E-MAGAZINE 676: SATURDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Baseball My aside in the piece about southpaw (“I come from a country in which baseball is almost never played”) was challenged by Dai Woosnam: “Have you any idea just how passionately fought-out are the international matches between England and Wales (going back generations), and the degree in which Liverpool and Cardiff are hotbeds for the game?” I’d never heard of this. It transpires that this game, though called baseball, is different to the American one (underarm bowling, flat-edged bats, 11 players in a team), with a separate history. The Wikipedia article I cribbed this from says that it dates from 1892 “when the governing bodies of England and Wales agreed to change the name of their sport from rounders to baseball”. My case rests.
Busy, busy As well as the usual updates, I’ve added a new piece on the World Wide Words Web site that formalises my note back in mid-January on crisitunity. I’ve also updated those on panjandrum, petrichor and shovel-ready. See the home page for the links.
Still a common word, you may find it about equally in reports of sporting trickery and financial double-dealing:
Chicanery is not always discovered and punished, but the NFL spends millions in attempted enforcement of the public’s trust and then looks the other way after a team turns its back on ticket-buyers and league partners by refusing to put its reasonably best product on the field.
New York Post, 2 Jan 2010.
Chicanes are likely
Both words can be traced to a set of French terms that includes chicaner, to make a fuss or squabble, chicanerie, a squabble, and chicane, legal quibbling or delaying tactics. Chicanerie seems to have been borrowed to fill a void in English — at least, John Evelyn regretted in a letter in 1665 that we had no word that fully expressed the sense of the French. He seemed not to know that Sir Thomas Overbury had already borrowed it half a century before, suggesting that it was only after Evelyn’s time that it became at all common.
Where the French words come from is uncertain. Dictionary makers used to think that they derived from a Greek verb meaning to play a game with sticks, something like golf or polo; this may be based on a Persian word, chaugan or chugan, which is the mallet in a polo-like game. But this idea has lost support because no chain of evidence exists to link the French with the Greek. Instead, modern etymologists point to an ancient French onomatopoeic word rather like tchik. This indicated pettiness and gave rise to several words, including chiche, mean or miserly. In the case of chicaner, it may have been crossed with ricaner, which now means to snigger but which used to mean “bray”.
3. What I've learned this week
Last words of 2009 The Macquarie Dictionary of Australia is every year the last past the post in the dictionary promotion stakes. Its words of the year for 2009 were announced on Wednesday. The overall winner is shovel-ready,
Who’s paddy? Paul Winterbine e-mailed from Melbourne, Australia, to mention a phrase his father used when they played cribbage. When declaring a non-scoring hand he would say he had what Paddy shot at. I’d not encountered this before, so went hunting. Unlike poor Paddy, I bagged something useful. The saying is a deprecatory comment about the supposed lack of firearms ability of Irishmen and is still around, though the implied ethnic slur has made it much less acceptable (it can now appear as what Patty shot at, whether from sensitivity or ignorance, I can’t tell). It goes back a long way: it turned up in a column of quips and aphorisms in a US newspaper, the Boston Investigator, on 9 February 1838 and was clearly well-known; the sentence is now topical again: “The pledged sacred honor of the Banks — Just what the Paddy shot at.” Another appearance was in a work published in New York in 1850, The Knockings Exposed, with subtitle “A spiritual examination of modern pneumatology and thaumaturgic manifestations, together with a spiritual critique on the claims of psychological-mesmerism and clairvoyance.” You may deduce that it was intended to be funny in its typically ponderous nineteenth-century way.
Digress, degrease, degrees? I was reading the British Government’s Response to the Summer 2009 Consultation on Feed-in Tariffs this week, a technical 52-page report of interest to me because my wife and I have recently become the proud operators of an electricity generating station (solar photovoltaic type) which is, as I write, “feeding in” power to the electricity grid. The report used a verb that I’d never come across: to degress: “The tariffs that are available for new installations will ‘degress’ each year.” It apparently derives from the noun degression or the adjective degressive, which are used by financial experts for a tax rate that is mainly fixed but which progressively reduces below a certain point. In our case, it refers to receipts rather than taxes and the writer seems to be employing it merely as a highfalutin alternative to “reduce”. The Oxford English Dictionary knows degress only as a rare old term for alighting from a horse.
4. Questions and Answers: Rub of the green
[Q] From Gary Puckering: The winner of the BDO world darts championship was quoted on BBC’s sports site on 10 January as saying of his opponent in the final: “He maybe gave me too much rub of the green in the early sets but I’m happy with that”, presumably meaning that his opponent had played poorly. Some sites say this is a golfing expression, others that it comes from snooker. Would you care to comment?
[A] I’m not so sure that that was what Martin Adams meant, though it isn’t at all obvious from the quote. He could have been saying that his opponent was making life difficult for him as a result of his excellent play. That’s because rub of the green can mean either good or bad fortune in some sports event. You can think of it as being accompanied by a shrug. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. No accounting for how things turn out.
Presumably people associate it with snooker because of the green baize of the table. But it can’t be from that game because the earliest examples of the phrase long predate the appearance of snooker in the 1870s (it could be linked to billiards, as that game is much older, but the story specifically mentions snooker). It is often said to be associated with golf because the first known example is this:
Whatever happens to a Ball by accident, must be reckoned a Rub of the green.
Regulations of the Game of Golf adopted by the St Andrews Society of Golfers, 1812.
Watch out for rubs
It spoils their game by an unforeseen rub in the green.
The Righteous Man’s Refuge, by John Flavel, 1681.
The main reason why we find the phrase obscure today is that we’ve lost the relevant meaning of rub. Even before Flavel’s time, it had a figurative sense of a non-material hindrance or difficulty:
We doubt not now, But every Rubbe is smoothed on our way.
Henry V, by William Shakespeare, 1599. There’s also the famous line of Hamlet’s: “To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub.”
• A quote from a police inspector on the BBC News Berkshire site on 1st February was read by Jim Carr: “This was a particularly viscous robbery, however I would like to reassure residents there are ongoing inquiries.” And no risk of anybody coming to a sticky end.
• At the start of the BBC Radio 4 World at One programme on Wednesday a clip was played of the delightfully named Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff in the UK. The clip consisted in its entirety of his saying “The world never stays in one place.” He later spoke at greater length about changes in global defence needs.
• We’re slow reporting this one, but it was worth the wait. An AP headline in the New York Times dated 26 January, spotted by Kathy Heinke: “Cops Stop Cyclist With Butcher Knife-Pool Cue Axe”.
• Anthony Massey clearly keeps his eyes peeled during his peregrinations in the metropolis. A notice inside the windscreen of a police van in central London read “Explosive Search Dogs”. He plans to stand well back when they next let them out.
• The Associated Press frequently features here. One of its better efforts appeared on Friday and arrived courtesy of Lucy Banks, who saw the headline on Yahoo! News: “Man guilty of missing wife’s murder.” Surely he’s glad he did miss it?
6. Copyright and contact details
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