E-MAGAZINE 686: SATURDAY 17 APRIL 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Ticky-tacky Several correspondents noted that my description of Malvina Reynolds’ song Little Boxes was inadequate. Its theme is the boring uniformity of suburban housing and the bourgeois nature of its inhabitants. But, despite some comments, ticky-tacky does mean inferior or cheap materials, especially in suburban building.
It started when I read a report by Jon Henley in the Guardian on 7 April. As part of the current British election campaign, the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was visiting a bakery in Bolton, Lancashire. He made a lame joke about his failure to make his own bread which Jon Henley rendered as “So it’ll be back to boughten loaves in future, he promised.”
Boughten is an adjective formed from the irregular past tense of the verb to buy and refers to something that’s commercially made or shop-bought, as opposed to made or grown at home. If Mr Cameron actually said it, he was using it correctly. However, he comes of upper-middle-class stock, educated at Eton and Oxford, and it’s highly unlikely that boughten is natively his.
There are a few other such relic adjectives ending in -en still in daily circulation, as Prof Larry Horn pointed out to me when I asked about boughten on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. They often turn up in set phrases: graven image, new-mown grass, unproven allegations, clean-shaven face, misshapen bodies. But boughten has largely vanished from their number.
It was so surprising that this odd old term should be linked with David Cameron — and that it didn’t appear in any other report of the Conservative leader’s speech — that I went hunting for further information. Jon Henley admitted that Mr Cameron hadn’t actually said it; he had included boughten in his paraphrase because he liked the sound of it and because for him it had a flavour of “up north”. He knew it from his granny in Folkstone, Kent, who used to say it. That certainly fits its southern England profile, though the English Dialect Dictionary of a century ago didn’t include Kent among the counties in which boughten had been recorded. Anthony Massey of BBC News tells me that what David Cameron actually said was “So I’m going to be back in the stores buying your bread.”
I have this vision of lexicographers a century hence finding Jon Henley’s piece and concluding that if an educated Englishman used the word in 2010 it must have still been extant. I wonder how many of our current etymological conclusions, based on newspaper reports of a century ago, are likewise biased by reportorial archaisms?
It’s a fine example of a rhyming doublet. It started life in the seventeenth century as a way to describe reckless or careless persons, often young men.
These days it’s much more often applied to unruly football games (“There was a harum-scarum finish to what had looked like a harum-scarum game”), reckless undertakings (“Every few years they come up with some harum-scarum scheme to get around our Constitution or do away with it”), unrestrained performances (“Staccato raw guitar harum-scarum stuff about a deluded bloke whose girlfriend left him”), and disorganised offices (“Day-to-day operations remain harum-scarum in the department”). It’s becoming less common to find an example that’s directly attached to a person:
What you can expect is a braggadocio celebration of the vices attributed to harum-scarum artists throughout time.
Windy City Times (Chicago), 23 Sep. 2009.
Curiously, however, the very earliest form is harum starum, which might have come from a rather different idea. This stayed around for a while and was used as part of a famous character reference during the American Revolution:
He is Clever, and if any thing too modest. He seems discreet and Virtuous, no harum Starum ranting Swearing fellow but Sober, steady, and Calm.
A letter by Eliphalet Dyer to Joseph Trumbull, dated 17 Jun. 1775. The man concerned is George Washington.
4. This week
In hot water? I was reading an advertising supplement in my daily newspaper about the value of expert witnesses, as one does, when hot tubbing caught my eye. It turns out to be an Australian jargon creation — how could one doubt it? It’s a technique in which expert witnesses for each side take the witness box together and give their evidence concurrently. This can result, the writer said, in “a helpful and productive dialogue”. I can imagine other outcomes.
Cookery class John Rostron came across the word magirology, which was said to be the science of cooking. It was marked as rare on the one Web site he consulted that contained it and he asked whether I’d ever come across it in real life. Never, Mr Rostron. There’s no doubt that it’s a word more written about than ever actually used, with its being cited in books with titles such as Word Nerd and The Endangered English Dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary has added an entry for it online, but has only one example, from 1814, in The School for Good Living: “From the very first appearance of magirology in Greece, it produced effects absolutely magical.” (I like the other example in the same work, “Many of the understrappers also were admirable professors of magirology”, because of understrapper, an underling, whose origin is the old verb strap, to work hard.) The words derive from the classical Greek mageiros, cook or butcher. That 1814 book also has magirological, skilled in cookery, and magirologist, which the OED points out is equivalent in meaning to magirist, an expert in the art of cooking. Should you want to say any of these, the g is soft, as in magic.
