NEWSLETTER 557: SATURDAY 13 OCTOBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Misssspellings The IgNobel Prices mentioned last week were prizes of course (let us set aside the self-deprecating message that came in from a man named Price). The comic strip was Li’l Abner and not L’il Abner. And it should have been written, not writen. If you only knew how quickly that issue was put together, with two topical items — one a book review — researched and written (or writen) with my nose pressed against the publication deadline, you would perhaps excuse my fingers doing their own thing from time to time without being corrected.
Origins Many subscribers pointed out that beatnik is usually credited to the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, who used it in one of his pieces on 2 April 1958. And t’Internet, as a way of mentioning the online world that is used by some people in northern England, was said by several writers to have been coined by the Bolton comedian Peter Kay.
2. Topical Words: Bottle
For several weeks, the staff of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, has been talking up the possibility of an autumn election to provide him with a personal mandate after the resignation of Tony Blair in the summer (in Britain, when to call an election is the prerogative of the current PM) but then last weekend he decided not to go ahead. The good showing by the opposition Conservative Party in the opinion polls after their annual conference is said to have been a factor. This change of heart has produced great numbers of media comments that adversely mention Brown and bottle in the same sentence.
The implications behind bottle were explained by Tony Park in The Plough Boy in 1965: “Spirits, guts, courage ... It’s the worst that could be said about you, that you’d lost your bottle.”
Though its origins are misty, we have some clues. No bottle was widely used from the middle of the nineteenth century to refer to something useless. Around the 1920s, we had no bottle and glass as rhyming slang meaning that a person lacked class, in the sense of being unimpressive or without style. This would seem to have been taken also to mean lacking in courage. Around this time the rhyming slang expression bottle and glass was used to mean arse (ass for US readers) and this seems to have been an influence that led to forms like Has your bottle fallen out? which may suggest that bottle in such forms figuratively means “guts”.
The earliest example of bottle that I know of appeared in 1958 in Frank Norman’s book Bang to Rights, an account of prison life. The verb, meaning to lose one’s nerve or chicken out, is first recorded at the end of the 1970s. Noun and verb, in various expressions, were popularised by a wave of demotic writing and gritty television programmes of the 1960s and 1970s, such as The Sweeney and Minder, that brought the slang of London to a wider audience. In the 1980s, copywriters working for the Milk Marketing Board popularised it further with a slogan for their product: It’s gotta lotta bottle (it has to be said with glottal stops to give it its full flavour). Interestingly, it was alluded to, as Notta Lotta Bottle, on a placard held by one of Monday’s bottle-garbed demonstrators outside Downing Street.
After its heyday 30 years ago, bottle, either as bottle out or lose your bottle, has not quite vanished from the British slang lexicon, though in recent decades it has tended to reside in that graveyard of outmoded expressions, the sports pages. So why the sudden and near-unanimous burst of usage now? Step forward into the limelight Euro RSCG, a huge French-owned global advertising agency that has just been appointed by the Conservative party. I’d guess a middle-aged account executive made the conceptual links Brown –> Brown ale –> bottle –> bottle out –> Bottler Brown (with a side memory of milk adverts) and went on from there.
And it worked splendidly.
3. Weird Words: Geis
An obligation or prohibition imposed on a person.
The word is from Irish folklore, in which a geis could be a sacred taboo, an enchantment, or a curse. To violate one led to misfortune and death. In the heroic legends of Ireland, this is what happened to the hero Cuchulain and to Conaire Mor, the King of Ireland, both of whom were unable to avoid breaking their geisa (the Irish plural of geis). The latter had many geisa imposed on him, such as never to sleep in a house from which firelight could be seen after sunset and never to be away from his capital at Tara for more than nine nights at a time.
In Scots Gaelic it’s spelled geas and there have been other spellings. Saying it is an even more tricky problem. My Irish books tell me it’s said as gaysh, but the Oxford English Dictionary gives three different pronunciations, including gesh and geesh as well as gaysh, of the three preferring gesh. The Shorter Oxford gives this as its sole pronunciation. The one-volume Oxford Dictionary of English weirdly prefers gas. No other dictionary I have here includes it.
