E-MAGAZINE 640: SATURDAY 23 MAY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Holidays My wife and I are about to leave on a trip to national parks in the American Rockies. I’m taking my netbook with me and will try to post short issues while we’re away. But the Web site won’t be updated — apart from posting the HTML and RSS versions of each issue — because too much work is involved.
Parliamentary slang Dozens of football fans put me right about my hair dryer item last time. On the day that Manchester United won their 11th Premier League title, under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson, they told me that the term comes from that club and from him. Bernard Cross commented: “It looks as though your researches do not cover the sports pages in as much detail as other parts of the newspapers.” I can’t dispute that.
It turns out that the reporter who quoted hair-dryer to the government’s official spokesman as a Downing Street insiders term for a reprimand got it slightly wrong. This is perhaps why neither he nor the spokesman seemed to know it. The phrase is properly hairdryer treatment. It’s a forceful reprimand by a manager to a poorly-performing or badly-behaving player (David Milsted described it as a “gale-force bollocking”). Simon Rowlands explained: “It describes the act of bellowing at someone face to face — so the recipient presumably feels as though a hairdryer is directed at them full blast — and is a colourful and useful idiom.” Ana Scott noted, “While not the most elegant of phrases, it does evoke the breathy intensity of being screamed at by a red-faced Scotsman.”
Anthony Massey gave me the details. “It derives from the battles at Manchester United between Alex Ferguson and Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hughes said the bawlings-out were so loud that ‘you would end up with your hair behind your head.’ This became known as giving someone ‘the hairdryer treatment’. It isn’t clear whether Hughes himself originated the phrase or if it arose in the tabloids’ sports pages after Hughes’ description.”
Once I knew what to look for, the earliest examples in newspaper archives prove to be more than a decade old, though after the period of the Hughes confrontations. An early example:
He has an amazing memory for detail and command of tactics. But he’s tough when he has to be. Have I had the hair-dryer treatment (the famous blast from the manager at close range)? A few times, yes.
Sunday Mirror, 31 May 1998. David Beckham is discussing his relationship with Alex Ferguson. That, of course, was before he needed two stitches in a head wound after the manager kicked a football boot at him during a dressing-room row in early 2003.
Flip Many readers pointed out that the meaning of flip that I mentioned in passing, for buying an item in order to sell it again at once for a profit, has meant this for many years. “Flip is a term that I have been familiar with for nearly 30 years from when I began a career in real estate sales,” wrote Sheila Eskenazi. “It is understood to mean the purchase of a property for a quick turnover at a profit. Agents have been known to buy an underpriced house or piece of land and resell it immediately to someone who didn’t know the original asking price.” The term seems to have evolved to mean buying a house, renovating it and reselling it at a profit (a TV programme on the Arts & Entertainment channel in the US, Flip This House, uses it this way). It is also widely used in the financial world, I am told, in a derogatory sense, for buying any asset and immediately selling it at a profit.
It’s a German word — literally holy light — for an aureole or circle of light around an object. Applied to people it’s a halo.
The word has been borrowed in a particular and specialist sense for a sheen
This example of heiligenschein was taken by Les Cowley in his garden one wintry morning.
It’s caused by internal reflection within the drops of water on the blades of grass (a related process in other circumstances makes a rainbow). The rays of the sun are reflected most strongly at or near the point that’s exactly opposite the sun. As your head’s in the way, the brightness is visible around the edges of its shadow. You can see it best if you move your head a little, because the increased brightness moves with you. Only you can see it; other people with you will each have one of their own which, likewise, you can’t see.
The word first appears in this sense in German in 1834, in a book with the title Abhandlung über der Heiligenschein (Treatise on the Halo), in which Dr C Garthe wrote about the phenomenon. When writers in English followed it up, they naturally borrowed his name for it.
This is a rare appearance outside books on optics:
With the sun behind him, the shadows were flattened, or disappeared altogether, as if he was looking down at the bleached floor of some dead ocean. In fact, when the sun was right behind him, the lunar landscape seemed to brighten suddenly. Heiligenschein, the lunar scientists called it. The saint’s halo: some obscure effect of the dust.
Moonseed, by Stephen Baxter, 1998. The effect here, a real one noticed by astronauts, is caused by glassy volcanic beads within the lunar dust.
A related optical effect, but like a circular rainbow, is called a glory. You can sometimes spot it if you’re looking out of a plane’s window at its shadow cast on a cloud. Natural phenomena like the famous Spectre of the Brocken, an extended shadow of a person cast on fog or cloud from a high place when the sun is low in the sky, often have a glory around the person’s head.
