NEWSLETTER 618: SATURDAY 20 DECEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Cupertino Fr Paul Gargaro commented on last week’s piece about this term for an error caused by a spelling checker: “It seemed ironic that St Joseph of Cupertino is a patron saint of people taking exams. Microsoft seems to have failed that one, even if, as you mention, it seems to have passed the re-sit!”
Subscribers supplied examples of spellchecker horrors. “About twenty years ago,” Stan Fleischman recalls, “using a word processor on an Apple Macintosh with a primitive spell checker, I typed ‘professional software developer’. To my dismay, the word processor ‘corrected’ this to ‘professional software deviant’.”
Richard Street remembers: “It was only as a letter was going in its envelope that something made me read it through again. I’m glad, for I had unwittingly accepted a suggested spell checker change from the unrecognised ‘Dear Mr Cookson’ to the alternative ‘Dear Mr Coonskin’.”
“A standard intro to linguistics textbook,” notes Miriam Miller, “is commonly known by the surnames of its authors: Frumkin and Rodman. Some years ago a student handed in a term paper which referred to this text frequently. The student had the spellcheck enabled and didn’t bother to proofread the final product, so every reference to the textbook appeared as ‘Foreskin and Rodman’.”
Dr Morgiana Halley is suffering along with other teachers who have reported one spellcheck issue in particular: “The one that is driving me right round the twist at the moment could probably be fixed, but I have no idea to whom I should address a complaint. It seems that if one writes ‘definately’, the first response of the spellchecker is ‘defiantly’ instead of ‘definitely’. In this autumn term alone, with about a hundred students in four classes, I must have received over 500 papers with ‘defiantly’ in place of ‘definitely’, and I credit them all to automatic spellcheckers. Several students have brought their papers back to challenge my manual correction, because ‘that’s what the spellchecker said’.”
Randall Bart’s e-mail sent me not to a spellchecker but a medical dictionary: “When I was using Forte Agent 1.x, which included an early release of the Wintertree spellchecker, I found that ‘ehrlichiosis’ was corrected to ‘hermaphrodism’.”
Black Friday Following up my note in the last issue about the North American post-Thanksgiving meaning of this phrase, Darryl Francis e-mailed, “Here in north Cumbria, Black Friday (or Black-Eyed Friday) is a term applied to the last Friday before Christmas, when the locals go out and get slaughtered (drunk) during Friday lunchtime, afternoon and evening, and end up fighting each other (for no good reason!). The weekly newspapers invariably carry reports along the lines of ‘Wigton police arrest 32 on Black Friday’ and ‘Carlisle cops arrest 55 on Black Eyed Friday’.”
Calm or peaceful; happy or carefree.
We’re in the fabled halcyon days of calm weather, traditionally the seven days each side of the winter solstice on 21 December.
The story goes back to a Greek legend that the kingfisher nested in the sea at the time of the winter solstice and that its floating nest brought calm to wind and water, what we now call the halcyon days, halcyon being from the Greek name for the kingfisher, alkuon. A romantic version of the legend was told by the Roman poet Ovid about Ceyx and Alcyone. She was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of the winds, and he was the son of the morning star. Ceyx was lost at sea and Alcyone was inconsolable. The gods took pity on them, turning them into kingfishers so that they might continue to live together. When they mated each year at the winter solstice the gods calmed the winds and seas so Alcyone might brood her eggs safely.
Alcyone’s name became halcyon in Latin, because of a mistaken belief that its real source was two Greek words that meant “conceiving on the sea” (folk etymology has a very long history). When the word first came into English, in reference to the Greek legend, it was usually written in the Greek way, but when it became a general word meaning peaceful or calm, the Latin form took over.
For us today, halcyon days often evoke a past time, the carefree days of our youth. An example is in The Innocents, by Sinclair Lewis (1917): “Halcyon days of sitting in rocking-chairs under the beech-trees on locust-zizzing afternoons, of hunting for shells on the back-side shore of the Cape, of fishing for whiting from the landing on the bay side, of musing among the many-colored grasses of the uplands.”
3. Recently noted
Arboglyph Mike Hoke introduced me to this word, which doesn’t appear in any dictionary I have here. It’s easy to work out that it refers to carvings on trees. Aspens are preferred, because the carvings show up black on the white bark. J Mallea-Olaetxe wrote a book in 2000, Speaking Through the Aspens, about the arboglyphs of Nevada and California, carved by Basque shepherds who emigrated to the high country around Lake Tahoe in the late 1800s. The term arboglyph is relatively modern — the earliest example that I can discover is in Aboriginal Australia by Robert Ellis and Jean Ellis, dated 1984. That book also introduced me to dendroglyph, another word for the practice, known at least as far back as 1918, when Robert Etheridge published The Dendroglyphs, or Carved Trees of New South Wales.
4. Questions & Answers: Bold as brass
[Q] From Nigel Ross, Italy: “I’d like to ask if you could fill in the gaps about the meaning of the expression as bold as brass. It’s usually said to refer to a certain very bold Mr Brass Crosby, at times described as the Mayor of London, at times the Chief Magistrate of London. And it’s said that the phrase goes back to his times, in other words the 18th century. Do you have any insights?”
