Spill the beans Several readers pointed out the slang usage of the word bean to refer to money. This was known in Britain from the early nineteenth century but was long preceded by phrases that took a bean to be something of very little value: not worth a bean is recorded from the end of the thirteenth century and hill of beans from the US around 1860.
Since the earliest examples of spill the beans refers to a horse upsetting expectations by doing well, it’s plausible to suggest that the expression referred to people losing their cash by betting on what seemed to be the more likely runners. But it would be good to find some examples before about 1900 of the US use of bean to specifically mean money.
Readers who mentioned bean-counter can’t use that as an example, as it dates only from the early 1940s, though literal bean counters are on record from a couple of decades previously for the person who had the job of counting the beans in one of those “guess the number of beans in the jar” competition.
Cevdet Suner wrote, “We have a saying in Turkish which translates as ‘beans don’t get wet in his mouth’, which is supposed to mean that he cannot keep his mouth shut and will spill the beans, unable to keep a secret as a result.”
Hedonistic, pleasure-seeking, and hedonic, pleasurable (both from Greek hēdonē, pleasure), suggest that a hedonometer must be a device to measure happiness. It sounds futuristic but the future has now arrived, to judge from recent news stories containing the word. There's a website for that.
Researchers have developed a global happiness sensor and launched a website to display the results so we can all follow our communal progress towards paradise or the slough of despond. The latter is more likely, as the index has been sliding gently downwards since 2009.
The technique is linguistic and statistical. The researchers give numerical weights to significant words, assessing them according to their degree of pleasurableness — disaster has a low score, while Christmas has a much higher one. These weights are then applied to a large body of online texts, principally from Twitter posts, and the index is updated every day.
Hedonometer isn’t new. It’s usually said to have been coined — in a slightly different spelling — by the economist and statistician Francis Edgeworth. It appeared in his book, Mathematical Psychics: An Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences, published in 1881. He developed the idea of a hedonical calculus:
To precise* the ideas, let there be granted to the science of pleasure what is granted to the science of energy; to imagine an ideally perfect instrument, a psychophysical machine, continually registering the height of pleasure experienced by an individual, exactly according to the verdict of consciousness, or rather diverging therefrom according to a law of errors. From moment to moment the hedonimeter varies; the delicate index now flickering with the flutter of the passions, now steadied by intellectual activity, now sunk whole hours in the neighbourhood of zero, or momentarily springing up towards infinity.
* This is the verb, to make definite, now rather rare.
However, we must grant the honour of invention to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote to his friend Thomas Allsop sometime in 1821: “A pleasure which, believe me, stands a good many degrees above moderate in the cordi [heart] or hedonometer”.
Hedonometer has several relatives, including hedonology, the study of pleasure and happiness (created in the late 1800s but recently given new life), and hedonomics, the study of the ways that consumers maximise their happiness in making economic choices. It was redefined in Ergonomics in Design in 2005 as the “branch of science and design devoted to the promotion of pleasurable human-technology interaction.” Everybody who has done battle with obstinate computers or obstreperous washing machines will want some of that.
Few dictionaries, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, give room to this word, so it is left mostly to non-lexicographers to define it, which they often do in terms such as “good writing on a trivial or base subject”. Near, but not quite right.
It’s a modern word to describe an ancient way to train young people in the art of rhetoric. They would be challenged to compose a speech praising an unpleasant idea such as poverty, ugliness, drunkenness or stupidity. So a better definition would be “rhetorical praise of things of doubtful value”. Anthony Munday published a book on the method in 1593, a translation of an Italian work, under the title The Defence of Contraries. It contained brief disquisitional examples on topics such as “ignorance is better than knowledge” and “it is better to be poor than rich”. Its preface claimed that it would be particularly useful to lawyers.
The root is Latin adoxus, paradoxical or absurd, but not from the classical language. It was first used by the Dutch scholar Erasmus around 1556, who took it from an identical ancient Greek word that meant inglorious. It was based on the root doxa, glory, which is also the basis of doxology, a formula of praise to God, and also of paradox.
