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Newsletter 837
22 June 2013

Contents

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Behove and behoove.

3. On a hiding to nowhere.

4. Blizzard of horseradish.

5. Sic!

6. Copyright and contact details.

1. Feedback, Notes and Comments

French fries Anne Ackroyd wrote, “Just to be difficult, Australians call both crisps and fries chips. If differentiation is required, the latter are called hot chips.” Mark Whitehead noted, “Elizabeth Warren’s recipe for French Fried Potatoes sounds like a comestible known to me as game chips.” On the other hand, Miles Irving wrote, “I think Eliza Warren’s dish is neither French fries nor chips but sauté potatoes.” Naomi Bloom commented, “What you have described as cottage fries sound like what my mother, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, called home fries. It was one of the first dishes she taught me to cook in the 1950s.”

“Being French,” Christian Abel emailed, “I feel compelled to chime in on the subject of French fries. Les frites, unlike either chips or fries — let alone wedges, must first be dipped in boiling vegetable oil, then taken out and left to rest a while before being dipped again for that golden brown finish. They are said to have been invented by chef Vattel, who had to wait for his sovereign to arrive; hence the two batches.”

My comments on frenched were specifically aimed at its possible link with French fries. There is another North American culinary sense of the word, for a method of removing the meat from the ends of chops or the ribs in a rack of lamb because it would overcook.

Site revisions Visitors to the website, and readers of this issue online, will notice some changes to the format of pages. Your comments about them will be most welcome, in particular whether they are easier to read, but also about the typography and layout.

2. Behove and behoove/bɪˈhuːv/ Help with IPA

A columnist in my daily paper recently wrote, “My dear Britain, it behoves me to inform you that first, I don’t exactly know what the word “behoves” means, but I do enjoy using it.” It behoves me to make good this deficiency by explaining that it expresses a duty and may be translated as “is required of” or “is incumbent upon”.

When James Murray wrote the definition for the word in what was then The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (only much later the Oxford English Dictionary) he described it as “mainly a literary word”. Some modern writers have called it archaic or a fossil, but it’s some way from that, especially in the US, where the behoove spelling is standard. British pundits and politicians feel that the occasional behove adds a statesmanlike and elevated air to their utterances, though they risk sounding old-fashioned and pompous.

The origin is Old English behōfian, from bihōf, utility, whose adjective is bihóflíc, useful or necessary.

It’s one of those few expressions in modern English that is almost always impersonal. You or I, or even they, do not generally behove. The empty agent it is usually in charge of the verb. Behove can also appear with negative sense, for which a common marker word in the UK is ill. Ill behoves implies acting inappropriately or improperly, as in this editorial pronouncement from a Sunday newspaper:

In an age of genuine austerity, it ill behoves those who have enough cash to eat as they wish to stand in judgment on those who do not.

The Observer, 10 Feb. 2013.

Americans use this form only rarely, but make up for it by using behoove more often and with a wider range of modifying words such as would, might and certainly.

3. On a hiding to nowhere

Q From Reg Tydell: I don’t think you’ve covered On a hiding to nowhere? A search on the web turns up usage, but no history. My understanding of the phrase’s meaning is “a hopeless endeavour”.

A This British idiom much more commonly appears as on a hiding to nothing. That’s the version I learned as a child and which I would use without questioning it. But yours, I have now learned, has been appearing since the 1970s, though it is greatly outnumbered by the other.

The idea behind it is that you’re faced with a situation in which every outcome is going to be unfavourable and in which true success is impossible. That sounds like your “hopeless endeavour” but there is more to it. The saying implies that even if you do succeed you’ll get no credit for it while failure will leave you in disgrace.

We know we’re on a hiding to nothing. If we don’t win the game by more than three or four goals, we’ll get no credit, only criticism.

The Mirror, 22 Mar. 2013.

Hiding to nothing has throughout its history most often turned up in sports contexts. It starts to appear in print around the end of the nineteenth century in reports of horse racing. Early users took care to explain it, so they clearly expected their readers not to know what it meant. My guess is that they wanted to share an item of racing-stable jargon to add colour and make them seem insiders:

His trainer, whoever he might be, would have been in the unenviable position of being on “a good hiding to nothing” — in other words, he would have got no credit if Flying Fox had won, and if he lost would have come in for a good deal of adverse criticism.

Liverpool Mercury, 19 Mar. 1900.

