E-MAGAZINE 669: SATURDAY 12 DECEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sobbing Last week, I mentioned John Evelyn’s use of sobbing, meaning to soak or saturate. Several readers wondered if this was a variant of sopping. The only reference work in which I can find sobbing is the Oxford English Dictionary, which merely says in its entry that it is “of obscure origin”. Its entry for sop doesn’t mention a link.
To someone coming unawares upon this word, it might seem to have a connection to that fabulous beast called the griffin or gryphon, the one with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Or might it perhaps refer to the vulture with that cognomen or the breed of dog similarly named, both of which derive from an older English spelling of griffin? Alas, no. It’s more prosaic than that.
Readers with knowledge of French will be at an advantage, since the word appears in that language as a noun formed from the verb griffoner, to scribble or scrawl. A griffonage is therefore an illegible scrawl, so it would make a usefully obscure description of your physician’s next prescription.
The verb is recorded in French from the sixteenth century, but it arrived in English only in the early years of the nineteenth, clearly as a direct borrowing. This is an early, and rare, example:
We hastened to pack up our “trumpery,” as Captain Mirven unkindly calls the paraphernalia of the ladies, and among the rest, my six hundred pages of griffonage. There is enough of it, yet I must add a few more lines.
Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Frances Trollope, 1832. Her book generated a furore on both sides of the Atlantic, since she found Americans to be lacking in the finer qualities (“I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.”) Among her failed ventures while in the US was the Cincinnati Bazaar, which some argue was the first shopping mall. Frances Trollope’s son was the novelist Anthony Trollope.
3. What I've learned this week
Inhabitants Tanja Cilia introduced me to demonym. Despite its form, it has nothing to do with demons. It’s from Greek demos, the people, which also meant a district or township. (In English, we can speak of a deme in this sense, though that word is more common in various scientific senses for a group of cells, plants or animals.) A demonym is the name given to the people who live in a certain place, such as Londoner or Ugandan; as the title of a book on my shelves puts it, Labels for Locals. Its author, Paul Dickson, uses the term but attributes its creation to George H Scheetz, who wrote a precursor volume. However, in another sense it dates from the nineteenth century — the Librarians’ Glossary of 1938 defines demonym as “A popular or ordinary qualification used as a pseudonym, as ‘an Amateur’, ‘a Bibliophile’.” All the modern appearances of demonym that I’ve come across are in specialist geographical sources and have the “labels for locals” sense.
4. Questions and Answers: Shoestring
[Q] From Russell Clarke: Have you researched the etymology of the phrase shoe-string budget? My German partner keeps seeing it in the English-language press, but he can’t understand where it comes from. And he keeps bothering me about it because I’m an editor! I’ve searched the Web but have found nothing conclusive. Could you give us some history?
[A] Trying to track down its history isn’t easy. Everybody who has investigated the various idioms in shoestring seems to have come away almost as puzzled as when they started. Its meaning is obvious enough to native English speakers: to do something on a shoestring is to manage on an insufficient budget (a shoestring budget) or undertake a project with limited resources. Hence the range of travel guides that include the phrase in their titles (Southeast Asia on a Shoestring), or this recent usage from a UK newspaper:
The Sports Council for Wales has launched its new campaign, Shape up on a Shoestring, to help you slim down your waistline without slimming down your wallet.
South Wales Echo, 11 Nov. 2009.
Though shoestring survives in North America, it has long since been replaced for most other English speakers by either shoelace or bootlace, surviving only in this set phrase. That suggests the idiom is fairly old and in fact it’s recorded from rather more than a century ago, with exactly the same meaning as it has now:
The whole fabric of business erected by those people was based on a shoe string, and when trade became dull it had to collapse.
The Wall Street Journal, 25 Mar. 1897.
But why a shoestring? The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms records an attempt to explain it: “One fanciful theory is that debtors in British prisons would lower a shoe by its laces from a window so as to collect funds from visitors or passers-by.” Obvious folk etymology, you may say. Well, up to a point. Jonathon Green records in the Chambers Dictionary of Slang that the debtors’ ward in Newgate Prison was called the Shoe because its inmates begged in just this way.
However, the story must be irrelevant because the idiom is definitely American and appears after the period in which Newgate was such a notorious place of incarceration. There is, however, a slightly earlier US usage, known from 1887, in reference to a disreputable group of men who were called shoestring gamblers, seemingly because they played only for small stakes. (Or did they, perhaps. wear very thin ties? perhaps a fashion guru might elucidate?)
Shoestring by itself has often been used as a qualifier, but almost always in the sense of something long and thin. A US Congressional district was once called the shoestring district because of its shape on the map; a number of plants with long, thin stems or roots have it in their names, such as the prairie shoestring; shoestring potato consist of narrow strips of fried potato.
However, it’s in other qualities of this humble item that we must surely find the origin. Shoestrings were common and cheap and also thin and fragile. The former pair of words implies a small amount of money, the latter slender resources. By putting them together we are supplied with an image of getting by on less than is really required.
5. Questions and Answers: Redding
[Q] From William Chepulis: In an online photo-sharing group of which I’m a member, someone posted a scan of a calotype print titled Redding the Line. Some members of the group think that redding refers to the application of a red colorant to the surface of something. Or does it instead mean making repairs?
The title of Redding the Line was given to it by the photographers. As both Hill and Adamson were Scots, we must look to the Scottish vernacular to find the answer.
The verb is redd, one also known in northern Ireland, parts of northern England and also in north-central parts of the US. It has nothing to do with colour. Instead, it has had a variety of senses — to clear or clean out, clear away, put in order or make tidy, put things right, and, specifically, to disentangle yarn or fishing line. It’s not clear from the picture exactly what young Liston was doing — perhaps not very much in view of the long exposures needed to make a calotype — but “disentangle” fits best.
Where redd comes from isn’t clear (it doesn’t have any connection with ready, for example). Its history is mixed up with two other verbs. One is rede, meaning to clear land, put in order, clean up or tidy (German and Dutch have related forms); the other is rid, to make free of something, which is of Scandinavian origin. It’s very likely that their senses became intermingled and inextricably tangled as time went on.
• Last Saturday, Margaret Chandler read about forthcoming exhibitions in the InsideArts section of The Mercury, Tasmania: “Alternative artists are to be hanged and the venue will be opposite the old Hobart Penitentiary.” She intends to stick with traditional oil painting from now on.
• CNN’s Political Ticker reported on 28 November about a basketball game that President Obama attended in support of his brother-in-law Craig Robinson: “Robinson, who coaches the Oregon State Beavers, was cheered on by the President, who snacked on popcorn, the First Lady, Sasha, Malia and the girls’ grandmother Marian Robinson.” Thanks to Joel Gardner for that unsettling image.