, but this isn’t the source of the expression. Incidentally, nor is there a link with the sandman, the personification of tiredness, which came into English in translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories several decades after sandboy.

The sandboys of the expression actually sold sand. Boy here was a common term for a male worker of lower class (as in bellboy, cowboy, and stableboy), which comes from an old sense of a servant. It doesn’t imply the sellers were young — most were certainly adults — though one early poetic reference does mention a child:

A poor shoeless Urchin, half starv’d and suntann’d,Image result for sandboy
Pass’d near the Inn-Window, crying — “Buy my fine Sand!”
The Rider, and Sand-Boy in the Hereford Journal, 13 Jul. 1796. The title contains the earliest known reference to a sandboy. The poem was unattributed but is almost certainly by William Meyler of Bath. Note that to be described as suntanned wasn’t then a compliment; it implied an outdoor worker of low class.

The selling of sand wasn’t such a peculiar occupation as you might think, as there was once a substantial need for it. It was used to scour pans and tools and was sprinkled on the floors of butchers’ shops, inns and taprooms to take up spilled liquids. Later in the century it was superseded by sawdust.

Henry Mayhew wrote about the trade in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. The sand was dug out from pits on Hampstead Heath and taken down in horse-drawn carts or panniers carried on donkeys to be hawked through the streets. The job was hard work and badly paid. Mayhew records these comments from one of the excavators: “My men work very hard for their money, sir; they are up at 3 o’clock of the morning, and are knocking about the streets, perhaps till 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening”.

Their prime characteristic, it seems, was an inexhaustible desire for beer. Charles Dickens referred to thesandboy saying, by then proverbial, in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841: “The Jolly Sandboys was a small road-side inn of pretty ancient date, with a sign, representing three Sandboys increasing their jollity with as many jugs of ale”. An early writer on slang made the link explicit:

“As jolly as a sand-boy,” designates a merry fellow who has tasted a drop.
Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-tom, and the Varieties of Life, by John Badcock, 1823. To have become an aphorism by this time, sandboy must surely be older than the 1796 poem quoted above.

Quite so. But I suspect that the long hours and hard work involved in carrying and shovelling sand, plus the poor returns, meant that sandboys didn’t have much cause to look happy in the normal run of things, improving only when they’d had a pint or two. Their regular visits to inns and ale-houses presented temptation to a much greater degree than to most people and it has also been suggested that they were often paid partly in beer.

So sandboys were happy because they were drunk.

At first the saying was meant ironically. Only where the trade wasn’t practised — or had died out — could it became an allusion to unalloyed happiness. To judge from the answers to a question about its origin in Notes & Queries in 1866, even by then its origin was obscure.


• A headline on the Hertfordshire Mercury site on 14 October — “Tributes paid to Waltham Cross Labour councillor who was a ‘real character’ following his death” — led Ross Mulder to wonder what the man was like during his life.

• If you’re going to do something, do it properly. Ted Dooley found this news in an email from the Minneapolis Star Tribune on 7 October: “Ryan D. Petersen, 37, was convicted Friday morning of first-degree premeditated murder for fatally shooting a law clerk eight times earlier this year.”

• A puzzling statement from The Age of Melbourne of 10 October about the illegal demolition of a heritage-listed pub was submitted by Susan Ross: “A petition law students started this week demanding the pub be rebuilt by Tuesday afternoon had more than 5000 signatures.” A comma after “rebuilt” might have helped.

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

World Wide Words Issue 930



– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 929 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 929


Lots of letters

Lots of letters


Q From Joe Brown: I was wondering where the phrase Tom Foolery came from?

A I would write it as one word, tomfoolery, and my ordered ranks of dictionaries tell me I’m right. But it often turns up in print in the way you have written it, or as Tom foolery or tom-foolery or Tom-foolery. Such forms show that their writers still link the word with some fool called Tom, even though they may not know who he was.tomfoolery

It is sometimes claimed that the original Tom Fool was Thomas Skelton. He was a jester, a fool, for the Pennington family at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. This was probably about 1600 — he is said to be the model for the jester in Shakespeare’s King Lear of 1606. In legend, he was an unpleasant person. One story tells how he liked to sit under a tree by the road; whenever travellers he didn’t like asked the way to the ford over the River Esk, he would instead direct them to their deaths in the marshes. Another tale links him with the murder of a carpenter who was the lover of Sir William Pennington’s daughter.

