London to a brick Alan Eason commented: “You make the same mistake as many Australian writers have in the 40-odd years since Howard’s day. Those unfamiliar with betting parlance have used, and still do use, the expression in the sense of something almost certain to happen, but the expression is correctly — as Howard used to say — London to a brick on, meaning long odds-on. London to a brick logically means the opposite, that is, very long odds against, or extremely unlikely.” [The error is the same as that in the idiom I quoted, it’s a pound to a penny ..., which is used for a sure thing though literally it means long odds against.]
Having had some time spare this week, I researched and wrote up a more detailed account of the history of the idiom. In doing so, I discovered that it was known decades before the days of Ken Howard and found an isolated example from 1820s London that might suggest its origin lay in a traditional Cockney expression. The extended piece is online here.
Blended animals Numerous readers supplied other examples of cross-bred animals with mixed-up names to match their breeding but I feel this topic has delighted us enough. As a footnote, and perhaps also a comment on the whole naming matter, I quote a joke supplied by Vijay Kumar. A visitor to a zoo is being taken around enclosures containing cross-bred species, with one of the staff commenting on the creatures. “This is a cross between a hen and a sparrow and we call it a Harrow”, he says. “The next is a cross between a magpie and a wren and we call it a Magren. And over there is a cross between a pheasant and a duck and we call him Joe.”
Bug letter Hugh Tulloch added further confirmation of the use of the term among Americans: “When I was stationed in the Pentagon in the 1960s, we also talked about the bedbug letter. Service members would often write letters to their Congressman complaining about some trivial aspect of service life. The Congressman’s staff would send the letter to the Pentagon for response, and we would prepare and send a bedbug letter to the Congressman, who could then respond to his constituent. There was a demeaning sense to it, as in, ‘Oh God, why do I have to waste my time responding to this ridiculous complaint?’”
Odd number Congratulations to Alan Jackson, who knew why I included 1729 in the list of odd numbers in last week’s piece. It’s known as the Hardy-Ramanujan Number. The British mathematician G H Hardy was visiting the Indian maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was ill. He mentioned that he had come in a taxi cab with that number, which he felt was a rather dull one. Ramanujan demurred, “No, it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.” (13 + 123 and 93 + 103.) Some obsess about words, some about numbers. A very few do both.
A nipcheese is a penny-pincher or skinflint, all three suggesting a sordidly covetous or penurious person who cuts the cost or quantity of everything to the minimum, often to his own benefit.
Nip here is in the sense you might use when speaking of nipping off the heads of dead flowers or of nipping some enterprise in the bud, stopping it before it gets fully underway. Cheese features in the word because it’s a staple food whose portions can easily be reduced by trimming them, an idea that we also have in cheeseparing.
Nipcheese began life as a seafaring term, a nickname for a ship’s purser, the officer responsible for provisioning and keeping the accounts. Pursers were a notoriously hard-hearted and tight-fisted breed of men as Francis Grose explained in an entry for nipcheese in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1788: “A nick name for the parser of a ship: from those gentlemen being supposed sometimes to nip, or diminish, the allowance of the seamen, in that and every other article.” They were often suspected of keeping the savings for themselves:
There’s Nipcheese, the purser, by grinding and squeezing,
A Collection of Songs, Selected From the Works of Mr Dibdin, 1796. Charles Dibdin was a famous actor, composer, and writer of the period, whose songs included Tom Bowling.
As you can see from this example, a couple of centuries ago it was a useful name to give a character of miserly mien. The word appears in recent times only in historical novels:
There’s never been anything nip-cheese about my parties, and nor there ever will be!
The Nonesuch, by Georgette Heyer, 1962.
Hair today, gone tomorrow British newspapers this past week have featured references to peak beard. They were prompted by a study in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters by researchers based at the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre of the University of New South Wales, Australia. They conclude that so many men now sport beards that their attractiveness is falling. The study showed that the more bearded men a person saw in succession, the more striking a clean-shaven face became. They noted that this occurs in several animal species and is known as negative frequency-dependent sexual selection. The term peak beard seems to have been coined by the leader of the study, Professor Rob Brooks of UNSW. He took it from peak coal, peak oil and similar expressions denoting the point at which the production of something reaches its maximum level and then declines.
Q From Bob Leavitt: In the 1940s my high-school chemistry teacher dad noted a change in the wording for a substance that would easily burn: inflammable became flammable. Why did this happen? Is the use unchanged in the UK? Or is it still changing? Or maybe we Americans are incorrect? Or maybe it makes no difference?
A The problem with inflammable is the in- at the front. English has many words in which it means “without” or “not”. A majority have been imported from Latin with the prefix already attached, such as infertile and inarticulate. Others, such as inexpensive and invariable, have had it added in English. We don’t turn words into their negatives using in- any more; we prefer un- or non-, or sometimes a-, but the aura of negativity surrounding in- is still very strong in our minds.
