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Newsletter 774
18 February 2012

Contents

1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Alamagoozlum.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: God willing and the creek don’t rise.

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Halt Numerous readers noted the continuing use of compounds of this term, such as halting, as in halting speech.

Others commented in terms such as those of Richard R Losch: “Is it possible that in earlier times lame meant completely crippled, as opposed to halt, merely somewhat impaired?” There’s something in this. Many dictionaries in essence equate the terms, defining halt as meaning lame. But, in an entry written a century ago, the Oxford English Dictionary defines one meaning of lame as “disabled in the foot or leg, so as to walk haltingly or be unable to walk”, a higher level of disability than just a limp. Dr Johnson, in his Dictionary of 1755, says likewise that halt means “to be lame”; however, he defines lame as “crippled; disabled in the limbs”, again a more severe affliction than the way that halt seems to have been used.

In this connection, I’ve since found a very much earlier use of the phrase halt and lame in Cursor Mundi, a Northumbrian poem of the fourteenth century. The OED says that lame in those days could mean disabled in any part of the body, not merely the legs, which suggests that the phrase then did imply two different conditions. Over time, as halt and lame became a set phrase, we may guess that the difference in meaning between its two words lessened and it became similar in type to repetitive expressions such as kith and kin and time and tide (in the latter, tide means a season or moment in time, as in eventide).

More pottering (or puttering) about Following last week’s piece, several readers asked whether the putter spelling had a connection with the golf club called a putter. It doesn’t. Putter in this sense derives directly from the verb putt, which is a variant form of put.

While looking into potter/putter, some unsystematic investigations in dictionaries had turned up an old English dialect sense that stood apart from the others: to trample in soft mud. In the eastern US many years ago, it was a boy’s sport of trying to run on broken ice without falling in the water. I was delighted to learn from the Dictionary of American Regional English that in Rhode Island within living memory pieces of ice floating on salt water were given the name of bandudelums.

2. Weird Words: Alamagoozlum

It’s a wonderful word, one of the best of the exotics that came out of North America in the nineteenth century. It’s still to be found, though you’re likely to encounter it in the company of the Corpse Reviver, the Fogcutter, the Monkey Gland and the Widow’s Kiss.

The original alamagoozlum was maple syrup. The name may have been a blend of French-Canadian and American terms, since it’s conjectured it was created from à la (as in à la mode) and goozlum, with a ma thrown in to make it bounce better in the mouth. The goozlum or goozle was the throat, windpipe or Adam’s apple, possibly a variant form of guzzle.

The word was rarely recorded in the old days. The Bradford Era of Pennsylvania in 1888 did its best to confuse unwary etymologists by composing a ditty that included the lines, “From Alamagoozlum / To Kalamazoo, / We can bamboozle ‘em!”

Today, alamagoozlum is almost entirely the province of those well-informed mixologists who know their old-style cocktails. Charles H Baker recorded it in 1939 in The Gentleman’s Companion or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask. It’s not a drink for the faint-hearted, either to create or consume, since it includes Chartreuse, gin, Jamaican rum, orange curaçao, egg whites, Angostura bitters, and a big dollop of syrup. Curiously, none of the recipes that I’ve seen even mention maple syrup, the classic ingredient being gomme syrup (perhaps from French gomme or an old form of English gum), which is a now unobtainable but one-time fashionable mixture of a simple sugar syrup with gum arabic.

3. Wordface

Has the other one dropped? At a party, Daniel Elasky and friends — for no good reason that he can recall — were reading job titles from the US Census Bureau’s Occupational Classification. They spluttered a bit when they reached odd shoe boy. It’s hardly a job title that a modern youth would aspire to. But it was indeed a class of work (one can hardly dignify it as an occupation) in the US boot and shoe industry, and seems to date from the early twentieth century. He would run errands or do jobs that needed no training. Odd shoe girls also existed and — if we’re to judge by the number of advertisements for them — were more common. But they required experience. (So did an even more odd-sounding job from the Classification, a bad work girl, who repaired mistakes in a dress factory.) A report of 1915 noted that in one shoe factory the cobbler was paid $12 and the odd shoe boy $6 a week. The job has vanished, as have so many specialist trades, but as recently as 1968 it was being advertised alongside other work in the industry:

We have immediate full time openings for experienced Shankers, Heel Attachers, Last Pullers, Innersole Packers, Upper Trimmers. Sole Layers, Odd Shoe Boy, Sock Liners, Heel Paddlers Cleaners, TCF Pressers. Also inexperienced help wanted.

