E-MAGAZINE 635: SATURDAY 18 APRIL 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
L-Soft LISTSERV Choice Awards 2008-09 The total voting counts were posted on Thursday. World Wide Words came in first by a substantial margin (33,683 to 26,373 votes). Very many thanks to everybody who contributed to this splendid figure. However, this does not mean we have won. The next stage is for an L-Soft Jury to judge the three finalists and select a winner based on what it thinks is the most successful and beneficial email list or campaign. The winner will not be known until “the summer/fall time frame”.
Blow me! Paul Fitzgerald wrote, “This strikes me as one of those expressions based on such a universal metaphor that there’s probably any number of correct, parallel etymologies dating back as far as we can look. Aesop’s fables is credited with the origin of the obliquely related expression, to blow hot and cold. I’m sure the ancient Phoenicians had their own version. I was also just reading one theory that blow me down comes from the sea shanty Blow the Man Down, which in turn comes from an older African-American song, Knock a Man Down. I hope that helps to muddy the waters.”
Nicely, thank you, Mr Fitzgerald, though other readers have made similar points, particularly a nautical origin for blow me down, a link that was reinforced for many readers by being a favourite saying of Popeye the sailor man. The limited evidence available suggests that it’s quite ancient, not least eighteenth-century references to an old sailors’ name for a place in Nova Scotia they called Cape Blow-me-down (now modified to Cape Blomidon). Others noted a parallel in the phrase knock me down with a feather (now known also in a nonsensical form, blow me down with a feather, that amalgamates knock me down with a feather with blow me down). Ron Wheeler reminded me of the variation Blow you, Jack, I’m all right, which was popularised by the film I’m All Right Jack of 1959.
I may have confused people by saying that the various forms of the expression convey vexation or annoyance. They can, especially the older ones and the very mild oath blow!, but most communicate surprise. In a message from Azerbaijan, Alison Melville enlarged on this: “In my experience I would say that the form Blow me! occurs mainly in a personal narrative, introducing a surprising or annoying element (I replaced two light bulbs then, blow me! if a third one didn’t go) It is far more common as an exclamation to say well, I’m blowed! or well, I’ll be blowed!. As such, it’s not a ladylike expression, but only one degree more earthy than the over-genteel well, I’m blessed! and slightly more refined than well, I’m damned! Note, in relation to the thread of discussion on weak and strong verbs, that the past participle is definitely blowed, not blown.”
Pig Latin “Thibanks fibor yibour wibondiberfibul wibork,” Kim Braithwaite wrote in her message about a variation that she recalls being called Double Dutch. “In it, you insert an extra syllable in front of the vowel sound of every syllable in a word, in our case -ib-.” Graham Kelsey remembers using -ayg- in much the same way, while Terry Davidson recalls -arp-, which for him turns explained on World Wide Words into arpexplarplainarped arpon warporld warpide warpords. Mark Peel pointed me to a book of 1934, Jerry Todd and the Flying Flapdoodle by Leo Edwards, which contains the line “‘Where-gly you-gly go-gly?’ Red inquired in hog Latin.” The lingo clearly had many dialectal variations.
The quote from The Lion King, ixnay on the upidstay, didn’t mean what I said, as several readers pointed out. Little Simba and Nala are talking loudly about the “stupid hyenas”. Zazu can see that the hyenas are approaching; using Pig Latin he warns the cubs not to say they’re stupid. Several readers told me about a similar usage in the film Young Frankenstein, in which our hero complains in the hearing of the monster about the monster’s rotten brain; Igor hisses, “Ixnay on the ottenray!”
Kettling Many readers disputed my suggested origin for this item of British police slang. Tony Sharp wonders if I wasn’t being too clever, a subtext of other writers. Several suggested that kettle was just a large container for demonstrators, who were therefore bottled up in a big way. Others mentioned steaming, London slang for a group mugging of a captive group; this would imply that kettling is not so much to contain demonstrators as to engage in violence on them or provoke them. Police tactics at the G20 summit might suggest this is the real origin.
Christine Rupp and Catherine Lodge noted that German curiously has the closely similar term einkesseln: to surround or “enkettle”. My Kluge dictionary says it derives from the seventeenth-century Kesseltreiben, a hunting term meaning to encircle an area in order to trap game, which later became a military verb. Anja Jessen explained further: “The word has some military connotations, but can be found in wildlife or anywhere items are being gathered by a circular motion. As in water contained in a kettle — it can bubble all it wants, but it cannot escape. The word is neither positive nor negative, it just describes the motion. Which means that in an informal setting you would even be able to subject your thoughts to einkesseln, for example, if you’re rambling or can’t get to the gist of something.”
Pollack David Wright e-mailed, “Alan Davidson, the author of North Atlantic Seafood, who can do no wrong in the fish department in my eyes, says that while pollack is listed as having the French form lieu jaune as you say, colin is indeed given as an alternative in northern France. Davidson remarks there are a lot of Irish and Scottish names. Why couldn’t Sainsbury’s have used one of these?”
Web site updates I’ve been beavering away for the past couple of weeks, updating and reformatting the Web site. Most of the changes are invisible, as they relate to better coding for outputting the 2,200+ pages from the source database whenever I need to refresh the site. But you may spot some small changes, such as improved linking to social networking sites and to the site RSS feeds.
