Site name and logo

Newsletter 848
07 Sep 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Asparagus.

3. Curry favour.

4. Sic!

5. Useful information.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Holidays By the time you read this, I hope that my wife and I will be cruising down the River Rhône in France. If you wish to, by all means respond to this issue as described in Section 5 below, but it is unlikely that I shall be able to respond personally. You may spot that this week’s items are updated versions of ones first published in my bestselling book Port Out, Starboard Home of 2004.

Not a happy bunny A moment of inattentive editing led me to remove a note in the draft of this piece mentioning the near equivalent US idiom not a happy camper, a term almost certainly deriving from the summer camps to which large numbers of young people are annually despatched, not always willingly. Robert Hart wrote, “The picture that comes to mind is of youths exposed to what they consider the rigors of outdoor life for the first time.” (We don’t have such camps in Britain and so when I first heard the Allan Sherman song about Camp Granada many years ago it took a moment to puzzle out the context.) The excision led to several dozen readers writing to tell me about the US idiom. Thanks; your reward was an automated message because I didn’t have the time to respond personally. The edit also made it less clear that not a happy bunny is mostly British and Australian.

Readers from Britain, Ireland and New Zealand mentioned not a happy chappie, another version in which the last word is a familiar form of chap, a rather dated Britishism for a man (also in the one-time common form of address among familiars, old chap). Chap was originally a slangy term for a customer or buyer, an abbreviation of chapman, a merchant or itinerant dealer. Yet another version that was mentioned, which I think is mainly from the US, is not a happy puppy.

Crack varnish Following up the note about this term last week, Michael Neustadt wrote, “Your explanation of crack varnish as the finest of passenger train cars parallels the common expression, at least among rail fans and rail car owners, for a privately owned rail car as a private varnish.”

2. Asparagus

The name of this delightful vegetable has swung from classical Latin to rustic reinvention and back during its history in English.

It first appears in English around 1000. Its name was taken from medieval Latin sparagus but by the sixteenth century it had come sperach or sperage. It might well have stayed like that had it not been for herbalists, who knew the classical Latin name was asparagus, itself borrowed from the Greek. Their influence meant that that name became quite widely known during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alongside the older names. Nicholas Culpeper, for example, headed an entry in his herbal of 1653 as “Asparagus, Sparagus, or Sperage”, thus covering all bases.

Non-scholars had trouble with asparagus and did what the medieval Latin writers had done — leave off the unstressed initial vowel, so making it sparagus again. But they went one step further, converting it by folk etymology into forms that seemed to make more sense, either sparagrass or sparrowgrass. The latter form became common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:

So home, and having brought home with me from Fenchurch Street a hundred of sparrowgrass, cost 18d.

Diary, by Samuel Pepys, 20 April 1667.

In the eighteenth century sparrowgrass was so much the standard and polite term that John Walker commented in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary in 1791: “‘Sparrow-grass’ is so general that ‘asparagus’ has an air of stiffness and pedantry”. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was also called Battersea grass, from the name of the London suburb alongside the Thames in whose market gardens it was grown.

During the nineteenth century the wheel turned yet again, in part because of pedagogical opposition to a form considered to be no more than an ignorant mistake, bringing asparagus to the fore and relegating sparrowgrass to what the New English Dictionary rather loftily described in 1885 as “dialect or vulgar” status. This is supported by examples in fiction which attempt to render the voices of lower-class characters:

I remember my lars’ customer, the very lars’ customer that ever I ’ad. He was a Mr. Moses Gluckstein, a city gent and very pleasant and fond of sparrowgrass and chokes.

The War in the Air, by H G Wells, 1908. Chokes are artichokes.

Slavey came in while I was eating it, and caught me picking it up with my fingers. Next morning she says to my missis, so missis told me, “’Ow does master eat ’is sparrowgrass when ’e’s out with company, mum?” says she.

