14 Dec 2013
1. Feedback, Notes and Comments
Six ways from Sunday Douglas Wilson suggested what must surely be the true origin for the first version of the expression that I was able to find, nine ways from Sunday. Like others, he noted that in his work of 1828 James Kirke Paulding was describing a person with a strabismus, in which the eyes appear to be looking in different directions. He pointed me to an entry in Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785 which lists several slang terms for the condition:
Said to be born in the middle of the week, and looking both ways for Sunday; or born in a hackney coach, and looking out of both windows; fit for a cook, one eye in the pot, and the other up the chimney; looking nine ways at once.
Douglas Wilson has found examples of two ways for Sunday from 1770 and looking nine ways, apparently in the same sense, from 1622:
“Oh those fair star-like eyes of thine!” one says,
A Satire, Of the Passion of Love, by George Wither, 1622.
It would seem that Paulding employed an amalgamation of the first and last of Grose’s expressions, one that he might have invented but more probably heard from others. The writer to Notes and Queries in 1861 whom I quoted had come across looking two ways for Sunday, a version of the first expression. It is easy to see how looking nine ways at once could have been generalised to in every direction and evolved into the abstract idea of being thorough.
Starving While discussing a possible shift in the usage of drown last time, I mentioned the weakening that has taken place in the meaning of starve. Many readers pointed out that it has quite a different sense in some English dialects.
Alison Melville was one: “As I’m sure others will tell you, in some regional versions of English, one can starve of cold. My mother told me how she went to South Shields to meet her prospective mother-in-law. After a generous tea, my grandmother, to my mother’s surprise, told her to come closer to the fire as she ‘must be starving’.”
Eileen Gomme remembered: “Your mention of the word took me back 70 years or so, soon after we moved from Lancashire to Essex. Coming home from school one freezing day, I found my mother looking bemused. She explained that in chatting to our next-door neighbour she said she was starving: the neighbour promptly disappeared, and came back a few minutes later with a plate of steaming stew. My mother then had to explain that the only meaning she knew for starving was cold — not hungry! It wasn’t the only ‘southern’ word we northerners had to learn to make ourselves intelligible.”
John Orford added, “When I was growing up in Leicester during the forties and fifties, if you were starving you were cold. Pining was the word for being hungry.” Graham Moss recalls being told in Manchester in the early 1970s that it was “starving this morning”, meaning it was very cold.
Antelucan Latin scholars, among whose company you will be very much aware I do not belong, corrected my statement that “The word derives from Latin lux, light, which becomes luc- in compounds.” Marc Picard wrote: “Not really. The root is luc- and lux is nothing more than luc + s, so lux itself doesn’t become luc- in any sense of the word.”
Correction I misspelled the name of the Chinese technology company last week. It should be Huawei.
Links You may have seen short links to web pages using my home-brewed system which begin with http://wwwords.org. I experimented recently with using a well-known public alternative. The result was that many hundreds of email subscribers had mailings rejected; it turned out that a major spam detection service tags as unwanted any message that includes such links. I have gone back to my own system, in the process recoding and improving it somewhat, and the number of email rejections has fallen to its usual level. Apologies to anyone who missed issues.
Holiday break As usual at this time of year, I propose to take a break from World Wide Words for two weeks. The next issue will be that of 4 January 2014. Happy holidays!
All my own work Several recent communications have assumed that World Wide Words is produced by a staff of writers. I’ve inadvertently encouraged this view in the past by calling myself editor, for want of a better title. In truth, everything in World Wide Words is written by me, though improved by corrections and comments from a group of volunteer readers. My grateful thanks go to Julane Marx, Robert Waterhouse, John Bagnall and Peter Morris. They’re getting two weeks off for the holidays, too.
When in 1887 James Murray was compiling entries beginning with the letter B for what was then called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, now the Oxford English Dictionary, he was able to find only two examples of blatteroon, both from the seventeenth century. It had been taken from the Latin blatero, a babbler, to generate an insult which Thomas Blount defined in his Glossographia of 1656 as “a babbler, an idle-headed fellow”.
So might the word have ended its life, but a small number of other examples are known, used without any elaboration for a person who won’t shut up. Dr Murray could not have known of them, as they are later than the publication of his dictionary entry. It seems that his inclusion of the word sparked a minor revival in its fortunes, and not solely in those works of a superficial and fleetingly entertaining nature designed merely to display the oddities of English.
