World Wide Words Issue 931 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 931

letter-to-editor

Not my pigeon

Q From Helen Mosback: I have just read a serialised version of John Rowland’s Calamity in Kent. It includes this: “In fact, it’s your pigeon, as they say in the civil service.” I was wondering if you could shed any light on the expression it’s your pigeon? I have to admit to being quite taken by the Polish expression not my circus, not my monkeys to indicate that something is not one’s problem, and would be very happy should I have found an equally enchanting English expression!pigeon_png_clipart-671

A Readers may not be familiar with John Rowland, a little-known and neglected British detective-story writer who published Calamity in Kent in 1950. The British Library has republished it this year in its Crime Classics series.

The date of his book is significant, since at that time the expression was more familiar to people in the countries of what is now the Commonwealth than it is now. It had come into the language around the end of the nineteenth century.

The idiom suggests something is the speaker’s interest, concern, area of expertise or responsibility. This is a recent British example:

If posh people aren’t your pigeon, the correspondence on display in this book will be a massive bore and irritation.
The Times, 8 Oct. 2016.

It also turns up in the negative in phrases such as “that’s not my pigeon”, denying involvement or responsibility in some matter.

Despite your analogy with the Polish expression, the pigeon here isn’t the animal. It’s a variant form of pidgin. The name is said to derive from a Chinese attempt to say the word business; the original pidgin, Pidgin English, was a trade jargon that arose from the seventeenth century onwards between British and Chinese merchants in ports such as Canton. The word pidgin is recorded from the 1840s and has become the usual linguistic term for any simplified contact language that allows groups that don’t have a language in common to communicate.

This is an early example of pidgin being used in the figurative sense:

We agreed that if anything went wrong with the pony after, it was not to be my “pidgin.”
The North-China Herald (Shanghai), 1 Aug. 1890.

Most early examples in English writing were spelled that way, though by the 1920s the pigeon form was being used by people who didn’t make the connection with the trade language.

Subnivean

Classical scholars will spot the wintry associations of this word; it derives from Latin nix for snow, which becomes niv- in compounds such as nivālis, snowy or snow-covered. Etymologists point out that the English snow and the Latin nix both ultimately derive from the same ancient Indo-European root. But then humans in Europe have long had plenty of experience of the white stuff.

About four centuries ago, English scholars borrowed nivālis to make the adjective nival to add to our snowy (though French got there first, at least a century earlier). We also have the more recent technical term nivation, not — as you might guess — meaning snowfall but the erosion of ground around and beneath a snow bank that is seasonally melting.

Subnivean is another member of the group, nearly two centuries old. This refers to something that happens underneath snow such as the activities of animals that survive winter beneath it.

Very recently that word has been joined by the linked noun subnivium for the area between soil surface and snowpack. It was coined by a group led by Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They wrote in a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in June 2013: “For many terrestrial organisms in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is a period of resource scarcity and energy deficits, survivable only because a seasonal refugium — the ‘subnivium’ — exists beneath the snow.”

Black as Newgate knocker

Q From Jim Mitchell: As a child in South London, when I came in from playing and was a bit grubby my mother would say I looked as black as nookers nocker. My mother was born in 1917. I wonder if she might have heard this expression from her mother?

A It’s very probable. But not perhaps in that form. Your mother’s version is a mishearing of a Londoners’ expression that dates back in written records to 1881: black as Newgate knocker. It has also turned up in the forms black as Newker’s knocker, black as Nook’s knocker and black as Nugent’s knocker.

Curiously, though it has been in existence for more than a century and is currently not widely known, in writing it is now more often found than it has ever been, perhaps because it’s such an evocative item of historical Cockney slang. These days it almost always has an added apostrophe-s:

Her eyes really are black as Newgate’s knocker.
Sunday Times, 19 Jun. 1994.

Image result for black as Newgate’s knocker

Newgate Exercise yard, 1872 by Gustave Doré

Newgate here refers to the notorious prison, originally created in medieval times in one of the turrets of Newgate, a main entrance through the walls into the City of London. Down the centuries the prison was rebuilt five times; it closed in 1902 and was demolished in 1904. The Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, now stands on the site.

Newgate was a place of fear and loathing to many Londoners, not only criminals but also debtors, who were imprisoned there until they found a way to repay what they owed. After 1783, it was also the place where executions took place, initially on a public platform in front of the building, later inside. For most of its existence it was a noisome, dank, dark and unhealthy place to be incarcerated.

It’s not surprising that it should have been commemorated in expressions. But why not just black as Newgate? Why should its door knocker be selected as the source of the simile?

The phrase Newgate knocker itself is older. It was applied to a hairstyle fashionable among lower-class male Londoners such as costermongers. Though it became widely known from the 1840s, I’ve found a reference to it in the Kentish Gazette in 1781. It referred to a lock of hair twisted from the temple on each side of the head back towards the ear in the shape of a figure 6.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote in his London Labour and the London Poor that a lad of about fourteen had told him that to be “flash” (stylish) hair “ought to be long in front, and done in ‘figure-six’ curls, or twisted back to the ear ‘Newgate knocker style’.” Eight years later, John Camden Hotten explained in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words that “The shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate — a resemblance that carries a rather unpleasant suggestion to the wearer.” Another description came a couple of years later from another investigative social journalist, James Greenwood:

knockerAll, or nearly all, [were] bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the “Newgate knocker” style — that is, parted in masses on each side of the head and turned under unnaturally.
Illustrated Times (London), 16 Feb. 1861.

There’s no obvious connection with the colour black. We may guess, however, that Londoners would have imagined the prison’s knocker to be large and made of black iron as well as figuratively black because of its evil associations. We may also guess from the dates at which the two expressions were first current that Londoners took over the hairstyle phrase as a new way to describe the colour, as people have done for centuries with similes such as black as your hat, black as death, black as the ace of spades, black as thunder, and black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.

As a postscript, I also found this, in a story from 60-odd years ago about the search by a journalist named Bernard O’Donnell for the original Newgate knocker:

His spasmodic search came to an end recently when he was in the office of the Keeper of the Old Bailey, Mr A W Burt. “Where is Newgate’s knocker?” he asked Mr Burt. Promptly it was shown to him. It was on the keeper’s desk. After years spent as a symbol which came to inspire dread among the poor of London, it had found a more useful rôle. It now makes an ideal paper weight.
The Scotsman, 24 April 1950.

Make of that what you will. I wonder if it still exists?

In the news

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Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year 2016 on 16 November: post-truth. Its editors defined this as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” One example came in a report in The Times on 31 October of comments by the president of the European Council on the signing of a trade deal with Canada:

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“Mr Tusk also denounced the ‘post-truth politics … on both sides of the Atlantic’ which nearly scuppered the deal because ‘facts and figures won’t stand up for themselves’ against an emotional opposition campaign.” Though it has been very much a word of this year, connected both with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries noted that “post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine.”

Last time I mentioned the Danish word hygge, a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. This has become widely popular in Britain this year, and was one of Oxford Dictionaries’ runners-up as Word of the Year. For the background and the story of its rise in British English, I can’t do better than point you to an article by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian on 22 November.Image result for post-truth

The newest British buzzword is jam. Not as in the “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today” meaning of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass — though the quip has been made several times by pundits — but as an acronym for “Just About Managing”. This refers to the estimated six million working-age British households on low to middle incomes who are struggling to stave off poverty from day to day. The term derives from a speech given by the new prime minister, Theresa May, just after she was chosen by MPs in July. She said of the members of this group, “You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.” Her words became a catchphrase among commentators which has now been shortened.

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Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Boxing Day

Q From Burt Rubin; a related question came from Keith Denham: As an American, I’ve always wondered about the origin of the term Boxing Day.

A Boxing Day is a public holiday in Britain and most Commonwealth countries. There’s some minor confusion these days, in Britain at least, over which day it actually is. The reference books a century ago were adamant that it was the first working day after Christmas Day. However, the name is now frequently attached specifically to 26 December, even if it falls at the weekend, which makes it equivalent to the Christian saint’s day of St Stephen.

Image result for boxing dayWe have to go back to the early seventeenth century to find the basis for the name. The term Christmas box appeared about then for an earthenware box, something like a piggy bank, which apprentices and other workers took around immediately after Christmas to collect money. When the round was complete, the box was broken and the money distributed among the company. The first known example:

Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in Related imageFrance by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc.
A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, by Randle Cotgrave, 1611.

By the eighteenth century, Christmas box had become a figurative term for any seasonal gratuity. By the nineteenth century their collection seems to have become a scourge in our big cities. When James Murray compiled an entry for Christmas box in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1889, his splendidly acerbic description suggests that the practice had become a personal bugbear:

A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.

Though the term Boxing Day for the day on which such Christmas boxes were requested didn’t become widespread until early in the nineteenth century, a few examples are recorded from the previous century. The earliest I know of is this:

Related imageTuesday in Christmas Week, about Eight in the Evening, I was coming over this broad Place, and saw a Man come up to this lame Man, and knock him down — It was the Day after Boxing Day.
Transcript of a trial at the Old Bailey (London), 14 Jan. 1743.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the term seems to have become as closely associated with importuning individuals as Christmas Box itself:

“Boxing Day,” — the day consecrated to baksheesh, when nobody, it would almost seem, is too proud to beg, and when everybody who does not beg is expected to play the almoner. “Tie up the knocker — say you’re sick, you are dead,” is the best advice perhaps that could be given in such cases to any man who has a street-door and a knocker upon it.
Curiosities of London Life, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853.

The custom has died out, seasonal visitors to Britain may be assured, though small gifts are still sometimes given to tradesmen and suppliers of services. The favourite occupation of the day is attending football matches or rushing to the post-Christmas sales.

