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Newsletter 760
29 October 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Ecdysiast.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Knock seven bells out of someone.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Waiter’s tip Following up my mention of this colloquial anatomical term, Jim Muller wrote, “When I was at medical school in Cape Town in the 60’s and 70’s the position of the hand in Erb’s palsy was referred to as the ‘policeman’s tip’ position. Perhaps we were more cynical about policemen in those days, and waiters did not have to expect backhanded tips.”

Marcia Wilson mentioned another once-popular medical term, the Ford fracture, also called the backfire or chauffeur’s fracture, which referred to a broken wrist or arm: “The Model T Ford had to be cranked by hand. Not only difficult, it could be frustrating and occasionally dangerous. If you didn’t have all the settings in their proper place, the crank could spin in the wrong direction. It would fly back at high speed, connecting with the nearest part of your anatomy — usually the arm doing the winding.”

Wildcats From Jascha Kessler: “Your discussion of wildcat banks in the 19th century reminded me, yet again, that things have changed: specie, as it was known, really is no more, and our coinage is base metals. Some folks tried to hold on, mainly in Nevada. In 1950, in Reno, we stopped for lunch at a casino, and when I asked the cashier for singles, wanting to break a $20 bill, she looked at me puzzled. ‘Singles? What are they?’ I said, being an Easterner, ‘You know, dollars, dollar bills.’ Astonished she replied, ‘You mean paper money?’ And in answer to my shrug, spilled out 20 silver dollars. Weighty specie ... the faintest memory in our time.”

”I’ve also seen wildcat used in the context of rail lines,” wrote Joe Orfant. “Outside of Boston, a rail line runs between the main, parallel lines to Lowell and Lawrence. I recall a trip to Lowell over thirty years ago when a frozen switch or some other problems caused our train to be sent up the Lawrence line around the problem to connect to the Lowell line via the seldom used ‘wildcat spur’. I was surprised to see it recently on a map of the MBTA commuter rail system under that name”.

Grammar puzzle A sentence in last week’s Sic! column — “His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed.” — was claimed to be ungrammatical. To the submitter and me the sentence seemed to suggest Hector’s hand had eyes. This provoked responses from readers who believed the sentence was correct; a linguist, Arnold Zwicky, whom I asked about the matter, agreed with them, arguing that the initial “his” is exactly equivalent to “Hector’s”. You can see that most clearly if you invert the two: “Hector’s eyes still shut ... his hand sluggishly reached across the bed.” Despite that verdict, the sentence would have benefitted from recasting.

Corrections The Rutland Herald is published in Rutland, Vermont, not in Virginia as I had it last week. A comment last time implied that the European wild cat is a feral variety of the domestic feline; it’s a separate species, of course.

2. Weird Words: Ecdysiast/ɛkˈdɪzɪæst/ Help with IPA

A writer for the Washington Post in August this year had it spot on: “ecdysiast is a fancy word for stripper”. It was coined in 1940 and has had only sporadic success, perhaps being thought too odd-looking a word or too high-falutin for so earthy a pursuit. Some reviews of Gypsy, a musical about Gypsy Rose Lee, have said that the word was created for her by H L Mencken, the American critic and author of The American Language.

Not so. He created it in reply to a letter from Georgia Sothern, a celebrated strip-tease artist from Baltimore (in 1968, in This Was Burlesque, Ann Corio and Joseph DiMona commented, “The mere sight of this red-hot, redheaded temptress tossing her hips in fantastic abandon to the wild music of the band caught up everybody in a spell. You didn’t shout from the audience to Georgia to take it off; there was no time.”) She wrote to Mencken:

Strip-teasing is a formal and rhythmic disrobing of the body in public. In recent years there has been a great deal of uninformed criticism levelled against my profession. Most of it is without foundation and arises because of the unfortunate word strip-teasing, which creates the wrong connotations in the mind of the public. I feel sure that if you could coin a new and more palatable word to describe this art, the objections to it would vanish and I and my colleagues would have easier going.

Both practice and term were certainly disliked by many. At the time, New York City prohibited any mention of strip-tease in publicity. Mencken, as you might expect from an American gentleman of the old school, sent a considered reply:

I need not tell you that I sympathize with you in your affliction, and wish that I could help you. Unfortunately, no really persuasive new name suggests itself. It might be a good idea to relate strip-teasing in some way or other to the associated zoological phenomenon of molting. Thus the word moltician comes to mind, but it must be rejected because of its likeness to mortician. A resort to the scientific name for molting, which is ecdysis, produces both ecdysist and ecdysiast.

Letter to Georgia Sothern, 5 Apr. 1940.

