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Newsletter 826
06 Apr 2013


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

3. Vulcan.

4. Pull devil, pull baker.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Fender Ken Thornton commented, “Fender’s non-inclusion in slang dictionaries raises yet again the question of when does a comparison become widespread enough to attain the usage threshold required for lexicographers? I can imagine many once-popular terms have slipped through the word gratings of doom.”

Jonathon Green, of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, commented. “I would suggest that slang lexicographers missed it because one very rarely looks far beyond the gutter in one’s researches. The middle classes largely fail on slang creation, as do their social superiors, though J Redding Ware, in Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), who does offer examples labelled society, might have been expected to have picked it up.”

The term is not as obsolete as I had presumed. Dennis Glanzman told me James Sherwood used it in his blog The London Cut Diary about the US presidential visit to London in May 2011: “I also thought the Duchess of Cornwall looked terribly grand in her diamond fender.”

“Just a brief note,” added Erik Kowal, “to applaud your exemplary exegesis of this term in this week’s newsletter. It’s the kind of detective work that demonstrates that, while not glamorous in the conventional sense, in its own way etymology can be an exciting and even thrilling enterprise. Anyway, thanks for the ringside seat!”

2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Q From Sarah Balfour: I’m actually rather surprised you don’t already have an entry for this but what, in your expert etymological opinion, is the origin of the phrase don’t throw the baby out with the bath water? The oft-quoted origin, that babies in medieval times were bathed last, when the water was pitch-black and dirty enough that an infant could be lost in it, is complete pig-swill. Why wash a vulnerable child in dirty water?

A Is that ancient bit of online folklore still doing the rounds? I thought it had been laughed out of existence at least a decade ago. The only truth in it is that the phrase is indeed ancient, though not originally English.

Like all proverbs, it contains good advice: in your haste to discard something unpleasant or undesirable, don’t throw away something worth keeping.

But Jenkins can’t play too fast and loose with the investment bank. It contributes more than half Barclays’ profits; profits it dearly needs to build up the capital reserves demanded by regulators. Shareholders want to know he won’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Sunday Times, 10 Feb. 2013.

It began life in the German language, and is still popular in the form das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. A comprehensive study of its origins by Wolfgang Mieder was published in 1992. He showed that the first known example is in a satire of 1512 by Thomas Murner with the title Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools). The religious writer Sebastian Franck published a book of proverbs, Spruchwörter, in 1541; he illustrated the principle by the example of sending an old horse to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take its valuable saddle and bridle off first.

Despite these early examples and its wide popularity in German down the following centuries, it appeared in English for the first time as recently as 1849. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle was very well informed about Germany and included a translation of it in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in December that year about the slave trade, which was published as a pamphlet four years later:

The Germans say, “you must empty-out the bathing-tub, but not the baby along with it.” Fling-out your dirty water with all zeal, and set it careering down the kennels; but try if you can keep the little child! How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy.

Thomas Carlyle, Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, 1853.

This was a clumsy translation, lacking the force of our usual form. It doesn’t seem to have had any impact on the language — at least my necessarily imperfect searches haven’t turned up another example before the twentieth century. Its popularity is almost certainly due to George Bernard Shaw, who used it many times. The first was in the introduction to his play Getting Married in 1911, though his form then was empty the baby out with the bath.

3. Vulcan

If you ask a dozen people at random about this word, it’s a safe bet that most replies will feature a pointy-eared alien. Spock’s native planet is newsworthy this week, not because of the forthcoming second movie outing of the revitalised Star Trek series but because the Oxford English Dictionary has added that sense of Vulcan to its online site.

Why Gene Roddenberry should have chosen this name seems to have been lost in the fug of the writing room. Would he really have borrowed the name of the Roman deity of fire and metalworking? Like most gods, Vulcan was capricious — he did use fire for human good but he was also known for chucking it about irresponsibly and for making mountains spout lava.

It’s more likely that Roddenberry knew about the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier who, in 1860, came up with an ingenious solution to a baffling celestial problem. The planet Mercury didn’t move in its orbit exactly according to the rules of Newtonian mechanics — the difference was very slight but enough to need explaining. Le Verrier postulated a planet between Mercury and the sun, in part because it was thought one had been observed the year before. He called it Vulcan, because being forever close to the sun it must be as hot as the god’s forge. His idea failed to be accepted, mainly because nobody was able afterwards to find the planet; Einstein finally disposed of it in 1916 by calculating that his theory of relativity accounted for Mercury’s anomalous orbit. But it may be that Roddenberry borrowed its name, since Spock’s Vulcan is hotter than Earth, though not as hot as Le Verrier’s would have been.