So much for stories. In truth, Tom Fool is centuries older. He starts appearing in the historical record early in the 1300s in the Latinate form Thomas fatuus. The first part served even then as a generic term for any ordinary person, as it still does in phrases like Tom, Dick or Harry. The second word means stupid or foolish in Latin and has bequeathed us fatuous and infatuate, among other words. By 1356 Thomas fatuus had become Tom Fool.

Around the seventeenth century, the character of Tom Fool shifted somewhat from the epitome of a stupid or half-witted person to that of a fool or buffoon. He became a character who accompanied morris-dancers or formed part of the cast of various British mummers’ plays performed at Christmas, Easter or All Souls’ Day.

A tom-fool was more emphatically foolish than an unadorned fool. Tomfoolery was similarly worse than foolery, the state of acting foolishly, which had been in English since the sixteenth century. Perhaps oddly, it took until about 1800 for tomfoolery to appear. It had been preceded by the verb to tom-fool, to play the fool.

Fair to middling

Q From John Rupp, Dallas, Texas: I have often heard the phrase fair to Midland (middlin’?) in response to the inquiry ‘How are you doing?’ Any ideas on the origins of this phrase?

A As you hint, the phrase is more usually fair to middling, common enough — in Britain as well as North America — for something that’s moderate to merely average in quality, sometimes written the way people say it, as fair to middlin’.

With an initial capital letter, fair to Midland is a Texas version of the phrase, a joke on the name of the Image result for midland texascity of Midland in that state. A Texas rock band called themselves Fair to Midland after what they described as “an old Texan play on the term ‘fair to middling’”. American researcher Barry Popik has traced it to May 1935 in a report in the New York Times, “Dr. William Tweddell … is what might be called a fair-to-Midland golfer.”

But we do occasionally see examples of fair to midland in American contexts without a capital letter and without any suggestion of humour:

While overall attendance was fair to midland — the championship session drew about 800 — the Bartlett student section was outstanding.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois), 31 Dec. 2011.

This lower-case fair to midland version is recorded in Massachusetts in 1968, which suggests that even then it had already lost its connection with Texas. It might be folk etymology, in which an unfamiliar word is changed to one that’s better known. But it’s an odd example, as middling isn’t so very uncommon. It may be that people tried to correct middlin’ to a more acceptable version that lacked the dropped letter but plumped for the wrong word.

All the early examples of fair to middling I can find in literary works are similarly American, from authorsImage result for average such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and Artemus Ward. To go by them, it looks as though it became common on the east coast of the US from the 1860s on. However, hunting in newspapers, I’ve found examples from a couple of decades before, likewise from the east coast. This one was in a newspaper review of the current issue of The Ladies’ Companion:

These three articles are the best in the present number — of the rest, most are from fair to middling.
Boston Morning Post, 6 Feb. 1841.

The earliest of all I’ve so far found comes from an article in the July 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia: “A Dinner on the Plains, Tuesday, September 20th. — This was given ‘at the country seat’ of J. C. Jones, Esq. to the officers of the Peacock and Enterprise. The viands were ‘from fair to middling, we wish we could say more.’”

So the phrase is American, most probably early nineteenth century. But where does it come from? There’s a clue in the Century Dictionary of 1889: “Fair to middling, moderately good: a term designating a specific grade of quality in the market”. The term middling turns out to have been used as far back as the previous century both in the US and in Britain for an intermediate grade of various kinds of goods — there are references to a middling grade of flour, pins, sugar, and other commodities.

Which market the Century Dictionary was referring to is made plain by the nineteenth-century Word-of-the-weekAmerican trade journals I’ve consulted. Fair and middling were terms in the cotton business for specific grades — the sequence ran from the best quality (fine), through good, fair, middling and ordinary to the least good (inferior), with a number of intermediates, one being middling fair. The form fair to middling sometimes appeared as a reference to this grade, or a range of intermediate qualities — it was common to quote indicative prices, for example, for “fair to middling grade”.

The reference was so well known in the cotton trade that it escaped into the wider language. Some early figurative appearances in newspapers directly reflect the market usage:

Twenty-five cents a line, then, may be quoted as the present commercial value of good poetry … fair to middling is probably more difficult of sale.
New York Daily Times, 29 May 1855.

