NEWSLETTER 542: SATURDAY 2 JUNE 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Isograms David Crystal’s challenge to find a place name in Australia or Canada of more than 14 letters in which no letter appears more than once had no takers. Professor Max Coltheart pointed out: “Australia is exactly the wrong country in which to look for isogrammatic place names. On the contrary, it has, for example, a 10-letter place name composed of just three letters (Wagga Wagga), a 13-letter one of just four (Woolloomooloo), and a 20-letter one with just seven (Caddabarrawirracanna).”
Correction Apologies to Anthony Massey, whose first name became Andrew in this section last week.
2. Weird Words: Attercop
Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me!
It’s still known — it appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 24 May in an article about Ian McMillan’s work to create a modern dictionary of the Yorkshire dialect. He described it as an old-fashioned word still spoken in North Yorkshire, that could also mean a peevish person or a moaner. Mr McMillan provided an illustrative sentence: “Tha’ won’t go in cos’ of an attercop? Tha’s an attercop thissen!”. [tha: you; thissen: yourself.]
The word is Old English, from attor, poison + cop, the head. (Cop, or coppa, was also used by itself to mean a spider, so cobweb ought really to be spelled copweb.) The name was given to spiders in the mistaken belief that they were all venomous. It was applied to a cross-grained, ill-natured, figuratively venomous person no later than the sixteenth century.
3. Recently noted
Close, but no cigar A newspaper article in Atlantic City at the end of May reported on redevelopment plans for the historic Bader Field, which the paper points out, quite correctly, is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1919 as being the first facility to which the word airport was attached. That seems a reasonable date, as air travel was in its infancy and there could hardly have been much need for the term before then (although passengers were flying from Bader Field as early as 1911). But, like television, which appeared in the language two decades before a working device was demonstrated, airport is recorded earlier in the vocabulary of blue-sky visionaries. In 1902 the Fort Wayne Evening Sentinel of Indiana reported in some puzzlement that “M. Santos-Dumont, the young Brazilian aeronaut and inventor, has arrived in this country, bringing with him a part of an airship and a stock of bewildering ideas about aerial navigation and a fleet of commercial air ships to ride the currents of the nether blue between New York and Paris, or any other airport.” Sorry about that, Atlantic City.
Taking the heat The rapidly rising prison population in the UK has led to overcrowding and no spare cells. Some prisoners are having to be held in court cells instead. As the usual purpose of these cells is to hold remand prisoners during trials, the only way to keep the court system working is for a convicted criminal being accommodated in a court to swap cells with a prisoner going to court. This has led to the new term hot celling, based on the term hot desking for the system by which office workers have no set desk of their own but take any one that’s available.
4. Questions & Answers: Caught red-handed
[Q] From David Perry, South Africa: “Do you know the origin of the phrase caught red-handed?”
[A] We must thank (or conceivably blame) the famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott for having popularised this term, which was until his time purely a Scots expression. He used it first in his novel Ivanhoe of 1819: “I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag”. Before then it was usually written as red-hand or redhand as in “if he be taken redhand”. It dates back to the fifteenth century.
The meaning was then the same as now. Somebody taken redhand was either in the act of committing a crime or with clear evidence of it about him. The original reference was to literal red hands, those of a murderer stained with the blood of his victim. But it soon became broadened to refer figuratively to other crimes, for example to a thief being caught carrying stolen items.
The term has no connection with a red hand in heraldry, such as the famous Red Hand of Ulster, which derives from the ancient device of the O’Neills, once high kings of Ireland.
5. Questions & Answers: Clean one's clock
[Q] From Jim Marchant, California: “What are the origins of the phrase Clean their clock? It produces a lot of hits on Google, and sportswriters are fond of it, but I don’t see anything about its pedigree.”
[A] In American English, To clean someone’s clock means to trounce one’s opponents in a game (“We’ll clean the Dodgers’ clocks today”) or generally to inflict a severe reverse (“Republicans got their clocks cleaned in November’s elections”).
It became particularly popular from the 1990s on, but it’s possible to trace it back a surprisingly long way. The first example that I’ve come across is a baseball report in the Trenton Evening Times in July 1908: “It took the Thistles just one inning to clean the clocks of the Times boys.” The stronger sense is to give somebody a thrashing, as in Stephen King’s story The Ten O’Clock People: “If I blew some [smoke] in his face, I bet he’d come over the top and clean my clock for me.” It’s not obvious from the written history of the expression that this is the original meaning, though it’s more than likely.
To clean goes back a lot further. Jonathon Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang lists it from 1819 in the sense of vanquishing or drubbing. All the early examples are either clean out or clean off but by Mark Twain’s time it had reduced to just clean (“He went for ’em! And he cleaned ’em, too!” is in Roughing It, dated 1871). The slang use of clock to mean face may also be from the nineteenth century, though the first examples are contemporary with the 1908 Trenton report. (We British had dial with the same sense from a century earlier.) Around that time to fix someone’s clock in North America also meant to defeat somebody but in a more thorough way. However, to clock a man, meaning to hit him in the face, is recorded only from the 1930s.
As an intriguing aside, US railway slang used clean the clock (and also wipe the gauge) to mean that a driver brought his train to a sudden halt by applying the air brakes. The allusion is to the gauge that shows the air pressure. A sudden use of the brakes will cause the needle to swing right over, so figuratively cleaning the glass of the gauge. This is recorded only from the late 1920s, so quite how it fits into the history of the expression isn’t clear.
• “This past weekend,” notes Michael Shannon, “I participated in a course for the use and care of chainsaws. Now, chainsaws are often accused of making awful noises, so I found it highly amusing that the printed material we were given constantly referred to pulling on ‘the starter chord’. Unfortunately, we weren’t told what key it was in.”
• On 26 May, a supplement to the Boston Globe contained a sentence that caused both John Emery and Frederick Hinchliffe to open their eyes wide in astonishment. It was announcing events at the famous open-air museum in Massachusetts, Old Sturbridge Village, and said “If you ask kids where their cotton shirts come from, they might say the Gap. If you asked 19th-century kids they might say ‘from the sheep’”. That was why cotton picking was such hard work: the damn sheep just wouldn’t stay still.
• Alice Bannan noted that an article in The Age of Melbourne on 29 May about the wild weather then being experienced included this interesting visual image: “Mr Briggs warned motorists to take caution on the roads and secure any outdoor furniture.”
• “A report in the Gloucester Citizen,” writes John Gray, “about a traffic accident said that ‘Mr Brown died of multiple and fatal injuries.’ I suppose you can die of non-fatal injuries?”
• Many people, including Tim Riley, reported their shock and horror at seeing bills on news-stands all across London advertising Thursday’s issue of the Evening Standard: “TORIES’ GRAMMER SCHOOL RETREAT”. That would neatly make the Tories’ case for retaining such schools, one might think, if it were not for that accurately placed apostrophe.