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Newsletter 737
21 May 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Scobberlotcher.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Soap opera.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Carwhichet Readers provided many more examples of nonsense queries from their own experiences. From Canada, Marc Slingerland e-mailed, “I’m very glad to have the word carwhichet to describe the kind of zany non-sequiturs that briefly flourished in our area during my adolescence! A representative example: ‘As I was biking across my backyard in my canoe, the left wheel fell off. How many pancakes does it take to shingle a doghouse?” To which the correct answer was, “It depends if a snake has armpits.” I’ve thought of these as surrealist jokes, but carwhichet is a nice compact term that I shall try to remember.”

Carwhichet reminded me of a line my father would use on me as a child,” Loren Crispell wrote. In an attempt to divert my boredom on long trips, he used to ask, ‘When is a duck?’ Answer: ‘The higher he flies the much.’” Pádraig McCarthy and Lesley Shaw remember another duck-related riddle: “Q: What’s the difference between a duck? A: One of its legs is both the same.” Ken Shaw added, “When I was in school in the late 1950s, the most familiar carwhichet was: ‘If a chicken and-a-half-can lay an egg-and-a-half in a day-and-a-half, how long will it take a grasshopper with a wooden leg to kick his way through a dill pickle?’”

Upper crust “Just to note,” e-mailed Kate Robinson, “that there is a French parallel to the upper crust, le gratin. It too has a pejorative sense, possibly because it implies ‘the most delicious part’ of the dish, and has a rather self-congratulatory feel. Of course it refers to the broiled, crispy, very rich top layer of dishes like gratin dauphinois.”

2. Weird Words: Scobberlotcher

The first recorder of this strange word was the antiquarian John Aubrey, who wrote in his Brief Lives about Dr Ralph Kettell, who had been President of Trinity College, Oxford, between 1599 and 1643. Kettell had had an inventive way with invective, describing the undergraduates of the College as rascal-jacks, tarrarags, blindcinques and scobberlotchers. Of the last of these, his opinion was that:

these did no hurt, were sober, but went idling about the grove with their hands in their pockets and telling the number of the trees there or so.

Brief Lives, by John Aubrey, c1697.

We may assume that counting trees was a way to pass the time, like twiddling one’s thumbs, not a herald of silvicultural ambition.

To waste the potential of this mouth-filling and mysterious word on idle boys is almost an affront against language. It would surely better fit a violent robber who strikes down unwary travellers or a mythical monster which terrorises remote Scottish glens.

The Oxford English Dictionary points, tentatively, to two old words as possible antecedents. One is the eastern English regional scopperloit, a time of idleness (perhaps from Dutch leuteren, to idle, the source of English loiter). The other is the verb scoterlope, to wander aimlessly.

This is another of its rare appearances:

“Good-morrow, Master Richard!” hailed the man, in a voice that matched his person. “What! not abroad yet, thou bed-worm, thou scobberlotcher!” and leaning down rolled a snowball in his massive hands, but desisted at the last moment from throwing it at Dick’s window lest it should enter by mistake the adjoining room, where his father and mother slept; and flung it instead with great shrewdness at Sally, the pretty serving-maid, who was sweeping the snow away from the top flight of broad front steps.

Dick Willoughby, by Cecil Day Lewis, 1933.

3. Wordface

Newspaper names The advent of the electric telegraph, at first so called to distinguish it from its mechanical predecessor, led to huge changes in the way people communicated and in particular how the press was able to report events. In consequence, many newspapers adopted the word telegraph as part of their name. In James Gleick’s new book, The Information, he describes the successor to the telegraph: “To employ the telephone, one just talked. A child could use it. In fact, it seemed like a familiar toy, made from tin cylinders and string. The telephone left no permanent record. The Telephone had no future as a newspaper name.” At once, people from the West Midlands of the UK rose up to disagree. “What about the Smethwick Telephone?” they cried. This was founded in 1884, in the very early days of the electric speaking telephone, as this new-fangled device would have been described at the time. After various amalgamations, in 1966 it became The Warley News Telephone, which closed in 1975. I’ve also seen a reference to a newspaper in Arkansas called simply The Telephone, likewise founded in the 1880s. In addition a number of telephone-based news outlets briefly existed a century ago as precursors of radio, generically called telephone newspapers.

4. Questions and Answers: Soap opera

Q From Nick Child: I feel there must be a very obvious reason for the common name of a long-running TV series, soap opera, but I can’t think of it just now. Is it to do with kitchen sink drama?

