An early purple orchid, showing its twin tubers.
Salop. Jane Halsey commented on my piece last time: “I read with interest and nostalgic pleasure your item on the second meaning of salop, or salep, and I hope to return the pleasure by telling you that salep is still around, and still used to make a restorative drink. In Sheepshead Bay, part of the Brooklyn, NY, waterfront, more or less around the corner from the more famous Coney Island and Brighton Beach, there are a lot of Turkish restaurants and cafés. When I lived there 12 years ago, one traditional Turkish coffeehouse used to serve — but only in winter — a hot drink made of salep, milk, and sugar; it was supposed to be very protective against the ills flesh is heir to in cold weather. As I remember, it had a thick, slightly viscous texture and tasted of vanilla — not surprising, since vanilla also comes from an orchid.”
“In the medical world,” Jim Muller wrote, “the male organ which lay people call a testicle is referred to as the testis, plural testes. But once something goes wrong with it, or it has to be operated on, it turns into an orchid: orchitis for inflammation of the testis, and orchidectomy or orchiectomy for its surgical removal. Did the plant get its name from the organ, or was it the other way round?” The twin tubers of orchids were linked with the testicles in classical times and probably long before. The Greek word for testicle was orchis and this was borrowed in classical Latin for the plant because of the association. So the name of the organ came first. Testicle is from classical Latin testis (as you say, still the medical term), literally “witness”, in reference to virility, hence testify and testimonial.
Julia Cresswell pointed out, “As I’m sure lots of fans will tell you, the divine Terry Pratchett, who had a liking for taking obscure words and repurposing them, used saloop as soldiers’ slang for sweet, milky tea in Monstrous Regiment. Which means that this is probably now the best-known sense.”
Several readers queried the origin of the British term fly-tipping for dumping waste illegally, which appeared in the 1960s. We Brits often tip waste rather than dump it, most often on a rubbish tip. The first element, fly, is also in the older fly-posting, putting up posters without permission. These usages are from the verb fly in that the culprits tip and fly, or post and fly, the idea being of an action done surreptitiously and rapidly, followed by the rapid departure of the perpetrators. Another British sense of fly, knowing or worldly-wise, as in “he's a fly one!”, may be lurking in there as well.
More on handraulic. Several readers commented further on terms for having to fall back on more primitive methods of carrying out some operation. Gavin Deane wrote: “The term I’m familiar with is mandraulic rather than handraulic. The image for me has always been of a man having to do the work instead of a machine, rather than the idea of working by hand, so I imagine mandraulic is a smashing together of man and hydraulic rather than manual and hydraulic.” The word was submitted to Collins Dictionary recently but rejected because too few examples were on record, though a search would certainly find enough to make it worth considering. Many online dictionaries do include it and I suspect it’s more widely known in engineering circles than the written evidence suggests. Mandraulic is actually much older in the written record than handraulic:
At Droylsden they had no machine for handling coke. Everything was, as one of the workmen had phrased it, “mandraulic.”
The Gas Journal, 1928.
Leucism. I mentioned this in the last issue. John Rostron commented, “Wearing my retired zoologist’s hat, I can tell you about leucism. As you say, it means white plumage or colour. We had a white sparrow in our garden last year. We described it as leucistic rather than albino because it had dark eyes. An albino would have had pink eyes (with no pigmentation in the iris). Albinism is the total inability to produce pigment. In leucism, the production of pigment is suppressed in the fur or feathers.”
Hairy eyeball. My comments last time brought many responses. Most pointed to an early example in Arlo Guthrie’s famous Alice’s Restaurant of 1967, a spoken blues song in which he tells how a court conviction for littering leaves him seated with hardened criminals at his draft-board screening:
He said, “What were you arrested for, kid?” And I said, “littering”. And they all moved away from me on the bench there, and the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean nasty things, till I said, “And creating a nuisance.” And they all came back, shook my hand, and we had a great time on the bench, talking about crime ...
Others suggested that the meaning I gave for the verbal eyeball by itself was less than the full story. “In American English, as I’ve experienced it,” John Burgess wrote, “to eyeball something — without preceding adjectives — is simply to look at for oneself, to not take another’s assessment as necessarily valid. I might be interested in buying something, but will insist on eyeballing it to make sure it is what is advertised or that it will meet my needs. There is no built-in negative to it, just the fact that one will look at it with discrimination.” Michael Bawtree concurred: “Here in Nova Scotia, and I think generally in Canada, to eyeball something means to measure it by eye as opposed to using a ruler. They say that in wooden-boat-building days an experienced shipwright could eyeball a length of wood as much as 35 feet long, and be accurate to within an inch of its actual length. Tape measures for these lengths were often not used at all.”
