E-MAGAZINE 715: SATURDAY 4 DECEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Widdiful Several British readers commented that at first glance they expected this to be a media description of the performance of the former Conservative MP Ann Widdicombe on the BBC TV series Strictly Come Dancing. She is very popular with viewers despite getting very low scores from the judges. Warren Edwardes redefined widdiful as “the wilful insistence on participating in something for which one is hopelessly unqualified and incompetent.” Ouch.
Tolfraedic As numerous numerate readers pointed out, last week I got my number systems confused. The ancient Babylonian one that has bequeathed us units in multiples of 60 (seconds, minutes, angles) is the sexagesimal system.
To have the literal collywobbles is to experience an upset stomach, a bellyache or the gripes. Its risible form may be the reason why it’s most often used for children’s minor ailments rather than for the indispositions of adults. In books and newspapers it’s almost always employed figuratively to refer to that fluttering in the stomach caused by nervousness or apprehension.
But it’s that terrible, tooth-furring nervousness of the BBC; the corporation gets the collywobbles whenever a programme is essentially serious.
The Spectator, 6 Nov. 2010.
The first known use in print is from 1823, in an edition of Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue that Pierce Egan revised and updated.
It may have been created from colic plus wobble, which implies that some humour was attached to it from its beginnings. This seems inappropriate for a term that was linked at the time to a genuinely serious intestinal upset. Another theory says it was the result of folk etymology, in which uneducated people converted the medical term for cholera, cholera morbus, into something that seemed to make more sense. As so often, nobody knows for sure.
There remains one small puzzle, however. I found this while looking for examples:
I entreat you by no means to think of undertaking a review when I publish any thing; if you print any criticisms upon it, I will colly-wobble your arguments into nothing.
In a letter by Barré Charles Roberts to his mother from Christ Church, Oxford, dated 1 May 1807, reprinted in Letters and Miscellaneous Papers by Barré Charles Roberts, 1814. Roberts died in 1810, only two years after graduating, but had already become a sufficiently notable antiquary and numismatist that after his death his coin collection was bought by the British Museum for a substantial sum.
What did he mean, if other than a teasing nonsensicality? All we can say for certain about Mr Roberts’s usage is that it confirms the term was known earlier than Pierce Egan’s recording of it in 1823, which is hardly surprising.
OED online To celebrate this week’s relaunch of the online Oxford English Dictionary, whose features now include a list of the 1,000 sources with the largest number of quotations cited, two British newspapers boasted of their contributions. The Times noted that it tops the list of sources, beating Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, John Milton and other literary luminaries. The Daily Telegraph (at number 11 in the list) noted that for 251 words it is the source of the first printed usage, from ageist (1970) through incisiveness (1865) and underdog (1887) to zedonk (1971). But they haven’t all endured: very few of us now need balloonacy (the 1860s ballooning craze) or votress (a humorous term of 1894 for a female voter). In its print edition, the Daily Telegraph invented the word lexiconated, perhaps with an eye to its 252nd appearance. It would seem to mean “adding a word to the lexicon”. It has generated a lot of comment, though it’s surely destined to vanish unmourned within a few days.
Just for the hell of it, and knowing that many OED entries haven’t been updated recently, a number of us word sleuths have looked into the 251 words using today’s electronic resources: I’ve found that balloonacy is recorded in Punch in 1852, incisiveness in the London Daily News in 1850 and zedonk in the Lima News of Ohio in 1961. Underdog appears in a much reproduced poem in US newspapers in 1859. Make that 247 and rapidly reducing.
While we're all boasting, let me point out that I was similarly the first user in a published source of a word in the OED. It’s plore (defined as “An exhibit in a science museum which the visitor is encouraged to handle or otherwise explore; a hands-on exhibit”). It’s short for explore. It and exploratory for a science centre were invented by the late Professor Richard Gregory while developing one in Bristol in the early 1980s.
Words of the year, German style This week a jury of journalists and young people organised by the Langenscheidt publishing house chose Germany’s Youth Word of the Year: Niveaulimbo. This is a newish slang term, roughly meaning “limbo level”, for the ever-decreasing quality of TV programs or the decline in the value of conversation at parties. The second prize went to Arschfax, for a visible label on underwear. Internet voters preferred Speckbarbie, a deeply pejorative term that may be translated as “bacon Barbie”, a young woman dressed to the nines in clothing that’s much too tight. The young people on the jury got it down to fourth place because they thought it was too rude.
