E-MAGAZINE 650: SATURDAY 1 AUGUST 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Facebook I’ve joined the twenty-first century and become a member of Facebook. Friends welcome!
Toad-in-the-hole Hillary Goldsmith remembers a different usage of this term I discussed last time, which, however, tends to confirm its derivation: “Back in South Africa in my childhood a toad-in-the-hole referred to a slice of bread with the centre cut out. This was fried in butter and an egg placed in the hole and also fried. This breakfast treat was most popular amongst the kids of the 60s and 70s.” Pat Gooley, who lives in the US, has heard this usage in Oregon, California and Virginia; Joseph Quinton found it under that name in a cookbook of the NW Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network. Australians know it, too, James Perkins and Phoebe Ling informed me, the latter adding that it’s “popular at morning barbecues”.
I said I was suspicious of Captain Francis Grose’s description of it in his Provincial Glossary of 1787 as “meat boiled in a crust”. Jonathon Green, editor of Chambers Dictionary of Slang, gently remonstrated: “I think you impugn the great Captain’s culinary sophistication. One need but look at his portrait to see that here was a major-league foodie who would have known boiled from baked any time. He was a trencherman of renown. More seriously, I refer you to the English Dialect Dictionary, one definition in which is ‘a small suet pudding cooked and served in broth’. That would seem to fit the Captain’s menu?” True, and I should have checked the EDD (too many sources, too little time ...) but it’s the second definition in the entry, the first being “a dish consisting of meat baked or fried in batter”, which is nearer the conventional view.
Titivil Scott Langill and Barbara Berger pointed out that medieval scribes ascribed to Titivillus the jogging of elbows and skipping of pens that caused blots, false strokes, and ink smears when copying manuscripts. Scott Langill added that his picture is in the marginal decorations of a number of old manuscripts. Patrick Martin and several other readers mentioned a story by Michael Ayrton, Tittivulus or The Verbiage Collector, an account of the efforts of an obscure devil to collect idle words, which is also a satire on bureaucracy: “Tittivulus starts as a minor fiend paddling contentedly in the Styx and ends as the leader of a Stalinist coup to take over Hell itself.”
Out like Lottie’s Eye Kristin O’Keefe found this story about the origin of the expression in the Dallas Morning News of 11 January 1935: “Lottie Patterson was the lady’s name and she was a sister of Billy Patterson. And when the famous assault on Billy Patterson was made, by an unknown assailant, Lottie came to the defense of her brother and got one of her pretty Irish eyes poked out.” The story goes on to say that Billy was then the bouncer at a primitive night club, but was later elected to the Legislature. But who struck Billy Patterson? or who gave Billy Patterson the blow? were well-known joking enquiries in the US in the nineteenth century, supposedly originating in Boston and meaning “who did it? who was the guilty party?”. One example is in a syndicated election report in the Galveston News of 12 November 1873: “They are pretty well agreed that the Republicans have been badly beaten, but dispute as to who it was that gave Billy Patterson the blow.” I suspect that the Patterson in the Dallas Morning News story is fictitious.
Robin Wilkinson, originally from Texas, recalls a fine variation on the idiom, “Sometime in the 1990s, at a bridge game in Mississippi, an inadequate dummy was tabled and declarer exclaimed, ‘Well, we’re going down like Lottie’s drawers!’”
2. Weird Words: Beghilos
Grab the nearest digital calculator. Enter the number 50714938. Now look at the display upside down. With a little imagination, you may see the word beghilos. (The calculator, of course, has to have a standard seven-segment display.) Calculators vary slightly in the way they display numbers — some leave out the bottom bar on the 9, which turns the word into bebhilos. However, beghilos has become a rather rare slangy term for what is more formally known as calculator spelling. Nobody knows where it comes from or how old it is, though I’ve found an example in a Usenet posting dated 1994.
The cover of an album by The Hollies in 1969.
To be 37819173 to play this game in the 1970s, you had to be young, geekish and slightly bored.
• The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that the language you speak conditions how you think, has long been controversial. An article in Newsweek reports experiments that provide evidence for the hypothesis.
• You may recall all the fuss a couple of years ago over the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. Some astronomers are trying to get the decision reversed, which will require textbook and dictionary editors to yet again change their entries. See this recent New Scientist article.
• Jesse Sheidlower’s book, The F-Word, about the rudest word in the language, was published in 1995 and in a revised edition in 1999. The updated and enlarged third edition is to be published in the US in September. More here.
• Every four years, Pamela Munro, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles compiles a glossary of slang that’s based on research by her undergraduates. This collection may be said to be Obama, current student slang meaning cool. A brief report was in the Los Angeles Times on 29 July. The work (UCLA Slang 6) is available from UCLA.
