World Wide Words Issue 848 – WIF Style

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Issue 848: Saturday 7 September 2013



1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Asparagus.

3. Curry favour.

4. Sic!

Not a happy bunny A moment of inattentive editing led me to remove a note in the draft of this piece mentioning the near equivalent US idiom not a happy camper, a term almost certainly deriving from the summer camps to which large numbers of young people are annually despatched, not always willingly. Robert Hart wrote, “The picture that comes to mind is of youths exposed to what they consider the rigors of outdoor life for the first time.” (We don’t have such camps in Britain and so when I first heard the Allan Sherman song about Camp Granada many years ago it took a moment to puzzle out the context.) The excision led to several dozen readers writing to tell me about the US idiom. Thanks; your reward was an automated message because I didn’t have the time to respond personally. The edit also made it less clear that not a happy bunny is mostly British and Australian.

Readers from Britain, Ireland and New Zealand mentioned not a happy chappie, another version in which the last word is a familiar form of chap, a rather dated Britishism for a man (also in the one-time common form of address among familiars, old chap). Chap was originally a slangy term for a customer or buyer, an abbreviation of chapman, a merchant or itinerant dealer. Yet another version that was mentioned, which I think is mainly from the US, is not a happy puppy.

Crack varnish Following up the note about this term last week, Michael Neustadt wrote, “Your explanation of crack varnish as the finest of passenger train cars parallels the common expression, at least among rail fans and rail car owners, for a privately owned rail car as a private varnish.”

2. Asparagus

The name of this delightful vegetable has swung from classical Latin to rustic reinvention and back during its history in English.

It first appears in English around 1000. Its name was taken from medieval Latin sparagus but by the sixteenth century it had come sperach or sperage. It might well have stayed like that had it not been for herbalists, who knew the classical Latin name was asparagus, itself borrowed from the Greek. Their influence meant that that name became quite widely known during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alongside the older names. Nicholas Culpeper, for example, headed an entry in his herbal of 1653 as “Asparagus, Sparagus, or Sperage”, thus covering all bases.

Non-scholars had trouble with asparagus and did what the medieval Latin writers had done — leave off the unstressed initial vowel, so making it sparagus again. But they went one step further, converting it by folk etymology into forms that seemed to make more sense, either sparagrass or sparrowgrass. The latter form became common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d.
Diary, by Samuel Pepys, 20 April 1667.

In the eighteenth century sparrowgrass was so much the standard and polite term that John Walker commented in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary in 1791: “‘Sparrow-grass’ is so general that ‘asparagus’ has an air of stiffness and pedantry”. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was also called Battersea grass, from the name of the London suburb alongside the Thames in whose market gardens it was grown.

During the nineteenth century the wheel turned yet again, in part because of pedagogical opposition to a form considered to be no more than an ignorant mistake, bringing asparagus to the fore and relegating sparrowgrass to what the New English Dictionary rather loftily described in 1885 as “dialect or vulgar” status. This is supported by examples in fiction which attempt to render the voices of lower-class characters:

I remember my lars’ customer, the very lars’ customer that ever I ’ad. He was a Mr. Moses Gluckstein, a city gent and very pleasant and fond of sparrowgrass and chokes.
The War in the Air, by H G Wells, 1908. Chokes are artichokes.

Slavey came in while I was eating it, and caught me picking it up with my fingers. Next morning she says to my missis, so missis told me, “’Ow does master eat ’is sparrowgrass when ’e’s out with company, mum?” says she.
Lord Raingo, by Arnold Bennett, 1926. A slavey was a hard-worked live-in maidservant.

Sparrowgrass is still around, though in print only as a historical reference, and the vegetable is still sometimes called grass in the greengrocery trade.

3. Curry favour

Q From Patrick Martin: As I gave the cat its supper, I said to my wife that I was doing it to curry favour with the cat. Out of curiosity I looked curry up in the two-volume Oxford dictionary to see where this expression comes from. The explanation involved a chestnut horse. This seems a bit far-fetched. Is there a better explanation?

A Believe it or not, the explanation is correct. But then, it’s an odd phrase — why should curry have anything to do with winning the favour of somebody or ingratiating oneself with him?

Its origin lies in a French medieval allegorical poem called the Roman de Fauvel, written by Gervais de Bus and Chaillou de Pesstain in the early 1300s. Fauvel was a horse, a conniving stallion, and the poem is a satire on the corruption of social life. He decided he didn’t like his stable and moved into his master’s house, becoming the master and being visited by church leaders and politicians who sought his favour.

