World Wide Words Issue 847 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words




1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Cantrev.

3. Not a happy bunny.

4. Sic!


Whifflers and whiffling Following last week’s piece, readers noted some of the many situations in which these agreeable words appeared. Several pointed out that I’d not mentioned perhaps the most famous use of the word in literature, in Lewis Carroll’s poem from Through the Looking Glass, in which you may recall that

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Lots of others mentioned the game of Whiffle Ball, likely named for the noise of the air passing through the holes in the ball. Others noted its appearance in Dorothy L Sayers’s detective story Murder Must Advertise of 1933, in which Lord Peter Wimsey, posing as Death Bredon, becomes deeply involved in the advertising campaign for a brand of cigarettes called Whifflets, which must surely be a sly reference by Sayers to an old sense of whiffler for a smoker of tobacco:

It was in that moment, and while Chief-Inspector Parker was arguing over the line with the office telephonist, that Mr. Death Bredon conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today — the scheme that achieved renown as “Whiffling Round Britain” — the scheme that sent up the sales of Whifflets by five hundred per cent in three months and brought so much prosperity to British Hotel-keepers and Road and Rail Transport.

Also in detective fiction, Bruce Beatie and Ed Matthews tell us that a more directly relevant mention is in Ngaio Marsh’s Off With His Head (Death of a Fool in the US), in which one of the characters is the whiffler in a traditional Morris dance, who clears a space for the performance:

Through the archway came a blackamoor with a sword. He had bells on his legs and wore white trousers with a kind of kilt over them. His face was perfectly black and a dark cap was on his head. He leapt and pranced and jingled, making complete turns as he did so and “whiffling” his sword so that it sang in the cold air.

Bill Marsano was one of many who pointed out that whiffling-waffling, as it was described in the piece, “thrives in the U.S. under the name of baton-twirling, which is almost exclusively the province of pretty and lightly-clad young women who typically perform at parades, football games, etc. In the southern US it is a very competitive activity, not to say sport.”

Yet another American usage was reported by Jim Tang: “This explains that most anachronistic of baseball terms, he whiffed. Bad enough that you missed the ball three times to strike out, but to have it equated with a term for a light puff of air from your swings? That is just piling it on. Which, of course, is the point, because the insult game was invented by baseball.”

Crack shot:

This, likewise, produced many comments, especially about other senses of the word, such as get cracking, to get a move on, and to take a crack at, to attempt something. The latter seems, from evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary, to have evolved from musketry (being the noise of the gun) and to parallel take a shot at. A wisecrack is from the Scots sense of talk or discussion, as is crack for a cutting or insulting remark.

John Nightingale introduced me to the odd US term crack varnish for the “very fastest and best passenger train”. The second part of this term baffled me until I learned from the Dictionary of American Regional English that from the 1880s varnished car was a slightly sarcastic railwaymen’s slang term for a passenger vehicle, as such accommodation at the time contained much highly varnished wood, in contrast to utilitarian freight and staff wagons. Over time this became abbreviated to varnish for the car and then for the whole train. A crack varnish, of course, was the very best of its type.

2. Cantrev

This word popped up in a book of short stories I’ve just finished reading:

So, the land there is thickly forested to the north and the forest grows even more thickly and densely to the south. This southern cantrev of forest is so very dense, indeed, that there is no other place in the world with trees of such height or magnificence or profusion.
Adam Robots, by Adam Roberts, 2013.

A cantrev — the word has been spelled in numerous ways, including cantref and canthrif — turns out upon enquiry to have been a medieval legal division of Wales (from the Welsh cant, a hundred, plus tref, a town or place). It’s closely similar in sense to the English hundred, a division of a county or shire for administrative purposes. In fact, in medieval England yet another form of the word, cantred, was used almost synonymously with hundred.

The word has long had only historical interest. But it has enjoyed a minor revival in SF and fantasy — as in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles — as an unfamiliar term with which to communicate a sense of otherness. The revival is most probably due to modern interest in the medieval Welsh epic The Mabinogion, in which cantrev often appears.

3. Not a happy bunny

Q From John Gray: Why did not a happy bunny come into existence? Surely bunnies are largely devoid of facial expression, so determining their state of happiness or otherwise is not readily possible. Online searches seem to say nothing about the origin of the phrase.

A People have been writing about this in a mildly puzzled way at least since John Mullan included it as his Phrase of the Week in The Guardian during November 2002, saying it was “now everywhere” and that “It started being common four or five years ago, especially as an understated description of a person’s displeasure.”

The earliest example I know of appeared in Punch magazine in November 1989 and I would have said that it had already peaked in popularity by 2002. However, a British newspaper archive shows that it has been used even more in the past two or three years. It long ago became a catchphrase and a cliché, mostly in Britain. It has also spawned its inverse, though it is still much less common to learn that somebody is a happy bunny than an unhappy one.

There’s a good reason for nobody online being able to say anything useful about its antecedents — no expert seems to have the slightest idea about its origin and most writers on contemporary slang have ignored it. Nigel Rees, presenter of the BBC radio quiz programme Quote … Unquote, has for many years included it as question 1368 in his list of unsolved phrase origins. This shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.

