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Newsletter 907
31 Jan 2015


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Heliotrope.

3. Ditty bag.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious. Isabel Henniger commented, “And then there is floccinaucinihilipilification, the action or habit of estimating something as worthless. Not quite as long as E31, but a favourite of mine.” My piece on it is here. William F Wallace wrote, “In what sense is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis fictitious? I saw it in the addenda to a Webster’s dictionary in the 1950s. Sure, it’s a made-up word. Aren’t they all? If it is used and people know what you mean, it’s a word!” That’s certainly true. I was trying, if poorly, to say that the word was invented as a joke and has rarely, if ever, been used in real life (despite, as Mr Wallace notes, its inclusion in some dictionaries.)

Old fogey. On the associations of foggy, which I discussed in this piece, Malcolm Ross-Macdonald wrote, “I recall a suggestion in a book on folk songs that the foggy dew of one particular song referred ostensibly to grass run to seed but obliquely to a prolonged virginity. And grass run to seed and bleached by the sun does have a misty sheen. So there you have foggy associated with extreme maturity, past its best, ripe for harvest.”

Paddy Buckley commented, “You mentioned fog as a coarse grass that grows in damp or boggy conditions. In my experience Yorkshire fog (Holcus mollis) doesn’t need the wet to thrive. You will find it in roadside verges. Up here in Lancashire farms, fog was used to denote the second cut of grass for hay.”

False etymology. Andrew Haynes wrote regarding the Australian term pom: “The Morpeth Arms, a pub on Millbank in London, has some old prison cells in its basement. A sign inside the pub proclaims: ‘Did you know? The term pom is Australian slang for the British. The term derives from right under your feet where British prisoners were banished to Australia and referred to as Prisoners of Millbank.’ You may wish to add this to your list of loony theories.”

2. Heliotrope/ˈhiːlɪəʊtrəʊp/ Help with IPA

In early 1880, newspaper articles throughout much of the English-speaking world, usually headed “for the ladies”, reported that the Paris spring fashions featured a new colour:

There is no doubt but that the “heliotrope colour” will take the lead in spring materials, such as silks, grenadines, and wollens [sic]; the peculiar shade is that rosy purple conspicuous in the newly-blown flower, and which the dyers call a “false purple.”

Launceston Examiner (Tasmania), 24 Apr. 1880.

As the writer hinted, there was nothing new about the colour, nor indeed the word. The pretty flower called the heliotrope had long been a favourite in gardens, one that had been chosen as much for its scent as its rich purple colour.

On the face of it, it’s an odd name for the flower, as the helio- prefix refers to the sun and so might be better applied to a shade of yellow rather than purple. Heliotrope has been in the language for about a thousand years, originally in Old English as eliotropus, which had come via Latin from Greek heliotropion for a plant that turned its flowers to the sun. The second part is from Greek trepein, to turn, which appears in the English word tropism for the movement of parts of a plant in response to an external stimulus. One obvious tropism is gravity, which is why roots grow downwards and stems upwards and why plants don’t grow well on space stations. Many plants have the tropism of turning their flowers to the sun — marigolds and sunflowers, for example, as well as heliotropes — and all were at various times called heliotropes. Eventually, for reasons that aren’t clear, the word came to be reserved for the one plant.

The colour called purple in antiquity — often specifically Tyrian purple, because it was made and sold at the ancient Phoenician seaport of Tyre in the eastern Mediterranean — was obtained from a tiny gland in several closely related species of shellfish; about 10,000 were needed to make one gram of the dye. Consequently, it was rare and expensive, reserved for the high-born (hence phrases such as born to the purple). The colour varied between a rich crimson red and a dark purple usually said to be like that of dried blood. The secret of making it was lost in antiquity and the false purple of the newspaper article was one substitute, obtained either from other species of shellfish or by a chemical process involving logwood.

Artificial purple dyes began to appear in the 1830s with murexide, which was made by two German chemists from python excrement; as it’s hard to come by, French chemists later used South American guano instead, of which there was lots. (Incidentally, the German chemists took its name from Latin mūrex for the shellfish that provided Tyrian purple, though it had never been within miles of one.) Aniline dyes derived from coal tar came next, the first being discovered by accident in 1856 by the 18-year-old William Henry Perkin. He called it aniline purple but later mauveine and mauve (from the French word for the colour of the flowers of the madder plant).

By 1880, purple fabrics at reasonable prices had been available for more than a decade. It was purely for marketing purposes that the Parisian arbiters of fashion decided to apply heliotrope to a particular shade of pinkish-purple. In doing so, they added a new sense to the dictionary definition of the word, in English as well as French.

Heliotrope was being used more widely at that time for another reason. A substance called piperonal or heliotropine, synthesised in 1869, started to be used a decade later in a perfume that was said to imitate the scent of heliotrope flowers, though it has also been described as smelling like cherry pie.

The popularity of the word heliotrope continued to grow throughout the last quarter of the century and into the first decade of the twentieth. The fashion for it declined rapidly after the end of the First World War and today it’s relatively uncommon as a word for a colour or scent, though gardeners, of course, still know it well.

