NEWSLETTER 621: SATURDAY 10 JANUARY 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
The great Christmas Carol mystery Many of you inventively sought solutions to the sentence “May I press your cudiles?” mentioned last time as a curiosity in the 1999 TV film of A Christmas Carol. The speaker of the line, Edward Petherbridge, tells me that any “baroque explanation” that involves a fluff is way out of line: he did say the line correctly according to the script. The word was included at the insistence of the scriptwriter, Peter Barnes: “He was born in Bow so was a true Cockney. He was fond of obscure words but I think I was assured the word meant mitts, fingers, digits or just hands. I didn’t feel it worth the candle to argue about this annoying obscurity.” Patrick Stewart (who played Scrooge) mentioned the word to Mr Petherbridge when they met on New Year’s Eve and subsequently e-mailed me to say that he thought it might be London East End slang or Yiddish. Mr Petherbridge hasn’t kept the script, but he believes that the word was spelled cudulles and recalls saying it as /kʌdˈjuːlz/ (roughly “cud-yules”).
So, the problem is half solved. It wasn’t an error but supposedly a real word, perhaps slang. However, the doyen of British compilers of slang dictionaries, Jonathon Green, tells me, “I’ve checked my own database in which there are several hundred words defined as ‘hand(s)’ but there’s nothing relevant” He speculates that Barnes (now unconsultable through reason of death) may have misremembered daddle, which was a popular mid-nineteenth century term for a hand. I can take this no further myself because I’m way outside my comfort zone when it comes to obscure slang.
Notwithstanding the inconclusive outcome, it seemed worth putting the whole story online as a Q&A piece, which also includes an audio snapshot of the line containing the word.
2. Vote, vote, vote ...
World Wide Words has comfortably maintained an absolute majority of the votes in the LISTSERV Choice Awards 2009 contest since it was nominated. This week, however, our vote suddenly slumped to a mere 33% at one point. This puzzled and dismayed many subscribers (and me) but isn’t the result of underhand goings-on, as some readers have darkly hinted.
Susan Brown Faghani at L-Soft tells me it was because the counters on the site were reset on 1 January. She explained something I hadn’t previously known: “The voting is a series of monthly contests, with our intention being to clear the slate by resetting the counter each month rather than using aggregated vote counts.” She went on to say, “All votes a list receives will count towards the tabulation of the overall top three nominated lists from which the winner will be selected by L-Soft founder and CEO Eric Thomas and the awards program jury. WORLDWIDEWORDS has won the voting for October, November and December 2008, and all the votes received have been tabulated and recorded.”
May I urge you to continue your support of World Wide Words, so we will top the poll this month as well as previous ones? You can vote once a day, so “vote early, vote often”, as the saying goes.
Excessively finicky in dress, language and behaviour.
The original prick-me-dainties were sixteenth century dandies.
The first part is from an ancient sense of the verb meaning to dress, specifically to dress in clothes that were fastened by pins or bodkins. Since these weren’t everyday wear, it came to mean dressing up or donning one’s finery. When Richard Brathwait wrote in Barnabees Journal in 1638 of a woman, “On Earth she only wished / To be painted, pricked, kissed”, you should not therefore infer a modern meaning.
As time went on, the connection with clothes became less prominent. Instead, a person so described was fastidious or over-particular in many aspects of life. (When the word first emerged, dainty could mean handsome, delightful, or fine, though it also already had the newer idea about it of fastidiousness or delicate taste. It would seem the term punned on these two meanings.) John Jameson wrote in his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language of 1818, that a prickmedainty was “One who is finical in dress or carriage” [Finical is another word for finicky]. In 1822, the Scottish writer John Galt described one Bailie Pirlet in The Provost as “naturally a gabby prick-me-dainty body”, or in standard English a talkative and pedantic man. It has also been used to mean an affected, self-conscious, over-refined or mincing person.
The English Dialect Dictionary recorded the term at the end of the nineteenth century under a variety of spellings and noted that it was then limited to Cumberland and Scotland. Its last holdout was the Moray area of Scotland, where The Scottish National Dictionary recorded it in 1966.
4. Recently noted
Rumbledethumps This isn’t a digestive ailment but a food. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, contributed a recipe for it to a fundraising book in aid of Donaldson’s, a school for the deaf near Edinburgh. Mr Brown stated that it’s his favourite food, a claim that has been widely derided as recession chic. Rumbledethumps has been described as Scottish bubble and squeak: a traditional dish whose key ingredients are potato and cabbage. Gordon Brown says it can be made more interesting by topping it with melted cheese or a slice of crispy bacon. I’ve not been able to discover the source of the name rumbledethumps — the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include it, though I’ve found a reference in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1825.
ADS words of the year The American Dialect Society has chosen bailout as its word of the year for 2008. Voting took place at the Society’s meeting in San Francisco on the evening of 9 January. In the specific sense used most frequently in 2008, bailout refers to rescue by the government of companies on the brink of failure, including large players in the banking industry.
Voting was as usual conducted in a spirit of fun — the Society doesn’t aim to give new words an official stamp of approval but rather show that language change is normal, entertaining, and always with us. Nominations came from members of the Society who specialise in following language trends and also from the general public. Unsurprisingly, they reflected the two major events that preoccupied North America in the past year.
