E-MAGAZINE 695: SATURDAY 17 JULY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
More information has come in, so I’ve had another go at updating my online piece on kibosh.
2. Weird Words: Swan-upping
It was reported in the Washington Post this week that the Queen is considering how to reduce the cost of running the British monarchy, one suggestion being to lay off her official Swan Marker. (The British media haven’t mentioned this; perhaps the idea of the Queen having one in the first place to get rid of doesn’t seem so strange to them as it does to Americans.)
Next week will see that official taking part — perhaps for the last time — in an annual ceremony on a seventy-mile stretch of the River Thames upstream from London: swan-upping. It’s not as rude as it sounds: it’s an annual census in which the mute swans and their cygnets are upped — taken up from the river to be inspected and marked.
The census — it takes five days — is operated by the Swan Marker and the Swan Uppers of two of the ancient trade guilds of London, the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies. The census is said to date from the twelfth century, at a time when the sovereign claimed ownership of all swans (they were valuable birds that were served up at banquets and feasts).
These days, royal ownership is claimed only on the Thames and some tributaries and — you may be pleased to learn — the Queen doesn’t actually eat any of her swans. The birds used to be tagged by nicks on their beaks — which is why the Swan Marker has that name — but these days are ringed on their legs.
Northern eating Because I’m a southerner and unfamiliar with the ways of the north of England, I wasn’t surprised that pea-wet came fresh to me this week. But it transpired that most northerners don’t know it either, as it’s a very local term known only around Wigan in Lancashire. The British national dish of fish and chips is often accompanied in northern England by a serving of mushy peas, a kind of thick green pea soup made from dried marrowfat peas. The water that’s strained off mushy peas is pea-wet, the poor man’s version; it’s poured over a serving of chips as a gravy. It was at one time given away to poor children, as part of pea-wet and scraps, the scraps being fragments of batter from the fish fryer. There’s also baby’s head and pea-wet, which is a steak and kidney pudding served with pea-wet gravy, not wholly dissimilar to the pie floater of Australian cuisine (the name comes from the dimple in the top of the pudding, which reminded people of the one in a baby’s head).
Briefly famous The word celetoid turned up in my daily newspaper, which sent me scurrying for enlightenment to my usual sources. It was invented by the sociologist Chris Rojek in his book of 2001, Celebrity. He listed three ways a person might get famous: through being the child of famous parents (Prince Harry or Caroline Kennedy), through accomplishments in sport or the arts (David Beckham, Damien Hirst), or through being considered newsworthy by the mass media (Big Brother contestants, lottery winners). He invented celetoid for this last group, individuals who seem to be everywhere in the media one day and forgotten the next, who have their Warholian fifteen minutes of fame and then drop out of sight again.
4. Questions and Answers: Taxi
Q From Ron Witton, Australia: What is the origin of taxi?
A One day in early July 1894, two entrepreneurs from Hamburg named Bruhn and Westendorf attended a meeting at the Board of Trade in London concerning their device, called a taxameter-fare indicator. According to The Illustrated Police News of 7 July, the two men explained that the instrument showed how many passengers were being carried, the fare to be paid, the number of trips made by the cab and the miles traversed in the course of the day. They claimed it had already been adopted in cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen and Dresden and that local authorities were making its adoption a condition of granting licences.
The wheels turned slowly in the Board of Trade and it was not until March 1899 that the first cabs fitted with them came into regular use in the capital. The delay was partly the result of opposition by the London Cab Drivers Union, which was deeply suspicious of the potentially adverse implications for their members’ livelihoods of accurately recording drivers’ takings. Northern cities such as Liverpool, Bradford, Manchester and Leeds were ahead of London (as were New York and Buenos Aires). General public satisfaction with the meters was reported. Passengers preferred the new taxameter-fitted cabs because they obviated arguments with bullying cabbies about fares. Cabbies were happy, too, as relations with customers had improved, their takings had gone up and the level of tips had remained the same.
The German name of Taxameter, at first adopted in Britain, was taken from Taxe, a charge or levy. After the device became common in Paris (another city that was well ahead of London), the French created the term taximètre for it, from taxe, a tariff (why the e should change to an i is unrecorded). Partly in consequence of patriotic feelings, coupled with anti-German sentiment (the Yorkshire Post commented sourly in June 1894 that it trusted that a system for charging fares might be introduced “without it being found necessary to resort to a German arrangement”), the French term proved popular. In the Anglicised spelling taximeter it was used in a London newspaper in 1898 even before the metropolitan meters, of the German type, had gone into operation. Taximeter soon permanently replaced the German name.
These early devices were, of course, fitted to horse-drawn hansom cabs or growlers (so called because of the noise their iron-hooped wheels made on London cobbles). There was some argument over what to call these new metered vehicles. While the official designation for any vehicle plying for hire was hackney carriage, everybody called them cabs (a short form of cabriolet, the French name for a light horse-drawn two-wheeled vehicle, a term indirectly borrowed from the Latin word for goat because of its bounding motion). A metered hire vehicle was clearly enough a taximeter cab, but this was too unwieldy for daily use.
Motorised vehicles began to appear in substantial numbers during the first decade of the new century, all being fitted with meters from the outset. In March 1907, the Daily Chronicle remarked that “Every journalist ... has his idea of what the vehicle should be called” and went on to list motor-cab, taxi-cab, and taximo among the options touted. (Motor-cab had been recorded as early as 1897 in London and soon after in Washington DC, but for an electric hire vehicle, not the internal combustion one that had almost totally usurped it by this date.) By November 1907 the Daily Mail had begun to refer to a “taxi”, in inverted commas as befitted a colloquial term not yet admitted to the standard lexicon. In February 1908, the Daily Chronicle noted that the issue had been resolved: “Within the past few months the ‘taxi’ has been the name given to the motor-cab.” Since then, of course, it has spread greatly, though never ousting cab from the language.
That isn’t the whole story. Of the words on the list that the Daily Chronicle produced in March 1907, one other did well, though not in the UK. Taxicab is on record from as early as December 1907 in New York and it has survived in the US.
• Do I detect the influence of a bored subeditor on the headline that Eamonn Grogan found in the Irish Times last Tuesday? It was over a report about a union problem with the lift/elevator company Otis: “Lift dispute set to escalate.”
• Elisabeth Kauffman noted that CBS News online, and numerous other news outlets, managed to make the fatalities in Afghanistan this week sound ridiculous: “Rouge Afghan soldier Kills U.K. Troops”.
• The Delta Airlines SkyMiles Cruises website is promoting a European river cruise, with “plush, comfortable accommodations”, “a graceful and inviting vessel”, “fine dining”, and “tentative staff”. Better tentative staff than the pushy over-attentive sort, but an untentative proofreader would be even better.
6. Copyright and contact details
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