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Newsletter 736
14 May 2011


1. Feedback, notes and comments.

2. Weird Words: Carwhichet.

3. Questions and Answers: Upper crust.

4. Sic!

1. Feedback, notes and comments

Arab Spring Several readers argued that the roots of the phrase lie much further back than the Prague Spring. Ken Kirkland wrote: “I have routinely used the phrase (borrowed from other historians) Springtime of the Peoples to describe the wave of revolutions that swept over Europe in 1848. And indeed a web search turns up dozens, if not hundreds, of analysts discussing the similarity between the 1848 revolutions and the Arab Spring, so it’s no surprise to see that the Springtime of the Peoples phrase was extended on to the current uprisings, which indeed have much in common with the 1848 revolutions.”

Piker In Australia and New Zealand piker has yet another sense, as a number of readers pointed out. John Park noted that it refers to “a person who initially enthusiastically agrees to attend a party or other similar social occasion, but eventually decides not to attend — often at the last minute and causing some irritation.” I had thought of mentioning this Antipodean sense in my piece, but decided to omit it in the belief it would confuse a complicated story still further. The meaning would seem to have independently grown out of the old sense of a person who runs away.

2. Weird Words: Carwhichet/kɑː'hwɪtʃɪt/ Help with IPA

Let me riddle you a riddle: “How far is it from the first of July to London Bridge?” Stumped for an answer? Then try this one: “If a bushel of apples cost ten shillings, how long will it take for an oyster to eat its way through a barrel of soap?”

These two perplexing queries were provided by John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1865, as examples to illustrate the word carwhichet, or rather carriwitchet, as he preferred to spell it. His version was as good as anybody’s, since the term has never been used enough to settle to an agreed form and everybody who has used it has made their own guess about the spelling.

A carwhichet (let’s stick with that version) is a hoaxing question or conundrum, sometimes a mere pun or bit of verbal byplay. Here is one of its more ancient appearances:

A Quibbler is a Jugler of Words, that shows Tricks with them, to make them appear what they were not meant for, and serve two Senses at once. ... He dances on a Rope of Sand, does the Somerset, Strapado, and half-strapado with Words, plays at all manner of Games with Clinches, Carwickets and Quibbles, and talks under-Leg.

The Character of a Quibbler, from the Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr Samuel Butler, Volume 2. Though published in 1759, this was actually written about 1680. A clinch (or clench) and a quibble were other names for the games with words that Butler’s quibbler was so expert at. Quibble only later took on its modern sense of a petty or legalistic objection. Under-leg remains mysterious.

Nobody knows where the word comes from, however you spell it. A link with French colifichet has been cautiously suggested. In that language, it refers to a small object without much value, a bauble, knick-knack or trinket, which had developed from an old word for a hair accessory.

3. Questions and Answers: Upper crust

Q From Bill Brown: Although well known here in the US, I have no clue about the origins of the phrase upper crust. I went to the World Wide Words site to search for it but struck out. Our collective guess is it has something to do with baked goods. Can you share the origin of this phrase?

A In trying to get to the root of this dismissive way to describe the upper classes, aristocracy or social elite, we have to start by clearing away the obscuring undergrowth of supposition.

Many sources say it’s from the US. That’s because the Oxford English Dictionary currently says it is and cites as its first two examples the works of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, dated 1836 and 1843, with a third from John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1848. However, Haliburton wasn’t American but Canadian, from Nova Scotia. And as we shall see, the earliest example isn’t from North America, but Britain.

Another source of disinformation are the guides who herd tourists around the ancient buildings of Britain. In the kitchens, they explain the old method of baking bread in an oven. This was heated by burning dry twigs in it and after raking out the ashes, the bread dough was put in to bake. The bottom of the resulting loaf was over-baked because it was sitting on the hot oven floor; ashes also stuck to it. The upper crust was properly baked, however, and was obviously more desirable. A poet of the eighteenth century put it into verse:

Two Crusts are to be met with in a Loaf,
Who knows it not must be an errant Oaf;
Clean, crisp, and pleasant is the upper Crust,
The under full of Ashes, brown, a-dust.

Grobianus: or, The Compleat Booby, an Ironical Poem, by Friedrich Dedekind. Translated from Latin into English by Roger Bull, 1739.

Tourist guides will explain that the upper crust was reserved for the master and mistress of the household and that the term upper crust was transferred to its consumers. The first part is probably true but the second isn’t. There’s no evidence for the term having evolved as a reference to the better bits of bread being reserved for the highest-ranking members of a household, apart from a much-quoted oblique reference in John Russell’s Book of Nurture of 1460, which reads, in modern English: “Cut the upper crust [of the loaf] for your sovereign”.

There have been other senses of upper crust. The most common in the eighteenth century was of the upper surface of the earth and by analogy the crust that forms on the surface of partially melted and refrozen snow or on the mud of a partially dried-out pond. In the early nineteenth century, it became slang for a hat or the head:

To hear it from the chaffer of a rough and ready costard-monger, ogling his Poll from her walker to her upper crust.

Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, revised by Pierce Egan, 1823. Chaffer: banter; costard-monger: costermonger, a street seller of fruit and vegetables; poll: girlfriend; walker: foot.

This is the first known use of upper crust in the people sense:

One who lords it over others, is Mister Upper-Crust.

Slang: a Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, etc, by John Badcock, published in London in 1823.

As this shows, upper crust was initially low slang, an insulting reference to people who considered themselves a cut above the rest. By this time, upper crust was so fixed a phrase in various senses that it’s doubtful whether a direct mental link with bread was in its coiners’ minds. The stress here was on upper, as a symbol of supposed superiority.

Even though it was originally British, it rapidly spread to North America and later to the rest of the English-speaking world; in the process it shifted sense to refer to those who were actually at the top of the social pyramid, the “quality”, though never quite losing its derogatory implications. Haliburton used it in the modern sense in one of his Sam Slick stories in 1843; it may be significant that it was in The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England.

4. Sic!

• Gerry Gould wrote “you surely won’t want to publish this” and then told me of his encounter with an illustrated handbill from Kohl’s Department Store that advertised the “perfect bra”: “Buy 1, get 1 half off!”

• In Australia, Jim Hart read the transcript of an ABC television programme on bowel cancer. It was stated that “It’s still an uncomfortable topic to talk about but the fact is, 30 people will be diagnosed with bowel cancer every day, and 12 of them will ultimately die.” While the other 18 presumably never will.

• “The downside of anthropomorphizing our cars,” notes Lin Jenkins, “is that they become subject to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” She put in evidence a headline from the Dayton Daily News of Ohio on 6 May: “Medical condition may have caused car to crash into building.”

• Harvey Wachtel contributes an advertisement in the New York Metro issue for 11 May. It was for Water’s Edge condos on the Rockaway peninsula of Long Island: “Each residence has a private sodden backyard.”

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