E-MAGAZINE 651: SATURDAY 8 AUGUST 2009
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Facebook A reminder that I’ve joined the twenty-first century and become a member of Facebook. Friends welcome! I’ve also now set up a discussion group on the site with the title World Wide Words for anyone who is a member and wants to comment on matters arising from the issue or discuss language issues.
Crêpe hanger Janet Fulmer is familiar with this term, discussed last time: “Crepe hanger, in the USA, is not an everyday phrase now, but it was when I was growing up (born 1932). Nowadays folks no longer hang crepe on their doors when someone in the household has died, but it was common when I was a child and a young girl, so most folks knew what the allusion meant.”
Several American doctors told me about a particular application of the term. James Kahn explained: “In medical schools and on the wards, to ‘hang crepe’ meant to paint the bleakest possible picture of a patient’s prognosis to the patient’s family — even more dire than circumstances perhaps warranted — to prepare them for the worst case outcome in case things went downhill, but also to allow the doctor to emerge as a hero if things turned out better than predicted.”
Beghilos Julie Egan followed up my discussion: “A nice example in Dutch is showing off your mathematical or memory skills by knowing the answer to the following sum: 6 x 2182189. The answer 13093134 when read in beghilos reads as heleboel which in Dutch means ‘lots, a whole lot, an awful lot’.” Claude Baudoin continued the cross-language theme: “In France in the early 1970s, students with calculators would say, ‘Do you know Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s phone number? I do!’ Giscard was at the time the finance minister. When the other puzzled student said ‘No, what is it?’ the first student would type 3771350 on his calculator and show it to the other. Then he would turn the calculator upside down, reading OSEILLE. Oseille in French means sorrel, and for some reason unknown to me, it is one of the many slang terms for money.”
Kenneth Huey notes that, as so often, there’s nothing new under the sun: “You trace the use of 07734 to spell out ‘hello’ to the new calculator technology of the 1970s, but I can attest that a Tex Avery Merrie Melodies cartoon of the 1930s, Little Red Walking Hood, includes a car license plate with that number. When the car’s driver, a wolf, spots Little Red Walking Hood, he pulls a lever that’s labelled ‘Automatic Wink’, which causes the plate to spin 180 degrees and display a jaunty ‘hello’ for her benefit.” Here’s the proof:
Two still frames from Little Red Walking Hood. © Warner Bros 1938.
Toad-in-the-hole Following comments in this section last time about the use of this name for an egg fried in a hole in the centre of a piece of bread, many readers supplied a variety of other terms they used for that dish. Dorothy Daybell’s family called them gashouse eggs and she pointed me to a Web discussion in which it was suggested this might be a corruption of Gasthouse eggs, perhaps from a German source. The same site gave a variety of other names, including eggs in a bonnet, bird’s nest eggs, knothole eggs and one-eyed jacks. Another was Moon Over Miami, from the 1941 film in which the dish had a minor supporting role; the film connection probably explains why Bennett Woll’s mother called it Hollywood eggs. Many families seem to have had private names for the food, such as chicky in a nest and one-eyed goddess (Sandra Parker e-mailed from Australia to say her mother called them this). Arthur Cox e-mailed from Essex: “in our family it’s always referred to as a devil’s eye.” Randall Bart told me, “In Los Angeles in the early to mid 1960s it was an egg in a basket.” Alvin Rymsha and Samantha Fisher, both also from the US, know it respectively as a popeye and as an egg in a frame. Bruce Beatie of Cleveland State University tells me, “I’ve always known this dish as egg with a hat — so called because one takes the cut-out hole and fries it along with the bread-with-egg, and then tops the egg with the cut-out piece.” Trevor Evans wrote, “Back in the 50s and early 60s in London I remember fried bread with a hole in it filled with a fried egg being called egg in the hole, and I loved it.”.
Chris Neely mentioned another sense of toad-in-the-hole in northern Appalachia, where it is an expression of luck that’s especially strong among coal miners. He wonders if it was brought to the area by Cornish immigrants. He found a comment in Adrian Morgan’s book Toads and Toadstools: “Tin Miners in Cornwall believed that to meet a toad in a mine shaft presaged a lucky strike.”
Sic! One item last week, from the Globe and Mail, said it was based in Boston. It is, of course, a Toronto newspaper. My mistake, not that of the submitter of the item. That explains the spelling colourful in the item, which puzzled some readers, one of whom wondered if the British had recolonised the site of the tea party.
My cover is blown! James Lubell thought I might find interesting a message he received from Amazon.com: “We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased or rated books by Michael Quinion have also purchased Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies by Arthur Goldwag.”
This word appeared in an obituary in my daily newspaper recently, defined as “the art and science of cooking”. Not having this word in my working vocabulary, I was at first prepared to take the obituarist’s gloss at face value. That significant part of me that may be described as an eternal student persuaded me to look it up. It turns out instead to be the art or science of dining, a rather different matter.
In an unusual example of etymological exactitude, it’s possible to identify the author of this rare word:
According to the lexicons, the Greek for dinner is Ariston, and therefore, for the convenience of the terms, and without entering into any inquiry, critical or antiquarian, I call the art of dining Aristology, and those who study it, Aristologists.
The Original, by Thomas Walker, 12 Aug. 1835. This was a weekly publication which ran only from May to December in that year. In it, Mr Walker — a lawyer, police magistrate and author — collected his thoughts on many subjects, in particular health and gastronomy, which were original and interesting enough to have been anthologised since.