Lowell Sun, (Massachusetts), 30 Aug. 1968. We may assume that the reason only one odd shoe boy was wanted was that they necessarily always came singularly.

Mull this over? Lorna Russell e-mailed from New Zealand about a headline she had seen: “Agency mulled to run emergency 111 system”. She had never seen mulled used in this way before and wondered if it was an error. I’d never come across it either and it's not in my dictionaries but a search found many examples of similar usage, mostly in India and south-east Asia. I conclude that mulled to is an extension of to mull over, to think about or ponder something, but meaning instead be minded to do something, to be disposed to do a particular thing. Can anyone comment?

4. Questions and Answers: God willing and the creek don’t rise

QFrom Bob Scala: An item that has been floating around the internet claims that the expression God willing and the creek don’t rise referred to the Creek Indians, not a body of water. It mentions Benjamin Hawkins of the late 18th century, who was asked by the US president to go back to Washington. In his reply, he was said to have written, “God willing and the Creek don’t rise”. Because he capitalized Creek it’s asserted that he was referring to the Creek Indian tribe and not a body of water. Is this derivation correct?

A Quite certainly not. Every researcher who has investigated the saying has dismissed an Indian connection as untrue. The tale is nevertheless widely reproduced and believed. It’s worth looking into because of the way in which it has been elaborated in the version you quote.

Anecdotal evidence from people who have got in touch with me down the years suggests that it has been in regular use throughout the lifetimes of some elderly folk in parts of the US. I’m told it was a sign-off tag line of the 1930s US radio broadcaster Bradley Kincaid.

If we relied on written sources it would be hard to believe in such continued use. The written record dates the saying from about the middle of the nineteenth century. But I know of just four instances from that century. Then there’s a long gap in the record before it began to appear again in the 1950s. It took a further decade for it to become popular as a supposedly hayseed utterance, sometimes as and the crick don’t rise to reflect a regional form.

The earliest example known is this mock rustic speech:

Feller-citizens — I’m not ’customed to public speakin’ before sich highfalutin’ audiences. ... Yet here I stand before you a speckled hermit, wrapt in the risen-sun counterpane of my popilarity, an’ intendin’, Providence permittin’, and the creek don’t rise, to “go it blind!”

Graham’s American Monthly Magazine, Jun. 1851.

And this is one appearance in a newspaper:

We are an American people, born under the flag of independence and if the Lord is willing and the creeks don’t rise, the American people who made this country will come pretty near controlling it.

The Lafayette gazette (Louisiana), 3 Nov. 1894.

You will have spotted that neither of these capitalises creek, which suggests they didn’t have the Creek people in mind. In fact, virtually all the examples that I’ve found in books and newspaper archives down to the present day are in lower-case.

That argues for a more mundane origin: the old-time difficulties of travelling on dirt roads that forded rivers and streams; a sudden storm could cause water levels to rise without warning and render the route impassable. If the creek don’t rise was a whimsical way of saying that the speaker would carry out some task provided that no figurative obstacle were put in his path. It can be summarised as “if all goes well”. It’s a more conditional statement of intent than come hell or high water.

The saying has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson among others, on the usual principle that attaching a famous name to a story validates it. Mentioning Benjamin Hawkins is a masterstroke, since he was the General Superintendent for Indian Affairs between 1796 and 1818 and was principal Indian agent to the Creek nation; he became so close to its people that he learned their language, was adopted by them and married a Creek woman. Who better to write about the risks of the Creek rising in revolt?

But if the supposed letter was ever written, it doesn’t now exist in any archive that any researcher has so far found (his letters have been published, if anybody would like to check). It must surely be the creation of a fertile modern mind desiring to put the flesh of evidence on the dry bones of outright invention. And even if it did, the initial capital letter would mean nothing, as at the time it was still common practice to capitalise all nouns.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 18 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: 18 February 2012.