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Newsletter 838
29 Jun 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Able-whackets.

3. Vection.

4. Jitney.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Blizzard of horseradish Michael Grosvenor Myer responded to last week’s piece: “The Marx Bros film was called Horse Feathers, not Horsefeathers. It was one of a sequence of four made for Paramount early in their careers, before they signed with Irving Thalberg at MGM, who insisted on more narrative coherence in contrast to the freewheeling nonsense of their Paramount days. The four Paramount films were Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, all having two-word titles idiomatically redolent of nonsense and confusion.”

Hiding to nothing/nowhere “I never heard this in the Lancashire of my youth,” Anne O’Brien wrote, “but we had an expression that served the same purpose and which I still use: ‘can’t win for losing’.” That’s known in the US, though it remains more common in Britain, as does another expression that she remembers, “can’t do right for doing wrong.”

Margaret Gibbs emailed, “I wonder if the nowhere version is not a confusion with on a siding to nowhere, referring to a train sitting idly on a siding? My husband and I had maternal grandfathers who were civil engineers with the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and on a siding to nowhere was commonly used in both our families.” That makes it much older than the earliest example I can find in print, which is in a short story dated 1958 by William S Burroughs in Esquire magazine. It often appears online as an allusion in comments by railway enthusiasts worldwide, not only in North America. It rarely appears in newspapers, though The Scotsman wrote in 2004: “Under London direction, rail in Scotland was on a siding to nowhere.” The most likely origin — I am guessing — is a play on journey to nowhere, a set phrase for a useless endeavour that’s at least as old as the railway era, though I can’t trace its antecedents.

French fries Proving once again that it is always worth expanding the scope of an etymological search, Thomas Thornton told me about German fried potatoes, a term that has been widely used in the USA from about the 1890s, though it went out of favour for the obvious reason during the two world wars. Recipes vary widely but are based on Bratkartoffeln, parboiled potatoes sliced thick and pan-fried with seasoning.

Sic! sicced! A number of readers criticised accidently, which a submitter used in a comment in a Sic! item last week. It’s marked as non-standard by current dictionaries and style guides but that is surely too harsh a description of a common and inoffensive variant of accidentally. Large numbers of recent examples are on record from everywhere that English is spoken and it has been in regular use from the fifteenth century by authors who include Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Update With valuable research help from Gary Kiecker, a former marketing director for Scotch tapes at 3M, I’ve been able to update the story of <../qa/qa-duc4.htm">duct tape, disposing of a widespread story about its origins and antedating the term.

2. Able-whackets

It would be best to begin with a definition:

able-whackets. A popular sea-game with cards, wherein the loser is beaten over the palms of the hands with a handkerchief tightly twisted like a rope. Very popular with horny-fisted salts.

The Sailor’s Word-Book, by William Henry Smyth, 1867.

There were many such rough and spirited games to while away time on board ship, including High Cockalorum, Sling the Monkey and Baste the Bear, of the last of which one observer commented that it was “a recreation of which nobody tired except the unfortunate actor who was cast for the bear.”

This is a more detailed contemporary description:

And here I may relate our game of Able Whackets. The cards called “good books”; the hand, “flipper”; a handkerchief tightly braided up, “good money.” At the loss of the game he that was the winner would say, “I demand the good money,” and to the loser, “Hold out your flipper: this is for the loss of the good game called Able Whackets, and a precious hard thump”; another would say, “This is for the same,” and so on all round.

Recollections of My Sea Life from 1808 to 1830, by Captain John Harvey Boteler, published by The Navy Records Society in 1942.

It was a particularly suitable game with which to tease a gullible greenhorn, such as a young midshipman. One ploy was to insist that the correct names were used for everything associated with the game. As well as those Captain Boteler listed, the board of green cloth was the card table and to stand able meant you claimed a winning hand. A miscall of one of these terms resulted in every other player around the board of green cloth beating the offender’s flipper with the good money.

None of the many descriptions explain the card game itself. Though it was clearly of secondary importance in the gulling of the unwary, it must have had some rules, but we’re never told what they were. This tells of the end of another game:

The victim was called to receive punishment. Murray having demanded the “good money,” desired him to hold out his flipper, and he began, “This is for the loss of the good game called Able Whackets, this is for the same, and this is for my standing Able and your losing the game;” and at each time fell a stroke which nearly cut his hand off. At the expiration of this, Weazel withdrew his hand to offer it to the next. “Avaust there!” said Murray; “hold out your flipper again!” and he received three more most powerful cuts for Weazel’s having stood Able and having lost the game.

The Arethusa: A Naval Story, by Frederick Chamier, 1837.

