Snake oil John Bakke found an earlier reference to the medicinal use of snake oil than I included in the piece last week. It was in the Royal Gazette of New York dated 21 February 1778: “Wanted: By a certain Gentleman, some Rattle Snake Oil. Any person having this article, and is willing to dispose of a small quantity, will by applying to Mr. Rivington be paid their demand for the same, it being wanted for a particular occasion.” We are both intrigued as to the nature of the particular occasion.
Hugo van Kemenade found an even earlier one in a letter that the Rev John Clayton wrote in 1687 (Clayton later became Dean of Kildare in Ireland and was the first person to extract an inflammable gas from coal): “There are three Sorts of Oils in that Country [Virginia], whose Virtues, if fully proved, might not perhaps be found despicable. The Oil of Drums, the Oil of Rattle Snakes, and the Oil of Turkey Bustards.” An excellent find which, as so often, raises a further question: what is oil of drums? Many Americans will know what I had to be told: that it’s oil from one of several fish called more fully drum-fish that have the power of making a drumming noise. Presumably in this case it's the salt-water drum of the Atlantic coast.
“Believe it or not,” Henk Rietveld emailed, “a modern, non-medicinal snake oil is on the market. It bears no resemblance to the product flogged in the 19th century, but in fact is a cleaner/lubricant for sewer snakes — those sinuous cables used to clear clogged drains. I work in a large retail store that rents these things, and upon return, they are power-washed and coated with snake oil. This prevents rusting, and promotes somewhat easier insertion into the next clogged drain. I must confess that I laughed when I was first faced with the product, but believe me, it’s real.”
Tomorrow, 2 February, is a Christian festival day that has a number of names, one of them Candlemas. It got that name because on that day in medieval times people brought candles to church to have them blessed by the priest. This was thought to give the candles the power to ward off evil spirits — in the language of religion and folklore, they became apotropaic.
The word is classical Greek, apotrepein, to turn away or avert. Like other civilisations, Greeks and Romans had many rituals that were designed to ward off evil. Grotesque masks and faces, such as the Medusa head of the ancient Greeks or the gargoyles on medieval churches, frightened witches and demons away; incantations and gestures kept the devil at a distance; amulets preserved their wearers from malignant spirits; holly and rowan were effective against evil; symbols such as the all-seeing eye were put on wineglasses, houses, boats or tombs. All were apotropaic.
Although the house is humble, with no fancy architectural details, he noticed a few things that dated it to the late 17th or early 18th century. These included an “apotropaic symbol”, carved on the inglenook and intended to keep witches from coming down the chimney.
Sunday Times, 13 Mar. 2011.
Thankfully, we’re digital Howard Sinberg emailed from Florida to ask about chloephobia, which seems to be the newest member of a vast class of names for irrational fears. It’s not a morbid dislike of girls named Chloe but a fear of newspapers. It appeared in the Daily Mail in Britain on 27 January and the story has since been widely reproduced. It claimed that one sufferer’s phobia began 25 years ago “when she saw her mother jokily hit her father over the head with a newspaper.” The earliest example that I’ve so far found was in the Western Daily Press of Bristol in May 2013 but the source and etymology of the word are obscure. Greek chloe can refer to green things, especially grass and the first green shoots of spring (it’s a relative of chlōros, green, hence our chlorophyll and chlorine), but neither fits the context. This researcher retires, baffled.
Unpoetic From Vancouver, Ken Tough queried the use of verse among young people to mean “be in competition with” as in “what team are we versing tomorrow?” This has become widespread worldwide in the past decade or so. In origin it’s a typical childhood error: the preposition versus is heard as verses and then reasonably but incorrectly analysed as the third-person present tense of the verb verse. It’s far from new: the New York Times noticed it in 1984 as “high school slang meaning to compete against another school’s team” — but it only started to be commented on as a trend a decade or so ago. The evidence suggests that it was popularised through online gamers’ forums in the 1990s. It’s not clear how often it survives childhood to be used by adults, though there is evidence of this in Australia. The Macquarie Dictionary includes it and it can sometimes be found in print:
To get a game, even here in Australia, would be unbelievable. To be versing the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid — it’s going to be a massive challenge.
Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Nov 2011.
Death of a million cuts The rather morbid micromort is a unit of risk equivalent to a one-in-a-million chance of death. It was in the news recently through reports that a smartphone app is likely to come out later this year which will let you look up the risk level of an activity measured in micromorts. A British report in 2009 calculated that an average person experiences a micromort by driving 230 miles in a car, riding six miles on a motorbike, travelling 6,000 miles in a train or by taking three flights. The first use I can find is in a book of 1980, Societal Risk Assessment.
Q From Michael Thomas: I was recently working an acrostic puzzle and came upon the clue, “to break up with a loved one”. The answer, which I had never run across, was give the mitten. Could you explain the history of this phrase, please?
A It’s new to me, too, Mr Thomas, as it probably is to readers, since it is now extremely rare. The meaning has often been the one you give (in the American Civil War, a soldier who received a Dear John letter was said to have been given the mitten) but it could also often mean that a woman had rejected a unwelcome admirer out of hand. It occasionally meant that a student had been expelled from college or a workman had got the sack.
It’s known to be at least 170 years old. It has sometimes been taken to be North American, as the examples that were written down first — in the 1840s — are from works by Thomas Chandler Haliburton of Nova Scotia, who had a keen ear for the vocabulary of his times. However, as it is also recorded in Britain and Canada during much of the nineteenth century, it is probably an older British idiom that emigrants had carried abroad. In support of this, at the end of the century, the English Dialect Dictionary noted it as a British regional or dialect expression in the form to send one a mitten, to reject somebody or to cast them off.
Mitten, for a glove with two sections, one for the thumb and the other for all four fingers, comes from the French mitaine. One French authority has argued this was transferred from the Old French and surviving regional term mite, a pet name for a cat. It’s assumed that the link is to the cat’s warm fur. (In modern French a mitaine is a fingerless glove, with moufle having taken over the mitten sense.)
The origin is alas, as so often, quite obscure.
Might it somehow be an inverted version of the old tradition that a man who rejected a proposal of marriage from a lady in a leap year had to give her a present of a pair of white gloves? Probably not.
Some speculate its origin lies in the Latin mitto, to dismiss, via mittimus (“we send”), which was a legal order that committed a person to prison. If we extend and blur the sense of mittimus to mean merely sending somebody away, it’s possible that it might have got wrapped up with mitten. But it’s a bit of a stretch.
The other explanation is about equally believable, by which I mean only possibly. It is said that there was a tradition in France by which a young lady who wished to decline a marriage proposal sent her suitor a pair of mittens. Could this have been a consolation prize for not getting her hand? Or might it have begun with some young man who was being sent away wailing the French equivalent of “Baby, it’s cold outside!” being dismissively supplied with mittens? It’s as good a story as any ...
• Stella McDowall spotted an understandable homophone in a headline in the Daily Mirror. It was over a story dated 20 January about what it called the “gentle succession” in the British monarchy: “Queen hands over the reigns to Prince Charles”.
• “This is wrong for so many reasons!” Kerry Walsh emailed about the description of a “Men’s Stainless Steel Cross Railroad Bracelet” he read on Amazon: “Although it has a similar appearance to metal, Stainless Steel is much thicker and will not tarnish.”
• David Becker submitted a headline from the issue of USA Today for 26 January: “Boar killed after wild beach run to feed poor”. Not the sad end to a mercy dash by a selfless animal, but the donation of the carcass of a wild pig that caused panic on a Florida beach to feed people in a homeless shelter.
• AOL News online on 28 January startled Steve Hirsch and Dan Welch with a brief item about execution by lethal injection: “Despite complaints from executed inmates, Oklahoma will not review its protocol.” It was quickly changed.
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