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Newsletter 804
6 October 2012

Contents

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Chucklehead.

3. Miscellany.

4. Questions and Answers: Year dot.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Nosism Several subscribers suggested that doctors and nurses who used we (“And how are we today?”), which Hilary Powers calls the clinical we, isn’t an example of nosism, using we for oneself. John Weiss argued that it either meant you or was an embracing plural first person that included the patient.

Fit to be tied Judith Lowe, Graham Egan and John Gibbs mentioned the common Australian version of this idiom: ropeable.

Dingus Several more comments came in about the Dutch antecedents of dingus. Ilke Cochrane wrote, “As a native Dutch speaker I have long been familiar with the word dinges (as it is usually spelled, although it obviously tends to occur in spoken rather than written language), which is pronounced with a g like that in ringer, and can refer to things, people or words the speaker can’t remember.”

2. Weird Words: Chucklehead

Many, many years ago, one of my teachers delighted in calling his less intellectually gifted pupils “chuckleheaded idiots”. A nicely rhythmic expression, in real life it would have been likely to get him a punch on the nose. We slaves to mortarboarded masters didn’t have that option.

English speakers have been able to call a stupid or foolish person a chucklehead at least since the early eighteenth century. For most of its life it was a local or dialect word, albeit widely distributed, not used by serious English writers unless they wanted to evoke the earthy language of a son of toil. Americans were more egalitarian:

There wasn’t a human being in this town but knew that that boy was a perfect chucklehead; perfect dummy; just a stupid ass, as you may say. Everybody knew it, and everybody said it. Well, if that very boy isn’t the first lawyer in the State of Missouri to-day, I’m a Democrat!

Life On The Mississippi, by Mark Twain, 1883.

It used to be assumed that the chuckle part represented the sunny attitudes of a person so dim-witted that he was unable to appreciate the horrors of everyday life and so lived happily within the narrow confines of his own mind. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary thought so but the experts now disagree.

They say it’s from chuck in the sense of a chock, which is really no more than a different spelling of the same word. Like chock, it could mean a lump of wood, but it could also be a piece of cheese or home-made cake or anything else small enough to hold in the hand. You might call it a chunk, which is another modification of the same word. We’re familiar with the chuck of a drill, a shaped chunk of metal, but might not make the connection with chuck steak, which is etymologically a lump of meat. So chucklehead is a relative of bonehead, knucklehead and other insulting assertions that the head of the addressee is solid right through.

Might the experts who equated chuckleheadedness with laughter have been thinking of the origin of chuckle? That, too, comes from chuck, plus the -le ending that marks a repeated action. This chuck is a different word, however, probably imitating the sound of a contented chicken (it’s in origin the same word as cluck). The theory that chucklehead came from chuckle might have implied the person so described was a birdbrain. But it isn’t so.

3. Miscellany

Holding it together Mark Brown submitted a succinct query: “Who was Cotter and what was the first thing that he pinned?”. Regretfully, we don’t know much about the origin of cotter, though we are sure it doesn’t refer to a specific person. It turns up in the fourteenth century for any device, such as a pin, wedge or key, used to hold two components of a machine together. The word is a shortened form of cotterel, but the origin of that is unknown.

Tweeting in dialect An article by Jan Griffiths in the Guardian on 26 September began by describing a silent spring without birdsong: “No chittering, no fluting, no chissicking ...”. Chittering I knew to mean a series of short, sharp sounds, a cross between twittering and chattering (chitter is actually a variation of chatter). But chissicking was new. Harold Orton’s Survey of English Dialects has an entry for it as an Essex term for clearing one’s throat with a forced cough. It has been applied to the sound the woodcock makes, which is fair enough, since one author described it as a series of grunts followed by a sneeze. As it has been, the croak of a jackdaw may with some poetic licence be called chissicking. It’s a stretch to use it of starlings, as the Yorkshireman Richard Kearton did in Nature’s Carol Singers in 1906; he wrote of the birds “sitting in one black mass on every available branch and bough, producing an indescribable din by all chissicking and chattering to each other at the same time”. Starlings make lots of noises and certainly chatter (or chitter) inordinately. But throat-clearing noises? Surely not? It seems that writers who have borrowed this very rare dialect word have assumed it stands for a chirping sound.

Freezing phrase D L Taylor asked me about the US idiom frosts my grommet, which seems to mean “makes me feel extremely unhappy”. The expression appears in various blogs online, but never in any print publication I can trace, and may date back only a few years. I can’t find anything about it. Might it be a bad-taste reference to the Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986, in which the fatal flaw was traced to the freezing weather hardening grommets (O-rings) in the solid-fuel boosters?

4. Questions and Answers: Year dot

Q From Anthony Lauder: My wife is Czech, and recently came across the English phrase the year dot. I explained that it means “a long time ago” but was stumped as to why. Can you possibly shed some light on the origins of this please?

A No problem.

It’s tied to the idea of smallness. Ever since dot came back into the language in the sixteenth century (it had been recorded just the once in Old English, but then disappeared) it has meant something extremely small — a minute speck, including a tiny mark made by the nib of a pen, such as the dot over the letter i.

Sometime around the start of the eighteenth century, this idea led to the idiom to a dot, exactly or precisely alike, as equal as two minute dots. The Oxford English Dictionary records it first in a play in which two characters are comparing a letter and its copy:

Lady Trap: Are you blind? they are both alike to a tittle. Sir Positive: To a dot. Her hand to a dot.

Love in Several Masques, by Henry Fielding, 1728.

This is an example from much later:

I see the handbill myself. It tells all about him, to a dot — paints him like a picture, and tells the plantation he’s from, below Newrleans.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, 1884.

Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, people began to speak of the year dot, meaning some notional date that’s long in the past. This seems to have been built on the notion of a time that’s so vanishingly distant it appears as a dot about which we can discern nothing. Some writers suggest it might refer in particular to that mythical year 0 between 1BC and 1AD, but I’m not convinced that users have ever thought the year dot to be that far back.

This is its first appearance that I can find; a correspondent is complaining about the state of customs officers’ uniforms:

Some of the liveries I think, to use a homely phrase, were made in the year dot, and such is the liberal pay of the men, that did their pride prompt them to purchase others, their means would not allow them.

Ipswich Journal (Suffolk), 25 Mar 1873. Homely phrase implies that year dot was by then well-known, at least in the writer’s experience.

By the way, you might like to know that, when dot appeared that one time in Old English, it meant the head of a boil; it’s also a relative of an Old High German word for a nipple.

5. Sic!

• Ted Buselmeier found this alarming sentence in the October issue of National Geographic Magazine: “They draw platoons of whale sharks, which feast on the eggs, and sometimes marine scientists as well.”

• The BayouBuzz website in Louisiana, M Anderson discovered, had this headline in embarrassingly large type over a story of 24 September: “Residents leave Calif. in drones over last two decades”.

• Another headline of note appeared in The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, on 29 September: “Statue taken by Nazis from space”. Thanks go to Alan Tunnicliffe for telling us about it. (The statue was made from a meteorite.)

• Robin Dawes received a spam email on 28 September. He commented that the contents were irrelevant — everything he needed to know was in the subject line: “80% off, first come first severed”.

• Who guards the guardians? A headline in the issue of Medical News Today of 19 September was seen by Michael Belkin: “Bid To Develop Anthrax Vaccine To Counteract World Bioterrorism Threat By Cardiff Scientists”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 6 October 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 October 2012.