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Newsletter 725
26 February 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Phrop.

3. Turns of Phrase: Unitasker.

4. Wordface.

5. Questions and Answers: That’s all she wrote.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Piss-poor As several readers told me, in the piece last week I’d conflated the literal and figurative meanings of the idiom. I ought to have made clear that the primary sense of piss-poor these days is of something third-rate, incompetent or useless. The quote from The Spectator that ended the piece used this figurative sense.

Many other terms include piss- as an intensifying prefix. Two additional examples provided by readers were piss-awful and piss-weak. Others mentioned piss-artist, a confirmed drunk, which strictly isn’t an example since the prefix isn’t an intensifier. There is also pissant for an insignificant or contemptible person or thing, which is from piss + ant and which started life in the UK to refer to the urinous smell of anthills.

The idiom So poor he didn’t have a pot to piss in was quoted by numerous writers, sometimes in the fuller form ... or a window to throw it out of, who asked if this might be the origin of piss-poor. I’m not familiar with that, as it’s North American rather than British. It certainly feels old enough to have been an influence but it’s hard to find early printed examples of phrases that were considered improper. However, a search found an example in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, published in 1936. So it predates piss-poor and may well have been an influence, consciously or unconsciously.

Earle Robinson pointed out that the most famous taxer of urine was the emperor Vespasian in the first century AD. The infamous French public pissoirs were called vespasiennes as a direct link to him. Vespasian’s son is said to have objected to the disgusting origin of the revenues, to which in legend his father replied pecunia non olet, money doesn’t smell, a tag still contentiously employed to argue that money isn’t tainted by its origins.

2. Weird Words: Phrop

So many of my attempts at finding the source of words end in failure that it’s always a pleasure to encounter one whose origin is unequivocally known.

My introduction to it was in the pages of a book by Philip Howard, formerly literary editor of The Times and a continuing commentator on the vagaries and changing nature of English:

Related to euphemisms are those lying reversible phrases that mean the opposite of what they say. The English, who are a notoriously hypocritical race, and anxious to be liked, have a peculiar proclivity for these phrases. The late Sir Arnold Lunn invented the name “phrops” for these euphemistic phrases that do not wear their true meaning on their face.

The State of the Language, by Philip Howard, 1985. Sir Arnold Lunn (1888–1974) was a mountaineer, champion skier and religious controversialist.

A photograph of Sir Arnold Lunn in 1974
Sir Arnold Lunn, photographed in
Switzerland in 1974

Examples of phrops are “we must have lunch sometime”, and “we must keep in touch”, both of which actually mean “my life’s ambition is never to meet you again”. The academic and legal formulation “with all due respect” really communicates “I am about to demolish your argument and if at all possible your reputation with complete and utter disrespect”. A polite “I regret that a previous engagement makes it impossible to accept your kind invitation” replaces the truthful “I would rather be gnawed by a rabid stoat.” Any sentence that begins “no doubt” puts uncertainty into one’s mind straight away. “Needless to say”, “without fear of contradiction”, “it is unnecessary to add” and “I would be the last to suggest” are all pretty much the opposite of a speaker’s true meaning. A famously double-edged phrop, created by Benjamin Disraeli (it has also been attributed to Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, Henry James and John Maynard Keynes, among others) is “Thank you for sending me your book, I shall lose no time in reading it.”

The first appearance of the word I can trace was in an article in the Daily Gleaner of Jamaica in October 1950. Sir Arnold seems to have created it as a short form of phrase + opposite. It is still around, largely through Philip Howard’s continuing affection for it in The Times, though it hasn’t reached any dictionaries.

3. Turns of Phrase: Unitasker

A unitasker is a tool or device that does only one thing. Before it meant that, it was a dismissive term for a person who does one job at a time before moving to the next, the opposite of a multitasker.

A USB foot warmer
Definitely a unitasker

It’s one of those slow-burn words that seems to be creeping up on us in a variety of fields, becoming accepted because it’s a useful term of abuse to describe those gadgets we buy because they seem like a good idea at the time. This is despite experience teaching us that their advantages don’t justify their cost or the space they take up or that a general-purpose item could do the job as well. It’s used in particular for specialist kitchen gadgets (electric gravy boat warmers, strawberry slicers, watermelon knives) and odd computing contraptions (USB foot warmers). Unitasker has been popularised by the American TV chef Alton Brown and the website

Not all unitaskers are bad, of course; some of them are invaluable and their limitations are a strength, not a weakness. What’s wrong with a fire extinguisher? It does one job well. (OK, you can use it to prop the door open or brain a burglar, but we’re talking about intended uses here.) And one person’s useless unitasker is another’s onion-ring holder or USB fragrance oil burner.

While I’m skeptical of tools intended for only one purpose, I like the Kindle because it’s a unitasker. You can’t really use it for the Web or Twitter or e-mail: It’s for reading and that’s it.

Macworld; Dec. 2010.

4. Wordface

Hardly a holiday? People who travel to another country for some purpose other than simple business or pleasure have led to writers generating terms for them, whose second element is tourism. Among examples that have appeared in recent times are health tourism (travelling to another country to get cheaper medical treatment), disaster tourism (visiting the location of a calamity), sex tourism (obvious enough), even wedding tourism (getting married in another country). The dire financial state of Ireland is leading businessmen to spend time in the UK in order to qualify to take advantage of its much more lenient bankruptcy laws. It has become known as bankruptcy tourism.

A pensive Colonel Gaddafi
How are you spelling that?

