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Newsletter 719
15 Jan 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Fritinancy.

3. Topical Words: Schooner.

4. Wordface.

5. Questions and Answers: Sidekick.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Tintamarre One of the delights, occasionally annoyances, of this publication is that a reader often knows more about a word than I do. J Michael Keating consulted the entry for tintamarre in the Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française. This says it was derived (about 1470) from tinter (to ring a bell) by adding an obscure ending. It explains that it originally meant the noise made by hitting something and especially referred to a method of hunting wood pigeons in the middle of the night by confusing the birds with the sound of drums and pans. It adds that the modern sense of a loud noise that’s accompanied by confusion and disorder is attributed to François Rabelais in 1546. Tinter is from Latin tinnīre, to ring or jingle, a close relative of tintinnābulum, a bell, from which English gets tintinnabulation. So the two words are indeed related, despite what I said.

One of the pleasures of etymology for me is that in the process I so often unearth fascinating little nuggets of social history; how else could I have learned the method of hunting wood pigeons employed by fifteenth-century Frenchmen?

Glad to be glad On reading my comment in the last issue that “etymology is a delightfully uncertain business”, Gregory Harris wrote, “Thanks for upgrading from your usual gloomy ‘We will never know’.” I’m not sure I’m ever that positively negative. My etymological principle is more correctly “never say never”, whilst accepting that it is often extremely unlikely that evidence will turn up.

Puzzle Following my tongue-in-cheek snippet about this word last time, a number of readers forwarded me links to online sites that purported to give the origin. The certitude of these is at odds with, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary. Its recently revised entry for the word has a note discussing origins, which is peppered with phrases such as “[it is] hard to find any clear semantic connection”, “this must remain no more than speculation”, and “unlikely on semantic grounds”, leaving the reader with a clear impression of Oxford’s Chief Etymologist scratching his head in bewilderment.

Updates I've updated another three pieces on the website this week, about the words blighty, whilom and jinx, the last of these giving a radically revised origin based on research in the past few years.

2. Weird Words: Fritinancy

Few words could be rarer than this exotic creation by a master of neologisms, the physician and author Sir Thomas Browne, who is at number 69 in the list of most quoted authors in the Oxford English Dictionary. Browne — whom the English writer Philip Howard recently described as “a polysyllabic old quack” — invented it in his vast encyclopaedic work of 1646, Pseudodoxia Epidemica. This attempted to refute many of the errors and superstitions of his age, but has been ridiculed since for its own many errors.

Cicadas on a leaf
Fritiniancy is very probable here

Browne spelled his creation fritiniancy and used it for the sounds of insects (“The note or fritiniancy [of the Cicada] is far more shrill then that of the Locust”). He took it from the Latin fritinnīre, to twitter or chirp. The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry dated 1898, prefers fritiniency, but notes that “modern dictionaries” prefer fritinancy. Today’s modern dictionaries don’t include it but the very few authors who have borrowed it have indeed mostly used that spelling. This is a rare sighting:

“The native thought of mankind is gratitude. The most significant noise of earth is the singing of birds,” said the professor with determination. “Fritinancy,” declared the young man beside the fire. “What’s that?” said the professor. “I said fritinancy, which is the whimper of gnats and the buzzing of flies.” “You’re talking nonsense.”

Poet’s Pub, by Eric Linklater, 1929.

3. Topical Words: Schooner

The British press reported last week that rules on the serving of alcoholic drinks were to be relaxed to permit beer to be served in schooners of two-thirds of a pint.

An Australian schooner glass
Schooner, Australian style

Australians are very familiar with this usage but press reports suggested UK journalists were less so, some of them suggesting that schooner was to appear in British pubs for the first time in this sense (though sherry, for example, has long been offered in schooners of varying sizes). It has been illegal for the past 313 years, following a 1698 Act of Parliament, to serve beer in the UK other than in pints, half-pints or thirds of a pint (few people know about this last one). However, a century ago you wouldn’t have found it hard to buy a schooner of beer, or at least a drink that was closely similar in size to that now being proposed:

Of these [local measures] “the schooner” containing 14 fluid ounces, or 2 4-5ths imperial gills, occupied perhaps the most prominent place ... being found in everyday use, under various names, in London, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and elsewhere.

North British Daily Mail (Glasgow), 7 Mar. 1896; 14 fluid ounces in British measure is 400ml, or just over two-thirds of an Imperial pint.

The etymological issue is why the drink should have that name. The Oxford English Dictionary says “perhaps a fanciful usage” of the ship sense of schooner, which isn’t a lot of help. The only hint that I can find, which doesn’t take us very far, is that the earliest sense of schooner in the drink sense, in the USA, was not of a particular measure, but one served in a tall glass (I’m told that a pint so served was known as a schooner in Manchester in the 1960s, and presumably at other times and places as well; well-informed habitués of British pubs and bars may like to comment on its popularity today). It may be a bit of a stretch to equate tall glasses with tall ships, you may agree.

The origin of the ship sense is also a mystery. A frequently-told story of its origins holds that a bystander watching the first schooner being launched at Gloucester, Massachusetts, about 1713, exclaimed “Oh, how she scoons!” The ship’s builder, Captain Andrew Robinson, was said to have replied, “A scooner let her be!”

