NEWSLETTER 533: SATURDAY 31 MARCH 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Wiki Several readers mentioned that they had read, or been told, that the origin of this word lies not in the Hawaiian for “quick”, but as an acronym for What I Know Is. Alison Melville said, “Don’t tell me this is yet another of these fanciful false etymologies that declares a perfectly good word is derived from an acronym!” Sorry, Ms Melville, that’s exactly what it is.
Sick abed on two chairs This regional US expression, featured last time, brought forth a number of interesting replies that indicated widely different ideas about what it really means. “I have a clear recollection,” e-mailed Donald MacLellan, “of this phrase being used by my mother and others in the early 1940s in Boston. We always interpreted it to mean that the ill person, due to dire social circumstances, lacked even a bed to sleep in. Instead, two chairs were lined up and the person slept in that position.” Heather Masterton wrote about friends in northern Maine: “The family (in the early 1930s) did actually make up a bed for a sick child on top of the curving logs in the woodbox. That way, the patient could keep warm next to the wood stove, and Mother could keep an eye on them without running up the stairs (not a favorite option with many children about). However, they always said someone was ‘sick in the woodbox’, meaning they got to stay home and be a bit pampered.”
Others commented that they knew about the practice of using two chairs, but not the expression. Terry Walsh recollected that “When I was ill as a child, my mother did exactly this. I sat in one chair with my feet on another, thus enjoying the social contact of the living room, while still being waited on as an invalid. Obviously, people in this happy state were not so ill that they could not, for instance, talk; so the suspicion no doubt arose from time to time that the person thus ensconced might not be so sick.”
John Belshaw (raised in northwest England, but now living in Australia) said: “The phrase in question has meant to me over the years an expression of illness something akin to ‘one foot in the grave’ — usually expressed in a frivolous manner but intending to impart the meaning that one, or someone else, was not feeling at all well. The ‘two chairs’ I understood to be the chairs laid at each end of a coffin in order to support it (not an unusual situation) and the ‘bed’ of course the coffin itself.”
The last word must go to John Eliot Spofford: “Although not able to fill in any blanks on this subject, I can tell you that when a colleague of mine was feeling especially ill, he would report that he was ‘sick abed with two nurses’.”
2. Weird Words: Gowk
An awkward or foolish person; a cuckoo.
This is good Scots, not much known elsewhere. Its immediate sense is that of the cuckoo, that wayward, opportunistic bird who avoids the responsibilities of parenthood by laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The word goes back to an ancient Germanic one that even then could mean a bastard, simpleton, or fool. (Though it’s closely similar in form to gawk, to stare stupidly, and to gawky, awkward and ungainly, these last two words are from quite different sources.)
You may have come across gowk in a Robert Burns poem: “Conceited gowk! Puff’d up wi’ windy pride!” Someone who was sent on a gowk’s errand would suffer what those of us from other parts of the world would call a fool’s errand. But its best-known usage connects it with this time of year. Others of us may unwittingly become April Fools, but in Scotland you’re an April gowk.
In particular, you might that day be sent to hunt the gowk, a specialised form of the gowk’s errand. The technique was explained by an author we know only by the initials MTW in a story called April Fools and Other Fools, published in 1881 in a collection entitled Connor Magan’s Luck (well-read readers will spot that it’s an expanded version of the story that appeared in The Book of Days by Robert Chambers, dated 1869):
Having found some unsuspecting person, the individual playing the joke sends him away with a letter to some friend residing two or three miles off, for the professed purpose of asking for some useful information, or requesting a loan of some article, while in reality the letter contains only the words: “This is the first day of April, hunt the gowk another mile.” The person to whom the letter is sent at once catches the idea of the person sending it, and informs the carrier with a very grave face that he is unable to grant his friend the favor asked, but if he will take a second note to Mr. So-and-so, he will get what was wanted. The obliging, yet unsuspecting carrier receives the note, and trudges off to the person designated, only to be treated by him in the same manner; and so he goes from one to another, until some one, taking pity on him, gives him a gentle hint of the trick that has been practiced upon him. A successful affair of this kind will furnish great amusement to an entire neighborhood for a week at a time, during which time the person who has been victimized can hardly show his face.
3. Questions & Answers: Holy cow!
[Q] From Srimanta Roy: “I couldn’t find holy cow on your Web site. What can you tell me about this expression?”
[A] Contrary to popular belief, the site doesn’t yet contain items about every word and phrase in English. But we’re working on it.
Holy cow is one of a variety of expressions starting with holy; others include Holy Moses and holy smoke, both indicating astonishment or consternation. A difficult person may be a holy terror or a holy horror; a priest or chaplain may be called a holy Joe and a hypocritically pious person a holy Willie.
Holy cow is definitely American, dating from the early years of the twentieth century. Since there are also references at the time to literal holy cows in India, we might assume that’s the source, jokingly taken over as an imprecation on the model of the others. But examples are known of cow! on its own as an exclamation from as far back as 1863, so holy cow might at least in part have been an elaboration of that. (However, having a cow, becoming unduly upset, only dates from the 1960s.)
Some Americans may associate it with two baseball announcers, Harry Caray and Phil Rizzuto. They popularised it but they didn’t invent it, although early examples are tied to the game. The Lincoln Daily News wrote in June 1914: “Denver fans have coined an imitation of Charley Mullen’s pet expression. Instead of ‘holy cow,’ the bugs in the camp of the Bears yell ‘sacred bessie’.” The year before, a report in the Oakland Tribune said, “Harry Wolverton assigned ‘Holy Cow’ Peters to the job of umpiring one of the Regular-Yannigan contests at Marysville last week and Peters is still alive.”
