All sizzle and no steak From Australia, Terence Hogan commented, “In this part of the world I’m more familiar with the version all sizzle and no sausage.” Several other Australians mentioned a classic putdown by the sharp-tongued former PM Paul Keating, who once referred to the then Treasurer Peter Costello as all tip and no iceberg.
David Gallagher remembered, “The equivalent in Liverpool in my childhood was big head and no bread in the house.” Steve Price noted, “We as teenagers referred to this as NATO, No Action, Talk Only.” “Growing up in Tennessee,” David Powell wrote, “the phrase I’ve always heard for someone that doesn’t live up to their own hype is all bark and no bite.” Michael Templeton found another in The Sky Fisherman by Craig Leslie: all tackle and no fish; he also pointed out all buzz and no bees.
Many people mentioned the northern English and Scottish all fur coat and no knickers as a comparable form. I didn’t include it because its implications are of pretentious elegance that overlies vulgarity rather than incompetence. In the sense of keeping up with the Joneses it’s close to the London kippers and curtains. There’s also all mouth and trousers, another northern English put-down with rather different implications.
A little stream that runs close to my house soon drops to what used to be the flood plain of the River Severn before it was enclosed and drained. It flows into a drainage ditch called the Pickedmoor Rhine. It can’t be compared with its vastly greater cousin, the continental European Rhine, but if you trace its history back far enough you will find it shares an etymology.
Rhine is an old dialect word known in several spellings around the estuary of the Severn. On the Somerset Levels to the south, it is rhyne. On the other side of the estuary, around Newport in South Wales, it’s reen. No matter the spelling, all are pronounced reen, suggesting a common origin. The Somerset spelling has been in the news recently because of serious flooding on the Levels.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists a group of words closely similar in sense: rean, rain, rone and rune, of which rain has a separate origin from the one meaning water from the sky and rune is likewise a different word from the one for a letter in an ancient alphabet. A rean is a deep furrow in a ploughed field; rain could have the same sense as rean, but could also be a strip of uncultivated land marking a boundary; rone is likewise a boundary strip; and rune is a watercourse. The group appears to be Scandinavian or Germanic variations on an ancient Indo-European word meaning to flow or move, linked to run. The name of the European river Rhine is from the same source, as is that of the Rhône and some other rivers.
My local rhine rarely appears in literature; one mention is in a story about pirates told by a 12-year-old born in Gloucestershire, though here he’s talking about south Devon:
The sea had once come right up that valley to just below my uncle’s house; but that was many years before — long before anybody could remember. Just after I went to live there, one of the farmers dug a drain, or “rhine,” in the valley, to clear a boggy patch.
Jim Davis, by John Masefield, 1911.
Idle language It started with an item on local dialect on the BBC Radio Wiltshire morning show last November. Mervin Grist of the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre mentioned ganderflanking, a one-time local word for aimlessly messing about. Sim Courtie, the show’s presenter, loved it and started a campaign to get it into the Oxford English Dictionary (a nice thought, Sim, but you haven’t a hope, because it’s very rare and long since obsolete). The South Swindon MP, Robert Buckland, helped the campaign by using it in the House of Commons last week. The English Dialect Dictionary of 1898-1905 records it in the sense of frolicking, larking or gadding about, though a publication of the English Dialect Society in 1893 preferred to define it as “To go off larking or wondermenting”. This last word was another Wiltshire term, meaning to play the fool or waste time over unprofitable work. The EDD includes two related words in the same sense as ganderflanking: gander-mooning from Gloucestershire and the more widely recorded gander-legging.
Caffeine high Workers whose essential equipment is no more than a laptop and a wi-fi connection find coffee shops to be good places to hang out. Constant access to beverages, a background buzz and no colleagues to distract them are just the ticket for getting work done. Coffee-shop office has been compressed into coffice. Though it’s been around for several years, it has received a boost this month through a mention by Nicola Millard, futurologist at the British telecoms firm BT (although she prefers to call herself a soonologist, as she looks no more than five years ahead). She extends the idea of the coffice to airport lounges and hotel lobbies. If I were forced to work in places like that, I’d have to restrain myself from continually shushing people, but each to their own.
