WORLD WIDE WORDS Issue 909 – WIF Style

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Issue 906

Issue 906

World Wide Words

Saturday 14 February 2015




Feedback, Notes and Comments



Heliotrope. Anton Sherwood was struck by a word in the newspaper quotation in the piece, which mentioned “the newly-blown flower”. He wrote, “This sense of blown is new to me, and it solves the mystery of the term full-blown, as in full-blown AIDS. But where did the adjective come from?” Blown and full-blown have a long history in English in the sense of a plant being in flower. They derive from Old English blówan, which has nothing directly to do with wind but is a relative of blossom and of bloom. However, it’s close to the idea of blow up in its sense of expand or swell.

Stuart Mushlin wrote: “Your wonderful piece cleared up a longstanding puzzlement I had. I teach at Harvard Medical School and encourage the young trainees to be observant — something computer records distract them from doing. There is a heliotrope hue seen in a condition called dermatomyositis. It is a purplish color on the upper eyelid. I was always puzzled as to why the term heliotrope, as I would have thought yellow or orange, but your derivation has let me teach it to my students until I’m forced to either retire or shut up. Thank you.”

Brian Pasby tells us that, in the US, the heliotrope is commonly called the cherry pie plant from its smell, which makes the scent I mentioned in the piece less crude an approximation than I had suggested.

Andy Behrens corrected me on the origin of the word mauve. This is from the French word for the mallow plant, which has purple flowers, not the madder, whose flowers are yellow.

Ditty bag. “When I was growing up in the 1960s,” Megan Zurawicz wrote from the US, “Girl Scouts were expected to make a ditty bag to take camping. It consisted of two loose-weave dishwashing cloths sewed together on three sides and a drawstring channel made at the top, the drawstring being provided generally by a long shoelace (say the type for high top basketball shoes). It was used to carry one’s plate, cup and silverware.”

Linda L Fullerton commented, “Where I now live, in Seattle, the local Episcopal Diocese supports a Mission to Seafarers that creates and distributes ditty bags to crew members from all over the world. Years ago, I recall appeals for small sewing kits for this ministry. Today, the list of items has changed but the ditty bag sails on.”

“Last year,” emailed Michael Bawtree, “In commemoration of the effect of the outbreak of WW1 on the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada, a group from a local Women’s Institute branch got together to re-create the bags of useful items (socks, jam, etc.) which their former members put together in 1914-18 and sent to Canadian soldiers at the front. These were called ditty-bags. There is no mention in your article of them being used by soldiers. I wonder whether Nova Scotia’s strong maritime tradition had anything to do with the local currency of the word, and its transfer for use by land forces.”

Peter Rugg wrote: “This term is aging in the US. In the 1950s every boat I boarded had a ditty bag of sail repair notions, bits of light cordage, and maybe a couple of small tools — knife, screwdriver and pliers. The boat I began sailing in 1986 has a ditty bag to this day, but the one sailed from 2007 has a tool bag in which there is in addition to a larger assortment of tools, a small sail repair kit. No more ditty bag.”

John Neave recalls: “I was aware that ditty bag was a naval term, but originally encountered it through my old Cockney grandmother (1887-1963) who kept her important household documents, insurance policies, birth certificates and suchlike, in her ‘ditty bag’, since she had never had access to facilities such as those offered by banks. Because of her accent, however, she pronounced it ‘diddy bag’.”

“I wonder,” began Roger Downham, “if there’s any link between ditty bags and [Liverpool comedian] Ken Dodd’s diddy men? Diddy is northern slang for ‘little’. Liverpool was once packed with sailors from ships using the port, so it wouldn’t surprise me if a bit of sailor talk slipped ashore and got taken up by the locals!” The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry compiled in 2006, finds no examples of diddy before the rise of Dodd’s diddy men in the 1960s, so its origin remains obscure.

Anthea Fleming emailed from Melbourne with an intriguing accidental similarity: “A similar usage in Australia is dilly-bag, a quite independent word because it’s of aboriginal origin [from Yagara dili]. It’s a smallish bag, usually made of plant fibre but could be skin, tied round the waist as a rule, but sometimes slung round the neck. Used to transport personal possessions, small stone tools, tobacco, lumps of resin or gum for repairs, ochre and pipe-clay for decoration, fish-hooks and line.”

Bob Leavitt noted the similarity between hussif, another name for ditty bag that I mentioned in the piece, and hussy, an impudent or immoral girl or woman. They are indeed closely connected: hussy is similarly an abbreviation of housewife.

Long words. A reader mentioned floccinaucinihilipilification in the last issue. W Douglas Maurer pointed out that floccipaucinihilipilification (with a p in seventh place) also exists. Examples of that form are found online and in some modern books but it isn’t standard. The fault seems to be that of Sir Walter Scott, who misspelled it in his journal in 1829, a mistake perpetuated by the Guinness Book of World Records, which has included it in some editions as the correct form, quoting Scott, while noting the n version as a variant.

