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Newsletter 897
27 Sep 2014


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Agister.

3. The Word at War.

4. Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking.

5. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Line in the sand. Rosemary Thomas wrote, “Every Texan knows the story of Colonel William Barret Travis at the Alamo and the little band of defenders besieged by overwhelming forces, of how Travis spelled out the grim choices left them and, drawing a line in the sand with his sword, challenged them to step across the line and stay with him and face certain death. Even though that speech may be apocryphal, it’s cherished.”

“I have to admit to liking an expression such as a line in the sand,” Mark Alcamo commented, “because we not only all know what it means cliché-wise, but because it has such an intrinsically ironic sense — a line in the sand is probably only surpassed by a line in water for its naturally transient nature.”

Fiona MacArthur wrote, “A relatively recent variation is the addition of red. I've heard ‘drew/crossed the red line’ often on Euronews in the recent past. The colour red seems to me inconsistent with the sand image of the earlier idiom. So I wonder where the colour idea might have come from?” I suspect it derives from the red line on a meter that shows the maximum safe level of operation. To red line something is to push an engine to its limits, to go as fast as possible, which is from aviation and motoring jargon of the 1950s. It has become conflated and muddled with the existing draw a line.

Peely-wally. Chris Quinn and many others pointed out that a wally dug is a pottery dog, not a vase. “They are for some reason extremely popular in Scotland. They’re usually found in pairs in front of the fireplace or on the mantel.” Jill Williams added that “a wally close is a close (an entrance hallway to a block of tenement flats) with tiled walls, a sign of a superior property to one which had merely painted walls. Wallies was a familiar term for false teeth, presumably because they used to be made of porcelain.”

“On the subject of peely-wally,” Colin Melville wrote, “my Glaswegian father occasionally took me along with him to play golf when his usual partner couldn’t make it. Since I seldom played, he tried to help me improve my rather weak game. He told me that the fact that the ball went anywhere but where I wanted it to go was due to my peely-wally grip on the club, by which he meant weak.”

2. Agister

Having just spent some time in the New Forest in southern England, I have been reminded of this ancient word for an officer of the Forest. It might sound like one of those ceremonial positions Britain is so fond of but the role of the agister in the New Forest is practical and essential.

In medieval times, the New Forest was a royal hunting park. As with the many other royal parks in England, people who didn’t have grazing rights on the common land could pasture their animals for a fee. The agister’s job was to collect the fees and oversee the pasturing.

Agister is from an Anglo-Norman word meaning to pasture livestock on land belonging to somebody else. It’s from Old French giste, lodging, which in its modern spelling has become gîte, a French holiday home. It and the noun agistment and verb agist continue in use in related senses to various degrees in Australia, New Zealand and North America. In the New Forest the process is called depasturage, from Latin depascere, to eat down or consume.

Today’s New Forest agisters work for the verderers, who run the Forest (their name is also from Anglo-Norman French, based on Latin viridis, green). The agisters patrol the forest on horseback to supervise livestock, including the famous ponies, and to deal with emergencies.

3. The Word at War

We are hearing so much about the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War that another sad date has largely passed us by, the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War on 3 September 1939. Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis have marked it by producing The Word at War, in which they discuss 100 words and phrases associated with the conflict— German, French, Italian and Japanese ones among them.

Many were created for concepts not previously known: Morrison shelter, victory garden, V-1, Baedeker raid, kamikaze, Woolton pie, Home Guard, Molotov cocktail. Others became associated with the war but had been coined earlier: concentration camp, fifth column. The Second World War was also the age of the acronym, not just the official ones — ASDIC, RADAR, PLUTO, LDV, SHAEF — but also the unofficial ones such as FUBAR and SNAFU and those in servicemen’s letters home: BURMA, NORWICH, SWALK, HOLLAND.

Among phrases intimately linked to the conflict are V for Victory, a day that will live in infamy and Kilroy was here. The authors include the story behind a recently resurrected one, Keep Calm and Carry On, from a poster that was never distributed, despite two and a half million copies having been printed, because officials came to realise the British public would disdain it as patronising. Much of the value in this little book lies in the similarly extensive background details that Gooden and Lewis supply throughout.