A I can see why you introduced the idea, but there’s no link between soap opera and kitchen-sink drama, a grittily realistic portrayal of British working-class life that appeared in the late 1950s, for example John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Arnold Wesker’s Roots. Soap opera is an American form, though much copied. Most people these days would associate soap operas with television, but they actually began in the early days of radio.

By the late 1920s, evening prime-time radio was well-established, but radio stations and advertisers were unsure whether anybody would want to listen during the day. All they knew was that the audience would be overwhelmingly female, since in those days few women went out to work. The only model they had was the popular Amos and Andy, featuring the misadventures of two southern black men who had been transplanted to the south side of Chicago (written and performed, such were the times, by two white men), which had been running since 1926 and had been extremely profitable for its sponsor, Pepsodent Toothpaste. This had shown that a daily dramatic entertainment whose storylines ran over many episodes could hold an audience.

The first daytime serial, as the type was formally called, was The Goldbergs, written by and starring Gertrude Berg, which began in November 1929. However, radio historians would argue that it was actually the first sitcom and that the first true soap was Painted Dreams the following year, written by an ambitious Dayton schoolteacher and radio-struck actress named Irna Phillips. After these showed the potential, there was no stopping them and serials such as Myrt and Marge, Pepper Young’s Family, Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent soon became long-term fixtures for millions of listeners.

This is an acerbic later view of the form:

A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.

Soapland I — O Pioneers!, by James Thurber, in the New Yorker, 15 May 1948.

The advertisers who paid for these daytime serials were naturally enough those selling household products. The biggest spender by far was Procter & Gamble, makers of Ivory soap, whose advertising budget for radio in 1931 was nearly half a million dollars. To the cynics who saw nothing good in these daytime serials, to say they existed merely to sell soap was as good a put-down as any, all the better for being accurate. As James Thurber added:

It is the hope of every advertiser to habituate the housewife to an engrossing narrative whose optimum length is forever and at the same time to saturate all levels of her consciousness with the miracle of a given product, so that she will be aware of it all the days of her life and mutter its name in her sleep.

The name soap operas for them came along some years after they had become established, together with other sarcastic epithets such as washboard weepers and dishpan dramas. Though some say soap opera may have first appeared in trade magazines such as Variety, the first example we know of in print is this:

That sort of thing, the elite think, went out with sound — or, at least, with the radio “soap operas”.

New York Times, 12 Nov. 1939.

The second half of the term is less obvious, though it’s not far from the truth to say that they were called operas because they so obviously weren’t. When you think about it, though, they did both dramatise overwrought emotional moments.

However, soap opera had actually been borrowed from a disparaging term for an earlier popular film and radio form, the western. These had been known as horse operas from 1923 at the latest. This was itself a transferred term, as it was first used nearly a century earlier in the UK and US for an equine public spectacle. This is its first known appearance, from London:

M. Laurent has signed and sealed for COVENT-GARDEN THEATRE, and will open with Jullien and his flower-gardens and monster quadrilles. It is said, that after the Jullien era shall have ended, we are to have either equestrian spectacles or a German opera; but that it is not finally settled whether we are to have the Herrs or the Horses — or either. We fear a German opera will not pay, and we hope a Horse opera will not.

The Age And Argus (Middlesex), 31 Aug. 1844. The Age and Argus was several times satirical at the expense of Monsieur Jullien, a French conductor who created low-brow but popular musical spectacles such as the English Quadrille and the Destruction of Pompeii, which involved, another newspaper reported, “the popping of guns, the flashing of blue and red lights, the rolling of theatrical thunder, and the extinction of the gas [lighting], with which the audience seemed highly delighted”. He had come from a summer season at the famous Vauxhall Gardens, which may explain the reference to flowers.

5. Sic!

• “What other outcome did they expect?” Barbara McGilvray asked. She had sent in a front-page headline from the Sydney Daily Telegraph of 17 May: “Family murder spree ends in tragedy”.

• Mark Thomas found this sentence in the London Evening Standard on Friday 13 May: “Mr. Collins said Labour’s vote share last week, at 37 per cent, was low for an opposition party — worse even than the party’s least successful modern leader, Michael Foot, managed 30 decades ago.”

• What seemed at first to be a sexist grammatical error appeared in a headline that Peter Weinrich encountered in Science magazine on 13 May: “He Not So Super After All”. He turned out to be the chemical symbol for helium.

• The Hobart Mercury of Tasmania, Gordon Bain reports, wrote about animal superheroes in its issue of May 13: “Fizo, a nine-year-old silky terrier, saved four young children from a brown snake by sacrificing himself. He survived.” Super-super-hero, then?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 21 May 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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