NEWSLETTER 500: SATURDAY 12 AUGUST 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Red mercury I just knew mentioning this last week was going to be a red rag to all you conspiracy theorists and amateur chemists. To clear up one source of misunderstanding: the substance that alchemists once sometimes knew as red mercury is now usually described as cinnabar, an important ore of the metal consisting of mercuric sulphide. It has no connection with the red mercury that I mentioned, which is sometimes claimed to be mercury mixed with antimony that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor. Much has been written about this substance, but the informed consensus is that it doesn't exist. Search online for “red mercury conspiracy theories” for some interesting comment.
Gunsel Many Australians pointed out that in their country the word—in the spelling gunzel—means a railway or tramway enthusiast (otherwise in various countries a railfan, trainspotter or gricer). In early appearances it referred to the kind of obsessive and over-enthusiastic scruffy fan who travels with notebooks and cameras and who would bore you to tears with arcane information if you let him get started. This extraordinary shift in meaning is said to have taken place at the Sydney Tramway Museum in the 1960s through a misunderstanding of the term in The Maltese Falcon. These days, I am told, the term is worn with pride.
2. A Pause to Reflect
As the issue numbers at the top of newsletters have risen week by week, a sense of impending celebration has grown in this ivory-towered eyrie. And now the moment has come: you are reading issue 500 of World Wide Words.
It is also 10 years since the first pages were posted to the Web site. What began as hobbyist self-indulgent self-publishing—we might call it a blog today but the word wasn’t then known—has grown into a full-blooded if still non-commercial enterprise that at times seems to have taken over my life. If there’s ever a moment at which to stand back and review how I got from there to here, this must be it.
It all began in August 1995. Our son Brian was in the sixth form at school and already an accomplished computer programmer. He wrote a universal spelling checker that would work in any application that ran under the then current version of Microsoft Windows, 3.1. He realised it was commercially viable and created a Web site through which to sell it—this at a time when Web sites were numbered in the low thousands, not hundreds of millions. The program was popular and the proceeds helped to pay his way through university.
His pages took up only a small proportion of the space available on the site. So I thought it would be interesting to post some pieces about language that had been provoked by my contributions to the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english. By then I’d been a freelance researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary for about three years, an interesting job involving regular reading of many publications for new words. That work generated additional material on language that it seemed worth sharing with others.
The first week, World Wide Words online consisted of three pages, among them an article on the almost vanished cant language of the British theatre and showmen, Polari, which is still there. The e-mail newsletter first appeared on 12 July 1996, a slim forerunner of its expansive current format.
That first issue of the newsletter had seven subscribers. Now it has 26,750+ by e-mail and another 15,000+ via RSS, with readers coming from at least 120 countries (I’ve lost count). The Web site has grown to more than 1,800 pieces. Each month, the site receives 1.7 million page hits from more than 750,000 individual visitors. Many commercial sites would like to boast such numbers.
In the ten years from then to now, I’ve received many thousands of interesting e-mails from subscribers and site visitors. There are always readers who know more about the topics I write about than I do. With their help, the site has become a respected, if somewhat garrulous, reference point for people interested in the way our language has evolved and continues to change.
I hope in absentia you will all raise a glass of something suitable to join me in wishing for a happy continuation of our relationship. But you must excuse me from being too extravagant with my imbibing today. By an odd coincidence, tomorrow—13 August—my wife and I celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary.
3. Weird Words: Totter
A rag-and-bone collector.
Not, you will note, the verb to move unsteadily (which comes from the Middle Dutch touteren, to swing), nor to do with tiny tots (which you might wrongly guess is an abbreviated form of totter, but which is actually an old English dialect word whose origin is unknown, though it’s the same one as a tot of spirits and so means something small), nor has it anything do with a person who tots up figures to come to a total (that’s an abbreviation from the Latin totum, total, which was once marked against a summed figure in account books). Our totters’ name is from the old slang term tot for a bone, as in the nineteenth-century tot-hunter, a gatherer of bones, a word also used as a term of abuse; both may come from the German tot, dead.
