E-MAGAZINE 657: SATURDAY 19 SEPTEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Gull My passing mention of this old slang term for a dupe (also as a verb meaning to deceive) provoked many readers into asking if it might be derived from gullible. It looks very plausible, but the evidence shows the link is the other way: gullible, gullibility and related words all derive from gull. Gullible isn’t recorded until 1825 and is probably a back-formation from gullibility, a word that dates from 1793. In turn this is from gull, as a joke on the long-dead cullibility with the same sense. That’s from cull or cully, a simpleton, fool or dupe or a prostitute’s customer. The story of gull and cull are clearly intertwined, but it’s impossible to work out how.
Pandiculation I’m grateful to Michael Turniansky and Daniel Olson for solving the minor mystery of the size of the pandiculator, mentioned last time. They found an illustration of the device in an advertisement, which that the size mentioned was of it folded for storage. I’ve added the advert to the online piece.
“None so knowing as he, / At brewing a jorum of tea!”, wrote Sir William Gilbert in one of his Savoy Operas, The Sorcerer. The vicar was in the process of brewing a pretty potent potion.
A jorum, as you may have gathered, is an old word for a large bowl or jug used for serving drinks such as tea or punch. By Gilbert’s day, the word had been around for about 150 years. It appeared for the first time in another lyric, in a play by Henry Fielding, The Author’s Farce and the Pleasures of the Town, first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1730.
Dickens loved the word
Then Toi sent Joram his son unto king David, to salute him, and to bless him, because he had fought against Hadadezer, and smitten him: for Hadadezer had wars with Toi. And Joram brought with him vessels of silver, and vessels of gold, and vessels of brass.
Second book of Samuel 8:10, from The King James Bible, 1611.
(This may remind readers of the names for sizes of wine bottle that I’ve written about previously.)
Charles Dickens was very fond of it. He used jorum in five of his novels — The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit and Oliver Twist — as well as in several of his other works, including Pictures from Italy and The Seven Poor Travellers. The nineteenth century seems to have been the heyday of the word, on both sides of the Atlantic:
The amiable creature beguiled the watches of the night by brewing jorums of a fearful beverage, which he called coffee, and insisted on sharing with me; coming in with a great bowl of something like mud soup, scalding hot, guiltless of cream, rich in an all-pervading flavor of molasses, scorch and tin pot.
Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott, 1863. This account of her time as a nurse at a hospital in the District of Columbia was a popular success.
It is now rarely encountered.
3. Recently noted
Ad What? In asking about its history, Ed Vanderkloet introduced me to a phrase I’d not come across before: ad infinauseam. A punning blend of the Latin phrases ad infinitum and ad nauseam, it has been around for longer than you might think. There’s a hint it appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1942 (I can’t confirm the date on the snippet in Google Books) but the earliest example that I can identify for certain is this one:
But what is most annoying about this is their habit of saying good-by in fifteen different ways: “Bye-bye, honey-bunch; Toodle-de-do, sweet; I give you a teeny-weeny bye kiss, lovely one; Bye, honey, now will you think of me?”, and so on ad infinauseam.
What Men Don’t Like About Women, by Thomas D Horton, 1945.
Mr Vanderkloet asks, “Would you consider it to have progressed beyond cute or clever to the point of becoming recognized as a term?” Probably not. It has never become very popular and its position as a niche witticism is unlikely to change, especially as knowledge of Latin is now so patchy among English speakers.
Spotted euphemism In an issue in 2001, I briefly reported that the British supermarket chain Tesco was undertaking a survey to find out if the traditional dish Spotted Dick should be renamed Spotted Richard to spare its more easily embarrassed customers. (An item in the Daily Telegraph in 2002 said Tesco had changed the name but had later changed it back.) The issue resurfaced in a story in many UK newspapers on 9 September and was also picked up in US news media. They reported that the pudding has been thus renamed in the Flintshire County Council canteen at Mold in North Wales. A council spokesman agreed that it was correctly called Spotted Dick but that canteen staff had renamed it “because of several immature comments from a few customers”. It’s spotted because of the dried fruit dotted through it but nobody knows who Dick might have been. One theory is that it’s a reformulation of dough (another dish, plum duff, has a similar origin).
SAFOT (Snappy Acronyms For Our Time) Most of us are familiar with such well-established humorous initialisms as YUPPIE, “Young Urban Professional”, DINKIE, “Dual Income, No Kids” and even HOPEFUL, “Hard-up Older Person Expecting Full Useful Life”. This week, two further examples came my way. One was in a report in the Observer last Sunday about a consequence of our recent economic woes, which has forced unemployed young people to turn to their ageing parents for financial support. There are so many of them that they have become known as KIPPERS, “Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings”. The term goes back at least to 2003. In his New York Times blog on 10 September, Ben Schott noted an Australian member of the class, which does seem new: NETTEL, a person having “Not Enough Time To Enjoy Life”. It refers to families in which both parents work full-time, juggling work and child care to maintain a high standard of living. It is said to have been coined by the social researcher Bernard Salt.
