NEWSLETTER 487: SATURDAY 13 MAY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Linhay Jane Horwood pointed out that a related West Country word mowhay means a stack-yard or other enclosure (I’d forgotten about it, even though its OED entry has an example I found in a newspaper in 1997). A mow is a heap or stack of some item, usually a crop such as hay, wheat, or barley (it seems to be related to words in Swedish and Norwegian but is otherwise obscure in its origin). The second element comes from Old English and means an enclosed space (it derives from the same root as hedge, which could at one time mean any sort of enclosing barrier, not necessarily a row of bushes or small trees; Cornish hedges are stone walls, over time copiously obscured by vegetation, a fact occasionally discovered too late by tourists trying to leave room for another car to pass in a narrow road by driving into the “hedge”). A linhay is literally a lean-to enclosed space.
Shirt-tail relative Several subscribers responded to my request for further cultural background to this term. Most agreed that I had the essentials correct. Keith Wright wrote, “As one whose relations all originated, grew up, and often returned to the Bootheel area of southeast Missouri, I am well acquainted with shirt-tail relations, as a term and as a fact, but devised a less regional alternative for discussing them with Outsiders—‘semi-relatives’. Useful for describing, for instance, the wife of a son of a mother who was sister to your grandpa’s first wife when you descend from his second.”
But some disagreed. Edward Franchuk commented: “I have always assumed that ‘shirt-tail relatives’ had something to do with the expression to hang on to somebody’s shirt tail: to be dependent on somebody or to hitch a ride to fame, fortune, etc. by coasting along in somebody else’s wake. Hence a shirt-tail relative would be somebody who is not a real relative but a hanger-on of the family.” Susannah Garboden concurs: “In my upstate New York family a “shirt-tail relation” was one who featured blood ties with someone rich or famous, who tagged along after a distant but grand relative holding fast to his or her shirt tail. Most definitively derogative!” My guess is that this is a later reinterpretation of the expression by people from outside its home territory.
Others pointed out that woodpile relative, which I suggested was a synonym, wasn’t one (I was unable to check this in the Dictionary of American Regional English as the final volume covering W hasn’t yet been published). Penny Nickle said, “Around here in Michigan, the term always meant you came from an assignation outside marriage—behind the woodpile.”
Connie Nicholson tells of yet another phrase: “Distant relatives and long-time family friends in Hawaii are referred to as ‘calabash cousins’. At one time people would gather around the large hand-carved wooden bowl [the calabash] to eat the one-dish meal.”
Updates and extra pieces I’ve taken three items that appeared first some time ago in the Recently noted section and made updated Web page entries for them: Truthiness, Promession, and Mad as cheese. I’ve also updated and added an illustration to the Etaoin shrdlu and Goat and Compasses pieces.
2. Turns of Phrase: Microgreens
“Always eat your greens,” was once the advice of every mother who was concerned about the health of her children. A new way of eating vegetables has become known in the USA in the past five years or so and the trend (you might say fashion) is now broadening its appeal to the UK and other countries with one writer claiming they are becoming the “highest-flying salad items since rocket”. (The joke doesn’t work in US English, where the vegetable is called arugula.)
Part of the appeal is that the salad is often as fresh as can be, with the plants being harvested moments before they’re served. Supporters claim their flavour is often more intense than other salads or the mature plants and that they contain health-giving minerals. This puts them into the class of functional foods or nutraceuticals.
The oldest example of the word I can find is from 1998. It turns up most often in connection with the restaurant trade, inevitably so because of the way the plants are grown and harvested, though some supermarkets are looking at including them in pre-packed salads. Another term sometimes used is microherbs, though this is a misnomer because the choice is much wider than just herb plants.
We had different types of microgreens that needed to be layered in a specific order on the fish, so that the different colors would show.
[Orange County Register, 1 May 2006]
After moving to the Bath Priory, Horridge decided to keep in touch with microgreens. “The exciting thing about these plants is that they bring together great taste and great appearance—they’re not just a garnish.”
[Guardian, 5 May 2006]
3. Weird Words: Flapdoodle
“An arbitrary formation”, solemnly state those dictionaries that are not content with the bland and unhelpful “origin unknown”. That’s not quite the whole story: the older and rarer fadoodle had much the same sense. And flapdoodle, though perhaps with a different origin, is recorded from the eighteenth century for the male and female naughty bits.
This edition of Peter Simple is published in the USA by Henry Holt; ISBN 0805055657.
Whatever its source, it’s usually and reasonably taken to be an American word. Which makes it slightly odd that the first known example is from a book by the English writer Captain Frederick Marryat, best known for Mr Midshipman Easy and The Children of the New Forest. His Peter Simple was serialised in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1832–33: “‘The gentleman has eaten no small quantity of flapdoodle in his lifetime.’ ‘What’s that, O’Brien?’ replied I. ‘Why, Peter,’ rejoined he, ‘it’s the stuff they feed fools on.’ It may be relevant that Captain Marryat’s mother was American, from Boston, and that this sense of the word is rare.