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


World Wide Words Issue 931

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World Wide Words Issue 930 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 930

letter-to-editor

It was a pleasure to learn on Tuesday that Randy Cassingham, who writes the This Is True newsletter, had included World Wide Words in his Top 11 Hidden Gems of the Internet suggested by his subscribers. He described the site as “a treasure trove of past articles: the kind of site where you pop in … and don’t look up again for hours.” Check out the others here: http://wwwords.org/hdngms. A special welcome to the new subscribers who joined through consulting the list.

Fizgig

Today — 5 November — is one of those periodic celebrations of failure we Brits so much enjoy, in this case the inability of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament on this day in 1605. For the four centuries since, the day has been celebrated with fireworks and bonfires.

Image result for fizgigOne such firework was the fizgig, an unspectacular device that hissed rather than banged, for which reason it has also been called a serpent; a conical form has the name volcano. A English poet once compared a man to one:

Northmore himself is an honest, vehement sort of a fellow who splutters out all his opinions like a fiz-gig, made of gunpowder not thoroughly dry, sudden and explosive, yet ever with a certain adhesive blubberliness of elocution.
Letter from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Thomas Poole, 16 Sep. 1799.

Fizgig in the sense of the firework is now quite dead, as are most of the other senses that this weirdly Image result for ficklecatholic word has had. The original was a frivolous woman, fond of gadding about in search of pleasure — an alliterative-minded seventeenth-century man wrote of “Fis-gig, a flirt, a fickle …. foolish Female”. The word was built upon gig, another word that has had many meanings; Chaucer knew it as a fickle woman but Shakespeare considered it to be a child’s top. The first part of fizgig is obscure. It can’t be fizz, effervescence, because that came along much later, probably as an imitative sound. It may be the same word as the obsolete fise for a smelly fart.

Another defunct meaning of fizgig is that of a harpoon, a fish-spear:

Two dolphins followed us this afternoon; we hooked one, and struck the other with the fizgig; but they both escaped us, and we saw them no more.
Journal of a Voyage from London to Philadelphia, by Benjamin Franklin, 1726.

This was sometimes perverted into fish-gig by popular etymology. It has no link with the other senses but derives from the Spanish word fisga for a harpoon.

Image result for stool pigeonFizgig principally survives in Australian slang, where it means a police informer. It turns up first in the 1870s, perhaps as an extension of the female sense, considered stereotypically as dashing about madly and gossiping indiscreetly:

Without their allies — “the fizgigs,” the police seem powerless to trace the authors of the robberies which are now of such frequent occurrence.
Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA), 15 Nov. 1882.

Lots of letters

Spin a yarn

Q From From Ada Robinson: I came across the phrase spinning a yarn (in the sense of telling a story) recently, and for the first time wondered about its origin. Can you shed light on how the word yarn acquired the second meaning of a tale?

A It’s puzzling because we’ve lost the context.

We know that sailors were the first to use spinning a yarn — often in the extended form spinning out a long yarn — to refer to telling a story that described a speaker’s adventures and exploits.

We start to see the expressions in print in the early nineteenth century, though its ultimate origin is unclear. However, we do know that one task of sailors was to make running repairs to the various ropes of the ship — the cables, hawsers and rigging. As with people on shore, yarn was their word for the individualImage result for spinning gif strands of such ropes, often very long. Their term for binding the strands into fresh rope was spinning or to spin out. The next part is a jump of imagination, for which you may substitute the word guess, though I would prefer to call it informed speculation. The task of repair was necessarily long and tedious. We may easily imagine members of the repair crew telling one another stories to make the time pass more easily and that this practice became associated with the phrases.

By the second decade of the century, the term was being used ashore and became a popular slangy idiom. One appearance was in a jocular report of a police court action in Edinburgh which centred on a sailor who had stolen a milk cart:

When the first witness was put in the box, and had his mouth most oracularly opened, preparing to speak, Jack, twitching him by the collar with his forefinger, caused him at once to descend, and exclaimed — “Avast there; none of your jaw; who wants you to spin out a long yarn?”
The Edinburgh Advertiser, 17 Nov. 1826.

Image result for a yarn

In time, yarn came to refer to the stories. Many must have been exaggerated or bombastic and that sense of something not readily believable still attaches itself to the word. In Australia and New Zealand the word has softened in sense to mean no more than chatting.

Chalazion

Peter Gilliver, the eminent lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary whose book I mentioned last time, quoted this word in an interview a couple of weeks ago. He said he had found it when a youngster in a children’s dictionary that was full of such unusual words.

I made the mistake of looking for it in Google Books, where I found several works which explained it in Image result for styeterms such as “a common lipogranulomatous inflammation of the sebaceous glands of the eyelids, most often the meibomian glands.” Some works also noted that it’s sometimes known as a hordeolum. In confusion, I visited Dr Gilliver’s wonderful online repository of knowledge, in which chalazion is defined as “a small pimple or tubercule; especially one on the eyelid, a stye.”

Chalazion is the diminutive of Greek chalaza for almost any lump, including a small hailstone and a pimple. The OED helpfully pointed me to its entry for chalaza, which stated that in English it’s a zoological term for “Each of the two membranous twisted strings by which the yolk-bag of an egg is bound to the lining membrane at the ends of the shell.”

The meibomian glands make a lubricant for the eye. Their name isn’t from a classical language but derives from a seventeenth-century German anatomist named Heinrich Meibom. And hordeolum derives from the Latin word for barley grains

The plural of chalazion, should you ever suffer from more than one, is chalazia.

In the news

Words of 2016. The annual lexicographical wordfest began on Thursday with a list of topical terms from Collins Dictionary. Its choice for Word of the Year was Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union. The words-of-the-year-001term went from nowhere to established part of the language in an extraordinarily brief time. The earliest recorded use may have been the one in The Guardian on 1 January 2012 but it became widely used by the general public only in the early months of this year. The publisher suggests it “is arguably politics’ most important contribution to the English language in over 40 years”. It has spawned many spin-offs, including Bremorse for the regret by people who voted to leave but realise they made a mistake and would like to Bremain or Breturn. Other words in the Collins topical list are hygge, a suddenly fashionable and much written about Danish concept of creating cosy and convivial atmospheres that promote wellbeing, and uberization, derived from the name of the taxi firm Uber, for the adoption of a business model in which services are offered on demand through direct contact between a customer and supplier, usually via mobile technology.

Fount of fonts. Subscriber Bart Cannistra came across a news item about a new pan-language collection of fonts from Google and Monotype that supports more than 100 scripts and 800 languages in a common visual style. Its name is Noto, which its website says is short for “no more tofu”. It explains that tofu is digital typographer’s jargon for one of those little rectangular boxes that appear when your browser doesn’t have the appropriate font to display a character. The boxes sometimes have a question mark or cross inside them but it’s their rectangular shape that has given them the name, since they reminded some unheralded type designer of the cuboid blocks of tofu.

Not that kind of girl. Readers outside the UK are most likely unfamiliar with the term Essex Girl, Image result for essex girlwhich Collins Dictionary defines as “a young working-class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous.” It’s in the news because two Essex women have begun a petition to have the term stricken from dictionaries because they’ve had enough of derogatory references. They have been criticised for starting the petition because it only leads to more public mention of the term. The term came to public attention in 1991 with the publication of The Essex Girl Joke Book (typical example: “How does an Essex Girl turn on the light after sex? She opens the car door”), but the stereotype is best known through the long-running ITV programme The Only Way is Essex. The OED has already refused to remove the term, on the excellent grounds that it’s part of our living language.

Lots of letters

What am I? Chopped liver?

Q From Mary Clarke: Your piece on Joe Soap made me think of the phrase What am I? Chopped liver? Is this a New York expression or a Jewish expression? I ask this because we seem to eat more chopped liver here than anywhere else and because one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received was from a friend who said my chopped liver was better than her Jewish grandmother’s.

A This takes me back. In November 1999, when this newsletter had already reached issue 167, I mentioned that a reader had asked about this but as it was unfamiliar to me, I asked for elucidation. The resulting flood of emails was overwhelming. Though I summarised the results the following week, I realise now that I never went into detail, nor posted anything on my website.

Image result for chopped liverA dish of chopped liver — fried chicken livers with eggs, spices and, if you’re being really traditional, schmaltz and gribenes (respectively rendered chicken fat and fried chicken skin as a form of crackling) — is common at Jewish celebratory meals. It’s also a standard dish in New York Jewish delicatessens. But it’s inexpensive and never a main dish, wherein lies the core of the idiom. Sol Steinmetz, the American linguist and Yiddish expert, explained that “Chopped liver is merely an appetizer or side dish, not as important as chicken soup or gefilte fish. Hence it was used among Jewish comedians as a humorous metaphor for something or someone insignificant.” Robert Chapman argued in his Dictionary of American Slang that the idiom originated in the 1930s in this sense.

Early in its development a negative reference to chopped liver developed, which instead suggested something excellent or impressive. It parallels another American idiom, that ain’t hay. The idiom appeared in various forms, such as it ain’t chopped liver, that’s not chopped liver, and it’s not exactly chopped liver. The first of these forms is noted by Jonathan Lighter in his Historical Dictionary of American Slang from a Jimmy Durante television show in 1954. It must surely be older. This is another version, from a little later:

Some of the critics put it right up there with “My Fair Lady.” Even before it lifts the curtain there is a Image result for chopped livermillion dollars in advance orders and this as the boys say is not chopped liver …
The Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas), 8 Mar 1959.

The form that you mention appears in the historical record a few years later still. Somebody exclaiming What am I? Chopped liver? is expressing annoyance at being thought unworthy of attention: “What about me? Why am I being ignored? Don’t I matter?”

