E-MAGAZINE 649: SATURDAY 25 JULY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Take a powder Many interesting comments arrived following my try at explaining this puzzling American expression last week. Readers noted that my attempt to dismiss the sense of going to the powder room because take was the wrong word was probably unsustainable in the light of other US excretory expressions that include the verb.
Many other readers recalled elderly relatives taking headache powders, common in the days before pills became widely available, and agreed that this was a strong possibility for its origin. Several mentioned in particular BC powder, a pain reliever first sold in 1906 and still available today. This was popular enough early in its history that it may have been part of the background for the figurative expression.
John Roland Elliott commented, “I always thought that take a powder was an invitation to self-administer some pain relief product to relieve one’s apparent agitation. I thought it would roughly translate to ‘chill out’ or Jon Stewart’s ‘settle down’.” Missy Gaido Allen remembers it used this way: “My grandmother, born in Florida in 1908 and raised in Texas, used take a powder as a variation of ‘relax’. She explained it to me as taking medication. I grew up in Texas in the 1970s and we used that phrase — it was understood as ‘calm down’.”
Australians tell me that they have also used the expression in this sense. Darren Schliebs wrote, “I was unaware of the US usage of take a powder and had always thought that it was intended to mean ‘calm down’, on the assumption that it was related to taking analgesic ‘powders’ of the 1950s.” Others have told me that these were similar to the American BC powders and were sold under the name Bex; a comedy revue in 1965 had the title A Cup of Tea, a Bex and a Good Lie Down, a sweetly sarcastic reference to the Australian housewife’s remedy for many ills.
Donald Kaspersen remembers an extended version of the expression, based on a deliberately paradoxical logic: “The oldtimers in New York City, if they were annoyed with you, would sometimes say, ‘Yer givin’ me a headache. Why don’t ya go take a powder?’ But, more often, the first sentence would be dropped, as, at least at one time, everyone knew it anyway.”
Two French readers noted an intriguing cross-language similarity. Jean-Charles Khalifa, lecturer in linguistics at the University of Poitiers, wrote: “French has a quaint idiom prendre la poudre d’escampette, literally ‘take the powder of escampette’, the last word being now extinct but for the idiom, and deriving from an also extinct verb escamper; this has been transformed into décamper, still in use, meaning ‘to flee in a hurry’ [The source also of the English verb decamp -- Ed]. As far as I know, the reference to ‘powder’ goes back at least to the 17th century, when doctors (famously caricatured in many Molière plays) used to order all sorts of powders made from weird ingredients (French still has a nice idiom poudre de perlimpinpin for any sort of quack remedy).” Josée Bégaud made similar points and added, ‘Unfortunately, none of my dictionaries explains why it should be poudre. Instinctively, I understand it as ‘take a magic powder that allows you to flee very quickly’, but that’s entirely personal.”
2. Questions and Answers: Out like Lottie's eye
[Q] From Pete White: My wife’s grandmother used to say someone was out like Lottie’s eye when they were dead asleep, or perhaps passed out drunk. I have heard that Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde once famously used the phrase, but nobody seems to be able to tell me where it came from, or who Lottie is.
[A] It was actually Clyde Barrow who used the expression, according to most accounts, including this one:
Clyde made the choice to run for freedom. He never deceived himself about the ultimate outcome, however, and later told his sister Nell, “I’m just going on ’til they get me. Then I’m out like Lottie’s eye.”
The Lives and Times of Bonnie & Clyde, by E R Milner, 1996. Here Clyde clearly means death rather than some temporary unconsciousness.
Both Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were from Texas and I wondered if your wife’s grandmother might also be from there (though you have since told me she isn’t). That’s because the earliest examples that I know about are all from that state. None, alas, give any clue as to who Lottie might have been, or why her eye should have become significant.
There are theories, of course. Lot’s wife from the Bible has been mentioned, though her story hardly matches. A speakeasy in Chicago called “Lottie’s Pub” has been mentioned, because it supposedly turned a blind eye to what was going on inside. This doesn’t fit the early history and seems to be no more than the usual kind of folk invention. In her book To Wed a Texan, Georgina Gentry suggests that Lottie Deno had been “a legendary saloon girl who lost an eye in a brawl”; perhaps she’s confusing the lady with the Lottie Deno who was a famous professional gambler in Texas after the Civil War, but I can’t find she ever lost an eye.
One writer has asserted that the idiom has a very long history, back into colonial times, but that is extremely doubtful. The first example I’ve been able to turn up is this:
Times when I thought my luck had went out like Lottie’s eye. But it don’t do to give up.
The Wind, by Dorothy Scarborough, 1925. Her writings are particularly associated with Texas, continuing the links with that state.Here’s one from a little later:
The cat is out of the bag! The deep, dark mystery is solved! The truth is out — out like Lottie’s eye, for like somebody or other said “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”.
The Morning Avalanche (Lubbock, Texas), 28 Jul. 1931. It’s clear from the writer’s play on the expression that it was one he expected his readers to know.
A faint possible hint comes from an article by James H Warner, A Word List from Southeast Arkansas, which appeared in the language journal American Speech in 1938. He included go out like Lottie’s eye but defined it as running very fast and added the illustrative sentence, “That horse is going out like Lottie’s eye.” Might Lottie have been a racehorse?
Back in 1938, Paul Harvey wrote in The Oxford Companion to English Literature that “Titivil was evidently in origin a creation of monastic wit.”
He was thinking of the earliest sense of the word. A titivil was a very specific kind of tale-bearer. He was a devil whose job was to collect up the fragments of words or phrases that monks skipped or mumbled while they were reciting divine service. He took them down to Hell, where they were logged against the offender. Might he have been invented as a way to scare the less conscientious members of monastic congregations into saying their prayers properly? It seems more than likely.
