NEWSLETTER 474: SATURDAY 31 DECEMBER 2005
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Hookey Walker Many subscribers asked after my piece last week if hookey in the sense of playing truant from school is related. It isn’t, being definitely American rather than British. The origin is uncertain, but one suggestion is that it came from Dutch hoekje (spelen), to play hide-and-seek. Another slang sense of hookey, the British one for something stolen, illegal, or counterfeit, is actually a pun on bent.
Organlegger Jean Rossner pointed out that an earlier Larry Niven story contains this word than Death By Ecstasy (1969) that I cited last week. It appeared in The Jigsaw Man, which was included in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology in 1967.
2. Weird Words: Handsel Monday
The first Monday in the New Year.
This is an old Scottish festival, before the nineteenth century the main midwinter celebration—Christmas was considered by Calvinists to be heathen and Hogmanay hadn’t come into fashion.
In The Eskdale Herd-boy (“a Scottish tale for the instruction and amusement of young persons”) by Martha Blackford, published in 1819, appears: “‘Sir,’ said John, as he walked along, ‘do you think Mr Laurie will give me a holiday on Handsel Monday?’ (the first Monday in the year, and the only holiday the Scottish peasantry ever allow themselves, except, perhaps, in the case of a wedding).”
It was in particular a day for giving presents and that’s where the name comes from. Handsel (or hansel, or even handsell) is a Middle English word for luck or a good omen that comes from Old Norse. It became the name for a gift given on any special occasion, such as taking on a new job or beginning some enterprise, or for earnest money—a down payment or a first instalment.
It could also be the first money taken by a trader on any given day, which explains the comment of the flower girl in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The first handsel today, gentleman. Buy that lovely bunch. Will you, gentleman?”
3. Noted this week
Words of the year Next week, the American Dialect Society will be adding to the gaiety of nations by announcing the result of voting for the Words of the Year at its annual meeting in Albuquerque. As a preview, here are some nominations already made: exopolitics, dealings with space aliens; nuclear option, an extreme course of action in the U.S. Senate; refugee, a newly controversial term for a displaced person; Cyber Monday, the one after Thanksgiving (for online shopping); rendition, the transfer of a person for interrogation by a foreign power; spim, instant-messaging spam; dirka dirka, a mimicry of spoken Arabic; jump the couch, the Tom Cruise-inspired slang—based on jump the shark—meaning to exhibit frenetic or bizarre behaviour; and whale tail, the appearance of thong or g-string underwear over the waistband of clothing. I hope to bring you the results in the next issue.
Mixology My personal word of the week, which you may feel is a suitably seasonal term, turned up the other day in a recipe book for cocktails that the OED has asked me to search for interesting words. It’s obvious enough how some unknown American created it for the art or skill of creating cocktails and other mixed drinks, but on a whim I looked into its history and was surprised to discover how old it is—both mixology and mixologist are nineteenth century words, the latter being the older. In 1882, the Fresno Bee of California remarked: “The art of ‘mixology’ has been reduced to a science”. A modern mixologist may feel that the science has moved on a bit since then.
4. Reviews: The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang
Eric Partridge was a pioneer. He spent most of his life working in that most intractable of lexicographical specialisms, slang. It is inconceivable to us today, when dictionaries are produced by teams of professionals supported by massive electronic archives, that his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English was created in 1937 as a solo effort. Like some similarly placed predecessors, such as Johnson and Webster, he became an eponym. His work went through seven editions, plus an additional posthumous one edited by Paul Beale in 1984.
But his idiosyncratic approach has since been shown to have resulted at times in errors of dating and etymology based on extravagant extrapolation. Not for him the cautious conservatism of the Oxford English Dictionary, with its mantra of “origin unknown”. He was much more a philologist, a lover of words, than a scholarly lexicographer and he was always prepared to step beyond the evidence to say something about a word, even if his comments bordered on guesswork. In later years, he wasn’t at ease with the slang of the post-war generations, for which he had poor cultural appreciation.
So anybody who takes on the task of revising his dictionary has the enormous and unenviable task of weeding out the master’s mistakes while updating it and maintaining the reputation of the brand. Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor, respectively American and British, have taken on the job, in the process continuing an essentially amateur approach (in the best sense), since Mr Dalzell’s day job is as a lawyer and Mr Victor is an actor, broadcaster and writer.
At first glance, the work is a substantial improvement. It’s now in two large volumes (with, one has to regret, a whopping great price to match). The typography is easily the best of any current slang dictionary and gives a clean and authoritative feel. A bibliography rounds off the second volume.
Most entries include citations or references to sources, but a heavy price has been paid for their inclusion, even given the great increase in size. The work is much less comprehensive than either its previous incarnation or the current edition of Jonathon Green’s work (which continues to rely quite heavily in places on Partridge) and the loss is largely in the historical slang that so fascinated Eric Partridge. The editors have chosen to concentrate on slang recorded in use after 1945 and this has transformed the style and coverage of the work, to my mind ripping the heart out of it. In many cases it has had an unfortunate side-effect of divorcing slang terms from their historical hinterlands.
One of the failings of the original work was its over-emphasis on British slang, excluding in particular much vocabulary from the US. The new edition has reversed this and has a considerable American contribution, perhaps excessively so, with British entries seeming weak by comparison. It is now very strong on Caribbean, Australian and New Zealand English, through the efforts of a group of collaborators.
