E-MAGAZINE 670: SATURDAY 19 DECEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Christmas break There will be no issue of World Wide Words next Saturday, 26 December. The next issue will be on 2 January 2010. The compliments of the festive season and every good wish for the new year to you all.
Shoestring Several readers thought that there were other cultural associations to this term that needed teasing out. Barrie Wright wrote: “You didn’t mention the most likely American source to my mind — poor people selling shoestrings and matches on the streets, in places like old New York. It’s appropriate both to their own poverty and the small coin needed to buy from them.” Randall Bart added: “The story I heard is that starting a business on a shoestring referred to a poor immigrant in New York. Supposedly he sold one pair of laces on the street for a nickel, used this nickel to buy several more pairs, then returned to the street to sell them, and thus a business empire was built.” John Friesen commented, “Surely a shoestring budget is one on which you can afford the shoestrings, but not the shoes. In other words, paltry. Which is pretty much implied by what you said, but more succinct.”
Other readers pointed out that the essence of the idea is Biblical:
And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich.
Genesis 14:22-23, King James Bible, 1611. At the time of the translation, a lachet was a thong, in particular a shoelace or shoestring, which makes shoelatchet a tautology. It was once thought that the similar latch for a door fastening (which was commonly operated from outside by a leather string) was the same word, but it is now believed to be from Old English laeccan, to take hold of or grasp.
Redd Lots of comments came in about this word, many of them noting the use of redd up to mean clear up, associated by Americans in particular with the dialect of Pittsburgh (Pittsburghese, also known as Yinzer from the local second-person plural pronoun yinz, which is otherwise unknown in American speech). Peter Jones recalls, “My wife’s mother used to speak of redding up the house when guests were due. That usually meant an intense bustle of energy for about 30 minutes, picking up newspapers, putting out clean towels in the bath, and shooing out the dogs.”
This form continues to be used in Scotland, as Graham Legge reported: “To redd up is to tidy, but it is also used to describe a mess — as in The hoose wis in a richt redd up! — meaning that the house was in a state of disarray.” Chris Smith gave another example: “Da Voar Redd-up (The Spring Clean-up) is an annual event in Shetland: it’s an effort by volunteers, with support in the way of sacks, gloves and suchlike from the Shetland Amenity Trust, to remove bruck, which is Shetlandic for litter or rubbish, from public spaces — roadsides, beaches, and so forth. (Admonitory signs in Shetland say Dunna chuck bruck, which my late father, on his first visit here, read with some puzzlement, as ‘Don’t chuck a brick’.)”
Several readers pointed to a possible link through Old Norse, which is suggested by terms in its modern descendents. Henri Day wrote: “The Swedish verb reda, with similar forms in other Scandinavian languages, means ‘to put in order’, ‘to make ready’, ‘to untangle’, precisely the sense of redding in ‘redding the line’.”
It’s a century-old term, now rare, for a deceptive story or scheme, pranks, tricks or other irritating or foolish carryings-on. If it’s familiar to you, especially if you’re not native to its former US heartland, it may be because you are widely read in the works of P G Wodehouse. He used it a lot, and is credited with being the first person to commit it to print:
I’ll hang around for a while just in case friend Pilbeam starts any rannygazoo.
Bill the Conqueror, by P G Wodehouse, 1924.
Early in its existence, in the 1890s, it became a word of the moment, especially among Washington newspapermen, though it was then spelled rannikaboo or reinikaboo. A syndicated article that appeared in many American newspapers in early 1898 explained its allure for journalists:
“Reinikaboo” is entitled to a place in the next revision of the dictionaries. It has grown into the degree of usage which warrants formal recognition in the language. A reinikaboo is ... a statement of news out of all proportion and almost out of relation to the facts, and yet having a certain origin and shadowy foundation. ... In the classification of the Washington newspaper men there are fakes, reinikaboos, and real news.
Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 Jan. 1898.
As there’s more reinikaboo around today than there has ever been, you may feel the word deserves to be revived.
