NEWSLETTER 517: SATURDAY 9 DECEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Scran Following last week’s piece, John Davies updated me on one sense of this word: “‘Scran’ in the Royal Navy is indeed sometimes used for food but more often it has its Icelandic meaning of scraps or rubbish. In particular, the place where lower-deck lost property is kept is called ‘the scran bag’.” This seems to be a development of the sense that I mentioned, of a bag to hold gleanings of food.
The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings Many subscribers told me that they had come across the expression earlier than the 1976 date of the first written reference. This is not at all unlikely, since the printed record is often poor for slang or colloquialisms. Surprisingly, several claim to recall it from here in the UK in the middle 1970s, sometimes linked to a running gag in an episode of the Morecambe and Wise Show in which a large soprano is kept from performing until right at the end of the show. Eileen Macoll has clear memories of it being used by the late Sam Shulman, owner of the Seattle Supersonics Basketball team, who used it in the closing days of the 1971-72 season as the team tried to make the play-offs. She remembers it being widely reported in the local press at the time. Unfortunately, the newspaper archive I subscribe to doesn’t include either of the Seattle titles.
2. Weird Words: Vilipend
To regard as worthless or of little value; to despise or vilify.
Etymologically speaking, to define vilipend using vilify is to commit a tautology, since both derive from Latin vilis, vile or worthless, which is also obviously enough the source of English vile. Vilipend also includes the verb pendere, to weigh or estimate. To vilipend is to weigh somebody in the balance and find them not worth considering.
It appeared in English in the fifteenth century and was a popular term right down into the nineteenth, though it has since dropped out of sight. In 1771 Tobias Smollett put it into the mouth of a character in Humphry Clinker: “I would not willingly vilipend any Christian, if, peradventure, he deserveth that epithet”. Sir Walter Scott employed it in Waverley in 1814: “He became a gay visitor, and such a reveller, that in process of time he was observed to vilipend the modest fare which had at first been esteemed a banquet by his hungry appetite, and thereby highly displeased my wife.”
If you would like an obscure deprecatory term and for some reason calumniatory and contumelious don’t meet your needs, you could do worse than the related word vilipenditory.
3. Recently noted
Chip on one’s shoulder The usual explanation for this saying is that at one time there was a convention in the US by which someone spoiling for a fight issued a challenge by putting a chip of wood on his shoulder. If the other party knocked it off, the challenge was accepted. Until now, this explanation has been based exclusively on a report in the Long Island Telegraph for 20 May 1830, which has made word historians a bit uneasy. I’ve now found corroboration in The Onondaga Standard of Syracuse, New York, dated 8 December that year: “‘He waylay me’ said I, ‘the mean sneaking fellow — I am only afraid that he will sue me for damages. Oh! if I only could get him to knock a chip off my shoulder, and so get round the law, I would give him one of the soundest thrashings he ever had.’”
Terminological confusion It’s hardly known now that chauffeur, in French and English, briefly meant any driver of a motor vehicle, not especially one who is paid to drive for another. The emerging field of motoring at the end of the nineteenth century was confused over what to call the machines and those who operated them, as a letter of 1898 to the Daily Telegraph from Paris makes clear: “The Duchess d’Uzes has passed a successful examination as a driver of automotors. The phrase chauffeur or chauffeuse, or stoker, used to designate the propellers of horseless vehicles is strongly objected to by a leading member of the Automobile club, who recommends the American term motorman, with its variation for the other gender.” The letter goes on to note, presciently, that “[a]ccording to those who are supposed to know, automobilism is now fast supplanting the bicycle craze, and in a very few years the horseless vehicle will replace the ordinary cab in the Paris streets.”
4. Questions & Answers: Tinny
[Q] From Glenda Millgate, Canberra, Australia: “Over drinks the other night, a colleague mentioned how one of our number always wins the raffle, calling him tinny. Several at the table had never heard the word before, which surprised me. My mother, a co-worker’s father and another co-worker’s grandmother all used it quite commonly. The theories we came up with were that it may be to do with helmets in war (not getting shot!), collecting money in a tin, something mining related, or possibly to do with roofing tiles. Probably all of these are wrong, but we’re hoping you can help us!”
