THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 97

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THE RETURN TRIP – Episode 97

While Gus is wondering what gift Francine has brought, the slightly elder brother is more interested in the bada-bing…


Chocolate Birthday Cake abstract pastel painting by Carol Engles

“You have a Texas-sized thirst Miss Francine!” the bartender comments.

“Thank you and I will be back later,” she draws a deep breath and heads toward the mountain of gifts.

Like fire ants in a rainstorm, the McKinney boys are getting closer to the nest. Gus has spotted the pile of presents and Francine to boot, “Hey Deke, look who’s here!”

She was the only person who could steal the spotlight from Uncle Roy.

“Holy cow Gus, did you invite her?” Deke looks for some glass reflection to finger-comb his hair . “You have guts Gus!. Boy, she is prettier in person than she is on TV.” bada-bing-001While Gus is wondering what gift she has bada-bingbrought, the slightly elder brother is more interested in the bada-bing.

Francine places her gift carefully to one side of the growing pile, trying to act naturally in spite of her nerves, anxiety caused at the sight of Uncle Roy.

Said Crippen is in the midst of a reenactment, perhaps the tackling form he used on Gherkin Dogman or whatever his name was. “Notice how square my shoulders are to the target, head up, all the time driving my legs.” He sounds like a football coach speaking to Pony League footballers, when in fact he was using the demonstration as a diversionary tool… after all Francine was here, what now?

He takes his Camelhair sport coat back from the woman who was holding it for him, thanking her over-politely to convey the fact that they were not indeed here together, should Francine even notice; who, having seen the exchange peripherally and pretending not to.

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This pointless posturing went on for 15 minutes as each waited for the other to crack. It is an unfortunate distance for them to be separated by, after all it’s not like they are ex’s of the other.

That they are not alone or free to interact in a more private setting isn’t helping. Not knowing what the other is thinking does factor in the standoff. Separately and together, she and he play it oh-so-kool, willing to allow randomness to take its course.

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Episode 97

page 92

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


Feedback, Notes and Comments
Lots of letters

Lots of letters

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Read with me

Read with me

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

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


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

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

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

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

A curled Sconce he hath, with angrie frowning browe.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

World Wide Words



– WIF Style

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

World Wide Words Issue 919 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 919


Feedback, Notes and Comments

Bob’s-a-dying. Adam Sampson pointed out that the Bodleian Library in Oxford has copies of an early nineteenth-century song, Fancy Lad, whose chorus includes the line “Go along Bob’s a dying”. He added, “Thomas Hardy — an enthusiastic country-dance fiddler throughout his life — mentions My Fancy-Lad as a reel in the short story The Fiddler of the Reels and the poem The Dance at the Phoenix. Florence Hardy’s Early Life of Thomas Hardy lists this as one of the tunes he learned from his father, which would put it in the right time period for the broadsides. So I think that’s probably the place to look for a Napoleonic-era tune for Bob’s a dying!”

New Zealand readers were quick to point out that they know of a variant version of the expression: kick up bobsy-die, which is still in use though perhaps a little old-fashioned.

Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Bill of goods. Henry Clark was one of several who mentioned, “In engineering we often talk about a bill of materials. This is a list of all the parts and components needed to build a machine or a control panel.” Bob Johnson wrote of a usage in the piece: “Your American cousins would have to think hard to understand consignment note or despatch note. We would be more likely to say waybill or bill of lading.”

Swipe. Following my mention of swipe for selecting or rejecting an option on a smartphone or similar device, several readers pointed out that they knew it better in the sense of stealing something. The two are connected, both deriving from an old verb that was probably a variant form of sweep. Originally this meant to make a swinging blow or strike, as in cricket or fist fighting. The link to stealing probably came from a swift but surreptitious reaching out to take something without being noticed, or a more blatant and opportunistic attempt to grab something.

Binge-watching. “Those of us who are fans of science fiction,” emailed Rupert Smith, “have a pre-existing term for this, to marathon. I remember it from the 1990s, but I expect it’s been around longer. Conventions used to hold ‘marathons’ of a television series. The word still persists in the same sense as binge-watching today, but in my experience usually refers to re-watching something you’ve already seen before. I once marathoned 135 episodes of Naruto over one Christmas break (pausing to sleep, of course), but that was an extreme example I won’t be repeating!”

