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Newsletter 771
28 Jan 2012


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Fandangle.

3. Questions and Answers: Haywire.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Yale There are yales at Yale University, readers tell me. Two in chains flank the portico of Davenport College and one is depicted on the official banner of the president of the university. The campus radio station uses a yale as a logo. This is actually a play on words, since the university was named in memory of Elihu Yale, a governor of the British East India Company. His name comes from Iâl, a place in north Wales, which in turn is from the Welsh word for a fertile or arable upland.

Aussie rules Readers’ pointed out that the second expression I discussed last week, don’t piss in my pocket, is a shortened form of don’t piss in my pocket and tell me it’s raining. The expression is also known with down my back and down my leg instead. They mean “don’t take me for a fool, don’t try to deceive me, don’t flatter me with your lies”. Plain-speaking Australians are notoriously unreceptive to what one correspondent described as “sneaky conniving bastards”. As I noted, the abbreviated down my back version is as least as old as the early nineteenth century.

Competition update We’re on the final straight in the contest for the 2011 Best Website About the English Language, organised by the Macmillan Dictionary. Voting closes at midnight GMT on 31 January. World Wide Words is second but running about a thousand votes behind the leader. One last push, people, please! If you haven’t yet voted, please do. (World Wide Words is on page three of the list.)

2. Weird Words: Fandangle/fænˈdæŋg(ə)l/ Help with IPA

A fandangle may be a useless or purely ornamental thing. It may also refer to something nonsensical, foolish or silly:

A big white wedding is a huge fandangle for not much return. The guests carp about their placement; the vicar, it turns out, would rather be at a funeral; and the happy couple are either rigid with stress or flaccid with drink.

Sunday Telegraph, 8 Aug. 2010.

One of my dictionaries describes it as archaic, but nobody seems to have told its users, who continue to find it the right world for any situation that implies confusion or fatuousness. This is from a New Zealand book review: “There’s a sense of déjà vu about so much of the plot. And the whole fandangle could have been at least 100 pages shorter.” And this from the US: “Feuding politicians in Washington continue their endless fandangle on possible changes to the evermore complicated federal tax code.” It seems still to be known, to some small extent, almost everywhere English is spoken.

A plausible suggestion for its origin is the Spanish dance called the fandango, known from the eighteenth century but whose name in English by the early nineteenth century had taken on the same senses of foolish nonsense or useless ornament that were later transferred to fandangle. Was this a Puritan reaction to the dance, perhaps?

This oblique example suggests that fandangle was in use rather earlier in the nineteenth century than the reference books usually say:

It seems that there is one James Daly, of the county of Galway, and he wants to be called Lord Fandangle, or Dumsprandle, or something of that sort, and the king was afraid to go through the operation of conferring the royal nick-name! What a pity: what a shocking disaster, that the Connemara men could not call sweet James Daly by the name of Lord Fandangle! (Great laughter.)

The Standard (London), 6 Jun. 1829. James Daly was the MP for Galway Borough and Galway County for some 25 years; in 1845 he was made a peer as Baron Dunsandle and Clanconal; to a person unversed in Irish place names these must have been only a little less nonsensical than Fandangle or Dumsprandle. He had clearly been angling for the honour for many years.

3. Questions and Answers: Haywire

QFrom Richard D Stacy: I recently saw the word haywire in print. From the context, I think that it means something that is not working properly. What is its etymology?

A Might your query be prompted by the recent release of the Steven Soderbergh thriller by that title?

Our modern sense of haywire is an interesting example of semantic drift. In the US of the latter part of the nineteenth century, hay wire (also commonly called baling wire, which is now what people usually call it) was literally a type of thin wire. In addition to tying together bundles of hay after cutting, it fastened bundles of grain stalks that had been cut by a horse-drawn reaper.

But its uses went far beyond this. It was the duct tape of its era, the stuff you reached for when you had anything to mend, one of the world’s versatile repair materials. If you needed to fix a broken barn-door hinge, the tailboard of a wagon, or a hole in a chain-link fence, you turned to hay wire. The first instance of the term I’ve been able to find records a particularly melancholy improvised use:

A young man named Samuel C. Hoyd who resided on the Mesa, South Pueblo, committed suicide on the 20th by hanging himself to a cottonwood tree with a piece of bale hay wire.

Daily Gazette (Colorado Springs) 22 Jul. 1881.

This is a famous description of the wide utility of the stuff:

No logging camp could operate without axes, and in time it came to be that no camp could operate without haywire. This wire was the stuff with which hay for the oxen and horses was bound into bales, for compact toting into the distant camps. ... Loggers used the strands to strengthen an axe helve or to wind the split handle of a peavey. Cooks strung haywire above the stove over which to dry clothes and to hang ladles; and often to bind the very stove together. In the zither era, so old-timers have vowed, a length of haywire came in handy to replace a broken string, and they say never was a more resonant G sounded, clear and deep as any harp.

Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumber-Jack, by Stewart Holbrook, 1938. A peavey is a lumberman’s hook with a spike at the end, named after its inventor, blacksmith Joseph Peavey.

There was a dark side to this. Around 1900 the term hay-wire outfit appeared, for a ramshackle, poorly equipped or roughly contrived business, one figuratively held together by hay wire. Later, a thing was described as haywire if it was broken or not working properly: it’s gone haywire, people would say.

The only thing that can be said in favor of the electric light company when the lights go out is, perhaps, its inability to make the meter go around when the juice has gone haywire.

Daily Globe (Ironwood, Michigan), 9 Sep. 1921.

A contributor to American Speech in 1925 noted that this and similar phrases, such as I feel haywire all over, had been known to him from boyhood in the language of loggers. In literalness the term may have began on American farms but that the road to figurativeness ran through the lumber camps.

It was just a small step to applying haywire to people who were metaphorically broken — out of control, mentally confused, erratic or crazy. In this early case, the speaker is applying it to himself when speaking to a young woman:

I didn’t come out here tonight to lie to you. I’ve gone hay-wire about you, and I’ve come to tell you so.

Burlington Hawk Eye (Iowa), 14 Sep. 1927.

My experience of farming is limited to childhood visits to my elder brother, then a cowman on an Oxfordshire farm. His equivalent was baler twine or baling twine, an equally universal panacea for all malfunctions. Several humorous websites list “101 uses for baling twine” and the stuff even has its own Facebook page. A modern example:

Where my uncle’s machines were held together with baler twine, cardboard and rubber-solution glue, the machines in here had all been crafted from high-quality alloys.

Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde, 2002.

4. Sic!

• Margaret Joachim found this in the Traveller section of The Times on 17 January about the delights of a river cruise: “The Rhine is much wider and flatter now, with gently rolling hills and vineyards.” Let’s hope the boat manages to get up those hills.

• On 20 January at least two newspapers — the Daily Mail and The Times — briefly headlined a report, “At Last singer Etta James dies at 73” before changing it. Thanks go to William Wilson and Ewan Croal, who both knew At Last to be the title of her most famous number.

• Henry Peacock received a letter from the Royal Preston Hospital: “Having now had your hearing aids for a number of years, we are contacting you to see if you are experiencing any problems.”

• Andrew Holte tells us that had a headline on 20 January: “Pilot dies in mid-air on Bangkok to Moscow flight with 239 passengers on board, lands safely in Siberia”.

• Ian Dalziel e-mailed: “In the same batch of emails as World Wide Words today I have received notification of a special offer from Clifford James. ‘Leather Shoes — Buy 1 get 1 free’. It’s a deal I had rather come to take for granted.”

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