I have only the opinions of some who patronized her entertainments, who profess to be judges of such things. Verdict, as the Price Current says, “fair to middling with downward tendency.”
The Wabash Express (Terre Haute, Indiana), 18 May 1859.

The figurative term starts to appear in Britain in the 1870s, but early examples are all in stories imported from across the Atlantic. Even that seemingly most home-grown British composition, Austin Doherty’s Nathan Barley: Sketches in the Retired Life of a Lancashire Butcher of 1884, written in local dialect, includes it in the speech of an old school fellow who had emigrated and made his money in Michigan. So it was known but labelled as an Americanism. It took until the twentieth century for it to begin to be used unselfconsciously.

So help me Hannah

Q From Jon S of Mississippi: By any chance do you know the origin of the American expression, So help me Hannah? It used to be heard more often in days gone by, and people today may have never heard of it, but it’s an old saying that I cannot find the origin of.

A I can’t provide a definite origin but I can give some pointers.

Hannah, as a personal name, sometimes with the spelling pronunciation “Hanner”, has been used in the US in various colloquial sayings since at least the 1870s. They include that’s what’s the matter with Hannah, indicating emphatic agreement, of which John Farmer wrote disparagingly in his Americanisms of 1889, “A street catch-phrase with no especial meaning. For a time it rounded off every statement of fact or expression of opinion amongst the vulgar.” Another, since Hannah died, was a reference to the passage of time.

so-help-me-001The earliest on record is he doesn’t amount to Hannah Cook, later often abbreviated to he doesn’t amount to Hannah and also appearing as not worth a Hannah Cook.

Mr. Sweeney rose again to explain the mysteries of printing ballots the evening before election, and added that the acceptance or rejection of the investigating Committee’s report “didn’t amount to Hannah Cook,” because it made no recommendations.
Boston Daily Globe, 9 Sep. 1875.

This early appearance in a Boston newspaper supports the general opinion that it’s of New England origin. John Gould suggested in his Maine Lingo of 1975 that it derived from seafaring: “A man who signed on as a hand or cook didn’t have status as one or the other and could be worked in the galley or before the mast as the captain wished. The hand or cook was nondescript, got smaller wages, and became the Hannah Cook of the adage.” The story sounds too much like folk etymology to be readily swallowed.

So help me Hannah is a mildly euphemistic form of the oath so help me God, which starts to appear in print in the early twentieth century. Hannah here seems likely to have been borrowed from one or other of the earlier expressions. It became widely used in the 1920s and 1930s.

“By hell, Chief,” he drawled, drawing a huge clasp-knife from his
pocket, “I been grazin’ on this here Alasky range nigh on to twenty
yars, and so help me Hannah, I never did find a place so wild or a
bunch o’ hombres so tough but what sooner or later all hands starts
a-singin’ o’ the female sect.”
Where the Sun Swings North, by Barrett Willoughby, 1922.

After the Second World War, the American firm Hannah Laboratories produced a salve with the name So help me Hannah. Some people have pointed to this as the origin of the expression, though the firm was, of course, merely exploiting a phrase that had long since become part of the common language.


OED history revealed. I have this week spent much time that I should have been devoting to other things in dipping into Peter Gilliver’s scholarly work The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It tells the story from its prehistory, through the long and often difficult process of creating the first edition, its supplements and the second edition, to the early stages of the research into OED3. Uniquely among OED historians he is an experienced lexicographer, who has worked on the OED and other Oxford dictionaries since 1987. His heavily footnoted text is a testament to the depth of his decade of investigation; it’s not for the casual reader but will repay anyone with a serious interest in the story behind one of Britain’s greatest treasures. (Hardback, already out in the UK, £40; to be published in the US on 25 October at $65.)

Slang dictionary goes online. While we’re on national treasures, it’s timely to mention Green’s Dictionary of Slang (reviewed by me in 2010), a magisterial three-volume creation by Jonathon Green, which one writer has called the OED of slang (53,000 headwords, 110,000 slang terms, 410,000 examples of usage). The work is going live online on 12 October with comprehensive search facilities.

