No room to swing a cat The last issue two weeks ago discussed this idiom. Tony Chabot commented, “I had heard that it was originally ‘not enough room to swing a cot’ a ship-board bed”. The suggestion isn’t new — it appeared in the Calcutta Review in 1889: “Few cabins were spacious enough to allow of a cot swinging freely lengthwise (query, is not this the origin of the phrase ‘room to swing a cat in’?)”. Another suggested origin was mentioned by Derek Silk, that a cat was a type of small boat and “if a harbour was too congested for a ship to enter it was said that there was no room to swing a cat.” However, I can find no evidence for either origin and the early examples don’t support them.
More on the verge Following our discussions about the many names Americans and others have for the strip of green that separates pedestrians from drivers, Pauline Bryant wrote from Australia. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she mapped the dialect regions of Australian English for her PhD thesis. “In Australia, it depends whereabouts you live. In Western Australia it is verge. In the south-east of Australia, it is indeed nature strip [as others have previously mentioned]. But in the rest of South Australia and NSW and in Queensland it’s footpath. It doesn’t matter whether it has a concrete strip along it or not, it is still the footpath. To the confusion of the rest of Australia, in most of NSW and in Queensland, you can have a footpath with a footpath on it, or a footpath without a footpath on it.”
Lsoft Choice Awards It looks as though we shall come top in the May contest as well as the April one. We can’t, of course, be finalists twice, so it would seem to be time to relax our voting efforts to let others achieve top ranking during the remaining months. Thanks to everyone for your efforts. We must wait until late in the year to learn which of the six monthly finalists gains prizes.
Jeffery Deaver, the American thriller writer who continued the James Bond franchise by writing Carte Blanche in 2011, said in a recent newspaper interview about the original Bond novels, “I began reading them when I was nine or 10, enthralled by their sense of adventure and derring-do.”
Deaver moved Bond to the 2000s, making his superhero a veteran of Afghanistan. Though derring-do, meaning heroic acts, is still around, his vocabulary here evokes the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. It was currently unfashionable authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton who brought the ancient word down from the musty attic of the English language as a mock-archaism to spice up their historical novels. As with so many old words, it was Scott who led the resurrection:
“O no! I will put my faith in the good knight whose axe hath rent heart-of-oak and bars of iron. — Singular,” he again muttered to himself, “if there be two who can do a deed of such derring-do!”
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.
Scott added a footnote to explain that derring-do meant desperate courage. What he didn’t realise was that the word was a linguistic misconstruction.
The story begins with Geoffrey Chaucer. In Troilus and Criseyde of 1371 he described his hero as “in no degre secounde in dorrying don that longeth to a knyght”, meaning that Troilus was second to none in daring to do what befitted a knight. The following century the poet John Lydgate misunderstood dorrying don as a noun phrase that meant some masculine quality. In reprinting Lydgate’s works after his death, a printer changed the phrase to derryinge do (the role of printers in amending the language has been underestimated). The mischief was completed by the poet Edmund Spenser, who respelled it as derring-doe in The Shepheardes Calender of 1579 and explained it as manhood and chivalry. It then fell into disuse until Scott resuscitated it with a different sense.
Q From Gillian Christie, New Zealand: I am not sure how to spell the word I am asking about, as I have only ever heard it said. It could be aereated, aireated or even airiated. In my family it has always been used to mean “worked up, irritated, annoyed” as in “don’t get so aeriated about it”. Is our meaning “real” or just another of those odd family words. Hope you can help!
A It’s most certainly more than just a family word. It was once a fairly widely known colloquial term, though of limited circulation these days. It’s usually spelled aeriated, but also as airyated.
Your question takes me back more than half a century. I remember my mother, a Londoner, using the word, just as you have spelled it and with exactly that sense. It’s still very occasionally to be found in print:
The fans getting so aeriated at Mr Glazer’s takeover are all idiots.
Evening Standard, 16 May 2005.
David Crystal, in The English Language, argues that it’s Liverpool dialect. It certainly remains more often used there than in other parts of the UK and — for example — appears frequently in the works of the romantic novelist Lyn Andrews, who was born in Liverpool:
“There’s no need to get all airyated with me, Betty! I was only telling you what me mam said,” he replied huffily.
To Love and to Cherish, by Lyn Andrews, 2010.
But your experience and mine shows that it has been distributed more widely (the Oxford English Dictionary marks it merely as “British regional). In your case, it seems certain that it was taken to New Zealand by British migrants. Many examples of both spellings appear in unedited texts online from several English-speaking countries, showing that the usage is still alive.
There’s no doubt that it’s based on aerated, with an extra vowel stuffed into the middle, something that can happen in casual speech. Other examples are athlete said as athelete, or the England football supporters’ chant of Engerland. The technical term for it is epenthesis, more strictly in this case anaptyxis since the extra sound is a vowel.
The error, if we can describe it as that, is very far from new. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of aeriated in the place of aerated from as far back as 1794: “If a small heat be applied to the aeriated water, it parts with its fixed air” (fixed air was then the usual name for carbon dioxide), which is no more than seven years after the first known appearance of aerated. The OED records the colloquial term — defined as overexcited, angry or irate but spelled aerated — from 1912, though we may reasonably assume it could be decades older. However, its first citation for aeriated in our sense is as recent as 1974. Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, takes that back to a novel about the London underworld published four decades before:
I’ve never known a girl like you for getting airyated.
The Gilt Kid, by James Curtis, 1936.
What makes the derivation certain is that the anaptyxis is still around — we can find aerated in its standard English sense spelled with the extra vowel:
The course will be closed to golfers that day because the greens are being aeriated.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 10 May 2001.
The technical term aerated, for introducing a gas into a liquid, started to become known to the general public at the end of the eighteenth century through the invention by the Swiss watch maker Johann Schweppe of an effervescent drink made by bubbling carbon dioxide into water under pressure. Schweppe moved to London in 1793; by the turn of the century others were promoting a similar drink under names such as alkaline aerated water, though the term soda water soon replaced it because soda (sodium carbonate or washing soda) was added to imitate natural mineral waters. Later, the same process made a variety of flavoured fizzy drinks. Aerated became common in advertisements in Britain from the 1840s onwards.
I suspect that a once-famous London bakery called the Aerated Bread Company might also have had something to do with the genesis of the slang term. The ABC, as it was universally known in my youth through the tea shops that it ran, was founded in 1862. Its bread was made to rise without yeast through a patented process involving forcing carbon dioxide through the dough (its inventor considered it to be more hygienic because supposedly noxious fermentation by-products were avoided and the dough didn’t have to be kneaded by workers who may have had dirty hands).
The idea of somebody becoming inflated from anger, just like the bread, must have appealed, as must that of becoming emotionally effervescent like the spurting water from the soda siphon or the fizz from an opened bottle of pop.
• An addition to the it-could-have-been-better-worded department. Steven Brainerd was attending a drivers’ education course in Pima County, Arizona. The course documents informed him that “50% of people wearing seat belts survive fatal accidents.”
• A subheading from The Age of Melbourne on 17 May caught the eye of Sarah McConville and Kate Archdeacon: “Moving self-portrait painted after death wins People’s Choice”. It turned out that the artist painted herself after her husband’s death.
• A headline on the website of the West Australian for 13 May read “Stolen Car Racquet is Busted”. No more motorised tennis for them.
• Andrew Haynes found this fine sentence in London’s Metro freesheet on 14 May: “Despite not being a conventional beauty, author Will Self has called this post-war concrete structure the capital’s most important building.”