The noun was first used in 1909 in The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire by Terrot Glover, though it was preceded by the adjective, adoxographical, which appeared in the American Journal of Philology in 1903. Dr Alex Leeper, the Warden of Trinity College, Melbourne, commented in Notes and Queries that year that it was an “ungainly word” and that it “will not, it is to be hoped, take root in the language.” His hope wasn’t fulfilled, though it remains rare.
Q From John Jefferies: An article in the Irish Times recently gave examples of words and phrases associated with the printing trade that have found their way into everyday English language usage. I’m unsure about the writer’s explanation of getting the wrong end of the stick as being linked to printing. Do you agree with it?
A There are actually two idioms here. If somebody today gets the wrong end of the stick, he or she has misunderstood the facts in a case or misunderstood some story. An older version — not so much heard now, I think, and often with have instead of get — means to have the worst of a bargain or an argument. A related idiom with the second meaning is get the short end of the stick.
The writer based his suggestion for the origin of getting the wrong end of the stick on the ancient sense of stick — an abbreviation of composing-stick — for the hand-held device a typesetter used for composing text from individual letters. This story has often been retold, with the explanation that if a compositor set type in the stick incorrectly he got the wrong end of the stick. It is certainly incorrect, not least because you had to be an extremely incompetent typesetter to hold the composing stick wrongly.
Other suggestions have been made. A common one is that it referred to a walking stick. The bottom end would often become coated with mud and other detritus so that to get hold of the stick by the wrong end would be a messy error. A ruder version, getting the shit end of the stick, makes the point more forcefully, as does “Which of us had hold of the crappy ... end of the stick?”, which appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide in the 1840s. Some writers have sought a classical justification by pointing to the Roman lavatory practice of cleaning their backsides with a stridulum, a sponge on a stick; picking up the wrong end of a stick already used by somebody else would undoubtedly be unpleasant.
The pioneering philologist Walter Skeat suggested in 1895 that the source was a master beating his servant:
The right end of the stick was that held in the master’s hand, whilst the other was the wrong end, or (as our American cousins would say) the “business end”. The servant would naturally “get hold of the wrong end of the stick,” but it would not much avail him, it would soon be wrested from him, and the result would be more stick.
This suggestion is supported by the oldest example of the idiom that I’ve unearthed so far, though as the writer clearly expects readers to know the idiom, it must have been well established by then:
This florid opinion, directly contrary to matter of fact, is the wrong end of the stick — the argumentum baculinum, which you unfortunately got hold of.
The Morning Post (London), 29 Jul. 1820. The Latin tag argumentum baculinum literally means “the argument of the cudgel”, in other words an appeal to force.
Further support comes from a widely recorded older version, to have the worst end of the staff:
God sent the spirit of division between them, so that the Sichemites began to despise him, and rebell against him, but they had the worst end of the staffe, and were overcome by him: who pursuing the victory, tooke their city by force, and put them all to the edge of the sword.
The Theatre of Gods Judgements, by Thomas Beard and Thomas Taylor, 1643.
Neither of these examples is conclusive, but it certainly suggests that somebody getting the wrong end of the stick is figuratively on the losing end of an argument that has turned physical. They may also explain short end of the stick — the idea may be that the wielder of the stick is holding the long end and the victim the short one.
The modern British idiom to give somebody (some) stick, to threaten a person or criticise them severely, contains the same idea of physical assault but may be an independent invention.
• My energy supplier sent me a booklet of advice this week from an official body called Consumer Focus. It included this tautological gem: “Annual statement — if you have been with your supplier for more than 12 months, it is required to send you an annual statement once a year.”
• Professor Stacy Clanton commented “I think the mission failed” about a report he submitted from Southern Arkansas University’s website: “The group started a Campus Action Day, which included students in the class using the Reynolds plaza and SAU mall area to inform the campus community about ONE’s mission of ending world poverty on April 15, 2013.”
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