E-MAGAZINE 659: SATURDAY 3 OCTOBER 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Agrestic Mark Hyman wrote, “Many years ago when studying Botany I learnt that there are two types of weeds — agrestal, which grow on agricultural land and ruderal, which grow on waste land. Too useful a pair to discard, I would have thought, and another obscure word to think about.”
Herf David Warnick suggested a possible origin for this term. He said that herf was a fairly common slang term during the Vietnam War, meaning to carry a heavy load for a long way. It’s possible that a term for straining under a heavy weight could have become softened in time to the difficulty of drawing on a densely rolled cigarette.
Various follow-ups Two readers whose alma mater is Christ Church, Oxford, pointed out that its name doesn’t include college. Many others noted that the term excellence creep is a reformulation of, or an error of memory for, either feature creep or creeping featuritis, both long known in product development. Some asked if pishing had any connection with the Yiddish pisher for a young inexperienced person or a person of no consequence, which literally means a urinator; I was sure it didn’t, so didn’t mention the Yiddish word. Two Chinese speakers commented that Andrew Robinson’s assertion in his book, Writing and Script, to the effect that Chinese script isn’t readable by all Chinese, is incorrect. Two readers noted that a cement overcoat (mentioned in this section last time in a quote about jorum) would have the tensile strength of blancmange and that concrete overcoat would be the more correct term. True, of course, but language frequently takes no account of practicalities and cement is common in cement overcoat, cement overshoes and related formulations.
Yahoo! problems As a result of great efforts by the managers of the Linguist List server which distributes these e-mail issues each week (special thanks are due in particular to Susan Smith), the number of failed deliveries has gone down a lot, although many Yahoo! subscribers still experience delays and some 150 reports of non-delivery are coming in each week. Yahoo! is now sending us much better error reports and we have learned that a small number of subscribers has been reporting mailings as abuse or spam, which has led Yahoo! to block or delay messages from our list server. To flag e-mails as spam when you have asked to receive them just doesn’t make sense and it is a singularly ineffective way to unsubscribe. Even more uselessly, one person has recently reported as abuse the automated message from the list server asking him to confirm his request to join the list. Another, who has tagged the mailings as spam, similarly tagged the message I sent him to tell him that I’d removed him from the list (I suppose it demonstrates consistency, if nothing else). The result of all this has been to inconvenience hundreds of other people who have been prevented from getting an e-magazine they’ve subscribed to. If you don’t like these mailings, it is best for you and everyone else if you simply unsubscribe.
In Stout Fellow: A Guide Through Nero Wolfe’s World, published in 2003, O E McBride lists 60 words Rex Stout uses that “fall outside the average vocabulary”. Readers of this e-magazine mostly have vocabularies that also fit this description and so will be easy with words such as egregious, fatuous, mendacity and sapient.
However, few will ever have come across abditory, which leads the alphabetical listing. It’s a hiding place, from Latin abditorium, a hiding place, whose source is abdere, to put away or hide. It appears in the story Instead of Evidence, in which explosive devices were found in an abditory in a factory.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes its first example from 1658, but it has never been in common use. Oddly, it is now more often employed than at any time in its history, not only because of Rex Stout but also by SF and fantasy authors, who have occasionally found it useful to help build a sense of otherness:
That abditory, the one in the buffet at home, contained a set of spare passports and other papers that might be useful under extraordinary circumstances. Other abditories, like the compartment under the front hall stairway, contained survival kits, or weapons, or money, or things as prosaic as the emergency roll of toilet paper.
The Crimson Sky, by Joel Rosenberg, 1998.
[Thanks to Art Scott for telling me about this word.]
3. Questions and Answers: Collapse of stout party
[Q] From Charlotte George, Germany: I was engaging in cruciverbals the other day when I came across a clue in a puzzle by Logodaedalus in one of The Guardian Cryptic Crosswords books: “Breakdown of beer celebration (punch line!)”. The solution is collapse of stout party. Having managed to solve it, I was still somewhat puzzled, as this particular juxtaposition of words means diddly-squat to me. I am still in the dark whether punch refers to the magazine, or to Judy’s bitter half, and whether stout is the ale that’s exemplified by Guinness, or just a dysphemism for ventrally challenged. Could you possibly expound this recondite matter?
[A] I suspect your question may be more linguistically entertaining than my answer, but let’s give it a go.
The expression collapse of stout party is British. It is said to be the punchline of a certain kind of ponderous and verbose joke that’s characteristic of the nineteenth century. It signals that the victim has realised he has been bested and is wilting in embarrassment and chagrin.
Party means a person, a sense also of the nineteenth century. It was borrowed from the term for one side of a legal argument but here means merely the individual in question; stout certainly does mean fat (it’s not the figurative sense of determined and brave that appears in idioms such as stout fellow). The two together, as stout party, could be a humorous reference to a fat person in the nineteenth century. Having a pompous fat man as the butt of a joke increases the humour and provokes the mental image of his being deflated like a balloon being pricked. Hence collapse.
It has been widely assumed by observers and even by the editors of the humorous magazine Punch that the term appeared in some of the long-winded and lumbering jokes that captioned cartoons in that magazine during its heyday (incidentally, this sense of cartoon, for a humorously exaggerated drawing, was invented by Punch in 1843 as an extension to the older idea of a preparatory design for a painting). This is a fairly typical example:
PUTTING THE OTHER FOOT IN IT
Mother: “Ethel is the very image of what I was at her age.”
He: “Really! I shouldn’t have thought it possible!”