Miss Sothern, or her publicist, instantly adopted ecdysiast. It appeared in print for the first time just 14 days later, in a syndicated newspaper report about her forthcoming tour. Not only was Gypsy Rose Lee not the recipient of the name, she hated it, perhaps because she thought Mencken was a highbrow patronising her working-class roots. She responded in an interview soon afterwards:

“Ecdysiast” he calls me! Why the man is an intellectual slob. He has been reading books. Dictionaries. We don’t wear feathers and molt them off ... What does he know about stripping?”

Low Man on a Totem Pole, by Harry Allan Smith, 1941. Slob often appears as snob, on the assumption that it was a transcription error. I suspect Ms Lee knew exactly what she wanted to say.

Whatever Mencken knew, he was certainly conversant with technical vocabulary from classical sources. Ecdysis derives from Greek ekdusis, shedding or moulting. He presumably created ecdysiast from it on the pattern of enthusiast, which certainly described Georgia Sothern.

3. Wordface

Digital obtrusions A query came from J R Wilco about the origins of the simile stick out like a sore thumb, to be very obvious or conspicuous. The source is obvious enough, I believe, as anybody who has ever had pain in the joint of the thumb may attest. Any attempt to bend it towards the fingers to grasp an object hurts enough that it’s better to leave it unbent. The Oxford English Dictionary finds its first example in one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s stories, The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece, published in 1936. The expression is certainly American, but my searches found examples nearly a century earlier, including one from a humorous book, The History of the Hen Fever, by the writer and editor George Pickering Burnham, published in 1855. Researchers with access to better American resources will no doubt take it back even further.

In ancient days I’m reading Richard Fortey’s new book, Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind, and came across the wonderfully complex adjective palaeoichthyological, “relating to the study of extinct and fossil fish”. Take care not to confuse this with palaeoichnological, “of the study and interpretation of fossil footprints, tracks, and other trace fossils”. The former term, once you’ve stripped away all the beginnings and endings, is from Greek ikhthus, a fish (which also supplies a number of relatives in English, including ichthyic, a grandly scholastic term meaning fishlike), while the latter is from ikhnos, a footprint or track.

4. Questions and Answers: Knock seven bells out of someone

Q From Monika Mazurek, Poland: In several reviews of the new movie Warrior I listened to on BBC podcasts I heard the phrase to beat seven bells out of somebody, as in “this movie is basically about two men trying to beat seven bells out of each other”. I tried to find this phrase but it appears in very few dictionaries. What are the origins of the phrase? I’ve read somewhere a supposition that it may refer to bells measuring the half-hour intervals during watches on a ship.

A It’s almost exclusively a British expression today, still often encountered, though more commonly as knock seven bells. However, beat, smack, pound and other verbs can be used:

Now we have bombed seven bells out of [Libya’s] roads, ports, airfields, and other infrastructure, who will guarantee the rebuilding of everything that has been lost?

Evening Standard (London), 23 Aug. 2011.

A warrior association is appropriate for this idiom, since the origin is fighting ships and — as you have read — the ringing of bells to mark the passage of time on board. This is the usual explanation of its origin:

A total of eight bells are struck to end a watch; to knock seven bells out of someone implies pretty severe handling — without actually finishing him off.

Jackspeak, A Guide to British Naval Slang & Usage, by Rick Jolly, revised second edition 2007.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it appears several times in works by the American author Jack London, which made me wonder for a moment whether it actually originated in the US. But a British source was confirmed by news reports in London newspapers in early 1850 of ill treatment on board an emigrant ship to Australia:

Mr Bainbridge, on returning to the vessel, was knocked down by Mr Ross, and the captain wanted him or any of the malcontents to stand before him “and he’d knock seven bells out of them”.

The Examiner (London), 16 Feb. 1850.

As no newspaper report featuring this report thought it necessary to explain the idiom, it is surely older still.

5. Sic!

• An item dated 24 October — seen by Doug Cross — on in British Columbia, Canada, about the smashing of a glass door at the South Okanagan BCSPCA, reported that the doors were “double pained tempered glass” and that “A pair of turtles in a tank close to the door ... were spayed with shattered glass”. Too painful altogether.

• On 24 October, Lisa Robinton tells us, Yahoo! News included a report from ABC News, which included the line “From the front porch of a Las Vegas home, which has one [of] the highest foreclosure rates in the country ...”.

• John Pearson came across a headline on BBC News dated 21 October: “NY bus accused of sex discrimination”. He eagerly awaits the bus’s reply.

• My wife pointed out a fashion item in the Guardian on 26 October: “It started on the Miu Miu catwalk with a selection of printed dresses with long sleeves that fell below the knee.”

• A headline on BBC News Cornwall dated 27 October startled Tony Hall: “Dog helps lightning strike Redruth mayor”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 29 October 2011

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