Atlatl. Readers were quick to point out that an atlatl isn’t a throwing dart or spear but a wooden rod with a hollow at one end. It’s used to throw the spear with more force than is possible by hand alone.
To describe some attempt at communication as gibberish today is most likely to disparage it as mere meaningless verbiage. But at its strongest, in its earlier days, gibberish was speech that belonged to no known language. It was worse even than calling it double Dutch or asserting that it was all Greek.
Etymologists have been scratching their heads over its origin almost since it first appeared in the language in the middle 1500s. There’s a set of similar words — gibber, jibber, jabber, gobble and gab (as in gift of the gab) — that may be related attempts at imitating incomprehensible utterances. But how they arrived and in what order is unknown. An eighteenth-century writer linked gibberish with the French word geber, meaning to cheat, which is now not thought to be in the least likely. Other experts prefer an origin in an unrecorded Germanic word.
The alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, from a 15th century European portrait of “Geber”.
The best of the invented stories about its origin is the one that Dr Samuel Johnson subscribed to in his Dictionary of 1755: “[I]t is probably derived from the chymical cant, and originally implied the jargon of Geber and his tribe.” Geber is a Latinised form of the name of a prolific eighth-century Arabic writer, Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan. His name is attached to hundreds of books, covering such an encyclopaedic range that some scholars have argued he was the pseudonym of a syndicate or was awarded authorship by posterity.
One work attributed to him is The Book of Stones According to the Opinion of Balinas. This says: “And, as always, we deliberately abrogate in one book what we say in another. The reason is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for.” He seems to have succeeded splendidly in this aim, for the work — like most of the writings attributed to him — is hard to understand, full of mystical musings and technical terms that can’t easily be translated. Hence, the story goes, gebberish or gibberish. There is, you will appreciate, no truth in this.
One notable point about gibberish is that it has shifted pronunciation. Today, it’s almost always said like jibberish, with a soft g sound. But at one time, it had a hard g; some current dictionaries give that as a variant pronunciation though it survives only to a small extent — a British survey in 1998 found the hard g form was used by only 4% of respondents. That version may suggest a closer connection with gobble and gab and a lesser one with jibber and jabber.
In 1989, the American linguist Geoffrey Pullum wrote a sarcastic piece with the title The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, in which he derided and deconstructed claims that the Inuit (as we have since learned to call them) had 50, or 100, or 200 words for snow. The numbers have enlarged in the telling, starting with an article in 1940 by Benjamin Lee Whorf (one half of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and grossly extended subsequently through sloppy research, careless copying, half-understood references and the desire for a good story.
On 30 September this hoary old folktale reappeared in headlines asserting that the Scots language has more words for snow than the Inuit languages do. The stories below the headlines explained that academics compiling the pilot Historical Thesaurus of Scots (which by no sort of coincidence was launched online the same day) have unearthed 421 words for snow used in the language from the earliest times to today.
Examples include feefle (to swirl, as of snow round a corner), flindrikin (a slight snow shower), spitters (small drops or flakes of wind-driven rain or snow), snaw-pouther (fine driving snow), feuchter (of snow, to fall lightly, to come down in odd flakes), snaw-ghast (an apparition seen in the snow), blin-drift (drifting snow), sneesl (begin to rain or snow), and skelf (a large snowflake).
Not to deride the linguistic inventiveness of the Scots (or the Inuits), but English can also claim an excellent count of snow-related language, even if we exclude words borrowed in relatively recent times from other languages, like the Latinate niveous (relating to snow), French névé (uncompressed granular snow on a glacier) or the originally Russian sastrugi (parallel ridges formed on snow by the wind). If we’re being strict about this exclusion, we ought also to reject avalanche from French (we have our native snowslide, though it lacks the cataclysmic implications of the French word). We might also feel obliged to exclude the special vocabularies of skiers, such as crust and powder, and the colloquialisms of Antarctic scientists, which include sago snow (very fine round balls of snow), piecrust (soft snow with a covering of hard but brittle snow) and degomble (to clear snow off clothes or sled dogs).
