Welcome A special greeting to the many subscribers who have joined as a result of World Wide Words being featured in three publications in the past week: by John McIntyre in his You Don’t Say column in the Baltimore Sun last Saturday, by Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, and by Randy Cassingham in his This is True newsletter under the heading Bonzer Web Site of the Week. He features events from the news that are bizarre but true — I’ve been a subscriber for many years. You might like to follow up the dated Australianism bonzer — today celebrated more outside the country than in.
The Fifth of November in Britain is a traditional festival marked by bonfires and fireworks. It commemorates the day in 1605 when a group of conspirators, including the infamous Guy Fawkes (in truth a minor member of the plot), failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament and with it King James I of England. It’s celebrated privately less than it used to be because of the high cost and perceived danger of fireworks, but public events remain common.
Tourbillion (in older works more commonly tourbillon) is one of the many types of firework that might be part of the festivities. It was described by Charles Dickens:
A Tourbillon is a sort of double rocket, having orifices so placed as to produce a double recoil — one rotatory and one vertical — the Tourbillon revolves and ascends at the same time, and is an exceedingly beautiful and brilliant firework.
Household Words, 10 Sep. 1853. Putting it another way, it produces a vertical spiral of flame and sparks.
Many famous pyrotechnic displays have included them, such as the extraordinarily lavish and over-hyped one in April 1749 that was accompanied by the first public performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks:
The fire-works were then displayed, and consisted of several thousand rockets, cascades, archimedean screws, wheels, fountains, fixed and vertical suns, marrons, tourbillons, pots de brin, fire-ballons etc.
London, or Interesting Memorials of its Rise, Progress & Present State, by Joseph Clinton Robertson, 1824.
Like many other firework names, tourbillion is from French. The French influence derives from an early work on the ceremonial and recreational uses of fireworks published by the military engineer Amédée-François Frézier in 1706. Tourbillion is from tourbillon, a tornado or whirlwind, which can be traced back to Latin turbo, something that revolves or spins, such as a top, a whirlpool or eddy, or a tornado. Tourbillion in English has had the last two of these senses and is also known to watchmakers as a rotating cage that’s designed to offset the movements of the wearer.
Other firework names from French include crossette (little cross), which breaks into pieces to make a cross shape; gerbe (a sheaf of wheat), which throws up a fan of coloured sparks or flames; maroon (marron, a chestnut), which makes a loud bang like a cannon (it’s said to derive from the noise of a chestnut bursting in the fire); nautic (nautique, nautical), a firework that floats on water. A pot de brin was described by Charles Dickens in the same article in Household Words as “a case or cavity from which serpents, stars, and crackers are thrown up into the air”.
It’s extraordinary what fuss a little letter can cause.
The news in Britain in recent weeks has been full of references to the notorious Plan A of the Chancellor, George Osborne. He said last year that his scheme for improving the country’s finances was the only one needed. Last December, the Treasury insisted that “There is no Plan B”, which shows signs of becoming a sarcastic catchphrase. A hundred economists published an open letter in the Observer last Sunday in an attempt to change Osborne’s mind, arguing that “It is now clear that plan A isn’t working” and urging the government to adopt a plan B. This has been reinforced this week by similar calls from the Liberal Democrats, coalition partners in the government. Ed Balls, Osborne’s Labour opposition counterpart, dismisses all such alphabetical labels: “Call it Plan A-plus. Call it Plan B. Call it Plan C. I don’t care what they call it — Britain just needs a plan that works.”
Observers of a logical bent might wonder, if Mr Osborne only ever expects to have a Plan A, why he bothered to assign a letter to it. A British author had fun with this approach half a century ago:
“This is what I call ‘pattern A’.”
“And what is pattern B?” asked Ann Halsey.
“There won’t be any pattern B.”
“Then why bother with the A?”
“Preserve me from the obtuseness of women! I can call it pattern A because I want to, can’t I?”
“Of course, dear. But why do you want to?”
The Black Cloud, by Fred Hoyle, 1959.
To label alternatives with letters is now so fashionable as hardly to warrant much comment, even though to develop possibilities much beyond Plan C is either to suggest an over-controlling and anxious personality or strategies that contemplate extraordinary contingencies. Plan Z gets some attention, but usually as one so far down the list it can only be crackpottery. Even Plan B is more often a humorous comment on a Plan A that has proved impracticable (“we need a plan B”, “time for plan B”) than a serious potential alternative.
Legal documents have identified plans and drawings by letters for at least a couple of centuries. The origin of the figurative expression partly lies here, but more specifically in plans that illustrate alternative proposals for a development (“The scheme shown in Plan A for remodelling the house is more expensive than the alternative outlined in Plan B”).
The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for both Plan A and Plan B which imply that they originate in the US. However, its earliest citation for Plan B — a letter sent during the Civil War in 1863 — turns out to refer to a physical drawing or plan. I have found a British example, from the Report of the proceedings of the Church Congress held in Cambridge in November 1861, where it refers to one of two proposals for a scheme to modify church taxes. The first known example of Plan A is currently from an equally improbable source — the 1867 Report of the US Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition of that year.
Q From Ted Setterington: Please can you explain how we came to egg things on?
A That form of the idiom is interesting. I hadn’t previously come across it as an impersonal construction; it’s more usually as to egg somebody on, meaning to encourage or incite a person to take some action that’s often often inappropriate, dangerous or illegal. Here’s an example of your version:
“People are emotional, agitated, so they are easy to influence. It doesn’t take much to egg things on,” he said.
Oakland Tribune, 10 Jul. 2010.
And here’s one in the form that appears more often:
Party-loving Mike hit the dance floor with other stripping pals at a boozy 40th birthday bash for one of his Sports Direct chain workers. Other guests egged them on with shouts of “More” and ”Get ’em off”
The Sun (London), 5 Sep. 2011. Several photographs were attached, but I’ll spare you those.
Despite its spelling, it has nothing to do with actual ova. Those involved are not being persuaded into their actions through fear of being pelted with eggs, nor are eggs employed in any other way. The source is quite different and its spelling is accidental, the result of orthographical convergence.
The origin is actually the Old Norse eggja, to incite, which is related to Old English ecg, an edge, and to the Middle Low German eggen, to harrow. That might suggest you egg somebody on by poking them in the back with something sharp, but the connection doesn’t seem to be so literal. Anyhow, the word came into English around the year 1200, initially in the sense of provoking or tempting a person. Our modern form isn’t so ancient, but old enough, appearing in the middle of the sixteenth century.
By the time egg somebody on had appeared, the spelling had changed through being influenced by eggs of the consumable sort.
• The San Francisco Chronicle reported on a court case in its issue of 31 October, Jitze Couperus tells us: “A Florida widow who died in the 2001 anthrax mailings has reached a tentative settlement in her lawsuit against the U.S. government according to court filings.”
• Numeracy rules. Fred A Roth reports that a headline on Fox News on 27 October read “FOX NEWS POLL: More than three thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the U.S. is heading.” It has since been changed. So has the one that Roy Zukerman spotted on the website of the Los Angeles Times the same day: in an article about measuring the size of the planetoid Eris when it passed in front of a star, it stated that “Just three telescopes, both in Chile, managed to catch the event.”
• Seen by Ian Harrison on an advertising sign placed by a well-known local supermarket in Johannesburg: “Whole chicken pieces.” How would one tell?
• “The ads down the side of Gmail,” wrote Sarah Borowski, “are quite often a source of amusement, such as this one, obviously aimed at Jake the Peg: ‘Get 3 For The Price Of 2 When You Shop Online With Hotter Shoes!’”