NEWSLETTER 607: SATURDAY 4 OCTOBER 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Satisfactory Several non-Brits queried the name Ofsted in this piece (the one instance of Ofstead was of course a typo), which I should have explained. It stands for the “Office for Standards in Education”, and follows the naming model for the British sectoral regulatory bodies, all of which have begun in Of- or Off- for “office” (Ofgas, Oftel, Ofcom, Ofwat, Offrail). There’s even Ofreg, though this doesn’t regulate the other Offs, but is the Office for the Regulation of Electricity and Gas. Ofsted is a little different in that it borrows from the first two letters of each of the key words in its full title. I don’t know a name for this formulation: strictly speaking it’s neither an acronym nor an abbreviation.
Enchiridion As a (relatively) modern example of the word, Peter Weinrich noted he had a copy of Alexander Ireland’s work The Book-lover’s Enchiridion. This appeared first in 1869 and went into several editions. Its full title gives a taste of the contents: The Book-Lover’s Enchiridion; a Treasury of Thoughts on the Solace and Companionship of Books, Gathered From the Writings of the Greatest Thinkers. Should you want to read it, a free copy is downloadable from the Internet Archive. And Paul Mclachlan points out that “the official collection of prayers that attract indulgences published by the Vatican is still published as the Enchiridion of Indulgences.”
Take the biscuit Ruth Marie Newton mentioned another version of this phrase: “Here in Canada, we use had the biscuit to indicate something worn out or tired or of no further use, as in ‘I can’t go on; I’ve had the biscuit’.” Anton Nemeth commented that he had heard the expression in Ontario and among Canadians in California: “I couldn’t get it out of my mind while reading that passage that we use ‘had the biscuit’ in the Roman Catholic sense of Extreme Unction. That would be the Last Rites, part of which is Holy Communion, or the taking of the communion wafer. In this sense had the biscuit carries the sense of ‘the end’ or ‘dead’.” Doug Lennox asserted in his Now You Know of 2003 that it arose as a contemptuous Protestant reference to the host and Christopher Davies confirms it’s specifically Canadian in his Divided by a Common Language (2007).
2. Turns of Phrase: Haute barnyard
Foodies in New York were the first to encounter this term, through the writings of restaurant critic Adam Platt in New York magazine. A play on haute cuisine, the traditional “high cookery” of France, it describes a restaurant whose house style emphasises the quality of the ingredients and where they come from to a greater extent than their preparation. Fresh, good-quality ingredients, often organic and sourced locally according to season, are cooked well and served simply. The idea behind it is farm cooking at its best, hence barnyard. But it’s often at a premium price at the New York eateries first identified with the tag and which have since been described as “pretentiously unpretentious”. Haute barnyard has spread beyond New York, with sightings from both Australia and the UK; in the latter country it has been taken up by the restaurant critic Jay Rayner in particular.
The ongoing hunger for American countrified cuisine made with greenmarket ingredients and spun upscale (coined “haute barnyard” by New York magazine’s Adam Platt) shows no signs of flagging. Get all the farmhouse chic you can swallow at Forge and Hundred Acres, twin additions to the genre.
[The Village Voice, 30 July 2008]
Market is the sort of place any of us would like to be able to call our local: a small, simple restaurant serving food with its own solid but definable character — that great term “haute barnyard” comes to mind once more — at a reasonable price.
[The Observer, 21 Sept. 2008]
A stirring feeling of emotional fervour and energy.
Welsh speakers may like to be reassured that hwyl is included here because of its un-English look, not because it’s thought intrinsically odd. It is, of course, a Welsh word, but one that has become widely enough known in British English to be included in most dictionaries, though users often mispronounce it.
This is how it was described in Garthowen, by Allen Raine (1900):
Will was certainly an eloquent preacher, if not a born orator, and possessed that peculiar gift known in Wales as “hwyl” — a sudden ecstatic inspiration, which carries the speaker away on its wings, supplying him with burning words of eloquence, which in his calmer and normal state he could never have chosen for himself.
That’s much how it’s understood in English. But in Welsh the word more often refers to a complex and intangible quality of passion and sense of belonging that isn’t easy to translate but which has been said to sum up Welshness in a word. The Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (the big dictionary of Welsh recently published by the University of Wales) lays out its ramifications like this:
A healthy physical or mental condition, good form, one’s right senses, wits; tune (of a musical instrument); temper, mood, frame of mind; nature, disposition; degree of success achieved in the execution of a particular task &c; fervour (esp religious), ecstasy, unction, gusto, zest; characteristic musical intonation or sing-song cadence formerly much in vogue in the perorations of the Welsh pulpit.
Its origins lie in a much older sense of the sail of a ship and hence elliptically one’s course — in life rather than on the sea. Most broadly, in Welsh hwyl refers to a person’s mood. By itself it can also mean “goodbye” as a common short form of hwyl fawr, roughly “all the best”, as can pob hwyl.
’Tis the season? We’ve not yet had the pleasure of the Lord Mayor’s Show but already I’ve had my first meal of sprats* and the first Word of the Year has been sighted. It is from the Oxford University Press, whose annual publication on words in the news by Susie Dent came out on Thursday. You will have no difficulty guessing the area of life from which this year’s word has been drawn: the current financial crisis. Ms Dent has gone for the obvious, out of a dozen or more terms that have become all too familiar to us in recent months — she’s chosen credit crunch. As she points out, it isn’t even a recent invention, since it was first used in the 1960s.
