NEWSLETTER 547: SATURDAY 4 AUGUST 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Cosplay I added a comment about this last time as an aside without taking the time to look into it in any detail. Lots of subscribers filled me in, most pointing out that it’s mainly Japanese and is closely linked with Anime, Japanese television and film animation. Kevin McLoughlin commented that “Young people in Japan take cosplay very seriously. Last year I saw mostly teenage cosplay aficionados in full plumage at their spiritual home, Jingu-bashi in Tokyo. The ‘cos’ part displayed an astonishing mishmash of elaborate costumes of dubious authenticity with Marie-Antoinette vying with Goth diva as the most popular themes. The ‘play’ part consisted of dressing up, posing and preening. It had nothing to do with music. I suspect the more recent adoption of ‘cosplay’ to describe wizard rockers adds a somewhat disparaging tone that the critic would not have applied to serious rockers in costume.”
Gordon Bennett Comments continue to arrive concerning this British expletive. Lin Gilbert passed on a story about the Gordon Bennett Cup motor race in the early years of the twentieth century: “The 1903 race was held in Ireland, and caused a huge rise in prices for accommodation and food in the surrounding area, giving rise to the expletive. I’m sure I’ve seen this story in several motor racing magazines, but can’t give a reference.”.
Bowser Several correspondents mentioned that this is an old word for a dog, especially in the USA, though it’s hard to see how it came about, other than as a play on bow-wow. Vino Kanapathipillai told me my assumption that the water-carrying sense of the word was peculiarly British isn’t correct: “In South Asian countries also — at least India and Sri Lanka that I know of — the bowser delivers water to villages and village pumps.”
2. Weird Words: Humicubation
Lying on the ground, especially in penitence or humiliation
Once again we are in the realm of obscure words whose tenuous hold on existence is maintained by people who create lists of obscure words for our enjoyment and edification. Many writers and online dictionaries define it simply as “lying on the ground”, but on the few occasions on which it has been used in real life it has always had associations with religion.
That’s the result of its first, and perhaps its most significant, appearance. That was in one of a series of tracts written in the 1650s by John Bramhall, then Bishop of Derry in Ireland, opposing the views of the English materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Bramhall wrote: “He is afraid, that ‘this doctrine’ of fasting, and mourning, and tears, and humicubation, and sackcloth, and ashes, ‘pertaineth to the establishment of Romish penance.’”
But in its etymology humicubation has no reference to penitence. It comes from the Latin words humi, on the ground, plus cubare, to lie down. The first bit is closely related to Latin humus, which we have taken over as the name for the organic component of soil. The second element is the source of cubicle (originally a bedchamber, a place in which one lies down), and concubine (a person with whom one euphemistically lies down).
3. Recently noted
Glurge This expressive term turned up in a glossary of television jargon in the Observer newspaper last month. It was defined as a “mawkishly sentimental story with facts fabricated to tug on the heart strings.” It’s quite well known, with examples dating as far back as 2000 and possibly even earlier. It would seem to have been created as an expressive noise, indicative of revulsion. Others in the list are Irritainment (an annoying but compulsively watchable show), which dates from the middle 1990s; Zitcom (comedy aimed at teenagers), of which the earliest example I can find refers to the film American Pie, which was described in the St Paul Pioneer Press in 1999 as “a gross-out zitcom ... a hornucopia of teen encounters with sex, booze and effluvia”; and Hathos (feelings of pleasure derived from hating something or somebody), a blend of hatred and pathos that first appeared in The New Republic in 1986. Two more are based on broadcasting: Lifecasting is the broadcasting of a person’s life 24/7 (a sense unconnected to that of the artistic process of taking a mould directly from the human form and using it to create a sculpture); and Slivercasting, which is programming aimed at an extremely small audience, which can be found in an article in the New York Times as far back as 1984, though it seems to have suddenly become more popular only last year.
Hump day Be thankful that it’s over for this week. Hump day? It’s Wednesday, the middle of the working week, the day on which you begin to feel it’s all downhill to the weekend. It’s one of the more slangy entries in the new edition of the Collins Australian Dictionary, which was published this week. Other newly added words that have attracted some attention in press reports include me-media, a sarcastic alternative to the formal user-generated content, which refers to sites like MySpace, Facebook or Flickr; rewilding, a policy of returning the environment to a natural or untamed state; lactivist, a woman who believes strongly in the value of breast over bottle for babies; and ecotecture, referring to environmentally friendly architecture.
Pond swooping Though it’s well known among aficionados of extreme sports (it dates back a decade or so), this colloquial term refers to an activity sufficiently specialist that it only occasionally surfaces in print — a rare appearance was in the Observer last weekend. It’s also called extreme skydiving. Pond swoopers start out with a normal skydive over water, but come down faster than usual so they can zoom along horizontally just above the surface, dragging both feet in the water for as long as they can without landing. Losing control and splashing into the water is called chowing. Where no suitable body of water exists, swoopers may use cornfields instead, dragging their feet through the crop. Injuries are common.