Unfortunately, Latin had another in- prefix, whose root sense was the same as English in but which could sometimes strengthen the meaning of the word it was attached to, as in indoctrinate and incantation and also in inflammable. This is much less common or obvious, so much so that inflammable can all too easily be taken to mean “not capable of burning”, when it really means “very easily set on fire”.
It’s impossible to establish how often confusion over inflammable led to accidents but evidence exists in US newspapers more than a century ago of the mistaken meaning of inflammable:
These bricks are said to be light, impervious to wet and utterly inflammable.
Davenport Daily Leader, 29 Jan. 1892.
[The dresses] will be rendered almost inflammable, or at least will with difficulty take fire, and if they do, will burn without flame.
Nashua Reporter, 30 Jul. 1903.
This confusion has survived to the present day. A US study of 2010 demonstrated this among American adults: “Inflammable has the same meaning as Flammable but was rated as if it was of very low flammability, consistent with previous research.”
From the beginning of the twentieth century the potential confusion started to worry American safety experts and insurance companies. Under their urging, flammable had begun to appear in safety advice and local bylaws in the first decade of the century but it was then a technical term unknown to the wider public. In 1920, they ran a campaign to try to change the language. This notice appeared widely in technical journals:
The National Safety Council, The National Fire Protection Association, and similar organizations have set out to discourage the use of the word “inflammable” and to encourage the use of the word “flammable” instead. The reason for this change is that the meaning of “inflammable” has so often been misinterpreted.
It was convenient that these bodies had a word with which to replace the potentially disastrous one. Flammable had been created early in the nineteenth century and flammability two centuries earlier still; though they had never caught on, they were available to be resurrected. Advocates also preferred non-flammable to non-inflammable. Perhaps strangely, the first appearance of non-flammable in the US preceded flammable by about a decade. It did so earlier still in the UK, where it was a term of art in naval gunnery as early as 1888.
Despite this early effort, progress was slow. Flammable really only started to take hold in the US from the 1950s. For example, the official shift from inflammable to flammable on fuel trucks took place as recently as 1964. Purists hated the change, ranting at the time that the fine literary word inflammable was being replaced by a corrupt form, an unnecessary dumbing down of language in order to accommodate the ignorance of the great unwashed. Objections died out eventually and Americans are now much more likely to use flammable than inflammable both in speech and writing, substantially more so than Australians, Canadians or Britons.
In Australia, flammable began to appear only in the 1960s. The first modern example of flammable that I can find in British usage is dated 1952 and it wasn’t until 1959 that the British Standards Institution issued the advice: “In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution’s policy to encourage the use of the terms ‘flammable’ and ‘non-flammable’ rather than ‘inflammable’ and ‘non-inflammable’.”
The use of flammable and non-flammable in technical contexts is now universal.
• Thanks to Lee Ann Roberts for sharing this sentence from a Daily Mail website report of 19 April (Mr Murt is a horse): “Back in the saddle: Zara Philips [sic] is riding in public again for the first time since she gave birth to her baby on Mr Murt.”
• The online Mail’s penchant for long headlines and its sloppy sub-editing can lead to strange results, as Roy Lomas and Lauren Onraët spotted with a story of 20 April: “Michael Jackson’s bodyguards reveal how the King of Pop romanced a mystery ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Eastern European girl and used to visit her hotel while his kids slept in a tell-all book about his last days.”
• The website of the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, B J Smith tells us, introduced a news item on 15 April with these words: “A week after collapsing in a parking lot and dying, doctors have determined the cause of death for World Wrestling Entertainment icon Ultimate Warrior.”
• Such misplaced modifiers are usually accidental. But on 16 April, The Times had this item: “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilized, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nonetheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel.”
• David Macreavy’s wife spotted this in an article about decorating in the 9 April issue of the Lamorinda Weekly of Lafayette, near San Francisco: “I probably don’t need to remind you, but the paper you choose will only look as good as the wallpaper installer who hangs it.”
World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion 2014. All rights reserved. You may reproduce this newsletter in whole or part in free newsletters, newsgroups or mailing lists online provided that you include the copyright notice above. You need the prior permission of the author to reproduce any part of it on Web sites or in printed publications. You don’t need permission to link to it.
Comments on anything in this newsletter are more than welcome. To send them in, please visit the feedback page on our Web site.
If you have enjoyed this newsletter and would like to help defray its costs and those of the linked Web site, please visit our support page.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added or updated
Lame duck; But and ben; Logomaniac; Type louse; Corium; Lie Doggo; Fewmet; Dingbat; Kibosh; Caucus; Oryzivorous; Kick the bucket; Satisficer; Beside oneself; Words of the Year 2015; Peradventure; Sconce; Orchidelirium; How’s your father; Goon; Emoji; Thank your mother for the rabbits; Nonplussed; Bob’s-a-dying; Methinks; Bill of goods.