Totters were once a familiar sight in the streets of every town and city in Britain, often announcing their presence with the ringing of a handbell and the cry of “rags, bones, bottles” that had been so often repeated it had been reduced to a hoarse, inarticulate shout. The original totters, of nineteenth-century Britain, really did collect rags and bones, among other items. The former were sold to a rag merchant who sold them on to firms that reprocessed them into the cheap material called shoddy. The latter were the remnants of families’ meals, which were sent to firms that rendered them down for glue. Some even swept out the fireplaces and ovens of the more prosperous households, sifting out the ashes to sell to soap-makers and selling on the half-burnt coals and logs to those in need of cheap fuel. It was recycling at its most basic.
Later, the cry was often “any old iron”, commemorated in a famous music-hall song. By the early 1960s, when BBC Television produced Steptoe and Son about two rag-and-bone men in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, the totting trade in its old form was pretty much extinct: nobody wanted rags and bones any more. The men of that period and later were scrap merchants, picking up any unwanted item of junk that looked as though it might be worth a few coins.
4. Questions & Answers: Stiff upper lip
[Q] From Isabel Hefner: “I couldn’t find the origin of the phrase stiff upper lip. Any suggestions?”
[A] To keep a stiff upper lip is to display courage and resolution in the face of adversity, to maintain a stoic appearance and so avoid showing weakness or emotion. The idea behind it is that when fear or other deep emotion threaten to overcome a person, one of the first signs is the upper lip beginning to tremble. In Britain, it has long since become a cliché linked to the once much-admired products of the public schools, who were sent into the Empire to battle adversity while keeping their emotions bottled up and their countenances cheerful, because it was the thing to do.
George Orwell semi-satirised it in his essay Inside The Whale of 1940: “With Maugham it is a kind of stoical resignation, the stiff upper lip of the pukka sahib somewhere east of Suez, carrying on with his job without believing in it, like an Antonine Emperor.” James Hilton used it in all seriousness in Beau Geste in 1924: “Anyhow, I conquered the yearning to go back to her, and when the local train loafed in I got into it, with a stiff upper lip and a bleeding heart, and set out on as eventful and strange a journey as ever a man took.”
It’s so characteristically English (P G Wodehouse wrote a novel with the title Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves) that I was amazed to find it’s American. The earliest known example appeared in a publication called the Massachusetts Spy on 14 June 1815; “I kept a stiff upper lip, and bought [a] license to sell my goods.” It’s well recorded throughout the nineteenth century in works like Thomas Haliburton’s The Clockmaker of 1837, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 1852, and in works by Horatio Alger, Petroleum V Nasby, Mark Twain, and others. It was only near the end of the century that it started to appear in British publications.
5. Recently noted
International community Anybody who makes a firm statement about language arouses my researcher’s instinct. When Peter Preston wrote in the Observer of 30 July that this phrase “did not exist in May 1948”, it was a challenge impossible to ignore. Presumably he had checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes the term only from 1959 (and doesn’t have a separate entry for it). But a little searching found it a number of times in news reports near the end of the Second World War in reference to the setting up of what was to become the United Nations. But the earliest example I’ve found is thirty years earlier, in the manifesto of Theodore Roosevelt’s US Progressive Party (the Bull Moose party) of 7 June 1916: “The United States is now a part of a world system of civilization. We stand or fall as we prepare to take our parts in peace or war and hold our own therein. As members of an international community we are subject to certain basic duties.”
Firescaping The Daily Bulletin of Ontario (the California one) has introduced me to this term, one well understood in areas subject to forest fires. Firescaping is landscaping that helps protect your home from wildfires, for example by replacing flammable shrubs and trees with fire-resistant species. The earliest example I’ve found so far is from a newspaper in Placerville, California, in 1994.
