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Newsletter 747
30 July 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Gimcrack.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Red-headed stepchild.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Borametz Jamie Greenbaum wrote from Australia: “In a delightful coincidence from the other end of the continent, the Chinese were bamboozled by cotton for centuries. Early in the thirteenth century Genghis Khan summoned a Chinese Taoist leader to his base in Central Asia. A disciple of the Taoist later published a record of the journey and it was translated by Arthur Waley some 80 years ago under the title The Travels of an Alchemist. A footnote by Waley reads: ‘The Chinese, being unfamiliar with cotton, could not believe that a stuff was obtained by cultivating a tree, and imagined that a lamb, being buried, produced a crop of fresh lambs next year. This legend can be traced back in China to the sixth century. Allusions to it are frequent in Chinese literature.’”

David Sutton pointed out that I missed the appearance of the word in several dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, because borametz is also spelled barometz. The OED suggests that the word was probably borrowed from Russian baranets for a species of club-moss, the link perhaps being that the Russian word is a diminutive of baran, a ram.

Anatomical snuffbox Chris Duncombe Rae corrected an alternative name that I provided for this anatomical feature: “It turns out the radial fossa is on the humerus, the bone of the upper arm, nowhere near the wrist. It seems that the formal name for the anatomical snuff box is just that.”

2. Weird Words: Gimcrack/ˈdʒɪmkræk/ Help with IPA

This word was in the news this month because a 1765 painting by George Stubbs, entitled Gimcrack on New Market Heath, featuring a famous racehorse, was sold for $35.79 million. Gimcrack was successful: he won 27 of his 36 races in a career that spanned 7 seasons and the Gimcrack Stakes at York was named after him.

His success and the immense price for the painting are at odds with the usual meaning of gimcrack, a useless ornament or something showy of little real worth.

As high-paying consumers of education, they do not want to graduate with a gimcrack qualification that does little to enhance their career prospects.

Daily Telegraph, 28 Jun. 2011.

Gimcrack is a member of a fine collection of disparaging words for such items that includes bauble, trinket, knick-knack, gewgaw, bric-a-brac, kickshaw and tchotchke.

Of these, tchotchke is from Polish via Yiddish. Kickshaw is a curious English transformation of the French quelque chose. Bric-a-brac is French, from the obsolete à bric et à brac, at random. Nobody knows where gewgaw comes from. We can trace gimcrack back to the Middle English gibecrake, but there the trail runs cold, though it has been suggested that it’s linked to the Old French giber to shake or kick (which might also be the origin of jib in the sense of a horse baulking).

Gimcrack started life to describe some kind of inlaid work in wood but later changed to mean a fanciful notion or mechanical contrivance. It became popular in the eighteenth century in the modern sense. It may seem a strange name to give a horse, but as its sire was called Cripple and Gimcrack was small, it may have been a witticism or an attempt at defensive magic by seeming to disparage something you wanted to succeed. If so, it worked.

3. Wordface

What’s in a name? The results were announced late last week of the second annual UK competition to find common names for species of plants and animals known only by their formal scientific titles. The idea behind the competition is that such names will help people who aren’t specialists to get to know and remember the species. Rachael Blackman from Swindon was struck by the shape of a lurid orange fungus that lives among moss, known until now to its friends only as Octospora humosa. She decided that it looked like lips and the colour immediately suggested the name hotlips, which delighted the judges and gained her first prize. What makes the name especially appropriate is that the fungus is a member of a group called discomycetes, discos for short. So Octospora humosa now glories in the name of hotlips disco.

Adam’s bath A question about this expression has come from James Grebe. He wrote, “I recently read the memoirs of Gerald Brenan in which he described his London flat as having an Adam’s bath. Was this another way of saying that his washing facility was no more than a wash basin or sink?” I don’t know and can’t find out. Can anybody help?

4. Questions and Answers: Red-headed stepchild

Q From George Gorski, USA: What is the origin of the phrase beat you like a red-headed stepchild? I hear it often these days, and most explanations seem contrived when I look it up. It seems to me that stepchild is a euphemism for bastard, but that is only a guess. Can you satisfy my curiosity?

A I’d never heard it before, at least not to remember it, but a look at various online sources confirms your perception that red-headed stepchild has become a moderately common term, although your fuller version is rather rarer. A recent appearance:

Considering he spent the last two minutes of the fight beating Penn like a red-headed stepchild with hammer-fists and elbows but was unable to get The Prodigy to tap, I’d say Fitch’s killer instinct remains questionable.

The Toronto Sun, 2 Mar. 2011.

The meaning of red-headed stepchild is clear enough: it’s used to describe a person who is neglected, mistreated or unwanted. The evidence shows that it was originally American; it has spread not only to Canada but also to the UK, though it’s unusual here and almost always appears in writing by Americans.

It goes back some way. The earliest example I can find is this:

From the day the Republican party came into power the South has been treated like a red-headed stepchild.

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY) 29 Jun. 1910.

We don’t need to assume bastardy. It’s sufficient to think of the traditional poor deal suffered by a stepchild in a family. To have red hair was uncommon enough that any person with it was distrusted and disliked. This would contribute to a stepchild being considered not to belong in a family and encourage bad treatment, including beatings. Some writers have suggested that it’s specifically the result of anti-Irish feeling in the US, some Irish men and women having red hair. I can’t confirm that, but I have to wonder why it didn’t apply equally to people of Scots origin.

5. Sic!

• Two widely reproduced online reports of 22 July about an incident in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, had equally strangely constructed headlines: “McDonald’s boss punches mom with service dog” (spotted by Ernie Scheuer and Gordon Schochet); and “McDonald’s manager accused of hitting mom with autistic sons” (found by Robert Wake).

• My wife and I stayed at a country hotel in Scotland last weekend. Strolling in the grounds, we repeatedly came across signs nailed to trees: “Please be aware of falling branches”. This curiously worded caution aroused the logician in me. One could hardly be utterly unaware of a falling branch, even if only for a microscopic moment before it knocked your brains out.

• What power a hyphen has. Roger Beale wrote, “A friend of mine has just bought a pair of summer shoes from Marks and Spencer that carry a label reading ‘Slip On Deck Shoes’.”

• An aim reported in CBC News Digest on 27 July about Prince Edward Island (PEI, population about 140,000) struck Stephen Foster as over-ambitious: “PEI is at an all-time high with 96 family doctors in the province, and the government isn’t giving up on its goal of a doctor for every Islander, says Health Minister Carolyn Bertram.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 30 July 2011

Advice on copyright

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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Last modified: 30 July 2011.