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Newsletter 822
09 Mar 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Betwixt.

3. Sitting bodkin.

4. Elsewhere.

5. Crowdworking.

6. Sic!

7. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Toffee nosed Some American readers sought to find an equivalence with their native verb brown-nose but they are opposites, since a brown-noser is a grossly obsequious person, while a toffee-nosed person is snobbish and arrogant (we Brits have not found a need for the verb toffee-nose, since to be toffee-nosed is a state of mind, not an activity).

Michael Grosvenor Myer commented, “Is it not worth noting, even if it might add to the confusion of the terms, that our toffee was often spelt toffy in the nineteenth century? That is how it appeared in the first printings of Alice in Wonderland. I find that Chambers still gives it as an alternative spelling without marking it as obsolete; though I doubt if anyone would so spell it today.” Toffee was indeed in its earlier days spelled toffy, a variant of the much older taffy, originally English dialect. A shift from toffy-nosed to toffee-nosed presumably paralleled the one from toffy to toffee.

2. Betwixt

A newspaper article in 1810 was contributed by a visitor to the spa at Cheltenham, a fashionable English watering place of the period:

The company here (as at Bath and Brighton) is of such a mingled complexion, that the Master of the Ceremonies must be frequently embarrassed in ascertaining the social genus to which they may legitimately belong: many are neither Gentry or Plebeians, but, like the bat, something betwixt and between.

The Morning Chronicle (London), 30 July 1810.

However socially conservative the writer, he was unconsciously at the forefront of linguistic development, since this is among the first examples of the phrase betwixt and between in print. It refers to something in an intermediate or middling position and so neither one thing nor the other. Within a couple of decades it had become common, despite the grammarian Eliza Slater, who wrote in a disapproving footnote in 1830 that it was a vulgar expression.

Betwixt and between is repetitious, a tautology, since betwixt means between. It’s yet another example of doubling up on words of similar sense to create a more effective expression. Betwixt is now poetic or archaic and is rarely seen other than in this fixed phrase, though writers seeking to elevate their prose sometimes slip it in:

Yet I stick with the main road, arriving three southwesterly miles later at a second hamlet here in the UK, set betwixt an inlet and a lake.

Sunday Times, 27 Jan. 2013.

You may know the old rhyme “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, / His wife could eat no lean, / And so betwixt the two of them, / They licked the platter clean.” That was its form when it first appeared in print, in John Clarke’s collection of proverbs in 1639. Nowadays we commonly revise betwixt to between, though the older version is still sometimes quoted.

Betwixt is from Old English betwix, which is made up of be, by, plus a Germanic word that’s related to two and twain. It’s actually a close relative of between. It was sometimes spelled with a final t in Old English but this only become the regular spelling after 1500.

3. Sitting bodkin

Q From S Norman: While reading Thackeray’s Book of Snobs I came across the phrase sitting bodkin. A search supplied the definition, “to ride in a carriage between two others, the accommodation being only for two”. It cited Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I’m still unsure about bodkin. Is it the knife bodkin or the odds bodkin bodkin?

A A good question. This is a strange expression, known also as riding bodkin, one which scholars of William Makepeace Thackeray’s time (the middle of the nineteenth century) were as much puzzled about as you are. It is fairly common in nineteenth-century novels in Britain and also occasionally appears in the US. Thackeray seems to have been especially fond of it, since it appears in The History of Pendennis as well as in the two you mention. Another example, from a contemporary of his:

The carriage will have to go backwards and forwards four times now to fetch them all. So your daughter can come quite easily, Mr. Gibson, and I shall be very glad to see her for your sake. She can sit bodkin with the Brownings, I suppose?

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1866.