It could be New York Jewish. It has the right cadence for a Yiddish exclamation and chopped liver, as we’ve seen, is an archetypal Jewish dish. And the experts suggest it grew out of a catchphrase of comedians in the Borscht Belt of the Catskill Mountains patronised by Jewish people from New York City. But there’s no certain connection. What is clear that it filled a need and that even by its earliest written appearances it had already reached places well away from centres of Jewish life.

Happy as a sandboy

Image result for sandboy

Q From Niki Wessels, South Africa; a related question came from Robert Metcalf in Singapore: Our family recently discussed the expression happy as a sandboy, and wondered where and how it originated. My dictionary informs me that a sandboy is a kind of flea — but why a boy, and why is it happy?

A Let me add an explanatory note to your question, as many readers will never have heard this saying. It’s a proverbial expression that suggests blissful contentment:

Made me think it might be a good idea to mark the occasion. Nothing too big, you understand. Not looking for fireworks and flags or anything. I’m a modest man with modest needs. Give me a bit of cake, maybe some tarts, throw in a couple of balloons and I’m happy as a sandboy.
Bristol Evening Post, 11 Aug. 2015.

It’s mostly known in Britain and Commonwealth countries. An older form is as jolly as a sandboy, which is now rarely encountered. The first examples we know about are from London around the start of the nineteenth century.

A sandboy in some countries can indeed be a sort of sand flea, but this isn’t the source of the expression. Incidentally, nor is there a link with the sandman, the personification of tiredness, which came into English in translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories several decades after sandboy.

The sandboys of the expression actually sold sand. Boy here was a common term for a male worker of lower class (as in bellboy, cowboy, and stableboy), which comes from an old sense of a servant. It doesn’t imply the sellers were young — most were certainly adults — though one early poetic reference does mention a child:

A poor shoeless Urchin, half starv’d and suntann’d,Image result for sandboy
Pass’d near the Inn-Window, crying — “Buy my fine Sand!”
The Rider, and Sand-Boy in the Hereford Journal, 13 Jul. 1796. The title contains the earliest known reference to a sandboy. The poem was unattributed but is almost certainly by William Meyler of Bath. Note that to be described as suntanned wasn’t then a compliment; it implied an outdoor worker of low class.

The selling of sand wasn’t such a peculiar occupation as you might think, as there was once a substantial need for it. It was used to scour pans and tools and was sprinkled on the floors of butchers’ shops, inns and taprooms to take up spilled liquids. Later in the century it was superseded by sawdust.

Henry Mayhew wrote about the trade in his London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. The sand was dug out from pits on Hampstead Heath and taken down in horse-drawn carts or panniers carried on donkeys to be hawked through the streets. The job was hard work and badly paid. Mayhew records these comments from one of the excavators: “My men work very hard for their money, sir; they are up at 3 o’clock of the morning, and are knocking about the streets, perhaps till 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening”.

Their prime characteristic, it seems, was an inexhaustible desire for beer. Charles Dickens referred to thesandboy saying, by then proverbial, in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1841: “The Jolly Sandboys was a small road-side inn of pretty ancient date, with a sign, representing three Sandboys increasing their jollity with as many jugs of ale”. An early writer on slang made the link explicit:

“As jolly as a sand-boy,” designates a merry fellow who has tasted a drop.
Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-tom, and the Varieties of Life, by John Badcock, 1823. To have become an aphorism by this time, sandboy must surely be older than the 1796 poem quoted above.

Quite so. But I suspect that the long hours and hard work involved in carrying and shovelling sand, plus the poor returns, meant that sandboys didn’t have much cause to look happy in the normal run of things, improving only when they’d had a pint or two. Their regular visits to inns and ale-houses presented temptation to a much greater degree than to most people and it has also been suggested that they were often paid partly in beer.

So sandboys were happy because they were drunk.

At first the saying was meant ironically. Only where the trade wasn’t practised — or had died out — could it became an allusion to unalloyed happiness. To judge from the answers to a question about its origin in Notes & Queries in 1866, even by then its origin was obscure.

SIC

• A headline on the Hertfordshire Mercury site on 14 October — “Tributes paid to Waltham Cross Labour councillor who was a ‘real character’ following his death” — led Ross Mulder to wonder what the man was like during his life.

• If you’re going to do something, do it properly. Ted Dooley found this news in an email from the Minneapolis Star Tribune on 7 October: “Ryan D. Petersen, 37, was convicted Friday morning of first-degree premeditated murder for fatally shooting a law clerk eight times earlier this year.”

• A puzzling statement from The Age of Melbourne of 10 October about the illegal demolition of a heritage-listed pub was submitted by Susan Ross: “A petition law students started this week demanding the pub be rebuilt by Tuesday afternoon had more than 5000 signatures.” A comma after “rebuilt” might have helped.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 1996-2016.


World Wide Words Issue 930

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Lots of letters

Tomfoolery

Q From Joe Brown: I was wondering where the phrase Tom Foolery came from?

A I would write it as one word, tomfoolery, and my ordered ranks of dictionaries tell me I’m right. But it often turns up in print in the way you have written it, or as Tom foolery or tom-foolery or Tom-foolery. Such forms show that their writers still link the word with some fool called Tom, even though they may not know who he was.tomfoolery

It is sometimes claimed that the original Tom Fool was Thomas Skelton. He was a jester, a fool, for the Pennington family at Muncaster Castle in Cumbria. This was probably about 1600 — he is said to be the model for the jester in Shakespeare’s King Lear of 1606. In legend, he was an unpleasant person. One story tells how he liked to sit under a tree by the road; whenever travellers he didn’t like asked the way to the ford over the River Esk, he would instead direct them to their deaths in the marshes. Another tale links him with the murder of a carpenter who was the lover of Sir William Pennington’s daughter.

So much for stories. In truth, Tom Fool is centuries older. He starts appearing in the historical record early in the 1300s in the Latinate form Thomas fatuus. The first part served even then as a generic term for any ordinary person, as it still does in phrases like Tom, Dick or Harry. The second word means stupid or foolish in Latin and has bequeathed us fatuous and infatuate, among other words. By 1356 Thomas fatuus had become Tom Fool.

Around the seventeenth century, the character of Tom Fool shifted somewhat from the epitome of a stupid or half-witted person to that of a fool or buffoon. He became a character who accompanied morris-dancers or formed part of the cast of various British mummers’ plays performed at Christmas, Easter or All Souls’ Day.

A tom-fool was more emphatically foolish than an unadorned fool. Tomfoolery was similarly worse than foolery, the state of acting foolishly, which had been in English since the sixteenth century. Perhaps oddly, it took until about 1800 for tomfoolery to appear. It had been preceded by the verb to tom-fool, to play the fool.

Fair to middling

Q From John Rupp, Dallas, Texas: I have often heard the phrase fair to Midland (middlin’?) in response to the inquiry ‘How are you doing?’ Any ideas on the origins of this phrase?

A As you hint, the phrase is more usually fair to middling, common enough — in Britain as well as North America — for something that’s moderate to merely average in quality, sometimes written the way people say it, as fair to middlin’.

With an initial capital letter, fair to Midland is a Texas version of the phrase, a joke on the name of the Image result for midland texascity of Midland in that state. A Texas rock band called themselves Fair to Midland after what they described as “an old Texan play on the term ‘fair to middling’”. American researcher Barry Popik has traced it to May 1935 in a report in the New York Times, “Dr. William Tweddell … is what might be called a fair-to-Midland golfer.”

But we do occasionally see examples of fair to midland in American contexts without a capital letter and without any suggestion of humour:

While overall attendance was fair to midland — the championship session drew about 800 — the Bartlett student section was outstanding.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Illinois), 31 Dec. 2011.

This lower-case fair to midland version is recorded in Massachusetts in 1968, which suggests that even then it had already lost its connection with Texas. It might be folk etymology, in which an unfamiliar word is changed to one that’s better known. But it’s an odd example, as middling isn’t so very uncommon. It may be that people tried to correct middlin’ to a more acceptable version that lacked the dropped letter but plumped for the wrong word.

All the early examples of fair to middling I can find in literary works are similarly American, from authorsImage result for average such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and Artemus Ward. To go by them, it looks as though it became common on the east coast of the US from the 1860s on. However, hunting in newspapers, I’ve found examples from a couple of decades before, likewise from the east coast. This one was in a newspaper review of the current issue of The Ladies’ Companion:

These three articles are the best in the present number — of the rest, most are from fair to middling.
Boston Morning Post, 6 Feb. 1841.

The earliest of all I’ve so far found comes from an article in the July 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia: “A Dinner on the Plains, Tuesday, September 20th. — This was given ‘at the country seat’ of J. C. Jones, Esq. to the officers of the Peacock and Enterprise. The viands were ‘from fair to middling, we wish we could say more.’”

So the phrase is American, most probably early nineteenth century. But where does it come from? There’s a clue in the Century Dictionary of 1889: “Fair to middling, moderately good: a term designating a specific grade of quality in the market”. The term middling turns out to have been used as far back as the previous century both in the US and in Britain for an intermediate grade of various kinds of goods — there are references to a middling grade of flour, pins, sugar, and other commodities.

Which market the Century Dictionary was referring to is made plain by the nineteenth-century Word-of-the-weekAmerican trade journals I’ve consulted. Fair and middling were terms in the cotton business for specific grades — the sequence ran from the best quality (fine), through good, fair, middling and ordinary to the least good (inferior), with a number of intermediates, one being middling fair. The form fair to middling sometimes appeared as a reference to this grade, or a range of intermediate qualities — it was common to quote indicative prices, for example, for “fair to middling grade”.

