13 Apr 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Vulcan “An interesting piece,” Benjamin Lukoff wrote, “and you may be right — but given that there was a planet Romulus (and a minor one in the same system named Remus) — could Roddenberry not have been thinking about ancient Rome after all?” It seems very probable. How could I have forgotten the Romulans?
Charles Norman suggested yet a third possibility: “The Outer Limits, a short-lived SF series on American television, featured an episode Cold Hands, Warm Heart, which starred William Shatner as an American astronaut participating in a Project Vulcan. Gene Roddenberry was often on the set, and hired several staffers from the earlier series when he began the Star Trek project.”
Terry Walsh felt my description of the Roman god as irresponsible was off the mark: “Vulcan, as the blacksmith god, was particularly careful and diligent. As you say, his famous limp (which marks him off, of course, as a ‘below-stairs’ god) was not of his own making, but most (human) blacksmiths in the ancient world would have picked up injuries from the nature of their work, so that Vulcan is a fair representation of the type. A blacksmith, in other words, cannot afford to be careless or irresponsible.”
Several readers queried a connection with vulcanise, the process of treating rubber with sulphur and heat to harden it. I doubt that Gene Roddenberry had this in mind. The term was introduced by Thomas Hancock in his patent for the process in 1846. It was suggested to him by his friend William Brockedon, a painter and inventor, who clearly had in mind the great heat associated with Vulcan’s forge.
Babies and bathwater Debby Swayne pointed out that there is a more recent US version of the saying: Don’t throw the baby out with the dishes. She found this in a little red book of blunders attributed to President Johnson; a writer in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986 gave the credit instead to Ronald Reagan. Enough instances appear online to show that this version, though nonsensical, is believed by many to be acceptable. I can’t trace examples before LBJ’s time, but I suspect it was around in the spoken language earlier.
We commonly use this to refer to some especially appetising item of food or a very attractive person. Roald Dahl, who wrote the script for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, felt it was appropriate for the character Truly Scrumptious, which must be in contention with Pussy Galore for the worst-ever invented female movie name.
Critics have not been kind to scrumptious. In 1921, H L Mencken described it as an “artificial word”, lumping it with sockdolager, hunky-dory, spondulix, slumgullion and similar creations of American linguistic ingenuity. In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, H W Fowler classed it as a “facetious formation”.
Many dictionaries just say “origin unknown” or “origin uncertain”, not wanting to engage in complicated but ultimately unsatisfying discussions about etymology. This writer has no such qualms.
It’s certainly American in origin, dating from about the 1830s, at a time when so many other splendiferous terms were emerging from the melting pot of cultural assimilation. But when it first appeared it had a different meaning:
I won’t trouble you to ride far to find me; — and then it may be broad sword, or pistol, rifle or bagnet — I’m not over-scrumptious which.
Horse Shoe Robinson, by John Pendleton Kennedy, 1835. Bagnet is an old term for a bayonet.
Here it clearly means scrupulous. In another early example, from Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker of 1836, it’s a vague term of praise: “A little tidy scrumptious looking slay” (we would now write the last word as sleigh). In 1846, Sylvester Judd put it in his novel Margaret to mean fastidious (“I don’t mean to be scrumptious about it, Judge; but I do want to be a man, if I am a Breakneck, and haven’t so much eddecation as the rest”). It could also have about it the idea of a stylish or handsome person. Our current sense evolved around the middle of the century.
Some current dictionaries start from the modern meaning to argue that it’s from sumptuous, which doesn’t fit the earlier senses. Various English dialects have had words of the same spelling, though there’s no way of knowing whether any of them contributed to the US senses. The English Dialect Dictionary records it as Suffolk dialect for a miserly, stingy or close-fisted person; the Century Dictionary of 1889 and the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that derives from dialect scrimptious, based on scrimp, be thrifty, as in the exhortation to scrimp and save. How this evolved into any of the recorded senses is unclear. A writer to Notes and Queries in 1870 said it was Essex dialect meaning charming or delightful, quoting a fond lover to his lass: “Oh you scrumptious little duck!” That neatly matches one modern meaning but not the early ones.
Perhaps “origin unknown” isn’t such a bad summary after all.
3. Thatcher's linguistic legacy
The death this week of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher has led to a vast outpouring of discussion on her legacy. When she entered Downing Street in 1979, she quoted St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”. Obituaries, no matter how reverent, have had to admit that she was on the contrary a hugely disharmonious leader and remains as divisive in death as in life. The language used by and about her illustrates that.
It began well before she became PM. The chant Thatcher, Thatcher: milk snatcher dates from 1972 when, as education minister, she stopped free school milk for the over-sevens. It is still remembered — in 2012 the health minister Anne Milton cut a subsidy to childcare centres for free milk to the under-fives and The Mirror headed its report “the return of the milk snatcher”. In January 1976, a year after she became leader of the Conservative Party, the Soviet army magazine Red Star accused her of trying to revive the Cold War, calling her the Iron Lady. The writer probably had in mind the nineteenth-century German Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck rather than the British Iron Duke, the first Duke of Wellington. But she swooped gratefully on the title and is still known by it (a graffito in West Belfast the day after her death read “Iron Lady, Rust in Peace”). The obvious shorthand Thatcherite for a supporter of her policies dates from April 1976, less than a year after she became party leader, and Thatcherism from just a year later. The journalist Philip Howard predicted in his A Word in Time in 1990 that Thatcherite would be meaningless to the next generation, but the policies of the current Conservative-led coalition, presided over by a prime minister who admires her, mean that the term is as alive as ever.