Decathect An amusing article in last Sunday’s Observer about the Lumos 2006 conference in Las Vegas, which was billed as “a Harry Potter symposium”, noted it included lectures such as Muggles and Mental Health: Rites of Transformation and a Psychoanalytical Perspective on the Inner World of Harry Potter, a title which it is impossible to parody. The lecturer was quoted: “Hogwarts is a tangible liminal space where Harry learns to re-sort Bad Objects and decathect from them”. It took a while to interpret this bit of academic jargon with the help of the Web. Decathect is a recent verb, not yet in most dictionaries, which has been formed from the older decathexis. This is a psychoanalytical term for the process of withdrawing one’s feelings of attachment from some person, idea, or object in anticipation of a future loss. So you might say, “He decathected from her in order to cope with her impending death.”
Threequel The desire to cash in on a profitable book or film by producing another using the same characters is keeping neologists busy. A letter published in the Guardian last weekend pointed me to this odd-looking example. The standard term is sequel, from which the others derive. We’re also now well used to prequel, for a work that’s published later but set earlier in time. A threequel is the third in a series, such as Return of the Jedi, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Godfather III. You can also have an interquel, which is set in the period between two previously published works.
6. Questions & Answers: Orey-eyed
[Q] From Maurits Zwankhuizen, Canberra, Australia: “Firstly thanks for your great and informative Web site. I have an interesting term that I have came across: orey-eyed. The etymology is unknown, as far as my research could tell, so I’m interested to see if you can discover where its origin lies.”
[A] It was new to me too, which added interest to my search. It is quite common online, especially in reference to the Orey-eyed Oghamist, whoever he is. One dictionary site defined it as “expressing anger through the eyes”. An article on horsemanship said that orey-eyed meant roughly the same as wall-eyed, for a horse that shows white around the rim of the eyes because he is frightened.
None of my standard reference works contained it, but I ran it to earth in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which says it means “having bleary or wild-looking eyes, especially as a result of drunkenness” and that it could also mean that somebody is drunk or enraged. It has examples going back to a discussion of it by H L Mencken in 1919, though the first appearance that DARE includes from real life is in Chevrons, a war novel by Leonard Nason dated 1926: “‘I know him,’ said Short, ‘he’s the man that brought you home the night you got orey-eyed at Cokeydawn.” The earliest example I’ve found is in The Post Standard of Syracuse, NY, in 1910: “And Harte did a job on the orey-eyed slob that was vivid and livid and nifty.”
Now at last to your question. Nobody knows the answer for certain. Mencken thought it was actually awry-eyed, which is a reasonable guess, but DARE points to the old Scottish term oorie, which is defined in the Concise Scots Dictionary as referring to persons or things that are “dismal, gloomy, miserable-looking, from cold, illness, etc.” If you include drunkenness in that etc., you’re well on the way to the modern American sense.
• Following the foiled terrorist plot to blow up aircraft leaving the UK, security was tightened. The Gatwick Airport site, Ben Ostrowsky points out, interprets this disturbingly: “In brief: Hand baggage restrictions are in place; Passengers will be handsearched; Footwear and all items (including pushchairs and walking aids) must be x-ray screened; Liquids will be removed from the passenger.” Is that like taking the piss?
• A note on a standard Australian prescription repeat form is “Valid only if patient/pharmacist or duplicate prescription is attached”. Ronald Besdansky suggests you’d need a really big staple to affix either of the first two.
• Linda Kerby read the Patient Discharge Instructions when she was released from hospital and began to wonder about the dressings that had been placed over her surgical incision: “Leave clear tape or steri strips intact, it will peal off on its own.” Ask not for whom the dressings toll ...
• Sarah Snieger noted an instruction at a nail drying station in her beauty parlour: “Fan will shut off automatically when you move out of your hands”. Don’t leave it too long before moving back.
• An item in the Observer last Sunday on the threat to the American suburban dream quoted James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, which—among other catastrophes—predicts the end of suburbia: “We have these terrible perfect storm conditions. The real estate market in America has gone south. We will get a death spiral.” Be reassured that, whatever is happening to the suburbs, clichés will always be with us.
• In The Globe and Mail of Toronto dated 5 August, seen by Edward Parker: “Ms. Schwarzkopf more or less gave up her career after Mr. Legge died in 1979 and retired to Zurich, Switzerland.” Mr Parker commented, “I’ll take Zurich over hell any day.”