World Wide Words Issue 931 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words

Issue 931


Not my pigeon

Q From Helen Mosback: I have just read a serialised version of John Rowland’s Calamity in Kent. It includes this: “In fact, it’s your pigeon, as they say in the civil service.” I was wondering if you could shed any light on the expression it’s your pigeon? I have to admit to being quite taken by the Polish expression not my circus, not my monkeys to indicate that something is not one’s problem, and would be very happy should I have found an equally enchanting English expression!pigeon_png_clipart-671

A Readers may not be familiar with John Rowland, a little-known and neglected British detective-story writer who published Calamity in Kent in 1950. The British Library has republished it this year in its Crime Classics series.

The date of his book is significant, since at that time the expression was more familiar to people in the countries of what is now the Commonwealth than it is now. It had come into the language around the end of the nineteenth century.

The idiom suggests something is the speaker’s interest, concern, area of expertise or responsibility. This is a recent British example:

If posh people aren’t your pigeon, the correspondence on display in this book will be a massive bore and irritation.
The Times, 8 Oct. 2016.

It also turns up in the negative in phrases such as “that’s not my pigeon”, denying involvement or responsibility in some matter.

Despite your analogy with the Polish expression, the pigeon here isn’t the animal. It’s a variant form of pidgin. The name is said to derive from a Chinese attempt to say the word business; the original pidgin, Pidgin English, was a trade jargon that arose from the seventeenth century onwards between British and Chinese merchants in ports such as Canton. The word pidgin is recorded from the 1840s and has become the usual linguistic term for any simplified contact language that allows groups that don’t have a language in common to communicate.

This is an early example of pidgin being used in the figurative sense:

We agreed that if anything went wrong with the pony after, it was not to be my “pidgin.”
The North-China Herald (Shanghai), 1 Aug. 1890.

Most early examples in English writing were spelled that way, though by the 1920s the pigeon form was being used by people who didn’t make the connection with the trade language.


Classical scholars will spot the wintry associations of this word; it derives from Latin nix for snow, which becomes niv- in compounds such as nivālis, snowy or snow-covered. Etymologists point out that the English snow and the Latin nix both ultimately derive from the same ancient Indo-European root. But then humans in Europe have long had plenty of experience of the white stuff.

About four centuries ago, English scholars borrowed nivālis to make the adjective nival to add to our snowy (though French got there first, at least a century earlier). We also have the more recent technical term nivation, not — as you might guess — meaning snowfall but the erosion of ground around and beneath a snow bank that is seasonally melting.

Subnivean is another member of the group, nearly two centuries old. This refers to something that happens underneath snow such as the activities of animals that survive winter beneath it.

Very recently that word has been joined by the linked noun subnivium for the area between soil surface and snowpack. It was coined by a group led by Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They wrote in a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in June 2013: “For many terrestrial organisms in the Northern Hemisphere, winter is a period of resource scarcity and energy deficits, survivable only because a seasonal refugium — the ‘subnivium’ — exists beneath the snow.”

Black as Newgate knocker

Q From Jim Mitchell: As a child in South London, when I came in from playing and was a bit grubby my mother would say I looked as black as nookers nocker. My mother was born in 1917. I wonder if she might have heard this expression from her mother?

A It’s very probable. But not perhaps in that form. Your mother’s version is a mishearing of a Londoners’ expression that dates back in written records to 1881: black as Newgate knocker. It has also turned up in the forms black as Newker’s knocker, black as Nook’s knocker and black as Nugent’s knocker.

Curiously, though it has been in existence for more than a century and is currently not widely known, in writing it is now more often found than it has ever been, perhaps because it’s such an evocative item of historical Cockney slang. These days it almost always has an added apostrophe-s:

Her eyes really are black as Newgate’s knocker.
Sunday Times, 19 Jun. 1994.

Image result for black as Newgate’s knocker

Newgate Exercise yard, 1872 by Gustave Doré

Newgate here refers to the notorious prison, originally created in medieval times in one of the turrets of Newgate, a main entrance through the walls into the City of London. Down the centuries the prison was rebuilt five times; it closed in 1902 and was demolished in 1904. The Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, now stands on the site.

Newgate was a place of fear and loathing to many Londoners, not only criminals but also debtors, who were imprisoned there until they found a way to repay what they owed. After 1783, it was also the place where executions took place, initially on a public platform in front of the building, later inside. For most of its existence it was a noisome, dank, dark and unhealthy place to be incarcerated.

It’s not surprising that it should have been commemorated in expressions. But why not just black as Newgate? Why should its door knocker be selected as the source of the simile?

The phrase Newgate knocker itself is older. It was applied to a hairstyle fashionable among lower-class male Londoners such as costermongers. Though it became widely known from the 1840s, I’ve found a reference to it in the Kentish Gazette in 1781. It referred to a lock of hair twisted from the temple on each side of the head back towards the ear in the shape of a figure 6.

