E-MAGAZINE 639: SATURDAY 16 MAY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
That’s cute! My list last week of quaint American expressions that included cute brought forth questioning responses, such as this from Anne Virtue: “Is cute really used with all of those terms? I’ve heard some of them but never heard cute used in the following expressions: snug as a bug in a rug, slippery as a weasel and smart as a fox.” Other readers have supplied further variations: cunning as a fox, cunning as a shithouse rat (an Australianism) and so on. In the cute forms, as I mentioned, the word could have its oldest sense of clever, shrewd or quick-witted, which survived longer in British English than in American (“she might be too cute to fall into the trap”, Agatha Christie once wrote). People have in some cases very understandably changed cute into cunning or smart so that the expressions continue to make sense.
All the examples I quoted have appeared in print, even cute as a bug in a rug, for which I could supply three dozen cases, despite the belief of at least that many readers that it doesn’t exist. But I concur with Charles Earle Funk in Heavens to Betsy (1955): “Sometimes the expression [cute as a bug’s ear] is paraphrased into cute as a bug in a rug, but this is a poor foist of new upon old. Snug as a bug in a rug, the utmost in contentment and comfort, dates back two hundred years.”
Claire Trazenfeld extended my list: “When I was a child growing up in New Hampshire in the 1940s, the expression cute as a trout’s tit was not uncommon. I often heard it used by my father, who was from northern Vermont and born in the late 19th century.”
Phantasmagoria Steve Doerr and Marc Picard tell me that French sources suggest the second part of this word is from allégorie, allegory, rather than from the Greek agora, a place of public assembly, as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests. The two are connected, of course, as allegory comes in part from a Greek verb that once could mean “harangue” and which derives from agora.
The word sounds vaguely unpleasant, a good example of form matching meaning, since Americans have for more than for 150 years used it for a variety of things that are unpleasant to various degrees.
Dictionaries often say this was its first appearance in print:
Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.
Roughing It, by Mark Twain, 1872.
A slang dictionary two years later defined slumgullion as “any cheap, nasty, washy beverage”. Another, roughly contemporary, memory is this:
The meals are all alike — a potato, a slice of something like bacon, some gray stuff called bread, and a cup of muddy, semi-liquid coffee like that which the California miners call “slickers” or “slumgullion.”
Travels in Alaska, by John Muir, 1915, describing a trip he made in 1879.
Today it means a cheap stew made by throwing anything handy into a pot with water and boiling it, an improvised dish which has had many other names, such as Mulligan stew and Irish stew. Other senses in dictionaries include fish offal or the waste from processing whale carcasses (in Moby-Dick, which was published in 1851, Herman Melville called it “slobgollion”).
We now know the word is a good deal older than the Mark Twain book. Many early examples refer to yet another old sense listed in the dictionaries, for the muddy waste left after washing gold ore in a mining sluice.
Were those who were instrumental in wilfully creating this unconstitutional debt ... compelled to shovel tailings and clean reservoirs half full of slumgullion until it was paid?
Mountain Democrat, California, 3 Jan. 1857. Tailings are ore residues.
From this and other appearances, including the diaries of forty-niners, it seems certain that the word originated in this sense in the California gold fields, probably around 1850. It may be the same word as Melville’s (the similarity in form is persuasive), suggesting that miners borrowed it from an older unrecorded word that also provided Melville with his version. They later applied slumgullion figuratively and disparagingly to foodstuffs that were muddy or semi-liquid.
American dictionaries guess that it may be a combination of slum, an old English term meaning slime (nothing to do with a squalid urban area, the word for which is an old bit of slang of unknown origin) plus gullion, English dialect for mud or a cesspool. This is still known in Scots and is probably from the Irish goilín for a pit or pool. This certainly fits the mining context of early uses.
3. Recently noted
Flip! Since the start of the twentieth century, flip has had a second career as a euphemism for the F-word. Another use appeared in 2007, for purchasing the latest must-have item with the aim of immediately selling it for a profit via the Internet. The scandal concerning expenses claims by MPs which is currently rocking the British political establishment has led to a further meaning appearing in the press. MPs whose constituencies are some way from Westminster are allowed to claim the running costs of a second home. To flip is to change the place one claims as this second home to maximise the potential for claiming expenses. One MP, we learned, changed hers three times in one year, charging for repairs on each. Others have altered the status of their second homes, after claiming expenses for repairs and improvements, to avoid paying tax on the proceeds of selling them. Though this slang sense is common in the news at the moment, it’s hardly likely to become a settled part of the language.
Bad hair day While we’re on British parliamentary slang, another term came up last week during a briefing for lobby correspondents. In a question about an article critical of the government written for the Observer newspaper by Hazel Blears, a government minister, a journalist asked the official spokesman, “Did the prime minister give her a ‘hair dryer’?” This turned out not to refer to a gift, but to a Downing Street insiders term for a severe dressing-down. As a candidate for permanent inclusion in English, this has to be counted a failure.