Lord Raingo, by Arnold Bennett, 1926. A slavey was a hard-worked live-in maidservant.

Sparrowgrass is still around, though in print only as a historical reference, and the vegetable is still sometimes called grass in the greengrocery trade.

3. Curry favour

Q From Patrick Martin: As I gave the cat its supper, I said to my wife that I was doing it to curry favour with the cat. Out of curiosity I looked curry up in the two-volume Oxford dictionary to see where this expression comes from. The explanation involved a chestnut horse. This seems a bit far-fetched. Is there a better explanation?

A Believe it or not, the explanation is correct. But then, it’s an odd phrase — why should curry have anything to do with winning the favour of somebody or ingratiating oneself with him?

Its origin lies in a French medieval allegorical poem called the Roman de Fauvel, written by Gervais de Bus and Chaillou de Pesstain in the early 1300s. Fauvel was a horse, a conniving stallion, and the poem is a satire on the corruption of social life. He decided he didn’t like his stable and moved into his master’s house, becoming the master and being visited by church leaders and politicians who sought his favour.

There are several layers of meaning in his name: fauve is French for a colour variously translated as chestnut, reddish-yellow, tawny or fawn. A close English equivalent is the rather rare fallow, as in fallow deer, an animal with a brownish coat (it may be that uncultivated ground is also said to be fallow because it looks that colour). Fauve is also a collective name, originally les bêtes fauves, for a class of wild animals whose coats are tawny, such as lions and tigers, and hence ferocious wild animals (the fauverie in a French zoo houses the big cats). In the poem, the name Fauvel can moreover be glossed as fau-vel, a veiled lie, but it is actually a partial acronym of the initial letters of the French words for six sins: flatterie, avarice, vilenie, variété, envie, and lâcheté (flattery, avarice, depravity, fickleness, envy and cowardice). His colour also evokes the old medieval proverbial belief that a fallow horse was a symbol of dishonesty.

The poem was well known among educated people in Britain, who began to refer to Fauvel, variously spelled, as a symbol of cunning and depravity. That soon became curry Favel. This curry has nothing to do with Indian food (a word that came into English only at the end of the sixteenth century via Portuguese from Tamil kari, a sauce or relish) but is another ancient word from a French source, still common in English, which means to rub down or comb a horse. The idea behind currying Favel is that the horse was highly susceptible to flattery, figuratively a kind of stroking.

For people who didn’t know the poem — then, as now, that was almost everybody — Fauvel or Favel meant nothing. Favour seemed much more sensible a word and by the early part of the sixteenth century popular etymology had changed it and so it has remained ever since.

4. Sic!

• Stewart Kramer and Jonathan Domash of California independently sent in a sentence from a flyer for the 99ONE Healing Crusade: “99ONE bringing the love and power of God to hurting people.”

• “Those clumsy California kids,” commented Jack Shakely, having seen a headline in the Los Angeles Times on 30 August: “Scores Fall at Schools in the State.”

• Department of inanimate expansion. Anne Umphrey submitted this line from the police log in the Concord Journal for 29 August: “A caller reported the buses near the intersection of Route 117 and Plainfield Road have overgrown.” (It turns out the caller said “bushes”.)

• Richard Atkinson sent a picture of an item from a leaflet that the Australian Labor Party sent to voters. Alongside a big green tick mark it promised “Better Schools so every child no matter where they go to school or where they has access to a quality education.”

• The Yellow Duckmarine tour bus company is defunct, as Jenny Drayden learned from the Liverpool Daily Post of 23 August: “All the staff and the vehicles have been repossessed.”

• Sandra Barley found a science item on the website of the Charlotte Observer, dated 2 September, which said that alkalinity “exacerbates the Stalinization of fresh water”. The what? The story came from the Cary Institute site, which has “salinization”. Aha! Automatic spell checking at work.

5. Useful information

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2013. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.

Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.

If you have enjoyed this newsletter and would like to help defray its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.

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.