E-MAGAZINE 689: SATURDAY 8 MAY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Urtication Liam Boyle asked, “Was it just chance that you included the item on nettles and urtication on May 1st, Nettlemas day?” It was indeed chance, because I’d never heard of Nettlemas. A search in the archives found a reference to an old Irish festival, Féile na Neantóg (Gaelic: the Feast of Nettles); this was cited in one book as being held on May Day (Beltane). Others references speak of Nettlemas night, which was the day before, 30 April. This is one very old description:
May eve, the last day of April, is called “Nettlemas night;” boys parade the streets with large bunches of nettles, stinging their playmates, and occasionally bestowing a sly touch upon strangers who come in their way. Young and merry maidens, too, not unfrequently avail themselves of the privilege to “sting” their lovers; and the laughter in the street is often echoed in the drawing room.
Ireland, Its Scenery, Character &c, by Mr and Mrs S C Hall, 1841.
A shemozzle is a state of confusion and chaos. It might simply be a muddle, or it could be a ruckus, row, quarrel or loud commotion.
“No end of a shemozzle there’s been there lately,” he said. “Marina Gregg’s been having hysterics most days. Said some coffee she was given was poisoned.”
The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, by Agatha Christie, 1962.
It looks Yiddish, fitting the pattern of a group of terms that came to light first in American English as a result of the influence of Yiddish-speaking immigrants: schlemiel, schmaltz, schlepper, schmuck, schlock, schlimazel. (Considerable variation exists in the way all these are spelled.) Unlike them, shemozzle didn’t appear first in America — it was originally part of the slang of London’s East End more than a century ago, a creation of bookmakers and racecourse touts. It has since spread around the world:
The money is starting to dry up. ... I’m now fighting to get anything. They are not responding to my emails. It’s been a shemozzle, a complete and utter waste of time and money.
Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb. 2010.
It looks Yiddish, but is it in fact Yiddish? No consensus exists. Leo Rosten denied in The Joys of Yiddish that it had any connection with that language and others argue similarly that it was invented in imitation of other Yiddish words but isn’t one.
Some references cautiously suggest that it was loosely based on the Yiddish slim mazel, which became schlimazel in the US. Yiddish is based on a German dialect that has incorporated lots of Hebrew words. Slim mazel is a good example: slim is old German, meaning “crooked”, while mazel derives from Hebrew mazzāl, a star or planet, though its main meaning is “luck”. So slim mazel may be translated as “crooked luck”, roughly the opposite of the Yiddish mazel tov, good luck. But how that changed to mean a rumpus is far from obvious.
3. This week
Learning terms An unfamiliar word, graduatised (graduatized if you’re American or very formal) appeared in an British article. It refers to a profession or occupation, the entry to which has been restricted to university graduates. The article addressed the problems of school leavers, who are increasingly finding it hard to get jobs for this reason. Educationalists have used graduatised, its verb graduatise, and its linked noun graduatisation, at least since the early 1970s, though it’s still a term of art in the profession and is rarely found outside specialist or scholarly publications. A rare sighting of the noun was a comment by the (then) British PM Gordon Brown in the Evening Standard of London on 30 April 2008: “This is one of the wider problems with today, the graduatisation of the political and media worlds. So many people are now excluded because they left school at 16 or 18.”
What’s in a word? Scientific vocabulary can be so weird. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has just recorded an example of a subatomic particle called the anti-beauty quark. Could it be that ugly people now have something tangible to blame?
It’s all in the genes The fast-expanding field of genetics has led to numerous terms for aspects of its study and application, among them immunogenetics, psychopharmacogenetics, haemogenetics, and archaeogenetics. A relatively new form, said by Wikipedia to date from 2006, is optogenetics, which turned up in an article in New Scientist recently. It refers to a technique by which neurons in the brain are individually observed or controlled with pulses of light, so allowing researchers to look at how neural circuits work and thereby greatly improve our knowledge of brain function.
