NEWSLETTER 478: SATURDAY 28 JANUARY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Free at last! The manuscript of my next book will be sent to my publisher next week. My wife and I are celebrating by vanishing to the other side of the globe for a holiday. Next week’s issue will be the last for six weeks. Normal service, or what passes for it around here, will begin again with the issue of 25 March.
2. Weird Words: Charabanc
An early form of bus, used typically for sightseeing trips.
The original was French, char-à-bancs, a carriage with benches, so called because the original horse-drawn charabancs in France had rows of crosswise seats looking forward. In that spelling it has been known in English at least since Lord Byron mentioned it in his journal in September 1816, though within ten years it had been Anglicised as charabanc (so foreign, these accents).
The heyday of the charabanc in Britain was between the First and Second World Wars, when it had been motorised but not yet fitted with any very effective shelter from the weather. It was definitely regarded as a conveyance for the holidaymaking proletariat—those disparagingly referred to by their social superiors as “trippers”—not so much a vehicle as a self-propelled pub that conveyed a drunken rabble who threw bottles and bellowed bawdy songs. This was a huge exaggeration, of course, since most charabanc excursions were sober.
H G Wells made plain his disdain for the occupants of such vehicles in his story The New Accelerator of 1903: “He gripped my arm and, walking at such a pace that he forced me into a trot, went shouting with me up the hill. A whole char-a-banc-ful of people turned and stared at us in unison after the manner of people in chars-a-banc.”
British speakers usually said it as sharra-bang when they didn’t abbreviate it to sharra (written chara).
3. Noted this week
Rebri-tannicising This splendid neologism (at least, I can’t find it anywhere else) turned up in a letter to the Observer last Sunday from the British political analyst Simon Partridge. He wrote, “The idea of Britishness was reintroduced by the Tudor dynasty which secured the throne of England-Wales in 1485. In many ways this was a rebritannicising of the medieval state after the Anglo-Saxon and Franco-Norman interregnum.”
Casting one’s pods The Guardian last week included a long article by Tim Dowling about the podcasting phenomenon, the posting of audio files online for downloading to MP3 players (originally the Apple iPod, hence the name), a word that first appeared in its columns two years ago. The article included several derivatives of the term that have appeared since, such as podsafe, music that is safe to include in podcasts because rights are owned by the artist and so not subject to copyright, and podclasses, which are a new form of distance learning, especially teaching foreign languages. The article added: “New gadgetry is probably the single biggest topic in the podcastosphere (heads up, dictionary editors!)” Duly noted, Mr Dowling, with a wince.
Cocktail I make this my word of the week. A celebration is planned in Las Vegas on 13 May to mark its 200th anniversary. This is based on the first citation for cocktail in the OED, which is from an American newspaper, The Balance of Hudson, NY, dated 13 May 1806. The event is being jointly organised by The Museum of the American Cocktail and the United States Bartenders’ Guild. On that day they will be presenting the first annual American Cocktail Awards (The Olives), to honour “bartenders and establishments in pre-dinner cocktail and cocktail menu excellence”. Alas, the US dictionary expert David Barnhart has thoroughly rained on their parade this week by finding an earlier example in a journal called The Farmer’s Cabinet, dated 28 April 1803. Sorry about that, chaps ...
4. Questions & Answers: Agitory
[Q] From Brandon Sussman: “Sitting at my computer, I was listening to the dogs barking and carrying on. It seemed to me they were especially agitory (they certainly agreed), and to confirm this, I went looking for agitory in etherspace. I found many uses of it, but no citation for the word or other direct definition. Help!”
[A] You will struggle to find this word in any dictionary. None of mine include it, not even the Oxford English Dictionary. Did you perhaps create it as a mental blend of agitated and jittery?
I’ve found agitory in a few places, but mostly in a political context. A 1942 issue of The Valley Morning Star of Harlingen, Texas has, “Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s speeches are of an agitory nature. Far from contributing to the morale of workers in war plants, they are riling them exceedingly.” The online appearances are also political in nature. One says “The medium of multiple copies of cheap agitory pamphlets reinforced the message of lay involvement.” Another has “I would hold him as a[n] agitory-propagandist!”
These all look like a try at creating an adjective from agitator or agitation in the political sense. Why they’re bothering, I’m not sure, since agitational is quite common and is in a lot of dictionaries (more often American ones, for some reason). Others searching for a word with that sense have tried agitatorial or agitatory—the former is in the OED, as a rare word, but not the latter. However, agitatory is common online, and also turns up quite often in books, which makes me wonder why it hasn’t hit the dictionaries.
My guess is that the appearances of agitory you’ve found and I’ve quoted are all from agitatory with the middle syllable elided, a process called grammatical syncopation. This sometimes happens with words that have a repeated, stuttery syllable. A common example is interpretative, which is shortened to interpretive. A very few cases of agitorial are to be found online, no doubt created from agitatorial through the same process.
In your sense, I’d stick to agitated ...
5. Questions & Answers: Tattoo
[Q] From Frank Danielzik, Denmark: “I’ve been wondering about the term tattoo. It is used for the ink drawings on a body as well as for military festivals. On the homepage of the Edinburgh Tattoo I found the explanation “The word ‘tattoo’ comes from the closing-time cry in the inns in the Low Countries during the 17th and 18th centuries—‘Doe den tap toe’ (‘Turn off the taps’)” for the word, but how did it get connected to its two modern meanings?”
[A] That story shouted “folk etymology” at me. Then I consulted the standard references and discovered it’s correct. My instincts are deserting me—definitely time for a holiday.
The first sense of the term was a signal on a drum or a bugle to call soldiers to their quarters at night. It’s first recorded in 1644, during the early stages of the English Civil War. Colonel John Hutchinson was then the governor of Nottingham Castle and head of the Parliamentary garrison in the city (he was to be later one of the signatories of Charles I’s death warrant). In his standing orders he wrote: “If anyone shall bee found tiplinge or drinkinge in any Taverne, Inne, or Alehouse after the houre of nyne of the clock at night, when the Tap-too beates, hee shall pay 2s. 6d.” (Today that would be about £5.00 or $8.)
By the following century, the usual phrase was to beat tattoo, which makes clear that by then it was usually sounded on a drum, hence one of our modern meanings, a rhythmic tapping or drumming (“He beat a tattoo with his fingers on the table-top.”) And it’s clearly related to taps in the sense of a bugle call for lights to be put out in army quarters (which was originally also sounded on a drum).
In the form you quoted from the Web site, doe den tap toe, tap is the spigot of a beer barrel. It seems that the Dutch police had a neat way of closing the pubs at night, by making the rounds and instructing innkeepers to shut the taps on their casks.
The other sense of tattoo, to mark the skin with pigments, could not be more different. It was brought back from the South Pacific by Captain Cook, and appears in his journal for July 1769: “Both sexes paint their Bodys, Tattow, as it is called in their Language. This is done by inlaying the Colour of Black under their skins, in such a manner as to be indelible.” It could be from any one of several Polynesian languages, such as Tahitian, Samoan, or Tongan.
• On 21 January, the local newspaper in Toledo, Ohio (which its first editor punningly named The Blade) carried a story on the effect of oil-price rises which included, “For investors, who just two weeks ago were celebrating the Dow’s climb above 11,000, there has been a palatable shift in mood.” The local person who noted it wondered whether this was a error for palpable or the careless use of a spell checker.
• Ed Ver Hoef comments: “To request to receive ‘RV Tech Tips’ at their Web site, you are asked to ‘Sing Up Here’, but it didn’t say how high. Perhaps only sopranos need apply.”