The reference was so well known in the cotton trade that it escaped into the wider language. Some early figurative appearances in newspapers directly reflect the market usage:

Twenty-five cents a line, then, may be quoted as the present commercial value of good poetry … fair to middling is probably more difficult of sale.
New York Daily Times, 29 May 1855.

I have only the opinions of some who patronized her entertainments, who profess to be judges of such things. Verdict, as the Price Current says, “fair to middling with downward tendency.”
The Wabash Express (Terre Haute, Indiana), 18 May 1859.

The figurative term starts to appear in Britain in the 1870s, but early examples are all in stories imported from across the Atlantic. Even that seemingly most home-grown British composition, Austin Doherty’s Nathan Barley: Sketches in the Retired Life of a Lancashire Butcher of 1884, written in local dialect, includes it in the speech of an old school fellow who had emigrated and made his money in Michigan. So it was known but labelled as an Americanism. It took until the twentieth century for it to begin to be used unselfconsciously.

So help me Hannah

Q From Jon S of Mississippi: By any chance do you know the origin of the American expression, So help me Hannah? It used to be heard more often in days gone by, and people today may have never heard of it, but it’s an old saying that I cannot find the origin of.

A I can’t provide a definite origin but I can give some pointers.

Hannah, as a personal name, sometimes with the spelling pronunciation “Hanner”, has been used in the US in various colloquial sayings since at least the 1870s. They include that’s what’s the matter with Hannah, indicating emphatic agreement, of which John Farmer wrote disparagingly in his Americanisms of 1889, “A street catch-phrase with no especial meaning. For a time it rounded off every statement of fact or expression of opinion amongst the vulgar.” Another, since Hannah died, was a reference to the passage of time.

so-help-me-001The earliest on record is he doesn’t amount to Hannah Cook, later often abbreviated to he doesn’t amount to Hannah and also appearing as not worth a Hannah Cook.

Mr. Sweeney rose again to explain the mysteries of printing ballots the evening before election, and added that the acceptance or rejection of the investigating Committee’s report “didn’t amount to Hannah Cook,” because it made no recommendations.
Boston Daily Globe, 9 Sep. 1875.

This early appearance in a Boston newspaper supports the general opinion that it’s of New England origin. John Gould suggested in his Maine Lingo of 1975 that it derived from seafaring: “A man who signed on as a hand or cook didn’t have status as one or the other and could be worked in the galley or before the mast as the captain wished. The hand or cook was nondescript, got smaller wages, and became the Hannah Cook of the adage.” The story sounds too much like folk etymology to be readily swallowed.

So help me Hannah is a mildly euphemistic form of the oath so help me God, which starts to appear in print in the early twentieth century. Hannah here seems likely to have been borrowed from one or other of the earlier expressions. It became widely used in the 1920s and 1930s.

“By hell, Chief,” he drawled, drawing a huge clasp-knife from his
pocket, “I been grazin’ on this here Alasky range nigh on to twenty
yars, and so help me Hannah, I never did find a place so wild or a
bunch o’ hombres so tough but what sooner or later all hands starts
a-singin’ o’ the female sect.”
Where the Sun Swings North, by Barrett Willoughby, 1922.

After the Second World War, the American firm Hannah Laboratories produced a salve with the name So help me Hannah. Some people have pointed to this as the origin of the expression, though the firm was, of course, merely exploiting a phrase that had long since become part of the common language.

elsewhere2

OED history revealed. I have this week spent much time that I should have been devoting to other things in dipping into Peter Gilliver’s scholarly work The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It tells the story from its prehistory, through the long and often difficult process of creating the first edition, its supplements and the second edition, to the early stages of the research into OED3. Uniquely among OED historians he is an experienced lexicographer, who has worked on the OED and other Oxford dictionaries since 1987. His heavily footnoted text is a testament to the depth of his decade of investigation; it’s not for the casual reader but will repay anyone with a serious interest in the story behind one of Britain’s greatest treasures. (Hardback, already out in the UK, £40; to be published in the US on 25 October at $65.)

Slang dictionary goes online. While we’re on national treasures, it’s timely to mention Green’s Dictionary of Slang (reviewed by me in 2010), a magisterial three-volume creation by Jonathon Green, which one writer has called the OED of slang (53,000 headwords, 110,000 slang terms, 410,000 examples of usage). The work is going live online on 12 October with comprehensive search facilities.

Image result for slang

If you wish only to check a headword, an etymology and a definition, the site is free; if you want to access the full work and timeline of development, you can take out an annual subscription, currently £49.00 ($65.00) for single users, £10.00 ($15.00) for students. Just like the OED, online publication means that the work is continually being updated; nearly 30% of the print book has been revised, augmented and generally improved, and as just one example, early quotations for various senses of dope which I unearthed while writing my piece of 6 August and sent to Jonathon have already been incorporated into the entry.

Image result for slang

Origin of slang. What is perhaps most interesting about slang is that the origin of its name has long been debated and still isn’t firmly established. Some experts have argued for a link to the English verb sling, to throw, with the implication that it’s disposable or throw-away language. Modern dictionaries say this is improbable but have nothing to put in its place, falling back on phrases such as “origin unknown”. In 2008, in his Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, Professor Anatoly Liberman suggested it came from another sense of slang, a narrow strip of land, which he linked to various words of Scandinavian origin that imply a group of travellers, tramps or hawkers. He argued that the progression of sense is “A piece of land -> those who travel about this territory (first and foremost, hawkers) -> the manner of hawkers’ speech -> low class jargon, argot.” Prof Liberman has this week repeated his argument in his Oxford Etymologist blog. Not everyone is as yet convinced.

Joe Soap

Q From Steve Campbell: My dear old mother would occasionally use the expression Who do you think I am, Joe Soap? We migrated to Australia from the Old Dart in 1951 and I’ve never heard it used by Australians. What is its origin and is it still in use in the UK?

A It remains moderately common in Britain but its meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She would have had in mind a stupid or naive person, one who could be easily put upon or deceived. These days it refers to a typical individual, the archetypal person in the street.

The full judgement will be published in a week or two and the ordinary Joe Soap will take hours to read it and understand.
Daily Mirror, 9 Sep. 2015.

This sense is now known outside the UK, especially in North America.

Your mother’s sense is usually regarded as services slang from the Second World War, most oftenImage result for joe soap associated with the Royal Air Force:

Joe Soap was the legendary airman who carried the original can. He became a synonym for anyone who had the misfortune to be assigned an unwelcome duty in the presence of his fellows, or to be temporarily misemployed in a status lower than his own. “I’m Joe Soap,” he would say lugubriously, and I’m carrying the something can.”
Royal Air Force Quarterly, 1944. “Something” may be read as a polite substitute for a more forceful epithet. See here for carry the can.

The term certainly became popular during the war but there’s evidence it was known earlier in the naive sense:

I ain’t no Joe Soap to go a-believin’ of all their yarns.
Blackwood’s Magazine, 1934. The writer who quoted this added, “Who Joe Soap was I have never discovered”, which suggests it wasn’t then widely known.

What might be an earlier services connection is the song Forward Joe Soap’s Army, which featured in Joan Littlewood’s musical Oh What a Lovely War and in the film made of it. Despite claims that the songs in the play were authentic First World War creations, I can find no reference to it before the play was first performed in 1963.

However, it wouldn’t have been an anachronism, since the phrase can be traced to the nineteenth century as a generic name for someone unknown, or a pseudonym that was adopted by somebody wanting to stay anonymous.

A man whose real name is unknown, but who is known in the district as “Joe Soap,” had on Tuesday evening crossed a field near Meltham, to get to Bingley Quarry, but in the dusk, mistaking his position, he fell into the quarry, and was killed.
Leeds Times, 21 Sep. 1878.

Witness then went across the road to him and told him to be quiet, and defendant who was using very bad language, put on his coat and got into his trap. Witness then asked him his name and he said “Joe Soap, that will do for you.”
Chepstow Weekly Advertiser, 13 Apr. 1907.

Image result for average joeNobody knows for sure where this generic name comes from.

The first part has been widely used to refer to an ordinary person — Joe Bloggs, Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Joe Average, ordinary Joe, Joe Doakes, Joe Public — there are lots of examples, though most of them originate in North America. Joe was noted in Britain as a generic term in 1846, albeit in a different sense, when it appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide: “Joe, an imaginary person, nobody, as Who do those things belong to? Joe.” The unknown-person sense of Joe Soap might have come from it.

It is usually assumed that the second part is rhyming slang for dope, a stupid person, though this would have been improbable in the nineteenth century. Though a couple of examples of dope with that meaning are recorded from the dialect of Cumberland in the 1850s, it wasn’t then widely known in Britain. In that sense it was imported later from North America.

My thanks to Peter Morris, Garson O’Toole and Jonathan Lighter of the American Dialect Society for their contributions to revising this article.

SIC

  • A confusing headline in the Boston Globe online on 11 August left readers, among them Bart Bresnik, wondering who was searching for whom: “Woman found abandoned in hospital as baby searches for mom.”
  • The website of a hotel in California left Michael Boydston feeling it may be providing more than he was looking for: “Nestled in your opulent guest room with luxurious bedding and special amenities, the Drisco’s thoughtful staff will be there to anticipate your needs and carry out your wishes.”
  • Department of too much information: “Portis told us everything. Then Princess Cire told us the rest.” (Behind the Throne, by K B Wagers, 2016).

World Wide Words is written, edited and published in the UK by Michael Quinion


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Issue 928

WIF Etymology-001

Nimrod

Words-001Q From Barbara Murray, Wisconsin: Oxford Dictionaries online defines nimrod in UK English as a “skilful hunter” and, across the pond where I reside, as an “inept person”. Can you explain these more or less opposite meanings?

