NEWSLETTER 473: SATURDAY 24 DECEMBER 2005
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Subscription numbers My estimate last week of the number of subscribers reading this newsletter via RSS turns out to have been far too low, since one service alone, Bloglines, has more than 4,000 subscribers. Some more work established that a better figure than my original crude guess of 1,000 would be 7,500!
Cash on the nail Following my piece last week many US subscribers mentioned cash on the barrelhead or cash on the barrel as an alternative. Unlike cash on the nail, this may have had a literal connection, either to the barrels used as informal counters in old-time general stores or to merchants refusing to hand over a barrel containing goods until it had been paid for. But it appears to be surprisingly modern: the earliest example I can find is dated 1906. Several writers made the point that the association of a nail with perfection probably came about through the creation of a sculpture or carving so perfect that running a fingernail over it couldn’t detect any unevenness.
Saturnalia Several subscribers pointed out after last week’s piece on this word that the well-known ability of Australians to party hard and long might be connected with Australian being an anagram of Saturnalia!
More shoring Following earlier items on offshoring, onshoring and similar words, Warren Blaisdell pointed out yet another one, farmshoring. This has been coined for the idea of outsourcing computer programming work to small rural communities or smaller cities in the US where the cost of living is low.
2. Questions & Answers: Walker!
[Q] From Neil Makar: “Near the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Scrooge tells a young boy to go and buy the prize turkey at a nearby poulterers. The boy replies ‘Walk-er!’ What did he mean by that?”
[A] He might instead have said something like, “Are you pulling my leg, Guvner?” In standard English, he was incredulous, seriously in doubt that Scrooge actually wanted him to go and buy that turkey. That’s why Scrooge had to reply, “No, no, I am in earnest.”
The full expression was originally Hookey Walker, which starts to appear in the early nineteenth century (the OED records it from 1811). It was an exclamation of disbelief or of an opinion that something was all humbug. In 1838, to take just one example, it is in Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities, by Robert Smith Surtees: “‘Ladies and gentlemen—my walued friend, Mr Kitey Graves, has announced that I will entertain the company with a song; though nothing, I assure you—hem—could be farther from my idea—hem—when my excellent friend asked me,’—‘Hookey Walker!’ exclaimed someone who had heard Jemmy declare the same thing half a dozen times.”
Charles MacKay wrote about Hookey Walker in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions in 1841:
In the course of time the latter word alone became the favourite, and was uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last. If a lively servant girl was importuned for a kiss by a fellow she did not care about, she cocked her little nose, and cried “Walker!” If a dustman asked his friend for the loan of a shilling, and his friend was either unable or unwilling to accommodate him, the probable answer he would receive was “Walker!”
There are several stories about where it came from. MacKay says it “derived from the chorus of a popular ballad”. In the 1894 edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Dr E Cobham Brewer included a note on it by John Bee, a pseudonym of John Badcock, who wrote some dictionaries of sporting slang in the 1820s. Badcock said:
John Walker was an outdoor clerk at Longman, Clementi, and Co.’s, Cheapside, and was noted for his eagle nose, which gained him the nickname of Old Hookey. Walker’s office was to keep the workmen to their work, or report them to the principals. Of course it was the interest of the employés to throw discredit on Walker’s reports, and the poor old man was so badgered and ridiculed that the firm found it politic to abolish the office, but Hookey Walker still means a tale not to be trusted.
The Oxford English Dictionary is disparaging about these stories. The second, despite its wealth of circumstantial detail, seems to be a classic example of folk etymology. MacKay’s view appears more probable, except that—so far as I can discover—no such ballad predating 1811 is known.
3. Weird Words: Mesmerise
To capture someone’s complete attention or transfix them.
This perpetuates the name of the eighteenth-century physician Franz Mesmer of Vienna. He believed that a magnetic force flowed from the stars to act on us all and that diseases were caused by blockages stopping the magnetic fluid flowing through the body. He called the force “animal magnetism”, a term we still sometimes use for people with strong personalities.
He tried acting on this force with magnets—he persuaded one of his early patients, for example, to swallow iron filings and then passed a magnet over her legs. Later—he’d moved to Paris by then—he created his baquet, a large tub filled with iron filings and magnetised water that 20 people could sit round (we know that water can’t be magnetised, but he didn’t). Projecting iron rods were provided for the patients to grasp or press to the affected spot.
In his salon, quiet music played and perfumes scented the air. Dr Mesmer would enter, dressed in a long robe of lilac-coloured silk, richly embroidered with gold flowers, holding a white magnetic rod in his hand. He treated every patient at the baquet with gestures, passes of his white rod, murmured words and searching looks.
Unfortunately, he became too popular, especially with the French queen, Marie Antoinette. Two politically motivated enquiries in 1784, one headed by Dr Guillotin of head-chopping fame, the other by Benjamin Franklin (the American ambassador to France at the time), concluded it was all done by manipulating the imagination of patients. In essence, Mesmer was, without realising it, putting his patients into a trance and giving them post-hypnotic suggestions to clear up psychosomatic ailments. All that stuff about iron bars and animal magnetism was irrelevant.
Mesmer’s reputation never recovered, but his name entered the language and later became an alternative term for hypnotism.
