World Wide Words Issue 885 – WIF Style

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Issue 885

Issue 885




World Wide Words Newsletter 885


Issue 885: Saturday 5 July 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Bat an eyelid.

3. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Return of writer I am revitalised by my holiday. Thank you all for your forbearance during my month away.

Closets and cupboards My discussion of skeleton in the cupboard / closet last time led, as I expected, to numerous messages about the scope and meaning of these words in American and British English.

British English doesn’t much use closet as a noun, though the verb has currency. Water closet for toilet, lavatory or loo is archaic (though John Neave recalled that “My grandmother was a Londoner born and bred. To her, a cupboard was a cupboard, but The Closet was the lavatory”). Our closets are figurative. We have borrowed the American phrase to come out of the closet, though we couldn’t imagine being in one to start with (come out of the cupboard doesn’t have the same portentous connotations.) We also have closet racists and other closeted types with skeletons in their cupboards.

My understanding is that American cupboards always hang on walls, as British ones can also do. As Richard Bos argued, “cupboard implies shelves, and therefore not much room for a skeleton, while a closet implies standing, or at least hanging room”. Paul Witheridge noted in similar vein, “To fit in a North American cupboard, the skeleton would have to be the remains of a small animal”. We Brits prefer cabinet for these, as in kitchen cabinet or bathroom cabinet (though the former is less used than it once was, perhaps because it reminds older Brits of the punning kitchen cabinet for the private and informal group of advisors around the British PM Harold Wilson, though that’s originally American, from the early nineteenth century). British cupboards are often also tall floor-standing storage spaces. Sometimes they’re built in, but they’re still cupboards.

Bill Wallace wrote pithily, “You keep your clothes in a cupboard?” To which I replied equally briefly, “No. Mine are in a wardrobe”, a large free-standing cupboard with specialist fittings, a feature and a word that’s less common in the US, I believe. But that led me to think about the room off our bedroom, just large enough to insert one’s body into, which the architect no doubt intended for clothes but which we use for miscellaneous storage because we already have two wardrobes. Though uncommon in Britain such little rooms are, I’m told, standard in American bedrooms and are always called closets. We call ours a cupboard. Even if we used it for clothes, I still wouldn’t call it a closet, because that word isn’t in my idiolect. How would I describe it in that case? I’m not sure. The architect probably labelled it built-in wardrobe though that would surely be a pretentious title for a space of its paltry dimensions.

Gordon Rich emailed: “I am reminded of the comment from the Irish lady who was confronted with a skeleton in her cupboard; she said ‘There he is; all-Ireland hide-and-seek champion.’” Marty Ryerson, a reader from the US, commented: “When I was a young lad, my mother explained that a cupboard was for cups, a closet was for clothes, a pantry was for pans, and a larder was for lard. We had a closet where we kept canned goods. So, being the youngest in a family of smart-alecks, I asked if this was known as a cantry. This term ever afterward became the family’s name for that storage space.”

Jabberwocky Readers pointed out the many translations of Carroll’s famous poem into other languages.

My favourite is the German version that I came across in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. It’s by Robert Scott (one half of Liddell and Scott, authors of the famous Greek-English Lexicon, Henry Liddell being the father of the famous Alice; his surname, by the way, is pronounced “liddle”, as is shown by a rhyme of the time: “I am the Dean and this is Mrs Liddell, / She plays the first, and I the second fiddle”). The German version was published in 1872 in an article in Macmillan’s Magazine whose title was The Jabberwock Traced to Its True Source. It claimed to demonstrate that the poem was actually an English translation of an old German ballad. Scott published it under the pseudonym Thomas Chatterton, a nod to the knowledgeable because Chatterton had been the famous forger of mock-medieval ballads the previous century. It begins:

Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.

Though it sounds wonderfully Teutonic read aloud, it is, of course, thoroughly bad German and quite unintelligible to native speakers.

Gyre Steve Price was one of several readers who reminded me of a famous example of gyre in its sense of a spiral: “Yeats’s The Second Coming begins ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ And gyronny is the term for a heraldic device of eight gyrons that looks as though it’s turning like a gyrfalcon in the sky.”

Scott Underwood pointed out that I was mistaken to imply that gyre in the poem was pronounced as in standard English, with a soft g. Lewis Carroll wrote in an introduction to Through the Looking-Glass dated Christmas 1896: “The new words, in the poem Jabberwocky, have given rise to some differences of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also. Pronounce ‘slithy’ as if it were the two words ‘sly, the’: make the ‘g’ hard in ‘gyre’ and ‘gimble’: and pronounce ‘rath’ to rhyme with ‘bath’.”

2. Bat an eyelid

Q From Brian Fleming: How did batting an eyelid arise? Fluttering makes sense, but in my view bats flap.

A The bat in the expression turns out to have nothing do to with nocturnal flying mammals. And likewise it’s unconnected with table-tennis, cricket, baseball or any other game in which a bat is an essential requirement.

Three idioms are associated with batting eyes or eyelids, by which we mean a pronounced rapid blink or series of blinks.

One — very old-fashioned — is I didn’t bat an eyelid all night, equivalent to I didn’t sleep a wink. If a woman bats her eyelids (more commonly her eyelashes) she’s fluttering them flirtatiously:

It was amusing to watch the woman — who must have been at least sixty — dissolve into girlish simpering in the wave of my brother’s considerable charm. When she began coyly batting her eyelashes at him, I’d had about all I could stand of this stomach-turning display.
The Cliff House Strangler, by Shirley Tallman, 2007.

The third, not to bat an eye (or eyelid) is to avoid blinking or showing any other emotion when something awkward occurs, a mark of self-control and equanimity.

For the answer, we must look to the long defunct verb, bate, which is connected to our abate, debate and bated breath. It came into English from French battre, to beat, and meant, among other things, the beating or fluttering of a falcon’s wings. Over time, bate became shortened to bat in some English dialects and came to mean “blink” or “wink”. Dialect researchers in the nineteenth century noted this sense of bat in a swathe of England from south Yorkshire down to Nottinghamshire and across to Shropshire.

The sense of flirtatiousness is originally American. It starts to appear in the record around 1880.

You hol’ your head high; don’t you bat your eyes to please none of ’em.
At Teague Poteet’s, by Joel Chandler Harris, in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, May 1883. This story of Georgia backwoodsmen and moonshiners was published the following year in Mingo and Other Sketches in Black and White.

3. Sic!

Knowing teaser line or accident? Alex Baumans spotted on 5 June that the Huffington Post promoted an article with “Only Chrissy Teigen Could Pull Off Underwear On The Red Carpet.”

• Betsy Adams sent a copy of an article from a newsletter that the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina circulated to potential donors. She was disquieted by its headline: “Student embraces one-on-one with top-level researcher”.

• Someone noted Graham Thomas’s interest in ornithology and suggested he download an app that included 268 bird guides, an A to Z list of birds and many other features. The last of these really caught his imagination: “Ability to Tweet from the app”.

• A Daily Mail website photo caption on 16 June noted the unhappiness of some older fans of Southampton FC to the appointment of a new football manager and added, “But it doesn’t mean they are casting dispersions”. Barry Prince said he always thought it was nasturtiums that one cast … or an equivalent malapropism such as cast asparagus.



World Wide Words Issue 885 – WIF Style

WORLD WIDE WORDS Issue 884 – WIF Style

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Worl Wide Words

Issue 884



World Wide Words Newsletter 884


Issue 884: Saturday 31 May 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Gyre.

3. Skeleton in the closet.

4. Sic!

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.”

2. Gyre

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.

4. Sic!

• 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