E-MAGAZINE 663: SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Tabnabs Lots of readers wrote, following a note on this word last week, to point out that nabs is a common term in parts of the US, mostly the South, for any kind of snack crackers. This is said to be from the name of a manufacturer, the National Biscuit Company (now Nabisco); Wikipedia says the company began to call their small packets of crackers nabs in 1928. Readers wondered if this sense of nab is the origin of the second part of tabnab. It seems unlikely, as the latter is a British term first recorded very soon after the US company began to use it. An independent creation is more probable.
Mike Harrison e-mailed from British Columbia: “My father was a merchant mariner working in the catering department in the 1930s. During my childhood in the 1940s and 1950s in Southampton (UK) tabnabs was common in our house and it seemed to have currency throughout the city. It was a loose term but described small and simple cupcakes and biscuits for day-to-day snacks. When company was expected something more elaborate was baked.” Conversely, Freya Croft commented: “My husband’s family here in Melbourne often have tabnabs before dinner, referring to the (posh or special) dips and bikkies and glass of champers. (Another name for hors d’oeuvres?) His stepfather was in the British Navy, so I guess that’s where it comes from!”
Historical Thesaurus of the OED Following last week’s review, subscribers wondered why it was, in this digital age, that the work should appear only on in a paper edition. I asked Dr Christian Kay, the director of the Historical Thesaurus project at Glasgow University, about this. She replied, “Plans are afoot to link the Thesaurus to the online Oxford English Dictionary. It would thus become available to all subscribers. We don’t have a date for this yet.” (Perhaps it’s worth reminding UK readers that if they have a library card, they have free access from home to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Dictionary of National Biography and possibly other databases. Ask your library for more information.)
2. Weird Words: Colcannon Night
We are at Halloween, the night that is traditionally the end of the harvest and of summer, when the veil between life and death weakens and spirits may walk abroad.
In Ireland, years ago, it was usual to mark the day by serving up the traditional dish of calcannon or colcannon. This was made from potatoes and cabbage, and perhaps other vegetables such as leeks, spinach or hedgerow greens, with a little butter, cream or bacon fat added, and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Because of the association of the dish with Halloween, the day has in a few places been called Colcannon Night instead. It was known as that in Ireland two centuries ago and emigrants took the name to Newfoundland and Labrador. The folklore department at the Memorial University of Newfoundland tells me that it has now died out there and so may not be current anywhere any more.
The first part of the name must surely be related to cole, an old term for any type of brassica, the genus that includes cabbage and cauliflower. Some dictionaries suggest that the second part derives from a method of pounding the cabbage — with cannon balls. You may believe that if you like, but it is now more commonly said it comes from the Irish Gaelic cál ceannfhionn (later cál ceannann), meaning white-headed cabbage.
3. What I’ve learned this week
Spudger Dave Aton told me about his discovery of this word. In the electronics and telecommunications fields, technicians mean by spudger (sometimes spludger) a tool for probing for plastic parts or adjusting small wires in an assembly. It is a slim plastic tool, typically with a bent metal hook at one end and a flat screwdriver blade at the other, though other designs are available. Similar tools are used to pry apart the cases of laptops and mobile phones. The origin is probably spud, first recorded in the language in the fifteenth century for a short dagger and which later became the usual term for a digging or weeding implement. Its origin is unknown. We know spud best as a name for the potato, a nineteenth-century dialect word of equally uncertain origin (were spuds dug up with a spud?), but workers in various fields have long known spud for a variety of tools, often chisel-like.
Not spud but spid Annie Clarke introduced
Ologies again As a character in a famous British telecom advert said years ago, “everybody’s got to have an ology”. Academic disciplines split and fracture till it sometimes seems that there are indeed as many specialist fields of study as there are researchers. My jaundiced comments are provoked by the find a few days ago of hedonology, the study of pleasure. Now that’s a course we could all happily sign up for. The discipline may be new (and the term for it rare) but its basis in etymological is secure: it’s from hedonic, pleasurable, a term taken from Greek hedone, pleasure. However, psychologists use hedonic for both pleasant and unpleasant sensations, which may say something about psychologists.
4. Reviews: Two Brewer’s Dictionaries
This autumn, a new edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable come out, together with a new stable mate, Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable.
This edition — the 18th — is the first to be published by Chambers Harrap and represents a further significant change, not back to the bad old days but to a more witty commentary. Chambers, of course, publishes Chambers Dictionary, famous for what Philip Pullman, in his introduction, calls “miniature detonations of wit” (“middle-aged: between youth and old age, variously reckoned to suit the reckoner”; “éclair: a cake, long in shape but short in duration”). This flavour has been carried over to the new Brewer, though it may not suit everybody:
Boredom seems to have been discovered around the middle of the 18th century. No doubt people had been bored before then, but evidently they could not be bothered to find a word for it.