We may presume that standing able provided the first part of the name, perhaps with a nod to the rank of able seaman in the Royal Navy. The second part must surely be from whack or thwack.

3. Vection

An everyday example of vection is sitting in a stationary train at a platform and seeing another alongside start to move; this may give the impression that you’re moving in the opposite direction: a visual stimulus has fooled you. Vection can have unfortunate side-effects, because a conflict between what your eyes are seeing and what the motion sensors in your ears are telling your brain is a classic cause of motion sickness.

Designers of video games want to enhance players’ feeling of being part of the action by making it seem that they are moving within the scene. But the small size of most displays and the risk of motion sickness have constrained them. A combination of new types of wrap-around visual displays and motion sensors such as treadmills is now changing that because they can couple the movements of players with what they are seeing. As a result, vection has become common as a term of art within the field.

Vection derives from the Latin verb vehĕre, to carry or convey, which also appears in compound verbs such as convection as well as in vector, the mathematical term for a quantity with direction as well as size. An old sense of vection, which comes directly from Latin, is the action of carrying, in particular the transference of a disease from one person to another (vector has also taken on the sense of an organism responsible for such transfers).

4. Jitney

Q From Haleigh Morgan: At breakfast today my mother-in-law referred (semi-jokingly) to her vehicle as a jitney. She explained that her late father always used it. I had never heard it before despite having been raised in the southern or southwestern region of the US, from where it is said to originate. Do you know the history of this word and how it evolved?

A The story begins near the end of the nineteenth century. Jitney (or gitney) was then a slang term for five cents (or perhaps for a nickel coin, it’s hard to tell). The earliest example researchers have so far found is in an exchange between a pair of tramps:

  “Can’t spare de change. Me granmaw died in Sout’ Afriky an’ I need dis to float me over ter de fun’ral.”  “Quit yer kiddin’ an’ let me have a jitney.”

The Morning Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 16 Dec. 1899.

Around 1914 a transport sense began to appear, at first in forms such as jitney bus and jitney car, soon abbreviated to jitney for the vehicle. In the early days it was a private car, running a service that was a cross between a bus and a taxi. It often took the same route as a bus or streetcar but was flexible about where you could get on and off. Similar systems exist today in South American, African and Asian countries under many names. The cars were called jitneys because the fare for any length of journey was five cents. The system immediately became hugely popular:

Have you ridden in a “jitney bus”? You get a $2.50 taxi journey for 5 cents. ... The idea, so far as anybody can discover, originated in Los Angeles. Somebody with a Ford went broke. He began competing with the street cars. Now there are 600 “jitney buses” in Los Angeles, doing an estimated business of $1,250,000 a year. ... San Diego and San Francisco liked the “jitney bus” notion. It swept up the Coast. Portland has them. So has Tacoma. Little Everett has gone “jitney bus” mad. It has 60 or more, and nobody rides on the street cars any more.

Seattle Star, 1 Jan. 1915.

Jitneys were common for a decade or more but increasing regulation and battles with streetcar and bus companies meant that they slowly died out; by the 1930s they were rare. The term jitney largely went with them, although it never completely vanished from the language and jitney buses still ply in a few communities in the US. One place it survived was in the name of Jitney Jungle supermarkets, founded in 1919, whose founders borrowed it in part as a reference to the “nickel on a quarter” that the customer would save from patronising their new-fangled self-service stores.

Where jitney comes from is a puzzle and dictionaries today are still likely to cautiously say “origin unknown”. Speculation about its origin was widespread almost from the moment that jitneys hit the street. It was argued that it was a Russian word for a small coin that had been brought to America by Jewish immigrants, that it came from Yiddish slang or that it derived from an English village of that name south of London.

There are strong hints in early sources, including the first known example, that the word appeared first in the south-eastern United States among Creole-speaking African Americans. If so, the most likely source that specialists have put forward is a Louisiana French term jetnée, which is said to derive from French jeton, a token.

This remains a supposition, albeit a plausible one. The experts remain understandably cautious.

5. Sic!

• Reuters sent out a story on 21 June, Dann Albright reports, with the headline, “Six all-female jurors selected in Trayvon Martin case.” It was later amended to “All-female jury selected ...”.

• Ray Brindle read this sentence in the Australian Ethical Investments e-newsletter: “Our new video explains how ethical investment can give good returns in under 2 minutes.”

• Stephen Lucek emailed from Dublin with a headline from last Sunday’s edition of the Boston Globe: “Deputy police chief aims for reduced costs, efficiency.”

• Another easy-to-misunderstand headline appeared over an AP story in the Washington Post on 24 June: “Man shoots pictures of wolf chasing him on motorcycle in Canada”. Thanks go to Justin Beam and Karen McVicker for that.

6. Copyright and contact details

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