He wasn’t English to start with. He turns up in continental Europe in the fourteenth century under various names, including Titinillus and Titivillus. He’s mentioned in a sermon dated to the early 1300s by a Dominican monk named Petrus de Palude who later became Patriarch of Jerusalem: “Fragmina psalmorum Titiuillus colligit horum. Quaque die mille vicibus sarcinat ille” (Titivillus collects up fragments of these psalms. Every day he fills his bag a thousand times.) One guess is that his name was from the Latin word titivillitium used by the Roman comic dramatist Titus Maccius Plautus and which seems to have meant a mere trifle or a trivial bit of gossip.
Titivil escaped from the cloisters into the medieval mystery plays and from there into the colloquial language as a mischievous tale-bearer or more generally a ne’er-do-well or scoundrel. He vanished from common usage around the beginning of the seventeenth century and this is among his last appearances:
Coquette: A pratling, or proud gossip; a fisking or fliperous minx; a cocket, or a tatling housewife; a titifill, a flebergebit.
A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, by Randle Cotgrave, 1611. The definition is worse than the original word for modern readers because so many of the terms are unfamiliar: pratling is from prattle and meant gossiping; fisking meant flighty or frisky; the OED does not define fliperous and it appears nowhere else but here; cocket is just an early English spelling of coquette; tatling meant passing on tittle-tattle; flebergebit would now be spelled flibbertigibbet. And proud then meant haughty or arrogant.
4. Questions and Answers: Toad-in-the-hole
[Q] From Dave Cook: Though English gastropubs are sprouting like toadstools in New York, last week was my first encounter with toad-in-the-hole. After seeing it for myself, the story of how it got the name — that the sausage ends, peering out of their pastry basket, resemble toads — seems a stretch. Can you offer a more plausible etymology?
[A] How this humble dish got its name regularly puzzles students of English traditional cookery. A word of explanation may be in order for readers who have not encountered what Mrs Beeton described as a “homely but savoury dish”. Toad-in-the-hole consists of sausages baked in a batter that is much the same as that for another classic English dish, Yorkshire pudding. It’s usually served with onion gravy and vegetables.
The tale you heard is the most common try these days at explaining where the name comes from. It fails not so much on etymology (which has nothing to say about the matter) but on culinary history. The fact is that sausages are a very recent ingredient. Until well into the twentieth century recipes mention meat of various kinds, but not sausages. It is not unknown today for the dish to be made with uncased meat and you may come across sausage toad as an unlovely way to distinguish that version from the older type.
The first reference to it by name is in Captain Francis Grose’s A Provincial Glossary of 1787, though under the older name of toad-in-a-hole; he defined it as “meat boiled in a crust”. (I wonder, was he correct, or just unversed in cookery? Nobody else mentions a crust, or boiling.) In a letter to a friend ten years later the novelist Fanny Burney quoted a conversation that she had had with Princess Augusta, who said she never saw the dish without feeling angry about “putting a noble sirloin of beef into a poor paltry batter-pudding”. In her Book of Household Management of 1861, Mrs Beeton includes beef and kidneys in one of her recipes, producing a result that’s close to a steak and kidney pudding, though in batter rather than suet. Another recipe of hers employs mutton in place of beef. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes, published the same year, Charles Elme Francatelli goes for “bits or pieces of any kind of meat”. It would seem the ingredients varied a great deal. But definitely no toads.
At least one other dish has been similarly prepared in a pudding of batter and given a related name — Hannah Glasse had a recipe for pigeons-in-a-hole in her Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy in 1747. In an issue of Notes & Queries for January 1900, a writer, identified only by the initials CCB, notes toad-in-the-hole “used to be a favourite dish in farmhouses in Nottinghamshire. It is, if I remember rightly, a batter-pudding with a hole in the middle containing meat, beef by preference.” This clue to the origin of the first part of the name is supported by the definition that James Halliwell-Phillipps gave in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words in 1840: “a piece of beef placed in the middle of a dish of batter, and then baked”.
The reference to toads sounds extremely uncomplimentary, since they have universally been regarded with mild disgust and have been the source of numerous legends, not least that they give people warts. On the other hand, the dish was tasty and used good materials, so the name could hardly have been an insult. The explanation must lie in a natural history observation. Toads hide during the day in damp places, especially in burrows in soft ground to which they will return time after time. They like to sit just inside the entrance, ready to pounce on any passing insect. The similarity of the form of the original dish — meat in the centre of a batter surround — to a toad in its hole must have been sufficiently striking more than two centuries ago for the name to have stuck.
• John Smoleskis was looking through the jobs on monster.com. One was for a “literacy tutour”, which rather confirms the need. It begins, “Our client who are a Training Provider ...”. Which doubly confirms the need.
• Mike Page thought he had caught New Scientist out in a dreadful grammatical mistake when he read this headline: “Ares I Grounded”. But it turned out to be an article about a Mars rocket, Ares One.
• Irene Johnson read a report in the Daily Telegraph on 23 July about Alcohol Disorder Zones (to clarify the ambiguous name, the idea is to discourage disorder), a government scheme that hasn’t been taken up anywhere: “Commenting on the lack of interest shown by local councils ... a Home Office spokesman said, ‘The fact that there are not any Alcohol Disorder Zones does not suggest that they are not working.’”
• The Web site of First Coast News, based in Florida, had a headline on 21 July, “Missing Boaters Get Checked By Doctor”. Lesly Arnold asks if medical men are now being trained in ESP.