E-MAGAZINE 691: SATURDAY 19 JUNE 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Return Now back, refreshed, from my break. My thanks to you all for your forbearance while the batteries were recharged!
Changes If you’ve visited the website recently, you will know that I’ve made some small alterations to simplify navigation and improve the look of the pages. It won’t be noticed by anyone visiting, but the main reason for the changes was to clear out the many old pages and images that were cluttering the place up and to rationalise the page structure in a few instances.
I’ve decided to make some other changes to leave me more time for the interesting stuff, like researching and writing pieces. I’ve closed my Facebook and Twitter accounts because I didn’t have the time to interact with people as I should. Though I shall naturally continue to read messages with my usual interest and attention, and incorporate some of them in issues, I shall respond only to those that require an answer. All messages will, of course, receive an acknowledgement of receipt. My apologies if this seems impersonal.
As a final change, I have decided to go with the majority view and will spell the words as website and internet from now on. But I baulk at email.
Fiddlesticks I heard a delightful story about the origin of this expression while on holiday. I’ve updated the existing piece to include it and my refutation.
2. Weird Words: Richard Snary
This was a seventeenth-century pun, even more convoluted than most of its kind, that had a surprisingly long run. I encountered it as one of the entries in this month’s revisions to the Oxford English Dictionary online, which its editors seem to have added in a skittish spirit one might not expect from so sober a publication.
A Richard Snary is a dictionary. This is the canonical joke:
A country lad, having been reproved for calling persons by their Christian names, being sent by his master to borrow a dictionary, thought to show his breeding by asking for a Richard Snary.
A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose, 1796.
This inadequate witticism is linguistically interesting because it suggests that dictionary was said at the time with only three syllables, with the middle part elided away. It appears thus in the first known example:
Talke not to me of Dick snary, nor Richard-snary; I care not how little I come neare them.
Apollo Shroving, Composed for the Schollars of the Free-schoole of Hadleigh in Suffolke, by William Hawkins, 1627.
A variant form turns up surprisingly recently:
I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary.
Red Harvest, By Dashiell Hammett, 1929. The author was misled by its appearance in Grose’s Dictionary, which mostly featured underworld slang.
Katherine Martin, a senior editor at the OED, commented: “Much of the evidence found by OED researchers seems self-consciously humorous; one suspects that those who used the term would have delighted to be asked what it meant, so as to have the excuse to deliver what is essentially a joke with an etymological punchline.”
3. Turns of Phrase: Taqwacore
Taqwacore is a recent musical genre. The name combines the Arabic taqwá, which may be translated as piety or the quality of being God-fearing, with the music term hardcore. Its inspiration is a fictional work of 2003 by a white American Islamic convert, Michael Muhammad Knight, which featured a fictitious Muslim punk scene in the US. This led to real-life imitations, with bands rebelling against what they see as the stultifying convention and religious dogma of Islam while maintaining their faith. It’s variously seem as a backlash against hate and fundamentalism, as a protest against Islamophobia in the US (9/11 is mentioned a lot), as a way to find an identity as a child of immigrants, or as a rebellion against the attitudes of their parents. The genre has received public attention through a Canadian documentary, Taqwacore, and a feature film, The Taqwacores, screened at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.
There are probably as many definitions of taqwacore as there are people connected to taqwacore, and that is a great thing because to me, it is about an openness. It is somewhat ironic that taqwacore is becoming a label, just by the nature of it being a name assigned to a group of people, but at its essence, it is about removing labels.
Newstex Blogs (USA), 4 Feb. 2010.
Mixing punk sounds and attitude with Hindi lyrics, doses of bhangra and other south Asian beats, the Kominas are part of an emerging musical scene known as Taqwacore.
Guardian, 11 Jun. 2010.
Academic? A delightful British body, the Queen’s English Society, was founded in 1972. Its website asserts that “English is becoming corrupted in the age of mass communications, the text message, e-mail and the like” and it aims to become “the recognised guardian of proper English”. It announced in early June that it intends to establish an Academy of English, presumably on the model of bodies such as the L’Académie Française, the Real Academia Española or the Accademia della Crusca. We have had such proposals before, notably one by Jonathon Swift, who in 1712 wrote a Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue. The principal issue for any body trying to maintain standards of proper English is to work out what those standards are or what is considered proper. As any linguist will tell you, English is as English does. Thankfully, despite the stated objectives, the QES and the Academy seem to be taking a pragmatic attitude and want to improve the quality of the teaching of English in UK schools rather than establish a standard.
Pedantic? A minor skirmish in the language wars erupted last week, when Phil Corbett, the Standards Editor at the New York Times, was reported as having issued a ruling that journalists were not to use any colloquial term derived from Twitter in news stories. Tweet, tweeting, retweet and others were banned, reports claimed. He wrote that “outside of ornithological contexts, ‘tweet’ has not yet achieved the status of standard English. And standard English is what we should use in news articles.” He suggested using “deft, English alternatives”, such as “write something on Twitter” or “post a Twitter update”. The Twitterati waxed sarcastic about this and the story was widely reported worldwide. A couple of blogs bothered to contact Mr Corbett, who explained that his e-mail was guidance, not a ban. He argued that he doesn’t actually have the power to issue such decrees. “I can’t even convince people to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly,” he said.