Extraordinary rendition: a masterpiece of the euphemizer’s art, cloaking the unpalatable in the polysyllabic obscurity of words used with a pompous literalness.
Extraordinary rendition is joined by new many other new entries, such as those on homeland security, civil partnership, blog, honour killing, and Harry Potter; the set of popular expressions is added to with entries for such phrases as six degrees of separation and lipstick on a pig; entries on modern urban legends are also here, such as one on the infamous but fictitious alligators in the sewers of New York. A retrospective innovation is the inclusion of about 200 of Brewer’s entries from the second edition.
Similarly, if you have any interest at all in the story of London, you will find much in the newest member of the Brewer collection, Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable. I won’t say more, not least because I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements (you may detect my influence in entries such as the one on the Marylebone stage, meaning to go on foot).
[Camilla Rockwood [ed], Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; published in the UK in August 2009; due in North America in March 2010; hardback, pp1460; publisher’s list price £25.00; ISBN-13: 978-0-550-10411-3; ISBN-10: 0-550-10411-9.]
[Russ Willey [ed], Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable; published in the UK in October 2009; due in North America in March 2010; hardback, pp576; publisher’s list price £25.00; ISBN-13: 978-0-550-10445-8; ISBN-10: 0-550-10445-3.]
5. Questions and Answers: Witching hour
[Q] From Laura Perry: I’ve been asked a seasonal question by friends and am on a search for the origins and original meaning of the witching hour. I checked your website (always my first resource in matters like these) and found no entry. Does the phrase refer specifically to midnight? I’ve seen references to the devil’s hour that seem to refer to 3am rather than midnight.
[A] The direct origin is easy enough to find: it comes from this:
’Tis now the very witching time of night,
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, 1603. We think that Shakespeare invented it, but can't be certain — some other phrases previously thought to have been coined by the Bard have now been antedated.
Obviously enough, it refers to a time that belongs to the witches (and by easy extension, ghouls, ghosts, demons and other unearthly beings), when they are abroad doing their awful deeds. The earliest references to witching time were unspecific about the hour — in a period before effective artificial lighting of the world around us, the whole night was the province of supernatural beings.
Witching hour came along much later, as a reference to a specific time of night. This is the earliest example I can find, embedded in some verse that’s garnished with an excess of Gothic extravagance:
Now Midnight spreads her sable vest
A Fragment, by Mary Robinson, in the European Magazine and London Review, 1 Apr. 1793.
Most modern references are to midnight, the time when witches are supposed to be most active. But the time of night has varied a good deal, perhaps curiously in view of the implicit assumption in witching hour that a particular hour is meant. Some writers have taken it to be the twilight time just after sunset, when the world is still and the landscape seems bewitched. Others allow it to be the whole period between midnight and dawn. Some Christians do hold that the true witching hour (which they would rather call the devil’s hour) is 3am, because it is said to be an overt mockery of the supposed hour of Christ’s death on the cross at 3pm.
Sleep easy tonight, won’t you all?
• Joan Butler read a blurb for the BBC science programme Horizon in the Radio Times: “They have read about the power of stem cells to heal the body. Here they meet pioneering scientists to find out how likely they are to be cured within their lifetimes.” She wonders how long it will take for the march of science to find a way to cure them after they are dead.
• The miracles of modern science (continued). Steve Hirsch pointed out that the Crabtree & Evelyn site heads its selection of hand soaps with the sentence “Our gentle cleansing liquid soaps are pH-balanced and soap-free.” “That’s right,” he says, “They’re selling soap-free soap.”
• “I can’t conceive of any way that could possibly help,” commented Peter Janes about a headline to an article dated 23 October in the London Free Press of Canada: “Future moms urged to get shot.” The story was reporting that doctors were urging pregnant women to get their swine flu vaccinations.
• William T Hole spotted an unfortunate malapropism in a story in the New York Times on 26 October about aircraft fires caused by faulty batteries in electrical equipment. Gerald McNerney from Motorola was quoted: “What we’ve done is look at creating backups, duplicity in development so that you’re not going to have an explosion.”
• On Tuesday, Michael Hocken reports, the Times had an item about the Michael Jackson exhibition at the O2 arena complex in London: “The Official Exhibition also includes a triptych showing Jackson being crowned, knighted and holding a magical sword, his 1967 Rolls-Royce Phantom, a rocking horse given to him by Dame Elizabeth Taylor and a collection of his jewelled gloves.” A heavy burden for any man.