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Newsletter 773
11 February 2012

Contents

1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Halt.

3. Turns of Phrase: Human safari.

4. Questions and Answers: Putter or potter.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Standing pie Several readers noted that stand pie is known in northern England. Nick Munton wrote: “The term is still in use here in Leeds, although perhaps less so now. A stand pie is a large pork pie, one that would be shared between a number of people. ‘Order your Stand Pie for Christmas’ certainly used to be a common sign in butchers’ windows before Christmas when I came to live in Leeds in the late 70s.” Mike Sykes pointed me to an article in the Yorkshire Post dated June 2007: “[Pork] pies were a childhood treat the bigger version, the stand pie, was an essential part of Christmas, complete with home-made piccalilli”, saying also that another local name for a pork pie was growler. Stand pie is almost certainly a shortened form of standing pie, as recipes exist under that name which describe making the same kind of hard-baked pastry cases. However, modern recipes make the case edible.

Burqini A chiding missive came from Greg Balding: “Michael, really, are you trying to stir us Aussies up? The burqini’s relevance to Australia is not because some pommy cook wore one on Bondi Beach. It’s because it was designed by an Australian, Aheda Zanetti, initially for the large number of Australian Muslim women.” It’s also a registered trade mark in that country, I now learn.

Old saying Last week, I relayed a query from Anne Osborne about the expression going on teacakes and haybands about a clock behaving erratically, asking whether others knew it. Some Yorkshire readers remember older relatives employing similar terms. Chris Rendle wrote that his mother, born in Yorkshire in 1917, used the form it ran on teacakes and stopped at every currant. Ian Dilley likewise wrote that his parents, also from Yorkshire, would say that a clock was running on teacakes.

That last form appears online in reference to an athlete nearing exhaustion and the irregular running of buses, among other erratic enterprises. In Bearly Believable: My Part in the Paddington Bear Story, by Shirley Clarkson, appears the line “The factory must have been running on teacakes”, meaning that it was severely short-staffed. These suggest that running on teacakes equates to running on empty. I did wonder if teacakes were considered to be an inadequate form of nourishment but a Yorkshireman of my acquaintance firmly tells me that it isn’t so.

Perhaps there was another origin. Thinking of a recent item, Jim Newland surmised that going/running on teacakes and haybands is an English form of held together with chewing gum and baling wire, since both teacakes and chewing gum are next to useless as long-term, or even impromptu, repair materials.

Nigel Rees, of BBC Radio's Quote ... Unquote fame, told me about the expression laughing teacakes; examples online show that speakers mean by this that they are overjoyed. He also noted that Eric Partridge (and the English Dialect Dictionary) records teacake as a term for a baby's bottom. These surely have no direct link with teacakes and haybands but suggest that teacakes are a fertile source of linguistic invention for northern English speakers.

2. Weird Words: Halt

Halt in the expression the halt and the lame is a different word to the one meaning to stop and has long been obsolete except in this one usage (the Oxford English Dictionary described it as archaic a century ago and it has become even more obscure since).

If asked, I’d guess most people would plump for a biblical origin for the expression. It turns out not to be so. The individual words halt and lame certainly figure in the King James version of 1611, but nowhere together. This is one appearance of halt:

It is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.

Matthew 18:8.

The word is a Germanic one that Old English spelled as halt or healt; it’s from the verb healtian, which meant to walk with a limp. A writer in 1868 who noted that “He halted slightly in his walk” didn’t meant that he kept stopping, but that he limped a little.

That, you will notice, makes the halt and the lame a tautology. We might excuse it if it was created in recent times, when the meaning of halt had largely been lost, but it appears in the historical record in the seventeenth century in phrases such as “the Widdows, the Halt and the Lame” (1659) and “the servant is commanded to bid the poore, halt, and blind, and lame, to come in” (1645). This may be simple ignorance, but it was more likely a rhetorical device to emphasise a concept by combining different words for it. This is the earliest conjunction of the two words I have so far unearthed:

The fourth of August (weary, halt, and lame) We in the dark, to a town called Sedbergh came.