Ken Tough wrote, “Sorry to be pedantic, but I counted the letters in your eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious to confirm that your E31 referred to the number of letters in the word. But it only has 30 letters. Is this a spelling error, or a counting one?” Alas, the latter. From now on, we must call it E30 for short, or shorter.

“Then there’s Konstantinopolitanischerdudelsackpfeifergesellschaft,” Tom Halsted noted, “a German word which my mother swore she came across in the 1920s. She died in 2006 at age 99, so I can’t verify the source of this delightful, almost certainly made-up word, but I like to think there once was a bagpipe manufacturer in Constantinople, perhaps managed by a German company. Even if there wasn’t, I like the name Dudelsack!” But a Dudelsackpfeifer is a bagpiper, so the mythical firm presumably trained musicians rather than made instruments.

Worry wart

Q. From David Bagwell: At least in the deep South of the United States, somebody who worries unreasonably is called a worry-wort or worry-wart, an odd usage. I could not find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, at least with my eyes or a glass in my edition with the “Lord’s Prayer on a pinhead” font. Is it known in other parts of the world? It sounds old, and I’ll bet it goes back a long time. And is it wort or wart?

A. It’s been about a month since you asked this question, so I hope you’ve not been kept awake at night worrying about the origins and spelling of this curious expression. In case you have, I hasten to clear up the second part of your question by confirming that it’s always written wart, like the growth on the skin.

It was originally American and remains widely known there (not only in the deep South), though it has long since migrated to other parts of the world. It’s not particularly common in the UK but does turn up from time to time:

Instead of wandering about in a joyful, pregnant haze, I became an obsessive worry wart. I didn’t even dare buy baby clothes.

Daily Telegraph, 28 Apr. 2014.

The origin, as so often with popular phrases, is a comic strip. In this case, it was the highly popular Out Our Way by J R Williams, which began life in 1922 and ran until 1977. In the early days it often featured a small-town family. One of the boys, aged about eight, was nicknamed Worry Wart by his elder brother. In one early frame, the boy is in bed alongside an open window, his bedclothes and face blackened with soot from nearby factory chimneys. He gets an unsympathetic reaction from his brother:

So somebody told you it was good fer you t’sleep with a winder open, hah? Well answer me this, Worry Wart, without no sarcasticism — does this somebody live in a shop neighborhood?

Out Our Way, by J R Williams, in the Canton Daily News (Canton, Ohio), 3 Apr. 1929.

The phrase came into the language at around this time and became quite popular in the 1930s because Williams produced many gently humorous cartoons featuring Worry Wart.

What’s intriguing about its early history is that it didn’t mean what it does now — somebody who constantly worries about everything and anything. Instead it took its sense from the cartoon — a child who annoys everyone through being a pest or nuisance. An early reference is a story from April 1930 in a Texan newspaper, the Quanah Tribune Chief: “Elmo Dansby (the school worry wart) informed us that he was going to get him a girl and have a big time.” He doesn’t sound like a worrier. An odd enquiry a little later in the decade (presumably a humorous squib and not a genuine question) shows the meaning well:

Dear Pat and Mike: I am a young squirt in the Sophomore class. I have many bad habits such as trying to act smart, pestering the teachers, am the biggest worry wart in school and think I am very cute. Tell me a way to overcome these bad habits. — Worry Wart.
Dear Worry Wart: When you find out what people think of you, you will automatically drop them.

Lockhart Post-Register (Texas), 8 Nov. 1934.

This meaning was still the usual one when the phrase began to appear in Australia after the Second World War, but by the 1950s it was being used there in the way we do now. It took some years more for the meaning to change completely in the US. By the time it reached us here in the UK it had only the current sense.

So where does it come from? There has long been a belief that warts are caused by worry and stress, which presumably accounts for the current meaning. And the original sense made have been provoked through the idea that warts are often an itchy nuisance. They invite one to scratch and worry at them, which only makes things worse. The idea was expressed in this falsely worry-making admonitory ditty:

Don’t worry a wart,
Or a thing of that sort,
You’re taking a terrible chance sir;
For often they grow,
As doctors all know,
Into a formidable cancer.

Sandusky Star Journal (Ohio), 26 Feb. 1923.


The American actor, musician, and author John Lithgow remarked in a recent newspaper interview that verbigeration was his current favourite word. Though it describes the use of words, the concern of any actor or writer, Mr Lithgow would surely not wish it to be applied to himself.