Vulcan has had other meanings. It has been employed as an obvious figurative reference for a blacksmith. A person who was lame might also have been given his name because Vulcan’s mother, Juno, hated his ugly red face when he was born and threw him out of Olympus, breaking his leg. A cuckold, in particular one who was a blacksmith, might once have been metaphorically Vulcanic, because legend says that Vulcan’s wife, Venus, had an affair with Mars. His enduring legacy, however, is volcano for a burning mountain, which came through French, Spanish and Italian writing of the sixteenth century about Mount Etna, underneath which Vulcan was supposed to have had his forge.

We shouldn’t criticise the OED for being a mite slow in recognising the SF sense of Vulcan. It’s actually been rather responsive to the vocabulary of the Star Trek universe — it already has entries for Klingon, mind meld, phaser, prime directive, beam me up, Scotty, Trekkie and warp factor as well as including Vulcan nerve pinch in its new entry. It’s good to see the grand old lady of lexicography showing her populist side.

4. Pull devil, pull baker

Q From Steve Moore: I recently read a 1934 book on speedway called Thrilling the Million. In it is the phrase pull devil, pull baker that I’d never encountered before. It seems to imply a contest in which the leader is constantly changing. Have you come across it before, and if so can you tell me why the unlikely combination of devil and baker?

A Like you, I’ve no memory of having heard it before. My references show its heyday was the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that it has now almost totally fallen out of use. It usually refers to a closely fought see-sawing contest between two individuals or groups that almost resembles a tug-of-war:

The result is a succession of duels of competitive greed between the nationalized industries and public service, “pull devil, pull baker” industrial disputes, from which their trade-union-organized employees invariably emerge with ever higher nominal wages.

Illustrated London News, 30 Apr. 1983.

The source is an old fable, a moral tale warning against the perils of greed, featuring a crooked baker and his struggle with the devil. From the middle of the eighteenth century it was commonly retold as a magic lantern show in fairs. A contributor to Notes and Queries in March 1857 remembered it like this:

The first scene is the baker’s oven; the second, the baker detected in making short weight; in the third the devil comes and carries off the baker’s bread and bag of ill-gotten wealth; then comes the fourth, in which the baker, in pursuit of his treasure, overtakes the devil, and grasping him tightly by the tail, it is “pull Devil, pull Baker,” backwards and forwards, till the baker is pulled off the scene, and, in the next, appears packed in his own basket and strapped on the devil’s back, carried rapidly forwards to the fearful end of his career.

The earliest reference is this one:

He dances punch inimitably, spreads out a feather, and flashes his magic lightning, or knocks down a poor dog, to the great diversion of all present; or opens his magic lanthorn and gives you pull baker, pull devil, in their gaudiest colours.

The Experimentalist, or Modern Philosopher, from the Universal Museum, reprinted in The Beauties of all the Magazines Selected for the year 1764, by George Alexander Stevens, 1764.

There are several versions of the catchphrase, some mentioning a parson, a tailor or Punch instead of a baker. It’s also recorded as pull dog, pull devil. The references suggest that its moral has been interpreted in different ways. Brewer’s Phrase and Fable in 1894 defined it as meaning “Lie, cheat, and wrangle away, for one is as bad as the other.” In Slang and Its Analogues in 1891 Farmer and Henley preferred “To contend with varying fortunes.” The Oxford English Dictionary records that it was a catchphrase “formerly used to incite two persons or parties to greater efforts in a contest for the possession of something.”

5. Sic!

• “The local bus company can be accused of quite a number of things, high fares being a prime example,” John Gray e-mailed on 30 March, “but the This is Gloucestershire website is possibly exaggerating somewhat with the imperative headline ‘Fight against cancer brought by bus’!”

• Tom Mannoia submitted a sentence from a news report on the Florida Today website about a white supremacist group: “Several people with ties to Brevard County were arrested in the case, which tallied a total 14 arrests on charges of paramilitary training and shooting into a building using an undercover FBI informant.”

• “I’ve often chuckled,” notes Sean Brady, “about fire doors bearing the message ‘This door must be kept closed at all times’ and road signs stating ‘Possible Queues Ahead’. One new to me appeared on the back of an envelope: ‘Recycle Now’. I did and missed the chance to read some unsolicited advertising material.”

• Stan Firth was left thoroughly confused by a headline on the Daily Mail’s website on 2 April: “How wife’s diaries helped convict the husband who murdered her from beyond the grave.”

6. Copyright and contact details

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