NEWSLETTER 558: SATURDAY 20 OCTOBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Geis and garnish Enough needs to be said following the piece last week on geis that I’ve put the feedback into a separate item. A Sic! item mentioning garnish provoked a big correspondence, but this issue is so full that I’ve held comment over until next week.
Spurtle David Carr e-mailed from Canada following the item on the Golden Spurtle last week: “Quite amazing, Mr Quinion, that you have never heard of spurtles.” Alison Melville in Port of Spain feels the same: “I am a state of mild shock as a result of learning that ‘spurtle’ was a word hitherto unknown to you.” CKE, Ms Melville and Mr Carr — Can’t Know Everything. Nicola Young noted that “Spurtles are well known in New Zealand, probably due to the large number of Scots who settled here in the late nineteenth century and since. I thought everyone made porridge with one!” Lesley Shaw issued an invitation: “If you ever come to Queensland I’ll take you to a Saturday morning market and buy you a spurtle. They’re big in the homecrafts woodturning industry and are really handy — great for grandchildren to bang on saucepan lids, suitable for threatening visitors who pinch tasty bits out of cooking pots — and are quite attractive when nicely turned with a slightly bulbous working end and a shaped handle part.” Jeff Lewis told me about a variation: “In Devon, a wooden stirring stick, sometimes with a flattened spatula-like end, is called a spuddle. Several pubs hang one in ‘spuddlers corner’, where gossips and ‘stirrers’ congregate.”
Bottle Several readers commented that they had heard bottle came from rhyming slang bottle of beer = fear. This may have been a contributing factor but I’ve no evidence either way. Robin Fosdal suggested that bottle, courage, came from an ability to control one’s bottle (arse) in the face of bowel-melting threats. That is plausible, too.
Mistake of the week The US writer on slang mentioned in the piece about Old Leather Arse is Tom Dalzell, not Tam Dalyell. The latter is a well-known Scots politician. Apologies to both.
2. Weird Words: Pelf
Money, especially when gained dishonestly or dishonourably.
The only place you’re likely to find this word used at all often is in the Indian subcontinent, where it still forms part of the active English vocabulary. It’s now rare elsewhere except in historical contexts or among writers who like to demonstrate the breadth of their vocabularies. Those who know the words of The Red Flag will recall one verse:
It suits today the weak and base,
Whose minds are fixed on pelf and place
To cringe before the rich man’s frown,
And haul the sacred emblem down.
When the Reverend Henry Todd produced a new edition of Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary in 1818, he added “paltry stuff” to Dr Johnson’s definition of “money, riches”. That wasn’t a pejorative editorial comment but a note of a usage that Johnson had left out because it was already defunct in the London speech of his time, though it clings on to this day in some British dialects. It had been around since about 1550, meaning broadly trash or rubbish. Stephen Gosson wrote in Pleasant Quips For Upstart Newfangled Gentlewomen in 1595, “All this new pelf, now sold in shops, in value true, not worth a louse.” It could also mean detritus or waste: in 1589 George Puttenham said in The Arte of English Poesie that “Pelf is properly the scraps or shreds of tailors and of skinners”. Dialect senses have included grass, roots, weeds and other waste material raked off the land.
All in all, not a word you will want to make friends with.
3. Topical Words: Spanish practices
A long-running dispute between the Communication Workers’ Union and the Post Office in the UK, which culminated recently in a series of strikes, has brought once again to public attention two terms that had to some extent fallen fallow following a period of comparative industrial quietude. One is wildcat strike. The other is Spanish practices, which the Post Office management says are rife within the business.
Understandably, many people have complained about the term, then and now, on the grounds that it unnecessarily denigrates the Spanish. Commentators in the newspaper business at the time say it was Robert Maxwell who first applied the term Spanish practices to the print workers. The original — known from the 1930s — was old Spanish customs, a humorous, nod-and-wink reference to what was politely referred to as custom and practice.
The British have in the past had a difficult relationship with the Spanish (as they have had with the Dutch), which arose from the commercial and military rivalry between the two seafaring powers that can be traced back well beyond the Armada of 1588. In the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green begins a list of the resulting derogatory terms by saying that Spanish was “used in combinations to denote arrogance, duplicity, treachery, sexual corruption, etc.” The Spanish gout was syphilis; Spanish money was empty compliments and meaningless courtesies; a Spanish padlock was a chastity belt; and a Spanish trumpeter was a donkey braying. Some have argued, but without substantiation, that the term Spanish practices refers to the Inquisition; in his 1996 book, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels, Albert Meltzer asserted that “old Spanish customs” was American slang brought over to the UK through a hit song of the 1930s, but I’ve not been able to trace either slang term or lyric.
Now that the postal workers’ dispute has been settled — although unofficial strikes continue in some places — perhaps the term will vanish from our newspapers again. The most enduring effect of the strike is likely to be that even fewer people than before will be writing personal letters.
4. Questions & Answers: Brass tacks
[Q] From Dean O’Kelley; related messages came from Karen Indermuehle, Linda Lindenfelser, Nicholas Brandes and Dave Cotton: “One of the guys in my office sat down at his desk and commented, ‘Time to get down to brass tacks this morning, boys.’ Of course, I immediately rushed to your site to look it up and since it wasn’t there, I’m askin’.”
