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Newsletter 792
07 Jul 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Aliment.

3. Wordface.

4. Questions and Answers: Going Dutch.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Hopping the wag Following last week’s piece, readers supplied more slang terms for playing truant. Gerard M-F Hill: “I went to school in Cardiff, where it was called mitching, and then in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where it was laiking, which also means ‘playing’.” Tony Morris likewise mentioned mitching, which his wife uses, who comes from County Tipperary. Tom Kavanagh added another: “When I was growing up in Newfoundland (longer ago than I care to remember) the word used for playing hookey was slinge. I believe it’s of Irish origin.”

Michael Grosvenor Myer mentioned, “In Northampton, where I lived for a couple of years during the Second World War, the form for truancy was always playing waggy, rather than simply wag.” Australians and New Zealanders say that wag is common in their counties, but never wag off or other compounds. Val Hope e-mailed, “If you’re looking to extend the list of terms, in my Blackburn schooldays in the 1970s we always used the phrase to nick off school. Not that I ever did it.” Carolyn Barnes confessed that “during the 1960s my classmates and I skipped out of our Canadian high school classes.”

Other writers discussed skiving, I think familiar to Americans from the Harry Potter stories. This is a well-known British and Commonwealth slang term in the general sense of avoiding duties of any kind, not just truanting, usually by ensuring one is somewhere else at the time. Its origin is uncertain, but it may be from French esquiver, to slink away. As skive is first recorded in 1919 in an army context, it may be yet another term adopted by soldiers in France during the First World War.

Grandstanding At the beginning of the piece on gamp last week, I was groping for a link between g and thousand. My ageing memory failed to throw up grand for a thousand dollars, an omission thoroughly corrected by readers, who were curious about its origins. None of my references even hazard a guess. The alternatives of big ones or large ones (also in expressions such as “You owe me ten large”) suggest it may have at first have been grand one or something similar. Against this is that the earliest examples on record, around 1900, used it in the plural, as in “A hundred and fifty grands”. A connection with French grand, large, seems improbable from this period.

A name, a name Last week I omitted to correct the name of one of my favourite authors, Jerome K Jerome (the middle initial is short for Klapka, by the way, though he was christened Clapp, which was his father’s original surname; both father and son found good reasons to change it). The error provides an excuse to reproduce a little verse Harry Campbell sent me — Mutual Problem, composed by William Cole:

Said Jerome K Jerome to Ford Madox Ford, ”There’s something, old boy, that I’ve always abhorred: When people address me and call me ‘Jerome’, Are they being standoffish, or too much at home?”

All this reminds me that scientific names in which the same word is used for genus and species are called tautonyms. For example, the red fox is Vulpes vulpes and the black rat is Rattus rattus, while the tiny bird called the wren that I sometimes notice in my garden rejoices in the mighty cognomen Troglodytes troglodytes.

2. Weird Words: Aliment

If you first read this as ailment, you momentarily confused the word with one that’s almost its opposite. Ailment, a minor illness, derives from Old English eglan, to trouble or afflict. This became the verb ail, which we hardly know except in set phrases that are most often uttered for humorous effect, such as “what ails you?”.

Contrariwise, an aliment is food or nourishment. In that sense it has likewise disappeared from our language except as a deliberate archaism (the late Ivor Brown called it “crossword-clue English”). It derives from Latin alere, to nourish, and close relatives of aliment are known in all the Latin-derived European languages.

Mrs Isabella Beeton

Mrs Beeton recorded in her invaluable Book of Household Management that “there exists in the salt ocean, and fresh-water rivers, an abundance of aliment”. She was rather fond of aliment and also mentioned the alimentary canal, which the medical profession now prefers to call the digestive tract. She employed aliment many times, notably in this moralistic passage:

From the grossness of his feeding, the large amount of aliment he consumes, his gluttonous way of eating it, from his slothful habits, laziness, and indulgence in sleep, the pig is particularly liable to disease, and especially indigestion, heartburn, and affections of the skin.

The Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton, 1861. We wouldn’t now use affection in that way, but would prefer infection; she meant that the skin was being affected by some outside agency, in this case a disease.

Aliment is still alive in Scots law, where it’s the standard term for what in other jurisdictions may be called spousal maintenance, spousal support or alimony. Aliment and alimony are etymological twins, though alimony is a late-comer in English, first being recorded as a legal term in the 1650s in the sense of a supply to a cast-off wife of the essentials of living.

3. Wordface

Weather word The devastating storms in the eastern United States last weekend had a linguistic consequence. Reports on them brought to public notice a term long known to professional meteorologists: derecho (pronounced as /dəˈreɪtʃoʊ/ Help with IPA, “day-ray-cho”). It’s a loanword from Spanish, in which it means “straight”. It refers to a fast-moving storm with a straight or slightly bowed wavefront that travels long distances across country, the linear equivalent of a rotating tornado. The term was first used in 1888 by Professor Gustavus Hinrichs of the University of Ohio in a paper entitled Tornados and Derechos.

