04 Aug 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Dint Susan Bradley wrote from Australia to provide an intriguingly different view of the word: “Brass players routinely refer to a small indentation on their instrument, usually caused by our own clumsiness or sometimes that of others, as a dint. You can get your instrument either dedented or dedinted by a specialist repairer. There’s a whole hierarchy in size of dents: dint, knock, crease, dent. None of this is written down anywhere that I know of, but any brass player in Australia at least, and probably in the English-speaking world would understand it (I’m a Pom, but Aussie resident for a long time, to validate my language opinion!)”
Variations on a theme: “Just wanted to add,” Ian McLoughlin wrote, “that my mum — who died last year aged 88 — always referred to any indentation on a surface as a dinge, particularly if it was on a body part such as a shin or a part of the head. Being born and bred in Wigan such dinges were quite a common sight as a result of mill-work and mining.” Other readers noted that dunt is still used in Scotland. Bruce Napier pointed out the Scots proverb “Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil.” Or, as we English would say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Miles Irving recalled a memorable moment: “It put me in mind of student days in Edinburgh. The landlady of my local pub had a stave behind the bar with which she cheerfully threatened patrons at closing time; affectionately referring to it as her punter dunter.”
Several readers who thoroughly know their Christmas carols pointed me to the last verse of Good King Wenceslas, in which the lyricist, John Mason Neale, included the word:
In his master’s steps he trod
Correction A poem last time was attributed to Alaric Attila Watts. His supposed middle name was a satirical invention in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in June 1835 as the result of a literary feud. He was baptised Alaric Alexander Watts. Apologies for confusing the fictive with the real. The piece noted, in the ponderously humorous style of the times, “We feel bound to add, however, that it is not very likely, in the usual chances of events, that such names as Alaric Attila Watts should have met in matrimony with those of Zillah Madonna Wiffen; an unkind world may suggest a mystification somewhere, if the scraggiest part of the neck of the world should trouble itself about such things.” Watts had married Priscilla Maden Wiffen, always known as Zillah. Tony Augarde, author of The Oxford Guide to Word Games, tells me the abecedarian poem had previously appeared in The Trifler in May 1817.
Whether Föhn or Santa Anna or Brickfielder, winds with names are rarely good news. The williwaw, surely the strangest named of them all, is no exception.
This odd word first appears in early nineteenth-century accounts of voyages through mountainous seas and evil winds to round Cape Horn. One was by Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle during his first voyage in 1829, which preceded the famous one with Charles Darwin: “The williwaws (I know no better name for the sudden gusts that come off the high land) gave us some trouble, occasionally laying us almost on our beam ends.”
At the end of the century another intrepid sailor traversed the same region:
Here I had my first experience with the terrific squalls, called williwaws, which extended from this point on through the strait to the Pacific. They were compressed gales of wind that Boreas handed down over the hills in chunks. A full-blown williwaw will throw a ship, even without sail on, over on her beam ends; but, like other gales, they cease now and then, if only for a short time.
Sailing Alone Around The World, by Joshua Slocum, 1900.
The name has since been applied to a similar phenomenon in other places, in particular the Aleutian Islands (Gore Vidal, who died this week, wrote his first novel, Williwaw, after serving there as master of an Army F-S boat during the Second World War). It’s now understood that williwaws come about when air that has been cooled and made more dense on the upper reaches of a mountain roars down steep slopes to the sea. In meteorological terminology, such winds are katabatic (Greek katabatikos, from katabainein, to go down).
Williwaw is said to have been named by sealers and whalers in the area of the Straits of Magellan around 1800. Nobody seems to have the slightest idea where the word came from. The only hint I can uncover is from a writer in the Gardener’s Magazine in December 1839, who commented that williwaw was the usual Patagonian term for it. Presumably it was borrowed from a native language no longer known to us.
Wazzat? Last week’s visit by the US Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to the UK succeeded through some ill-judged remarks in uniting the country in condemning him, not least through the medium of British slang. The press borrowed their fashionable term for bad government, omnishambles, and made romneyshambles; one commentator described Romney’s visit as “a complete and utter horlicks”. The Sun headlined him “Mitt the twit”. The term that got most attention in the US was that by Lucy Jones in the Telegraph. She called him a wazzock. It’s a northern English insult, which came to wider public notice in 1976 following comedian Mike Harding’s surreal piece Beaky Knucklewart. A wazzock is a stupid or annoying person or an idiot; it can suggest somebody who lacks the native wit to keep from making a fool of himself. Nobody has the slightest idea where it comes from, though a rock climb of similar name in the Peak District has been mentioned. My local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, used it in April this year about proposals for the city to have an elected mayor: “The details of the job description aren’t perfect, and the lengthy mandate means we’ll be in real trouble if we elect a wazzock.”