4. Reviews: I Love It When You Talk Retro
Waves of technological advance can leave English expressions washed up on the shore, flotsam with no obvious origin for those too young to know what generated them. We still dial telephone numbers and hang up the phone even though the verbs refer to types of phones that have been out of use for decades. We may refer to the flip side of a situation or describe a person as talking like a broken record or of being stuck in a groove, even though gramophone records are obsolete.
Similarly, common phrases often have their origins in popular cultural references that are opaque for those who weren’t around to experience the originals: double whammy, show me the money, I’ll have what she’s having, the $64,000 dollar question, the seven year itch, Stepford wife, will it play in Peoria?, the Twinkie defense, where’s the beef?
Ralph Keyes calls such verbal fossils retroterms.
Mr Keyes is good on his American popular culture, but stumbles when etymology is involved. Though skeleton in the closet was indeed introduced by Thackeray (and closet was what he wrote, though the British form today is skeleton in the cupboard), it is extremely unlikely that it came about through the practice of doctors keeping the skeletons of bodies they had dissected locked in a closet out of public view. Why would they want to keep them? It’s surely a folk etymology. It is also improbable that reading between the lines, to look for hidden meaning, derives from the use of invisible inks to send a secret message hidden in an innocuous one. Folk etymology again.
Old fogey for a person with antiquated views is not from a US military term, fogey pay, for long-service pay. Fogey pay is known, of course, but dates from the latter part of the nineteenth century; old fogey is 100 years older — it’s in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785, where it is said to mean an invalid soldier; our standard English sense and the military one both derive from it. Did third degree for harsh questioning by police really derive from a supposedly harrowing induction rite for the highest grade in freemasonry? It has been known since Shakespeare’s time as a grade or level and was used for the classification of burns before it turns up in the interrogation sense. As the US legal term for the least serious grade of a particular crime is also earlier, it’s more likely to be the origin. Yellow journalism and yellow press didn’t derive from sponsorship by William Randolph Hearst of a bicycle race across America in 1896 (participants wore yellow jerseys) but from Joseph Pulitzer’s experiment in colour printing in the New York World in 1895 in which a child in a yellow dress (The Yellow Kid) was a figure in a cartoon.
Many other examples could be cited, which demonstrate the pitfalls faced by an expert in another field who attempts etymology without sound preparation or being primed to question the origins given in his sources. Such errors spoiled the book for me. Readers prepared to take his etymological assertions with a large pinch of salt may still find this a pleasant trip down nostalgia alley.
[Ralph Keyes, I Love It When You Talk Retro; St Martin’s Press; 1 Apr. 2009; hardback, 310pp. including index; ISBN 9780312340056; list price US$25.95.]
5. Questions and Answers: Cocksure
[Q] From David Nix: I have just discovered your web site and it is immensely enjoyable. I have a word that came to mind, cocksure, and I wonder if you might know of its origin?
[A] It’s good to hear you like the site. Just for once I can repay a compliment by providing a straightforward answer, though it’s more complicated than it looks.
It seems obvious at first sight that cocksure means “as sure as a cock”, alluding to the arrogantly self-confident strut of a barnyard cockerel. That would fit the form of phrases like coal-black or stone-deaf. The problem is that cocksure has changed what it means down the centuries and the obvious answer doesn’t fit the facts.
Back in the sixteenth century, if you said you were cocksure you meant that you were absolutely safe, free from danger or secure in your position. This example, a late one in this sense, would be misunderstood by us today:
All such persons as shall be nominated by the Parliament, shall be cock-sure in their Authority.
The History of the Wicked Plots and Conspiracies of our Pretended Saints, by Henry Foulis, 1662.
The word evolved via the idea that somebody was trustworthy or reliable, or absolutely certain to do something, to today’s sense of being dogmatically certain in one’s own mind about some matter or of being presumptuously or arrogantly confident.
So where does it really come from? It seems certain that the cock in cocksure is a euphemism for God. This appeared in a variety of medieval oaths down to the time of Shakespeare, including cocks bones, cocks passion, cocks wounds and cocks bodikins. So the original meaning of cocksure was that a person enjoyed a security or quality of rightfulness equivalent to that of God.
• Proving that you can’t keep a good man down, Mike Troy reports that an obituary in the Journal News (White Plains, NY) on 30 April stated: “Philip was survived by his predeceased father, Domenick.”
• On a related note, the subject of a UN Wire e-mail of 14 May was “Guatemala in crisis as slain lawyer blames president”. On reading the item Rebecca Katumba learned the lawyer had recorded a video just before his murder telling viewers to blame Alvaro Colom, the president of Guatemala, in the event of his death.
• Allan Richardson was reading the Lonely Planet guide to California. On page 30, he learned that “A rarer sight are desert tortoises, whose slow pace has landed them on the endangered species because they’re often overrun by cars.”
• Thanks to Nancy Shepherdson, we now know that Wednesday’s Daily Herald newspaper, which serves the northern suburbs of Chicago, had a grammatically correct but misleading headline: “Battery charges dropped against wife.”
• It’s a side of the Taliban one often doesn’t see, commented Dave Muir, having read this sentence in the Wessex edition of Compass magazine for May 2009: “Lahore is so far untouched, but the Taliban are said to be setting up crèches of arms in every city, even as far south as Karachi.”