Image result for slang

If you wish only to check a headword, an etymology and a definition, the site is free; if you want to access the full work and timeline of development, you can take out an annual subscription, currently £49.00 ($65.00) for single users, £10.00 ($15.00) for students. Just like the OED, online publication means that the work is continually being updated; nearly 30% of the print book has been revised, augmented and generally improved, and as just one example, early quotations for various senses of dope which I unearthed while writing my piece of 6 August and sent to Jonathon have already been incorporated into the entry.

Image result for slang

Origin of slang. What is perhaps most interesting about slang is that the origin of its name has long been debated and still isn’t firmly established. Some experts have argued for a link to the English verb sling, to throw, with the implication that it’s disposable or throw-away language. Modern dictionaries say this is improbable but have nothing to put in its place, falling back on phrases such as “origin unknown”. In 2008, in his Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, Professor Anatoly Liberman suggested it came from another sense of slang, a narrow strip of land, which he linked to various words of Scandinavian origin that imply a group of travellers, tramps or hawkers. He argued that the progression of sense is “A piece of land -> those who travel about this territory (first and foremost, hawkers) -> the manner of hawkers’ speech -> low class jargon, argot.” Prof Liberman has this week repeated his argument in his Oxford Etymologist blog. Not everyone is as yet convinced.

Joe Soap

Q From Steve Campbell: My dear old mother would occasionally use the expression Who do you think I am, Joe Soap? We migrated to Australia from the Old Dart in 1951 and I’ve never heard it used by Australians. What is its origin and is it still in use in the UK?

A It remains moderately common in Britain but its meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She would have had in mind a stupid or naive person, one who could be easily put upon or deceived. These days it refers to a typical individual, the archetypal person in the street.

The full judgement will be published in a week or two and the ordinary Joe Soap will take hours to read it and understand.
Daily Mirror, 9 Sep. 2015.

This sense is now known outside the UK, especially in North America.

Your mother’s sense is usually regarded as services slang from the Second World War, most oftenImage result for joe soap associated with the Royal Air Force:

Joe Soap was the legendary airman who carried the original can. He became a synonym for anyone who had the misfortune to be assigned an unwelcome duty in the presence of his fellows, or to be temporarily misemployed in a status lower than his own. “I’m Joe Soap,” he would say lugubriously, and I’m carrying the something can.”
Royal Air Force Quarterly, 1944. “Something” may be read as a polite substitute for a more forceful epithet. See here for carry the can.

The term certainly became popular during the war but there’s evidence it was known earlier in the naive sense:

I ain’t no Joe Soap to go a-believin’ of all their yarns.
Blackwood’s Magazine, 1934. The writer who quoted this added, “Who Joe Soap was I have never discovered”, which suggests it wasn’t then widely known.

What might be an earlier services connection is the song Forward Joe Soap’s Army, which featured in Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh What a Lovely War and in the film made of it. Despite claims that the songs in the play were authentic First World War creations, I can find no reference to it before the play was first performed in 1963.

However, it wouldn’t have been an anachronism, since the phrase can be traced to the nineteenth century as a generic name for someone unknown, or a pseudonym that was adopted by somebody wanting to stay anonymous.

A man whose real name is unknown, but who is known in the district as “Joe Soap,” had on Tuesday evening crossed a field near Meltham, to get to Bingley Quarry, but in the dusk, mistaking his position, he fell into the quarry, and was killed.
Leeds Times, 21 Sep. 1878.

Witness then went across the road to him and told him to be quiet, and defendant who was using very bad language, put on his coat and got into his trap. Witness then asked him his name and he said “Joe Soap, that will do for you.”
Chepstow Weekly Advertiser, 13 Apr. 1907.

Image result for average joeNobody knows for sure where this generic name comes from.

The first part has been widely used to refer to an ordinary person — Joe Bloggs, Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Joe Average, ordinary Joe, Joe Doakes, Joe Public — there are lots of examples, though most of them originate in North America. Joe was noted in Britain as a generic term in 1846, albeit in a different sense, when it appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide: “Joe, an imaginary person, nobody, as Who do those things belong to? Joe.” The unknown-person sense of Joe Soap might have come from it.

It is usually assumed that the second part is rhyming slang for dope, a stupid person, though this would have been improbable in the nineteenth century. Though a couple of examples of dope with that meaning are recorded from the dialect of Cumberland in the 1850s, it wasn’t then widely known in Britain. In that sense it was imported later from North America.

My thanks to Peter Morris, Garson O’Toole and Jonathan Lighter of the American Dialect Society for their contributions to revising this article.


