World Wide Words Issue 851- WIF Style

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Issue 851: Saturday 28 September 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Epizeuxis.

3. Snippets.

5. Grass.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Umbrage: Following my remark in this piece last week that “Umbrage has almost entirely severed its associations with shadows,” Candida Frith-Macdonald wrote: “One recent revival, of course, being Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, who manages to be miserable, shade-casting, offended and offensive all together. If there were a Dickens prize for naming characters, Rowling would hold it. English may be tricky to spell, but it does allow for some great puns.”

Lookshurry Last week I quoted a comment in The Times about a match that had to be abandoned because the pitch was waterlogged: “Wimps. Waterlogged pitch indeed. Lookshurry!” My mailbox was filled by messages from dozens of readers hastening to point out that it’s intended to convey the word luxury uttered in an exaggerated Yorkshire accent, a disgusted retort by hardened northerners on pampered individuals who are put off by minor deprivations. (My error was reading it as looks + hurry, when it’s said more like looksh + urry.) The connection is to a famous British television sketch by four successful Yorkshiremen who sought to outdo each other in increasingly bizarre descriptions of their deprived childhoods.

Many readers suggested that it’s a Monty Python sketch; it has been performed by the Python cast on stage but it’s earlier. It appeared in 1967 in At Last the 1948 Show (whose title disparaged the commissioners of television shows for their dilatoriness) and was performed by John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman. You can watch it here (but don’t believe the accents). I hope that this detailed exegesis makes up for my ignorance of the term’s provenance. Rod Nicholas noted, “The sketch is so well known, even here in Canberra, Australia, nearly 50 years after it was first aired, that any cry of poverty will be met with an enthusiastic cry of Lookshurry!

Pre-loved and pre-owned My gently deprecating comment about these words provoked some American readers to point out they didn’t use them either. Greg Holmes wrote, “As an American, I must tell you that pre-owned and pre-loved are purely terms of advertising (or possibly self-conscious humor), at least in any circles in which I operate. Auto dealers may sell pre-owned cars, but actual people drive used ones. Those who solicit for charity do ask for gently used items but never pre-loved or pre-owned items, unless they are being deliberately self-conscious and precious.” Of a third word that I mentioned, upcycled, Loren Myer commented, “I have heard it used on more than one occasion, but usually by the ‘artsy-fartsy’ crowd. We have not taken it to our hearts. By far the more common word for this process of creatively recycling items for new owners — decorating and restyling beyond their original state of newness — is repurposed.”

Sic! The item about selecting a password provoked Paul Witheridge to email, “I’m sure you’ve heard of the dumb individual who read ‘Your password must be at least eight characters long and contain at least one number’ and selected ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’.”

2. Epizeuxis/ɛpɪˈzjuːksɪs/

A writer in an American scholarly journal in 1914 felt that it was hard on schoolchildren of his time to get a grip on the concepts of rhetoric when they had to describe them in mouthfuls like epitheton, catachresis, hendiadys, aposiopesis, hysteron proteron, hypallage, anacolouthon, hyperbaton, parrhesia and epizeuxis.

Few of us of any age have to struggle these days with such words or the concepts that they represent, though the tricks of effective communication they stand for are still very much with us.

When in 2001 the Labour Party leader Tony Blair told the country that a top priority of his administration was “education, education, education”, he was committing epizeuxis, the repetition of a word for emphasis. Other famous examples are Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break / On thy cold grey stones, O sea” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Boots, boots, boots, boots, movin’ up and down again.”

It’s not necessary to follow the rule of repetition so strictly. Richard the Third’s “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” and Captain Ahab’s “Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick ye have seen — Moby Dick — Moby Dick!” are other examples of epizeuxis.

Epizeuxis is from Greek epi-, in addition, plus zeuxis (from zeugnunai, to yoke), hence fastening together.

3. Snippets

What’s in a name? I’m continually surprised by the names people give to flora and fauna. An article in the Scientific American introduced me to two insects called the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the ultragreen sweat bee. A piece in the Observer described the Amazonian bluntnose knifefish, which sounds as if it could do with sharpening. But the biological sciences don’t have a corner on odd names. A report in New Scientist featured an astronomical phenomenon called an asymptotic giant branch star.