It may be a disparaging comment drawn from children’s literature, in which fluffy bunny rabbits are usually happily hopping about. To refer to a person’s distress by saying he isn’t a happy bunny is to infantilise his emotions. But people sometimes use it about themselves, when it becomes self-deprecating. There may be a link to British television advertisements for the Duracell Bunny (matched in the US by ones for the Energizer Bunny). This is a pink rabbit, always with a fixed grin and originally endlessly beating a drum. The adverts have been around for some decades (they began in 1973), so it’s not an implausible origin.

Other than that, all I’ve been able to do is add another mystified comment to the many that precede me. Add an appropriate bunny-related punchline if you like. I’m running out of energy.

4. Sic!


• “Taking inclusive language a bit too far,” commented John Martin on an item in The Guardian on 23 August, which quoted the TechCrunch website on Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer: “If his or her successor doesn’t like the ‘One Microsoft’ vision, he’ll have to do another reorganization.” TechCrunch has corrected its version.

• Tereza Shortall headed her contribution “Every woman’s nightmare!” having read this advertising blurb on the Harrods website: “Tailored in beautiful virgin wool, these trousers from Alexander McQueen will instantly become the most exquisite staple in your all-rear-round wardrobe.”

• Staying with Harrods, Pat Beattie was in the famous Knightsbridge store and spotted that the floor directory, expensively inscribed on a marble wall, included the entry, “Lower Ground, Menswear, Fashion Accessories, Gifts and Stationary.”

• In the New York Daily News of 18 August, Tanya Thomas found a report describing the trial of Jodi Arias for killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander: “Arias claimed intruders broke into the house and gave interviews to ‘Inside Edition’ and ‘48 Hours Mystery’.”

• Tony Willett found this in a list of spa treatments in the brochure of The Academy at the City of Bath College: “Relax in our sauna and steam room, distress in our hot tub and drift away in our dry flotation bed.”

World Wide Words Issue 847 – WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 846 — WIF Style

Leave a comment
Worl Wide Words

Issue 846



Issue 846: Saturday 24 August 2013



1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Whiffler.

3. Crack shot.

4. Sic!

Parcel “If you are in the habit of reading antiques catalogues,” Anthea Fleming wrote, “you may come across the term parcel-gilt in descriptions of silver items. It means partly gilded, as in a silver figure wearing gilded drapery, or a silver cup gilded inside. I don’t know why this expression is used.” I can help there: it comes from an ancient adverbial sense of parcel, in the sense of “part, partly, partially; to some degree, to some extent”. It’s recorded from the fifteenth century, parcel-gilt itself from 1453.

Lemniscate Several subscribers, either in puzzlement or devilry, queried my instructions about cutting the doughnut. For example, Gareth Williams: “If you lay a doughnut on the board, put the knife vertical against the inside edge of the hole and cut downward .. nothing happens because the point of the blade is now stuck in the chopping board.” It would have been better if I had written, “Take a sharp knife and hold the blade so that its edge is exactly above the inside edge of the doughnut. Cut vertically downwards …” I am reminded of my university physics professor, a Shakespeare scholar who always prefaced his notes on practical sessions with “Bloody instructions, which being taught return to plague the inventor.” Kathleen Dillon registered a complaint: “You are responsible for my having to buy a new bathing suit. I tried to follow your instructions about cutting a doughnut and ruined half a dozen of them, which I had to eat before they became stale.”

Agog again From Peter Armstrong: “I sometimes wish that we English speakers and writers had the use of an accent or other diacritical mark. This morning I was reading your update on agog and wondered why your correspondent was saying ‘it’s happening by way of agape’. How in the world does agog’s meaning get influenced by the word used to express theological love? Ah, my kingdom for an accent.” The two are indeed among the more remarkable homographs in the language: one from Old Norse, the other from classical Greek.

Not cricket? Several readers essayed a translation of the cricket item in the Sic! section two weeks ago, which I mentioned here last week. You may recall that the original read, “On three occasions, thick inside edges avoided the stumps and raced to the fence, while a brace of airy heaves into the leg side somehow dissected the outfielders.” This is from Bruce Laidlaw: “The batsman mishit the ball three times (the ball in each case clipping the edge of the bat) yet still scored four runs each time as the ball went behind him all the way to the boundary; the batsman twice hit the ball hard upwards and to the left, the ball falling between fielders so none could catch or stop it. The implication is that the batsman was lucky, scoring twenty runs by hitting the ball five times to the boundary from bad shots.” Cricket-savvy readers have suggested dissect has taken on a specific meaning; Ricki Barnes explained, “It refers to a ball being hit into the air such that it ends up between a number of fielding positions. Strictly it should refer to more than two fielders. With two, you may instead hear the phrase bisecting the field.” Dissect presumably came about as an error for bisect but has become accepted as what H W Fowler called a sturdy indefensible, since to literally dissect outfielders certainly wouldn’t be cricket! We may now consider this subject closed.

2. Whiffler

Students of Shakespeare will know of whifflers from Henry V:

The deep-mouth’d Sea,
Which like a mighty Whiffler ’fore the King,
Seems to prepare his way.