It sounds like the bigging up of verbs, which isn’t altogether wrong, as it refers to the involuntary repetition of meaningless words and phrases. The psychiatrist Bernard Glueck described it in 1916 as “senseless word salad”. Another writer, G Stanley Hall, in a work ten years earlier with the off-putting title Youth: Its Education, Regimen, and Hygiene, preferred to define it as “The continual utterance of certain words or phrases at short intervals, without reference to their meaning.” It has been regarded as a symptom of a mental disorder, though we in the UK, currently in the run-up to a general election, may feel it could be used to describe certain British political figures.

Its source is Latin, verbum, a word (also the source of verbiage), plus the verb gerĕre, to carry on or conduct, from which derived the Latin verb verbigerāre to talk or chat. An isolated early appearance of verbigeration in English was in the dictionary Glossographia in 1656; Thomas Blount, who compiled it, defined it in this neutral Latin sense. However, nobody else bothered with it until it was reinvented late in the nineteenth century by the British physician Daniel Hack Tuke. It was never popular and was soon after replaced by palilalia, taken instead from Greek: palil, again, plus lalia, talk or speech. There’s also echolalia, from the same root, which is similarly involuntary repetition, but of the words of another person.

Punch list

Q. From Ellen Smithee: A comment in the February issue of Angie’s List Monthly says that the term punch list gets its name from a period when contractors would punch a hole next to each completed item on a project list. The hole would go through two sheets, creating a copy for the customer. This has intuitive appeal, but so do a lot of folk etymologies. What say you?

A. I’ve no personal experience of this term — it seems to be restricted to the civil engineering and building industries in the US and has never been used in Britain. Searching around, it turns out that the explanation given in the publication is a bit inadequate. A punch list is usually described as a list of matters that don’t conf0rm to the contract specification, usually minor items, that have to be corrected before final payment can be made. It’s also called a snag list — no doubt there are other terms for it in various countries.

I’m in two minds about the story of its origin. It does sound like a fable, but one that’s eminently plausible. It’s a simple method, easy to do on site and difficult to forge. It reminds me of an ancient method of ensuring legal documents were valid. The text was written out twice on one sheet of paper and cut apart by a deliberately jagged line. If the two halves could be put together with their joins matching, both parts were genuine.

I was sceptical about your story to start with, in part because the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example for punch list is dated as recently as 1961. Would such an unsophisticated method really have been created in modern times? Punch list was added to the OED’s entry for punch when it was revised in 2007, which implies the earliest dating is accurate.

No doubt Americans with long experience in civil engineering projects will now be disagreeing with the OED, for good reason. For starters, the first example in American newspapers I can find is a decade earlier:

In an inspection two weeks ago by the State Board of Health and the U. S. Public Health Service, inspectors prepared a long “punch” list of minor details that must be completed and cleaned up before the hospital can be opened and all contracts terminated.

Tipton Daily Tribune (Tipton, Indiana), 2 Aug. 1950.

Note the quote marks around punch, which suggests that the journalist writing the news item was unfamiliar with the term. That doesn’t mean much for dating the term, since the jargon of working life can be used for generations without being noticed by the public at large or reaching print.

Dating-wise, I’ve found references to punch lists in a couple of US legal judgements from the late 1930s. This is long enough ago — before modern technological alternatives — that the suggested origin seems reasonable.

That’s the best I can do, I fear. Perhaps readers can help?


On 31 January, the Guardian reported the enforced withdrawal of the actor Brian Blessed from a production of King Lear because of a heart condition. His agent was quoted: “With a broken heart, Brian has been compelled to withdraw from the production of which he is so proud.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t on that plane”, Steve Hirsch emailed about a headline in the Huffington Post dated 3 February: “Paris Hilton’s Brother Conrad Charged After Alleged Plane Meltdown.”

In Australia, Bruce McKenzie noticed ABC on 4 February was describing the failure of two convicted drug smugglers to avoid capital punishment in Indonesia: “In a final attempt to save themselves from the firing squad, lawyers for the two men lodged applications with the Denpasar district court for a second judicial review.” He wrote, “I know some people don’t like lawyers but boy, that is one tough legal system!”

“A recent bulletin from our local Council,” wrote David Finch, “on refuse collection during the snowy weather ended ‘Customers are being advised to leave their bins out for collection via the website and social media’.”

Kate Archdeacon emailed: “I don’t normally send gruesome examples, but this is too good not to share. From The Age of Melbourne on 7 February: ‘Police confirmed the leg is believed to be connected to the two limbs found upstream on Thursday and Friday.’ ” Not any more, it isn’t.


– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 904 – WIF Style

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Issue 904

Issue 904




World Wide Words

Issue 904: 25 November 2014

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Bridegroom. Following my piece on this word last time, several readers pointed out similar forms in other languages. Jim Muller noted, “The word for bridegroom is brudgom in Danish” and Klaus Floer mentioned that “This word is still alive in the German Bräutigam, which literally means ‘Man of the Bride’. This is the only instance where this word gam has survived.” Richard Mellish emailed, “It’s perhaps worth adding that the word is still brudgum in Swedish, though as in English the word gum by itself seems to have disappeared.”