What’s in a name? An opinion blog at the Los Angeles Times (which Duncan Morrow has forwarded) suggests that one group of people will be especially pleased when the ruler of Libya goes: copyeditors. There are problems transliterating names from Arabic and the blog comments: “At the New York Times, he is Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. At the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press news service, he’s Moammar Gadhafi. Reuters prefers Muammar Gaddafi. But the L.A. Times goes with Moammar Kadafi. And online, Wikipedia uses Muammar al-Gaddafi.” A Boston Globe article on Friday had Moammar Khadafy and in the UK the usual form is Colonel Gaddafi, though The Guardian’s style guide specifies Muammar Gaddafi without an honorific.

Gourmet seasoning The grand term sommelier for a wine waiter has been in English for more than a century (it’s from the French word for a butler; in the early days a greater variety of buttling was done than just serving wine). Much more recently, a word based on it has appeared: selmelier. A selmelier helps you choose the most appropriate gourmet salt to go with every dish. Salt is never just salt for a selmelier, who would hate you to have to season every dish with the same bland table salt. One recent book describes more than 150 different types of rock and sea salts, such as Icelandic hot springs salt, sel gris, Hawaiian Black Lava Salt and smoked sea salt. The word is most often linked to the American Mark Bitterman, who sells such salts from a series of specialist stores and who coined it in 2006, he tells me, by blending the French word for salt, sel, with sommelier. A delightful partner for it would be peppier, supposedly a specialist waiter whose sole function is to walk about with an intimidatingly large pepper grinder asking if diners want their food seasoned. I’ve found examples of that from as far back as an issue of the Atlanta Constitution in April 1985. As all references to it have suspiciously similar wording, I suspect a long-running joke. Selmelier, however, is real.

5. Questions and Answers: That’s all she wrote

Q From Nicholas Brandes: I couldn’t find anything specific about that’s all she wrote except that it might have a World War Two epistolary basis. Do you know anything definite?

A You want “definite”? With etymology, it’s often difficult even to get as far as “vague”. As it happens, it’s easy to come to a firm conclusion about this one, so long as you fall in with the majority view. However, I’m always suspicious of the majority view and — as we shall see — there’s some doubt about it.

Let’s be clear to start with what the expression means. It always has an implication of finality about it, though it can be variously translated as “that’s all there is”, “it’s finished”, “it’s over”, “there’s no more”, “that’s enough”:

When it starts to get really dark — when the sky goes from blue to purple — I’m flipping back. That’s it; that’s all she wrote. I’m not walking through these woods after dark.

The Talisman, by Stephen King, 1984.

Skipper Tom meowing and hopping around like he had the itch. Then dumped a load of cat crap all over a lobster trap. Jack threw it overboard to rinse it, and that’s all she wrote buddy, he was jerked into the water.

The Shipping News, by E Annie Proulx, 1993.

When I first came across it (it’s not well known in the UK), I was puzzled by it. On the one hand it was obvious enough what it meant but why should anybody drag in a reference to an anonymous woman writer?

If you search the reference books for the answer, you’ll probably come across the story that you mention, that it’s from a bitter joke of the Second World War. An American serviceman opens a letter from his wife or girlfriend and starts to read it to his mates: “Dear John”. He stops. “Well, go on,” his listeners urge him, “read us the rest of it.” “I can’t,” he replies, “that’s all she wrote.”

Dumping letters were common enough to have been given the Dear John letter epithet at the time, though it starts to appear in the record only in 1945. That’s all she wrote begins at about the same time. It’s a nice story, but it’s a pity about the absence of any contemporary evidence for it, such as somebody on record as telling the joke or referring to it.

Another suggestion is that that’s all she wrote comes from the words of a popular song, perhaps one that linked Dear John to it. A song by Aubry Gass and Tex Ritter, written in 1950, the same year Hank Williams recorded it, has the line: “And that’s all she wrote, Dear John”. That arrived on the scene too late to be the origin. But there were earlier ones. In 1946, George Crawford penned That’s All She Wrote, ’Cause the Pencil Broke, though similarly the dating confirms the title came from the existing saying. There’s also this tantalising snippet:

The cover of Eminem's 'That's All She Wrote'
Other songsmiths have used it since

Jimmy McHugh ... set to music “That’s All She Wrote,” sent me by Corp. Tom Armstrong from south Pacific. Even with my bad playing, it sounds good.

The Salt Lake Tribune, 27 Oct. 1944. Jimmy McHugh, for those too young to remember, was a renowned American composer of popular songs (On the Sunny Side of the Street, I’m in the Mood for Love, etc.)

Whatever happened to that song? Surely one with Jimmy McHugh’s name on it can’t simply have vanished? But I can’t find any evidence for it and his name may just have been a whimsical interjection on the part of the writer. However, the reference does at least show the expression was known in 1944. But that’s as far as I can go. That’s all I wrote.

6. Sic!

• Irving S Schloss notes that last Saturday’s New York Times reports the following about Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin: “For years, he has carried the same bagged lunch to work (two ham and cheese sandwiches on wheat) — a fact he has been fond of mentioning on campaign trails.” They must be getting awfully stale by now.

• From the travel section of the same day’s issue of The Guardian, featuring The Belrepayre Airstream & Retro Trailer Park: “The camp has a little stand selling staples such as bread and croissants, ping-pong tables and table football.”

• Belinda Hardman tells us that on 22 February Fox News reported on events in Libya: “Mohammed Ali of the Libyan Salvation Front and a Tripoli resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals ...” Oops.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 26 February 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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