Many individual entries raise questions. It’s good to see that the computer slang senses of hack are carefully distinguished (the editors are generally excellent on the current jargon of the Net and computing), but where are the US slang senses of an old, dilapidated vehicle, or the military punishment of being confined to quarters, both of which Jonathan Lighter documents in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as being in use post-1945?
The editors give nadgers, British slang for the testicles, a date of 1998, though it is most definitely older—they mention the all-purpose (and well documented) Goon Show expletive use in the 1950s but ignore evidence that the word had even then taken on its modern sense (if, as they say, it is from gonads, no other conclusion is possible). Their etymologies for the origin of naff (unappealing, in poor taste) are unconvincingly folk etymological and leave out the probable origin from Polari (even though it appears in a quote under that word).
They say peep show is American, from 1947, but their sense of a place where one could view pornographic images is much older in British English. It was certainly known in 1900 when H G Wells wrote Love and Mr Lewisham: “Try as we may to stay those delightful moments, they fade and pass remorselessly; there is no returning, no recovering, only — for the foolish — the vilest peep-shows and imitations in dens and darkened rooms.” They define goombah as meaning “a loyal male friend; an Italian-American”, which is fine as far as it goes, but why no mention of the senses of a member of a criminal gang, a Mafia boss, or a stupid person? Or indeed where it comes from (Italian compare).
The bob’s your uncle entry uncritically tells the Arthur Balfour nepotism story with the cop-out introduction “most commentators offer ...”. Readers don’t want to know what most commentators say; they want to learn what the editors have concluded on the basis of their own research.
Their country of origin and dating—as with nadgers—is always based on the first recorded use. This can mislead in the case of slang; it is often only committed to print when the fashion for a word is already waning, and its first appearance can be divorced from its true locale by an accident of recording. Piece of cake has a date of “US, 1936”, but the entry says it was originally RAF slang, so necessarily British; in one sense they are right, as the first known example is from an Ogden Nash work of 1936, but putting the two bits of data together without further explanation causes confusion. Likewise with sugar daddy, whose dating (“UK, 1926”) is from the OED’s first citation; however, a search in a newspaper archive throws up earlier examples from the USA, supporting the view that its true provenance is on that side of the Atlantic.
Was Palace of Varieties ever slang for the House of Commons beyond the 1966 joking diary reference by Gyles Brandreth that’s cited in the entry? The work includes other entries that similarly look like nonce forms. For example, was palintoshed ever a real-life slang term meaning drunk, beyond some joker’s submission of it to a BBC1 TV programme in 2002? It seems that the editors have at times relied on the appearance of terms in glossaries and books without confirming by further research that they ever had a real circulation.
The revision is a brave try and there’s a great deal that’s worth having in it. But it’s sad to see so much historical material has been lost and that some entries raise queries or could be improved. Like the proverbial bad apple in a barrel, such entries contaminate the whole. I cannot recommend it.
[Tom Dalzell and Terry Victor [eds], The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, published by Routledge in December 2005; hardback, two vols, pp 2189; ISBN 0415212588; publisher’s initial price £99.00, rising to £140.00 next Spring.]
5. Questions & Answers: Soup and fish
[Q] From Lee-Ann Nelson: “I am baffled by an expression from P G Wodehouse. Bertie puts on his soup and fish. Can you explain this?”
[A] I can. The soup and fish is a man’s evening dress, dinner suit, or dress suit, though I should really instead refer to it as a tuxedo, since—despite Bertie Wooster’s mainly London milieu—the phrase seems to be natively American.
Until I went delving in old US newspapers, I thought that Wodehouse had invented it. Indeed, the OED gives him the credit for its first use, in Piccadilly Jim in 1918: “He took me to supper at some swell joint where they all had the soup-and-fish on but me. I felt like a dirty deuce in a clean deck.” But there are earlier examples, such as this from The Atlanta Constitution of November 1914, in a report about local kids being given a slap-up meal by the Rotary Club: “There’s going to be no ‘fess up’ business; no ‘soup and fish’ outfits. It’ll be just a good dinner.”
But why soup and fish? Well, one dons these duds for a special occasion such as a formal meal. This is likely to be a heavyweight event, with many courses, starting with soup and followed by fish before one gets to the main event of the meat course. So the soup-and-fish is what one wears to consume the soup and fish.
Incidentally, one of the more delightful aspects of hunting down this kind of language is that sometimes you get more than you were expecting. The Grand Rapids Tribune in February 1915 included this: “After donning the complete Soup and Fish known in swozzey circles as Thirteen and the Odd, he didn’t look as much like a waiter as one might have supposed.” Thirteen and the Odd? There are other examples to be found, though only a few. Jonathon Green notes in the Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that it is long-obsolete slang for a tail-coat, as worn with the full fig of white tie and tails, but says that its origin is unknown. Well, did you ever?
• On 23 December, Gloria Bryant noted a headline on the Web site of the Buffalo News: “Couple Finds Rare Pear in Clam”. Fruits of the sea?
• Keith Warren, based in Maputo, found a nicely mixed metaphor in a piece on spiked-online.com: “He spent huge sums sending his plans to France’s main men but his visions fell on deaf ears.”
• “Our household,” communicates Paul Birch from North Vancouver, BC, “recently received a printed notice from an enterprising young lady who was available for ‘house cleaning, dusting, and moping’. It seems that everything can be outsourced now.”