Raymond Hopkins was puzzled by the Swedish word: “It is interesting that the word gumma refers to a woman, usually someone somewhat older, often the wife of the user of the word. Gubbe is the male equivalent. Such terms are in everyday use, at least in this part of Swedish-speaking Finland. If the words are related to the guma of the article, I can’t help wondering why the gender change.”

Peter de Vries found another linguistic oddity, “I’ve just remembered that in Dutch, the groom is called the bruidegom — so you appear to have very neatly explained the origin of gom for me! I’d often wondered about it, since gom also means gum — and as a kid I found it hard to conceive of a connection between marriage and chewing gum.”       


Ken Hopson emailed me a copy of a letter he had found in the Amherst County courthouse records of Virginia. A farmer sent it in March 1896 to the Southern Railway, claiming recompense for a bull that had been severely injured by a train:

i tell you he is no better than ded and i wish you wod make your secshun boss repote him as ded and pay me for him as an animile kild on the rale rode he is certanly unqualifided for a Bool and is too mommoked up fer a stere and he is too tuf for befe.

In the American South you may still hear mommocked up or mammocked up for mangled, mauled, torn to pieces or severely beaten. The word is conventionally spelled mammock in the new dictionaries that contain it and the verb by itself is said to mean not only tear to pieces, but also more loosely to botch, mess up, mix up or confuse. Mammock on its own has also referred to getting a severe beating:

All disciplined men of the fighting forces were knocked about until their skins became as red or blue as their jackets, and were sometimes even mammocked to death.

History of Penal Methods, by George Ives, 1914.

It has been widely known in English dialect. A century ago, the English Dialect Dictionary recorded it in a group of miscellaneous senses, for fragments of food, an untidy mess or muddle, a scarecrow, an absurdly dressed person or a poor eater. Its entry does have mammocked-up, but recorded it only from Shropshire for a person “dressed up fantastically and absurdly”. Noun and verb are recorded from the sixteenth century and Shakespeare used the verb in Coriolanus: “He did so set his teeth, and tear it. / Oh, I warrant how he mammockt it”.

The best that professional etymologists can come up with is that it might be from an imitation of the sound of chewing or muttering. They point to the obsolete British English mamble, to mutter, or eat without appetite. A relative was mumble, which began life with the idea of trying to eat with toothless gums, a condition that led to our modern sense of a person speaking indistinctly. Somehow mamble shifted to tearing at food with one’s teeth.

Something similar may have happened with mammock and from there it diverged into its numerous other senses.


Mx was created on the model of the other personal titles Mr, Mrs and Ms for a person who doesn’t identify themselves as either male or female or doesn’t want their gender to be known.

An article in the Guardian on 17 November — prompted by the news that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) was considering introducing it — noted the quiet rise in the use of Mx as a gender-neutral title, particularly in the UK. Mx is accepted as a valid title by a number of organisations, mostly in the public sector. The Post Office was first in 2009; it has since been joined by several governmental bodies, including the National Health Service, HM Revenue and Customs and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. But other than those, acceptance is patchy and uncommon; the proposal by RBS marks a potential shift into the private sector, though RBS is 80% owned by the government.

Research by Nat Titman shows that Mx was created in online discussion groups in the early 1980s as a way to avoid identifying oneself as male or female or avoid specifying one’s marital status. It’s hard to say how often it was employed in real life in the following two decades but its sporadic appearances online argue for its being very rare. Around 2000 Mx began to be discussed by transgender and androgynous people, who have since led efforts to gain recognition for it.

This is the earliest example I can find in a British newspaper:

Official forms in Brighton and Hove will include the title “Mx” to cater for the city’s transgender community after a review of services. Brighton and Hove Council’s trans-equality scrutiny panel recommended removing the need for people to identify themselves as male or female at GP surgeries and introducing gender-neutral lavatories and changing rooms.

The Times, 4 May 2013.

It’s said as mix or mux , sometimes mixter.


Q. Living and working in Saudi Arabia for 12 years brought me in contact with many different nationalities. One day I was out with one of my Indian colleagues when we had a puncture and he immediately asked if we had a Stepney. Having never heard of the term I finally deduced it to be the spare wheel. It’s a term not used in the UK. Any comments? [David Vickery]

A. This odd-sounding term for what we in Britain call a spare wheel or Americans a spare tire is known in some countries of the former British empire and colonies, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Malta.

The story begins in 1904. At this time, motor-cars weren’t supplied with spare wheels or tyres and motorists had to provide their own. Roads were often very poor, punctures were frequent and few facilities existed for repairs away from base. Then as now, it was hard to replace a tyre on a wheel without specialised equipment and a spare had to be a wheel with tyre already fitted. That may sound like our common modern spare, but wheels then were often of wood or heavy metal construction and a spare was both bulky to carry and clumsy to replace.

