29 Sep 2012
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Hootenanny Linn Schulz pointed me to a discussion thread on the Mudcat Café website. One post quoted from Pete Seeger’s book, The Incompleat Folksinger, published in 1972. Seeger says he encountered the word when he and Woody Guthrie played at one of the monthly fund-raising music events run by the people behind the Washington New Dealer newspaper in Seattle. They called them hootenannies, which Seeger says won out by a nose over wingdings. Seeger says he started to use the word for informal folk evenings in people’s homes. So there is a direct line of descent from the sense of an unspecified object through the New Dealer’s choice of name via Pete Seeger to the wider folk-music community.
Philip Miller recalled yet another vintage sense of the word: “In the very early 1970s I was living in rural southern Michigan. I had a hand-cranked food mill to purée potatoes, make applesauce, and the like. My landlady, an elderly native of the area, saw it in my kitchen and exclaimed, ‘A hootenany! I did not know they still made them.’ This intrigued me, for I only knew the word in the folk-music context. She said that when she was a girl, around the time of the First World War, that is what the rural folks called a food mill.”
One nonsense word in a quote in the piece was dingus. This is so characteristically American that it was surprising to be told by Julie Swenson that it’s also a common South African word. There’s doubt about where it was created — though some books say it was originally South African, the earliest US example on record is from 1876 while the first South African one is dated 1898. It might, of course, have been independently invented. Either way, it originated in Dutch ding, a thing. In South Africa the word has a wider range of meanings — it can be a person whose name one can’t recall (a what’s-his-name) as well as a thing. And unlike the US version, it’s said with a soft g.
Reversed words Following on the note in this column last time about the inversion of sense of hoi polloi in the US, Julia Cresswell noted, “It is not the only word or phrase that has reversed meaning in US use recently, influenced by similar sounding words. Two of my favourites are sacrosanct, taken to mean ‘blasphemous’ (presumably influenced by sacrilegious) and nonplussed used to mean ‘not surprised’. Presumably here the non has dominated.”
Illeism is the habit of referring to oneself in the third person. Strictly speaking it refers to excessive use of the pronoun he, because it derives from ille, its Latin equivalent. That’s why it’s said like illy-ism.
It is most often found in books about Shakespeare’s plays, in particular Julius Caesar, in which characters often refer to themselves in the third person, a trick that Shakespeare took from Caesar’s own writings. Characters in fiction sometimes refer to themselves in the third person, which can be an authorial device for indicating idiocy or overweening self-importance. Neither applies to Salman Rushdie’s new book, a record of the years he spent in hiding from the risk of retaliation by Muslims against The Satanic Verses. His book’s title is Joseph Anton, the pseudonym Rushdie took during this period; he distances himself from his alter ego by using the third person.
Illeism was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1809 as the inverse of egotism, a mark of which is overuse of the pronoun I. Coleridge also invented tuism, meaning to refer to oneself as thou (on occasion people then still used thou as a familiar second-person pronoun equivalent to French tu, from which he took the name). Tuism also means giving priority to the interests of other people rather than oneself:
The professional’s attitude is or ought to be one of “tuism” — in other words, he is concerned, through beneficence coupled with integrity, to promote the interests of his clients.
Ethics in Education, by David Fenner, 1999.
The plural equivalent of illeism is nosism (from Latin nos, we), referring to oneself as we, something not much heard even from royalty these days (“We are not amused”). However it’s often still called the royal we. It can also be the editorial we, since commentators like to use it in the hope that they will sound like spokespeople for the public, or at least the organisation for which they write. Nosisms can be heard from patronising doctors or nurses (“How are we feeling this morning? Any better?”) or in sarcastic comments (“Well, well! Aren’t we looking awfully chic tonight?”).
Looking back If you have a secret yearning for the good old days and a general distaste for our contemporary culture, you may be a retrophile. Retrophiles yearn for the simplicity of earlier times, without all those complicated electronics that seem to be taking us over, when people were polite to one another and strangers didn’t call you by your first name and when films had plots rather than just sequences of computer-generated mayhem. The condition is called retrophilia.
