NEWSLETTER 564: SATURDAY 1 DECEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Newsletter rescheduling The four-hour delay in sending out last week’s issue was an experiment that I’ve decided to make permanent. The old time was sensible when it was just the newsletter going out, but Web site updates have to be synchronised with the newsletter and have become much more complicated in recent years. Newsletter publication and Web site updates will now be at 09:00 my time (GMT). The change means that I shall be awake when this happens and can take immediate action if something goes wrong. My apologies if this interferes with a long-standing routine.
Chork This is a late entry to the set of combination cutlery blend words I discussed last week. Betsy Willeford tells me it turned up in the New York Times crossword puzzle on 23 November. One clue was “Cuisine that may be served with a chork.” The answer was Asian fusion. Chork is chopstick + fork.
Electrocution To judge by various comments, I should have added a gloss to my quote from James J Kilpatrick last week. You may recall that he was surprised to find two dictionaries that asserted that the process need not be fatal. It is significant that the works he mentioned are both British — Encarta and Oxford. Its original sense was certainly execution by electricity — it was created as a blend of electricity plus execution. The term starts to appear in US newspapers around June 1889, following the coming into force on 1 January that year of a law passed by the New York state legislature to allow such executions. As the use of electricity became common, the term broadened in scope to mean any death from electricity, as a logical extension of the word to fill a gap in our vocabularies. In the UK, where executions by electricity have never been allowed, its judicial implications have not been appreciated. Relatively recently it has begun to be used for an injury from the same cause. Even in the UK, not all dictionaries agree. Collins and Chambers say that electrocution means death, as does the new sixth edition of the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. In all these cases, death by electricity as a form of capital punishment is for good reason given as a secondary meaning.
Predator A Sic! item last week mentioned a job advertisement for Fox News that referred to a predator, a Writer/Producer/Editor. Anthony Massey, a BBC news producer, e-mailed to say, “‘Predator’ is as you suggest a jargon term of the television news business, but it seems to be both very recent and so far confined to the US. It may indeed be most often used by Fox News, as media companies do develop their own internal jargon. However, the job it describes is familiar in broadcast news organisations worldwide. It combines the journalistic function of producer with the technical skills of a picture editor, who assembles the film into a complete story. Now that ‘film’ doesn’t have to be film, or even videotape, but often exists only on a computer server, there’s no reason why one person should not research the story, write the script and assemble the pictures. In BBC News, and I believe in British television as a whole, such a person is simply called a producer. We have not felt a need to invent a new name, especially such an unpleasant-sounding one, just because the job description has expanded to take in new technology.”
2. Weird Words: Flavicomous
Having yellow hair.
In 1937, Warwick Deeping published a book entitled Malice of Men, which included: “My mother was provoked, not only by Mrs. Braithwaite’s crowding competition, but by the lady’s person, for she was flowery and flavicomous.” This led to a gentle rebuke in Time magazine on 7 July that year in a review of another of his books, Blind Man’s Year: “When Warwick Deeping is writing in his own person, he likes to use such stiff-legged literarities as ‘flavicomous, ecology, otiose,’ [and] speaks of people ‘occluding’ the doorway. But his wistful better nature comes to the fore in his characters’ speeches, which are always from the heart.”
Only a few writers have used this word, among them Anthony Burgess, the remainder preferring a more straightforward alternative such as blonde. Back in the late nineteenth century, William Cowper Brann was struck by an article in a Boston newspaper and wrote this squib in his own paper, the Iconoclast of Waco, Texas:
Melanocomous, multiloquous, sanguinaceous, flavicomous, etc., are words that do very well for the penetralia of Boston, but should be sawed up and fed to Texas on the monthly installment plan.
[Multiloquous = talking a lot; sanguinaceous = resembling blood; penetralia = secret or hidden places.]
If you are melanocomous, you have black hair. It and flavicomous (and also auricomous, also meaning having yellow hair, which has as its starting point the Latin word for gold) derive their endings from Latin coma, hair. The first part of flavicomous is from Latin flavus, yellow.
3. Questions & Answers: Jake-leg
[Q] From Ray Franklin: “Jake-leg is a very interesting word, a pejorative used by my Mississippi-born father to describe sloppy or inadequate work, and the person performing it.”
[A] That was a question, right? If so, I’ll answer it.
Jake-leg is indeed an interesting American term. In the sense in which your father used it, it’s a variant of jackleg, a person who lacks the skills or training to do a job properly or who is unscrupulous, dishonest or without standards. Jackleg was created on the model of blackleg, with the first element changed to the name Jack, perhaps from a derogatory sense it had at the time. The first known example, from 1837, refers to a jackleg lawyer.
The Dictionary of American Regional English records jake-leg in the same sense as jackleg from the 1960s onwards. It may have been influenced by jake (probably from Jacob) in a Southern US sense of a rustic or uncouth or inexperienced man. However, the most probable reason is confusion between jackleg and an earlier sense of jake-leg from the 1930s.
