NEWSLETTER 479: SATURDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Pause in publication As foretold last week, this is the last issue of World Wide Words for six weeks, because my wife and I are taking a much-needed holiday. The next issue is scheduled for Saturday 25 March. You’re welcome, as always, to send comments and corrections concerning this issue, but you’ll have to wait a bit for a reply!
Tattoo Following the piece last week, many subscribers e-mailed to tell me of an explanation for the body decoration sense that seeks to link it to the older military signal meaning. For example, Jock McGinty sent this from New Guinea: “My understanding of the origin is the tapping noise made by the instruments used to mark the skin. A wooden ‘needle’ dipped in pigment was held against the skin and a device like a small hammer was tapped against it to break the skin and inlay the pigment. This noise was described as ‘tattow’.” That is an extremely interesting example of a folk etymology—one that is widespread to judge from the number of people who wrote—that tries to link the senses on the assumption that they must have a common source, though as it turns out they don’t.
2. Weird Words: Circumbendibus
A roundabout process or method; a twist, turn; circumlocution.
We have bendy buses in some of our major cities these days, double-length monsters with a flexible connection in the middle. But it was a taxi that last led me on a circumbendibus, an expensive one. The word was created in the late seventeenth century as humorous fake Latin from circum-, around, plus English bend, plus the Latin ending -ibus (which, neatly bringing us all full circle, is also the ending of omnibus and so is the source of bus).
An example from the eighteenth century is in Oliver Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer: “I first took them down Feather-bed Lane, where we stuck fast in the mud. I then rattled them crack over the stones of Up-and-down Hill. I then introduced them to the gibbet on Heavy-tree Heath; and from that, with a circumbendibus, I fairly lodged them in the horse-pond at the bottom of the garden.”
Sir Walter Scott had fun with it in his novel Waverley of 1814, putting these words into the mouth of one of his characters:
But without further tyranny over my readers, or display of the extent of my own reading, I shall content myself with borrowing a single incident from the memorable hunting at Lude, commemorated in the ingenious Mr. Gunn’s essay on the Caledonian Harp, and so proceed in my story with all the brevity that my natural style of composition, partaking of what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus, will permit me.
(He seems to have invented that word ambagitory, with the same meaning, and used it in another of his novels, Woodstock.)
Circumbendibus has never quite vanished, a few modern authors loving the sound of it enough to risk perplexing their readers.
3. Noted this week
Chameleonitis This word—not one destined to endure, I strongly suspect—came out of a book entitled Why Work Is Weird, by Jerry Connor and Lee Sears. They used it (indeed may have coined it) to refer to the extreme changes in personality that happen to some driven people when they move from home to work and back. Adapting one’s behaviour and attitudes to fit in with the environment of one’s workplace is natural to some extent, part of our instinctive social awareness, but they argue that carried to excess it becomes damaging to the individual.
Brokeback The success of the film Brokeback Mountain, about the love story of two ranch hands, has caused brokeback to begin to appear in everyday conversation as a near-synonym for “gay”. Jesse Sheidlower, boss of the OED’s US operations, reported this week he heard a man say “He got a Hummer? That’s so brokeback!” Naturally, he queried the usage: “The speaker said it was used in reference to things that are so exaggeratedly masculine as to call into question the sexuality of the man involved. Thus a man driving a minivan wouldn’t be brokeback, but a man driving a Hummer would be. The speaker was a New York-raised late-30s heterosexual man, who hadn’t seen the film.”
Pareidolia This is my personal word of the week, largely because it’s one I’d not come across before finding it in New Scientist. It’s not in my standard dictionaries, though there are plenty of examples in specialist books and Web sites. It’s a psychological condition in which the brain falsely creates meaningful patterns, usually pictures of the human face, out of random patterns. This ability lies behind many supposedly miraculous appearances, such as that notorious face on Mars, the image of Jesus Christ on the wall of a church in Ghana last year, or even the Man in the Moon. It can be auditory instead, which has led to the paranormal episodes known as electronic voice phenomena (EVP), in which people claim to hear messages in the random noise of audio recordings. The word is from Greek para-, almost, plus eidolon, the diminutive of eidos, appearance or form.
