Site name and logo

Newsletter 910
04 Apr 2015


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Vellichor.

3. Galoot.

4. Crizzling.

5. Caparisoned.

6. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Volleyballene. Barbara Millikan emailed to point out that entomologists are just as skittish in naming species as chemists are with new substances. As two examples, she mentioned the insects Carmenelectra shechisme and Scaptia Beyonceae. She gave a link to an article on the Plantwise blog which provides more examples.

And Ed Matthews tracked down polybathroomfloorene, which isn't a fullerene, but the creation of an author of science fiction:

That, obviously, had been the multiple-benzene-ring gas Hawkesite; it had been very popular during the days of the warring stellar “empires,” when it had been called “polybathroomfloorene” for no discoverable reason.

Earthman, Come Home, by James Blish, 1955.

Oddest book title of the year. The last issue detailed the shortlist for the 2015 Bookseller Diagram prize. The winner was announced on 26 March: a travelogue called Strangers Have the Best Candy, self-published by Margaret Meps Schulte. Subtitled “How talking to strangers leads to a life of crazy adventure and lasting friendship”, it chronicles her experiences of talking to strangers while travelling in the US.

Trove. An unexpected consequence of my piece on trove in the last issue was a mention of it in the Open Door section of the Guardian newspaper last Monday, with an extended quote. It also provoked a change to the journal’s style guide.

2. Vellichor/ˈvɛlɪkə/ Help with IPA

Amogh Simha alerted me to this word, which has been widely mentioned on social media in the past year but which is unknown to the non-digital world. All the references to it quote the same definition, which suggests that they all derive from a common source.

This appears to be John Koenig’s wonderfully named site The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It was picked up by Twitter subscribers in August 2013 and has been making the rounds ever since. It has caught people’s attention online in a way that coined words rarely do.

John Koenig wrote of his creation that it meant:

the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time — filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

Few words in English end in -chor, easily the most common being anchor. It and two others come from unconnected roots: the obsolete vouchor, which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us is a person “who calls another into court to warrant a title” and the chemical term parachor. Two more are the linked ichor and petrichor. The former is the stuff that was said to flow in the veins of the Greek gods in place of blood; the latter is the distinctive and pleasant smell that can accompany rain falling on ground baked dry.

This last evocative word (created only in 1964 from ichor with a prefix from Greek petros, stone) must surely be the inspiration for vellichor, with the first part replaced with vellum. For lovers of books, there is nothing more distinctive and melancholy than the sight and smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.

Vellichor deserves to be more widely known.

3. Galoot

Q From Jim Curran in Canada (a related question came from Sam Young in New Zealand): I have heard the expression big galloot but wonder what a galloot is, whether large or small? Can you enlighten me?

A I’m not at all sure one can have a small galoot. The image is usually of a man who is variously worthless, uneducated, simple-minded or stupid. He may be clumsy and large, but not necessarily, though big galoot is certainly the compound that’s most often been found. He may also be argumentative and difficult to get on with, hence the classic description ornery galoot that I recall from my days of reading American cowboy stories. It’s basically an all-purpose term of mild contempt with humorous undertones. On the other hand, like many such insults, galoot can also be a term of affection. It was quite widely used from about 1900 to the 1940s but is now outdated and unfashionable even in its American heartland.

The spelling I’m using, by the way, is the usual one in my dictionaries, though yours is also common. In its early days, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was also recorded variously as galoon, galoosh, galook and galout.

It appears in 1819 in a work with the catchy title Memoirs of the First Thirty-Two Years of The Life of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported for the Second Time, and For Life, to New South Wales. He added to it a glossary of slang, A New Vocabulary of the Flash Language, which Vaux had compiled while a transported convict in Australia. He defined galloot, as he spelled it, as “a soldier”. It retained that association in the 1864 edition of John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, but Hotten spelled it geeloot and said it was a recruit or awkward soldier. Three years later Admiral William Henry Smyth published his Sailor’s Word-Book: an Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms and included that definition, adding a note that it could also refer to a “young or ‘green’ marine”.

Despite the early association with Australia, the term is British. The earliest example I’ve found in a printed work is this mildly mysterious snippet from a newspaper article about a political row involving a man named Swan:

Our excellent contemporary, the Edinburgh Evening Post, which so thoroughly exposed the humbug of the factious, scribbling, galloot Alexander Sommerville, has also landed the Swan high and dry, and never did anything bearing the same name look more awkward, even to deformity, than does the present specimen.

