NEWSLETTER 622: SATURDAY 17 JANUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Rumbledethumps John Douglas suggested that the term featured here last time as the Prime Minister’s favourite dish might not be so unknown to people in southern England as I had implied. He pointed out that the big supermarket chain Sainsbury’s sells it as a ready meal in some of their bigger stores. Their Web site describes it as “a delicious combination of potato, swede [rutabaga] and savoy cabbage topped with mature cheddar cheese.” According to recipes I’ve seen, the addition of swede makes the dish into the one called clapshot, not rumbledethumps. The blurb includes a note new to me, that the latter word means “mixed and bashed together”. I must be losing my touch, if I have to get etymological information from a grocer!
J Holan pointed out that rumbledethumps resembles not only bubble and squeak, as I said, but also the Irish colcannon, potatoes and cabbage pounded together in a mortar and then stewed with butter. Its name derives from cole, cabbage; the remainder of the word is of uncertain origin, although the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “it is said that vegetables such as spinach were formerly pounded with a cannon-ball”. An 1825 description of making it does suggest rumbledethumps was prepared in a similar way.
The word now has its own entry in the Weird Words section, which includes a lot more detail.
Vote early, vote often Several readers enquired about the origin of this expression, which I used last time, some mentioning that it was made famous, or infamous, by Mayor Richard J Daly of Chicago. On this side of the Atlantic, it’s sometimes assumed to be an Irishism, as a nod towards one-time election shenanigans in that country. But the evidence shows it’s not only much older, but also an Americanism. I found an expanded version in an advertisement in the Racine Daily Journal of 6 November 1860: “Vote early in the day; and see that the Democrats don’t vote too often.” In the Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro cites a speech in the House of Representatives by William Porcher Miles, dated 31 March 1858: “‘Vote early and vote often,’ the advice openly displayed on the election banners in one of our northern cities.” But which northern city, he doesn’t say. Might it have been Chicago?
Competition is heating up in the L-Soft contest with the arrival of further entrants. From now on it’s going to be hard work keeping ahead. So please don’t forget to vote.
A man who habitually chooses to socialise with women.
It’s long-outmoded British army slang. A poodle-faker was a young officer who was disparagingly considered by fellow officers to be pretending to the role of a lapdog through being over-attentive to women. To suggest he was a gigolo, as some have done, would be to go too far, though a ladies’ man he certainly was.
However withered an old trot she might be, she’d be an odd female if she was altogether impervious to Flashy’s manly bearing and cavalry whiskers. ... Still, as I turned in that night I wasn’t absolutely looking forward to poodle-faking her in two days’ time.
However, the word is recorded only from the start of the twentieth century. One of the better-known examples is in George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1935): “As for social duties of all descriptions, he called them poodle-faking and ignored them. Women he abhorred. In his view they were a kind of siren whose one aim was to lure men away from polo and enmesh them in tea-fights and tennis-parties.”
Despite the assertion in dictionaries that it’s a dated Britishism, it continues to appear in books and newspapers. Boris Johnson, at the time a British MP and newspaper columnist but these days Mayor of London, wrote in the Daily Telegraph in October 2003 about the then prime minister, Tony Blair: “How dare this mincing poodle-faker stand up and start confiding to the nation about his emotional journey of the past six years.” It has a salaciously nudge-nudge, wink-wink penumbra that usefully implies more than it delivers.
Poodle, of course, has been used opprobriously for a lickspittle or lackey, an obsequious follower, a term that also dates from the beginning of the twentieth century. The poor old poodle has had a bad press because of its role as a cosseted appurtenance in ladies’ boudoirs, though when allowed to be itself in high-stepping and unclipped confidence the standard poodle is an intelligent and companionable animal.
3. Recently noted
Neologisms alert Dalton Conley is head of the sociology faculty at New York University. His book for our times, Elsewhere USA, which was published on 13 January, includes several invented terms, among them weisure (work + leisure), shorthand for an increasing tendency to work during leisure, because of advances in portable personal technology. Others are intravidualism (he says that it’s “an ethic of managing the myriad data streams, impulses, and even consciousnesses we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds” — there can be no doubt he’s a sociologist); Elsewhere Society (which he explains as “the inter-penetration of spheres of life that were once bounded from each other”); and economic red shift (the anxiety caused by rising inequality at the top, in which, no matter how rich you are, people at the wealth level just above you seem to be pulling away, like receding galaxies). Expect to read some or all of these buzzwords in a newspaper near you soon. Or perhaps not.
