NEWSLETTER 619: SATURDAY 27 DECEMBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
More spellchecker stories Brian Barratt tells me that after he bought a new car about 10 years ago, the Holden (General Motors) company sent him an invitation to a talk in which someone would aquatint him with the mechanical details of his car. He notes acquaint has since replaced aquatint as the first suggestion for aquaint in Microsoft Word. Richard Winter, in Toronto, says that his spell check routinely converts Obama to Osama, which he suggests may be whimsical for a Canadian but less so for his neighbours to the south.
Bold as brass Several readers mentioned, in connection with this piece last week, that they had always assumed the phrase came from brass or top brass in the sense of senior military officers. This was originally an American term, a joke based on their gold braid and other bright insignia, but it dates only from the end of the nineteenth century, so over a century after bold as brass came into the language. Brass for a prostitute (rhyming slang, brass nail = tail), which was also suggested as a link, is from the 1930s, though tail in various sexual senses dates from the eighteenth century. Others pointed out that I’d omitted to mention brazen, the adjective for something brass. As a figurative term referring to a shameless person, now its principal meaning, it’s sixteenth-century.
2. Weird Words: Wait
A street singer of Christmas carols.
Once upon a time, a wait was a watchman, whose name derived from an Old Northern French word, related to the modern German wachen, to wake. Early senses of the verb included lying in wait for an enemy, observing carefully and being watchful. Watchmen in British towns and cities in medieval times sounded the watch three or four times a night on trumpets, hautboys or pipes as a way to show they were alert and to deter thieves.
The term seems to have been transferred to musicians at the end of the thirteenth century. The waits were a group of wind musicians kept at public expense by a town or city. They played on ceremonial or festive occasions and also paraded the streets to entertain the public, sometimes at night or in the early morning as a continuing association with watch calls. Waits were not just for Christmas at this time.
Around the end of the eighteenth century, the practice of waits being employed by a municipality seems to have died out (though an official wait was still employed by the City of Westminster in the 1820s) and the name was transferred to self-appointed musicians and singers who perambulated the streets playing and singing carols and other appropriate music at Christmas in hope of reward. In many places, especially rural areas, those who went by the name walked house to house in daylight or evening, as carol singers do now, but others maintained the old tradition of going their rounds at night.
They were considered an abominable nuisance by many, who complained about discordant nocturnal noises that became one of the perils of Christmas. Jerome K Jerome wrote in The Second Thoughts of An Idle Fellow, “Christmas Waits annoy me, and I yearn to throw open the window and fling coal at them — as once from the window of a high flat in Chelsea I did.” A London footman named William Tayler wrote critically of waits in his diary on 26 December 1837:
These are a set of men that goe about the streets playing musick in the night after people are in bed and a sleepe. Some people are very fond of hearing them, but for my own part, I don’t admire being aroused from a sound sleep by a whole band of musick and perhaps not get to sleep again for an houre or two.
James Greenwood commented in his In Strange Company in 1874 on the oddity of the seasonal occupation of London waits:
Night after night, for ten or a dozen nights, they turn out at an hour when even the public-houses are closed, and nobody is abroad but penniless, homeless wanderers and the police; and they play to houses wrapped in darkness, and to people who, for all they can know to the contrary, are fast asleep, and who, on that ground, may justly repudiate the debt accumulating against them.
He noted that a peculiarity of the waits was that necessarily they had to play and sing on credit (banging on doors in the middle of the night to ask for money would have been unpopular) but that to ask for contributions after the event must have been almost as unrewarding.
Buzzwords of the year The fifth annual collection of the buzzwords of the year, collected by Grant Barratt, appeared in the New York Times last weekend, illustrated by much over-the-top typography. It includes some that have been discussed here — frugalista, recessionista, plutoid, nuke the fridge, staycation and stag-deflation — but also Caribou Barbie, Joe the Plumber, maverick and Obamanation from the US presidential election, plus others.
4. Questions & Answers: Throw a tub to a whale
[Q] From Bart Brown: “Could you enlighten me on a saying whose form I can’t remember exactly but which includes a reference to a tub and a whale? It means to distract or confuse. It’s common in American politics.”
[A] That’s almost certainly throw a tub to a whale. I’m surprised to hear that you believe it to be common — I’d not come across it before you mentioned it and I can’t find any modern examples. The evidence suggests that it’s long since defunct.
The standard story of its origin is recorded in William Pulleyn’s Etymological Companion of 1853:
The Greenland vessels, and indeed the South Sea vessels, are sometimes (especially after stormy weather) so surrounded with whales, that the situation of the crew becomes dangerous. When this is the case, it is usual to throw out a tub in order to divert their attention; when the marine monsters amuse themselves in tossing this singular sort of a plaything into the air, to and fro, as children do a shuttlecock. Their attention being drawn, every sail is hoisted, and the vessel pursues its course to its destination. Hence came the saying, “Throwing a Tub to the Whale!”
The earliest known reference to this maritime technique is in the introduction to Jonathon Swift’s satire A Tale of A Tub of 1704. This was a counterblast to Thomas Hobbes’ treatise Leviathan of 1651 and was intended to distract it “from tossing and sporting with the Commonwealth”. In the Bible, a leviathan — the word comes from Hebrew — was an enormous aquatic beast, such as Jonah’s whale. However, Hobbes meant by it the organism of political society. As another layer in Swift’s satire, tale of a tub was also an idiom at the time for what we would now call a cock-and-bull story.
Though the phrase throw a tub to a whale isn’t recorded before Swift, Sir James Macintosh reported in a book of 1846 that the idea appears in an old translation of The Ship of Fools, a famous work in German by Sebastian Brant dated 1494, though I’ve not been able to find it in the Barclay translation of 1504. Whatever its origin, the expression throw a tub to a whale came to mean creating a distraction.
A good example is in Frederick Marryat’s A Diary in America, With Remarks on its Institutions, of 1839, in which he complains about the US attitude to Britain:
The great cause of this increase of hostility against us is the democratical party having come into power, and who consider it necessary to excite animosity against this country. When ever it is requisite to throw a tub to the whale, the press is immediately full of abuse; everything is attributed to England, and the machinations of England; she is, by their accounts, here, there, and everywhere, plotting mischief and injury, from the Gulf of Florida to the Rocky Mountains.