4. Questions and Answers: Crêpe hanger
[Q] From Andrew Purkiss: I had always assumed that we had to use the German word Schadenfreude because there was no English equivalent. I recently came across the phrase crepe hanger, in a question to the Q&A column in the Daily Mail, which claimed that it meant Schadenfreude. Have you come across it? If so, what on earth is its origin?
[A] The questioner his got his semantic knickers in a twist. The phrase certainly exists, though it’s hardly an everyday one. But it has nothing in common with the German Schadenfreude, which means pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.
A crêpe hanger is the ultimate pessimist:
”You Irish are in love with your sorrows. You are too damned depressing.” “I am not in love with my sorrows!” “You’re a fucking crepe hanger.” “What is a crepe hanger?” “You see the world draped in black. Nobody’s sorrows are worse than yours. You hang black crepe on everything.”
The Immune Spirit, by Susan Ryan Jordan, 2001.
My reference books variously say it’s from the 1940s or the 1920s. The earliest I’ve so far found is dated 1909 (from The Silver Hoard by Rex Beach). It seems to have become common shortly after that date. It has most often been spelled crape hanger, or sometimes crapehanger — especially in early examples — to reflect the way that the word for the crinkled fabric was for centuries spelled in English. (In more recent times, we have returned it more nearly to its original French form by changing the a back to an e; in the UK we now also frequently include the accent.)
It’s forgivable that moderns who encounter it are puzzled. Undertakers’ assistants have long ago ceased to be literal crêpe hangers, engaged to drape black crêpe across the windows and mirrors of a house in which a person has died. Neighbours these days no longer follow the old custom of similarly hanging crêpe in their windows as a mark of sympathy and respect. Nor is the customary clothing of a grieving female relative now characterised by crêpe:
As for periods of mourning, we are told that a widow’s mourning should last eighteen months, although in England it is somewhat lightened in twelve. For the first six months the dress should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow’s cap of white crape if preferred.
Harper’s Bazar: 17 Apr. 1886.
It’s intriguing that the rise in popularity of the idiom roughly coincided with the date at which the extremes of mourning of the nineteenth century were going out of fashion. Perhaps before then it would have been regarded as inappropriate or even offensive.
Strictly, the term ought to mean “mourning”, not “pessimism”. It might be that the meaning came about through the conventional downcast face and lugubrious expression adopted by undertakers, which made them look as though they were expecting the worst rather than officiating at rituals to mark its already having happened. More probably, it started life in the sense “kill-joy”, which in one way undertakers, mourning and funerals certainly are, and moved on from there.
5. What I’ve recently learned
• Babydolls are a breed of miniature sheep, proving useful in a New Zealand vineyard because they keep the grass short but aren’t tall enough to eat the grapes off the vines.
• Yuppiedrome is a caustic British nickname for a new-build flat (or apartment), presumed shoddily constructed. Another nickname given in the same article is “eurobox”.
• Some amphibians, such as the Alaska wood frog, are able to survive being frozen during the winter, turning them into what some witty scientist has termed frogsicles.
• The succession of human sculptures, organised by Anthony Gormley as a form of street theatre on the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, have become known as plinthers and plinthians.
• Adolesce, the back-formed verb from “adolescence”, which looked new to me when I found it in the Observer, is recorded at least as far back as Tono-Bungay, the 1909 novel by H G Wells.
• An AP headline on Tuesday raised Harvey Pogoriler’s eyebrows: “Man pleads not guilty in stolen violin case”. He feels it must have been rather cramped in there.
• Joseph Burlingame was surprised by an oriental business practice, implied by another syndicated AP report, which he found in the Canton Repository (the Ohio one) on 26 July: “Some 30,000 Chinese steelworkers clashed with police in a protest over plans to merge their mill with another company and beat the company’s general manager to death.” It appeared unchanged in the Annapolis Capital the same day but the Sydney Morning Herald’s subeditor was on the ball and added the word they before beat.
• But the SMH isn’t perfect, as shown by this sentence from its Web site on Monday: “The 1988 Lockerbie plane bomber, who has prostate cancer, wants to be freed from a Scottish jail where he is serving a life sentence on compassionate grounds.” John Lynch commented, “I wonder why the life sentence was compassionate?” The paper later changed it.
• Better punctuation would sometimes help, as this sentence from an article in Monday’s Globe and Mail of Boston demonstrates: “Her slim legs are crossed elegantly at the knee and at her neck, a colourful scarf is arranged artfully over her shoulder.” Tom Vogl would like to see this contortionist in action.