Busman’s holiday Alfred Wild wrote: “The variant more familiar to me in American English is postman’s holiday, as in, ‘What does a postman do on his day off? Takes a long walk.’ And since we call them mailmen, not postmen, I’d guess that this phrase too is of British origin.”
It might not be. Postman was at one time common in the USA (as in, for example, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M Cain.) The earliest American example I can find is this:
Last night on the subway I was more than a little interested to notice a man in a guard’s uniform, very common in appearance and not at all unusual in manner, off-duty (presumably taking a postman’s holiday by riding on the cars!), reading from a book of Horace’s Odes in the original.
Sioux City Journal, 21 Mar. 1928. Busman’s holiday would have fitted better; we may guess the writer didn’t know it.
There was also a famous British music-hall ditty, The Postman’s Holiday, performed by Gus Elen from about 1902, in which he tells how his family traipsed all over London during an eventful day off, leaving him with blisters on his heel. This is obviously wordplay on busman’s holiday and might have been the source of the version Mr Wild mentions.
Paul Hatt was among many who pointed out that Dorothy L Sayers also played with the idiom: “Her last Lord Peter Wimsey novel was called Busman’s Honeymoon. Our hero and his bride Harriet Vane have to deal with a murder on their honeymoon. My English tutor, Professor W W Robson, memorably called this book the worst readable novel in the English language. But then he died before Dan Brown produced The Da Vinci Code.”
Richard Bos commented, “It’s always struck me as remarkable that Dorothy Sayers wrote a second book with a title derived from this idiom: Hangman’s Holiday. I can’t help but wonder whether the phrase had a special meaning for her. (I’m also now imagining what a hangman’s honeymoon would be like.)”
This word has nothing to do with a famous American songwriter nor with a carrier of coals, though it was once an occupation of sorts. Jonathan McColl told me about it. He had come across it on a death certificate dated 1885 as the occupation of a man of Dingwall in Scotland.
A colporteur was a pedlar who went from place to place selling printed materials such as books and newspapers. More specifically, he was employed by a religious society to distribute bibles and other religious tracts. Such men were the literal foot-soldiers of Christian missionary work. Even earlier were those encouraged by Martin Luther to distribute the religious writings of Protestant reformers. Such work could often be dangerous, as is shown by this decree from the Ottoman governor of Wallachia, in what is now Romania:
We order you to tear those writings that are against our Holy Religion. Whoever will seize and deliver up the publishers of those writings, shall receive 300 crowns. ... The Colporteur, on the contrary, shall be impaled alive upon the very place where he was seized.
Morning Post (London), 26 Apr. 1788.
In origin the word is French, from the verb colporter and is still current in both languages. It used to be thought that it came from col, neck, plus porter, to carry, implying somebody who conveyed his texts in a satchel across his chest. It’s now thought it’s an alteration of comporter, from the Latin comportare, to carry something with one.
It began to appear in English at the end of the eighteenth century and became widely used throughout the English-speaking world during the nineteenth, being taken by such organisations as the British and Foreign Bible Society wherever it operated. It fell out of favour at the end of the century and is now rather rare.
Ghostly movies Last week, I mentioned a linguistic false friend when learning French. Michael Hocken told me about another. It led to an error in a BBC story of 10 May about a cache of letters sent to it from occupied France during the Second World War that had turned up in its archives. One letter was quoted: “In the next seance, the audience was told that during the newsreel there must be silence.” The mistake in translation is easy to make, since the French for a showing of a film is séance. The general meaning is of a formal session of a body, for which a good English word would be sitting. This makes sense, as it comes from the Latin verb sedere, to sit. English borrowed seance in the French sense of a formal meeting around the time of the French Revolution. When the spiritualist movement started in Britain in the 1840s, the word was borrowed for a meeting at which people attempted to make contact with the dead and in time this became its usual meaning. So what do the French call a seance in that sense? They have to qualify the word to make themselves clear: Une séance de spiritisme.