5. Questions and Answers: Up the creek
Q From Mark Sinden: In a Channel 4 Time Team archaeology special about the Royal Naval Hospital in Gosport, Tony Robinson asserted that the phrase up the creek comes from the route to the hospital that wounded naval personnel took along Haslar Creek. Is this true, or is there an earlier and different origin for the phrase?
A I saw that, too, and was struck by the supposed connection. The hospital was on a promontory overlooking the harbour and dockyard of Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. It was opened in 1753 to care for the sick and wounded of the Royal Navy and closed in 2009. As you say, it was at first approached by boat from the harbour up Haslar Creek. The TV programme reported on the excavation of bodies that had been interred in the graveyard at the hospital in the age of sail and implied that up the creek — to be in severe trouble or difficulty — had appeared no later than the early nineteenth century. Behind it lay the melancholy fact that a large proportion of those who were taken to the hospital up Haslar Creek at that period were so seriously sick or wounded that they ended up being buried there. This is how one website puts it:
In the early days of Haslar Royal Naval Hospital patients had to be transferred to the hospital by [boat] from the harbour because there was no bridge. It is thought that the phrase “up the creek” may have originated from sailors who knew that if you were rowed to Haslar you were in trouble.
Other references also suggest this is the origin. Peter Viggers, MP for Gosport, mentioned it as fact in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons about the closure of the hospital in March 2009.
Checking the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary might seem to refute this whole idea, since the earliest example recorded there is dated 1941, in an American radio play written by Arthur Miller. By the wonders of modern searches, it is possible to improve on that, though you’ll appreciate there are far too many literal references to people being up creeks for it to be easy to search for. The earliest explicit reference I’ve so far found is this:
On the third of January we received an awful jolt. The British gave us notice to get out of their Bowhuts, as they were going to tear them down. We were up the creek without a paddle.
Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken, by Ray Neil Johnson, 1919. This recounts the war experiences of a US machine gun company in France. A Bowhut would seem to be a kind of temporary prefabricated shelter, perhaps a precursor to the Nissen hut.
There are mildly tantalising earlier appearances in US newspapers. In 1915, a report quoted a local councillor: “there is something rotten up the creek”; a letter in 1901 argued “there was something dead up the creek”; one from 1896 scathingly referred to “the boys up the creek”. These and others, like the one that follows, are all from Texas newspapers. Might it even have originated in that state?
Question everything, try everything and hold fast to that democracy which is sound and good. The fact that you are advised not to question this scheme or that trick is of itself enough to arouse your suspicion and to lead to the belief that there is rascality up the creek.
The Galveston Daily News, Texas, 24 Feb. 1896.
I suspect that this form of the expression actually had a slightly different idea behind it: that rural backwaters — and those who lived up them — were the source of infamy and skulduggery.
Some writers, including the late William Safire, have suggested that up the creek might be from the older to be up Salt River, which sometimes appeared as up Salt Creek. From the 1820s this was a way to mock the inhabitants of the backwoods of the US for their uncouth manners and uncultivated speech (the Salt River, if it ever had a literal association, is sometimes said to have been the one in Kentucky). Later, if you sent somebody — in particular a political opponent — up Salt Creek, you thoroughly defeated him.
As Jonathon Green suggests in Chambers Slang Dictionary, up the creek was more probably a euphemism for up shit creek. Again, the OED’s first entry for this is comparatively recent, from 1937, but recording of rude slang is notoriously poor. A rare example takes it back well into the previous century:
He, Parker, then said, “well, our men put old Lincoln up Shit creek, and we’ll put old Dill up.”
Report of the US Secretary of War, 1868. This is from the sworn testimony of the freeman Augustus Lorins about the murder of Solomon G W Dill in South Carolina on 4 June 1868, only three years after President Lincoln’s assassination. Mr Dill had deeply offended his neighbours by espousing the Republican cause in the reconstruction period following the Civil War.]
There can be no doubt that up shit creek and up the creek are both American in origin. As confirmation, neither can be found in British sources of the nineteenth century, not even in verbatim transcripts such as those of trials at the Old Bailey in London. So the origins of up the creek can’t be linked to Haslar.
• Great questions of our time (an occasional series): the Telegraph website asked on 2 June, “Should men avoid child birth?”
• Rebecca Eschliman came across a headline in a newsletter from the upmarket US gourmet grocery chain, Dorothy Lane Market: “Eating Local Rocks”. Sedimentary or igneous, she wondered?
• Yet another puzzling headline, reports Gill Teicher, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 26 May: “Woman’s recipes for father after death of his wife turned into cookbook”. Read the full story.
• On 10 June, the Guardian published a photograph of prime minister David Cameron and former PM Margaret Thatcher sitting either side of a fireplace in 10 Downing Street. The caption read, “Margaret Thatcher began the first phase of savage cuts. Now David Cameron has taken up the mantel.” It looked OK in the picture.
• The Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Illinois, had a story on 10 June about road construction: “Typical concerns have centered on trees and motorists using local roads as a detour.” Edward Floden remarked, “As everyone knows, trees are poor drivers and move too slowly.”
7. Copyright and contact details
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