Mother (coldly): “May I ask why?”
He (seeing his error, and striving to rectify it): “Oh — er — I was
forgetting what a long time ago that must have been!”
Punch, 11 Sep. 1901.
You quoted this in your original question:
To many people Victorian wit and humour is summed up by Punch, when every joke is supposed to end with “Collapse of Stout Party”, though this phrase tends to be as elusive as “Elementary, my dear Watson” in the Sherlock Holmes sagas.
Collapse of Stout Party, by Ronald Pearsall, 1975. He investigated many types of nineteenth-century humour and wrote of Punch that “it was strong on weak puns”.
Like Mr Pearsall, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (who include an entry for the phrase) have not been able to find it in any nineteenth-century issue of Punch magazine, nor indeed from the nineteenth century at all. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, in similar vein, notes, “the phrase is supposed to come from Punch, as the characteristic finishing line of a joke, but no actual example has been traced, although the character Stout Party appeared in a cartoon of 1855”. The consensus ruins that crossword clue.
My own enquiries suggest that it became a catchphrase only in the 1950s. The earliest example that I can find is in Denis Johnston’s account of his experiences as a BBC war correspondent, Nine Rivers From Jordan, published in 1953. A stage play by Trevor Peacock with the title Collapse of Stout Party appeared in 1966 and a book of the same title by Sir Julian Critchley, detailing the near-demise of the Conservative Party following the 1997 election, came out in 1998. The expression is still sometimes encountered.
Why it should have become popular so long after the period to which it nominally refers is a bit of a puzzle. I can only assume that some wit invented it and attributed it to Punch to give it a patina of historical verisimilitude, perhaps with memories of having seen stout party. The first explicit link with Punch that I can find is in an account in the New York Times in 1955 of a London meeting chaired by Malcolm Muggeridge, then the editor of Punch.
All in all, an unsatisfactory state of affairs, etymology-wise.
4. Questions and Answers: Hard lines
[Q] From Addeane Caelleigh, USA: While recently re-reading an Anthony Trollope novel, I twice saw the phrase hard lines, which I understood in context but do not know why it has that meaning. A little research confirmed that it meant misfortune or bad luck but not why. Can you help?
[A] You would have to read a book of something like the antiquity of a Trollope novel to find this phrase used unselfconsciously and seriously in the sense of ill luck or bad fortune. More recently, it has become an interjection sympathising with a friend’s bad luck (“Hard lines, old chap!”) but it’s dated and tends to be humorous in intent when it does appear, often in those graveyards of antique clichés, newspaper headlines and the sports pages.
Because it is opaque, a couple of intriguing suggestions have been made about where it comes from. (We’re certain, by the way, that it has nothing to do with phrases like taking a hard line, taking an uncompromising or unyielding stand.)
It was suggested in John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary in 1869 that it was a soldier’s term for hard duty in the lines in front of the enemy. The Oxford English Dictionary argues, on the basis of its early citations and perhaps also the fact that it was common among seafarers, that it may originally have been a nautical term. It is easy to imagine its being linked to working the ropes on board ship in icy weather.
It is now accepted that lines is a figurative term based on this Biblical appearance:
The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Psalms 16:5, from the King James Bible, 1611. The OED argues that lines here refers to the marking out of land for a dwelling-place.
As a result of this verse, lines came to mean one’s lot, one’s condition in life, in particular as it has been determined by fate or destiny. It’s easy to see how hard lines could have developed from it to mean ill fortune.
The OED’s first example is from our old friend Sir Walter Scott, in Redgauntlet, 1824. A further pointer to its not being nautical is a number of land-based earlier examples that electronic searches are now able to provide. The earliest I’ve found is this:
In its direful Circumstances, lies the greatest Hardship of Poverty. It sometimes afflicts like a judicial Fatality, a Famine or a Plague; having no Corn in Egypt perhaps; no Money in the Land of the Living; no Sustenance in a poor Family; nothing to provide for an ordinary Livelihood, nor to procure a common Maintenance of a Meal’s Meat or the meanest Necessaries of Life, it may be, to stop the Mouths of a Wife and Children a-starving at Home, for Want of due Succour and their daily Bread. These are very hard Lines in Truth!
The Royal Marriage, by Oswald Dykes, 1722.
• Gillian Christie e-mailed from New Zealand. “On our journey home from a recent holiday we stopped for a break in Taihape, a town in central North Island. One shop we visited displayed their policy for returned items and refunds, with the condition being that “a receipt must be visualised”. I desperately wanted to take something into the shop with an imaginary receipt and test it out...”
• Across the Tasman Sea, Julie Egan reports: “In a recent episode of the Australian television documentary series The Force: Behind the Line on police operations, I heard that police were investigating the ‘inextricable disappearance’ of a doctor and his secretary. There turned out to be a more innocent explanation than the unfortunate adjective suggests.”
• Still in Australia, Aileen Kelly, Susan Korrel and Peter Banks all separately read a report on ABC Online News on Wednesday about a chance for tourists in Darwin to have a hands-on experience with crocodiles: “But before the inexperienced croc handlers could get close to the beasts, which ranged in size from 1.2 to 2 metres, they were temporarily stunned with an electric shock and subdued with tape by experts.”
• Moving north: “Apparently we in Canada,” grumbled Marc Slingerland, “will soon be indistinguishable from one another; a recent mailing from our MP, on the topic of identity theft, included the following promise: ‘We are making the possession of personal identity a crime punishable by a five-year maximum sentence behind bars.’”