But then most of the politicians currently in power are Thatcher’s children, of an age that Margaret Thatcher’s policies and outlook were formative influences. That term was coined in 1986 but remains sufficiently evocative that it was used in a headline over a story in The Independent on 9 April about her enduring influence. The related Thatcher’s Britain is older, from the beginning of her premiership; it had a renewed burst of popularity when the coalition was elected in 2010 (the Daily Telegraph headlined a report in December that year “Thatcher’s Britain returns 20 years after she fell”, and Jonathan Freedland commented in the Guardian the day after she died that “the country we live in remains Thatcher’s Britain”). Thatcher’s girls, from northern England, briefly appeared around 1985 to mean prostitutes, applied — so it was asserted — because her policies had driven many women to the only way left open to them to earn money.
Few leaders have been graced with so many epithets. She was often referred to as Maggie or leaderene, sometimes with a tinge of misogyny by opponents but with affection by supporters. (The pound coin was briefly nicknamed a Maggie after she accidently used the royal we in her announcement of 1989 that “We have become a grandmother”, which led to wits saying that the coin was “blond, brassy and thinks it’s a sovereign”.) Maggie is still around and was used by The Sun in a headline on Wednesday about her funeral. Other terms were definitely deprecating: Attila the Hen, for example, and the Grocer’s Daughter (she was one, though that snobbish putdown hardly suited an Oxford University science graduate; in part it echoed the nickname of her Conservative predecessor, Edward Heath, who was The Grocer). Her famous handbag also became a topic of drollery. The Economist wrote in 1982, “One of her less reverent backbenchers said of Mrs Thatcher recently that ‘she can’t look at a British institution without hitting it with her handbag’.”
Those most likely to be handbagged she described as wets. She used it in a way that had been around since the early twentieth century for a person who in British slang was soppy or a drip — ineffectual, inept or effete — but she implied that her targets wanted to take the easy option or lacked intellectual or political fortitude. She used it for the members of her cabinet who had liberal or middle-of-the-road views on controversial issues such as monetary policy, though The Times wrote in 1980 that a wet “seems to be anybody who crosses the Prime Minister in fashioning a particular policy”. It became a badge of honour for her opponents, meaning left-leaning, liberal or anti-ideological. In return, one prominent wet, Norman St John Stevas, whom she sacked in 1981, renamed her Tina, from a phrase she often repeated to force home her policies, “there is no alternative”. The opposite of wet was sometimes dry, in the press especially, but her preferred term was sound, meaning both loyal to her and having a similar view of policy, in another of her phrases one of us.
Her main linguistic failing was her inability to appreciate or even understand jokes and wordplay. In a reference to Moses at the 1977 Conservative Party conference she wanted to change a catchphrase of the 1970s Morecambe and Wise TV show, “keep taking the tablets” to “keep taking the pills”. It was hard to persuade her to include her famous line at the 1980 conference, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want, the lady’s not for turning’.” Even after her scriptwriter, the playwright Sir Ronald Millar, patiently explained it was a pun on the title of Christopher Fry’s play The Lady’s Not for Burning, she still didn’t get it. At a farewell dinner in 1991 for her staunchest supporter and wisest guide, William Whitelaw, she raised titters in the company with her innocent and unintended pun on a British slang term for the penis when she said of him, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”
My thanks to Anthony Massey for his assistance.
Q From Dean Riley: I recently told my grandchild not to tell fibs. The word fibs stuck in my head as something heard commonly in my long-ago youth, but not these days. The dictionary and Google did not offer much. What can you tell us about fibs?
A Surprisingly little, to tell the truth. It’s one of those elusive little words that have slipped into the language without anybody much noticing.
A fib is the childish cousin to the grown-up untruth, falsehood or lie, a naive attempt at bending reality that’s fit only for nursery school. A child may fib from not knowing the consequences but an adult called a fibber is condemned by it as an incompetent deceiver, a purveyor of porkies well past their sell-by date.
It seems always to have been an unkind or trivial lie, though in its earliest days it was a word for adults and only slowly took on its associations with minor childhood misdemeanours. The Oxford English Dictionary says it was first printed in Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionary of the French and English Tongues in 1611. He used it to translate French bourde, though that’s a blunder, not a falsification. The evidence suggests his was an error of translation, not that fib had a different meaning then.
Reference works sometimes point to fible-fable as a possible origin. This looks like a reduplication of fable, and seems to have been a way of describing nonsense such as a tall story or a flight of fancy rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead. Experts treat this origin with caution, because there is only one recorded example, in a 1581 translation by James Bell of a Latin polemic by Walter Haddon and John Foxe.
The guess is that the first half of fible-fable, a nonsense word, broke away to form a new word and was shortened. Fible-fable might never have been noticed were it not for a nineteenth-century philologist named James Orchard Halliwell, who included it in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words.
Other than that, the origin of fib remains obscure.
• It may have been a joke of the headline writer, but like Robert Wake and Beate Czogalla, who encountered it on the CNN website, I found it funny: “Ex-porn star charged with battery”.
• On the other hand, as Derek Stevens suggested, the report in a BBC News story online on Monday about the injured jockey Ryan Mania was unconsciously humorous. When he arrived at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, he was said to be in a “stable condition”.
• Barry Prince in New Zealand found a headline on the BBC Sport site on 11 April about one of the opening matches of the British cricket season: “Sussex paceman Jordan runs through Yorkshire.” Translated, this means Sussex bowler Chris Jordan took six Yorkshire wickets.
6. Copyright and contact details
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