E-MAGAZINE 706: SATURDAY 2 OCTOBER 2010
In origin, this archaic word is linked to the heating water sense of boil rather than the bodily excrescence one. But the link is puzzling in one way because etymologists are still unsure what the gar- bit means or where it came from.
It’s ancient but according to the records it died out in British English dialect about a century ago. When it was around it meant a brawl, hubbub, hurly-burly or similar confused and noisy situation. It has been used by modern writers seeking a period flavour:
Then in ’82 there had been the Egyptian garboil I mentioned a moment ago.
Flashman and the Tiger, by George MacDonald Fraser, 1999. As the story is set in the nineteenth century, Harry Flashman means 1882, of course, the year of the Second Anglo-Egyptian War.
Once you know the origin, the idea of a confrontation that boils into a tumult or fracas is easy enough to understand. Its etymology confirms that that’s where the word comes from. It has been traced back through the Old French garbouille to Italian garbuglio, which in turn is from Latin bullire, to boil.
Keep on truckin’ The ability of research firms to create new words to help spice up a report never ceases to amaze. One turned up on 27 September: nevertiree. It’s a person who never retires. It appeared in a report published by the British business Barclays Wealth. This claimed that more British people, some 60% of them, are likely to carry on working after retirement age than any other nation. The report notes that the number of those over retirement age who are still working has risen by 15% in the past year, almost certainly the result of the current economic situation.
Suppress that P! An article in the New York Times last Tuesday discussed the difficulty that many Americans have with pronouncing comptroller, an otherwise archaic word that’s still the formal title of the chief financial officers of states and cities. Strictly, the p is silent, but the speak-as-you-spell movement means it’s often heard. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t deign even to give a proper entry for it, merely supplying some examples and pointing out that the word is a sixteenth-century error for controller — the word was originally counteroller, a person who kept a counter-roll (a duplicate scroll) as a check on financial transactions. The first part was confused with count and was changed by people who ought to have known better to its French equivalent, compte. The piece reproduced an item from the New York Times of 1 November 1896, which pleaded that “the official title Controller, in all laws, public records and documents, be spelled Controller, that being the true and right spelling, and that the false and offensive form ‘Comptroller,’ born of ignorance and continued in darkness, to be discarded.” Americans are still waiting.
3. Questions and Answers: Keep it under your hat
Q From Andrew Lewis: I was listening to a history programme on BBC Radio 4 a couple of days ago and the presenter was talking about the English longbow and how the archers were able to quickly detach their bow strings in the event of rain and would keep them dry under their hats. He suggested that it is from this that we get the expression keep it under your hat. I checked this out on your website but can find no reference to this expression. Just curious.
A Thank you for another splendid example of popular etymology to add to my substantial collection. English archers would seem to have accumulated more than their share of such stories, such as their popular taunt pluck yew combined with a particular obscene gesture, supposedly to show the enemy that they still possessed the fingers with which to pull their bowstrings.
The development of meaning in the story is hardly obvious. How could the supposed practice of keeping an essential part of one’s military equipment dry by putting it under one’s hat lead to the figurative idea of keeping something secret? The essence of the metaphor, of course, is that information or ideas that are “under the hat” are in the brain and so are secure from any interception. Apart from the logical gap, the story can also be refuted on both historical and geographical grounds.
The evidence shows that keep something under one’s hat, meaning to keep it secret, is relatively modern, centuries later than medieval archers. It’s also American. These are the earliest examples I’ve so far found:
Nuttie ... was taking in all these revelations with an open-eyed, silent horror. ... It was all under her hat, however, and the elder ladies never thought of her.
Nuttie’s Father, by Charlotte M Yonge, 1885.
If you do not wish to have your name as informant mentioned in connection with the matter, nor any thing done about it at all, say so; at any rate, tell us where you know of a producer who is engaged in the mixing business, and we will keep it “under our hat” if you say so.
Gleanings in Bee Culture, 15 Oct. 1892, 761/1
4. Reviews: The First English Dictionary of Slang
This is a republication by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, of a work of 1699 whose full title was A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, in its several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats Etc. You might argue that the title of this work is an error, since the word slang was unknown to its anonymous compiler (it was first recorded half a century later, in 1756).
Because it’s in the nature of slang to be evanescent, little of the vocabulary the author listed is still current, though delight comes from learning of dandyprat (a puny fellow); cackling-fart (an egg); peeper (a mirror, a looking-glass in the author’s words); Grumbletonians (“Malcontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one); and owlers (“those who privately in the Night carry Wool to the sea-coasts, near Rumney Marsh in Kent and some creeks in Sussex &c. and Ship it off for France against Law”); the risks of walking unlit city streets after dark are illuminated by moon-curser (“a Link-boy, or one that under Colour of lighting Men, Robs them, or leads them to a gang of Rogues, that will do it for him”. But recognition is sparked by other entries: haggle is defined disparagingly as “to run from Shop to Shop, to stand hard to save a Penny”; humptey-dumptey reminds us instantly of Lewis Carroll, but before it became the short and dumpy person of the nursery rhyme it was slang for ale boiled with brandy; red-haired people were even then being called carrots; carouse was clearly still non-standard; and a mawdlin was a weeping drunk, from references to images of Mary Magdalene crying — much later this led to maudlin in the sense of weak or mawkish sentiment.
The continuing value of this compilation is not just its historical interest, but the insight that it gives into the urban life of the period, which would seem to have been insecure or even dangerous. Indeed, the author remarks that by understanding the vocabulary he has collected, readers might “secure their Money and preserve their Lives”. Words have power, indeed.
[The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699, with an Introduction by John Simpson; published in the UK by Bodleian Library Publishing on 15 September 2010 and in North America on 15 October 2010; ISBN: 978-1-85124-348-8; pp224; publisher’s UK price £12.99.]
• There’s room for misunderstanding in the headline that Michael in Los Angeles found on Excite News on 24 September: “Mexican mayor slain in drug-plagued state.”
• There is likewise a potential double meaning in a headline in last Monday’s e-mail news highlights from the New York Times: “Efforts Meant to Help Workers Batter South Africa’s Poor.”
• Robert Greaves found this headline in the issue of the Brighton Argus of 17 September: “Many musicians find it impossible to write on the road.”
• Jonathan Warner told us that a report on the Christian Post website claims that, “Of those who said they were homosexual, 1.3 percent were men and 0.6 percent were women.” He asks if it’s politically incorrect to wonder about the gender of the remaining 98.1%?
• Homophone corner: Chris Smith found an article about oysters in the Independent magazine section on 18 September: “Oyster farming is good for the environment, not destructive or exploitative of it. ... In the United States, President Obama has the navy sewing oyster beds back.”
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