A Let’s start, as all good stories should, at the beginning. In the Bible, Nimrod was said toImage result for nimrod be the great-grandson of Noah. Genesis reports “And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”

From the seventeenth century, Nimrod was conventionally used in literature on both sides of the Atlantic as the personification of a hunter, an eponym:

In front of him is the sporting Earl of Sefton, and that highly-esteemed son of Nimrod, Colonel Hilton Joliffe,— men of the strictest probity, and hence often appointed referees on matters in dispute.
The English Spy, by Bernard Blackmantle, 1825.

He was a complete Nimrod, now almost worn out.
The Adventures of Daniel Boone, by “Uncle Philip”, 1843.

In the UK, the name stayed largely a literary reference but even in that context it is now extremely rare. Several Royal Navy ships down the years have borne the name, as has a class of submarine-hunter aircraft.

Nimrod

But we probably know it mostly as a piece of music much used on solemn state occasions. For geographical and social reasons it has never become a popular term in daily life for a hunter. When it did appear, it usually meant a rider to hounds:

The weather in the past few days has been so open, that the whole Nimrod school have had a fine run of enjoyment this season, except in cases where foxes are somewhat scarce.
Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 27 Jan. 1855.

In the US, with its longstanding and widespread tradition of hunting, much greater opportunities existed to describe individuals as Nimrods. It appears in sources such as newspapers from about the middle of the nineteenth century. At one time in the US it was also a moderately common given name in communities that went to the Bible for inspiration.

Early on, references were neutral in their implications, simply a figurative way to describe a person who hunted. Occasional descents into derision were prompted by a person falling short of competence, as in this tale about a group of young people out for a day’s sport:

Zindel was the mighty hunter of the crowd and after expostulations of his nimrod abilities the others watched him walk into a flock of a hundred quails and snap both triggers of his gun upon empty chambers.
Fort Madison Weekly Democrat (Fort Madison, Iowa), 11 Jan. 1911.

Note that Nimrod here has lost his initial capital letter, sure evidence that the word was losing its mental links with an historical personage. This is the way that eponyms evolve — we no longer capitalise wellington, cardigan, pasteurise, diesel, silhouette, boycott or dozens of others of the same type.

From the 1930s onwards we see an increasing tendency for nimrod to be used much more in a disparaging or sarcastic way for a hunter with limited skills. Bugs Bunny, you may recall, referred to hunter Elmer Fudd as “poor little Nimrod”.

Over time, nimrod shifted still further towards meaning a damn fool who shot at anything that moved and even things that didn’t. By the 1960s, this transition was pretty much complete:

In Wisconsin, as I was driving through, a hunter shot his own guide between the shoulder blades. The coroner questioning this nimrod asked, “Did you think he was a deer?”
Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck, 1962.

and was being applied in particular to people who shot up road signs for fun:

Martin estimated that nimrod sign destruction in Kansas costs taxpayers more than $1 million a year.
Arkansas City Traveler (Arkansas City, Kansas), 9 Jan. 1960.

The next stage seems to have been largely catalysed by students in the 1980s and 1990s, for whom nimrod had lost its associations with hunting but retained those of a contemptible or inept person. By the turn of the new century, that sense had become the dominant one:

When you’re followed, you can’t know if it’s an experienced expert or some bloody nimrod who can’t find his way to the loo.
Red Rabbit, by Tom Clancy, 2002.

Words-001Isabelline

Pronounced /ɪzəˈbɛlɪn/

Isabelline refers to a colour. The dictionaries variously describe it as greyish-yellow, light buff, pale cream-brown, dingy yellowish grey or drab. The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary tries hardest to tie it down: “a moderate yellowish brown to light olive brown that is lighter and stronger than clay drab or medal bronze”. It has also been described as the colour of parchment or sand.

The female name Isabella can similarly refer to the colour. Its first appearance in English is in an inventory of the wardrobe of Queen Elizabeth I in 1600: “one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten … set with silver bangles”. Versions of it are known in various European languages from about the same date, including French, German, Spanish and Italian, usually for the colour of a horse.

Image result for Isabella Archduchess of Austria

Archduchess Isabella of Austria with her husband, Prince Georg of Bavaria, c. 1918.

The origin is unclear. That has led to stories growing up that associate Isabella (and by implication isabelline) with an historical event involving a noble lady by that name. One identifies her as Isabella, Archduchess of Austria, daughter of Philip II of Spain. He laid siege to Ostend in 1601 and in a moment of filial fervour Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. Unfortunately for her (and no doubt for those around her) the siege lasted another three years, supposedly leading to this off-colour word for over-worn underwear. Other European nations have a similar story, though they apply it instead to the siege of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille in 1491.

Isabelline is comparatively recent, appearing from about 1840 in descriptions by zoologists of a wide variety of species of bats, fungi, fish and mammals, but mainly birds, such as the isabelline wheatear and the isabelline shrike. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both used it, as did other writers of the nineteenth century:

Image result for isabelline

Isaballine Shrike

To begin with, all the smaller denizens of the desert — whether butterflies, beetles, birds, or lizards — must be quite uniformly isabelline or sand-coloured.
Falling in Love; With Other Essays on More Exact Branches of Science, by Grant Allen, 1889.

It’s a specialist word of natural history writing and it’s rare to find it elsewhere other than occasionally as the horse colour.

Most experts say the proper name is the source, though nobody can explain how it came about. Some writers in French and Spanish say instead that it derives instead from an Arabic word, given either as izah or hizah, referring specifically to the colour of a lion’s pelt. However, there seems to be no such word in Arabic and we must disregard the suggestion.

No soap

Words-001Q From Anthony Pennock: Why do we say no soap?

A I’m not sure that people do any more. From my vantage point in the UK, this classic Americanism appears to have largely died out, remembered and occasionally used only by older people.

A speaker usually means by it that there’s no chance of something happening or no hope of some outcome, that the enquirer is out of luck or more generally that some request is being denied.

When he called the Georgia senator to ask for his help on the defense reorganization bill, Russell replied, “No soap.”
The Sputnik Challenge, by Robert A. Divine, 1993.

For me, perhaps through reading too many old American crime novels, it brings to mind the 1930s and 1940s as a term of the underworld and hard-bitten detectives:

I dropped quietly on the running board and waited. No soap. Canino was too cagey.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler, 1939.

The first examples of the idiom appear near the end of the First World War in letters home from Image result for no soapdraftees. The more literate of such letters were often reprinted in small-town newspapers to let readers know how their boys were doing. The ones which I’ve uncovered that mention no soap all came from recruits at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. This is a late example:

Saturday came along and we all dressed up in our best, as that was our liberty day, when the Commander came in and said “No Soap” on liberty as we were in a draft. No one is allowed liberty when they are on a draft, afraid that someone would run away.
Versailles Republican (Versailles, Indiana), 3 Oct. 1918.

An article a few months later headlined “Demobilizing War Words” confirms that the expression was widespread within the US Navy:

A particularly pathetic case is that of the nautical term, “No soap!” I say “particularly pathetic” because I myself have found the phrase so much more satisfying than the more classical “nothing stirring!” which it has so amply replaced. “Nothing stirring” will find strong support among the purists, but half a million sailors and an equal number of sailors’ sweethearts are not going to surrender the new-found phrase without a fight.
Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 Feb. 1919.

Later evidence suggests that it did remain popular and met a need within a wider audience for a sharply colloquial dismissive saying.

Image result for soap bubbles

Soap film stretched over frame by Andrew Davidhazy

As with most slang expressions, where it comes from is uncertain. In the past, the experts have pointed to the much older use of soap to refer to money, a term that was first recorded in a slang dictionary in 1859 but which had a long run right down into the 1920s, overlapping with no soap. This overlap, I suspect, led etymologists to infer a connection between the two and it’s not implausible. It might well have been that a person who said “No soap!” meant something like “No, I haven’t any money” or “No, I won’t give you a loan”.

But other letters home from First World War navy recruits, coupled with newspaper articles from the period about naval slang, suggest a more mundane source. Recruits often complained they weren’t being supplied with soap, a need that was at times met by the Red Cross in the comfort kits they supplied. Soap was in short supply in the US at the time — as it was throughout Europe — because its raw materials of gelatine and fat were being diverted to make explosives. It seems likely that no soap, at first a rueful complaint, became for recruits a saying that meant — as early references confirmed — “you’re out of luck”. The slightly broader senses naturally followed.

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


World Wide Words Issue 928

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World Wide Words Issue 927 – WIF Style

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Issue 927

from the U.K.’s Michael Quinion

This shall be called the “dopey” issue

Diamonds are a Dwarf's Best Friend: By Michelle St. Laurent

Diamonds are a Dwarf’s Best Friend: By Michelle St. Laurent

 

Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Feedback, Notes and Comments

Yarely

Following my piece last time, far too many correspondents to name pointed out a famous use of the associated adjective yare by Katharine Hepburn in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story. (She pronounced it yar, as some who responded to my piece spelled it.) She said of the sailboat True Love, “My, she was yar.” which she explained as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright … everything a boat should be … until she develops dry rot”.

Snooter

Leni Verbogen wrote from the Netherlands: “You referred to the Germanic origin of snoot, and I have to say that to my ears ‘hit him on the snoot’ sounds highly amusing. In fact, the word snoet is still used in Dutch nowadays, meaning ‘face’, in a cute kind of way. Would the word by any chance have arrived via the Dutch?” The evidence suggests that snoot was a native English modification, but as its precursor snout is Germanic, the Dutch word snoet is almost certainly a linguistic cousin.

