E-MAGAZINE 644: SATURDAY 20 JUNE 2009
1. Notes from a tired traveller
Holiday over. It went well, thanks for asking, though a coach tour that covered 3158 miles airport to airport through seven US states in 16 days was tiring. We visited many fascinating sites that included the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks and the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments. Unforgettable.
Staggering blearily down to breakfast at 7am in a different hotel every day required our muzzy brains to puzzle out the peculiar logic of the current establishment’s arrangements (why were the plates for one’s toast so often at the other end of the room from the machine to make it? why was milk for the cereal rarely anywhere near it?). As a result, I have become the founding and so far the sole member of the SSABB, the Society for the Standardisation of American Breakfast Buffets.
After so long an absence, a number of points have arisen relating to recent issues. To let you get to the new stuff without having to read through comments on the old, I’ve put them at the end.
Is the image that comes to mind of a woman in a seat on a pivoted plank being ducked in the local pond? If so, you’re nearly right. Two punishment devices are known in medieval and post-medieval England with
An illustration of a rather ornate ducking-stool from George Clarke’s History of Ipswich of 1830. The scold is wearing a brank or iron bridle.
The cucking-stool was rather different, as you may judge from a genteel comment by Robert Chambers in his Book of Days in 1863: “The cucking-stool was a seat of a kind which delicacy forbids us particularly to describe.” You can appreciate why he said that when you realise that cucking derives from cack, faeces, which is also to be found in cack-handed. A cucking-stool was a commode, called at the time a close-stool — a covered chamber pot in a wooden seat.
The offender was placed on the stool as a punishment designed to subject her to embarrassment and ignominy. (The device was used for women only: men had the pillory.) The stool was often fitted with wheels so that she could be paraded about the town. The stool later became a chair for ducking the offender in a pond, but the old name was sometimes preserved.
The main offence punished by both devices was of being a scold, a woman who constantly nags or grumbles. This was considered to be not just a problem for her immediate family but for the community at large and to need firm action to quieten her down. The punishment was also for brewers who sold bad ale or bakers who gave short measure, because most brewers and bakers in medieval times were women.
3. Questions and Answers: Wine bottle sizes
[Q] From Belinda Hardman: How did wine bottles get names such as Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah and others? The ancient references of most of the names are obvious; the “how?” and “why?” are not. How was the hierarchy by volume and name determined? For how long does wine have to age for it to be called a Methuselah?
[A] I’m glad to be able to report that the age of the wine has no connection with these curious names, otherwise a methuselah would have to be aged for 969 years. It’s one of a large set of names for sizes of wine bottle. It’s now illegal to put any of them except one on a bottle and they’ve become curiosities that mainly come up in pub quizzes.
The only term of the set that’s still allowed is magnum, which refers to a bottle containing two standard bottles or 1.5 litres. It’s also the oldest of all the terms, having appeared in English in one of the prose works of the Scots poet Robert Burns, back in 1788. It’s an abbreviation of Latin magnum bonum, a large good thing. It was in Scotland that it acquired the sense of a size of wine bottle and became abbreviated to magnum. It has also been given to a variety of potato, various varieties of cooking plums, a gun, and even a large-barrelled steel pen.
The remainder of the set, as usually quoted in reference books, are jeroboam (4 bottles/3 litres), rehoboam (6/4.5), methuselah (8/6), salmanazar (12/9), balthazar (16/12), nebuchadnezzar (20/15), melchior (24/18), solomon (28/21), sovereign (33.3/25) and primat (36/27). Some lists include the melchizedek, holding 40 standard bottles or 30 litres. The largest sizes refer only to champagne and are extremely rare, not least because it would be almost impossible to lift the bottles.
As you say, most of these are ancient, deriving from the names of kings mentioned in the Bible. Jeroboam, for example, was a king of Israel. His name was first applied to a size of wine bottle in a work by Sir Walter Scott (another Scotsman, you will notice) and seems to have been a joke derived from the description of Jeroboam in the first book of Kings as “a mighty man of valour” who “made Israel to sin”.
The remainder date from much later. Rehoboam (a king of Judah and son of Solomon, also from the first book of Kings) appears in 1895. Nebuchadnezzar (ruler of the Babylonian empire, the man with the famous hanging gardens), turns up in a letter written by Aldous Huxley in 1916. Methuselah, salmanazar and balthazar are all listed for the first time in André Simon’s Dictionary of Wine in 1935. Methuselah is the Old Testament patriarch; Salmanazar is more properly Shalmaneser, a King of Assyria mentioned in the second book of Kings; and Balthazar is assumed in dictionaries to be the king of Babylon whom we know better as Belshazzar, the one who saw the writing on the wall at his feast. However, he might instead be one of the three wise man who with Melchior and Caspar in medieval legend attended the birth of Jesus. I prefer the latter explanation, because Melchior is another in the list.
Apart from magnum and jeroboam, few of these names have ever been used seriously. (The Oxford English Dictionary’s recent revision of its entry for melchior doesn’t even include the wine sense.) They seem to have been fanciful creations, dreamed up by a person or persons unknown on the basis of the Biblical associations of jeroboam. My most diligent search has been unable to find out anything at all about who named them. We’re not even sure in some cases which language they first appeared in. My French dictionaries say jeroboam and rehoboam were imported from English into French at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century respectively. They also say that methuselah (as mathusalem) is not known in French as a name for a wine bottle size before the middle of the twentieth century and salmanazar not before 1964, which suggests that these, too, appeared first in English. But nebuchadnezzar is known as a bottle size in French (as nabuchodonosor) in 1897, before it appeared in English.
In summary, we know a very little about the “how” and the “why”, and nothing at all about the “who”; just a hint to explain why the various names were chosen for the different sizes.
