NEWSLETTER 589: SATURDAY 24 MAY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Abigail I mentioned in this piece last week that Andrew was the nickname of the Royal Navy. Following up subscribers’ e-mails, I’ve learned that the source is claimed to be one Lieutenant Andrew Millar. The tale is that he was in charge of a press-gang during the Napoleonic Wars and was so zealous and impressed so many men that the pressed men thought the Navy must belong to him. The National Maritime Museum says that no such officer has been traced. Another theory is that the name is from St Andrew, the patron saint of fishermen and hence of all seafarers.
Break in publication A reminder that there will be no issue next week because my wife and I are on holiday. Normal service should be restored the following Saturday, 7 June.
Deceitful or dishonest manipulation; hocus-pocus or humbug.
It’s not so much found these days, though it is a delightful word for describing underhand practices. People also mean by it some form of trickery, especially the arcane manipulation required to make an item of technical equipment work the way you want it to (“most handsets need some jiggery-pokery to be Apple compatible”; “it may lead to copied games running straight from the DVD without the need for any further jiggery pokery”).
The charm of jiggery-pokery lies partly in its bouncing rhythm, a classic example of what’s called a double dactyl, a dactyl being a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; it’s named after the Greek word for finger, whose joints represent the three syllables. Other examples of double dactyls are higgledy-piggledy and idiosyncrasy.
The word appears at the end of the nineteenth century and is first recorded in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire dialect. The English Dialect Dictionary quotes an Oxford example, “I was fair took in with that fellow’s jiggery-pokery over that pony.” The experts are sure that it actually comes from a Scots phrase of the seventeenth century, joukery-pawkery.
The first bit of it means underhand dealing, from a verb of obscure origin, jouk, that means to dodge or skulk; this might be linked to jink and to the American football term juke, to make a move that’s intended to deceive an opponent (the other juke, as in jukebox, has a different origin). The second bit is from pawky, a Scottish and Northern English word that can mean artful, sly, or shrewd, though it often turns up in the sense of a sardonic sense of humour.
3. Recently noted
Potwalloping A curious example of this ancient term appeared in a report in the Times on Tuesday. It concerned the erosion of a golf course built on the sand dunes at Northam Burrows near Westward Ho! on the north Devon coast. Natural England, a government agency, has stopped the traditional practice, locally called potwalloping, of annually rebuilding the offshore pebble ridge that limits erosion of the dunes. A member of the club, David Lloyd, was quoted: “‘I remember potwalloping as a child to protect the golfing green,’ he said. ‘Twice a year, thousands of people would get together and potwallop on the beach.’” This weekend, Westward Ho! holds its annual Potwalloping Festival, traditionally the time when locals repaired the ridge after the winter storms. A potwalloper was once a householder or lodger who had a fireplace on which a pot could be boiled; this gave him the vote in some parliamentary constituencies before the Reform Act of 1832. An older form was potwaller, which derives from the obsolete verb wall, to boil. The practice of communal repair of the ridge dates back at least two centuries to protect the grazing on the dunes — and it was the householders of the parish, the potwallopers, who did it.
By the way, since I know you’re dying to ask, Westward Ho! was created as a watering place, a sea resort, by a commercial company that built a hotel and the golf course and named it after Charles Kingsley's 1855 book of the same name. Westward Ho! is an old boatman’s cry to attract potential passengers by shouting out the direction in which he will be travelling. Another famous local literary link is the United Services College for the sons of officers, opened in Westward Ho! in 1874; it’s the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co.
Vog We’re familiar with smog, the mixture of smoke and fog once so typical of London, a word coined as far back as 1905. This week I learned a related blend, vog. This is volcano plus smog and is an even nastier mixture of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants that’s emitted from volcanoes. It seems to be used most often of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, where there is a vog index to measure the level of pollution.
Nice In his report on the state of the economy last week, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, said that “For the time being at least, the nice decade is behind us.” A suitably gloomy opinion that was widely reported. But then people realised that it wasn’t a nice but a NICE decade — the word was an acronym, dammit, for Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion. With the Labour party predicted to lose the next election, its supporters worry we might be in for some Non-Acquisitive Suffering Tory Years instead.
4. Questions & Answers: Queer Street
[Q] From Randall Bart: “In a recent issue you quoted from John Buchan's Huntingtower, ‘It's quite likely he's been gettin’ into Queer Street’. Surely you are going to define Queer Street. From context it looks like being in debt, possibly to a loan shark.”