Two entrepreneurs, Thomas Davies and his brother Walter, who ran an ironmongery business in Llanelli in south Wales, came to the rescue by inventing a clever device. It consisted of an inflated tyre on a circular metal rim without spokes. The motorist clamped it to the rim of the wheel that had the flat. In a share prospectus in December 1906, the brothers claimed “No levers or spanners are required to fix it. It is firmly secured by two simple butterfly thumb screws” and added that cars didn’t require jacking up to get the spare wheel on.

They called their device the Stepney Spare Wheel, after the location of their workshop in Stepney Street, Llanelli. They patented the wheel and started to market it in January 1906, selling seven in the first month. By August that year, almost without advertising, they were selling 1,000 a month and realised they had a success. They formed a company, the Stepney Spare Motor Wheel Limited, and began to market the wheel in Britain, Europe and the British empire and colonies. They attempted the US in 1907, but like many British businesses that have tried to break into that market they quickly failed, in part because they were ripped off by local imitators.

Elsewhere, they enjoyed great success. In a court case in 1911, it was said that in Britain alone £250,000 worth had been sold (equivalent to about £25 million today) and that the wheels were seen on nearly every motor-car on the road. In 1912 the firm was claiming that 99% of all taxis in the world were fitted with Stepney spares. The business died out in Britain after the First World War because manufacturers began to provide proper spare wheels that were relatively easy to fit. However, in many countries, Stepney became synonymous with spare wheel and, as you’ve discovered, in some it remains common, though not in Britain nor, for the reasons I’ve given, the US.


  1. Stepney
  2. Stepney is a district of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End that grew out of a medieval village around St Dunstan’s church and the 15th century ribbon development of Mile End Road. Wikipedia



For British people today, Stepney means only the east London suburb, which has led one researcher to falsely connect the device to the Stepney Ironmongery Company, which was situated there in the same period. It does seem odd that the name turns up in south Wales but there’s a good reason for it. Stepney had become a surname in London — like so many it had been borrowed from the place where the family originally lived. One member of the family went to south Wales in 1559; that branch became prosperous landowners and baronets (their Georgian house in Llanelli has recently been restored and reopened) and in the nineteenth century they developed the town as a port and industrial centre based on coal mining and tinplate manufacture. They provided the first mayor and paid for the town’s coat of arms in 1912. One website claims that the fame of the spare wheel led to a picture of it being incorporated in the arms; not so, though a blue and yellow chequered pattern on it repeats part of the arms of the Stepney family.

They gave their name to Stepney Street and other locations in Llanelli and so indirectly to an almost forgotten episode in motoring history and an odd linguistic survival.


On 17 November, the Guardian reported on an auction of Napoleonana: “A white cotton shirt worn by the former emperor on St Helena, with a button missing estimated at between €30,000 and €40,000, went under the hammer at €70,000 (£56,000)” Expensive button.

A report in the same paper two days later about Prince Charles noted a odd fashion choice: “Charles was burbling greetings in a husky baritone to a line of dignitaries who wore pinstripes and fascinators.”

On 17 November the Daily Mail commented on British politics: “Douglas Carswell became the first elected Ukip MP last month when he won the Clacton by-election he called after defecating from the Tories.” The misleading intrusive a has since been removed.

Al Segall found this on the aviation site, dated 19 November: “Air Lair is a personal cocoon for the passenger with a double-decker configuration.”

World Wide Words Issue 904

– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 896 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 896: Saturday 20 September 2014

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Rocking it. Markham Anderson wrote, “Your piece on labradorite [last week] reminded me of my mother-in-law, who was an inveterate rock collector. We often identified rocks for her as leverite, as in, “leave ’er right there!”

Messing up. Following my note on the US regional expression mess and gom last time, Alan Burdick commented that he used the expression gum up the works, to spoil or mess up or interfere with the smooth running of something. He wondered whether gom had turned into gum. The phrase is an elaboration of a US slang term of the early twentieth century, to gum or gum up. The Oxford English Dictionary puts it under gum, the glue or sticky stuff, which is the more likely semantic route.

David Means remembers gum up the works being used by relatives in Oklahoma 60 years ago, as well as a related version, it’s all gommed up: “My understanding was that both phrases implied that something thick and sticky had gotten into delicate machinery, although it had many more applications than that literal sense.”

