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Newsletter 870
22 Feb 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Fawn.

3. Wordface.

4. Haymaker.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Huck My piece last week on the use of this word in snowboarding led to comments about its earlier use in parts of the US and Canada as a colloquial term meaning to throw. This might have been a blend of hurl and chuck or be from a dialect use of hike or hoick in the same sense.

Doug Hickey noted, “In the competitive frisbee and disc golf scene in the Washington DC area, I heard huck for a particularly strong and powerful long-distance throw. I don’t know if this was ever in print but it was most definitely an oral expression prior to 1989. Given the ‘big air’ meaning used by snowboarders, it seems to correlate nicely with the flying disc usage. I also believe that, at least in the US, there is an overlap in the social cultures of disc golf and snowboarding.”

Nummits and crummits The term rear-bit that turned up in the piece provoked a number of readers to ask whether this could be the true source of rarebit, as in cheese rarebit. Peggy Mayfield commented, “I wonder if this, and not the more common explanation that the word is derived from rabbit, doesn’t make better sense? Rarebit doesn’t resemble a rabbit, nor would cheese really make sense as a substitute — but as a rear-bit, a snack, it would be perfect.” The usual story is that Welsh rabbit was a derogatory and mildly racist term of the early eighteenth century for cheese on toast, this being all the impoverished Welsh could afford. Later in the century, rabbit was changed to rarebit, more probably as a misunderstanding rather than an attempt to remove the opprobrium from the term.

John de Figueiredo followed up my piece: “Having recently spent six weeks as a volunteer tutor on a North Queensland cattle station I can report that the Australian outback version of nummit is smoko, even though it rarely involved any actual smoking, least of all for the primary-school children of the family. Smoko normally refers to a mid-morning meal and the afternoon event was referred to as afternoon smoko.”

John Whythe had a great-aunt who called used tea-leaves grummits: “She was born in rural Surrey in the late nineteenth century. I discovered that the related grummels is an archaic word for used tea-leaves and the like.”

Hard and soft G Len Levin wrote, “The discussion about whether g is hard or soft before i cast a new light on an anecdote I heard many years ago: When Cardinal Gibbons, the famous archbishop of Baltimore, was asked if he thought the current pope was infallible, he replied: ‘I’m not sure. He always pronounces my name Jibbons.’ Now I understand why.”

Greylisting Following up my mention of this word last week, Alan Harrison wrote from the UK, “I have only previously encountered this word as an activist in the former Association of University Teachers, since merged into the University and College Union. The new union has retained this term, rather than the more comprehensible academic boycott, for the same sanction against a recalcitrant employer. It is used in order to avoid pejorative use of the word black, replacing blacklisting. I found that black colleagues believed the squeamishness silly and patronising. Similar motives lay behind the official discouragement in some unions of the long established term blackleg for a strike-breaker.”

Giving somebody the mitten Several readers pointed me to a website which includes examples of nineteenth-century American acquaintance cards. The fourth one down includes a graphical reference to the custom.

Turdiform A subscriber named Ewan emailed to point out that the magazine This Week published an article about rude scientific names almost simultaneously with my piece. One listed is Turdus maximus, the Tibetan blackbird (not to be confused with Turdus migratorius, the American robin). My favourite of the set is the rufous-sided warbling finch, which suffers from having been given the scientific name Poospiza hypochondria.

2. Fawn

The verb fawn is not complimentary. Dictionaries define it as making a servile display of flattery or affection.

The Dublin singer-songwriter [James Vincent McMorrow] had critics fawning over him when he released his debut album in 2011.

Daily Mirror, 3 Jan. 2014.

It didn’t start out like that. A thousand years ago it was applied only to dogs, who showed their delight by whining or wagging their tails. The word is Old English, from fægen, to rejoice or be glad. It was a special case of fain, to be glad or pleased, which went out of use in the sixteenth century, leaving the adjective, which itself is now obsolete. My earliest memory of adjective fain is from the ballad of Lord Randal: “For I am weary with hunting and fain would lie down”, meaning that he would very much like to rest.

Fawn stayed in the active language, though the idea of a fawning dog was long ago applied with greater force of insult to a human who acted like one.

Spoken like a true dog. A fawning, slavishly affectionate, drool-dripping dog who’ll cut off his left ear in return for a pat on the head.

Kingdoms of Light, by Alan Dean Foster, 2001.

Incidentally, fawn for a young animal, particularly a young fallow deer, derives ultimately from Latin foetus, offspring. The colour comes from that of the animal’s coat.