  • A confusing headline in the Boston Globe online on 11 August left readers, among them Bart Bresnik, wondering who was searching for whom: “Woman found abandoned in hospital as baby searches for mom.”
  • The website of a hotel in California left Michael Boydston feeling it may be providing more than he was looking for: “Nestled in your opulent guest room with luxurious bedding and special amenities, the Drisco’s thoughtful staff will be there to anticipate your needs and carry out your wishes.”
  • Department of too much information: “Portis told us everything. Then Princess Cire told us the rest.” (Behind the Throne, by K B Wagers, 2016).

World Wide Words is written, edited and published in the UK by Michael Quinion

World Wide Words Issue 929



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World Wide Words Issue 927 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 927

from the U.K.’s Michael Quinion

This shall be called the “dopey” issue

Diamonds are a Dwarf's Best Friend: By Michelle St. Laurent

Diamonds are a Dwarf’s Best Friend: By Michelle St. Laurent


Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Feedback, Notes and Comments


Following my piece last time, far too many correspondents to name pointed out a famous use of the associated adjective yare by Katharine Hepburn in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. (She pronounced it yar, as some who responded to my piece spelled it.) She said of the sailboat True Love, “My, she was yar.” which she explained as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright … everything a boat should be … until she develops dry rot”.


Leni Verbogen wrote from the Netherlands: “You referred to the Germanic origin of snoot, and I have to say that to my ears ‘hit him on the snoot’ sounds highly amusing. In fact, the word snoet is still used in Dutch nowadays, meaning ‘face’, in a cute kind of way. Would the word by any chance have arrived via the Dutch?” The evidence suggests that snoot was a native English modification, but as its precursor snout is Germanic, the Dutch word snoet is almost certainly a linguistic cousin.

WIF Etymology-001


Q From From Terhi Riekkola: I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory etymology for dope when it’s used in the sense of drugs, either recreational or performance-enhancing. I’ve encountered what was given as the original sense of dope, meaning some kind of liquid preparation that helped you with certain tasks, like lubricants and so on. But I found no satisfactory links between this “practical sticky stuff” sense and the drug-related meaning of the word. I was wondering if you could help me?

A Dope has several senses that aren’t obviously linked, though investigation shows there are clear connections. Historically, the word has had a wide variety of slangy associations. They include not only the lubricants and drugs you mention, but also information, a stupid person, and a varnish for cloth aircraft parts. Regionally in the US it has also meant Coca-Cola (because in its early years the drink was sold as a medicinal restorative and included some cocaine) and the sprinkles on ice cream (for no obvious reason).

Dictionaries universally say that dope is from the old Dutch doop, a sauce or dip, from the verb doopen, to dip or mix.

The Dutch word appeared briefly in American writing near the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a couple of pieces by Washington Irving in which he used it in the sense of gravy. In the issue of his satirical magazine Salmagundi of 16 May 1807 he included a humorous piece, The Stranger in Pennsylvania, which state he asserts was founded by one Philo Dripping-pan:

Pennsylvania Dutch

Philo Dripping-pan was remarkable for his predilection to eating, and his love of what the learned Dutch call doup. Our erudite author likewise observes that the citizens are to this day noted for their love of “a sop in the pan,” and their portly appearance … he ill-naturedly enough attributes to their eating pickles, and drinking vinegar.

(The Pennsylvania Dutch as a group were early immigrants from Germany, though Dutch speakers also settled in the state. It was common in American English up to Irving’s time to use Dutch as an informal term for Germans, which is where our confusing name for the group comes from, not from a mishearing of Deutsch, the German word for German, or Deitsch, which is what the Pennsylvania Dutch call their language.)

Somehow — we don’t know the details, but it was presumably at least in part the result of Irving’s fame as a writer — doup evolved into the slang dope. It appeared first in print as an ill-specified term for any thick liquid or glop. The earliest example that I’ve found — actually the derived verb — was in a newspaper article that listed deceptions practiced by sheep farmers:

Dope the sheep:— that is, put on oil and coloring to make a sheep look like the required breed; that is, paint the sheep as a common horse was once painted and sold for one of a superior race.
Sandusky Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio), 17 Jun. 1856. You may feel that buyers of such sheep were more than a little unobservant.

