E-MAGAZINE 658: SATURDAY 26 SEPTEMBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Jorum Jonathon Green, who reviewed The F Word two weeks ago, e-mailed about this word from last week’s issue: “We denizens of the literary lower depths know that jorum lives. It flickered back into life in the pulp fiction era of the 1940s; when US writer Tim Dorsey, about 1994, created the character of a deranged cop who thinks he’s a 1940s private dick (he crops up as a recurring figure in Dorsey’s series of comedy-thrillers set in Florida), he gives him the clichés of the pulp era: ‘Chicago overcoats, Harlem sunsets, a jorum of skee, a chippie with boss getaway sticks, giving a canary the Broderick.’ Dickens aside, the term had obviously long since been seen as emblematic of bygone days. Harrison Ainsworth, whose books groan with period language, offered this from Rookwood, a mid-eighteenth century tale of highwayman Dick Turpin: ‘If that’s a bowl of huckle-my-butt you are brewing, ... you may send me a jorum at your convenience.’”
[You will have gathered that huckle-my-butt is not an instruction but a beverage. It was a mixture of beer and brandy into which raw eggs were beaten with spices; it was usually served hot. In the Tim Dorsey quote (from Cadillac Beach, 1994), a Chicago overcoat is a block of cement encasing a victim; a Harlem sunset is the blood-red line on freshly razor-slashed skin; a chippie is a young woman, whose getaway sticks are her legs, here considered boss, or excellent; a gangster who is giving a canary the Broderick is giving an informer a severe beating. — Ed]
Unsuspected talents Amazon.co.uk is currently claiming I wrote Wirklich ungeheuer praktisch. Lesbische Lach- und Sachgeschichten, a German book whose publisher's blurb says “Its stories display a keen eye for the absurdities of the everyday life of lesbians.”
Agrestic gained a melancholy moment in the news in 2008 when it was reported that it was one of 24 words that the English publisher Collins was proposing to drop from its dictionaries, on the grounds
Fans of the US television series Weeds will recognise Agrestic as the name of the fictional California suburb in which it is set.
The root meaning is rural or rustic, hence a person who is uncouth or unpolished. It’s from the Latin agrestis, itself derived from ager, a field, which makes it a close relative of agriculture and of agrestal, which refers to uncultivated plants growing on cultivated land — you might prefer to call those weeds. Another, extremely rare, relative is agresty, defined in one old dictionary as “rusticity; clownishness”.
In early 2009 Collins reprieved the word because it turned out to have a continuing usefulness in the perfumery business. It’s one of the standard terms used to classify odours. The scent sense is of an aroma that reminds you of the countryside, such as hay, heather or meadow or one which is earthy, herbal or woody.
The word is now rare enough outside such specialist use to justify the decision by Collins. A rare modern example:
The aggregate floorspace of the outbuildings probably totalled as much as that of the central spire, but the careful planners had succeeded in preserving the illusion of agrestic emptiness.
The Voyage, by David Drake, 1998.
3. What I've learned this week
Creeping perfection Colin Campbell e-mailed from Australia to ask me about the origin of a phrase new to me, excellence creep. He had heard it at work to mean a looming threat to finishing a task on time. I had to hunt around even to find out what it meant. It describes the eternal conflict between pragmatism and perfection, a shorthand version of the lament of the harried boss, “I don’t want it good, I want it Friday.” It’s satisfying to make something outstandingly good, and to be able to add all those nice bells and whistles, but it’s all in vain if you never get the product to market. I’ve so far found only one example, on Twitter.
Bellissimo! On the subject of bells, while searching for something else this week I stumbled across a monograph written by Lewis Carroll in 1872. He was a fellow of Christ Church College, Oxford, whose church is also Oxford’s cathedral. He was distressed by a new wooden belfry that had been constructed, describing it as being in the Early Debased style — “very early, and remarkably debased”. He expressed his dislike in scholarly satire: “The word Belfry is derived from the French bel, ‘beautiful, becoming, meet’, and from the German frei, ‘free, unfettered, secure, safe’. Thus the word is strictly equivalent to meat safe, to which the new Belfry bears a resemblance so perfect as almost to amount to coincidence.”
For calling birds An item in my daily newspaper found me a new sense to the word pishing. I knew it as a counterpart to tutting, the making of sounds indicating contempt, impatience, or disgust. But it turns out that American birdwatchers (who would probably prefer to be called birders) use it for the hissing noises that they make to attract some kinds of small birds. It imitates the scolding calls of tits and chickadees, which attracts other birds to find out what the fuss is about. There’s even a book on how to do it, The Art of Pishing, by Pete Dunne.
4. Questions and Answers: Herf
[Q] From William Tarbi: Recently I received an invitation to attend a cigar herf. On looking through my dictionaries I found no entries for the term. Do you have any information regarding this apparently new slang word?