In Switzerland this week, a six-member jury made up of media and entertainment personalities selected Ausschaffung (expulsion) as its word of the year, a few days after the Swiss voted to expel foreigners who had committed crimes in the country. The unword of the year is FIFA-Ethikkommission, the ethics commission of FIFA, the world governing body of football, a choice that will resonate with British soccer fans still saddened by the England’s failure this week to be selected to host the 2018 World Cup, amid charges of corruption among members of FIFA’s governing body.
4. Questions and Answers: The whole shebang
Q From Edward Shaw; a related question came from Peter Fowles: I found myself using the phrase the whole shebang the other night within earshot of my eight-year-old grandson, and when he queried me as to its meaning, I was stumped for a definition, as I could not reconstruct the word’s origin from its spelling, in whole or in pieces. The dictionaries I consulted were of no help, nor did I find any treatment of it on World Wide Words. Any insights?
A It’s possible to say a surprising amount about this American expression, though nobody has yet unequivocally traced it to its source.
It starts to appear in printed sources in the early 1860s, as a term on the frontier and among the military for what Samuel Bowles described in his book of 1865, Across the Continent, as “any kind of an establishment, store, house, shop [or] shanty”. One type of establishment was an inn or saloon, a use of shebang that was previously known only from later in the century but which I have now found from the 1860s. This is the earliest so far:
Along all the roads on the reservation to all the mines, at the crossing of every stream or fresh-water spring, and near the principal Indian villages, an inn or “shebang” is established, ostensibly for the entertainment of travellers, but almost universally used as a den for supplying liquor to Indians.
Annual Report of the US Department of the Interior, 1862.
It was also a term of frontiersmen for a shanty or rough cabin and by soldiers (this is the Civil War period, remember) for a bivouac or other temporary accommodation. The poet Walt Whitman wrote in his diary in December 1862 about the terrible conditions of the soldiers following the first battle of Fredericksbug, often living in “shebang enclosures of bushes”.
Lexicographers share your puzzlement about where it comes from. It appears quite suddenly with no obvious antecedents. It’s tempting to suggest a link with shanty but it is hard to see how the shift in pronunciation could occur. One early report in an army context writes of shebangs, as the soldiers called them, “especially those of the Teutonic persuasion”. This is, I suspect, a red herring.
As some very early examples refer to drinking establishments, it is tempting to look to the Irish shebeen, an unlicensed and often disreputable drinking place (in origin the Anglo-Irish síbín, from séibe, a mugful) as its origin. A shift from shebeen to shebang has been seriously suggested by the experts and seems to be a very plausible origin.
Other senses come along later. By 1867, the word had moved from its military and outdoorsman setting to become part of the vocabulary of ordinary people, meaning a dwelling house, albeit one of poor quality. In 1872, Mark Twain was the first of several writers to use it for a hired vehicle. This might be from a quite different source, the French char-à-bancs, a carriage with benches (which became the British English charabanc). It may well have been influenced by shebang already existing in other senses.
Whatever the source, shebang took on yet a third sense early on to mean something like “the business” or “the current concern”, so leading to the whole shebang, the entire setup, or whole affair or matter, which is recorded from 1870:
But it floated bravely — bravely enough, as Evan, coming back for Luti, assured her, “to take the whole shebang at once, only Morgan refused to let the trial be made.”
Sea Drift, by Marian Reeves, 1870.
The most likely source is again military. Officers are recorded during the Civil War as “running the shebang” (for example in a diary of 1864 reproduced in Susanne Wilson’s compilation Column South of 1960), in which shebang seems to refer to the whole of an encampment or other military establishment, a straightforward extension of the idea of a single bivouac.
• Michael Grosvenor Myer was exercised by a statement in the obituary in The Times of the Norfolk turkey producer Bernard Matthews that, after a while in insurance, he “quit Commercial Union and became a turkey farmer, producing his own eggs with the help of a turkey cock”.
• Irritable weather in Melbourne. Susan Bradley heard the weather bureau senior forecaster Scott Williams say last Sunday that a deep low-pressure trough pulling moisture from the tropics would ease to showers on Monday but would soon return. “We’re not out of the woods in terms of potential to exasperate this flooding,” he said.
• “There’s justice for you,” wrote Stella McDowall about this report from the New York Times on Wednesday: “Interpol has placed Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing organization, on a so-called red notice wanted list following allegations of sexual misbehavior by a Swedish prosecutor.”
• A note appeared in the Corrections and Clarifications column of the Guardian on 4 December: “‘How does that work exactly?’ asked a reader, on being informed [in a Diary item on 25 November] that ‘an unauthorised autobiography of London’s mayor’ was in the works. This was an editing error.”
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