WORLD WIDE WORDS NEWSLETTER
Issue 884: Saturday 31 May 2014
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.
3. Skeleton in the closet.
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Nuciform Several readers pointed out that there was nothing odd in Nehemiah Grew’s creation of nuciprune for the walnut, implying a fruit halfway between a nut and a plum. Fresh from the tree, walnuts are enclosed in nubbly green outer flesh and resemble unripe plums. Candida Frith-Macdonald commented, “Almonds are similarly wrapped in flesh, and fuzz, being the nutty cousin of the peach and apricot. But for the oddest of all, look at the Brazil nut fruit, a real master of disguise.”
Arse versus elbow Ray Heindl commented on my item about errors being introduced when scanning printed documents: “An OCR [optical character recognition] error is sometimes called a scanno, by analogy with typo. There are also spellcheckos, caused by blindly accepting a spellchecker’s suggestions.”
Robert Nathan wrote, “Converting printed contracts and other documents into editable text frequently results in what a former secretary aptly dubbed devilspeak. I encountered the cited mis-transcription of arms [into anus] in scanning an early bound copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, when, in Jabberwocky, the invitation extended to my beamish boy took on an unforeseen and particularly salacious meaning.”
Many people seeing this word would at once recall Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky from Through the Looking-Glass: “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.”
You might enjoy the version created some years ago by the British satirical columnist Miles Kington in the style of Raymond Chandler:
Outside in the street, the first lights had come on and the slithy toves were doing whatever they do in the wabe. Some days they gyre, some days they gimble. It’s no skin off my nose, but I wish they’d make their minds up, then we could all rest easy.
When the toves gyre they spin around, revolve or whirl, an animal impersonation of a whirling dervish. You might link it to gyrate or gyroscope, which would be appropriate, since all three words are from the same source, the Greek guros, a ring or circle. As a noun gyre means a spiral or vortex. Geographers use it for a circular pattern of currents in an ocean basin, such as the North Pacific gyre, which has become infamous as a perennially rotating mass of unrottable plastic rubbish. Like gyrate and gyroscope, gyre is said with a soft g.
No one, by the way, is sure what slithy toves do when they gimble. It was one of Carroll’s lesser linguistic inventions and hasn’t caught on. Humpty Dumpty, Carroll’s alter ego, suggested that they were making holes like a gimlet with their corkscrew noses. Carroll might also have had gambol in mind, or perhaps gimbal, a contrivance for keeping an instrument such as a compass horizontal in a moving vessel. If so, pace Miles Kington, toves must simultaneously gyre and gimble, spinning to stay balanced.
3. Skeleton in the closet
Q From Martin Sturmer: I can understand why a skeleton in the closet should mean an embarrassing fact that’s best kept secret, but how did it come into existence?
A Being British, my figurative skeletons are in a cupboard rather than a closet. I learned the idiom that way in childhood, a form that’s still the more common one, though the version with closet is also found.
Such hidden embarrassments aren’t limited to family disgrace or private misdemeanour:
RBS chief Stephen Hester has gone as far as he can to prepare expectations that the bailed-out bank will be slapped with a big fine when watchdogs around the globe finally finish their investigations into the manipulation of interest rates. But Libor is not the only skeleton in the cupboard for this industry.
Observer, 28 Oct. 2012.
A tale often repeated links the phrase to the difficulties surgeons faced, before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, in obtaining cadavers for teaching students. They sometimes did so illegally, as the famous case of Burke and Hare made very public. After bodies had been thoroughly dissected, so the story goes, the surgeons had to hide the skeletons, as they were evidence of a crime. It’s sometimes suggested instead that it arose from a murder in a family in which the body had been hidden away, only later to be found in a mummified state, close enough to a skeleton for folkloric purposes. We may disregard these tales.
The idea that a skeleton was a figurative representation of a secret shame was once thought to be the inspiration of William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote in an article in Punch in 1845 that “There is a skeleton in every house.” In a novel ten years later, The Newcomes; Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family, he wrote, “It is from these that we shall arrive at some particulars regarding the Newcome family, which will show us that they have a skeleton or two in their closets, as well as their neighbours.”
However, we now know that it appeared much earlier in the century:
In these, as in many other highly important questions, men seem afraid of enquiring after truth; cautions on cautions are multiplied, to conceal the skeleton in the closet or to prevent its escape.
A Philosophical Treatise on the Hereditary Peculiarities of the Human Race, by Joseph Adams, 1815, quoted in a review by an anonymous physician in the Eclectic Review of November 1816. This is the first work that set out modern principles of genetic inheritance; Adams is discussing the shame associated with congenital disease.
So the original is actually closet. The earliest example of the cupboard version I can find is in the Morning Post in October 1858 and then as the title of a book by Lady Harriet Anne Scott in 1860.
Why the shift? At the time the phrase first appeared, closet in British English could mean either a cupboard or a private room for retirement or study. My impression is that though the verb survived, the noun closet slowly fell out of use in both senses in Britain during the nineteenth century, perhaps because the rise of water closet (WC), using closet in the sense of a small private room, made it a less suitable word for polite conversation in Victorian times.
For whatever reason, the shift didn’t take place in the US, where closet has always been dominant, with cupboard a lesser used variant. The partial shift back towards closet in the UK seems to be the result of American influence.
• Tom DeLorey advises us that on 22 May the Denver Post reported on the bad weather in Colorado, “Both storms were driven by the way warm air flows into the metro area from the south and east because of typography of the surrounding region.”
• A report that Mark Anderson read on the BBC website on 28 May about genericide, the loss of a trademark by a company because it had become a general term, had this to say: “German pharmaceutical firm Bayer was forced to give up its rights to the Aspirin trademark in the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, which followed its defeat in World War One.”
• A piece on the Telegraph site dated 19 May about Spain’s new traffic laws surprised George R Francisco with this sentence: “It is quite common to witness car occupants swerving between lanes at speed without indicating.”
• “As long as they can count,” was Bernard Robertson-Dunn’s comment on a job advertisement for a numerical analyst he saw on the Fish4Jobs site: “We are looking for individuals who understands the importance of customer relationships and who is solution focused with excellent communication skills.”
• Margaret Vowles tells us that in the Sunday Times magazine article, A Life in the Day, of 18 May, Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, said of her daughter “Our eldest, Catherine, is a country girl and an expert on birds who can mend guns.”
WORLD WIDE WORDS Issue 884 – WIF Style