Old England (London), 20 Jan. 1833. The title of the article, by the way, is “Rara Avis — A Black Swan”, a play on the man’s name and character that long precedes all the fuss in recent years about the term black swan for a rare and unexpected event that has significant consequences.

Galoot was undoubtedly slang taken to Australia by involuntary immigrants. The associations with both army and navy are present in the first example known from that country, in a tale told by an old seaman:

May I never see light if ev’ry chap as toed a line on her deck, from stem to starn, had’nt his body braced-up with a pair o’ braces crossing his shoulders for all the world like a galloot on guard.

The Sydney Gazette (New South Wales), 22 Jan. 1833.

The seafaring associations also appeared the following year in Jacob Faithful, a British work by Captain Frederick Marryat (still known a little for his children’s classic Coral Island). In it, a naval officer, messing about in a boat on the River Thames, nearly gets his four unpleasant civilian companions drowned, only to be saved by Jacob Faithful, a river boatman and the book’s narrator:

“Have you got them all, waterman?” said he. “Yes, sir, I believe so; I have four.” “The tally is right,” replied he, “and four greater galloots were never picked up; but never mind that. It was my nonsense that nearly drowned them; and, therefore, I’m very glad you’ve managed so well.”

Jacob Faithful, by Captain Frederick Marryat, 1834.

In the late 1860s it begins to appear in American publications without the military or seafaring associations but with the more general sense of a term of abuse for a person, usually male. However, the first known example in print from North America is in a comedy sketch and refers affectionately to a woman:

I felt a sentymental mood still so gently ore me stealin’, and I pawsed before Betsey’s winder, and sung, in a kind of operatic vois, as follers, improintoo, to-wit:
Wake, Betsey, wake,
My sweet galoot!
Rise up, fair lady,
While I touch my lute!

A syndicated tale by “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne) in The Worthington Gazette (Indiana), 30 May 1866.

Its source is obscure, though it has been suggested it may be from the Dutch word gelubt for a eunuch or a corruption of Dutch genoot, a companion. Those current dictionaries that hazard a guess mention the Scots loot, a variant form of lout, prefixed by the ker- sound (modified to the spelling ga-) which may in this case be a reinforcement of the idea in the root.

4. Crizzling/ˈkrɪz(ə)lɪŋ/ Help with IPA

The last issue contained a reference to Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, which details the results of his long search for the language of landscape and natural phenomena. Crizzling is one member of his collection.

It appears in the entry for fizmer — which he says is the rustling noise that is produced in grass by petty agitations of the wind, but which the English Dialect Dictionary of a century ago defines as “to fidget restlessly; to make a great stir about trifles, to make little progress” — with other words that he suggests are imitative of the sounds they represent, such as susurrus, a low soft whispering or rustling sound. He writes that crizzling is the action of frost forming on water. Though he doesn’t make it explicit, putting it with the others suggests that it describes the faint crackling sound you can sometimes hear when ice forms.

It’s a dialect word, best known from Northamptonshire, though the English Dialect Dictionary records it from Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and Leicestershire as well. Its most famous appearances, two of the few in print before modern times, are in poems by John Clare of Northamptonshire, called the Peasant Poet because he wrote in spare time from working as a farm labourer. His Address to Plenty of 1821 has “View the hole the boys have broke, / Crizzling, still inclin’d to freeze — / And the rime upon the trees.” In another poem, The Woodman, he wrote that “The white frost ’gins crizzle pond and brook.”

These are evocative images that don’t suggest sound but rather the physical change that Professor Macfarlane defined. The few other definitions that exist don’t mention noise either. The English Dialect Dictionary says the verb crizzle means “to become rough on the surface, as water when it begins to freeze” and “To grow hard and rough with heat; to crisp, to make rough with drought or heat.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition is similar, to “roughen or crumple the surface” of something.

The word has vanished from dialect, but it lives on in a specialist term that seems to have arisen around the end of the nineteenth century. Crizzled glass, also called sick glass, is the bane of museum conservators. Salts can leach out of old glass that hadn’t been made with the correct ingredients. They can form a crust on the surface that clouds and roughens it, or may generate a network of fine cracks that may cause the glass to fall apart.