[A] This is a curious term, with an odd genesis.
It has now been firmly established, in part by the work of Barry Popik, that the term first appeared online:
I tried several when I first began smoking cigars and found them all to be very bland and almost impossible to herf, they were so tightly wrapped.
A posting by somebody known only by his nickname Prince of Skeeves to the newsgroup alt.smokers.cigars, 21 Nov. 1996.
A few months later the writer explained that he first heard the term at a “junior
A herfer. (Photo: Michael Ivanov)
The word became popular in the newsgroup, leading to coinages such as herfers, herfnicks and herfaholics. A number of Web pages record that a herf, in your meaning of a meeting of cigar fans (a herf obviously enough being a situation in which one herfs) was arranged by members of the newsgroup in April 1997 under the title of The Texas Herf On The Lake. A newspaper report three years later on another meeting that had been organised through the newsgroup is one of the few times the term has appeared in print:
They are cigar fanciers. More than 100 of them in all shapes and sizes came to York recently to swap stories, down some beer, and, of course, puff happily on their favorite stogies. These get-togethers are called herfs, and they’re a big deal for people with computers, a love of cigars and a willingness to travel.
Daily Herald (Tyrone, Pennsylvania), 18 May 1999.
Herf is well established within the cigar fraternity in the US, though it’s unknown outside it. One site describes it as “A lively gathering of cigar-smoking comrades who meet in a club, restaurant, cigar store or home to share their appreciation of fine cigars.”
That leaves us with the head-scratching problem of where the Prince of Skeeves’s friend Stu got it from. I posed the question on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society. Douglas Wilson suggested that it might be linked to the slang verb huff, which is defined in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as “to inhale the vapors of [a drug], as a method of becoming intoxicated”, with examples going back into the 1960s. Huff and herf aren’t so very far apart in sound.
As things stand, that’s the best I can offer.
5. Reviews: Writing and Script
This is the most recent addition to the 200-strong list of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series. The author, Andrew Robinson, has written three previous works on writing, scripts and decipherment.
In 157 small pages, packed full of detailed information without a wasted word,
One chapter discusses whether the Western alphabet was created by Canaanite slaves in Sinai mines from the hieroglyphics of their Egyptian masters, as some scholars suggest. Wherever it came from, Mr Robinson takes us through its evolution via Phoenician traders, the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans into the modern world, along the way nicely explaining how the Etruscans ended up with three letters representing the letter k (k before a, c before e and i, and q before u), so explaining how it is that in English q is always natively followed by u.
His discussion of the Chinese and Japanese scripts, necessarily a brief one, is nonetheless clear. He denies the common belief that a speaker of any Chinese language can read the script (speakers of Cantonese, he notes, need to know Mandarin before they can become fluent readers). He explains the technical difficulties Chinese lexicographers have in constructing dictionaries in the absence of a neat A-Z classification system, being forced to fall back on a system that categorises symbols by shape.
He ends the book by pointing out that the complex Japanese scheme, and those of other writing systems that western writers in the past have considered unusably unwieldy, are not regarded by their users as inferior to alphabets. Writing systems, after all, are enmeshed within societies and cultures and are not solely a technical means of recording speech.
• “I’ve heard of new homes popping up like mushrooms, but grown from cuttings? That’s new!” Carolyn Barnes wrote that after reading the real-estate section of the Toronto Globe and Mail on 18 September: “The ivy-clad home, which was started from a cutting taken 25 years ago from Queen’s Park.”
• On 16 September, Phil Burton read the headline on the BBC Web site over a story about Northern Ireland: “Leckey wants shoot-to-kill briefs”. He was disappointed to learn that the senior coroner, John Leckey, was insisting that controversial police reports be handed over and didn’t refer to arming the police with James Bond-style deadly underpants.
• In New Orleans, Maurice Fox was bemused by a headline in the Times-Picayune: “Shift caves to Russia, GOP says”. He wondered, “Which caves? Where?” The story actually reported that Republicans were complaining that President Obama’s shift in policy over the missile defence shield in Eastern Europe was caving in to Russia.
• “Prison cells are getting smaller,” Jo Leath commented from Nova Scotia, after reading an AP headline that appeared widely online and in US newspapers on 23 September: “Ex-NY Giant Burress gets 2 years in gun case.” Plaxico Burress was convicted of gun charges after he shot himself in the thigh with an unlicensed weapon. His foot was uninjured but the figurative effect was the same.
• Also from AP, on the same date, came the most misleading headline of the week (what some of us have started to call crash blossoms because of a particularly egregious example some time ago). Laurence Horn was told about it by Steve Anderson, who saw it on Salon.com: “McDonald’s fries the holy grail for potato farmers”.