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Newsletter 812
01 Dec 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Maggot.

3. Questions and Answers: Ride shotgun.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

The next issue will be in 2013! Personal and family circumstances have led me reluctantly to decide not to create the issues of 8 and 15 December. As I had already decided not to publish during my usual Christmas break, the next scheduled issue is on Saturday 5 January 2013. Thank you for your support during 2012; every good wish to you for the holiday season and for the New Year. It is unlikely that I shall be able to reply in a timely fashion, or possibly even at all, to incoming e-mails during December.

Hot stuff Many readers pointed out torrefy (or torrify), which I mentioned last time, has close relatives in other languages. In Canada, where French and English mingle, Wendy Magnall noted that “the excellent French term torréfaction can be found on one side of coffee containers in place of the overworked English roast. As I write, I am enjoying a cup of torréfaction traditionelle.” From Germany, Reinhard Fey tells us, “In many Italian cities you will find shop signs torrefazione propria. These are shops roasting and selling their own coffee.”

Peter Rugg added another context: “This process is used to dry and slightly char biomass pellet fuels. It is called torrifaction or torrification. Like many technical words, in its many forms it confuses digital dictionaries. The one approving this note wants to change it to horrification.” Martin Spiller added a memory: “The lovely old Carwardines Tea and Coffee House in Corn Street, Bristol, had a sign painted on the side which fascinated me when I was young: ‘The Liquefaction of our Torrefaction Always Brings Satisfaction.’”

Big fella Cross-language connections support the idea I mentioned in the last issue that Rabelais named his character Gargantua (from which we get gargantuan) from a word for the throat. Jack Shakely wrote, “The Spanish for throat is garganta, which would make a pretty good moniker for a monster with a monstrous appetite.” Antonio Monteiro noted that Portuguese has the same word.

Locked and loaded “A thought on up the spout,” Kevin Eames wrote, “I think I remember my father, who served in the RAF Regiment during the Second World War, using the phrase one up the spout to mean having a round of ammunition already loaded into the bolt-action Lee Enfield rifle’s breech, ready to be fired. (I hope I’ve got the terminology right.)” Dick Bates added, “It was a heinous crime (and dangerous) if one was left up the spout in error, certain to result in a spell in the cooler!”

Succedaneum Professor Michael Belkin’s comment will stand for those of several others, “You will probably be notified by many physicians that caput succedaneum is a fluid collection in the scalp of a newborn caused by the pressure of the birth canal on the head during delivery. I do not know what the etymology is in this case, as the head of the newborn comes first during delivery.” (The OED glosses it as “substitute head”, presumably from the idea that the swelling resembles a baby’s head.) Dr Paul Vinall referred me to Wikipedia for more: this describes caput succedaneum as “a neonatal condition involving a serosanguinous, subcutaneous, extraperiosteal fluid collection.” Now I understand.

Professor Belkin added, “We were taught (and never used) succedaneum for replacement drugs, usually inferior ones.” The same idea occurs in yet another association with French, which came courtesy of Serge Astieres. “Succedaneum is used in French, meaning a replacement by a thing of lower value or quality. It was common during the Second World War when you could not get coffee and used a succedaneum made of chicory. In that sense it is identical to German ersatz.”

2. Weird Words: Maggot

I had some notion of writing here about conundrum, a moderately odd-looking word whose origins are obscure. While looking into it, however, I consulted its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary — not updated since it was written in 1893 — which defines one of its senses as a “whim, crotchet, maggot or conceit”. Crotchet? Maggot?

It took merely a moment to bring onto my computer screen the OED’s recently revised entry for this last word. This noted that maggot, an insect larva, universally regarded as something undesirable or yucky, was applied from the seventeenth century to “parasitical people or pernicious influences” and to a “whimsical, eccentric, strange, or perverse notion or idea”.

