NEWSLETTER 510: SATURDAY 21 OCTOBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Leech-finger This came up in the Weird Words piece on leech last week. Several subscribers asked whether the legend associated with it also explained why engagement and wedding rings were put on the same finger. This is so; Latin vena amoris, literally “vein of love”, was applied to the vein supposed to run directly from the ring finger on the left hand to the heart. An early example of the term appeared in Treatise of Spousals by Henry Swinburne, dated 1680: “The finger on which this ring [the wedding-ring] is to be worn is the fourth finger of the left hand, next unto the little finger; because by the received opinion of the learned ... in ripping up and anatomising men’s bodies, there is a vein of blood, called vena amoris, which passeth from that finger to the heart.”
Gringo Subscribers were universal in their belief that the song that was supposed to have inspired this term was really Green Grow the Rushes, O and not Green Grow the Lilacs, as the questioner had it. As it happens, both songs have been cited as sources in versions of the tale, though the former is the more common, not least because lilacs are usually thought to be, well, lilac.
2. Weird Words: Ultimo
Relating to last month.
Ultimo, together with instant and proximo, is an example of an outdated commercial language. Few businessmen would today begin a letter “With reference to yours of the 14th ultimo”, or “yours of the 23rd instant”, or “Please attend this office for interview on the 11th proximo”, but it was once standard and taught in the best books. All three were commonly abbreviated, to ult, inst and prox respectively.
Ultimo and proximo are both Latin, shortened forms of ultimo mense, in the previous month, and proximo mense, in the next month. Many reference works say inst is from Latin instante mense, in the current month. But the Oxford English Dictionary points out that it has always been expanded to the English word instant, in the specialised meaning of current.
By 1922, such terms were being satirised in Punch:
Bear up, brave clerklets, though the lights of learning
3. Your help requested!
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4. Recently noted
Babyccino This popped up in a newspaper article recently. It turns out to have been coined a couple of years ago by some genius at the Starbucks coffee chain as a blend of baby and cappuccino. It’s a drink for the offspring of caffeine addicts, consisting of warm milk with the froth from a cappuccino, but without the coffee. You might get a sprinkle of chocolate or nutmeg on the top. It’s in the news in the UK because the same drink, under the same name, has just been launched by the Costa coffee shop chain.
Novel Michael Skube wrote in the Washington Post back in August: “College students nowadays call any book, fact or fiction, a novel. I have no idea why this is, but I first became acquainted with the peculiarity when a senior at one of the country’s better state universities wrote a paper in which she referred to The Prince as ‘Machiavelli’s novel’.” Various academics and researchers over on the American Dialect Society’s forum have agreed with Mr Skube’s observation, pointing out, with a wealth of examples, that novel is increasingly being used to refer to any substantial prose work. It would seem from their examples that Homer wrote novels, as did Shakespeare. The usage is by no means limited to students, as some of the examples come from publisher’s blurbs and academic works. There’s also the expression fictional novel, which is acquiring some currency, presumably to help to resolve the type of prose work concerned. The reverse term, non-fiction novel, however, is a well-attested term that goes back to Truman Capote’s 1966 work of narrative reportage, In Cold Blood.
Flying collars Neal Stephenson’s SF novel Snow Crash includes the line, “She has passed the frisking with flying collars.” This was surely a mistake, but it’s a surprisingly common one, with dozens of examples to be found online. The image is delightful, but it’s sad that so many people seem not to have heard of flying colours, because they don’t associate colours with the bravely fluttering flags of a military force. To finish a battle with your colours still flying implies that your force has survived intact. I’ve so far tracked it back to a reference in The Play of Dicke of Devonshire, ascribed to John Heywood and dated about 1626, in which it refers to a defeated army being allowed to leave the field with colours flying, that is, in honourable defeat. So it didn’t at first imply you had triumphed, though that is the later sense from which the expression derives. It has nothing to do with ships passing and showing their colours to each other, which is often given as the origin.
5. Questions & Answers: High dudgeon
[Q] From L Crary Myers: “I have seen others attempt to answer this, but apparently maddeningly little is known. You always seem to manage to find something interesting, however—so, here is the question: from whence the phrase in high dudgeon? Thank you, and I am an avid fan of your site.”