Season’s greetings

Chhristmas card-001

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


She gets holidays mixed up



If you’re nonplussed, that initial non- means you must be without something, right? That seems to be why many people in North America have interpreted this mildly odd word in recent decades to mean calm, undisturbed, unfazed, unimpressed or indifferent. In standard English and elsewhere it still means surprised, confused, perplexed or bewildered. Add to this a tendency to spell it with one s and a British reader can often be nonplussed in the old sense when encountering American examples.

When Billboard recently wrote, “She was very nonplussed and was happy to wait in the queue”, we may be sure the sense intended was “unbothered”. Similarly a sports magazine’s “MS Dhoni is popularly known in cricketing circles as ‘Captain Cool’ for his nonplussed demeanour in tense situations” is clear enough. But what about “I’m completely nonplused by most contemporary architecture” which was recently in the Wall Street Journal? What emotion was the writer feeling? His later comments make clear to a puzzled reader that he was unimpressed rather than confused.

Nonplussed is rather odd in its origin. Its first form was as a noun phrase borrowed directly from the classical Latin nōn plūs, not more or no further. As two words it appears first in an epistle by the Jesuit scholar Robert Parsons in 1582. He meant by it a state in which no more can be said or done, in which a person was unable to proceed in speech or action, resulting in perplexity or puzzlement.

Around the same time it became a verb, to nonplus, meaning to bring somebody to a standstill as a result of being perplexed or confused. The adjective nonplussed also soon appeared. In the early nineteenth century, somebody invented nonplussation, the state of being nonplussed, which had a brief period of popularity around the middle of the century but is now obsolete.


Goon (everybody needs one)

  1. From Dick Bentley: World Wide Words has many references to the Goon Show, the 1950s surreal British comedy radio programme, but none to goon itself. It’s a mysterious word in some ways: it seems to have two separate meanings; “idiot” and “hired thug”, which represent separate origins, perhaps? What is its true origin?
  1. Goon stepped shyly on to the public stage in the issue of Harper’s Magazine for December 1921. A whimsical article by Frederick Allen had the title The Goon and His Style: “A goon is a person with a heavy touch as distinguished from a jigger, who has a light touch. While jiggers look on life with a genial eye, goons take a more stolid and literal view.” He said the word was a family saying, but he might equally have made it up. After this, the word vanishes again for a decade.


The beginning of its popularity dates only from January 1934, when the cartoonist Elzie Segar got around to giving a new character a name: Alice the Goon. She had appeared in his Thimble Theatre comic strip on 10 December 1933, joining Popeye, Olive Oyl and others. Alice was a fearsome character, immensely tall with shaggy arms and legs and a long nose like a proboscis monkey. She was at first a guard employed by Popeye’s antagonist, the pirate and sorcerer called Sea Hag. Alice was powerful but dim-witted and goon came into the language first in the sense of a stupid person. It is said college students used it first.

In the later 1930s, goon began to be used for a ruffian or violent thug, particularly one employed by a labour union to frighten recalcitrant members and anybody who opposed the union. It appeared most often in the phrase goon squad:

Beck uses the mailed-fist and makes no bones about it. His staff includes a gang of imported strongarm men, known locally as the “goon squad.”

Joplin Globe (Missouri), 9 Oct. 1937. Beck was Dave Beck, union organiser for the Teamsters in Oregon and Washington states.

Goon in this sense was at first local slang; in early 1938 it achieved national notice through the jailing of union organisers from the region. It was most likely taken from Alice the Goon, who — at least in the early days before Segar softened her — was a subhuman brute. It might have come from the same source as Segar got it, whatever that was, but that seems less likely.

We may reasonably assume that the slang term for German guards in prisoner-of-war camps followed from this sense of an unintelligent thug. However, Spike Milligan says that he took the name of the Goon Show from the cartoon character and not from prison guards; he was using it in army training camp at Bexhill in Sussex in 1941 before that sense had become known or perhaps even coined.

This leaves us with the final part of your question: where did goon come from? We can’t be absolutely certain, but gooney has a long history in English, also as gony, gonnie, gawney and other forms, meaning a simpleton or fool. It may be from gone , implying that the person so described has lost their wits. Gooney is recorded in New England from the 1830s, though it’s probably older in North America. Sailors of the nineteenth century called various albatross species gooney birds (which was adopted during the Second World War for the Douglas C-47 Skytrain aircraft, which Brits know as the Dakota). It seems most plausible that Segar took goon from gooney.



