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Newsletter 730
2 April 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Tilly-vally.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Bounty hunter.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Lustrum Peter Ingerman and Andrew Fisher pointed out that in writing about this word I had missed an opportunity for including yet another weird word: suovetaurilia. So far as I know only the Chambers Dictionary includes this Latin mouthful, which is formed from sus, pig, ovis, sheep, and taurus, ox. It refers to the sacrifice of a sheep, a pig and an ox at the lustrum ceremony.

I mentioned the Robert Harris novel entitled Lustrum. David Larkin e-mailed from Cape Cod, “Except, of course, in the US, where Simon & Schuster, in their never-ending battle to protect us from big words, renamed the novel Conspirata, which isn’t a word at all. I assume their publicists felt it had more marketing, er, luster.”

Lustrum may be an odd ball on that side of the pond,” wrote John Fentner, “but us Yanks learned it from the movie Rooster Cogburn of 1975: ‘Judge Parker: You have served this court for almost two lustrums. Rooster Cogburn: What’s a lustrum, Judge? Judge Parker: Five years. Don’t interrupt me.’” Tony McCoy O’Grady noted that the word lingers in Catholic Church circles: “Archbishops and bishops from around the world have to report to Rome (on the state of things in their dioceses) every five years, and these trips are known as lustral visits.”

On censor, Anne O’Brien Lloyd wrote from Saskatoon: “The teacher responsible for discipline in a French school was known as Monsieur le Censeur. Should the person responsible be a woman, she was known as Madame le (not la) Censeur, because otherwise the kids would turn her into a lift: Madame l’Ascenseur, and such disrespect was at all costs to be avoided.”

2. Weird Words: Tilly-vally

No language can ever have too many words with which its speakers may deride an assertion as hogwash, codswallop, baloney, poppycock, twaddle, cobblers, bosh, tosh or stuff and nonsense. Tilly-vally is a member of this set, these days usefully obscure, so it may be employed without too great a risk of dire consequences. It also has the imprimatur of having been employed by our greatest playwright, though in an older spelling:

Hostess Quickly: Tilly-fally, Sir John, never tell me; your ancient swaggerer comes not to my doors.

Henry IV, Part Two, by William Shakespeare, 1597-8. He uses it again in Twelfth Night.

It’s fairly common in writings down to the nineteenth century, but in recent times we have preferred more boisterous epithets with which to express our disapprobation, letting it fall away with such other derogatory expressions as the imitative pshaw!.

Various forms are known, such as tillie-vallie, tilley-valley and tillie-wallie as well as tilly-fally. The source is quite remarkably obscure. Some older dictionaries insist it’s Scots in origin. Other authorities have claimed it was a hunting phrase borrowed from the French (presumably connected with tally-ho!) or that it was a mere minor variation on fiddle-faddle. Sir Walter Scott had a character suggest that it derives from the Latin titivillitium, a trifle or a trivial item of gossip. Modern etymologists have wondered about a connection with dilly-dally; Anatoly Liberman commented in his Oxford Etymologist blog in 2007 that “The sound group dil, along with till-, suggests something frivolous. It alludes to meandering and useless work.”

“So please your Ladyship, we do not think of marrying her as yet,” returned Susan, in consternation. “Tilly vally, Susan Talbot, tell me not such folly as that. Why, the maid is over seventeen at the very least!”

Unknown to History, by Charlotte M Yonge, 1882.

3. Wordface

V2G This abbreviation is likely to be appearing more often in the future. It’s short for vehicle-to-grid and is being promoted as a way to boost renewable energy sources. It’s based on the fact that electric vehicles all contain powerful storage batteries, which are connected to a power supply for charging when the vehicles aren’t being used. V2G connects the batteries to the electricity grid and exploits the energy stored in them to temporarily supplement the electricity supply instead of, for example, firing up another power station. The vehicle batteries would then be topped up using off-peak power, perhaps from renewable resources such as wind turbines, whose generated power would otherwise be going to waste. The term and the concept have been promoted for at least the last decade but are only now becoming more widely known as the number of electric vehicles grows.

