E-MAGAZINE 714: SATURDAY 27 NOVEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Sqilgee Clark P Stevens and Bob Lee both pointed me to a standard source of data about nineteenth-century seafaring vocabulary, The Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867 by the British admiral William Smyth, which I really ought to have consulted. He notes both squilgee and squeegee. His definition of the former is clearly of the same tool as the one described by Melville: “An effective swabbing implement, having a plate of gutta-percha fitted at the end of a broom handle.” However, he gives the latter a quite different meaning: “A small swab of untwisted yarns. Figuratively, a lazy mean fellow”.
Bill Dillon noted that squilgee continued to be used in the US Navy after World War Two: “I served from 1951 through 1954. The device was always referred to as a squilgee. We had to adjust our vocabulary in this as well as replacement terms for other common landlubberly items.”
Tolfraedic Several readers wondered why a numbering system based on twelves wasn’t systematic, so leading to the gross (or twelve twelves) rather than twelve tens. It is an odd combination of two systems, I agree. Martin Rose brought me to a dead stop by asking “what about a shock of eggs?” I had to look that up. At one time, a shock was a count of 60 — the word derives, the OED says, from the same source as that for a group of sheaves of grain (and as in the fixed phrase shock of hair), and is linked to the Dutch word schok for that number. Shock is a survival, like 60 seconds in a minute, of the vigesimal measure, based on 20.
Wicked stepmother Chris Trundles and Susan Hassett noted something that few press reports mentioned about of the Duchess of Cornwall’s use of wicked to describe the royal engagement, perhaps because it weakened the story. She was making a joke about a different sort of engagement she had just left, in which she had handed out prizes at the Wicked Young Writers’ Awards at the theatre in London at which the musical Wicked is currently being performed.
Nick Humez mentioned that wicked has a long history in “Boston and points north”. He went on, “Inhabitants of Maine are much given to using the expression wicked good, to the point where it has become as much of a cliché for the Pine Tree State as its lobster on the license plates.” Richard Kahane adds “Indeed, the dentifrice manufacturer Tom’s of Maine recently launched a new line of toothpastes named Wicked Fresh.” Scott Underwood comments that it is always used as an adverb modifying an adjective: “A car might be wicked fast, a concert wicked loud, a joke wicked funny. But I’ve never here heard it as a standalone descriptor, as in the example you gave.”
Site updates Pieces on McGuffin and POTUS have been updated because new information has some in . I’ve dumped my old home-brewed search system in favour of an all-singing, all-dancing version from Google. This searches the whole of the site, including back issues, and also returns results from my online Dictionary of Affixes.
Somebody who was widdiful deserved to be hanged.
The story behind it starts with the northern English and Scottish word widdy or widdie, local forms of the standard English withy, a flexible branch from a tree such as willow used to make baskets or to tie or fasten things together. One sense was of a band or rope made of intertwined withies.
Later it came to mean a halter and in particular a hangman’s rope. To cheat the widdy meant to escape hanging. By an obvious transfer the sense of gallows-bird grew up, one destined to fill a widdy. This is a modern example:
”Will you shut the bloody noise off, you bloody widdiful!” Philips said in a shout that was nearly a scream.
The Reaches, by David Drake, 2003.
The word weakened in its later history in Scotland, turning into a joking term for somebody who was merely a scamp or scoundrel. It has been recorded in Yorkshire dialect in a very different sense, one derived from the idea of a withy being tough and durable:
WIDDIFUL, Industrious, laborious, plodding. It is applicable to a hard-working man, who never complains of fatigue, and is derived from widdy; of such a character it is often said, “he’s as tough as a widdy.”
The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York, by William Carr, 1828.
Another Oxford WOTY Last week, the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary published their words of the year. This week, it is the turn of their British counterparts. Their shortlist is intriguingly different.
A Boris bike, for example, is a bicycle in London that’s rentable for short periods of time; the name is an allusion to the extrovert Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who introduced the scheme. Other shortlisted terms are preloading (“the practice of drinking large quantities of alcohol at home before going out socially and then consuming more, usually to save money”); showmance (“a romantic relationship that develops between actors during the course of making a film etc., or between participants in a TV show, either real or engineered for the sake of publicity”); double-dip (“a recession during which a period of economic decline is followed by a brief period of growth followed by a further period of decline”); and upcycling (“the reuse of discarded or waste material in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original”).
