World Wide Words Newsletter 884
WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 884: Saturday 31 May 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
3. Skeleton in the closet.
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Nuciform Several readers pointed out that there was nothing odd in Nehemiah Grew’s creation of nuciprune for the walnut, implying a fruit halfway between a nut and a plum. Fresh from the tree, walnuts are enclosed in nubbly green outer flesh and resemble unripe plums. Candida Frith-Macdonald commented, “Almonds are similarly wrapped in flesh, and fuzz, being the nutty cousin of the peach and apricot. But for the oddest of all, look at the Brazil nut fruit, a real master of disguise.”
Arse versus elbow Ray Heindl commented on my item about errors being introduced when scanning printed documents: “An OCR [optical character recognition] error is sometimes called a scanno, by analogy with typo. There are also spellcheckos, caused by blindly accepting a spellchecker’s suggestions.”
Robert Nathan wrote, “Converting printed contracts and other documents into editable text frequently results in what a former secretary aptly dubbed devilspeak. I encountered the cited mis-transcription of arms [into anus] in scanning an early bound copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, when, in Jabberwocky, the invitation extended to my beamish boy took on an unforeseen and particularly salacious meaning.”
Many people seeing this word would at once recall Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky from Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.”
You might enjoy the version created some years ago by the British satirical columnist Miles Kington in the style of Raymond Chandler:
Outside in the street, the first lights had come on and the slithy toves were doing whatever they do in the wabe. Some days they gyre, some days they gimble. It’s no skin off my nose, but I wish they’d make their minds up, then we could all rest easy.
When the toves gyre they spin around, revolve or whirl, an animal impersonation of a whirling dervish. You might link it to gyrate or gyroscope, which would be appropriate, since all three words are from the same source, the Greek guros, a ring or circle. As a noun gyre means a spiral or vortex. Geographers use it for a circular pattern of currents in an ocean basin, such as the North Pacific gyre, which has become infamous as a perennially rotating mass of unrottable plastic rubbish. Like gyrate and gyroscope, gyre is said with a soft g.
No one, by the way, is sure what slithy toves do when they gimble. It was one of Carroll’s lesser linguistic inventions and hasn’t caught on. Humpty Dumpty, Carroll’s alter ego, suggested that they were making holes like a gimlet with their corkscrew noses. Carroll might also have had gambol in mind, or perhaps gimbal, a contrivance for keeping an instrument such as a compass horizontal in a moving vessel. If so, pace Miles Kington, toves must simultaneously gyre and gimble, spinning to stay balanced.
3. Skeleton in the closet
Q From Martin Sturmer: I can understand why a skeleton in the closet should mean an embarrassing fact that’s best kept secret, but how did it come into existence?
A Being British, my figurative skeletons are in a cupboard rather than a closet. I learned the idiom that way in childhood, a form that’s still the more common one, though the version with closet is also found.
Such hidden embarrassments aren’t limited to family disgrace or private misdemeanour:
RBS chief Stephen Hester has gone as far as he can to prepare expectations that the bailed-out bank will be slapped with a big fine when watchdogs around the globe finally finish their investigations into the manipulation of interest rates. But Libor is not the only skeleton in the cupboard for this industry.
A tale often repeated links the phrase to the difficulties surgeons faced, before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, in obtaining cadavers for teaching students. They sometimes did so illegally, as the famous case of Burke and Hare made very public. After bodies had been thoroughly dissected, so the story goes, the surgeons had to hide the skeletons, as they were evidence of a crime. It’s sometimes suggested instead that it arose from a murder in a family in which the body had been hidden away, only later to be found in a mummified state, close enough to a skeleton for folkloric purposes. We may disregard these tales.
The idea that a skeleton was a figurative representation of a secret shame was once thought to be the inspiration of William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote in an article in Punch in 1845 that “There is a skeleton in every house.” In a novel ten years later, The Newcomes; Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, he wrote, “It is from these that we shall arrive at some particulars regarding the Newcome family, which will show us that they have a skeleton or two in their closets, as well as their neighbours.”
However, we now know that it appeared much earlier in the century:
In these, as in many other highly important questions, men seem afraid of enquiring after truth; cautions on cautions are multiplied, to conceal the skeleton in the closet or to prevent its escape.