World Wide Words Issue 926 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 926

from U.K.’s Michael Quinion

Feedback, Notes and Comments


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.


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 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.


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.


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.



• 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?

World Wide Words Issue 926



– WIF Style

WORLD WIDE WORDS Issue 872 – WIF Style

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Issue 872

Issue 872





Issue 872: Saturday 8 March 2014




1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Grimoire.

3. Wordface.

4. Ham.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Blind freddie Several subscribers commented on the piece in much the same terms as Naomi Rankin: “The information about Frederick Solomons is interesting, but doesn’t seem to fit the idiom. To underline the obviousness of something we would say that even an unperceptive person could see it, not one who was renowned for his remarkable acuteness of perception despite his blindness.”

The idiom was surely a development of the much older slur even a blind man could see … (as in the Newcastle Morning Herald of New South Wales in 1881: “even a blind man could see this is a clear case of suicide”). Speakers used Blind Freddie as a well-known case of a blind man to personify and localise the saying while ignoring his special qualities.

Hypnagogic Dr John Brydon emailed from Australia: “The sudden jerk that we may make when falling asleep, commonly in the belief we are tumbling out of bed, gives rise to the most delightful name for a medical syndrome that I know: the hypnagogic startle.”

Clubbing Ted MacKinney found the following headline, which appeared in the Utah People’s Post on 22 February: “Google clubs hands with WRI to check deforestation”. He and I find this an unusual sense of the verb club and I wonder if it’s an unconscious blend of club together and join hands with. But do readers know differently?

2. Grimoire

A grimoire is a book of magic that may contain spells, conjurations, instructions for divination and the construction of amulets, and other secret knowledge of a supernatural kind. The examples include such famous works as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, The Book of St Cyprian, The Key of Solomon and The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage.

The word is French, in the same sense. It began to appear in French-English dictionaries early in the nineteenth century but became more widely known in the 1850s. In French, it was a medieval modification of grammaire, a book of grammar, by which was meant Latin grammar, since at the time there was no other kind. It derives from the Latin grammatica, the study of literature in general, which by the Middle Ages had come to mean knowledge of Latin.

The shift from book of grammar to book of magic isn’t as weird as it might seem. Few among the ordinary people in those times could read or write. For superstitious minds books were troubling objects. Who knew what awful information was locked up in them? For many people grammar meant the same thing as learning, and everybody knew that learning included astrology and other occult arts.

In medieval English, grammarye was likewise the study of Latin grammar and this, too, took on undertones of occult learning, magic and necromancy. It fell out of use but was revived by Sir Walter Scott in his Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805.

Another of Scott’s popularisations was the Scots glamour. This was also from grammar, with a small shift in pronunciation, and shared the idea that grammar was linked with witchcraft and sorcery. To us today glamour is physical allure but for the Scots of earlier times, and for Scott, it was enchantment, magic or a spell cast upon a person.

3. Wordface

Fiddle, twiddle and tweak A review in the Guardian last Saturday by Steven Poole of Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime noted the author’s use of the computer jargon verb frobnicate, frequently shortened to frob. Eric S Raymond defined it in The New Hackers’ Dictionary in 1993 as “to manipulate or adjust, to tweak”. Mr Raymond traced it to frobnitz, an ad hoc invention within the Tech Model Railway Club at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology around 1960. Its users abbreviated it to frob and others later extended it again. Steven Poole says that he knows enough computer code to be able to “hack around in [the computer language] PHP a bit until my websites work the way I want”, which is a good definition of a frobnicator in action.

Difficult extraction Jerry Krempel recently came across the British expression winkle it out and asked whether it has anything to do with shellfish. It does indeed. Boiled winkles were once a favourite seaside fast food in Britain, though consumption has fallen hugely since the Second World War. Winkles were sold in paper bags together with a pin, essential to extract the meat from the shell, though even with its help it often wasn’t easy. To figuratively winkle out, therefore, is to obtain something with difficulty. (“I’m very good at counselling my friends and coming up with solutions to their problems. Even if they don’t want to talk, I’ll winkle it out of them!” — Julian Clary in the Sun, Aug. 2013.) The verb was originally military slang of the Second World War; even earlier a winkle-pin was a bayonet.

4. Ham

A ham or ham actor is one who struts his piece upon the stage to little effect, a fifth-rate artiste of the sort that P G Wodehouse said “couldn’t play the pin in Pinafore”. He may fail because he is an unskilled amateur, though the word is more often applied to a thespian who overacts in a theatrical or ranting way to compensate for his poor grasp of technique or to upstage his fellow actors.

A “Ham”

The term is American and dates from the nineteenth century. Where it comes from has been the subject of more inventive etymology than you can shake a stick at. It’s said to be from Hamlet’s advice to the actors (“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings”), though why it had to wait 300 years to appear is not explained. A related idea is that the word comes from the title of the play, which is one that amateurs frequently perform badly. Others argue it’s from a Cockney pronunciation of amateur, hamateur, but that would put the origin on the wrong continent.

In the 1860s, ham began to be used in America for somebody who was stupid, clumsy or worthless, especially an untalented prize fighter. This is most likely to have been borrowed from ham-handed or ham-fisted, meaning a person with large hands that fancifully resembled the prepared ham of a pig, hence clumsy.

In a separate development in the 1870s, ham began to be applied to variety performers, who were looked down on by “legitimate” actors. It was also used for incompetents within the profession generally:

Ham — is the most derisive word in the professional vocabulary, and if you wish to lose the friendship of anyone in the business call him a “ham,” and that settles it. A person who can do nothing at all, can not speak his lines properly or is any way bad in his calling, is denominated a “ham”.
Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Sep. 1879.

In this sense, it’s almost certainly an abbreviation of the slightly older hamfatter:

“When Dellaven proposed this concert business, I told him I was no ham-fatter, and — ” “Ham-fatter?” “Yes. Ham-fatter. That’s the name we give a man in our profession who is a poor performer.”
Nashville Union and American, 6 Nov. 1874.

The consensus is that the source lies with low-paid performers in minstrel troupes, who had to make do with ham fat for cleaning off make-up after a performance rather than a more expensive cream. It seems likely that a mental association grew up with the existing sense of ham for a clumsy or useless person. Another link may have been hambone, slang for a third-rate minstrel performer; this is said — not entirely convincingly — to come from trombonists in such troupes using ham fat to grease the slides of their instruments, slangily known as bones.

Ham later became a term for an amateur radio enthusiast. There has been much controversy about where the term comes from, but it seems certain that it’s connected to ham in the sense of clumsy. With that meaning it was used in the 1890s by US railway telegraphers to describe ill-trained, slow and inaccurate Morse-code operators. It seems to have been adopted early in the next century as an inverted badge of honour by early radio experimenters, who also communicated using Morse code.

5. Sic!

• Roy Sinton tells us that on 1 March the Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, reported on the restoration of a historic building that had served as a monastery and as an alcoholics’ rehabilitation centre: “He was puzzled by the number of liquor bottles he found around the place. Could they have been smuggled in by the alcoholics or did the brothers sneak them in hidden down their cossacks?”

• The Independent newspaper had an item on 2 March about Ukip, the UK Independence Party (which wants the UK to leave the European Union). Mark Daley read that its leader, Nigel Farage, was worried about a threat from immigrant gamblers: “Mr Farage said it was ‘nonsense’ to try and impose a cap on migration as a member of the EU, and said that if he was a Romanian worker he would move to Britain for the higher wagers being offered.”