The winner is big society, a term much used by the current prime minister, David Cameron. Commentators have frequently complained that they don’t know what it means, so I’m delighted to be able to provide Oxford’s tentative definition. They say it is “a political concept whereby a significant amount of responsibility for the running of a society’s services is devolved to local communities and volunteers”. The press release said, “Big society was for us a clear winner because it embraces so much of the year’s political and economic mood. Taken to mean many things, it has begun to take on a life of its own, a sure sign of linguistic success.”
4. Reviews: Green’s Dictionary of Slang
This work is monumental in several senses. It is physically huge: 6000+ pages in three hefty volumes with ten million words, 110,000-plus definitions and 413,000 citations. Unfortunately, the price is likewise massive, which is hardly going to make it a household purchase, even at the deep discounts being offered by some online retailers. Leaving aside the superlatives, it is principally a testimony to the industry of its editor.
It is only right that Jonathon Green’s magnum opus should carry his name in the title. GDoS (as it is already commonly abbreviated) is an important publication in the history of slang lexicography. It’s so big because it’s that rare thing, a dictionary that records the historical development of slang. Every entry includes a range of dated citations, going back to the
Mr Slang, as Martin Amis called Jonathon Green (a cognomen that he has adopted as his Nom de Twitter) has an enviable reputation as the premier slang lexicographer of his generation. His first foray was Newspeak: A Dictionary of Jargon, published in 1983. His single-volume dictionary, already regarded as the best available and which forms the skeleton of this work, is the Chambers Slang Dictionary of 2008, itself building on The Cassell Dictionary of Slang of 1998.
GDoS is striking not only in its comprehensiveness. Though Green is more than ready to acknowledge the assistance of many individuals, his editor-in-chief Sarah Chatwin especially, GDoS is unusual in today’s publishing world in that it has been conceived and produced by one person. It is also remarkable for coming out as a printed book at all. When in 1997 he was commissioned to prepare it, print was still a natural medium for reference works. Online publication has since become the norm. GDoS may have the melancholy attribute of being the last substantial reference work to appear as a physical object. Even here, online publication is in prospect: Oxford University Press, which distributes the book in North America, plans to make it available as an e-book via the Oxford Reference Bookshelf.
Not only has publication of reference works moved online, so has much of the research work. However, Green and his helpers, his wife in particular, have focussed their attention on printed material and have spent 12 years scouring libraries for citations. Green is rightly wary of online sources for their unreliability as dating evidence, but some are usable with care and I wonder if he has yet to fully exploit their potential. While working on various word histories, I’ve accidentally antedated several GDoS terms in the month since my copy arrived.
Although he has now researched English slang in more detail than any lexicographer before him, Green has no plans to retire. He told me, “One does not finish a dictionary. One pauses. And not for long. Then gets back to work. I have already added 1500 citations and new definitions and headwords to those in the book.” He looks forward to online publication: “Unlike an e-book it will be ‘live’, with continuous revision, correction, expansion and improvement, offered in quarterly or six-monthly increments, until, as I hope, my lifeless body crashes forward on to the keyboard at some ripe old age.”
[Jonathon Green, Green’s Dictionary of Slang; 3 volumes, pp6085; published in the UK by Chambers; ISBN 978-0550-10440-3; publisher’s UK price £295.00.]
• Jerry W passed us a cutting from the latest edition of the Downs Mail, a free newspaper in Maidstone, Kent. An article about a local business having its busiest time in the run-up to Christmas quotes a director as saying that they are so busy that “Weekends will be 24-seven”.
• The Daily Telegraph front page on 22 November, Peter Smith tells us, headlines the news that “Husband flies to South Africa to help murder police”.
• It’s not hard to find an unintended meaning in the headline that Norm Jensen found on the website of the American Society for Microbiology: “Bacteria Help Infants Digest Milk More Effectively Than Adults”.
• A classic: The Star of South Africa reported on 20 November: “Four crack teams swept Gugulethu and Khayelitsha. They were looking for a man with a gold tooth called Thulani.” Rod Curling-Hope wondered about the names of his other teeth.
• As Chris Welch notes, it’s hard to beat the headline that he found in an e-mail newsletter from the US Centers for Disease Control on 23 November: “Pope’s Male Prostitute Becomes Female in Translation Mix-Up”.
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