WIF Etymology-001

Dope

Q From From Terhi Riekkola: I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory etymology for dope when it’s used in the sense of drugs, either recreational or performance-enhancing. I’ve encountered what was given as the original sense of dope, meaning some kind of liquid preparation that helped you with certain tasks, like lubricants and so on. But I found no satisfactory links between this “practical sticky stuff” sense and the drug-related meaning of the word. I was wondering if you could help me?

A Dope has several senses that aren’t obviously linked, though investigation shows there are clear connections. Historically, the word has had a wide variety of slangy associations. They include not only the lubricants and drugs you mention, but also information, a stupid person, and a varnish for cloth aircraft parts. Regionally in the US it has also meant Coca-Cola (because in its early years the drink was sold as a medicinal restorative and included some cocaine) and the sprinkles on ice cream (for no obvious reason).

Dictionaries universally say that dope is from the old Dutch doop, a sauce or dip, from the verb doopen, to dip or mix.

The Dutch word appeared briefly in American writing near the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a couple of pieces by Washington Irving in which he used it in the sense of gravy. In the issue of his satirical magazine Salmagundi of 16 May 1807 he included a humorous piece, The Stranger in Pennsylvania, which state he asserts was founded by one Philo Dripping-pan:

Pennsylvania Dutch

Philo Dripping-pan was remarkable for his predilection to eating, and his love of what the learned Dutch call doup. Our erudite author likewise observes that the citizens are to this day noted for their love of “a sop in the pan,” and their portly appearance … he ill-naturedly enough attributes to their eating pickles, and drinking vinegar.

(The Pennsylvania Dutch as a group were early immigrants from Germany, though Dutch speakers also settled in the state. It was common in American English up to Irving’s time to use Dutch as an informal term for Germans, which is where our confusing name for the group comes from, not from a mishearing of Deutsch, the German word for German, or Deitsch, which is what the Pennsylvania Dutch call their language.)

Somehow — we don’t know the details, but it was presumably at least in part the result of Irving’s fame as a writer — doup evolved into the slang dope. It appeared first in print as an ill-specified term for any thick liquid or glop. The earliest example that I’ve found — actually the derived verb — was in a newspaper article that listed deceptions practiced by sheep farmers:

Dope the sheep:— that is, put on oil and coloring to make a sheep look like the required breed; that is, paint the sheep as a common horse was once painted and sold for one of a superior race.
Sandusky Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio), 17 Jun. 1856. You may feel that buyers of such sheep were more than a little unobservant.

In later years, dope was recorded for all sorts of stuff — among others a slop of mud and water to preserve the roots of trees awaiting planting, the chemical on the heads of matches, harness blacking, train axle grease, the material that nitroglycerin is absorbed in to make dynamite, sugar added to cans of sweetcorn and a lubricant for snowshoes:

Snowshoe Thompson; Tahoe’s First Mailman

There is hardly a man, woman, or child on this side of the continent who has not heard of “Snowshoe Thompson”, yet very few persons really know anything about him or his exploits. His were the first Norwegian snowshoes ever seen in the mountains, and at that time nothing was known of the mysterious “dope” — a preparation of pitch, which, being applied to the bottom of the shoes, enables the wearer to glide over snow softened by the rays of the sun. … Without “dope” the soft snow stuck to, and so clogged his shoes that it was impossible for him to travel in it.
Albert Lea Enterprise (Albert Lea, Minnesota), 30 Mar. 1876.

It’s also recorded early on in the sense of a drug, either for humans or horses:

I learned something of his giving dope to his horses about the time he moved from Garrettsville to Chagrin Falls. … I learned that he was giving his horse arsenic and laudanum.
Ashtabula Weekly Telegraph (Ashtabula, Ohio), 4 Dec. 1858. The owner thought giving arsenic to his horses would improve their health.

The “doc” made his own pills — “the real dope,” Camp said.
Waukesha Freeman (Waukesha, Wisconsin), 29 Mar. 1859.

This drug sense became widespread later in two specific ways, firstly in reference to the thick treacle-like preparation used in opium-smoking:

He persistently refuses to give the signs by which admittance may be had to the [opium] den, but he says that it is so jealously guarded that four doors have to be passed through before the smoking-room is reached, where a “dope” for ten cents, requiring about twenty minutes to smoke, is obtained, and on the bare floor of which the smokers lie extended during their torpor.
Northern Ohio Journal (Painesville, Ohio), 14 Jun. 1879.

This gave rise in the early 1880s to the term dope-fiend for an habitual user. Later, dope broadened to dopefiend-1refer to all sorts of recreational narcotics, becoming widely known by the early twentieth century.

In the other branch of the drug sense, the term became specifically associated with drugging racehorses, either to improve their performance or degrade it:

The mare was two lengths ahead the first thirty yards, but suddenly let up, and was badly beaten. There is no doubt but that foul play was the cause of her losing, the mare having been “doped”.
Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 31 Jul. 1873.

Drugs of every name and description are used to “dope” horses so that they may win stakes. The poor animals are stuffed with all sorts of stimulants from sherry to strychnine. … Such drugs as Fowler’s solution of arsenic, Spanish fly, cocaine, chloral, valerian, and belladonna, were employed.
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), 4 Jan. 1896.

Dope in the sense of information, particularly information that isn’t widely known or easily obtained, came directly from this practice. A whisper from the stables or some confederate telling a gambler which horses were being drugged was potentially worth a lot of money, so dope came to mean knowledge that drugs had been employed. This led to its being used for information about racing in general and later broadened still further. A publication giving punters background information about horses at a track became humorously or sarcastically known as a dope book, also later a dope sheet; both were recorded in the 1890s and similarly these generalised later to refer to other topics. The phrases inside dope, real dope, true dope and straight dope — asserting the undisputed truth — were appearing in print by the early years of the new century:

Referee Bean gave out the following figures and the fight fans who want the straight dope will probably not miss it far by accepting them.
The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 7 Apr. 1904.

The sense that’s least clear in its origins is that of a stupid person. It was recorded a couple of times in the Cumberland dialect of northern England in the middle of the nineteenth century in the sense of a simpleton and in the US from the early twentieth century. We have to conclude that the two arose independently, the Cumberland one from some unknown source and the American one from the idea of a person under the influence of a narcotic. The adjective dopey is also American and is recorded earlier than the corresponding noun.

She is very thin now, and has the peculiar clear pallor that marks the excessive opium smoker. She looked “dopey,” too, even then. “Dopey,” by the way, is the Chinese quarter‘s most brilliant contribution to American slang. One hears it from the lips of people who have no idea that dope means opium.
Burlington Gazette (Burlington, Iowa), 1 Dec. 1893.

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


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World Wide Words

Issue 926

from U.K.’s Michael Quinion

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By hook or by crook. Following the piece last time on this idiom, several readers updated me on the geography of the tale about the invasion of Ireland through Waterford. They pointed out that a village called Crook does exist, on the west bank of the estuary of the River Barrow, while Hook is on the east side.

Hilary Maidstone, among others, suggested that hook and crook aren’t so closely connected in meaning as I had implied. “One thing I thought of as is that a hook in East Anglia — and possibly elsewhere for all I know — is a sharp tool, either for grass (a curved blade similar to a sickle on a short handle) or for hedging (a billhook or billock in Norfolk dialect), a hooked blade on a short handle.” A tool very similar in shape to the modern billhook appears several times in medieval illustrations of pruning grapevines and fruit trees.

Yarely

Pronounced /ˈjɛːli/

Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign, preferred words of native English origin over those from French and Latin. He’s credited with bringing many old words back into the language. However, his son Hallam wrote a memoir in which he recalled his father regretting that he had never employed yarely.

If he had, his readers would have been as baffled by it as they were with some of his other reintroductions, because by the nineteenth century yarely had fallen out of the standard language, though surviving in some dialects. A rare notable earlier usage that century was in a work by another resurrector of antique words:

Sir_Walter_Scott

Sir Walter Scott by Sir william Allan

“Yarely! yarely! pull away, my hearts,” said the latter, and the boat bearing the unlucky young man soon carried him on board the frigate.
Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott, 1814.

From this, we may guess, correctly, that it means briskly, promptly or quickly. Its source is the Old English gearolíce, related to gearu, ready or prepared.

The Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist and songwriter Charles Mackay (best known for his three-volume work of 1841, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, and the Madness of Crowds) included yarely in his Lost Beauties of the English Language, quoting examples from three Shakespeare plays, including this one:

Speak to the mariners: fall to’t, yarely, or we run
ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, 1611.

Despite the nautical nature of these two examples, it wasn’t specifically a sailors’ word. However, the Old English gearu became yare, which is still in the seafaring language of North America, meaning a ship that is quick to the helm and is easily handled or manoeuvred.

Upset the applecart

Q From John Hathaway: I know that somebody who says the apple cart has been upset means that somebody’s plans have been ruined, but why an apple cart rather than anything else?

A A figurative sense of apple cart has been around since the eighteenth century. For an unknown but probably trivial reason it’s actually slightly older than the literal use of the phrase.

In the earlier part of its life, the most common sense of apple cart in Britain was the human body. Francis Grose recorded down with his apple-cart in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as meaning to knock a man down; that was in 1788, although the same idea is on record from about 1750. It later became known in Australia:

He slapped her face, she seized a broomstick, and he capsized her “apple cart,” and broke two pannels [sic] of the door.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 Apr. 1833.

The etymologist Walter Skeat wrote in 1879, “I think the expression is purely jocular, as in the case of ‘bread-basket,’ similarly used to express the body.”

The form you’re referring to also appears early on. There’s an isolated example on record from Massachusetts in 1788 but it only starts to appear on both sides of the Atlantic in any significant way in the late 1830s:

They won’t encourage trade, or commerce, or manufacturing — because they know that trade, and commerce, and manufacturing would create a power right off that would upset their apple-cart.
Logansport Canal Telegraph (Indiana), 23 Sep. 1837.

