E-MAGAZINE 638: SATURDAY 9 MAY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Fiasco Many subscribers asked if the curious history of this word in English had any connection with the British slang term bottle, meaning courage. Though the story behind bottle is a bit obscure, we’re sure there’s no link — for more, see my Topical Words piece on bottle.
Nigel Ross added these footnotes: “Fiasco isn’t really the usual Italian translation of bottle, the standard word being bottiglia. Fiasco refers to a specific kind of bottle — the one typically used for Chianti, rounded, with a long neck and covered with the straw casing to give it a stand. A fiasco may also be its contents, the wine. Far (un) fiasco does mean ‘to make a bottle’, but also ‘to do (a) bottleful’. I think some mention should be made of the possible idea that the expression simply comes from having had one over the eight, a condition in which you are likely to end up making a fiasco.”
Jane von Maltzahn pointed out that German uses its word for bottle, Flasche, in a related sense. Er ist eine Flasche, means “he’s a failure”. Du Flasche! means “you’re useless!”
In October 1801, a German showman, Paul Philipsthal, placed an advertisement to publicise an event at the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, London:
The public are respectfully acquainted, that the phantasmagoria, or, Grand Cabinet of Optical and Mechanical Curiosities, exhibiting Magical Illusions, and various other wonderful Pieces of Art, will Open in this Place this day, October 5, and continue every Evening.
The Times, London, 5 October 1801.
By moving a slide projector (then called a magic lantern) backwards and forwards on rails, figures were made to increase and decrease in size, advance and retreat, dissolve, vanish, and pass into each other. Images were projected on a translucent screen between the audience and the stage, so that they appeared to hang in the air.
A rather crude drawing, supposedly of Paul Philipsthal’s apparatus, from The Portfolio, 1825. Note the wheels and rails for the projector, and the back-projection screen.
A month after his spectacle opened Mr Philipsthal elaborated on it by proclaiming that it would produce “the Phantoms or Apparitions of the dead or absent” and that objects would “freely originate in the air, and unfold themselves under various forms and sizes, such as imagination alone has hitherto painted them”. Much later, a fuller description of the performance appeared:
The head of Dr. Franklin was transformed into a scull; figures which retired with the freshness of life came back in the form of skeletons, and the retiring skeletons returned in the drapery of flesh and blood. The exhibition of these transmutations was followed by spectres, skeletons, and terrific figures; which, instead of receding and vanishing as before, suddenly advanced upon the spectators, becoming larger as they approached them, and finally vanished by appearing to sink into the ground.
Letters on Natural Magic, by David Brewster, 1831.
Philipsthal’s title for his show, Phantasmagoria, was a word he borrowed from fantasmagorie, by then used for some 20 years in French-speaking Europe for similar exhibitions. This derived from fantasme, a phantasm, plus possibly the Greek agora, a place of assembly. But as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary said, a little sniffily, promoters may have merely wanted “a mouth-filling and startling term” and strict etymology be damned.
He was much bothered by imitators who quickly took advantage of his success, despite his being granted a patent in February 1802, and the popularity of the visual spectacle was so great that the term became a generic one for this type of exhibition. It also entered the language in the modern metaphorical sense of a sequence of real or imaginary images like that seen in a dream.
3. Questions and Answers: Cute as a bug’s ear
[Q] From Scott Harman: I recently used the phrase cute as a bug’s ear in reference to my granddaughter. Some of my Chinese friends were confounded by the phrase; as one pointed out, there is nothing particularly cute about bugs or, presumably, their ears. I have heard this expression all my life (I live in the US Midwest) but I have not been able to find a satisfactory explanation of its origin. Can you help?
[A] Heavens to Betsy, another quaint American folk expression! It’s not at all surprising your Chinese friends found it odd.
Presumably working on the principle that the smaller the thing is the cuter it will be, the idiom suggests its subject is the epitome of cuteness. It means some person, especially a child, who is pretty or attractive in a dainty way. Other than that, no good explanation exists for the existence of the simile. I’m also reliably informed that, entomologically speaking, the idiom is nonsense, since bugs don’t have ears.