In 1851, Henry Mayhew wrote in his London Labour and the London Poor that a lad of about fourteen had told him that to be “flash” (stylish) hair “ought to be long in front, and done in ‘figure-six’ curls, or twisted back to the ear ‘Newgate knocker style’.” Eight years later, John Camden Hotten explained in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words that “The shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate — a resemblance that carries a rather unpleasant suggestion to the wearer.” Another description came a couple of years later from another investigative social journalist, James Greenwood:

knockerAll, or nearly all, [were] bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the “Newgate knocker” style — that is, parted in masses on each side of the head and turned under unnaturally.
Illustrated Times (London), 16 Feb. 1861.

There’s no obvious connection with the colour black. We may guess, however, that Londoners would have imagined the prison’s knocker to be large and made of black iron as well as figuratively black because of its evil associations. We may also guess from the dates at which the two expressions were first current that Londoners took over the hairstyle phrase as a new way to describe the colour, as people have done for centuries with similes such as black as your hat, black as death, black as the ace of spades, black as thunder, and black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.

As a postscript, I also found this, in a story from 60-odd years ago about the search by a journalist named Bernard O’Donnell for the original Newgate knocker:

His spasmodic search came to an end recently when he was in the office of the Keeper of the Old Bailey, Mr A W Burt. “Where is Newgate’s knocker?” he asked Mr Burt. Promptly it was shown to him. It was on the keeper’s desk. After years spent as a symbol which came to inspire dread among the poor of London, it had found a more useful rôle. It now makes an ideal paper weight.
The Scotsman, 24 April 1950.

Make of that what you will. I wonder if it still exists?

In the news


Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year 2016 on 16 November: post-truth. Its editors defined this as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” One example came in a report in The Times on 31 October of comments by the president of the European Council on the signing of a trade deal with Canada:


“Mr Tusk also denounced the ‘post-truth politics … on both sides of the Atlantic’ which nearly scuppered the deal because ‘facts and figures won’t stand up for themselves’ against an emotional opposition campaign.” Though it has been very much a word of this year, connected both with the Brexit referendum in the UK and the US presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries noted that “post-truth seems to have been first used in this meaning in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in The Nation magazine.”

Last time I mentioned the Danish word hygge, a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. This has become widely popular in Britain this year, and was one of Oxford Dictionaries’ runners-up as Word of the Year. For the background and the story of its rise in British English, I can’t do better than point you to an article by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian on 22 November.Image result for post-truth

The newest British buzzword is jam. Not as in the “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today” meaning of the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass — though the quip has been made several times by pundits — but as an acronym for “Just About Managing”. This refers to the estimated six million working-age British households on low to middle incomes who are struggling to stave off poverty from day to day. The term derives from a speech given by the new prime minister, Theresa May, just after she was chosen by MPs in July. She said of the members of this group, “You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.” Her words became a catchphrase among commentators which has now been shortened.


Lots of letters

Lots of letters

Boxing Day

Q From Burt Rubin; a related question came from Keith Denham: As an American, I’ve always wondered about the origin of the term Boxing Day.

A Boxing Day is a public holiday in Britain and most Commonwealth countries. There’s some minor confusion these days, in Britain at least, over which day it actually is. The reference books a century ago were adamant that it was the first working day after Christmas Day. However, the name is now frequently attached specifically to 26 December, even if it falls at the weekend, which makes it equivalent to the Christian saint’s day of St Stephen.

Image result for boxing dayWe have to go back to the early seventeenth century to find the basis for the name. The term Christmas box appeared about then for an earthenware box, something like a piggy bank, which apprentices and other workers took around immediately after Christmas to collect money. When the round was complete, the box was broken and the money distributed among the company. The first known example:

Tirelire, a Christmas box; a box having a cleft on the lid, or in the side, for money to enter it; used in Related imageFrance by begging Fryers, and here by Butlers, and Prentices, etc.
A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, by Randle Cotgrave, 1611.

By the eighteenth century, Christmas box had become a figurative term for any seasonal gratuity. By the nineteenth century their collection seems to have become a scourge in our big cities. When James Murray compiled an entry for Christmas box in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1889, his splendidly acerbic description suggests that the practice had become a personal bugbear:

A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.

Though the term Boxing Day for the day on which such Christmas boxes were requested didn’t become widespread until early in the nineteenth century, a few examples are recorded from the previous century. The earliest I know of is this:

Related imageTuesday in Christmas Week, about Eight in the Evening, I was coming over this broad Place, and saw a Man come up to this lame Man, and knock him down — It was the Day after Boxing Day.
Transcript of a trial at the Old Bailey (London), 14 Jan. 1743.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the term seems to have become as closely associated with importuning individuals as Christmas Box itself:

“Boxing Day,” — the day consecrated to baksheesh, when nobody, it would almost seem, is too proud to beg, and when everybody who does not beg is expected to play the almoner. “Tie up the knocker — say you’re sick, you are dead,” is the best advice perhaps that could be given in such cases to any man who has a street-door and a knocker upon it.
Curiosities of London Life, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853.