[A] I’m answerin’, I’m answerin’ ...
The meaning of to get down to brass tacks is clear enough: to concern oneself with the key issues of some matter or to focus on the immediate business at hand. You sometimes see this online as brass tax, an error that may have come about because there’s no very obvious image on which to hang the expression.
Until recently, the lack of early evidence — all the examples above have been found in the past year or so — didn’t make it clear what country it came from or anything about it. This has led to a set of more or less fanciful stories. It has been said that it refers to cleaning the hull of a wooden ship, scraping off weed and barnacles until the bolts that held its hull together (the brass tacks of the expression) were exposed. Others point to the brass tacks commonly used in upholstery because they won’t rust and stain the fabric; to reupholster a chair would require the craftsman to get down to the brass tacks. The schoolboy prank of putting tacks on chair seats to puncture the pride of the unwary has been suggested as its genesis. However, much the most common story — the one most widely believed — says that it’s Cockney rhyming slang for facts (tacks and facts rhyme in Cockney speech).
We can dismiss most of these for good reasons. The expression has no known connection with the sea and hull fastenings were always of copper, not brass. Though brass tacks were used in furnishings, the association with the phrase seems more than a little stretched. The suggestion of a Cockney origin was put forward by Eric Partridge and supported by Jonathon Green, but as the idiom is certainly American in origin, it seems unlikely.
The chair-seat practical joke has something going for it, in that it’s directly relevant to the “get down to” part of the saying and might refer to the painful duty of facing facts and getting on with the job. But there’s no contemporary evidence and somehow I can’t see a childish practical joke leading to a term used by adults.
Yet another idea is that it refers to the brass nails or tacks set into the counter of a hardware store or draper’s shop a yard apart to measure lengths of material. The idea here is that measurements were often casually made by the almost immemorial method of using the distance between the nose and the tip of the outstretched hand as a yard. As this was imprecise, to request an exact measurement using the brass tacks on the counter would be to focus on the true facts of the matter. We can’t be sure about this, but the homely analogy is seductive. The use of brass markers in this way long predates the earliest appearance of the idiom, though it was more common in the earlier nineteenth century to describe them as brass nails rather than brass tacks, the latter term only becoming common later in the century. But brass tacks was certainly used in this sense. For example, this appeared in Scribners Monthly in August 1880: “I hurried over to Seabright’s. There was a little square counter, heaped with calicoes and other gear, except a small space clear for measuring, with the yards tacked off with brass tacks.”
As you will gather, I prefer this explanation.
5. Geis and geas
Unfortunately, Irish is all Greek to me. After last week’s Weird Words item, several people pointed out that the correct modern Irish plural of geis is geasa. The one I gave, geisa, incorrectly mixed up a historical form with the modern one, though it’s given as an alternative in the new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
I was totally confused about its pronunciation, too, so I consulted experts on the Irish language: Greg Toner, Professor of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Ulster; Professor Dónall O’Baoill, Head of the School of Languages at Queen’s University, Belfast; and Jeffrey Huntsman, who taught Old Irish for 40 years and e-mailed from Indiana to put his experience at my disposal.
One trouble foreigners have with Irish is that its spelling is idiosyncratic (but internally consistent) and this makes it hard to work out how to pronounce words. As one example, gh is silent away from the beginnings of words, which is in part why the port of Dún Laoghaire near Dublin is said as dunleary. Irish also has a lot of what linguists call palatal consonants, said with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth back from the teeth ridge, which are often marked by the presence of vowels that aren’t themselves said. This affects the pronunciation of the g and s in geis, geas and geasa in a way that isn’t always easy for English speakers to catch, leading to various mishearings.
The experts agree that geis is correctly said as gesh in Irish. The s becomes palatal sh through the influence of the preceding i, which is there to indicate that fact but isn’t itself sounded. The other spelling, geas, is known in modern Irish as well as Scots Gaelic and may be a back formation from the plural. It’s said in a slightly different way, but non-native speakers might find it hard to spot how; the few English dictionaries that have it use the same pronunciation for both it and geis. The plural, geasa, is said roughly like geis, but with an unvoiced final uh sound, as gesha.
I hope all is now clear!
• Peter Weinrich e-mailed about a review in The Toronto Globe and Mail on 13 October of a book of short stories by William Trevor. The reviewer said that ‘Trevor’s contribution to literature is already an agreed three-dimensional crevice that the dithering of this or any reviewer will not budge.’ Mr Weinrich was puzzled to know how Trevor’s contribution could be a crevice or how a crevice could be anything but three-dimensional. How to budge one defied his comprehension. He noted, “The New Yorker used to run column fillers titled ‘Hold that Metaphor’; perhaps World Wide Words might take it up!”
• Last Saturday Philip Platts heard someone on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 say about the England cricket team: “As long as we keep our feet on the ground and go in the right direction we can go anywhere”. Truer words were never spoken.
• “Walking through a mall in Ottawa recently,” reports Chris Parsley, “I noticed an advertisement in a bookstore for a well-known series that proclaimed in big bold writing ‘30% Off For Dummies’. I always knew that there was a price to pay for being smart.”