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Newsletter 775
25 Feb 2012


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Somniloquent.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Playing gooseberry.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Sic! To misquote a famous Guardian correction, the absence of this column last week should not be taken as evidence of any sudden onset of accuracy in the world’s press.

God willing and the creeks don’t rise Lesley Shaw wrote to say that it’s not only Americans who know this: “When I was growing up in a small Queensland bush town you often heard people say: ‘See you if the creeks aren’t up’ and they meant exactly that. We always had enough food on hand (I still do in suburban Brisbane!) ‘in case the creeks come up’. But it just as often had a metaphorical meaning.” Murray Ball confirmed that it was “common when I was a lad growing up in rural Manitoba (Canada) in the 1940s and 1950s. Since the aboriginals in rural Manitoba were Cree or Sioux, it definitely had nothing to do with Creek Indians.”

An abbreviation with the same sense was cited by Australian readers: DVWP, from “Deo volente” (God willing) + “weather permitting”. Ama Bolton mentioned that her mother, born in Devon in the 1880s, used DV+WP instead and this form is also known in Australia. Although DV is common enough among churchgoers, the longer abbreviation is rare in print: I’ve come across just one example, in a letter to the Glasgow Herald in 1999.

Alamagoozlum Mary Louise Lyman recalled: “During Depression days at our house no food was allowed to go to waste, which often resulted in some rather odd but mostly tasty stews/casseroles that dad always called magoozlum. I never heard it in connection with maple syrup or an alcoholic drink.” It isn’t common in print, but it is in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler: “I’ve written twelve best-sellers, and if I ever finish that stack of magoozlum on the desk there I may possibly have written thirteen.” It has been defined as hooey, nonsense, tosh, tripe, twaddle or tommy-rot. Etymologists have suggested it may derive from the cartoon character Mr Magoo or from magoo, Hollywood slang for the gooey insides of custard pies (the throwing sort), but it seems at least as likely that it’s a shortening of alamagoozlum.

Several readers have told me that, despite what I wrote in this piece last week, gomme syrup is still available, from the French company Monin.

2. Weird Words: Somniloquent/sɒmˈnɪləkwənt/ Help with IPA

We are with sleep-talkers, a less often encountered term than sleep-walkers, even though the former are more common. Medical terminology has dignified words for them both: somnambulants and somniloquents. Some sufferers have been known to do both at once: you might call this the Lady Macbeth syndrome.

Both words begin with a derivative of the Latin somnus, sleep. The second parts are respectively from ambulare, to walk, and loqui to speak. The former is best known in perambulate, to walk about in a leisurely way, and in the rather rare noctambulant, somebody who walks at night; he or she might be somnambulant but could equally be insomniac. As to the second, if you talk a lot while awake, you are better described by its relative loquacious.

The nouns belonging to them are somnambulism and somniloquy. (Though most somniloquies are also soliloquies, it’s best not to confuse the two.) Somniloquacious is a pleasant expansion which trips off the tongue. Nathan Bailey included it in his dictionary in 1731 with the same sense as somnliloquent. It hasn’t been encountered in the wild since, though a music magazine did feature somniloquaciously some decades ago.

3. Wordface

Poo corner Would you be happy to read, or even perhaps be seen in the company of, a book entitled Cooking With Poo? Or perhaps one with the intriguing title of The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria? Or even possibly one subtitled The Memoirs Of A Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge? These are three of the seven shortlisted books announced yesterday (Friday) for the 32nd annual Bookseller Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year. The others are: Estonian Sock Patterns All Around The World, A Century Of Sand Dredging In The Bristol Channel (Volume Two), A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (which is described as “an exhaustive overview”), and The Mushroom In Christian Art. The winner will be chosen through a public vote at The Bookseller and its sister consumer website We Love This Book and will be announced on Friday 30 March. By the way, the poo in the first book’s title is actually the Thai word for crab. We may suspect a pun on the title of the famous book Cooking With Pooh.

4. Questions and Answers: Playing gooseberry

Q From Marc S Glasser: Like many Americans, I learn a lot about the common language that divides us from British programs — er, programmes — that cross the pond and appear on American public television. Just now I saw a 1998 episode of As Time Goes By in which one character, invited for a weekend in the country with four other characters, expresses concern about playing gooseberry. It was clear from the context that she meant an interloper who gets in the way of activities better suited for smaller groups; being a fifth wheel is the familiar term I’d use. A bit of Web searching confirmed the interpretation, but I remain baffled about the connection between fruit and intrusiveness.

A You’re not alone. This odd phrase puzzles everybody who has come across it. Not the least odd thing about it is that in its fairly short history it has flipped sense. As you have learned, today it means intruding on a couple, usually lovers, who wish to be alone. As you might also say, “two’s company, three’s a crowd”. But when it first appeared, in the nineteenth century, matters were very different.