The Whigs, Gentlemen, cannot object to the soundness of our old authorities in law, because, you know, they themselves are very fond of referring to the same source, when it suits their purposes; and to deny those authorities, therefore, would be at once to upset their own apple cart.
The Champion and Weekly Herald (London), 16 Apr. 1837.

We may assume it was around in the spoken language in Britain, lurking out of sight, for longer than the written record shows. It continued in parallel with the human-body sense for most of the 1800s but took until the early twentieth century to become widely popular and to shift from slang to colloquial usage. An early stimulus may have been the widely reported comment by Cecil Rhodes, then prime minister of the Cape colony, that the Jameson Raid of 1895 had “upset the apple cart”. The evidence suggests a peak in the 1930s, possibly helped along by George Bernard Shaw’s play The Apple Cart, first produced in 1929.

The shift in sense from a slang term for the body to ruining a person’s plans seems to have been via an intermediate sense of suffering a personal accident, either involving some external object or simply falling over:

The bed groaned for a moment under the load, and the next moment the strings snapt like tow, and down came the bed, bedding, Dutchman and all, plump into the middle of the cabin floor. … “You’ve upset your apple-cart now,” says I as soon as I’de [sic] done laughing.
Huron Reflector (Ohio), 3 Apr. 1832.

If a child falls down you first inquire if he is much hurt. If he is merely a little frightened you say, “Well, never mind, then; you’ve only upset your apple-cart and spilt all the gooseberries.” The child perhaps laughs at the very venerable joke, and all is well again.
Notes and Queries, 13 Dec. 1879.

We’re quite unable to say why some unknown person 250 years ago selected an apple cart as a metaphor for the body because there’s no written evidence on which we can base any reasoned explanation. But we can understand why the idea remains popular in the sense of ruining some undertaking: the visual image of a cart laden with apples overturning — with all its implications for mess, inconvenience and financial loss — is too striking to lose.

It might be worth ending by mentioning an arcane suggestion for the origin of one sense. About 200 BCE, the comic playwright Plautus wrote a line in his play Epidicus that implied Romans had a proverb, perii, plaustrum perculi, which may be loosely translated as “I’m done for! I’ve upset my wagon!” Could this have been the stimulus for the English idiom, with some jesting Latin scholar turning the Roman wagon into a very English apple cart? It’s a nice story, but I suspect that native English wit was capable of creating the image without resorting to second-hand humour.

Snooter

Q From Ali Nobari: Wodehouse uses the word snooter, presumably schoolboy slang, but what does it mean?

A It’s possible to get an impression of the meaning of this very unusual word from the contexts in which P G Wodehouse uses it. A couple of examples:

Those who know Bertram Wooster best are aware that in his journey through life he is impeded and generally snootered by about as scaly a platoon of aunts as was ever assembled.
Very Good, Jeeves!, by P G Wodehouse, 1930.

Snootered to bursting point by Pop Bassetts and Madeline Bassetts and Stiffy Byngs and what not, and hounded like the dickens by a remorseless Fate, I found solace in the thought that I could still slip it across Roderick Spode.
The Code of the Woosters, by P G Wodehouse, 1938.

To be snootered is to be harassed, vexed or tormented.

We might indeed reasonably assume that the word is slang from Wodehouse’s schooldays at Dulwich College in south London. But we would be wrong. We would be equally wrong to connect it with the similar snooker, whether the game or the derived verb meaning to put somebody in an impossible position or to trap or entice them. Wodehouse actually borrowed snooter from US slang during his early years in that country.

Snoot as a noun has been recorded there since the 1860s. It’s a local pronunciation variation of standard English snout, a word of Germanic origin that has been in the language since about 1200. The American version was looked down on:

Snoot, of the human face or nose, apparently the same word as snout. A vulgar word in New England. ‘I’ll bu’st your snoot’; ‘hit him on the snoot’. As a verb in ‘to snoot round’, i.e. to nose around, it is reported from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Dialect Notes, 1890.

The verb evolved to mean treating a person scornfully or with disdain, leading to the adjective snooty — snobbish, supercilious or stuck-up, figuratively with one’s nose in the air in a superior way.

Wodehouse created snooter from snoot, presumably developing it from the sense of snubbing someone; he used it often enough — in at least eight of his books as well as in correspondence — that he became identified with it, so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word has examples only from him. A couple of writers have since employed it, but it’s very rare.

Fard

I was consulting an old book when the Empress Poppaea’s name came up. You surely remember her: second wife of the Emperor Nero in ancient Rome, notorious for her intrigues, and commemorated in the clerihew:

The Empress Poppaea
Was really rather a dear;
Only no one could stop her
From being improper.

The context was her skincare routine, which was like nothing seen in Rome before. It wasn’t just the daily baths in asses’ milk, but also the then newfangled overnight face packs of damp barley meal, followed by the daytime application of chalk and white lead.

The book introduced me to fard, to paint the face, and to the noun fard, a cosmetic.

Another example:

Painted Lady by Shelley Catlin

I think, that your sex make use of fard and vermillion for very different purposes; namely, to help a bad or faded complexion, to heighten the graces, or conceal the defects of nature, as well as the ravages of time.
Travels Through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett, 1766.

English borrowed fard from French in the sixteenth century but abandoned it again in the nineteenth. Though fard would be a usefully brief alternative to “put on one’s makeup”, the chances of hearing comments like “I farded in the train on the way to work” are rather small.

If you know French, you may have guessed what this word means, since it’s still in that language in the sense of cosmetics or makeup (and it does have a verb meaning to put on makeup: farder). Nobody knows for sure where the French word came from: one suggestion is the Old High German farwjan, to colour, ancestor of the modern German verb färben. In its early years in French fard could figuratively suggest a misleading appearance or language, which survives in the idioms parler sans fard, to speak candidly or openly, and vérité sans fard, the plain or unvarnished truth.

Fard in English often specifically meant a white face paint (hence Smollett’s “fard and vermillion”, contrasting white and red). It was either the ancient unguent of lard mixed with white lead or a similar concoction based on a brilliant white compound of bismuth, sometimes called blanc de fard. Both were poisonous and long-term use damaged the skin.

The word occasionally appears as a deliberate archaism:

A trio of women holding hands, gaunt and thin as the inmates of a spitalhouse and attired the three alike in the same cheap finery, their faces daubed in fard and pale as death.
Cities of The Plain, by Cormac McCarthy, 1998. A spitalhouse, where spital is a shortening of hospital, is a place set aside for the diseased or destitute, usually of a lower class than a hospital.

Sic!

SIC

• A mysterious headline from the Western Mail of 4 June the following headline left Kate Lloyd Jones’s son puzzled about the size of the capsules mentioned: “Parents in laundry capsules ‘mistaken for sweets’ alert.”

• A widely reproduced item from the news agency AP, which Brian McMahon saw on 4 June, implied remarkable medical self-help at a car rally accident: “One spectator at the event … broke an arm, while a woman received multiple injuries and a third person was forced to amputate a leg.”

• A geologically improbable opening to a report of 8 June in the Hamilton Spectator of Ontario, Canada, understandably intrigued Ari Blenkhorn: “It had been a long drive. … By 2:50 a.m. Monday morning, though they couldn’t see them in the darkness, the rolling hills of Alabama gently rocked the car.”

• Ian Harrison received a spam email from a South African cheap-deals site on 15 June, promoting a manual meat grinder which it claimed, “Can Be Used To Grind An Assortment Of Meats And Ingredients Made Of Cast Iron.”

• A headline on 9 June in the Dominion-Post of Wellington, New Zealand, attracted Michel Norrish’s attention: “Grapes grown in graveyard produce a full-bodied wine”.

by Tim Lee

• On 14 June, Alec Cawley found that the BBC news website had this about a banned Malaysian Airline: “It has two Boeing 737-400 planes in its fleet, each able to carry about 180 passengers, eight pilots and 50 crew.” Overstaffed, perhaps?


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letter-to-editor

But and ben. “The term is not one I am familiar with,” John Jefferies emailed, “but it does bring to mind a well-established Irish (Gaelic) word bothán which is a small hut, shed or cabin and would neatly match your description of a small two-roomed house.”

Barbara Roden wrote, “Your explanation of the phrase was especially interesting, as I’m familiar with it from a children’s skipping rhyme that was in circulation after the crimes of anatomists Burke and Hare in early 19th century Edinburgh were exposed:

Up the close and doun the stair,
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

Dutch speakers noted the close associations between the Scots words and ones in their language. Alexander Bocast commented, “The expressions binnen en buiten and buiten en binnen are not uncommon in Dutch, although they generally contrast the interior of a building to its exterior. For example, a restaurant might advertise buiten and binnen to inform customers that they can eat either inside or outside on, say, a terrace or patio.”

Several British readers complained at my seeming to have adopted the US spelling story instead of storey in this piece for one level of a building. It was, of course, a typing error.

Logomaniac. Medical practitioners pointed out that a person who exhibits what I described as “pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking”, is usually said to be suffering from logorrhoea rather than logomania.

Type lice. Rob Graham wrote, “I would like to think that by the end of the first paragraph I was suspicious of this lovely bit of writing. My father sent me to the local shop for elbow grease when I joined the school army cadets and had brass buttons to polish.” David Pearson recalls, “I, too, was the object of many such a prank when in the 1960s I was a fairly gullible teenager working in a factory and later on a building site. Among other things, I was told to fetch a skyhook (before the term became more common, notably in sci-fi) and was sent once for a long stand, at which point the storeman disappeared for 10 minutes and was presumably sitting out of sight reading a newspaper while I stood waiting at the counter.”