The custom has died out, seasonal visitors to Britain may be assured, though small gifts are still sometimes given to tradesmen and suppliers of services. The favourite occupation of the day is attending football matches or rushing to the post-Christmas sales.

World Wide Words is written, edited and published in the UK by Michael Quinion. ISSN 1470-1448

World Wide Words Issue 931



– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 918 – WIF Style

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WIF Grammar 101-001

World Wide Words

Issue 918

from Michael Quinion of the U.K.



Feedback, Notes and Comments

Snow. One dialect term in my list brought this comment from Hilary Maidstone: “The word hogamadog you mention as being obsolete Northumbrian is sufficiently similar to the still current Norfolk dialect word for a snail, hodmandod, to describe rather nicely the act of rolling a ball of snow, I would have thought.”

The Great Eskimo Naming Problem. Many readers living nearer the peoples in question were quick to criticise me for using the word Inuits. John Nightingalb was among the first: “A Canadian would urge on you that Inuit is, itself, the plural form. Inuk is the singular.” Adam Thompson sent me a link to the Canadian government advice on usage, which points out that in French, Inuit is both singular and plural and Inuk isn’t used. He notes that the same is often true in English.

Martin S Taylor wrote “What do you call it when falling snow, rather than melting as it touches the ground, remains in its frozen, snowy state? I’m from Bristol, where this is pitching. But other parts of the country have it as laying or settling or landing, or a whole variety of dialect terms.”

Chi-ike. Lesley Shaw recalled this as very common in Australia when she was growing up: “Chi-acking was light-hearted and essentially good-humoured back-and-forth banter involving a bit of verbal horseplay between two people, a bit of ‘chucking off’ at each other. There was equality between the banterers and neither was trying to win. You might do it during ‘smoko’ to ‘get a rise out of the other fellow’ but you would expect to get back as good as you gave. ‘Chi-acking’ was a public activity as much to amuse onlookers or listeners. Someone might chime in and ask ‘What are you two chi-acking about?’ It’s a great word.”

“For what it’s worth,” Vanessa Westwood wrote, “my nan, who was born in London but married into a Cannock family, used to say ‘Stop chi-iking about!’ to mean ‘stop messing about’ when I was a kid.” Ross Drewe recalls that a similar sense has been known in Australia: “In my youth (1960s–70s) this word was still in use, in the Australianised form of chyacking. It had suffered a minor shift of meaning from ‘mocking exchanges between men’ to ‘generally boisterous and noisy behaviour by young men’, usually in the phrase ‘they were chyacking around.’ However the older meaning was still recognised in the form ‘he couldn’t stand all the chyacking and left the site’.”

Tony Thurling commented in similar vein: “Your latest newsletter reminded me of my early life [in Australia] where shiacking was a common term for anyone playing the fool or larking or having a joke. I only ever encountered it in spoken form so don’t know how it should be written, although I do recall Sydney newspapers at the time (1970s) using shiack and shyack. It was usually spoken as shyacking about , with shyacking by itself, both verbal and written, being rare.”

Australian and New Zealander readers confirmed that this term, in its various spellings, has now almost vanished from daily life.

British slang expert Jonathon Green tells me he has found earlier appearances of chi-ike than those he included in his three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. One, in the oldest sense of a hearty greeting, appeared in an 1835 ballad entitled Cock-Eyed Sukey: “If chance his mot male chyhoik hear, / And sneaks at once into her nest”, where mot means girlfriend. This was reproduced in the 2011 four-volume collection Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period by Patrick Spedding and Paul Watt, a snip at £350. Jonathon commented: “The 1835 citation, with the usual double entendre of ballads, might be interpreted as linking to a bird-call and thus suggesting a new line of etymology.”

Cardiac Celt. Several readers pointed out that this term, mentioned last time, is most probably based on the older Cardiac Jew, someone who feels Jewish “in their heart” but not in their actions. Rick Turkel recalled, “I was in high school and college during the 1950s and 1960s in New York City and Long Island and recall a similar usage dating back at least another three decades. A self-referenced Cardiac Jew was someone who was born Jewish but knew little or nothing of Jewish law, customs or behavior (and observed less), and was often proud of that. In my crowd it was not considered a favorable description.” Several other readers recalled that they knew this term from the same period or a little later, so it seems to have achieved fairly wide circulation by that time, at least within Jewish communities. Robert Kernish has traced it back to an article of 1942 by I. Steinbaum, A Study of Jewishness of Twenty New York Families. As Mr Turkel suggests, it may indeed be even older.