Hairbrained? Sarah Weidinger asked me about the phrase on a wild hair, which left me in a minor tizzy since I’d never come across it. An online search found it in the lyrics to the Jake Owen song Anywhere With You (Mexico on a Wild Hair) which obviously puzzles other people, too. There are examples such as “I would do Mexico or Hawaii for a beach vacation on a ‘wild hair’ but not Europe” and “She is leaving on a wild-hair jaunt.” This suggests a spontaneous or unpremeditated excursion through the image of rushing off with one’s hair flying in the wind. An earlier line supports this: “If you wanna just ride the breeze. I’ll go anywhere”. But I can find nothing more, not even whether Jake Owen invented it.

Greek as it ain’t spoke Bernard Long tells me that he heard a BBC news item in which someone was described as “hoi polloing with the Putins of this world.” He is aghast at the thought that this Greek term for the masses, ordinary people, should have been turned into a verb. I had to tell him that I’d found a couple of other examples, though it’s rare, thank goodness, not least because it doesn’t make any sense. I suspect it may be an error for hobnobbing.

5. Grass

Q From Bill Brown: Today I came across the phrase grass them up which I gathered from the context means to turn in to the authorities. Searching the web confirms this, but I didn’t come across any explanation of its origins. I have faith you can explain this phrase. [Bill Brown

A It’s good that you have such faith in my etymological detective work, Mr Brown, but I doubt whether in this case I’ve tracked this well-established slang term to its origin.

To grass in British slang is indeed to inform on a person to the authorities; a grass is an informer. The noun starts to appear in print in the 1920s and the verb a few years later. We’ve since had grasser in the same sense; in the 1970s supergrass appeared for a police informer who implicated a large number of people at one go.

It has been proposed that grass is from snake in the grass, a treacherous person or a secret enemy. This echoes the ancient idea that snakes are perfidious creatures, a view that famously appears in the Book of Genesis. I’ve also come across a curious argument that it derives from grass in the park, rhymingly a copper’s nark. (Nark is known from the last third of the nineteenth century and comes from Romany nak, a nose, that is, somebody who sticks his nose into others’ affairs or sniffs out information; it’s no relation to the US narc, short for narcotics officer). We’re quite sure that neither of these ideas is correct.

Instead, the experts point to grass as being a short form of grasshopper. We may pass over the latter’s earliest slang sense of a waiter in a tea-garden — which brings to mind an overworked server bounding from customer to customer — and concentrate instead on the meaning first recorded by John Farmer and W E Henley in volume three of Slang and its Analogues in 1893: a policeman, by rhyming slang a copper.

Earlier writers on slang assumed that grasshopper was extended to refer to informers because of their police connections. More recent writers are less sure.

The experts are instead favourably disposed towards another slang term, to shop. This dates from the sixteenth century, when it meant to imprison (it comes from the noun shop, which in low slang then referred to a prison). By the early nineteenth century it had taken on the sense of providing the evidence by which a person was sent to prison, hence inform. A grasshopper might therefore have more obviously been a shopper, not a copper. Shopper begins to be recorded in the sense of an informer around the time grass starts to appear.

So far as I’ve been able to find out, there’s no direct evidence for either copper or shopper. The current predisposition among slang lexicographers to prefer the latter is basically that it has a more direct semantic association with grass via grasshopper.

5. Sic!

Foreign Policy Magazine’s summary of news headlines on 19 September contained this sentence, Daniel Piotrowski notes: “Eduardo Campos’s Brazilian Socialist Party withdrew from President Dilma Rousseff’s coalition government on Wednesday, paving the popular state governor to run for president.”

• Jim Getz found this in an item on the ARS Technica website dated 18 September: “The research was in part prompted by … the foiling of a plot to use explosives-packed, radio-controlled model airplanes to attack the Capitol and the Pentagon by the FBI.”

• Paul Thompson received this realtor listing in the mail in Calgary, Alberta: “This home will not disappoint and will not last long!”.

• An excerpt from the issue of Energy North for Summer 2013, sent in by James Fleming: “The Scottish Conservative Party has … also called for subsidies for renewables to be reduced and for wind farms to be built a minimum of 2,000km away from homes.”

• This appeared in an article about Johnny Vegas in the Guardian on 24 September (David Mackinder and Tim Riley both saw it): “He had gone from a close and loving family in St Helens, Merseyside, to this large institution with cold showers and mice that forbade any questioning of one’s faith.”

