NEWSLETTER 561: SATURDAY 10 NOVEMBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Gilguy My reference last week to an Australian sense of gilguy led to several informative responses from Down Under. The usual spelling, I’m told, is gilgai. The examples I found with the other spelling were homophonic mistakes. The Macquarie Dictionary says gilgai can also be spelled ghilgai, and defines the word in some detail as “a natural soil formation occurring extensively in inland Australia, characterised by a markedly undulating surface sometimes with mounds and depressions; probably caused by swelling and cracking of clays during alternating wet and dry seasons.” The source is the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi languages, in which gilgaay means a water-hole.
2. Weird Words: Subfusc
Dull, dark or gloomy.
This word is almost unknown in the USA but may be found in literary writing in Britain. It was spotlit by news in March 2006 that a poll of undergraduates in Oxford had overwhelmingly rejected proposals by the University authorities that they should no longer wear subfusc during examinations.
The word emerged in the early years of the eighteenth century. It is related to the older fusk, long obsolete, for a dark brown or dusky colour. That’s from Latin fuscus, dusky, which has also given us the rare adjective fuscous for a dark and sombre colour. Subfusc was taken directly from the Latin subfuscus, in which in this case the prefix means “of the approximate colour” (two other examples are subalbidus, whitish, and subviridis, greenish).
Outside its academic usage, the word is mainly used for formal or unshowy clothing, or figuratively to suggest a sombre appearance. An example is in John Buchan’s novel Sick Heart River of 1941: “As his eyes thirstily drank in the detail he saw that there was little colour in the scene. Nearly all was subfusc, monochrome, and yet so exquisite was the modelling that there was nothing bleak in it; the impression rather was of a chaste, docile luxuriance.”
3. Recently noted
It’s all Irish Many people pointed me to an item in the New York Times this week, in which Daniel Cassidy contends that many of the most common slang terms used in American English actually have an Irish origin; for example he claims that buddy has its origin in bodach, Irish for a lusty youth; that Say uncle! derives from anacal, mercy; that dude originates in dúid, a dolt or foolish-looking fellow, and that bunkum is from buanchumadh, a long made-up story. Many of us have doubts. My piece below about dude — and an earlier one about Say uncle! — show that I disagree with him about the origins of at least two of the words he lists that I’ve been able to research in detail. Also, the origin of bunkum is firmly linked historically to Buncombe County, North Carolina, through its being mentioned in a long and inconsequential speech in Congress by its congressman solely to please his constituents. Mr Cassidy’s 68-page book, How the Irish Invented Slang, last month won an American Book Award for non-fiction from the Before Columbus Foundation, so he is clearly taken seriously in some quarters. But Grant Barrett, lexicographer, project editor of Oxford’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang and a vice-president of the American Dialect Society, makes clear in his blog that he disagrees fundamentally with Mr Cassidy's ideas.
Asperand Rick McLaughlin told me about this word. When many years ago I wrote about the varied names used worldwide for the @ symbol that in English is formally called commercial at, this one didn’t feature. There are many references to it online, the earliest being a posting on misc.writing on 31 December 1996 in which Jerry Kindall notes he recently heard the word. A rare sighting in print is in Grammar with a Global Perspective by F Melrose Davis, in which the alternative ampersat is also given. That’s very slightly older: Tim Gowens was recorded as suggesting it in February 1996 in the Independent, a British newspaper, as a blend of ampersand and at. Asperand might also be a type of blend, from asterisk and ampersand, but that’s a guess. Neither word, despite appearing in at least one dictionary of computing, shows any signs of becoming popular. They are mentioned, but are not used unselfconsciously as the name for the symbol, though Mr McLaughlin says he uses asperand.
4. Questions & Answers: Dude
[Q] From Robert W M Greaves: “I was taken aback to read the following in Jerome K Jerome’s book Three Men in a Boat: ‘Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls.’ Just how long have dudes been with us?”
[A] Many people have come across references to dudes in connection with dude ranches, where urbanites could experience a sanitised version of Western life, and it is often assumed that this is the source of the term. However, dude ranch is relatively recent, with the first known examples being from 1921. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example of dude is from 1883. It’s definitely an Americanism. So what was it doing, unremarked as a foreignism, in a British book as early as 1889?
The cause was an extraordinary craze or fashion identified by that name which erupted in New York and its neighbourhood in early 1883. On 25 February, the Brooklyn Eagle noted an addition to the language:
It is d-u-d-e or d-o-o-d, the spelling not having been distinctly settled yet. Nobody knows where the word came from, but it has sprung into popularity within the past two weeks, and everybody is using it... The word “dude” is a valuable addition to the slang of the day.
Earlier cases of dude are on record — the Historical Dictionary of American Slang takes it back to 1877 and there are examples of it as a personal name or nickname even before then. But it is clear from the article that these had made no impression on the American public.