I was unable to explain why mess and gom was used to refer to a meal, though it turns out that I was right to suggest an association with mess in the sense of a portion of food (it’s the same word as mess for a place to eat, as in officers’ mess). Judy Mincey wrote, “Mr Denson’s wife’s aunt used the phrase to mean eating up all the leftovers. Mess is used in the sense of a mess of greens and gom in the sense of gobble up. As a native Georgian, I have heard this all my life, though it is uncommon now. My grandmother, a native of Pickens County in north Georgia, used it.” Robin Wilkinson added: “Gom is in current use by my mother, born 1916 in NE Texas. I might ask ‘Shall I add a scarf to this outfit?’ Her reply would be ‘No don’t gom it up.’ Rather than just disorder, I have always associated gom with a collection of unrelated items, as in various toys and hobbies left out in the living room. To mess and gom would be to eat a collection of unrelated leftovers for dinner.”


The referendum has been held and Scotland has decided to stay within the United Kingdom. This would seem a good moment to celebrate a word that’s known chiefly north of the border. It means to be pale and sickly or insipid and colourless in appearance and can refer to Scots’ national skin colour:

With his peely-wally complexion, freckles and shock of ginger hair, Greg Rutherford looks like he could be Scottish.
The Herald (Glasgow), 30 Jul. 2014.

We know it starts life around the early years of the nineteenth century as the single word peelie for a person who is thin, gaunt or pale. Dictionaries usually suggest it’s an imitation of a slight, high-pitched sound, perhaps a noise that someone in distress might make. If so, it’s linked to another imitative Scots word, peek, for the feeble cry of a small bird or animal, a whine or whimper of complaint, or an insignificant person with a piping voice.

Wherever it came from, peelie became duplicated during the nineteenth century to make peely-wally. Some reference works say that the second half is a nonsense word, but others point to the Scots wally. This isn’t the relatively recent English slang term for a silly or inept person, but means something that’s made of china (a wally dug is a china vase). It’s from an Old English verb meaning to fade. So somebody wally-like was as pale as china. Chambers Dictionary suggests the paleness might be that of old-fashioned dentures. I couldn’t possibly comment.


Words in their time. The publication of the monumental two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary in 2009 after 40 years work was a landmark in historical lexicography. In his new book, Words in Time and Place, David Crystal has produced a layman’s guide to its riches. In 15 themed chapters he investigates many of the words that English speakers have used over the past millennium for a variety of concepts, including food, pop music, spacecraft, money and dying. If you want to know some of the words that people have used down the years for endearments, to describe fools, or the imprecations and oaths that they have uttered, this book will give many examples.

One section confirms that our notorious British predilection for talking about the weather has a long history; you will find words such as smolt and reigh, which Anglo-Saxons used for calms and storms respectively; Latin scholars coined oragious and procellous for tempestuous conditions; at one time storms could be called rugged, winds might be peaceable and the sky after a storm sleek. The book is a browser’s delight.
[Words in Time and Place, by David Crystal; Oxford University Press, out 18 September 2014; ISBN 9780199680474; hardcover and ebook. Help fund World Wide Words by buying from Amazon using the links on the website.]

Beware the wooden hill. So many words for phobias have been created that I sometimes wonder how anybody can get through the day without suffering an adverse reaction to some aspect of life. While many of these terms are facetious and badly formed, I recently came across one for a real condition with a proper classical etymology: bathmophobia. It’s not a fear of immersive ablutions but of stairs.

It’s from Greek bathmos, a step or threshold. Related is climacophobia, a fear of climbing stairs (a subtle but significant difference), which is from Greek klimax, a ladder or highest point, from which our climax directly derives.

On the way. You may be a transumer. If you commute or travel a lot, you are a transit consumer and are likely to patronise retail outlets at railway stations or airports. This sense of the word has been around in the retail business for about a decade — it’s said to have been coined by the US design and business consultancy Fitch in 2003 — though it’s hardly known to the general public. Or you may recognise yourself in a description from as a transumer in a different sense, in which you live a transient lifestyle and have freed yourself from the burden of permanent possessions. You might do so because you travel abroad on business and prefer to rent rather than buy. Or you may just have a very short attention span, need instant gratification and quickly become bored with novelties.

Draw a line in the sand

Q From Mike Mellor: About the expression draw a line in the sand — there are many theories online, and a local freebie newspaper has a continuing correspondence on it. Its latest version is a British officer drawing such a line for rioting natives to keep behind, or face “lethal consequences”. Is this true?
A I’ve not been able to find an example of this exact event, but the idea behind it clearly fits the meaning of the idiom. By literally or figuratively drawing such a line, a person is saying “thus far and no further”, setting a limit to what is allowable.

Many people will remember it as one of the more quotable utterances of President Bush when in August 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait: “America and the world drew a line in the sand. We declared that the aggression against Kuwait would not stand.” The line wasn’t a literal one but an ultimatum that Saddam’s actions were unacceptable.

As you’ve discovered, there are other stories, such as the famous one about the line that the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro drew in Peru in 1527, asking his men to choose between Peru with its riches and Panama and its poverty. A biblical link to the Gospel of John is also quoted, as is one to a Roman general who drew a circle in the sand around King Antiochus IV, ordering him not to cross it until he had replied to a Roman ultimatum.

