No room to swing a cat Victoria Solt Dennis e-mailed: “Swinging real live cats was once commonplace in England, and it wasn’t a ‘child’s cruel game’ but an adult sport. Brewer’s Phrase & Fable of 1898 remarks: “Swinging cats as a mark for sportsmen was at one time a favourite amusement. There were several varieties of this diversion. Sometimes two cats were swung by their tails over a rope. Sometimes a cat was swung to the bough of a tree in a bag or sack. Sometimes it was enclosed in a leather bottle.” Shakespeare alluded to this last method in Much Ado About Nothing, Act 1 Scene 1: “If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me”‘ but I wonder about the other supposed games. Was this an instance of Ebenezer Cobham being as unreliable a reporter as he so often was? I suspect so.
I’ve also now discovered that the expression occurs in exactly its modern form in Medela Pestilentiae (To Cure the Plague) by Richard Kephale, dated 1665: “One house I know more especially by Cursitors-Alley, where the Man, his Wife and Childe liv’d in a Room that look’d more like, for bigness, a big Chest than any thing else: They had not space enough (according to the vulgar saying) to swing a Cat in; so hot by reason of the closeness, and so nastily kept besides, that it took away a mans breath to put his head but within the doors.”
I’ve updated the discussion online.
On Christmas Eve 1940, The Times presented readers with its usual seasonal set of general knowledge questions. One question asked for a definition and derivation of the word godwottery. This was a bit cheeky on the part of the compilers, as the word had appeared in print for the first time only in 1936 and must have been unknown to most readers.
Three days later it offered the definition “Contemptuous term for a type of sentimental writing.” As Evelyn Waugh’s foreign editor in Scoop would have said, “Up to a point, Lord Copper”. One sense of the word does indeed refer to language, but to the employment of deliberately archaic vocabulary. That sense was used — possibly for the first time — by the successful British author Norah Lofts in her book Out of This Nettle of 1938 (published in the US under the title Colin Lowrie). In an author’s note she said, “I have written this so-called historical novel in so-called modern language”, hoping that her readers “will appreciate this lack of ‘God-wottery’.”
However, the two earliest examples that I know of are connected not with literature but with gardening. This is one:
There is no need to descend to Godwottery, or even to know the difference between an aquilegia and an antirrhinum, in order to be enthralled by the ingenious and lovely shape, colour and texture — to say nothing of scent — which surround you.
Try Anything Twice, by Jan Struther, 1938.
Godwottery for gardeners means an exaggeratedly elaborate creation that jumbles together incompatible styles and materials with kitsch decorations. In August 1969, the Guardian described such a garden: “Cotswold stone retaining walls; vaguely Spanish wrought iron gates; ‘crazy’ paving, nowadays often coloured yellow, green, and pink; plainly irregular ponds, now usually of pale blue fibreglass, fed by streams of impossible source; gnomes, fairies, and animals, usually plastic.”
This meaning comes by linguistic legerdemain from a short poem, My Garden, written by the Manxman Thomas Brown in 1876 while he was a schoolmaster at Clifton College in Bristol. We remember now, if at all, only its first line, “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot.” Thereby Brown was himself perpetrating godwottery by making use of an archaic verb.
The verb is wit, to know, one of the more irregular verbs in the language: wot is the present tense and wist the past. So God wot means “God knows”. The only survival of the verb is the formal to wit, meaning “that is to say”, introducing an explanation of something that has gone before.
Both senses of godwottery survive, both with and without a hyphen, though it was never much used and has largely fallen out of favour. Its constituency divides neatly in two, with writers on gardening using one of the related senses and literary critics the other.
Crimping criminals’ style Crimbo came into being in the UK in the 1980s as a humorous, deliberately childish term for Christmas, a version of the slightly older Crimble. It’s now well established, though slightly cringe-making for many of us Brits who encounter it unprepared. Crimbo was seized upon by journalists when the British Home Secretary, Teresa May, published a government criminal justice white paper on 22 May. This proposes replacing ASBOs, Antisocial Behaviour Orders, with CBOs, Criminal Behaviour Orders. CBOs were at once dubbed crimbos; the term is certain to catch on and may cause some confusion around December. Having learned all this, you’re equipped to puzzle out the tortuous headline that appeared in the tabloid Daily Star on 27 May, which makes one wonder whether the crossword compiler was standing a shift as a subeditor: MOTHER CRIMBO MAY AN ASBEEN.