Q. From Les Kirkham: I know this phrase is used in the navy to mean “drunk”, even “raucously drunk”, often as “kicking up Bob’s a-dying”, but what are its origins? Is it anything to do with Bob’s your uncle?

A. The usual dictionary sense of Bob’s-a-dying is of a disturbance or uproar, perhaps with physical violence involved. It requires no stretch of imagination to connect this with sailors on shore leave getting well tanked up, but drunkenness as such doesn’t seem to be the idea behind it.

It’s rare these days and most people will probably have come across it only in such works as the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. He uses it five times in various books, as here about his crew:

Once ashore they kicked up Bob’s a-dying to a most shocking extent and then set about the soldiery.

Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O’Brian, 1999.

The dating of the expression fits the Napoleonic period in which the books are set. We begin to see it in print in 1828 but may reasonably assume it’s at least a decade or two older. It’s much too old and too different in sense to be linkable to Bob’s your uncle , though it may be added to the list of sayings involving somebody or something named bob that may just possibly have been an influence.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had largely dropped out of public writings but was being recorded in dialect, from Cornwall to Northumberland, sometimes in modified forms such as bobs-a-dial or bobs-a-dilo. It was said to mean “boisterous merriment”, though it could also mean causing a row or making a huge fuss. Thomas Hardy has a character in Under the Greenwood Tree say, “You see her first husband was a young man, who let her go too far; in fact, she used to kick up Bob’s-a-dying at the least thing in the world.”

When it first appeared, people seemed clear enough what it was referring to. A story in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1835 has “I could dance a hornpipe and kick up Bob’s a-dying.” Two years earlier a short story appeared that described setting sail on a warship:

Man the haulyards — let go reef-tackles, cluelines, buntlines — light up in the top — hoist away! Up they went to the tune of “Bob’s a dying”.

The Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1833.

If any doubt should remain, let me dispel it with this later example:

The bridal party marched in regular order next, and over them a parasol, attached to a long rod of iron, was carried by another man, and by his side was an accordeon player, striking up some lively strains, such as “Pop goes the Weasel,” “Bob’s a dying,” &c.

Nottinghamshire Guardian, 29 June 1854. Accordeon was a contemporary spelling of accordion, derived from its original German name.

Patrick O’Brian was also sure of its musical origin:

He too had danced to the fiddle and fife, his upper half grave and still, his lower flying — heel and toe, the double harman, the cut-and-come-again, the Kentish knock, the Bob’s a-dying and its variations in quick succession and (if the weather was reasonably calm) in perfect time.

The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian, 1981.

The many references to kicking up Bob’s a dying suggests a high-kicking dance. This presumably wasn’t a sea shanty but a tune particularly popular with seafarers. It’s a pity that this doesn’t now seem to be known. It must have been particularly lively to have become linked to uproar ashore, though sailors putting the boot in during an affray would at once have seen the connection.

Who or what was bob is likewise not known. One theory has it that it referred to a shilling in old British currency, known as a bob since the latter part of the eighteenth century; bob might have been dying because the sailor’s money was almost spent. On drink, we may reasonably suspect.


Image result for binge-watching

Binge-watching, consuming several or all the episodes of a television programme in quick succession, was announced by the British dictionary publishers Collins on 5 November as its 2015 Word of the Year.

Once upon a time, we had to wait for the next episode of our favourite television show and had to be sure to catch it when it was broadcast or it was probably gone for ever. Technology has changed all that, of course, not only providing box sets for easy access to programmes we want to watch again but more recently giving online access to the whole of a new series at once.

My face is unshaven, my eyes are bloodshot and I haven’t showered in days. Such are the ravages of binge-watching. Welcome to the latest addiction affecting America. … Other than hiding the remote or changing the victim’s Netflix password, there is no known cure.

Clearfield Progress (Pennsylvania), 13 Jan. 2014.

The term derives from binge-eating and binge-drinking , terms first found in the US in the 1950s (though binge drinker is a couple of decades older and the noun phrase eating binge is of 1930s vintage). An immediate precursor was binge-reading from the 1990s.

Though binge-watching is recorded in the US as far back as 2003, it widened its popularity in that country greatly from 2012 on. In December 2013 the American Dialect Society selected it as its word “most likely to succeed”, a prediction that has proved accurate. It is now widely known wherever English is spoken:

Forget binge-drinking, the celebrated vice in Tellyland is “binge-watching” and the BBC is the latest to jump on the bandwagon. Director-General Tony Hall is to release whole drama series on iPlayer. I know it’s what people want but I want to stand up for the slow burn.

The Independent, 11 Sep. 2015.