4. Questions and Answers: Topsy-turvy
[Q] From Colin Burt, Australia: In your piece on murder, meaning to eat with gusto, you advert to the title of the film, Topsy Turvy. This quaint expression for upside down or dishevelled, or all ahoo as Patrick O’Brian often calls it, must have an interesting history?
[A] It certainly does, though nobody is quite sure exactly what it is.
That’s because the expression is so old that detective work is needed to identify its components. It’s first recorded in 1528 but is almost certainly a lot older. Right from the beginning of its known history it could mean either upside down or utter confusion. We may guess that the former was the earlier sense and that the latter came along later as an extension from the idea of things being thrown about and ending up in a chaotic jumble.
The Oxford English Dictionary comments icily that “numerous conjectures and suggestions (many of them absurd and impossible) have been
Rolled turves: these are not the origin of the term!
The consensus is now that the source of the first element is the obvious top. The second part is probably from the long-obsolete verb terve or tirve, to overturn, which may derive from the Old English verb tearflian, to roll over and over or to wallow. The remaining puzzle is the -sy ending on the first word. It might be that an early form was something like top-so-terve, matching the pattern of up-so-down, an old form of upside-down. The OED also points out forms like arsey-versy as possible parallels.
So there are unanswered questions, as so often with old terms. But the framework is clear enough.
5. Reviews: It’s All in a Word, by Vivian Cook
A British Sunday newspaper used to say on its masthead “All human life is here”. Vivian Cook’s book might similarly be subtitled “All English language is here”.
In 321 pages Professor Cook (he’s professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University) packs 121 little chapterettes with themes that include medical slang (gassers are anaesthetists and slashers are surgeons, while TEETH expands to “Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy”) and the differences between the lyrics of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (the latter are tougher and more streetwise, employing words such as hiding, rocking and flying, while the Beatles’ ones are more touchy-feely with loving, feeling and holding).
However, some comments are surprising, such as his assertion that “around 700” words are first found in Shakespeare’s writings. This is an underestimate: the OED lists 1,869. Writing about the vocabulary of poets, he supports his very reasonable view that Eliot’s aetherial, spirit-like, is not a word in current everyday use by telling us that the OED has no twentieth-century examples. It hasn’t, but then the entry that includes it hasn’t been revised since it was first published in 1891. In a discussion of the variations in numbers of words for colours in different languages, he asserts that Welsh only has two basic colour words, for black and white — it certainly has fewer than in English but a look at any Welsh dictionary will show a good selection.
This, you will have realised, is not a read-right-through book, but a dipping-into miscellany, a potpourri or gallimaufry. If you are feeling unkind, you might call it a mish-mash of itsy-bitsy items (he has a section on reduplicated words, including dialectal ones such as borus-snorus, in Dorset formerly meaning happy-go-lucky, which Thomas Hardy employed in Under the Greenwood Tree).
The word quirky might have been invented for this book. You’re intended to have fun with it. But if your desire is for more meat on your linguistic bones, you may be disappointed.
[Vivian Cook, It’s All in a Word, published in the UK by Profile Books on 17 Sep 2009; hardback, 321pp; ISBN-13: 9781846680069, ISBN-10: 1846680069; publisher’s UK price £10.99.]
• “I can’t get the image out of my mind!” e-mailed Cathy Varney from New Mexico. She had just read an AOL Travel item dated 12 September about pirates attacking a cruise ship: “Though that was a scenario akin to Chihuahuas attacking a Great Dane, [as] anyone who has ever met a viscous Chihuahua knows, they have sharp teeth.”
• Classic greengrocer’s apostrophes were spotted by Pat O’Halloran on a sign in a shop in Eyam, Derbyshire — “Ice creams, discount’s for school’s”. Were the discounts in exchange for grammar lessons?
• Jennifer Atkinson winced, as most women would, on reading a report in the Hobart Mercury, Tasmania, on 11 September: “Because of her injuries, Corbin was told she would never have children. But she again proved doctors wrong when she gave birth to twin three-year-old girls...”.
• Julane Marx sat down to read last weekend’s Home section of the Los Angeles Times, to find that the lead article on the front page described a small architectural gem built in a Malibu canyon with spectacular ocean views and an additional feature: “Come night, coyotes make their plaintiff cries under a sky filled with more stars than you can count.” Typical, she notes, of litigious Los Angeles!