There are several layers of meaning in his name: fauve is French for a colour variously translated as chestnut, reddish-yellow, tawny or fawn. A close English equivalent is the rather rare fallow, as in fallow deer, an animal with a brownish coat (it may be that uncultivated ground is also said to be fallow because it looks that colour). Fauve is also a collective name, originally les bêtes fauves, for a class of wild animals whose coats are tawny, such as lions and tigers, and hence ferocious wild animals (the fauverie in a French zoo houses the big cats). In the poem, the name Fauvel can moreover be glossed as fau-vel, a veiled lie, but it is actually a partial acronym of the initial letters of the French words for six sins: flatterie, avarice, vilenie, variété, envie, and lâcheté (flattery, avarice, depravity, fickleness, envy and cowardice). His colour also evokes the old medieval proverbial belief that a fallow horse was a symbol of dishonesty.

The poem was well known among educated people in Britain, who began to refer to Fauvel, variously spelled, as a symbol of cunning and depravity. That soon became curry Favel. This curry has nothing to do with Indian food (a word that came into English only at the end of the sixteenth century via Portuguese from Tamil kari, a sauce or relish) but is another ancient word from a French source, still common in English, which means to rub down or comb a horse. The idea behind currying Favel is that the horse was highly susceptible to flattery, figuratively a kind of stroking.

For people who didn’t know the poem — then, as now, that was almost everybody — Fauvel or Favel meant nothing. Favour seemed much more sensible a word and by the early part of the sixteenth century popular etymology had changed it and so it has remained ever since.

4. Sic!


• Stewart Kramer and Jonathan Domash of California independently sent in a sentence from a flyer for the 99ONE Healing Crusade: “99ONE bringing the love and power of God to hurting people.”

• “Those clumsy California kids,” commented Jack Shakely, having seen a headline in the Los Angeles Times on 30 August: “Scores Fall at Schools in the State.”

• Department of inanimate expansion. Anne Umphrey submitted this line from the police log in the Concord Journal for 29 August: “A caller reported the buses near the intersection of Route 117 and Plainfield Road have overgrown.” (It turns out the caller said “bushes”.)

• Richard Atkinson sent a picture of an item from a leaflet that the Australian Labor Party sent to voters. Alongside a big green tick mark it promised “Better Schools so every child no matter where they go to school or where they has access to a quality education.”

• The Yellow Duckmarine tour bus company is defunct, as Jenny Drayden learned from the Liverpool Daily Post of 23 August: “All the staff and the vehicles have been repossessed.”

• Sandra Barley found a science item on the website of the Charlotte Observer, dated 2 September, which said that alkalinity “exacerbates the Stalinization of fresh water”. The what? The story came from the Cary Institute site, which has “salinization”. Aha! Automatic spell checking at work.

World Wide Words Issue 848 – WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 847 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words




1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Cantrev.

3. Not a happy bunny.

4. Sic!


Whifflers and whiffling Following last week’s piece, readers noted some of the many situations in which these agreeable words appeared. Several pointed out that I’d not mentioned perhaps the most famous use of the word in literature, in Lewis Carroll’s poem from Through the Looking Glass, in which you may recall that

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

Lots of others mentioned the game of Whiffle Ball, likely named for the noise of the air passing through the holes in the ball. Others noted its appearance in Dorothy L Sayers’s detective story Murder Must Advertise of 1933, in which Lord Peter Wimsey, posing as Death Bredon, becomes deeply involved in the advertising campaign for a brand of cigarettes called Whifflets, which must surely be a sly reference by Sayers to an old sense of whiffler for a smoker of tobacco:

It was in that moment, and while Chief-Inspector Parker was arguing over the line with the office telephonist, that Mr. Death Bredon conceived that magnificent idea that everybody remembers and talks about today — the scheme that achieved renown as “Whiffling Round Britain” — the scheme that sent up the sales of Whifflets by five hundred per cent in three months and brought so much prosperity to British Hotel-keepers and Road and Rail Transport.

Also in detective fiction, Bruce Beatie and Ed Matthews tell us that a more directly relevant mention is in Ngaio Marsh’s Off With His Head (Death of a Fool in the US), in which one of the characters is the whiffler in a traditional Morris dance, who clears a space for the performance:

Through the archway came a blackamoor with a sword. He had bells on his legs and wore white trousers with a kind of kilt over them. His face was perfectly black and a dark cap was on his head. He leapt and pranced and jingled, making complete turns as he did so and “whiffling” his sword so that it sang in the cold air.

Bill Marsano was one of many who pointed out that whiffling-waffling, as it was described in the piece, “thrives in the U.S. under the name of baton-twirling, which is almost exclusively the province of pretty and lightly-clad young women who typically perform at parades, football games, etc. In the southern US it is a very competitive activity, not to say sport.”

Yet another American usage was reported by Jim Tang: “This explains that most anachronistic of baseball terms, he whiffed. Bad enough that you missed the ball three times to strike out, but to have it equated with a term for a light puff of air from your swings? That is just piling it on. Which, of course, is the point, because the insult game was invented by baseball.”

