E-MAGAZINE 641: SATURDAY 30 MAY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Holidays I’m away. By all means send your questions and Sic! items as well as comments on the items in this issue, but don’t expect to get an answer until at least the middle of June. Net connections permitting, I shall continue to post short issues while I’m away, but the Web site will not be updated until 20 June.
The word means gibberish, meaningless talk, or nonsense. It appears in English first in 1653 in Sir Francis Urquhart’s translation of the works of the French author François Rabelais: “A Galimatia of extravagant conceits.” Later writers have always put an “s” on the end, though it’s a singular:
Mrs. Tramore stared, as if at a language she had never heard, a farrago, a galimatias.
The Chaperon, by Henry James, a short story published in his collection The Real Thing and Other Tales in 1893.
It is in French that we must look for any enlightenment about its origins, since the word still exists in that language with the same sense. The number of theories about its origin is dauntingly large, however, strongly suggesting little firm information. We do know it’s first recorded in that language in 1580 in a work by Montaigne, but in the sense of an obscene song. For this reason, the most common view of its origin is that it’s from the low Latin ballematia, which had the same sense (old Italian had this last word, too, but for songs or melodies in a dance style).
Some writers point to an even older French word, gale, enjoyment, which joined up with a verb meaning to eat too much to create galimafrée for an unappetising dish (English gallimaufry, a jumble or confused medley, is from the same source). It has also been said galimatias was originally a disparaging slang term of the sixteenth century for the disputations prescribed for doctoral students at the University of Paris (Latin gallus, cockerel, plus the Greek ending -mathia, learning). Another writer has suggested a link with a Provençal word for an imaginary country. The experts now dismiss all of these out of hand.
The same word appears in Russian, presumably borrowed from French.
3. Recently noted
Storm in a yogurt pot A reporter from the Daily Mail got in touch with me on Monday to canvass my views on how to spell yogurt.
This turned out to be a follow-up to a letter in the current issue of The Grocer, the UK magazine for food and drink retailers. The letter came from Clare Cheney, the director general of the Provision Trade Federation, the trade body that represents food companies in Britain, including importers. She suggested The Grocer should bring itself up to date by leaving the h out, since its manufacturers have now standardised on yogurt.
At this point Americans may be puzzled, as they have for more than a century spelled the word without an h and probably regard the spelling yoghurt as a curious Britishism, let alone yoghourt, another
Standardisation among manufacturers is not in fact quite complete yet: Prince Charles’s firm prefers the older spelling.
The evidence from dictionaries, newspapers and books is that the spelling yogurt has become the most common form in the UK but that yoghurt is also still very much around (yoghourt is now rare). Interestingly, even The Grocer uses yogurt a lot of the time — a search of its Web site found 1376 examples of yogurt as against 678 of yoghurt (none of yoghourt).
Following Ms Cheney’s letter, Food Manufacture, another magazine, said it was going to standardise on yogurt. It would seem that yoghurt is threatened in its homeland.
The Daily Mail, I suspect, was hoping I would denounce the creeping insidious influence of American English and argue that this was another example of the individuality of our native tongue being lost. Good heavens, no. I suggested, on the basis of a hunch rather than firm evidence, that the change might not have been through American influence at all, but an example of “spell-as-you-speak” working on an unfamiliar word, which was presumably how Americans came by their spelling.
4. Questions and Answers: Andrew
[Q] From Andrew Jackson, London: Do you perhaps know the origin of the term Andrew for the Royal Navy?
[A] I don’t. Nobody does, not for sure.
The story most commonly told is that the source is one Lieutenant Andrew Millar. It’s said that he was in charge of a press-gang during the Napoleonic Wars and that he was so zealous and pressed so many men that sailors thought the Navy belonged to him. However, the National Maritime Museum says no such officer has been traced. The nearest I’ve found from the Navy Lists, which is not very near, is that a Dr Andrew Millar was the staff surgeon based at Plymouth dockyard in 1848. We must presume Lieutenant Millar is imaginary.
On the other hand, Andrew was a sixteenth-century slang term for a merchant ship. Shakespeare employed it in The Merchant of Venice, “And see my wealthy Andrew dockt”. One story is that it was named after the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, whose name has been given to two celebrated twentieth-century ships. There are no written examples of the term after Shakespeare’s time, which may suggest it went out of use and can’t be the source of the modern term. Or it might have been lurking in the spoken language — we have no way of knowing.
The expression Andrew Millar was well known in the nineteenth century. It turns up in print here first:
ANDREW MILLAR’S LUGGER, a king’s ship or vessel.
A Vocabulary of the Flash Language, by James Hardy Vaux, July 1812. Vaux was then a transported criminal in New South Wales and wrote the work in his free moments from the hard labour by which he was punished following some transgression in the colony. He hoped by it to mollify the governor. Flash is an obsolete term referring to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld.
Half a century later, John Camden Hotten similarly recorded in his Slang Dictionary of 1864 that an Andrew Millar was a ship of war. Three years later, a key variation was recorded:
ANDREW or ANDREW MILLAR. A cant name for a man-of-war and also for government and government authorities.
The Sailor’s Word-Book, by Admiral W H Smyth, 1867.
This was an early indication that the term was moving from being a reference to a single warship to the whole navy. By the end of the century, lower-deck ratings were commonly calling the Royal Navy the Andrew and the name has stuck.
However, researchers have to confess themselves baffled by it.
• Jenny O’Brien tells us the St Cloud Times of Minnesota reported on Friday 22 May: “A fire started by an old electrical chord caused smoke damage late Thursday to a mobile home in southeast St Cloud.” Sounds like an A Minor fire.