4. Questions and Answers: Early doors
[Q] From Peter Morris: There has been a discussion of the phrase early doors in the Daily Telegraph recently. One reader took it for granted that it originally referred to a drink at the pub as soon as it opened. Another said it referred to the selected few allowed in a theatre before the scrum at opening time. Neither explanation sounds right to me. Can you bring your knowledge to bear on this one?
[A] Some background for non-Brits who haven’t encountered this odd phrase would seem appropriate before we get into discussing where it came from. Early doors is a phrase particularly linked with football (soccer, that is). It means “early on”:
We’ve got to make sure we don’t concede, especially early doors, but I think it’s definitely game on if we score first.
Sporting Life, 3 Jan. 2010.
Why footballers, commentators and fans say early doors, when early or early on would work just as well is probably due to Big Ron, otherwise Ron Atkinson, a well-known television football commentator, a former player and manager now regarded as one of the characters of the sport. Like another commentator, David Coleman, he’s famous for his accidental sayings in the heat of the moment (“He dribbles a lot and the opposition don’t like it — you can see it all over their faces”). He’s so closely associated with early doors, almost as a catchphrase, that he’s often been credited with inventing it. However, my memories of the phrase go back to Brian Clough, a rather more famous football manager, who is on record as using it in 1979.
The pub origin you mention is widely believed. In the days before liberalisation of hours, pubs would reopen for the evening at 5.30, just in time for a quick drink after work and before going home. An early-doors beer would be one grabbed as soon as possible after opening time. It’s a neat idea, but it isn’t true.
We’ve actually got to go back well over a century to find the true origin, to the other suggestion you’ve heard, about theatres. Then as now, a last-minute crush usually developed at the entrances just before the performance started, with the street outside crammed with vehicles. Show bills and advertisements commonly urged patrons to arrive early. Around the 1870s, the idea grew up of charging a small premium to members of the audience who were willing to arrive well ahead of the crowd and so avoid the crush; in return, they were allowed to choose their own seats in unreserved areas — the pit and the gallery in particular. This could be a considerable advantage, as sightlines in those areas were often poor or interrupted by pillars. The earliest comment on the practice I’ve found is this:
It was with some degree of satisfaction that I welcomed a movement in the right direction adopted at most of our local theatres during the pantomime season — namely that of providing special entrances or early doors for the convenience of those who, wishing to avoid the crush, would willingly pay a small extra amount.
Liverpool Mercury, 24 Apr. 1877.
The system continued into the twentieth century and became very well known:
The park-keeper eyed him; thought better of the bitter words he had contemplated; contented himself with: “Funny, ain’t yer?” “Screaming,” said George. “One long roar of mirth. Hundreds turned away nightly. Early doors threepence extra. Bring the wife.”
Once Aboard The Lugger, by Arthur Stuart Menteth Hutchinson, 1908.
It was recorded by G K Chesterton as a First World War battle cry by Tommies going over the top to attack the enemy (“If they had only heard those boys in France and Flanders who called out ‘Early Doors!’ themselves in a theatrical memory, as they went so early in their youth to break down the doors of death.”). Theatres seem to have stopped the early-doors practice in the early 1920s. When J C Trewin wrote in the Illustrated London News in February 1956 about his memories of the practice half a century earlier, he was able to say that “Early Doors is an archaism.”
What he couldn’t have known was that somebody in the football world in the UK — identity now lost — later remembered the expression and reinvented it to refer figuratively to the early part of a game.
• This is from Bernard Ashby of Australia. They grow up so quickly in the US, the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 April communicated: “US media report that a 24-hour-old man shouted at her that she was ‘fat’ and she decided to settle that the Mike Tyson way. She tackled the man and bit off a chunk of his right ear.”
• Vehicles in Australia are becoming dangerously sentient, according to a headline that Dean Ogle and Monica Vardabasso spotted in The Age of Melbourne: “Man shot and run over by car.”
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