The dictionaries say that jake in that term is short for Jamaica ginger. This variety was also known as white ginger, made by scraping and bleaching the roots. From about 1850, several US patent medicines were based on it. One was Sandford’s Jamaica Ginger, which was advertised in 1877 in the Janesville Gazette of Wisconsin with the bold and all-inclusive claims typical of the times:
It instantly relieves Cholera, Cholera Morbus, Cramps and Pains, Chronic Diarrhoea, Dysentery and Cholera Infantum, Diarrhoea in Teething, and all Summer Complaints, Dyspepsia, Flatulency, Sluggish Digestion, Want of Tone and Activity in the Stomach and Bowels, Oppression after Eating, Rising of Food, and Similar Ailments, Colds and Chills, Feverish Symptoms, Pains in the Bones, Catarrhal Symptoms, Rheumatic and Neuralgic Symptoms, Soreness and Pains in the Muscles and Joints.
Its cheapness and high alcohol content resulted in the medicine becoming a favourite of tramps, down-and-outs and the poorer class of person. A court case was reported in the Iowa State Reporter in 1889: “It was alleged by the prosecution that this demand for Jamaica ginger was not of a medicinal origin, and that many of the grocer’s patrons were Jamaica ginger drunkards, a species of inebriates by no means uncommon.”
In 1901, an article appeared in several US newspapers under the headline “Jamaica ginger. The great American tipple”, reporting the views of the Rev Dr James N Buckley that the drink was rivalled only by applejack as an intoxicant. The article commented:
While Jamaica ginger has a comparatively small sale in the larger cities as a “barroom” drink, there is not another concoction on earth that is more popular in temperance towns and crossroads stores. Let a town “go dry” and see how quickly the number of patrons — men — of the local drug stores will increase. Instances have been known in which all the bar rooms in towns which were suddenly declared “dry” by the vote of the people put their intoxicating liquors out of sight and became “ginger ale parlors”.
As you might guess, Jamaica ginger was widely taken up during the Prohibition period, when it continued to be sold because it was officially regarded as a health drink. Its name had by then been shortened to jake. The extract was drunk neat, or it was added to bathtub gin as a flavouring or diluted with soft drinks. When the authorities realised the extent of its sales they tried to crack down on it. One maker attempted to get around this in early 1930 by adding a phosphate ester, TOCP (tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate), to the drink to increase its solids content and so mislead tests of its alcohol content. TOCP was a fuel additive and plasticiser that was thought to be harmless. In reality it caused an estimated 50,000 cases of a neurological disease from which many never recovered. One symptom was a high-stepping walk, caused by partial paralysis of the legs, in which the toe and heel would strike the ground on each step, making a characteristic sound.
This walk became known as Ginger jake paralysis, jakefoot, or jake-leg. The outbreak became the subject of several blues songs in and after 1930, such as the Jake Leg Blues, the Jake Leg Wobble and the Jake Liquor Blues. Willie Lofton rather confusingly sang:
I said jake leg, jake leg, jake leg, jake leg.
Tell me what in the world you going to do.
I said I drank so much jake, ooh Lord
Till it done give him the limber leg.
I say I know the jake leg, ooh Lord
Just as far as I can hear the poor boy walk.
The scandal — and the term jake-leg — became widely known at the time. As memories of these events grew dim in people's minds over the next couple of decades, it's not particularly surprising that a later generation should confuse jake-leg with jackleg.
By the way, though Rolf Harris’s comic song Jake the Peg may come to mind, I can find no evidence that connects either the song or the expression to 1930s America.
• Gordon Robinson tells me that the sports pages of the South China Morning Post last Sunday reported a most remarkable reproductive achievement. The French golf team apparently had much to celebrate at the Mission Hills World Cup in China: “Havret turns 31 today, while Jacquelin is anxiously awaiting the birth of his third child in 10 days.”
• John Carl Bowers reports: “In last weekend’s New York Times Book Review, a firm advertised Audubon’s The Birds of America, ‘eight volumes in handsome publisher’s full morocco bindings’ for $48,000. Perhaps if the publisher were plain-featured the price would be lower.”
• It’s just my sick sense of humour, I have to concede, that made me laugh at the title of a supplement to the Observer newspaper last Sunday: Baking With Kids.
• The issue of the Los Angeles Times for 25 November, Linda Garris relates, contained this sentence in its travel section: “Four months before Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is to open, officials gave media a sneak peak at the futuristic facility, which they hope will dispel images of weary crowds searching for lost bags and waiting for late fights.” Over-stressed by scaling that peak, perhaps?
• The page of the Marks & Spencer online catalogue advertising men’s suits, Gill Teicher discovered, has a footnote explaining that “A suit compromises of a matching jacket & trousers.” I’ve heard of compromising situations, but compromising suits is a new one.