NEWSLETTER 534: SATURDAY 7 APRIL 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Gowk Chris Pringle commented on last week’s Weird Word that gowk is also Geordie (the dialect spoken around Newcastle-upon-Tyne) for an apple-core. “It’s a word I learned from my late father,” she wrote, “together with ‘spelk’ (a splinter) and ‘spuggy’ (a sparrow), and a lot more that I’ve forgotten. I never used these outside the house, as we lived in the middle of commuter Surrey, where there wasn’t much call for Geordie expressions in the 50s and 60s!” Ron Canter noted that “‘Give us yer gowk’ (especially prevalent during WW2 when fruit was short) means ‘Please may I have your apple core when you’ve finished with it?’” Sheila Maslen recalls that her father “used to tell the story of two boys, one eating an apple. His friend asks ‘give us your gowk’, to which the first one replies ‘there’ll be no gowk when I’ve finished!’” Eric Thompson corrects my linguistic geography: “I was surprised to see ‘gowk’ described as ‘good Scots, not much known elsewhere’, as it was a word commonly used when I was a child in the East Riding of Yorkshire in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Hole in the wall Following last week’s quick note about this very British term for an ATM, I’ve found time to look into the history more deeply and have put the results online as an update.
2. Weird Words: Rambunctious
Uncontrollably exuberant or boisterous.
This is another of those irrepressibly energetic words that came out of the US in the first half of the nineteenth century. It’s first recorded in Boston in 1830: “If they are ‘rumbunctious’ at the prospect, they will be ‘riprorious’ when they get a taste.” (Riproarious was another bright-eyed and bushy-tailed coinage, also first recorded that year, with roughly the same meaning.)
Cautious dictionaries say “of unknown origin”, an open invitation to strange and inventive suggestions. One such holds that it is a compound of ram (to butt or strike) with bust (to thrash or beat), with the implication that rambunctious individuals went around ramming and busting people. Please don’t pass this on.
A little burrowing in the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it has been borrowed from one or other of two earlier words. One of them is rumbustious, recorded from 1778. The other is robustious, an ancient adjective meaning both “robust” and “boisterous”, of which the OED entry, published in 1909, comments that it was “In common use during the 17th century. In the 18th it becomes rare, and is described by Johnson (1755) as ‘now only used in low language, and in a sense of contempt’. During the 19th it has been considerably revived, especially by archaizing writers.” At the time, the editors of the OED thought that both words came from robust.
3. Questions & Answers: Sharpshooter
[Q] From David Jaundrell, Cheshire: “I once read that the origin of the word sharpshooter harks back to the days of the buffalo hunters in the American west. They used the old Sharps rifle and hence became known as Sharps’ shooters. Do you know if there is any truth in this?”
[A] It’s a story that’s sometimes told and you can understand why, as a connection between sharp and Sharps seems obvious. It has also been said that the term was popularised during the American Civil War of the 1860s. Wrong war, wrong country, wrong rifle. The stimulus was the Napoleonic Wars and the term is British. So the short and sharp answer is, no, there’s no truth in it.
Doubters may like the facts. The Sharps rifle was designed by Christian Sharps in the late 1840s and made from 1850 onwards by his firm, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. But the term sharp shooter had been in use in Britain since no later than 1801, based on sharp in the senses of accurate, intelligent, acute, or precise. The Experimental Group of Riflemen had been set up in the British army in 1800; this led to the creation of the 95th (Rifle) Regiment in 1802 as a specialist sharpshooting force using the Baker rifle.
I found the term in the Edinburgh Advertiser for 23 June 1801, in an item on the North British Militia: “This Regiment has several Field Pieces, and two companies of Sharp Shooters, which are very necessary in the modern Stile of War.” It quickly became common, appearing in the Times more than 20 times in the next three years. In 1805, a report could say baldly in the expectation of being immediately understood that “Lord Nelson was wounded by a French Sharpshooter.”