3. Recently noted
Another word for scandal Andrew Maywood tells me that a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 May, about the financial scandal shaking the UK’s political foundations, was “Expenses rort shakes Labour”. It’s a neat Australian term of British origin that might with profit be borrowed back. Rort has several meanings, but commonly it’s a fraudulent or dishonest practice. G A Wilkes’s dictionary of Australian colloquialisms, Stunned Mullets & Two-pot Screamers, quotes this example:
Rorting, in Labor jargon, is a charmingly flexible term to cover such practices as stacking branch membership, rigging elections, cooking branch records and, as a last resort, losing all branch records to frustrate a head office enquiry.
Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June 1981.
Its origin is the nineteenth-century British slang term rorty, with a variety of meanings, such as boisterous or rowdy, saucy, dissipated, or risqué. Its origin is unknown.
4. Questions and Answers: Beggar-my-neighbour
[Q] From Reginald Delwiche: I would like to know the origin or first common use of beggar-thy-neighbour. I understand the contemporary meaning, but I think the phrase is often used in the wrong way.
[A] It may well be misused, though I’ve not found examples. The ones I’ve looked at all employ it in the sense of an advantage gained by one person or group at the expense of another. It’s used especially of a nation that selfishly profits at the expense of others.
One of the reasons the crisis of the 1930s was so severe was that nations in the inter-war years resorted to beggar-thy-neighbour policies rather than working together against the common enemies of deflation and mass unemployment.
The Independent, 3 Mar. 2009.
Beggar-thy-neighbour is a relatively modern version, which I’ve not found before about 1900 and which seems to be a mock archaism. The original was beggar-my-neighbour, which is the way it appears in all the dictionaries I’ve consulted, and which dates from the early eighteenth century.
It started out as a children’s card game, still popular, whose aim is to capture all the cards of one’s opponent. Players lay down cards alternately onto a stack until one lays a court card or an ace, which forces the other player to pay a forfeit of cards. Lots of variations are known. Some old books talk about its being a gambling game and of taking tricks, which suggests they’re referring to something completely different. Other sources describe a game like snap but in which matching cards have to be of the same suit. Many names for it are known, including Beat Your Neighbour Out Of Doors, Strip-Jack-naked, Draw the Well Dry, and the Scots Birkie. More complicated versions have names like Egyptian Ratscrew and Slap.
But the essence of the most common version involves enriching one player in cards at the expense of his opponents until the winner takes all. It’s easy to see how this became a metaphor for selfish national behaviour.
5. Questions and Answers: Cardigan
[Q] From Jenny Beadnell: Could you give me any information on the origins of the word cardigan?
[A] No problem. It’s an eponym, a thing named after a person.
The person in this case was James Thomas Brudenell, seventh earl of Cardigan, a notable nineteenth-century figure.
The weather was appalling in the Crimea, bitterly cold and damp. Some officers wore a long-sleeved knitted worsted military jacket as a way to keep warm. This was the original cardigan, though it wasn’t much like modern examples. It soon took on Lord Cardigan’s name, though why is obscure. Though he was a stickler for sartorial elegance among his officers, he didn’t invent the item (despite some writers claiming he did). It would seem that his name became attached to it because he was the most famous figure of the Crimean War, who was fêted on his return to Britain and lived extravagantly.
The earliest references, from 1857, are to cardigan jackets and later to cardigan waistcoats. His lordship’s name started to be used by itself about a decade later:
He wore, I remember very well, a knitted sort of waistcoat, or Jersey — an article called, in the cheap linen-drapers’ shops, a Cardigan. I recollect thinking that this was the first garment of the kind I had ever seen.
All the Year Round, by Charles Dickens, 20 July 1867.
Two other items of clothing have links with the Crimean war. To protect them against the bitter cold, some soldiers persuaded wives or relatives at home to knit them head coverings that left only small holes for eyes and mouth. These became known as balaclavas, after the Crimean port that was the British operational base. Another item whose name appeared at the time was the raglan, a type of overcoat named for Lord Raglan, the British general in the Crimea. The garment was unusual in that the sleeves continued in one piece up to the neck, producing a larger, looser armhole that suited the one-armed general, hence our term raglan sleeve.
• The back of a current Quaker Oats box, reports Kenneth Huey from Texas, contains this blurb: “Eating a good-sized bowl of Quaker Oatmeal for 30 days will actually help remove cholesterol from your body.” By the end of that month, Mr Huey suggests, the oatmeal is likely to have become awfully chewy.
• A video about Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps on NBC Sports included a line from the commentator, repeated several times, that struck Edward and Benita Campbell as remarkable: “Michael Phelps is going to be a little rusty, being out of the water for so long.”
• A resident of Lancaster, Ohio, found this in the local paper, the Eagle-Gazette, on 16 May: “‘A semi cut through the parking lot and clipped the front of a building trying to turn,’ said Scott Hite, assistant Thurston-Walnut fire chief.” Unanswered question: did the building signal the turn?