4. Noted this week
Non-coresidential Or, if you’re sensitive about where you put your hyphens, non-co-residential. This turned up in a report this week by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in the UK. I’d not come across it before but it turns out to be a well-known bit of jargon in the demographics business. It refers to unmarried couples who continue to live in separate residences even though they’re in an intimate relationship. A more colloquial equivalent is living apart together or LAT. The most telling part of the ONS report is that the number of LATs in Britain is now about the same as the number of cohabiting couples.
Word signs of the times If you send text messages on your mobile phone, you probably use predictive texting; this calls up a list of relevant words based on your initial keystrokes and so saves a lot of typing. Phones with T9 predictive text from Tegic Communications will soon get a dictionary upgrade. Tegic has announced a “top ten” among the new words, including lifehack (a technique that makes some aspect of one’s life easier or more efficient); mashup (new information created by combining data from two different sources); placeshift (to redirect a TV signal so the viewer can watch a show on a device other than his or her television); playlistism (judging a person based on what songs are on the playlist of his or her digital music player); and sideload (to transfer music or other content to a cell phone using the cell phone provider’s network). Aren’t these all indispensable? [My thanks to Phil Glatz for this story.]
Organlegging The macabre and horrifying allegations this week that the bones of the late Alistair Cooke were harvested by criminals and sold for medical purposes reminds us that some people will do anything for money and also supplies my personal word of the week. There’s nothing new in selling bodies—Burke and Hare were at it two centuries ago, sometimes hastening a person’s decease in the process. And this new style body-snatching was foretold in SF by Larry Niven in a series of short stories about a future time when an acute shortage of spare parts for transplants led to a thriving illegal trade in murder and organ harvesting. He coined the term organlegger (organ + bootlegger) for a person who did this, which first appeared in his story Death By Ecstasy in 1969: “For instant replacement of your ruined digestive system, for a young healthy heart, for a whole liver when you’d ruined yours with alcohol ... you had to go to an organlegger”.
5. Questions & Answers: Fossick
[Q] From Warren McLean, Australia: “The Antiques Roadshow recently came to Australia and one of the appraisers asked a lady where she had found the particular item she presented. She replied that she had found it while ‘fossicking around in the attic’. The word seemed to both amuse and astonish the appraiser, who had clearly never heard it before. Fossick does not appear in your Web site’s lengthy compendium and I wondered about its derivation.”
[A] Fossick is a characteristically Australian word (and, let us not forget, of New Zealanders too). As you’ve discovered, it isn’t widely used in Britain, though there are so many Antipodean writers working in the media over here that the word is by no means unknown (my favourite paper, the Guardian, has included it several times this year alone).
These days, it means to search about in an unsystematic way in the hope of finding what you’re looking for, or just searching in the hope of turning up something interesting. My New Zealand dictionary also says it can refer to pottering about more or less aimlessly (a travel writer in the Guardian in October 2005 used it this way: “And so back on board, for a last fossick through the Kattegat and Skaggerak.”) But the original sense, and one that’s still used, is to search gold-mine waste dumps or abandoned claims in the hope of turning up a few overlooked nuggets. That dates from the late 1850s in Australia and a few years later in New Zealand.
Its origin isn’t altogether clear, but the experts point to Cornish dialect. Cornishmen were well represented in early migrants to both countries and were known everywhere for their expertise in hard-rock mining. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago included the Cornish dialect fossick in the sense of “to obtain by asking; to ‘ferret out’”, as well as fursick or fossick, East Anglian words for pottering over one’s work, and fussock about, a rather more widely distributed dialect term for making a fuss or bustling about in an irritating way.
The truth is lurking in there somewhere.
• Jonathan McColl found a report in The Register of 14 December on an anti-piracy swoop in the Netherlands; it said that “Eight people in nine different locations were arrested on suspicion of committing copyright infringement.” Were they copying themselves, too?
• An Australian subscriber, who wishes to remain anonymous because he hopes to be accepted on the Australian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire), was impressed by one of the programme’s conditions: “Contestants are provided with economy class travel to Melbourne, along with any reasonably necessary ground transfers (if train or flight), and accommodated overnight and provided with a continental breakfast valued at up to $1,378 per person, depending on point of departure.”
• The Essex Evening Gazette and Echo recently intrigued Eric Shackle, far away in Australia, with this report of an unusual method of delivery: “In the past year, Cleanaway, the company managing the tip [dump], has built 1,000 wells and 65,000 metres of pipework deep into the site. As many as 42,000 trees and shrubs have been planted to create a nature-rich environment and 72,000 more are in the pipeline.”
• Martin Turner sent an e-mail headed “blue on blue”, whose meaning became clear when he followed it up with a quote from an item in the South China Morning Post on street violence relating to the WTO conference: “About 100 police with riot shields quickly arrived and forced the protesters to retreat before scuffling with officers in another area.”
• Submitted by too many people to mention individually: “Medieval alchemists identified Saturn with the element lead and astrologers with slowness and gloom.” Bob McGill was saddened to learn of “all those morose astrologers fingered by alchemists”. This came from last week’s issue of an obscure newsletter called World Wide Words.