This way to the egress The turmoil in the Eurozone over the fragile state of the Greek economy and the increasing likelihood that the country will be forced to abandon the Euro has generated a jargon term: Grexit, short for “Greek exit”. It is still mainly found in British newspapers but has spread to the US in the Washington Post, NPR and other media. Among its earliest appearances, in February, the Irish Times and the Guardian both said that it had been coined by the Citi chief economist Willem Buiter, presumably in reference to his use of it in Citi’s Global Economics View of 6 February.
Bang, bang, gone Michael Hocken asked me about the term banging out, which he read in a report in The Times on Thursday. Richard Wallace and Tina Weaver, the editors of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, had been dismissed the day before with immediate effect. On leaving the office for the last time Mr Wallace was ritually banged out by his colleagues, who thumped their desks with suitably heavy objects. When the staff of the News of the World filed out following its final edition in July 2011, the editor, Colin Myler, observed the same tradition by striking a desk with a ruler as each passed him. Robert Waterhouse, a journalist of long experience, tells me that it was originally a print-workers’ custom from the time when newspaper pages were set using metal type. “In those days of hot metal, the compositors — the only people allowed to touch anything in the composing room — traditionally and ritually banged any metal surface with lead or other metal to mark events such as people leaving; the practice later spread to journalists.” He recalls, “I was the stone sub [who made the final corrections and cuts after the pages were composed] of the final foreign pages at the Guardian’s Manchester office in August 1976, when live production stopped there. The pages were dutifully banged out.”
Q From Rand Lee: My mother descended in part from Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants. One expression that she used throughout my childhood was read the table (read being pronounced red), meaning clear the table after a meal. She also used reading (redding), as in “Your brother is reading the table”. Growing up I assumed that to read meaning to clear was related somehow to the archaic English verb to ready, ie, to make ready or to prepare. What do you think?
A I think it’s one of the more interesting terms in the American language with a history that’s complicated and often misunderstood.
It’s known mainly in Pennsylvania but the Dictionary of American Regional English records it widely but sporadically across much of the north-central US and elsewhere, often as the result of out-migration from that state. As you note, it’s said commonly as red but also as rid and sometimes ret. It’s usually spelled redd — not least in Redd-Up, an annual springtime city-wide clean-up in Pittsburgh.
Because of its focus, it has often been assumed to derive from the speech of its German settlers (as you mentioned, called Pennsylvania Dutch, where Dutch is a mishearing of Deutsch). That’s in part because of the Middle Low German redden, to make ready, put in order, tidy, organize, pay or settle and the old Dutch verb redden to put right, settle, tidy up or put in order.
However, your suggestion of its origin is much nearer the truth. Redd is an ancient English verb with much the same sense. It is Scottish, northern Irish (presumably as a result of the plantation of Scots in Ulster in the seventeenth century) and also northern English. I’ve written about this previously.
Its history is complicated and confusing, since another verb, rid (specifically in the sense of freeing an area from rubbish or obstacles), and also rede — also a Scots term, now rare, with similar senses to redd — have become deeply intertwined with it to the point at which it’s almost impossible to tell their stories apart. It may indeed be that ready is also part of the mix.
The Oxford English Dictionary remarks, at the end of a long note about the etymology of redd in a recently revised entry, “In U.S. use perhaps partly reinforced by Pennsylvania German, although it is possible that use in Pennsylvania may simply result from Scots input in the English of this area.” This is supported by some of the DARE research results from elsewhere in the US, in which the respondents were of Scots or Ulster descent without German connections.
Whatever its origin, it continues to puzzle out-of-state visitors to Pennsylvania who unwittingly come across it:
Recently, an obvious non-native was volunteering her services to a charitable organization when the chief volunteer suggested that she “redd up” the kitchen. “What?” the volunteer replied, looking perplexed. ... They eventually got around the conversational roadblock, and the volunteer did, indeed, help redd up the kitchen. I don’t think she realized she was redding, however.
Altoona Mirror (Pennsylvania), 14 Feb. 1993.
• “I thought you might like this remarkably apt spelling mistake I saw recently,” Martin Gregory e-mailed. “It comes from a comment added to an article in the Melbourne Age of 18 May 2012. ‘Everything that increases teachers management time away from the classroom, lessons their ability to be productive teachers.’”
• One for the department of improbable anatomy: “When his vision returns, he is prone on his back and four perfect porcelain faces loom in a circle above him.” (Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniem, 2010.)
• Mike Nease and Gustavo G spotted an interestingly ambiguous headline in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on 25 May (it also appeared in other media outlets): “Hostile crowd on Capitol Hill keeps medics from stabbing victim.”
• Gloria Bryant found an intriguing headline in the Seattle Times on 30 May: “After aging 8 years, sommelier wins wine world’s top honor.” I’ll bet he has a wonderful bouquet.