This is one modern appearance, in a humorously verbose encomium studded with Yiddishisms that was published to mark the retirement of an eminent US legal expert:
Yale Kamisar’s acute logorrhea ... is well known to all. The only uncertainty, it seems, concerns the magnitude of the problem; some but certainly not all would go so far as to label him a blatteroon, a verbomaniac, or even a pisk or a plyoot.
Wayne R LaFave, in the Michigan Law Review, Aug 2004. Pisk is Yiddish for a garrulous speaker, from the Polish word for a shriek or squeal; a plyoot is a loudmouth.
The other curiosity is the appearance of the word in a variety of commercial code books. These weren’t designed to hide the sense of messages — the books were published for all to read who could beg, buy, borrow or steal a copy — but to provide one-word equivalents for common phrases to reduce the cost of cablegrams. Lieber’s code of 1896 said blatteroon meant “did you reserve?”; the New General and Mining Telegraph Code of 1903 translated it as “almost certain to float”; while the Western Union Telegraphic Code of 1901 left its meaning blank for sender and recipient to select their own.
Would blatteroon have appeared in any of these works without its having first been recorded in the NED? It’s very unlikely.
Words of the year The track record for words of the year has not always been impressive (does anybody still speak of information superhighway or Bushlips?). This may be why Merriam-Webster took the editorial eye out of the equation and resorted to statistics in choosing its word for 2013. Its online dictionary gets about 100 million accesses every month, so there’s no shortage of data. It checked the words that have been looked up most often and selected those that show the greatest increase this year compared with last. This led to a disappointingly mundane result: the word that came out on top with an increase of 176% and so became word of the year is science. Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large at Merriam-Webster, noted, “A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy. We saw heated debates about ‘phony’ science, or whether science held all the answers.” The rest of the top five are equally unexciting: cognitive, rapport, communication and niche.
The Australian National Dictionary Centre announced its word of the year on Friday. It looks for one that has come to prominence in the Australian social and cultural landscape over the year. Its choice is the digital crypto-currency bitcoin, which is attracting great attention because it’s an anonymous way to transfer money without the need for a central bank. Runners-up included the golfing term captain’s pick, which moved into Australian politics this year when former PM Julia Gillard used it for decisions that she made without consulting her party. Australia’s general election led to another shortlisted term: microparty, a small political party, often one based around a single issue. Another unsuccessful candidate was the notorious twerk; the Centre defines it as “dancing in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance” (see Miley Cyrus, passim). This also has political associations in Australia following a television demonstration of it during the election by the portly 59-year-old mining magnate Clive Palmer, candidate for a Queensland seat (he won, narrowly).
Living with the relatives An article on the study of personal names in my newspaper introduced me to uxorilocality, supposedly as an example of the exotic vocabulary of genealogy. It’s actually a rare term in social anthropology for a practice in some societies by which a married couple goes to live with or near the family of the wife (it’s from Latin uxor, wife.) The equivalent when it’s the husband’s family is virilocality (from Latin vir, man). Older — and more common — terms for the customs are matrilocality and patrilocality (from Latin words for mother and father). Leonhard Adam proposed uxorilocality and its counterpart in an article in American Anthropologist in 1947, because he felt the older pair presupposed the presence of children.
4. Case the joint
Q From Jane Cawthorne: Do you know the origin of the phrase Case the joint, as in “He had to case the joint before the robbery”?
A To get to the bottom of this one, we have to split the expression into two. Joint here is the well-known American term for a place, especially a bar or club. It comes from joint in an old slang meaning of an illicit association or partnership, a joint endeavour, and then of a place where criminals gathered. Its first American sense, in the 1880s, was of an opium den but it spread to refer to an illegal saloon, a brothel, gambling den, or even a poor restaurant. Later it became a term for prison. Even in today’s looser sense of some unspecified place or undertaking, joint retains a raffish or disreputable undercurrent. (Its sense of a marijuana cigarette is said to have been an independent creation, but one has to wonder in view of its early application to an opium pipe.)
