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Newsletter 759
22 October 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Cascabel.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Wildcat strike.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Lick-wimble “‘Tosspots, bench-whistlers, and lick-wimbles’”, cried John Orford. “What a beautiful set of fine old words — they convince me that no word should ever be considered obsolete, even if it be archaic. I thought we liked old things — why does this not include words? I propose that a lick-wimble was one on his uppers who had exhausted the benevolence of his friends and was reduced to licking those wimbles that had been used to bore into barrels of beer — or even brandy. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to back this up.”

Gainsay Several readers were reminded of the argument sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which the customer says: “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” Ed Vanderkloet recalled, “That’s probably the only time I’ve encountered the word ‘gainsaying’ and I’ve remembered it for decades, so I suppose you could conclude that comedy can be educational.”

Stephen Brown commented, “I was surprised in a way to see that gainsay, which feels a perfectly normal word to me, made it into the bulletin at all, but that probably says more about me than the newsletter! However, I expected the noun gainsayers to feature in the examples of its use, since this way of referring to a group of (perhaps frustrating) opponents strikes me as one of the more common ways the word appears.”

2. Weird Words: Cascabel/ˈkɑːskəbɛl/ Help with IPA

You might judge the age and geographical origin of a dictionary by looking up the definition of this word. Modern ones, especially those with an American focus, are likely to tell you it’s the name of a medium-hot chilli (though, being American, they will spell it chili). Older ones, especially British, will more commonly say it’s the knob on the back end of a muzzle-loading cannon.

A cannon with its cascabel.

The source in both cases is the same, the Spanish cascabel, which means a little round bell, a child’s rattle, or a rattlesnake. Its origin is unknown, though it has been suggested it may be from the medieval Latin cascabellus, a little bell, or Latin scabellum, a kind of castanet played with the foot, which may be a diminutive of caccabus, a pot. The chilli was given its name by the Spanish in America because when dried the seeds inside rattle when it’s shaken. The Spanish also named the protrusion on the cannon, from its shape. (It’s there, by the way, so ropes or slings can be attached when the cannon is being moved.)

The most famous association of cascabel is with the Victoria Cross, the highest British honour for bravery. It has often been claimed that all the crosses ever awarded have been cast from the bronze cascabels of two cannon captured from the Russians during the Crimean War of the 1850s, though recent research has thrown doubt on this.

3. Wordface

From journey far An English MP, Sir Peter Bottomley, having discussed word origins over dinner, asked me to clarify. Could I confirm that tundra doesn’t come from Finnish? A hunt in the dustier corners of my online and offline libraries turned up the information that the word was imported from Russian in the early nineteenth century (the OED says 1841, but that entry is old and I found it in a travel work, Narrative of a Pedestrian Journey through Russia and Siberian Tartary by John Dundas Cochrane, dated 1824). Captain Cochrane spelled the word the French way, as toundra, and some further delving confirmed that the word was known in French before English. It may have been imported from that language, though parallel introduction is also possible. Russian got the term from the Sami people, who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and western Russia. The direct source was Kildin Sami, spoken around Kola, near Murmansk. Though Sami belongs to the same language family as Finnish and tunturi in the latter language is related, the source of tundra isn’t Finnish. So transmission was from Sami to Russian and then to English, possibly via French. As an aside, tundra is the only word in English which is known for sure to derive from Sami.

Medical curiosity I recently mentioned the anatomical snuffbox, a small depression on the wrist that was once a convenient place to put a pinch of snuff for snorting up one’s nose. I’ve now found another odd medical term, waiter’s tip for a neurological condition that’s caused by damage to one of the nerves in the neck. The arm is limp and the elbow straight but the wrist is bent over. It reminded doctors of the posture of a waiter taking a backhanded tip. The official name seems to be Erb’s palsy.

4. Questions and Answers: Wildcat strike

Q From Desmond Klein: Where did the phrase wildcat strike originate? That it means an illegal strike of some kind is known, but I cannot find out where it originated.

A The term began to appear in the US at the beginning of the last century. This is an early example:

Unions in all the building trades are rapidly voting in favor of the proposed Structural Building Trades Alliance of America, which aims to combine 500,000 workers in one compact body. The object is to put a stop to “wildcat” strikes.

Daily Gazette And Bulletin (Williamsport, PA), 19 Apr. 1904.

It’s a late example of an idiomatic phrase that includes wildcat. In Europe this refers to a wild variety of the domestic feline, but in North America it’s been applied to a couple of larger cats. One is the Canadian lynx; the other has more names than any one species surely has a right to — among them puma, mountain lion, catamount, cougar and panther.

