NEWSLETTER 599: SATURDAY 9 AUGUST 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Tart Tony Sharp commented on its Liverpudlian meaning: “You note the derogatory use of the female epithet tart and show, properly, its derivation from sweetheart (t’art). However as a Scouser I can assure you that when we use the term it is simply used to mean ‘girl’ or ‘wife’ dressed in any way at all, not overdressed; ‘the tart’ usually means ‘my wife’. This allows other regional users to assume Liverpudlians have the same attitude to women as American Black ‘rapsters’ who use only the term ho.” Alan Harrison notes it is used in a similarly neutral way around Newcastle-on-Tyne, and adds, “Nearly forty years ago, my brother told me that it seemed to be used in the same sense in Lichfield. A consequent misunderstanding between a young lady from Walsall (about nine miles away) and her boyfriend meant that an altercation ensued.”
Several readers pointed out that at least one online compilation of Cockney rhyming slang gives Thomas More, meaning “whore”, as the origin, and ask if this is the true origin of tom. None of my general slang dictionaries, nor those specialising in rhyming slang, have this phrase, and I doubt whether it was ever in actual use. Patrick Martin notes mot as an old term for a prostitute, which the Oxford English Dictionary says was still in use in 1866, and wonders if tom might be backslang derived from it, as boy became yob around the same time. There’s no evidence for it.
Incentivise Peter McMenamin was one of several who commented on this word. “I too cringe along with Columbine at hearing incent and incentivize but motivate is too broad. One can motivate with threats, calls to patriotism, shame, and any number of other ways that do not involve financial incentives. I have been an economist for 40 years, but I have yet to encounter a felicitous single word meaning to motivate through financial incentives.”
More laws Robert Eldred pointed out that at least one of the laws quoted in previous issues may be a steal from Chisholm’s Law of Human Interaction: “If at any time things seem to be going well, you’ve overlooked something.” And Melissa Ruminski notes that Evans’s Law is strikingly similar to one attributed to H G Wells, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” But did Wells actually originate it? No quotation dictionaries I have here include it and although it’s widely quoted in books and online, always attributed to him, I can’t find any instance in which the source is given. I’ve searched a collection of Wellsiana, but the quote isn’t there.
Waddle Having recently discussed in some detail whether certain adjectives should end in -ative or just -ive, several readers took, I suspect, mild pleasure in pointing out that in this piece last week I’d used the word frequentive when its usual form among grammarians is frequentative. Randall Bart commented, “I don’t normally favor polysyllabificationizing, but I can’t find a dictionary listing for frequentive.”
Errors redux I stutteringly added a third d to the name of Captain Waddell in that piece. To the many people who leapt on this with glee I have to tell you the final d is silent. John Weiss noted the other of the two typing errors in the issue (complied for compiled) and asked if I was offering prizes for spotting them.
There’s no need to give rewards,
Since the doryphores among the hordes
Will undertake this arduous job
For the simple pleasure of making me sob.
A banner or pennant hung from a crossbar.
This word has close relatives in several modern European languages. It’s a variation of the older gonfanon that can be traced to an ancient Teutonic term that meant a war banner. The second part of that word has turned into modern German Fahne, a flag, and also into the obsolete English fane for a flag or a weathercock, which has become our vane. By itself, fanon is a shoulder cape worn by the Pope during solemn mass.
Gonfalons usually contain elaborately decorated images or emblems, such as the coat of arms of an organisation. They frequently have swallow tails or streamers attached. Almost any formal procession, such as that of a church, a trade union or university, will have members carrying gonfalons. Historically, a gonfalon was a standard of the medieval Italian republics.
The sun was setting over the western mountains when the last dhow entered the bay. This was the largest of them all, and at the peak of her stubby mast she flew the snarling leopard head gonfalon and the gaudy colours of the House of Trok Uruk.
— Warlock, by Wilbur Smith.
3. Questions & Answers: Cleft stick
[Q] From Michael Shannon: “While reading a news article online I came across the term cleft stick. An Internet search turned up several definitions, all of them a variation on “being stuck in a difficult position”. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t find anything that gave a history of it. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it, and it’s such an intriguing term that I’d love to know where it came from, hence I turn to you for help. Any clues?”
[A] It’s mainly a British expression. It’s often rather stronger than just being in a difficult situation — it’s one in which you’re in a dilemma, a serious fix or bind in which you have no room for manoeuvre so that any action you take will be unfavourable to you.
Cleft is now unusual outside a small number of fixed phrases, of which the best known is cleft palate. It’s one of the two past participles of the verb cleave, to split or sever, the other being cloven, as in animals with cloven hooves.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is dated 1782, in a letter from William Cowper: “We are squeezed to death, between the two sides of that sort of alternative which is commonly called a cleft stick.”
The image is of a stick which has been partially severed along the grain of the wood to make a springy clasp for some object. A thing held in this way is in an unyielding embrace, unable to move, from which the figurative expression derives.
Things once held in a literal cleft stick included a candle (this appears in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: “He bore in his right hand a tallow candle stuck in the end of a cleft stick”) and an arrowhead attached to a cleft shaft, but the one that at once comes to mind for me is a letter. A typical example is in a famous work of travel writing, still in print, The Land of Footprints by the American author Stewart Edward White, a memoir he published in 1913 that recounted the year he spent in East Equatorial Africa early in the century:
About the middle of the morning we met a Government runner, a proud youth, young, lithe, with many ornaments and bangles; his red skin glistening; the long blade of his spear, bound around with a red strip to signify his office, slanting across his shoulder; his buffalo hide shield slung from it over his back; the letter he was bearing stuck in a cleft stick and carried proudly before him as a priest carries a cross to the heathen in the pictures.
4. Questions & Answers: Know the ropes
[Q] From John Lanahan, Berlin: “Could you please explain the expression, To teach someone the ropes? Is this a naval or circus term at all?”
[A] It pairs up with know the ropes, which is a lot more common. Learn the ropes is also often found. All are from seafaring.
You only have to look at pictures of old-time sailing ships to get the point. A vast amount of cordage supported the masts as well as the running rigging that controlled the sails and yards. Every rope or line had a purpose and every one was essential to control the vessel; loosen or pull the wrong one at a critical moment and all hell might break loose. So it was vital that the crew knew the ship’s ropes: to learn them was the basic skill of any sailor.
The expression is first recorded in Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast in 1840: “The captain, who had been on the coast before, and ‘knew the ropes,’ took the steering-oar, and we went off in the same way as the other boat.” It’s almost certainly a lot older as a seafarer’s term, because Dana is already using it in the current figurative sense of knowing how to do something or being fully knowledgeable or experienced.
• “I spent years working for the State of Oregon,” Catherine Houser tells us. “Every so often we would see hiring announcements for ‘Director, Elderly Affairs’ and wondered if they really needed official help with their love lives.”
• Rory Gordon received a service announcement on Thursday from his broadband supplier in Australia: “Engineers have restored services and the iiNet support, sales and billing lines are available. Due to the outage wait times for the support line have increased, we apologize for the incontinence.”
• Michael Grosvenor Myer and David Balfour both noticed a report in The Times last Saturday about a gun-running network: “The gang set up a sophisticated chain to distribute the weapons, converted by a Lithuanian gunsmith to fire 9mm bullets, primarily from the south to the north of England.” Pretty good range for a 9mm handgun!
• “This morning,” e-mailed Bronwyn Cozens from Australia, “I spotted the following ad on my local Community Noticeboard: ‘For Sale, wedding gown, never worn, delusted satin...’.” Pleasures forgone.