The Pennyles Pilgrimage, by John Taylor, 1618. Taylor was a London waterman, best known under his sobriquet of The Water-Poet, who chronicled a series of exotic journeys in verse. Pennyles = penniless.

The expression has appeared so many times down the centuries since that we may put it in the category that H W Fowler named “sturdy indefensibles”.

3. Turns of Phrase: Human safari

In human safaris, parties of tourists are taken to isolated tribal communities for intrusive and sometimes salacious entertainment. The practice is far from new but the term has become widely known this year as a result of an investigation by Gethin Chamberlain for The Observer, a British Sunday newspaper.

The communities concerned are on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, particularly the Jarawa on the Andaman Islands. The tribe has long resisted external interference, but the building of a major road has opened up their tribal lands to outsiders to devastating effect. Though the Indian government prohibits any contact with the Jawara, including feeding or photographing them, the ban has been ignored and they have been exploited. The appeal for some tourists is their habit of going naked.

Though human safari has been known as a nonce formation for some years (in 2003 The Scotsman described a human safari through Bel Air and Beverly Hills to catch a glimpse of the homes of stars such as Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio), the current sense and specific association with the islanders dates to an article of 2008 in another British newspaper, The Telegraph, in which it was said to be a humorous term used by the local tour guides and taxi drivers.

Video footage capturing the daily “human safaris” through the forest home of the islands’ recently contacted Jarawa tribe has provoked worldwide outrage. The footage, in which an off-camera police officer orders partly naked Jarawa women to dance for tourists in return for food, was described in India as a “national disgrace”.

The Observer, 15 Jan. 2012.

A charity has renewed its calls for a boycott of sightseeing tours in the Andaman Islands because, it says, they put the indigenous Jarawa tribe at risk. Survival International describes tours that use the Andaman Trunk Road, which passes through the tribe’s ancestral land, as “human safaris”.

The Telegraph, 1 Oct. 2011.

4. Questions and Answers: Putter or potter

QFrom Leslie Stephens in France: Watching the movie of Carousel recently, we heard (during the song about the clam-bake) that “We weren’t in a mood to putter”. Was this word merely concocted to rhyme with butter or is it a recognised US expression?

A It is a well-known North American expression. It’s also common in other parts of the English-speaking world, though people outside North America prefer to spell it potter. It has no connection with butter, unless you choose to interpret that word to mean “one who butts”, as with the head.

The earliest meaning of potter (I’ll stick to that spelling) was the action of poking or prodding something repeatedly.

I have been pottering about with my stick, and my family have all been on their knees grubbing i’ the ashes.

Family Secrets by S J Pratt, 1797.

It appears in the seventeenth century but derives from the Old English pote, to push, thrust or butt. Potter evolved from it by a shift in the vowel and adding the -er ending that meant doing something again and again. It’s connected to poke and in some senses with put.

Today, potter means to occupy oneself in a desultory but pleasant manner or to do something idly to pass the time. How we got to that from poking or prodding is unclear. A century ago it had several other senses in Scottish and English dialects, such as walk slowly or feebly or do something awkwardly or ineffectually. Confusion with another old verb, pother, led to potter at times meaning to trouble, perplex, worry or bother.

Many examples attached it to a person’s advancing years and loss of capabilities (“He potters about in his old age”; “Mart does potter now; he can’t stand work much longer”). The image may have been of an old man with a stick idly poking at things on the ground. The word is recorded in books and newspapers from the early nineteenth century in a number of senses, including ineffectual actions.

5. Sic!

• On 7 February Robyn Ramm found a report on the iHeartRadio website about a fire: “Eight people were all sleeping inside when unattended food on the kitchen stove spread to the cabinets and then the attic.”

• My area, in common with much of Britain, has had some cold weather recently. John Gray tells us The Gloucestershire Citizen reported on 5 February, “In Bourton On the Water, Cheltenham, Bream, Winchcombe and Tetbury firefighters were called out after the chilli conditions saw water pipes burst and tanks ruptured.”

• Russell Erwin e-mailed from New South Wales. He had found an advert in the Town & Country Magazine of 30 January announcing an auction sale. The reason for the sale was given as “Due to disillusion of Partnership”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 11 February 2012

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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: 11 February 2012.