Words such as slush, sleet and blizzard are common. We may legitimately include our several dozen other compounds of snow, such as snowflake, snowdrift, snow-bank, snowstorm, snow cover, snowscape, snow cloud, snow-glare, snow shower and snow-driven, because that word-forming process is close to that used by the Inuits, who can generate a large number of compounds from a few roots.
But there are many more: shelling (a fall of snow on the back of a sheep), flother (a flake of snow), windcrust (a crust formed on the surface of soft snow by the wind), hap (a heavy fall of snow), besnow (to cover or whiten with snow), reek (a pile of snow), penitent (a spike or pinnacle of compact snow that has been sculpted by the elements), whited (covered with snow), blind-drift (a drift of heavy snow), mafting (drifting snow), balter (snow adhering to horses’ hooves), blunk (to snow lightly), snittering (the fall of snow), plodgy (of deep snow that’s not yet trodden down), oversnow (whiten over with snow), and hogamadog (a huge ball of snow made by boys rolling a snowball over soft snow, which is, you may like to know, defunct Northumberland dialect).
If you conclude from your ignorance of the great majority of these that I’m cheating by featuring rare, obsolete or dialectal words, you would be right, though the same may be said of the Scots thesaurus. However, it makes a good story for the papers on publication day, though linguists might wish that it hadn’t given yet more exposure to that daft story about the Inuits.
Leonie Bell wrote to ask about this word, which is circulating in social media. It’s said to be Old English, meaning “to wander longingly through the forest in search of mystery”. Its popularity suggests that it meets an inchoate spiritual desire for a term to sum up a concept that hasn’t previously been possible to articulate briefly. To be mundane about it, however, the evidence suggests it was created in late 2014 by an unknown person out of thin air. No record of it exists before then and there’s no root in Old English for forests or longing or wandering that matches anything in the word. It’s an intriguing neologism, a minor mystery of its own, and I would love to uncover the process of thought that led the anonymous author to create it.
Q From Adam Sampson: My grandmother, who’s from North Kent, surprised us by using the verb chi-ike recently, meaning “banter”. We’d never heard of this before. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, but with no etymology; are you able to shed any light on this?
A This takes me back. Having been brought up in London and being — I guess — roughly contemporary with your grandmother, I’m familiar with chi-ike. That you don’t recognise it confirms that it has now vanished from the living language.
Banter is a good way to explain it: friendly but rough or heavy-handed mocking exchanges between men, say on building sites, the factory floor or across the street. However, in less friendly situations it can also be heckling and taunts. The first part, by the way, rhymes with sky and the second with like.
I can’t give you a firm answer about its etymology — the experts are baffled and it remains a puzzling mystery. There are one or two hints, but I need first to tell you more about its history.
Punch magazine was having fun in July 1896 with this image of Arthur Balfour, then First Lord of the Treasury, as a costermonger hawking unpopular policies.
It arose among London costermongers in the early to middle nineteenth century. The date is uncertain because we encounter it first in the UK in John Camden Hotten’s Dictionary of Slang of 1859: “Chi-ike, a hurrah, a good word, or hearty praise”, by which date it had probably been around for decades. The 1870 edition adds that chi-ike was “a term used by the costermongers, who assist the sale of each other’s goods by a little friendly, although noisy, commendation.” It’s also often said to have been a hearty greeting.
Early appearances suggest that the quality of friendliness in the exchanges was often lacking. It could imply jeering, mocking or making fun of somebody. This is the sense that was taken to Australia, where it appears in print before it does in the UK, though in a wildly variant spelling due to oral transmission of an unfamiliar term in accents unfamiliar to an English visitor:
The “skyhacking”, to which the police were subject ... was brought on principally by their own individual overbearing conduct ... bullying and swearing at every one.
What I Heard, Saw and Did at the Australian Gold Fields, by C Rudston Read, 1853.
A ditty in the London humorous magazine Punch in 1887 told of a lad who liked to visit the seaside because he could go on the pier to observe seasick passengers arrive back from boat trips: “And it is sech a lark to chi-ike them, the best bit o’ fun of the day.”
By 1871 the term had entered popular culture as one of the names of the Chinese policemen in the pantomime Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. One instance was at the Theatre Royal, Liverpool, in which the part was played by Che Mah, the “original imperial Chinese dwarf”, claimed to be thirty inches in height and so “the smallest man in the world”.
