E-MAGAZINE 681: SATURDAY 13 MARCH 2010
1. Feedback, notes and comments
See-saw and teeter-totter Lots of messages arrived from American readers about these two words. It wasn’t the intention of either the questioner or me to assert that teeter-totter was the only term used in the US. The difference between our two countries is that teeter-totter is unknown in the UK. As many people told us, see-saw is the usual term in large parts of the US, with teeter-totter being regional — one online dictionary says that it is “Chiefly Northern, North Midland, and Western US”. For easterners, teeter-totter is usually known only from books. Other names for the device have been used, as this writer notes:
The literary word “seesaw” is, of course, known throughout New England, but it does not as readily slip from the tongue of the country people and of many a city dweller as some local term, such as “teeter” or “tilt” or “dandle”. In many quarters “seesaw” is still felt as a high-flown or as a book word.
New England Words for the Seesaw, by Hans Kurath, in American Speech, Apr. 1933.
The parade of mononyms on the pop chart is getting monotonous: Beyoncé, Pink, Adele, Rihanna, Duffy, Akon, Usher, Mims, Eminem, Seal, Brandy, Joe et al. Estelle knows how to set herself apart from [the] mononymous pack. She put on a terrific show Friday at First Avenue in Minneapolis, one that suggested that she’s the best all-around mononym to come along since Beyoncé.
The Star Tribune, Minneapolis, 1 Mar. 2009.
Occasionally, the word is used to refer to sole authorship of a work, particularly in cases in which the hidden contribution of a collaborator is suspected. A famous case is the periodical Household Words:
“The periodical is anonymous throughout,” remonstrated Dickens, one day, when he had been suggesting to Mr. Jerrold to write for it. “Yes,” replied the caustic wit, opening a number, and reading the title, “‘Conducted by Charles Dickens.’ I see it is — mononymous throughout.”
The Life and Writings of Charles Dickens, by Phebe A Hanaford, 1871.
The ending -onymous includes the Greek suffix -onym (from onuma, name), plus the Latin-derived adjectival ending -ous. Some words in -onymous are well known: anonymous, eponymous, pseudonymous and synonymous. Others are less-familiar adjectives that have been formed from nouns: homonymous (from homonymy) and metonymous (from metonymy). Some are rare: onymous (of writing that bears its author’s name) and tecnonymous (relating to the practice of naming a parent after their child).
3. What I've learned this week
Initialisms These financial wizards love their abbreviations. In the UK, we’ve had a NICE period, which Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, coined for “Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion”. Now we’re entering a long DRAG, which stands for “Deficit Reduction and Anaemic Growth”.
More television Scott John e-mailed me from Edinburgh, following my item about steam television last week, to ask if I’d heard of the term council telly. I hadn’t. It refers to the British free-to-air terrestrial television channels. Telly is a common British colloquial shortening of television and council is a reference to council houses, low-rent social housing, built and owned by local authorities. The idea is that occupants of council houses can’t afford the rental costs of cable or satellite TV and are restricted to the basic five terrestrial channels.
4. Questions and Answers: Honky-tonk
[Q] From Marcus Patton: Do you know the origin of the phrase honky-tonk? There was a firm called Ernest Tonk that made pianos in New York in the late nineteenth century, and their heavy and robust pianos (there are still a few of them around) will have found their way into many a dive where they may well have given rise to the term — but do you know any different?
The term honky-tonk is frequently linked to the firm of William Tonk & Bros of Chicago and New York, founded in 1880, whose sturdy upright pianos began to be manufactured in 1889 under the name of Ernest A Tonk (from William’s middle forenames, it would seem from your reading of William
It’s equally often stated that the link is with Tin Pan Alley in New York, which is said to have employed Mr Tonk’s pianos in the 1890s. This supposed link is used to explain how it was that honky-tonk became a term for a type of ragtime piano music.
However — and this is where yet again I shoot down a common belief — honky-tonk is also first recorded in 1889, though it was clearly already sufficiently well known not to need explaining. It meant a type of low entertainment. Though a piano was often used to accompany performances, there hadn’t been enough time for tonk to have become associated with pianos and then shift its meaning to refer to the whole entertainment. The other objection is that its first appearances are a long way west:
A petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main Street be reopened.