4. Reviews: I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears
With that title, what other adjective could one use to describe the book than “quirky”? It’s a compilation by Jag Bhalla, who describes himself as an amateur idiologist, or student of idioms. He presents a thousand
An idiom is an expression whose meaning can’t be deduced from those of the individual words. If you say that you’ve nipped a problem in the bud, put a spoke in someone’s wheel or hauled a worker over the coals, complain that a relative is the black sheep of the family or that your ears are burning, you will be understood by other native English speakers, but run a severe risk of confusing foreigners.
Similarly, Jag Bhalla claims that in Colombia, a Spanish speaker might say that he has been swallowed like a postman’s sock, by which he means he is hopelessly in love. This might be because the object of his love has thighs like mango tree trunks, in Hindi a compliment to an attractive woman. But if the tomatoes have faded, as a Russian might put it, love has gone; Arabic speakers are said to express the same idea through commenting that you’re getting on each other’s heads. You may indeed be like a dog and a monkey, a Japanese way of saying you’re on bad terms. Trying to comprehend the reasons for such idiomatic constructions is like climbing a tree to catch a fish, a Chinese way of voicing the idea that a thing is impossible, or trying to seize the moon by the teeth, a French equivalent.
The author is frank in his introduction. He says that he has relied on the translators of his reference books for all his examples and accepts that native speakers in some cases might not recognise the references because the idioms are obsolete or the translator got it wrong. He also says, “This horde of plundered international idioms is intended for low-commitment sampling and easy reading.” It’s definitely for dipping into, not for reading all the way through at once.
The title, by the way, is said to be a Russian idiom. Its English equivalent is “I’m not pulling your leg”. Seriously.
[Jag Bhalla, I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World; National Geographic Books; published on 16 June; paperback, 256pp; list price $12.95; ISBN 13: 978-1-4262-0552-1; ISBN 10: 1-4262-0458-2.]
• John R Cray received a catalogue from the US clothing company Eddie Bauer. The words “Ultimate Sale” were in a red shield on the cover, under which was written, “Only happens twice a year”.
• Over on the American Dialect Society list, Michael J Sheehan told members that on Monday the CNN news anchor introduced a report from its chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour in Tehran by announcing, “I’m sure she’ll be able to fill in the holes we’ve been raising.”
• Department of Muddled Metaphors, Australian edition: Laurie Malone heard a commentator point out on ABC radio on 11 June that “bird flu and swine flu are two different kettles of fish”.
• An article on the New York Times site dated 9 June includes this sentence: “Then come ... a grab-bag of performers and media types whose common threat might simply be that they are interesting to know.” For Peter Strauss this was a threat too far.
• An intriguing sidelight on mammalian reproduction appears on the Web site of the Handmade Scotch Egg Company, which Bonnie Scott Edwards visited recently: “These are not simply Scotch Eggs, these are lovingly prepared meals in their own right — made with eggs from free to roam happy chickens and pigs.”
6. Feedback, notes and comments
F--t In last week’s issue I professed myself to be baffled by two decorously omitted letters in the doctor’s expletive quoted from Tobias Smollett’s book The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves. As dozens of readers pointed out, they must be A and R, a witty riposte to the apothecary’s reference to the patient’s borborygmata, rumblings in the guts. Others noted that at the time the phrase a fart for your ... was a way to rudely dismiss something as useless or unimportant. Donald Le Messurier responded: “I must say that your being puzzled by the missing letters has me wondering if in fact you are puzzled by their meaning or by their being omitted. On the other hand you might be pulling our chain, knowing full well what was meant.” Quite so.
Bald Also from last week’s issue, several readers suggested that in some of the instances I cited of animals with names that include the adjective bald, meaning “white” — especially bald eagle — it is really a shortened form of piebald. My references don’t agree, and historical databases show that the bird was named bald eagle before the rather rare piebald eagle ever appeared; the latter name is usually introduced to try to explain the origin of the more usual form.
Cagmag Alison Hill responded to my piece about this word in the 6 June issue: “It was used by my grandmother (brought up in Bath, in the 19th century) and handed on to me by my mother (brought up in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, in the early 20th). They both said it as ‘keg-meg’ (both halves rhyming with ‘peg’). They would have recognised your enquirer’s association with ‘cheap, sugary foods’: my mother associated it with the kind of cheap sweets sold in my childhood by the local newsagent for (then) a halfpenny, a penny or (at most) twopence, while I understand that my grandmother used it of shop-bought cakes (which she regarded with contempt). The word was definitely pejorative, not to say insulting. They would have used it of any food not (in their opinion) worth buying, such as we now use the term ‘junk food’ for; but I have never heard it used of any description of meat.”
David Bracey e-mailed from Indiana with memories of a non-pejorative sense: “In the 1940s and 1950s in Essex (the UK one), my dear old Auntie Alice used to serve up delicious little items she called ‘cagmags’, which she confected out of breakfast cereal and chocolate. In my 70 years I’ve never heard or seen it anywhere else. Years later, after I checked out ‘cagmag’ in the OED, I asked her where she got it from. ‘Mother used to use it,’ was the reply. So that puts my ‘cagmag’ in Essex in the mid to late 1800s. I told her, ‘You’re probably the last living person to use that word’. ‘That’s nice, dear,’ was the unimpressed reply.”
Yogurt In my item on this word in the issue of 30 May, I said that a letter in the Turkish original was a g with a haček accent above it; several readers told me that it’s actually the rather similar breve. Brian Hudson noted, “There are a few Turkish dialects where the letter is voiced but, for most speakers, it’s a silent letter which stresses the preceding vowel.” Alain Gottcheiner pointed out that this explains why the most common French spelling is yaourt, without the consonant.