Old besom “When I was a child in central Scotland in the 1940s and 1950s,” Elisabeth Okasha wrote, “besom was a big insult, used by us primary school children about any woman who was deemed unpleasant. It also implied old, cross, disagreeable and ugly. The word was not allowed in my house, which I took to be because it was associated with bosom, another taboo word. Of course it is not, but in our pronunciation the two words certainly sounded very similar.”
Linda Traylor emailed, “I’m glad to know what that twig-type broom is called. All this made me need to ask just how the besom pocket got its name. Strange, but the pocket is the only use of the word I had ever heard.” I have learned (World Wide Words is so educational) that a besom pocket is one cut into a garment, finished with welting or stitching but without a flap. The source of besom here seems to be unknown.
Several readers queried my footnote to a quotation from Sir Walter Scott, in which I wrote that mickle was a variant form of muckle. Graham Thomas emailed, “I recall a Scots proverb: Many a mickle makes a muckle, meaning that many small quantities aggregate over time into a large quantity. It is hard to see how, in this context, mickle and muckle can be synonymous.” That’s because the proverb is a popular corruption. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs lists George Washington as its earliest recorded user, in 1793, though we can’t lay the blame on him, as he was surely quoting a version that had been in circulation earlier. The “correct” form is usually many a little makes a mickle, which William Camden put into his Remains Concerning Britain in 1614, though other versions, such as many a little makes a great are known as early as the 14th century. It is also written as many a pickle makes a mickle (in which pickle is a Scots term for a small amount). The proverb expresses the value of thrift and economy or, as another proverb puts it, look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. The corrupted form is now so firmly set in people’s minds that it’s rare to find an historically accurate one.
This week, a word that is as obscure as any that have featured here. If you think it looks Latin, you’re right. It’s the ablative plural of recumbere, to recline or rest. As the ablative case can suggest an agent, recumbentibus may imply that somebody has caused another to recline.
In medieval Latin and then elevated English, recumbentibus came to mean a powerful blow, one that was strong enough to knock a person down, to make him involuntarily adopt a recumbent position. In his Dialogue of Proverbs of 1549, John Haywood wrote, “Had you some husband, and snapped at him thus, I wise he would give you a recumbentibus.” Thomas Middleton has a character in his play of 1608, The Family of Love, exclaim, “A plague upon him for a Glister! He has given our loves a suppositor with a recumbentibus.” He is complaining about an unnecessarily violent and embarrassing medical procedure, since we would now call a suppositor a suppository and glister is another way to write clyster, a medicine injected into the rectum to empty or cleanse the bowels.
Recumbentibus has never become common in English and has in any case been obsolete since about 1670, though it has on very rare occasions been resurrected:
Thor went among them with incalescent eagerness, smashing their guidance systems with his bare fingers, delivering one massive recumbentibus after another, making shards of the casings.
And Another Thing ..., by Eoin Colfer; part six of Douglas Adams’s trilogy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 2009. Incalescent means with increasing heat.
Odder and odder Heribert Beigel wrote from Germany. He was puzzled by the phrase interestinger and interestinger that Donna Leon put into the mouth of Commissario Brunetti in her most recent novel, The Golden Egg. I was able to reassure him that English grammar didn’t allow the creation of a comparative in -er from such a long word, other than for humorous effect. I’d not encountered it before, but found many examples, mostly from recent decades, though the oldest was from New Outlook, an American magazine of 1909. Online, it has been attributed to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, though what Alice actually said, of course, was curiouser and curiouser. The interestinger and interestinger version was presumably created by analogy with it.
Smile, you’re on camera! The phrase body-worn video has appeared a few times recently in British journals and newspapers because UK police forces are beginning to equip officers with video cameras in order to capture evidence. Forces in the USA, the UK and elsewhere have been testing such equipment for some years (the term dates back to 2006 at the latest, though it’s jargon and they’re often called body cameras or similar terms). It avoids situations in which the word of a suspect conflicts with that of a police officer and, with certain provisos, is claimed to have potential to check the abuse of police power.
Marcel wave This month sees the 100th anniversary of the appearance of Swann’s Way, the first part of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, which rates highly on the list of famous books that few have finished, or even started. The date is being marked by readings, discussions and other events in a burst of what’s being called a Proustathon. The word isn’t new. Many groups have organised readings of the epic novel in the past and many have used the word, together with others that have fared less well, such as Proustonaut. It’s all Iris Murdoch’s fault, as she began Proustathon’s progress when she included it in The Good Apprentice in 1985: “We had a Proust-reading marathon to raise money for ecology, it was terribly funny, they called it a Proustathon —.”
Q From David Procter: I watched Yankee Doodle Dandy recently. In George M Cohan’s song Forty-five Minutes from Broadway, there is a line, “Oh, what a fine bunch of reubens”. I wondered what it referred to — I doubted that it meant the sandwich. A friend said that it refers to members of the Jewish faith, but as I pointed out to her, that doesn’t fit the meaning. Can you help?