4. Questions & Answers: Big Apple
[Q] From Mary-Lou Kansakar: “Please tell me why New York City is called the Big Apple.”
[A] This nickname became widely known after 1971, when in a bit of spirited boosterism that became the envy of other cities, the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau began to encourage tourism by using it. The campaign succeeded beyond the promoters’ hopes and is now widely known, even beyond the shores of the US. As a result, a perennial question to word sleuths asks where the name comes from. Was it perhaps invented by the Bureau?
No, they didn’t invent it. But where it actually came from has been the subject of much argument and misinformation, leading at times to bad-tempered exchanges between individuals claiming to be experts. One hoaxer online has claimed the origin as far back as the early 1800s and a French lady known as Eve; she was said to have established a brothel in the city, whose clients became known as Eve’s Apples, leading to apple gaining an unsavoury sexual connotation. Some say instead that the nickname appeared during the years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, when out-of-work financiers sold apples on the city’s streets. Others link it to a dance of the late 1930s with that name, popular in New York. However, none of these fit the known dates. As we shall see, Big Apple has been recorded since 1921.
The real story is now known, as the result of a decade-long detective hunt through old newspapers by American researchers Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen. They found that the first printed evidence comes from a racing writer named John J Fitz Gerald, who wrote a regular column in the old New York Morning Telegraph that he latterly renamed Around the Big Apple. He first used it in 1921 to refer to the racetracks of New York: “The L T Bauer string is scheduled to start for ‘the big apple’ tomorrow”. He broadened the term to refer to the whole of New York in February 1924: “The Big Apple, the dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There’s only one Big Apple. That’s New York”.
After a lot of work, the researchers found that Fitz Gerald had written in 1924 that he had first heard the term from a couple of black stable hands in New Orleans in 1920, for whom the Big Apple was the New York racetracks that represented the big time, the goal of every aspiring jockey and trainer.
Fitz Gerald popularised the name to the extent that it was picked up by others. Walter Winchell used it for the entertainment district of New York in 1927: “To the lonely and aspiring hoofer, the fannie-falling comedian, Broadway is the Big Apple, the Main Stem, the goal of all ambition.” Jazz musicians also used it the same way, which led to the late 1930s dance name, possibly through a New York club also called the Big Apple. The expansion of the term to the whole of New York seems to have become common around the 1940s.
This solves the immediate problem, but - as so often in etymology - merely takes it back one step. Where did those New Orleans stable hands get the phrase from, since it seemed to be well-known? Some writers point to the Spanish phrase manzana principal, main apple, for a city centre or the main downtown area. That’s from an idiomatic usage of manzana for a city block, probably from manzanar, an apple orchard, hence a plot of land. It is suggested that it was being used by the New Orleans men Fitz Gerald talked to in the more general sense of the place to be, the place where the main action is.
The problem with this story is that Spanish wasn’t a common language among black stablehands in New Orleans in 1920, though they might have picked it up from racetracks in Spanish-speaking areas. However, Barry Popik has found that manzana principal isn’t recorded until later; in fact it’s a loan translation from big apple into Spanish rather than the other way around. Scotch yet another folk etymology, albeit a more learned one than most.
It seems from an early example of the phrase that people were thinking of an apple as a treat, and that for those New Orleans stable hands the New York racing scene was a supreme opportunity, like an attractive big red apple.
[This is a modified version of an article which first appeared in my book about word-history folk tales, Port Out, Starboard Home. Penguin published it in paperback last Autumn worldwide except in the USA; HarperCollins will bring it out in paperback in the USA on 14 March under the imprint of the Smithsonian Institution. The title will be Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds, the list price will be $12.95, and ISBN0060851538.]
5. Questions & Answers: Chestnut
[Q] From Gabbi Cahane, London: “Any idea where the phrase old chestnut comes from? It’s the subject of an office debate.”
[A] I can tentatively give you an answer, one that is described by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary as plausible, which seems to be about as good as we’re ever going to get.