Case is a more difficult term to pin down because noun and verb have so many senses. The experts point to the gambling game called faro, hugely popular in North America in the nineteenth century, to the extent that for a while it almost became a national game. Its name is a simplified form of pharaon (English pharaoh), a French game of the century before. Various writers have argued that it gave American English numerous idioms, some now defunct, which include calling the turn, coppering the bet, from soda to hock, and play both ends against the middle. Faro was also called bucking the tiger, for unknown reasons, a term also applied to roulette and to heavy gambling of any sort.
Faro was easy to learn and offered good odds because the percentage of bets taken by the operator was especially low, between two and three percent. Honest operators of faro games found it hard to make a living and cheating became rife:
There is no game which gives freer rein to the passion of gambling than faro. There is no game in which money is won or lost more readily. Above all, there is no game in which the opportunities of cheating are more numerous or more varied.
Sharps and Flats, by John Maskelyne, 1894.
However, the following advertisement suggests that game operators didn’t inevitably prosper:
One Faro lay-out, with rosewood case-keeper; first-class, with painted cards on both lay-out and case-keeper. Cost $100, for $25.
Daily Globe (St Paul, Minnesota), 22 Jan. 1880.
This mentions two of the key pieces of equipment required for Faro, the third being a dealing box from which cards from a single pack were dealt one at a time. The layout was a sheet or board set with the images of the thirteen cards from one suit, on which the players placed their bets. A case-keeper was a device rather like an abacus, which kept a record of the play, in part so players could avoid betting on cards that had already been played, but also to try to ensure fair play. At various times it was known instead as the cue box, cue keeper or case keep, which was kept up to date by an assistant who was usually, if confusingly, also called the case-keeper.
Its records became increasingly important as the game progressed and the number of cards remaining in the dealing box fell. Experienced players kept a close watch on it to maximise their chance of winning and to minimise the risk that a crooked dealer and case keeper were working in cahoots (in slang, operating a brace game, as it needed a pair of rogues). This is said to have given rise in the 1880s to the idiom to keep cases, to watch something closely. The players often kept their own records of play on cue cards and this was also called keeping cases.
An early example appeared in a tale about a frontier funeral that made humorous use of contemporary gambling terminology:
Jack Richards was keeping cases, and he proposed three cheers for the stiff; and you double your gamble he got ‘em.
Omaha Daily Bee, 15 Jun. 1881.
Sometime later this sense of case as a noun evolved into the verb to case, to watch or inspect. The earliest example we know of is in a slang dictionary of 1914, but by then it had probably been in use in the criminal community for many years. The special form case the joint is first recorded in a book about Los Angeles:
Case the joint. For it is time now.
Angel’s Flight, by Don Ryan, 1927.
However, it became widely known only from the late 1930s, in books and films about American gangsters and tough detectives.
• Robert Rosenberg, Peter Dawson and Ann Jones forwarded this from the Telegraph’s website: “The missing shipment of radioactive cobalt-60 was found Wednesday near where the stolen truck transporting the material was abandoned in central Mexico. The atomic energy agency said it has an activity of 3,000 curries, or Category 1.”
• Sticky clothing. A news item in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 December about the model Cara Cameron was submitted by Monica Vardabasso: “A nervous-looking Cameron, dressed in a pink sleeveless shirt, black pants and chewing gum, appeared before Judge Leslie Brown in an LA court on Thursday.”
• Terry McManus visited the Independent’s website on 9 December and was surprised to read about number eight in its top ten Christmas hampers: “It’s no surprise Godiva are chocolatiers to the Belgian Royal family. The small hamper contains salted caramel slabs, milk chocolate pearls, dark chocolate almonds, coffee-flavoured coffee and a whole lot of Christmas nibbles.”
• A headline on the Big Hospitality site over a story dated 6 December puzzled Espen Hauglid: “Cluck chicken concept eyes roll out.” A quick read of the story reveals — much less intriguingly than the headline — that Cluck is a “new fast-casual dining concept” which plans to expand.
• Henry Peacock found this on the Coventry Telegraph site on 11 December, “Former Sky Blues youth chief Gregor Rioch gets Wigan job ... 8-year-old left Coventry City a fortnight ago after six-and-a-half highly successful years.” Youth chief indeed.
• In an item on the BBC News website on 12 December about Kenya reaching 50, Annamaria Trusso found a report of local people who “took to the streets and shouted down their members of parliament who were attempting to raid public coiffures and award themselves lucrative pay hikes.”
6. Useful information
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