A It’s a very old-fashioned extension of the male personal name. It’s from the Hebrew name Reuven in the Old Testament, the firstborn of Jacob’s 12 sons, which is presumably why your friend supposed a Jewish connection. As you say, there isn’t a link in its American sense, in which it refers in a derogatory way to an unsophisticated countryman, a yokel or hick.
At one time it was common to adopt personal names from the Bible, in rural communities in particular (in 1880, one boy in 200 was named Reuben), and the suggestion is that Reuben somehow became adopted by metropolitans as a suitable alias for a country bumpkin. We may guess that the alliteration of rural or rustic with Reuben helped it along.
When it began is hard to tell. The first examples I can turn up are from the early 1880s. But these are abbreviations of a term of the 1870s in Indiana, Ragged Reuben, an insulting term for a rural member of the Democratic Party, considered by urban members to be an ignorant backwoodsman. The term was used in counterpoint to swallow-tail, his urban equivalent, which I suspect referred to the bifurcated tailcoats of professional men in the cities. We might presume from this that Reuben was already in use as a slang term for a hick. Or perhaps not, and it was this alliteration, not the others I’ve mentioned, that brought reuben into being.
This is the first example of Reuben I’ve so far found, also from Indiana, showing the link with politics:
Darke county and Jackson township, where Democrats grow spontaneously, were called upon to “come over into Macedonia and help,” and the “Reubens” of those localities were urged to come early, or they might not be able to get into town at all, the crowd was expected to be so great.
Indianapolis Journal, 28 Jun. 1880.
By the 1890s, reuben (by then often without its initial capital letter) had become abbreviated to rube to match the common short form of the personal name, as in the famous Rube Goldberg. This was popular for some decades but is now much less common. The personal name has also declined in popularity, to 1 in 800 today, though it has shown a slight revival in recent years.
It has survived better in the exclamation hey rube!, originally a nineteenth-century cry by circus people to bring help if a fight started. This is an early explanation:
“Hey! Rube!” [is the] circus-man’s shout, which has been heard from Maine to Oregon and from Hudson’s Bay to Brazil. When the countrymen get too fresh and too full of fight, they generally get it. The first performer attacked sends forth the thrilling war cry, and every man and boy connected with the show arm themselves with some weapon, and sally to the aid of their brother.
Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Sep. 1879.
The association with fights led hey rube to become a noun meaning a scrap. We don’t know where the term comes from. There’s a tale that it began as an actual cry of help from a circus worker to a friend called Reuben. But that’s impossible to substantiate.
As is the source of Reuben in Reuben sandwich, American slang for a hot sandwich of rye bread containing cheese, corned beef and sauerkraut. The term started to appear in the middle 1920s. Various stories have been told about its origin. A plausible one was given in a syndicated newspaper report in 1927, which attributed it to Arnold Reuben’s delicatessen in New York City and remarked:
Reuben’s still flourishes. A Reuben sandwich may coat a dollar and a half, but it’s worth it. The relics of a former generation and that portion of the new element which still eats has made Reuben rich and famous. Visit Reuben’s after midnight. Rich men, lovely women, movie actresses in rubies, gamblers, reporters — .
Kansas City Star, 9 Jun. 1927.
By the way, the next line in Forty-five Minutes from Broadway to the one you quoted is “Oh, what a jay atmosphere”. Jay is an ancient term for a stupid or silly person or a simpleton. This was applied in the US to stupid, gullible, ignorant, or provincial people and led to jaywalker for country cousins who didn’t understand the rules of the road in the big city.
• Dodi Schultz contributed this from a Time report dated 23 October: “Adelson, a staunch Israel supporter, gave a whopping $92.8 million, along with his wife Miriam, to outside political groups during the 2012 election cycle.”
• In The Tradition is Safe: A History of the Royal Air Force, Paul Brockman found this: “As the service became smaller Trenchard’s Air Force ‘Spirit’ remained and the quality and morale of both personnel and equipment rose despite the tampering of successive governments.” Quality of personnel, perhaps, but morale of equipment?
• Pat Schley sent in a review on Amazon.com of The Thief of Time by John Boyne: “They all died in their twenties after siring a male offspring due to either insanity or events out of their control.”
• The Minneapolis Star Tribune had an article on 22 October about a park restoration project, John Cleveland tells us: “Storms have taken a toll on the island’s trees, and the turf has taken a beating from heavy grazing by geese and picnickers.” Tell them to bring their own food next time.
• The October 26 edition of the Borneo Bulletin, Bernard says, carried a Reuter’s article on Sir Richard Branson. It said the entrepreneur “tried to circumvent the world in a hot air balloon.” No wonder he failed.
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