Apologies I have been unwell. I’m hoping to be back to normal in a day or two, but next week’s issue may be shorter than usual. A big backlog of mail has to be sorted through, too!
Serendipity, ahoy! While searching for nautical foodstuffs, I came across the menu for the inaugural dinner of The Ancient Mariners, a society for former sailors, which was reproduced in the issue of the West Australian of Perth for 27 January 1914. The last item in the menu was manavilins, a word new to me. It turned out that it wasn’t a specific dish but a whimsical use of an old sailor’s term that could mean small items of tasty food:
At sea, the monotonous round of salt beef and pork at the messes of the sailors — where but very few of the varieties of the season are to be found — induces them to adopt many contrivances in order to diversify their meals. Hence the various sea-rolls, made dishes, and Mediterranean pies, well known by men-of-war’s-men ... all of which come under the general denomination of Manavalins.
White-Jacket, by Herman Melville, 1850.
It was once fairly well known in Australia in a derived sense of odds and ends or any small things:
Who the deuce ever built this gunyah and lived in it by himself for years and years? ... He’d a stool and table too, not bad ones either, this Robinson Crusoe cove. No end of manavilins either.
Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, 1889. Gunyah is from an Australian aboriginal language and means a hut, particularly a rough shelter improvised by whites.
Manavilins has always been plural — nobody seems to have ever wanted just the one manavilin — and is of unknown origin. It has been linked with manarval, recorded only in Admiral W H Smyth’s Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867, in which he said it was the action of pilfering small stores. John Camden Hotten defined what must be the same word in his Slang Dictionary of 1864, despite spelling it as menavelings, as “odd money remaining after the daily accounts are made up at a railway booking-office, — usually divided among the clerks.”
When news of the earthquake in Japan broke last week nobody needed to be told what a tsunami was. The devastation one can cause had been burned into our minds since the Indian Ocean earthquake of Christmas 2004.
It was that catastrophe that had brought the Japanese word into our common vocabulary. Before then it had largely been restricted to oceanographers and seismologists and to a relatively small literate group that had come across it and been intrigued (including the Manic Street Preachers, with their song of that title in 1999). Science-fiction writers had eagerly adopted it rather earlier, having seized on this exotic foreign word to help add that sense of otherness they and their readers crave.
An odd result was that it had become a figurative term in literary writing before its literal sense had widely penetrated. As far back as the 1970s, Science magazine declared that the Food and Drug Administration was “swimming through a tsunami of comments” on its drug strategy. In 1978, the New Yorker described a “tsunami of applause”. In 2002, William Safire combined Japanese with Yiddish in the New York Times to generate a “tsunami of tsoris”, a sea of troubles. Now we all know what one is really like, writers are going to have to be more careful with their metaphors.
Tsunami is made up from two Japanese words, tsu, harbour and nami, wave or waves (tsunami is both singular and plural in that language). Out at sea the energy of a tsunami is dispersed through a tall column of water and the wave may be small enough to be missed. As it approaches land the shoaling water increases the height of the wave and speeds it up until it powers ashore. Japanese fishermen at sea wouldn’t notice a tsunami passing them until they returned home and found their harbours destroyed by a wave that seemed to come from nowhere.
The word first entered English through reports of the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake and consequent tsunami in June 1896 which caused many thousands of deaths across the same region as this month’s. But the term was used too rarely in reports to become widely known. Most people continued inaccurately to call such events tidal waves — tsunamis have no connection with tides — as they had since Charles Lyell called them that in his Principles of Geology in 1830.
Q From Jim Veihdeffer: Having attended a flamenco show in Barcelona, my friends and I have been pondering the origin of the term. It appears from some desultory online research that there are several possible sources. A lot more explaining needs to be done before we’re convinced of any of them.
A You’re right to be sceptical. Etymologists have puzzled over the word ever since it first appeared in English in the 1880s. A number of theories have been put forward to fill the gap, most of which we can dismiss out of hand (for example, that the word may go back to the Moorish period and could be from the Andalusian Arabic fellah mengu, an escaped peasant).
English travellers to Spain in the nineteenth century had been bringing back descriptions of the wild music and dances of the Roma (gypsies) of Andalusia ever since Lord Byron went there in 1819, but none of them used the word flamenco. In The Zincali: an Account of the Gypsies of Spain of 1841, George Borrow called the dances Romalis, which is just Romany for gypsy dance; Richard Ford in 1845 commented in his travel guide Gatherings from Spain that the form was then called Ole by the Spanish. A book of 1995 about Silverio, the famous early populariser of flamenco, says that flamenco was first used in Spanish for the form in 1853. Before then, flamenco had many senses, which included petty criminal, smuggler, soldier, a type of knife, or a person who was irreverent and rebellious.
There are two other significant Spanish senses of flamenco. One is for the bird we call a flamingo, known from some southern parts of the country. The other is of a Fleming, a person who lives in Flanders, at one time a separate country but which is now divided between Belgium, France and the Netherlands (the Spanish word in this sense is from Middle Dutch Vlaminc, a Fleming.)
The flamingo sense has led some word hunters to equate the brightly coloured bird with the colourful dancers. One version of the story holds that at one time flamenco was used of the fair-skinned inhabitants of Flanders, who had flushed complexions, unlike the darker-hued Spanish, and that the word was transferred to the pink coloured flamingo. Nobody now believes any of this.
A direct Flemish connection is actually more plausible. From 1579 to 1700 Flanders was part of the Spanish Netherlands and Spanish fighting men were based there. This is why one sense of flamenco in Spanish is of a soldier. It has been suggested that some of them were Roma and that on their return to Spain they were given special dispensation to live where they wanted and take any occupation they liked, unlike other Roma, who continued to suffer severe legal restrictions. In consequence, some Roma families of Andalusia were given the title of los flamencos, the Flemish ones (George Borrow mentions this in Zincali) and the art form was taken from this.
Current dictionaries plump for the Fleming sense of flamenco as the origin, but have reservations about the reason for the link.
• Janusz Lukasiak pointed me to a story on the website of a North London newspaper, the Islington Gazette, dated 7 March: “Holloway teen jailed after police discover crack in his bum.”
• “It seems like they can get you for anything these days,” commented Michael Lean from Australia. He had been reading the 3 March issue of Isis Town and Country of Childers, Queensland. A story about a series of drug raids by police in the Childers area reported that one woman was charged with “possession of instruments for smoking a dangerous drug, and also with possession of things.”
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