3. Ditty bag

Q From Katya Epstein:: Today I learned that on a film set, gear is carried in a ditty bag. Why is it called this?

A Ditty bag comes from the days of sailing ships:

On each side of the berth-deck, termed “the wings,” are racks for the accommodation of canvass bags; each man has one in which he keeps his clothes, and a little bag or reticule called “a ditty bag,” containing all the implements of his housewifery, such as thimble, needles, tapes, thread, &c, for you must know that every genuine seaman is always his own tailor, hatter, and very frequently his own shoemaker.

The Journal of Belles Lettres, Philadelphia, 1833.

So it had almost exactly the same sense as housewife (sometimes written and frequently said as hussif), which was known at the time not only on board ship but also in the army and in civilian life.

The quotation above is the earliest example I’ve so far found. The term starts to appear at about the same time in descriptions of seafaring both in the US and the UK, implying an earlier common origin. My guess is that it was used by sailors for many decades before it reached print.

Ditty bag remained a term exclusively of the sea until the twentieth century. Landlubbers took it up and used it for any small cloth container for items of kit or miscellaneous stuff. It’s almost completely defunct in the UK but survives widely in north America in all sorts of situations. So it’s unsurprising that you have found it in the film business.

There’s also ditty box, now rarely used but at one time also known to sailors, mentioned in a mildly patronising article about a tour of a ship of Her Majesty’s Navy (Jack is the usual generic term for a sailor):

Jack likes to do a bit of writing now and then to one of his old sweethearts, and for that purpose he is allowed a sort of writing-desk, which he calls his ditty box, where he keeps portraits and love-letters, and charms, and all those little trinkets which remind him of “home, sweet home,” when far away he is tossed about on the mighty deep.

Western Daily Press (Bristol, UK), 12 Sep. 1864.

The problem is working out where ditty comes from.

The most common origin given in general works repeats the one that Admiral W H Smyth gave in his Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867; he said it “derives its name from the dittis or Manchester stuff of which it was once made”. Manchester stuff was cotton goods of any sort, from the roughest to the finest, given that name because the city of Manchester was then the world centre of the cotton-weaving industry. This is why Manchester department is still used in some stores in Australia and New Zealand for the section selling cotton goods such as sheets and towels. However, nobody has found dittis or its presumed singular ditti anywhere.

Other suggestions that don’t survive inspection are that it’s from ditto (a bag or box for dittos or a second suit of clothes, on the assumption that a sailor’s wardrobe was limited); that it’s from a modified form of kitty-bag, a diminutive of kitbag; or that — as a correspondent to Notes and Queries wrote in 1878 — it “derived from a nearly obsolete form of deft or dight; the former meaning efficient, proper, decent, and the latter to arrange, adorn, dress”. Another inventive writer to the same journal argued that a ditty box was about the right size to store sheet music, which would make it the same word as ditty for a short or simple song.

Dictionaries mostly admit bafflement. A few, among them the Collins and Macquarie dictionaries, suggest the word is from India, being a version of the obsolete dutty for calico, which derives from the Hindi word dhoti for a loincloth. Eric Partridge argued for dutty in his Origins in 1956 and the term is noted in several modern reference works, one of which describes it as “a type of calico made of very thick and strong texture and used as sail cloth”. The earliest written reference to it seems to be in James Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words of 1847.

For a sailor to make a bag from sailcloth seems eminently likely and this is a plausible origin for ditty bag. Admiral Smyth presumably heard or remembered dutty as ditti. We may guess that ditty box was derived from it at some later date, when the original meanings of dutty and ditty had been lost and ditty had come to imply a small container for personal items.

4. Sic!

• Chris Quinn spotted a headline in the Guardian on 16 January: “132 year old cowboy’s rifle found propped up against tree in Nevada desert.” The relevant web page now carries one of the paper’s dry corrections: “The headline was changed to make it clear that an old gun had been found, not a decrepit cowboy.”

• Unlike other papers, the Guardian is ready to admit its errors. Another correction, in Thursday’s issue, referred to an item of 22 January: “The omission of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes’.”

• A quote on CBS News on 16 January, Ken Swan tells us, described the Toronto District School Board as “congenially dysfunctional”. Useless but friendly — it could be worse.

• “The Graziers Steakhouse at Brisbane’s Holland Park Hotel,” emailed Grant Agnew, “has large signs in the windows offering, ‘250gm Graziers Rump with Salad and Chips’. I don’t eat there.” Why not? Because in Australia a grazier is a sheep or cattle farmer.

• Cut out the middleman. A couple of websites reproduced a press release from a firm seeking investment for a new onion slicer. P Fisher read with surprise that “A collection container houses the perfectly chopped onions which can then be easily thrown into the dishwasher.”

• “Achieving the impossible” was the subject line of John Pearson’s email about a BBC News report on 23 January, “The euro has been steadily falling in value against the euro for several months.”

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