World Wide Words Issue 885 – WIF Style

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Issue 885

Issue 885




World Wide Words Newsletter 885


Issue 885: Saturday 5 July 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Bat an eyelid.

3. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Return of writer I am revitalised by my holiday. Thank you all for your forbearance during my month away.

Closets and cupboards My discussion of skeleton in the cupboard / closet last time led, as I expected, to numerous messages about the scope and meaning of these words in American and British English.

British English doesn’t much use closet as a noun, though the verb has currency. Water closet for toilet, lavatory or loo is archaic (though John Neave recalled that “My grandmother was a Londoner born and bred. To her, a cupboard was a cupboard, but The Closet was the lavatory”). Our closets are figurative. We have borrowed the American phrase to come out of the closet, though we couldn’t imagine being in one to start with (come out of the cupboard doesn’t have the same portentous connotations.) We also have closet racists and other closeted types with skeletons in their cupboards.

My understanding is that American cupboards always hang on walls, as British ones can also do. As Richard Bos argued, “cupboard implies shelves, and therefore not much room for a skeleton, while a closet implies standing, or at least hanging room”. Paul Witheridge noted in similar vein, “To fit in a North American cupboard, the skeleton would have to be the remains of a small animal”. We Brits prefer cabinet for these, as in kitchen cabinet or bathroom cabinet (though the former is less used than it once was, perhaps because it reminds older Brits of the punning kitchen cabinet for the private and informal group of advisors around the British PM Harold Wilson, though that’s originally American, from the early nineteenth century). British cupboards are often also tall floor-standing storage spaces. Sometimes they’re built in, but they’re still cupboards.

Bill Wallace wrote pithily, “You keep your clothes in a cupboard?” To which I replied equally briefly, “No. Mine are in a wardrobe”, a large free-standing cupboard with specialist fittings, a feature and a word that’s less common in the US, I believe. But that led me to think about the room off our bedroom, just large enough to insert one’s body into, which the architect no doubt intended for clothes but which we use for miscellaneous storage because we already have two wardrobes. Though uncommon in Britain such little rooms are, I’m told, standard in American bedrooms and are always called closets. We call ours a cupboard. Even if we used it for clothes, I still wouldn’t call it a closet, because that word isn’t in my idiolect. How would I describe it in that case? I’m not sure. The architect probably labelled it built-in wardrobe though that would surely be a pretentious title for a space of its paltry dimensions.

Gordon Rich emailed: “I am reminded of the comment from the Irish lady who was confronted with a skeleton in her cupboard; she said ‘There he is; all-Ireland hide-and-seek champion.’” Marty Ryerson, a reader from the US, commented: “When I was a young lad, my mother explained that a cupboard was for cups, a closet was for clothes, a pantry was for pans, and a larder was for lard. We had a closet where we kept canned goods. So, being the youngest in a family of smart-alecks, I asked if this was known as a cantry. This term ever afterward became the family’s name for that storage space.”

Jabberwocky Readers pointed out the many translations of Carroll’s famous poem into other languages.

My favourite is the German version that I came across in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. It’s by Robert Scott (one half of Liddell and Scott, authors of the famous Greek-English Lexicon, Henry Liddell being the father of the famous Alice; his surname, by the way, is pronounced “liddle”, as is shown by a rhyme of the time: “I am the Dean and this is Mrs Liddell, / She plays the first, and I the second fiddle”). The German version was published in 1872 in an article in Macmillan’s Magazine whose title was The Jabberwock Traced to Its True Source. It claimed to demonstrate that the poem was actually an English translation of an old German ballad. Scott published it under the pseudonym Thomas Chatterton, a nod to the knowledgeable because Chatterton had been the famous forger of mock-medieval ballads the previous century. It begins:

Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.

Though it sounds wonderfully Teutonic read aloud, it is, of course, thoroughly bad German and quite unintelligible to native speakers.

Gyre Steve Price was one of several readers who reminded me of a famous example of gyre in its sense of a spiral: “Yeats’s The Second Coming begins ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ And gyronny is the term for a heraldic device of eight gyrons that looks as though it’s turning like a gyrfalcon in the sky.”

Scott Underwood pointed out that I was mistaken to imply that gyre in the poem was pronounced as in standard English, with a soft g. Lewis Carroll wrote in an introduction to Through the Looking-Glass dated Christmas 1896: “The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce ‘slithy’ as if it were the two words ‘sly, the’: make the ‘g’ hard in ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’: and pronounce ‘rath’ to rhyme with ‘bath’.”

2. Bat an eyelid

Q From Brian Fleming: How did batting an eyelid arise? Fluttering makes sense, but in my view bats flap.

A The bat in the expression turns out to have nothing do to with nocturnal flying mammals. And likewise it’s unconnected with table-tennis, cricket, baseball or any other game in which a bat is an essential requirement.

Three idioms are associated with batting eyes or eyelids, by which we mean a pronounced rapid blink or series of blinks.

One — very old-fashioned — is I didn’t bat an eyelid all night, equivalent to I didn’t sleep a wink. If a woman bats her eyelids (more commonly her eyelashes) she’s fluttering them flirtatiously:

It was amusing to watch the woman — who must have been at least sixty — dissolve into girlish simpering in the wave of my brother’s considerable charm. When she began coyly batting her eyelashes at him, I’d had about all I could stand of this stomach-turning display.
The Cliff House Strangler, by Shirley Tallman, 2007.

The third, not to bat an eye (or eyelid) is to avoid blinking or showing any other emotion when something awkward occurs, a mark of self-control and equanimity.

For the answer, we must look to the long defunct verb, bate, which is connected to our abate, debate and bated breath. It came into English from French battre, to beat, and meant, among other things, the beating or fluttering of a falcon’s wings. Over time, bate became shortened to bat in some English dialects and came to mean “blink” or “wink”. Dialect researchers in the nineteenth century noted this sense of bat in a swathe of England from south Yorkshire down to Nottinghamshire and across to Shropshire.

The sense of flirtatiousness is originally American. It starts to appear in the record around 1880.

You hol’ your head high; don’t you bat your eyes to please none of ’em.
At Teague Poteet’s, by Joel Chandler Harris, in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May 1883. This story of Georgia backwoodsmen and moonshiners was published the following year in Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White.

3. Sic!

Knowing teaser line or accident? Alex Baumans spotted on 5 June that the Huffington Post promoted an article with “Only Chrissy Teigen Could Pull Off Underwear On The Red Carpet.”

• Betsy Adams sent a copy of an article from a newsletter that the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina circulated to potential donors. She was disquieted by its headline: “Student embraces one-on-one with top-level researcher”.

• Someone noted Graham Thomas’s interest in ornithology and suggested he download an app that included 268 bird guides, an A to Z list of birds and many other features. The last of these really caught his imagination: “Ability to Tweet from the app”.

• A Daily Mail website photo caption on 16 June noted the unhappiness of some older fans of Southampton FC to the appointment of a new football manager and added, “But it doesn’t mean they are casting dispersions”. Barry Prince said he always thought it was nasturtiums that one cast … or an equivalent malapropism such as cast asparagus.



World Wide Words Issue 885 – WIF Style