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Newsletter 748
06 Aug 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Tagarene.

3. Turns of Phrase: Ethical fading.

4. Questions and Answers: Basket case.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Gimcrack Numerous readers sought to make a link with the African-American song of the 1840s, Blue-Tailed Fly, whose chorus in a frequently sung version repeats the line “Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care”. I claim no expertise in interpreting folk songs about black slavery but I do know that those first three words have been much puzzled over, with at least six suggestions having been made. It’s been argued that cracking corn meant snoring, or boasting (crack in this case supposedly being the same word as the Irish one now often spelled craic, meaning enjoyable gossip or conversation) or that it was a variant of corncracker or cracker for a poor white farmer of southern US states. Some early versions have “Jim crack corn” and one theory does say it’s a variant of gimcrack, in a related sense of something flimsy or badly made, so gimcrack corn possibly referred to moonshine whiskey.

Red-headed stepchild Several readers thought that I was wrong to dismiss the bastardy implications. Carolyn Murphy wrote, “On red-headed stepchild I think you miss the meaning entirely — at least as it is used in the southern U.S. It is, in fact, an allusion to the fact that the child in question does not look like any of the other children in the family and hence, may not be the child of the woman’s husband — and is a bastard, or the husband’s ‘stepchild’. There are so few redheads that when one unexpectedly turns up in a family with no other redheads — well, there’s some explaining to do by the mother.”

Adam’s bath I asked about this phrase last week on behalf of James Grebe, who had read in the memoirs of Gerald Brenan that Brenan had described his London flat as having an Adam’s bath. Many good suggestions came in. I have now found the context, from Gerald Brenan’s Personal Record, 1920-1972. He describes his London flat: “I had blue panelling on the walls, an eighteenth-century fireplace full of mousetraps, a wash-hand-stand in a cupboard, a sofa and a sofa-bed, a gas ring and an Adams bath”. Note no apostrophe in Adams, which rules out a reference to the biblical Adam. Other suggestions were that it referred to a bathroom designed by the Adams brothers, the eighteenth-century Scots architects, or that it had been made by a long-established Staffordshire Potteries’ firm, either William Adams and Company or Adamsez. The description implies a run-down eighteenth-century property, so the first of these may be the best bet.

Anatomical snuffbox Last week I quoted a reader who claimed that the radial fossa could not be an alternative name for this feature of the wrist. Several readers were swift to correct the corrector. They all pointed out that the radial fossa is at the thumb end of the radius, one of the two bones of the forearm. (Latin fossa is used in medicine for a depression or hollow; in Latin it means a ditch.)

2. Weird Words: Tagarene

You’re unlikely to know this word — variously spelled — unless you come from north-east England, especially the Newcastle area. But it does occasionally pop up in prose that gains a wider audience:

“Now help me tidy up, this place looks like a bloody tagarene shop.” Another one of her expressions. I had no idea what a “tagarene shop” was, although it clearly described the disorder and chaos that always threatened to overwhelm the house if we didn’t clear up after my mischievous younger brother.

Broken Music: A Memoir, by Sting, 2003. This appearance isn’t so surprising, since Sting was born in a suburb of Newcastle named Wallsend (called that because it’s at one end of Hadrian’s Wall).

A tagarene shop was a kind of junk shop, sometime specialising in old clothes but often carrying a much wider range of miscellaneous oddments, particularly marine scrap. The tagarene man who ran it did much of his trade with ships:

A “tagareen man” has a floating shop which he rows about the tiers of ships, announcing his presence by a bell. His dealings are carried on by barter or cash, as may be convenient; and old rope, scrap-iron, or other similar unconsidered trifles, are exchanged for the crockery or hardware with which the boat is stocked.

Northumberland Words, by R O Heslop, 1894.

Such collections of bric-a-brac, oddments and general detritus were likely to have made a tagarene shop an excessively untidy place and it’s easy to see how the phrase came to refer to a muddle.

Nobody knows its origin. The Oxford English Dictionary tentatively suggests it’s based on tag. Local people remember tagger in the sense of marine scrap, though the evidence doesn’t show whether it’s the origin of tagarene or a shortening of it. One suggestion is that it’s Arab in origin. Some Moors in north Africa have that name; it’s been proposed that it was adopted by them after they had been expelled from Spain in medieval times. (A link to Tangerine, a person from Tangiers, which gave its name to the orange exported from that city, is improbable.) It’s unlikely to be true, but the suggestion isn’t as daft as it sounds, because the Newcastle area has long had an Arab community.

3. Turns of Phrase: Ethical fading

This has been in the news recently, in part because it was featured in a book published this year, Blind Spots, by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel and because it has proved a useful term when discussing the phone-hacking accusations concerning News International.

Sometimes, unethical behaviour in business — fiddling expenses, overcharging, hiding unwelcome facts (say about an unsafe product), bribery or corruption, putting workers at risk through cutting corners, or paying police for tip-offs and hacking people’s phones — becomes accepted as part of the culture of an organisation. This may be because it’s unchecked by management, sometimes because it seems to be the only way to get the job done, sometimes because it’s known that telling a dictatorial boss about a problem is a good way to get fired. Ethical fading refers to an erosion of the ethical standards of a business in which employees become used to engaging in or condoning such behaviour.

