NEWSLETTER 503: SATURDAY 2 SEPTEMBER 2006
1. Weird Words: Etheromaniac
A person addicted to ether as an intoxicant.
Some have been known to inhale it, but true etheromaniacs drank it. The imbibing of ether was a widespread practice in parts of Ireland during the nineteenth century. Some contemporary reports point to a temperance campaign by one Father Matthew in 1838 for starting it, while others say it was an unintended result of a crackdown by the authorities at that time on the illegal brewing of poteen, whiskey made from potatoes.
The effects of ether were like those of alcohol, but the drinker passed through the stages of intoxication to insensibility much more quickly. He also sobered up after only a few minutes with no hangover. One problem with drinking ether was that it turns into a gas at body temperature. To get around this, the usual technique was to drink a glass of cold water followed by a shot of ether. The water cooled the mouth and throat sufficiently to get the ether into the stomach in liquid form. A frequent side effect was violent belching of flammable gas. Since houses were lit by naked flames, ether drinkers sometimes set themselves and others alight.
The practice was etheromania and drinkers were sometimes described as etherists and etheromanes as well as etheromaniacs. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1891 wrote of local women in Ireland holding ether bees.
Etheromania was also recorded from Scotland, Norway, Russia, Italy, France, parts of the USA, and Britain—an article in the Nebraska State Journal in 1897 said, “In London the keepers of the various squares and parks often find under the trees empty vials labelled ‘ether’ that have been thrown there by the maniacs who quit their homes in order to indulge their favorite passion at their ease”.
The practice died out in the 1890s in Ireland after the government reclassified ether as a poison that could be sold by registered pharmacists only.
[Thanks to Ian Simmons, whose letter to the New Scientist alerted me to this astonishing practice and its vocabulary.]
2. Recently noted
Sticklerism Robert Smallwood told me about a series on language, And Sometimes Y, that has just finished on CBC in Canada. When I visited its Web site, almost the first word I noted was this one. It clearly means the state or condition of being a stickler—over language in this case—and it’s an obvious enough formation that turns up a couple of hundred times in Google search results. But it hasn’t yet been included in any dictionary that I’ve consulted. It has a history of sorts, with a few examples in books. The earliest I’ve found is in a work of 1898 (still in print), The Heart-Cry of Jesus by Byron J Rees: “Sanctification destroys sticklerism for non-essentials and the lust for fine distinctions in dogmatics.”
Pluto the verb At the risk of boring you all speechless with more about the Great Demotion, there’s some small amount of evidence that the name of what we must now learn to call a dwarf planet has turned into a derogatory verb meaning that a person has been downgraded or sidelined in some way: “I thought the girls liked me, but they’ve plutoed me completely.” You may feel—as I do—that its lifetime will be short.
Ghost-ride the whip Younger Californians will know that I’ve been slow to spot this one, but do bear with me while I expound. It’s one part of a West Coast black cultural phenomenon called hyphy (short for hyperactive) that’s been around for the better part of a decade. Whip means a car; to ghost-ride it is to crank your car stereo up to 11 with your favourite music, put the car into drive (it’s an automatic, of course, this is America), then get out and dance on the hood (bonnet in Britspeak) or alongside. The craze was given a big push when the rapper E-40 issued a track called Tell Me When to Go that featured ghost-riding.
Mobification This word has popped up in news items this week. It is said to have been invented by Orange, the mobile telephone firm, as a blend of mobile and modification. It accompanied reports about a survey that claims to have found that 86% of mobile phone users aged 16–18 have modified their handset in some way, though the majority have just downloaded a new ringtone. The fashion for painting or drawing designs on handsets or attaching charms to them is much more a Japanese thing than a British one, but Orange says—or hopes—it is catching on. Orange has set up a site to promote, judge, and reward phone modifications, and also to sell ringtones and graphics to the less artistically inclined.
3. Questions & Answers: Since Hector was a pup
[Q] From Anton Sherwood: “A Canadian friend of mine, born 1938, is fond of the phrase since Hector was a pup, meaning since long ago. Comment?”