As to where it comes from, we have to admit almost total defeat. Jonathon Green suggests the first part may be from the dialect ranny, rash or giddy. We might guess that the second part of the rannikaboo form could derive from kaboom, but that imitative term became popular only in the 1940s. A connection to peekaboo seems unlikely. Its various forms may have developed out of whole cloth through a need to create an expressive epithet.
3. What I've learned this week
Redd again It turned up in reports about the UN climate-change conference in Copenhagen. It’s among the many jargonistic acronyms created by negotiators; according to my newspaper it stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries”. Surely that makes REDFDDC? But a look online shows that REDD is based on a mercifully shortened form of that unwieldy phrase — “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation”. That ought to save a few trees by itself.
Swarming around the delegates in Copenhagen were large numbers of observers, mostly members of non-governmental organisations, NGOs. UN bureaucrats grouped them acronymically. There were BINGOs (business and industrial NGOs), ENGOs (environmental NGOs), RINGOs (research-oriented and independent NGOs) and TUNGOs (trade union NGOs). To be complete, we should add the IPOs (indigenous peoples’ groups) and the LGMAs (local government and municipal authorities). There were also youth organisations, who came to call themselves YOUNGOs, presumably in satirical commentary rather than slavish imitation.
4. Articles: Colour Me Environmental
It’s been gradually creeping up on me for some weeks now, but the association of colours with environmental matters is reaching epidemic proportions.
Green, meaning something that’s kind to the environment or a commitment to protecting it, has been around for decades. We are unsurprised by figurative terms using the word, even if it isn’t immediately clear what they mean — such as green accounting, in which environmental assets and costs are included in national and corporate accounts, and green budget, which adds such costs into estimates of income and expenditure. Any business providing environmentally acceptable alternatives to traditional products is part of the green sector and contributes green collar jobs to the green economy (as opposed to the black economy, which isn’t about people avoiding paying taxes but the old-fashioned sort that doesn’t consider the environment). The green premium is a payment to cover the extra cost of sustainably grown fruit and vegetables; we may one day be charged a green tax to persuade us to reduce carbon emissions. Green chemistry is the search for alternatives to industrial solvents to help reduce toxic waste, and green gas is another name for biogas, generated from renewable biological sources. A doubly colourful term for biofuels in general is green gold, which has also been appropriated for tea, forests and as a general term for growing plants.
With such a powerful link between good environmental practice and the colour green, it’s not surprising that other colours have been added to the palette for old-style or unpalatable equivalents.
Generally, any fuel created by green methods is green energy and so the traditional sorts are naturally enough brown energy (the alternative to green gas is brown gas, the fossil fuel that comes out of the ground). Quite different is blue energy, also called osmotic power or salinity gradient power, which is electricity that’s generated in river estuaries through the interaction of salt and fresh water. Some people have used yellow energy for the sort that’s gathered directly from the sun using photovoltaic systems. Grey energy or embodied energy is the energy that’s hidden in a product; it might be what was needed to extract it from nature or cultivate, manufacture, package and transport it.
Scientists have begun to study brown carbon, tiny particles of soot given off by burning matter and which both warm the atmosphere and cool the ground. The brown agenda has nothing to do with the policies of the current British prime minister but refers to the environmental problems of big cities in developing countries, which struggle with traditional environmental health issues at the same time as new ones. The green agenda, on the other hand, is a set of proposals for mitigating environmental ills.
Environmentalists refer to green water, which is the stuff that falls from the sky or is taken up by plants from the soil; there’s also blue water, which flows in rivers and streams. Many of us know of grey water, the outflow from household sinks and baths that is increasingly used to irrigate our gardens. Experts in the sewage business, I have learned, talk of black water, otherwise known politely as solid wastes, as opposed to yellow water, which is urine. The last of these has also been called liquid gold, a term which is confusingly and unfortunately also used for water (and sometimes even wine).
Almost certainly, we haven’t seen the last of these invented colour terms. Equally certainly, most of them are destined sooner or later to end up in the recycle bin of language. But while they last, they do add an extra hue to our speech.