Q From Tommy Richey: Could you please elucidate the historical and present usage of hail fellow well met? Most contemporary dictionaries classify the phrase as adjectival (punctuated hail-fellow-well-met). This seems odd, given its original use (I think) as a salutation or genial exclamation. Why the shift? And when did people turn this phrase into a mock-archaic saying? Do we blame the Society for Creative Anachronism and World of Warcraft?
A It certainly sounds like a mildly humorous modern mock-archaic creation. But it’s ancient and is still to be found, especially in the UK:
The grieving widow flinched as he approached and the — ridiculously young — vicar twitched as if he was considering confronting him. Barry grunted, “Don’t even think about it, lad.” He reached the lectern and Ray, all conciliatory, hail fellow, well met, said, “Come on, Barry, be sensible. Take a pew and show some respect.”
Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson, 2010.
It means a person, usually male, who is heartily friendly and congenial, or more often is trying hard to appear so and overdoes it. There’s often an undercurrent of falseness of the sort that’s associated with the more pushy type of sales person.
It was created by putting together two ancient expressions, hail, fellow! and well met.
The greeting hail is from the same source as hale, healthy, which came into English from the Old Norse heill, sound or whole. It commonly appeared in greetings and toasts, such as wæs hæil, good health, from which we get wassail. In medieval England, you might have greeted a friend with hail be thou, wishing him good health. This was abbreviated over time into an exclamation and then became our usual term for a shout to attract attention. A fellow in medieval English was a comrade, companion or associate (which we still have in phrases such as fellow worker and fellow citizen) and hail, fellow! was a way to greet one. However, by about 1580 the greeting had acquired a negative aspect, describing an over-familiar person, often of the lower orders. A writer of the seventeenth century warned “Let not your Servants be over-familiar or hail fellow with you.”
Well met was a greeting — roughly “it’s good that we’ve met” — that you might give a friend when you encountered him unexpectedly or when inviting him to join a convivial gathering. A fellow well-met by extension meant a boon companion, a close friend with whom one enjoys spending time.
They were combined a lot longer ago than you might expect. The Oxford English Dictionary has its first example from as early as 1581. In 1589, the writer Thomas Nashe described it as a “collation of contraries”, since well met was positive and welcoming, while hail fellow could be two-faced and false.
Hail fellow, well met stayed in the language throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but only became widely popular after about 1800, peaking in the middle of the century.
This was the case with Mr Phillott, who prided himself upon his slang, and who was at one time “hail fellow, well met” with the seamen, talking to them, and being answered as familiarly as if they were equals, and at another, knocking the very same men down with a handspike if he were displeased.
Peter Simple, by Frederick Marryat, 1844.
Its popularity has fallen away a good deal since but, as I said, it's still in use:
Nick Ferrari, the presenter of the LBC breakfast show, makes for a somewhat alarming prospect first thing in the morning, his hail-fellow-well-met manners and his pugilistic confidence coming at you like a triple espresso with too much sugar in it.
Observer, 20 Apr. 2014.
• Zefanja Potgieter heard an announcement on Concert FM in New Zealand for a forthcoming programme about the life of a (deceased) composer: “The programme will include an interview with the composer when he was alive”.
• In a widely reproduced AP report about Huy Fong Foods: “Residents have signed sworn complaints that the odours from the plant’s chili-grinding operation make them sneeze and cough, their eyes burn and in some instances, caused them to see doctors.” David Armstrong sent this in and commented, “Of all things to hallucinate about, doctors are low on my list.”
• On 9 May, Jonathan McColl found the BBC’s news feed had accidentally conflated two stories: “The papers report concerns over plans to allow tax officials to access people’s bank accounts to claim unpaid bills and to revive the England football team.”
• Sylvia Hacker spotted a National Wildlife Federation tweet: “Watch 200 Whales Swim Around Hawaii Without Getting On A Boat”
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