5. Caparisoned/kəˈpærɪsənd/ Help with IPA

Don’t be confused by the first syllable: this English word doesn’t imply a head covering, though it can be used for clothing. But there is a historical link, as some experts believe that caparisoned ultimately derives from the Latin word for a cap.

The original caparison wasn’t for humans. It was a cloth spread over the saddle or harness of a horse. Its source — through French — was Spanish caparazón for a saddlecloth (which may also be the source of carapace, for the upper shell of a tortoise, by inversion of the p and r through what’s called metathesis). This probably came from capa, a short cape or hood, itself from late Latin cappa, a cap. Our cape is from the same Latin word, though via Provençal and French instead. The link may be the idea that a cloth on the back of a horse is equivalent to a cape for a human.

Medieval caparisons could be richly decorated, though that wasn’t implied by its original meaning. However, almost as soon as it came into English it was being used for any sort of splendid or expensive covering, including that of the person. In The Winter’s Tale Shakespeare created the confidence trickster Autolycus, the original “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles” (meaning he appropriated anything that had been left unguarded). When he appears, he wittily bemoans his caparison of rags and tatters, to which he had been reduced after too much gambling and wenching.

Caparisoned often features in historical novels, especially nineteenth-century ones by writers such as Sir Walter Scott. It has dropped off in popularity since then and has become a semi-cliché, often preceded by words such as richly, ornately and finely.

The feasts and pageants that mark coronations, births, marriages and deaths are good for juicy details. Imagine giving birth under a mink-edged cloak of velvet on a richly caparisoned pallet bed, then being removed to an even more splendid bed of state.

The Independent (London), 16 Nov. 2013.

Though caparisoned is still common, caparison (my fingers keep wanting to type comparison) is rare these days, to the extent that its meaning has become somewhat uncertain and muddled. It has been erroneously defined by writers in newspapers as a tournament costume (true in a way, but of a horse rather than its rider) and as a horse in a funeral procession.

6. Sic!

• John Arthur was fascinated by the genealogical implications of a quotation from Katherine Holman’s Historical Dictionary of the Vikings which appeared in a Wikipedia article on the Old Norse hero Ragnar Lodbrok: “Although his sons are historical figures, there is no evidence that Ragnar himself ever lived.”

• “Can I have one of these drinks?” commented Tom Kavanagh on a subheading to an article of 21 March on the Spectator site: “After all, how often does a vicar buy you a drink, especially a female one?”

• The lead sentence in an AOL news item of 20 March that Gerald Weissmann submitted has subsequently been reworded, for good reason: “After seven weeks in a medically-induced coma, a source has revealed that Bobbi Kristina Brown's family is making changes.”

• “Definitely disturbing,” was the comment of Ross Burnett on a headline over a story of 24 March on The Week’s website: “Disturbing ultrasounds show how babies are affected by smoking in the womb.” Uncomfortable for the mother, too.

• The website of the British estate agents Lancaster Samms features thumbnail biographies of its staff. Steven Burkeman was struck by this one (not solely because of the hypercorrection of whom): “After almost a decade of working in property, Elkie is a passionate and experienced Sales Consultant whom has helped hundreds of buyers find their dream home. Married with two young sons, Elkie has bought and sold herself on many occasions and is personally and professionally accomplished.”

• Julane Marx tells us that the Los Angeles Times Sunday Business section had an article on 29 March about becoming an aesthetician (a word new to me): “After following a skin care regiment designed specifically for her, the client's acne vanished.” Marching men vanquish disease?

• You may recall the story from Los Angeles on 10 March about a famous actor having to land his plane on a golf course. The New York Post headlined its item thus: “Harrison Ford wasn’t required to file flight plan before crash-landing.” But then, who is?

• The April 2015 issue of Film & Video Maker contains a splendidly awful error, resulting — we must assume — from computer speech-to-text conversion: “Align the optical axes. These are two menagerie lions running through the lenses rather than around the centre of the earth.”

Support this website and keep it available!

There are no adverts on this site. I rely on the kindness of visitors to pay the running costs. Donate via PayPal by selecting your currency from the list and clicking Donate. Specify the amount you wish to give on the PayPal site.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.