E-MAGAZINE 709: SATURDAY 23 OCTOBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sixpenny nails Peter Harvey pointed out another case of currency being used as a measure. In Scotland, it has long been common to refer to seventy-shilling beers, eighty-shilling beers and the like. These are references to their alcoholic strength and derive from the excise duty that was charged on a barrel in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Those of us faced with cutting a joint to serve at the table would no doubt refer to it as carving, no matter what variety of animal was concerned.
It was very different in Tudor times, if we are to believe a book of 1508 by Wynkyn de Worde, once an apprentice to William Caxton, England’s first printer. Its title was The Boke of Keruying. It started “Here begynneth the boke of keruynge and sewynge and all the feestes in the yere”, which in modern English would be “Here begins the book of carving and serving and all the feasts in the year”. Under the heading of “Terms of a Keruer” appeared a long list of the terms for carving any type of flesh, fowl or fish.
The attentive reader (who was intended to be the master of a big household, not a presumably illiterate servant) was instructed that one should break a deer, disfigure a peacock, dismember a heron, lift a swan, unjoint a bittern, unbrace a mallard, thigh a pigeon, splat a pike, scull a tench and culpon a trout. But never, never carve.
If all this reminds you a little of the long lists of collective terms for birds (murmuration of starlings, unkindness of ravens, tiding of magpies, exaltation of larks) which were first listed in The Book of St Albans of 1486, you may guess that a lot of these carving terms were intended more for the pleasure of readers with time to savour the delights of the English language than for their servants to use at table. The list was repeated in later centuries in many works, such as Hannah Woolley’s The Compleat Maidservant or Young Maiden’s Tutor of 1685 and Edw Smedley’s Encyclopaedia Metropolitana of 1845.
Culpon, meaning a piece cut off, a portion or slice, is first recorded in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in about 1386. It’s from Old French colpon, via Latin colpus from Greek kolaphos, a blow with the fist. In the early nineteenth century — by then culpon was obsolete — the French word was borrowed again as coupon, which etymologically speaking is a thing cut out.
A basket case Richard Brock asked me about a word that baffled his book group: fish-bass. It appears in A Month in the Country by J L Carr, published in 1980: “Then I set off half-heartedly, as best I could sheltering my spare clothes (which were in the straw fish-bass) under my coat.” The term seems to be unique to Carr, but its second part, bass, was once fairly common. It referred to a type of basket made of bass, strictly the inner bark of the lime, but more loosely the leaf-stalks of various plants, such as split rushes or certain types of palms (or, in this case, straw). A fish-bass is presumably a basket made of bass that is designed to hold fish, though in Carr’s story it contained tools as well as clothes.
Of cats, dogs and frogs “Here in Australia,” Michael Shannon e-mailed, “we’ve got a history of coming up with unusual turns of phrase for various everyday things or events. Back in the Nineties, the Home Hardware group created a couple of mascots, two dogs named Rusty & Sandy. Because they were dogs there was no way they would tolerate the stores issuing sales brochures with the ignominious name of catalogue, so they decided to call theirs the dogalogue. The dogalogue has been a running joke in the hardware industry ever since. It seems like someone in the marketing department of the Australian Geographic Society thought it was good enough to imitate. Recently, I was walking past one of their retail shops only to discover they’ve released a frogalogue, featuring the photogenic and endangered green tree frog. I’m almost dreading what the next invention will be. Might we be in for a rush of wombatalogues, platypusalogues, or wallabyalogues?”
4. Questions and Answers: Thrown for a loop
Q From Barry Bloom, California: I am wondering about thrown for a loop, which means to be greatly surprised. Can you tell me where it comes from?
A All sorts of suggestions have been put forward — with greatly varying levels of certitude — about the image behind this American expression. The most popular ones include an aircraft looping the loop, a person being physically knocked head over heels, or a calf brought down by a lariat looped around a leg. In an entry written many years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may derive from passengers looping the loop in an early roller coaster. (It charmingly calls it by the obsolete term centrifugal railway, this name having been given to several looping rides in the early nineteenth century, originally in France but then from the 1840s in the UK and the USA.)
Part of the problem is that there are actually two forms of the expression, knock somebody for a loop and throw somebody for a loop, and various meanings for both. You might be saying that you have surprised, astonished, shocked or confused a person, caught them off guard, or made a strong impression on them. You might even be saying that that they’ve actually been knocked down.
The written evidence — which is all we’ve got to go on — dates from the early 1920s. There’s no doubt that the first form was knocked for a loop and was a sporting term, especially in boxing:
Round after round, the fight goes on with continued reports of heavy punching, suddenly followed by a loud roar from the crowd. Father: “Listen! Somebody got knocked for a loop sure as guns!”
The Wireless Age, Aug. 1921. This is part of its report into the historic broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier heavyweight championship prize fight by the WJY station of New York on 2 Jul. 1921.
Casey Is Knocked For a Loop Early By Everett Boxer
A headline in the Oakland Tribune, 22 Jul. 1922.
This suggests that the original idea may have been a punch that was heavy enough to lay out an opponent by making him fall backwards and roll over. It may always have been a metaphor; certainly it’s already become so even in these early appearances — the report under the headline in the Oakland Tribune refers to an easy win, not to a specific blow. Another early use shows that it had already been in the language long enough to gather the sense of something that surprises or astonishes:
“Cut the bread,” she commanded, “and I’ll make some bacon sandwiches that will knock you for a loop.” He wheeled toward the bread-box and reached for a loaf.
The Last Mile, by Frank A McAlister, 1922.
Throwing somebody for a loop, on the other hand, doesn’t appear for about another decade and seems always to have had the idea behind it that you mention — primarily surprise. Did its early users want a more forceful saying than the baseball-originated throw someone a curve? Or did they have judo in mind? Or had they just created a variation on knock for a loop without thinking about it? I rather suspect the last of these. But trying to get inside the minds of casual creators of idioms 80 years after the event is always going to be difficult.
• An online advert for Virbac Yard Spray, Robert Bendesky discovered, lists the following as one of its benefits: “Kills fleas and ticks that infest your yard, and then your pet”.
• Joe Orfant was surprised to learn from a headline in the Lowell Sun of Massachusetts on 20 October that “Gum crime has held steady in Lowell.”
• Jeremy Busch passed us the sentence with which Slate.com ended its summary of a story about rapper TI talking a suicidal man down from the ledge of a building: “After being busted on drug charges in Los Angeles last month, a federal judge will decide on Friday whether to rescind his probation and send the rapper back to prison.”
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