Daily Gazette (Fort Worth, Texas), 24 Jan. 1889.
Myself and him set and talked awhile and he got up and said he wanted to go to the honk-a-tonk (variety show).
Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 6 Aug. 1890.
“Variety show” was a euphemism employed by their proprietors, who hoped, unsuccessfully, to present them as reputable establishments. Honky-tonks in the Old West were a mixture of bawdy music hall, casino, saloon, cheap dance hall and brothel, frequently linked to lawlessness and violence. By the time they began to be given that name, some of the crude energy of the frontier had faded from them, although they were still low-class dives catering for working-class men, with a reputation for fleecing their customers. This is why honky-tonk later came to mean something disreputable and squalid. The Daily Gazette quotation refers to a battle between owners and the Fort Worth city council, which a year earlier had closed a couple of them on Main Street as part of a long-running and largely unsuccessful attempt to crack down on bars that also housed less savoury activities.
From some distance in both time and space, it was possible to look back on them with misplaced nostalgia. An article that originated in New York remarked sadly, “The once popular institution is dying off.” It described a sentimental vein in their performances that appealed to their rootless and lonely male customers:
Ordinarily, the honkatonk opens about nine o’clock, and continues in full blast until one, or thereabouts, as long as its patrons will patronize the bar. ... The programme is made up largely of specialties. Whatever the feeling of a long-suffering public, the honkatonk vocalists never will permit “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” and “Just One Girl” to perish from the earth, and coon songs are sung as May Irwin never did and never will sing them. Always at least one drama is presented, the entire company, vocalists, dancers and all, participating.
Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), 3 Feb. 1900. This is a syndicated reprint of an article in the New York Sun of unknown date. May Irwin, by the way, was a vaudeville actress and singer of the period. Thanks to researcher Barry Popik for finding this.
Having firmly refuted popular understanding of the origin of the term, you will be awaiting my definitive alternative. Alas, there isn’t one. Nobody has the slightest idea where the word comes from, though the scholarly opinion is that it must surely be another of those rhyming duplications, most probably based on the raucous nature of the establishments.
Other false etymologies include the suggestion that honky refers to the derogatory black slang term for a white person, though this didn’t appear in print until the 1960s. Some early references, such as the definition in the Century Dictionary of the 1890s, described honky-tonks as “low groggeries” patronised by the blacks of the southern United States, which might suggest a link, but as the examples above show, this is a false view of their geographical spread, function and clientele.
We may also disregard the following story, though it is coated with the patina of ages and has often been retold:
Every child of the range can tell what honkatonk means and where it came from. Away, away back in the very early days, so the story goes, a party of cow punchers rode out from camp at sundown in search of recreation after a day of toil. They headed for a place of amusement, but lost the trail. From far out in the distance there finally came to their ears a “honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a,” which they mistook for the bass viol. They turned toward the sound, to find alas! a flock of wild geese. So honkatonk was named.
Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), 3 Feb. 1900.
• In an article by Michelle Hanson in the Guardian on 5 March: “If the government are considering competency tests for dog owners, I say go for it — and compulsory microchipping, neutering, third-party insurance.” All very good, but what about the dogs?
• David Marshall-Martin was delighted to read the AAP wire service report on 28 February about the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras: “Many were disappointed they couldn’t penetrate the thong of onlookers.”
• If I squint out of an upstairs window, I can just see the River Severn, famous for its tidal bore. We’ve recently had the largest for eight years, which led the BBC Web site to announce “Big Bore Attracts Crowds”. No surprise to find it’s since been changed.
• The Daily Telegraph quoted on 7 March from an MI5 manual of 1945 about suitable surveillance personnel: “From experience it has been found that the ideal watcher should be 5ft 7in or 8ft in height, looking as unlike a policeman as possible.” David Overton notes that it needs revising, “as the day of the 5ft 7in policeman has indeed arrived. The 8ft-tall spy, on the other hand, would now be no more conspicuous than in 1945.”
• A Guardian editorial on Thursday presumably slipped through a time warp from the year 3998. It quoted a speech by the British Foreign Secretary, who — by a quirk of nature — was still David Milliband: “In 1988, I would never have believed that 2010 years later I would be British foreign secretary explaining a war in Afghanistan.”
6. Copyright and contact details
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