NEWSLETTER 559: SATURDAY 27 OCTOBER 2007
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Garnish See below for comments and feedback on this, which appeared in a Sic! item two weeks ago, but which I held over from last week’s issue because of pressure of space.
Spurtle Following recent raised eyebrows about my ignorance of this term, Peter White wrote, “It’s interesting when others don’t know words in local daily use. Another is ‘tacket’, which none of the contestants on My Word including Frank Muir knew, years ago. Tackets were the metal studs in a working man’s boots and daily in Glasgow the last thing a man would do as he left for work was to put on his tackety boots.”
Sic! The column fillers in the New Yorker that were mentioned in a item in last week’s Sic! column were actually titled Block that metaphor. Thanks to everybody who wrote in about that.
Pelf Following last week’s piece, lots of people remembered pelf as a word they’d come across at school when learning bits of verse. Interestingly, most of the historical examples I found were also in verse; it does seem to have become a literary word at one point. A particular memory was of part of one stanza of Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel:
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
[Don’t e-mail me to say that from whence is ungrammatical; look at this page first.]
Spanish practices In the piece last time on this expression, I mentioned a reference to a US popular song of the 1930s that one writer claimed had been the genesis of the phrase old Spanish customs, but that I’d been unable to find a source. Subscribers sprang into action. Chris Green found a song with the title It’s An Old Spanish Custom in a very unsuccessful 1953 Broadway musical, Carnival In Flanders, as well as earlier examples; these included the 1934 film, We’re Not Dressing, loosely based on The Admirable Crichton, in which Ethel Merman sings It’s Just a New Spanish Custom, suggesting that the “old” version of the phrase was already widely known. Doug McKinnon indeed found several songs of roughly that title and added, “I would probably attribute it to his having seen a Roy Rogers film that included ‘It’s An Old Spanish Custom’ by the Sons of the Pioneers.”
2. Weird Words: Foofaraw
Frills and flashy finery; a fuss about nothing.
Foofaraw is fairly common in North America, though it has never become widely known elsewhere. The earliest senses were of something vain, fussy, tawdry or gaudy — baubles, bangles or beads. In time, this shifted to mean frivolous accoutrements or trappings, then became a dismissive adjective with the sense of being vain or stuck-up and later took on the idea of ostentation. The most common sense nowadays, a brouhaha or fuss, especially a storm in a teacup, came last of all.
What qualifies it for inclusion in this section is partly its odd look and partly its curious origin. Dictionaries mostly play safe and say “origin unknown” while noting that it began to be used in the 1930s. The Oxford English Dictionary has recently compiled an entry, based in part on the one that’s in the Dictionary of American Regional English, that takes the origin back much further.
There are a lot of examples from the late 1840s onwards, variously spelled as fofarraw, fofarrow, frufraw, foofooraw, among others. It isn’t well recorded in its early days and there are big gaps in its history, but etymologists are sure it’s the same word. The earliest example, in Blackwood’s Magazine for June 1848, is in an article written by an adventurous Englishman named George Frederick Augustus Ruxton, who travelled in the Rocky Mountains and who wrote a book, Life in the Far West, that was published in 1849.
The word was used by traders, trappers and explorers in the area. The experts point to Spanish fanfarón, a braggart or blusterer, and to the related French fanfaron. These terms were picked up by English speakers from French and Spanish frontiersmen. As often happens with odd words, hearers misheard and mangled them. Later development was probably influenced by the French word frou-frou, frills or ornamentation, which began as an imitation of the rustling noise made by a woman walking in a dress.
A delightful example is in John Varley’s SF novel Steel Beach: “All in all, it was the goldarndest, Barnum-and-Baileyest, rib-stickinest, rough-and-tumblest infernal foofaraw of a media circus anybody had seen since grandpaw chased the possum down the road and lost his store teeth, and I was heartily sorry to have been a part of it.”
