NEWSLETTER 522: SATURDAY 13 JANUARY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Mangel-wurzel It has been a decade or several since I last looked into the Worzel Gummidge books and assumed that his name implied that he was in part made from a mangel-wurzel. John Neave has had cause to read them much more recently and pointed out this description in the first chapter of the first book in the series: “Susan saw that he [Worzel Gummidge] had a most friendly and pleasant face. It was cut out of a turnip”. So the author, Barbara Euphan Todd, might have been as confused as anybody else about the exact nature of the vegetable, though turnip is sometimes used as a generic term for several of these root vegetables. Several Scottish readers pointed out that it is incorrect to imply that swede is the name for the vegetable in the whole of the UK. Scots call them turnips or neeps, bashed neeps (mashed swede) being a traditional accompaniment to the famous haggis. At one time, generations ago, Scottish turnips or neeps were indeed turnips; the Scots changed at some point to eating swedes instead, but kept the old name. Confusion abounds.
2. Weird Words: Jocund
Cheerful and light-hearted.
This word could hardly be more positive in its attitude. Its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary brims with agreeableness: “Feeling, expressing, or communicating mirth or cheerfulness; mirthful, merry, cheerful, blithe, sprightly, light-hearted; pleasant, cheering, delightful”. That definition also included the word that dare not speak its name these days in such company, gay. Jocund comes down to us via Old French from Latin jucundus, meaning pleasant or agreeable, from the verb juvare, to delight.
Dictionaries describe it as rather formal and it feels a little old-fashioned, to the extent that it sometimes appears these days as a mildly humorous term for being agreeable. That wasn’t so for Wordsworth, wandering lonely as a cloud while intent on watching his daffodils: “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: / A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company”. Or indeed Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet: “Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day / stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops”.
3. Questions & Answers: Stick one's oar in
[Q] From Andrew Martin: “Having moved from the UK to the US, I’m often entertained by the different use of words. I’ve used a term here in the US that gets blank looks — to stick one’s oar in. Could you expose its history?”
[A] No problem. The idiom to stick one’s oar in means to interfere or meddle in some matter that doesn’t concern one. It’s a close relative of sticking one’s nose into something.
It’s now less common in Britain than it once was, though it does turn up from time to time, as here in the Daily Mail in August 2005: “He feels he must be [there] today. Not to stick his oar in, you understand, but to offer moral support.” A rare instance of an American author using it turned up as a neat reference back to its original context in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: “An old adviser, Ferdaz ... liked to stick his oar in even when it steered the boat off the course he wanted.”
The expression dates back to the sixteenth century and has turned up in all sorts of different formulations down the centuries. The original was to have an oar in every man’s boat, meaning to be involved in every man’s business or affairs. Variations include he’ll have an oar in everything, he will put in his oar, and don’t you put your oar in.
By the time that the Londoner W W Jacobs was writing, around the start of the twentieth century, it had become quite divorced from any physical image. This is from his short story The Substitute: “‘You mind your bisness,’ he ses, shouting. ‘And not so much about my missis! D’ye hear? Wot’s it got to do with you? Who asked you to shove your oar in?’”
4. Recently noted
Yet more words of the year In early January each year, members of the American Dialect Society vote at their Annual Meeting for their words of the year in various categories. The winners this time were: Most Useful: climate canary, an organism or species whose poor health or declining numbers hint at a larger environmental catastrophe to come; Most Creative: lactard, a person who is lactose-intolerant; Most Unnecessary: SuriKat, the supposed nickname of the child of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; Most Outrageous: Cambodian accessory, Angelina Jolie’s adopted child (who is Cambodian); Most Euphemistic: waterboarding, the US interrogation technique in which the subject is immobilised and doused with water to simulate drowning; Most Likely to Succeed: YouTube, as a verb, to use the YouTube Web site or to have a video of oneself posted on the site; Least Likely to Succeed: grup, a Generation-Xer who doesn’t act his age (the word is said to derive from an ancient episode of Star Trek in which it was a mangled form of “grown-up”). The overall winner of the Word of the Year was: to pluto or to be plutoed: to demote or devalue someone or something (you may recall this happened to the former planet Pluto when the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet).
Are these words? Last Sunday’s Dilbert cartoon mocked the tufty-haired manager’s use of “words that aren’t words”, as his secretary described them: incentiment, flexitate, leadershipping, and robustify. We can go along with the first two — the only examples I can find for incentiment are misprints for incitement and the second isn’t used at all so far as I can tell. But for the third Scott Adams surely knows the management aphorism “leadership is a verb, not a noun” — ie, what matters is what leaders do, not the position they hold. The verb has a history: it appears in Morton Freeman’s A Treasury for Word Lovers of 1983 (“It is possible to take courses in leadershipping”), and even earlier in a novel by Mason Smith, Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares, dated 1971. The last example, robustify, obviously enough means to make some device or situation more robust. It’s fairly common online and turns up in reference to computer programs in particular. Both leadershipping and robustify are jargon and neither has yet graced the pages of a dictionary, but they’re real words that a few people use in all seriousness.
