NEWSLETTER 586: SATURDAY 3 MAY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Wiseacre Many readers, particularly in the US, queried whether last week’s Weird Word really meant a person with an “unjustified appearance of wisdom”, as I put it at one point. The most common terms readers used to explain it were smart alec, smart-arse, smarty-pants and wise guy, in other words someone regarded with irritation by others because he’s a know-all or makes sarcastic comments. For me — and most British people — the wisecracking element is absent: a wiseacre pontificates on a subject despite being ignorant about it.
The paragraph sign.
What makes it truly weird is that the experts are sure it’s a much bashed-about transformation of paragraph. This can be traced back to ancient Greek paragraphos, a short stroke that marked a break in sense (from para-, beside, plus graphein, write). The changes began with people amending the first r to l (it appeared in Old French in the thirteenth century as pelagraphe and pelagreffe). Then the folk etymologists got at it, altering the first part to pill and the second to craft and then to crow. The earliest recorded version was pylcrafte, in 1440; over the next century it settled down to its modern form.
The paragraph symbol, by the way, isn’t a reversed P as you might guess. It’s actually a script C that was crossed by one or two vertical lines. The letter stood for Latin capitulum, chapter.
3. Recently noted
Mallercise An article in the Guardian on Tuesday said mallercise “is a craze sweeping the US and catching on here”. You may not recognise it under that name — a newspaper search found only a few examples, all from the UK, the earliest being from the Scotsman in 2002. The usual US name is mall-walking, a term that can be found in newspapers from the early 1980s. As it appeared in a guide, Safety & Health, issued by the US National Safety Council in 1988: “Mall-walking is growing by leaps and bounds. And lots of shopping malls want to get involved with it”, it’s wide of the mark to say it’s a newly fashionable craze. It’s obviously enough walking in shopping malls, a form of exercise especially suitable for older people or those with heart problems, since the malls are climate-controlled and free of wheeled traffic.
4. Questions & Answers: Hairy at the heel
[Q] From Loretta O'Donnell, Australia: “I’m a fan of Agatha Christie, and I have seen her use the phrase hairy at the heel several times. It sounds so terribly English, yet I am unsure what it means, or its derivation. Any reflections would be welcome.”
[A] One example appears in a story about Ms Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot: “The Colonel delivered himself of the opinion that Godfrey Burrows was slightly hairy at the heel, a pronouncement which baffled Poirot completely.” His understandable bewilderment is a state he shares, I suspect, with most readers. Walter James Macqueen-Pope made its meaning clearer in Back Numbers in 1954, in which he described someone as “a cad, a bounder, an outsider, hairy at the heel.” Putting it simply, such a person was ill-bred.
You’re right to say it’s characteristically English, but it was a term more of clubland, the upper middle classes and the landed gentry than of people at large. It placed the speaker as much as the person being spoken about. An appearance in John Buchan’s Huntingtower of 1922 sets the linguistic and social background beautifully:
I can’t say I ever liked him, and I’ve once or twice had a row with him, for he used to bring his pals to shoot over Dalquharter and he didn’t quite play the game by me. But I know dashed little about him, for I’ve been a lot away. Bit hairy about the heels, of course. A great figure at local race-meetin’s, and used to toady old Carforth and the huntin’ crowd. He has a pretty big reputation as a sharp lawyer and some of the thick-headed lairds swear by him, but Quentin never could stick him. It’s quite likely he’s been gettin’ into Queer Street, for he was always speculatin’ in horse flesh, and I fancy he plunged a bit on the Turf.
The reference to horse racing is spot on, because the term came out of bloodstock breeding. It used to be said that it was a sign of poor breeding if a horse had too much hair about the fetlocks. It didn’t take much to shift the saying, figuratively, to humans. Of course, it applied only to thoroughbred racehorses and to humans who aspired to belong to society’s equivalent: working horses such as shires have very hairy feet, but then they’re common as muck.
The expression was rather variable, also appearing as hairy in the fetlocks, hairy round the heels, hairy-heeled, even at times simply hairy, though it doesn’t seem to be connected to any of the many other senses of that word. Dating-wise, its heyday was of the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. You can still find it on occasion, but it’s now outmoded, a term solely of elderly upper-class men remembering their youth.
5. Questions & Answers: Chickens coming home to roost
[Q] From Judge George H Foster, Jr, Phoenix, Arizona: “Can you explain the genesis of the phrase chickens coming home to roost?”
[A] As a proverbial expression it’s half a millennium old.
The older fuller form was curses are like chickens; they always come home to roost, meaning that your offensive words or actions are likely at some point to rebound on you. The idea goes back to Chaucer, though he expressed it rather differently in The Parson’s Tale, around 1390, writing that curses are like “a bird that returns again to his own nest”.
Various versions are recorded down the years, but chickens appeared on the scene only in the nineteenth century, in Robert Southey’s oriental epic poem The Curse of Kehama of 1810. The image of farm chickens going out to forage during the day but coming back to the safety of the hen-house at dusk would have been familiar to his readers. It’s easy to find examples from then on, such as the one in Roughing it in the Bush, Or, Life in Canada, by Susanna Moodie, of 1852: “The next time the old woman commences her reprobate conduct, tell her to hold her tongue, and mind her own business, for curses, like chickens, come home to roost.” That form is still common, mainly in North America.
During the nineteenth century, the proverb was abbreviated to its modern form. An early example was in the Wisconsin Patriot on 10 November 1855: “Barstow has always been a belter, and he need not complain to find his chickens coming home to roost.”
You can tell the expression had become widely known by the middle of the nineteenth century because it was abbreviated still further into the elliptical home to roost. James Russell Lowell wrote in 1870, “All our mistakes sooner or later surely come home to roost.” Sometimes this could lead to weird images, as in Mr Punch’s History of the Great War of 1919, in which a character claims that a man’s “wild oats are coming home to roost”. Other forms are known, such as curses come home to roost, which is in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
• Priscilla Jensen was rather surprised to see a handwritten sign in the doorway of a newstand cum bookshop in a mall in northern Virginia: “No Unintended Children, Please!” The sentiment is fine, of course, but why put it there?
• Also from Virginia, Walter Sheppard wrote in about an advertisement that he came across addressed to government employees. It concerned a book with the title Understanding the Federal Government’s Survivor Benefits. The ad says the first thing a reader will learn is “What the requirements are for both the deceased employee and the surviving spouse”. Apparently government employees can’t escape job demands even by dying.
• John McNeil e-mails with news that on 30 April The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, put a figure on the weight of public opinion: “Squid experts yesterday had a taste of one of the colossal squid found in Antarctic waters. It is the smaller of the two beasts; the other has drawn global attention weighing nearly half a tonne.”
• David Ashton spotted a sign on a take-away food shop in Melbourne that was advertising “home-maid soup”. He feels it would certainly be nice to have a maid at home to make some soup — not to mention doing other chores around the house.