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Newsletter 836
15 Jun 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Hippodroming.

3. Plasticarian.

4. French fries.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Crosspatch Several readers disagreed with my statement that it was unnecessary to spend time on the first part of this word and asked why cross means ill-tempered. The Oxford English Dictionary entry suggests it evolved through terms such as cross-wind, one blowing at an angle to the desired course and which impeded progress. It was later attached to ideas or actions that were contrary or opposed to one’s own and to people who opposed or disagreed or were quarrelsome. The specific sense of bad-tempered came from that.

Handicap Several British readers wondered if there might be a link with the pub game spoof, played to decide who buys the next round of drinks. It’s too complicated to explain here, though in essence it involves guessing the total number of coins held in the hands of all the participants (if you would like a detailed description, you will find it here). A connection seems unlikely, but you never know.

2. Hippodroming

Reader Bill Woodruff serendipitously encountered this curious word. A dictionary of a century ago defined it like this:

hippodrome, To conduct races, equestrian, pedestrian, or aquatic, or other contests, in which the result is prearranged by collusion between the managers and the contestants, in order to make gain through betting.

The Century Dictionary, Volume 4, 1895.

To confirm the validity of the dictionary’s definition, I offer this newspaper report in evidence:

Much interest was manifested in the races on Saturday, as it was expected that they would be real genuine contests of speed, instead of what they proved, some very poor hippodroming. ... The fraud was so palpable and barefaced that the only wonder was that the judges didn’t send them all to the stable, declare the pools off, and teach these fellows a lesson that would last them for some time.

Daily Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) 18. Sep. 1878.

The original hippodromes were chariot-racing circuits of classical Greece (the term is from hippos, horse, plus dromos, a race or course). The term was imported from France to Britain in the early nineteenth century for a related spectacle and was later applied in Britain to a theatre that offered a varied bill. Hippodromes, these days conventional theatres, survive in some British cities, notably London, Bristol and Birmingham.

In America travelling entertainments from the middle of the century often advertised themselves grandly as hippodromes after the French model. An early example was Franconi’s Hippodrome, which ran in New York for two seasons in 1853 and 1854. Contemporary illustrations show that this featured indoor chariot races in a circuit similar to those of ancient Greece. The idea was taken up by travelling shows, which often advertised themselves as both circuses and hippodromes. Since the original circus was the Roman equivalent of the hippodrome, that sounds like an etymological tautology, but they were different entertainments. The circus rings featured the familiar animal acts, clowns and acrobats and were surrounded by a hippodrome track.

Since the races on these hippodromes were designed as entertainments rather than serious sporting contests, we may guess that who won and lost was supervised by the management to maximise the pleasure of the audience. (British televised wrestling in the 1970s was run on the same principle.) When serious contests were fixed, it wasn’t a huge jump for people to call the practice hippodroming.

The first examples date from the 1860s. A direct link with horses was quickly lost, since even early examples refer to boxing, athletics and other sports. In the twentieth century, car and aeroplane racing were added. The term was still occasionally to be found as late as the 1970s.

3. Plasticarian

This word — it means a person who tries to avoid plastics — suddenly appeared from nowhere last weekend in a British newspaper and has since been widely picked up by news outlets worldwide:

When Thomas Smith, a chemistry PhD student from Manchester, was given a plastic lid for his takeaway tea by the staff at his university café, he had a novel comeback. “I can’t take that,” he said. “I’m a plasticarian.”

Independent on Sunday, 9 Jun. 2013.

Part of the stimulus for it was a report by the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists the previous week that advised pregnant women to avoid food in plastic containers where possible. This was precautionary advice that referred to endocrine disrupters found in some plastics which can disrupt normal fetal development. Another reason for wanting to avoid plastics is their adverse effect on the environment. For this reason, a few people have been trying to live without them, though it has proved almost impossible because the stuff is everywhere.

Plasticarian is generated from plastic by adding the -arian ending that creates adjectives referring to systems of thought or belief, such as humanitarian, libertarian and vegetarian, though it’s rare in asserting opposition rather than acceptance. I’ve had one sighting of the noun, plasticarianism.

The earliest example that I know of in this sense is this:

Becoming a plasticarian will affect my life and my diet, but that is the point. I want to see how integrated this disposable plastic is in our convenient lives., 15 Jul. 2012.

There are a couple of usages in Google Groups from a decade ago but the meaning is the inverse — somebody who has an interest in or a liking for plastics.

4. French fries

Q From James Tapper: A friend of mine recently asked whether French fries should be capitalised. This sparked some debate about the origin of the term. Is the word French an indication of the origin of the dish or is it a shortening of frenched, a method of cutting up vegetables into long thin strips? Or should we just call them chips?

A Never chips please, neither in the US nor the UK. American chips are what we British call crisps, while our British chips are usually shorter and more chunky than French fries. The long, thin ones are commonly called fries almost everywhere. I’ll return to frenched later but the convention is to write French fries with an initial capital letter, because it’s widely believed that they originated in France. However, in French-speaking Europe some hold that they were originally Belgian, while some Americans argue for a strong link with their own country.