Bankrupt The word broshering turned up in one of the late Ivor Brown’s books on language and led me down unfrequented pathways to ancient public school slang. I found it in only one other place, Reminiscences of Eton by the Reverend Charles Allix Wilkinson of 1888, “Appius, so-called, had been the head of a conspiracy for broshering their dame, that was, eating her out of house and home — eating and drinking everything that was on the table, and what was sent up afterwards, and still always asking for more.” (At Eton College, a dame was a matron — in the language of the time this meant a married woman, especially one of mature years — who kept a boarding-house for boys at the school.) Douglas Wilson of the American Dialect Society suggested it was the same word as brosier and indeed in Farmer and Henley’s Slang and its Analogues of 1890 brosiering my dame was indeed described as Eton College slang in this way: “At Eton, when a dame keeps an unusually bad table, the boys agree together on a day to eat, pocket, or waste everything eatable in the house. The censure is well understood, and the hint is generally effective”. Other sources note it was originally Cheshire slang for a bankrupt and that an Eton boy who had spent all his pocket money was said to be brosiered. Such is the school slang of yesteryear, of which there is nothing deader.

4. Questions and Answers: Bounty hunter

Q From Ray Hattingh, South Africa: A friend has circulated an e-mail that suggests that the term bounty hunter comes from the search for HMS Bounty, the famous ship captained by William Bligh that mutinied in April 1789. It also suggests that Captain Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora, who captured ten of the mutineers on Tahiti, was the original bounty hunter. What do you think?

A The facts of the story about Captain Edwards being sent out to hunt down the mutineers and return them to England for trial are correct. His mission was only partly successful. He did capture some mutineers on Tahiti, but he failed to find the uncharted Pitcairn Island, his ship was wrecked on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and he and the surviving crew and mutineers were forced to make a long voyage in open boats, much as Bligh had had to after the mutiny. It’s an extraordinary story but it has nothing whatever to do with the term bounty hunter.

Bligh’s ship was named for the fruitfulness of nature or generosity of God. Bounties were also cash rewards to encourage some activity. For example, they were given to recruits on joining the army or navy. The American colonies offered bounties from about the middle of the eighteenth century for the scalps of American Indians and for wanted criminals taken dead or alive. The following century, it was common in the US to offer cash bounties for the pelts or scalps of some unwanted or dangerous species of animal, such as bears, wolves, skunks or coyotes.

After a Supreme Court ruling in 1872, individuals outside formal law enforcement bodies could track down fugitives from bail to get a reward, especially those that the law had trouble apprehending because they’d skipped across county or state lines. Civilian bounty hunters are still known in the US (the only country apart from the Philippines that permits them); they go by names such as bail enforcement agent or recovery agent. Most early bounty hunters remained anonymous for very good reason. A very few were famous (or infamous), such as Jack Duncan of Texas and Charlie Siringo of the Pinkerton Agency. More recent fictional ones, such as Rooster Cogburn of True Grit, were based on their stories.

When I began to look for the written evidence for the term, I was surprised by what turned up — or more correctly by what didn’t. There’s no evidence that the early real-life bounty hunters were called that by their contemporaries. The term came late into the language and the first examples are all references to hunters of wild animals, not humans. This is the earliest I’ve found:

Cheyenne Leader, 23rd: A trifle over $500 worth of warrants were issued at the court house yesterday in favor of bounty hunters. From 8 o’clock in the morning until the closing hour in the afternoon boys and men were continually visiting the county clerk’s office with installments of gopher scalps, varying from the small boy’s mite of fifty-two to the professional’s contribution of 500.

Salt Lake Daily Tribune, 26 June 1887.

A shift from a hunter of animals to a hunter-down of criminals is easy to understand but you have to come a lot nearer the present day to find examples. An ambiguous example dated 1930 is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, but the first I’ve been able to find that explicitly refer to the apprehension of humans are the 1954 film The Bounty Hunter, which starred Randolph Scott on the track of three murdering train robbers, and Elmore Leonard’s book of the same title in the same year.

Even if Captain Edwards had been paid a bounty for capturing the Bounty’s mutineers — which he wasn’t — he couldn’t have been called a bounty hunter. To apply the term to the pursuers of fugitives in the late nineteenth-century US is equally anachronistic.

5. Sic!

• Peter Norton described the sentence in a Washington Post report on 23 March as “the higher mathematics”: “The two planes that landed without tower help were the last three inbound commercial flights until 5 a.m., the source said.”

• This is from an item in the New York Times of 28 March, courtesy of Belinda Hardman: “Researchers using brain imagining technology have since found that foods high in sugar or fat activate the same reward system as cocaine and other drugs.”

• On 25 March, Connie Schmitt tells us, The Capital of Annapolis, Maryland, reported that “Veterinarian says diabetes is easy to catch if you know the signs”.

• Gordon Schochet found a rather grisly headline in an article with an Associated Press byline on FindLaw, dated 28 March, which I have filed under “could have been better expressed”: “Fla [Florida] parents charged with killing daughter in court.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 2 April 2011

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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