Dictionaries are hard to promote. They’re utilitarian and unexciting works, to the extent that their users find it hard to differentiate between publishers and often lump them all together as “the dictionary”. The relatively recent wheeze of announcing Words of the Year has been a godsend to despairing publicity departments and an annual opportunity for lexicographers to slide modestly into the public eye for a seasonal rundown on what’s been happening with our vocabulary.

This year, however, Oxford Dictionaries has done something really odd. Its choice isn’t a word but a picture, an emoji, the one often known as face with tears of joy.

The news was greeted with all the publicity Oxford Dictionaries might have wanted, but much comment was puzzled or sarcastic. Didn’t a dictionary know what a word was? Did this render the idea of Words of the Year ridiculous? Was this the death knell of the language of Shakespeare? Was Oxford cosying up to the internet generation to the exclusion of more significant shifts in language? Had Oxford jumped the shark?

Though the choice looks seriously misguided, this wasn’t some mad whim. Oxford’s monitoring found that the word emoji increased its usage three-fold in 2015 over the previous year, which would have made it a candidate for Word of the Year. The little icons have become a widespread shorthand way of expressing emotion and ideas in texts and social media; they’ve moved way beyond the teenage texters who embraced them initially. Oxford Dictionaries argue that emoji and emoji culture have gone mainstream in 2015, “embodying a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.”

Emoji have without doubt come far since they were invented in Japan in the 1990s, as a development of smileys or emoticons (“emotional icons”), symbols created from keyboard characters that date from the earliest days of the internet.


Emoji in Japanese (e plus moji) literally means “picture character”. It predates the digital world by at least eight decades, and may have been based on the English word pictograph. The first use of emoji in English was in the Japanese publication Nikkei Weekly in October 1997, referring to a set of characters that had been created in connection with P-kies, a Japanese children’s show roughly equivalent to Sesame Street.

The popularity of emoji outside Japan was hastened by their inclusion in various mobile devices and led to their adoption as an international standard symbol set in Unicode in 2010 under names such as grinning face and winking face. Faces are the most popular — the set included persevering face, face screaming in fear (very Edvard Munch, this one) and extraterrestrial alien face. Face with tears of joy was chosen as the Word of the Year because it made up 20% of all the emoji used in the United Kingdom in 2015, and 17% of those in the United States, a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.

You can select from 1282 emoji in the Unicode set, including cats, hearts, hand signals, clothing, animals, plants, vehicles, the flags of all nations and lots more, including man in a business suit levitating and pile of poo. Their name might have helped them be accepted, though the similarity between emoji and emoticon is accidental.

In an electronic world in which brevity and speed are key, an image is potent, not perhaps worth a thousand words, but certainly removing the need for a description that the writer might not be willing or well-equipped to provide or have space for. But some commentators have gone further, arguing that emoji are no longer just a convenient shorthand but a nuanced form of communication in their own right.

Although Random House has published emoji-speak versions of Shakespeare and Herman Melville’s classic novel has been translated as Emoji Dick, neither can be called nuanced: 1282 pictures conveying a restricted and unsophisticated range of concepts is hardly a replacement for the subtlety and richness of a natural language.

Caspar Grathwohl of Oxford Dictionaries commented, “The fact that English alone is proving insufficient to meet the needs of 21st-century digital communications is a huge shift”. But it’s a shift restricted to one part of the online world. The suspicion must be that emoji are a passing fashion and that to try to read into them a seismic shift in the nature of communication is seriously misplaced.

Will the “Word” of the Year take its place in Oxford’s dictionaries? There are no plans to include emoji, the publishers say. A wise decision, you may feel.

Read with me

Read with me

  • There is truth in the adage “Thrice armed is he who hath his quarrel just, but four times he who gets his blow in first”, which the military has pithily summarised as pre-emptive strike. On 9 November a British MP used pretaliation in a Twitter post, marking it as a “new word”. Not so. It appeared in September in guidance by the US Securities and Exchange Commission about whistleblower protection and I came across it in 2012 in Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds. It’s older still. By 2007 it had reached the online Urban Dictionary; around that time it was borrowed for the name of a US heavy metal band. It turns up in various Google Groups back to 1998 (“They believe in proactive security measures and pretaliation”). And an isolated example featured in The Listener as long ago as 1971. All of which forces us to conclude that if you’re inventing words, it’s best to get your pretaliation in first.
  • Quingel, flingam, blablesoc and probble. Do these sound funny? As in funny-ha-ha, not funny-peculiar, since you’re unlikely to have encountered them. They’re nonsense words created by a computer program for a project on humour by four researchers from the universities of Alberta and Tübingen and published in the current issue of the Journal of Memory and Language. Alberta students were asked to rate words for how funny they found them. The study proved that non-words are funnier the more they look like real words but aren’t, because they’re incongruous and contradict our expectation that what we read is meaningful. The researchers actually discovered that words are funniest when they sound “dirty” — the highest rated words were whong, dongl, shart , focky and clunt, though this may have been a function of the age and nature of the participants (also, shart and clunt are recorded as real slang words, while dongl is close to the computer term dongle). The study also demonstrated that judgments were consistent from one person to another, at least within the restricted group surveyed.