Nearly all its appearances in the next few decades are certainly from US sources, as in this Wisconsin newspaper piece dated 1859, “They say that no such flapdoodle can be forced down the throats of the intelligent people of Wisconsin.” By the 1880s, it was widely known, the verb to flapdoodle had appeared, and an editor of a newspaper in Kansas objected to the flapdoodlish editorials of a rival journal.
Variations abounded, such as doodleflap and flamdoodle. The Fort Wayne Sentinel printed a story in 1900 about an old man who could not be persuaded of the value of these newfangled banks. “The building looks all right from the outside, but when a critter gits inside it’s flipdoodle checks and flamdoodle receipts and writin’ names, and no hollerin’n or drinkin’n or shootin’. I’m too old fur flipdoodle and flamdoodle, and I’ll bury my money in a hole in the ground and keep on in the ole way!”
4. Recently noted
Ecoasteering Some background is required to explain this strange construction. For more than a decade coasteering (which is a blend of coast with the -eering ending of either mountaineering or orienteering) has been an extreme sport which includes rock climbing, swimming, caving and jumping into the sea from cliffs. In Newquay, in Cornwall, one firm is offering this exhausting activity combined with an insight into the marine life of the coast. Some unsung genius combined eco- with coasteering to make this weird hybrid.
5. Questions & Answers: Spelunking
[Q] From Austin: “How did the word Spelunking come about? I know that it means exploring caves, but I have no idea how it came to be or why it means that.”
[A] It’s American and—I suspect—a learned joke.
There are two words that refer to exploring caves. The older is speleology, with its derived speleological and speleologist. These have been around since the middle 1890s and were brought over directly from French, where pioneers such as the lawyer Edouard Martel had explored caves from the 1880s on; in 1895 he founded the Société de Spéléologie. French got the words from Latin spelaeum, which variously meant a cave, cavern, den, or grotto (it derives from Greek spelaion, a cave). These days speleology refers in particular to the scientific study of caves, as opposed to hobby or sport exploration, though that wasn’t necessarily true when it first appeared.
A public cave in Tasmania, hardly a challenge for even the most inexperienced spelunker.
Your term, plus spelunker for a person who does it, came along in the early 1940s in the US as a term more specifically for somebody who explores caves as a hobby. This was presumably based by some learned person on an ancient and defunct English word spelunk for a cave, which is last recorded in 1563 (though it’s just possible he may have taken it from the related adjective speluncar, which had a brief flowering in the nineteenth century). The old English word had itself come from Greek and Latin through French, in this case from the closely related Latin spelunka that the Romans took over from the Greek spelynx.
Spelunk first turns up in print, so far as I know, in a tortuous bit of wordplay that began a news item in the Salisbury Times of Maryland dated October 1941: “Spelunkers spieled tales of spelunks today for the nation’s first conference on speology [sic].” But it was around in the spelunking community before then.
Within caving circles, I’m told, spelunker now means an untrained and unknowledgeable amateur explorer; the more experienced prefer to term themselves cavers, which is also the usual British term. Scientists and cavers who explore with serious purpose continue to call themselves speleologists.
• What a difference one letter makes. Donald Moffit’s 1986 SF novel Second Genesis features a group of humans who have learned how to extend their lives indefinitely by infecting themselves with a DNA carrier. Page 114: “His second child, by some fluke, had proved to be immune to the immorality virus.”
• It’s unwise to be too sarcastic about such errors, since I wrote a Web article this week—hurriedly corrected—that contained the line “the US term cremains for the ashes of a created person”.
• Staying with the theme, John Dutton found an item in The Suburban, a Montreal paper, dated 3 May, about forthcoming legislation that would ban smoking in Quebec’s restaurants and bars: “Anna Gomez, a Côte des Neiges resident and smoker, also approves. ‘I won’t die if I don’t smoke,’ she said.” Mr Dutton notes that immortality is one of the less-publicised benefits of quitting.
• Thanks to Rick Larson for spotting this in a Daily Illini (Urbana, Illinois) article of 4 May on a new electronic instrument: “Sliding the fingers front to back on the same note creates timber glides.” Watch out for splinters.
• Cris Jubb was reading an article on horse-drawn caravans in the May issue of Royal Auto, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. It included this report of impressive versatility: “Each [caravan] has a table and benches, which collapse into a double bed, bunk beds, a stove, bar fridge and a porta-potty.”
• From the Sporting Life Web site, spotted on 10 May from far away in Vanuatu by John Lynch: “The FA Premier League are set to reject Tottenham’s call for their game against West Ham to be replayed at a board meeting”.