14 Apr 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Rozzer Lots of readers told me about a sentence that, to my regret, I hadn’t previously encountered: “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.” Thereby hangs a tale. Many people came across it as a nonsense phrase in various issues of Mad magazine in the 1950s. It has since become something of an online catchphrase and is cited in the Yale Book of Quotations. The source is the British writer Margery Allingham, in her detective novel of 1938, The Fashion in Shrouds. The statement is uttered by the wonderfully named former burglar Magersfontein Lugg, factotum to Allingham’s sleuth Albert Campion, as an example of something that might be said. It may be translated as “It’s foolish to bribe a policeman with counterfeit money”, a sentiment as true today as it was then. All the significant words in the sentence were British slang of the period: crackers derives from cracked, in the sense of a damaged brain; dropsy is from drop, as in drop a bribe; snide is originally US slang from the 1850s for fake money, which Jonathon Green (Green’s Dictionary of Slang) suggests may derive from the German verbs schneiden, to cut, or aufschneiden, which can mean to boast, brag or show off (the standard modern English sense of snide, slyly mocking, derives from the slang term).
To add to the long list of slangy terms for British police, I was told by several readers about the Liverpudlian scuffer. This is recorded in the 1860 edition of Hotton’s Dictionary of Modern Slang as scufter and was at one time widespread in northern Britain. Various British dialect origins have been proposed: scufter, a scramble or disturbance, or scuff in several distinct senses — the verb to strike, a mean or sordid fellow, or the scruff of the neck (by which the cop might seize a malefactor).
Bathtubbing You may gather that I didn’t spend a lot of time researching the antecedents of this word, which appeared last week in a list of my recent encounters. Readers rapidly corrected my assertion that it had been invented recently in Wales. They pointed to various earlier events, especially the bathtub races in Nanaimo, British Columbia, which date from the Nanaimo to Vancouver Great International World Championship Bathtub Race of 1967. As the philosopher said, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.
Zemblanity James Campbell communicated something I might well have put in the piece itself: “This is presumably a reference to Nova Zembla, the Dutch name for the Russian arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya. Zemlya simply means ‘earth, land’ in Russian, which seems a rather prosaic, unbarren and unflintlike root for a word that’s supposed to be the opposite of serendipity.” John Thomsen mentioned the appearance of the fictional country called Zembla in Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. As the Novaya Zemlya islands were at one time commonly called Nova Zembla in English writing, we may assume it’s this source that William Boyd had in mind.
Voting World Wide Words has been nominated in the LSOFT Choice Awards (the Mailys). The contest is organised as monthly heats from April to August; the winner of each becomes a finalist. Vote here, every day if you wish.
Like so many slang or dialect words of previous generations, this one is now very rarely encountered. It gained some publicity in 2011 through being listed by the publishers of Chambers Dictionary as a word with a pleasing sound.
When it appeared in the language — in the middle of the seventeenth century — it was a sadly incompetent attempt to say intoxicated, perhaps under the influence of drink (“I’m not so tosticated as you think I am”). An influence may have been the even older tosspot, a person who habitually tossed back his pot of drink, hence a heavy drinker or drunkard.
I fancy thou art a little intoxicated tonight. Tosticated! Tosticated! I scorn your words, cries Deborah. I defy the best man in Bath, to say black is my eye; or that I was ever consarned in liquor, since my name was Deborah. Tosticated! No; God help me! I have drunk nothing to-day, but a little tea for breakfast, and half a pint of ale at my dinner.
The Spiritual Quixote: or, the Summer’s Ramble of Mr. Geoffry Wildgoose, by Richard Graves, 1773.
Rather later, the symptoms of that state became confused — under the influence of the first syllable of the word perhaps — with those of being tossed about, and took on the idea of being perplexed or distracted.
Variously spelled, as tossicated or in other forms, recorders of English dialect near the end of the nineteenth century found it to be widely distributed, from Cumberland and Yorkshire down to Somerset and Devon. But by then it had vanished from the printed word. Chambers is the only British dictionary that continues to include it.
Medical matters Being asthmatic, I was intrigued to discover this week that the condition is a member of a group which the British National Health Service lumps under the abbreviation ACSC. It stands for the jargon ambulatory care-sensitive conditions, those that patients should be able to manage either themselves or with the help of their GPs without needing hospital admissions. Then I came across another medical term, virtual ward. This is a treatment method in which a patient doesn’t go to hospital but remains at home under the care of a multidisciplinary team that provides support mainly by telephone. Through my work with a local voluntary organisation, I’ve also come across social prescribing. It expresses the idea that family doctors go beyond treating symptoms to cure causes. They use sources of support within the community to help resolve non-medical problems that contribute to a patient’s ill health, such as social isolation, poor budgeting skills, inadequate nutrition or lack of exercise.
