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Newsletter 821
02 Mar 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Toffee-nosed.

3. Refocillate.

4. Hate-watching.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Defenestration Readers pointed out that I had omitted to note that there had been a defenestration in Prague in 1419 before the famous one of 1618 and that there have been others during the Communist era when dissidents suffered that fate, the best known being that of Jan Masaryk in 1948.

Cal White, Mitch Marks and Ant Allan all mentioned that they’d first come across the word in The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch, one of the Tales from the White Hart written by Arthur C Clarke: “All we know is that she went out of the apartment window, and of course it could have been an accident — but there was no way of asking her, as the Inches lived four storeys up. I know that defenestration is usually deliberate, and the Coroner had some pointed words to say on the subject.”

“As you will likely be told by other computer-literate readers,” emailed Al Sharka, “defenestration (as a pun) also refers to the removal of the default Microsoft Windows operating system that comes bundled with your PC, usually to install some version of Linux instead.”

Whale of a time Many subscribers mentioned that a big spender at a casino is known as a whale, presumably from the size of his wallet. The verbal use of whale, to beat or flog (as in whaling the tar out of somebody), which others asked about, has a different origin. It’s a variant spelling of the old verb wale, to mark the flesh with the streaks or ridges once called wales (not whales, let alone Wales), which survives for the ridges on corduroy, as in wide-wale corduroy. These days, we commonly spell wales as weals.

2. Toffee-nosed

Q From Brenda Ferner, UK: Someone from America asked me about toffee-nosed, and I found a couple of derivations on the Internet, but they were unsatisfactory. Can you help?

A Americans don’t much know this slang term — its constituency is mainly Britain and Australia. It’s rude, describing a pretentiously superior, supercilious, snobbish or arrogant person.

And while the politicians pushing this £32billion [high-speed rail] project would have us believe the people fighting it are all toffee-nosed, middleclass landowners living in country piles in affluent Cheshire, that simply isn’t true.

Sunday Mirror, 3 Feb. 2013.

One rather splendid suggestion about its origin came from a British journalist some years ago. He argued it was WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) slang from the Second World War and referred to a facial expression caused by trying to disengage a toffee from your molars while keeping your mouth shut so as not to be noticed. “Inevitably, you are ‘looking down your nose’, the traditional long-faced and disapproving expression of snobs.”

Ingenious, but untrue. We can say this with certainty because the written evidence suggests that it was created in the First World War. Right context, wrong war. The issue of Notes and Queries for 10 December 1921 includes an article with the title English Army Slang as Used in the Great War. It has the entry: “TOFFEE-NOSED. Stuck up. (Trenches.)” The trenches would be those in Belgium and northern France during the war. A services origin is supported by a quotation in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang: it’s dated 1922 and is from The Mint, a brutal but faithful record of life at that time in the Royal Air Force, written by J H Ross, a pseudonym of T E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. It also appears in a compilation of Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases by Edward Fraser and John Gibbons of 1925, in which it is likewise defined as “stuck-up”, a slang term of the time for the supposed nose-in-air attitude of the supercilious.

The origin has nothing to do with toffee but is toff, common slang of the previous half century for a person who was well-dressed to the point of being showy or flashy. This derives from tuft, Oxford and Cambridge slang for aristocratic undergraduates who marked their status by a gold tassel on their academic squares, the headgear commonly called mortarboards. This led to tufthunter, a toadying or sycophantic follower, which I wrote about some years ago.

Tuft seems to have become toft and then toff, followed by invention of the adjective toffy, ending up with toffy-nosed, a form used by some early writers. Through folk etymology the less familiar toffy became the commonplace toffee.

3. Refocillate /riːˈfɒs(ᵻ)leɪt/ Help with IPA

The initial syllable of this verb tells us that whatever action is being described is happening again. The word’s core derives from the Latin focus, a domestic hearth (the direct source of our word for a centre of interest or activity). The re-warming implied here is not literal but figurative, a revival or refreshment of the spirit or the senses.

The number of writers who have used it may be counted, if not on the fingers of one hand, then certainly on two. The first known was Thomas Coryate of Odcombe in Somerset, an inveterate traveller who died in India aged 40. A decade earlier he traversed much of Europe, frequently on foot, and published an early travel book in 1611, Coryates Crudities, which he announced was “Hastily gobled up in five Moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Orisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Netherlands.” He visited Venice in 1608:

It is wholly plaine, and beautified with such abundance of goodly rivers, pleasant meadowes, fruitfull vineyardes, fat pastures, delectable gardens, orchards, woodes, and what not, that the first view thereof did even refocillate my spirits, and tickle my senses with inward joy.

Here’s a rare modern user:

He thought for a moment of the things that magic had accomplished in this very town. ... the innumerable wives who had refocillated a dying passion in their husbands; husbands who had regained the love of their wives ...

Time for a Tiger, by Anthony Burgess, 1956.

4. Hate-watching

Hate-watching is a neat term for watching television shows that you don’t like but get perverse satisfaction from. But in these days of instant communications through social media, hate-watching isn’t only a matter of watching stuff that’s so bad it’s almost cool; you and your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter have to communally tear it to pieces to prove to each other just how bad it really is. What distinguishes hate-watching from guilty pleasure or simple displeasure is that the haters avidly watch every episode in order to keep on complaining.

Proto-hate-watchers have been around for decades, but net pundits say the term was inspired by NBC’s Broadway drama Smash, which began in February 2012, and particularly by an article by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker on 27 April 2012.

Some point to Aaron Sorkin’s series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Newsroom as classic TV hate-watch fodder. Brits often castigate Downton Abbey for its wonky plots and poor characterisation. (I prefer to hate its anachronisms of language and I know whereof I write since I’ve watched every episode. But I’m not a hate-watcher because I just shout at the telly and never post online about it. Well, hardly ever.)

This is a further British view of hate-watching fodder:

It’s not just light entertainment that we “hate-watch” — it’s TV with pretensions. Shows in which the characters’ personalities change every two episodes and the scripts are heavy with metaphor. ... Homeland series two, Downton Abbey, Glee — these are the programmes which fuel Twitter, the petrol to its engine, its users competing for the drollest insult in the fewest characters in the fastest time.

Observer, 17 Feb. 2013.

This hate-blast suggests that you can hate-watch one-off films as well as television series:

If by any chance you’ve recovered from seeing Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor in Lifetime’s Liz & Dick, fear not, because this week brings another incompetent, tawdry biopic set during the waning years of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Alas, Sacha Gervasi’s insultingly stupid Hitchcock is not nearly as much fun to hate-watch, in no small part because it seems to think it’s being clever.

Philadelphia Weekly, 28 Nov. 2012.

5. Sic!

• It was an appalling story and the Daily Telegraph’s headline didn’t help: “Patient bled to death at hospital where cuts ‘put lives at risk’”. Jos Mottershead sent that in.

• Mike Lean contributed a sentence from a report to an Australian Arts funding body (names changed to protect the innocent): “In regards to the Historical Locations Game, feedback was received by Mrs Joe Bloggs, the mother of Andy Bloggs who won the prize and is attached.”

• A Yahoo news headline of 21 February seen by Andrew Holte: “Rapper Ja Rule leaves NY prison in gun case.”

• Ray Heindl spotted an Associated Press headline of 14 February: “Disabled cruise ship limps ashore as miserable passengers complain”.

• Angela Gardner found a headline over a Reuters story of 27 February on NBC news online (it also appeared elsewhere): “IKEA’s horse meat worries mount”. Any mount would be worried, she suggests.

6. Copyright and contact details

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