A delightful story by a man who wrote under the pseudonym of “an old bachelor” appeared in Notes and Queries in 1860. He told how he was accompanying his nineteen-year-old niece on a walk when a young man joined them. He went on:

I observed nothing particular on the road, except that my niece and our casual companion seemed very much taken up with one another, and left me to my own meditations. But when we reached my brother’s house, and the young gentleman had wished us good morning, my niece, to my great surprise, not only informed me that I was the kindest of uncles, but added that she could not express how much she felt obliged to me for doing gooseberry.

Notes and Queries, 20 Oct. 1860.

He asked about the expression after dinner that evening and to his chagrin “all the gentlemen present began laughing”. He wrote to the journal for elucidation. The editor added a note:

Though it may not be thought quite the thing, if a young lady and her sweetheart are seen rambling through bypaths and shady lanes alone, yet if they take the same walk accompanied by the young lady’s aunt, married sister, grandmamma, or uncle, there is no “violation of the strictest propriety.” The party thus sanctioning is said to do gooseberry. We confess that, had our correspondent asked for the origin of the phrase, we should have felt at a loss; though very possibly some other correspondent may yet come to our assistance.

Others did, pointing out that the expression was a shortened form of gooseberry-picker, meaning a chaperone who, innocently or on purpose, allowed himself or herself to be distracted by something of interest — notionally picking fruit — so allowing the young couple to be alone together.

The first description of the gooseberry-picker that I can find suggests a slightly different association:

[His] duty is to hover about, to watch his patroness’s wants and wishes; escort her, if she require it, to the supper room, make way for her and secure a place for her, stay by her, until somebody comes up with whom she wishes to flirt, and then withdraw and give his place to that person.

The Parson’s Daughter, by Theodore Edward Hook, 1833.

This leaves us no nearer to understanding why the gooseberry should have been chosen as the fruit, nor why picking it was the activity involved. In Popular Sayings Dissected in 1894, a Mr A Wallace (nobody seems to know his first name), argued that the chaperone, “has to undergo all the pains and penalties attached to gathering a prickly fruit, while the others have the pleasure of eating it.” We may disregard this description of the self-abrogating chaperone as the romantic fantasy that it surely was. There must have been very few opportunities for actually picking gooseberries on walks (or was this perhaps the point?); it would have been more appropriate to select the wild blackberry, frequently harvested in season. One writer to Notes and Queries wondered if it derived from some work of fiction now lost to memory, but nobody’s managed to unearth it. The activity was also known as daisy-picking, which made a little more sense, particularly as children were often used as chaperones in this situation.

There were earlier gooseberries in slang. A gooseberry could be a fool or simpleton, borrowed from the ancient dish gooseberry fool. Old Gooseberry was the devil — an exact parallel to Old Harry — perhaps using the word in the sense of a being who could with care be outwitted. To play old gooseberry meant to make mischief or to defeat, destroy or ruin, or to seriously mismanage some matter:

You go and play old gooseberry with your constitution, you know, pitch your liver to Old Harry, and make ducks and drakes of your nervous system; — why, bless my soul, you know, you’ll be dead in two-two’s.

The Colonial Monthly (Australia), Mar. 1869.

Might play gooseberry or do gooseberry have originally derived from playing old gooseberry, notionally (if not actually) to get between a lover and his lass and spoil their fun?

What we can understand is why the expression flipped from being a person who allowed a young couple to be romantically engaged to somebody who got in the way of amorousness. Once the bonds of propriety weakened and chaperones were no longer required, a third person ceased to be a fig leaf of respectability and became a mere nuisance.

5. Sic!

• John Eliot Spofford tells us that the Boston Globe reported on 18 February: “A woman in her early 50s who was struck and killed by a tow truck while crossing a street in Brighton Thursday night has died, Boston police said.”

• From an obituary in the Wiltshire Times of 17 February, submitted by Alan Jones: “Mr [B] grew up in the East End of London but when his mother died at the age of five he was sent to a Dr Barnado’s [sic] home”.

• Freddie Cheah reports that on 18 February, the website of the Sydney Morning Herald had the headline “Honeymoon murder trial: Drowned woman’s heart problem cured.”

• On 20 February, Gerry Zanzalari encountered a Fox News story about the Swedish man who survived for two months in his car in sub-zero temperatures without food: “When rescuers arrived at the scene, Skyllberg was emancipated and barely speaking.” Even stranger was the version Jeremy Shaw read on Zeenews of India the same day: “A 45-year-old Swedish man has survived being frozen to death in his snow-covered car for two months.”

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