In Australia it has been spelled chiak or chyack. It reached New Zealand by the 1880s, additionally as shiack or shyack. My understanding is that it’s now virtually unknown in these countries, too. Oddly, the various Oxford dictionaries prefer to spell it chi-hike, which has never been common. Do Oxford’s lexicographers have special information or did someone assume Cockneys were dropping their hs and put one in?
It is sometimes suggested that it’s from English dialect, though nobody has pointed to a specific word and there’s nothing relevant in the various glossaries. A writer to Notes and Queries in 1898 wondered if chi-ike could be an attempt to reproduce the Cockney pronunciation of cheek, to address a person saucily or cheekily. We may choose to believe otherwise. A few early usages hint at a connection with the Jews of London’s East End, some of whom were costermongers. This is probably just a guess, based on the second element ike, which at one time was a derogatory name for a Jew (a form of the personal name Isaac, also as ikey, or as ikeymo, Isaac and Moses; the American variant form kike wasn’t then known).
• The British Museum’s exhibition on the Celts — from accounts of the previews a stunning show — has introduced me to the term Cardiac Celt. This is mainly an American colloquial term and refers to a person who has no Celtic heritage but who feels themself to be Celtic “in the heart”. It was invented by Dr Marion Bowman, now Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University, in a paper of 1995.
• A different sort of show recently, New York fashion week, is reported to have featured a newish bit of insider slang: nodel. The Guardian called it this year’s “breakout buzzword”. A nodel is “not a model”, a non-professional, perhaps a friend of the designer. The word can be traced back to 2011.
• An article about the final season of the ITV period soap opera Downton Abbey, which recently began airing here in the UK, has introduced me to set jetting, which isn’t a Spoonerism but a play on words to describe the plans of visitors to Britain to explore sites where films or television programmes have been shot (for Downton Abbey, the Hampshire stately home Highclere Castle). I was surprised to discover the term isn’t new: it appeared in an article by Gretchen Kelly in the New York Post in February 2008.Wikipedia says that another term is location vacation, which has a ring of its own, though set jetting is better.
• My weird word for September is nixtamalization. It’s a process of preparing maize by cooking it with an alkali such as lime. It’s better known in Spanish, particularly Mexican Spanish, than in English; its origin is Nahuatl nixtamalli, a blend of terms for maize dough and ashes.
Getting on for a decade ago, I wrote about the confusion between reticent and reluctant. I was reminded about this by an email from Martin Turner: “I just came across a misuse of disperse for disburse. A cursory check suggests that this may now be the dominant usage. Do you know if disburse is really on the way to obscurity?”
I can find no evidence in printed works (such as newspapers and books) of this shift, but these are to various extents edited by people who would be likely to pick up the usage as a misspelling. A search of social media such as Twitter, however, shows that phrases such as “disperse money” are often used where “disburse” is clearly meant. It may be, as Peter Morris has suggested, that the curse of predictive texting is at work. Disburse is a fairly rare word which may not come up on some mobile phones when users type in the letters.
However, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the difference has become blurred: the two words are sufficiently close in both sense and spelling for the less common member of the pair to slowly slip out of use. But not yet, I think!
• On 19 September, Addeane Caelleigh and Michael Smiszek tell us, the online version of the Dan Ariely weekly column in the Wall Street Journal featured this from a reader: “On a recent business trip to San Francisco, I showed up early for a meeting, so I went to wait in a coffee shop. A cup of coffee was $8, and it was full of young people.”
• The same day, Norman Berns spotted, the New York Times had an article about the Republican nomination fight, which included this: “‘You’ve got a set of unintended consequences that weren’t planned for,’ said Richard F. Hohlt, a Republican donor and Washington lobbyist.”
• Child abuse is a serious matter but taking it seriously might not have been helped by a headline Jim Hart saw in The Age of Melbourne on 17 September: “School to pay $1m to abuse survivor”.
• And finally, two examples of a classic error. Linda Fullerton heard this on CBS News on 27 November: “And next, the story of a tiny baby born on a cruise ship weighing one pound.” Henry Peacock found the other on the Lancashire Evening Post site on 19 September: “He pleaded guilty to breaching a byelaw by committing an indecent act during a short court hearing.”