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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.