NEWSLETTER 545: SATURDAY 21 JULY 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
2. Weird Words: Balductum
The link in meaning and form between balderdash and balductum is close enough that some writers have tentatively suggested that the former derives from or was influenced in its creation by the latter.
Both started life having food implications, with balderdash being a jumbled mixture of liquids, such as milk and beer. Balductum was a type of posset, hot milk curdled with ale or wine. But while we have no idea where balderdash comes from (the supposed link between the two words not being supported by the experts these days), we do know that balductum is from Latin balducta, the curds of milk.
Balductum took on its derived and derogatory sense of worthless speech around the time of Shakespeare, the better part of a century before balderdash acquired the same overtones. But balductum never gained the popularity of balderdash and seems to have gone out of use in the seventeenth century.
3. Questions & Answers: Restive versus restless
[Q] From Will Mason, Austria: “I said to my wife this morning: “I had a restive night”. We went on to talk about the difference between restive and restless, until I finally looked both words up in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. I was surprised and faintly appalled to find that I had apparently been using the word quite wrongly all my life. It makes much more sense for the word to mean “unwilling to move”. Is it only me who uses the word in the sense of restless, or has this quite incorrect meaning usurped the original one?”
[A] Restive is one of those interesting words that has completely reversed its sense during its history in English. These days, we use it in the way that you automatically did, for being unable to stay still. But for several centuries, it meant the opposite: inactive or inert, more resting than restless.
The politician Sir Edwin Sandys wrote in 1599 about the “perpetual quiet” of “heavy and restive bodies”; 100 years later, the surgeon and buccaneer Lionel Wafer recorded in A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America a note about natives of the area: “Notwithstanding their being thus sluggish, and dull, and restive in the day-time, yet when moon-shiny nights come, they are all life and activity”. This meaning is obsolete, marked in the Shorter Oxford with the date range “L16-M19”, meaning that it was in use from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.
Restive arrived in the fifteenth century from the French word now spelled rétif, ultimately from Latin restare, to rest. In its first incarnation it was spelled restiff and meant a horse that resisted control and in particular refused to move forwards when commanded. Restiff remained in the language until the nineteenth century. At the very end of the sixteenth century a variant form evolved from it in the modern spelling of restive, with a sense of being still or sluggish. This spelling and sense likewise stayed in the language into the nineteenth century. To confuse matters, by the middle of the seventeenth century, restive had borrowed the main sense of restiff, a stubborn refusal of a horse to do what it was told.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the skittishness and wild movements that often resulted from the refusal of a horse to obey caused restive to acquire the new meaning “fidgety” or “impatient”. This has become our dominant one today.
American writers began to complain about the “impatient” and “fidgety” senses of restive around 1870 (restive had appeared in Webster’s Dictionary in 1864 with the definition “impatient; uneasy”). However, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose entry was written about 1908, doesn’t include this sense, so it looks as though our modern meaning is American in origin and only slowly became known in other countries. Many writers have tried to defend the older sense of restive against the newer one and to try to maintain a distinction between it and restless. Sir Earnest Gowers wrote in the 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “A horse may be restless when loose in a field, but can only be restive if it is resisting control. A child can be restless from boredom, but can only be restive if someone is trying to make him do what he does not want.”
This distinction remains, though it is being eroded by users who consider restive and restless to be exact synonyms.
4. Recently noted
Gordon Bennett This British term of astonishment has long been a puzzle to word historians. It’s generally accepted that it is from the name of James Gordon Bennett, a US newspaper proprietor. But his heyday was the late nineteenth century (he died in 1918), so why was it that until recently the expression was known in print only from the 1980s onwards? That yawning gap in recording has been reduced thanks to the recent BBC television series Balderdash & Piffle. A viewer found it in a 1937 novel, You’re in the Racket, Too. This was written by a little-known London-based writer, James Curtis: “Gordon Bennett. He wasn’t half tired.” But why it should be British, when Bennett was American, is still unclear.
Rather more significantly, Balderdash & Piffle antedated spiv, a somewhat outmoded British slang term for a flashily dressed man who lives by his wits and who supports himself by petty black-market dealings. Its first appearance in print is now known to be in 1929. It’s also now thought that the term is from the nickname of Henry “Spiv” Bagster, a London newspaper seller and petty criminal of the early years of the early twentieth century, though nobody knows how he acquired it. Spiv Bagster’s court appearances for theft, selling counterfeit goods, assault, and loitering with intent to commit a felony were reported in the British national press between 1903 and 1906. The nickname is recorded from 1904.