[The Word at War, by Philip Gooden & Peter Lewis; published on 25 September in the UK (November in North America); hardback and ebook from Bloomsbury; ISBN 9781472904898. Help support World Wide Words by buying from Amazon: UK, USA, Canada, Germany.]

4. Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking

Q From Laurence Horn, USA: On one of the Inspector Lewis episodes in the BBC/PBS Masterpiece Mystery series, Lewis tells Det. Sgt. Hathaway (who has just acknowledged copying a key notebook before returning it), “You’re not so green as you’re cabbage looking”. A new one on me (I had to rewind to make sure that’s what he said), but upon consulting Google I’ve learned that it’s “an old Yorkshire saying” that seems not to have made it across the pond. I’m sure you can trace its genealogy for us.

A This is a delightful folk saying. Like so many it’s sufficiently opaque to make the casual reader or viewer stop and blink. Green here means naive and it’s usually a way for a person to declare he isn’t as easily fooled as another person might think. Lewis is saying that Hathaway has surprised him by his initiative, that he might seem to be untrained or unworldly but that he has actually been rather clever. It’s more complimentary than it sounds.

A splendid example is in a report of a case at Southwark County Court in London more than a century ago, recorded in authentic voices by the court shorthand reporter. It concerned a greengrocer who was being sued for lost wages by a man he had sacked for wanting to take an evening off:

Defendant: He said “Tip me five and a kick I’ve earned and we’ll cry quits. I can’t stop ter-night, as I’ve got to meet the donah.” (Roars of laughter.) His Honour: Is that true? Plaintiff: No. When I’m agoin’ he says, “You can’t go now. You must clear the spuds orf ther front board.” His Honour: And what did you say? Plaintiff: I said I knew ’ow many beans made 5 — (laughter) — and if I wor cabbage-looking I woren’t green. (Roars of laughter).

Westminster Gazette, 3 Nov. 1898. A donah was a wife or girlfriend, via Polari from Italian donna, a woman; a kick was sixpence, an imperfect rhyme between kick and six; the front board was probably the display area in front of the shop. The man won his case and got his wages.

This is the first example in the recently revised entry for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word play and the laughter show that the speaker’s audience knew the expression well. How long it had been in the spoken language is impossible to say. But there are hints, especially this earlier example from Australia:

The moral which the splitter extracted from the experience was to the effect that a man is not necessarily green because he is cabbage looking.

Southern Argus (Goulburn, NSW), 30 Sep. 1882. A splitter was a man who sawed and split logs.

A phrase so curious could hardly have been invented twice, so we must presume it was taken to Australia by emigrants at some earlier date still.

The phrase is still popular in Yorkshire and it’s often assumed it began there because it fits the pattern of other allusive local sayings like “well, I’ll go to the bottom of our stairs” (meaning the speaker is astonished) or “he’s all mouth and trousers” (a put-down to a pushy man). There’s no firm evidence for this, though.

It’s unknown in the US now but it appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1907 and a Texas one in 1910. We may guess that it was transplanted from its native soil by immigrants but failed to thrive. It is known from Canada from as early as 1919 and from Ireland in 1922 — James Joyce used it in Ulysses. It has long been popular in Ireland, so much so that it’s been suggested that it might be an English version of a Gaelic saying.

Today, it’s a deliberately old-fashioned usage that evokes aged relatives:

You can see why householders are right to feel browned off about the Green Deal. We need to save more — not borrow more — and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. Or, as my Aberdonian grandmothers used to say when confronted with any childish attempt at deception: “We are not as green as we are cabbage-looking.”

Daily Telegraph, 26 Jan. 2013.

5. Sic!

• On 19 September, Adam Sampson read an Independent report on a rally of the Scottish independence campaign in Glasgow. “The two sides were initially separated by a human cordon of police officers, shouting insults at each other and waving flags.” It’s good to hear the constabulary got into the spirit of things.

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