E-MAGAZINE 664: SATURDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Witching hour Alison Hill wonders if the phrase, and the time of day to which it refers, could have been influenced by the ending of another of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In act 5, Scene 1, Theseus says:
The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve.
The humans all leave and Puck enters:
Now it is the time of night
Several readers mentioned other religious groups which believe that the most significant hour of the night is 3am. Andy Barss noted of some Pagans of his acquaintance, “The idea is that it is halfway between midnight and dawn, an intermediate point where the two worlds may more easily mix.”
Names for tools Several subscribers introduced me to other senses of spud. Andrew Sellon mentioned that in the early days of farm tractors, it was used for lugs fitted to their smooth metal main wheels to provide grip in wet conditions. David Warnick recalled, “When I was a young man, I worked in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma. No one was able to tell me why the beginning of drilling was called spudding in, but everyone used the term, and everyone involved knew exactly what it meant. If a spud is for digging, it makes perfect sense.” John Britton told me about a spud wrench, used by scaffolders: “It has a fixed wrench (spanner) head on one end and a spike on the other. The spike is used to align holes in the structural steel piece being added to the existing structure, so bolts may be inserted and tightened up.” Roger Williams, on the other hand, knows this tool as a plodger, which he notes has other uses in engineering.
The spid brush, which I wrote about in another item, baffled almost everybody. However, Bill Snow found that it’s a trade name owned by a firm in Italy, the Societa’ Italiana Tecnospazzole. Where they got it from is unknown. He found a picture (on eBay) in which the word spid appears on the handle. Problem solved.
Sic un-sic’d In a Sic! item last week, a firm advertising soap-free soap was presumed to have made a mistake. It’s certainly an odd turn of phrase, but it turns out that a rationale exists for it through the regulations of the US Food and Drug Administration. Ben Zimmer wrote about it in his blog last weekend, which led him to a discussion of the semantics of marked and unmarked categories.
Colcannon Night Several American readers pointed out that in New England the night before Halloween is known as cabbage night, in which young people make mischief, sometimes extending to outright vandalism (this practice is known in several countries and goes under names that include Mischief Night, Gate Night, Devil’s Night and Mizzy Night). The Dictionary of American Regional English finds its first example of cabbage night from 1975 and implies that the name is from the practice of throwing cabbages and other refuse. A link with colcannon instead is plausible. On the other hand, this turned up in a search:
An old gentleman told me that when he was a boy Hallowe’en was often called “cabbage” night, perhaps from the fact that one of the ways of finding one’s true love is to go into a cabbage patch and pull off the heads, those having long, straight roots signifying life partners of fine character, with the course of true love running straight and true; but if a crooked root comes up the reverse is to be expected.
“Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Party Pastimes for the Up-to-date Hostess, by Ellye Howell Glover, 1909. The author (an American about whom I can discover nothing) was a prolific creator of books on domestic matters in the early 1900s, including “Dame Curtsey’s” Book Of Salads, Sandwiches, and Beverages, “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Candy Making, “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Etiquette, and “Dame Curtsey’s” Book of Beauty Talks.
The old gentleman was probably hazarding a guess out of a childhood memory of an unrelated custom. What this extract does say is that the term cabbage night goes back further than anybody realised.
Site updates As well as the usual new pieces from last week’s issue (see the home page for links). I’ve updated pieces on nihilartikel and anfractuosity and added an extended new one on tabnabs from the issue of two weeks ago.
The legitimacy of this word rests entirely on two appearances in dictionaries, in 1623 and 1656. It seems never to have been used seriously and ever since has been held up as an example of an odd word, in modern times in works with titles like The Joy of Lex, Poplollies and Bellibones, Have a Word on Me, and Dimboxes, Epopts, and other Quidams.
It means a person whose hair has never been cut. Though that may appear comic to some, there’s nothing humorous in its etymology. The word is from the classical Latin acersecomes, a long-haired youth, a word borrowed from an earlier Greek one that was made up from kome, the hair of the head (which is where comic comes from in the ending), keirein, to cut short, and the prefix a-, not. Though this sounds like a aged curmudgeon’s way to talk about unkempt youngsters who weren’t like that in his day, it was actually neutrally descriptive — it was usual for Roman and Greek youths to wear their hair long until they reached manhood.
Greek kome has given us one sense of coma: a diffuse cloud of gas and dust that surrounds the nucleus of a comet. The same -comic ending turns up in two terms that, if possible, are even rarer: acrocomic, having hair at the tip, as in a goat’s beard (acro- means tip) and xanthocomic, a person with yellow hair (from Greek xanthos, yellow).