2. Turns of Phrase: Passive drinking
It started as a humorous comment in the 1980s, satirising the older term passive smoking. Fortune magazine in 1988 sarcastically commented, “Can we doubt that ingenious researchers will ultimately calculate the toxic effects of passive drinking — errant molecules of alcohol from highballs in the box seats statistically killing innocents in the bleachers?”
Be careful what you laugh at, sometimes your jokes will come back to bite you. The idea of passive drinking has been put forward in all seriousness, at first by reports from the European Commission from 2003 onwards that worked towards creating a European Union alcohol strategy. These discussed the criminal, social and health harm caused by alcohol, in particular the effects on third parties — partners and children of people with alcohol-related problems, people injured by drunk drivers, accidental victims of drunken street fights — whose plight could be most simply summarised as the result of passive drinking.
The term began to appear in newspapers with serious intent from 2004 on. It became more widely known in the UK following a proposal in mid-March from the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol should be imposed on the sale of drinks to reduce alcohol consumption, a proposal that was instantly dismissed by the Prime Minister.
In his 2008 annual report Professor Liam Donaldson describes “passive drinking” as “a concept whose time has come”, noting that alcohol consumption has increased by 40% since 1970, the figure by which it has fallen in France and Italy.
Health Insurance and Protection Magazine, 2 Apr. 2009
“Passive drinking”, the effects that alcohol has on innocent people, should also be acknowledged, he said, likening the issue to passive smoking. And he called for a national consensus, prompted by the Government, that alcohol consumption should be substantially reduced.
Daily Mail, 17 Mar. 2009
3. Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary
This, my most recent book, is now out in paperback in the US.
Gallimaufry is about words that are vanishing from everyday life because we don’t need them any more. Sometimes one is lost when the thing it describes becomes obsolete: would you wear a billycock? It may survive in a figurative sense though the original meaning is lost: what was the first paraphernalia? Sometimes it gives way to a more popular alternative: who still goes to the picture house to watch the talkies? More than 1,200 vanishing and vanished words are neatly packaged into 31 themes that range from cooking through card games to unfashionable fashions and obscure occupations. Read more.
Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary is published by Oxford University Press. Hardcover: ISBN 0198610629; paperback: ISBN 0199551022; 272pp, including index.
It was the heat, the awful heat. Sailors from temperate climes who were transported into the tropics sometimes suffered a heatstroke, called a calenture, that resulted in temporary insanity. The tale used to be told that weeks of being becalmed in the Doldrums led afflicted sailors to imagine the sea to be the cool green fields of home and that they would try to reach it by jumping overboard.
So, by a calenture misled,
The Bubble, by Jonathan Swift, 1721, a satirical poem about the infamous speculative South Sea Bubble of that year.
The word comes from Spanish calentura, a fever or sunstroke, based on the Latin verb calere, to be warm. A less fanciful description comes from two decades after Swift’s poem:
Having heard so often of a Calenture, I expected to meet with some instances of it, even before I arrived in the West-Indies; but they are now grown very scarce, for I never saw above one person labouring under it: He was continuously laughing, and if I may be indulged in the term, merrily mad: One day in the height of his frenzy, he jumped over-board in Charles-Town Bay, but was luckily saved from drowning by one of his Sailors, or from being devoured by same ravenous Shark.
A Natural History of Nevis, by William Smith, 1745.
The word may well be familiar from two famous eighteenth-century seafaring works: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Later, a calenture became any kind of raging fever linked to delirium and it also took on a figurative sense of some burning passion, the feverish ardour of a man afflicted with love, or the emotions of a spurned lover:
That the man who had promised to marry her, had exhausted the vocabulary of love for her, should thus cast her off, struck her into a frantic calenture which, for a season, threatened her existence.
The Spinners, by Eden Phillpotts, 1918.
• A commercial for a local restaurant, reports Beth Taylor, claimed that “every meal is better than the next.” She wonders how long it will be before the meals are really terrible?
• Addeane Caelleigh read an article in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine for April 5 about pandas in the National Zoo. According to the article, a zoo laboratory technician was “waiting for a vile of panda urine.” In error we may speak truth.
• The Web site of Channel 10 television in Tampa Bay, Florida, had a report last Saturday on an attack on a man returning home: “49-year-old Jose Cisncros was walking into the Southern Air Mobile Home Park at 5600 14th S. West. That’s where he lives around 10:20 pm Thursday night.” R G Schmidt noted that there was no word about where he lives the rest of the time.
• Adam Sims, who works for a gas transporter firm in the UK, was professionally and personally amused by the headline from the Times of India: “Careless digging leaves gas pipeline raptured.” Ah, that first fine careless rapture.
• Many periodicals reporting on the publication of Charles Darwin’s undergraduate bills at Christ’s College, Cambridge, quoted a press release from the university, of 23 March: “Darwin famously spent little of his time at Cambridge studying or in lectures, preferring to shoot, ride and collect beetles.” Gary Moore, who read this in MacLean’s Magazine, wonders how big were these beetles, or how small was Darwin?