One story is that French fries were first called that by American soldiers in Belgium and France towards the end of the First World War, who encountered them as pommes frites and converted that into French fries. This is folk etymology — the term was known earlier.

Another tale connects the dish to an early US president, Thomas Jefferson. Marshall Fishwick (in his article The Savant as Gourmet in Modern Culture in 1998) and Charles Ebeling (in an address to the Chicago Literary Club in 2005) say that the concept was introduced by him. The latter was told by a guide at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, that a recipe of 1802 exists in Jefferson’s own handwriting. A widespread story online asserts that it refers to a request to his French chef Honoré Julien for “potatoes served in the French manner” and speculates that Jefferson may have got it from his period as ambassador to France. Anna Berkes, Research Librarian at Monticello, tells me that there is a recipe, probably dating from Jefferson’s presidential period, which mentions “pommes de terre frites, à crû en petites tranches” (“Potatoes, raw, in small slices, deep-fried”). This is a description in French of fried potatoes but not obviously a description of potatoes fried in the French manner. Nobody associated with the Jefferson archives knows of the request. Like chips or fries the story is best taken with a pinch of salt.

A French manner of serving potatoes was certainly described a little later, though the early references I can uncover are British, not American. Mrs Margaret Dods, who ran the Cleikum Inn at Innerleithen in Scotland, was immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well of 1823. In 1828, in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, she noted that “The French fry sliced potatoes in goose-dripping, which has a very high relish; but before serving, drain them on a towel before the fire.” A decade later a detailed description appears:

FRENCH METHOD OF COOKING POTATOES They divide into the thinnest possible slices the potatoe [sic], raw, not boiled, and fry it in the finest olive oil or fresh butter. It then eats crimp, like the finest biscuit, and is taken, like our fried potatoes, with a dish of flesh, although also frequently, according to the French fashion, it is eaten separately, as a salad.

Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 1 May 1838. Note the old sense of eat, to have a certain consistency when eaten.

Crimp means crisp or brittle. These don’t sound like the French fries we now know — it would seem the French were serving something nearer the potato crisp. A recipe from Eliza Warren — a British writer who was a contemporary and rival of the much better known Mrs Beeton — may be describing the same thing. In her Cookery for Maids of All Work in 1856, she is the first recorded user of the term by which the dish would be known for the next half century, French fried potatoes. Her recipe says: “French Fried Potatoes. — Cut new potatoes in thin slices, put them in boiling fat, and a little salt; fry both sides of a light golden brown colour; drain”. Both sides? That does sound more like a crisp than a French fry. (It may be the version I've come across in American recipe books under the name cottage fries). However, a very early American recipe in Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book of 1882 under the heading “French fried potatoes” specifies, “Pare small uncooked potatoes. Divide them in halves, and each half in three pieces. Put in the frying basket and cook in boiling fat for ten minutes.” I’m told this chunky version is known in the US as country fries or potato wedges.

When O Henry wrote in 1894, “Our countries are great friends. We have given you Lafayette and French fried potatoes”, he would seem to have been under a misapprehension. It is clear that the essence of the French manner to non-native cooks was that the potatoes were deep-fried, which is after all what frite means in French. It seems that Americans took over the French style of deep-frying potatoes but initially used it for chunks rather than thin slices and only later changed the shape to the one we now recognise.

The first American reference I can find to the dish under the name of French fried potatoes is in the Burlington Daily Hawk Eye of Iowa for 12 December 1880. The name began to be abbreviated to French fries around the beginning of the twentieth century (the first explicit mention I can find is in a newspaper of 1902).

As to frenched (a North American term better known elsewhere as julienne, which by the way has no connection with Jefferson’s chef, being about three centuries earlier than his time), this certainly describes vegetables cut into thin strips. But the earliest evidence for frenched is much later than that for French fried potatoes, suggesting it was either borrowed from the way that the potatoes were sliced or was an independent introduction. Either way, it is usual not to capitalise frenched.

5. Sic!

• Roger Clark found this in the Globe and Mail of Toronto on 8 June: “Dr. Varki had given a lecture on the molecular differences from chimpanzees that might have made humans unique, when Prof. Brower pigeonholed him and told him that he was asking the wrong question.”

• A momentary slip on the CBC news site on 11 June was caught by Nigel Johnson before it was corrected, “Secret files reveal more Canadians using offshore tax heavens.”

• “A colleague of mine,” Rupert Snell wrote, “recently published an article whose highlight for me was this challenging phrase: ‘and in another corner of the public sphere ...’.”

• My mole at the BBC, Anthony Massey, reports: “On 7th June, the Queen opened our new headquarters at Broadcasting House. As part of the usual security precautions, the Metropolitan Police searched the building in advance of her visit. Two police vans appeared, labelled rather alarmingly ‘Explosive Search Dogs’. We all stood well back while they did their work!”

• Three’s a crowd ... Paul Braithwaite found this headline on Yahoo! Sports on 7 June: “Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott paired for first two rounds of U.S. Open.”

• Department of Inconsiderateness. TVNZ reported on 6 June: “A lot of people’s email addresses had changed, unfortunately some people had died and not let us know.” Thanks to Ruth Reeves for that.

6. Copyright and contact details

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