Thank your mother for the rabbits

  1. From Helen Jeffery in the UK: My late granddad had a quaint way of bidding people goodbye. He would say “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits”. Do you think that was just him being himself, or was it an expression in general use? He lived a bit further north than I do at the moment, in north-west Durham.
  2. You may be disappointed to hear that he didn’t invent it, though he was following in some famous footsteps.

A detailed discussion of this nonsense phrase appeared in the Australian language journal OzWords a decade ago, which made it clear that it has long been known in that country and is still to be heard. The stereotypical association of Australia with rabbits might suggest that the expression began its life there. Some Australians argue that it arose during the depression of the 1930s when money for food was scarce and rabbits were free to anybody who could catch them. It is said that rabbits became known during that period as underground mutton.

But the evidence says it isn’t native to Australia. One important pointer is this:

Bloom starts forward involuntarily and, half closing the door as he passes, takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it nervously to Zoe. ZOE: (Sniffs his hair briskly) Hmmm! Thank your mother for the rabbits. I’m very fond of what I like.

Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922.

More evidence comes from an oddly inconsequential snippet in an Australian newspaper, which happens to be the earliest occurrence of the phrase in print anywhere:

Lady Tree insists on trying to make her comrades laugh during the progress of the piece whilst she acts. One night, when she was playing the part of an elderly lady in “Diplomacy” she quite suddenly invented a new line in the play by saying “Thank your mother for the rabbits” to a parting guest. The audience enjoyed it so much that the actress has kept in the line ever since.

Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW), 8 Nov. 1913. Lady Tree was better known professionally as Mrs Beerbohm Tree, she being the wife of and collaborator with the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

We may guess the editors included this because they thought Australians would appreciate a reference to a phrase they knew. We may also be pretty sure Lady Tree didn’t make it up. The event, however humorous to the audience, wasn’t sufficiently important to spread public knowledge of it, since the number of appearances didn’t subsequently rise.

So is it Irish, as the Ulysses appearance implies? Almost certainly not, since Zoe makes clear in the book that she was born in Yorkshire. Your own experience also suggests an English source. Eric Partridge noted the phrase in his Dictionary of Catchphrases as having been “brought to my notice by the late Frank Shaw in 1969”. Frank Shaw was a Liverpudlian writer who did much to publicise the local dialect, Scouse. So the expression is quite strongly linked with northern England.

Beyond that, the trail runs into the sand. It’s probably late nineteenth century in date, perhaps from a catchphrase in some long-forgotten music-hall comedian’s act.

Sometimes mysteries are more fun than facts, though frustrating to enquirers.



  • The text below a photograph in the print edition of the Guardian of 7 November read: “Caption goes here and don’t forget to twiddle your triang.”

  • Grant Agnew sent me to the opening sentence of a story on ABC News on 11 November: “Queensland beef producer Mick Hewitt has been elected to the new grass-fed position on the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) board selection committee.”
  • From the Department of Unfortunate Phrasing: Margaret Joachim found this sentence in the Acton W3 Gazette of West London: “Thames Water apologises for over-running sewer works”.
  • The website of the American Civil Liberties Union, David Daniel reports, had an article dated 9 November under the ambiguous headline “How Can the Justice Department Help CIA Torture Victims?”
  • A BBC news item of 19 November seen by Timothy Conway featured the finding of a large hoard of Roman coins by a small Swiss farmer: “Weighing around 15kg (33lb), he discovered the coins after spotting something shimmering in a molehill.”
  • The Age of Melbourne surprised Jack Harvey with news of a novel process for decontaminating asbestos found in a school. The school president was quoted as saying, “The ground is contaminated and needs to be fixed. … We have been raising money for it to be fixed with cake stalls and art shows.”

World Wide Words Issue 919



– WIF Style

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

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