It is said to go back to an exchange between the characters in a play by William Dimond, first performed at the Royal Covent Garden Theatre, London, on 7 October 1816. It had the title of The Broken Sword; or, The Torrent of the Valley, and was further described as “A Melo-Drama in 2 Acts, adapted from the French” and also “a grand melo-drama: interspersed with songs, choruses, &c”. The show became popular, to judge from contemporary reports, and was toured and revived in the following decades.
Let a writer for the Daily Herald in Delphos, Ohio, take up the story, in a piece in the issue dated 23 April 1896, which said the play was “long forgotten”:
There were two characters in it—one a Captain Zavier and the other the comedy part of Pablo. The captain is a sort of Baron Munchausen, and in telling of his exploits says, “I entered the woods of Colloway, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree”—Pablo interrupts him with the words, “A chestnut, captain; a chestnut.” “Bah!” replies the captain. “Booby. I say a cork tree.” “A chestnut,” reiterates Pablo. “I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale 27 times.”
This sounds reasonable enough as the source, but there are some loose ends. This sense of chestnut, for a joke or story that has become stale and wearisome through constant repetition, isn’t recorded until 1880. Where had it been all that time, if the source was the play? The word in this sense was claimed by British writers in the 1880s to have originally been American, though it became well known in Britain and according to the OED many stories about its supposed origin circulated in 1886-7. But the play was certainly originally British (Dimond was born in Bath and at the time was managing theatres in Bath and Bristol).
The latter point is easily cleared up, because the play became as popular in the USA for a while as it had been in Britain. The same newspaper report claims that the intermediary was a Boston comedian named William Warren, who had often played the part of Pablo:
He was at a ‘stag’ dinner when one of the gentlemen present told a story of doubtful age and originality. ‘A chestnut,’ murmured Mr. Warren, quoting from the play. ‘I have heard you tell the tale these 27 times.’ The application of the line pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary.”
You may take this with as large a pinch of salt as you wish, though a similar story, attributing it to the same person, is given in the current edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Even if it wasn’t William Warren, it’s not hard to see how somebody else familiar with the play could have made the same quip.
As the joke could have been made at any time the play was still known, and as it probably circulated orally for a long time before it was first written down, the long gap between the play’s first performance and its first recorded use isn’t surprising.
The old in old chestnut is merely an elaboration for emphasis—another form is hoary old chestnut—both of which seem to have come along a good deal later.
• “I was amused,” writes Jeremy Evans, “to find Lot 382 in an on-line auction catalogue described as ‘dwarf censors, a pair, 19th century Continental patinated metal, on circular bases.’ I suppose they can sneak into naughty Continental night clubs and sinful cinemas with no risk of being seen. And being made from metal they can survive being ejected from the premises. It would be much less fun if the auctioneers meant censers.”
• “Finally, proof of reincarnation,” David Moody comments. He found it in a piece on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times about an exhibit at the J Paul Getty Museum: “The villa is displaying the mummy of a young man who died about AD 150 for the first time.”
• An Associated Press piece on 14 January was about a Massachusetts cheese maker. Ray Stewart was concerned about cramped conditions for the animals mentioned. “Inside, a cylindrical silver tank is being filled with the milk of 15 Jersey cows standing on the other side of the small room.”
• A caption to a picture showing two poodles in the San Jose Mercury News for 26 January says: “Ming, left, and Ling have also been trained to detect lung and breast cancer in breath samples from people collected in tubes.” Spotted by Roy Hayter.
• The accidental conflation of the last sentence of a news report with a journalist’s byline in an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail on 27 January surprised Morgiana Halley: “Constable Guay has been suspended without pay. If found guilty, he will be fired. With a report from Ingrid Peritz in Montreal.”
• Cathy Varney was reading an online course in teaching English as a Second Language when she found this bit of advice: “Hand out the dictation sheet. Tell the students that you are going to play (or read) a passage and that you want them to listen, read along on their sheets, and writhe in the missing words.” It’s always sound policy to make your students writhe a little. The Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland, you may recall, learned reeling as well as writhing, not to mention drawling, stretching, and fainting in coils.
• Jerry Ochs e-mailed from Japan to mention a Bangkok Post editorial on 25 January about the business interests of the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, which mentioned “one long-standing thorn in his armour”. Or perhaps instead a chink in his flesh?