Obscenity alert One of our Canadian hotels, in Jasper, had fitted all the computers in its business section with an obscenity filter of an especially nannying type. When I viewed the World Wide Words home page, the list of recent pieces included one on “Caught -ed”. Curious. On reading the item concerned, every example of the term was converted into that spurious suffix. The word that so offended the filter? Redhand. Have I missed some startling slang sense of this term that renders it unfit for sensitive eyes? If so, this puzzled editor would like to be told!
Lost in translation? Penguin, who in 2004 published my book on folk etymology — Port Out, Starboard Home — tell me that they have sold the translation rights to a Finnish publisher. The news, while naturally welcome, leaves me wondering how many Finns will find a book on English-language folk etymologies interesting.
5. Questions & Answers: Toast
[Q] From Alan Smith: “I’ve been told that the verb to toast, to propose the health of a person, comes from an old winemaking technique in which sediment was removed from the wine in the neck of the bottle below the cork by soaking it in a piece of toast. Can this possibly be so?”
[A] I scratch my head in puzzlement. There are several stories that attempt to explain how the word for browned bread led to a vinous wish for somebody’s good health, but yours takes the biscuit, or even the toast. How you get from a piece of toast in the neck of a bottle to a public gesture of approbation?
In 1708 Joseph Addison speculated on the matter in The Tatler. He connected the idea with an incident in the spa town of Bath in the time of Charles II:
It happened that, on a public day, a celebrated beauty of those times was in the Cross Bath, and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of the water in which the fair one stood, and drank her health to the company. There was in the place a gay fellow, half fuddled, who offered to jump in, and swore, though he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast. He was opposed in his resolution; yet this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in our liquor, who has ever since been called a toast.
It would seem that the half-fuddled gay fellow (gay, of course, in the old sense of being merry) was thinking of the then common practice of floating a piece of toast steeped in spices in a glass of wine to give it a special piquancy. (Nutmeg and sugar were the usual flavourings.) To his thinking, the lady in the bath was like the spicy piece of toast in the wine.
Nobody today believes the story of the gallant and the lady in the bath, which is even more exotic than the one about the wine lees, and which might have been invented by Addison with tongue in cheek. But this evolution of ideas is almost certain to be the origin of the noun and verb in the congratulatory sense.
Incidentally, the tale you recount may be a muddled conflation of the true origin with some knowledge of the traditional method of making champagne, in which fermentation continued in the bottle to provide the sparkle. To remove the dead yeast after fermentation was complete, the bottle was inverted so that the lees accumulated in the neck, the neck was frozen and the bottle turned right way up again and uncorked. The pressure of the gas above the wine in the bottle blew out the ice plug together with the trapped lees. The bottle was then quickly recorked before any fizz was lost.
• The Queen’s birthday honours were announced before we went on holiday, but I missed a titbit. Robert Bendesky spotted it on the Web site of The News: “Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace, the Palestine man in the Wallace and Gromit films, has been appointed an OBE for services to drama.” Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs! There was me thinking Wallace is from Wigan. (I suspect The News may have meant Plasticine.)
• The New York Times of July 6 included an article on hospital noise: “Hospital hallways are often the source of a cacophony of seemingly unavoidable noises: beeping monitors, squeaky medication and meal carts, blaring intercoms, late-night conversations between nurses and patients.” Bob Taxin comments, “The squeaky medication is the one which always drives me nuts!”
• On 12 July the Washington Post reported on Iraq. The story ended thus, “In her testimony Nov. 13, [Condoleezza] Rice recounted her discussions with [Iraqi prime minister] Maliki in which she bluntly told him the importance of making progress on national unity and reconciliation. Rice said she had told the prime minister, ‘Pretty soon, you’ll all be swinging from lampposts if you don’t hang together.’” The ultimate Hobson’s choice, suggests Marc Picard. Or perhaps an unconscious reference to a famous quotation that’s often attributed to Benjamin Franklin? (“We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”)
• Julane Marx was amused, as a film buff living in Los Angeles, to read in the Los Angeles Times on June 14: “Though we had concerns, particularly about the layout [of the new Landmark Theatres complex in West LA], it looked promising and we took a couple of good-natured swipes at its chief rival for discriminating movie butts, the ArcLight.” It’s still online in that spelling; don’t nobody tell ’em.
• This sentence appeared in ScrippsNews on 19 June, noted and sent in by Don Edwards: “Specially trained bloodhounds cornered the bear Monday near Mount Timpanogos and shot it to death.” Now, that’s what I call training ...