By hook or by crook

From Alice Winsome: I know that by hook or by crook means to do something by any means possible, but why those two words? What’s the story behind it?

This curious phrase has bothered many people down the years, the result being a succession of well-meant stories, often fervently argued, that don’t stand up for a moment on careful examination.

As good a place to start as any is the lighthouse at the tip of the Hook peninsula in south-eastern Ireland, said to be the world’s oldest working lighthouse. It is at the east side of the entrance to Waterford harbour, on the other side of which is a little place called Crook (or so it is said: no map I’ve consulted shows it). One tale claims that Oliver Cromwell proposed to invade Ireland during the English Civil War by way of Waterford and that he asserted he would land there “by Hook or by Crook”. In another version the invasion of Ireland was the one of 1172 by Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, also known as Strongbow.

Two other stories associate the phrase with gentlemen called Hook and Crook. Both appeared in early issues of the scholarly research publication Notes and Queries. One linked it with the difficulties of establishing the exact locations of plots of land after the great fire of London in 1666. The anonymous writer explained:

The surveyors appointed to determine the rights of the various claimants were Mr. Hook and Mr. Crook, who by the justice of their decisions gave general satisfaction to the interested parties, and by their speedy determination of the different claims, permitted the rebuilding of the city to proceed without the least delay. Hence arose the saying above quoted, usually applied to the extrication of persons or things from a difficulty. The above anecdote was told the other evening by an old citizen upwards of eighty, by no means of an imaginative temperament.

Notes and Queries, 15 Feb. 1851.

The other supposed derivation was equally poorly substantiated:

I have met with it somewhere, but have lost my note, that Hooke and Crooke were two judges, who in their day decided most unconscientiously whenever the interests of the crown were affected, and it used to be said that the king could get anything by Hooke or by Crooke.

Notes and Queries, 26 Jan. 1850.

Most of these stories can be readily dismissed by looking at the linguistic evidence, which tells us that the expression is on record from the end of the fourteenth century, by which time it was already a set phrase with the current meaning.

During this period, local people sometimes had rights by charter or custom known as fire-bote to gather firewood from local woodlands. It was acceptable to take dead wood from the ground or to pull down dead branches. The latter action was carried out either with a hook or a crook, the latter implement being a tool like a shepherd’s crook or perhaps just a crooked branch.

Little contemporary evidence exists for this practice. Written claims for it dating from the seventeenth century are said to exist for the New Forest in southern England, one of which argued for an immemorial right to go into the king’s wood to take the dead branches off the trees “with a cart, a horse, a hook and a crook, and a sail cloth”. Another version was once claimed to be in the records of Bodmin in Cornwall, whereby locals were permitted by a local prior “to bear and carry away on their backs, and in no other way, the lop, crop, hook, crook, and bagwood in the prior’s wood of Dunmeer.” Richard Polwhele’s Civil and Military History of Cornwall of 1806 argued in support of this claim that images of the hook and the crook were carved on the medieval Prior’s Cross in nearby Washaway, though modern writings describe them as fleurs-de-lys.

The examples suggest that this origin for the expression is the correct one, though some doubt must remain. If so, as hook and crook were effectively synonyms, it was almost inevitable that they were put together to make a reduplicated rhyming phrase.

Loggerhead

This word appeared in the caption to a photo I saw recently in a whaling museum in the Azores. (I spare no effort to bring you interesting words.)

The caption mentioned the groove that had been worn by ropes in the loggerhead on a whaling boat. A loggerhead, I have learned, was a round timber block set upright in the stern of the boat. Once a harpooner had struck the whale, he passed the rope attached to the harpoon round the loggerhead a couple of times to hold it fast.

The loggerhead in the photo had been carefully fashioned, so there was nothing log-like about it other than it having been made of timber; however, you might fancifully say that it looked like a wooden head. So it wasn’t an altogether unlikely name for the contrivance. But when I came to look into the history of the word it turns out that the whaling sense was a latecomer.

Loggerhead starts to appear in the historical record near the end of the sixteenth century. An early example:

Ah you whoreson loggerhead! You were born to do me shame.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, by William Shakespeare, c1596.

At that time it meant a stupid person, the closely similar blockhead suggesting the idea behind it. Though presumably derived from log, what a logger was at the time is unclear, because it doesn’t appear in print until much later. The usual view among dictionary makers is that it was a heavy block of wood fastened to the leg of a horse to hobble it, to prevent it straying, an assertion that dates back no further than a dialect dictionary of 1777.

What went through the minds of whalers who applied it to the useful device on their boats is impossible to discover but but we might guess that it was similarly considered to be a dumb block of wood for restraining an animal, although a whale rather than a horse.

We know loggerhead these days most commonly in the idiom to be at loggerheads, meaning to be in stubborn or irresolvable disagreement or dispute over some issue:

The school security guards are now at loggerheads with the city’s police department, who they accuse of attempting to hide the true scale of the problem, to improve their crime statistics.

The Independent, 16 May 2016.

As loggerhead has no clear meaning in current English (its whaling sense being a long obsolete term of art in a specialised and localised activity) the idiom is meaningless in itself, but its form is expressive and it has lasted surprisingly well in the language. It can be traced to 1671 in the related go to loggerheads, to start a fight, though its modern form came into being in the early nineteenth century.

How loggerhead began to be used for a fight is similarly lost to history. One image it calls up is of two thick-headed idiots face-to-face in an argument that is likely to end in fisticuffs. That may be enough to explain the origin. However, some writers point to various implements with bulbous ends, of which one was used on board ship:

They had been sparring, in a spirit of fun, with loggerheads, those massy iron balls with long handles to be carried red-hot from the fire and plunged into buckets of tar or pitch so that the substance might be melted with no risk of flame.

The Commodore, by Patrick O’Brian, 1994.

There are records of the devices being used as weapons during close engagements of ships, perhaps contributing to the genesis of the expression.

Another maritime association is with the loggerhead turtle; in this case the idea is that of an animal with a big, heavy head. A couple of birds, a Falkland Islands duck and several fish have also had the word applied to them at various times for related reasons. In English dialects a large moth, tadpoles and a species of knapweed have also been called loggerheads.

There are three small places in England and Wales with the name. The one in Staffordshire is said to take its name from the local pub, The Three Loggerheads. This almost certainly derives from an old visual joke — the inn sign would have pictured only two stupid men, the third being taken to be the onlooker.

Polish off

From Evan Parry, New Zealand: In conversation about a culinary celebration, my friend used the expression polish off, thus: “I polished off the leftover food next morning”. While its meaning in context is generally understood, where and how did the expression originate?

It does indeed often appear in connection with food, the key idea being that of consuming it completely and probably quickly:

I could easily polish off a packet of biscuits throughout the afternoon, before my dinner of cheesy pasta with buttered bread.

The Sun (London), 15 May 2016.

though it can be used in a variety of other situations, implying the rapid completion of some activity or the subjugation of some adversary:

Freshman Matt McFadden returned the opening kickoff 36 yards and senior Kyle Wigley polished off the drive with a two-yard run into the end zone.

Gettysburg Times (Pennsylvania), 14 Nov. 2015.

He’ll limp to the election; cross the line sadly weakened; and then, in due course, be polished off by another thrusting contender who better understands the political process and can command a majority of the party.

The Age (Melbourne), 24 May 2016.

The idiom has been around since at least the early nineteenth century. Its initial examples were all in the more general sense, extending to getting rid of something, or even to destroy or kill. The application to food seems to have come along a little later in the century, sometimes being simplified to polish without the off. But in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785 Francis Grose mentions to polish a bone, meaning to eat a meal, so perhaps the food sense really did come first.

The idea here is presumably that of clearing the dish by eating everything on it so thoroughly that it ends up appearing polished. This modern work makes it explicit:

He knew that it was polite to leave a little something on your plate when you finished, but this evening he decided to throw etiquette aside and polished his plate to a shine.

Adam, by Richard Allen Stotts, 2001.

The earliest usages of polish off, however, focus on defeating somebody. Some slang dictionaries expressly say that the first context for the idiom was “pugilistic”, that is, linked to bare-knuckle fist fighting:

Bob had his coat off at once — he stood up to the Banbury man for three minutes, and polished him off in four rounds easy.

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847.

It may be that a slightly different idea is behind this meaning. Since polishing is the last job to be done to complete a piece of work such as making a item of furniture, to polish off an opponent is to finish him, to defeat him utterly.

(This ends the Lucy van Pelt feature)

Sic

SIC

Spectral examination? The lead sentence on a Guardian article of 26 May confused Emery Fletcher: “Shortly after receiving the news of his death, Steve Hodel found himself sorting through his father’s belongings.”

Mathematics as it isn’t taught, from the Observer newspaper of 29 May: “Mandate Now claims that more than four-fifths of five developed nations have some form of mandatory reporting.”

Robert Musgrave wrote, apropos of something completely different: “You may be amused that my first introduction to Schadenfreude was via a howling misprint in a cheap paperback dictionary, in which it was defined as the derivation of joy from the misfortune of otters.”

John C Waugh tells us that the New Zealand Herald online on 31 May reported that “A person has been struck by a train in Auckland for the second time today.” Not a particularly unfortunate passenger, but two separate incidents.

An online report by the Australian national public television network SBS had the headline, “Americans are being warned of possible terror attacks in Europe over summer by the US State Department.” Thanks to Judith Lowe for spotting that.

Bill Waggoner found this in a report dated 2 June on the website BoigBoing about a man who “has settled a case with people who live near him in DC, who caught him repeatedly stealing the license plates off their nanny’s car using a hidden camera.”


World Wide Words Issue 925

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