Binge is itself an intriguing word, though its ultimate origin is obscure. It derives from the dialects of the midlands counties of England, such as Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. The English Dialect Dictionary of the end of the nineteenth century notes that to soak a wooden vessel such as a cask or a tub to swell the wood and render it watertight was said to binge it. By extension a man who “soaked” himself in alcoholic drink was said to binge or be on a binge, a usage recorded from Northamptonshire in 1854.

Two slang dictionaries, in 1889 and 1890, note it in the sense of a drinking bout but it seems to have become socially acceptable in Britain only during the First World War — early examples are in letters from airmen. Noun and verb were carried to the USA a little later.

We might guess that P G Wodehouse had a hand in its adoption in the US because he was rather fond of it. However, he uses it loosely for a party, outing or situation, with no implications of drinking:

I had had experience of one or two of these binges, and didn’t want to run any risk of coming early and finding myself shoved into a seat in one of the front rows.

The Inimitable Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse, 1923.

Binge can also be used in the sense of any extended immersion in an activity or situation, such as a guilt binge or a workout binge, though this is less common.

Collins’ words of the year 2015

As well as binge-watching, Collins’ editors have listed nine other words of 2015. The most obviously new member of the collection, dating only from July, is Corbynomics , the economic policies of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Transgender (of a person whose gender identity does not fully correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth) and associated words have been used much more this year, stimulated by the media attention paid to Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox among others. The editors note that shaming (to embarrass a person on social media by drawing attention to some supposed failing) has had a large rise in popularity this year in compounds such as fat-shaming, slut-shaming and single-shaming.

Others in the list are dadbod (the untoned and slightly plump physique of a man who is nevertheless attractive to women), manspreading (of a male passenger in a bus or train splaying his legs in a way that denies space to the passenger sitting next to him), ghosting (to break up with someone by refusing to respond to phone calls, emails and texts), and clean eating (following a diet that avoids processed foods, consuming only those in their natural state).

Some words in the list, including binge-watching, have been around rather longer and it seems slightly odd to attach them specifically to 2015: contactless (of smart cards that use radio-frequency links to make payments) could have been included in any year from about 2011, though its use has been steadily increasing since; similarly swipe (to move a finger across a touch screen on a mobile phone to approve or dismiss some item) is far from new.


The Australian-born humorist, broadcaster and poet Clive James wrote in the Guardian on 24 October “I save time on the web by reading nobody’s opinion that contains the word ‘methinks’.”

His dislike is understandable. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as archaic, poetical and regional. It might have added “pretentious” because that’s surely the quality of online writing that James finds unattractive and likely to waste what little time he has left in this world. He would presumably have passed over an appearance in the Guardian the week before: “So, where will the steel be purchased? Methinks from George Osborne’s new friends in China.” Luckily for the reputation of the paper in James’s eyes, that was in a reader’s letter.

Methinks has long ago fallen out of spoken usage, except in expressions such as “Methinks the witness doth protest too much”, a misquotation from Hamlet . Style guides mostly don’t bother to include it, not even to tell readers to avoid it, which would be good advice. Brian Garner does provide an entry in his guide, without castigation but calling it “an ever-popular archaism”. I would have contested that, had I not found more than a thousand examples in a database of British newspapers from the past 20 years.

Many appearances of methinks suggest that the OED should have added “humorous” to its list of likely contexts, though the jocularity can be so ponderous that the eyelids droop in sympathy. Some journalists do seem to believe it marks prose as elevated or serious, as in the down-market Sun in July 2015: “Time, methinks, for author John O’Farrell to republish his excellent memoirs”, and in May in the mid-market Daily Telegraph: “Methinks that a bit more modesty about how ‘rich’ we are, and accordingly about our ability to dish out largesse, might not go amiss.”

Methinks isn’t only archaic but also ancient. It’s in one of the oldest works in English, King Alfred’s translation before 899 of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiæ , the Consolations of Philosophy. It was then two words, me thyncth (but then written me þincð, using the old characters thorn and eth).

The word looks like a thrusting together of me and think , meaning “it seems to me”, and as though it comes directly from the Old English equivalent of think. But at that time there were two closely similar verbs, in modern spelling thencan, to think, and thyncan, to seem or appear. The source of methinks is actually the second one. In Middle English the two became confused and coalesced into one form that evolved into our modern verb to think. Methinks followed.

If you’re ever tempted to use the past tense, it’s methought. But please don’t.