In Britain, wild cat became a term for a savage, ill-tempered, or spiteful person and this sense was carried over into North America but became attached to the native big cats of the continent. In the nineteenth century it extended to any untamed or unreliable person, or someone who undertakes a risky or unsafe project, especially one that preys on innocent people.

The earliest use from which all others followed was wildcat bank. Such banks flourished in the period before 1863 when states were allowed to set them up. They issued banknotes; at the time, these were promissory notes, convenient IOUs exchangeable at the issuing bank for real money called specie — coins, especially gold. Some technically still are — over the signature of the chief cashier, Bank of England notes quaintly say “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ...”. Banks frequently issued far more banknotes than they had capital to redeem them. A run on the bank could ruin them and many ended their short lives that way.

When Michigan became a state in 1837, it went further than most by allowing banks to be established without specific permission from the state government. Criminals flourished. This is an extract from a letter from a firm in Detroit to one of its customers:

We have had nearly sixty new Banks start into operation within about the last three months. They are called the “Wild Cat Banks” — the notes they issue are called “Wild Cat Money” — our state is full of it; if you take Five dollars to-day, perhaps to-morrow, four of the five may be good for nothing — a dollar in specie is almost as rare as a swallow in mid-winter.

Rutland Herald (Rutland, Virginia), 20 Mar. 1838.

Two stories are told about the origin of the term. One says that notes issued by one of those early Michigan banks featured a drawing of a panther. I can’t corroborate that. It seems unlikely because the term appeared too widely and too soon after statehood for it to be associated with a specific bank. The other story seems more probable, that banks were deliberately set up in out-of-the-way places, thought of as haunts of wildcats, to restrict the number of banknote holders who sought to redeem them. This fitted the prevailing view that human wildcats were cunning, stealthy predators, like the wild animal. This is one view from personal experience:

Some thirty banks or more were the fungous growth of the new political hot-bed; and many of these were of course without a “local habitation,” though they might boast the “name,” it may be of some part of the deep woods, where the wild cat had hitherto been the more formidable foe to the unwary and defenceless. Hence the celebrated term “Wild Cat”.

A New Home — Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland (Mrs Mary Clavers), 1839.

A writer to the New York Tribune in April 1841 sarcastically outlined rules for a successful new bank, among them that its grand offices should be in the middle of town but that “Redemption [was] to be somewhere in the backwoods that a catamount could not climb to without breaking his neck”.

Later in the century, the term was applied more widely and loosely, for example to an extra train running outside the normal schedule, to itinerant theatrical troupes who picked up engagements as they toured and to distillers of moonshine whisky. It came most commonly to be used (as it still is) for speculators who explored for oil away from areas of known reserves.

When an operator goes into an undeveloped field, and puts down a test well, he naturally desires to have the profit of his risk. It costs him something like $6,000 to put down that wildcat well, for which in most cases, he gets no return, for the majority of wildcat wells produce nothing.

The Sun (New York), 17 Jul 1883.

The rare successful finds were wildcat strikes, which by their nature were unexpected. This last term began to appear in print in the early 1900s and it seems it was almost immediately transferred, possibly unconsciously but perhaps as a bitter joke, to a sudden and undisciplined downing of tools.

5. Sic!

• Neil Hesketh wrote, “My brother, who works for the US Department of Agriculture, sent me a Daily Tech article dated 13 October with the headline Ethanol Production Used More Corn than Farmers in Past Year. Being an agricultural scientist, he confirms that corn is more useful than farmers for making ethanol, although farmers are fairly good at making corn.”

• “A grammatical error in the first sentence of the book!” complained Brian Miller. The book was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and the sentence was: “His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed.”

• A colourful permanent sign recently erected close to my home reads in part: “Streamside signage produced by Castle School studens, in conjunction with Thornbury Town Council. For more imformation on the walk please use leaflet available from the Town Hall.”

• Bruce Napier e-mailed, “The more I hear about News International, the scarier it gets.” He referred to a piece of 17 October in The Independent about the influence of the Murdoch press on Home Office policy. It said: “The ‘Sarah’s Law’ campaign was started by the newspaper under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks and was continued by her predecessors.”

• “That’s some dense shark meat!” commented Robbie Gibson, having seen this sentence in a Yahoo! UK news report about shark fins: “At up to 300lbs a kilo, they are increasingly popular with China’s new rich.”

• Laurence Horn noted on the American Dialect Society list that on Thursday the Huffington Post had the headline “Muammar Gaddafi Killed, Captured In Sirte”. Jesse Sheidlower of the OED commented, “We should celebrate this. It’s not often one gets to use the term ‘hysteron-proteron’, after all.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 22 October 2011

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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: 22 October 2011.