E-MAGAZINE 711: SATURDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Rude words The nanny filters on a large number of e-mail systems drew back their electronic skirts in horror at several perfectly good English words that appeared in the last issue. If you were prevented from reading that issue, you will find it online.
Crinkum-crankum Numerous readers reminded me of the former garden feature, a crinkle-crankle wall. This was a sinuous wall that was decorative, gave good shelter for growing plants and was cheap to construct, because the bends gave it sufficient support that it need only be one brick wide. The Oxford Companion to the Garden says it dated from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in East Anglia in particular, as it was brought from the Netherlands (where it was called a slange muur, or snaking wall) by Dutch engineers who came over to drain the fens. Another of similar form to crinkum-crankum is cringle-crangle. Crankle and crangle are frequentive forms that derive, like crankum, from crank.
As an aside, Rod Webb mentioned a former pub in Sevenoaks in Kent (now a private house), with the strange name Rorty Crankle. There are one or two others, I am told, around the country. Rorty is nineteenth-century London slang, meaning boisterous, high-spirited or risqué (from which Australians have derived rort, meaning both a fraudulent or dishonest practice and a wild party). But quite where crankle fits in I’m unsure.
Grockle Paul Fletcher wrote from York about my updated piece on this word: “It is commonly used by birders [birdwatchers] to mean someone who turns up to watch birds with all the kit but none of the knowledge and a telling lack of fieldcraft. I have been aware of it for a good twenty years. It is, needless to say, pejorative. When I first came across it, grockles tended to have expensive bins [binoculars], green wellies and a Volvo; they would talk loudly, probably flush the bird, and quite often depart having ticked the wrong bird.” To tick a bird in birding slang is to add it to one’s personal list of sightings; he also introduced me to tart’s tick, a relatively common species that is added to one’s list later than might be expected.
Jodie Robson pointed me to a book of 1966, Osborne’s Army by John Anthony West, which includes not only the word but many variations, such as grockledom, grockle coops (presumably hotels) and grockle-bait (tacky souvenirs). She asks how it could be that a word still tightly linked to Devon should appear in a work by an American, a former Manhattan copywriter turned astrologer, who in age was a member of the beat generation. He might, of course, have seen the film, The System, which came out in the US in 1962 and which included the word. But the clue is in the book, in which West says it had been “written over six years on Ibiza”. The island was even then popular with English tourists and he probably picked it up there. He may have invented the compounds (grockle-bait is first recorded in the OED in 1986). His book came out in the UK in the Penguin New Writers series and may in turn have contributed to disseminating the word beyond Devon.
Colin Burt says that in the state of Queensland in Australia, the tourists are called Mexicans, because they come from South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. To get the allusion, you need to be old enough to remember the Gene Autry song from a film of 1939; a reference book of Australian slang says the same term is used by those living in New South Wales of tourists coming north from Victoria).
My new(ish) book I was in such a scramble to get last week’s issue out that I completely forgot to mention that the paperback of my most recent book, Why is Q Always Followed by U? was published on 28 October in the UK and will be out in the USA and Canada later in November. ISBN 978-0-141-03924-4. It sells at £BP9.99 but you can get it cheaper from Amazon (follow the link in the final section of this issue to learn how to help World Wide Words by doing so).
Punditry I wrote last time that “my pun ration for the month has already been exceeded”. As we are now in a fresh month, I am able to quote a comment from Randall Bart, “Exceeding your pun ration is bad. Exceeding your sausage ration is wurst.”
Readers of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy may recognise this as the name of one of the villages of the Bree Land. It suggests the strength and stoutheartedness of a people who for him meant all that was solid and dependable about traditional England. Like most of Tolkien’s words, it’s no accident. He was borrowing an Old English word that meant variously a foundation or support.
We’ve almost entirely lost it today, though it survived for some centuries in English dialect, most commonly in the south of the country. One sense was of a stump of a tree that was left in the ground after felling so that a clump of thin stems could grow from it, a technique called coppicing. It could also refer to a tree left in place when all around had been felled, so that it would grow to full size, called a standard, unencumbered by neighbours. The link between these senses is that one form of woodland management was called coppice with standards, which combined the two methods. Staddle seems to have been used indiscriminately for both components.