* A sprat is a tasty small fish, the young of species such as the pilchard and herring, that’s fried and eaten whole with a dash of lemon juice. Traditionally sprats didn’t become available until 9 November, just after the procession and banquet to inaugurate the new Lord Mayor of London. An old tale has it they’re not legal to eat until the Lord Mayor has tasted them first. The British idiom, a sprat to catch a mackerel, a small expenditure made, or a small risk taken, in the hope of a large or significant gain, dates from the nineteenth century.
Room for manoeuvre The supermarket checkout sign Ten items or less is regularly castigated for its bad grammar, though some language experts argue that the traditional distinction between less and fewer, that the former refers only to quantity while the latter refers only to number, is vanishing so rapidly that any attempt to stem it is doomed. Campaigners succeeded many years ago in getting some Marks and Spencer stores to change signs to read six items or fewer. Now the British supermarket Tesco is in the news for making its own change, to up to ten items. This was reported in the Daily Telegraph and other papers recently, though one of the new-style signs was spotted by Neil Roland of the South Manchester Reporter back in January. But Tesco’s well-meaning attempt to assuage criticism, based on a suggestion from the Plain English Campaign, has resulted in those of logical mind querying whether this means a basket can contain a maximum of nine items or ten. Instead, how about limit 10 items? Then the pedants can get on with something really important, like crushing those of us who split infinitives.
5. Questions & Answers: Kippers and curtains
[Q] From Ben Ostrowsky: “In a letter to the editor published in the New York Times on 29 September 2008, Lindsay Gray commented: ‘In Britain, we have an expression, “kippers and curtains,” for status-seekers who would bankrupt, even starve themselves, in order to project an image of affluence.’ Can you explain what, if anything, kippers have to do with curtains — and how these are related to status-seeking?”
[A] Thank you, and by extension Lindsay Gray, for reminding me of this British working-class expression.
Alex Hannaford remembered it in an article about her childhood in the East End of London that appeared in the Evening Standard in September 2003: “There used to be a saying ‘all kippers and curtains’, which meant you bought flashy curtains to keep up with the Joneses, but then you could only afford to eat kippers. Appearances were everything.”
Oddly, the term turns up in books about nursing care for the old. It is in Rosalie Hudson’s book of 2003, Dementia Nursing: A Guide to Practice, in which she recasts Alex Hannaford’s depiction in more formal terms: “Unfortunately, a significant number of aged-care facilities still fit Brooker’s description of a ‘kippers and curtains culture’. Such a culture exists when people pretend to be well-to-do by having expensive curtains on the windows, but exist on a diet of inexpensive fish — that is, the outward appearance is not matched by the internal reality.”
Apart from these, the expression is not that well recorded, though it was used as the title of a Wednesday Play on BBC Television in 1967 and turned up in June 2008 in an episode of the BBC comedy cop series New Tricks, about a group of ageing ex-policemen in a unit that investigates cold cases. One of the team explained why he hated trendy Notting Hill: “It’s all kippers and curtains, fur coats and no knickers.” (Fur coat and no knickers, in which knickers is a British term for female underpants, refers to a fashionably dressed woman whose clothes disguise vulgarity or superficiality, with a hint that she’s no better than she ought to be, that she’s promiscuous, a bit of a tart.)
Kippers and curtains is one of a set of pithy expressions that refer to genteel poverty or a desire to keep up appearances at all costs. Others now not used are empty bellies and brass doorknobs and plus-fours and no breakfast. The latter made an appearance in The Age in Melbourne in July 2006: “Recently, Dee, a friend who grew up in Yorkshire, recounted in her still wonderfully British accent, how her mother used to say ‘the people of the south are all plus-fours and no breakfast’. Meaning they were all style and no substance.”
• “This,” wrote Max Everett, “is from a BBC article about Yves Rossy, the first man to fly solo across the English Channel using a single jet-propelled wing. He was quoted as saying, ‘I only have one word, thank you, to all the people who did it with me.’ And to Mr Rossy I only have three words, ‘That’s really very funny.’ Disclaimer — perhaps he was speaking in French, which would mean he probably said merci.”
• Joe Jordan reports that on 25 September the Sydney Morning Herald wrote about the New South Wales state premier who resigned earlier in the month: “Morris Iemma wants perks similar to those of his predecessor Bob Carr — including a driver, office and assistant worth up to $500,000 a year.” Almost worth his weight in gold.
• Still in Australia, Robert Young found this sentence in the issue of the Geelong Advertiser for 24 September: “Sgt Allen said that during a search of Baggott’s car, police found a sawn-off shotgun on the back seat with a sock over the barrel. Closer inspection revealed the gun was loaded with a cartridge of packed glass, $3909.90 cash, a set of scales, two mobile phones and various drug paraphernalia.” What was it, a blunderbuss?
• It’s always good to have a sideline. Maurice Fox spotted a sign outside a New Orleans beauty salon: “Haircuts, styling, manicures and pedigrees”. Though, come to think about it, a pedigree helps with good grooming.
• William Newman communicated from Japan: “I found this biographical note about Andrew Malcolm on a Los Angeles Times Web page: ‘A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Malcolm served on the Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four.’ I am left wondering which is the easier way to get a book out.”