The classical Greek word strictly means breakfast or lunch rather than dinner, though we should allow much latitude in translating the prandial habits of one culture into another, not least because the timing of the meal called dinner in England has varied greatly down the centuries.
Among other precepts, Mr Walker argued that “As contentment ought to be an accompaniment to every meal, punctuality is essential, and the diner and the dinner should be ready at the same time.” He added, “A chief maxim in dining with comfort is to have what you want when you want it.” He admitted that it was all too easy to take the satisfaction of the appetite to excess, but that as “upon the due regulation of the appetite assuredly depends our physical well-being” and also our mental energies, some concern to ensure that appropriate adjuncts to a good meal were available that would “add poetry to a repast”.
The word has never become more than a marginal addition to the language, a source of obscure scholarly humour rather than a term of utility. It’s best known from books by Rex Stout, in which his corpulent protagonist, Nero Wolfe, has a couple of encounters with a group of gourmets, the Ten for Aristology.
An aristologist should not be confused with a deipnosophist, a person skilled in dinner-table conversation, though the latter word once meant something close to the former.
3. What I've learned this week
• Refrigerator is recorded earlier than we might think. It appeared in the title of a pamphlet by Thomas Moore, a civil engineer and farmer, An Essay on the Most Eligible Construction of Ice-Houses and a Description of the Newly-Invented Machine called the Refrigerator, dated 1803. It was what later generations called an icebox, in which food was cooled by blocks of ice cut from lakes and rivers in the winter and stored in ice houses until needed in the summer. Thomas Jefferson bought one.
• A term that’s fairly well known in the medical profession but which isn’t yet in the Oxford English Dictionary turned up in a magazine this week. An allergologist is a medical specialist who researches allergies and investigates ways to treat them, as opposed to an allergist, who diagnoses and treats conditions caused by allergies.
• Have you ever heard of nighttime spinach? I encountered it for the first time on Wednesday. It’s apparently a slang term in parts of Africa for bushmeat, such as chimpanzee, antelope, and giraffe, poached and illicitly consumed after dark by residents of refugee camps. The term turned up in the World Vision Report in June but I wonder how common it really is — most online references are to the Jargon Watch in Wired Magazine, which listed it in June 2008.
• If you’re online a lot, you may encounter appvertisements, a word I spotted in a MediaPost blog on Tuesday. These are little computer applications (called apps in the jargon) that are also adverts. They run inside social media networks such as Facebook; they might be games involving virtual currency or virtual gifts that promote a product — send a friend a virtual gift of a bottle of (branded) beer, or a virtual gift that’s delivered (virtually, of course) by a shipping firm, so spreading its name around the network. The technique is called appvertising.
• There’s a new abbreviation in British law: VOO, in full Violent Offender Order, a means to control dangerous criminals after their release from jail, limiting where they can go and who they can associate with. The term turned up first in April 2006 but the orders came into force this week.
4. Questions and Answers: Trivial
[Q] From Geoff Mattingley: Can you advise the correct derivation of trivial? I have had quoted to me several times that it means “three roads”, where the Romans would post notices, gossip etc. This seems to me too cute, as there are few instances of three roads meeting — crossroads would have been more useful. Also, why would the notices be called after the location — why not the Latin for notices or twitter?
[A] Variations on this story turn up from time to time. This one has been embellished, since the bit about posting notices doesn’t fit what we know about the Roman period. There is indeed a connection, quite a strong one, but the story’s rather more complicated.
The word trivium in classical Latin was made up of tri, meaning three, plus via, a road or way, so it literally did mean a place where three roads met. But a frequent sense was of a crossroads, as you suggest would be more appropriate. The word later took on a figurative sense of the street corner, a place where the common people met and passed the time of day. Something trivialis, the adjective from trivium, was commonplace, ordinary or everyday.
A representation of the seven liberal
arts (plus medicine) in a stained-glass window in the cathedral at Laon, France.
Our modern sense of the word was first used by Shakespeare, in the second part of Henry VI, more than a century after it had begun to be applied to the trivium.
Those with a knowledge of Latin — that was everybody involved in education at the time, of course — also knew what Romans of the classical period meant by trivialis. That must have powerfully influenced the development of the modern sense of trivial but doesn’t seem to have been its foundation.
• Rhys Lewis was looking for somewhere to eat in London. He decided against the Capital Hotel after reading on its Web site: “Enjoy homemade pastries and scones and delicious jams made from our Pastry Chef.” Definitely not vegetarian, then?
• The Age, Melbourne, Australia, had a story on 4 August which began, “Mourners at two open-coffin viewings found they were grieving for strangers after a funeral company mix-up. Victoria Funerals, which specialises in serving Melbourne’s Greek community, said it was mortified at the error.” A highly appropriate emotion, as Terry Davidson comments.
• Remaining in Australia, Laurie Malone reported a thoroughly mixed metaphor from Steve Fielding, senator for the Family First party. Commenting on a current financial scandal, he said on Thursday, “The OzCar affair has become a political storm that must be put to bed because Parliament shouldn’t have this cloud hanging over its head.”
• Beate Czogalla found a paradoxical sentence on Time magazine’s Web site, in a story about bodies not being buried because relatives can’t afford funerals: “These people are really heartbroken about the fact that they can’t [bury their loved ones]. This is not just a distant relative — you have kids who can’t bury their parents a lot of times, or siblings who can’t bury each other.”