Crack shot:

This, likewise, produced many comments, especially about other senses of the word, such as get cracking, to get a move on, and to take a crack at, to attempt something. The latter seems, from evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary, to have evolved from musketry (being the noise of the gun) and to parallel take a shot at. A wisecrack is from the Scots sense of talk or discussion, as is crack for a cutting or insulting remark.

John Nightingale introduced me to the odd US term crack varnish for the “very fastest and best passenger train”. The second part of this term baffled me until I learned from the Dictionary of American Regional English that from the 1880s varnished car was a slightly sarcastic railwaymen’s slang term for a passenger vehicle, as such accommodation at the time contained much highly varnished wood, in contrast to utilitarian freight and staff wagons. Over time this became abbreviated to varnish for the car and then for the whole train. A crack varnish, of course, was the very best of its type.

2. Cantrev

This word popped up in a book of short stories I’ve just finished reading:

So, the land there is thickly forested to the north and the forest grows even more thickly and densely to the south. This southern cantrev of forest is so very dense, indeed, that there is no other place in the world with trees of such height or magnificence or profusion.
Adam Robots, by Adam Roberts, 2013.

A cantrev — the word has been spelled in numerous ways, including cantref and canthrif — turns out upon enquiry to have been a medieval legal division of Wales (from the Welsh cant, a hundred, plus tref, a town or place). It’s closely similar in sense to the English hundred, a division of a county or shire for administrative purposes. In fact, in medieval England yet another form of the word, cantred, was used almost synonymously with hundred.

The word has long had only historical interest. But it has enjoyed a minor revival in SF and fantasy — as in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles — as an unfamiliar term with which to communicate a sense of otherness. The revival is most probably due to modern interest in the medieval Welsh epic The Mabinogion, in which cantrev often appears.

3. Not a happy bunny

Q From John Gray: Why did not a happy bunny come into existence? Surely bunnies are largely devoid of facial expression, so determining their state of happiness or otherwise is not readily possible. Online searches seem to say nothing about the origin of the phrase.

A People have been writing about this in a mildly puzzled way at least since John Mullan included it as his Phrase of the Week in The Guardian during November 2002, saying it was “now everywhere” and that “It started being common four or five years ago, especially as an understated description of a person’s displeasure.”

The earliest example I know of appeared in Punch magazine in November 1989 and I would have said that it had already peaked in popularity by 2002. However, a British newspaper archive shows that it has been used even more in the past two or three years. It long ago became a catchphrase and a cliché, mostly in Britain. It has also spawned its inverse, though it is still much less common to learn that somebody is a happy bunny than an unhappy one.

There’s a good reason for nobody online being able to say anything useful about its antecedents — no expert seems to have the slightest idea about its origin and most writers on contemporary slang have ignored it. Nigel Rees, presenter of the BBC radio quiz programme Quote … Unquote, has for many years included it as question 1368 in his list of unsolved phrase origins. This shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.

It may be a disparaging comment drawn from children’s literature, in which fluffy bunny rabbits are usually happily hopping about. To refer to a person’s distress by saying he isn’t a happy bunny is to infantilise his emotions. But people sometimes use it about themselves, when it becomes self-deprecating. There may be a link to British television advertisements for the Duracell Bunny (matched in the US by ones for the Energizer Bunny). This is a pink rabbit, always with a fixed grin and originally endlessly beating a drum. The adverts have been around for some decades (they began in 1973), so it’s not an implausible origin.

Other than that, all I’ve been able to do is add another mystified comment to the many that precede me. Add an appropriate bunny-related punchline if you like. I’m running out of energy.

4. Sic!


• “Taking inclusive language a bit too far,” commented John Martin on an item in The Guardian on 23 August, which quoted the TechCrunch website on Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer: “If his or her successor doesn’t like the ‘One Microsoft’ vision, he’ll have to do another reorganization.” TechCrunch has corrected its version.

• Tereza Shortall headed her contribution “Every woman’s nightmare!” having read this advertising blurb on the Harrods website: “Tailored in beautiful virgin wool, these trousers from Alexander McQueen will instantly become the most exquisite staple in your all-rear-round wardrobe.”

• Staying with Harrods, Pat Beattie was in the famous Knightsbridge store and spotted that the floor directory, expensively inscribed on a marble wall, included the entry, “Lower Ground, Menswear, Fashion Accessories, Gifts and Stationary.”

• In the New York Daily News of 18 August, Tanya Thomas found a report describing the trial of Jodi Arias for killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander: “Arias claimed intruders broke into the house and gave interviews to ‘Inside Edition’ and ‘48 Hours Mystery’.”

• Tony Willett found this in a list of spa treatments in the brochure of The Academy at the City of Bath College: “Relax in our sauna and steam room, distress in our hot tub and drift away in our dry flotation bed.”

World Wide Words Issue 847 – WIF Style