It belongs with a huge set of such expressions, mostly but not all American, which no doubt your Chinese friends would be equally puzzled by: cute as a bug in a rug, cute as a button, cute as a weasel, cute as a kitten, cute as a (pet) fox, cute as a bunny, cute as a speckled puppy, cute as a cupcake, cute as a kewpie doll, cute as a razor (nick), as well as the deeply deprecatory cute as a washtub (from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely) and cute as a shithouse rat (in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Some of the older ones are using cute in its original sense of clever, shrewd or quick-witted (the word dates from the eighteenth century and is a shortened or aphetic form of acute).
Here’s the earliest example I can find of your version:
“You are very cute, aren’t you?” the traveler said sarcastically. “Widder Wheeler says I’m cute as a Bug’s ear, and she knows.”
The News (Frederick, Maryland), 21 Apr. 1900.
4. Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary
This, my most recent book, is now out in paperback in the US.
Gallimaufry is about words that are vanishing from everyday life because we don’t need them any more. Sometimes one is lost when the thing it describes becomes obsolete: would you wear a billycock? It may survive in a figurative sense though the original meaning is lost: what were the first paraphernalia? Sometimes it gives way to a more popular alternative: who still goes to the picture house to watch the talkies? More than 1,200 vanishing and vanished words are packaged into 31 themes that range from cooking and card games to obscure occupations and unfashionable fashions. Read more.
Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of Our Vanishing Vocabulary is published by Oxford University Press. Hardcover: ISBN 0198610629; paperback: ISBN 0199551022; 272pp, including index.
5. Questions and Answers: By the skin of one’s teeth
[Q] From Cindy Bean: I was born and raised in Maine and still live there. Quite often I hear the expression by the skin of my teeth. We usually say it when we have done something just in the nick or time or avoided something by a very narrow margin. It doesn’t make much sense and is rather on the silly side. Does this have any special origin?
[A] It does indeed: it’s Biblical. It appeared first in the Geneva Bible of 1560 and was copied in the King James Bible of 1611:
Yea, young children despised me; I arose, and they spake against me. All my inward friends abhorred me: and they whom I loved are turned against me. My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.
Job, Chapter 19, verses 18–20, part of the lamentations of Job to God about his dreadful situation.
The English phrase was a direct translation of the original Hebrew, so it is very ancient indeed.
Since teeth don’t have skin, the phrase is hard to make sense of; Bible translators and commentators have struggled with it down the centuries. The Douay-Rheims Bible has instead “My bone hath cleaved to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth.” Other writers have suggested that the reference is to the gums. Modern versions often imply that Job meant the same by it as we do today by adopting our modern standard form with by in place of with. The World English Bible, for example, has “I have escaped by the skin of my teeth”.
Job’s misfortunes at the hands of God and Satan were so great that he could hardly have believed he had had much of an escape at all. Was he saying that the only part of his body that hadn’t suffered the boils and sores inflicted by Satan was the skin of his lips or gums? Was he instead saying allusively that his bodily afflictions were so great that he had had a narrow escape from death? One modern writer has concluded:
The explanations for the last metaphor are multiple and unconvincing. Its meaning eludes us.
The Book of Job, by John Hartley, 1988.
With such scholarly incomprehension, we can hardly blame English speakers for possibly having misunderstood it. As usual with idioms, we just have to accept that people mean by it what they mean by it.
• We know pigs are intelligent animals, but a headline in Tuesday’s Garden City Telegram of Kansas made Peter Casey wonder if too much reliance was not being placed on this during the flu outbreak: “Critics question self-inspection of pigs”.
• Ray Neinstein was surprised by a sentence he read on msn.com news on Tuesday: “Proving the title of her new memoir, ‘Resilience,’ to be accurate, Elizabeth Edwards sheds some highly personal insights into her life, her health and her husband’s infidelity with Oprah Winfrey, in a TV interview to air on The Oprah Winfrey Show Thursday.”
• A wanted ad from last week’s Cleveland Plain Dealer came in from Albert Paolino: “Rapidly expanding Steel Service Center wants an assertive, bright flat-rolled salesperson to earn $50-$120K, experience preferred.”
• Terry Karney found a headline in the Huffington Post on Wednesday, over an article by Jane Fonda: “Adolescent Pregnancy Must Become a Priority for All Americans.” Form an orderly queue, chaps.