Terry Pratchett employs it in two of his fantasy works. To confuse us further about the way to pronounce it, characters in both books say it (or mishear it) as geese. A Hat Full of Sky includes this snatch of Scots-style conversation: “‘Tis a heavy thing, tae be under a geas.’ ‘Well, they’re big birds,’ said Daft Wullie.” And this exchange is in Sourcery:
“She just wants you to help us. It’s a sort of quest.”
Nijel’s eyes gleamed.
“You mean a geas?” he said.
“It’s in the book. To be a proper hero it says you’ve got to labour under a geas.”
Rincewind’s forehead wrinkled. “Is it a sort of bird?”
“I think it’s more a sort of obligation, or something,” said Nijel, but without much certainty.
4. Recently noted
Female extinction Dear reader, do not reel in shock — the future of the human race is not in doubt. This term has been used to refer to a subtle but nonetheless serious problem of rural communities in the UK and Ireland. The young women of these communities find life to be too narrow and boring and are moving to the cities. Local men often find it difficult to follow, because their lives are rooted in the fields where their families have worked for generations. A few towns have serious gender imbalances: Alston in Cumbria has at least 10 unmarried men for every unmarried woman. Similar figures are quoted for other places, such as Hythe in Kent, rural Devon and the whole of Donegal in Ireland. The term female extinction seems to have been coined by an organisation called Villages in Crisis, which is publicising the issue and trying to tempt women back.
5. Questions & Answers: Since old leather-arse died
[Q] From Ann Deane, UK: “I wonder if you have heard a phrase that my grandmother used with regularity (she died in 1964). “There have never been such times since old leather-arse died”. She would use it whenever she was told about something new — if decimalisation was suggested, or television was getting another channel, or when we told her a sputnik had gone up.”
[A] The expression is hardly known now except among older people. Nigel Rees collected a number of versions from listeners to his radio programme in his book Oops, Pardon, Mrs Arden! Among them was, “I haven’t laughed so much since old leather arse died!” Much the same term also appears in Nancy Keesing’s book Lily on the Dustbin: Slang of Australian Women and Families, published in 1982: “A term of approval meaning ‘very good indeed’ in response to the question, ‘What do you think of ...?’ is ‘Damn the better since Leather Arse died.’”
But nothing suggests who this personified Leather Arse might have been. One posting online suggests that it might have originally been Irish and referred to Oliver Cromwell, who allegedly used to wear leather breeches. But as the writer says, Cromwell is blamed for a lot of things in Ireland and the story is probably just a popular etymology.
So, while I’ve confirmed your grandmother was using an expression that once was widely known, I can’t help with where it comes from.
• Many news reports at the end of last week featured a woman who was fined $222,000 for illegally downloading music files. This version appeared in CBC Online: “‘She was in tears. She’s devastated,’ said Thomas’s attorney, Brian Toder. ‘This is a girl that lives from paycheck to paycheck, and now all of a sudden she could get a quarter of her paycheck garnished for the rest of her life.’” Reg Brehaut noted, “When you’re paid peanuts, decorating it with parsley probably doesn’t help.”
• Gloria Bryant was stunned to learn there might be occupants of the Geneva Convention. At least, that was the import, unintended, of a report on Capital Hill Blue, an online news site, dated 6 October: “The top Pentagon prosecutor in President George W. Bush’s troubled ‘war on terror’ is leaving her post immediately. Sources say she is ‘fed up’ with the administration’s continued attempts to ignore the law and the tenants of the Geneva Convention in his abuse of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.”
• On 4 October, The Local, which bills itself as Sweden’s News in English, headlined the surprising fact that “Young Swedish women kill themselves more often.” Nicholas Sanders hopes they have more lives than a cat. Continuing the theme, Margaret L Ruwoldt heard on the ABC Radio program PM, on Monday 8 October: “Andrew Page lectures at the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland. In 2002, he published a paper on farm suicides which found during the ’90s one farmer killed himself on average every four days nationally.” She remarks, “Given that the best-documented historical example indicates a resurrection waiting period of three days, this seems quite reasonable.”