4. Questions and Answers: Tin Pan Alley
Q From Will Stevens: Can you give me any ideas about the origin of Tin Pan Alley? I’ve read that there’s one in London. Is that the original?
A Definitely not. Tin Pan Alley is American. In an article in The World in 1903 it was said specifically to be the area of Twenty-eighth Street in New York between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and to be the home of most of the notable US music publishers.
Later, Tin Pan Alley became a figurative term for the whole US music publishing business. Much more recently it was borrowed for Denmark Street in London, which similarly housed many of the UK’s major music publishers, but that area was usually referred to as London’s Tin Pan Alley, as a nod to the original. This was after the Second World War, I believe — the earliest instance that I can find is dated 1950.
How the original Tin Pan Alley got its name is an interesting story. The evidence — mainly discovered by US researchers Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro — suggests that three strands of colloquial usage contributed to its formation.
The fundamental one, of course, is employing a tin pan as a raucous and discordant noisemaker. As every household had at least one tin pan and a wooden spoon or such with which to bang it, the material with which to contribute to a cacophonous communal row was always at hand. It might have been a demonstration marking a marriage, the one known at various times and in different places as a shiveree, charivari, skimmington or tin-kettling. (The Cambridge City Tribune of Indiana recorded on 30 April 1874: “Johnny O’Brien, the cow doctor, is married again. The boys gave him a touch of tin pan music.”).
Building on that was the use of tin pan to describe a piano of indifferent quality, especially one played by an amateur (as in the Muskogee Phoenix of Oklahoma, dated 8 May 1890: “You have often compared my playing to the sounds of beating on an old tin pan.”). An early example is this deeply sarcastic description of a touring musical troupe:
The party consists of the following “star” performers: a yearling calf, a whining pup, an old violin, a creaking well chain, an ancient accordeon [sic], a squealing pig, a tin-pan piano and an old maid’s voice.
Janesville Daily Gazette (Wisconsin), 6 Jul. 1860.
That would seem enough to determine the origin of the music term, as the newspaper report which gives us its first recorded use asserted:
It gets its name from the tin-panny sounds of pianos that are banged and rattled there by night and day as new songs and old are played over and over into the ears of singing comedians, comic-opera prima donnas and single soubrettes and “sister teams” from vaudeville. Now, “Tin Pan Alley” is considered a term of reproach by the Tin Pan Alleyites. They prefer to designate it as “Melody Lane.” But that is a poetic fancy that those who go down that way to hear the “new, big, screaming hits” do not indulge in.
The World (New York), 3 May 1903. Incidentally, tin-panny was widely used for the tinkling piano, I guess in ironic contradistinction to timpani.
But there’s another contributing element. Several newspaper reports record tin-pan alley in American cities for what seems to have been an area with a poor reputation, presumably one with noisy and illicit goings-on:
WATCH REPORT. — Night clear and cold. A slight row occurred in “tin pan alley,” and a colored ball in “Petersburg” was broken up, but no arrests were made at either.
Alexandria Gazette (Virginia), 17 Mar. 1869.
There was a rumpus among a number of women in Tin Pan alley on Wednesday and the result was that Mrs. Eleanor Church and Mrs. Mamie Arthur were before the city court this morning charged with a breach of the peace on each other. Tin Pan alley branches off from Wallace Street and is, so a witness told Judge Pickett this morning, the worst place in town.
New Haven Evening Register, 8 Aug. 1890.
Perhaps it’s going too far to describe the New York centre of the song-writing industry as a place of ill repute — raffish is as far as we may in fairness go — but this association of the term may well have contributed to the sarcastic undertones of Tin Pan Alley when it first appeared.
• Randall Bart wrote, “I caught a bit of a TV show on the Barbie doll and heard this fascinating tidbit of Barbie history: ‘Like Barbie, Ken was named after the designer’s son Kenneth.’”
• The New Milford Spectrum of Danbury, Connecticut, Kip tells us, had this sentence in an item of 28 March: “There will be a new face in the superintendent’s seat at Region 12 come July.”
• In a recent issue of the Sunday Times of Johannesburg, Gerhard Burger came across this: “Founded in 1883 as a general interest magazine, Luce — a canny publishing entrepreneur who created Time magazine in 1923 — bought Life in 1936 for its all-encompassing name.”
• A New York Times article of 7 April on England’s no-fault divorce laws included this sentence, spotted by David Hancocks: “Sometimes, Ms. Lloyd Platt said, it is hard to keep a straight face, as in the case of the petition claiming ‘the respondent is unreasonably demanding sex every night from the petitioner, which is causing friction between the parties.’”
• “Here’s a lovely dangling modifier for you,” wrote Nick Wilshere. He found it in The Sun of 11 April, about the “chief taste tester” for Marmite, St John Skelton: “Despite being loathed by millions across the world, St John can’t get enough of the stuff and eats it almost every day.”