A description of the dude, model for all that followed, appeared in the New York Evening Post early the following month:
A dude is a young man, not over twenty-five, who may be seen on Fifth Avenue between the hours of three and six, and may be recognized by the following distinguished marks and signs. He is dressed in clothes which are not calculated to attract much attention, because they are fashionable without being ostentatious. It is, in fact, only to the close observer that the completeness and care of the costume of the dude reveals itself. His trousers are very tight; his shirt-collar, which must be clerical in cut, encircles his neck so as to suggest that a sudden motion of the head in any direction will cause pain; he wears a tall black hat, pointed shoes, and a cane (not a “stick”), which should, we believe, properly have a silver handle, is carried by him under his right arm, (projecting forward at an acute angle, somewhat in the manner that a sword is carried by a general at a review, but with a civilian mildness that never suggests a military origin for the custom). When the dude takes off his hat, or when he is seen in the evening at the theatre, it appears that he parts his hair in the middle and “bangs” it. There is believed to be a difference of opinion among dudes as to whether they ought to wear white gaiters.
The article noted that dudes, unlike the mashers of the time and the dandies, fops and swells of earlier generations, set out to give an impression of protest against fashionable folly and of being instead serious-minded young men with missions in life: “A high-spirited, hilarious dude would be a contradiction in terms.” But dudes were also widely reported as being vapid, with no ideas or conversation.
The Brooklyn Eagle fleshed out this portrait by noting that a dude was as a rule a rich man’s son, was effeminate, aped the English, had as “his badge of office the paper cigarette and a bull-crown English opera hat”, was noted for his love of actresses (to the extent of carrying on scandalous “affairs”) but with no knowledge of the theatre.
In June, the Daily Northwestern reported that dudes had taken to wearing corsets, “in order to more fully develop and expose the beauties of the human form divine”. The Richwood Gazette of Ohio argued in July that the dude was useful “as an example of how big a fool can be made in the semblance of a man”; the Prince Albert Times of Saskatchewan noted the same month that “The dude is one of those creatures which are perfectly harmless and are a necessary evil to civilization.” The Manitoba Daily Free Press reported the story, “bearing evident marks of reportorial invention”, that a dude was seen being chased up Fifth Avenue, by a cat.
You will note that dude was a term of ridicule, not approval. The geographical spread of the references shows that the whole of North America was variously intrigued and disgusted by the spread of the dude phenomenon in the cities of the East Coast. The Atlanta Constitution wrote in June, “So great a success the dude has had here in the United States, most every newspaper in the country has written editorials on him and brought him before the public in such manner as to create comment, if not surprise.” News of him crossed the Atlantic very quickly. In fact, the OED’s first example of the word is from The Graphic, a popular illustrated paper of London. Its report in March 1883 reads as if it were cribbed from the New York Evening Post: “The one object for which the dude exists is to tone down the eccentricities of fashion ... The silent, subfusc, subdued ‘dude’ hands down the traditions of good form.”
Dude became widely known in the UK and it isn’t surprising that Jerome K Jerome came across the term, as he was at the time an actor in London. Indeed, some American newspapers stated at the time that the term had been brought to New York from the London music halls and that this was the reason for the pronounced Anglophile streak in the fashion. But, so far as I know, nobody has found British examples that predate the US ones.
That leaves us without any direct leads to the source of dude. But it has been plausibly linked to the much older duds for clothes, which could in particular refer to ragged or tattered ones or even to rags (hence, at the very end of the nineteenth century, dud meaning something useless); dudman was an old term for a scarecrow. We may guess that dude was a sarcastic way to describe the foppish dress of these fashionable young men.
5. Questions & Answers: Malacia
[Q] From Shondra Tharp: “I was looking up the word malacia and noticed that it was not only “softening of organs or tissue” but also “a craving for spicy foods”? Are these two meanings related in some way?”
[A] The origin of both senses is Greek malakos, soft, a relative of malakia; the Oxford English Dictionary says this meant “softness, homosexual desire, sickness”, a splendid demonstration of how much cultural bias you can build into four words.
We borrowed malacia in the seventeenth century from the Latin version of the Greek word. The Oxford English Dictionary says that in Latin this meant a disorder of the stomach, especially the sickness and nausea that was suffered by pregnant women, but early writers in English took it to mean a craving for unnatural or unusual foods, a different symptom of pregnancy. Your second sense grew up only in the late nineteenth century and it would seem that in this case medical writers took the word directly from Greek, creating terms such as osteomalacia (softening of the bones) and gastromalacia (a softening of the lining of the stomach).
Incidentally, the combining form malaco- is also derived from the first of your meanings: it appears in malacoderm, used in zoology for an animal having a soft outer protective layer, as well as in a few other technical terms. Just to keep us all on our toes, malaco-, via another sense of the Greek original, can also refer to molluscs, as in malacology, their study.
• “Several years ago,” recalls Chaya Galai, “in a large Moscow hotel that was still showing signs of its Soviet origins, I encountered a heart-warming sign in the shabby and depressing lobby: ‘This is the Hotel Moscow and you are welcome to it!’ The hotel has since been torn down.”
• Paul Witheridge was in a car behind this truck in heavy rain on the Trans-Canada Highway in western Ontario and spotted the notice. Hands up all those who think the drivers could do a better job than Messrs Bush and Harper.
• The premier of New South Wales, Morris Iemma, spoke on ABC TV on 1 November about the report of an enquiry into the operation of the Sydney Harbour ferry service. He assured viewers that “This is the roadmap for a better ferry service”. Allan Dean wonders if this means that the vessels will be rendered amphibious.
• Dorothy Anstice sent me a report from The Globe and Mail, Toronto, of 29 October: “Councillor Michael Thompson ... urged his fellow councillors, in going over the city budget, to ‘corral all of these sacred cows and put them under the microscope.’”