[A] “Maddeningly little is known” is unfortunately a fair summary. I’ll try to add a little more, but it is one of a distressingly large group of words for which we have no idea of their origins. The group includes a couple of others also ending in -udgeon: bludgeon and curmudgeon.
Dudgeon means a state of anger, resentment, or offence and often turns up as in dudgeon or in high dudgeon The Oxford English Dictionary can’t give its source, though it’s sure it’s not from the Welsh word dygen, meaning malice or resentment, which has been suggested in the past. It does point to endugine, a word recorded just once, in 1638, with the same sense, which might have given us a clue, but doesn’t help at all.
It also records another sense of the word, itself mysterious, for a kind of wood used by turners, especially the handles of knives or daggers. It has been suggested it was another name for boxwood. It appears in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “I see thee still, / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before.” Later the word was used for a dagger whose handle was made of this wood.
It just might be that a state of anger or resentment could have led to the grabbing of a dudgeon knife with intent to redress a slight, but there’s no evidence whatever of the connection.
6. Over To You
Many subscribers responded to the request last week for information on this term in cribbage. All agree it refers to a hand holding two pairs of cards for a score of four points.
Johnnie Johnson commented, “I was taught to play the game by my maternal grandfather during the 1950s. It was then a very popular game in the working men’s clubs of Northamptonshire (and no doubt elsewhere also). He used the term ‘Morgan’s Orchard’ to mean a hand with two pairs. Sometimes he would use the term ‘Apples and Pairs’ for the same hand. To indicate a non-scoring hand he would say ‘nineteen’, which by a fluke in cards and mathematics is a score impossible to achieve in Cribbage.” Many others also mentioned 19 in this sense.
John Murphy e-mailed: “I have played cribbage for nearly 60 years. I’ve played in England, Wales, Scotland, Malaysia and various parts of the Middle East. The term Morgan’s orchard has been widely understood to mean a score of four from two pairs. My grandfather told me (so long ago!) that the phrase was a pun on two pears, for a small orchard, Morgan being the stereotypical Welshman of the time. From his recollection the phrase was commonly used by soldiers in the Great War.”
Several subscribers pointed to a posting on a discussion forum in which it was asserted that the Morgan of the expression was from a company that owned orchards in Kent that supplied most of the pears and apples to London, or one that owned the barges in which they were shipped up the Thames. In the absence of confirming evidence, which I haven’t yet discovered, we have to take this as a popular etymology. The real origin seems to be undiscoverable.
Gillian Christie e-mailed from New Zealand with a variation: “My brother-in-law uses the term Kelly’s orchard to refer to having two pairs in the hand. He has lived all his life in New Zealand but does have Irish ancestry—so I wonder if the choice of name is related to location?”
John Murphy explained some other expressions associated with the game: “‘Two for his heels’ is scored for turning up a Jack (knave) after the cut. ‘One for his nob’ is scored for holding the Jack of the same suit as the turned-up card.” There’s also peg out for ending the game, taken from your marker peg reaching the end of the scoring board, which was once a common colloquial term for dying.
• Michael Grosvenor Myer read in The Times last Friday: “A hungry galaxy that is stuffing itself with smaller ones that are trapped like flies in a spider’s web has been discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope.” He hopes it was being charged an adequate rental for its time on the facility.
Alas, no more ...
• “When a street in a new Wellington suburb was named some five years ago after a member of an old local family,” Patricia Norton reports from New Zealand, “the street sign went up: ‘Glady’s Hook Place’. After a couple of years it was corrected, as someone had worked out what the old lady’s name had become on marriage, and it then read ‘Glady’s Scott Place’. It has now recently been corrected again, and the wonderful apostrophe is no more. A real shame. The sign had been one of the sights of Wellington, on my tourism route for out-of-town visitors.”
• “Real estate agents certainly add to the gaiety of nations, bless them,” e-mailed Lucy Buxton from Sydney. “In this week’s Wentworth Courier we are informed that, ‘Brimming with breathtaking panoramic views and the sound of lapping waters, this rare property is a “must have” for those seeking an intimate relationship with the harbour.’” Do they mean it floods at high tide?
• An Australian Government Web site, David Rowlands discovered, has this splendid example of a hanging modifier: “Originally a fine wool merino stud, John started working on ‘Lyndfield Park’ in 1959”. [Note for mystified readers: in Britain and in Commonwealth countries stud is a common abbreviation for stud farm.]