The latter definition leads us back to conundrum, as does one sense of crotchet. We recognise this mainly for a note in music, which is itself a figurative extension of its original sense of a hook. It derives from French crochet, a hook, which is the same word as the type of knitting done with a hooked needle. Another figurative sense of crotchet grew up in the sixteenth century (quoting the OED again): “a whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion.” Persons holding such eccentric views could be called crotchety, though that is more familiar these days as a way to say they’re irritable, but probably not because their crocheting is going badly.

We’ve left conundrums far behind, so let’s return to maggot. It’s from the Old English mathe of Germanic origin, known in Scots and English dialects until recently in various spellings. This became maddock in middle English, for reasons not understood. By about 1500 that had become maggot through what grammarians describe as metathesis, in which sounds within a word are transposed (and in this case, subsequently modified). But the experts suggest that the shift might have been influenced by the pet name Magot, given to women called Margery or Margaret, which was also applied centuries ago as a nickname for magpies and sows. The views of the ladies so cognomened has not been recorded.

3. Questions and Answers: Ride shotgun

Q From From Harry Jensen: My kids compete to see who can occupy the front passenger seat, which they call riding shotgun. People have told me it refers to old-time stagecoaches. Is this right?

A You’ll probably get the same response from almost anybody you ask. The image is of a mail coach being driven furiously across the prairie, bandits or Indians in pursuit, with a rifle or shotgun wielding guard beside the driver turning to fire at them. That almost certainly derives from the John Ford film Stagecoach of 1939, starring John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, in which the phrase appears. The film script, taken from a short story by Ernest Haycox, was syndicated to newspapers as a serial when the film came out and includes this:

Upon being informed by Buck that he had seen the Plummers in Lordsburg, Curly made a quick Decision. “Come on, Buck — I’m goin’ to Lordsburg with you — I’ll ride shotgun on top o’ the coach.”

Hayward Daily Review, 31 Mar 1939, 3/2.

Until recently, researchers hadn’t found riding shotgun before the film and cautiously suggested its writers had invented it. However, the Oxford English Dictionary has now tracked down several earlier instances, the earliest from 1913. This one I unearthed from later in the decade gives the flavour:

Driven by Alex Toponce and A. T. Ross, an old fashioned stage coach made in 1863 and used on the Deadwood stage line in the early days of Wyoming, will appear In Ogden streets on the day of the Golden Spike celebration. Alex Toponce was in early days the owner of a stage line. He will probably drive the old fashioned vehicle, while A. Y. Ross, famous in railroad circles as a fearless express messenger and who has on several occasions battled with bandits on the plains, will probably ride “shotgun” as he did in the past.

The Ogden Examiner, 9 May 1919. Armed guards commonly rode on trains to protect valuable cargo.

Even after Stagecoach came out, the term wasn’t common in printed sources, though it was surely known to people. It begins to appear again after the Second World War in reference to armed support by passengers sitting beside the drivers of military supply convoys, in the Korean and Vietnam wars especially. It probably transferred back into the civilian world from army slang and was picked up by young people.

The Dictionary of American Regional English found it to be common by 1967 in the western states of the US. Natalie Maynor commented some years ago on the American Dialect Society mailing list that its adoption was earlier still: “The expression definitely predated the Vietnam war. When gaggles of teenagers in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid-to-late 1950s started heading toward a car, there was always a contest for who could holler out ‘I want shotgun!’ first.”

4. Sic!

• Peter G. Millington-Wallace e-mailed from Denmark, “When watching English TV programmes, I enjoy using the instant subtitles for entertainment. Some of them are wonderful. A recent one concerned a fungus sweeping across Europe and the UK, attacking ashtrays.”

• Ryszard Pusz reported on 22 November, “The following news stub appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website this morning: ‘The Australian government is preparing to allow thousands of asylum seekers to love in the community.’”

• The Canberra Times of 17 November, Grant Agnew tells us, reported on a rat plague in the Galapagos Islands, quoting Linda Cayot, science adviser for the Galapagos Conservancy: “They have decimated 100 percent of tortoise hatchlings for the past 100 years.”

• A caption in the online Guardian of 26 November under a picture of flooded Malmesbury reported: “Severe flood warnings were introduced as already sodden parts of England were soaked by rain and battered by string winds.”

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