There are probably many other historical examples. People have surely been drawing demarcating lines for reasons of one kind or another for as long as there have been people.

The first English idiom based on the idea is draw the line, which is known from the eighteenth century. An early example:

Whether the letters are genuine or not, the produce of the Lady’s or of any other pen, matters little; they are sensible and satisfactory; and draw the line between real Christianity, and Methodism (which alas so many are apt to mistake) more clearly, than I have yet seen it done by any writer.
The Public Ledger (London), 7 Feb. 1761.

The specific action of drawing a line in sand is an elaborated version of the older saying that only began to be recorded within living memory. This is from its early days:

The Communists in 1950 when the war started were obviously trying to see how far they could go before the free world drew a line in the sand and said, “This Is It.” We drew the line and showed the communists we meant business.
The Daily Republic (Mitchell, South Dakota), 28 Jul. 1953.


• Rhys Jones notes that Real Ale in Bowland, published by the Campaign for Real Ale, wrote of one pub: “Serving award winning food, a pianist accompanies your meal on Saturday evenings.”

• Paul Serotsky stumbled upon the following remarkable anniversary in the 18 September issue of the Whangarei Report of New Zealand: “Brilliant weather conditions blessed the Maungaturoto Bowling Club’s 100th. centenary luncheon.”

• Benny Tiefenbrunner tells us that on 9 September the BBC website reported on an accident in which the golfer, Greg Norman, injured his hand with a chainsaw: “He said the chainsaw ‘missed his artery by a fraction of an inch’ but has now returned home to rest and recover.”

Golf Week

• An email came to Monroe Thomas Clewis for a campaign contribution from a fellow Democrat: “In 2012, after thirty-two years in Republican hands, Brad Schneider finally won Illinois’s 10th district for Democrats.”

World Wide Words Issue 896 – WIF Style


World Wide Words Issue 832 – WIF Style

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Issue 832: Saturday 18 May 2013




WIF 1-001


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Palpebrous.

3. Rotate versus revolve.

4. Spill the beans.

5. Sic!

Banausic Numerous readers pointed out that this word is much better known in German in the form Banause. Heidi Beck commented that it is “regularly used by German speakers to describe someone who is uncultured, a philistine.”

Earl Grey tea To judge from correspondence, some confusion exists about bergamot. There are two species of that name. The Earl Grey one is a citrus tree, the Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), which produces fruit the size of oranges but coloured like a lemon. The other is an unconnected North American plant of the mint family, the wild bergamot or bee balm.

I was watching a marvellous programme on BBC television last Friday that recreated the dances and food of the Netherfield ball in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The narrator mentioned bergamot as a flavouring but said it as though it were French. The final t is sounded, as it didn’t come to us from that language but was taken from Italian bergamotta (modern Italian bergamotto); some dictionaries say that this refers to the city of Bergamo while others argue it’s from Turkish bey armudu, the prince’s pear.

2. Palpebrous

My secret is out. I admit it. I am palpebrous.

However, my confession will mean nothing unless I explain the word, because it won’t be understood even by that minuscule proportion of the population who know the Latin from which it was taken.

It’s so rare I have been able to find only one modern example:

Don’s deep voice, his palpebrous, leonine features, his evident learning, his almost BBC-like diction, his entire bearing, might seem so grand as to be intimidating to a young student.
Geographical Review, July 2009.

A member of the medical profession will assume it has something to do with my eyes, since a palpebra is an eyelid, a term taken from classical Latin and so having palpebrae as its plural. Zoologists may recognise it as a relative of the second half of the scientific name Paleosuchus palpebrosus for Cuvier’s dwarf caiman (it means to have prominent eyelids). It also appears in Zosterops palpebrosus, the formal term for the oriental white-eye, a little bird so named because it has a prominent white ring around its eye. A scientific relative, now wholly defunct, is palpebrate, having eyelids.

We’re in the right area, but palpebrous came about through a misapprehension by Benjamin Smart, a nineteenth-century elocutionist and grammarian. In the second edition of A New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, he defined palpebrous to mean a person with prominent eyebrows.

So now you know.

3. Rotate versus revolve

Q From Brian Miller, Australia: A loosely organised group of eccentric friends and wine lovers meets each week. The question arose, does a lazy Susan revolve or rotate? What about the plates on it?

A That’s an interesting question, which lacks a simple answer. If anybody’s not sure about a lazy Susan, by the way, it’s a device on a table which turns to give easy access to plates and condiments.

Most people’s response to this would probably be on the lines of “who cares?” The two words are used so interchangeably in the sense of spinning round that for most purposes they’re synonyms and they’re treated as such in thesauruses. To take an example, does a wheel rotate or revolve? Most people would say it can do either.