From my reading
Read with me

Read with me

  • I had thought that dadager, a father who manages a show-business son or (more usually) daughter, had gone the way of other temporary formations — the first examples on record are from 2006 in reference to Joe Simpson, father-manager of Jessica. But I came across it last week in reference to Matthew Knowles, described as former dadager of Beyoncé, and a hunt around found a number of other recent usages. There are, of course, also momagers, and I’ve also turned up one reference to a sistager. Of the three, momager is by far the commonest and also the oldest: a newspaper search revealed an isolated early use from 1977.
  • A recent BBC television programme, The World’s Weirdest Events, featured a firenado. I come late to this one, as it started to appear in 2013 and became more widely used in the US in 2014. A firenado is a tornado caused by a big fire, which carries burning embers and flame across the land. Firenados have been recorded much earlier under names like fire whirl, fire devil, fire tornado and fire twister.
  • After the discussion of words for snow in the last issue, it was intriguing to come across another Antarctic cold-weather term: brinicle, from brine and icicle . This was filmed for the first time in 2011 for the BBC television programme, Frozen Planet, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. A brinicle is an underwater icicle. Brine at a temperature well below 0C is extruded from the under-surface of sea ice and, as it falls, seawater freezes around it to make a column which grows down to the seabed.
  • A recent article in the Observer introduced me to the term social freezing, which has been written about several times this year in the UK. This is the freezing of eggs by women for social or personal reasons rather than medical necessity. In theory it permits them to postpone having children until later in life without problems associated with declining fertility, though experts warn it isn’t an insurance policy as reimplantation can fail. Reasons for social freezing include wanting to have a career first or not having yet found the right partner.

Bill of goods

Q. From BJ Wise: I’ve just come across the phrase bill of goods. I might or might not have read it before, but I had to look it up. Why would selling someone a bill of goods mean to swindle them? I’m not even sure what a bill of goods in the plain sense means.

A. Let’s start with your last comment. Other than in the swindling sense, bill of goods is now hardly known, but unless you understand its more literal associations, the idiom doesn’t make sense. A century ago bill of goods was a US expression meaning a consignment of goods of any sort:

He purchased a bill of goods from Brackton, and, with Creech helping, carried it up to the cabin under the bluff. Three trips were needed to pack up all the supplies.

Wildfire, by Zane Grey, 1917.

This is confusing for us today because we would think of this sort of bill as being a piece of paper, most commonly the sort giving notice of money to be paid. This comes from bill having once meant any formal written document, a sense which survives in a number of special cases, such as parliamentary bill, dollar bill and handbill . It can also be a list, as in bill of rights or the old-fashioned bill of fare for a menu.

Based on this idea, bill of goods originally really did mean a list of goods to be provided, what we might today call a consignment note or despatch note:

The merchant, who receives a bill of goods from his correspondent in London or Liverpool, is particular not only to file that bill for future reference, but to copy it entire into an invoice book, that he may at pleasure look to the quantity, quality, and price of the various articles.

Gould’s Universal Index, And Everybody’s Own Book, 1842.

At some point in the nineteenth century, it changed from being a list to the goods that were listed.

Incidentally, bill comes from the classical Latin bulla for various globular objects such as a bubble, boss or stud. In medieval Latin it shifted to being the seal on a document; in time it came to mean the document instead. In English bulla became bill. It also became bull, as in a Papal bull and similar edicts.

Sometime around the 1920s bill of goods took on the meaning that you’re asking about — to cheat, swindle or get something over on somebody. We don’t know exactly when or why. However, the two ideas are intimately connected, since there’s nothing new in the idea of somebody cheating another by selling them inferior items or taking money for goods that never arrive. The link is expressed pithily in the first example of the phrase’s use we know about:

What has become of the old fashioned salesman who got his customer drunk and then sold him a bill of goods?

Atchison Daily Globe (Kansas), 5 Jan. 1933.

More recently, as the literal sense of bill of goods has fallen out of memory, the expression has contracted again:

He’s already indicated plans to draw sharp contrasts between his ideas on the economy and the Republican approach, which the president recently dismissed as a “bill of goods” that amounts to little more than slashing spending on vital programs like education and Medicare.

Carroll Daily Times Herald (Carroll, Iowa), 15 Aug. 2011.

In the reverse of the coin, people may sometimes buy a bill of goods.



  • Diane Ellerton emails to say that the Care2 site reported on 29 October: “Dog owners and breeders in British Columbia will no longer be able to have their ears cropped.”
  • Still in Canada, Jon Ackroyd came across an advert by a chain of clinics in the Times Colonist of Victoria BC: “Do You Have a Brain Injury? FREE Demonstrations.
  • From Massachusetts, Jessie Brown tells us of a man featured in a story in her local paper for whom selling sand to Arabs would be easy-peasy: “An Arlington man who prosecutors said sold heroin laced with fentanyl to two victims of fatal overdoses has been convicted on drugs charges.”
  • The Guardian could use Greg Payne as a subeditor, since he spotted an item in the New York Times on 10 October about Paul Ryan being pressed to stand as Speaker of the House of Representatives: “His close associates warned that he had no intention of fighting for the job and would most likely accept it only by acclimation.” After he’d got used to the idea.
  • Thanks to Robert Ferrando we learn that a headline on the San Francisco Chronicle’s site on 31 October read: “Man saves dog from mountain lion in his underwear.”