[A] Thank you for introducing me to Mr Brass Crosby and to the story that connects his name with the expression. Mr Crosby was a lawyer and politician, a supporter of John Wilkes, who became Lord Mayor of London in 1770. He had a famous run-in with Parliament, which regarded publication of reports of their debates to be a breach of parliamentary privilege. When two printers accused of publishing reports appeared before the City magistrates, Crosby freed them; later he arrested a messenger from the House of Commons who had demanded a third printer be brought before the House. Crosby was called to the bar of the House and, despite arguing forcefully for the ancient rights of the City, was committed to jail. He became highly popular as a result of his defiance.
The first known use of bold as brass is in George Parker’s book Life’s Painter of Variegated Characters in Public and Private Life of 1789: “He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.” This is so soon after Mr Crosby’s troubles with Parliament that it’s plausible there’s a connection with his curious first name. The problem, as so often, is that there’s no direct evidence, nor is any ever likely to be found for a term that from Parker’s description began as slang, which by definition was transmitted orally. For the same reason, it might have been widely known and used for many years before Mr Crosby’s time. We just don’t know.
What is certain is that the idea behind it is much older. Brass is a shiny, hard metal that has often been thought cheap and vulgar, a debased or pretentious rival to gold, whose use in musical instruments has suggested stridency. In the sense of a person who is impudent or insensible to shame, brass had by the time of Crosby been in the language for two centuries (Shakespeare is the first known user); brassy, for someone having a face of brass and so unblushing, impudently confident or forward is slightly older (though its use for a woman who is tastelessly showy or loud in appearance or manner is relatively recent). Brass face, an impudent person, is from the seventeenth century (its relative brass cheek is again more recent). So an inventive Londoner would have had no shortage of precedents on which to base the alliterative bold as brass.
Ampersand A dispute in the travel business, Julane Marx, tells me, has one firm suing another to prevent its using an & in its name, because the suing firm has trademarked it.
More World Wide Words updates I’ve updated or expanded more pieces on the World Wide Words Web site this week: Lynch and lynch law, Polychronic and Zorbing. The first has been substantially rewritten as the result of new information.
6. Questions & Answers: Shoot one's cuffs
[Q] From Don Richardson: “Would you explain shot his cuffs? I think I know what this means but can find no printed explanation.”
[A] It’s a phrase that’s relatively easy to find in dictionaries and books on idioms. All will tell you the obvious, that to shoot your cuffs is to pull or jerk your shirt cuffs out so that they project beyond the cuffs of your coat. At this point, all the reference books I’ve consulted abandon the reader, leaving him wondering why anybody would do such a thing.
It has long been a precept among tailors — I am intrigued to learn that several guides to good dressing today continue to repeat the opinion — that a properly dressed man should allow about a quarter to half an inch of shirt cuff to peep out of his jacket sleeves, just enough to show his cufflinks. To shoot one’s cuffs is to make sure that this desirable state of dress is achieved. Since one way to do it is to jerk the shoulders and arms so that the cuffs pop into view, shooting them (in the verb’s sense “cause something to move suddenly and rapidly in a particular direction”) is a good name for it.
As a gesture, it can mean several things. One is described in Susan Lenox by David Graham Phillips, dated 1917: “And he ‘shot’ his cuffs with a gesture of careless elegance that his cuff links might assist in the picture of the ‘swell dresser’ he felt he was posing.” But it is often a mark of displaced emotion, especially nervousness: “As he talked, David continuously straightened his clothes — he smoothed his tie, shot his cuffs, snugged his collar, pulled up the creases in his trousers from his thighs. Then he’d cross one ankle over his knee, pull up his sock, cross the other ankle.” (Michael Crichton, Prey, 2003.)
A man often dresses formally and makes an effort at some difficult time, such as an interview for a job or meeting the father of the woman he is proposing to marry for the first time. A desire to look one’s best is important and helps one’s courage. You can tell how significant it is for the whole man to look as polished as possible under such circumstances by the number of times descriptions also refer to smoothing his hair, adjusting his tie or collar, brushing up his shoes, neatening his clothes, straightening his shoulders or in other ways making sure he looks smart.
Various other emotions are also recorded: “Captain von Heumann would twirl his mustaches into twin spires, shoot his white cuffs over his rings, and stare at me insolently through his rimless eyeglasses.” (E W Hornung, The Amateur Cracksman, 1899); “Gurin rose wearily to his feet and shot his cuffs by way of showing impatience.” (Abe and Mawruss by Montague Glass, 1909); “He shot his cuffs fiercely. The British Lion was roused.” (P G Wodehouse, The Intrusion of Jimmy, 1910); “Everything about him, from his stiff upper lip to his shoot-the-cuffs manner, implied take-charge authority and competence.” (Simon Hawke, The Wizard of Whitechapel, 1988).