Cartocacoethes Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary brought this nonce or neologistic word to wider notice this week. It was coined by John Krygier on his Making Maps blog last October. It’s an uncontrollable urge, compulsion or itch to see maps everywhere, a specific example of what has been called apophenia, our very human tendency to see patterns in random or meaningless data. Cartocacoethes is formed from cartography (French carte, a card or chart), the drawing or study of maps, plus cacoethes, an urge or incurable passion to do something, often inadvisable (from a classical Greek word that means a bad habit). What provoked the word was a report that a supposed map of Çatalhöyük of 6200 BC probably wasn’t a map at all.
4. Questions & Answers: Round the bend
[Q] From Paul Hobson and Michael Grounds: “You wrote in the 3 January issue of the newsletter that round the twist is a variation of round the bend. What’s the origin of the latter expression?”
[A] A fascinating set of stories exists to explain this expression, meaning eccentric, crazy or insane.
Two were quoted by my questioners. Michael Grounds mentioned one, that the one-time Hudson River State Hospital near Poughkeepsie in New York State was sited round a bend in the river, so that inmates arriving there literally went round the bend. Paul Hobson gave a closely similar story that referred to the old Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum in Melbourne, which closed in 1925. As it happens, the river Hudson is straight near the Hudson River State Hospital and is some way away, as was the Yarra Bend Asylum from the Yarra. In neither case can one imagine new arrivals being brought by boat.
Several writers to mailing lists online had a different story about its origin, suggesting that mental institutions had long tree-lined driveways that curved at the end so that no one could actually see the buildings. “If you were sent to the loony bin,” one wrote, “you went around the bend in the driveway to get there.“
To counter these tales, all we have is just one entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Frank Bowen’s, Sea slang: a Dictionary of the Old-Timers’ Expressions and Epithets, dated 1929. He said that the phrase was “an old naval term for anybody who is mad.” This presumably puts paid to any suggestion of a land-based origin.
The image, prosaically, must be of a person who is “bent”, but in a figuratively particular way.
5. Questions & Answers: Thwart
[Q] From Martin Turner: “I’ve just looked up thwart in Collins Dictionary and wasn’t surprised to find an Old English origin. Or that it has various splinter meanings, such as a seat in a boat. But I’d guess that there is a tale to tell in its history over these many years. Is it one of these words whose meaning has completely changed? Care to take it on?”
[A] “Splinter meaning” applied to a boat seat sounds painful.
Thwart is actually Middle English, thirteenth century, not Old English, which would put its arrival before the Norman Conquest. But what’s three centuries between friends? It’s from an ancient Indo-European root shared by Latin torquere, to twist. In English the first sense was of something transverse or crosswise.
The early evidence is pretty sparse — it doesn’t seem to have been especially common — so the way it developed isn’t altogether clear. Early on, though, the idea developed of something that lay or was put across the way, so hindering or obstructing one’s progress. Another early sense, recorded around 1250, was one borrowed from Germanic languages of a person who was figuratively obstructive or cross-grained — awkward, obstinate or stubborn. The verb, which appeared about the same time, first meant to oppose or hinder. Our modern sense, to successfully oppose another person’s intentions, appeared near the end of the sixteenth century.
The story of the boat thwart is curious. The basic idea is clear enough: that the seat was across the boat, placed from side to side or transversely (you might say athwart, formed from thwart in the same way that across came from cross). But the sense only appeared in the early eighteenth century. Before that, the seat was a thoft (from an ancient root meaning to squat), which changed in the seventeenth century into a form that was spelled as thought, thaught or thawt. By the eighteenth century it seems this word had become unfamiliar enough that speakers assumed the “correct” form was thwart.
• “Whatever he’s selling, I want some!”, Martin Wynne e-mailed, after reading a BBC news report dated 8 January: “Edwin Booth is proud to be at the helm of England’s last surviving independent supermarket chain. The 162-year-old upmarket grocer has 26 stores across Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Cheshire.”
• David Ashton received an email advertising a part-time proofreading job with the Victorian Government Gazette. Key qualities required by applicants included ‘an eye for detail and good knowledge of grammar, punctuation and grammar’. Thus confirming their urgent need for a proofreader with an eye for detail.