Rage again Observers of neologisms had begun to hope that the craze of the 1990s for compounds of rage had gone for ever. Terms like road rage, trolley rage, computer rage and their like are now rarely seen. One has reappeared widely: Muslim rage. It refers particularly to protests in Islamic countries against the amateur video Innocence of Muslims. The term has actually been in use since the early 1990s and may have originated in an essay by the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis in Atlantic magazine in 1990.
Exam changes The acronym EBACC (said as e-back) began to appear in British sources in 2011 but has been widely discussed this month. The coalition government announced that it was scrapping existing school examinations for 16-year-olds in England and Wales and replace them with the English Baccalaureate Certificate. This is designed on a European model and intended to test English, sciences, history, mathematics, geography and languages. Older Brits who delight in it because it reminds them of the School Certificate of their youth may be accused of retrophilia.
4. Questions and Answers: Fit to be tied
Q From Stephen Wilder: Do you have anything on the origins of fit to be tied?
A A. Just a few notes and comments ...
It’s a puzzling slang expression, largely because it’s hard to be sure which of the many adjectival senses of fit is appearing here. It isn’t the one that means in good physical condition (“are you feeling fit?”), nor being sufficiently skilled or competent to take on a task (“it’s all she’s fit for”), nor matching accepted social standards (“a fit subject for discussion”), nor deserving or worthy (“a book fit to be read”), least of all the mainly British slang sense of being sexually attractive (“she’s fit!”).
All these go back to the first sense of fit in English in the fourteenth century of a thing that’s well adapted or suitable. It’s probably from the Middle Dutch fitten, which is related to the Old Norse fitja, to knit. If Norse knitting came out right, it was presumably fit for purpose.
We have several similar expressions to yours in the language, in all of which fit has rather broad meanings, very roughly “ready; about to; likely to”. These include fit to bust (or burst), to do something with great energy (“he was laughing fit to burst”); fit to drop, worn out or exhausted (“I worked till I was fit to drop”); and fit to kill, doing something to excess, especially in fashion (“she was dressed fit to kill”), though this is now usually heard as dressed to kill. Older ones that have now vanished include fit to freeze, extremely cold (“it was fit to freeze the very marrow in one’s bones”), and fit to sink, to be alarmed or ashamed (“I was fit to sink with fear that the bomb would explode”). Most of these are found in British and American writings going back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Fit to be tied means to be extremely angry. The idea behind it is that the person so described is in such a state of emotional excess that they need to be restrained to protect themselves or others. Luckily, most people described as fit to be tied are no more than extremely annoyed and the risk of violence is merely figurative.
The earliest examples I’ve found are these, respectively from the UK and the US:
It is amusing to mark the rage and disappointment of the Courier. ... “It is absolutely fit to be tied.”
The Champion and Sunday Review (London), 15 Aug. 1819. The quotes indicate it is considered very slangy.
[Two young women and their beaux are teasing their chaperone on a train journey.] Shortly they were whisked into a tunnel and all was darkness. “Smack? smack!” from Cromwell, and ditto ditto from the Muffin as he faithfully imitated loud kissing. It was pitch dark, and the old lady was “fit to be tied.” “Girls, what are you about?”
Wisconsin Democrat (Madison, Wisconsin), 1 Sep 1849.
• Bob Johnson tells us that on 24 September, The Weekly Standard of Maryland wrote about speed cameras, “it seems that residents ... are not taking this effort to squeeze money out of them for the crime of commuting lying down”. Bob considers that lying down would be a fine way to commute.
• This headline appeared over a story dated 24 September which Fr Eric Funston found on the website of KREM 2 News of Spokane, Washington state: “Woman found guilty of killing husband for second time”.
• “Funny how a missing comma creates a child prodigy,” Claude Baudoin commented, having seen a sentence in The Houston Chronicle of 20 September: “The 31-year-old Pasadena native, husband and father of a 3-year-old who works as a freelance writer and sheet music salesman when not on stage ...”
• Chris Smith, Peter Chase and Kathy Rowe all sent in the opening sentence of a story of 21 September in the Newport Plain Talk of Tennessee: “April Dawn Peters ... was charged with aggravated assault after she allegedly hit a man on his head at least five times with a hammer that she was having sex with.”
• “If at first you don’t succeed”, was Myron Linder comment on an engagement announcement in the Las Cruces Sun-News of New Mexico on 23 September, in which proud parents announced the “fourth coming marriage of their son”.