A word with legs The extraordinary rise in popularity of selfie for a self-photograph was noted here last November when it became Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. A signal of its widespread acceptance was the creation of related terms such as welfie (a workout selfie) and drelfie (one taken while drunk). The newest is felfie, a self-portrait taken by a farmer, either holding an animal or with animals in the background. It began through a “Selfie on the Farm” contest in the Irish Farmers Journal late last year, which was won by a farmer from Co Tipperary, and has spread widely since. When middle-aged farmers are taking selfies, you know it’s gone way beyond a teen craze.
Q From Meg Morley: Following up your item last week about all sizzle and no steak, could the Wheeler who prompted the saying have also inspired wheeling and dealing?
A Wheeling and dealing is American, like the famous depression-era salesman Elmer Wheeler you mention, but some research shows that it has nothing to do with anybody called Wheeler. However, it does come into being in his time.
Its origins are hinted at in early twentieth-century references to gamblers who could run either a roulette wheel or a card game, that is, could wheel or deal. This has been seriously suggested as the origin but can only have been a slight influence at best because the idea never became formalised into a set expression. Another sense of wheel that was in the air and may have contributed was the 1930s slang term for a gangster, more generally (and often as big wheel) any prominent and important person.
However, the record shows that the direct origin was the motor trade, largely because it made an apposite rhyming catchphrase. Advertisers in the 1930s offered “wheel deals”, good prices on cars, and later expanded the expression into a verb, as this early example shows:
C. & M. OIL CO. See ‘COXIE’ — He Will “Wheel ‘n Deal” the Bargains
The Sikeston Herald (Missouri), 17 Jun. 1940.
Wheel and deal became more common in the motor business after the Second World War and later broadened its appeal beyond the trade to shrewd bargaining of any kind. The form wheeling and dealing naturally followed.
A further stage of development was to turn the phrase into a noun for a person, a wheeler-dealer. This starts to become widely known in the late 1950s and was defined in Wentworth and Flexner’s Dictionary of American Slang in 1960 as “an adroit, quick-witted, scheming person”. But its story goes back at least a decade, at first meaning a car salesman:
George Butler, the wheeler-dealer at the Jackson Goldie Chrysler-Plymouth place, is back from an Oregon trip.
Daily Review (Hayward, California), 13 Jul. 1951.
Within a few years it had evolved into the meaning we now know:
Texas’ fabulous multi-millionaires — particularly ex San Antonian Clinton Williams Muchison, “the biggest wheeler-dealer of ‘em all’ — are glorified and joshed in [this] week’s Time magazine cover story.
San Antonio Express (Texas) 24 May 1954.
• The Daily Mail’s lead sentence on a report of 24 December was passed to us by Christopher Joubert: “Comedian Russell Brand revealed he did have sex with model Sophie Coady during a High Court hearing on Monday.”
• Jenny O’Brien reported: “I’ve just received a message that began: “Get O, The Oprah Magazine for your iPad to enjoy”, which listed several attributes of the electronic edition. It’s nice that Oprah wants my iPad to enjoy her magazine. I really enjoy receiving your newsletter, and I’m sure my iPad does too!”
• In an article about biting beach flies that Lee Schlesinger found on the website of WWSB, the ABC news affiliate in Sarasota, Florida, we find an interesting method of insect reproduction. “McCord says the bite of both types of flies can leave whelps on the skin and be very painful.”
• One for the “I Know What You Mean” department. Janet Walker sent this from the Guardian on 16 January about the death of a British actor: “[Roger] Lloyd-Pack lived in Kentish Town, north London, with his second wife Jehane Markham, the daughter of the stage and film actor David Markham, with whom he had three sons.”
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