[A] Glad to help.
You’re almost there with your definition. It’s a rather dated British phrase; Queer Street is an imaginary place where people in difficulties, in particular financial ones, are supposed to live.
That seems not to have been its first meaning. It appeared in print initially in the 1811 edition of Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “QUEER STREET. Wrong. Improper. Contrary to one’s wish. It is queer street, a cant phrase, to signify that it is wrong or different to our wish.” It was used in a different sense in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London, “Limping Billy was also evidently in queer-street”, in which it meant he was feeling sick. It was only some decades later that it became restricted to financial embarrassment.
Where it comes from is open to much doubt. It used to be claimed that it was a variation on Carey Street, this being the location of the London Bankruptcy Court. But, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the court was only established there in 1840, so couldn’t have been its source. As Carey Street isn’t itself recorded figuratively until much later, the parallels between the two forms can’t have been the cause of Queer Street taking on its specific financial overtones.
5. Reviews: Stunned Mullets and Two-pot Screamers
The title will be unfamiliar, because in the current fashion it is a catchpennyish borrowing of two of the more outré entries featured within it to attract the attention of bookshop browsers. It’s actually the new fifth edition of Gerald Wilkes’s well-known Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms.
Those last two abilities are combined in the ability endlessly to riff on some theme. If Australians want to indicate that someone is incompetent, they might say that he couldn’t find a grand piano in a one-roomed house, blow the froth off a glass of beer, knock the skin off a rice pudding, tell the time if the town hall clock fell on top of him or train a choko vine over a country dunny (a dunny is a toilet, from a Scots word meaning “dung”). They might indicate something is totally useless by comparing it to an ashtray on a motorbike or a glass door on a dunny. They might suggest some person has limited mental abilities by saying that he wasn’t the full quid (still around long after the dollar became the currency), a few flagstones short of a patio, a paling short of a fence, or a chop short of a barbecue.
This edition is as up-to-the-minute as publishing schedules allow, with many examples from recent years. Some 300 new entries have been added and 900 existing ones updated. Among the new ones are alert but not alarmed, the message on a card that gave advice on safeguarding against terrorism issued by the Australian government after 9/11 and which has become something of a catchphrase (as it had a magnet to attach it to a fridge door, the card became known as the fridge magnet). Lollybag is new, a recent alternative to budgie smugglers for over-tight male swimwear; the verb lunch cutter is from the phrase to cut somebody’s lunch, to betray a friend, especially by having sex with his wife. To the list of Australianisms formed by adding -o to a truncated word (such as smoko, a break from work for a smoke and something to eat, arvo for afternoon, ambo for ambulance man, servo for a service station, dermo for dermatologist, Salvo for Salvation army officer and gyno for gynaecologist) is added reno, the renovation of a home. Among the recent Australian terms to have been imported to the UK is dog whistle politics, for comments on a political issue that contain a hidden message to attract a different group of voters. Australians have escaped the cultural cringe only to have fallen prey to the black armband, a guilty or apologetic attitude to their past; they may alternatively put on a white blindfold to deny such a view.
To be the two-pot screamer of the title, by the way, means that you’re very susceptible to alcohol; it might lead to your being like a stunned mullet, to be so dazed as to be almost unconscious.
Note on availability
The book is currently available from bookshops in Australia and New Zealand. Elsewhere it is due to be published in September 2008; you can pre-order it from the publishers or from booksellers. The Amazon online stores are currently still listing the fourth edition of 1995 under the old title.
[Wilkes, G A, Stunned Mullets and Two-pot Screamers: A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms; paperback, pp412; Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand; 1 May 2008; ISBN-13: 978-0-19-556316-0; list price AUS$45.00.]
• Kathy Ross-Waugh read an obituary in the Toronto Star for 12 May that described the life of a beloved mother who had just passed away: “Losing her mother at only 3 months of age she quickly learned to be a homemaker to a father and three brothers who were all coal miners.” Just imagine having to wash, iron, cook and keep house at such a tender age.
• Sherry Garfio of Denver found this in her local elementary school newsletter: “If you have any children or adult books you would like to donate, we would greatly appreciate it.” Her son does often try her patience, but she feels that donating him to the school would be going a bit far.
• Larry Nordell was reading Henry Petroski’s history of the pencil, in which he quotes the 1897 Sears, Roebuck catalogue listings for triangular pencils: “This shape prevents the fingers from becoming cramped while writing and also the possibility of their rolling from the desk.”