In later years, dope was recorded for all sorts of stuff — among others a slop of mud and water to preserve the roots of trees awaiting planting, the chemical on the heads of matches, harness blacking, train axle grease, the material that nitroglycerin is absorbed in to make dynamite, sugar added to cans of sweetcorn and a lubricant for snowshoes:

Snowshoe Thompson; Tahoe’s First Mailman

There is hardly a man, woman, or child on this side of the continent who has not heard of “Snowshoe Thompson”, yet very few persons really know anything about him or his exploits. His were the first Norwegian snowshoes ever seen in the mountains, and at that time nothing was known of the mysterious “dope” — a preparation of pitch, which, being applied to the bottom of the shoes, enables the wearer to glide over snow softened by the rays of the sun. … Without “dope” the soft snow stuck to, and so clogged his shoes that it was impossible for him to travel in it.
Albert Lea Enterprise (Albert Lea, Minnesota), 30 Mar. 1876.

It’s also recorded early on in the sense of a drug, either for humans or horses:

I learned something of his giving dope to his horses about the time he moved from Garrettsville to Chagrin Falls. … I learned that he was giving his horse arsenic and laudanum.
Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph (Ashtabula, Ohio), 4 Dec. 1858. The owner thought giving arsenic to his horses would improve their health.

The “doc” made his own pills — “the real dope,” Camp said.
Waukesha Freeman (Waukesha, Wisconsin), 29 Mar. 1859.

This drug sense became widespread later in two specific ways, firstly in reference to the thick treacle-like preparation used in opium-smoking:

He persistently refuses to give the signs by which admittance may be had to the [opium] den, but he says that it is so jealously guarded that four doors have to be passed through before the smoking-room is reached, where a “dope” for ten cents, requiring about twenty minutes to smoke, is obtained, and on the bare floor of which the smokers lie extended during their torpor.
Northern Ohio Journal (Painesville, Ohio), 14 Jun. 1879.

This gave rise in the early 1880s to the term dope-fiend for an habitual user. Later, dope broadened to dopefiend-1refer to all sorts of recreational narcotics, becoming widely known by the early twentieth century.

In the other branch of the drug sense, the term became specifically associated with drugging racehorses, either to improve their performance or degrade it:

The mare was two lengths ahead the first thirty yards, but suddenly let up, and was badly beaten. There is no doubt but that foul play was the cause of her losing, the mare having been “doped”.
Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 31 Jul. 1873.

Drugs of every name and description are used to “dope” horses so that they may win stakes. The poor animals are stuffed with all sorts of stimulants from sherry to strychnine. … Such drugs as Fowler’s solution of arsenic, Spanish fly, cocaine, chloral, valerian, and belladonna, were employed.
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), 4 Jan. 1896.

Dope in the sense of information, particularly information that isn’t widely known or easily obtained, came directly from this practice. A whisper from the stables or some confederate telling a gambler which horses were being drugged was potentially worth a lot of money, so dope came to mean knowledge that drugs had been employed. This led to its being used for information about racing in general and later broadened still further. A publication giving punters background information about horses at a track became humorously or sarcastically known as a dope book, also later a dope sheet; both were recorded in the 1890s and similarly these generalised later to refer to other topics. The phrases inside dope, real dope, true dope and straight dope — asserting the undisputed truth — were appearing in print by the early years of the new century:

Referee Bean gave out the following figures and the fight fans who want the straight dope will probably not miss it far by accepting them.
The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 7 Apr. 1904.

The sense that’s least clear in its origins is that of a stupid person. It was recorded a couple of times in the Cumberland dialect of northern England in the middle of the nineteenth century in the sense of a simpleton and in the US from the early twentieth century. We have to conclude that the two arose independently, the Cumberland one from some unknown source and the American one from the idea of a person under the influence of a narcotic. The adjective dopey is also American and is recorded earlier than the corresponding noun.

She is very thin now, and has the peculiar clear pallor that marks the excessive opium smoker. She looked “dopey,” too, even then. “Dopey,” by the way, is the Chinese quarter‘s most brilliant contribution to American slang. One hears it from the lips of people who have no idea that dope means opium.
Burlington Gazette (Burlington, Iowa), 1 Dec. 1893.

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

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Issue 925



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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

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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

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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




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World Wide Words Issue 920 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 920

from the UK’s Michael Quinions


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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



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