Joined in science Few of us have failed to be made aware this week of the subatomic particle called the Higgs boson or that it was named after Peter Higgs, a physicist at Edinburgh University who was among a group who argued in a series of papers in 1964 that it ought to exist. Fewer will know that the second part of the name also commemorates a scientist, the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who made a key discovery about quantum statistics in 1924 that proved that a class of subatomic particles with particular properties must exist. These were given his name, modified by the conventional -on ending for such particles. The other class of particles, fermions, were named after the Italian-born American physicist, Enrico Fermi.

4. Questions and Answers: Going Dutch

Q From Ellen Smithee: I’ve been told that going Dutch, used when two or more people share an activity but agree to each pay their own way, may have its cultural origin in a slur. It was common for the Dutch to pay for themselves separately when dining out, unless a gentleman took a lady out. The English, especially during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century, came to paint the Dutch as stingy, and so created the phrase as a negative stereotype. True?

A Some pejorative expressions using Dutch were certainly created through cultural enmity between the English and the Dutch during their fight for naval supremacy in the seventeenth century. I wrote about this many years ago and won’t go over the same ground again, only to record that Dutch reckoning (a bill presented without any details and which gets bigger if you argue), Dutch widow (a prostitute) and Dutch feast (an alcohol-fuelled event in which the host gets drunk ahead of his guests) do seem to be contemporary with the conflicts, while others, including Dutch courage and Dutch uncle, came along later as imitations.

New Amsterdam in 1757The source of going Dutch? New Amsterdam
in 1651.

Going Dutch — to which we can add Dutch lunch, Dutch treat, Dutch party and Dutch supper, all with closely similar meanings — are American creations from the nineteenth century. The oldest of these in the record is Dutch treat:

If our temperance friends could institute what is called the “Dutch treat” into our saloons, each man paying his reckoning, it would be a long step towards reforming in drinking to excess.

Daily Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri), 27 Jun. 1873. A “no treating” rule of this kind was in fact introduced into British pubs by law during the First World War for exactly this purpose.

Confusingly for the etymological researcher, before Dutch lunch and Dutch supper took on their idiomatic meanings they were used in the literal sense of a meal reflecting a particular culture. The evidence shows they were more correctly German (a common error of the time, as in Pennsylvania Dutch), since a newspaper report in 1894 mentions that for a Dutch supper to be successful everything must be “consistently expressive of [the] vaterland” and mentions rye bread, cabbage salad, Wienerwursts and beer as being on offer.

This is the first idiomatic example of Dutch lunch I can find:

Perhaps you have a fatter pocketbook than some of the other fellows. I, for instance, can’t afford to buy two tickets every time I go. So some of the boys and I go on the “Dutch lunch” plan: everybody for himself.

Fort Wayne Morning Journal, 24 Oct. 1897.

The evidence makes clear that going Dutch and its synonyms are too recent and from the wrong continent to be linked with the ancient enmity between the English and the Dutch.

Portrait of James Fenimore CooperJames Fenimore Cooper

There is a hint in James Fenimore Cooper’s Satanstoe of 1845 that paying for oneself was a known custom of Dutch people in New York. The action takes place in and around New York in the years 1757 and 1758. The main characters, including Cornelius Littlepage, Anneke Mordaunt and Dirck Follock, are of Dutch descent and good social position. At one point, Cornelius Littlepage pays the entry fee to a fair sideshow for himself, Anneke Mordaunt and her black maid; she carefully repays him the cost for herself and her maid, which he understands very well is the custom in the city, particularly among unmarried women. Cooper doesn’t use the term Dutch treat — either it wasn’t in his vocabulary or he knew it would be anachronistic in 1757 — but its idea is clearly expressed in the dialogue.

We mustn’t make too much of this sliver of evidence, but it provides a plausible origin for the idioms. It suggests that Americans invented them based on their observations of the habits of Dutch immigrants. The evidence shows that early users applied them as straightforward descriptions and not as derogatory terms. So the origin you’ve been given may be correct, albeit applied to the wrong time and place.

5. Sic!

• Di Platts wrote from Shropshire concerning a letter sent from her grandson’s school: “Children now know what they need to wear for the play and so can start to be brought to school in a bag.”

• Greg Dowle pointed out a report of 1 July on about New Zealand businesses failing to exploit the halal market: “The Koran says Muslims cannot consume pork or pork by-products, animals that were dead prior to slaughtering, animals not slaughtered properly or not slaughtered in the name of Allah.”

• An unintended consequence of our recent horrible weather was this report which Marcus Patton saw in the Belfast Newsletter on 29 June: “On Wednesday evening, aerial routes in Belfast became impassable and homes were destroyed because of flood water.”

• Peter Norton e-mailed from Homer, Alaska, to tell us that his local paper, The Homer News, reported on 28 June about a man who eluded police in a car chase: “Police described Volz as 6-feet tall, 190 pounds, with blue eyes, sandy brown and balding hair with glasses.”

• On 29 June the Daily Telegraph told of a drunken night out before a friend’s impending marriage that ended in a prosecution for animal cruelty. Ian McIver was intrigued by this sentence: “Mr Hammond later studied the hotel’s CCTV and found footage of the Barnett brothers taking the hens up to the stag’s room after they claimed they had been egged on by others.”

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