5. Questions and Answers: Lazy Susan
[Q] From Toby Blyth, Australia: I’ve come across an article in the Los Angeles Times, dated 25 March, which describes the origin of the term lazy Susan as a domestic mystery. Do you agree?
[A] It’s fair. This name for a revolving tray on a table for holding condiments and the like has become known throughout the English-speaking world in the past century. But nobody knows who named it or who Susan might have been.
The usual sources point to an advertisement in Vanity Fair in 1917 as the first known record of the term lazy Susan. I have found earlier examples, which also illustrate the social milieu in which the term — and the device — began to be fashionable in the early years of that decade. One article appeared under the odd headline “Giving an Automatic Dinner”:
The other day a charming and capable woman gave a formal dinner to a party of eight guests without any help of servants. A superficial glance at the automatic dinner-table reveals nothing extraordinary. One is pleasantly aware of the sparkle of silver and glass, the hospitable glow of lamplight, the rich shine of mahogany. There is a beautiful lace centerpiece around which covers are laid in the usual way. Knives and forks and the service plate, napkins and glasses are where one expects to find them. Even the raised silver disk in the center surmounted by a vase of delicate clematis stars might be intended solely for decoration. But this raised silver disk is precisely the borderland between the old fashion and the new. It is the turn-table or “Lazy Susan,” the characteristic feature of the self-serving dinner table.
Christian Science Monitor, 25 Sep 1912.
The household here is clearly well-off and able to afford servants, but the hostess has either chosen to dispense with them, or perhaps been unable to recruit them. Within a year, the fashion had spread some way west:
Mrs. Curtis has inaugurated ... the “Lazy Susan” method of serving, which has solved most beautifully the problem of service without an extra maid.
Lima Daily News (Ohio), 31 Dec 1913.
This is currently the first known reference to the device:
John B. Laurie, as the resuscitator of “Lazy Susan,” seems destined to leap into fortune as an individual worker. “Lazy Susan” is a step toward solving the ever-vexing servant problem. She can be seen, but not heard, nor can she hear, she simply minds her business and carries out your orders in a jiffy.
Boston Journal, 8 Nov 1903. Mr Laurie was a carpenter, who made a lazy Susan at the request of a lady. Thanks to Barry Popik for finding this.
Tom Waitwell, a Footman, complains, that he and his Brotherhood have had the Honour to wait on the Quality at Table; by which King of Service they became Wits, Beaus, and Politicians, adopted their Masters Jokes, copied their Manners, and knew all the Scandal of the Beau-Monde; but are now supplanted by a certain stupid Utensil call’d a Dumb Waiter, which answers all Purposes as well, except making Remarks, and Telling of Tales, and this for this very Reason they are preferr’d.
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Apr. 1732; reprinted from the Weekly Register, 15 Apr. 1732. It was a century later, in the 1840s, that the term dumb-waiter was transferred in the US to a little lift for moving food between floors.
Some stories attach the invention of the dumb-waiter to Thomas Jefferson; dating makes this impossible, since he was born only in 1743. The term lazy Susan is sometimes said to be an opprobrious epithet applied to Susan B Anthony, an early campaigner for gender equality, but there’s no evidence for this. The Oneida community, a nineteenth century utopian commune in New York State, is known to have used (or possibly reinvented) the device sometime before its dissolution in 1877, but despite claims to the contrary there’s no record of their using the term lazy Susan for it. A plausible suggestion is that Susan was a generic term for a servant and that her name was humorously transferred to the tray.
All in all, calling it a domestic mystery is pretty much correct.
• Several people mentioned a report in the international edition of the magazine Spiegel Online of 7 April: “German trainers ... paint a disastrous picture of the quality of Afghan security forces. Too many police, they say, can’t read or write, can’t shoot straight or take bribes.”
• Sean Brady felt that the irony was missed in a recent television trail: “The Day of the Kamikaze — a one-off special for Discovery Channel.”
• A heading in the Grand Canyon News of 24 March: “Canyon Mule Rides Under the Microscope.” Jane Rogers suggests this was either a very small mule or a very large microscope.
• “Feeling a bit reckless, I decided to break my diet for the day,” Elos Gallo tells us, “I went to a nearby Chinese restaurant. Their menu had the perfect dish, Wanton Noodles.”
• Brian Barratt read a report in Monday’s Independent, headlined “Man admits having sex with horse and donkey”. The accused man’s counsel asked the court to release him on bail, but admitted “The defendant does not have a stable address.” A good thing, under the circumstances.
7. Copyright and contact details
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