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Newsletter 875
29 Mar 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Cacoethes.

3. Wordface.

4. Box of birds.

5. Sic!

6. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Supernaculum Richard Brookman suggested an origin for heel tap: “I remember heel taps from my childhood in Yorkshire, where they were the metal (or sometimes rubber) reinforcements that a cobbler would insert into the outside edge of the heel of the shoe, where most wear occurs. Metal ones made a tapping noise as you walked, hence the name. Its shape surely gives the connection with drink: it’s exactly the one a slug of drink takes up in the bottom of a tilted glass. I had never heard the term in reference to drinking before, but the visual image was so exact I laughed.”

Bill Winward recalled another association: “Almost fifty years ago when I first went to the working men’s club with my father, he explained the etiquette of drinking in a round. Basically the rule was that the first man to finish his drink bought the next round of drinks. It was bad form to drink too quickly and rush other people and stupid to do it again as it could get very expensive. However, it was shameful to be considered a heel-tapper, a person who drank all but a small amount and then waited for someone else to finish their drink and get the next round in. I had thought that the expression derived from the person impatiently tapping their heels on the floor waiting for others to finish their drinks but now I know better.”

2. Cacoethes/kækəʊˈiːθi:z/ Help with IPA

An English word starting with a kak sound suggests something bad or unpleasant, by analogy with words such as cacography for bad handwriting and cacophony for a horrible discordant noise. These join a plethora of medical terms, mostly long obsolete, that include cacothymia, a disordered state of mind, and caconychia, decaying nails.) Cack, dung or faeces, is a distant relative.

Cacoethes is of the same sort. It’s an uncontrollable urge to do something, especially something harmful. The first part is from Greek kakos, bad. To it has been added thos, a disposition, making a word for a bad habit. It arrived in English unchanged via Latin.

It’s almost, but not quite, as rare as some of those medical terms, appearing sporadically in prose of the more elevated or pretentious sort. (I was astonished to find hundreds of usages in newspapers in the late 1980s. Was this a sudden outburst of classical erudition? Alas not, just a successful racehorse. If it had been named as an attempt at inverted magic, it seems to have worked.)

In a dictionary of quotations of 1808, D E Macdonnel commented that cacoethes was never written alone, but always in combination with some other word. That’s not true today, but one of his phrases is a Latin tag still known and quoted: cacoethes scribendi. It’s from the Satires of the Roman author Juvenal: “Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes”; in English, “many suffer from the incurable disease of writing”. Aspiring wordsmiths should note that an uncontrollable urge to write doesn’t necessarily lead to anything worth reading.

Macdonnel also listed the vastly less common cacoethes loquendi, a compulsive desire to speak, where the second word derives from Latin loquax, loquacious or talkative; and cacoethes carpendi, where carpendi is from Latin carpere, to pick, pluck or seize. He defined this as a rage for collecting, but more usually it has been an irresistible desire to criticize or find fault.

3. Wordface

Lines aligned We’ve had sequels, prequels, interquels and midquels, now we have parallelquels. These are subsequent works that take place in a similar period to an earlier one but from a different perspective. Films tagged with the term include The Bourne Legacy, whose events take place around the same time as those in the earlier Bourne Ultimatum, and 300: Rise of an Empire, a parallelquel to Zack Snyder’s earlier film, 300, about the Battle of Thermopylae. But the first work to have the word used of it, in 2007, was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, in which he transforms the concept of fiction into Bookworld, a tangible fantasy alternative universe. The action takes place mainly within Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; in the Bookworld version Jane goes to India with St John Rivers and leaves Rochester in Thornfield Hall. Her kidnap by an evil real-world character who is hiding in the book throws Bookworld into chaos and leads to the work changing to the version we know.

I’m terribly sorry It’s been around for years and I didn’t know until this week. Michael Gove, the controversial British secretary of education, confessed in the Mail on Sunday last weekend that he had a soft spot for contemporary eccentric music and was addicted to chap-hop. This has been described as a mixture of hip-hop, steampunk and affectionate ridicule of traditional English obsessions such as cricket, tea and the weather. “Chap-hop artists,” the Guardian commented, “rap about anachronistic British stereotypes in received pronunciation, often while smoking pipes and playing the banjolele”. Chap-hop artists — frightfully nice chaps, one and all — include Poplock Holmes, Professor Elemental and Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer. The genre is linked to a magazine, The Chap, and to Chappism, whose followers advocate dressing well, wearing hats and moustaches, and drinking fine beverages. If you detect the influence of Wodehouse, the Goons and Monty Python, you’re on the right lines.