[A] Only those of us with long memories will know this one well: it was in fashion at about the time that Hector really was just a pup. It began to appear in North American newspapers around 1906 and almost immediately became a catchphrase that later spread around the English-speaking world.
There’s quite a variety of ideas behind it. Hector seems to have been a fairly common name for dogs at the time. This was borrowed from the name of the hero of the Trojan War, the son of Priam and Hecuba, who became a symbol of the consummate warrior. By the early twentieth century, pup was also well established as a mildly dismissive name for a young person, particularly an inexperienced beginner. So Hector was a pup a very long time ago indeed. Another expression of the period using his name was as dead as Hector, known from the 1860s. Anyone versed in Greek mythology (there were more then than there are now) would have remembered that in later life Hecuba was turned into a dog for killing Polyxena, the murderer of her son Polydorus, so you might consider Hector to have been a literal pup, perhaps even the original son of a bitch.
Those associated with the RAF in World War Two will know that it was common to speak of a period in the past as one when Pontius was a pilot. An even older example from sailing-ship days, according to Eric Partridge, speaks of a time when Adam was an oakum boy in Chatham dockyard *.
There are others. A variation on the theme is when Pluto was a pup. As the first example I can find is from a newspaper advert dated 1947, that looks as though it derives from Disney’s dog, who was named in 1931 after the then newly discovered (and now late) planet.
* Oakum was the loose fibre created by untwisting old rope, a word derived from Old English acumbe, literally off-combings. With tar, it was used to caulk the seams between the planks of wooden ships; an oakum boy unpicked the oakum (a tedious job often used as a punishment on board ship) and was considered the lowliest worker in the yard. Chatham dockyard was a major British naval shipbuilding centre on the Thames down-river from London.
4. Questions & Answers: Losing one's marbles
[Q] From Mike Pataky: “Can you tell me the origin of the expression, He has lost his marbles, meaning gone mad or lost his reason or done something really stupid? Being a Londoner myself, I suspected it might be a Cockney expression but I recently heard it in Peter Pan where the uncle (who is not quite ‘compos mentis’) is said to have found his lost marbles. Is this the origin?”
[A] There’s no mention of marbles in J M Barrie’s original 1904 play, Peter Pan. Might you have been confused by Hook, the film that was made from it in 1991? That includes the exchange:
Peter: Ha ha ha! He really did lose his marbles, didn’t he?
which clangs discordantly on my British ear, since lost them good is a classic Americanism, not natively known this side of the big water, and therefore an expression that the Scottish Barrie could not have used. To lose one’s marbles is equally American and the same comment applies.
It is, as it happens, pretty much contemporary with the play. The earliest example given in the standard references is from It’s Up to You; A Story of Domestic Bliss, by George V Hobart, dated 1902: “I see-sawed back and forth between Clara J. and the smoke-holder like a man who is shy some of his marbles.”
That certainly sounds like the modern meaning of marbles, which as you say refers to one’s sanity. But in an earlier appearance, the writer used it to mean angry, not insane (mad, that is, in the common US sense rather than the British one). It was printed in the Lima News of Ohio in July 1898: “He picked up the Right Honorable Mr Hughes on a technicality, and although that gentleman is reverential in appearance as Father Abraham and as patient as Job, he had, to use an expression of the street, lost his ‘marbles’ most beautifully and stomped on the irascible Harmon, very much à la Bull in the china shop.”
The origin must surely come from the boys’ game of marbles, which was very common at the time. To play was always to run the risk of losing all one’s marbles and the result might easily be anger, frustration, and despair. That would account for the 1898 example and it’s hardly a step from there to the wider meaning of mad—to do something senseless or stupid.
• Last Monday’s issue of The EE Times Newsletter, Robert Smallwood discovered, reported that “In an elaborate effort to promote the virtues of renewable energy, a crew of New Zealanders is aiming to break the world record for circumventing the globe in a powerboat using a 78-foot craft powered exclusively by biodiesel.”
• “In Australia,” comments Larry Thomas, “We do not have Tennants Beer but the firm must be coming here—there are so many signs erected on vacant sites with the words ‘Will Develop to Tennants Requirements’. I wonder if people that take up a career as sign writers have ever heard of a dictionary!”