World Wide Words Issue 851- WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 850 – WIF Style

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Issue 850: Saturday 21 September 2013



1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Umbrage.

3. Snippets.

4. Rhino.

5. Sic!


Glass slipper Roger Depledge doubted my French translation. “Balzac indeed wrote ‘sans doute de menu vair’ about Cinderella’s shoes, but do not make him more categorical than he was, even for a Frenchman. ‘Sans doute’ is a common semantic false friend; it means ‘probably’ or ‘presumably’. ‘Without (a) doubt’ is ‘sans aucun doute’.”

Asparagus Pat Gadsby commented, “Grass is a common name for this vegetable in East Anglia and its use has caused a great deal of concern among my visitors from the USA when I tell them I am going to buy some.” Anne Osborne added, “A pub near Evesham, at Badsey, is called The Round of Grass. Evesham is still great asparagus-growing country and I believe bundles of asparagus are even now sold as ‘rounds of grass’.”

“Sparrowgrass put me in mind of sparrow iron,” Don Donovan wrote. “Many buildings in New Zealand use corrugated iron, mainly for roofs. While doing illustrations for my books about NZ architectural subjects I came across sparrow iron, a material that seems to have been used in early years but which does not appear to be available now. It has much finer corrugations than usual and is more attractive. Why it was called sparrow iron defeats me.” I have found references to it in British sources, one of which asserts it was given that name because the sparrow is such a small bird. It’s as good an answer as any in the absence of authoritative research, but don’t quote me!

2. Umbrage

Umbrage is offence or annoyance. These days we almost always take umbrage, the two words having been conjoined into a fixed phrase. It is less common to hear of people giving umbrage, though someone who takes umbrage presumably has had it inflicted on him by another. Or does this imbalance imply that the perceived offence is almost always in the mind of the receiver?

Umbrage derives from Latin umbra, shadow, and that was its first meaning in English. A tree might cast umbrage and in later centuries its foliage came to be its umbrage. Shelley wrote “The tall ash and oak, in mingled umbrage, sighed far above their heads.” In the time of Shakespeare, an umbrage was a shadowy outline (Hamlet uses it for the shadow of a man), which led to its suggesting somebody lurking out of plain view. From this grew ideas of being under the shadow of suspicion and being in disfavour and indirectly to our modern senses of annoyance, offence or resentment.

Umbrage has almost entirely severed its associations with shadows, but its adjective umbrageous usually refers to shade, most often that cast by trees. We have lost its relative umbratile, which once referred to a reclusive person, one who kept in the shade by staying indoors. However, we retain another relative, umbrella, originally a sunshade, which came into English via Italian.

3. Snippets

• The word of the week must surely be parbuckling, which has been widely used in the media in connection with the salvaging of the cruise ship Costa Concordia. Though unknown to most of us, it’s a term of art among marine salvage specialists. The technique — though more rarely the word — is known to others who have to move heavy objects about. When I used to see draymen rolling casks of beer down a ramp into the cellar of my local pub using a pair of rope slings to control their movement, I didn’t know that was parbuckling. Foresters use the same technique to roll heavy logs along the ground. The term is appropriate for the Costa Concordia because ropes and other equipment were used to rotate the ship away from the rocks on which it was stuck. The word’s history is obscure; it appeared in the seventeenth century as parbunkel, with the first part possibly being a variant of pair. The second part was later modified by folk etymology, most probably on the assumption that it was related to buckler for a small shield or for the moveable head of a cask used to compress its contents.

• Before I went on holiday, Richard Winter asked me about a word he had encountered in a football report by Simon Barnes in The Times on 26 August about a match that had to be abandoned because the pitch was waterlogged: “Wimps. Waterlogged pitch indeed. Lookshurry!” I found other examples of this slightly weird exclamation, mostly in sports contexts, which seem to suggest that something is excessive or over the top. I have been quite unable to trace its origin or find out anything more about it.

• In my youth, so long ago, when we bought something that wasn’t new, we called it second-hand or used. More recently, we in Britain have learned the American pre-owned and pre-loved but we have never taken them to our hearts. We’re beginning to see another American import, luxecycled. Such items have been creatively recycled for new owners — decorated and restyled beyond their original state of newness, at least to the eyes of their embellishers. The more common US term for the process is upcycling, but to luxecycle something would seem to be taking the process to extremes.