3. Recently noted
Habby days Hab, from rehab (short for rehabilitation), is showing signs of taking on a life of its own as a suffix. There’s prehab, for example, exercises athletes undertake in order to prevent more serious injuries. What prompted the thought were news reports about the American actress and singer Lindsay Lohan that described her stay at a clinic in Utah as threehab. This turns out to mean no booze, no narcotics and no tobacco.
The joy of text It seems that a survey and a neologism go together like a horse and carriage. The British breakfast TV programme GMTV reported last week that “A new poll of 2,000 adults reveals that 235 million flirtatious text messages are sent every month, at a cost of £231 million. In other words, we are spending nearly £3 billion a year ‘flexting’.”
Around and about Much has been written in British newspapers this past week about the comic genius of Alan Coren, who has just died. Among his many cherished dislikes was the word suburban, about which he wrote in his last published piece in The Spectator, a year ago. “Suburban is ... a perfectly rotten word, it degrades the environs I cherish into something woefully less than urban; it is a sneer, a snub, a smirk behind the metropolitan hand.” He claimed to have coined an alternative 20 years ago, peripolitan. Its lexical beginning is Greek peri, around, which appears in pericardium, peristyle, perihelion, and perilune. Its middle is polis, a city. So peripolitan means “around the city”. His tongue in his cheek, he bitterly complained about those “snooty philological time-servers” at the Oxford English Dictionary who refused to put it in on his say-so. John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED (who is certainly philological but not in the least snooty), tells me that there are just two examples in their files, not enough to justify including it. He went on, “Despite his failure with peripolitan, he is nevertheless cited seven times in the dictionary, notably at something for the weekend — his daughter Victoria brought an early quotation to our attention as presenter of BBC2’s word-hunt programme Balderdash & Piffle.” In one paragraph we’ve moved from English comic writer to French letters. How very Alan Coren.
Troubled waters The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, was on his feet in the House of Commons this week to speak about the new European Union treaty agreed last week. He noted that Margaret Thatcher negotiated certain passerelles with the EU. This glorious example of pure Euro-jargon sent journalists scurrying to their EU glossaries. I found this on a Web site: “A word meaning footbridge, referring to the possibility of either moving a policy area from the intergovernmental third pillar to the supra-national first pillar, or changing the voting rules in the council or the extension of the article’s scope of application.” I then looked up pillar, but the explanation depressed me too much to want to write about it.
4. Garnish versus garnishee
An item in the Sic! section two weeks ago puzzled many readers from North America, since they know — and some regularly use — the legal verb garnish in the sense of seizing money, especially part of a person’s salary, to settle a debt or claim. Jacklin Vanmechelen said “garnishing wages is often done in the USA — it’s removing some of the green stuff, not adding it.” However, I knew it only as garnishee, a common UK form, which is why I included the item, believing that garnish was an error. I have since learned that garnish appears without comment in many US dictionaries. However, the other form also appears in them and it’s easy to find hundreds of examples in recent newspapers (Chicago Sun-Times, 24 September: “He was wary of taking a job outside of his field because he feared his wages would be garnisheed.”)
Opinions on it in resulting correspondence have been extreme. Jean Rossner said: “Alas, this seems to be standard US usage these days. In my days as proofreader and editor, I stopped counting the number of times I corrected it to ‘garnisheed’ and the editor changed it back again, or the printer just ignored me.” On the other hand, Koven Vance commented that “I hope that your correspondent wasn’t thinking that the correct form was the grotesque and debased ‘garnisheed.’”
Garnish is in fact the older form, with the meaning “to serve notice on a person, for the purpose of attaching money belonging to a debtor”. (The word is from Middle English, in the sense of equipping or arming, from Old French garnir, probably of Germanic origin and related to warn; the sense of decorating or embellishing came along in the late seventeenth century.) Garnishee appeared in the early seventeenth century, reasonably enough as the term for a person whose money has been so attached. The OED’s entry implies that garnishee came to be employed so often semi-adjectivally (garnishee order, garnishee summons, garnishee proceedings) that around the end of the nineteenth century it turned into the verb and partially replaced garnish.