4. Recently noted
British dialects A learning resource site has been assembled by the British Library from speech recordings that date from the 1950s to the late 1990s. The site features 72 items, showing how speech varies regionally and how dialects and word use have changed in the past half century. Notes that accompany the recordings provide pointers on changing usage for students. A section with the title Your Voices encourages students and schools to record voices of local people to add to the recorded archive. An interesting example of aspects of British language change given in the site is this sentence: “we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes because we hadn’t a wireless”. Tune has changed its pronunciation among younger British people from tyune to choon; hadn’t is a form that younger people would find odd, as it has been replaced by didn’t have and hadn’t got; wireless is only heard from the very old, radio having almost entirely taken over.
Coopering When this turned up in the Guardian on Tuesday, in an item about the conviction of a man involved in cocaine smuggling, I was surprised to learn it had nothing to do with the old craft of making wooden casks. The report said that it referred to an ancient smugglers’ trick in which a deep-sea craft would approach a British port, attracting the keen attention of customs officers. Before it docked, however, it would rendezvous with a local boat apparently on a legitimate errand and transfer its smuggled cargo. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t know about the term in this sense, but the one it does record also refers to small boats going out to sea to meet others for questionable purposes. Coopering began to be used in print around 1880 for the practice of sending vessels to sell spirits to fishermen at sea. These ships were called copers, from a Dutch or Flemish word meaning to buy or trade that’s allied to the old British verb cheap, to buy or sell, which survives in the London street name Cheapside. The word was pronounced coper, but it usually appeared in British newspaper reports as cooper, perhaps through confusion with the craft term. The OED has an illuminating note: “The practice began in a comparatively innocent barter trade carried on by Dutch boats visiting the fishing fleets, when the latter fished in close to the land, off Camperdown and the Texel; but it led to the fitting out of ‘floating grog-shops’ to attend each fleet. Public attention was called to the demoralizing nature of the traffic in 1881, and it formed the subject of a convention between the British, German and Dutch governments in 1882, for the carrying out of which an Act of Parliament was passed in 1888.”
5. Questions & Answers: Balls-up
[Q] From Graham C Reed, South Africa: “I’ve been wondering where the expression balls-up comes from.”
[A] Though now widely known in the English-speaking world, this is in origin a British coarse slang term for a bungled or badly carried out task or action, a messed-up or confused situation, or a complete foul-up. The earliest example I’ve found is from Frederic Manning’s book about the First World War, The Middle Parts of Fortune, published in 1929; a Tommy on the Somme in 1916 is quoted as saying: “I suppose we’ll come through all right; we’ve done it before, so we can do it again. Anyway, it can’t be more of a bloody balls-up than some o’ the other shows ‘ave been.” [Show here is slang for a military engagement, battle or raid.]
The obvious implication is that there is a testicular association, which is why it is regarded as coarse or low slang, though quite how it might have come about is unclear. As soon as one begins to look into matters more deeply, that origin becomes more unlikely still. My first clue was this in the Lincoln Daily News of Nebraska dated October 1902: “He balls up the English language and his verses are without rhythm or sense.”
This verbal construction, to ball up — in much the same sense as in the British slang term, though not regarded as coarse — turns out to have a long history in the US. Jonathan Lighter has recorded examples in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang from the middle of the nineteenth century. A book about college slang dated 1865 records that to ball up meant to fail a recitation or examination. From no later than the 1880s it meant becoming mixed up or confused or entangled in some way. There’s a reference to the noun ball-up in the US publication Dialect Notes in 1900, meaning a confused or muddled situation. It looks highly plausible that balls-up, although a British expression, derives from this older American one.
Having said all that, there’s no obvious clue from the examples where it might come from. Indeed Professor Lighter remarks at the beginning of the entry that the term’s “semantic development is obscure”, which is academic-speak for “I haven’t a clue, either”. Entanglement might suggest the ball is of string or yarn that has become snarled up, or perhaps it refers to crumpling a piece of paper into a ball, or conceivably it comes from college sports.
• Department of mystifying units: on Tuesday the BBC Web site ended a story about troubles with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN with the explanatory comment, “These experiments, each about the size of a mansion, will capture and measure new particles produced in the beam collisions.” Colin Burt wonders how big, exactly, a mansion is.