The sense you’re most likely to encounter, however, especially if you visit a museum of historic buildings, is of a stone carved in the shape of a mushroom, with a conical stem and a wide rounded top. This isn’t a staddle, strictly speaking, but a staddle stone. It was one of the supports that kept the actual staddle, the wood or stone base of a hay rick or granary, clear of the ground. The staddle stones were that shape to keep the rats out.
On the east side, in front of the house, a barn stands clear of the ground on staddle stones; and opposite is the cow byre.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams, 1972.
3. Topical Words: Shellacking
A wave of puzzlement encircled the globe after President Obama said in his press conference last Wednesday, “I’m not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like I did last night”. As the word is mostly known in the US, queries principally came from outside the country. However, many Americans, familiar with the expression though they are, came to wonder for the first time how the word came to mean a beating or serious defeat.
Shellac was once the most common form of varnish, used everywhere. Its name comes from French laque en écailles, lac in thin plates. Lac, a protective resin secreted by the lac insect, was prepared by drying, melting and pouring it to form thin flakes. Lac is from the Hindi lakh, a hundred thousand, though I’ve not been able to find out why. It’s also the origin of lacquer — in its original form this was shellac dissolved in alcohol. Lac was used in its homeland as a scarlet dye for silk.
The terms shellacking and shellacked were very common in American newspapers in the late nineteenth century. To judge from these reports, almost anything could be improved by coating it with shellac, not just furniture or floors. Gramophone records were manufactured from materials impregnated with shellac. Straw hats, fabrics and canvas tents were waterproofed with it. And it was used as a form of hair lacquer. That was a fashion of the bright young things of the early 1920s (especially the boys), when the slang term first turns up:
Daughter — “A friend of Harry’s we met there was the darbs, and after that we drifted to a couple of the clubs, and both the boys got beautifully shellacked.” Mother — “Shellacked! I don’t understand.” Daughter — “Jammed, both of them.”
Ogden Standard Examiner, 12 Apr. 1922, in an article reproduced from the New York Sunday Herald under the headline, “English Language as Spoken by the Younger Generation”. The piece mostly consists of a glossary, which explains jammed” as “intoxicated, bolognied, pie-eyed, piffled, shot, shellacked, canned, out like a light, stewed to the hat, potted, jiggered, tanked”. A darb was “a person with money, who can be relied upon to pay the check”.
We can only guess how shellacked took on the idea of being drunk. Might it have been one stage on from being plastered, a term known from a little earlier? Might the shiny, red face of a drunk look shellacked? Could the fashion among young men for shellacked hair have been part of the stimulus for its creation?
Within a couple of years, shellacked had evolved from being drunk to being soundly beaten in various sports, including baseball and boxing:
Giants beat Reds in ninth; Cubs shellac Boston Braves
A headline in the Hartford Courant, 26 May 1924.
The smart Mr. Shevlin was biding his time, however, and when the opportunity came in the third he took full advantage of it and shellacked Norton plenty, ripping both hands to the mid-section with much power behind each drive.
Evening Tribune (Providence, RI), 3 Jun. 1924.
How that second shift happened is once again guesswork. If the only sport involved were boxing, we might try to make a link through punch-drunk, but that doesn’t work for baseball. Several writers have plausibly suggested that the word, with its strong consonants, suggests some sort of violent action, perhaps a combined shelling and whacking.
Whatever the exact chain of development, any mental link with the varnish is now tenuous at best.
• A report in the Guardian last Saturday on the British government’s plans to sell off its forests quoted this comment from Malcolm Currie, a negotiator for the union Prospect: “Three thousand employees’ jobs and futures will be under threat as the land is pulled from under their feet.”
• Still with the Guardian, in another article the day before about the forest sell-off, John Pearson and I dead-heated in spotting this: “Bridal and cycle paths are increasingly popular.” Better a bridal path, I suppose, than the primrose sort.
• Kenneth Huey reports an odd phrasing in the New Yorker magazine of 4 October: “In 1682, a government minister hid the death of the Dalai Lama for fifteen years.” Did he, asks Mr Huey, take the whole year over it?
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