3. Wordface

Poo, pies, cats, fish and god The shortlist for the Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of 2013 has been announced. As usual, it’s an eclectic mixture of the weird and wonderful. The six titles are, in no particular order: How to Poo on a Date (invaluable advice on toilet etiquette and love, and what to do when the twain meet); Pie-ography: Where Pie Meets Biography (women tell their life stories through the traditional narrative technique of pie-making); How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God (practical tips on communicating with an omniscient deity when you are feeling peeved at it); Working Class Cats: The Bodega Cats of New York City (a celebration of the cats working — often illegally, it has to be said — in delis and bodegas in NYC); Are Trout South African? (South African identity explored through an animal with a brain proportionally one-fifteenth the size of a mammal’s); and The Origin of Feces (an examination of how important the stuff is to the survival of the human species).

Fatal contests Two deaths of young men this month in Britain have focused attention on a crazy drinking game called neknomination. Its participants film themselves consuming alcohol, post the results on social networking sites and nominate friends to outdo them. It began with relatively innocuous drinks such as bottles of beer but has rapidly escalated to dares involving dangerous amounts of spirits, often mixed, frequently while doing crazy stunts. British newspapers this week claimed the source of the game was a former professional rugby player named Ross Samson, who videoed himself consuming a bottle of beer and posted it on Facebook at Christmas. This origin is contested by others who hold that it started in Australia. The name is said to be an abbreviation of neck and nominate, where neck is British slang dating from the nineteenth century meaning to drink or eat greedily.

4. Haymaker

Q From Michael Templeton: Following up your mention of haymakers last week, a haymaker is, of course, also the wild swing that some would say follows the arc of the scythe to the jaw of the recipient and which is scorned by the professional pugilist. But when, where, and who coined this visually apt expression?

A As to when, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is from 1912. You found two from 1907. I can do slightly better, having found a couple of examples in American newspaper reports in 1904.

The next bout was the funniest ever. A little midget of a colored lad named “The Rat” was put against a big black burly named Harvey Wilson. “The Rat” was swifter than greased lightning and only his foot work saved him from being sent through the roof from some of the hard haymakers sent at him by Harvey

Spokane Press (Washington), 5 Apr. 1904.

This one is from the following year:

Corbett then landed left and right short arm jabs to the jaw. He tried his right hay maker but ran into a stiff right to the jaw.

Nevada State Journal, 1 Mar. 1905.

This is not Gentleman Jim Corbett, the American professional boxer and former world heavyweight champion, who had retired from the ring in 1903. This was Young Corbett II, real name William Rothwell, who took the ring name of Corbett in honour of the older man. He became the world featherweight champion but lost to Battling Nelson in this bout. Reports of his fights in the years immediately afterwards often refer to his haymaker swing as his signature blow. This seems to have done much to popularise the term outside the boxing fraternity itself.

Who actually named the blow remains unknown.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is some disagreement about the precise imagery behind the expression. Yours is the one that usually appears, with the blow being a swing of the arm mimicking that of the haymaker’s scythe.

That’s clearly the right idea but one or two British writers instead mention the hayrake or two-pronged hayfork. That’s because in British usage the men with the scythes were mowers (as in “One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow”) and it’s the men behind them who were the haymakers, who used these other implements to drag the cut hay into windrows and turn it from time to time to help it dry.

However, among people not connected with agriculture, haymaker has usually been the generic term for anyone involved in haymaking, no matter his job (the Collins Dictionary defines it comprehensively as “a person who helps to cut, turn, toss, spread or carry hay”) and US users were surely thinking of a haymaker as a man with a scythe.

Another shift is that some dictionaries define a haymaker as a heavy or forceful blow, without the implication of its being a swing of the arm. Haymakers were brawny men and any blow from one of them would undoubtedly have been powerful. But that wasn’t the original idea. Now haymakers with scythes are extinct, that characteristic swing seems to be slowly dying from our collective memories.

5. Sic!

• A headline from the E! Entertainment website, though over a story of 3 January, was noticed by several columnists and bloggers this week: “Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book.”

• In an interview in the Guardian on Monday with Chris Smith, head of the UK Environment Agency, much criticised during the recent floods but constrained by government budget cuts, the writer said the forthcoming election might cause the Coalition to reconsider: “The views of floating voters might well force a change of heart”.

• A report headlined “How to Save Marriage in America” in The Atlantic on 13 February included this sentence, Eugene Cassidy reports: “Half of the parents unmarried at the birth of their child are in a new relationship by the time they start kindergarten.”

• On 13 February Harry Lake was looking for the BBC report on a Dutch murder and was slightly embarrassed to have reached the Daily Mail site instead. Its report had the subheading, “Police said today that they now suspect foul play due to forensics.”

• Mark Worden tells us that Eva Emerson, editor of Science News, wrote on 24 January: “As a native of drought-ridden Southern California, the Colorado River has always loomed large to me.” Surely the river is native to the eponymous state?

6. Useful information

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