An impressive 51% were connected with the US presidential election, including plays on the names of Barack Obama, Joe (as in Joe the Plumber), and Sarah Palin (Palinesque was defined by the ADS as “pertaining to a person who has extended themselves beyond their expertise, thereby bringing ridicule upon a serious matter”). The financial crisis came in a distant second with a mere 19% of the nominations. Top of the nomination list from the public was change, with bailout and maverick following well behind.
Grant Barrett, chair of the New Words Committee of the Society, commented on the winner, “When you vote for bailout, I guess you’re really voting for change, too, though you’d think a room full of pointy-headed intellectuals could come up with something more exciting.”
Winners in sub-categories were more entertaining. The Word Least Likely to Succeed was PUMA (Party Unity My Ass, used by Democrats disaffected after Hillary Clinton failed to secure a sufficient number of delegates); the Word Most Likely to Succeed was shovel-ready (infrastructure projects that can be started quickly when funds become available); the term voted Most Creative was recombobulation area (at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, where passengers who have just passed through security screening can get their clothes and belongings back into order); top of the Most Useful category was the word pair Barack Obama, variously used as combining forms; Most Outrageous by a large margin was terrorist fist jab (a derogatory term coined by Fox News for a knuckle-to-knuckle fist bump, or dap, performed between two black people as a sign of friendship, celebration or agreement).
More WOTY If you’re not yet jaded with words of the year, you may be interested in the Macquarie Dictionary’s contest. It has listed five words in each of 17 categories that have reached Australian usage in the past year. Visitors may vote for the most valuable contribution to the English language in each category. For a couple of news reports with varying slants on the choices, see ABC News and Government News.
6. Questions & Answers: Part brass rags
[Q] From Richard Francis: “Your piece about bold as brass caused me to wonder about an expression I find in P G Wodehouse stories: to part brass rags, to have a falling-out. I can’t for the life of me figure out where it might come from.”
[A] The usual story bothers me, as it causes my folk-etymological antennae to quiver a little. But there is supporting evidence for it and I am persuaded to take it at face value.
Let us assume you are a rating (a non-commissioned sailor) on a vessel of Her Majesty’s Navy, not the Royal Navy of our current monarch, however, but that of Queen Victoria. Say around 1890. Naval officers were as obsessed then as they are now with keeping everything clean and polished, particularly the brasswork. To aid you in your eternal polishing and repolishing, you would have a bag that contained cleaning rags, emery paper, and probably a bit of scouring brick.
You would also have a partner, a chum with whom you shared your cleaning duties and with whom you could pass the time of day in conversation. A mark of friendship on board ship was that friends shared their worldly goods, even establishing a shared bag of cleaning materials. This friend, sharer of your brass cleaning rags, was known as your raggie.
If the two of you quarrelled, you divvied up the contents of your shared bag and found somebody else with whom to share them, along with your duties and your stories. In the slang of the time, you parted brass rags with your former partner. (When you did so, you also lost your raggie, but this isn’t the origin of to lose one’s rag, which is from Yorkshire dialect of an earlier period.)
Two contributors to Notes and Queries in April 1916 gave this as the origin; to judge from their replies, both were navy men, one of them signing himself as a former chaplain to the Royal Navy. We may be reluctant to gainsay a man in holy orders who knew the phrase first-hand, though it’s possible that he was a saintly but gullible clergyman who had been taken in by the well-spun yarn of a lower-deck man.
The other Notes and Queries response in similar terms makes this unlikely, as does a slightly earlier version of the tale, which is also the earliest recorded example of the term we know about. It’s in a book of 1898, The Tadpole of an Archangel and Other Naval Stories, by W P Drury:
When “Pincher” Martin, Ordinary, and “Nobby” Clarke, A.B., desire to prove the brotherly love with which each inspires the other, it is their custom to keep their brasswork cleaning rags in a joint ragbag. But, should relations become strained between them, the bag owner casts forth upon the deck his sometime brother’s rags; and with the parting of the brassrags hostilities begin.
P G Wodehouse used it a lot — it appears in at least five of his early works that I know of, in the decade from 1906 onwards — and my guess is that he did a lot to popularise this odd bit of lower-deck slang.
• Following last week’s mention here of vegetarian fed hens, Paul Russell e-mailed about a packet of Malaysian-made instant soup he bought recently: “It’s not the usual cream of chicken, mushroom or tomato, but ‘Cream of Vegetarian’. It tasted fine, but I couldn’t help wondering if they’d washed him before they creamed him. The packet shows a halal sticker, so at least we can be sure he was slaughtered in the approved fashion.”
• Australian real-estate sellers seem disputatious. Alan Craig saw a sale sign on a house in New South Wales: “Argumentatively the best river view in Wooli, $850,000.”
• Remaining in Australia for the moment, Lynnie Worth was browsing the Web pages of The Courier-Mail of Brisbane when she found this caption to a photograph of creepy-crawlies that had been taken in the USA: “Just a few of the 100 black widow spiders that ingested a swimming pool in Madison, Alabama.” Hungry little blighters!
• A mangled sentence in a report in the Daily Mail on Tuesday about a case for wrongful dismissal was submitted by Niall Quiggin and Chris Little because of the intriguing image it conjures up: “He told the tribunal how the Formula 1 supremo’s Challenger 604 jet had a white silk carpet that meant passengers had to remove their shoes and polished silver leaf work surfaces.”
• Alan Siegal headed his message “Just a little proofreading needed, nothing major”. He had spotted a headline that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday: “An Atlanta man who lives in a scalded down version of the presidential mansion is looking for a buyer.” Might he be in financial hot water?