If you’re arguing from etymology (always risky), it can only rotate, since that term is from the Latin verb rotare, to turn in a circle, whose root is rota, a wheel. But you might argue that it revolves, because that verb is from the Latin volvere, to roll (in this case, the re- prefix implies repetition of the action) and a wheeled vehicle certainly does roll along.

Strictly speaking, there is a difference, which is most noticeable in the terminology of astronomers. For them, the earth rotates every 24 hours but takes a year to revolve around the sun. The rule about which verb to use is based on the position of the axis of rotation. If the body turns on an axis within itself it rotates but if the axis is outside it revolves. Following this definition, a wheel can only rotate (hooray for etymology).

The strict answer to the question, therefore, is that the lazy Susan rotates. However, because the plates on it orbit or circle around an axis outside themselves, they revolve. Do not insist on this careful distinction during the later stages of a dinner party or the lazy Susan may become a spinning projectile aimed at you.

As I say, the rule is rarely observed outside science and the two words have been hopelessly muddled for centuries. A revolving door actually rotates; a rotating shaft makes revolutions. You might argue that a revolver ought to be a rotator but it depends whether you are thinking of the cartridges or the cylinder that holds them.

4. Spill the beans

Q From Martin Schell: An Indonesian friend fluent in English asked me what spill the beans means and how it originated. It’s easy to understand spill as revealing a secret, but why beans?

A The key word is indeed spill, which has always had a negative aura about it. In Old English it meant to kill and in the twelfth century to shed blood (which is why we still have the fixed phrase to spill blood). By the fourteenth century it had softened to mean causing damage or waste, from which evolved the specific idea of letting a liquid accidentally escape from a container. Much later it took on a figurative sense of being thrown out of a moving vehicle.

Spill the beans starts to appear in the US early in the twentieth century. In its first decade it varied in its meaning and settled on our current one only in the 1920s.

Early examples are in reports of horse racing. This is the first example that I’ve so far come across:

Everyone fancied that the fifth race was a two-horse one between Nearest and Audiphone, who were held at 4 to 5 and 8 to 5 respectively. Kingstelle, a 10-to-1 shot, broke it up. She laid away from the pace and came along in the stretch, and won, handily, a real nice race.
St Louis Republic (St Louis, Missouri), 6 May 1903.

Since the horse did better than expected, this might seem to challenge the idea of a spill being a bad thing, but the headline writer is saying that expectations have been upset, a figurative extension of spill. In the following years the idiom spread beyond racetracks, by 1908 being used of boxing and by 1910 of baseball. In that game it came to mean a blunder that leads to defeat:

In the eighth it looked like Vernon surely would overcome the Seals’ lead and win the game, but some boneheaded base running and poor judgment on the coaching lines spilled the beans.
Los Angeles Herald, 3 Jun. 1910.

An article in the Tacoma Times in March 1913 defines it like this: “If we descend to the vulgar language of the street … ‘Spilling the beans’ has much the same meaning as ‘upsetting the apple cart.’” Being considered slang may explain why it took some time to become mainstream. Most appearances were confined to the sports pages, which had a licence to adopt language that was considered unsuitable for other parts of the paper.

Our modern sense starts to appear around 1910 as an extension of the sports sense into upsetting a situation by speaking out. An early case on record concerns a ticket scalping scandal at a New York baseball club:

The entire affair is again bottled up just at a time when the American League president said he would spill the beans and expose the rascality of the whole business.
Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona), 24 Dec. 1911.

Politics being a rough old game, it’s in news reports of events in that domain that we start to see a broader public use of the idiom. It was widely publicised in a comment from a witness during a famous court case of January 1914 about corruption and this seems to have broken the implicit ban on its use outside sport.

To answer the original question — if you can still remember what it was — there doesn’t seem to be anything special about beans and no good reason why it should have been adopted. That is, apart from the obvious consideration that spilling useful beans is a bad move. The idiom has appeared in various other forms since, including spill the dirt, spill the dice, spill the dope and spill the works. There’s also spill it by itself, with the sense “tell me your sensational gossip immediately”. These confirm that the key word is spill and that the other noun is a mere embellishment. We may guess that some bean-spilling accident led to stable boys using it, but, as with most idioms, history is silent on what that might have been.


5. Sic!

• Many readers sent a link to a photo that has appeared widely online of the RSPCA shop in Bury, Lancashire. The slogan on the fascia is “Helping Bury Animals”. Surely not a joking matter?

• Tony McCoy O’Grady says he feels deficient in the leg department. He had read this in the Irish Times on 13 May: “Pricewatch conducted an unscientific Twitter poll, asking if people would shell out an extra 50 cents on a pair of five socks, if they knew they were ethically produced.”

World Wide Words Issue 832 – WIF Style