[A] You’re correct. All of these are wrong.
Tinny was once common in both Australia and New Zealand and I’m a bit surprised to hear that it has fallen so far out of use. As it happens, the first example recorded in print is from New Zealand, in the Chronicle of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force of 1918: “Remarks are heard on the ‘tinny’ luck or otherwise of the [poker] players while the ‘stiffs’ bemoan their luck.” A comment in a book by Eric Partridge two decades later asserts that it was First World War soldiers’ slang.
Both the Oxford Australian Dictionary and the Oxford New Zealand Dictionary say the origin is the earlier slang tin for money. This is known from 1836. The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Said to have been first applied to the small silver coins of the 18th century, which before their recall in 1817 were often worn quite smooth without trace of any device, so as to resemble pieces of tin.” Part of the stimulus for inventing it may have been the even older brass for money, which is known from the sixteenth century.
Various compounds of tin appear in the record earlier than tinny. The Bulletin of Sydney noted in 1898 that a tin back is “a party who’s remarkable for luck”. Much later, tin-arsed appears as a term for a person who is remarkably lucky. This has puzzled some writers, who don’t see the historical link with the money sense of tin, and have suggested it means somebody who is well protected in the fundament by a metal sheet so a kick there doesn’t cause any pain. The variant tin bum is known in New Zealand.
5. Questions & Answers: Faggot
[Q] From Rehan Kularatne, London: “With the word faggot turning up on BBC Radio One recently, I was wondering when it crossed the Atlantic. Is there a definitive etymology for its pejorative usage meaning ‘male homosexual’? An urban myth says it’s associated with the faggots that were used to burn people at the stake, which seems unlikely in the extreme given a 400-year hiatus in the association. Can you provide further information?”
[A] Because it’s a puzzling slang term, several suggestions have been made for where it comes from. The one you quote is common and popular, since it connects the word directly with its most ancient sense — one hardly known these days — of a bundle of twigs, sticks, or small branches bound together for use as fuel. The word arrived in English via French and Italian from Greek phakelos, a bundle.
In the sixteenth century, faggot took on associations of being burnt at the stake as a heretic, especially in the phrase fire and faggot. There’s also a suggestion, though from after the period in which heretics were burnt, that it could also refer to a patch, embroidered with the image of a faggot, that heretics who had recanted were forced to wear on their sleeves. In recent times, people have equated or confused this patch with the pink triangle ones that homosexuals were forced to wear in the Nazi concentration camps. The problem with trying to link it to the sense of a bundle is the one you’ve put your finger on — there’s no evidence that faggot was used to mean “homosexual” until it appeared in the US in 1914 in A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang, edited by Louis E Jackson and C R Hellyer: “All the fagots (sissies) will be dressed in drag at the ball tonight.”
The word has also been linked to the Yiddish faygele, a little bird, another US slang term with the same sense; with fag in the British public-school meaning of a younger boy performing menial tasks for a senior, which sometimes included homosexual acts; and with fag in the British sense of a cigarette, since around the end of the nineteenth century real men smoked cigars while cigarettes were preferred by women (and by implication by effeminate men); the usage fag end for a cigarette butt is also pointed to as a contributory reference. None of these survives an examination of the evidence.
It’s much more likely that it comes from a term of abuse — known from the early eighteenth century — for a shrewish, bad-tempered or offensive woman, often as old faggot or silly old faggot. This usage survived well into the twentieth century, until it was eased out by the homosexual sense, still to be heard, for example, on British television shows and films into the 1970s. It turns up, to take just one case, in a story by Richard Barham dating from the 1870s: “The Baron started: ‘What’s that you say, you old faggot?’ He ran round by his horse’s tail; The woman was gone!” Its origin lay in the bundle of sticks sense — such a woman was regard as a burden, a baggage (a related derogatory term that goes back to Shakespeare’s time).
The homosexual sense began to appear in Britain in the 1960s, to judge from a comment in the New Statesman in March 1966: “The American word ‘faggot’ is making advances here over our own more humane ‘queer’.”