The other form — the one with nowhere — may have grown up in more recent times because users were no longer sure which sense of the word hiding was meant. If it was putting something out of sight, then nowhere would seem to fit better than nothing. But we’re sure hiding is in the same sense that an angry parent would once use to a wicked child: “I’ll give you a hiding!”, meaning a beating or flogging on the child’s skin — his hide. That sense of hiding can be traced to the end of the eighteenth century.

The phrase is putting the two words in opposition. The alternatives are nothing, a result not worth having, or hiding, figuratively a demeaning defeat. I hear in the formulation an echo of the way in which horse-racing odds are usually expressed (three to one, five to four). And might a jockey’s whipping of his mount during a race have contributed to its genesis? I rather suspect it did.

4. Blizzard of horseradish

Q From Kate Schubart: At the office yesterday I said to a younger staff member, you’re off in a blizzard of horseradish. This was a familiar phrase in my family when we were off on a jaunt. I’ve always thought it went back to my parents’ youth in the 1930s or 1940s. My colleague was amused, but said the expression was new to him. A quick Google search finds few instances and no etymology.

A I’d never come across this one either and felt rather at a loss. So I consulted Garson O’Toole, who runs the Quote Investigator site. Between us we’ve found out a little more.

Most examples from newspapers imply that a blizzard of horseradish is a torrent of unhelpful or irrelevant political verbiage:

All the righteous indignation which drifts down Capitol Hill like a blizzard of horseradish is simply partisan politics.

The News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), 3 Feb, 1974.

Horseradish is on record from the 1920s meaning arrant nonsense or rubbish, a relative of horsefeathers. Both terms are euphemisms for horseshit or bullshit. It’s possible that an unbowdlerised alliterative form blizzard of bullshit could already have been in use around that date; it’s recorded only within the past decade, but that doesn’t mean a lot as it would have been considered too rude to print much before then.

You noted in a later message that for you the expression referred to a familiar combination of anxiety and euphoria just before setting out on a trip. I’ve found some examples in blogs that imply muddle or confusion attending such preparations. Garson O’Toole put that rather more strongly on the basis of his own research as implying a poorly motivated or nonsensical quest or task.

You sent me an example from 1931, which Garson O’Toole also found and which turns out to be the first one we know about. It’s from a review of Nikki, a Broadway musical that failed after six weeks:

To convey the impression that they are just too world-weary, author [John Monk] Saunders has arranged that they reply to all efforts at normal human communication with a stock set of irrelevancies: “I’ll take vanilla,” “It seemed a good idea at the time,” and “We’re off in a blizzard of horseradish.”

Time, 12 Oct. 1931.

A few sources suggest where it comes from:

The death of Ho Chi Minh has left policy-makers at the State Department, and the men who convey their thinking to the public, lost in what Groucho Marx once called “a blizzard of horseradish.”

Naugatuck Daily News (Connecticut), 10 Sep. 1969.

It sounds like a Groucho-ism (not least because one of his films had the title Horsefeathers) and the date of the first example fits, but I can find no link between him and it. Unless a reader knows more?

5. Sic!

• Martin Turner pointed me to two news items about Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who wants to delycrafy cycling. A third report, in the Independent, made everything clear by adding punctuation: de-Lycrafy. Johnson explained, “I want to make [cycling] normal, something for everyone, something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes.”

• Nick Willmott wrote: “The July issue of Capital Times, Cardiff Council’s newspaper, has a breezy article about Cardiff Market which contains this: ‘Recently a vintage clothing stall has opened and this has brought something new to the market.’”

• Bob Trussler emailed from Australia: “Recently, a newsreader on ABC TV told us about thieves in Cannes who stole ‘the safe in a hotel room packed with jewels’.” Why bother with the safe?

• Jerry Gordon reported: “On June 11, a short Associated Press article appeared in the Times Union (Albany, NY), and elsewhere, I’m sure, with the headline: ‘John Malkovich helps hurt tourist’. On reading the article, you find that a tourist was accidently hurt, and Mr Malkovich, among others, came to his rescue.”

• From the Daily Telegraph of 1 June, sent in by Lewis Jones: “The Queen watched Ruler of the World win the Epsom Derby in Surrey, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh.”

• “Apparently Napoleonic France was very progressive,” Mike Turniansky commented. An article in the Baltimore Sun of Maryland on 9 June was about Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the wife of Napoleon’s brother Jerome: “Napoleon refused to allow his husband’s new bride to set foot in France.”

• Robert Waterhouse spotted this cricketing headline on the Guardian site on 21 June after a match between India and Sri Lanka: “India set up England clash after Sri Lanka win”. Who won? India.

6. Copyright and contact details

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Saturday 22 June 2013

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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