E-MAGAZINE 648: SATURDAY 18 JULY 2009
Fear not, this isn’t a risqué word. Cockshut time is the twilight of evening. The word has a longish history, with this being the first use on record:
Thomas the Earl of Surrey and himself,
Richard III, by William Shakespeare, 1597.
There are two ideas about where it comes from. One suggests that it refers to the time of day when fowls are shut up in their coops for the night, though why it should be cock rather than chicken or some other word isn’t explained.
Other writers point to the variant form cock-shoot and to terms like cockshoot net. These are fowl hunting terms that are said to refer to the
The British woodcock.
However, in his English Dialect Dictionary a century ago, Joseph Wright included the hunting and twilight senses separately, hinting there may once have been two distinct words that became confused because they are linked to the same time of day. But it seems more likely that the woodcock origin is the true one.
2. Questions and Answers: Take a powder
[Q] From Jonathan McColl: I used the expression take a powder in front of my wife (who understood it) and my son (who didn’t). It’s American I’m sure, and I feel it’s wild 1920s American gangster slang. Why would one take a powder when one goes on the lam?
[A] If a character was instructed to take a powder in old-time hard-boiled fiction, he was expected to immediately leave, depart or absent himself, often to avoid a difficult situation. It could also mean to escape or abscond. As you’ve discovered, the idiom isn’t much known these days. Your dating is about right and this is an example from its heyday:
Feeney smiled grimly. “He was yeller — tried to take a powder on you, didn’t he?” “He was talking of quitting,” said Perelli indifferently.
On the Spot, by Edgar Wallace, 1931.
Having said that, the brief answer to your question has to be, “I don’t know”. But then, neither does anybody else, though we aren’t short of theories.
One suggestion is that the person is being told to powder his nose, as a dismissive reference to the polite female euphemism for going to the place variously known as the bathroom, restroom, toilet or loo. This seems unlikely, mainly because take here is the wrong word. He may have been told to literally take a powder, with the idiom being based on a medical instruction that is at least as old as the eighteenth century. But what sort of powder? The medical references were most commonly to headache remedies or to purgatives. The former is improbable but the latter, as Eric Partridge once suggested, might refer to the “moving” powers of the remedy. This might be supported by slightly older versions of the phrase: to take a walk-out powder or take a run-out powder.
There is one further possibility. Powder is on record as an Northern English and Scots regional word meaning a hurry or rush; something done with a powder was in great haste or forcefully. It might be a variation on pother, a commotion or fuss, or it might be a shortened form of gunpowder. It seems that powder in this sense continued to be known in the US into the twentieth century and might be the origin of take a powder.
Or possibly not.
3. Questions and Answers: Unputdownable
[Q] From Will Mason in the: Every person that has been caught up with an engrossing book understands the meaning of unputdownable. When did that word show up in English?
[A] The earliest example mentioned is usually the one in a letter by Raymond Chandler, dated 5 January 1947, because that’s the first citation in the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
There are earlier examples, though they are in slightly different senses. The first I know of, a century before Chandler, means a person with enough self-assurance (or insensitivity) that he can resist being put down, that is, brought lower in self-esteem through criticism:
“Maugh I never eat another dinner if augh don’t dine there too!” chuckled Peter, with un-put-down-able and un-offend-able gallantry, “for augh’m sure my cousin Sarah there would never be so inhospitable as to shut her doors upon a relation with such a fule heart and empty stomach as augh am suffering from at this moment.”
Cheveley, or, The Man of Honour, by Rosina Doyle Bulwer Lytton, 1839. Lady Lytton, a legendary beauty, was the wife of the famous novelist Edward George Bulwer Lytton. He only took up that occupation because his family cut off his income when he married her. They separated after seven years and she also took up writing novels, likewise to earn money. This satirical best-seller is her best-known work. Note her attempt to reproduce the upper-class vowels of the period, a technique that soon becomes tiresome.
A handful of other examples appear in the next 100 years, some in the same sense Lady Lytton uses it.
Unputdownable is worth noting in another way, as an example of a rather rare method of forming words, from phrasal verbs — in this case to put down in its various senses — by adding the adjective-making -able to the end and un- to the front. Other examples include its televisual equivalent unswitchoffable; getatable, known from the eighteenth century; and a variety of convoluted formations that are intended as wordplay rather than be useful additions to the language: un-do-without-able, unrelyuponable, untalkaboutable, unwearoutable, unpindownable, un-keep-off-able and unwipeupable (hyphenation is largely a matter of the period in which examples were recorded, as modern usage omits them). Here’s yet another example, coined as a play on your word:
Its size makes it hardly-pickupable; if not for that, it would be unputdownable.
The Economist, 21 Jun. 1997.
Its inverse, putdownable, is much rarer. It almost always turns up as a humorous reference to its negative. In one case on record, the writer accidentally returned the word to its first meaning:
Michael Crichton was a master of the unputdownable novel. ... [Critics] regarded his novels as highly putdownable — that is, worthy of putdowns.
Wall Street Journal, 12 Nov. 2008.
And an alternative inversion has been coined:
Downputable: An alternative to “unputdownable,” to describe a book that’s not quite as compelling as it might have been.
In a comment by Laurence Hughes on Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing, by Bob Harris, in the New York Times, 25 Mar. 2008. Among Mr Harris’s terms to be avoided are poignant, compelling, intriguing and lyrical. Readers suggested dozens of others.
• Slow learners take heart, says Liz Howard. On 14 July the Daily Telegraph had the heading: “Get Fit in 14 Days. Week 3.”
• On 13 July, Kenneth Huey found this sentence in the Huffington Post in a piece on steroids in sport: “Knowing his erasable personality, Ty would most likely be a perfect example of ‘roid-rage’.” Having your personality erased would surely make anybody angry.
• Remaining with the Huffington Post, Sharon Crawford read a story dated 16 July about a teacher accused of having sex with one of her under-age students: “The student described how the relationship escalated from Facebook flirtations to sexual intercourse during a courtroom appearance.”