4. Rhino

Q From Chuck O’Brien: I searched your site (perhaps not thoroughly enough?) looking for the word rhino, meaning money, which you mentioned in your piece some time ago about pony up. It also appears in the short story by Washington Irving entitled The Devil and Tom Walker. Where does this come from?

A Rhino is one of the more ancient, curious and perplexing slang terms for money in the English language. It originated in Britain and was taken to other English-speaking countries by emigrants. It has had a long life — though it begins to appear in the written record in the 1620s, it continued to pop up well into the twentieth century. Its heyday was the nineteenth:

“But there’s one thing needful — and that is the needful.” “Money?” suggested Alaric. “Yes, money — cash — rhino — tin — ready — or by what other name the goddess would be pleased to have herself worshipped; money, sir; there’s the difficulty, now as ever.”
The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope, 1857.

The obvious assumption is that it’s the same word as the abbreviated form of rhinoceros, whose name is from Greek words that literally mean nose-horn (Greek rhinos, nose). Much speculation has been built upon this supposed connection, some of it attempting to link rhino with paying through the nose, another seventeenth-century idiom that has acquired fanciful etymologies of its own. It has been argued that monetary rhino came about as a reference to the high value of rhinoceros horn, a supposed aphrodisiac.

The big problem with such attempts is dating. At the time the slang term was first recorded, only two rhinoceroses had been brought to Europe, in 1515 and 1577, both gifts to Portuguese royalty through Portugal’s maritime contacts with India and the East Indies. The first to be seen in England arrived only in October 1684, by which time rhino had long been established in its monetary sense. (This rhinoceros had been imported from India by a ship’s captain named Henry Udall, who unsuccessfully hoped to sell it at a good profit, though after the failure of an auction it ended up being exhibited at the Bell Savage Inn on Ludgate Hill in London.) When another rhinoceros came to England in 1739, it was still exotic enough to be described in the London Daily Advertiser as a “strange and wonderful creature”. It would be surprising for an animal so little known in Britain to have generated a slangy abbreviation. Jonathon Green, the slang lexicographer, has remarked that the efforts to forge a link show “a certain lexicographical desperation”.

We have to presume that the true origin lies elsewhere, though we haven’t the slightest idea where that might be. However, it may be that the arrival of the first rhinoceros in England created a link between it and the existing slang term. A little while after its arrival this appeared:

My lusty rustic, learn and be instructed. Cole is in the language of the witty, money. The ready, the rhino; thou shalt be rhinocerical, my lad, thou shalt.
The Squire of Alsatia, by Thomas Shadwell, 1688. Cole is now spelled coal, a valuable mineral.

This hinted at a link with the animal through rhinocerical, which Shadwell invented and which became a fanciful adjective in the next century for being rich. Might he have had in mind the animal that was languishing in the courtyard of a London pub and generated a pun on its name and the existing rhino? If so, it’s his fault that later generations of word sleuths got the wrong end of the stick.

Incidentally, Thomas Shadwell’s text shows that ready (later the readies) was already in use. It’s short for ready money, cash or funds immediately available for use, which dates from the 1420s. The composite ready rhino appeared in 1697. Like rhino, it continued in use for a couple of centuries and it was punned upon in the first known use of rhino for the animal, thus turning the term full circle:

The Black Rhinoceros of Equatorial Africa … The promptness with which it makes its tremendous charges has earned for it, among European hunters, the soubriquet of the “Ready Rhino”.
Punchinello, 9 Jul. 1870.

5. Sic!

• Bruce McKenzie shared this from the first chapter of Utopian Man, by Lisa Lang, of 2010: “Button-sized and made of copper, he has planned the medals as a gift for his customers.”

• Grant Agnew’s electricity company, EnergyAustralia, is inviting its customers to register for a new email newsletter. Grant reports that it has issued the following instruction: “Your password must be at least eight characters long. ‘Password’ is too short.”

• Wracked wrecking. Julane Marx spotted this about Miley Cyrus on the MSN Wonderwall: “Her video for Wrecking Ball, in which she appears in the nude while swinging on a large demolition ball, broke the record for most online views in the first 24 hours following a premiere; the video wracked up a whopping 19.3 million views in its first day.”

• Steve Marston encountered this description of the 3M General Purpose Adhesive Cleaner on Amazon: “Specially blended solvent for removal of light paint overspray, adhesive residue, wax, grease, dirt and bugs in aerosol form.”