A word to avoid? Andy Larter tells me with mild surprise that he has been reliably informed that the word friendlily really exists. “Is this correct?”, he asks. Yes, but. The word — the adverb formed from the adjective friendly — is most certainly on record (“She patted him friendlily on the arm” — Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K Dick, 1974). The OED cites it from as long ago as 1680 and examples appear commonly in older literature. But it’s too awkward to be anybody’s favourite; the concept is usually expressed by a phrase such as in a friendly way. Significantly, the reviewer of the book Kate Caterina in the Sunday Telegraph in 2001 commented of its author, “William Riviere was educated in this country, then moved abroad. It shows: words such as friendlily and ghostlily imply a certain rustiness in the use of English.”
4. Questions and Answers: The cheese gets binding
Q From Alexander Pierce: I have used the expression when the cheese gets binding for all those of my 80 years which I can recall. I had thought it referred to challenging or tight situations. When asked a few years ago, I could find no reference to the expression in any source. I am left wondering if the expression was restricted to my maternal roots in Middle Tennessee. Do you have knowledge of such an expression?
A Colloquial expressions from across the water never cease to amuse and surprise me, which is only fair because so many Americans find English expressions quaint. I’ve not come across this one; its story has been intriguing to investigate, but also confusing.
I learned first that the idiom isn’t restricted to Tennessee, nor even to the US, since a version with almost exactly the opposite meaning is known in Canada, though it may be a different expression with a coincidentally similar form. The form and meaning you give turn out to be rather rare in the printed record. One example:
So when the cheese got binding on the Council vote, you, who had been selling so hard for settlement, suddenly had faint heart.
San Antonio Light (Texas), 13 Mar 1977.
My reading of the rather scant evidence and the notes in books on word history is that when the cheese gets binding and make the cheese get binding are known mainly from the US after the Second World War and mean that something is or has been made worse or that events have reached a serious or difficult stage.
Eric Partridge and Paul Beale say in A Dictionary of Catch Phrases that a Canadian version, the exclamation that makes the cheese more binding! was current from 1945–55 and meant “That improves matters; that’s just what we need”. Laurence Urdang and colleagues agree in their Picturesque Expressions, published in 1985, that that form is Canadian and say it means “To improve matters; to strengthen, augment, or reinforce.” However, I haven’t yet unearthed an example in Canadian sources.
Confusingly, the first example of either form on record is from the US but is in the Canadian sense. It’s rather older than you are, Mr Pierce:
The boys, we are told, went more for the outing than to play ball — and we are informed they really had a nice time and got their expenses paid out of their share of the receipts of the game, which, as the boys say, “made the cheese more binding.”
Moberly Evening Democrat (Missouri), 8 Jun. 1920.
How this expression (or these expressions) arose baffled me until I found Laurence Urdang’s book, which adds a comment:
This expression ... refers to the constipating effect that cheese often has on the body; consequently, anything that makes the cheese more binding increases its efficacy.
We must assume that Americans very reasonably regard constipation as trouble rather than good news.
• Royal bigamy? Caryl Hill was surprised to read a story in the Daily Telegraph of 28 July: “The Duke of Cambridge will cheer on Zara Phillips as she competes on her horse High Kingdom. He is expected to be joined by Miss Phillips’ mother, Princess Anne, and the Duchess of Cornwall and her husband, the rugby player Mike Tindall.”
• The issue of the Kansas City Star for 27 July, Jim Grebe informs us, reports Google’s announcement about high-speed internet service: “It brings the same electronic engineering and manufacturing know-how that has increasingly scaled down the cost of building football-sized data centers around the globe.”
• Minor typing errors can evoke engaging images. Stephen White found this in a Daily Telegraph e-mail sports update on 1 August: “Beth Tweddle will lead the British team in their first Olympic final since 1984 where they will attempt to stay in the hunt for a medal against powerhouses China, Russia, Romania and the Untied States.” He commented, “I guess Texas is seceding after all.”
• On a similar theme, an article in the 20 July issue of The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida, caused Stefanie Bush to ask, “Is Florida now not part of the United States?” The item noted that “In 2009, [Lakeland Regional Cancer Center] was the second program in Florida and the first in the nation to get NAPBC Accreditation.”
• Bill Blinn heard this on WOSU radio on 31 July: “Driving along the state’s highways, most of the corn and soybean crops look healthy.” He feels that “the average corn or soybean plant that is able to drive would, by definition, be pretty darned healthy.”