5. Questions & Answers: Chew the fat
[Q] From Steve Haywood: “So why do we chew the fat while we’re talking? The idea I’ve heard that you might hack off a piece of your bacon for guests as it was curing in the hearth seems preposterous to me. Surely there’s a better explanation?”
[A] These days we mean by it that people are chatting or gossiping to pass the time to no very deep purpose. When it first appeared, though, it meant to grumble or complain.
Some wonderfully literal-minded stories have been invented with which to explain its origin, especially in North America, where it has been linked to native peoples, American Indians or Inuit, who would chew hides to soften them, an activity carried out in their spare time. The tale you mention first appeared around 1999 in a widely circulated humorous message with the title Life in 1500 that purports to give the origins of several puzzling expressions. It still annoyingly pops up from time to time and has unfortunately been widely taken to be accurate:
Sometimes people could obtain pork and would feel really special when that happened. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of wealth and that a man “could really bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”
Like the other stories in the message, it’s rubbish, of course. For a start, the expression is about four centuries less old than the tale suggests.
The first reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a book by J Brunlees Patterson published in 1885, Life in the Ranks of the British Army in India. He suggested it was a term for the kind of generalised grumbling, the bending of the ears of junior officers as a way of staving off boredom, that’s a perennial and immemorial part of army life. It also appears in the famous 1891 British compilation Slang and Its Analogues by John Farmer and William Henley; it is likewise said to be of military origin and to refer to grumbling. The next examples we have are from the US, dating from the early part of the twentieth century. It became more common over the next decade on both sides of the Atlantic and weakened until it just meant idle chat.
Mr Patterson also records the phrase chew the rag, which at one point he uses in the same sentence as chew the fat and which he obviously considered to be synonymous. This is a little older — an example is recorded in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang from about 1875: “Gents, I could chew the rag hours on end, just spilling out the words and never know no more than a billy-goat what I’d been saying”. The OED has an example of 1891 taken from James Dixon’s Dictionary of Idiomatic English Phrases, which was published in Shanghai; the author glosses it as “to be sullen and abusive. A phrase common in the army”. Chew the rag is much more widely recorded from the US from about 1895 onwards than is chew the fat and becomes commonly known both there and in the UK in the decades that followed.
The 1875 US example sounds like the modern meaning but the slightly later British ones are in the military slang sense of grumbling. This may indicate independent creation. The dating and geographical distribution of citations leave us with some unanswered questions, too. However, it looks from the evidence as though chew the fat is a modification of chew the rag. If it is, then the origin is probably in the US.
But we don’t need to invoke any literal interpretations, either of chewing rags or fat. It’s enough to compare the steady chomping of the jaws in chewing with the mouth movements of conversation to see where the figurative sense came from. The image of a person biting down on something so uncongenial and unrewarding as a rag, like an angry dog worrying a bit of cloth, is enough to evoke the original sense of grumbling and discontent.
• “I was reading some sentencing decisions of the Supreme Court of Tasmania recently (thrilling stuff),” e-mailed Margaret Chandler from Hobart, “when I came across the following comments about a defendant: ‘He has been in regular employment since leaving school, save for a period when he was pursuing a career as a professional football.’ Ouch.”
• The CBC news site had this sentence in an item dated 17 October about various countries’ seabed land grabs: “A quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves can be found in the Arctic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.” Reg Brehaut could only marvel at the ability of the Survey to know the unknowable.
• On Thursday of last week, Peter Lynch tells me, Channel 4 announced the death of Deborah Kerr, “An English Rose — born in Scotland”.
• The Daily Mail, reporting on free health care for immigrants to the UK, noted that “GPs ... report confusion over who is illegible for Health Service care”. Mary Grylls wonders if this is the biter bit, a case of doctors not being able to read patients’ handwriting.
• Searching for information on the California fires from Switzerland, Pat Mackay stumbled upon this, on www.cbs8.com: “Please note: The following homes have been confirmed destroyed by News 8 reporters on the ground.” She has always felt the media had a lot to answer for, but that was a bit much.