Though the date is about right for the first appearance of a ship of the type, we have to regard this story, first written down in a letter in 1790, as a classic etymological folktale. Not least among the objections is that a New England verb scoon isn’t known, though it’s just possible that it’s a variant of the Scottish scon, “to make flat stones skip along the surface of the water” (a word that should be in everyone’s vocabulary). The h was added later in the eighteenth century because of Dutch domination of the oceans, which suggested that a seafaring term must be Dutch in origin. Oddly, the Dutch name for the ship, schoener, is a loan-word from English.

4. Wordface

Wind rush Plans to build giant windfarms off England’s east coast mean that many ports are gearing up to become bases to supply and maintain them. The impact is expected to resemble that on Scottish ports when the North Sea oil rush began in the 1970s. One article uses the term windport for this new generation; at the moment this is mainly business and government jargon.

Poetic laurels I recently encountered the Scots makar in the news. It’s an old word that literally means maker, but in the sense of bard it was applied especially to a group of medieval Scottish poets that included William Dunbar. In 2004, the Scots parliament appointed Edwin Morgan as the first Scots Makar or poet laureate. He died three months ago and a new makar has yet to be appointed. The plural, by the way, is makaris, as in Dunbar’s poem Lament for the Makaris.

Brief encounter? Yet another neologism of the survey makers has turned up, almost certainly a temporary term. It’s webroom. The suggestion was that our love affair with gadgets is changing our domestic arrangements. So many people are now surfing the internet, playing computer games, and watching television online while in bed that the bedroom ought to be renamed.

Yummy! Newcomers to mobile phones might be baffled by an advert from the British operator Three, which is offering all-you-can-eat data. It makes sense to those in the know, since all-you-can-eat means “unrestricted” and to have all-you-can-eat data means there’s no limit on how much of it you may download. It derives, of course, from restaurants, originally in the US, that offered unlimited portions.

5. Questions and Answers: Sidekick

Q From Paul Nichols: A sidekick is a person’s unofficial helper, assistant or aide and all around faithful pal and buddy. How did that term originate? American West, I’ll betcha.

A Since I only bet on certainties, I’m not taking that one. The early evidence does include examples from Texas but there are too few of them for me to be sure about its geographic origin.

Sherlock Holmes explaining the situation to Dr Watson in a railway carriage
The one on the left is the sidekick, but being British he was never called that. Sherlock Holmes explaining the facts in the Adventure of the Silver Blaze to Dr Watson.

But I am sure that before the hero’s assistant and confidant was a sidekick, he was a sidekicker. The longer form was popularised by the stories of O Henry, who was writing in New York but as a young man had lived in Texas. The first example from his works is 1903, but it’s older elsewhere:

Guthrie, Ok., Dec. 25. -- “Tulsa Jack,” side kicker of the late bandit Dalton, and a gang of eight men rode into Ingalls and declared that Bill Dalton had been betrayed by a saloon keeper named Nicholls and proceeded to demolish his saloon.

Galveston Daily News (Texas), 26 Dec. 1894.

It’s a relative of a rather older and much more obvious American colloquialism, side-partner, for one’s colleague, counterpart, buddy, mate or opposite number. That dates to the 1850s, if not before:

We think that the evidence establishes the charges, and the excuse of Mahon cannot be received as sufficient, as he should have notified his side-partner in case he was taken sick on his post.

New York Daily-Times, 19 Apr, 1854.

The side part is easy enough to explain. It meant a person who was literally or figuratively at one’s side. The most likely source for the second part is an old sense of kick, meaning to walk or wander (the idea is of idly kicking stones) that turned into kick around or kick about, to hang around. Those are recorded in the US from the 1830s. So a sidekicker, later a sidekick, was a friend you kicked around with.

6. Sic!

• My comment last week in this section about having a backup program that issued the message “An invalid argument was encountered” put Robert Hart in mind of a response he once received from an earlier generation of computers: “Wrong Error”. He noted, “This was from IBM in its heyday. I feel it transcended mere obscurity and approached the metaphysical.”

• The tagline on the New Humanist website, advertising an article in the issue of January/February 2011, startled Steve Phelps with its implication of post-mortem activity: “Twenty-five years after his death, Michael Bywater revisits the sacred texts of the pulp science writer turned prophet L Ron Hubbard”.

• Thanks to Stuart McLachlan, we learn of a story about the floods in Queensland on ABC News Brisbane. Patrick Quirk, Acting General Manager of Maritime Safety Queensland, urged boat-owners to secure their moorings before the expected peak of the flood: “We don’t want people injuring themselves tomorrow trying to rescue their boats, when they could be doing it today,” he said.

• Lawrence Plotkin found this mystifying sentence in the New York Times of 7 January about the playwright Julian Fellowes (who wrote Gosford Park and, as of last Thursday, is now Lord Fellowes of West Stafford): “But there are times when a sincere imitation is not only better than nothing — it’s nearly as good.”

• The Observer’s monthly food supplement in December recommended the single malt Highland Park as “a genuine classic that never fails to disappoint.”

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