World Wide Words Issue 918



– WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 863 – WIF Style

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Issue 862

Issue 863




Issue 863: Saturday 4 January 2014



1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Conformator.

3. Wordface.

4. Squared away.

5. Sic!

Blatteroon Mildred Gutkin wrote, “About pisk: in the Yiddish-speaking world of my childhood, a pisk was an animal’s mouth, as distinguished from moil, the proper word for the human body part. The cat has a pisk; a person has a moil. To speak of a person’s pisk, therefore, is derogatory, intimating loose lips or some such, and that person is, with great contempt, a piscatch. Blatteroon indeed, the meaning then readily extended to dismiss the entire individual, body and soul, as a scoundrel.”

Howard Wolff added, “During my childhood in the 1930s and 1940s in Brooklyn, fermach deine pisk meant ‘Shut your mouth’ or ‘Shut up’. But I must admit that I haven’t heard the word used in that or any other way in many years.”

Miriam Miller contributed further Yiddish terms: “The common phrase frosk in pisk means a slap on the mouth. Pisk has come to mean a loudmouth, not garrulous but dominating conversation. One way to say garrulous is hock meir ein chinick, to knock or bang like a tea kettle, to yammer on until one wishes he would shut up. Your bubbie (grandma) might hock you a chinick, but she wouldn’t be a pisk.”

Site changes Part of the reason for taking a break at this time of year is it gives me time to do essential maintenance and improvements. I’ve recoded the website so that pages now print much better: the side columns vanish so that the text fills the page width within the margins. I am also working on making the site responsive to the screen widths of mobile devices, but finishing this will have to wait until more time is available.

2. Conformator

This contraption came to my attention, as so many things do, whilst I was looking for something else, in this case in a book with the title A History of the City of Lawrence in Massachusetts by Jonathan F C Hayes, dated 1868. This is a peculiarly formatted book, with its text only on right-hand pages, faced by adverts for everything from cough drops to cotton-cleaning machines. One promoted the clothing emporium of C B French, who announced:

The finest qualities and latest styles of silk hats manufactured to order, and fitted to the head by the French conformator.


An illustration showed the conformator to be a sort of circular cage that fitted over the head. Dozens of bars around the rim were pushed in by a spring to record the lumps and bumps on the head of the man or woman being measured. The machine punched a paper pattern for the hatter, who used it to set the outline of a former on which the brim of the hat was reshaped. The pattern was often kept so the customer could order new hats without having to visit the store or go through the process again.

Custom Hat Sizer

The conformator was indeed French, though it had been imported from France rather than being a creation of the firm advertising it (I fear the ambiguity was deliberate.) The word appeared first in the French language, as conformateur, a thing made to conform to the shape of something else (devices of the same name recorded the shape of the bust in dressmaking). The invention of the conformateur for hats is variously credited to a man named Maillard in 1843, to the firm of Allié Aine the following year and then to that of Allié-Maillard in 1852, all based in Paris. Though conformators have long since ceased to be manufactured, they continue to be used by bespoke hatters such as Lock of London; the rare examples that come on the market are highly prized and expensive.

I was delighted to find more terminology in Scientific Hat Finishing and Renovating by Henry L Ermatinger of 1919. He explained that “The conformator consists of two separate parts, the conformator proper and the formillion, or shaping block.” The formillion is the former I mentioned above. He added that “The retailer, or renovator, should provide himself with a brim board and an iron foot-tolliker for smoothing the brim.” A search found that foot-tollikers, usually now just called tollikers (foot referred to the base of the hat, not that the tool was foot-operated), are hand tools to set the angle of the crown to the brim, but I can’t trace the origin of the term.

3. Wordface

Words of 2013 The American Dialect Society continued its tradition of voting for its Word of the Year at its annual conference, held this year in Minneapolis. The winner was a curious choice: because X, where X is a noun or noun phrase without the intermediate of that would be expected in standard English: “because homework”, “because internet”. In such phrases, most often encountered online, because has changed from a conjunction to a preposition. It may suggest the logic behind the reasoning is too poor to survive exposure or the reason is so obvious the speaker doesn’t need to elaborate. The version found most often is because reasons, a hand-waving way of saying that the speaker doesn’t want or need to explain. Because X had also been chosen as Most Useful Word of the Year, beating struggle bus, a difficult situation, as in I’m riding the struggle bus. It is likely that journalists will have a struggle bus telling their readers why because X won (try “because language”, guys).

