07 Nov 2015
1. 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.
Unintended error. One item in the Sic! section led to a number of puzzled emails. Roger Christie’s comments may serve for all: “I can’t be your only reader who is wondering what is wrong with ‘You’ve got a set of unintended consequences that weren’t planned for’. Most accidents and injuries aren’t intended, but we still have hospital A&E departments and Fire and Ambulance services.” The comment seemed so incongruous when I read it that I included it. But the readers who queried it are correct. It belongs to the same category as Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”, which was widely mocked when he said it but is entirely logical.
Site updates. Since the last issue, I’ve revisited a number of pieces, updating them with information that wasn’t available when I first researched them many years ago. They are: Gone for a Burton, Pull the plug, Bob’s your uncle, Codswallop, That’s all she wrote and Great Scott. They’re linked from the home page of the World Wide Words site.
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.
A sailor dancing at a seaman’s refuge in London’s East End. From the Illustrated London News of 20 December 1873.
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.
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 more generally 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.
4. 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 avoiding 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.
“Methinks it is like a weasel,” said Hamlet.
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.
6. From my reading
• 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.
7. Bill of goods
Q From B J 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 and 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.”