Several suggestions about its origin were based on the known senses of bodkin. Before it was a blunt needle it was — as you say — a short pointed weapon, which explains Hamlet’s “with a bare bodkin”, an unsheathed dagger. Might old vehicles, people asked, have had a place between the seats to store a sword or bodkin? Might a person sitting between two others on a seat not meant for three necessarily have had to be thin, like a bodkin? Or might the third person have to be pressed into place, like a blunt bodkin into cloth? This last image appears here:

So down thy hill, romantic Ashbourne, glides The Derby dilly, carrying Three Insides. One in each corner sits, and lolls at ease, With folded arms, propt back, and outstretched knees, While the pressed Bodkin, punched and squeezed to death, Sweats in the midmost place, and scolds, and pants for breath.

The Loves of the Triangles, by George Canning, published in the Anti-Jacobin on 23 Apr. 1798. Dilly is short for diligence, a type of stagecoach, a name abbreviated from French carrosse de diligence, a speedy coach.

Yet another idea is that bodkin here isn’t either of these senses but a condensed form of bodikin, a small body, where the -kin ending indicates something small of its kind, as in gherkin and napkin (but not bodkin, which seems to be Celtic, a modified form of Scottish Gaelic biodag or Welsh bidog, a dagger). Bodikin also turns up in the old oath you mention, odds bod(i)kins, short for “God’s body”. To be able to sit bodkin, then, might mean that you had to make yourself as small as possible.

Once again we have no clear idea of the true origin of an idiom, but at least you will now appreciate why nineteenth-century scholars were in the dark about it!

4. Elsewhere

Bill Schmeer tells us of an article in Time Magazine of 27 February giving the history of Boontling, a US English dialect in Anderson County, Northern California, which is in great danger of dying out.

In A Word A Day on Monday, Anu Garg mentioned occlupanid. This was coined by the delightfully named Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group as a generic term for the humble bread tie (occlu, close, pan, bread).

You may remember last year World Wide Words was a contestant in the Lsoft Mailys Awards 2012. We were the first monthly finalist, with an absolute majority of the votes. The winner has at last been announced: the Recovery Group’s study list, which helps people to recover from eating disorders. More information here.

5. Crowdworking

This is currently mostly an in-term for internet pundits, though its potential social impact means that it’s likely to become more widely known. It’s a modification of the much better known crowdsourcing from 2004, itself a combination of crowd and outsourcing.

In crowdsourcing, requests to help with a task are broadcast online. Many research projects have a crowdsourcing element, such as searching astronomical photos to find planets around other stars or taking a survey to contribute to knowledge about variations in people’s biological clocks. The original idea behind crowdsourcing was unpaid voluntary collaboration but many projects now attract cash rewards. The term crowdsourcing is now common and has spawned several derivatives, including crowdfunding (asking for small contributions from a large number of people to fund a project) and crowdvoting (in which websites collect the opinions of a large group on a topic).

Crowdworking is the newest member of the set. It refers to websites that employ people to undertake mainly low-level repetitive tasks such as data entry, ranking URLs on Google, transcribing recordings or tagging photographs. Crowdworking sites have been criticised for low pay, no security of employment and no appeal if a worker feels he has been unfairly treated.

Crowdworking is growing, fast. Ville Miettinen, chief executive of “human powered document processing” service Microtask, says business at his crowdworking company is increasing at around 400% year-on-year — and his experience is typical of the wider industry.

BBC News, 26 Jun. 2012.

It has excited technology-watchers who like the idea that crowd-sourcing can become crowd-working: Instead of hiring employees or negotiating tiresome freelance contracts, anyone who wants a job done that can be done on a computer can simply go to the market and instantly pick from a host of willing or desperate workers.

Huffington Post, 19 Feb. 2013.

6. Sic!

• Mike Kennedy reports that on 26 February the Thai Visa forum had a story about the Scandinavian airline SAS ceasing its operations in Thailand: “In November 1949 SAS had its first flight to Bangkok and it lasted 64 years.”

• In the wake of a tragic accident in New York City, Sharon Crawford and Gloria Varley spotted that the BBC news pages included a link to the story as “Baby born after crash kills parents.”

7. Copyright and contact details

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