The term is clearly new to most commentators, but it was created in the article Ethical Fading, the Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior, by Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick, which appeared in Social Justice Research in 2004.

When we are busy focused on common organizational goals, like quarterly earnings or sales quotas, the ethical implications of important decisions can fade from our minds. Through this ethical fading, we end up engaging in or condoning behavior that we would condemn if we were consciously aware of it.

New York Times, 20 Apr. 2011.

The academics describe a process of “ethical fading” in businesses where maximising returns is encouraged over fairness to fellow employees and customers. The result is that right and wrong go out of the window. Read about the culture at the News of the World and “ethical fading” certainly comes to mind.

Guardian, 18 Jul. 2011.

4. Questions and Answers: Basket case

Q From Graham Rooth, UK; Michael Drake, New Zealand: The phrase basket case is quite commonly used to describe failing economies nowadays. I think it would originally have been applied to describe dysfunctional individuals. Any thoughts on its origins?

A You’re partly right, though the nature of the dysfunction was much more severe than you might be thinking. The term started to appear quite suddenly in American newspapers at the end of March 1919.

The press was reporting an official denial of rumours that were circulating widely among ex-servicemen back from the First World War. They claimed that some soldiers had been so seriously injured that they had lost both arms and both legs and were left as living heads and torsos who could only be transported in a basket:

Maj Gen Ireland, Surgeon General of the army, said today there was no foundation for widely circulated and persistent reports of basket cases in army hospitals. A basket case is a soldier who has lost both legs and both arms, and therefore cannot be carried on a stretcher. “I have personally examined the records,” said Gen Ireland, “and am able to say there is not a single basket case either on this side of the water nor among the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces. Further, I wish to emphasize that there has been no instance of an American soldier so wounded during the whole period of the war.”

Boston Evening Globe, 27 Mar. 1919.

The term echoed a standard usage of the time. A literal basket case was a hamper, a woven container for dry goods. The new sense played on case in the medical sense of an instance of disease or injury.

The term almost completely vanished in the inter-war years but in 1939 the concept became the focus of a harrowing anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, about a First World War veteran, Joe Bonham, who was blown up and lost not only his limbs but also his face and who was denied the right to die. It was made into a film in 1971. The book doesn’t use basket case but it does describe Joe Bonham being transported in a wicker basket.

A cartoon whose title is the first known figurative use of basket case
The cartoon in the Hamilton Daily News Journal in January 1946 whose title is the first known figurative use of basket case.

Rumours that there were many examples of such casualties similarly circulated among US forces in the Second World War — particularly a widely syndicated report of December 1943 that stated, “The real candidate for Time mag’s ‘Man of the Year’ should be the 21-year-old basket case in the Army’s Percy Jones Hospital at Battle Creek, Michigan” — and brought a similar denial from the Surgeon General of the time, Major General Norman T Kirk, who said in April 1944 that “There is nothing to rumors of so-called ‘basket cases’.” Time magazine noted in August 1945, however, that the Army man in Percy Jones Hospital existed and named him as Master Sergeant Frederic Hensel, who went on post-war to become a chicken farmer with the help of donations from the public. In May 1950, the same magazine noted that US Army pilot Jimmy Wilson was the other quadruple amputee of the war.

The senses of a person or thing regarded as useless or unable to cope and of a country that is unable to pay its debts or to feed its people came along shortly after the war. The first I’ve found is the title of a cartoon in the Hamilton Daily News Journal in January 1946, commenting on the decline in value of the dollar. Both senses have continued to be widely known and used and have spread worldwide.

Britain is an economic basket case, while Scotland, with its government’s quixotic obsession with windmills, is even worse.

Daily Mail, 11 Jul. 2011. To clarify, the windmills are wind turbines.

5. Sic!

• A curiously appropriate homophonic error appeared in the Guardian on 1 August: “Surely all politicians have an eye on the top of the greasy poll?”

• “I’ll see your missing hyphen [from last week’s issue] and raise the stakes,” wrote Anthony Douglas. “A number of years ago, I did some proofreading for an academic who was writing a commentary on 1 Corinthians. I was glad to be able to point out, pre-publication, that the apostle Paul was not condemning extra marital sex, but extra-marital sex.”

• Academic vigour? A report on MSN on 3 August featured research that suggested Earth’s moon once had a companion. One sentence surprised Richard Brown: “A number of explanations have been proposed for the [Moon’s] far side’s highlands, including one suggesting that gravitational forces were the culprits rather than an impact from Francis Nimmo at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues.”

• Great headlines of our time, an occasional series: “Harry Potter dwarf spared jail over juggler’s hat sex act”. Acquired from the Daily Telegraph of 29 July via David Langford’s Ansible newsletter.

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