Site name and logo

Newsletter 783
21 Apr 2012


1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Weird Words: Quinion.

3. Questions and Answers: At the drop of a hat.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

Tin pan alley Chris Smith, who writes for Blues & Rhythm magazine in the UK, added to the story by pointing out that the unsavoury reputation of places so named survives in Tin Pan Alley Blues, written by Bob Geddins around 1953. Its opening verse is:

They tell me Tin Pan Alley, roughest place in town, Start cutting and shooting, soon as the sun goes down; Hey, tell me, what kind of place can that alley be? Every woman I get, the alley takes her away from me.

Voting A reminder that World Wide Words has been nominated in the 2012 LSOFT Choice Awards (the Mailys). Please vote, every day if you possibly can.

2. Weird Words: Quinion/kwɪnɪən/ Help with IPA

A query from a reader made me take a deep breath and finally admit that I’m a weird word as well as a person.

We are in the realm of bookbinding, specifically the folding and stitching of sheets of vellum, parchment or paper into a grouping called a quire. A set of four sheets was anciently standard, folded once to make eight leaves or sixteen pages. This was a quaternion. If instead you folded just one sheet of paper to make two leaves, it was called a bifolium; two sheets made four leaves and eight pages and was termed a binion; a ternion was created from three sheets. All these names came from Latin numbers.

You’re ahead of me, I expect. A quinion consisted of five sheets, folded and gathered. It’s from classical Latin quini, five each. Another word for it is quinternion and it’s possible that quinion, which is recorded only from late in the nineteenth century, is a truncated form of quinternion on the model of binion and ternion.

Early Irish manuscripts tend to be composed of quinions, quires of five sheets of parchment, laid one on top of another and folded. This made a gathering of ten leaves or twenty pages.

Early Christian Ireland, by T M Charles-Edwards, 2000.

Incidentally, the ancient standard of four sheets is the source of quire, which comes via Old French from the Latin for four. Later, the link to a specific number of leaves was lost and quire could be any number of sheets; later still it settled on 24 but is now 25, twenty of which make up a ream of 500 sheets.

[You’re going to ask about my family name. It has nothing to do with bookbinding, but derives from Spanish Quiñones, originally a word meaning a type of shared farming tenancy that comes from the Latin for five. The first member of the English family came over from the Dutch Republic, formerly the Spanish Netherlands, with William of Orange at the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The family has spread to the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.]

3. Questions and Answers: At the drop of a hat

Q From Jim Riley: A friend recently said her daughter cries at the drop of a hat. Any idea where this comes from and what dropping a hat has to do with anything?

A Many dictionaries merely say that to do something at the drop of a hat is to do it at once, without any noticeable delay. But your example illustrates another common meaning — to do something or other at the slightest provocation.

Times are changing and a number of new studies point to an increasingly bolshie consumer willing to complain at the drop of a hat and spend time searching out the best value for money.

The Irish Times; 20 Mar. 2012. Bolshie is rather dated slang for somebody who is deliberately combative or uncooperative; it derives from Bolshevik.

In the days when men wore hats, their head coverings did more than just keep the sun or rain off — they were handy devices to signal with. You might have waved your hat in greeting or to demonstrate enthusiasm, you might have thrown it into the ring to accept the challenge of a contest, or you might have dropped it as a signal. This last action is generally taken to be where at the drop of a hat came from. There’s little doubt about the matter, despite the regrettable failure of any early user to put its origin on record for us. All that’s left to do is work out what was being signalled.

It’s usually assumed that it indicated a formal fight was to begin. This is based on its supposedly being from the Wild West of the nineteenth century, when men were real men and fought each other incessantly with anything to hand, or with hands alone if not. The various editions of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable down to the present day comment that “The expression alludes to the American frontier practice of dropping a hat as a signal for a fight to begin, usually the only formality observed.”

The evidence suggests that this is no more than guesswork. Some old examples certainly do mention fighting:

I found many Old Soldiers, who called themselves Democrats, and were ready to fight, at the drop of a hat, with any man who had aught to say against Gen. Scott.

Milwaukee Daily Sentinel (Wisconsin), 19 Jul. 1852.

On the other hand, there are many that don’t, including most of the early ones. The earliest appearance on record that I know about is some way from the American frontier:

They could agree in the twinkling of an eye — at the drop of a hat — at the crook of a finger — to usurp the sovereign power; they cannot agree, in four months, to relinquish it.

Register of Debates in Congress, 12 Oct. 1837.

Another early one is at the opposite pole from fighting:

He fell in love (an excusable weakness!) with every pretty face he saw, and would have married, at the drop of a hat, any right merry girl that would have been silly enough to have had him.

Lonz Powers, or, The Regulators, by James Weir, 1850.

Brewer also notes that “races are sometimes started by the downward sweep of a hat”. This is at least an equally likely origin. I put in evidence a newspaper report from the other side of the Atlantic:

These men, both footmen of the West End, ran 200 yards for £10 a side, near the Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood, on Monday. ... At the first signal (the drop of a hat) they bounded away, Deven leading at a rattling pace.

Bell’s Life In London, 12 Jan. 1851 6/3

However, my suggestion may be disregarded by critics for the same reason that I dislike the fighting origin — lack of explicit evidence.

The example of 1837 from the US Congress shows that even at this early date the expression was already idiomatic. Unless earlier records come to light we may never discover exactly what was in the minds of the people even further back in time who generated the idiom. What is certain is that it became a useful metaphor for immediate action at the slightest stimulus.

4. Sic!

• CNN’s website on 14 April reported allegations against US secret-service agents in Columbia: “Donovan declined to identify the nature of the alleged misconduct, saying only the mater was being turned over to the agency’s internal affairs.” Would this be America’s equivalent of M, as played by Judi Dench?

• Julane Marx found a heart-warming success story on the MSN Real Estate website about an innovative designer called Charlie Baker: “His whimsical constructions have gained him attention from high-profile clients such as Ralph Lauren and Hermes, who asked him to create widow displays for their Madison Avenue flagship stores.”

• A misplaced modifier came via Ed Cassidy from the Niagara Gazette of Niagara Falls on 12 April: “After reportedly stealing a six-pack of beer from a Niagara Street convenience store on Wednesday morning, two Falls Narcotics Division detectives managed to collar Crogan [the alleged bank robber] later in the afternoon.”

• Over-hasty pruning of a story on WCVBTV’s website in Boston led to this final section of text which Jean Rossner saw in a report of a murder: “Jenkins’ body was found in the Connecticut River on March 26. whose alumni include President Calvin Coolidge.”

• “You can’t trust anyone these days,” complained Robert Wake about a headline in The Independent of Windham, Maine, over a story dated 13 April: “Act tackles child sex abuse from several angels.”

Support this website and keep it available!

There are no adverts on this site. I rely on the kindness of visitors to pay the running costs. Donate via PayPal by selecting your currency from the list and clicking Donate. Specify the amount you wish to give on the PayPal site.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.