3. What I've learned this week
Non-Invasive New Scientist magazine mentioned a term that I’ve since learned has been around since about 2003 but which is not well known. That may in part be because it’s specialist, but also because its subject matter is gruesome. Autopsies are very messy procedures, involving extensive post-mortem surgery that by its nature is destructive. Some religious groups don’t allow them. So much depends on the skill and observation of the pathologist, who may miss things. A team at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Berne in Switzerland has been working for the past decade on creating a virtual alternative that doesn’t involve cutting into the body, making use of non-invasive techniques such as MRI and CT scans, which can be recorded and re-analysed later by an independent specialist. Guided by these scans, a surgical robot can then take samples for analysis. They’ve given the name virtopsy — a virtual autopsy — to their set of techniques.
Beautiful by name and nature A report in the Observer introduced me to a recently discovered tiny hummingbird from Colombia, which has the delightful name of the gorgeted puffleg. It was discovered in 2005 in a small patch of rainforest now endangered through the cultivation of coca for cocaine. Gorgeted refers to the bird’s gorget, its iridescent throat patch, a term that began life for a piece of armour for the throat (Old French gorge, throat) and was transferred to an item of clothing for the same area. The puffleg part is due to the fluffs of white feathers on its thighs.
In the BBC natural-history series Life last Monday, David Attenborough told viewers about an equally intriguing but more puzzling animal name: sarcastic fringehead. It’s an elusive fish of the waters off California, with tufts of tissue on its head. It’s notoriously bad-tempered, fearless, aggressive and ugly, but hardly sarcastic. It’s hard to imagine a fish being sarcastic, though how could you tell? A couple of Web sites say they’re called that because they’re highly temperamental, but that doesn’t equate with being sarcastic — might the coiner of its name have had a fault in his mental thesaurus? However, they do gape their mouths incredibly wide in aggressive displays; could that be the origin? An enquiring mind wishes to know.
Beyond the grave On 29 October many newspapers reported a survey that showed that Yves Saint Laurent earned more last year than Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley. But they’re all dead, you may protest. Yes, that was the subject of the survey, Forbes’s annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities. The report called them delebs (a modification of celeb), a word which has been recorded for a year or so. The income of some delebs (Michael Jackson has already earned $90m since his death) proves the truth of the old saying — sometimes death really is a good career move.
Not this ...
... but this.
4. Questions and Answers: Muggins
[Q] From Leslie Tomlinson: What is the origin of the (British) term muggins? I saw a reference to it as a surname, so I’m wondering if it’s from an old play or historic event — especially as it always seems to be used in the first person. And is it related to any of the meanings of mug?
[A] As you say, it’s usually said by a person about himself, as a slightly bitter indication that he feels he has allowed himself to be exploited:
But did the MP offer to put the fare on his expenses? Aye, right. He stepped imperiously from the car, leaving muggins here to pick up the tab.
Daily Mail, 11 Oct. 2008. As in this example, the word is often followed by here, with the speaker literally or figuratively pointing to himself.
It’s not just British, though: Australians know of Billy Muggins.
It appears as a family name several times in eighteenth-century literary works — in particular by Tobias Smollett, John O’Keefe, Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Dibdin — often for an exciseman (an English government official who collected excise duties and attempted to prevent smuggling) or some other person who is foolish or easily tricked. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1703.
The OED also points out that Muggins belongs with a small set of supposed family names that indicate unsophisticated country attitudes, or a person easily imposed upon or lacking common sense. There’s Bumpkin (often generalised as country bumpkin), which probably comes from a Dutch word for a short, stumpy person, and Juggins, a nineteenth-century equivalent (and which, unlike the others, is a real family name). Some writers have suggested that this last name comes from jug, which led them to argue that Muggins is indeed from mug.
Neither seems likely. Juggins is one of a number of variants of the Cornish or Breton family name Jekyll. And although mug, in its earlier sense of an unattractive face, is recorded from 1708 and so is contemporary with Muggins, mug meaning a stupid or gullible person is later, not being recorded in print until 1857.
We just don’t know the full answer.
• “I learned a new word this week,” wrote Randall Bart, “then I had to unlearn it. In an article on Problembär, the people supporting the reintroduction of bears in Italy and Austria were referred to as ambientalists. Was it a new word for people who support the reintroduction of species? I eventually determined that it’s the Italian word for environmentalist (ambientalista) mistranslated.”
• In the “brevity is the soul of wit” department, Brian Mason noticed a sentence in the section of a pamphlet giving the biographies of candidates for the board of directors of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: “[He] now writes for the one-line journal theTyee.ca.”
• On Friday morning, Lesley Beresford spotted a headline on Google News which came from the Brisbane Times, Australia: “Drink driver caught 19 times over the limit”. Lesley commented, “I was amazed somebody with a blood alcohol level of 0.95 could still breathe, let alone drive. Closer examination of the story revealed that it was the nineteenth time the same chap had been caught!”