Other yearly words Collins Dictionaries announced their word of the year on 17 December: geek. It’s a mark of the word’s changing fortunes. Originally in English dialect a foolish or offensive man, it has travelled via American carny slang to be a term of abuse for an unattractive and boring social misfit, frequently one immersed in the abstruse technicalities of computing. Recently it has become a positive term, foreshadowed by the slogan “the geek shall inherit the earth” that has echoed around theatre, film and book since the 1990s and bolstered by the success of technology entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg. Collins has already reflected this change by amending its definition of geek to “a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. For Collins, Ian Brookes commented, “The idea of future generations inheriting a more positive definition of the word is something that Collins believes is worth celebrating.”

Winter falls Alan Harrison asked about give the cat a penny, a dialect expression of the English Black Country and adjacent areas of South Staffordshire, meaning to take a tumble on ice. He wrote, “In a pub conversation, someone suggested it was derived from a German phrase meaning fall on your arse, used by prisoners of war incarcerated in camps on Cannock Chase. This seems improbable. My mother, born in 1924, believes that she has known the term all her life.” I’ve looked into this but can’t find much about it, though I can confirm once again that it’s undesirable to take seriously the etymological assertions of people in pubs. Mr Harrison’s mum is correct to say that it’s old: in February 1873 an equally puzzled correspondent to Notes and Queries recalled that a clergyman in Northamptonshire had written to a local paper about it thirty years previously. As to how it could have come about, I am at a loss!

4. Squared away

Q From Neil Paknadel; a related question came from Carol Nichols: Your questioner about crackerjack some time ago used squared away. Now we need an article on its figurative meaning, though I believe its origin is nautical.
A It is indeed a term from the days of sailing ships, though it has come ashore in its current figurative sense of being tidy or in proper order. It’s common in the armed forces, more so in the US than the UK.

Perhaps his first inspiration to serve was when his uncle, looking sharp and squared away in his military uniform, returned home from the Korean War and introduced himself to Lloyd when he was a little boy.
The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY); 25 Nov. 2013.

We have numerous idioms employing square which imply related ideas of something that’s proper, correct, fair, honest, straightforward, precise or exact, all of which take us back to well-built structures whose corners are true right angles. Many are recorded for the first time in the sixteenth century and it was in that century, too, that we start to see examples of seafarers using square in various expressions, including square the yards.

It meant that the yards, the spars that carried the sails, were to be set at right angles to the keel line from bow to stern, a state that was known as square by the braces, or square by the lifts and braces if the spars were also set horizontal. (The lifts and braces were part of the running rigging; the lifts raised and lowered the yards and the braces turned them.) At sea, squaring the yards meant that the ship sailed directly downwind. After anchoring, square the yards was an instruction to clear the decks and make the ship tidy and ready for sailing again.

Near the end of the eighteenth century, sailors began to extend the verb by adding away. The combination took on a sense of getting moving or travelling directly to some destination without delay or deviation. This is the earliest I can find:

We have not anchored and shall not, as we shall square away for Canton in the evening.
From the entry of 30 August 1798 in the diary of Ebenezer Townsend, owner and supercargo of the Neptune. Reprinted by the Hawaiian Historical Society in 1888.

In the 1860s we begin to see square away being used by non-sailors in a way that approximates to our current sense and which developed from the sailing one — to make everything ship-shape or to get ready for some action. An early appearance:

I didn’t waste any time in sociabilities with Clarence, but squared away for business, straight-off.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain, 1889.

Incidentally, from about 1820 in Britain, square away took on a distinct sense of putting oneself in a posture of defence ready for a fist fight, presumably by adopting the conventional pugilistic position with fists clenched and raised. (The American square off appeared about the same time; more recently, square up has been usual in Britain.) This usage of square away lies to one side of our modern meaning but presumably derives from the same source.

5. Sic!

• On 28 December, Stella McDowall found something fishy in the Daily Mail (it also appeared in the Mirror): “A sturgeon who performed the UK’s first hand transplant has revealed an NHS row over funding is delaying further operations.”

• Department of inappropriate simile: a report on the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 December, noticed by Norman King, quoted competitor Tom Addis as saying “Bass Strait will be a landmine.”

• It could have been better expressed 1: Ian Whiting read this online in the journal Bedfordshire on Sunday dated 12 December: “After two years of increased begging, anti-social behaviour and drinking on the streets of Bedford, a dedicated police officer is to once again patrol the centre of the town.”

• It could have been better expressed 2: A Reuters report in the Chicago Tribune on 27 December told DeeDee Wilson: “A Louisiana man is suspected of killing his wife, ex-mother-in-law and a former employer before turning a shotgun on himself and committing suicide at four locations outside of New Orleans, police said on Friday.”

• Jim Frederick read this in the Telegraph online on 2 January: “As we now know, the ship was diverted from her original path to assist the Spirit of Mawson expedition. Although trapped in the ice, the helicopters of the Snow Dragon completed the airlift in four hours.”


World Wide Words – WIF Style