Whifflers went in front of a procession to clear spectators from its path. In early times, they would have been men-at-arms, wielding their customary weapons such as javelins or swords to keep back the mob. By the time of Shakespeare, they had taken on a formalised role and by the next century had degenerated into being merely part of the ritual of events such as civic parades. They survived until the middle of the nineteenth century in the procession of the London craft guilds to the Guildhall banquet on Lord Mayor’s Day, in which young freemen called bachelor whifflers carried flags to lead each guild. They lived on to about the same date in Norwich:

In that of the Corporation of Norwich from the Guild-hall to the Cathedral Church, on the Guild-day, the whifflers are two active men very lightly equipped … bearing swords of lath or latten, which they keep in perpetual motion, “whiffing” the air on either side, and now and then giving an unlucky boy a slap on the shoulders or posteriors with the flat side of their weapons.
The Vocabulary of East Anglia, by Robert Forby, 1830.

In an entry written a century ago, the Oxford English Dictionary finds the word’s origin in the Old English wifle for a spear or battleaxe. But as whiffle also referred to the wind when it blew in puffs or slight gusts, or veered or shifted about (it became a figurative way to describe a shifty or evasive person), it would be as reasonable to assume that it referred to the continual waving of their weapons to encourage hangers-on to stand back. Whifflers in action would certainly have raised a constant whiffle of wind, as Robert Forby implied with his use of whiff, to blow lightly (this last word is also the source of the word in the sense of a brief or faint smell, as in “a whiff of perfume”).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Thomas Ratcliffe, a contributor to Notes and Queries, recalled this variation:

The art of the whiffler-waffler is still known, though I have not seen the practice for a number of years. Whiffling-waffling was common when I was a boy, and many boys could give very creditable exhibitions of the art. … Some men were great experts, making the stick twirl in the hands round and about all parts of the body round the head, behind the back, under the thigh, the whiffling-waffling being done as easily with the left as with the right hand. When the exhibition was put of doors the stick was sent whirling high, the performer dancing round a considerable circle before catching it at the right moment of its descent.

We are irresistibly reminded of a drum-major with his mace leading a band in a parade. There certainly seemed to be a skill to whiffling, to judge from George Borrow, who lamented in The Romany Rye in 1857, “The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago … from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art, there being no demand for whiffling since the discontinuance of Guildhall banquets.” The modern drum-major may not have his genesis in the ancient passage-clearing art of the whiffler, but parallels persist.

3. Crack shot

Q From Mark Brown, US: Where did the term “crack shot” originate? The short answer to your question is England, but I suspect that may leave you feeling a bit short-changed. Fortunately I can supply some more on the whys, hows and whens of the term as well as the wheres.

The obvious first guess is that it’s an imitative word for the noise made by a pistol or rifle. Unlike most first guesses in etymology that’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not the whole story.

Around 1500, crack is recorded as a Scots term for loud boasts or brags, which in the following century became much more widely known in England. After it spread south it started to mean the subject of a person’s boast, something that was claimed to be first-class or excellent. This might be a preeminent flock of sheep, the best room in a hotel or a person who was a superbly accurate shot. This last sense appeared at the very beginning of the nineteenth century in a long-forgotten comic playlet that featured a duel:

That’s my friend — you subpoenaed him to attend. I’m dashing Bob, his second, — a crack shot and a crack whip. Take your ground, Colonel.
Modern Sharpers, by an unknown author, in Flowers of Literature For 1804, London, 1805.

However, the term is presumably older in speech. It was taken to the New World by colonists and is first recorded there in the 1820s.

What makes the word particularly relevant to pistols at dawn is that the boasting sense of crack derives from Old English cracian, to make a sudden sharp noise. It is indeed the same word as the one for the noise a gun might make. It’s also where we get cracking from, in the sense of something very impressive or effective (“it was a cracking good film”).

Incidentally, you may see similarities between the boasting sense of crack and the Irish term for enjoyable conversation, news, gossip and general fun. You would be right, as they’re the same word. But crack first took on this sense in the eighteenth century in Scots. It appeared in Ireland only in the 1950s, having been taken from Scotland into Ulster. The Irish Gaelicised it into craic, said the same way. This was reborrowed into English in the 1970s, latterly for commercial reasons linked to the growth of Irish pubs and bars.

4. Sic!


• Seen by John Peck in the Marks and Spencer store in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, a set of four “serial bowls”. He suggests the great advantage is that one only has to do the washing up every fourth day.

• Neil Hesketh urged, “Don’t mess with US Navy women.” He had spotted a report on NBC News about NASA and the Navy practicing retrieval of splashed-down spacecraft: “Unlike in past recovery efforts, the Navy doesn’t plan to use helicopters to retrieve Orion. Instead, a wench will pull the spacecraft into the Arlington’s well deck.”

• On 5 August, Pattie Tancred tells us, The Economist reported on the burger made from laboratory-grown meat: “After sizzling in a pan for a few minutes under the watchful eye of a British chef, two pre-selected tasters, a nutritional scientist and a food writer, dug in.”

World Wide Words Issue 846 — WIF Style