4. Box of birds

Q From Mike Crowl, New Zealand: I was discussing the expression a box of birds with a friend and we wondered about its origins. I couldn’t see any reference to it when searching the site, so I wondered if you’ve ever mentioned it in your weekly posts. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s often used as a way of saying you’re doing well: “I’m feeling like a box of birds.”

A It’s a curious idiom, a common New Zealandism that’s also found in Australia, though much less often. You prompted a vague memory that I’d come across it somewhere before, but it took a few minutes to discover that it must have been in one of the Inspector Alleyn detective stories of the New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh:

“He can answer questions, can’t you, Bellairs?””I’m fine,” Breezy rejoined dreamily. “Box of birds.”

A Wreath for Rivera, by Ngaio Marsh, 1949.

This is an earlier example:

At a gathering of his friends recently one insisted on taking a [stimulant] pill to discover its effects. For the remainder of the evening he was “the life of the party,” “a ball of muscle,” “a box of birds,” and everything else synonymous with pep and vitality, according to the soldier.

Auckland Star, 25 Sep. 1941.

The story was about a soldier who had been invalided out after the battle of Crete. We may link this with an article in the Sunday Mail of Brisbane in July 1942, which recorded to feel like a box of birds as Second World War slang of the Australian Navy. These seem to suggest that it was slang of the armed forces that survived in New Zealand after the war but failed to be adopted to a significant extent in Australia. However, the first known use in print is this, only six months after the war began:

I have lately seen an actual “Box of Birds.” The phrase I have always heard applied to a feeling of well-being, pep, or happiness; but now I know that is wrong. The box — or rather boxes — of birds I saw were some dozen or more shallow wooden trays, with small-meshed wire-netting tops, packed with poor miserable bedraggled sparrows, some dead, some on their backs with legs in the air dying, and others huddled together for warmth. They had been trapped for subsequent release as live targets for a gun shoot. Now when answering my inquiry “How are you?” I get “A box of birds” I see red.

Evening Post (Wellington), 23 Apr. 1940.

“The phrase I have always heard” strongly suggests that it predates wartime by a significant period. It could have been services slang from the interwar period, or — more probably in my view — it was a pre-war New Zealand idiom that was borrowed by Australian servicemen through contact with New Zealanders during the war.

The origin is almost certainly a play on chirpy, meaning cheerful or lively, and it’s linked to chirpy as a bird, an expression of carefree happiness common in the nineteenth century. Box of birds is also often to be found much earlier, but solely in the literal sense of a box containing, for example, racing pigeons or chickens. We might guess the two were stuck together to make chirpy as a box of birds as a superlative that was later truncated into the idiom. But no trace exists in the record before the short form appeared.

It’s likely it wasn’t needed: chirpy is found long before chirpy as a bird. New Zealanders do very occasionally use chirpy as a box of birds but — like chirpy as a bird — it appears in the written record more recently than box of birds.

Whatever its origins and history, it has humorously evolved: box of fluffy ducks, box of fluffies, box of fluffy chooks and box of budgies are all ways to say that you’re happy or that everything is going well.

5. Sic!

• A review of Nymphomaniac Vol 1&2 which Alan Featherstone found in the print edition of The Week dated 1 March read: “The two-part film opens with the protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), being found beaten up in an alleyway by a kindly stranger”. Understandably, the online version has been reworded.

• Howard Ritter was surprised to learn arthritis is infectious. An American TV commercial for an arthritis medication features the golfer Phil Mickelson, who says sympathetically, “If you have painful, swollen joints, I’ve been in your shoes”.

• Athletic escapee shock! Ben Zipper saw this headline on Australia’s ABC News online on 23 March: “Man falls to death from power pole while running from police”.

• Lynn Whinery tells us that the website Wealthy Health featured an item about allergies on 21 March. It commented: “People with this allergy report waking up in the middle of the night after eating meat covered in sweat and hives.” Next time buy from a different supermarket?

6. Useful information

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