5. Articles: Fudge
I happen to have been hunting down the early history of the name for this sweet recently for a different purpose and was intrigued to find that it’s a relatively modern confection, at least under that name. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from as late as 1896, in which the writer describes fudge as “a kind of chocolate bonbons”.
These days, with electronic archives that allow one to solve in moments a problem that a researcher of a previous generation might have taken weeks over, it took me about half of no time at all to find an earlier example, from the Davenport Daily Tribune of Iowa for 22 February 1895:
“Nearly every night at college,” said the Vassar girl, “some girl may be found somewhere who is making ‘fudges’ or giving a fudge party.” Fudges are Vassar chocolates, and they are simply the most delicious edibles ever manufactured by a set of sweetmeat-loving girls. Their origin is wrapped in mystery. We only know that their receipt is handed down from year to year by old students to new, and that they belong peculiarly to Vassar.
This was an interesting find, my exhilaration at having unearthed the Vassar connection being only slightly dampened when I found that many had made the same discovery previously. Chief among them was the US researcher Barry Popik, who five years ago went to this famous — originally women-only — college at Poughkeepsie, New York, to read through the Vassar yearbooks of the period. These contain many mentions of fudge, including this ditty from 1893:
What is it that we love the best,
Of all the candies east or west,
Although to make them is a pest?
What perches us upon a chair
To stir a sauce-pan held in air,
Which, tipping, pours upon our hair —
What needs more stirring than oat-mush,
And more still when we’re in a rush,
But what’s e’en sweeter than a “crush”?
What subtle odor doth recall,
To artless minds that “long-owed call,”
On the sweet maiden up the hall?
The puzzling reference in the second verse is explained in the newspaper article: “It never tastes so delicious, however, as when made at college, over a spluttering gas lamp, in the seclusion of your own apartments.” The thought of long-skirted maidens balancing on chairs to heat pans over a gas mantle above their heads would make a modern safety-conscious teacher blench.
The newspaper article and the poem presumably pluralise fudge from its being cut into pieces for serving. When the word gets out into the wider world in this new sense, at around the turn of the century, fudge becomes a collective noun. Despite the use of the word chocolate in the newspaper article and the modern implication in the US that fudge is normally chocolate flavoured, the recipe accompanying the article lists only sugar, butter and milk, the “traditional” fudge known in Britain. The making of fudge to much the same recipe was a craze around this time at several US women’s colleges, including Wellesley College and Smith College.
Fudge, as I first knew it, was first made in Baltimore by a cousin of a school mate of mine. It was sold in 1886 in a grocery store for 40 cents a pound and my brother Julian bought me my first box. ... I secured the recipe and in my first year at Vassar I made it there — and in 1888 I made 30 pounds for the Senior Auction, its real introduction to the college, I think.
Tantalisingly, she doesn’t mention when it became known as fudge — might its first maker or the owner of that grocery store in Baltimore have given it its name? If either did, a record of the verbal ingenuity of this mute inglorious Milton has not survived.
How it came by the name is still a mystery. Fudge first came into the language in the late seventeenth century as a verb meaning “to fit together in a clumsy or underhand manner”. This could refer to putting facts or figures together in a superficially convincing way or to patching something up to disguise its faults. This led to the cry of fudge!, meaning nonsense, and to senses of the verb such as to talk rubbish or to cheat in exams. Our modern usages, such as “an unsatisfactory or makeshift solution”, “to avoid commitment”, “to dodge the issue”, or “to deal with something in a vague or inadequate way”, come from this.
None of this is any sort of guide to how it became a name for a sugary confection. Some Oxford Dictionaries suggest that an early usage of fudge was in the sense “to turn out as expected” or “to merge together”, which may have led to the confectionery sense. But I can’t find any supporting evidence for the word having being used in this way, nor how it might have survived into the 1880s. A story repeated in several places online says it came from the bungled or “fudged” making of a batch of caramels on 14 February 1886, which is a suspiciously precise date, more so because it was Valentine’s Day — it feels like a folk etymology invented long after the event.
• Andy Philip was intrigued by a sentence in a news report on the Church Web site Ekklesia last Saturday: “Concern for the damaging impact of divisions within Anglicanism are also reported to have been expressed by the recently deceased US President Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, at the memorial service held for him at Washington National Cathedral.”
• One for the department of bizarre images, via Greg Connell from a rugby report in the Woking Review for 6 January: “At the final whistle, the gloom was lifted by some seasonal port and later, solid and liquid nourishment in the new Kingston RFC bar. Vousden commented: ‘The highlight of the afternoon was the fine vintage port we coiffed at the final whistle.’”