Both these items suggest that the phrase was by then well known, though its ultimate origin is obscure.
4. Recently noted
A-levy-ator This turned up while I was searching for early examples of the mainly British expression hole in the wall, a colloquialism for what bankers prefer to call an automated teller machine or ATM. What urged me to look into it was a report in the Daily Mirror last Saturday, which noted that the ATM in Britain is 40 years old this year. The first withdrawal was made by the actor Reg Varney, whom some people may remember playing Stan Butler in the ITV sitcom On the Buses. He took out the grand sum of £10 in one-pound notes (a denomination that no longer exists) from a machine at Barclay’s Bank in Enfield on 27 June 1967. ATMs became known to British users as holes in the wall rather later, borrowed from the much older term for any small or obscure place, or a dingy little business, or a place illegally selling alcohol (several entirely legitimate pubs in the UK have inherited the name, including one not far away from me in Bristol). However, the OED’s first example is from 1985. That’s rather late, I thought, and went searching. The earliest I’ve been able to find appeared in an advertisement by the Bank of A Levy in the Valley News of Van Nuys, California, in 1975. The machine was both called the hole in the wall and also the A-Levy-Ator, in an excruciating reference to the name of the bank, presumably because it relieved the suffering of impecunious customers when its doors were closed. Advertisements a year before also mention the device, but not the colloquial name. So is hole in the wall from the US and not Britain, or did Mr Levy borrow it? If you can supply me with an earlier example of the expression in its sense of an ATM (from a printed source, with the publication’s name, date, page number and appropriate text), I’d be interested to hear.
Digilanti This turned up online as a term for a group of people who spend their time searching out and exposing online fraudsters, or creating blacklists of rogue sites, or publicising details of security vulnerabilities. The word is obviously enough built on the existing digirati, for people having exceptional expertise in information technology, combined with vigilante. It would be better were it digilante (plural digilantes), but presumably the fashionable influence of digirati and other words of related origin — such as glitterati and culturati — have modified the ending. However, it doesn’t fit the model of most such creations — though its -ti ending makes it look a little like one of the set, the others have -(e)rati, from the ending of the Latin granddaddy plural term literati. A slightly more common term, for the activity, is digilantism.
Gastrocenti While we’re on odd foreign plurals, this one has been turning up in the Independent in recent years, though it is showing some slight signs of spreading to other British newspapers (I found it in the Guardian). It’s based on cognoscenti, of course, Italian for “the people who know”. In particular, the gastrocenti know about food. Most people, less self-consciously erudite, would call them foodies.
5. Questions & Answers: Watch
[Q] From Fred Roth: “I was thinking about my wristwatch the other evening and started wondering why we call small timepieces watches. Is it because we look at them to tell the time, or were they originally intended to tell the watches of the night? I was tempted to give up on the question by saying that we call them watches because forks was already in use, but that lacked the intellectual satisfaction I have come to enjoy from your columns.”
[A] The watches of the night is pretty much bang on as an answer.
A watch related to people before it became a mechanical device. The job of the watch was — clearly enough — to watch, to stay alert in order to to keep guard and maintain order. It turned up especially in the phrase watch and ward, as a legal term that summarised the duties of the watchmen — to keep watch and ward off trouble. Sailors’ watches come from the same idea.
Watch began to be applied to clocks in the fifteenth century, in the first instance to a form of mechanical alarm, presumably either to wake the watchmen for their hours of duty, or to mark the passage of the hours of a watch.
By the latter part of the following century it had become applied to what we would now call a clock-face or dial (early mechanical clocks often lacked both a dial and hands, the time being told by bells, which explains the derivation of clock from the French cloche, a bell; the first clock with a minute hand is from as late as 1475, which shows you how hard it was to make these early clocks keep reasonable time).
The first time watch is applied to a complete timekeeper, not just to an alarm bell, is in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost of 1588. Watches steadily became smaller in size down the centuries until they could be fitted into a pocket.
But it took until the end of the nineteenth century for them to be made small enough that they could be worn on the wrist and for the term wrist watch to be created as a term for them. At first they were a purely female accessory. A report in a Rhode Island paper in May 1888 remarked “I was not surprised to see that nearly all the fair sex were wearing the wrist watches which are now so entirely the fashion in London, but which I believe are very little worn as yet in America.” They also became known as wristlet watches from about 1910. Men didn’t wear them much until the 1920s, the associations of effeminacy only being dispelled as a result of soldiers and airmen finding them convenient during the First World War.
• “Contamination of pet food here in the States,” writes Dodi Schultz, “killed several animals and made a number of others quite ill. A news release from the US Food and Drug Administration on 24 March says: ‘Dogs or cats who have consumed the suspect feed and show signs of kidney failure (such as loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting) should consult with their veterinarian.’”
• In a story on 24 March, the Web site of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia featured three students who stopped a school bus when the driver passed out. “The brave trio steered the bus to a grinding halt in front of Valentino’s Deli. They said the bus just missed a power pole with two other students on board, plus the driver who had passed out.” Thanks to Marie Drozdis for sending that in.
• A large sign advertising a Brick Mattress Sale, seen on a highway through Coquitlam, British Columbia, had Robin Denton wondering how one would manage to get one into the house, let alone sleep on it. However, it seems that the sign was put up by The Brick Warehouse, a furniture dealer.
• The New York Times of 26 March, says John Scott, reported on a basketball game in which one of the nets became separated from its rim. “After everyone did double-takes, the officials stopped the game for about 10 minutes and the net was replaced by a man on a stepladder.” Which presumably made it a whole new ball game.