4. Questions & Answers: Jericho
[Q] From Adrian Cook: “I have come across a reference to Jericho in the Diary of a Country Parson (1758 – 1802) by James Woodforde. He remarks on the building of a fence in the garden of his parsonage in Norfolk, “so that those working in the kitchen can not see who goes to Jericho.” He makes no further reference, presumably knowing that all who read it would understand it. It made no sense to me until I started to think of the word applied to chamber pots when I was a wee lad (no pun intended), the jerry. He must be referring to the outside privy. Any thoughts?”
[A] You’re almost certainly right in your supposition.
It’s a very clergymanly joke, since it’s a reference to scripture, specifically to an event told in the second book of Samuel. Jericho is the place in Palestine where — as you may have heard — the walls once came tumbling down, the story of which is told in another Old Testament book, Joshua. The book of Samuel relates that King David sent ambassadors to King Hamun of Ammon, who treated them with insolence and humiliated them. The King James Bible of 1611 says:
Wherefore Hanun took David’s servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away. When they told it unto David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed: and the king said, Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown, and then return.
From about 1650 onwards Jericho could mean a place of retirement or concealment, or a place far distant and out of the way.
There is a persistent tale about Henry VIII that seeks to explain this meaning. He is said to have had a country retreat, Jericho Priory, at Blackmore in Essex. The 1894 edition of Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says it “was one of the houses of pleasure of Henry VIII. When this lascivious prince had a mind to be lost in the embraces of his courtesans, the cant phrase among his courtiers was ‘He is gone to Jericho’. Hence, a place of concealment.” Henry’s bastard son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, was certainly born there in 1519 to his young mistress, Elizabeth Blount, but that had been specially arranged as a quiet place of retreat by Cardinal Wolsey. The priory wasn’t dissolved until 1525 and even in those slack days you can hardly imagine that the monks allowed unrestrained hanky-panky on the premises. It’s clear that the tale is built purely on the coincidence of names.
The expression go to Jericho could be used as an impolite request to go away, pretty much the same as “go to hell”. William Makepeace Thackeray used it that way in The Virginians in 1858: “‘Some one below wants to see master with a little bill,’ says Mr. Gumbo. ‘Tell him to go to Jericho!’ roars out Mr. Warrington. ‘Let me see nobody! I am not at home, sir, at this hour of the morning!’” It also appears in an Irish novel of 1899, Light O’ The Morning by L T Meade: “‘Molly! Molly!’ here called out Linda’s voice; ‘mother says it’s time for you and Nora to come in to wash your hands for tea.’ ‘Oh, go to Jericho!’ called out Molly.” It still occasionally turns up today.
But as you surmise, James Woodforde was using it more directly for “a place of retirement or concealment”. He must indeed have meant the privy. It was usual, before modern sanitation, to put it at the bottom of the garden, as far away from the house as possible. The parson would seem to have been ensuring the modesty of the members of his household by building a fence so that they could visit the privy without being observed.
What immediately came to my mind, as it did to yours, was the pot which in Britain is slangily called a jerry. Might this indeed be from Jericho? It would be good to think so. The dates are right, since jerry starts to appear in the middle of the nineteenth century, after Parson Woodforde wrote his diary entry.
However, the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include the privy sense of Jericho and I can find no other examples, so it may have been a little private joke of Mr Woodforde’s. All the authorities argue — though they do so tentatively — that jerry is in reality from jeroboam, a double magnum, a bottle of wine four times the size of a standard bottle, whose name — to continue the Biblical associations — is named after a king of Israel mentioned in the first book of Kings. This origin feels a bit too clever and highfalutin, as jeroboam has never been a household word, though you may guess that the colour of the jerry’s contents helped the association.
Spurred by your question, I decided on a practical test, perhaps in the process inventing the sub-discipline of experimental etymology. We have here an old china jerry or po (another British term, of the late nineteenth century, borrowed from French pot de chambre). This was handed down years ago from my wife’s grandmother and now forms the base of an informal umbrella stand. A quick test shows that its capacity is exactly four bottles of wine. This may be coincidental, but it’s intriguing.
However, I suspect we may never be able to prove the matter one way or the other unless somebody can find further written examples of Jericho in the sense of a privy.
• Dodi Schultz reported last Sunday, “Today’s New York Times tells the tale of a good-hearted soul who has taken to saving homeless kittens and persuading people to adopt them. The Times describes her as ‘a vivacious woman with a dirty-blond ponytail named Tammy Cross.’ Not a bad choice. I can’t imagine a ponytail named, say, Agatha.”
• “The July issue of History Today,” says Reg Brehaut, “tells us that the first cartoon character ‘was the creation of a distinguished British artist who celebrates the 250th anniversary of his birth this year’. Forget about cartoon characters — tell us more about this immortal!”